On Tuesday 17th August 2021 something amazing happened at Belfast City Council: the Planning Committee voted in favour of 18 social homes at Hillview in North Belfast.
While 18 homes is a drop in the bucket relative to the scale of the housing crisis – as of March 2021 there were at least 710 North Belfast children growing up in families officially recognised as homeless – it is a milestone development in the deeply dysfunctional planning system of a city scarred by conflict and divided by miles of security barriers segregating the ‘two main communities’.
Two. Main. Communities. If you don’t fancy one of the two to describe the complexity of your ethnicity or political, social or religious beliefs, then you get ‘Undesignated’ or ‘Other’. The linguistic gymnastics of the peace process has contributed not just to artificial terms, but also to artificial borders – ‘common landlord areas’, ‘constituencies’, ‘interfaces’ – which are arguably as much about power and territorial claims as about anything else. Yet these artificial boundaries have somehow come to set the parameters on the possible, ignoring the complexity and diversity of Belfast today – not to mention the city’s potential for change over the next 10 or 100 years.
In terms of how the city works, a short term, destructive and self serving sectarian mentality can be strong on certain issues. Rather than dissipating over the past 20 years, it has in many ways become embedded – at times even with the aid of ‘peace money’. It can dominate and paralyse decision-making, and can foster unelected gatekeepers and ‘no go’ areas. It can elevate paramilitary groups with guns to the status of permanent community negotiators, and can frustrate genuine efforts to build a society at peace with itself and prepared for the challenges of the future.
Despite a lot of cross community cooperation – much of it brilliant, genuine and beneficial beyond measure – the boundary we still seem to fear crossing the most is the one that defines where people can have a home. Belfast in 2021 is a place where, for many people – particularly those already facing ‘multiple deprivations’ – your skin colour or your ‘perceived religious community’ label dictates where you can live in peace, now and forever.
That’s why the decision by councillors in August to stand up for human rights and equality by backing the principle of social housing at Hillview is so significant.
PPR have been supporting and documenting campaigns led by families in housing need for more than a decade – on the Shankill and the Falls, in North Belfast, in West Belfast, in Rathcoole and Tigers Bay and the New Lodge. In that time politicians have come and gone. Some can’t stay much longer than the photo opportunity, but others go outside of their comfort zone – even against the grain of their ‘community’ or political party. Credit where it’s due, and more power to them for making the right decision to support the principle of social homes at Hillview.
This decision is the first time we’ve seen a cross party consensus and a majority at the planning committee willing to take the necessary practical steps to help build a new kind of community in North Belfast without interfaces, without designations, without borders or boundaries - where people can simply live and raise their kids.
A place where respect for your neighbours is the only prerequisite.
What happens next at Hillview is not certain. High-quality sustainable housing is by no means guaranteed. We aren’t in the business of trusting big developers much and of course the recent vote by the DUP, Sinn Féin and PUP regarding the Mackies site in the west of the city is a depressing throwback to the failed politics of the past.
Elected representatives and political institutions, not just the local ones, seem largely incapable of any meaningful planning beyond the next election. This myopic business model leads to short term deals and long-term failure. If we are going to rise to the challenges of our time it won’t be enough for Councillors, MLAs and MPs to put off acting until they have more power – especially if they won’t use the power they have today for fear of the votes they may lose tomorrow.
As human rights campaigners supporting groups of people impacted by a whole range of social, economic and environmental inequalities, we have the luxury of not worrying about the outcome of elections – our job will always be to hold duty bearers, whoever they may be, to account while setting a positive example on providing solutions. We have to plan for a future where sweeping change, on a scale that will pale in comparison to the Covid-19 pandemic, is inevitable for a million reasons, not least the climate crisis, the constitutional flux created by Brexit and the continued dysfunctionality and paralysis of local government.
The status quo is no longer an option. In many ways it’s over bar the shouting.
However, as campaigners for human rights and equality who are always looking for political action to match the rhetoric, the Hillview vote on 17 August 2021 gives us a wee bit of hope.
…Hope that this is not a high water mark for elected representatives who have the power to make public authorities deliver on human rights and equality obligations.
…Hope that big developers will be held to account and made to meet the highest standard in sustainable housing development for families who desperately need homes.
…Hope that our planning system can be fair, transparent and accountable, and that council’s benches can be occupied by a majority who want to build a city for everyone.
…Hope for other big sites, like Mackie’s in West Belfast, still owned by a Department whose Minister has a long track record campaigning for human rights, equality and social housing.
Mackies is place for hope with room to really make a lasting difference.
And despite the recent throwback to the past – the future is wide open. Watch this space…