Ards and North Down Borough Council launched its new ‘Blue:Green, Creatively Connected’ strategy for tourism, regeneration and economic development in March, presenting a vision for the pursuit of prosperity across the Borough.
The new strategy sets out the steps needed to ensure continued growth in the economy, to warmly welcome visitors and to improve places, both urban and rural, over the next 12 years.
As part of the plan the Borough has ambitious targets to achieve in terms of increased visitor numbers, hotel occupancy levels and visitor spend. By 2030 it aims to deliver a rise in visitor numbers of 4 per cent, an increase in visitor expenditure of 78 per cent (to £82 million) and an increase in overnight stays of 79 per cent (to over 500,000). By achieving these targets, tourism will make a substantial contribution to an estimated 7,500 jobs that will be created across the Borough.
Ambitious and exciting according to Susie McCullough, Director of Regeneration, Development and Planning, whose confidence in the strategy, which has integration at its core, is truly infectious.
But let’s start at the beginning. Work on the strategy began in 2015 when the idea for a new integrated, strategic approach to tourism, economic development, regeneration and planning was first conceived.
For the recently merged council it quickly became obvious that tourism, development and planning shouldn’t be operating independently but rather collectively. That way the domino effect of their impact could be harnessed. In simple terms, as an example, a tourism experience will be an attraction but will also drive footfall, which in turn will have positive economic benefits and, of course, when new people visit, a town’s aesthetics and infrastructure is measured.
Susie says: “We realised that if we were going to deliver positive change, we needed a new approach, a new way of doing things that everyone from business owners to academics, planners to residents, could buy into. We needed a central idea that everyone could rally behind in each of the areas we deliver upon. Working collaboratively was the key to fully realise the potential of the Borough.”
Certainly, the new strategy seems to have been written around the word integration, essentially fusing the priorities of tourism, regeneration and economic development, within a planning context, for Ards and North Down.
It was two years in development. To finish the initiative, the Council engaged the services of a multidisciplinary consultant team that had both national and international experience, and importantly, a track record of working in the Borough. Those companies included the Paul Hogarth Company, tourism consultancy Louise Browne Associates and RSM Ltd, which provided specialist economic expertise.
Public consultation was very much part of the development process. The Council realised early on that it was vital to engage with the broadest spectrum across community, public and private sectors. Consequently, over 40 meetings and workshops were held to garner opinion and feedback that was used to shape the strategy. Consultations were bolstered with an online business survey to ensure the business community had a specific voice.
Susie continues: “It might have taken time to develop but it was time worth investing. We are very satisfied with the final result. The strategy is a solid springboard for future growth. Its strength lies in the fact that it is so robust.”
The plan seems to have been well received. The strategy was unveiled in March to over 100 businesses, community members, councillors and a range of other stakeholders. Influencers who helped launch the strategy and set it into both a local and national context included John McGrillen, CEO of Tourism NI and Neil McInroy, CE, Centre for Local Economic Strategies.
“Working collaboratively was the key to fully realise the potential of the Borough.”
Called ‘Blue:Green, Creatively Connected’, the strategy focuses on six thematic priorities: promote to invest; connect places and people; equip with skills and spaces; excel in quality and value; nurture assets; and maximise progress and potential. These will be achieved by the delivery of 19 integrated actions by the Council and its key stakeholders over the next 12 years which will create jobs, increase economic productivity, increase visitor overnight trips and expenditure. They are designed to fulfil multiple outcomes for the Borough, complementing existing initiatives and introducing new ideas.
It follows on from Ards and North Down’s Big Community Plan that was unveiled in 2017 and outlines a vision for a ‘vibrant, connected, healthy, safe and prosperous place to live’.
Taking its cue from this vision, the Blue:Green, Creatively Connected Strategy includes a series of propositions to be made to prospective investors and visitors. It further defines how to effectively protect, manage and plan the Borough’s assets, not least the wonderful natural landscape and its talented workforce.
The integrated approach also responded to recent changes in policy implementation across Northern Ireland. The Draft Programme for Government Framework 2016–21, published by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2016, adopted a new, outcomes-based approach as opposed to a series of thematic strategies.
So why is it called Blue:Green, Creatively Connected?
Susie continues: “Quite simply we believe Ards and North Down has three particular strengths – the natural landscape of sea, loughs and land, a blue green space; the creativity of our people and our proximity to places of opportunity, to Belfast, neighbouring districts, to the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. Our distinctiveness is derived in a large part from these three assets and the synergies between them.
“Blue Green, Creatively Connected succinctly describes the ethos proposed for the Borough and provides an exciting opportunity to drive it forward. It combines these core strengths to convey a fresh approach to how Ards and North Down is looked after, developed, promoted and celebrated as a place to live, work, visit and invest.”
Post launch, the Council has not rested on its laurels. One of the first actions on the list was the creation of an Economic Forum with representation from businesses across all key sectors. Invitations have already been issued with an initial meeting planned during the month of June. The aim is to get the forum up and running as quickly as possible, with September earmarked for its first official meeting.
Susie says: “There is no time to waste. Our ambition is clear. We have a great Borough with rich diversity of scenic countryside, first class experiences and talented people. Our new strategy gives us an opportunity to build from a first-class platform and that’s exactly what we plan to do.”
Contact us to find out more. Susie McCullough, Director of Regeneration, Development and Planning Ards and North Down Borough Council Signal Centre, 2 Innotec Drive Balloo Road, Bangor, BT19 7PD
T: 028 9182 4021