“There’s enormous potential to collaborate with the charitable and private sectors”
Outgoing CEO of Clanmil, Clare McCarty, shares her thoughts on the Irish housing landscape with Kathleen McKillion
Image: Clanmil Homes
Group Chief Executive, Clanmil Housing Association
Senior Associate Consultant,
How would you reshape housing policy in Northern Ireland?
I would love to see a real understanding of the connectivity between housing and health, education, criminality, and the environment. Very few outcomes in the Programme for Government will succeed if they are not integrated with safe and appropriate housing.
Secondly, the carbon agenda is going to be a big issue for all – especially the retrofit of our existing properties. I think we are starting to catch-up with other countries, but we could be more ambitious in some of those targets and work streams.
Northern Ireland is very bureaucratic. We really need to simplify processes and work at pace. We have meaningful discussions and develop strategy papers, but it's the implementation and making delivery slick and agile that’s important.
Another issue is the common selection scheme for housing allocations. It had a purpose when it was introduced and was appropriate at that time but, to my mind, it would be good to rethink how we allocate our homes. I know many of our customers would welcome this.
What are the issues with the selection scheme and how does that impact creating non-segregated communities?
When moving people into a brand new scheme, you are trying to establish a community in a sustainable way. Going by points alone brings issues that are hard to manage and often you're not getting a balanced community. Ideally, a sustainable community is a mix of older and younger people, including single people and families, people with different backgrounds and different life experience.
One of our passions at Clanmil is a shared future for Northern Ireland, and mixed housing is fundamental to this with every scheme being, safe and welcoming to everybody. At Clanmil, we have delivered quite a few shared housing schemes, which are part of the Together: Building United Communities (TBUC) approach sponsored by the DfC and NIHE.
But I think the ambition in Northern Ireland could be greater – it is only 10-20% shared schemes at present. I'd like to see something more ambitious because at least 78% of people in Northern Ireland would like to live in a mixed area [see Housing Executive report] and we could do more to facilitate that.
“There’s great opportunities for closer working between housing associations and the NIHE. Sharing knowledge and resources could really lead to significant positive outcomes for our tenants.”
Is there opportunity for local communities to lead on non-segregated housing?
Absolutely, yes. Local communities have a very important part to play. It is important to engage early with the community as there are instances where local people wouldn't initially have supported shared future on a new development. But when we've brought people together and given reassurances, people become more receptive, confident and prepared to support the idea very successfully.
What opportunities are there for collaboration?
There's enormous potential to collaborate with the charitable, statutory and private sectors. Some charities have really niche specialities and are expert in those areas, bringing a lot of knowledge and skills.
There are charities that we work with, such as The Hummingbird Project, who work with people at risk of suicide. They had someone who was vulnerable and asked if there was anything we could do to help. We had a property coming up that we had just refurbished using Empty Homes Finance. I was delighted that within four weeks of the phone call, the person had moved into that property. Our teams worked together really well to achieve this.
I think there's lots of opportunities for things like that. It's just getting everything to come together. And you must be pretty persistent.
What impact, if any, is Brexit having on housing delivery?
There’s been a massive impact in terms of increasing costs and scarcity of resources. Part of that is because during lockdown places were shut, so the production stopped and they're behind with production and orders. It's hard to know how much of this is Brexit and how much is COVID-19, but in terms of workforce and labour there are massive shortages currently.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive is looking to transform (see page 4). What do you think about its plans and how it will affect housing associations?
It's positive overall - it needs to see what it can do differently. There’s clearly a massive issue for them in terms of retrofitting their own properties and how they're going to do that.
In terms of collaboration, I believe there's great opportunities for closer working between housing associations and the NIHE. Sharing knowledge and resources could really lead to significant positive outcomes for our customers.
Do you have any final reflections?
There’s a stigma associated with social housing in Northern Ireland. When we're building a new scheme we have to do additional consultation, in spite of the planning process already having consultation built into it this tends to highlight social housing as something problematic before you've even started, and is quite resource-intensive.
Another growing concern for us is around mental health and loneliness, both of which are increasingly demanding. During the pandemic, our staff volunteered to phone tenants who were vulnerable or alone. I think we made about 70,000 phone calls in total - at the beginning that was a real lifeline for people.
Being creative to combat loneliness, Clanmil received Big Lottery funding and worked with Northern Ireland Museums to involve older tenants in a programme of visits. This was very successful in engaging people who would never normally participate in such events. It created interest, fun and new friendships.
As the waiting list for social homes in Northern Ireland grows, so do levels of poverty, and we are fortunate to have some mitigations still in place in terms of welfare reforms. This is a key focus area for us.
Another issue is being sensitive to everybody's tolerance and experiences of the pandemic, which has been very different over the last 18 months. That obviously impacts staff and other stakeholders. Staff have been amazing over the last year and half in terms of care and support, team-working and keeping key services going.
Clanmil has a new five-year plan, which has partnership working at its heart so we can stretch what we do and reach even further. Together, I believe, we can seriously impact on providing and maintaining homes, working with communities, protecting the environment, and keeping Northern Ireland a really great place to live.