Launch of the MAG Living High Streets initiative

DfC selected Downpatrick as a Pilot based on the following criteria, heritage opportunities and heritage at risk, housing need, levels of vacancy, date of current Masterplan and local appetite.

Key insights from the Downpatrick pilot

The Downpatrick Regeneration Working Group (Group) were established in September 2022 and comprise local business and community leaders, five local councillors and senior officers from Council and DfC Regeneration teams. They launched the Downpatrick Pilot on 21 November 2022, and it was important they owned the process from the outset. DfC funded MAG as placemaking facilitators to guide the Pilot. The co-designed Framework can be downloaded from the Councils website.

Justine Daly, MAG Expert Advisor, interviewed Members of the Group to hear their experiences. The panel included: Stephen Magorrian, Michael Morrissey, Ciara Toman, and Damian Mullholand and they shared the following informative and honest insights.

Who…  getting the membership of the Local Action Group right is essential.

Panel members from left to right: Gerard Murray, Jonathan McGilly, Justine Daly, Michael Morrissey, Ciara Toman, Stephen Magorrian and Damian Mullholand
Panel members from left to right: Gerard Murray, Jonathan McGilly, Justine Daly, Michael Morrissey, Ciara Toman, Stephen Magorrian and Damian Mullholand
Stephen explained they had struggled without a Chamber of Commerce in the town. Some active members in the community formed a Downpatrick Town Committee, doing small things like putting on festivals and installing street art. The Council had tried to create a group with a public voice but hadn’t succeeded. A public meeting was held and following that Members were selected, locally respected business and community leaders with excellent local networks, to maximise engagement with the wider community. The next important step was getting the right Chair, someone with gravitas, well known and respected locally and in wider business circles. The Group ambushed Malachy McGrady, with a proposer and nominator and that was it done!

Ciara and Damian stressed the importance of the Group being the driving force behind the process, owning and leading it. Also, essential that Council and DfC have a seat at the table to hear directly what community and stakeholders need and want.

Process… demanding in terms of resources, a clear roadmap to co-produce relevant, community driven priorities and actions whilst increasing skills, experience and confidence.

Michael expressed that it was very ambitious, and the Group expressed concerns about resources given all Members have day jobs. MAG guided the process 4 days a week with additional placemaking facilitators at workshops and working sessions.   

Ciara was devoted to the Pilot 4 to 5 days a week during the period of workshops and working sessions and this reduced to 3 days a week co-producing the Framework.

Stephen explained that they trusted the process to provide a clear roadmap from the starting point of what they perceived as a “blank page” to the point where they collectively identified the priorities and actions needed to successfully regenerate Downpatrick.

Stephen reiterated that Members have strong local networks to reach wider community and they were persistent sending emails with follow up phone calls, especially to influential people. This approach was rewarded with high numbers of participants at Workshops.

Stephen, Michael and Damian identified the walkabouts as a highlight of the workshops. Everyone looked at the place with fresh eyes: for example, noticing a significant vacant building and the opportunity for it to become a hub with offices and community uses right in the centre of Downpatrick. Another noted that the place wasn’t in as bad condition as many first thought, with ideas emerging for small interventions that could make a difference.

Damian added that another highlight of the workshops was an innovative response to trying to plan a walkabout on a snowy, dark evening. A Member of the Group used wallpaper lining paper to map out the main streets on the floor of the venue. Watching from an elevated view, we could see clusters emerge, where people were spending time conversing. It wasn’t about the loudest voices as people picked up photos of places that had a meaning for them adding thoughts on Post-it notes. This approach emerged from necessity, but the Group would promote it as an opportunity to be creative.

Benefits and next steps… though recognising the level of commitment required the panellists stressed the value of the approach.

Ciara stressed that it was definitely worth it, they now have a Framework which is up to date and relevant with a set of priorities identified by the people of Downpatrick. It has a clear set of actions, from small incremental steps to strategic projects, and can be used to pursue funding opportunities. Also having engaged with statutory bodies and key stakeholders through this process and built strong relationships and we all understand each other’s priorities and can collectively work towards the overall vision. 

Stephen added that coming together was an important part of this approach as it has grown and strengthened networks and communications. Also, their confidence and skills have increased to have meaningful voices. The Group are at the heart of things now and have huge influence in projects, including Church Street, De Courcey Square and Irish Street Site.  

Michael explained that networks, relationships and communications have become stronger through the Pilot and the impact of the floods demonstrated this with the Group and Down Business Centre being able to act more efficiently and effectively to support each other. Also, the construction of a new Skate Park and Pump Track in Dunleath Park is due to commence imminently which will be welcomed by children and young people. The Framework identified the need to address vacancy and dereliction and the Group are progressing with a feasibility study for a potential Community Asset Transfer.

Damian said it was great to participate in the workshops and hear what peoples’ priorities are, so the Department can invest in the right places in the most appropriate way. Things we learnt on the walkabout are positively impacting on projects: like improving the entrances to Doyle Place, an active community living in the heart of the town centre. Also, ideas emerged for meanwhile uses on the lower part of the Irish Street site.

Advice for others using the craft kit?

Ciara stressed that although it requires time, you need to trust the process and follow the steps involved. This requires that you persevere, even if some of the questions appear repetitive. Each has a purpose, so don’t be tempted to skip stages.

Damian reiterated that the Living High Streets craft kit is community-led approach, and the variety of organisations that participated demonstrated this. Compared with a typical Masterplans process, this approach is no more resource intense from a DfC perspective. The advantage is you get community buy-in and commitment as well as a real understanding of the actions and priorities in the Framework.

Q & A session

Andrew chaired a Q & A session with: Justine, Stephen and Michael Morrissey, Gerard Murray, Jonathan McGilly. There was positive feedback and an energized buzz in the room. The following summarises the Q & A Session and panel discussions.

MAG confirmed that the craft kit process includes looking at all other existing relevant documents, plans and projects. It is acknowledged that nowhere starts from scratch but this needs to be balanced with having a fresh approach that is not constrained by pre-existing agendas.

In response to questions about resources to support the Living High Streets approach, DfC acknowledged that resources are limited. However, while it may appear challenging, it is felt that this is a worthwhile investment as the Framework will be co-produced by the local community. It is recognised that wherever the craft kit is used, Council support will be critical. For example, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council prioritised officers time (including Secretariat) for the Downpatrick Pilot and considered the investment of resources to be worthwhile. The added value is that this process was owned by the Group as opposed to being directed by the Council, DfC or and consultants. This level of participation and collaboration from the beginning provides a strong basis for developing Capital Projects and therefore making savings in the long term. It was also noted that Members of the Group acted as facilitators at workshops, contributing their skills and time.

In response to a question about how to select potential towns and managing expectations, MAG advised that a matrix of criteria was used to select three potential pilots for DfC. Places could also be selected based on other programmes on-going or planned in the areas such as City Deals as using the craft kit could complement these programmes.

In response to a question about whether DfC was considering rolling out this initiative as a programme or in a similar way to Urban Villages, DfC explained that while there are similarities between these initiatives both focussing on community-led regeneration, DfCs remit is to focus on urban centres with over 5,000 population. In the absence of funding streams, Members of the Group emphasised the value of using the craft kit. They now have a Framework co-designed by the community and are in a good position to request resources should they become available from the Executive and other sources.

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