A plan will be put in front of the Councillors who sit on Belfast City Council Planning Committee soon. It is for the vacated Hillview Retail Park (formerly Dunnes Stores) on the Crumlin Road.
The plan is to build a drive-through restaurant, car showroom, possibly some type of supermarket and acres of car parking spaces.
Not a single social home is to be built. No social clauses or jobs for the long term unemployed in the areas of deprivation surrounding the site are guaranteed. The small businesses and employers are under threat. That’s the plan.
Meanwhile there are 2458 people on the housing waiting list for north Belfast and there’s very little land left to build on to tackle the festering religious inequality. According to the last figures produced by the NIHE (2015), 859 new and additional homes are required to meet the need in the predominantly nationalist/catholic communities. Among the predominately unionist/protestant communities there is a surplus of 96 homes.
The United Nations (on three separate occasions over that last seven years) the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner and the Human Rights, Equality and Children’s Commissions set up under the Belfast Agreement have all called for religious inequality in housing to be addressed in North Belfast.
But these facts aren’t priorities for the property developers behind the current plan. And they won’t be as long as the provision of social housing and the eradication of persisting inequalities remain low on the agenda of political decision makers.
The Hillview site is one of many controversial properties bought and sold during the ongoing NAMA scandal which is being investigated by the National Crime Agency and is under the scrutiny of An Daíl Éireann. Through these processes, millionaire property developers had their toxic debt ridden assets bought, then sold back to them again at reduced rates - all courtesy of the Irish taxpayer.
Mr Frank Boyd - one of the wealthiest men in the state and owner of Killultagh Estates - is the face behind the current plans for Hillview. While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr Boyd in the current investigations, the helping hand he received from taxpaying families stands in stark contrast to his plan to exclude family homes from the Hillview site.
Families have been denied housing, sent to homeless hostels and forced to live in overcrowded and disgraceful conditions while successive housing Ministers, brazen faced, have denied inequality exists. These same families have watched a former housing Minister intervene to actually prevent homes being built in areas of high demand in Frederick Street, Clifton Street, Glengormley PSNI station; they watched while the Stormont Ministerial portfolio was used to promote new housing in areas of low or no demand which conveniently matched the constituency interests and political leanings of the same Minister for housing.
And while these interventions took place with impunity the Housing Executive (set up in 1971 to ensure the fair allocation of housing) changed how they monitor inequality – by simply not monitoring it anymore! In 2009, overnight and without housing a single family, the numbers of Catholics in north Belfast in housing stress reduced from 76% of the total waiting list to 46% and a new category of person called the ‘unknown’ was born.
In the face of this determined resistance by the Government and public authorities to deliver on the promises of the Good Friday Agreement, homeless families in north Belfast are now facing the prospect of a “too good to be true” opportunity at Dunnes/Hillview, capable of providing much needed employment and housing, slipping away.
The decision about the future of the Hillview site rests with two bodies – the Belfast City Council Planning Committee and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
And the choice facing them both is clear.
Belfast City Councillors on the Planning Committee can either approve the plan for a Dunnes Stores Mark 2 (this time with an alcohol license to make it more profitable for business) Local traders are already voicing concerns about the impact this will have on the many local jobs and businesses. They feel that the another large retail outlet on top of the existing Tesco’s in Woodvale and LIDL In Ballysillan would devastate the small businesses which have served the community in the 14years while this site lay derelict.
Or they could reject Dunnes Stores Mark 2 plan and pave the way for a better plan which Equality Can’t Wait campaigning families are developing alongside award winning architects – hundreds of eco-friendly homes for those in most need, guaranteed jobs for the long-term unemployed and business/community/retail units on the Crumlin Road to ensure sustainable development and immediate benefit for the surrounding communities.
The decision for the NIHE is as clear – either silently watch as families continue to be torn apart and condemned to homelessness, or be part of the solution by using statutory powers to vest the land which is on the open market to help build a model development which reflects the transformative society we want to live in.
Equality Can’t Wait held a public discussion on the 8th November in the Houben Centre, Holy Cross Church. It was packed with councillors, MLA’s, resident groups, community groups, traders and families. Everyone voiced serious concerns that the site would be developed without their having even been consulted. Earlier that day, with total disregard for the outcome of the public meeting, the developer put in a ‘retail only’ planning application before Belfast City Council. The application ignored the objections to the plans and support for social housing from political parties and the public. It is evident that the developer will not listen to the public. It is now more important than ever that the democratically elected representatives of the city from all parties use their power to say ‘NO’ to retail only and ‘YES’ to social housing in the upcoming vote at the planning committee.