Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Girdwood (1)

Last Monday elected representatives from the four political parties in North Belfast - DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP - issued an agreed plan for the Girdwood site and a vision of the way forward.  The agreement was reached by Nigel Dodds MP, Nelson McCausland MLA, William Humphrey MLA, Alderman David Browne, Gerry Kelly MLA, Caral Ni Chuilin MLA and Alban Maginness MLA.

This was a major breakthrough, after years of stalemate and delay, and it opened the door for significant investment in a part of the city which continues to suffer from deprivation and the legacy of the Troubles.

The following night the BCC broadcast a Spotlight programme about housing in North Belfast, with particular focus on Girdwood.  The programme contained a number of errors and misunderstandings and fell far short of the standard we should be able to expect from a public service broadcaster.

Since then housing and the regeneration of Girdwood have been debated on the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster and on BBC television, generally with a lot of heat and very little light. 

The role of the SDLP in this has been deeply disappointing, especially in view of the fact that Alban McGuinness was a participant in the all-party discussions, but I will return to that in a later post. 

So far I have given interviews to BBC and UTV but so much has been said by so many people that it is now appropriate to provide a fuller and consecutive account of the Girdwood saga.  My intention is therefore to use this personal blog to set out the background to Girdwood in a systematic way and thereby dispel some of the misunderstandings as well as responding to some of the erroneous, mischievous and spurious comments that have been made over the past week.

Girdwood is a former military site adjacent to Crumlin Road gaol and situated in an area of high deprivation.  It is a large site, close to the city centre, with good transport links and provides a wonderful development opportunity for North Belfast and indeed the wider city and region. 

In February 2005 the government announced its decision to close the Girdwood Army barracks and in September 2005 Social Development Minister David Hanson, a Labour direct rule minister,announced that he would set up an advisory panel to  make recommendations on an agreed plan for the Crumlin Road gaol and Girdwood sites. 

The advisory group panel was established in March 2006 and was chaired by Roy Adams, an urban planner.  It included politicians as well as representatives from the community sector and statutory agencies, and a firm of consultants, Building Design Partnership, was appointed to facilitate the work.

In August 2007 the advisory group produced a draft masterplan, which was sent on to the then DSD minister, Margaret Ritchie MLA, who went on to become leader of the SDLP.  This plan was launched for public consultation on 16 October 2007.

It  contained the vision of a shared site, accessible to both communities, and with a variety of uses.  However the draft masterplan acknowledged that there was no agreement on housing and the foreword stated: 
...it is clear that much greater consideration needs to be given to the issue of housing if communities are to be assured that the site will not become the preserve of one side or the other. The Panel recognises that the situation in North Belfast is an exceptional one and that cross-community support will be vital to successful development of the site, particularly with regard to housing. The Panel believes that the work started by the cross-community meetings should be followed through with a combination of further dialogue and a cross-Departmental, multi-agency approach to development ideas. Fundamental to obtaining community support will be ongoing commitment by government to securing the regeneration of the deprived residential areas adjacent to the site. This must be done in a way that empowers these communities, making them vibrant, outward-looking and positive, enabling them to play a key role in shaping the regeneration of this disadvantaged part of North Belfast. The Panel recommends, therefore, the continuation of cross-community dialogue on the housing issue, which should involve learning more about successful initiatives elsewhere, in terms of mixed-use, multi- tenure regeneration projects. With time, dialogue and goodwill, the Panel is convinced that a solution will be found to this very sensitive issue.
The key issues identified here for successful regeneration were:
1. an acknowledgement of the particular difficulties in North Belfast
2. the site must not become the preserve of one community or the other - it must be a shared site
3. cross-community support will be vital for successful regeneration
4. deprived residential areas adjacent to the site must be regenerated
5. continuation of cross-community dialogue on housing

In the next post I will look at the period from 2007 to 2012 and consider what happened during that period.

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