OFFICIAL statistics show the need for social housing in mainly Catholic areas of north Belfast was 26 times greater than in predominantly Protestant areas in 2018/19, The Detail can reveal.
Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) data for the area known as ‘North Belfast One’ (NB1) – which is made up of predominantly Catholic neighbourhoods such as Ardoyne and Carrick Hill – shows it had an average residual need of 1,041 homes in 2018/19.
Meanwhile, in ‘North Belfast Two’ (NB2) – which is comprised of mainly Protestant areas, such as Mount Vernon and White City – there was an average residual need of just 40 homes during this period.
This means that 96% of the social housing requirement in north Belfast, in 2018/19, was in the mostly Catholic areas of NB1. In 2014/15, this figure was 99%.
There was also a 51% increase in the residual housing need figure for NB1, from 2015/16 (690 homes) to 2018/19 (1,041 homes).
Different metrics can be used to assess social housing requirement in NI, however, according to the Belfast-based campaigning organisation, Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), average residual need is the most accurate barometer to use as it takes into account “both supply and demand”.
Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey was recently appointed as Minister for Communities in the latest reboot of the Northern Ireland (NI) Executive. The NIHE falls under her department (DfC).
She said she’s “very concerned by the housing inequalities” we’ve highlighted, adding that she’s committed to embedding a “rights-based approach” based on “objective need” in relation to housing.
Elfie Seymour is a housing rights activist who works for PPR. She called Ms Hargey’s comments unprecedented because they represent the first time, since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, that an Executive minister in NI – whose department funds and oversees the NIHE – has ever admitted there is inequality regarding social housing in north Belfast.
Housing was the responsibility of four consecutive DUP ministers from 2011 until 2017 when the Executive collapsed.
Elfie added: “It’s frustrating that we’re even talking about housing in terms of religious groups, we should be allocating housing on the basis of need, not in a way that reduces society to a sectarian headcount.
“I think that the state needs to take responsibility for this. Until we accept there is a problem, there is never going to be a solution.”
In May 2009, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern that inequality in housing policy in north Belfast continued to negatively affect the area’s Catholic community.
More recently, following her visit to Belfast in 2013 – a UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, produced a report which stated that north Belfast had “long-standing issues related to inequality”.
Ms Rolnik told The Detail at the time of her visit: “The housing needs that are in the Catholic community are clearly greater.”
The NIHE is the public body in NI with a statutory responsibility for the allocation of social housing.
A spokesperson from the NIHE told us social housing need is met via the re-letting of existing properties, which are in limited supply in areas of greatest need such as NB1, and through "new build social homes," which are dependent on "development opportunities".
This spokesperson rejected the idea that there hasn’t been a rights-based approach regarding social housing allocation, based on objective need, in north Belfast in recent years, adding that 1,869 new social homes have been “acquired or built in north Belfast” since 2007.
Catherine has been on the housing waiting list in north Belfast for three and a half years.
She said: “The housing situation is really, really bad for north Belfast. I have four children and myself in a two-bedroom house and can’t get out of it at all.
“I’m in the big room with the two girls. A cot to the side of me and another cot to the other side of me. The two wee boys are in the back room, with dampness on the walls.
Pregnant with what will be her fifth child, Catherine’s home is going to become even more crowded.
She added: “I’m not going to get rehoused because the Housing Executive has said there are no houses for me, there are no three-bedroom homes. They need to build more houses.
“I actually hate coming into this house. In the mornings, I get out of here and come back when the kids have to go to bed.
“My heart’s not in this house, for me or my kids. It’s getting me down.”
According to the last UK-wide census in 2011, there were 48,126 Catholics in North Belfast while there were 46,821 Protestants living in the constituency.
The DUP's Nigel Dodds lost the North Belfast parliamentary seat, which he had held for almost 20 years, to Sinn Féin’s John Finucane in the December 2019 general election.
Speaking after this was confirmed the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, told the BBC: “The demography just wasn’t there."
Social housing allocation in NI can directly impact ‘demography’ which can in turn affect politics.
Just 60% of the 561 housing allocations in north Belfast in 2018/19 were in NB1 while 40% were in NB2, despite the contrasting levels of requirement for social housing between both areas.
Queen’s University Belfast’s (QUB’s) academic, Frank Gaffikin, has written extensively for more than 30 years on the complexities of urban planning in divided communities in places like Israel/Palestine and Cyprus.
He was also the co-author of the 2019 academic report, Making Space for Each Other: North Belfast.
