How do we tackle the housing crisis?
Housing associations are maximising funding to deliver new homes but to keep up the momentum they need barriers around planning, infrastructure and land availability to be removed
GROWTH, REGENERATION & DEVELOPMENT
CEO, Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations
Issue 68 | October 2023
It is undeniable that housing in Northern Ireland is at a crisis point. The waiting list for social housing grows each year and action is needed now so we can deliver the homes needed across Northern Ireland.
The headlines may seem pessimistic, but alongside the challenges there is an opportunity to make the right decisions to help us build stronger communities and improve the lives of thousands of families across Northern Ireland.
spent on acquisition and construction by housing associations in Northern Ireland last year
In 2022, housing associations had one of the most successful years in recent times in delivering new homes. The targets for new build social homes set by the Department for Communities were exceeded and our sector maximised the budget, while utilising private finance match-funding to make public funds go further.
This investment in social housing is an important economic factor, with more than £370 million spent on acquisition and construction last year. At a time when the construction sector faces difficult circumstances, the social housing sector has an important role in supporting the supply chain and sector workers, as well as investing in the next generation through apprenticeships.
However, a successful year of new homes is no reason to rest on one’s laurels. NIFHA members know that they must keep delivering year after year. And that is where the need to continue to take action arises.
Ask any development manager in a housing association what the barriers are to development and you will likely hear a similar response. Delays in gaining planning permission, difficulties with waste and sewage infrastructure and land availability are all high on the check list.
These may not be easy matters to resolve, but with the right political and government will, solutions are available. Take planning for instance. Where we have areas of clear social housing need, new applications for social housing could be prioritised by Local Council Planning Committees, helping to reduce the long process faced. Similarly, NI Water could implement a priority process for social housing projects which are seeking new connections in urban areas of high social housing need.
Securing suitable sites for social housing development is more problematic, but not unsolvable. There remain many plots of publicly owned land, either belonging to government departments, councils or other public bodies, whose use is not being maximised. These should be immediately considered for social housing. And where other land is in private ownership – and that includes land owned by community organisations – there are ways of supporting ‘land swaps’ or partnership projects which see new community facilities being developed alongside new homes.
Funding new homes
It goes without saying that building more homes will require more funding. Despite the challenges of rising material costs, inflation and the impact of Covid, housing associations have been able to exceed targets, and remain successful in securing the required private funding.
But if we are serious about dealing with the social housing crisis, we will need an increase in funding from the Department for Communities. Crucially, this needs to be accompanied by multi-year budgets, which will help housing associations as they progress major projects.
Yes, public finances are stretched. However, the benefits of investing in social housing are manifold, economically and socially. A quality home has a positive impact on health and wellbeing outcomes, including employment opportunity and educational attainment.
“Despite the challenges of rising material costs, inflation and the impact of Covid, housing associations have been able to exceed targets, and remain successful in securing the required private funding.”
What is clear is that we have a problem – a crisis – in housing. But we also have the ability to tackle this problem – that is clear from the successful work of housing associations. We have also identified ways the problem can be tackled.
So what is left? The political will.
The change we need to see requires leaderships and decision making. That comes from ministers and Northern Ireland Assembly committees, working with the whole sector to deliver a plan for housing that works.