Tuesday, March 23, 2010
People Power Works!
On my way down the Falls Road this morning this Blog noticed a quantity surveyor measuring and doing what quantity surveyors do on the old Andersonstown Barracks site.
That started me thinking about the recent history of this piece of ground. Once it used to be home to a very strategically placed military structure aka the Andersonstown RUC Barracks.
It commanded a controlling point at the junction of the main roads through west Belfast.
For a long time the community around Andersonstown barracks wanted it demilitarised and demolished. With the advent of the peace process and negotiations we demanded that the land on which the barracks had been built be given back to the people of the area to decide how the site should be used.
In 2005, the people prevailed; the barracks was levelled. Since then a space has existed where the barracks once was.
Andersonstown RUC Barracks
But the space and the site are still contested. For the Department of Social Development (DSD) which purchased the site, have shown as much contempt for the local community as the previous occupants of the site.
Even the concept of DSD buying the land is debatable. DSD bought something which was not the RUC’s to sell.
That was under Brit direct-rule. The land should have been gift-aided to the local community to devise and decide a future use for this site. Appointment of local Ministers ought to have seen this happen without further delay.
An early meeting with the SDLP Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie provided the opportunity to reiterate that case.
Rather than agree, DSD claimed that Sinn Féin and the local community never asked for the site to be ‘gifted’.
But as the minute of that meeting, and previous meetings on the issue proved, this DSD claim was false.
DSD later declared that they couldn’t gift-aid the barracks site because it would ‘set a dangerous precedent’.
This was another fraud. Sinn Féin MLA Paul Maskey dug up information which proved that DSD had ‘gift-aided’ or transferred at a nil or negligible value 40 other sites.
Instead, DSD went down a commercial route. A developer was selected by the Minister. Against the wishes of the local community, a proposal was tabled for a five storey apartment development on the site, and endorsed by the Minister.
When an effective campaign against the apartment block proposal saw the private developer withdraw, the Minister expressed her “disappointment”.
To add insult to injury, on advice from her SDLP party colleagues, the Minister directed that DSD write to the local Partnership Board in 2008 and refuse to support their community consultation on the future of the barracks site.
Subsequently, the Minister announced that the site would become a “commercial hub”. Her Department appointed consultants to fashion what this would mean.
Then the Minister told the Assembly, again under questions from local MLAs, that her favourite idea for the future of the barracks was yet another “police station”.
The latest talk from DSD is of creating an “expo centre”, although the Minister and her officials couldn’t agree whether this means a temporary or permanent structure.
Tenders for this will again be invited. DSD has asked a New York designer to help judge the final proposals. But the Minister has set out no funding or delivery plan.
After four years of dispute, more than half a million pounds of public money spent, and many staff hours, DSD has delivered nothing on site.
All of this was avoidable. The only positive activity on the barracks site has been generated by local people and local community groups. The people of the neighbourhood have already put forward suggestions like a new library; a space for holding records on the nearby graveyards; a bureau for tourists and visitors; and a space to be used by local residents for community and social activities.
Attempts to impose unwanted structures on the local community in west Belfast will always be doomed to fail. The RUC and British Army were taught that lesson. The DSD Minister and her Department must learn it too. The local community has succeeded in preventing the Minister from foisting her apartment block carbuncle upon us. We must continue to campaign to have this piece of land developed in the interests for the local community.
The west Belfast partnership Board is currently carrying out a consultation on the future use of this site. If you have any thoughts log on to www.expowestbelfast.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org