Why Europe’s most important housing development needs your help!

Hugh Ellis shares an update on Take Back the City’s remarkable campaign for a sustainable solution to Belfast’s housing crisis.

We appear to live in an age devoid of any hope that we might live sustainable and peaceful lives. The UK’s dominant economic blend of austerity and deregulation means that for many people and places the very basic things that make life worth living – decent secure homes, meaningful work, freedom from fear – are unaffordable. 

In the face of an endless parade of crises around poverty, climate change and conflict, we seem gripped by an inability to imagine anything better. It is true that no rational person can look across Europe and the Middle East at the extraordinary lengths powerful men will go to kill innocent civilians and have any great sense of optimism about the future.

We need to be able to demonstrate in practical terms how we can offer decent and peaceful lives to a new generation.

The fact that there are places where that sense of optimism and hopefulness still exists is remarkable, but it’s also vitally important. If we are to have any chance of securing our collective future, we need to be able to demonstrate in practical terms how we can offer decent and peaceful lives to a new generation. We need to be able to offer that pathway in a way which is credible for those in greatest housing need and in some of our most divided communities.

The reason that the Mackie’s development in Belfast is Europe’s most significant housing development is precisely because it attempts to square the circle of building a net zero, highly resilient and affordable housing development in a city which was, until very recently, locked in a sectarian war. It is the ambition to build hope in a post-conflict city which makes the Mackie’s scheme so important for the reconstruction of large parts of Europe and the Middle East when the current and devastating wars come to an end.

I first became aware of the Mackie’s site when the TCPA was asked for advice from a community organisation called Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) which has been campaigning for the rights of homeless people in Belfast for many years. In those early days, meeting the campaigners, some of whom were homeless, was both depressing and energising. The aspiration for a non-sectarian approach to housing in one of Europe’s most religiously divided cities seems to take the idea of optimism into the realms of delusion.

In fact, what I’ve encountered was what we seem to lack most in thinking about the future: the kind of indomitable spirit that comes from those who’ve experienced the trauma of violence. The viciously corrosive effect that violence has on people is all too evident, but it also instils a sense of bravery to challenge the status quo and the daring to imagine a peaceful and progressive future. This spirit led to foundation of coalition of organisations called Take Back the City.

The Take Back the City campaigners asked a simple question: Why can’t this empty site in the heart of the city be made available to meet basic housing needs?

The Mackie’s site in Belfast is what’s politely termed an ‘interface zone’, an ex-industrial site which effectively occupied the hinterland between nationalist and unionist communities. The site has been empty for decades and is currently identified for industrial and commercial use in the Belfast City Council plan. When the Take Back the City campaigners came together to understand and advocate for the housing needs of homeless people and asylum seekers, they asked a simple question: Why can’t this empty site in the heart of the city be made available to meet basic housing needs?

The answer to that question came in two parts. First, there was no technical or legal reason why the site couldn’t be identified for homes. Like all Brown field sites, it has its complexities. But a great deal of work, including the provision of an access road, has already been carried out to make the site developable. Second, there appeared to be an overwhelming political interest in ensuring that nothing happened, and particularly that the aspirations for non-sectarian housing for those most in need was defeated.

Despite the politics, the momentum began to build, and the Take Back the City coalition organised an international competition to design and master plan the provision of 750 net zero homes on the site. It is simply unheard of in the UK for a community-based campaign to develop such detailed plans; plans which are now subject to a planning application.

What’s also remarkable is how many organisations – from one of the landowners to social housing providers – are supporting the project. Of course, delivery will be a challenge and we need mix of partners from the commercial and social sectors to deliver the differing phases of the site. We will also need anchor institutions, such as the NHS and universities, to occupy the extensive workspace being provided with the new housing. In all of this, we must fight to preserve the design standards and the ambition for a significant proportion of the site to be managed by a community organisation (potentially a housing cooperative).     

Only two things now stand in our way: navigating the technical complexity of a planning application, and the persistence of sectarian violence.

From a brave pipedream to being on the brink of a practical reality in 24 months, only two things now stand in our way. First, it is extremely difficult for a community organisation to navigate the technical complexity of a planning application. It is remarkable that we now have a detailed masterplan for the site, but what we don’t have is the resources for the technical aspects of an environmental impact assessment. If you can help the Mackie’s project by providing technical expertise for this process, please contact the TCPA.

Second, is the persistence of sectarian violence in Belfast. The peace process has been an extraordinary achievement, but I have learned that racist violence – and this is what sectarianism means – continues to be used to create fear in order to reinforce social division. The worst aspects of this violence were documented by the BBC in a film which revealed how two immigrant families had been burnt out of their homes. But the intimidation is ever present against all those who argue for solutions for homelessness.

The stakes are very high for the Mackie’s development. If we can prove that bottom-up community action can provide a home for those most in need, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, then we have a model of hopefulness with international significance. If we can do that while building one of Europe’s healthiest and greenest neighbourhoods, we can demonstrate that that is a genuine pathway to a hopeful future in which sustainable and healthy lives can be delivered while healing the bitter social divisions which have scarred the start of the 21st century.

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