Monthly Archives: July 2010

Deprivation begets violence. But what is the solution?

Northern Ireland has suffered another bout of summer violence. Low level and localised but depressingly familiar and shocking all at the same time. Cars burnt out, petrol bombs thrown at the police, 80 police officers wounded – one seriously when a piece of masonry hit her on the head – all in the space of four nights of rioting. Most people had thought that this was a thing of the past and that Northern Ireland had moved away from such scenes.

There is no question that there has been sometimes unimaginable change in the region over the past decade, and Northern Ireland is a better place today for this, and for the many other positive benefits of the peace process.Yet, for all this change, some things have stayed the same, and the ‘peace dividend’ has yet to be felt in many neighbourhoods – particularly some of the most troubled. In a recent article in the Guardian, Mary O’Hara writes about the background to the violence, and, more particularly, about the background of the rioters. She highlights that all too often, the factor that leads to violence – and is more often ignored – is the chronic deprivation of the areas and the people who live there.

The thing is, that for all the progress – and boy, has there been much to celebrate in recent years – districts such as the Ardoyne and parts of west Belfast remain areas of incredible, entrenched deprivation. For all the admirable work by individuals, local groups and communities at large to turn things around, sectarianism remains and poverty and social exclusion are its willing partners in crime.”

In a previous post, I wrote about Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church in North Belfast, under the auspices of engaging young people in heritage led regeneration. During a community consultation on the possibility of restoring this architectural landmark, I spent a lot of time reading the Dunlop Report. Back in 2002, it was recognised that North Belfast suffered from some major social ills. Three men, led by Rev. John Dunlop, spent a period of time examining what these social and economic problems were before suggesting some ways of dealing with them. The report did not make for happy reading, nor does it do so today, despite almost a decade passing since it was written. My guess is that if the report were being written again today, it would say exactly the same thing again. In the foreword to the report, the three men wrote,

“We cannot overstate the significance of this problem [the division of communities and violence between them] or its potential to destabilise other parts of Belfast and Northern Ireland. We have been told that the situation in some areas is getting worse. While assistance is necessary from outside the area, such assistance must help local people, at all levels, to have the confidence and generosity of spirit to constructively tackle their local problems which are often the result of the breakdown of relationships and therefore of trust.”

The rest of the report continues in much the same vein, and rather than repeat it here, I would urge you to read at least the Executive Summary.

The work I mentioned on Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church includes statistics from the NI Statistics and Research Agency, the government’s statistics gathering and analysis arm. These did not make for happy reading either and two specific points from this data are regularly quoted by me – 6 of the 10 electoral wards immediately surrounding the building are in the top 10 most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, and in 2005, only 2.7% of the population in the Shankill ward had a university degree; the NI rate is 15.8%. There are others: just 23% of schools leavers had 5 or more GCSEs at Grade C or above in the Shankill ward (63% in NI); in the New Lodge ward, 44% of people between 18 and 59 claimed Income Support in 2004 (11% in NI as a whole); and almost 16% of all recorded crimes in Northern Ireland were committed in either North or West Belfast. As a whole, it means that West Belfast is the most deprived parliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland, closely followed by North Belfast as the number two on that list.

University education is not the pinnacle of achievement, and the requirement for income support is not in itself a bad thing. Put them together, along with the presence of high rates of crime, major health problems – particularly mental health problems – and the continuation of double digit rates of long term unemployment (people out of work for 12 months or more), and the picture becomes bleak. Mary O’Hara’s point that poverty is the backdrop to the recent riots is the headline. The root cause is the lack of aspiration, and the sense of desperation that comes with that.

It is easy to see how young people in these heavily deprived areas feel trapped, as though the world is passing them by. Segregated in their local areas, with fierce loyalty to their own small patch of territory, and with neither incentive nor desire to mix with the population from the ‘other side’, there is an inevitablity to these young people seeking a way to draw attention to their situations. When dissident republicans are bent on causing trouble, and young people in these areas sense a way of bringing attention to their sense of loss and abandonment, little is going to stop this combination ending in violent outbursts.

