TODAY will see another Belfast City Council Planning Committee vote over proposals for a greenway on a major plot of public land in west Belfast.
Encompassing the 25-acre site where Mackie’s textile factory was formerly located, the ‘Forth Meadow Community Greenway’ was given the greenlight by the council’s planning committee just over one-month ago.
Housing rights campaigners from Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) lodged formal objections to the proposals and wished to verbally raise their concerns prior to the last vote which took place at the end of June.
But they were “excluded from the meeting”, said PPR’s deputy director Sean Brady. His organisation has been calling for social housing on the Mackie’s site for the last decade.
At 5 pm today, the council is set to ‘re-hold’ the vote on the greenway proposal which traverses this land. The proposal includes no plans for social housing.
PPR’s Mr Brady told The Detail: “It’s strange that the vote is happening again and we are unsure as to the council's reasoning for this.
“Indeed, we were only informed by the council on Wednesday (10 August) which gives us a few working days to try to understand and respond again.
“We will of course again raise our concerns to the best of our ability at the next vote and would implore councillors to see sense and vote against these proposals which fail to account for the huge need for social housing in this area on this publicly-owned site.”
The Mackie’s greenway was originally voted through by the council planning committee almost one-year ago, in September 2021.
This approval was then subjected to a successful judicial review taken by a homeless family on the social housing waiting list in west Belfast.
Belfast City Council’s legal team accepted the planning decision was unlawful before the case reached a full hearing.
As a result, at the end of May 2022, the approval of the greenway was quashed by the High Court – but the proposal then went back to the council planning committee in late June and was voted through.
Today will see the matter returned to the planning committee again. Belfast City Council said this was due to legal advice received about the “speaking rights” of objectors at the June 2022 vote.
The council also said: “Additional speakers requested to speak shortly before the meeting started, but they had not provided their consent to be recorded.
“Once the objectors provided consent, the link was immediately issued so that they could join the (virtual) meeting.
"Whilst the objectors were able to present to (the) committee with their solicitor it is clear that there was some confusion.
"Therefore, in order to avoid any suggestion of procedural unfairness, it was considered appropriate to allow a further opportunity to the objectors to address the committee before the decision is taken.”
PPR’s Mr Brady said: “The first decision of the committee to approve the greenway at Mackie’s was found to be unlawful by the High Court. The second decision was unfair.
“Officials are now telling councillors to again vote for the same plan. If the committee decides to approve the plans for a third time, serious questions must be asked of their judgement.”
Take Back the City
The Mackie’s site is owned by the Department for Communities (DfC), the Stormont department with responsibility for social housing. The department is set to transfer its land to Belfast City Council for the greenway plan.
In addition, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has committed £750,000 for this west Belfast 'masterplan’. Both DfC and DfI are headed up by Sinn Féin ministers, Deirdre Hargey and John O’Dowd respectively.
The Mackie’s site is in west Belfast, a Sinn Féin stronghold, which is also in chronic need of more social housing.
Sinn Féin councillors have thus far, along with unionist party representatives on the planning committee, twice voted in favour of the greenway proposals which include no plans for social housing on the Mackie’s site.
The party believes the greenway “has the potential to enhance the quality of life for local residents and workers" and that the "local community would attest” to this.
However, PPR’s Sean Brady said: “Sinn Féin is rising in popularity in the south, off-the-back of progressive housing platforms and the party has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with homeless campaigners at the Mackie’s site calling for homes in the past.
“But the proof is in the pudding and they are not taking action to deliver homes at Mackie’s.”
Last week, at an event run by the Take Back the City coalition – which PPR is a member of – alternative designs for the Mackie’s site, which include social housing, were discussed by architects from different parts of the world.
Final submissions from these international experts will be presented at the end of September 2022 at which point a winning design will be selected by the coalition.
Mr Brady said the “plans being drawn up show what’s possible at Mackie’s, the total transformation of housing in this area of west Belfast”.
PPR’s deputy director also said: “Minister Hargey recently said she would be open to seeing plans for social housing on the Mackie’s site, but that she hasn’t seen any.
“At last week’s Take Back the City coalition event they were put on show for anyone to see and no one from the department showed up.”
Mr Brady added that Minister Hargey specifically and “countless other Sinn Féin representatives” were invited to attend the event “but none came”.
Meanwhile, the DfC maintained that the Mackie’s greenway plan has been “widely consulted on” and that it “has community support to build connections and cohesion across communities”.
The department also told The Detail the minister “will look at all proposals relating to housing schemes”.
