A huge swathe of disused publicly owned land at Mackie’s – located in the middle in the area of most acute housing need in Northern Ireland – will be transformed into… a cycle path.
The decision was made last Monday when seven councillors from Belfast City Council’s 14 strong planning committee voted in favour of the plan.
Take Back the City (TBTC) pushed for a deferral when the plan, which was quashed in court just a few weeks ago, was polished up and brought back before council on the 14th June. Objectors had just two working days’ notice.
Councillors reasonably agreed that the time frame was impossible and provided two more weeks to consider all options.
In the intervening two weeks, numerous additional concerns (legal, planning, moral, ethical, political, security and otherwise) were raised by both TBTC and by journalists, calling into question how Council was using ‘peace money’ from the European Union, the Irish Government, the Department for Communities and the Department for Infrastructure.
That money is being funnelled into a plan which ignores the human rights and equality obligations of the Good Friday Agreement and the reality of converging housing, cost of living and climate crises. Belfast is now a city segregated by more walls than ever, with 7,545 homeless families, 4,400 of whom are children.
Both Council officers and Councillors side-stepped all concerns in a chaotic meeting which was nominally convened to provide the opportunity for objections, required in any democratic process. However, Council officers provided no responses to any of TBTC’s queries in advance, declined to provide a joining link to campaigners on the basis of GDPR until the intervention of a solicitor (even though speaking rights had already been established for the 14 June meeting) and objectors were cut short.
According to the previous Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, the green-way, or cycle path, only requires a couple of metres’ width of land.
Belfast City Council’s plan for Mackie’s – section 2 of its Forth Meadow Community Greenway (the rest of which goes through pre-existing parks and green spaces) – rezones acres of superfluous empty space without explanation. Space that could be used for homes, businesses, play-parks, a whole community.
Belfast’s housing crisis is now worse than it has ever been. The Housing Executive chief’s warned in recent days that homelessness is “as bad as I’ve seen it in my career”.
The Department for Communities’ pledge to address this by building 100,000 new homes, including social homes, is impossible without Mackie’s. Even the lower end of estimates show that Mackie’s could meet around a third of local need. The Department actually owns the site. This all begs the question: what is going on here?
The Planning Committee last approved the same plan for Mackie’s back in September 2021. That decision was held to be illegal by the High Court just weeks ago.
But the Councillors who voted for the plan again on Monday showed no concern that the same officials who advised them previously were telling them everything was fine now. Incredibly, officials now advised councillors that planning policy wasn’t a “straightjacket” [sic] and could be interpreted how planners wanted it to be – High Court or no High Court.
The lone Councillor with the courage to vote against the plan – Matt Collins (PBP) of Black Mountain – called out what he described as a “step change” in planners’ approach to their own regulations, based on his prior experience on the committee.
Councillors were told that they could only base their decisions on the application in front of them – by officials who drafted and submitted that application in the first place, and who were the only ones with any power to change it.
Council officials also warned councillors against considering any non-material planning issues and the Council’s agent took the floor to give ominous warnings about the amount of money riding on the decision. He told councillors that the funding for the green-way as a whole was “time-bound” and that any “slippage” would result in lost money. He added that Council risked “financial and reputational damage” from funders trying to “claw back” already spent monies for a half-built green-way if they failed to approve the section through Mackie’s.
Two councillors didn’t turn up, two declared interests and left the stage and two abstained from voting. Ultimately the plan was approved by only half of the councillors on the Planning Committee – those from Sinn Féin, the DUP and the PUP. Half was enough on the night to make a bad plan work.
There are many questions that will only be answered over the passage of time, as investigations continue and journalists find the information hidden from public view, but what was absolutely clear for all to see was the broken politics. Councillors and City Hall showed no appetite to self-regulate, course-correct or make accommodations, despite the massive increase in housing need among their constituents.
Speaking to the media after the vote on behalf Take Back the City, Marissa Mc Mahon said:
“We’re very disappointed in Belfast City Council. Last night was an opportunity for politicians, many of whom are in parties who support homes on Mackie’s, to back a vision for a new Belfast.
"It seems that some politicians at Belfast City hall are planning for a segregated city for the next 100 years. That politics can’t last and communities who are suffering a housing, climate and cost of living crisis, simply can’t accept business as usual at City Hall.’’
In the meantime, TBTC campaigners are busy bringing their vision for a sustainable future to life, with an urban design competition entered by more than 30 architects so far, a kids art contest and a City of the Future event at the Innovation Factory on 10th and 11th August. Sign up here to be part of making a different and brighter future.