Shared housing and integrated education: Building good community relations
by Allan LEONARD
7 August 2019
A panel discussion on how shared housing projects and the integrated education movement are contributing towards good community relations was held at St Mary’s College, Belfast, as part of the Feile Festival. The panellists were Deborah Howe (Equality Commission), Christine Davis (Housing Executive), Grainne Mullin (Radius Housing), and Jill Caskey (Integrated Education Fund). The event was chaired by Gerry McConville.
After a welcome by Jessica Blomkvist (Community Outreach Officer, Integrated Education Fund (IEF)), Gerry McConville introduced the panellists and made a general remark that planning for social housing must be based on the needs of the applicants and not on the personal greed of any politician or property developer.
Deborah Howe (Equality Commission) first spoke of the educational, economic, and societal benefits of shared education, that which is “meaningful and substantive”.
Howe said that 78% of respondents to the 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey stated a preference for living in a mixed religion neighbourhood. This included those who currently live in both private and public housing. In order to advance shared housing, she said that first and foremost people need to feel safe wherever they live; any desired integration would need to be encouraged and incentivised. For both, political leadership is required, Howe added.
Howe concluded by describing some ways that sharing in housing and education can improve community relations: more contact and increased understanding of others; a community focus beyond “bricks and mortar”; and a facilitation of discussions on harder subjects.
Christine Davis (Neighbourhood and Cohesion Manager, Housing Executive) put shared social housing in context. Eighty percent of Housing Executive estates are segregated, i.e. single-community residents, and those living in the top 10% of the most economically deprived areas are in need of social housing.
She described how the Housing Executive delivers its good relations objectives through a twin-track approach: (1) supporting existing communities through cohesion programmes; and (2) supporting shared housing with new build schemes. Davis explained that the latter was originally an initiative of the Government’s T:BUC community relations policy, but has now been mainstreamed by the Department for Communities in a “Housing for All” programme, which has a target of creating 800 shared new build units.
Davis explained the process of identifying, assessing, and designating a shared housing scheme. Importantly, a potential project will only be promoted if all criteria is met; she said that this partly explains why they have yet to meet a target of 10% shared new build units.
Individuals receive no extra points in their application, for expressing a willingness to be allocated a residence in a shared housing scheme. And if offered such a residence, applicants must sign up to a Good Neighbour Agreement.
A shared housing scheme is delivered in consultation with key stakeholders, community, and political representatives. Potential residents attend pre-tenancy meetings and scheme launch events. There are advisory groups particular to each scheme, who meet up to plan and deliver five-year good relations plans. These plans include bonding activities (for cohesion among all new residents) and bridging activities (between the new residents and the wider community).
Grainne Mullin (Radius Housing) began with a list of shared housing units that they have built and developed, remarking that the Earls Court estate in Dungannon was the first shared housing scheme under the original T:BUC programme.
She said that for the successful delivery of a shared housing scheme, it was vital to get the right information out to stakeholders and interested parties as soon as possible, “before the rumour mills get in”.
Mullin explained why the bonding and bridging activities are important. She cited research that showed that those living in shared housing estates can feel vulnerable, precisely because their area is highlighted as such and attracts interest. For the same reason, bridging activities with everyone else living outside the area matters.
She expressed her desire to see partnerships among shared housing schemes across Northern Ireland, “to connect the dots” between the sparse locations across the province.
Challenges included working with all communities, diminishing the role of paramilitarism, measuring the impact of the schemes, and the desire to mainstream the programme further.
Mullin presented the Global Crescent shared neighbourhood scheme in Ravenhill, Belfast, as a success story. In association with Apec Housing Association, its residents are developing a social action plan that includes cultural awareness and a community safety programme. The residents at Ravenhill have also been imaginative in regards to dealing with the issue of the public display of flags; they employed a local artist to create banners reflecting local expression, which has helped discourage the hoisting of unwanted flags on lampposts.
Jill Caskey (Integrated Education Fund) began by saying that the IEF wishes to have education planning done by an area and its people, not by a particular school or education sector. She also put the current figure of 7% of Northern Ireland’s pupils enrolled in integrated education in perspective, by remarking that integrated schools are initiated by parents. Caskey also noted that 25 out of the 65 integrated schools became so by a transformation from another school type.
She distinguished what makes integrated education different. Namely, integration is the intentional ethos and there is an explicit balance of community backgrounds. Integrated schools also have more parents as representatives on integrated school boards of governors; Caskey said this is an important aspect to inspect where some schools claim to have a naturally mixed composition of pupils.
Caskey noted the challenge of establishing integrated education in areas marked by separate housing and separate education. This was a similar observation made by Christine Davis in the pursuit of shared housing schemes. Northern Ireland’s patchwork of single-community neighbourhoods, villages, and towns presents a geo-political challenge to integration.
Meanwhile, Caskey cited polling data, from a commissioned Lucid Talk poll, showing 78% support for cross-community mergers of schools, to rationalise the education system and reduce the current surplus of 50,000 empty school places.
I asked the panel about any examples where both shared housing and shared/integrated education coincide. The housing estate at Springfarm, Antrim, was cited as a positive example, and a member of the audience highlighted the work of Clanmil Housing Association.
The event was an interesting and informative discussion on how public shared housing schemes work in Northern Ireland, as well as the work of the integrated education sector. The speakers were honest about the benefits and challenges in developing a shared and better future for all in these regards.