Moving Beyond the Politics of the Past to Build Back Better

Belfast City Councillors have voted to exclude families in housing need from conversations on the development of public land in West Belfast. Where to next? Seán Mac Brádaigh  |  Mon Sep 27 2021
#BuildHomesNow campaigners prepare to abseil the Europa Hotel to raise funds for PPR's End Child Homelessness fighting fund

We recently witnessed the politics of the past playing out again in Belfast's Planning Committee.

In a rushed meeting on 14 September, council officials recommended rezoning vacant land at Mackie's as parkland. 'Greenwashing' over the city's housing crisis!

PPR asked the councillors on the committee to pause and listen to families in housing need before taking that step. Six - from the SDLP, Alliance, People Before Profit and Greens - said YES. The eight who said NO were councillors from the DUP, Sinn Féin and the PUP - an unlikely band of brothers. (For a full report read Part 1 of this blog series.)

Think about this as an example of democratic accountability: in the middle of a deepening housing crisis, Belfast City Council asks itself for permission to use public land for purposes other than homes in an area of huge and growing housing demand - and then refuses to hear the thoughts of homeless people about what that decision would mean for them.

That the DUP and PUP would vote against is not so surprising, as they have consistently opposed social housing in the areas of highest need. But as the Twitter feeds of household names like John Finucane MP, Cáral Ní Chuilín MLA and others show, for years Sinn Féin representatives have stood shoulder to shoulder with homeless families, actively supporting the #BuildHomesNow campaign for public housing on the Mackie's site and elsewhere.

Sinn Féin's vote last week makes little sense considering that the land sits amongst the areas with the greatest levels of housing need and the deepest inequality in housing provision in the state - the predominately Catholic communities in Sinn Féin heartland areas in North and West Belfast.

It is public land owned by the Department for Communities, the body responsible for housing - which after many years under DUP leadership, is now headed by long time housing rights campaigner, Sinn Féin's Deirdre Hargey.

Sinn Féin are rising to power across the island on the back of a radical promise to build public housing, eloquently articulated on the benches of Dáil Éireann by Eoin O’Broin TD – potentially the next housing minister in the south if Sinn Féin’s electoral fortunes continue.

In this context, the deed done by Sinn Féin councillors in Belfast is as concerning as it is confusing.

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So what’s next?

Since the day we knocked the very first door in the New Lodge tower blocks over ten years ago - through campaigns for social housing at Girdwood and Hillview - we have come up against entrenched institutional resistance, inequality and denial of the right to housing.

If families had been put off, we would have gotten nowhere – no homes on the lower Shankill, no investment in the New Lodge tower blocks, no families rehoused, no opening up Rathcoole flats, no land mapped and no homes built – and that’s just Belfast. The example set by persistent campaigning families in this city has been replicated as far away as Cork and Edinburgh.

For thousands of people in North and West Belfast living in homeless hostels, sofa surfing, or breaking their backs paying rent to indifferent landlords, the status quo is not an option. They need something better, a city fit for the future: one that is climate resilient, where peace walls, profits and sectarian politics no longer set the agenda and where everyone has a home, security and peace.

This time around, decisions that ignore families in housing need can be challenged, thanks to the generous donations from the people of Belfast to our legal fighting fund – we smashed our target in about four weeks to raise over £7000 and counting, which says something about people's appetite for real change.

Between now and Christmas #BuildHomesNow campaigners are opening up the conversation to anyone who wants to be a part of it. Their vision for a healthy, inclusive, sustainable community at Mackie's has been designed in partnership with local and international experts, and aims to embrace everyone and threaten no one.

We can all play a part to #TakeBackTheCity.

Elected representatives and officials have been invited to talk about the political challenges they face and how to overcome them.

You can now experince and help shape the vision in an interactive art exhibit and activities organised in partnership with The MAC gallery - drop in and leave your mark on a strategy for a cooperative, sustainable, non sectarian city, rooted in respect for human rights.

On 7th and 28th October you can join the Town and Country Planning Association, which has offered its invaluable expertise to help decision makers and communities overcome the challenges they face. People can share their views in our workshops and through confidential surveys.

And be sure to join us this December during international human rights week. #BuildHomesNow campaigners - in partnership with Queens University Belfast, The Town and Country Planning Association, Rabble Works and the author of Housing Shock - the Irish Housing Crisis and How to Solve It, Rory Hearne - will launch alternative plans for sustainable and inclusive development at Mackie's and across Belfast.

Some decision makers are planning on a city that's divided forever - but we’re aiming beyond the status quo for a better Belfast.

Join the conversation - #TakeBackTheCity.

Email info@pprproject.org to register your interest in upcoming activities

Seán Brady is Assistant Director of Programmes with PPR.