Subverting The Community Agenda
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by Cathal McCarthy

On Monday 4th February 2008, I was casually invited to accompany the Southside Regeneration Agency (and pals) on a trip to Dublin to visit newly regenerated areas. The invitation was issued by Mr. Brendan Hayden (Director SRA) in a 'by the way' manner following a meeting of the now defunct Concerned Residents Alliance with Mr. Brendan Kenny (CEO) and Mr. Hayden.

As cathaoirleach of the Weston Gardens Residents' Association I informed Mr. Hayden that I would have to consult with our residents before I could accept. We held a meeting and after some debate it was agreed that I should go. I later found out that I was invited in the hopes that the WGRA could be dissolved into a 'committee' for the neighbouring estate, thus ending our independent negotiations with the agency. This didn't happen.

The itenary involved a visit to Fatima Mansions. A visit to St Ultans integrated Educational Project, which incorporates both a Primary School and Care Unit in Cherry Orchard. A Visit to Sophia Housing (much needed in Limerick) and a visit to Finglas. I was most impressed by the Community involvement in the regeneration of Fatima Mansions and with Dublin City Council's 'buy back scheme' in Finglas.

Fatima Mansions

Here I found a Community that was, for the most part, happy with the regeneration of their area. They had good reason to be, as they were the driving force behind it. Their regeneration board consists mostly of residents. Limericks regeneration board and modus operandi has more in common with Ballymun Regeneration Limited. We didn't visit Ballymun; it's considered a failure!

I was given a lot of useful literature such as The Real Guide to Regeneration for Communities and Things Can Be Different! The Transformation of Fatima Mansions.

The following are extracts from The Real Guide to Regeneration for Communities. The comments [in italics] are my own.

Make a democratic decision
Depopulation - Demolition - Redevelopment
Keep the estate together - retain the existing space - look for refurbishment and precinct improvement.

[Our Association chose the latter and after we were excluded from participating at committee level. We came up with a strategy that would eventually force the Regeneration Agency to either negotiate with us directly or accept that we were not part of their remit. In August 2008, there was an attempt by the Agency to hand us back to the LCC, but we said we'd instigate a judicial review, so now we are the only estate in the Master Plan that isn't being demolished.]

Setting a community agenda

  • Develop clear arguments, agree your positions clearly
  • Put together a Community Agenda for Regeneration. This needs to be a positive vision for change and improvement -new life without demolition. It could be based on:
    • Recognising the value of what you have and improving on it.
    • Keeping the estate and community together.
    • Retaining the existing space.
    • Improving the precinct, refurbishing your homes.
    • Investing in the existing estate and the living community
      (don't let them tell you this is not possible -government funding is available for this under the Remedial Works Scheme and the Area Regeneration Programme).

[We produced our own vision document 'Renewal, Integration, Regeneration', committing to paper everything that Mr. Kenny said was possible for our area. I dropped it into his southside office on the 6th December as we were meeting with him that night. At the time we thought producing our own vision document was an original idea]

  • Make sure community representatives have a clear mandate.
  • Put pressure on the statutory bodies to do their jobs properly
  • Look for publicity, campaign for your rights.
  • Keep a clear head, stay united and organised, don't get divided or split.
  • Lobby politicians.

The following extract is from Things Can Be Different! The Transformation of Fatima Mansions. The comments [in italics] are my own.

Don't be suckered into "partnerships".
To make changes, we have to work with those who can decide that changes will happen. But working with such people is rarely a true partnership, at least not initially. The agendas are different. If their agendas for change coincided with yours, the changes would have happened without your having to ask.

Watch out for the signs.
Through our experience of talking with those in community development work, we have noticed some patterns of behaviour that appear common in powerful bodies with whom a community needs to engage in order to achieve change. When engaging with powerful bodies, even those who make reassuring noises about wanting the best for you, watch out for the following behaviours.

  • Suggesting communication through informal arrangements.
    The powerful body suggests friendly chats, dropping in for tea, or that my door is always open, as a way of dealing with issues, rather than formalised structures. [Sound familiar?]

