Sunday, May 27, 2012

Smoke, mirrors and a red herring at Girdwood

Much consternation last week about the housing element of the new Girdwood ‘concept plan’ in North Belfast. The plan was launched on Monday with high profile all-party agreement. The press release includes some details about the contents of the plan, and there is a map in circulation, but I couldn’t find the actual document online by this morning. Not that this stopped an immediate hoo ha, fuelled by the BBC’s Spotlight programme on Tuesday evening and by interventions from Stephen Nolan.

The argument was about the allocation of two sites for residential development, one being on the edge of an area seen as Protestant/ unionist and the other in an area seen as Catholic/ nationalist. With housing need in North Belfast being disproportionately in the latter community, the debate was about whether the sites had been allocated in order to respond to housing need, or was it a political compromise. Which, according to Spotlight, we couldn’t judge because the Housing Executive hadn’t been consulted.

So let’s take a step back and look at what we do know.

There can surely be no disagreement that the site is the most contested regeneration project in Northern Ireland, which means it’s likely to be one of the most difficult in the world. The area consists of the land previously occupied by Girdwood Barracks, which closed in 2005, but also the Crumlin Road Gaol, closed in 1996 and redeveloped as a tourist attraction without significant community opposition, and the burnt out eyesore of the privately owned Courthouse which is consequently not included in any of the regeneration plans.

An Advisory Panel was established in 2006 and a consultation process led to a 2007 Masterplan on which there was more consultation. The 2007 document proposed housing as part of ‘mixed use development’ in the main body of the site. The consultation responses to the 2007 document, summarised in the updated 2010 plans, show that there continued to be no agreement on housing – where it should go, or even on whether there should be housing on the site at all. See also an interesting research paper (subsequently published in Urban Studies, for readers who have access to academic journals).

The 2010 Equality Impact Assessment and updated Masterplan still located housing on the main site, but now at the back and separate from the ‘mixed use’ element. It stated:

... the preferred way forward is to advance the Masterplan in a staged or incremental manner. The experience of successful implementation at each stage will help build good relations between local communities and so increase the chances of success for later projects.  In this way, the climate for resolution of more contentious issues attached to the Masterplan may be improved over time (p.1).

Specifically, the proposals relating to housing included to consider ‘locating part or all of the housing to specific parts of the site’ (p. 5); a shared future housing scheme to be worked on with local community; housing for sale to include affordable homes for first time buyers; and that social housing must reflect local need.

In the following year, electoral considerations intervened briefly to highlight housing issues and to set the boundaries of the current debate. In March 2011, the then Minister for Social Development Alex Atwood of the SDLP announced 200 homes on the Girdwood site, apparently without local consultation. After the May 2011 Assembly election, the new Minister – the DUP’s Nelson McCauseland – overturned the decision. The positions of the respective parties were set out in an Assembly debate about the site later in the year:

Alban Maginness (SDLP): ‘Housing is an overriding need of such proportions that it requires to be satisfied as soon as is practicable..... Lack of consensus around those issues should not be used as a veto’.

Nelson McCausland (DUP, Minister): ‘My approach is to develop the site on an integrated and comprehensive basis rather than through piecemeal developments..... housing development alone cannot regenerate or sustain communities.... Girdwood represents a significant opportunity to regenerate this part of the city in a way that both communities can buy into and benefit from. It must be delivered for the good of all the community in a genuinely shared manner’. 15th November 2011.

But in the meantime, a more positive development looked like at least one aspect of the regeneration could at last get started. Belfast City Council obtained £10m from the Peace III programme for the Girdwood Community Hub. Very good, except that the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) not unreasonably wanted to know that the project would be viable (in other words, would not be burnt to the ground). They requested assurance by June 2012 that there would be a plan for the wider site and that there would be community and public buy-in’. Without meeting that timescale, the SEUPB doubted that the Hub could be built within the funding period, and had made it clear that other projects would be funded instead.

