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Regeneration in recession is challenge for Irvine Bay boss

AS the man charged with regenerating some of the most deprived areas in Scotland, Patrick Wiggins is never far from a healthy dose of reality.

Optimistic: Patrick Wiggins believes a great deal of progress has been made in the area of North Ayrshire he is charged with regenerating.
Optimistic: Patrick Wiggins believes a great deal of progress has been made in the area of North Ayrshire he is charged with regenerating.

Yet he retains an optimistic, if realistic, outlook as he goes about transforming the fortunes of a corner of North Ayrshire covering Irvine, Ardrossan, Saltcoats, Stevenston and Kilwinning.

The chief executive of Irvine Bay has been in his post since before the recession hit. While he is adamant a great deal of progress has been made he is equally at pains to point out that: "Regeneration doesn't happen overnight."

The onslaught of the global financial crisis hampered the speed at which many of the early plans at Irvine Bay could be delivered.

It was initially looking at a model where it would invest alongside private sector partners to bring about improvements in the urban and business landscape in the towns it is charged with helping.

While many tangible examples of that type of work - from cleaning up derelict buildings and improving streetscapes to engaging with schools and businesses - have taken place, the prolonged downturn caused a change in the overall strategy.

Mr Wiggins said: "It became clear this was a recession like no other so we needed to start thinking again."

While engagement with the local community, through events such as the annual public meeting which is held on June 5 this year, is still a large plank of Irvine Bay's goals the major focus is now on enterprise, investment and job creation.

Mr Wiggins said: "It was about how do we [and other partner agencies] address the deepening problems of long term and youth unemployment."

The selection of Irvine as an enterprise zone, offering attractive financial incentives on business rates and capital spending, in 2012 was a key moment. Now with a particular focus on life sciences the hope is to position Irvine as another strong hub in what is a growing Scottish industry. With a large GlaxoSmithKline plant as well as the likes of A Vogel Bioforce, Sigma Alrdrich, DSM and Booth Welsh all in the local area it undoubtedly helps there is already an established presence in the region.

Mr Wiggins said: "The interesting thing from a Scottish view is that the life sciences strategy is for growth from £3 billion to £6 billion. The figure we have got is that something in the order of £750 million of the £3 billion is from manufacturing. The rest is from services and research.

"You cannot realistically double the research so there needs to be a greater contribution from manufacturing.

"In that case Irvine with its enterprise area, history of manufacturing, skills base and the companies and infrastructure [is] really well placed to take advantage."

Alongside life sciences there has also been oil and gas, telecoms and call centre companies moving into the enterprise zone which Mr Wiggins described as encouraging.

He also believes there is a great opportunity to attract data centres to the site.

The steady improvements seen in the economy in recent months appear to be creating a more favourable climate for business investment than there has been for several years.

Mr Wiggins said: "There are more people looking [to invest] than there were. There is still a bit to go in terms of getting people to commit but it is beginning to happen.

"We are starting to run out of vacant units. There is land so we are now having to look at how we can build some more.

"The market isn't quite there for the private sector to build on the back of the demand as the rental levels are not there yet."

Programmes to continue to highlight science, technology, engineering and mathematics in schools are also part of a push towards making sure there is a sustainable skills base for potential new tenants to tap into for years to come.

Mr Wiggins said: "If you have a company thinking of locating in the enterprise area the first questions they ask tend to be about skills. That is the key thing in their decision making."

New business premises at Annickbank will open soon while Irvine Bay recently purchased the Ayrshire Innovation Centre. According to Mr Wiggins that will help to provide a range of options for smaller businesses keen to grow and expand in their local area.

Alongside the business investment there are other schemes which are starting to get closer to fruition.

The mixed-use Irvine harbourside development, which would put a better link between the town and the coast, is said to be nearing the point where the private sector are getting interested in investing.

A new medical centre in Ardrossan, on the site of a former police station, will open shortly while there is funding in place for new offices overlooking the marina in the town.

Irvine Bay is also working with Clydeport for a 30-acre development, which will feature a large residential element, on the Ardrossan north shore. The plan is to extend the marina wall and increase the capacity to eventually get up to more than 700 berths.

While Mr Wiggins may be a realist he is ambitious as well. He understands that changing widely held preconceptions of Ardrossan will take time but that is something which has to be aimed for.

He said: "If we can increase the marina capacity to 700 or 800 berths in Ardrossan that would act as an economic driver.

"That is a long term ambition but if we could achieve something like that then it would change people's perception of Ardrossan forever.

"If North Shore brings through more higher quality housing then you bring more people into the town [and] perhaps even higher incomes linked to the marina.

"Again it doesn't automatically mean everything will be solved but it gives an economic base where there is a potential for things to be solved."

Mr Wiggins also emphasises the importance of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry link to Arran from Ardrossan.

The opportunity for local businesses to capture more spending from the thousands of people who use the service is one area being looked at and there are plans to offer more retail and eating facilities at the existing terminal.

He said: "Something like 350,000 people travel through Ardrossan. "When you drive through Ardrossan now it looks better than it did. It is not perfect. There is still a lot to be done but we have cleared a lot of the dereliction that really did blight the town."

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