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Speech by Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Annual Conference, Belfast, (27 October 2007)



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Text: Margaret Ritchie... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Margaret Ritchie (SDLP), then Northern Ireland Minister for Social Development, to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Annual Conference, Belfast, (27 October 2007)

 

"I would also like to thank Sir Reg for the invitation to speak here today at your annual party conference. Itís a pleasure to join you and I welcome this opportunity to talk to you about Urban Regeneration - and maybe one or two other things.

Your conference theme for this year is "The Health & Wealth of Northern Ireland". Iím delighted that this is your focus for the day and hope to persuade you that the work we do in regeneration, contributes directly to the health and, ultimately, the wealth of our people.

In recent years across Northern Ireland we have seen huge changes for the better. We have an economy growing faster than many other parts of the UK. Unemployment is at its lowest level in generations and we have more jobs than ever in our history. There is a record public investment programme in place.

We now have a society that people want to come in to, not get away from.

The challenge of course is to keep the momentum and build on it.

My Department is playing its part in setting out a vision for urban regeneration and economic development across Northern Ireland. We aim to build more sustainable communities and improve the lives and life chances of those who are most disadvantaged - wherever they live and whatever political or cultural allegiance they may have.

Regeneration must help the most disadvantaged.

But in doing so it also improves the quality of life for everyone.

For me successful regeneration in Northern Ireland has several basic elements:

  • investment in housing;
  • targeted projects that will leverage private sector investment into an area; and
  • community engagement.

Housing

Provision of a good quality home is central to tackling social exclusion, social deprivation and poor health.

Regeneration ultimately is about people, and there is no point in investing in public realm and physical environmental enhancements only, when there are

  • record long waiting lists for social housing;
  • unprecedented levels of homelessness; and
  • when it has never been more difficult for someone on an average income to buy their own house.

To be genuinely sustainable, most regeneration initiatives in Northern Ireland must address the housing need in the relevant area as part of the package.

I remain determined to take forward a new housing agenda to tackle affordability and to get sufficient investment for housing to ensure that a new generation across the community can get decent, affordable housing.

I have already said that my budget for building new social housing is not enough and I am looking at innovative ways of raising more capital for house building.

The Affordability Review undertaken by Sir John Semple was published in April 2007.

It demonstrated through some 80 recommendations, that concerted action across various departments is necessary to improve the delivery of affordable housing across all tenures.

A significant number of the recommendations require further research and assessment. However, I am clear that I need to

  • build more houses (at least 2,000 per year going forward);
  • set up an affordable housing allocation scheme;
  • secure a developer contribution towards social and affordable housing on new sites;
  • secure a fast-tracking of major social housing projects through our badly designed planning system;
  • bring some Ďemptyí homes back into use
  • be creative with DSD and NIHE landbanks

If we move forward vigorously with this agenda we can really get to grips with housingís problems and make a better overall job of regeneration.

Regeneration Projects

In terms of major physical regeneration schemes my Department is engaged in a wide range of projects right across Northern Ireland.

These vary from the development of single buildings using Urban Development Grants, to regeneration of former military sites, to regeneration of large sections of our city centres in collaboration with private sector partners.

In the past, public sector led regeneration initiatives had a significant impact on addressing social and economic development at a time when investor confidence was low. Castlecourt and more recently Laganside being two successful examples.

Most familiar to all of you will of course be the Victoria Square development which will be a great boost to Belfastís retail pitch. There are other large and interesting proposals for regeneration of places like Crumlin Road Gaol. We also have comprehensive development schemes in Enniskillen, Bangor and Coleraine. So there is plenty happening.

The larger projects are subject to a process of masterplanning where my Department leads an engagement with development partners and the community to typically deliver a sustainable, multi-use facility.

An increasingly important aspect of the work involves the transformation of town centres and public areas through environmental improvement and public realm schemes.

This type of activity creates a link between regenerated areas, opening up previously run-down and sometimes, even somewhat threatening areas, to shoppers and residents.

Without intervention to reduce the economic and social inequalities in these areas, Northern Irelandís urban centres will not fulfil their function as engines of economic growth.

Environmental improvements are often designed to create a feeling of shared space, promoting access to people from all of our communities and promoting a Shared Future for all.

Community Engagement

I believe that Community Engagement is a central part of successful regeneration.

Developing good relations with and between our communities is a very significant part of what my Department does.

Our daily work in supporting and developing the capacity of communities, in promoting shared space through regenerating our cities and towns, leads to positive engagement between communities.

Neighbourhood Renewal which, as you will know, is our main vehicle for establishing how best to respond to the needs of communities relies on a process of engagement with the community.

I know that many of you, as with other political parties, are active in the disadvantaged areas in which Neighbourhood Renewal seeks to bring about improvements. Some of you will sit on Neighbourhood Partnerships and you will know that it has been a challenging process to move forward.

