As we develop the Centre for Excellence in Community Investment, we’re hosting a series of roadshows around the UK. On Thursday, we were in Belfast and I had two key takeaways from this session.
The first was around the importance of local priorities, and how different regional and national considerations can have a marked effect on the work we do as community investment professionals. In Belfast this can be stark with the conflict still resonating strongly in different areas of the city, and sectarianism continuing to play a major part in daily life for people.
As someone living in England, it can be easy to think of sectarianism as something that’s in the past, but as one of the community development officers at the session pointed out, it’s a peace process, and we are still in that process". It would be easy for someone to say, “this is how you should do XYZ”, but if you are dealing with a situation where you can operate in one street, but be unwelcome in the next, then specific local knowledge and experience is essential to inform that undertaking.
My second takeaway was that innovation does not necessarily mean whizzy new thinking. It can simply be trying to do something in a different way. As one delegate pointed out, “the answer may not always be an app”!
One of the key statistics I picked up was that social housing in Belfast is still 90% segregated, and that the local strategic priority is not to reduce this level, but to maintain it.
There is some brilliant work going on with the shared neighbourhoods programme in which housing associations are specifically developing schemes that will be let in a way that increases integration within their communities. However, this is offset with a general lettings policy of asking for religious details during sign-ups, and then housing someone accordingly.
One of the suggestions at the roadshow session was to take learnings from towns and cities such as Birmingham and Slough which have a huge ethnic diversity and see how integration can be achieved over time. In my view this is a truly innovative approach, as on surface the two issues appear to be disparate, but taking a higher view shows similar outcomes. How to house people with different cultural needs and identities, in a way that is sympathetic and inclusive.
Having these different perspectives continually informing The Centre as it develops is vital to its success. I believe that locally driven priorities, combined with the ability to share best practice across the whole geography of the UK, will be one of the most fascinating and important elements of this whole programme. And for me, this starts now.
I would like to say a big thank you to Tim O’Malley, Community Development Manager at Clanmil Housing for taking the time to give me a brilliant tour of Belfast, and introducing me to a fascinating local character with a unique perspective.