Village Urban Renewal Area

Village Urban Renewal Area
1 March 2009
Billy Dickson


Albert Einstein once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Redevelopment has destroyed many communities throughout Belfast and contributed to the decrease in Belfast’s population.

Homeowners living in the Blackstaff ward of south Belfast are concerned that their homes will be taken off them without good reason. Within the Blackstaff ward, there are a number of separate areas, two of which are the Village and Monarch. Part of the Village and all of the Monarch area are included in what is known as the Village Urban Renewal Area (URA). It has been proposed that 60% of the housing is to be demolished and replaced with new housing and that 40% be refurbished.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) states that there are 538 properties within the URA. 30 properties are blocked up and 59 appear to be vacant.

Homeowners have watched helplessly as active campaigners demanded the destruction of their homes, to be replaced by large family homes with large gardens. The majority of the community, who are senior citizens, believe that they are being sacrificed for a younger generation. As far as we are concerned, regeneration simply means new generation.

There have been many statements in all kinds of publications, emails and letters regarding the consultative process being community driven and that residents have initiated the process along with the NIHE and the Greater Village Regeneration Trust (GVRT). The facts are that people outside the Urban Renewal Area have been at the forefront of the campaign for 100% redevelopment and have called themselves local residents. They are indeed residents of the Blackstaff ward but most are not residents of the Urban Renewal Area.

The process of redevelopment was never agreed to by the local residents and the arguments for redevelopment are made most aggressively by non-residents. We have constantly stressed that only local residents should have a say in what happens to their homes. Why should outsiders have a say in what happens to our homes? Why should outsiders campaign for the demolition of our homes?

The majority of residents are of the older generation: a generation that worked hard in order to own their own homes and to bring up their families. They want to remain in their homes and fear for the future.

We can’t understand why our homes are declared unfit for human habitation, when no one has even inspected them inside. The situation must end where people don’t have inside toilets or bathrooms, but this is no reason to demolish their homes altogether.

Why should houses in Kitchener Street be demolished, while similar houses in the same street are to be refurbished because they are of “townscape character”? If certain houses can be saved because they are of townscape character, then why should similar houses be demolished in the same street? In the fourth photograph in the gallery below, houses to the left are earmarked for demolition and those on the left are of townscape character. Spot the difference!

We also can’t understand why the NIHE keep insisting the houses are mostly over 100 years old. Such information is repeated on the organisation’s website as well as in their printed material. For example, in a news release on 1 May 2008, Paddy McIntyre, the chief executive of the housing executive, wrote that “the vast majority of houses are over 100 years old” and so therefore “fall short of modern standards”.

McIntyre has come as near to the truth as anybody has of hitting the moon with a stone. It is commonly known that the 100-year-old houses are confined mostly to Donegall Avenue, while the rest of the area consists of houses that date from 1930 to 1935. A casual look in the Belfast central library at street directories, going back to 1908, will confirm what we are saying and that MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) and everyone else have been fed misleading information.

The NIHE’s views have been backed up by the television reports showing images of dilapidated housing in the streets around Windsor football ground. This is well outside the Village URA and, again, misleading information.

Part of the campaign for redevelopment has been to show the worst possible views of poor housing and to give the impression that they were typical of housing generally throughout the area. It does not even matter if the properties are outside the URA as it makes a good story for the press and TV.

Man with a bath in his bedroom

Remember the man with the bath in his bedroom? The Belfast Telegraph and the Nolan programme on BBC radio both ran a story highlighting the man’s situation. The cry rang out that “something must be done”. Now this might come as a surprise to many, but this man’s home is not even in the Urban Renewal Area but in Olympia. How could anyone get it so wrong?

The media clearly saw this as a good story. Was the media contacted to put the record straight? Did the homeowners try to get their views across? Yes we did. We tried many times, but no one wanted to know.

Advance purchase

The NIHE website and a publication, delivered to every home in the URA in November 2008, provided this information: “If you are currently planning to sell your home, you should contact us without delay to obtain advice. In some circumstances, we can purchase property before formal approvals have been obtained. This is known as Advance Purchase.” 1

We understand that some homeowners have been panicked into going for advanced purchase, because they fear for the future. We hope they will be rehoused in the area, but we believe many may move out of the area and even Belfast. The houses that will be vacated will be bricked up and so starts the repeat of what has happened to many areas in the past. The community will very slowly disappear around us.

