Reconstructing Christchurch

By Rebecca Macfie In Letter from Christchurch

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Children in Bogside, c1975, photo Getty Images

Standing in Christchurch’s decimated city centre, Conal McFeely was transported back to the Londonderry of the 1980s. Although the damage to Christchurch was inflicted by nature, whereas his Northern Ireland hometown was torn apart by political violence, the parallels are unmistakable, he says.

“I found myself revisiting the pain and hurt and devastation. The fenced-off areas, the members of the security forces and police on guard – it was so eerie. I was where I was 15 or 20 years ago,” says McFeely, who runs Creggan Enterprises, a community economic development organisation in one of Derry’s poorest suburbs.

Like Christchurch, Derry during the Troubles was attacked at its very heart. Over 120 businesses were destroyed, including its main shopping street. Thousands of homes were damaged. Like Christ­church, with its largely unscarred western suburbs and its shattered east, Derry was a tale of two cities, with one side of the River Foyle bombed out and the other spared.

McFeely says just as the rebuilding of Derry began through a process of community engagement, so, too, will a successful recovery in Christchurch rely on genuine consultation that taps into the ideas and energy of local people.

He pinpoints the start of Derry’s recovery as a major conference on community development, held amid an uneasy peace in the city about 15 years ago. Republicans and loyalists were brought together on one platform for the first time – facilitated in part by community development specialists from Christchurch. Out of that meeting came a steering group determined to drive the restoration of infrastructure and economic activity.

It was recognised from the outset that dialogue was essential – not only between the warring factions, but also between neighbourhoods, the private sector, local and central government and social agencies.

One of the first moves was an audit of land ownership in the city. From there, a community investment trust was set up, championed by Derry’s Protestant and Catholic bishops. “That sent the message that the rebuilding process was about the citizens, and about the common good,” says McFeely.

It was important to create a “quick win” to boost confidence. This was achieved by identifying a piece of land in public ownership, and convincing local government to allow the trust to develop it as a community hub for displaced businesses, social services and trade unions. In the devastated main shopping district, the trust set up a project in partnership with the city’s youth in which bricks from bombed buildings were recovered and used to build a mixed retail/residential complex.

The project had enormous impact, he says. “The whole process of establishing the vision and engaging young people and the private sector meant people were able to say, ‘We’ve done that ourselves.’”

Another milestone was convincing the city’s credit unions – to which 70% of the population belonged – to build a new headquarters. In a city from which private capital had previously fled, it sent an important message of hope.

In McFeely’s neighbourhood of Creggan Estate, the audit identified a piece of land owned by the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland. For 20 years the board had been unable to find a developer willing to do anything with it. So the community established a co-operative and raised money to buy it and develop a community hub. Today the centre is home to dozens of businesses and community groups, employing 275 workers.

Conal McFeely, photo Rebecca Macfie

Although there have been significant setbacks – including the recent sectarian murder of a Catholic policeman – the Derry community’s drive to rebuild has sent a clear message that violence is no longer acceptable, he says. The city is now developing a plan for its future development. Every household has been consulted. And although this conjures up the spectre of long-winded submission forms and endless palaver, McFeely says it’s been achieved in just six months.

But he fears for Christchurch’s recovery, given the absence of any serious requirement for community engagement under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. Not only does the top-heavy structure risk alienating locals by ignoring their wishes, but it risks squandering their ideas and entrepreneurship.

“Governments shouldn’t be afraid to engage with citizens, with small business and with civil society. If they do they will see an outpouring of creativity that is good for democracy, good for citizens and good for the economy.”

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