STRG Bring Evidence of Continued Housing Inequality to Brussels

Last week we were invited to Brussels to give evidence of housing rights abuses in north Belfast to European politicians, and over 150 people from 30 European countries experiencing similar problems.

Tellingly, north Belfast was chosen by the European Anti-Poverty Network to represent England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland due to the extent of the housing crisis here.

The poor housing conditions and waiting figures in North Belfast are as unacceptable as they are well documented. A week never passes without another report in the North Belfast News of people suffering terrible conditions or waiting for years for a suitable home. Rent is going up, welfare is being cut and housing waiting list figures continue to spiral out of control. And there is no sign of the NI Executive developing plans to deal with these problems.

The last North Belfast Housing Strategy for example cost the taxpayer £133 million and housing opportunities for Catholics got worse!

These facts and figures are shocking but they don’t show the human story and the effect on people’s mental and physical health which create untold costs to families and society.

For six years the Seven Towers Residents Group have recorded the failure of the NIHE and government to tackle everyday problems like damp, mould, poor heating, pigeon waste, sewerage, poor maintenance and children living in homes not fit for purpose. Our work has shown that multi-million pound decisions are being made without involving the people they affect and without solving the problems people face.

In Brussels we heard harrowing accounts of how cuts and bad decisions are leading to misery for people in countries like Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Denmark, Germany and more. We heard accounts of many different problems but there were also stark similarities. Almost everyone said that decisions by national governments to implement cuts are making a bad situation worse. These decisions deny people their rights and dignity.

The Seven Towers’ DVD documentary ‘Papering Over The Cracks’ was shown to the conference and many delegates were shocked at the problems faced by people here, in a relatively wealthy country, where resources exist to tackle the problems and the only problem is political will.

We reported that the promises of the Good Friday Agreement were being broken. Despite a responsibility on government to tackle religious inequality, Catholics in north Belfast are still twice as likely to be on the housing waiting list and there is no strategy in place to address this.

We met with the Irish Minister for Social Protection, Joan Bruton TD. The Irish government are a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement. We made her aware of the continued failure to address inequality and she offered to raise our issues in the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting. Minister Bruton is keen to visit north Belfast to find out how her government could ensure that the commitments made to the people as part of the peace process are met.

It was an enlightening experience for us, and it was sobering to hear the hidden stories of poverty affecting millions across Europe. Everyone left with a renewed commitment to work together to tackle inequality and human rights abuses.

But the work starts at home. The problems are obvious and the solutions are simple. Our experience shows that until the people affected by poor housing conditions are involved in the decisions made about their lives the problems will continue. The report from the visit will be released by the European Union later this year. We need our local politicians to take action.

Marissa Mc Mahon, Angie Mc Manus.