Devil in the Detail - What's the plan for social housing in the New Lodge, North Belfast?

In this investigation we use Freedom of Information requests to take a closer look at the Minister for Communities' announcement of a £37million housing regeneration project for the New Lodge. FOI requests have also been used in an effort to track responses to fire safety recommendations at the tower blocks. Right to a Home | Tue Jan 25 2022

ON 22 October 2021 the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, announced a £37million housing regeneration project in the New Lodge, North Belfast.

Minister Hargey said;

“I am delighted to announce this £37m regeneration project for Upper New Lodge Belfast. This scheme will deliver high quality, affordable and sustainable homes."

The New Lodge has long been an area of acute housing need and local residents and campaigners have highlighted the poor quality and lack of housing provision for decades, drawing the attention of international human rights insitutions at the United Nations and Council of Europe.

In response to our Freedom of Information requests, the Housing Executive confirmed that at the time of writing (December 2021) the Carlisle / New Lodge area as a whole had 681 social homes, 17 of which were void.

It said that redevelopment of the Upper Long Streets, including the area between Hillman Street and Stratheden Street will see demolition of 85 NIHE-owned social homes and 2 housing association-owned social homes, along with a large number of privately owned homes. Given the planned construction of 123 new social homes, there would be a net gain in that area of 36 social homes.

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Currently, 382 of the New Lodge’s social homes are located in the Seven Tower blocks. Under the Housing Executive’s Tower Block Action Plan of March 2019, Óisín House (50 social homes, of which 8 are voids) is slated for demolition in the next five years, although the Housing Executive response indicated that this may be reassessed due to Upper Long Streets demolitions.

Two more New Lodge tower blocks, Finn (49 social homes, 1 private) and Fianna (50 social homes) are set to be demolished in the next six to ten years.

The information provided by the Housing Executive indicated that the cleared land from these three demolitions would be used for new build social housing, an estimated 96 units, subject to change. At 96 units, this would mean a net loss of 45 social homes in the area against current levels.

According to the Housing Executive response to our Freedom of information requests, there are plans to refurbish the other four tower blocks: Gráinne House beginning in 2023/2024; Maeve House in 2024/2025; Cúchulainn House in 2026/2027 and Eithne House in 2027/2028.

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In the wake of the Grenfell Tragedy in 2017 and subsequent revelations of systemic flaws in fire safety controls and building regulations, residents of the Seven Towers in the New Lodge worked with independent experts to produce a report focused on fire safety issues in the New Lodge tower blocks. In January 2018 the Housing Executive established the Independent Reference Group into Fire Safety in Housing Executive Tower Blocks which produced fire and building safety analysis for all of Housing Executive tower blocks, including those which had had cladding works.

Since that time PPR has submitted numerous Freedom of Information requests to try to track the response from the Housing Executive and Department for Communities to safety recommendations contained in and annexed to the report, particularly with regard to cladding and related building works to Eithne and Cuchulainn Houses.

On 10 January 2022 Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, wrote a letter inviting developers to agree a settlement with government that “will restore confidence and ensure the industry that caused the problem [of unsafe cladding on 11-18m buildings] pays to fix it”. The government’s new approach would see funding to remediate unsafe cladding on such buildings, in addition to ones over 18m as agreed previously.