Belfast Telegraph

We've yet to see any benefits of £25m Windsor Park revamp, say those living in its shadow

Residents plan protest ahead of official opening of National Football Stadium tonight

By Luke Barnes

Residents will protest before tonight's Northern Ireland World Cup qualifier to highlight the damage which they claim the redeveloped stadium has done in the local community.

This evening sees the official opening of the revamped National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

Work began on the £25m expansion in May 2014.

First Minister Arlene Foster is expected to attend the inaugural game against San Marino, along with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

However, local residents have claimed the stadium and the new development have been a source of grief for years.

Billy Dickson, chairman of the Blackstaff Residents' Association, said none of the social and economic benefits initially promised have materialised.

He pointed to an earlier publication by Belfast City Council that said it would "make sure the wider development benefits those living nearby".

In the alleyway behind Olympia Drive, allotments and gardens have grown wild in the shadow of the stadium. During bad weather, residents are forced to drag their bins through mud and at a times water floods into the back yards of houses.

Olympia Community Centre is also set to close in November to be replaced by a smaller leisure centre - despite opposition from residents as well as DUP and PUP councillors. Local services are essential for the half-dozen elderly residents on Olympia Street - many who have been in the area for decades.

A new storm drain, which is being laid along Olympia Drive and Donegall Avenue, is expected to cause further disruption.

Mr Dickson said: "When you think of the money that was spent on the stadium, assurances were given that this here would be of benefit to the local community. It's just talk."

Mr Dickson argued that the stadium investment had done nothing to stop the downturn in the area.

He added: "People have been leaving in considerable numbers."

He called for a feasibility study to be carried out in the Olympia Drive alleyway which could quickly be acted on. He said: "I've had a Housing Executive official come down here and he has reported back that this is a serious issue and is calling out for work to be done here."

A similar feasibility study was carried out in 1991 over neglect in the area, but the report was shelved.

Mr Dickson was also critical of MLAs and councillors who he said had paid lip service to the group's concerns in the past but not acted on them. He said: "There are a lot of sites like this across Belfast and Northern Ireland and if they make an exception here they'll have to everywhere.

"This is our pride and joy, our national stadium, and they're going to show it off in its full glory.

"With all the disturbances residents have had to suffer down the years we just want to say here's the other picture.

"What do we get in return for all of this? Nothing. We haven't even been invited into the stadium yet."

Marie Cooper has lived in the community her entire life, and bought her house on Olympia Drive in 1986.

She wants to see the grass in the alleyway cut and waste disposal in the community improved - a particular problem on match days.

She added that many of the younger student residents were less interested in helping to fix the community's problems.

She said: "They're only here for a year or two, maybe even six months. They're not interested and they don't want to get interested."

Mr Dickson, however, remains confident that the 30-plus members of the Blackstaff Community Association could continue to work towards reform.

He said: "Even if we had half that number it'd be good, it's very encouraging.

"We are absolutely determined through our association and with the determination of the members and their ability to express themselves I think we have hope for the area."

Belfast Telegraph


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