How Belfast City Council Planning Committee Works for You

Instead of using public land owned by the Department responsible for social housing development to alleviate the unprecedented, ever-growing housing pressure that defines and constricts the lives thousands of families in North and West Belfast some officials and councillors think it's a better idea to make a park. Between two existing parks. For more park. Paige Jennings  |  Wed Sep 22 2021
December 2015 - Political parties back demonstration in support of homes on the Mackies site - Sinn Féin, SDLP, People Before Profit, Green Party and Alliance all supported the campaign for social housing at Mackies.

On 14 September 2021 councillors on Belfast's Planning Committee voted to support plans to redesignate acres of the former Mackie's foundry site as parkland.

The site - which is already located between two parks, Paisley and Woodvale - was, until then, 'brownfield' land which - in official speak - can be developed in multiple ways. Now, thanks to the officials who developed the plan and the councillors who voted for it, a huge swathe of this derelict site, which is brimming with potential, is designated as a park - in the middle of the area of highest housing need in all of Northern Ireland.

That's right. Instead of using public land owned by the Department responsible for social housing development to alleviate the unprecedented, ever-growing housing pressure that defines and constricts the lives of the more than four thousand waiting list households in West Belfast, over three quarters of whom are in housing stress* - some officials and councillors think it's a better idea to make a park. Between two existing parks. For more park.

It's hard to tell what agenda is being served. But councillors from the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party found common ground and voted down a request for deferral that would have given time and space for families and independent legal and planning experts to address the committee.

The Councillors didn't seem to mind that, according to the project's own 2018 feasibility study, the initial greenway 'concept route' sensibly went through one of the two existing parks. What happened next was that Council officials proposed a "strategic change" of route, through Mackie's. One of the reasons cited in the feasibility study was that Woodvale Park was "strongly identified with one community" - too much so, apparently, to be considered for inclusion in a shared open space project. Rather than rock that particular boat, the feasibility report records that council officials quietly made the decision to shift the route.

Councillors didn't mind that the bulk of the rest of the 'necklace of green spaces' in the Peace IV-funded Forth Meadow Community Greenway project are actual green spaces that meet Council's definition of 'open space'. Mackie's stuck out like a sore thumb, no matter how officials and councillors tried to ignore the fact; and with the Planning Committee's decision they changed the facts to suit the agenda.

Councillors didn't mind that plans for Mackie's were not equality screened until PPR complained about this breach of Council's duties. They didn't mind that the screening, when it was finally carried out, mirrored that for the greenway as a whole by ignoring the opportunity, cost and equality impacts of converting brownfield land with housing potential to parkland without any potential for homes.

Councillors didn't mind that Council's public engagement on the Mackie's proposal, instead of asking people 'how do you want this public land to be used?', asked them what they'd like to see on the greenway once completed. (What definition of 'participation' does that meet?) Councillors didn't mind that many of the people who the current plans ignore, including hostel residents and other homeless people, were never aware of its online survey, and wouldn't have had the WiFi access or the mobile data to take part even if they had been.

Councillors didn't mind that the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, whose Department is part funding the greenway proposals, had already informed officials in Council and The Department for Communities that all that's needed for a greenway is a strip of land a few meters wide; and that social housing and greenways can and should be complementary. (For the record, Council's plan appears to feature multiple strips and paths looping expansively through a broad stretch of empty land that could have been used for public housing development in the area facing the worst of our housing crisis.)

Councillors didn't mind that legal and planning experts had written to inform them that elements of council's report, on which the recommendation to approve the application was based, were incorrect, and had enumerated the areas of concern.

After Council's decision, the over 1,400 West Belfast children who are growing up in families officially recognised as Full Duty Applicant homeless - a fair few of them constituents of councillors on the Planning Committee, and all of them co-citizens with the Council officials who are paid public money to protect their rights - went to sleep still homeless, their prospects for a change in their lives dimmer than before.

Councillors didn't mind.

But we do, and so do the families of the #BuildHomesNow campaign.

The planning system doesn't work for them, which is why we are building something new.

It's time to #TakeBackTheCity.

* NIHE figures as of end March 2021.

Paige Jennings is a policy officer for PPR. She has worked in human rights and development roles in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, for a range of local, international and United Nations organisations. She has been an Amnesty International researcher and has written for Minority Rights Group, Child Soldiers International, UNDP and UNHCR.