A Sinn Féin spokesperson told The Detail the party is “committed to delivering high quality social and affordable housing” based on need, but called the Mackie’s site a “very specific case” and a historical “flashpoint for sectarian conflict”.
The party also said: “In 2021, the Mackie’s site and Lanark Way saw some of the worst sectarian rioting for years, causing great distress for local families.”
In addition, Sinn Féin made the claim PPR has not consulted with local residents – who the party said are concerned about a long-standing need for basic infrastructure in the area.
However, The Detail has seen copies of extensive correspondence sent by PPR to Sinn Féin representatives, other political parties, local residents’ groups and Stormont departments in relation to the alternative plans being drawn up for the Mackie's site.
PPR’s Mr Brady said "hundreds of people, including local residents" took part in the Take Back the City event last week and that, also in attendance, were people "living in local homeless hostels and private landlord accommodation, not to mention asylum seekers who are living locally in terrible conditions".
He also said: "Infrastructure concerns can be addressed easily but if there is a blanket opposition to homes this is not sustainable. No one should have a veto on housing rights.
"We would like to again invite Sinn Féin and any residents Sinn Féin are talking with to meet and discuss how best to shape the site to deliver for everyone."
Mr Brady added that the Mackie’s proposals being drawn up by the various teams of international architects for the Take Back the City Coalition have the “potential to bridge the sectarian divide, paving the way forward for future generations to live side-by-side”.
He continued: “To be clear, we have presented plans which can deliver a greenway, homes, jobs and the council’s funding commitments but these are being ignored by decision-makers time and again.”
The Forth Meadow Community Greenway at Mackie’s is one of three (2014-2020) Peace IV EU funded 'shared spaces’ projects in Belfast. The other two are the Black Mountain Shared Space Project and the Shankill Shared Women’s Centre.
Each of the three projects are focused in west Belfast. Overall, these three projects are set to cost close to £16m. The greenway is to cost £5.1m with the EU money making-up the bulk of the funding.
Minister Hargey and DfC officials, who are committed to transferring land to the council for the greenway, have held discussions with both the Clonard Residents Association – which senior republican, Sean Murray, is a director of – and the Clonard Neighbourhood Development Project “regarding concerns the local community would have if housing is built on this site”.
Meanwhile, Belfast City Council has listed the Clonard Neighbourhood Development Partnership as a stakeholder in relation to its plans for the greenway at Mackie’s.
This group is also set to help with the delivery of services at the Shankill Shared Women’s Centre, another of the three 'shared spaces’ projects, for which €6.5m has been allocated.
Another group which Belfast City Council engaged with as stakeholders, regarding the Forth Meadow Community Greenway, is the Twaddell Woodvale Residents Association which Winston Irvine is a director of.
Mr Irvine is a senior figure in the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group for loyalist paramilitary organisations. He was recently arrested by officers investigating the hoax bomb attack on the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney.
The senior loyalist was released on bail for alleged firearms charges. He resigned from the Woodvale and Shankill Community Housing Association in the fall-out from his arrest.
Mr Irvine was also suspended without pay from his job with Intercomm, a Belfast-based conflict-resolution organisation.
Sinn Féin’s Conor Maskey, who is deputy chair of Belfast City Council’s Planning Committee, is operations manager of Intercomm. Intercomm took on responsibility for enabling people to “enjoy the Forth Meadow Community Greenway and promote the shared space”.
Meanwhile, solicitor Nicholas Quinn – who launched the judicial review against the Mackie’s greenway on behalf of a homeless family on the social housing waiting list in west Belfast – said he will consider reigniting the legal challenge, if the greenway is voted through today’s council meeting.
Mr Quinn told The Detail: “We’ve got the same basis of the challenge which we brought forward previously, provided the greenway proposal does not significantly change.
“It’s ultimately then a case of the court deciding whether or not any of the grounds we previously advanced at the leave stage, for which permission was granted, are worthy of being maintained.”
The lawyer referenced how his side didn’t need to “see through” those legal arguments during the last judicial review process, as the council conceded on a “discrete point”.
Mr Quinn said it could be argued the proposals, set to be voted on again today, are legally premature due to local development plans being incomplete.
He also said the site is presently “designated for commerce and the local economy, which a greenway isn’t”.
Mr Quinn added: “So, there are planning policy prerequisites which we think are being set aside, ignored or diluted. I think that will cause potential problems for the council in due course.
“The council will be aware of the fact that there remain other legal challenges, ancillary to the one we effectively compromised on, that have not gone away.”