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5 November 1998 Edition

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Ballymun - promises of a brighter future

Roisín de Rossa examines the biggest regeneration project in the history of the 26 County state

The project is formidable. ``We're not just building houses - we're creating a viable new town''
Imagine! The City on the Hill, which has dominated the skyline of Dublin, and the statistics of poverty for over 30 years, is razed to the ground. And a brand new city rehousing 18,000 people, in tree-lined boulevards, state of the art housing, in five separate towns, each with their community resources and neighbourhood centres, and shops and jobs nearby, replaces it.
But what is more, and what makes Ballymun Regeneration the most exciting and radical project in the history of the state's urban development is that the planners for once are committed to consulting with people themselves.

There have been public meetings and peoples' representatives have been elected to a forum for each new town, to consult with the architects and planners about what housing people want, how the estates are to be run, what shape they want for their new town, its facilities, for their lives.

Imagine the young people who have been unemployed since leaving school, designing and building their own houses, sports, recreation facilities, landscaping their lives and selecting the training courses needed for skilled jobs, for administering their own plans and projects Is it a dream?

``No way,'' says Eamonn Farrelly, Project Manager of Ballymun Regeneration Ltd (BRL), the company set up by Dublin Corporation to oversee the project. ``There is nothing airy fairy about the plan.'' With sharp eyes, behind glasses, his whole being avers to a commitment to making the project a success.

Imagine the young people who have been unemployed since leaving school, designing and building their own houses, sports, recreation facilities, landscaping their lives and selecting the training courses needed for skilled jobs, for administering their own plans and projects
£261m is secured to fund the project between 1998 and 2005. Planning applications for the first phase developments in all five `townlands' are scheduled to go in in the next month. Building is expected to start at Easter. Pearse and McDonagh Towers are to fall at the start of 2000.

And fall they must. Just six years after the flats went up at the end of the 60s, a workman noticed fractures in the wall panels. After several investigations and much secrecy, it was admitted that the top six storeys of pre-fabricated wall panels of the `spine' blocks needed securing with steel bars. Leaking roofs, endlessly broken lifts, cement falling out of the window frames, flooded balconies made them much less than a paradise in the sky.

Gay, who has been in Ballymun 32 years, says, ``it was lovely when we first came here, but the Corpo used and abused us. In the 80s the flats became a dumping ground with no support for people in difficulties. The sooner the flats go the better. They are in your face.''

But not everyone is happy about them coming down. ``They are taking away a culture - a whole way of life - and replacing it with another, an unknown. Someone who has lived in the 14th floor and lands into a house with a garden on the roadside - sure they would need counselling! People are afraid. In the flats people feel secure,'' Kathleen points out.

``I won't believe it till it happens,'' says Mandy, who has been in the blocks for 30 years. ``We've had so many disappointments, false promises.''

Mandy has endured all the mismanagement, the hardships. She is on her own, with three young children, at the top of the `spine' blocks, with the lifts that don't work, with no cinema, no theatre, no music or dance hall, with no jobs, with no creche, all the facilities which were promised when the flats first went up.

She comes out of her block to windswept spaces without so much as a street, a pavement or a local shop, where young people, dressed to kill, race backwards and forwards past the heavy security on the only two pubs in town, in search of a night out; where the neighbourhood watch struggles to keep the drugs supermarket out of reach. It is impossible to believe that this environment is about to change, and with it every aspect of the lives of the people who have endured.

The first building to start is the Arts and Civic Centre, the flagship project, costing £4m raised through grants and EU funding, which will have theatre and dance and exhibition halls, music rooms and civic offices and resource centres for some of the 150-200 community groups which have grown up in Ballymun in the long struggle to regenerate.

The Centre will be the first side of the main square, the Plaza, at the head of the town, replacing the underpass and roundabout at the approach to the Ballymun towers. ``I have seen seven blocks and only one way out'' as U2 sang in the Joshua Tree. Was it Pat Tierney, poet, fighter, community activist and Republican, whose body lay on a balcony in MacDonagh Tower overlooking the city and the Dublin Mountains, was it his way out? Will BRL change all of this?

