Ballynafeigh: Today mixed, tomorrow?

Katie Hanlon (Interface (published by Belfast Interface Project))
Issue No. 5, April 2006

Belfast as a city is synonymous with segregation and it is this concept which has dominated political, economic, academic and planning matters over the years. But Ballynafeigh, the area in which I live and work, is ‘mixed’ and as such unusual in Northern Ireland terms.

Ballynafeigh is situated at the Ormeau Bridge in South Belfast and is a district where Protestants and Catholics have continued to live alongside one another throughout all the years of the Troubles. It is also diverse in terms of social class, life-style, social capital patterns, ethnicity, religious affiliation and housing tenure and includes among its residents possibly the highest level of mixed relationships in Northern Ireland.

Yet, Ballynafeigh is not a homogenous blob where internal conflict is absent nor do I wish to present it simplistically, as it has often been by the media, as some kind of urban utopia within a seething sea of division, because the area is composed of complex, diverse and often competing webs of relationships. The term ‘mixed’ should therefore not be misinterpreted as meaning ‘integrated’. Residents value their distinctiveness, so relationships can sometimes be strained as people engage in the ongoing struggle to maintain their identity and equitably share physical space and everyday lives. Nevertheless, Ballynafeigh stands out from the usual ‘us and them’ of Northern Ireland, pointing the way to a more pluralist future.

It is crucial to remember that the mixed character is historical and has endured over considerable time. Indeed, Professor Fred Boal identified the area as mixed from as early as 1911. It is therefore not a product of a peace dividend or of the reduction in hostilities, nor was it planned or socially engineered.

This is something with which I believe Northern Irish society has a bit of a problem. The concept of segregation is so ingrained in our psyche that a ‘mixed’ district is usually viewed as having a somewhat temporary existence and is actually on its way to being something else, i.e. that Ballynafeigh is on its way to becoming segregated. I do not wish to infer that living in a mixed area is somehow better than living in a segregated one, but surely in such a polarised society the fact that a mixed area exists at all, and that people increasingly want to live in it, is something worth preserving as a good in itself.

Planners, researchers and other observers describe Ballynafeigh as becoming gentrified and it is true that more people want to move into the area. However, as an older established neighbourhood, land is in short supply, so available property is in high demand and house prices are increasing. Indeed, they are rising at such an alarming rate that it is almost impossible for lower income households and people who were brought up in the area to afford to buy a home. In my opinion, this represents the biggest threat to Ballynafeigh’s future survival and to its level of ‘mixedness’.

It is important to remember that the process of gentrification did not produce the ‘mixedness’. That was already here and represents a major attraction for people to move into the area. What gentrification is in danger of doing is disturbing the social balance of the district, putting livingBallynafeigh beyond the means of socially disadvantaged and lower income groups; in effect making living in a mixed neighbourhood a luxury commodity available only to those who can afford to buy into it. Surely the opportunity to live in a mixed neighbourhood like Ballynafeigh in should be available to all who wish to do so irrespective of their
class or financial standing, which brings me to the second concept
which Northern Ireland holds dear — the supremacy of market forces.

It has been pointed out to me many times that ‘you can’t buck the market’. For me to accept this, however, requires me to also accept that the socially mixed nature of Ballynafeigh will disappear in a relatively short space of time as more affluent people price lower income groups out of the market. Affordable housing is therefore one of the most pressing issues facing the district. The demographic balance is further being eroded by the rapidly rising number of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), due to developers dividing up houses and building apartment complexes to maximise capital gain, thereby reducing the amount of accommodation suitable for families.

The potential already exists in NI planning regulations to introduce measures to prevent the destruction of Ballynafeigh, in the form of Article 42 Agreements (1991 Planning Order) and by paying attention to PPS12 (Housing and Settlements), although I have seen no evidence of their application. Consultation has also just ended in relation to limiting the amount of HMOs in areas at risk of being overwhelmed by such developments. However, will planners introduce caps in time to prevent permanent damage to the housing stock and demographics of the district? The ability of the local Housing Association to provide social housing is also hampered by the restrictive Total Cost Indicator (TCI) rule, which disadvantages them in competing financially with private developers to purchase property for development.

Government has recently made a commitment to promoting shared/mixed neighbourhoods in the Shared Future policy document, published by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister in 2005, and adopted as the primary policy on community relations in Northern Ireland. But is this policy going to be provided with the ‘teeth’ to deliver on its promises, or is it destined to languish on a shelf like so many others before it? A Community Cohesion Unit has also been set up within the NI Housing Executive, the strategy body responsible for the provision of social housing in Northern Ireland, which aims to establish some new mixed areas. But what about those which already exist?

If Ballynafeigh is left to the mercy of the market forces there is a real and present danger that the social diversity which local residents and Ballynafeigh Community Development Association (BCDA) have fought so hard to protect over the past 32 troubled years will be irrevocably damaged. The daunting challenge for BCDA therefore, is to demand that government, planners and developers make interventions which benefit all the diverse residents of this remarkable district, especially those who are vulnerable or socially excluded.

Katie Hanlon is the Director of Ballynafeigh Community Development Association. For further information contact (028) 9049 1161

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