Lessons from Ballymun

The urgent need for increased social housing should be accompanied with lessons learned from past responses. Richard O’Hara reports on Ballymun in North Dublin.

The housing crisis is continuing to worsen. Figures from the Dublin Region show the extent of the problem, with during the earlier Autumn of 2015, 1,275 children from 607 families in emergency accommodation. The number of long-term homeless in the city has increased by over 50% between the summer of 2014 and 2015.

Dublin suffered from its last major housing crisis in the 1960s and the response to it has played a key part in shaping attitudes towards social housing in the Republic. The outer suburbs of Dublin include large public housing estates mostly built to rehouse families from dilapidated and overcrowded inner city tenement buildings. Ballymun on the north side of Dublin is an area whose name has become synonymous with social housing in Ireland and its problematic history. At the time of its construction in the early 1960s, Ballymun was promoted as a flagship modern development on the outskirts of the city, inspired by similar public housing projects across Europe.

The over 20,000 prospective residents were promised ‘an exciting alternative to the squalor of Dublin’s tenements’. Contained in the original plans for the new town was a swimming pool, health centre, library, community halls and a state of the art shopping centre. Few of these facilities were delivered, and Ballymun came to embody the neglect, if not contempt, shown by successive governments towards working class communities rehoused in the outer suburbs.

Ballymun was one of a number of areas affected badly by the privatisation of social housing in the 1980s. The Surrender Grant scheme incentivised better-off local authority tenants to buy a private residence, meaning many left areas like Ballymun, often to be replaced by welfare-dependent families, further concentrating levels of deprivation and leading to what was effectively ghettoization. Unsurprisingly in an area with high levels of poverty and few facilities, a range of serious social problems developed as the decades passed.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its difficulties, Ballymun developed a strong sense of community, which supported strong community organisations. Years of campaigning by local residents and activists led to the formation of Ballymun Regeneration Limited (BRL) in 1997 with promised to deliver the type of housing development that had been originally planned. At a cost of almost €1 billion, the regeneration project is now complete, officially at least, with BRL dissolved and replaced by the Ballymun Civic Alliance. Joseph Plunkett tower, the last remaining of the seven tower blocks which defined the old Ballymun, named after the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, was demolished in late 2015.

Anne Keating, a Ballymun native and long-time community activist, has been involved in the regeneration process from the start. She believes that the housing regeneration in Ballymun has had a positive impact on the local community.

“Every response to the difficulties we faced in Ballymun has come from the community itself. One of things that we did through the women’s centre was to give local women basic training in urban planning and architecture so that they could have a genuine input as partners into the design process.”  Keating is particularly impressed with some of the new co-operative housing developments in the area. Given Ballymun’s demographics and the amount of land zoned locally for residential development, she believes co- operative housing is a means by which the area could develop a more mixed income working class population and begin to develop a sustainable local economy.

However Keating worries that fanfare around the demolition of the last tower block will gloss over the lack of social regeneration that has taken place, saying that “all that has been done so far is to change the type of house and garden that people have, regeneration has yet to make a real impact on their broader quality of life.”

Every response to the difficulties we faced in Ballymun has come from the community itself

Given the concentration of social issues derived from high unemployment and lack of facilities, the community sector is crucial to social regeneration in Ballymun. However, the sector has seen some of its most important programmes fall victim to funding cuts and closures.

Manus Bree was shop steward in the Ballymun-Whitehall Area Partnership until he left in April 2014. He witnessed first-hand the decline in funding to the community sector in Ballymun and noted the number of local organisations that disappeared over the last number of years. “One thing that I used to notice from 2008 and 2009 onwards was that community organisations were letting staff go and part-time posts weren’t being renewed. On the ground that meant that there wasn’t the availability of staff. Community development work, like childcare or health, is all about resources. There just weren’t the bodies there, and you could really notice it.”

The loss of those organisations was also a blow to Ballymun’s economy, with fewer workers now spending money in local shops and fewer organisations paying rent to local community centres.

Bree notes that Ballymun has been hit particularly hard due to the double impact on resources caused by the closure of the BRL and the funding cuts, “Ballymun probably had a bit more community funding than some other areas because BRL had money to spend and part-funded projects. It could be argued that Ballymun lost out disproportionately because the winding down of the BRL coincided with the cuts to the community sector.”

Ballymun-Whitehall Area Partnership closed in March 2015 after losing out on the newly introduced competitive tendering process for the provision of community services. The knock-on effect of this closure has been to threaten a whole range of programmes run by the community sector in the local area. The Dublin North-West Local Childcare Resource Centre, a vital support service for local childcare providers, has been shut and its functions moved to an office in Cabra, many miles away from the constituency it was established to serve.

