The lack of decent, affordable housing faced by working-class people across the North is, first and foremost, a class issue. The recent controversy around the development of the former Girdwood Barracks site in north Belfast, however, demonstrates how this class issue can become distorted and be manipulated by sectarian forces in the context of divided communities.
The site is situated between the Antrim Road and Crumlin Road, an interface between Catholic communities and the Protestant Greater Shankill. Plans to develop the site were first announced six years ago. The fact that a ‘masterplan’ for the development was only published this May points to the complexities of the situation. The plan proposes two separate housing developments on the site – one of 30 houses aimed at the Protestant community and one of 70 dwellings aimed at the Catholic community – with shared recreational and community facilities, effectively acting as a buffer between the two.
The SDLP have – belatedly – accused Sinn Féin and the DUP of a sectarian carve-up and called for a single development with housing allocated on the basis of need. The two biggest parties do, indeed, have an interest in maintaining division and the SDLP’s proposal can, on the surface, sound reasonable. The situation, however, is not that straightforward.
Over 90% of those on the housing list in north Belfast are from the Catholic community. This reflects a growing Catholic population and the exodus of Protestants to suburbs like Newtownabbey, in part, attempting to escape impoverished housing conditions. The SDLP’s proposal would, in reality, lead to the establishment of a new Catholic area. This would be perceived by many local Protestants as the ‘claiming’ of once neutral territory and an encroachment upon their community, potentially heightening sectarian tensions in the area.
North Belfast has historically been one of the most divided areas in Northern Ireland. Almost half of Belfast’s 99 peace walls are in the north of the city, with a third of those being constructed since the 1994 ceasefires. The changing demographics of the area have led to a tense struggle for territory around sectarian interfaces. In some areas, the evidence of this turf war is visible – for example, tricolours now flying on streets with faded red, white and blue kerbstones.
The NI Life & Times Survey demonstrates that the vast majority of working-class people aspire to living in mixed communities and the breaking down of segregation. The reality of daily life at sectarian interfaces, however, is one of sporadic low-level violence and the threat of major clashes. The majority of residents, therefore, are cautious and oppose the immediate demolition of peace walls but, instead, support tentative steps in that direction, such as the opening of the peace gate in Alexandra Park during daytime.
The Socialist Party is in favour of Protestant and Catholic working class people living side by side, we have much more that unites us than divides us. Achieving this goal, however, is not straightforward, especially in interface areas. Integration cannot be foisted upon communities. In some cases, shared developments – such as that proposed at Girdwood – can be a means by which to manage the allocation of housing resources (limited by the right-wing policies of the politicians) at interfaces and a first step towards greater integration. It is crucial, however, that the communities affected have democratic control over every aspect of the development.
This would require the coming together of community representatives not tied to the sectarian parties – parties threatened by communities coming together – to engage in dialogue and achieve a solution through compromise. In the context of north Belfast, this would mean recognition by Protestant representatives of the huge demand for housing in the Catholic community. On the other hand, it would demand that Catholic representatives recognise the fears and concerns of the Protestant community and that many Protestants also live in uninhabitable conditions.
The aim of this dialogue should not be to bring about acceptable terms for permanent division but to begin a process of gradual and consensual integration. Local trade union activists could play an important role in this process and the trade union movement as a whole – as the only mass organisation that represents both Catholic and Protestant workers – should act as a mediator between the two communities.
Sectarian forces will try to use situations like Girdwood to whip up tension for their own ends and the workers’ movement must not leave them unchallenged. The key task for the trade union movement, however, is the building of a mass movement for decent homes for all, which can challenge sectarian division and unite communities in opposition to the right-wing, sectarian politicians in Stormont.
Assembly parties responsible for housing crisis
By Kevin Henry,
The controversy around Girdwood has once again put the housing crisis back onto the agenda. This crisis is demonstrated by the figures. In 2011, 20,158 households were presented as homeless, with 39,891 on the housing waiting list and 20,967 in housing stress (where a household spends more than 30% on housing). The Housing Executive recently reported there are now more than 16,000 homeless people living in temporary accommodation in Northern Ireland.
Exasperating this crisis is the Assembly’s budget cuts. This has meant that in many areas, such as the Waterside in Derry, there is a “block” on building social housing despite the fact that 800 were presented as homeless in 2011. Tied to this is a massive programme of privatisation being implemented by the Assembly through transferring housing stock from the Housing Executive to housing associations. When the Housing Executive recently proposed that 250 properties were to be transferred to housing associations, Housing Minister Nelson McCausland insisted that the target was not ambitious enough and has demanded the transfer of over 2,000 properties to the private sector. This policy means at time of increased waiting lists and rising homelessness, year on year the stock of social housing will decrease.
This lack of social housing has put people at the mercy of private landlords. The reality of how many landlords and rental companies operate was exposed recently by YouTube footage which showed a representative of estate agent firm People Property invading the rented property of young tenants, without warning, to verbal abuse and physically threaten them. The Socialist recently spoke to a young couple living in South Belfast whose experience sums up the reality for many. “We were renting a bog standard tenant house since August. We had been gradually making improvements to it. Our landlord discovered the improvements and hiked our rent by £175 per month”.
In the 1980’s, the Tories abolished rent controls and argued in the 1990s that “housing benefit will take the strain” of high rents – in reality enormous subsidies to private landlords – and helped drive rising house prices. Now along with the political parties in the Assembly, the Tories are cynically trying to blame tenants for high rents.
As well as an immediate halt to housing cuts and privatisation, rent controls should be reintroduced as an immediate emergency measure. The old legislation with its provision for rent tribunals was not perfect, but it remains on the statute book.
However the key problem is the lack of social housing. There is no sign that the private sector will fill the gap left by huge cuts in social housing construction over the past decades. In Britain last year, 240,000 homes were needed to keep up with demand but only 109,000 were completed. In most cases construction firms were sitting on large land banks with planning permission, waiting for the market to reach a favourable stage to make a killing. Every year the gap is widening, leading to overcrowding.
The failed policy of selling off social housing must end. To meet housing needs, the Assembly Executive should announce a public housing building programme, to provide decent high quality social and affordable housing for all. Thousands of construction workers could be taken off the dole and put to work if the political will existed.