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Ligoniel Improvement Association

Up on the periphery of north-west Belfast, in the foothills of Divis mountain, lies the ‘village’ of Ligoniel. The village was founded expressly to produce linen, back in the days when linen was big business in this part of the world. But the flax has long ceased to spin and Ligoniel has since been identified as a Neighbourhood Renewal Area, defined by the NI Statistics & Research Agency as one of those that: “experience the most severe multiple deprivation and have been chosen to receive support under the Department of Social Development People and Place strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal.” As with many communities of this kind, residents got organised in the face of adversity and concluded that state assistance was insufficient for their needs.

Ligoniel Improvement Association (LIA) is the umbrella name for several projects devoted to regenerating the area by building the capacity of its inhabitants, developing the environment, providing housing and promoting social cohesion. From its headquarters at the Wolfhill Centre, LIA has sought to engage local people in issues directly impacting on the area. For example, education and capacity building has been a key priority for LIA over the years and a training facility was installed at the centre to improve academic attainment for young people.

They understand that the inequalities and disadvantages affecting Ligoniel at all levels are not only a legacy of the Troubles, but a function of geography, located as they are on the edge of the Belfast city limits. But it hasn’t been easy - LIA has been forced to operate through intransigence from certain sections of the community, and through political indifference. For example, a few years back they explored the possibility of shared playing fields on the land that lies between the mostly protestant Ligoniel Primary School and the catholic St Vincent de Paul Primary School. The project never got off the ground because it didn’t have the full support of both sections of the community. It was ‘strongly suggested’ to the LIA board that they back off from trying to transform what is essentially ‘no man’s land’ into a shared space.

Therefore, it has been necessary to tap into that frontier spirit and forge links and create partnerships wherever possible, so that Ligoniel does not languish in isolation. To that end, The Ligoniel Neighbourhood Village Partnership was established, and it was followed by the Ligoniel Healthy Living Centre (LHLC) in 2003, set up to address health inequalities. LHLC focuses on prevention through recreation, education and building resilience, and supports crisis intervention and the achievement of clinical targets. LIA is a member of the North Belfast Advice Partnership which provides welfare advice across the region, the Citywide Tribunal service which provides free tribunal representation and the Belfast Hills Partnership, as well as several housing associations.

The organisation has steadily and wisely built up their portfolio of property too; they currently own a fair chunk of Ligoniel, and approval was recently given for the building of thirty social housing units, as well as a childcare centre and youth centre. The land immediately surrounding the Wolfhill Centre functions as a mini enterprise park, with car mechanics, upholsterers and barbers numbering amongst the tenants, and community gardens to the rear.

The latter is an initiative of the Wolfhill Greenworks offshoot, a social enterprise that provides garden and property maintenance services. Their latest project is the production of microherbs for supply to Belfast restaurants. They had been considering the installation of polytunnels for some time but were unsure what crops to grow. A phone call to Steve Glover from Bristol-based urban farm, The Severn Project, revealed that mustard leaves were the way to go for an optimum yield in limited growing space - from seed to harvest in only three weeks. Greenworks now supplies to several Belfast pizzerias, but the upscaling of their production is now dependent on new staff experienced in maintenance or horticulture.

This foray into more ecological areas seems to be the logical next stage in LIA’s evolution and has the potential to take both the organisation and the Ligoniel community to the next level.

About half a mile away from the Wolfhill Centre, on the edge of a new housing estate, are the Wolfhill Dams. The dams were once used to power the linen and corn industries located here, but in recent years the open green space that surrounds the water has become popular with dog walkers, nature lovers and frequenters of the surrounding Belfast hills. This too is owned by LIA and they have big plans for it. Half a million pounds worth of investment has already resulted in improvements to the pathways surrounding the Dams, as well as platforms for the disabled. This has encouraged more people to visit and observe the indigenous wildlife and has facilitated a local fishing club. But LIA views the Dams as a resource for education as well as recreation (a Belfast Hills School perhaps?), where children from different local schools can come together to learn about their environment – a much-needed initiative for young city dwellers with a strong predilection for video games. Furthermore, planning permission has been given for the development of the Cornmill building, also located on the Wolfhill Dams site. It is proposed that this will be a central HQ for all those using the Dams, and is set to include office space, changing/toilet facilities and a kitchen.

Georgaphically, Ligoniel Dams is the missing link between, on one side, the Divis and Black mountains, leading to Colinglen Park in south-west Belfast; and on the other side the Cavehill. In other words, a hardy rambler could, in theory, walk from the outskirts of Lisburn all the way over to Belfast Zoo, should they desire to do so. The Belfast Hills Partnership certainly sees the benefit of linking all the hills in a cohesive way – from a tourism and consequently an economic perspective, it makes sense. Yet despite repeated attempts by LIA to engage with local government officials to liberate locked-up walkways around the Forthriver district, the council seems incapable of seeing the bigger picture.

The biggest obstacle to community empowerment is often the intransigence of local government, and until northern Ireland has community rights legislation in place, this is always going to be an uphill struggle. For now though, through their expertise in both hills and struggles, Ligoniel Improvement Association can rightly be proud of how a community can positively impact the regeneration of their area.

3rd Floor, Cathedral Quarter Managed Workspace, 109-113 Royal Avenue, Belfast BT1 1FF