Mayor of Ards and North Down, Richard Smart, discusses his move into public life, his ambitions as Mayor and the potential added value from the Belfast Region City Deal.
What drew you to public life and equipped you for the term as Mayor?
I have had a long-term interest in politics and particularly how it has the power to make life better for ordinary folk, like me and my family circle, who are dependent on a good economy and health service, to name but two, to have decent life chances. But my interest was focused on Westminster, because I felt the MPs, at that time, were discussing the bread and butter issues of concern rather than the Northern Ireland constitutional question which I thought ought to have been resolved in the Belfast Agreement. However, I realised that if you want to make things better in your community you must roll your sleeves up and get involved in changing things for the better, so I did.
I first started campaigning for Mike Nesbitt MLA, who was and is someone who can bring people together to work for the common good and with his example to follow, I stood for election in my home town of Newtownards in 2014 and was elected to the new Ards and North Down Borough Council.
Serving on council can be a bit daunting to start with, you have a high volume of meetings and public speaking, a big number of constituents who need your support and a complex range of problems, many longstanding, with which to get to grips with.
My dad, proud that I had been elected to serve my home town on council immediately declared I would be Mayor in no time. I laughed and thought no more of it until three years later when my party colleagues kindly presented me with the opportunity to serve the borough as Mayor.
Outline your role?
It’s a wonderful, varied and incredibly busy role. When I started, I said to myself, I am not any different to anyone else, who will want a visit from me? But I soon realised that while as an individual I can enhance and shape the role, it’s not about me. It’s about putting on the chain of office and giving people the official recognition they deserve for doing so many wonderful things, right across our community, usually in a voluntary capacity.
What have you identified as your priorities in office and why are these important for you?
My over-arching theme for the year is ‘One borough reaching out, and raising up every citizen’
The reaching out refers to the loneliness and social isolation that is still felt by some today.
As a young carer for my grandparents who had life limiting illnesses, now sadly both passed on, I helped them with everything from groceries to gardening. The thing that always struck me was the impact of loneliness on their lives, when there was still so much they could contribute to their community.
But of course, loneliness doesn’t discriminate. Anyone of any age, of any background can feel left behind and we all have a responsibility to remind these people we are there for them, sometimes through the smallest acts of kindness.
So, I decided, some might say controversially, that I would scrap my mayoral installation dinner which normally includes aldermen and councillors and their partners coming along with a few party colleagues of the new Mayor for dinner and drinks and while this may have produced a nice evening, I was struggling to see how it fitted within my theme of reaching out, and raising up every citizen.
Instead, I used the opportunity to invite some residents from across the borough who were socially isolated and received the good morning call or those who experienced isolation due to being a carer for a friend or loved one.
I contacted the councillors, explained my thinking, and asked them if they would mind instead of being served, would they come along to help me serve my guests at an afternoon tea. I was overwhelmed by the willingness of many elected members and senior council officers to come and role up their sleeves, serving tea, cake and sandwiches, washing dishes etc, it was wonderful.
My theme also talks about ‘raising up’ and by that, I mean encouraging every citizen to fulfil their full potential and their aspirations for the future. Whether that’s further education, volunteering, opening a new business, or aspiring to a career in our precious health service or proud armed forces and police.
But sometimes small pockets of deprivation right across our borough can make people feel hopeless, despite their individual spark of talent or creativity. So, as Mayor I am keen to say to those people that we as a borough and community have got your back, we believe in you, as every fulfilled citizen makes us an even happier and healthier borough.
“By harnessing their potential and supporting the initiative fully with customer service and effective marketing, I have no doubt that food destination development will have a transformative effect on our local communities in terms of economic benefits, regeneration and sustainability.”
What added value can the Belfast Region City Deal bring to the borough?
As we have communicated throughout the process of securing the Belfast Region City Deal – it is a big deal! We are working with five other councils to contribute to the Belfast Region City Deal (BRCD).
This co-investment from the UK government, local government, the universities and the private sector is designed to deliver a step change in our region’s economic fortunes, help achieve a 10-year programme of inclusive growth and create up to 20,000 new and better jobs.