Those who have decided to jump might have been fortunate in financial terms — if nothing else — as area valuation was highest when they decided to take advantage of the advanced purchase scheme. However, it will be worse for the rest of the homeowners as house prices have since fallen and continue to do so. The University of Ulster’s quarterly house price index revealed, on 17 November 2008, that the average house price in Northern Ireland has slumped by £46,881 over the last 12 months, meaning the average house has fallen in value by £128 a day.

Residents afraid to express their views

The aggressive campaign by those who favour redevelopment has made many unwilling and even afraid to express their views. This is understandable as anyone who has openly voiced an opposing view has experienced their serious aggression.

This aggression has been witnessed by officials of the NIHE and the Department for Social Development (DSD). Homeowner meetings have been gatecrashed and foul language has been used against those attending the meetings. One meeting of the homeowners was “cloned” by those opposing their campaign by leafleting the area calling for everyone to attend the meeting in support of redevelopment. Homeowners were forced to cancel their meeting.

As chairman of the Homeowners’ Association, I continue to be the main target for many of those supporting redevelopment. Community Television was used to attack me, on the grounds that I was opposed to redevelopment because I was a landlord. This is simply not true, and even if it were true, what difference would it make?

We believe some MLAs have caved into this pressure, including the south Belfast SDLP MP MLA, Alasdair McDonnell. On 22 January 2008, the DUP MLA for south Belfast, Jimmy Spratt, was harassed on the steps of the parliament buildings by protesters.

Spratt supported some of the views expressed by homeowners at a Northern Ireland assembly debate on 10 March 2008. But we believe that many public representatives are reluctant to get involved. Some have never voiced an opinion in public. For this reason, homeowners — many of whom attended the assembly debate — feel they have been “sold out” by their public representatives.

Within the community, there is also a fear of speaking out. For example, one professional person ended a letter to an MLA with these words: “I respectfully request that my name and other details not be made known … like many residents, I am apprehensive about the ‘methods’ they [redevelopment campaigners] would be prepared to employ to attain their goals.”

This is a letter we received, which I have left unedited.

Thank you very much for your fight against the proposed redevelopment of the area. It has took us years to build up the way we want it, and like a lot of people I have talked to about the moves are really dreading it, we thank you or whoever, got the number of houses (Door Numbers) and visit people Yes or No to house being destroyed, I think you will find is a lot of older people, lived here all their lives, and would not mind renovate of houses that can be done, also we are really worried where we will be moved, and neighbours for years broke up. I am sorry for not giving names and address. Thank you. Worried Village Resident. Good Luck.

It seems clear to us that local homeowners have been subjected to an unrelenting campaign against them, causing many — including public representatives — to be cowed into silence.

A lick of paint is not all that is needed

Perhaps the most serious case of misinformation, we believe, was designed to damage the reputation of the Homeowners’ Association and Blackstaff Community Development Association. It was spread throughout the community that I, Billy Dickson, as chairman of both associations, had made the statement that “a lick of paint is all that is needed”.

This was followed by the headline in the South Belfast Community Telegraph: “The Village needs more than a lick of paint, says GVRT.” It became a talking point throughout the area and was unfortunately believed by many, causing us considerable hurt and damage.

The reference to paint was taken from a lengthy submission made on behalf of the two Blackstaff Associations at a planning day, held in Wellington Park hotel on 9 July 2007. A number of organisations were present and some made submissions, including the GVRT. In one small section of our submission the following was stated:

… the condition of many houses and the environment continues to cause the greatest concern for the community. A walk along each street will give mixed messages. Why should many houses and gardens look so good and others look so bad? Many residents get depressed at the deplorable state of many doors, windows and gardens. It is only when they look up at the brickwork that they realise that they are good houses. It is hard to ignore old telephone books and other rubbish that litter many gardens. The houses that are well maintained show just what can be achieved. An architect, at a recent meeting of the Blackstaff Homeowners’ Association referred to these houses as not being “switched on”. They are like the blank television screen without the TV programme. Many of these houses are lived in but the occupants do little to improve their appearance. Usually a lick of paint (as we say) and a weekly brush and tidy to the front garden area would make such a difference.

Notice the context in which the “lick of paint” is mentioned! Everyone at the planning day, including the GVRT, heard the submission and all were fully aware of the context in which the reference to paint was used and who said it.

Defending decent terrace housing from unwarranted demolition

We made the suggestion in our submission at the planning day that we should be given the resources to produce a publication supporting the case for terrace housing, as those who support redevelopment for the area have already been given every opportunity and resources to put foreword their views. We received no support.

