Housing, a story of steady progress
One of the most important decisions that the first Assembly made for North Belfast was to instigate a North Belfast Housing Strategy. In 2001 when the strategy was launched by the then housing Minister Nigel Dodds, it was generally recognised that the housing problem here was worse than most other areas of Belfast and the North. The Strategy was carefully designed to address the specific, but differing housing needs, of the Catholic and Protestant Communities in North Belfast. Catholics made up a greater proportion of the waiting list and overall housing need. They required new build housing stock rather than an improvement of their existing housing stock. The need within the Protestant Community was largely, though not exclusively, to improve housing standards and conditions, as there were serious problems associated with older and poorer house owners whose houses had deteriorated over the years but could not be improved without Housing Executive or DSD help.
Over the past eight years £290million has been spent on housing in North Belfast and 1,784 new houses have been built since the Strategy commenced. Last year work commenced to build 234 houses in North Belfast, with the largest number being in Torrens. Over all 112 houses were commenced last year in Torrens together with 56 in Longlands. Major progress has been made in Pilot Street, the old St Patrick’s Primary School site, and in the new Hillview site. Families have already taken up residence over the late summer in these areas. All of these schemes, which cost about £40 million, will ease the waiting list, particularly for Catholic families that have suffered most from our chronic housing shortage. More work has also started on the New Lodge multi-storey flats to improve their condition and this is part of a greater investment programme.
I am confident that there will soon be good news with regard to Parkside Gardens and Queen Victoria Gardens. Both of these areas have been run down and blighted for years. I am hopeful also that the vexed problem of redevelopment for the Long Streets, off the New Lodge Road, will be satisfactorily addressed. For too long the residents, be they owner / occupiers or tenants, have not had a fair deal. The only answer, in my opinion, to their long suffering is full redevelopment. After so long, nothing else makes sense.
Of course nobody can be complacent, we still have a chronic housing problem particularly for Catholic families, but it is also wrong to argue that nothing has been done or no progress has been made. Approximately £175 million has been spent and invested in new homes over the past eight years. More needs to be done to contain and address the rising waiting list and more importantly the increasing numbers in housing stress. The large numbers of families still on the housing lists mean that we have to prioritise the provision of family homes. Families have to come first. However, there are also many single people on the waiting lists and many of those in housing stress. At least 47% of the waiting list is single and very largely men. This relatively new dimension to our housing problem complicates the situation, but nonetheless, like the problem of families being homeless, it needs to be addressed. But to really satisfy all housing demand, land to build on is required and the lack of development land in suitable areas for housing is a major stumbling block to faster progress. This is why I have argued strongly and openly for the Girdwood site to be prioritised for housing. It is absolutely necessary that the development plan for Girdwood is expedited and implemented as soon as possible. With Girdwood we break the back of the housing problem and without it we will simply struggle to keep on top of the problem without solving it. Political objections based on prejudice and sectarianism must not stand in the way of seriously addressing real and objectively identified and verified housing need. Girdwood’s development must be made a political priority for the Executive. The time for talking and consulting is over, the time for political dithering has long past. The time has come for the people of North Belfast to see action on the ground.
Alban Maginness MLA
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