Derby's story is one of progression

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Ten years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the ensuing global financial crisis - the most catastrophic economic event since the Great Depression of the 1920s – continues to resonate.  

Gordon Brown’s oft-repeated claim that there would be ‘no more boom and bust’ proved wide of the mark.

Sadly, there seems to be an inevitability hardwired in the up/down cycles of human endeavour, where emotion-based decisions trample over the rational.

As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘expect the unexpected’ and in the autumn of 2008 this certainly was the case.

So, if we cannot prevent boom and bust, our challenge must surely be to try and even out its extremes.

In other words, it’s only a matter of time before we face the next economic dip - or recession – the only question is its length and depth.

Often described as an economic heart attack, I feel a more suitable medical metaphor for what happened in 2008 to be that of a stroke.

It’s as if the world’s nervous system came under continual and enduring stress, subsequently externalised by events clearly rooted in that stroke.

Examples include populism, protectionism and the general sense of geopolitical agitation in which we live today.

Looking back, maybe the portents were there.

Could the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of its associated communist political system really be as benign as hoped for by Francis Fukuyama in his influential book The End of History?

Could reaction to the terrible events of 9/11 be contained within the military backlash of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Far from stabilising, old world ideological certainties morphed and mutated into new-isms – as if a virus - random, unpredictable and sometimes shocking.

And so, it is within this context that we try to regenerate our city of Derby, knowing that there is a clock ticking towards a downturn, trying our best to attract and land investment before the next dip.

A case of fixing the roof while the sun shines.

As I write, I’m looking at an interesting juxtaposition of two features in the Derby Telegraph.

One is a fascinating piece on the opening of the Queen Street swimming pool in 1932.

The other contains visions created earlier this year for key city centre sites – such as the Assembly Rooms and Market Hall – by architecture students at the University of Derby.

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The relevance of these events, in 1932 and 2018, is not lost as today proposals for a new swimming pool and performance venue are again under consideration.

In 1932, the Queen Street baths were described as ‘refreshing’ and the project included innovations such as a movable floor, thus creating an entertainment space for 1,500 people. I remember seeing the Jam and the Clash on these massive wobbly wooden boards in the 1970s (and indeed would have seen the Sex Pistols had they not been banned).  

The students’ concepts in 2018 are described as ‘futuristic’ and breathe with the energy, verve and optimism of youth.

The 1932 piece reinforces for me the simple fact that cities are always in transition – Derby, with its new pool, was then, as it is today.

However, some things don’t change.

There is a predictable inevitability in the fact that in 1932 the Queen Street pool attracted criticism, as did the Council for funding it.

Similarly, every concept proposed today, whether by the students or professionals, has detractors urgently objecting, demanding that nothing changes.

We can sometimes be seemingly drawn to an imagined past.

Derby’s story though is one of progression.  

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During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries the city carved its future in the white heat of technology and change – large factories, massive mills, numerous railways, cutting-edge aerospace and nuclear research – all driving the city forward, as brilliantly illustrated in the recent Art of Industry exhibition at the Derby Museum.

The architectural daring embodied by James Gibbs in his Cathedral, in Andrew Handyside’s Friar Gate railway bridge or Stephenson’s Roundhouse, is today reflected in Feilden, Clegg and Bradley’s Quad, Carey Jones’s Friar Gate Square or the Landmark by Nichol Thomas.

For hundreds of years Derby has been driven by hope not fear, a city seeking to move forward not back. In the long run, efforts to turn off the tap of progress fail.

Heritage is important and must be nurtured but its protection is best achieved through the economic and social progress of place. When a city stops developing, that city dies and its heritage is left to rot.

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New developments can challenge but they are to be considered within a legal framework. Planning applications are not to be seen as a fashion competition and views on design, setting and impact, are invariably subjective.

For example, the recent attempts to describe the non-descript Fire Place Company building at Wyvern as being ‘a well loved city landmark’ are misguided and wrong.

Such sentiment fails to understand the essential soul of our city.

The silent majority desire progression and change. Derbeians are ambitious for themselves, their families and friends, just as they are ambitious for their city.

Truth is, Derby’s success is based on embracing innovation not ossification.

There, in my view, lies the Derby way.