Much a-do about Crumlin…

22 08 2009
A catalytic effect?

A catalytic effect?

Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust (BBPT) is recommending Belfast City Council raises £700,000 to mothball an old church site.

Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church on the Crumlin Road has been derelict for close to 20 years – and no one really knows what to do with it. (Though the local gluebags would happily solve the problem very neatly given the chance.)

BBPT believe there is urgency. Without action now, they say, the Victorian building will deteriorate beyond the point of rescue. The group say that big building regeneration schemes can be the ‘catalytic effect’ to local communities.

That is very correct and noble. But BBPT goes on to say that Belfast City Council is the best organisation to go to for funding raising. Now they’ve lost me. Why have they done this? Why is the council best placed?

Or come at it another way – what is the opportunity cost of ploughing a minimum of £700,000 into a single building project?

In their press release (which the Belfast Telegraph also got), BBPT acknowledge that the Carlisle Circus area has suffered: economic and social decline; population decline; high levels of deprivation; high levels of unemployment; significant youth issues including low levels of aspiration; and the lack of a clear single identity.

So why would £700,000 not be better spent on more direct and practical interventions?

Could councillors really ask the public to relieve themselves of £700,000 – not into creating nor developing nor enhancing a new building – but instead into preserving an old one? Politically, would the local councillor dashing between DLA appeals and myriad housing cases really get very enthusiastic about going to the public for an expensive short term plan that delivers no immediate impact? Peddling long term cultural utility in a sharp recession is a tough job.

BBPT are well connected, surely they will have heard that DCAL is considering a City of Culture bid? Indeed, they launched their report into Carlisle Circus 24 hours ahead of that Belfast Telegraph story. Is the timing significant or coincidental? Irrespective, BBPT are out of the blocks before any of the other runners knew the race was on! (Sure the story refers to ‘no central funding’ for a city of culture bid but there will be other central funding streams available for worthy projects.)

So why didn’t BBPT ask DCAL for the money?

The DCAL Minister is a North Belfast councillor, he would know the area well and no doubt look in some sympathy at the proposal. Also, the DUP will have a bit of a job holding onto North Belfast at the general election (just a few months away now). So wouldn’t it be great for a DUP Minister to sign off on a grand regeneration scheme in a predominantly unionist area – and show working class DUP voters that the Executive delivers for them too?

It was only last March that a DUP Minister launched another hard-hitting report making urgent demands for support for Carlisle Memorial. And here we have a newly installed DUP Minister keen to make his mark and possibly in a position to respond? Wouldn’t this regeneration project be perfect for Nelson right now?

BBPT will know all this – so why opt for the awkward, narrow path winding through council? They no doubt have very good reasons, just thought this was curious. Their aims are estimable, and I wish them every success, but is Belfast City Council really their best bet?

PS. I am unsighted to the full BBPT report, but if their funding model placed a social enterprise at its core then it might open up access to programmes such as this and demonstrate an element of sustainability (thus making the church a more secure, stable and attractive proposition for which to fundraise and win buy-in from decision-makers).

PPS. I haven’t received the extra information to tell me how the £700,000 figure was arrived at. How does that break down? The trick is to sell the value within the figures – to show that BBPT put the public purse first and that estimates reflect the need to provide best value etc. It will be difficult to win over influencers in absence of skillfully presented costings. If anyone was at the report presentation meeting on Thursday morning, then please do drop me a line on this.

PPPS. The global cost of restoration and redevelopment for Carlisle Memorial is an estimated £11m (at August 2008 prices). It’s  a chunk.

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