Professor Gaffikin said: “I think you can expect when you have major political parties whose primary electoral constituency comes from one side of the community or the other, is that they have to have regard to the electoral arithmetic.”
He added that politicians can "be concerned about any new housing and who it is going to; what likely political affiliation they will have and how that will upset the numbers in terms of their support”.
Between January 2016 and July 2019, NI political representatives held meetings with the chief executive of the NIHE, Clark Bailie, on 41 occasions.
According to the NIHE, 15 of these meetings either involved DUP North Belfast representatives or they were meetings about the area in which some DUP politicians were present.
The NIHE accepts there were no official agendas for these 41 meetings and no official minutes or notes were taken during any of them either, making it impossible to know what was discussed.
In the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which contributed to bringing down the Stormont Executive in 2017, it emerged that minutes of meetings between senior civil servants and politicians were deliberately not taken, for fear that journalists or members of the public could access them under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation.
PPR uncovered the information about the NIHE’s chief executive’s meetings with senior politicians, using FOI.
The Minister for Communities, Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey, said she’s “seriously alarmed” about these findings, adding: “I will be writing to NIHE urgently seeking explanation and to ensure that there is no repeat of such practices.”
A spokesperson from the NIHE said their organisation will now be reviewing "current record keeping practice in light of the minister’s comments" and officials will engage with the DfC about this issue.
However, the spokesperson added that these meetings were "held at the request of the public representatives and not at the request of the NIHE".
PPR’s Elfie Seymour said: “For the chief executive of the NIHE to meet with senior politicians without recorded agendas or minutes is a disgrace.”
The DUP’s 15 North Belfast meetings with the NIHE chief executive, Clark Bailie, accounted for 37% of the occasions when politicians met with him during this period, a disproportionately high percentage given there are 18 parliamentary constituencies in NI and there is a broad range of political parties throughout the country.
Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s former North Belfast MP, was present for at least eight of these 15 meetings. However, he also may have attended an additional five meetings.
These five were all described by the NIHE as ‘regular’ meetings with the DUP about north Belfast, but the FOI response doesn’t tell us specifically who from Mr Dodds’ party was in attendance at them. It just shows that DUP representatives were present.
Sinn Féin representatives held eight north Belfast meetings with Clark Bailie during this time. Carál Ní Chuilín attended at least seven of these.
Cumulatively, Mr Bailie’s north Belfast meetings with the DUP and Sinn Féin accounted for over half of those which he held with politicians in this period.
Under FOI, PPR also accessed a document titled ‘North Belfast Land and Regeneration Meeting: Progress Report,’ dated January 2019, which the NIHE sent to the DUP.
It was sent after a ‘liaison meeting with local political representatives and NIHE senior officials.’
This document outlined how there were 480 housing units at various stages of development in predominantly Protestant areas of north Belfast, despite the real lack of housing in this area being concentrated in the mainly Catholic neighbourhoods of NB1, where there was a need of 1,041 social homes in 2018/19.
PPR’s Elfie Seymour questioned why the NIHE was “overseeing the building of large-scale developments of housing” in parts of north Belfast where the housing need is relatively low and why “the DUP was being briefed so forensically on these developments in only unionist areas”.
The FOI response showed that Sinn Féin received a comparable document from the NIHE, to the one sent to the DUP.
However, Elfie said: “The difference in the level of detail between what’s contained in Sinn Féin’s north Belfast document, as opposed to the one sent to the DUP, is huge.
“The DUP’s document is a detailed report which updates the party on the actual progress of a number of current housing developments, whereas the one sent to Sinn Féin is basically a run of the mill update on housing statistics across north Belfast.”
The NIHE spokesperson said both documents’ contents reflect the “specific information requested by each political party” and it’s “absolutely not the case” that DUP North Belfast representatives have undue control over social housing in the constituency.
We have also seen a letter signed by Nigel Dodds which was sent to Belfast City Council’s head of planning on December 5, 2018.
This letter relates to what Mr Dodds called “numerous objections” from “local residents” about an application for 12 social houses on the Crumlin Road.
Nigel Dodds wrote: “This area has been a community interface for many years… this area remains volatile and any move that would upset the finely balanced equilibrium of the area must be avoided at all costs… this application fails to command the required support.”
A spokesperson from Belfast City Council said this housing application failed as it didn’t comply with planning policies relating to “loss of existing open space, failure to ensure a satisfactory outlook and appropriate safety for prospective residents”.