The question raises the deepest questions about power - can power be given, can people without power be empowered by those who have it, or can power only be taken from those who have it? It is the question asked by those who work day in, day out, to overcome social disadvantage, poverty and injustice in our divided country; those who work in what is cynically called the `poverty industry' - those who work, many voluntarily, for social change.

The project is formidable. ``We're not just building houses - we're creating a viable new town,'' says Peter Davitt of the Housing Task Force, member of the BRL Board of Management, and head of the Jobs Centre.

Recognised for his commitment to involving the people in decisions that affect them, Brendan Kenny, Chief Housing Officer of Dublin Corporation, says, ``We are working directly with the people in the area so that they make the major decisions about the neighbourhood in terms of improving the environment, helping to reduce crime, ...feeling content with their homes and their areas.'' But it is not easy.

BRL started in July 1997. In November the Masterplan giving an overview of the project was launched at the open day. 2000 people came. Public meetings were held and many of the 5000 people who came to view the exhibition filled up detailed questionnaires, and BRL reported an 85% satisfaction level with the proposals and strategies outlined in the Plan.

Consultation is one thing, participation in decision making is another. The Plan had to be presented for approval by 31 March 1998. There was no time, there were no established channels of communication between agencies and people. There was plenty of disbelief, of alienation from `Them' and what they've done to us, and what they've failed to deliver on. And anyway the lifts weren't working.

In drawing up the Plan, BRL had to work with reality: local community groups, statutory bodies, the Ballymun Housing Task Force, a Design Group, and representatives drawn from the Area Forums. The Design Group, drawn again from these same agencies met weekly with the project team, and concentrated on land use and the potential for the new town - attracting business and getting jobs, where there is 47% unemployment. But the pivot to community involvement are the five neighbourhood Forums.

The forums began life as BRL was established. They are elected directly by tenants, in the ratio of 1 to 45. About one third of the elections were contested, with 20-25% actually voting, which compares favourably with local government elections where voting can be as low as 15%.

``It was often hard to get people to stand for election. Sometimes it was a matter of going round asking at the Estates Offices who comes in here most with complaints,'' says Deirdre Scully, Development Worker, who has been tirelessly involved in the setting up of the forums and helping them to work.

Originally designed as Estate Management bodies, the Forums were set up jointly by the Corpo, the Task Force and the Ballymun Partnership and were allocated funding to employ a full time worker. ``The Regeneration was something which was landed upon them. It has been like a storm in a bath. Regeneration hit them far too early and, they will agree, they haven't found their feet yet,'' says Deirdre Scully.

Nor have they found any money to pay for babysitting, proper resources, training in how to run meetings, put a newsletter together, or just to pay for their endless time, running from meeting to meeting. There is little time left to report back to the people who elected them, to gather their views and concerns - in a word, to consult.

``At the moment we have no training package to help those on the forums develop the skills they so urgently need to have, to be able to question the professionals, to report back, to listen to peoples' opinions and to fight for peoples' views,'' says Deirdre Scully It is not just a matter of skills, which people aren't born with, but language, confidence, it's being able to `read' an architectural drawing and imagining what it looks like, it's talking and listening to people, working in a group and dealing with agencies and officials. It's being equal when you are not.

``It takes time to develop - working together in a group, building relationships, which can only be done through common purpose and activity. It will take five or even ten years before they get a handle on things,'' says Kathleen Maher, of the Womens' Resource Centre, which, funded by the NOW (New Opportunities for Women Programme), is running a course in which some of the women on the forums are involved.

``I left school at 12,'' Sandra says. ``The course is brilliant. We'd be lost without it. We study Social Policy, Architecture and computer skills, we'll be in the first 100 people to get our computer Driving licence out of it.''

Against feelings of being used - used to legitimate a claim of community involvement - there is a strong feeling of pride in what they are doing, and respect from people who recognise how much of their time the forum members are giving freely. This is regeneration - even if only for some, just as it was in the early days of the Ballymun Coalition, the Jobs Centre and the Task Force, and the numerous community projects which activists initiated over the past 15 years in an attempt to change things.

