Last Thursday, a group of north Belfast residents visited the offices of six political representatives to publicly deliver letters about their poor housing conditions and question the current proposals for the regeneration of the Girdwood Barracks site. The proposals were the subject of a BBC Spotlight Progamme in May and came under widespread criticism for failing to tackle the housing inequality that exists in North Belfast among the Catholic community.
The residents’ action came on the same day that politicians at the NI Assembly’s Social Development Committee were being briefed by the Department for Social Development on both Girdwood and also on how Housing Executive maintenance contracts failed to comply with correct procedures.
Both issues place in sharp focus disgraceful decision making practices by government. Both represent a blatant disregard for legislative obligations. Both demonstrate how the needs of the most vulnerable are being sidelined for political and organisational interests.
Earlier that week, Minister McCausland told the Assembly that the NIHE’s poor maintenance schemes had “failed tenants”. It has been residents like those living in the Seven Towers that have felt this failure. This was certainly not news to them.
Indeed, over the last six years the Seven Towers Residents Group have used an internationally validated human rights based approach to monitor government activity in regards maintenance and housing conditions in the Seven Towers in New Lodge. Resident satisfaction with NIHE response to reported problems has never been above 33%. In fact, never once have the NIHE met the human rights indicator set. Never once have residents’ right to an effective remedy in line with their right to adequate housing been progressed. Consistently the residents brought this evidence to the attention of both the Department for Social Development and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Minister McCausland himself was briefed on the issues last September in an encounter which has been blogged about here. His response then was that the residents should be happy with their “half a loaf”.
And so it is right that focus be on problems with NIHE maintenance. It is right that the Minister recognises that tenants continue to face the brunt of the impact of persisting and unacceptable system failures. It is right that calls are made for public money to be spent wisely, especially in times of economic austerity.
It is not right, however, that this is where it ends.
Promises of reform must not be left as political soundbites; they must be measured against the barometer of how they deliver improvements for the most vulnerable. They must be reflective of a system of governance which is transparent, accountable and capable of achieving evidence based targets.
It is on this basis that PPR and the Seven Towers Residents assess the Minister’s call for reform with caution. For in parallel to the plans for NIHE reform, the plans for Girdwood also rest on the Ministerial desk. They are two sides of the same coin since the plans for new housing being built at Girdwood had the potential to ensure that some of those living in unacceptable conditions could be re-housed elsewhere. However the deal announced last month makes it more likely that residents’ ‘half a loaf’ has been cut again.
The letter delivered to political representatives states that despite making up approximately 45% of the north Belfast population, Catholic families make up almost 3/4 of those in housing stress on the waiting list.
According to the NIHE, by 2012 over 90% of new build social housing in north Belfast must be targeted at the Catholic community to address inequality. Girdwood is one of a long line of decisions made by the Department for Social Development and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive which denies housing to the residents most in need. Despite the fact that promoting equality of opportunity is a legal requirement under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 both bodies have failed to make decisions based on the law.
It was a key promise in the Good Friday Agreement that government would have to take decisions based on identifying and tackling inequality”. Fourteen years later housing is still not being built based on need and the law is not being implemented.
That is what the current plans for Girdwood represent.
Please add your voice to those of north Belfast residents by signing the petition calling for decisions about housing at Girdwood to be based on identifying and targeting inequality