A conference on 16 January celebrated 50 years of Craigavon New Town as well as the government’s commitment to landscape

Speaker at the Craigavon conference
Conference in Craigavon marks launch of Northern Ireland landscape charter

Organised by Landscape Institute Northern Ireland (LINI) in partnership with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and Craigavon Borough Council (CBC), the conference was entitled ‘Changing Landscapes’, writes Pete Mullin.

Conceived in celebration of 50 years since Craigavon New Town and the landscape profession in Ireland were formed, the conference boasted many inspirational speakers and had several important messages.

The timing was also appropriate because in April 2015 planning function will be transferred to the 11 new councils, with the new local authorities taking charge of planning decisions, preparation and delivery of future development plans, and development of local policy.

This conference was an excellent and timely opportunity to increase awareness of this subject area and to highlight best practice from throughout the UK and Ireland.

The first presentation was by the current Minister for the Environment, Mark H Durkan, who made several positive landscape related announcements.

He drew attendees’ attention to the completion of Northern Ireland’s first Regional Seascape Character Assessment and also announced that his department would be completing a full review and renewal of the existing National Landscape Character Assessment for Northern Ireland.

Last but by no means least, he reinforced his department’s commitment to the landscapes of Northern Ireland by referring to the recently launched landscape charter.

Durkan said: ‘Today’s conference comes in response to a growing awareness of our unique sense of place here, the speed of change and the increasing power people can exercise locally in their surroundings. The European Landscape Convention which came into force here in 2007 empowers us all to make a difference. One of its guiding principles is that “all landscapes matter”.

‘I am therefore delighted by the public response so far to Northern Ireland’s new landscape charter.  This is a call to action for everyone in the North, individuals and organisations alike, to sign up to the charter online with their comments and suggestions for good practice which they think should be celebrated.

‘Northern Ireland’s landscapes are its hidden treasure and must be valued. The conversation about our places and landscapes and why we value them has already started, this conference will ensure that it continues.’

Half a century of Craigavon New Town

As delegates digested these announcements, proceedings moved swiftly on to the subject which was the reason for the  conference: the celebration of Craigavon New Town’s 50th anniversary.

Who better to talk about the original concepts than one of its original authors – William J Cairns who was chief landscape architect in Craigavon at the time and one of the founding members of the Landscape Institute in Ireland?

More than 120 delegates were captivated by his anecdotes; first-hand accounts and the pride he expressed about Craigavon as an innovative modernist vision which he will always consider as a new city.

The CEO of the borough, Theresa Donaldson, followed with impressive statistics highlighting the success of the settlement. All agreed that whilst there have been problems, not least the impact of the troubles, this newly conceived place continues to perform excellently and all future indicators are positive. Craigavon is maturing well from adolescence to adulthood.

Many lessons can be learnt from these places and whilst not mentioned on the day, it is interesting and timely that Lord Wolfson’s Economics Prize 2014 should this year focus on resurrecting the New Town ideology as the solution to the UK housing crisis, offering £250,000 for the best answer to the question ‘How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?’ Perhaps Lord Wolfson should have attended The Changing Landscape conference in Craigavon – it would surely have been a lot cheaper,

Capacity building

The conference then turned to the topic of  capacity building within the public sector, with excellent speakers highlighting the many challenges we face and invaluable advice on how a progressive authority might address these.

Merrick Denton-Thompson, LI chair of policy and communications, led the way with his controversial view that in policy terms England is in a mess, and that it does not hold the answers. He urged authorities in Northern Ireland to seize the golden opportunity presented by Reform of Public Administration (RPA) to put in place the necessary structures and resources that could make it a model for others.

Other inspirational speeches were given by John Thomson, retired director of SNH, Christine Tudor of Natural England and Ian Houlston from LDA, all providing accounts of good landscape practice in the public and private sectors elsewhere.

Chris Bloomer and Mansil Miller described the Department of Environment’s current direction in relation to landscape and Denis Kelly provided an interesting perspective on current landscape character assessment work being conducted in Co. Donegal. Republic of Ireland.

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