New housing developments in Northern Ireland should aim for complete integration of Catholics and Protestants — that is the bold vision set out in a major report published today.
Integrated housing is trumpeted as the key ingredient for a peaceful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland, leaving peacelines and sectarian ghettoes in the past.
The challenging report by the Independent Commission on the Future for Housing in Northern Ireland calls for a 10-year strategy to end the religious ghettoisation of housing that was perpetuated by the Troubles.
But while 80% of people have said they would prefer to live in a mixed-religion neighbourhood, the reality is that public housing estates became more segregated through 30 years of conflict.
Over 90% of public housing is segregated on religious grounds, with the most polarised estates having more than 80% of one community.
According to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, estates became more segregated between 1971 and 1991, with little change in trends between 1991 and 2001.
A total of 30 housing areas are being built under the Shared Neighbourhood Programme by the Housing Executive and Department for Social Development.
The commission spent a year examining housing in Northern Ireland and has made 150 recommendations, including ideas for integrating communities. It recommends:
Ahead of the report’s launch at a conference of housing professionals in Newcastle, Co Down, Lord Best, chair of the commission, said: “This report is a free gift to the new Social Development Minister Alex Attwood — a resource of ideas for Government and planners to draw on. We don’t expect change overnight but over a period of time you can expect housing to play its part in bringing people together.
“It is about the opportunities that exist with building new houses on neutral sites. Of course people want to feel safe and secure, but they also want to live in mixed areas.”
Mr Attwood said he welcomed the commission’s report. “Work has already started on many of the issues highlighted, however there are some new recommendations that I need to consider in the context of my own priorities for housing,” the minister said.
“I too strongly believe in my predecessor’s goal of striving to promote a shared future for all and I will be no less determined to seek practical and safe solutions to our segregated housing.”
In the report, Lord Best states Northern Ireland’s housing could become an “exemplar for Great Britain”.
“Our vision is for the long haul: building on today’s foundations and the undoubted opportunities now apparent, we believe Northern Ireland’s housing could well become an exemplar for Great Britain,” he said.
Paddy Gray, Professor of Housing at the University of Ulster and co-organiser of the conference, said: “Unfortunately, many of our communities are segregated in terms of religion, both the physical structures and also by behaviour. While forced integration is not an option, choice and encouragement should be given to those who want to live together.”
He added: “The report provides imagination and new direction and provides ways to encourage integrated living.”
Facts that reveal living apart is still a way of life