By Reniera O’Donnell, assistant director of regeneration, Isle of Wight Council.
Nearly twenty years ago I arrived in the UK. My first foray into the world of local government was at Westminster City Council. You might not know the area, but Westminster City Hall is down Victoria Street which, back then, was uninspiring and full of rather rubbish shops and drab offices. House of Fraser (or Army and Navy as it was then known) was about the only ‘brand’ on the strip.
Today, for the first time in a few years, I arrived once again at Victoria Station to attend a meeting at the Local Government Association. So I walked down Victoria Street, passing old haunts and trying to remember what the place looked like back then.
I say ‘trying to remember’, as it really is unrecognisable. Beautiful, inspiring architecture rises above the streetscape everywhere you look. The streets are thriving with restaurants, shops and people and it’s hard to find remnants of what was there twenty years earlier.
Victoria Street has undergone the most phenomenal regeneration. Once it was desolate by 5.30pm, and the favourite haunt of the street homeless. Now it has a vibrant night-time economy and is a shopping destination in its own right. Where there used to be a fairly sad Sainsburys Local, the area now has a plethora of artisan and high street food shops and eateries.
As I approached City Hall, I tried to remember what the building next door had looked like – but I couldn’t. What must have been an inconsequential, grey bit of architecture had been replaced with something modern, light and elegant in design. When I looked carefully though, there are still some of the hidden gems of buildings nestled amongst all the new glass and steel. The theatre, the Cathedral and (most importantly?) the Greencoat Boy pub which provided a very adequate watering hole for us twenty-something local government workers! Beautiful old buildings sitting right next to this new, shiny, soaring, 21st century architecture. Look even closer and you will find new public squares and open spaces that have emerged to create new thoroughfares, new business opportunities and new places for people to come together. This is truly a great transformation of place. And you can tell it’s great, not only because it looks more attractive but by the sheer volume of people using and passing through these new spaces.
I think people are too fearful of regeneration. I could never have imagined the Victoria Street of today all those years ago. Since then, the local authority and local businesses had the foresight and bravery to understand that change was needed, and then went on to make it happen. They invited bold new architecture and design to sit alongside buildings such as Westminster Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament. New homes peek out from down side streets and help to ensure that vibrant night-time economy as the offices close up and the workforce disperses back home.
It could never be at this scale, but this is what regeneration for the Island needs to be about. We can be brave and bold and create environments that make investment welcome, and where new businesses and communities can thrive.
Of course this can’t happen overnight. Regeneration is a journey that we need to go on together to create an Island where the economy flourishes and and that our young people find inspiring. It shouldn’t take twenty years for us to show the world that the Isle of Wight really is the best place to live, work, grow up and visit.