Nicola Fitzpatrick, who was employed as the administrator in the Ballymun Women’s Resource Centre before it closed, and now co-ordinates childcare training in the Women and Family Centre, agrees that the closure of BRL and the Partnership had a particularly negative impact in a short space of time. “A lot of groups lost funding when BRL closed, which had a big impact on the community”, says Fitzpatrick, she says.

She highlights the case of the Ballymun Young Women’s Project, a project aimed towards at-risk young women, threatened with closure after it could not find a replacement host organisation to administer its funding.

“Going back a few years we noticed the cuts were affecting our contact hours with the young women involved. When the Women’s Resource centre closed, Partnership took over, but then it closed. It looked like they were just going to have to close down the project, which would have a big effect on the young women in this community. It’s gender-specific and it’s unique. These are very vulnerable young women and they range from 10 up to 24 – and they would be with the youth group, we have some of them still with us who started at 12 and some who have come back to volunteer with us.”

For now the project remains open under the management of the Ballymun Regional Youth Resource. Fitzpatrick is hopeful but she notes it has only a temporary security: “It’s on probation for a year I suppose but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”

The regeneration has only slightly altered the social mix in Ballymun the 2011 census indicating 41% of families are headed by lone parents, unemployment stands at 32% and over 60% of the population live in local authority housing.

Regeneration has, however, delivered a local health clinic, two hotels and a sports and leisure facility, as well as community organisations like Ballymun Global Action Plan, and Ballymun Law Centre. EU funding led to the construction of the Axis Centre, which includes a theatre and other facilities, providing a focal point of the town.

Unfortunately, regeneration hasn’t delivered vital transport links included in the BRL master-plan or the long- awaited shopping centre redevelopment. For Keating, proper transport links through Ballymun are a key aspect of any strategy to increase the levels of employment locally. The area has low rates of car ownership and therefore a reliance on public transport. The original BRL plan was for the LUAS light rail line to come straight from the city centre, allowing people ease of access across the city. There are plans to build the rail link Metro North through Ballymun to Dublin Airport with a scheduled completion date of 2027.

The lack of such a transport link has had other consequences. Despite its proximity to Dublin Airport, Ballymun has not seen the development of any large industrial estates to provide for local employment. Transport is also seen as a key element in the failure of the shopping centre redevelopment to take place. The existing semi-derelict shopping centre was de-tenanted and closed by Dublin City Council earlier this year, a year after losing Tesco as its anchor tenant. First announced in 1998, the redevelop- ment was delayed and ultimately caught up in the demise of the Celtic Tiger.

Treasury Holdings, the controversial property development company owned a majority stake in the site, just off Ballymun Main Street. They received planning permission in 2009 for an extensive development but, before construction could commence, their loans were taken over by NAMA. Dublin City Council purchased the remaining stake in the site from NAMA this year, and finally, in May 2015 the Council approved the sale of the site to the Alanis Group, a private developer, to build a greatly scaled-down version of the original shopping centre plans.

Jimmy Dignam, the Workers’ Party representative in the area, believes that Dublin City Council should have taken responsibility for developing the site themselves, after ownership had passed into their hands. “Rather than relying on private developers time after time, the local authority should have pushed forward with this, giving local people the facility they deserve and have waited too long for already”, says Dignam.

Planning permission will mean it will be another two years before development can start on the site and Ballymun residents will be hopeful that there will be no more delays to this important project.

Social housing provision must be seen as more than merely putting a roof over someone’s head.

Dignam believes that Ballymun’s legacy demonstrates that a large scale approach to social housing cannot restrict itself to being a house-building programme. Instead, he says, “we need to ensure that developments are planned properly and provide for a broad range of services. Ballymun is still deprived of facilities that better-off communities take for granted. It is indicative of the state’s disdain for working class communities that the regeneration process has taken so long in Ballymun and is yet to be completed.

“In light of the current housing and homelessness crisis it is vital that we learn the lessons of previous planning mistakes. We should not push through ideas like modular housing, for example, without examining carefully the broader context of their provision, both in terms of services provided and the social make-up.”

For Anne Keating, the way forward for Ballymun is to give the Ballymun Civic Alliance the authority to push forward what remains left of the regeneration project. On a broader level, Keating says, “The lesson to learn from the mistakes made in Ballymun is to ensure that social housing provision is seen as more than merely putting a roof over someone’s head. We must strive for a different vision of social housing in Ireland, one that involves building quality housing, but also planning developments so that they give working class people a good quality of life and allow communities to grow.”

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