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Why spend £10m on new leisure centre in Belfast when thousands wait for housing?


The former Girdwood site

The former Girdwood site

The former Girdwood site

Questions are being asked after £10m was granted to build a development which includes a new leisure centre at a former Army barracks – within two miles of four similar facilities.

Belfast City Council has been awarded almost £10m from the EU to create a new leisure centre, education and business facilities at the site of Girdwood barracks – a mile from Ballysillan Leisure Centre, two miles from the Grove Wellbeing Centre and half a mile from the Shankill and Falls leisure centres.

The funding is a boost to plans for the 27-acre Girdwood site announced by the Department of Social Development (DSD) last year for a multi-use sports pitch, an indoor sports arena, a commercial building to house a range of business and social economy enterprises and 60 new homes.

The SDLP has queried why there is a focus on new leisure facilities when 2,501 people in north Belfast are on the Housing Executive waiting list for a home.

SDLP North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness has criticised what he termed as "excessive use of surplus land for leisure and sport".

He said: "People are frustrated and cannot understand why DSD is not addressing the fundamental housing need in the area.

"Nobody objects to a leisure centre per se. It's the excessive use of surplus land to address leisure and sport, that is something people criticise.

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"There is room, of course, for sporting and leisure facilities there but not to the point of disregarding the basic need for housing.

"There is a significant demand in that area for new housing and that demand is not being met. I think it is not being met for political reasons. It is certainly for political reasons that there isn't a drive by the DUP minister to provide housing on the site."

Housing Executive figures state 2,501 people in North Belfast are on the waiting list, with some 1,509 in housing stress.

A spokesman said in general terms Catholic communities are characterised by higher waiting lists and longer waiting times for housing, but that there was a significant increase in housing stress applicants in Protestant areas.

Mr Maginness claimed Mr McCausland has been criticised by Protestants for not building homes. He said: "It is incredibly insensitive. If there is a demand, there is a need for it to be addressed whether it is Protestant or Catholic."

But Mr McCausland replied: "Alban Maginness seems to have forgotten he was part of the four-party agreement that proposed to develop 60 new units of social housing on the Girdwood site.

"Furthermore, these new units are part of the wider Social Housing Development programme across the whole of the North Belfast constituency."

Capita Symonds has already been appointed as design team.

The Special EU Programmes Body has awarded the council £9.6m to fund the plan. Approval has not yet been granted.

Apex Housing Association has applied for planning permission for a residential development comprising 19 three-bedroom and 17 two-bedroom dwellings, 20 duplex units and four apartments. Some 60 residential units in total.

A DSD spokesperson said its officials are working closely with the council to develop the infrastructure for the whole site. He said that subject to planning permission and budgets, construction could begin as early as next year.

Drawn-out battle over what to do with former barracks

Nestled in the heart of north Belfast, just a 15-minute walk from the city centre, Girdwood once housed one of the Army's largest bases during the Troubles.

It encompassed Crumlin Road Gaol which has gone on to become a popular visitor attraction.

However, the rest of the 27-acre site has lain empty since the barracks closed in 2005.

The former Army buildings were demolished to create the current brownfield site and over a decade later there is still disagreement over how to develop it.

In 2006 the Department of Social Development acquired the site, and the direct rule minister David Hanson established an advisory panel to come up with a masterplan over how to develop it.

The long Housing Executive waiting list for the area sparked calls for homes to be built.

But disagreement over this stalled progress.

A master plan was launched in July 2007 but was not actioned.

In 2010, then DSD Minister Alex Attwood proposed building 200 homes on the site. However, when DUP minister Nelson McCausland took over in 2011, revised proposals were announced that would see sport and educational facilities in the area.

SDLP North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness (left) said local people are frustrated by the delay, and especially the uncertainty over whether new homes would be built to meet the high demand. More than 2,500 are on the Housing Executive waiting list.

A nationalist single mother who has been on the waiting list for a new home for 13 years issued legal proceedings over the perceived uncertainty over the site's future.

Ellen Doyle sought to have the new plan quashed and declared unlawful for allegedly breaching equality guidelines.

Counsel for Ms Doyle claimed in the High Court in Belfast that Mr McCausland was motivated by sectarianism in seeking to restrict expansion of north Belfast's Catholic population in the plans.

But after being told that the department had submitted a planning application in January to build 60 new homes on the site, the case was withdrawn.

Now Belfast City Council has revealed that it has received a £9.6m grant from the Special EU Projects Body (SEUPB) to create a new leisure and education hub at Girdwood.

It will include a multi-purpose hall, dedicated youth space, classroom space for the Belfast Metropolitan College, a number of meeting rooms, fitness suite and sauna/steam area and a cafe.

Mr Hanson said he was delighted to hear of the funding.

"I am really pleased that Girdwood Barracks secured significant resources to continue with the potential redevelopment," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The masterplan drawn up some years ago is a good basis for discussion and as the then minister I was clear that there had to be agreement on how to take forward the site – this is now devolved to the Assembly and I wish it well."

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