Ashton Community Trust is 25 years old. We are a community focused social enterprise based in north Belfast set up through a share drive by local people in response to evidenced problems of unemployment, lack of opportunity, dereliction and issues connected to the conflict.
Today we employ over 180 people, operate from 10 locations, own £5m property and our expected turnover this year will be around £7m.
We’ve grown our services in parallel with local needs. We are an adaptive and responsive organisation, capable of making gains against difficult social and economic circumstances. We believe in meaningful collaboration. We are good partners and we deliver.
However the landscape, particularly in this part of Belfast, is challenging. We are a diverse patchwork of communities that live together cheek-by-jowl and politically this is reflected in our parliamentary, council and assembly representation.
We are on the cusp of major regeneration and development in the lower north Belfast region, yet local people and businesses are unsure of what impact this development will have. We do know however, that these changes will be significant and that they, and we, are not in any decision-making loop.
‘The ‘micro’ can’t make structural changes but nor
can ‘macro’ policies and developments address poverty ‘
I refer specifically to the interchange project, the redevelopment of the York Street Ulster university campus and plans by private developers to build multi-storey student blocks of accommodation in the same location. If these go ahead, and it’s very likely they will, people locally will have another ‘Holylands’ to deal with, a student area now dogged with community tensions.
At Ashton, we are a willing partner who wants to engage. We want to work with the university, Belfast council and the newly configured communities department to discuss and create opportunities for people who live there. That’s why we have been trying for five years to plug into Ulster University and its decision-making processes. The issue for us isn’t about the community opposing change, but about genuine concerns around child poverty, educational attainment, access to university qualifications, environmental challenges and traffic congestion.
We believe that people and quality of life matters. Over the last 25 years Ashton has supported thousands of people through its community programmes. These services include: Bridge of Hope, FabLab, Kinderkids Daycare, New Lodge Youth Centre, Social Enterprise Hub and employment and training services. The organisation, underpinned by a strong community development commitment, aims to provide a one-stop-shop for local needs.
The social economy sector has a long and rich tradition of providing quality services to disadvantaged communities and through sheer hard work and determination, we are in a fortunate position to align ourselves with that trend and grow that further.
We know about community impact and we know that redevelopment doesn’t automatically mean benefits will flow for local people. Engagement in this sense is critical. Doing something ‘with communities’ and not ‘onto them’ is an Ashton modus operandi.
We need a comprehensive plan for the area and I don’t say this lightly. I am fully aware of previous failed attempts and efforts to get the big picture right. I couldn’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been to over the last decade about developments that made wonderful promises for local communities. We can’t afford to do regeneration badly but we continually seem to do it. All the initiatives happening in our area are happening in a haphazard, unstructured way with token community engagement.
So in summary, it’s clear that this is a major piece of work and it’s not all down to one agency. We at Ashton Community Trust are working to create a development model that can genuinely tackle poverty. However we can’t succeed on our own, we need help.
The ‘micro’ like Ashton can’t make structural changes but nor can the ‘macro’ policies and developments address areas of poverty and disadvantage without engaging with organisations like ours.
Those with the powers at local and central government level need to spearhead and develop an economic and spatial plan which is endorsed by all the stakeholders. A good plan could deliver clear economic benefits for all of the city and its people. Only by doing this can we ensure that regeneration benefits those communities that most need to gain.
Paul Roberts is chief executive of the Ashton Commmunity Trust