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Belfast tower blocks: ‘I love living in these flats, but we do have problems’

By Mark Bain

Built in the 1960s, the high-rise flats at Seymour Hill in Dunmurry were thought of as state-of-the-art at the time, and were originally occupied by solicitors and doctors.

Within easy reach of Belfast, with a direct train service to the city, they were seen as the homes of the future - each with 56 flats on 14 floors.

Now that future is here - but if the Housing Executive's proposals to demolish many of the 33 tower blocks piercing the Northern Ireland skyline go ahead, they could well be consigned to the past.

It could, they say, take 20 years and may prove to be a more cost effective option that spending the estimated £300m on maintenance fees over the same time period.

A consultation with residents and local representatives will begin this summer, but what do the residents themselves have to say about the proposal?

John Leitch has lived the high rise life for 30 years.

He owns a two bedroom apartment in the Ferndale block at Seymour Hill and he says he's too well adjusted to the lifestyle to consider thinking about living anywhere else.

"I do love living here and wouldn't want to move, though I don't think I'll have to as I'm getting on a bit! But there are problems."

Joined in his third floor two bedroom apartment by his friend of 16 years, Clifford Morrison, in a small sitting room with a balcony colourfully adorned with flowerpots, John said: "I formed a community association with Clifford some years ago to help look after the place but that has fizzled out.

"We still do our best to keep things as nice as possible, but I'm sure the authorities are fed up with me ringing them about issues.

"The flats aren't bad, but with the extra money we have to pay now in maintenance fees it's getting difficult."

Clifford explained: "There's a real problem over service charges.

"The Housing Executive put charges up by 35% in April and for a pensioner like me that's a big increase.

"We're also still paying for refurbishments a couple of years ago.

"Each resident was hit with a £2,600 bill.

"Many are still paying that monthly, and some just can't."

John says it's a sense of community that led him and Clifford to try to take some responsibility for the blocks.

"I suppose we do care about this place," he said.

"It's our home and while we want it to change, we don't want it to change completely.

"It's the little things that annoy, like not having a power hose to clean the bins, which smell awful in summer, and the broken back door which hasn't been fixed for over a month.

"I'm quite happy here if all the little issues are sorted out.

"The problem with little issues is that if they're not dealt with, they turn into a big one.

"There's a great community, some great friendships, a bus stop outside and shops just around the corner.

"We don't really want much more."

Just across the Kingsway, June Hutchinson lives on the sixth floor of the Coolmoyle block at Seymour Hill.

"Don't ask me how long I've been here!" she said, then whispered "47 years!"

"The place has changed in that time," she said.

"I used to know everyone, I suppose just like in every street in Belfast, except it goes up rather than along.

"This is my home.

"I own my own place now and I feel secure here."

Her friend May Montgomery lives below her on the first floor.

"I've been here 20 years and never had much bother at all," she said.

"I came from a house to live here and don't think I'd like to go back.

"My son lives in the next block and he's got a room with a view, he can see right across Belfast to the shipyard."

Marietta Belgrau is one of the younger Coolmoyle residents, who has only been living there for four months.

"I'm from Poland but I've lived in Northern Ireland for 12 years," she said.

"The people here are very nice.

"The location for me is great and I've no complaints apart from the windows.

"They're over 20 years old and all need replaced."

Belfast Telegraph

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