The Equality Can’t Wait Campaign
In 2006 PPR began working with residents in the Seven Towers, a high rise complex of seven buildings with 380 dwellings 12 – 16 storeys tall in North Belfast. The towers were built in the 1960’s, and after decades of neglect and poor maintenance, were severely run down, yet families continued to be housed in these poor conditions. A group of predominantly women/mothers started to campaign for change using PPRs human rights based approach. They conducted research; surveying and photographing conditions and collecting evidence on dampness, mould, pigeon waste and families living in the towers. They launched indicators and benchmarks for progress with the support of international and domestic human rights and housing experts and set specific time frames during which the public Housing Authority and State Authority would be monitored by the newly established Seven Towers Monitoring Group. By establishing the STMG, they changed the rules of engagement with the state to hold government to account and achieve meaningful change – measured by residents in the form of visible improvements in the conditions of the tower blocks and families moved to better homes.
The Seven Towers Residents Group leveraged significant improvements and investments from government and the public housing authority including; the removal of pigeon waste from communal landings; a million pound replacement of the sewage system, which frequently overflowed through baths and sinks; balcony repair programmes; new roves to stop leaks; increased and better maintenance responses for residents; compensation for damages to person and property; fire and toxin safety and insulation in multimillion pound PVC Cladding Plans, which originally ignored residents needs; and the re-housing of the majority of families with children into more suitable accommodation.
However, the issue of 380 families/individuals living in poor high rise accommodation was a symptom of a much greater problem – the failure to build enough homes fit for purpose for a growing Catholic population in a densely packed geographic area surrounded by peace walls – dividing walls between protestant and catholic communities first erected during the war and maintained since despite demographic shifts. These conditions were not only applicable to the women and children living in the towers. This was a systemic issue facing many residents across Belfast. Both communities experience multiple deprivations but not equally and the housing market is particularly skewed on religious lines.
In 2012 the STRG launched the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ campaign, now involving families from across Belfast impacted by the issue of homelessness and poor housing provision. They called on government to develop a time bound, resourced strategy to tackle religious inequality in housing. The group mapped the available land and money in the city to build housing.
Despite the equality legislation at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement which placing legal requirements on Ministers and public bodies, the legacy of housing inequality remains unaddressed. Political decisions continue with impunity which openly ignore the legal requirements of the peace agreement.
In 2016, according to the public housing authority, the state needed to supply 938 homes in the Catholic areas – North Belfast 1 and 38 in the Protestant areas – North Belfast 2. The state built 112 homes in North Belfast in 2017. Recently the campaign has focussed on one site in they city – Hillview Retail Park. This is an 11.5 acre site in north Belfast owned by a wealthy private developer. It is one of five ‘windfall’ vacant sites the homeless families mapped out for potential housing. Hillview has been empty for ten years during which time the developer enjoyed large scale state support, including a bailout by the National Asset Management Agency after the economic crash of 2008, charitable rates relief worth £1.8m and recently, planning approval from Belfast City Council for a new retail only venture.
The developer continues to receive state support at every level despite the overwhelming housing needs in the community and numerous procedural and policy flaws in the planning process which passed his application, as well as unlawful activity at the site (in the form of an illegal market)The retail only venture is supported by the DUP deputy leader and MP for the area, Nigel Dodds and the PUP – political wing of the UVF a loyalist paramilitary group. Together they have mustered forces in opposition to homes for families on the site.
Families worked with architects to show that the land would be perfect to build a sustainable community guaranteeing jobs and homes to help address historic inequalities and issues affecting working class Protestants and Catholics living adjacent to it. The private developer wants to sell the land to a large retailer to build a supermarket and large car park, identical to that which failed in the past but very profitable in the short term for him.
The state and public authorities responsible for tackling inequality have perversely actively opposed housing on the site and erected barriers to the participation of families in decisions made about planning in the city.
To date hundreds of homeless families from across Belfast have joined the Equality Can’t Wait campaign. They have mapped and monitored the available land and money and debunked and dismantled the numerous administrative hurdles erected by the state and public authorities. They have secured widespread support from political parties, the commissions established under the good Friday agreement charged with protecting rights, the United Nations and European commission. They have outreached to and supported other communities campaigning for housing rights across Ireland and Scotland, including many excluded groups – migrants, refugees, travellers, and working class Protestants experiencing housing rights abuses. ECW continue to campaign at the time of writing, monitoring state adherence it human rights standards, disrupting business as usual and building new alliances. ECW recently secured support from four political parties for an independent enquiry into Belfast City Councils planning processes.