Each Forum has its own specialist design sub-committee. They have looked at different models for housing. Each of the five neighbourhoods is talking to different architects to ensure variety in design. And there have been instances where the Plan has changed in response to forum representations, Eamonn Farrelly points out.

There is the danger that the forums will not be able to consider the bigger issues raised by the regeneration plan, but get bogged down in considering questions of estate management, of how Dublin Corpo does its work, in the dreaded issues of allocations, of single issues or even anti-social behaviour. Will they become agencies of social control and not participative consultation? Are the forums agencies for estate management, or channels of peoples' power to decide?

As yet there is no funding allocated to the five neighbourhood centres, and the community resources which are so crucial to the regeneration. ``We will be looking to Central Government and to the Corporation,'' explains Eamonn Farrelly, ``and then we are looking for middle-income salaried people to come into Ballymun, to change the social mix. And this will attract sustainable development and retail business for the Town Centre.''

70% of the new houses built in phase 1, which are over and above those houses which are to `relocate' the people from the buildings scheduled for demolition, are to go to private housing. And some of these `surplus' houses are to be allocated through a lottery between tenants who have lived in the flats for 15 years or more, and are of `good standing' with the Corpo.

Is there the danger that BRL, instead of providing the community resources needed to deal with the existing problems of Ballymun, are instead intent on relocating the problems out of Ballymun altogether - along with the so called `anti-social' elements? And is there a danger that the forums will be used to manage this relocation?

``No way is that the plan,'' says Eamonn Farrelly. ``I believe in offering secure tenancies in one room apartments to the drug-pushers, down the road, in the Joy [Mountjoy Prison], and offering treatment centres and support for addicts, perhaps we might consider probationary tenancies.'' But where is the funding for these neighbourhood resources and centres of support? And what constitutes `anti-social' behaviour?

The problem of training for the forum members is urgent and dire. ``In the last resort it is consultation with the people of Ballymun which is guarantor to the success of the Regeneration.'' As Eamonn says, ``It is the fabric of the community upon which success rests.'' But how are the people to be involved? It is a difficult question.

Are the forums able to say no to BRL? ``They have great powers to mobilise people on an issue,'' Deirdre says. But where can they take their disagreements in the ultimate? What is the chain of command? The Housing Task Force can take the Forums' criticisms up with BRL, and they can go to the politicians, who are worried about votes in Ballymun, and the changes which are coming in local government. In the ultimate it is the Councillors who run the Corpo.

There are 800 jobs expected to come on stream with the start of construction. The construction companies already have their complement of skilled workers. Where do the Ballymun recruits fit in? Security and general labourers? Will there by a 20% quota on all employment in the Regeneration, like what there has been in the Inner City development?

``No,'' says Eamonn in BRL. ``It is illegal within the EU. But we are hoping for tax incentives under the Urban Renewal Scheme to enable local employment. Special tax designation is essential if we are to attract the necessary investment for the plan's economic development to succeed. We are waiting to hear, any day now.''

Eamonn of BRL places great store by the campus that National College of Ireland is to open in Ballymun. Working in partnership with the community and education providers it will offer access to education and a `ladder of opportunity' to people at different stages of life.

BRL says that it is acting as the catalyst here, drawing the agencies together, for changing mainstream services in Ballymun. But many would say it is not programme design that is needed, but the funding which has always been lacking.

Ballymun Regeneration is undoubtedly the most exciting project in urban development which has happened in 30 years or more, and peoples' commitment to making it a success cannot be questioned. But regeneration rests on involvement of the people in shaping their own lives and community, and no one is quite sure how to do it fast enough, or even how to do it at all.

``There are some gaps in communications'', Eamonn Farrelly admits. Can they be bridged in time?

It is a question that faces all involved in the development. Only time will tell. But it will not be shortage of commitment or energy if it fails. The very process of implementing the Regeneration is the regeneration itself.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1