Plans to dramatically increase the size of a housing programme aimed at creating religiously mixed communities are soon to be unveiled.
The News Letter can reveal the Department for Communities (DfC) is shortly to announce the locations of around another 200 homes, following on from its existing ‘Together Building a United Community’ developments.
This scheme began in 2013 and has involved building neighbourhoods of social housing, then ensuring that no more than 70% of residents who move in hail from one side of the community or the other.
Ten such shared housing neighbourhoods have already been completed or are still in progress, amounting to roughly 480 homes.
Now it has emerged that another 200 such homes are planned, the details of which – including their locations – will be disclosed in the coming weeks.
These extra 200 new homes will come on top of up to 200 such dwellings which are planned on the site of St Patrick’s barracks, Ballymena.
The barracks plan has already been the subject of public open days and consultation, and it is understood outline planning permission was submitted in the last few months.
In addition, the News Letter can now reveal that all the ‘Together Building a United Community’ neighbourhoods which have already been completed have hit their target in terms of being mixed developments – including one which has been the subject of a long-running campaign of sectarian intimidation.
The neighbourhood in question, called Felden, stands near Abbey Centre on the border between Newtownabbey and north Belfast, and is sandwiched between two existing republican areas: Bawnmore and the Longlands.
Just a minute or so’s walk up the street from Felden, 36-year-old Danny McKay was shot dead by dissident republicans in 2012.
The largest of all the 10 current ‘Together Building a United Community’ neighbourhoods, Felden has repeatedly seen graffiti sprayed at its entrance.
This included a warning that “no Prods” should move in, another saying “no huns allowed”, and a threat against a named housing officer.
UUP MLA Andy Allen had previously described the campaign as an attempt to turn the area into a “sectarian ghetto”.
Similarly, 2017 saw attempts by loyalists to intimidate Catholics out of the Global Crescent area in east Belfast (another one of the completed schemes, slightly smaller than Felden), with paramilitary flags erected and threats issued to householders.
Whilst the DfC said it could not give the exact Protestant-Catholic breakdown of each of the completed developments, it said “all schemes completed have met the shared neighbourhood criterion, namely: ‘allocations to the scheme have resulted in one community not being in the dominance of more than 70%’.”
It also said that in addition to the 10 sites already known about, it has “secured funding from within its own allocations in 2017/18 to deliver 200 new shared social homes”.
It added that “as discussions are being finalised with the relevant housing associations, unfortunately, we cannot currently share the location of the sites”; however it hopes to do so in “the coming weeks”.
Nelson McCausland, former housing minister and North Belfast DUP MLA, said: “We’re dealing here with social housing. The fact is that private housing is very often as much single-identity as social housing.
“For many people therefore it is clearly a matter of choice that they prefer to live in a single identity community.
“There are people who will want this, there are others who may not, and we have to allow for that.”
However, developing these shared housing schemes “gives people an option”.
The five so far completed under the ‘Together Building a United Community’ scheme are:
• Ballynafoy Close, Ravenhill Road, east Belfast (67 homes);
• Global Crescent, Ravenhill Avenue, east Belfast (86);
• Burnvale Crescent, Burn Road, Cookstown (58);
• Manse Court in Crossgar (12);
• Felden, Newtownabbey (97).
The five still under way are:
• Main Street, Dundrum (17 homes, due to complete by March);
• Market Road, Ballymena (36, also due to be finished by March);
• Antrim Road, Ballynahinch (24, also set to be done by March);
• Dromore Street, Banbridge (32, set to complete this summer);
• Embankment, Ballynafeigh, south Belfast (55, due to complete this winter).
However, these shared schemes are just a small fraction of overall social housing, with a total DfC target of 1,750 new social homes in 2017/18.