Not just bricks and mortar
18th July 2023
Adapting for the future
18th July 2023

Market Development Association: ‘An alternative vision for housing’

The MDA launches housing plans for the northern fringe Gasworks site in Belfast, with former Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey MLA.

In April 2023, the North’s Department for Communities (DfC) acquired the vacant Stewart Street site in Belfast’s Market area for housing-led regeneration. In this context, Ciarán Galway visits the area and speaks with Fionntán Hargey, Director of the Market Development Association (MDA), about his community’s longstanding grassroots housing and community regeneration campaigns.

Named after the 14 commercial markets which once surrounded it – St George’s Market being the sole survivor – the Market area of south Belfast is one of the city’s longest established communities. Once an industrial heartland, its streetscape was originally constructed on a grid plan.

With the various industrial ventures which once dotted the area in the early 20th century now consigned to history, the recent conflict compounded the scarring of local geography. The grid system was erased and today, the area has only three points of road access: Stewart Street, Raphael Street, and Eliza Street.

Euphemistically alluded to as “defensive planning”, post-conflict, the consequence for areas such as the Market is continued place-based inequality and socio-spatial segregation from Belfast’s socioeconomic life.

Contained on four sides by East Bridge Street to the north, the Lanyon Place Station railway lines to the east, the Gasworks business park to the south, and Cromac Street (which bisects the area, and was previously intersected by several natural access points from the Market proper) to the west, the Market has been artificially separated from its natural hinterland: the city centre.

“If you look at older maps of the area, it is completely integrated into the city centre. During the redevelopment of Belfast in the late 1960s into the 1970s, three interlocking trends came together: suburbanisation, deindustrialisation, and securitisation of urban planning,” Fionntán Hargey observes.

“The Market, and Belfast as a whole, are not unique in experiencing socio-spatial segregation, but it was the combination of those three factors, in the context of the recent conflict, which exacerbated it beyond the experience of many other cities in the western world.”

In fact, in recent decades, this segregation has been compounded by commercial redevelopment in its surrounding environs. Referencing the Laganside regeneration area which demarcated the land of riverfront to be transformed with £1.2 billion of investment between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, Hargey suggests that it carefully excluding the surrounding inner-city communities that neighbour the River Lagan.

“This exclusion cut deep within the psyche of these inner-city communities like ours, and the message was ‘keep out, you are not welcome’. Indeed, the only regeneration investment that the Market community observed was in gates, walls, and fences,” the MDA Director reflects.

Housing need

Established in late 1995, the Market Development Association aims to “promote the wellbeing of all residents living in the Market area of south Belfast”. While the MDA does not employ a dedicated housing officer, almost half of the queries that it receives are related to housing. Discussing housing need withing the Market, the Director explains that an average of 115 families are on the social housing waiting list each year.

This figure excludes people experiencing hidden homelessness, because “many local people do not see the point in registering for the waiting list because they do not think they will ever get the required allocation points, are reluctant to linger on the list for years, or do not even understand the system”.

Indeed, in 2018, the MDA community survey which informed We Must Dissent – the MDA’s overarching framework and strategy for community development – found that 86 per cent of Market residents felt that there was not enough decent and affordable housing in the area.

An aerial shot of the Stewart Street site.

“There is a limited turnover in properties each year. This is exacerbated by the Right to Buy Scheme which is undermining social housing stock,” Hargey notes, elaborating: “The problem that we are observing is that while a social housing unit home may have initially been bought by a tenant as a family home, for myriad reasons that house is eventually sold on and often it is being bought up as an Airbnb or a HMO. Even if someone wanted to buy locally, therefore, they are often being outbid while simultaneously, they cannot get sufficient points to access social housing.”

‘Sunshine not Skyscrapers’

On the eastern edge of the Market, adjacent to Lanyon Place Station, the Stewart Street brownfield site – a roughly rectangular plot of vacant land with a curving boundary to its south – is one of the foremost initial sights greeting rail passengers entering Belfast city centre.

In 2016, a £55 million high-rise development plan for the site crossed the Rubicon, proposing commercial development within the traditionally residential footprint of the old commercial markets. The local community met the plan with vociferous opposition, coordinated through the ‘Sunshine not Skyscrapers’ campaign under the wider ‘Save the Market’ umbrella.

“The community’s perspective was that the proposed development epitomised all the bad planning precedents that had been happening within the Market community over the decades. In terms of the MDA’s wider strategies around connectivity and breaking the economic barriers that we are grappling with; it was overdevelopment on steroids.”

In the face of what the Director describes as an “existential threat”, the Market community was bolstered by its “alternative vision for housing”. “We were not just opposing development; rather we had a better alternative for both the community and the wider city; a real community regeneration project rather than just commercial speculation.”

Subsequently, residents fought the commercial plan at the Belfast City Council planning committee and initially lost by 10 votes to four. The plan was then subject to judicial review.

“While the judicial review was going on, the community undertook the Save the Market/Sunshine not Skyscrapers campaign. This involved everything from postering, lobbying, and filmmaking to media engagements and street protests,” Hargey describes.

