The Derby Way

A tired Market Place in desperate need of investment; a struggling football team regularly changing managers; fear of terrorism; and, a bad tempered national political climate with genuine concerns over the state of the global economy.

The French have a phrase for it– "plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose" – the more things change, the more things stay the same.

One could be cynical and say not much appears to have changed in 40 years.

But, deep down, we all know change is constant, as any cursory glance over 40 years of personal photographs tells us.

More than this, time, and its historical perspective, has a way of illuminating connections and counterpoints through its rhythmic cycles.

In 1977, the new Assembly Rooms opened, which 40 years later we are about to demolish. The UK had just confirmed its membership of the European club we are about to leave. The Rams now have Gary Rowett instead of Tommy Docherty and the oil crisis has been usurped by climate change.

Plus ça change?

And yet, cities are dynamic ecosystems, with communities constantly evolving, as Derby surely is.

It says something about the values of our country that it took until 1977 for Derby to be awarded city status. Many people mistake city for size, the bigger the place the more likely to carry that moniker.

This is simply not true in the UK where such recognition was more likely connected to cathedrals and castles. Our smallest city is the tiny (and beautiful) hamlet of St Davids, population 1,600.

There is a political reason why small towns, such as Canterbury, Chester, Chichester or Lichfield were given city status, whilst economic workhouses such as Derby, Swansea and Wolverhampton have had to bid in rare competitions.

Nevertheless, in 1977, the home of Erasmus Darwin, John Flamsteed, the world’s first factory and Rolls-Royce, finally became a city by winning the Silver Jubilee competition.

Now, in 2017, we celebrate our 40th birthday and, like any person hitting that middle-age landmark, we can indulge in a little navel-gazing and glancing back, as well as contemplating the future.

I’m interested in the psychology of place, the core character if you will, and, my contention is that Derby is still finding its footing in being a ‘city’ – but, like any 40-year old, we are getting there and discovering a momentum and self-awareness that we wish we'd had whilst younger.

In many respects, the new city got off to a bad start. Not too much happened over its first 20 years - years that might be described as being lost.

During the 1990s we began to see a new ambition emerge - illustrated by the creation of the University of Derby, the return of single-tier local authority unitary status and the opening of Pride Park.

These were important milestones in maturity but it wasn’t until we hit 30 years of age, in 2007, that Derby finally underwent a genuine paradigm shift on its journey - from 19th century industrial town, to 21st century technology city.

The existential crisis that swept all places of industry came late to Derby – most possibly because we never faced the removal of our core economy in the way the Newcastles and Liverpools of the world had.

In Derby, our mega-employment sectors - of aerospace and rail - remained and, indeed, were supplemented by the arrival of Toyota.

Being home to ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ is a handy descriptor but it hides changes to the nature of our core economy, which no longer requires low or semi-skilled labour.

Today, our employment is based on technology and innovation, one that demands higher and more flexible skills. One in eight of our workforce are employed in hi-tech functions and the city’s salaries are second only to London.

This is as true for the many small to medium businesses in sectors such as composites, creative and digital, as it is for the bigger clusters in aerospace, automotive, nuclear and rail.

It’s a fact that our education system has yet to master which is why too many locals struggle to enter that market.

I can pin the actual day and time when Derby began its true city transformation.

It was Tuesday 9th October 2007, when at precisely 9.30am, Westfield threw open its doors for the first time.

For Derby, there was no way back.

On that day, at the height of the consumer-led economy, an astonishing 158,000 people came to see the sparkling new shopping centre. Many commented that ‘it doesn’t feel like Derby’.

Westfield (now intu Derby of course) was a significant piece in the city centre jigsaw.

Subsequently, we have seen £3billion invested into Derby, partly rediscovering our heritage (the Cathedral Quarter hotel, Magistrates’ Court and Council House being good examples) and partly through new build that reveals our future (Derby QUAD, Friar Gate Square, Derby Arena and the iHub for example).

Some schemes personify both, the best example being Derby College’s Roundhouse, a genuinely world-class building, melding the best of the old with the shock of the new.

I appreciate some people struggle with change but the creation and attraction of wealth, and its subsequent retention, are absolutely essential ingredients for a vibrant city in which to live, work and play.

Just consider extent of the cultural activity this year – 100,000 people at the Format festival; 4,000 attending Brian Cox’s science lecture at the Derby Arena; 250,000 coming to see the Poppies at the Silk Mill; or the 20,000+ expected at the 3aaa County Ground to see Elton John and the Women's World Cup Cricket.

Add to this the credible festivals for Film, Comedy, Books, Folk and the iconic Feste– all of which would have been unthinkable in 1977.

I don’t know about the next 40 years, but in 2027 the city hits the age of 50, often described as the new 40.

I believe by then that we have nailed the next wave of challenges, be it a new performance venue, a thriving Becketwell, regenerated St Peters Quarter, a reclaimed riverside for the people, excellent schools and an appropriate showcase for the art of Joseph Wright.

In 1717, the Silk Mill was under construction, and over the following 300 years we have discovered that, as a city - yes, a city - we are at our best when innovating and driving forward.

Maybe it’s the Derby way.

Plus ça change, c’est le chemin Derby?