Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Girdwood (2)

With the restoration of devolution, Margaret Ritchie MLA became Minister for Social Development on 8 May 2007.

There followed a period of stagnation in relation to Girdwood and that stagnation continued for almost three years, with no action, no progress and no cross-community dialogue as proposed in the original masterplan.  During that period DUP representatives met with Margaret Ritchie and we pointed out that the development of Girdwood could only succeed if the adjacent communities, such as Lower Oldpark, were also regenerated - a point that was made in the original masterplan.  Sadly that did not happen.  Girdwood was left for those three years as a derelict site and the neglect of the neighbouring communities continued.

Then suddenly she returned to the issue in February 2010 and that was in the context of her bid to become leader of the SDLP.  The party was holding its annual conference in Newcastle and top of the agenda was the election of a new leader.  Margaret Ritchie was one of the candidates but the outcome was uncertain and on the opening day of the conference, Friday 5 February, she announced:
This brings me to Girdwood Barracks site in North Belfast. Here we have a former military site beside Crumlin Road Gaol, some 27 acres, within a mile of Belfast City Hall. This area of North Belfast is deeply divided and it is difficult to find an agreed way forward for the site. But this part of North Belfast has acute levels of housing stress and more social housing is desperately needed there. I said last year, and I assured Alban Magennis, that I would not allow the lack of consensus on the site to stop development of much needed housing. So today I can announce to you Conference, that I have instructed the Housing Executive to appoint a Housing Association to commence the work to build at least 200 new social homes on the Girdwood site, starting immediately. I will continue to seek consensus on the overall plan for the site but the housing will now proceed. I also hope that housing on Girdwood will allow us to proceed with the long overdue redevelopment of the adjacent ‘Long Streets’ area of North Belfast.
Most observers saw this as cynical electioneering in her bid to become party leader - three years of stagnation, three years of inaction, and then make an announcement at the party conference where you are bidding to become party leader!

Margaret Ritchie was duly elected as leader and we cannot know what part her Girdwood announcement played in her success but we do know that she could not deliver on her announcement. 

In passing it is worth noting that Ritchie described the Girdwood site as 27 acres - so much for her knowledge of the site - it is actually 14 acres.  But then what would that matter to someone who is so cavalier with figures.  Moreover, if she was going to build 200 houses on 27 acres, was she then going to settle for half that number on a site that was really half that size?

At Stormont the following Tuesday, 9 February 2010, Margaret Ritchie had Oral Questions and her party colleague and North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness asked for an update on the regeneration of the Girdwood Barracks site 'including the provision of social housing'.  She answered:
The proposals for the Girdwood site are being developed as part of a wider regeneration master plan, which includes the former Crumlin Road jail. Following public consultations on the proposals contained in the draft master plan, a revised option has been developed to try to address a number of community concerns, including the provision of housing. I understand that the provision of housing on the Girdwood site remains contentious, but I am acutely aware of the housing crisis that exists in north Belfast. In the absence of other suitable development sites in the area, the Girdwood site presents an opportunity to provide housing. Therefore, it is my intention to bring forward the development of much needed housing on the site. Accordingly, I have instructed the Housing Executive to appoint a housing association to begin working on the development of 200 social houses on the site.
A Sinn Fein member, Caral Ni Chuilin,  asked about the procurement process with housing associations and Margaret Ritchie replied:
I have instructed the Housing Executive to begin immediate discussions with a housing association about the provision of houses on that site. As soon as I have further details, I will come back to Mr Maginness, Ms Ní Chuilín and the other MLAs in North Belfast on that.
That answer that Margaret Ritchie gave is significant in that it does not actually answer the question that was asked and we still do not know:
1. when Margaret Ritchie 'instructed the Housing Executive to appoint a housing association'
2. what instructions she gave to the Housing Executive
3. when she gave those instructions to the Housing Executive
4. what procurement process the Housing Executive used to select Apex Housing Association
5. how she was able to instruct them to undertake work that was clearly going to be nugatory

Margaret Ritchie simply tore up the cross-party vision for Girdwood and abandoned the commitment to cross-party agreement.  She went on a solo run that was doomed to failure and deepened the division over the site.  Personal ambitition triumphed over good relations.


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