“Ultimately, we won the High Court judicial review in May 2018. Later that year, the developer sought to resubmit the planning application to Belfast City Council which then referred it to the Ministerial Advisory Group – an independent expert panel convened by the Department for Communities to assess contentious planning applications.

“In early 2019, the Ministerial Advisory Group came back, rejected the proposal, and vindicated the residents’ opposition on the grounds that it would effectively kill off the Tunnels Project. It was overdevelopment in terms of scale and design on that site. When Covid hit in March 2020, the developer then tried again to push ahead with the plan, and it went back to the Belfast City Council planning committee in November 2020 where, inverting the original decision, it lost 10 votes to four.”

Commenting on this “victory for the Market community”, Sinn Féin MLA and former Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey insists: “It was the political support and push that made that happen within Belfast City Council. The campaign was very effective in building up political support, as evidenced by the fact that the committee ultimately opposed it by majority.”

Housing-led development

In a latest development, in April 2023, it was announced that DfC had purchased the Stewart Street land for a housing-led regeneration scheme. “That will unlock the tunnels and encourage active travel, while also addressing housing need, which is prevalent not just in the Market community, but in the city centre as well,” the MDA Director articulates.

While hypothetically, the ground floor units, especially those nearest to the tunnels could be earmarked for commercial use, to complement that project, it is too early to determine how many housing units will be constructed on the Stewart street site. Soon, the MDA will be undertaking that type of engagement with the Market residents, collating their vision for the site.

“In terms of what normally happens, the Department for Communities will defer to the Housing Executive as the housing authority, the Housing Executive will select a housing association to bring forward a housing-led scheme on the site,” Deirdre Hargey advises, adding: “We want a level of mixed use on the site to make sure that the development is complementary to the Tunnels Project and that there is good synergy. The designated housing association will bring forward a scheme and it will be down to consultation and engagement as to what the final proposal looks like.”

Discussing the projected configuration of the housing on the site, the Sinn Féin MLA believes that it will be mixed tenure. “Obviously, a portion of the housing will be social and public, but feeding into the sustainability of the community, there is likely to be different types of tenure. The policy of DfC now is to have ‘tenure blind’ accommodation going forward. We still need to address the housing need because we are in a crisis, but it is making sure that it is sustainable, that it fits into its surroundings, and complementary,” she says.
Tunnels Project

Fundamental to housing-led regeneration plans for the Stewart Street site are the tunnels which run underneath East Bridge Street. The MDA’s Tunnels Project, aimed at reopening the tunnels to facilitate active travel access to Lanyon Place and the wider city centre, as well an associated regeneration was successful in securing funding from the Executive Office and Belfast City Council.

“DfC’s focus is on wider connectivity of regeneration priorities,” Deidre Hargey emphasises. “Consider what Belfast City Council is trying to achieve through its strategic framework for the city, Bolder Vision for Belfast, creating an urban greenway around the city rather than an inner-city ring route. Bolder Vision for Belfast addresses the community severance of inner-city communities, and how they have been disconnected from the city core and vice versa. We need to overcome that severance that is felt within those neighbourhoods through projects such as the Tunnels Project.

“Key to the Tunnels Project is connectivity; beginning to breakdown the severance of the Market community from the city core. One of the tunnels will be a pedestrianised route that will start to connect all of that up.”

‘Homes Now’

Previously, the ‘Homes Now’ campaign, also under the ‘Save the Market’ umbrella, saw Market residents successfully campaigne for housing-led development on the northern fringe of the Gasworks site – which borders the Market on its south side.

Running from the River Lagan to the Ormeau Avenue end of the Gasworks, the northern fringe site had traditionally been residential, but during a period of regeneration was acquired by Belfast City Council and held for the construction of inner-city ring road. However, it remained undeveloped, becoming what is known as a ‘shatter zone’.

Replicated across the inner-city of Belfast, these shatter zones are, according to architect, Mark Hackett, “barriers that were imposed by government onto a community to detach them from the centre”.

Since 2004, the MDA began campaigning for the land to be rezoned for housing. Following the financial crash, from 2015 onwards there was enhanced private sector interest in the site as an investment opportunity for capital development. This provoked the Market community to respond with the Homes Now campaign.

“Today, instead of a proposed total of six houses on that site, there will be 94 units and part of the land developed for community use, including for economic development and job creation. While housing is important, it is also about building sustainable communities. All of this was achieved under the Homes Now campaign banner, with We Must Dissent linking up each of these campaigns,” the MDA Director observes.


Discussing his vision for the future of housing in the Market, Hargey succinctly summarises it in a line: “Homes for all.” Asked to elaborate, the objective, he asserts, is to ensure that “every child being born and growing up in the Market has adequate space to develop and prosper”.

“It is about ensuring dignity for people while building a sustainable community. Housing is a critical part of that. We must ensure that we deliver homes for all and that the Market is a community that continues to develop and evolve, while retaining the spirit of what makes it unique. We are looking to the future in terms of sustainability, and building a neighbourhood that people want to live in and stay in. We want this collective approach to be replicated across the city to build a fairer and more sustainable society.”