We are ambitious for these communities and my aim is to deliver real benefits for them - jobs, decent housing, safer neighbourhoods, accessible and high quality public services including education and health.

I want to see once and for all the gap reduced between the quality of life experienced by people living in disadvantaged areas, and those in the rest of Northern Ireland. Although I recognise this will not happen overnight.

For this reason I would ask those of you involved, to redouble your efforts to bring about local successes, and to encourage everyone involved at every level in regenerating communities, to help address this cycle of disadvantage in our society.

CTI

However, I have always believed that there is much more to developing strong communities than the provision of new buildings and housing and grant aid for local groups. I passionately want to make a difference in communities that have never seen any sign of a "peace dividend" or have never felt any benefit from economic development.

In the end, people must be able to live, to work and to recreate in communities which are not only prosperous, but peaceful, law-abiding and free from intimidating groups and gangs. And free from paramilitaries.

My own recent decision on the funding of the UDA related Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) is based on the belief that it is now time for our society to leave the paramilitary era behind.

Although the decision on CTI is now taken, there are one or two points worth clarifying.

I believe that the CTI project was compromised from the start because of its association with UDA violence. I did not create this linkage, you may remember the public outcry when funding for the project was first announced on the direct instruction of Peter Hain the direct rule Minister.

Nor have I sought to portray project managers Farset or the project workers as members or supporters of the UDA - indeed where they have done good work over the summer I have commended it.

However, this project was established, at the behest of the UPRG/UDA/Direct Rule Ministers with an express commitment to reducing paramilitary activity in communities where the UDA dominate. And it has not succeeded.

I wish to make it clear that in ending CTI, I am not turning my back on 'loyalist' communities. From my many visits to 'hard to reach' loyalist communities, I know that the need is there, and I have given a commitment that essential work on capacity building and renewal within these communities will continue.

Money will be invested in these areas and indeed I have begun a process of wider consultation by seeking meetings with elected representatives from these communities.

I will listen to what the elected representatives have to say, something I believe should have been done at the start of the process, and will ensure that my Department responds positively to what is said. I need all your help in funding creative and effective ways to help communities to help themselves.

Ultimately, I did what I believe to be right.

I believe it is now time for us to set higher standards for our democracy and that means requiring an end to paramilitarism. The reaction from people in the street, including many people living in areas suffering under paramilitary domination, has been overwhelmingly positive in relation to my decision.

Higher standards for our democracy also means an end to all the double-dealing, duplicity and double-speak that has characterised direct-rule Governments over recent years.

I am honoured to stand here before you, the historic Ulster Unionist Party. I do believe it is a first for a politician from the Nationalist tradition. But whatever differences we may have in tradition, or in the past, I am comfortable here, as I believe we share many of the same values today.

And you have consistently brought your values to bear on our politics with dignity and resolve.

The Ulster Unionists, like the SDLP are not only the architects of power sharing but we underpin the principle of power-sharing. Our role is now to ensure that the values which support power sharing such as respect, tolerance, equality and integrity are not undermined by narrow party political interests or the politics of convenience. Dearly held constitutional convictions aside, I know that we share similar aspirations for all the people of Northern Ireland to live side by side, in harmony and in the pursuit of equal opportunity for all.

I recognise that in getting Northern Ireland to where it is today it is the Ulster Unionist Party that did all the heavy lifting and made all the sacrifices in taking the Unionist Community forward.

Unlike others, you did things because it was right to do them despite the political difficulty. While others were opportunists, you brought hard work and principle to the process.

I share your disappointment that (as in the case of my own Party) in recent times the electorate did not recognise and reward your sterling efforts.

It is deeply regrettable also, that those who tried to destroy devolution from within, and those who poisoned the previous devolved administration through their refusal to decommission, now command 9 of the 12 seats around the Executive table.

However, I am convinced that the Parties with the right values will come to prevail again. People can see the difference between those who want to work in partnership for a better, shared future and those who want a cynical carve-up so that they can dominate everyone else.

Attempts by anyone to establish a stranglehold in Government must be resisted by all of us here.

I wish to express my gratitude to Sir Reg and Michael for being good colleagues in Government, and to Lady Sylvia for help and support at a difficult time.

Reg and Michael stood with me to stand against party interests in defence of the common good.

To everyone here I say, you are a proud Party with a proud tradition and you still have so much to offer the people of Northern Ireland.

I also believe our two Parties should be better friends. We should try to get to know each other better.

I believe we should also be exploring areas where there is scope for practical cooperation. Cooperation to our mutual benefit.

Most political compacts do not last forever. Especially where they have little underpinning, other than cynicism and a desire to dominate.

I believe my Party and your Party, in our different ways, can fight back and must do so with vigour.

In the meantime we are all in the vital business of rebuilding and renewing our organisations. And I wish you well with that work.

And the message to those who might seek to dominate us is simple."

"No Surrender."

 


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