The cause of the violence in recent days can well be traced to the marching of the Orange Order, but what in particular caused this year’s marching season to be more violent than last year’s or the year before? Something has to be seen in the chronic, long-term deprivation of the areas where the rioting occurred. Yes, there are people in these areas who are unhappy with the political settlement in Northern Ireland. Their support, such as it is, will continue to grow whilst society at large continues to ignore the real costs of segregation, of failing to tackle the lack of aspiration amongst young people, and of the sheer sense of loss and abandonment in these communities.

Part of what I believe has to happen involves an entire generational and attitudinal shift, both in our thinking about how to deal with deprivation, and in how we engage with these communities.

The answer has to lie in working with people, particularly young people, and allowing them to discover that there is something more than what has gone before. It is about showing them that they can remain loyal to their communities and their territories whilst looking outwards. It is about using their talents and skills to make their communities more successful. It is about finding a way of allowing these communities to see that the talents for delivering change lie within, rather than them hoping for a government department to deliver change for them. Back in the Dunlop Report, a telling paragraph reads,

 “A dichotomy…exists whereby young people in North Belfast feel depressed by their environment and engage in activity which intensifies their problems yet nevertheless they have a strong attachment to their community. They fear leaving it even when they know there are many opportunities and resources available elsewhere. They need encouragement to take a step outside their daily routines, to discover their talents and to serve their community.”

Furthermore, there is a wariness of outsiders and a wariness of people offering help. More often than not, promises have been made and shattered. Government strategies have been written and quickly forgotten. Masterplans have been drawn up only to be redrawn, and redrawn and never actually implemented.

Delivery is therefore key; but it must be delivery of something practical, beneficial, long-term and something that is based on solutions that come from within the communities. Young people, and the development of skills, will be vital, as will finding a sustainable project that taps into their talents. That wariness of outsiders and of broken promises will take years to eradicate. The division between communities might well take generations to eradicate. The depressingly chronic social and economic problems of these areas might also take generations to change, but that’s no reason not to try and the best way to do that is to foster a culture of aspiration amongst young people. O’Hara herself writes,

“If we are serious about dealing with social exclusion, with poverty, with youth criminality, with knife crime – whatever manifestation of a troubled society we are talking about in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter – we need to start with asking “why”, and we need to finish with an answer that doesn’t simply reinforce the miserable status quo.”

Nothing would break the status quo more than by, firstly, working with the local communities to help them find solutions from within and, secondly, creating a culture of aspiration that gradually, but radically, breaks down the cycles of dependence, despair and disappointment.

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Filed under Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

Young People and Heritage Led Regeneration

A recent post on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog about “How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists” got me to thinking a little bit more about the issue of why preservation and heritage is perceived as the preserve of the grey-haired. I’ve come to the realisation that it’s about more than just being old. In her piece, Emily Koller argues that historic preservation is essentially about identity and “about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place”, before going on to say that people under 30 – the Millenial Generation – “are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live.”

There is a lot of truth to Koller’s statement, and work that the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust* has undertaken would largely bear out the first part of her argument. Looking at a late Victorian church, in a terrible state of dereliction and in the most economically and socially deprived part of Northern Ireland, time after time, local residents repeated the assertion that they wanted to see the building restored and brought back to life because it was a landmark for their area.

Janine Walker / BBPT

Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, despite having been empty for 25 years – and in such a poor state that it was included on the World Monument Fund’s Watch List 2010 – is, for the people of North Belfast, a true ‘iconic’ building. Despite the social ills of the area, despite the bitter sectarian division surrounding the building, and despite the chronic deprivation, indeed, perhaps because of these, the people of North Belfast are clear that preserving Carlisle Memorial Church is of critical importance to them. There is plenty to suggest that people care about a place when it comes to Carlisle Memorial, and North Belfast in general. The problem comes with what to do with the building.

Given the social and economic deprivation around Carlisle Memorial Church, it is clear that the heritage led regeneration of the building will have to deliver firm results for the people around it. It can, and should, be about more than restoring the building. It can, and should, be about more than just North Belfast. It can, and should, be about helping to regenerate communities, not just buildings.

