Brendan Murtagh tells how in the face of inadequate investment there is potential in the poorest communities in Northern Ireland’s capital to share the economic benefits of peace. 

Despite recent uncertainty about the effects of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the region’s economy has strengthened since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement with inward investment in ICT, finance, legal services and cyber-security. This has been enabled by major urban development schemes in Belfast’s waterfront, new tourism and religious desegregation mainly in middle-class neighbourhoods. The problem is that the people and places untouched by the peace economy have become more economically vulnerable, violent and divided. Poor Catholic communities and poor Protestant communities now share broadly the same challenges  in unemployment, benefit dependency, ill-health and low levels of education.

The problem is that the people and places untouched by the peace economy have become more economically vulnerable, violent and divided.

This twin-speed city is reinforced by a spatial mismatch (investment is concentrated in new sites such as the waterfront and not in traditionally working-class neighbourhoods); and a skills mismatch (new jobs require a high level of education when literacy and numeracy levels in poor neighbourhoods are low). A different type of economy is needed in such conditions that challenge ideas about growth and how wealth is distributed in the context of peace.

A growing lobby across NGOs, leading social enterprises and academics – Development Trusts Northern Ireland – has argued for a rethink about how the gains of peace are secured by a shift towards community wealth and a social economy that can work better in the poorest neighbourhoods. At the heart of vibrant social economies are social enterprises that trade in goods and services but whose profits are used for, and controlled by, local communities. Advanced social economies include: bespoke finance; intermediaries, such as legal services; capacity building; policy advocacy; and applied research, especially on the impact of the sector.

Winning the peace
The range of examples among the most disadvantaged parts of Belfast include some that demonstrate the breadth of opportunity for regeneration in the city.

Eastside Partnership in east Belfast is involved in property development, arts and tourism, training and IT services. It also manages the £40m Connswater Greenway with 32,400 users and has a major community tourism programme. Here, Eastside operates its own Airbnb and is about to start work on a 21-room hotel. In 2018, the organisation made a profit of £0.5m and generated a waged income of £314,000 within the area. It emphasises investment in underserved neighbourhoods and has £4.1m in property assets in, for example: a health centre, retail complex and community facilities, in areas largely left behind by the private and public sector. 

Ashton Community Trust (ACT) is based in inner-north Belfast, which is one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the UK and experienced some of the worst violence during the Northern Ireland conflict. It started with a Community Share Issue of 720 shares as initial capital to develop a small enterprise centre. ACT now employs 200 people, has a turnover of £7m, assets worth £3m, including ten properties and an operating profit of £1.2m. The difference that social enterprises make is the way in which money is retained and recycled in the community economy. Using local multiplier methods developed by the New Economics Foundation, Queen’s University showed that every £1 spent by ACT in salaries, suppliers and investments, leveraged £1.78 in the north Belfast economy.

The Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project (SRRP) redeveloped an interface between Protestant and Catholic communities in west Belfast. It rebuilt a derelict block and burnt-out housing as a jointly-owned facility with shops, childcare centre and community space. SRRP made a profit of £100,000 in 2018, which created a Community Fund of £60,000 redistributed to two forums on each side of the interface. This supported a range of projects including training and education, welfare advice and youth diversion to reduce conflict at the peace line. The project generated 90 jobs and £1.5m in salaries while new shops and services reduced financial leakage from the neighbourhood economy. SRRP now holds assets valued at £2m, which creates £1.7m in rent to be reinvested in new projects.

Northern Ireland falls short against these criteria. The social economy is small, undercapitalised and lacks the enabling environment (legislation, finance and skills support) compared with the rest of the UK. Social value legislation, asset transfer and right to buy, that have stimulated key sectors in Britain, have not been enacted in the region. Social value legislation requires public agencies to prioritise social enterprises in their contracts and community rights enables land and buildings to be transferred to community use. Dedicated investment programmes for social enterprises and social entrepreneurs are absent and capacity remains weak.

There have been decades of policy drift, inaction and even resistance to the social economy, aided by poor understanding, indifference and a faith in private-led, urban development. For example, legislation on asset transfer and social value procurement have not been enacted in the region despite evidence of success (see box).

Examples from three of the poorest communities in the city show the potential of an alternative economic approach.

Peace is always vulnerable, but the economic abandonment of the areas that suffered most in the conflict is the most significant challenge. The examples from three of the poorest communities in the city show the potential of an alternative economic approach, but it lacks scale. More importantly, it lacks recognition in policy and political terms and needs investment, legislation and better skills to replicate into a meaningful regeneration agenda for the city.


Brendan Murtagh

Brendan is Professor of Urban Planning at Queen’s University Belfast. He has researched and written widely on social economics, urban regeneration and community development. In 2019, he published a research-based …

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