Residents of Rinmore Drive in Creggan have been campaigning for many years to have their homes modernised and last week their campaign paid off.
People living in the street had long complained that their homes were outdated and urged the Housing Executive to carry our refurbishments.
The Housing Executive examined the houses and has now agreed to carry out a major refurbishment scheme which would involve kitchen extensions, rewiring, and replastering of internal walls.
The residents were told the scheme would be carried out in two phases but soon after the first started, they were informed there was not enough money to start the second.
This created a situation where houses on one side of the street had been refurbished while the those on the other were not. One local resident, Willie Burke, said the residents whose homes had not been refurbished felt “like second class citizens.”
The residents then took the unusual step of taking matters into their own hands to try to find a solution to their problem. They came up with the unique suggestion of transferring the houses from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) to the Apex housing association in order to have the scheme completed.
Explaining how it came about, Mr Burke said; “We have been waiting on these house improvements since the mid 1990s and the whole street was delighted when they announced the beginning of the first phase of the refurbishment.
“At a public meeting about four years ago the NIHE management outlined the type of scheme and how it was going to go forward.
“It was big stuff for residents with extended kitchens, new heating systems, rewiring and internal plastering of all homes among the main improvements. They told us that they would do the street in two phases and would most likely start phase two, which included my home, soon after phase one had begun.”
While the residents were happy with the start of the work, some began to worry when phase two of the scheme was delayed. Mr Burke continued; “As phase one rolled on and there was no sign of phase two beginning the residents began to get anxious as they had been let down before and started to ask questions as to why the phase two had not started.”
The residents took their concerns to the then Social Development Minister, Margaret Ritche, during a visit to the estate. “The answers which came back from the NIHE management were very non-committal at best and, at times, negative.
“So at a chance encounter with the DSD Minister Margaret Ritchie who was visiting the Corned Beef Tin I asked her directly about phase two, seeking assurances from her that the work would not slip again.
“Margaret Ritchie assured me that she would not allow that to happen. This was great news for us residents but it was short lived as within a couple of weeks NIHE convened a meeting to tell us that they had ran out of money and that they could not proceed with the proposed and much needed renovations,” he said.
Mr Burke said the news came a as a major blow to residents who then began a campaign to have the refurbishment scheme completed.
“This news devastated the residents and created a sense of second class citizenship within the street, with two thirds living in improved homes whilst the other residents living in substandard houses which needed changes identified in the 1990s. But it sparked the residents into action.
“We carried out a number of protests by way of public meetings, in the street and to the NIHE headquarters in Derry,” he said.
The residents met with local community workers and councillors and came up with an ambitious plan to see the work completed.
As Sean McMonagle from the Triax Neighbourhood Management Team explained, the solution they came up with was a community-led one. “While we were deciding what to do next we came up with a range of suggestions such as taking our campaign to Stormont. It was suggested that a similar issue had developed in Creggan Heights and after NW Housing was suggested to take over the scheme, the NIHE ‘found’ the money required to complete it.
“Using this information as a tactic we approached NIHE who, at first, I believe didn’t take the idea seriously, so we then literally door-stepped the minister while she was visiting Derry and we offered solutions from the community to what was we essentially a government problem,” he said.
Mr McMonagle said the move was supported by the majority of local residents. “This approach set in motion a long consultation process within government, with NIHE and NW Housing, and within the community among residents and between elected representatives, government departments, housing associations and community representatives which culminated in a vote in which each resident was asked whether they were in favour of the switch from NIHE to Apex Housing Association and 89 per of residents voted in favour,” he said.
Mr Burke said the refurbishment scheme was a priority for local residents and they made sure that others made it a priority too.
“If we are honest we would have preferred that the NIHE carry out the works as this scheme should have been made a priority when they had the money, but it wasn’t a priority to them.
“It is a priority for us, we have to live in these conditions. I am just glad that there is certainty that the work is going to be done now in the coming months,” he said.
With the first batch of residents due to have their homes started by the summer, Mr McMonagle said; “This is a genuine example of the people in a local community finding solutions to the problems that they face.
“Residents, community organisations, government bodies and elected representatives coming together to enhance the quality of lives of people and delivering on outstanding needs.
“There is also an opportunity for local regeneration in terms of the improvements and the new proposed social homes in Culdaff Gardens. We will continue our engagements to ensure that social clauses in terms of the employment which will be generated by these works are included in contracts, giving equal opportunity to members of the community to secure employment by the scheme.
“This and the proposed development at Circular Road of 180 houses must be about more than that; they can also be an opportunity to tackle unemployment in this area.
“That is, of course, if a social conscience exists within government departments and bodies and there is the will among Apex Housing to look beyond bricks and mortar and include social justice in its objectives, by ensuring the unemployed get access to these opportunities.”