Contrast this with a workshop held in 2007 at Trafford Hall, National Communities Resource Centre in England, which was funded by the Glasshouse Trust. The workshop provided a lot of information for those opposed to unwarranted demolition of terrace housing.2 We only recently became aware of this workshop, by accident. This information would have proved invaluable to us.

We were left to struggle along with no help, while glossy publications by the GVRT, supported by the NIHE and funded by the DSD, continued to promote redevelopment. There was also the issue of the use of NIHE and DSD logos on leaflets produced by groups supporting redevelopment. This gave the misleading impression that views and actions were supported by the NIHE and the DSD. Only when we complained, did the NIHE write to groups, stating that their logo was not to be used without permission.

We feel we have not been treated fairly and that our case has never been given the same opportunity or conditions that would have been conducive to producing a detailed alternative to demolition.

Every effort to meet the NIHE board and the minister for social development was either ignored or rejected, and when the minister finally agreed to receive a deputation, it was too late and she only stayed a short time.

On 4 May 2006, we wrote to Brian Rowntree, chairman of NIHE, requesting a meeting with the board. This request was rejected.

A number of requests were made to meet the minister for social development, Margaret Ritchie, before she finally received a deputation in July 2008. The minister left the meeting very early, leaving her officials to go through the agenda. This is in stark contrast to the amount of time she gave to non-residents and groups supporting redevelopment.

The meeting proved useful in a number of ways, but had no bearing on the decisions already made. It was too late. It also confirmed that the NIHE would continue to use the GVRT as the main conduit for community opinion. In our opinion, this is one of the main problems — there should not only be direct involvement with residents but we should feel in control of our own destiny. It should not be for non-residents to determine what should happen to our homes and where we should live.

Political motivation?

During the assembly elections 2007, residents in the Blackstaff area received a pack of leaflets. Three of the leaflets (two with the Belfast city council logo) make no mention of the election.

But the members of Blackstaff Community Development Association were very concerned about the fourth leaflet. The leaflet, asking voters to support the Ulster Unionist councillor Bob Stoker in the assembly election, was signed by people representing local community groups. These groups receive funding from sources, such as the European Union programme for peace and reconciliation.

It is the view of Blackstaff Community Development Association that community groups should not be seen to support one candidate or party over others. The election is now over and although Stoker was not successful, many people could have voted for him as a result of these leaflets.

Was Stoker aware of the leaflets? And if he was, did he do anything to prevent their distribution. The point has to be clearly made that, until recently, he was a paid official of the GVRT, as economic and cultural regeneration officer. The work in this grant-aided position should not have been used to promote a political party or a candidate in any election.

The Director of the GVRT, Paula Bradshaw, is also an active member of the Ulster Unionist party and was prominent in their assembly election campaign. It seems no coincidence that the Ulster Unionists’ party political broadcast on television used a view of bonfire-damaged Village houses. This maximised support not only for the Ulster Unionists, but also for the GVRT, as thousands viewed on their televisions the poorest image possible as if it were typical of housing in the area.

Paula stood as a candidate in Belfast city council elections; nothing wrong with that, but it is very convenient for two top party officials to have grant-funded salaries at the GVRT. Is this the reason for the Ulster Unionist Party does not have a surgery in the Blackstaff ward? Where do constituents have to go to see Stoker as councillor? The GVRT offices.

Why has there never been an inquiry into what could be seen as an abuse of public and voluntary funding?

We hope that we will get a public inquiry very soon and that many of our concerns will be addressed. Millions of pounds are needed to deal with the housing problems throughout the Blackstaff ward area. Our resolve is to make sure that homeowners and everyone else will be treated fairly and that there will be a development plan that will keep the community together. Unfortunately signs are not good as houses have already been bricked up in a number of streets and this is before vesting.

Update 17 April 2009:

Despite protests by Blackstaff Homeowners’ Association against the blocking up of good houses, the NIHE has continued to do so. There are now 27 blocked-up houses in the Village Urban Renewal Area.

Photograph 14 shows the latest house to be blocked up. This house could remain like this for up to 10 years or more. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the house or the other 27 like it in Frenchpark Street, which the NIHE have earmarked for demolition.

Compare this with the other section of Frenchpark Street (photograph 15), which comes under the improvement area and subject to means testing. What is the logic behind demolishing 28 perfectly good houses? When is this madness going to stop? The claim in May 2008 by Margaret Ritchie, the minister for social development, that this process is being taken forward in consultation with the local community is evidently not true.

