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Much heat has been generated, but not much light shed, around the work of the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing who visited Belfast as part of her UK mission last week. Much of the debate has centered around her critique of the bedroom tax. Other discussions focused on retrogression – which is basically human rights language for ‘things getting worse’. The debate so far has largely come from across the water. Closer to home, what is the significance of the visit?
On Friday 6th September, a range of civil society organisations gathered at UNISON to meet the UN Rapporteur, facilitated by PPR. Housing in Northern Ireland has a complicated history. Discriminatory practices in the allocation of social housing by councils was a contributory factor in the conflict, and led to the establishment of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) in 1971, in order to ensure the provision of homes according to need.
Yet it has been far from plain sailing. Religious inequality in housing impacting the Catholic community remains. Housing for disabled people is increasingly difficult to access. Travellers’ right to culturally appropriate sites are ignored. City centre land that is zoned for social housing is being swiped for car parks or private developments under our very noses.
The UN has engaged with the issue of housing in Northern Ireland before. In 2009, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights named Catholics in North Belfast as a group of particular concern, despite a £133 million programme designed to address it. However that same year, the NIHE removed the very measures which recognised not only religious inequality, but also the specific needs of Travellers and those in rural areas, by ending their policy of ‘ring-fencing’ new build units to meet their particular needs. Gone was the era of providing houses according to need.
2009 was also the year in which figures on North Belfast housing inequality changed. The Department for Social Development (DSD) press statement released yesterday in the wake of the Rapporteur’s visit stated that figures for North Belfast were 42% Catholic, 37% Protestant and 22% other as of March 2013. As featured in the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ report, PPR uncovered that two sets of figures for housing inequality in North Belfast existed within the Northern Ireland Housing Executive up until 2009 – one set of figures for that year showing that Catholics in North Belfast made up 73% of those in housing stress, with the other putting the figure at 57%. After 2009, the methodology which put the percentage of Catholics in housing stress at 73% ceased to be used by the NIHE in their reports to the Board. In 2011, the NIHE ceased reporting on religious inequality to their Board at all. Now the era of naming and assessing inequalities in order to tackle them seemed also to be drawing to a close.
The UN Rapporteur visited the Seven Towers in the New Lodge area of North Belfast on Friday and saw damp, cold conditions, and heard about families who had literally been torn apart due to being housed there. Seven Towers resident Hugh (pictured here with Rapporteur Rolnik), a father of four children spoke of sleeping in the living room when his children stay, as one of his two bedrooms is riddled with damp, and the living room and kitchen windows of his 12th floor flat do not have safety locks. As a result, his children hate staying there, and as a consequence he sees them less and less. She also visited the government ‘response’ to the problems in the Seven Towers – another block of flats, Harbourview, constructed in 2009 and now itself exhibiting many structural problems and maintenance failures. Residents who have moved between the two speak of “jumping from the frying pan into the fire”.
Yet worse is to come, and this is evident from the comments around the table on Friday evening. Those speaking on behalf of migrants, the homeless, and those below the poverty line made clear their fear for the future. Concerns of what will replace the Northern Ireland Housing Executive were voiced as were repeated instances of failure of that very body to provide housing, maintain it, and to spend public money well. The current process to review the allocations system across NI to ensure it is more ‘flexible’ has the potential to put it at odds with the very principles of housing according to need which the NIHE was founded on. Yet what also grew clear during the meeting was the sense of possibility arising from the common experience of many who – whether they live in Catholic North Belfast, or on a Traveller site – find themselves increasingly sidelined as not part of the ‘New Northern Ireland’. This was noted in the UN Rapporteur’s own initial comments which mentioned both groups, alongside the disabled, as requiring ‘due priority’ to ensure their right to adequate housing is realised.
Next year the UK government will once again be examined in front of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which came out so strongly on this issue in 2009. In advance of that, the focus must be on how organisations can ensure that the voices of those who are more accustomed to being ignored by local bodies than visited by international experts, are heard and acted upon.