SharedFutureNews Stories about peacebuilding in Northern Ireland #SharedFuture


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In 1967, the Dungannon District Council allocated a new house to a single Protestant woman who had links to a local Unionist politician. Also waiting for housing was a local Catholic family who consequently were denied one. This was a catalyst that led to protests and rioting in later years in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry. The protests highlighted inequality, and an outcome was that the allocation of public housing was taken away from local councils. Legislation in 1971 created the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).

Dissimilarity and dominance

Residential segregation can be examined in terms of “dissimilarity” and “dominance”. Dissimilarity is the distribution of one community across a neighbourhood and is contrasted with their respective town. Meanwhile, dominance is a measure of which community has the majority in a given area.

For example, in an in-depth study in 1996 by the Centre for Conflict Studies at the University of Ulster, authors Michael Poole and Paul Doherty looked at towns with over 1000 households. Using the dominance measure, 17 out of 39 towns that fit the criterion are deemed highly segregated (and represent 78% of the population in Northern Ireland).

The private housing sector behaves according to the principles of the market, where purchaser and seller come to exchange. Where that meeting point itself is the product of a segregated society that created it, then it can very well reproduce existing patterns of division.

Government does influence markets, through taxation, regulation and direct interventions. It can affect house building through planning relaxation, targeted loans and regional grants. It should be noted that NIHE no longer builds social housing; this is the responsibility of private builders.

Steering and self-segregation

An interesting comparison can be made by examining how the housing market in the USA affects residential segregation by race. A recent study showed that relatively few blacks and even fewer whites were moving into multi-ethnic communities. The study analysed house moves between 1977 and 2005, and found 61% of blacks moved from black-to-black neighbourhoods, with 19% moving to multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. 75% of whites did the same, and only 2.4% moved to multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. Factors that affect levels of integration are the existing segregation of the communities and poverty levels.

Official policies can seek to promote equality and fairness in housing. However, these do not prevent overt racist acts or practices that reinforce housing segregation, for example of “steering”. This is where estate agents and mortgage lenders will direct buyers to the correspondingly ethnically segregated area. The argument is that this helps preserve property values and that there is a presumption of self-segregation by buyers. A response to such practices is given as more monitoring and improved statistical gathering and analysis, with a view to applying strategically targeted fiscal incentives to encourage integration.

Racial residential segregation can be explained by three factors:

  1. Black self-segregation
  2. White racism (action taken to prevent blacks moving into a neighbourhood)
  3. Individual moves away from integrating neighbourhoods.

Of the three, the most significant was found to be the last one. Important to these kinds of relocations is the concept of the “tipping point”. When whites perceive the balance is going too far, they sell up and move to another white residential area.

There are some established policies for addressing division, including the use of “affirmative action” through financial and fiscal strategy; the need to address any socio-economic inequalities that may lie behind segregation through educational attainment differences; and industrial development policies that govern location of employment. Most basic of all, of course, is the enforcement of existing equality legislation.

Public policies

The NIHE has created and continues to review many initiatives and policies, which includes:

  • Community Cohesion Unit
  • Bonfire management
  • Segregation and integration
  • Good practice guidance to flags, emblems and sectional symbols

A regional bonfire policy is still being developed, to encourage communities to improve the management of seasonal bonfires. The issue of “designating” bonfire sites is still being discussed at the Good Relations Unit of Belfast City Council.

In regards to social housing segregation and integration, NIHE declares its support of the wishes of those who choose to live in single identity or mixed neighbourhoods. This includes the facilitation and encouragement of mixed housing schemes “as far as this is practical, desirable and safe”.

The removal, maintenance and management of flags, emblems and sectional symbols in public housing areas is directed by a plan drawn up by a local community association, which nominates a Community Liaison Representative. That person is responsible for maintaining a register and record of those items erected and removed. NIHE points to the successful implementation of such plans in Portadown and Strabane.

NIHE also has a twin track approach to developing shared areas:

  1. Shared Future Housing Programme
  2. Shared Neighbourhood Programme

Under the Shared Future Housing Programme, the first mixed community social housing scheme in Northern Ireland in a generation was launched in County Fermanagh in 2006. Twenty families on Carran Crescent, outside Enniskillen, signed up to a charter for their community, and no more than 70% of any one religion is allowed.

The Shared Neighbourhood Programme works with existing communities, providing grants to enable community organisations to celebrate diversity and bring together people, from all backgrounds, who live in these areas. NIHE provides training and practical on-the-ground support via a dedicated team of advisers. Several housing areas across Northern Ireland have committed to participating in this programme, including Springfarm in Antrim, Lissize in Rathfriland, Knockmore/Tonagh in Lisburn, Gortview/Killybrack Close in Omagh, and Ballynafeigh in Belfast.

In 2010, the report “Independent Commission on the Future for Housing in Northern Ireland” addressed housing across all tenures and sectors. It was commissioned by NIHE, The Joseph Rowntree Trust and other housing bodies. Among its 150 recommendations it includes a section on housing’s role in achieving social cohesion. This includes both religious and cultural integration, by seeing the reduction of these divisions as a positive aspiration. Recommendations related to social cohesion include:

  • A statement of progress to be devised on integration across wealth and cultural divides.
  • Undertaking of shared housing projects on ‘neutral sites’ and brown field sites.
  • The use of mixed tenure schemes to break down divides between communities.
  • Use of EU Peace III, INTERREG etc funding to promote integrated housing developments.
  • The creation of Community Land Trusts and Housing co-operatives for integrated housing schemes.
  • That the Common Selection Scheme used for the allocation of social housing be used to positively encourage social cohesion rather than inhibit it.

However, whether NIHE will be able to implement the report’s recommendations may very well depend upon its own future. In January 2013 the Northern Ireland Executive minister responsible for the organisation, Social Development Minister Nelson McCauseland, made a written statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly, in regards to how to achieve optimal delivery of social housing and landlord services.

The Minister’s key proposals are:

  1. The Department for Social Development will have responsibility for housing strategy, policy, legislation and funding — “setting the strategic vision for housing in Northern Ireland”
  2. A Regional Housing Body will support the Department in the delivery of housing services, programmes and operational strategies
  3. The development of a new landlord function, outside the public sector, will include access to private funding for housing improvements
  4. The Housing Council will be dissolved, replaced possibly by powers of proposed revised District Councils (Local Government Reform)

Taken together, these proposals remove most of the tenets of the NIHE’s existence.

The proposals are a mixture of reversing a political history of Northern Ireland (returning social housing policy implementation to local councils) with an offer of a return on investment by the private sector. The fragmentation of policy delivery will produce inequalities in any agreed Departmental targets for housing integration. And evidence from the USA indicates that the private sector is not best suited to achieve mixed housing. Are both implicit in Minister McCausland’s proposals?

Suggested reading:

“Ethnic Residential Segregation in Northern Ireland”, Michael Poole and Paul Doherty, 1996.

“End residential racial segregation: Build communities that look like America”, F.W. Roisman, 2007.

“Racial residential segregation in American cities”, L.P. Boustan, 2011.

“Facing the Future: Housing Strategy for Northern Ireland, 2012–17”,

Research provided by Stevie DOWNES.

Last updated: 21 February 2015

SharedFutureNews Stories about peacebuilding in Northern Ireland #SharedFuture
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