I was part of a cross party/cross council deputation that visited Westminster on the 24 October 2018 to lobby the Chancellor for the funding. Following this visit, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in November 2017 a package of £350 million investment to support inclusive economic growth, deliver more and better jobs and have a positive impact on our most deprived communities.
As part of the deal, the Executive is expected to add a further £350 million and it is anticipated the overall package will be close to £1 billion, with additional funding provided by the universities, regional colleges and private investment.
Ards and North Down will benefit by:
• Bangor Waterfront Regeneration – potential of £40 million from the City Deal will support this major £63 million regeneration project stretching over two miles from Pickie to Ballyholme, including new greenways and coastal paths, the re-imagining of Ballyholme Beach, the redevelopment of Bangor seafront and the development of a unique new national visitor attraction;
• Ards and North Down Regional Park at Whitespots – £5 million for phase 1 enabling works;
• share of £30 million revenue from the regional Employability and Skills program; and
• share of £152 million capital towards a regional digital programme.
These proposals will give all ages more opportunities and the potential for higher paid jobs; as well as providing major funding for the regeneration of Bangor Seafront and the creation of Whitespots Country Park, which will both attract more tourists and visitors to help our economy.
How does the council’s new Integrated Strategy for Arts and Heritage Development plan expand the area’s tourism ambitions?
In commissioning this strategy, a decision was taken by council to innovate by adopting a fully integrated approach where arts and heritage dovetail with tourism, regeneration and economic development to assist Ards and North Down in becoming an even better ‘place’. This has resulted in a strategic direction and series of outcomes for us all, in partnership, to pursue in continued and enhanced collaboration.
The Integrated Arts and Heritage Development Strategy 2018-2023 identifies the ways that arts and heritage will be developed to drive creativity and innovation, health and wellbeing, civic pride, educational achievement, employment and tourism. It aims to get more people involved in arts and heritage and identify what is special about arts and heritage in Ards and North Down that will attract the kind of visitors targeted in the Council’s Integrated Strategy for Tourism, Regeneration and Development and engage a wider range of residents.
Discuss the Food Destination Development Plan and attempts to position the area as a premier food tourism destination. Is there a risk posed by Brexit?
Building on the area’s already strong credentials in food and drink, the plan will bring to life the traditions, flavours and craftsmanship of its food and drink producers. Festivals and events, suppliers and food markets, restaurants and eateries will also form part of the plan.
We have a plethora of indigenous events, producers, suppliers and food and drink hotspots, in fact our credentials are already well established. We are one of the few regions in Northern Ireland to have earned PGI status (protected geographical indication) for our Comber Early potatoes. This is a strong foundation we can build upon.
Gastronomic experiences are an integral part of the tourism experience, yet it is not always possible to truly capture the authenticity of a local area. Our plan will allow visitors to discover products, places of production, producers, chefs and hosts as well as events that epitomise the Ards and North Down area and establish it as a premier food tourism destination on the island of Ireland.
By harnessing their potential and supporting the initiative fully with customer service and effective marketing, I have no doubt that food destination development will have a transformative effect on our local communities in terms of economic benefits, regeneration and sustainability.
The plan includes well-loved food and drink events such as Comber Earlies Food Festival and Portavogie Seafood Festival, established and emerging food producers and suppliers, as well as retail outlets and eateries such as delicatessens, farm shops, restaurants, chefs and more. Visitors will be brought on an authentic journey through the borough’s food and drink offering.
Despite being relatively new, food destination development is now recognised throughout the UK, Republic of Ireland and Europe as an integral part of the wider visitor experience that shapes the unique heritage and culture of a place.
Bangor and Portaferry have already been identified as important gateway points to Ards and North Down with Comber, Donaghadee and Portavogie all pinpointed as important staging points on the visitor journey. The plan builds on extensive work by the Council and its stakeholders to date and takes its lead from the Integrated Tourism, Regeneration and Economic Development Strategy for Ards and North Down.
In terms of Brexit, this Food Destination Development plan very much focuses on local events, producers, suppliers and food and drink and the authenticity of the local area.
What are your interests outside of politics, and how do you make time for private life?
Outside of politics I enjoy reading, usually biographies, swimming, walking and I’m a big fan of DIY but work is a tonic and I am happy to put my shoulder to the wheel this year as Mayor… I can catch up on my hobbies after I finish!