Belfast, Ireland – Last Thursday at a large manufacturing conference here, a representative of the luxury development firm Castlebrooke announced that the Belfast City Council, under pressure from local community groups, had ordered them to cancel their controversial “Tribeca” project and to instead build social housing for some of the almost 20,000 homeless in Northern Ireland, of whom 15,000 are children.
Bus-stop adverts and billboards for the project in question, “Sunflower EcoVillage,” had appeared the night before all over Belfast; brochures then began popping up at official events, and a website spread quickly on social media.
It all seemed sensible enough. The planned “Tribeca” development was designed mainly for foreign investors and was overwhelmingly opposed by Belfast citizens. And, as “Castlebrooke’s” “investor-directed video” noted, “a society that abounds in avoidable misery is not one that anyone can be happy in”—so any City Council worthy of the name should make every effort to house homeless people.
Unfortunately, the cancelling of “Tribeca” was a hoax. And when, on Saturday, a Belfast human-rights group called PPR seed-bombed the West Belfast site of the new “Sunflower EcoVillage,” it was a merely symbolic act.
And then, rather than embrace the potential of a Sunflower EcoVillage as a model to tackle homelessness, Belfast City Council officials scrambled to threaten PPR with a lawsuit and police investigation for the Yes Men’s hoax announcement and the related subvertising campaign.
All across the world, projects like Belfast’s “Tribeca” are being built for the benefit of investors with only the very flimsiest pretense of helping out locals. In Belfast, for example, the city government approved Tribeca on the condition that Castlebrooke finance 37 off-site units of social housing (see page 5)—as if 37 units, when tens of thousands of needed, count as even a gesture, and as if monster development projects like Tribeca are the only way to procure funding for such critical work.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive budget in fact includes £500 million annually for public housing. But in a form of systemic corruption common to cities that want to keep social housing to a minimum, almost all of it ends up going (page 2) to private landlords rather than to building real solutions.
Public money is supposed to improve life for the public. City officials who approve investment-focused projects like Tribeca while neglecting thousands of homeless children should at the very least be removed, and probably prosecuted for corruption. The evidence wouldn’t be hard to procure: despite 450 letters of opposition to Tribeca versus 5 of support, the City Council is moving forward with its plans to make the investors happy.
At the Belfast Chamber of Commerce’s “urban revitalization” conference—hosted by the PR rep for Castlebrooke, as it happened, and featuring City Council head Suzanne Wylie as keynote—one of the world’s leading urbanists, Vishaan Chakrabarti, echoed what many other speakers advised as well: to build more social housing, now, and to let go the idea that the free market can solve the city’s problems.
If only Belfast would listen.