The difficulties of building homes in Belfast

Katie Melua, a jazz singer who grew up in Belfast released a song 14 years ago entitled Belfast (Penguins and Cats) about her experiences when she lived in the city.


Penguins are the Protestants and cats are Catholics.

Metaphorically I am not sure why these animals were used and there have been mixed reactions over the years but the reality is that deep divisions still exist between the two communities particularly in social housing, where over 90% are still segregated according to official figures.

One line of the song, ‘It’s about being able to fly, It’s about dying nine times’ is particularly poignant to me in housing terms as it could be a reference to the fact many people are confined to given areas given the lack of housing available to them and the high levels of poverty that exist and are unable to get out of this situation.

They consistently have their dreams shattered through poverty, inequality and social injustice and are ‘dying’ many times.

I am sure this was not the singer’s intention when she wrote the words, but in North Belfast economic deprivation is acute on both sides of the political divide.

Of the top 20 most deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland, six are in North Belfast.

It is also an area that witnessed its fair share of killings where in a radius of one mile one third of all killings took place.

Like a lot of towns and villages in the province this has created deep divisions and safety issues but unlike areas such as the Falls or the Shankill, Rathcoole, Glencairn, even West or East Belfast which can be described in larger geographical terms as loyalist or nationalist areas, in North Belfast there are interfaces everywhere with a network of communities defined by their religion.

The area has over half of the city’s peace walls with what has been referred to as a patchwork quilt of conflicting loyalties.

There is a commitment by government to tackle the situation of segregation.

In 2013 the Stormont Executive published Towards Building a United Community (TBUC) with an aim to take down all peace lines by 2023 and strengthen the supply of mixed social housing across Northern Ireland.

The Department for Communities (DfC) and the Housing Executive are working with a number of housing associations to create 10 purpose-built mixed religion neighbourhoods, and to date are making valuable progress.

Four years on, however, the impact on bringing down the walls has been negligible although at least one wall has come down in North Belfast after great work by community leaders and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).

Some of the structures are also open at certain times by the use of ‘peace gates’ although these are normally closed in the evenings.

There is no easy solution and these initiatives take time and are a work in progress.

However, the continued existence of physical (and behavioural) barriers creates major problems in the housing market and particularly in terms of social housing provision.

According to NIHE official figures there are 1700 households in housing stress and there is a need for 938 homes in nationalist areas and 38 in unionist areas.

This differential in need is not just unique to North Belfast as, in general, Protestant communities are shrinking with lower family sizes, lower fertility rates and a more aging population, whilst the Catholic population is younger and expanding adding further pressure for social housing in their communities and the need for available land.

But the shift is demographic, not geographic.

In North Belfast, there is underused housing and derelict land in close proximity to severe housing stress defined on religious lines but each inch of territory is severely defended.

I spoke recently to a former CEO of the NI Housing Executive and he said the major problem in this part of the city has always been the availability of sites to build social housing.

When land does become available, however, there are deep divisions between unionist and nationalist politicians as to how it should be utilised.

Recent research by the investigative journalism site The Detail and human rights groups Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) suggests the DUP is using its political influence to inhibit the building of homes in the Catholic community and promote the building of homes in predominantly Protestant areas, where its electorate lies and where the need is low.

The PPR has raised questions over a number of land deals conducted by the Department for Communities (formerly Department for Social Development (DSD), whilst under the stewardship of DUP Ministers, which resulted in a loss to the public purse of over £1.1m buying land for social housing where the need for additional homes was low.

A classic example of political interference was when the Girdwood Barracks site in North Belfast became available.

In 2010 the then SDLP Minister for Social Development announced 200 social homes for the site; in 2012 a DUP Minister announced 100 homes for the site to be divided 70/30 between Catholics and Protestants despite little evidenced Protestant demand but in 2013, after a legal challenge by a nationalist single mother who had been on the waiting list for 13 years, it was agreed to build 60 homes on the basis of housing need only.

The issue of land raised itself yet again more recently at a meeting of Belfast City Council on 15th August 2017 where planning permission was given to a scarce site for retail use only.

This was despite the fact that there had been a heavy presence of campaigners including single mothers in desperate need of housing who had waited three hours to before the application was heard.

In 2015, powers to make decisions on housing and planning were handed back to councils after more than 40 years since those powers were taken away.

With an acute need to build social housing it is difficult to understand why this decision was taken when there was so much support for new housing supply from a range of groups including local politicians and campaign groups.

The question remains as to whether our political representatives are able to make decisions on housing based solely on need regardless of political affiliation.

There is no doubt there is an acute need for social and affordable housing in North Belfast particularly for those from the nationalist side.

There is a strong need for leadership by politicians to step up to the mark and work together for the area as a whole.

Whilst the building of retail units is not entirely a bad idea and will create more much needed employment in the area a more sensible approach would have been a mixed use development which would include much needed social housing.

If there is a determination, and political will to take down the walls by 2023 then hopefully a natural housing market will evolve and the patchwork quilt will disappear over time.