The view from Northern Ireland

Paul Price, Director of Social Housing Policy and oversight and David Polley, Acting Director of Housing Supply Policy at the Department for Communities discuss current housing policy in Northern Ireland.

The Programme for Government of the Northern Ireland Executive commits officials in the NI Department for Communities and partner organisations to progress two indicators. These are to: (1) increase overall housing supply, and (2) reduce the numbers of households in ‘housing stress’ – a term used to describe those most in need on the social housing waiting list. While this remains a draft document because of the current political situation, it provides the context for housing policy work. So, what is happening at present?

Government funding

There are currently 790,000 homes in NI. Overall in the past ten years the supply of homes has increased by 10%, and we are currently delivering 7,000 to 8,000 new houses each year, meeting our Housing Growth Indicator target. Of these 790,000 homes, 127,400 are social homes and 8,000 are affordable homes. These figures reflect a significant capital commitment to social new build by the Department for Communities through its Social Housing Development Programme.

Between April 2013 and March 2019 this programme invested £618 million and started just over 9,500 social homes. The figures on affordable homes reflect a significant commitment of loan finance through NI’s Co-ownership Scheme, which has helped over 28,000 people into home-ownership.

Housing stress

Meanwhile, as at March 2019 the number of households in Housing Stress was 26,387 – up from 24,148 in March 2018. Current increases in housing supply overall, while welcome, are not significant enough to close NI’s supply gap at the rate required (given housing supply has been at a greatly reduced level for most of a decade before that).

The demand for more housing, driven by demographic and economic factors, outstrips what the government can currently do to meet it. A step change will require significant policy interventions over the next few years, in two broad respects.

First, there are actions that are needed now, or very soon, in order to avert the danger of a severe deterioration in the current position. Legislation is needed to change the relationship between the Department for Communities and Registered Housing Associations (RHAs). This change is needed in to enable the Office for National Statistics to no longer classify these organisations as part of the public sector. Such a change is essential to maintain both the current rates of new social housing development and our Co-ownership Scheme. Draft legislation is ready to go and simply awaits the opportunity to pass it.

Northern Ireland Housing Executive

Urgent action is also needed to keep NI’s existing social homes. Two-thirds of these are provided by the NI Housing Executive (NIHE). The NIHE is one of the UK’s largest social housing providers. Since the early 1970s it has been providing social housing services to the people of NI often in the most challenging circumstances imaginable. If it is to maintain its stock of approximately 85,000 social homes for future generations, the NIHE needs to source a very significant injection of investment.

The challenge will require big decisions from NI ministers and officials have options ready.

If the additional investment is not found, then the NIHE faces a reduction in its portfolio of around 50%.

The successful negotiation of these challenges is essentially preventative. It will not deliver actual improvement. This will require policy innovation, in particular innovation that goes beyond social housing.

Need for innovation

Second, we must start doing more than just ‘more of the same’. We will need to develop a range of new innovations to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose housing supply, addressing the issues within our whole housing system which are driving the increases in housing stress. Given the rapid increase in the size of the private rented sector, this will have to include reviewing our PRS regulation.

This is to ensure it strikes a fair balance between tenants and landlords and to find ways to help renters move into a sector that better suits their needs. We would also like to develop our Co-ownership Shared Housing Scheme – which last year helped 1,200 people buy homes. There is scope to develop other types of rental products in addition to social housing, such as discounted rented housing, with secure tenancies.

Of course, we also need to make sure private sector supply is building the houses we need for our increasingly older population and meet the challenge of becoming carbon-neutral.

While much is being done, there is a demanding work programme for the Department for Communities to make the improvement demanded by the Programme for Government, and plenty waiting in the in-tray for an incoming housing minister to consider.

 

To discuss this article, contact Nicola McCrudden: nicola.mccrudden@campbelltickell.com

This article is also featured in the latest CT Brief – Ireland Edition

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