Alison Curtis / Alicakes* - Flickr

Koller wrote in her piece that historic preservation doesn’t cross people’s minds until we begin to think of settling down. Once we do that, and have bought our white picket fences, then “We care because we have a sense of ownership — and by accident, we’ve become preservationists.” This might be so, and in the pre-credit crunch days of easy access to mortgages it was drummed into my generation that owning a house should be a key life goal.

This is also, I’m afraid, where I take issue with the argument. Saying that we become preservationists by accident simply isn’t good enough. It is an abdication of responsibility by the heritage lobby to wait until people are home owners in the expectation that they will then become accidental preservationists. We don’t turn young adults into preservationists if they accidentally become preservationists when they buy a house. Given that most young people under 30 are not terribly likely to be home owners, this reinforces the notion that heritage led regeneration and historic preservation are only for older generations – something that anyone involved in urban policy, regeneration, heritage or sustainable planning should be very scared of indeed.

The issue is more how do we engage young people with preservation and with heritage led regeneration than how do we turn them into preservationists. A sense of ownership is still crucial, and no young person, whether a young adult in their late 20s, or a teenager just starting out in secondary education, is going to have that sense of ownership unless they are engaged in the decision making process. Engagement and inclusion in the process is what gives ownership, not a mortgage and a BBQ on the deck. And in response to the point that Millenials are a generation with no roots or no sense of place, that may be so. I believe that lots of young adults desperately wish to feel and create a sense of place but, having been excluded from the decision making process, or by being made to wait 10-20 years until they settle down with families, there is little to engender this sense of place in young people, so the grass is always greener somewhere else and many young people move on to bigger, bolder, brighter lights to create their own sense of place.

hellobo / Bo - Flickr

Part of what needs to happen for young people – adults or teenagers – to become preservationists is for them to be able to see that preservation brings them benefits. Just like a government department, or taxpayers in general, young people are not going to be interested until they can see tangible (and feel intangible) benefits to their stock in life. Too often preservationists and the heritage lobby argue that preservation should happen for preservation sake, but I’m sorry to be the person to say that nothing happens just for the sake of it when money is involved.  The arguments exist about heritage and heritage led regeneration offering firm economic and social benefits – job creation, skills development, tourism support, and the most intangible but yet most important of all – securing a “sense of place”.

Take these arguments, put them in the context of delivering something firm for young people, and that will make them preservationists. Maybe not in the purist sense, but what’s more important – preserving a building of architectural and social merit that can deliver real benefits for people, or preserving it simply because of its architectural and social significance? I would argue that real preservation isn’t about the building at all, but what the building means to the people who live next to it and who will one day use it.

I recently stumbled across a project in Norwich, England, called Open. It’s a centre for young people (something much more than a youth centre) with a young persons’ nightclub, a climbing wall, a recording studio, cafe, health studio, a media lab and offering workshops and activities that concentrate on skills development and advice. It started as something much smaller, but grew and grew once the young people involved became involved in the decision making process. Eventually it needed a home, and found the former regional HQ of Barclay’s Bank. It cost £12 million to restore and fit out the Victorian building, a process that involved young people making decisions all along. Now, tell me that the young people of Norwich are not preservationists as a result of this heritage led regeneration scheme.  

Back in Belfast, report after report can detail the ills of the north of the city. Among them is a chronic lack of aspiration, fed by severe educational under attainment, long term unemployment and chronic health problems. Proactively engaging with young people to find solutions, possibly based around digital media, the creative industries and the knowledge economy, with an element of skills development, job creation and securing a “sense of place” will be crucial to the success of preserving Carlisle Memorial Church. It is about helping them explore what their local community is about, and in engaging them in making decisions that will give young people a sense of ownership, both of their community, and of their built heritage. It should be crucial to everything that preservationists do to help turn young adults into preservationists.

Janine Walker / BBPT

If the restoration of Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church can deliver practical benefits to the young people of North Belfast – and in the wider city – and if young people have been engaged in the decision making process of restoring the building, this will provide them with a sense of ownership of their built heritage. If this happens, then tell me that the young people of Belfast won’t be preservationists too.  And not accidental preservationists either.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I work for the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust and conducted a community consultation on the possibility of restoring Carlisle Memorial Church between March 2008 and March 2009.

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Filed under Belfast, Heritage, Regeneration, Urban