Blacks Gate - The challenges of building new homes & creating strong communities
Against the backdrop of the Coronavirus crisis, Radius Housing has continued to progress work on Northern Ireland’s largest mixed tenure housing development ‘Blacks Gate’, albeit with significant changes to health and safety protocols in order to ensure the site’s operations can continue along-side the public health guidelines set out to limit the impact of COVID-19. This flagship regeneration project (which has been nine years and counting in the making) may have encountered an unex-pected delay in recent months but it’s business as usual for now.
Blacks Gate, the new name for the development which was chosen by the local school children, will see the transformation of this 22 acre former brownfield site located to the south west of Belfast City Centre. It is located at one of the city’s key gateways on lands adjoining the M1 southbound motorway, between Blacks Road and Finaghy Road North. Redevelopment plans for what was the former Ford Visteon car manufacturing site (which employed thousands from across the city for over five decades before operations ceased in 2009) embodies the ambitious plans that Radius has to improve the housing, health and wellbeing for the people of Belfast. This brownfield redevelop-ment is an exemplar mixed use site, which will include 244 new build social and affordable residen-tial units, 60,000sqft of commercial space, a purpose built community facility, three communal rec-reational and amenity spaces, and a linear park.
Blacks Gate has been a challenging project, but the drive and determination of the Radius development team has been key to meeting and overcoming these challenges. From the project’s inception, the Blacks Gate development team has developed an acute understanding and awareness of the site's context. This was not only in terms of its complex physical remediation and sensitive local history but also in terms of the wider social and economic characteristics. The area around Blacks Gate is characterised by high levels of deprivation and housing need, and low levels of economic activity. It is an area which has waited too long for economic investment and for high quality and affordable social homes.
Blacks Gate includes so much of the ambition and optimism detailed in Belfast City Council’s first community plan - ‘The Belfast Agenda’. Like The Belfast Agenda, the vision and subsequent realisation of Blacks Gate has been forged by an unwavering commitment to quality place making. The design and delivery has focused on creating a new high quality residential neighbourhood which is rooted in principles of design excellence, inclusivity, economic competitiveness and sustainability.
Despite a brief stoppage in site activity in the wake of the March lockdown, construction work has recommenced, with efforts focused on completing the first phase of homes and keeping the project on track, so we can see families move into these new homes.
Throughout the development of the project, Radius has placed a high value on community in-volvement, which has been a critical aspect of the evolution of Blacks Gate to date. This has in-volved embracing a range of consultation and engagement approaches, including drop in infor-mation events, the creation of a dedicated project website, the facilitation of educational outreach initiatives and community sponsorship activities.
Radius’ commitment to collaborative working will remain the long after the construction work ends on site and new families put down roots in their new community, because we are about more than house building, we are about building strong and stable communities and helping the new homes integrate with the wider, established community.
Blacks Gate is a £40 million investment, which has been supported by £14.3 million HAG funding from the Department for Communities and private finance investment by Radius. It has had a hugely positive economic impact both on the local area and also the wider Northern Ireland economy. The wider economic dividend of Blacks Gate on the regional economy will be in excess of £100 million. The development site is supplied by an extensive network of indigenous SME companies who are producing and supplying a vast array of building materials and providing design and consultancy services which are brought together on site by an extensive workforce exceeding more than 100 operatives each day. The contract also includes sizeable Buy Social obligations which are focused on creating meaningful, paid training and employment opportunities for apprentices and trainees, as well as the unemployed and underemployed.
As many economic commentators suggest that we could be facing a ‘pancession’, the importance of construction projects such as Blacks Gate should not be underplayed. This investment in the local economy will undoubtedly provide a buoyancy for the labour market which will keep many households afloat in the uncertain times ahead. The increasing levels of housing need and the impacts of COVID-19, which has clearly demonstrated the importance of having a safe and secure home, should put homes at the heart of government strategy and policy.
The impact of investment which the social housing sector makes to the Northern Ireland’s construction industry is too often ignored, given that it is at the forefront of house building. An increase in this investment will be a key catalyst in helping to protect the local industry and assist the recovery from the devastating impacts of COVID-19.
As one of Northern Ireland’s largest social housing providers and indeed property developers, Radius Housing is committed to continuing to meet the needs of our communities by providing high quality social housing and services to support those in need. This will be our contribution to fighting the economic and societal impact of this pandemic and we hope that the NI Executive and NI Assembly will recognise the important role the social housing sector plays and will provide the investment required.
**Radius Housing is one of the leading housing developers in Northern Ireland, constructing 400 new homes each year, and managing more than 13,000 social homes. Last year Radius secured a £105m investment from investors in the USA and UK to help support their ambitious ongoing development plans.**