Residents living next to dozens of disused former Ministry of Defence (MoD) homes in Lisburn claim the ongoing destruction of the vacant properties has left the area looking “like a war zone”.
Since the MoD transferred ownership of the surplus properties to the Department for Communities, people living in the vicinity of Mountview Drive and Skyline Drive say the gardens have become overgrown and young people have been breaking into and vandalising the houses.
One Skyline Drive resident said: “The houses across the road have been vacant for over three years. During those years the MoD sent people out to check the houses and cut the grass regularly. This recently stopped and the houses are now unkempt and we have had problems with teenagers climbing on the roofs and breaking into the houses. It’s a very dangerous situation.
“My 86-year-old female neighbour has even had to go out and cut down hedges so that the footpaths are accessible; it is an absolute disgrace.”
Stressing that she and her neighbours are very worried about the current situation, the woman added: “The place looks like a war zone - boarded up windows, broken glass, graffiti, overgrown. The houses are being destroyed. In an age when people are desperate for social housing these houses are being left to rot. It is a disgrace that the whole area is being destroyed.”
Plans for the transfer of more than 50 former MoD properties in the area to Clanmil Housing Group have been stalled due to the ongoing political impasse at Stormont.
Clanmil has stressed that it is keen to push ahead with plans to refurbish the homes and make them available for social and affordable housing. However, the properties haven’t yet been released by the department, which says it can’t do so without Assembly approval.
Responding to concerns voiced by local residents earlier this year, DUP representatives Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, Edwin Poots MLA, Cllr Scott Carson and Cllr Jonathan Craig made efforts to progress the transfer of the homes to Clanmil.
However, despite calling on both the Secretary of State and senior officials at the Department for Communities to intervene, the local representatives have been told that the transfer cannot go ahead without being signed off by the Assembly, which collapsed in January this year.
Expressing his concern at the ongoing vandalism and anti-social behaviour, Mr Donaldson said: “This is totally unacceptable and I have brought this to the attention of the PSNI as crimes are being committed here.
“In addition, I have raised with both the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities the need to proceed with the transfer of these houses to Clanmil Housing as a matter of priority. The Secretary of State has indicated that he is unable to intervene at this time at this is a devolved issue and needs to be dealt with by the Assembly. The Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities confirmed that the transfer is currently stalled as it requires Assembly approval. In the meantime, he assured me that measures have been taken to improve the security of these vacant properties, including the removal of oil tanks and the implementation of regular patrols by a private security firm.
“However, it is evident that the vandalism continues and there will be a significant cost in repairing the houses and making them fit for human habitation. This situation again highlights the consequences of Sinn Fein’s refusal to allow the Assembly and Executive to function. Decisions are not being made and it is the public that is suffering.
“I believe the time is fast approaching for the Secretary of State to reintroduce Direct Rule from Westminster on a temporary basis to ensure decisions are made and this type of situation is resolved. We cannot allow this political vacuum to continue indefinitely and the Secretary of State should intervene.”
Mr Poots, who has spoken to a number of senior civil servants in a bid to push the transfer through, added: “We need more social and affordable housing in the Lisburn area and this was meant to help meet that deficit. But instead of that we are spending money on rates, security and a variety of other things, instead of actually making these houses available to the public and getting money back in from them.”
Cllr Craig said a direct contact number has been set up to allow Harmony Hill community representatives to report incidents at the properties directly to the department, and funding has been provided for a youth worker to engage with young people in the area.
But describing such measures as “sticking plasters”, Cllr Craig said it is vital that the department gives the go-ahead for the transfer of the houses, thought to be worth around £5m, to Clanmil as soon as possible.
Responding, a Department for Communities spokesperson said: “Public expenditure financial guidance requires the departments to follow certain procedures by notifying the Assembly when it is proposed to transfer assets as gifts to other organisations. This procedure is in place to maintain transparency in use of public assets and provides elected members with an opportunity to scrutinise how Departments and Ministers utilise assets for the public good. However given the current situation with regard to the Assembly, the department is seeking advice as to whether it would be possible to effect the transfer of the former MoD properties to Clanmil when the Assembly is not sitting.
“In the interim, the department is taking what steps it can, within available resources to look after these properties, this has included paying rates, implementing security patrols and undertaking remedial works to secure the houses (including the removal of some oil tanks) following a number of anti-social behaviour incidents. The department is aware of the effect empty properties can have in a residential area and will continue to examine what further steps it can take to minimise the impacts on neighbouring homes in light of current financial allocations.”