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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Religious segregation and allocations in Northern Ireland’s social housing


CIH NI policy and public affairs officer Justin Cartwright discusses the barriers to shared housing.

In Belfast over 90 per cent of social housing is segregated on religious grounds. This can seem a world away for people in cities across Britain, although parallels can be drawn to some experiences in England. The Cantle review that followed the 2001 riots in the north of England found different communities living “parallel lives”, incorporating too few opportunities for cross-community interaction; ignorance about each other’s communities; and feelings of inequality when it came to housing access. Whether these themes apply to ethnic segregation in the north of England in 2001 or to religious segregation in Northern Ireland today, they remain the same.

The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to live in mixed communities according to the Life and Times Survey. Integration cannot be forced, but it is also true that the government has a lead role to play in creating shared communities and shared accommodation of traditions, a role that extends beyond promotion or enablement.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) promotes shared housing through its Shared Future Housing Programme. However it cannot create new mixed community developments by allocating housing based on religious identity. That’s because such an action would be against the law. The Fair Employment & Treatment (NI) Order 1998 forbids housing allocation on religious grounds as an anti-discrimination measure (Article 29), and in doing so does not permit any affirmative action measures to counter inequalities.

So besides the law, are there other reasons why allocations don’t happen in this way? Interestingly, amongst housing professionals there may be general principles at play. A recent CIH poll shows that 57 per cent of our members in Northern Ireland say allocations should always be made on the basis of housing need, while only 23 per cent say allocations should be flexible to promote shared housing schemes.

In addition to NIHE working with existing communities to develop shared neighbourhoods, there is a commitment under the Together: Building a United Community (TBUC) strategy to create 10 new-build shared neighbourhoods. Without flexibility in allocations, NIHE and housing associations will have to create these shared housing schemes through a more voluntary-based method in areas with high levels of segregated housing, which introduces further complexities.

There will be challenges for TBUC schemes going forward, and while they don’t amount to the step change that we need in the development of shared housing, it shows that NIHE and housing associations are thinking outside the box and going further with the strategic use of housing in breaking down division.

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