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If social homes aren't built on the Mackie's site, where will they be built?

The simplest, cheapest and most effective solution to the housing crisis in Belfast is to build homes on available public land.

How can it be that a 25-acre brownfield site has sat wild and unused for over 20 years right in the middle of the area with the most acute social housing need in the state? And what is the history of a Belfast City Council plan for the site that the High Court has just quashed?

The James Mackie & Sons foundry and factory operated in West Belfast for half of the 19th and most of the 20th century. It made textile machinery and, during WWII, munitions. After several decades of decline, it closed in 1999.

Since then, the Department for Communities has allowed fragments of the site to be sold off: one to private property developer Braidwater, and another to Invest NI which used government and European Union funds to build an ‘Innovation Factory’ in 2017 to provide ‘support to Belfast’s growing entrepreneurial community’.

But the lion’s share of the site – around 25 acres – has remained vacant and in ownership of the Department for Communities, the government body responsible for “the provision of decent, affordable, sustainable homes and housing support services” and “addressing inequality and disadvantage”, as obligated and empowered under Section 75 of the NI Act (1998) and the St Andrew’s Agreement (2008).

Housing need and vacant public land

From 2014, housing campaigners with the Equality Can’t Wait group began carrying out a photo-mapping exercise to identify vacant sites in areas of housing need around Belfast. The Mackie’s site was the largest and most prominent site featured in its March 2015 report.

Families in housing need and their supporters – including representatives from five political parties (Sinn Féin, SDLP, People Before Profit, Green Party and Alliance) – held a Christmas vigil at the Mackies site calling for social homes to be built, and continued to campaign for new housing at this and other sites around the city.\

In 2018 PPR wrote to and met with officials of the Housing Executive and Department for Communities expressing concern about rising levels of child homelessness in the area and inquiring about plans for the Mackie’s site. At that time, officials professed to be unaware of any plans.

The Greenway

Belfast City Council, however, was indeed developing plans for the site, eventually described in its Peace IV launch booklet:

“An exciting shared space project, […] A 13 km network of cycling and walking pathways will expand to connect local neighbourhood open spaces across west Belfast. The project will focus on sites that are affected by segregation which are close to interfaces with the aim of creating new shared spaces, improving linkages, relationships and connectivity between the various areas.”

No mention was made in the Peace IV documents of the extremely high housing need in West Belfast, nor its concentration primarily in predominately Catholic areas, nor the literally thousands of children growing up in families officially recognised as homeless.

Build Homes Now campaigners met with Council officials in October 2018 and raised the issue of local housing need with them. Elected councillors were sufficiently concerned about child homelessness to pass a motion on it in December 2018:

The Council calls upon the Department for Communities and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to work with the Council to use all available powers, including powers of vesting, zoning and planning, to ensure that housing provision meets current and projected needs in the city of Belfast.

In 2019 Belfast City Council held a dedicated consultation on the proposed greenway. The map issued as part of the consultation process marked a large portion of the site as ‘lands subject to a third-party lands transfer’, with no further information. The lack of clarity raised concerns about whether the consultation was meaningful.

Flawed consultation

PPR’s demand for an inquiry into the greenway planning application was denied by Belfast City Council in 2020, and the equality screening process they offered to undertake failed to address housing need and its impact on the area.

In May 2020 the Take Back the City Coalition held a series of webinars on potential housing development on the Mackie’s site. The coalition shared its vision for the site with then Minister for Communities, Carál Ní Chuilín, who instructed officials to engage with the Take Back the City Coalition in order to explore the site’s potential for social housing.

In April 2021 PPR lodged a complaint with Belfast City Council about its inadequate equality screening of the greenway plan. The Council insisted the complaint had ‘no basis’ and indeed the Planning Committee approved the greenway application in September 2021, effectively excluding the possibility of housing on the land by re-zoning it from ‘brownfield’ land with development potential to ‘parkland’ that cannot be developed further.

Numerous concerns raised by PPR about the process and content of the application were discounted; a motion to defer the vote so that these could be examined in more detail was voted down by a coalition of PUP, DUP and Sinn Féin councillors on the planning committee.

Judicial review

In October 2021 Take Back the City supported a west Belfast family to demand a judicial review of the planning decision. Last month, a court quashed that decision as unlawful after Belfast City Council admitted that it had misinterpreted planning policy.

However, the Greenway proposal is now back before the planning committee.

Meanwhile, housing need in the area is more critical than ever. Currently there are 2,068 children growing up in FDA homeless households in West Belfast, a 49% increase since 2019.

Alternative vision

But the Take Back the City coalition is developing a plan for what could be the most sustainable, autonomous and inclusive community housing project in Europe and urges Belfast City’s Planning Committee to engage with the exciting new ideas for a community designed with the participation of the people who will live there. A community that will be robust in the face of environmental challenges. A prototype for a new era of community housing.

Take Back the City logo The Take Back the City coalition was formed in 2021 to develop sustainable solutions to Belfast’s housing crisis. We are families in housing need supported by experts in architecture, urban planning, housing policy, technology, communications, permaculture, human rights and equality.
Supported by
Oak Foundation logo PPR logo Queens University Belfast logo Town and Country Planning Association logo
© 2022 TAKE BACK THE CITY COALITION