Frozen in time
Political deadlock at Stormont has put Northern Ireland’s housing policy on ice at a time when the sector needs government support and investment to tackle rising waiting lists, the cost of living crisis and domestic energy performance
Interim CEO, Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations
This year could have been one of real optimism in the housing association sector. We were emerging from the COVID-19 restrictions, which had seen unprecedented change in the way we lived our lives, and it was quickly recognised that the social housing sector was front and centre in the community helping the most vulnerable people during that very difficult time.
We saw, at the eleventh hour, welfare mitigations legislation passed to protect households from the bedroom tax. This was an issue Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations had campaigned vigorously on, and there was more than £10 million of new funding for the Supporting People programme in the draft Northern Ireland Executive budget.
There was optimism with the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May that our requests for the sector were supported by the main political parties. We hoped that a call for a standalone housing outcome in the next Programme for Government would underpin social housing for the next number of years, in conjunction with a new Housing Supply Strategy.
This strategy would set out how housing associations can help the government tackle the enormous housing issues that are being faced in Northern Ireland. Already we have a social housing waiting list of more than 44,000, and building new homes at the moment is very challenging, due to rising material costs and labour shortages.
Sadly, when a Northern Ireland Executive couldn’t be formed, the ambitions and the financial support to meet these challenges couldn’t be realised. The Housing Supply Strategy remains a draft, the Programme for Government remains a draft, and new and much-needed funding to help Supporting People deliver better for service users remains unreleased. Housing policy is frozen in time and the external environment is getting worse.
The cost-of-living crisis is one which highlights the worst of the current political impasse. Households are faced with immense pressure as costs spiral. Housing associations are quickly reacting to the pressures being faced by their own tenants with a range of support being made available. These include benefit maximisation checks, budgeting support, energy saving advice and financial hardship grants. Some are even providing phone data and cookery courses to help their tenants remain digitally included and able to cook meals on a budget.
But these should not and cannot be the only interventions. We need the government to provide support too. Our sector is fortunate to have close contact with our tenants, but we can only do so much. We need to see the energy support package rolled out before winter so tenants are not faced with the dilemma of ‘heat or eat?’. And we need further government interventions to tackle the rising cost of living.
“We need to see the energy support package rolled out before winter so tenants are not faced with the dilemma of ‘heat or eat?’. And we need further government interventions to tackle the rising cost of living.”
Journey to net zero-carbon
Our housing ambitions also need to align with the net zero-carbon challenge. Our sector is ready and waiting to invest in the retrofitting of our homes to make them low-cost to heat and also cut carbon emissions. This will have beneficial knock-on effects on running costs as well as positive health and education outcomes. The investment will be huge, but the benefits just as big.
However, there is a lack of policy direction on how we should heat our homes in the future and how the retrofitting of more than 120,000 social homes can be funded. England is investing more than £3 billion in a social housing retrofit fund. We have no funding yet, nor a clear policy to guide us to 2050 and net zero-carbon.
Housing could lead the change
Housing associations could lead the change that is needed in domestic energy performance. We have economies of scale, an understanding of the quality of our stock and ever-improving tenant engagement which will be instrumental in delivering on retrofitting and climate change. But, as with other key strategic ambitions for housing, without a government to lead, to develop robust policies and to provide the investment needed, we remain doing the best we can, but with our hands behind our backs.
As I said in my opening speech at the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations annual conference back in June, government aspirations on social housing cannot be delivered without housing associations. We are a critical part of that aspiration, and housing associations cannot deliver as needed without the Northern Ireland Assembly working.
We need to be working in partnership to realise our full potential, to go beyond and exceed aspirations. If we can achieve that then there will be solid ground for optimism for the future.