In 2006 The Participation and Practice of Rights Organisation (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 the poor conditions.
A group of women and children started a campaign for change using PPR’s human rights based approach.
The families conducted research; surveying and photographing conditions and collecting evidence on dampness, mould, pigeon waste and families living in the seven towers. They launched human rights 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, moving out of the established official structures to genuinely hold government to account and achieve meaningful change. This change was measured by residents in the form of visible improvements in the conditions of the tower blocks and families moved to better homes. If change was not felt, residents would take public action to embarrass the authorities and politicians who had made commitments as the campaign evolved to identify new issues and priorities.
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 £1million replacement of the sewerage system, which frequently overflowed through baths and sinks; balcony repair programmes; new rooves to stop leaks; increased and better maintenance responses for residents; compensation for damages to person and property; fire and toxin safety tests and the re-housing of the majority of families with children into more suitable accommodation. The public housing authority, at the time of writing, is now consulting on the demolition of all 33 social housing tower blocks in the state – homes to 1000’s of people.
However, the issue of 380 families/individuals living in poor high rise accommodation in the New Lodge area of North Belfast, was a symptom of a much greater problem – the failure to build homes for a growing Catholic population in a deeply divided and segregated society.
North Belfast is a densely packed geographic area surrounded by peace walls – security barriers between Protestant (British Unionist/Loyalist) and Catholic (Irish Nationalist/Republican) communities. These walls were first erected during the British/Irish conflict 1969-1998 and have been maintained and reinforced since despite demographic shifts which have seen the Catholic population grow and the Protestant population decline.
By pulling on a string of accountability which began with damp, mould and pigeon waste families discovered how poor housing conditions and long social housing waiting lists were not only applicable to the women and children living in the Seven Towers. This was of course a systemic issue, facing many residents across Belfast and while both the Protestant and Catholic communities in North Belfast experience poverty and multiple deprivations, these are experienced unequally with housing provision acutely skewed along religious lines.
In 2012 all of the major political parties made a deal which reduced the number of potential social homes on a piece of land returned by the British Army to public in North Belfast. British/Unionist parties opposed housing development. Irish/Nationalist parties supported housing development, to a point. The land was in between both communities and in the end the political parties decided that building housing to tackle the demand, overwhelmingly felt by a growing Catholic population, would not happen.
Homeless Families living for years in ‘temporary’ accommodation, who had heard the repeated promises of equality during the ‘Peace Process’, were outraged. STRG launched the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ campaign with 20 families who had lived for years in a hostel in one of the tower blocks. The campaign has since grown to involve families from across Belfast City impacted by the issue of homelessness and poor housing provision.
They have called on government to develop a time bound, resourced strategy to tackle religious inequality in housing. The families have mapped the available land and funding, both public and private, in the city to build housing.
Despite the robust equality legislation at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement which placed legal requirements on Ministers and public bodies to address the legacy of housing inequality, a direct a result of political discrimination in housing policy to maintain British Unionist Political power, the problem remains unaddressed.
Residents discovered that the Political manipulation of housing policy continued with impunity, ignoring 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.
And so a city wide campaign for land justice gathered pace.
More recently the campaign has focussed on one site in the 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. The site has been vacant for more than a decade 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.
At the same time Loyalist Paramilitaries have operated an illegal market on the site.
The developer continues to receive state support despite the overwhelming housing needs in the community and numerous procedural and policy flaws in the planning process.
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 aims 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.
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, 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 have successfully mobilised hundreds of vulnerable homeless people into an effective campaign which has changed policy and redirected millions in state resources into poor communities while changing the personal circumstances of homeless families for the better in the hear and now. The campaign continues to grow and develop as families navigate the reactions by big power and money. At the time of writing homeless families in Belfast are monitoring state adherence to human rights standards and disrupting business as usual and building new alliances.
ECW recently secured support from five political parties for an independent enquiry into Belfast City Councils planning processes and a commitment to build homes on the land they have identified. ECW are building a city wide alliance of campaigning organisations focussed on land justice in Belfast.