However, PPR’s Elfie Seymour said this shows Mr Dodds had the "significant power to effectively veto” houses being built in certain areas of North Belfast.
She added: “Saying you can only promote equality if you have a 'community consensus' is both absurd and impossible.
"It gives politicians an opportunity to block housing for homeless families in their own constituencies when it does not suit their political and electoral agendas.”
In response to the issues raised in this article, a DUP spokesperson told us its party’s North Belfast representatives are “renowned for their active representation on behalf of their constituents”.
Problems and solutions
The Troubles of the 1970s and 80s led to many people in NI living in either exclusively Catholic or Protestant neighbourhoods as a means of enhancing their security.
This segregation took place in North Belfast, most acutely in the working-class areas of the constituency.
QUB’s Professor Gaffikin said: “We lost around a third of the population in Belfast. Around half of all households in inner-city Belfast went over a period of a quarter of a century, with the greater loss in numbers being on the Protestant side.”
Census records show there was a 15% decline in the number of Protestants in North Belfast from 2001 to 2011, while there was a 5% increase in the number of Catholics during this time.
This means that much of the land which is suitable for housing those on the waiting list in north Belfast is located in areas which were once regarded as largely Protestant.
Professor Gaffikin added: “In every inner city site that becomes available, it seems that the obvious thing to do is to put housing on it commensurate with housing need and it seems that the obvious recipients of much of that housing are going to be largely people from a Catholic background.
“However, many unionists may see that as incursion onto what was formally 'their' land and thereby see it as a physical, visual representation of the political loss of ground that they think they have experienced in their politics and culture.
“The metaphorical political loss of ground is now being manifest in the physical loss of ground.”
Professor Gaffikin continued: “If on large tracts of land… we do nothing but let them decline into voids because they are no man’s land or dead land because we can’t get any agreement, then nobody benefits from that and the city as a whole won’t benefit from that.”
The Hillview site on the Crumlin Road is a large, vacant plot of land – though it is currently under private, not public, ownership.
Professor Gaffikin said this site, and other available plots of land, could be used for social housing, but emphasised that it's best if this is arrived through agreement between politicians, community leaders and public authorities to all work for shared housing.
However, PPR’s Elfie Seymour feels there is a problem with this aspiration.
She said: “The Good Friday Agreement enshrined the importance of equality in NI. This should apply to housing in north Belfast.
“It currently doesn’t apply because we allow politicians and ‘community representatives,' who are opposed to any change, to have a veto over whether or not homes are built in certain areas."
For Elfie, the solution is that available plots of land should be prioritised to build “thriving and sustainable communities that tackle residual housing need in north Belfast”.
A spokesperson from the NIHE said that while the Hillview site on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast is "currently zoned for retail and commercial use," their organisation "supported Apex Housing Association to investigate the feasibility of the site for social housing after agreement between the association and the current site owners".
However, according to the NIHE, this investigation discovered that part of the Hillview site isn’t suitable for housing due to a risk of flooding, but PPR's Elfie Seymour added that this isn't unusual and that much of the land which is available for social housing development in Belfast "will need remediation and structural work".
The NIHE spokesperson added: "We continue to be hopeful that it may still be possible to develop part of the site (Hillview) for housing and this remains a viable option.
"Apex Housing Association, however, has been unable to reach an agreement with the owner of the site."
The NIHE spokesperson also told us that developments which are in the "vicinity of Hillview" on the former St Gemma’s school site in Ardilea Street and at Brookfield Mill in Ardoyne, "will deliver a further 130 new social homes".
When asked, Sinn Féin’s Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, wouldn’t say if she thinks, as a general rule, that land – in the areas of greatest housing need – should be prioritised for social housing rather than private development.
She also wouldn't confirm whether or not she wants social housing to be built on the Hillview site.
In November 2018, when Ms Hargey was Lord Mayor of Belfast, the council formally acknowledged that the city was “in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis”.
However, as Minister for Communities, Ms Hargey chose not to tell us whether or not she accepts that there’s a housing crisis in north Belfast.
- Rory Winters, the journalist who wrote this article, is a Bertha Foundation fellow.
- All of the work which he will be completing as a Bertha Foundation fellow will be focused on the right to land and housing issues.
- Rory is working in collaboration with Elfie Seymour, another Bertha Foundation fellow.
- Elfie is an employee of the Belfast-based campaigning organisation, Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR).
- This is the first in a series of publications which Rory will produce as part of the Bertha Challenge.
- To find out more about the Bertha Foundation, please click here.