So the timing of last week’s announcement is likely to be in response to the Community Hub funding deadline. That’s why there are no numbers for the housing elements – it’s not the most important part of the package as yet. The significant factors are the non-housing elements listed in the press release such as training and leisure facilities, plus the overriding importance of high profile cross-community support of a document that is not available to the public. Smoke and mirrors.

And housing is the red herring. Of course it’s important to try to meet housing need in North Belfast, and the continuing delay on this site isn’t helping. But the most significant housing aspect of this announcement is that the two housing sites have been moved to the edges of the development. No specific details of the schemes have been given and if the Housing Executive haven’t been consulted then the sites won’t be in the Social Housing Development Programme, which is actually how social housing gets built. I suspect it’ll be a long time before construction begins – by which time two shared schemes may be more possible than they are now. Nelson McCausland is right to say that all social housing on the site will be allocated on the basis of need, whichever community is involved. The question is how long applicants have to wait, with waiting times much longer if you want to live in a Catholic/ nationalist area because there are more households in the queue.

But the hardest decision of all has been kicked down the road yet again. The real question for housing on Girdwood is whether to go with the demographics and with housing need as measured by the Housing Executive, in which case the majority of the new housing will go to Catholic/ nationalist households; or to argue that sustainable regeneration requires a mix of different communities and that therefore measures should be taken to ensure some housing is provided for the other community. And if as a Minister you intend to get agreement on one of these approaches, you need to keep the support of parties representing the other community through the entire process of site identification, programme allocation, design, construction and allocation to tenants. This is the heart of the debate that’s been ongoing since 2006. It has been fudged again, but, to be fair, is any other outcome possible at the present time?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Choosing choice

Recently I was in Berlin - a good place to be thinking about choice.

Three experiences started this train of thought.

Number one was of course my first sight of the remains of the Berlin wall. Near the Brandenburg Gate I came across a small museum commemorating the Kennedys and in particular JFK’s visit to Berlin in June 1963. I watched his speech and was very struck by one sentence, not the most famous:

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.

The second prompt was the marvellous novel ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi, which I read while travelling. It’s about Iraq under Ayatollah Khomeini including the Iran – Iraq War, not a subject I know much about. But I was particularly struck by one point: a friend of hers who had chosen to wear hijab (I presume – Nafisi calls it a scarf) before the revolution:

At that time, she had worn the scarf as a testament to her faith. Her decision was a voluntary act. When the revolution forced the scarf on others, her action became meaningless.

The third, more personal, incident was connected with a minor difficulty in ordering vegetarian food in the city of curried sausage, and realising that some people really do take exception to my decision not to eat animals or fish, despite it causing no harm to them whatsoever.

Each of these episodes made me realise just how much my political perspective is grounded in the importance of individual choice. I don’t think this was always the case, for example when I was a London left-winger in the 1980s. Although on the other hand my tendency towards leftie authoritarianism was always leavened by an element of feminist individualism.

There are, of course, problems with the wider consequences of personal choice, for example the ‘tragedy of the commons’, when the aggregate of single decisions brings about a detrimental situation for a wider group. It is now widely understood that many of us do not pay the full price for the benefits we enjoy, and that those who do pay on our behalf might live a long way away, or may not yet have been born. Awareness doesn’t seem to lead to behavioural change, though.

Choices have a cumulative effect in our own lives. The degree of context and autonomy varies over space and time, but both make us what we are. There is no such thing as truly ‘free’ choice, as I pondered at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Track 17 and the House of the Wansee Conference.

So how can we make the ‘right’ choices, both for ourselves and for society as a whole? I think this is a real problem for those of us on the democratic left, who follow Gramsci in believing we need to win over civil society and create counter-hegemonic positions rather than dictate to people. It looks like the tide is turning against austerity in Europe, providing an opportunity to think about a practical alternative rather than just opposing right-wing parties. I hope Labour in the UK and the Republic are both up to the challenge. And I hope that the Greens can be brought into new a left of centre alliance, following the German example, in order to develop a political philosophy that includes the best of democratic socialism and environmentalism for the future.