One of the great shibboleths of recent years is that housing segregation has increased. This is completely untrue. Segregation statistics are rendered meaningless by the requirement to guess the "community affiliation" of everyone who fails to specify their religion on official forms. Because this guessing is often based on postcodes, the search for segregation is a self-fulfilling quest.
But the real reason we are not as segregated as statistics imply is due to the nature of new housing developments. Few of the tens of thousands of people who have moved into such areas over the past decade know the exact religious breakdown of their neighbourhood – and that's just how they like it. New developments can actually be 100% Protestant or Catholic yet every resident, if asked, will still say they live in a "mixed area". What they mean is that they live in a neutral area, free from self-appointed "community representatives". This is desegregated living in every way that matters and it is under serious, if unintentional, threat.
The assembly wants to exercise long-dormant powers to require developers to provide social housing. These powers, contained in the 1991 Planning Order, include making 20% of properties in a development available for social housing, building an equivalent quantity of social housing somewhere else or paying a sum equal to the cost of such provision. The Semple Review into affordable housing, commissioned by the Department of Social Development and published this year, recommends using the Planning Order to meet most of Northern Ireland's new social housing needs.
There is widespread agreement that provision should be "mixed", with privately owned and socially rented properties side by side. This has already worked well in Britain and the Republic. But what about the other meaning of "mixed", unique to Northern Ireland? Almost all social housing here is allocated on a tribal basis. If this happens within new developments, entire neighbourhoods will be "branded" and the perception of neutrality will be shattered.
Although it is barely remembered now, the original Housing Executive estates of the 1970s were initially neutral and it took very little to begin the process of branding them for one side or the other. Will history repeat itself in private-sector suburbia? This is a question that the Semple Review refuses to address. There are, as Sir John Semple notes in his 70-page report, "serious equality issues to be considered". But apart from those six words he fails to consider them. The Housing Executive and the Department of Social Development are similarly woolly in their replies. This is inexcusable when so many respondents pointed out the threat to neutrality during the report's lengthy consultation period.
Ironically, everyone from the Chartered Institute of Housing to the Ballynafeigh Community Development Association was in favour of mixing social and private housing to encourage a mix of Protestant and Catholic residents. Fears were expressed that building social housing off-site would reduce the range of properties available to maintain diverse neighbourhoods. Such sentiments are touching but they will count for nothing once that on-site social housing suffers the attention of tribal politicians, paramilitary control freaks or just the inevitable arrival of the first family to put a flag out. This is how the Housing Executive ended up including "community affiliation" on its official forms in the first place.
Most people think the fair route to mixed social housing is allocation by objective need. They may even think that this is what our politicians mean when they refer to "allocation by objective need". Unfortunately, our politicians mean no such thing. They mean objective "community" need, where the tribe with most people on the local waiting list gets all the new housing. This is why Michelle Gildernew criticised Northern Ireland's only current mixed housing project in Fermanagh and why the Crumlin Road Gaol site may see no social housing at all.
Many local human rights groups subscribe to the same apartheid theory. In February the Committee for the Administration of Justice condemned plans for mixed housing in central Belfast because two of the three adjacent neighbourhoods are Catholic. It is hard to avoid the impression that some people just prefer us to be neatly sorted into our respective categories.
Delivering mixed social and private housing while maintaining the more broadly "mixed" ethos of new developments now falls to SDLP social development minister Margaret Ritchie. The fact that nobody else appears to have a solution to this problem only makes it more important to hear her solution now.