  • Restricting representation.
    Where formal structures do exist, only minimal representation from the weaker community is allowed. [When we made it clear that we didn't want our homes demolished we were excluded from participating in a 'residents committee'. How many residents sit on the board or regional committees? ]

  • Disruptive behaviour.
    The powerful body effects disruption by cancelling meetings at short notice, leaving meetings early, not completing agreed tasks, misplacing files, not giving information or by sending new representatives to meetings without explanation. [We had severeral meetings cancelled at short notice]

  • Preaching.
    The powerful body pushes out principles to justify controlling a process. For example, insisting that only a member of a marginalised group can attend a meeting rather than any professionals who work with them can be presented as genuine representation. However, in effect, this can mean that the community is more poorly represented than if a professional is present also. It's akin to expecting a person to attend a trial without legal representation and be questioned by qualified barristers.

  • Pressurising.
    The powerful body pressurises for a quick decision on the basis, for example, that funding will be withdrawn if the decision is not made quickly. [I've heard this line from some of our councillors and TD's.]

  • Deferring with a smile.
    The representatives of the powerful body fully and enthusiastically agree with the community but say that they cannot take the decision, as their superior is not present. [Agreeing with everything you say but doing nothing about it seems to be par for the course]

  • Playing poker.
    The powerful body sets out an extremely hard line position initially and gradually soften it under pressure. [We had this at the start: "what are you going to do when all the houses around you are knocked?"]

I arranged a meeting with the Fatima Groups United and returned to Fatima Mansions on Saturday 16th February 2008. I was looking for help in devising a better strategy as Limerick is devoid of such expertise.

It is obvious to me now that Mr. Kenny has learned from his experience in Fatima Mansions and elsewhere. The Limerick Regeneration Agencies have subverted the concept of a real Community Agenda by producing copy & paste 'vision' documents without any real consultation or debate. A 'top down' approach with a 'bottom up' veneer; a developers dream with jobs 'for the boys'.

Finglas - Dublin City Council's 'Buy Back Scheme'

In Finglas, Dublin City Council is buying back houses from elderly people who find it difficult to manage a two-storey three-bedroomed house.

The council will buy at the 'market rate' -€330,000 (low by Dublin standards). The seller will keep two thirds of the money and will be moved into a spacious bungalow in a gated and secure cul-de sac.
The bungalows are rented for a minimum of €27 and a maximum of €39 per week, depending on the pension. The two-thirds lump sum gives financial security and does not affect the rent. In Limerick we are treating our elderly less equitably.

Limerick City Council is facilitating the Regeneration Agencies by overseeing the depopulation of areas targeted for regeneration. While these areas are officially under the remit if the Regeneration Agencies, the agencies refuse to involve themselves in the process.

People have being looking to get out of our troubled estates for years. Since the publication of the Fitzgerald Report, Limerick City Council has been acquiring peoples homes for as little as €20,000 - €40,000 in exchange for rented accommodation elsewhere in the city.

The Council claim that they are paying 'the market rate'. In truth, there is no market. Any auctioneer will tell you that houses in such areas are unsellable! Furthermore, the 'market rate' will not give financial security. Acceptance of the councils offer is conveniently interpreted as 'wanting to leave' and as a result people forfeit their right to a new house in the newly regenerated area.

This policy can only be viewed as exploiting the criminal and anti-social behaviour that exists to pave the way for developers by clearing the land of as many people as possible. Most of these people are law-abiding and elderly, and had finished paying their mortgages.

Troubled families that don't have criminal records are also being displaced, which makes a mockery of any stated intentions for Social Regeneration.

People who have taken the council offer should be contacted by the Regeneration Agencies and offered a house in the newly regenerated area. If they used to be homeowners then they should return as homeowners. If they do not wish to return, then a house in the regenerated area should be sold on their behalf so that they can purchase the house they now have to rent.

Fatima Mansions experienced a loss of population during regeneration, but the FGU are currently working on a repatriation scheme. Unfortunately, there are too many lackies (for want of a better word) in this city that are willing to go along with this 'new show in town' so long as it keeps them in a job, or in some cases, several well paid jobs!

- Cathal McCarthy
Weston Gardens Residents' Association

Limerick Regeneration Watch