The ‘other Troubles’: saving the Shankill from redevelopment

Source: Extramural Activity:

The ‘other Troubles’: saving the Shankill from redevelopment
24 February 2023

“I called it the ‘other Troubles’,” asserted Jackie Redpath, leader of the Save the Shankill Campaign, in reference to the redevelopment that threatened the Shankill Road community in the 1970s.  Speaking at the “Saving the Shankill — Then and Now” event as part of the Look North! The North Belfast Festival, Redpath reviewed local initiatives to protect the community on Shankill Road during the Troubles. The discussion was held at Clifton House and included commentary from Dr Ken Sterrett, a former senior lecturer in Urban Planning and Design at Queen’s University Belfast. 

Source: Vimeo

Redpath began by playing a video, Our Generation: The Rape and Plunder of the Shankill Revisited, reviewing the work of Ron Weiner, author of The Rape and Plunder of the Shankill. A social psychologist by training, Weiner documented the negative impact of social and economic developments on working-class communities on Shankill Road in the 1970s. 

Redpath then outlined the timeline of events on the Shankill and how the problems originated. He pointed to the decline of the Belfast industrial economy, which led to the local government wanting to attract international investment as a replacement. This, in turn, was the catalyst for redevelopment. 

City planners, Redpath continued, decided to create two new towns outside of Belfast as centres of growth for investment, attracting new factories and creating new jobs. In order to fill the factories with workers, Shankill community members were financially incentivised to move to these new towns, which was followed by plans for new infrastructure to accommodate the transport of goods made in those factories to the docks.

In the 1960s, road planners and building designers were brought in to create the infrastructure plans, Redpath recalled. The result was subpar flats in lower Shankill built to block noise from the motorway. Many of the development plans were later abandoned due to the collapse of the world economy in the 1970s, which has continued to impact the legacy of the Shankill community, according to Redpath.  

“I would argue that it actually impacted more negatively on peoples’ lives than the Troubles,” the activist concluded. As a result of redevelopment, the population of the Shankill decreased from 76,000 people to 26,000 people, Redpath reported. Between 1973 and 1977, 4,000 houses were knocked down and only 239 houses were rebuilt, further driving displacement. People were faced with the collapse of industrial jobs, the Troubles, and the woes of the redevelopment of the inner city. 

In 1974, the Save the Shankill Campaign was formed to bring together people from different backgrounds to push back against redevelopment. Redpath lauded the movement as “probably one of the most effective community action campaigns in the UK”. The campaign successfully managed to stop demolition until city planners were willing to meet for negotiation, and campaigners even developed their own community plans. 

However, Redpath conceded, the Save the Shankill campaign was effective at making things stop but unsuccessful in making things happen. In the 1980s, the Shankill Housing Association was created amid the aftermath of unfinished projects, a lack of community organisations, and no house-building programme. 

Eventually, due to a British policy known as Making Belfast Work which targeted social need, change began. In 1989, a Shankill development agency was established, and more community resources were made available that are still present today. Redpath reflected that community workers in the Shankill were finally able to look beyond just housing needs and consider other needs such as education, health, and the environment: “It was the first time a community had said ‘We’re going to think 30 years ahead.’”

Thus, the Greater Shankill Partnership was born on the notion that communities cannot progress alone. Redpath emphasised the need for people to work together in order to promote regeneration in the Shankill. He recognised that partnership is hard work and is not perfect. “But I would still hold that it’s the only way to go,” Redpath finished. 

Looking towards the future, Redpath discussed the importance of children and young people as part of promoting community regeneration, pointing to the Greater Shankill Children and Young People Zone, where youth are offered support to help fully realise their potential. Redpath also reported that the population of young people in the Shankill is growing consistently for the first time. “That means we have a future if those people stay,” he exuded. 

Redpath concluded his lecture by discussing the Shankill’s legacy of redevelopment, which remains in the form of many undeveloped sites that have been abandoned throughout the area. There is a need, the community worker noted, for new energy to be put towards those sites, and he went on to call for investment and development via partnership that would encourage young people to remain. 

The event then shifted to commentary from Dr Ken Sterrett, who worked previously as a city planner prior to his professorship at Queen’s University. He reviewed the significance of Ron Weiner’s methodology featured in his book in looking at how people lived. Sterrett reflected on his experience as a city planner and the challenges he faced in the development of the Shankill. He also reported on the structural changes that were happening in Belfast as the city was losing one-third of its population during the conflict.

Sterrett presented the question of what can be learned from the Shankill that is transferable to other communities posed with similar challenges, such as Donegall Pass. He also spoke on Belfast’s ambition to increase its population, which raises questions of where these new denizens will be housed and the implications for the Shankill. Sterret ended by stating, “For a city to work and work well, you have to be a connected city.”

The lecturers began to take questions and comments from the audience, sparking discussion on topics including immigration to Belfast, mental health and social conditions, the impact of student accommodation, promoting regeneration in communities, and the arts and culture scene in the Shankill. When asked what advice Redpath has for those who want to do community work in the Shankill, he shared the importance of self-care and looking after oneself. 

Though much work remains in the Shankill to preserve the community and make it a home for future generations, its legacy stands as a testimony of the value of partnership and collaboration. As Redpath said, it’s the only way to go. 

Image: Saving the Shankill © Extramural Activity

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