There is something deeply depressing about the dog’s breakfast the authorities have made about managing the town-gown tensions in the Holyland area. On the other hand, observers will take great heart from the fact that, despite the cold shoulder from educational establishments allied to the ineptitude of central government, a small band of residents have clung on to the dream that the Holyland could be a marvellous community serving families and students alike.
It will be the hope of all people of goodwill that the ongoing work on a Belfast City Council report on the Holyland represents a victory for those good people who have kept the faith despite all-night parties, St Patrick’s Day riots and official indifference. For, without a doubt, the report — ‘Holyland and Wider University Area Strategic Study’ — has vindicated the position of the residents. In a detailed review of the student-land blight which has all-but-destroyed the once vibrant Holyland community, the report excoriated the authorities. It points out that the Housing Executive granted a whopping £40m to developers to turn family homes into piggy banks for landlords. No thought was given to the consequences of this unbridled capitalism.
For residents and indeed anyone who believes in a diverse, well-balanced Belfast with space for all manner of resident, from student to senior citizen, the most distressing part of this report is that which deals with how other cities approach the issue of student accommodation. As Belfast chose bedlam, other universities were working closely with city authorities to provide a welcoming mix of student accommodation integrated into the civic fabric. Leeds, Nottingham, Boston, Cork and Galway are just five cities often cited for dealing strategically and well with the issue of student accommodation. Universities in these cities have formed partnerships with civic authorities and local communities. In short, there is no shortage of best practice which can be introduced in Belfast.
With student numbers now above 40,000 in Belfast and with plans for a new university campus in the city centre, it’s essential the report isn’t allowed to gather dust on a civil service shelf but is, as it has promised to be, a springboard to action.
Today, only 100 long-term residents remain in the Holyland, an indictment of how Belfast has dealt with this issue before now.
Any future strategy must avoid the pitfalls of the past and create a society where families and students can live side-by-side in vibrant communities, each valued for their contribution to the great city of Belfast. The Holyland to date has been symbolic of Belfast’s failure on this issue, let the rebirth of the Holyland be a test of Belfast’s future success.