Billy Dickson is Chairman of the Blackstaff Homeowners’ Association.


Bob Stoker / 4.32PM GMT, 16 March 2009 / Permanent link

I find it incredible that so many distortions could be made in a public forum without reference to anyone named or involved about a very serious housing situation. I do not intend speaking for GVRT in this reply I know they will do that for themselves, however I will put the record straight on a few matters. The Housing Focus committee which was elected after a very well attended public meeting and subsequent annual general meetings (unlike some other associations) all come from the redevelopment area with one exception and this person has been involved in community issues for over 35 years and was awarded an MBE for his endevours, he has a degree of expertise on community matters that the community felt was relevant to regeneration and he was elected to the housing focus committee. This housing committee in response to the NIHE proposals to look at a scheme for regeneration was to survey every house within the proposed redevelopment area, these volunteers gave up a considerable amount of their own time and indeed visited houses up to three times to get a response. To allow people to express their opinions openly the NIHE also conducted follow up surveys and provided opportunities for people to respond directly to them. The opinions and views of outsiders was never asked for or recorded, the result of the survey was an overwhelming desire for regeneration of the area and not a patchwork approach. The NIHE and other Government departments conducted an economic appraisal on all of the options suggested and have proposed that only 40% of the area be designated for demolition and the rest be improved through grant aid and direct intervention on properties they own. The housing committee feel the only way the community in this area are going to remain intact is for regeneration to take place. The amount of private landlords that own property and are not particulary responsive to keeping their properties in good repair were increasing on a daily basis. There are a number of good private sector landlords who do keep their properties up to an acceptable standard however the rentals there are requiring often is way above what local people can afford and this has added to the population drift from the area. I too wish to see a very speedy public enquiry where everyone from this area will have an opportunity to make their views known without any distortion or half truths.

Billy Dickson / 10.14AM GMT, 24 March 2009 / Permanent link

In response to Councillor Bob Stoker, I would ask readers to study the contents of all the homeowners submissions on this web site. There you will find all relevant answers. The main object of putting our story on the web is to get a public inquiry. We believe we are making progress and on 20th March 2009, some residents received letters from Ivan Vallelly. NIHE, Land & Property Manager for the Belfast area. In the last paragraph he states that it is quite likely that a public inquiry will be needed to address the concerns of all the residents in the Village area and to determining the outcome of the vesting application. We are still concerned that good houses are being blocked up. The NIHE have answered our request to stop blocking up good houses until after a public inquiry by blocking up even more houses. This brought the total to approximately 20 houses by week-ending Saturday, 21st March 2009 and more have recently been blocked up. The NIHE and DSD have stated in the past that they will be working with the local community. This is not the case, because our views are being completely ignored. The sight of blocked up houses by NIHE is seen as an attack on our community. Some houses are being blocked up that have lain empty for years, so why the rush? Many local residents have lived through the ‘hell’ of redevelopment in Sandy Row and are being forced to relive the experience again. People are asking what our local elected representatives are doing to stop this madness. The majority of of the blocked up houses are among the best in the area with many of them recently renovated with extensions. Some houses are still being renovated; one has just been finished at considerable cost to the tax payer and will be blocked up and possibly demolished. We have also young couples in the area waiting for homes and they would gladly move into one of these houses or one that is about to be blocked up. It is our view that a public inquiry will be delayed to maximise the number of blocked up houses in order to make the outcome of a public inquiry a foregone conclusion.

Google Street view sightings on the web will give the viewer to this site the opportunity to compare the written statement by the the NIHE in May 2008, that when they surveyed homes in the Village area we found that one in three homes was unfit, one in five was vacant and there were very high levels of disrepair. Now just compare this statement and the claim by Paddy McIntyre, Chief Executive of the Housing Executive that the vast majority of houses are over 100 years old with the Google Street views which were taken in July 2008. Thanks to Google you now have the opportunity to visit our streets and and come to your own conclusions.

Where to start: I would suggest Frenchpark Street (1-55). This will have links to Kitchener Street, Soudan Street. Broadway Parade, Moltke Street and Ebor Street (4-28). (The section of Kitchener Street and Soudan Street between Kitchener Drive and Donegall Road is not included the the proposed redevelopment area) You can then go to Monarch Parade with links to Lower Rockview Street, Rockland Street and Monarch Street.

Billy Dickson

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