Brits Out! – (Unless they’re London developers and absentee landlords, in which case Brits very much in.)
5 September 2020
On Wednesday September 2nd Belfast City Council's Planning Committee passed a proposal for a new 'Tribeca' development – the largest property development in Britain and Ireland. The proposal was supported by the Democratic Unionist Party, the tag-along Progressive Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, despite a long history of public objection. All the other parties voted against. It will involve the demolition of much of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter and the loss of public space, including Writers' Square – the site of most local trade union rallies.
Supporters of the scheme argue that the plan involves much needed housing, but in fact housing proposals are a minor element of the outline development. This proposal falls short in that the homes will not be inside the Tribeca area but somewhere else - not spoiling the view in the development. If history is any guide the small housing element will be shared between the DUP and Sinn Fein to reinforce housing apartheid in north Belfast.
The most telling objection at the planning meeting was that, post coronavirus, there would be no need for this volume of office space. But of course property development has little to do with social need. The Belfast committee decision will add millions in value to the property and ratification by full council will see valuation shoot through the roof.
The name Tribeca itself tells you all you need to know. An area of Belfast associated with writers, poets, religious figures, trade unionists and revolutionaries is to be wrenched from context and named after an area of New York in an attempt to convey wealth and gentrification. It brings to mind an earlier scandal, much smaller in scale, where a firm associated with Sinn Fein wanted to name a development outside the Casement Park GAA grounds 'Regency Apartments' causing outrage among local republicans. It also brings to mind the scheme to turn the same Casement Park into a corporate entertainment centre, now stalled but still soaking up millions of pounds in consultation fees and neither should we forget the Girdwood plan, where badly needed land for housing was turned into a car park because the DUP insisted on half shares.
The history of the financial path leading to the current proposal is a history of scandal. The current developers, Castlebrooke Investments, bought the property from Cerberus Capital Management, a US vulture fund. They in turn had bought title to the land from RBS Bank in 2014. At the same time Cerberus bought the entire property portfolio of the Irish government in the North of Ireland from the NAMA fund. The fund was set up with public money to compensate developers and the northern portfolio sold off at a quarter of the book price. A scandal developed when it was alleged that the NAMA representative was also acting for the purchaser and that £7 million had been reserved for a prominent DUP politician in an Isle of Man bank account.
However the current enormous
property development is not the result of individual corruption. The entire
planning system in the North of Ireland has been reshaped in the interests
In 2015, planning decisions were devolved to the 11 local councils. At the other end of the scale, in July of this year the role of the Stormont executive was amended to give the planning minister virtual autonomy in planning decisions without reference to the Executive as a whole. Despite long histories of sectarianism and corruption in both Stormont and the councils they have been given carte blanche to establish a developer's paradise.
The gutting and gentrification of Belfast's city centre, subject to formal ratification by the full council, is a catastrophe. It also highlights an enormous political contradiction that subverts current opposition strategies, based on a "left" Sinn Fein government in Dublin. The Sinn Fein election manifesto and a book on housing by leading Sinn Fein TD Eoin Ó Broin are founded on a scheme to use public land for housing but to exclude the developers in order to sharply reduce housing costs. How this matches with full throated endorsement of property speculators in Belfast is something of a mystery.
That political contradiction reaches well past Sinn Fein. The sole left voice on Belfast's planning Committee, Matt Collins of PbP, asked a question and voted against the resolution. However the group are in no position to campaign on the issue, with a practice of informal collaboration with Sinn Fein and a policy of building a left government, led by Sinn Fein, in the Dail.
The same can be said for the Trade Union movement. They have a practice of lobbying Stormont in general and Sinn Fein in particular as a mechanism for winning concessions. Neither they, nor the NGOs associated with them who lobby on the housing issue, had anything to say about the property development despite ICTU headquarters being directly opposite Writer's Square.
It isn't beyond the realms of possibility for a capitalist society to develop cities so that they meet at least some of the needs of working people. Many European city centres have extensive areas of social housing and laws to protect tenants in rental accommodation. A mix of housing and business use would be wildly popular in most Irish cities. It would be especially popular in Belfast, where, in addition to reducing traffic gridlock and air pollution, it would offer the opportunity to break out of sectarian apartheid in housing.
What is clear is that the coalitions of pro-capitalist parties, in hock to banks and developers, that rule on both sides of the border will not deliver. It is also clear that shuffling the deck chairs to bring Sinn Fein into a Dublin coalition in order to advance the interests of the working class is a ridiculous policy.
The task is to unite around the basic demand of housing as a right, that public resources meet public needs. The way to achieve these demands is to revive the insurrectionary and revolutionary currents in Irish life that have always been the harbingers of change.