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?