Draft deal ‘doubles down’ on future for Northern Ireland’s social housing

Sector expert sees significant references to tackling housing stress in a draft deal to restore Stormont government.

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A draft deal to restore a Stormont executive doubles down on a new decade for social housing in Northern Ireland, a sector expert has said.

Nicola McCrudden, housing consultant and senior associate at Campbell Tickell, sees significant references to housing in the draft that confirms all party commitment to tackling housing stress through increased supply of social and affordable housing.

Under the current outcome-based draft Programme for Government, housing is viewed as an enabler and not as a specific outcome, such as infrastructure, health, education, and the economy.

“This is about to change,” said McCrudden.

“Agreement on the way forward for a restored Executive recognises the immediate challenges in tackling housing stress.

“Housing will become a specific priority for government, alongside the economy, hospitals, schools, welfare concerns, and mental health.”

The draft deal document features housing under the heading: ‘Delivering a fair and compassionate society that supports working families and the most vulnerable.’

It includes:

  • Introducing legislation to reclassify housing associations to enable them to continue building new social and intermediate housing, including co-ownership homes
  • Enhancing investment and agreeing a target for new social and affordable home starts
  • Tackling the maintenance backlog for Housing Executive properties

“Additionally, there is commitment to extending existing welfare mitigation measures beyond March 2020, such as those currently in place for the bedroom tax,” said McCrudden.

Should the parties sign up to the deal, a priority action under the Programme for Government in 2020 will be the inclusion of a new outcome with “…specific focus on ensuring every household has access to a good quality, affordable, and sustainable home that is appropriate for its needs”.

And there’s the prospect of enhanced investment in new social homes.

“There are many challenges for the Housing Executive, and this is recognised in the draft deal,” said McCrudden.

“There is a commitment to examining options for the removal of historical debt and to exclude payment of Corporation Tax.

“Also, to agree a long-term trajectory for Housing Executive rent charges to support the future of its housing stock. However, there must be a balance to ensure that rents are affordable for tenants, which may be underlined by controls through legislation.

“This is a new deal for housing and has the capacity to have a positive impact on thousands of families and people living in housing stress and experiencing homelessness.

“Having a safe, affordable, good quality home is a fundamental need – promoting better health, education and employment opportunities.

“If the parties sign up to this agreement, housing will be prioritised by government, meaning there will be a renewed focus on delivering more homes that are genuinely affordable and supporting those who are most disadvantaged in our society,” she said.

Just last month, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith was urged to reverse reclassification and extend welfare mitigations in the region as a matter of “utmost urgency”.

Addressing the recent NIFHA finance conference, NIFHA CEO Ben Collins warned that although housing associations are “resilient”, if reclassification is not reversed and welfare mitigations aren’t extended beyond March this year, thousands more will “struggle to keep a roof over their heads”.

More than 26,000 people already live in unsafe or unsuitable accommodation, and more than 12,500 people are officially homeless in Northern Ireland.

As it currently stands, a new law is required to reverse the Office of National Statistics’ decision to reclassify housing associations as public bodies.

Successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have publicly committed to passing the necessary legislation, with reclassification already reversed in the rest of the UK.

NIFHA says that if this is not done for Northern Ireland by March, its housing associations will no longer be able to match government grants with private funding – significantly cutting the number of social homes that can be built.

March also sees an end to welfare reform mitigations and the threat of thousands of families worse off.

The overall situation is exacerbated by the continuing absence of an Executive at Stormont.

Stats released by Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities show 26,387 people on the social housing waiting list as of March last year and likely to be living in unsuitable or unsafe accommodation.

That’s an increase of 9% on the 24,148 households facing stress on the year before – the highest level recorded since records began in 2002/03.

The number of households presenting as homeless stood at 18,202 at the end of 2018/19.

Against this, housebuilding starts in NI over the July-September quarter saw a 14% drop on the 2018 equivalent.

Official estimates suggest Northern Ireland now needs around 7,200 homes each year.

All parties in Northern Ireland have challenged to restore power sharing to Stormont after three years of deadlock.

The UK and Irish governments jointly published a suggested deal late yesterday (9th Jan) and urged the five main parties to sign up and re-enter the region’s institutions.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith wrote to the speaker of the defunct Assembly requesting him to convene a sitting today (10th Jan) – effectively issuing a challenge to the parties to turn up and get back to business.

The draft document shown to the parties promises of extra cash for the region and the creation of two “language commissioners” as part of a plan to remove barriers that have blocked previous attempts to revive power sharing.

At face value the draft is a breakthrough.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) gives the plan a cautious welcome, with leader Arlene Foster saying: “On balance, we believe there is a basis upon which the [Northern Ireland] assembly and executive can be re-established in a fair and balanced way.”

“This is not a perfect deal…there are elements within it which we recognise are the product of long negotiations and represent compromise outcomes.

“There will always need to be give and take.”

Dealing with the most controversial issue that has prevented a return to regional government for the region, ministers from London and Dublin presented an agreement that includes commissioners to protect the Irish language alongside Ulster Scots.

Sinn Féin has called a meeting of its ruling council (Ard Chomhairle) to deliberate on the proposals.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said: “We are studying the text and will give it careful consideration.”

Other parties in the power share include the Alliance party, the SDLP, and the Ulster Unionist party.

Ulster Unionist party Leader Steve Aiken said his party was “committed to a return of devolution that is fair and sustainable”, and if the assembly is recalled his assembly members “would attend and consider the business put before them”.

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