SOCIAL Development Minister Nelson McCausland triggered a political row yesterday as he proposed the effective dissolution of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Announcing proposals for a string of radical reforms, he said the service was no longer up to the job required of it and said the “do nothing” option was unsustainable.
He immediately came under attack from the SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan, who accused him of the “demolition” of the Housing Executive in an act of “rank cowardice”.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, chairman of the Social Development Committee, was more muted in his response, however, recognising the need for change and describing an increase in housing provision as the ultimate goal.
Presenting his proposals in a written statement to the Assembly, the DUP minister, who has had a robust relationship with the agency since his appointment in 2011, said a review in that year found that the current model and structures were no longer fit to allow optimal delivery of either strategic housing or landlord service for the 90,000 homes under its control across the Province.
Since then, he said, PricewaterhouseCooopers (PwC) had undertaken further meetings with stakeholders, reaching the general consensus that change was inevitable.
“Whilst the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has had a long history of delivering social housing and has enjoyed the widespread support of Northern Ireland society, the current model is simply not sustainable, does not make best use of public resources nor does it allow sufficient flexibility and focus on supporting tenants and meeting their needs now and in the future,” he said.
“My proposals on the way forward, which the Executive has now agreed, set out the strategic direction for the way social housing will be delivered in Northern Ireland.”
The proposals, he said, paved the way for a sustainable housing system fit for the 21st century through:
l supporting business improvements in the social housing sector for the benefit of tenants and taxpayers;
l the development of a sustainable financing model for social housing providing access to private funds to allow future investment;
l improved regulation and inspection of landlords;
l the provision of effective services and good quality housing.
“In effect, these proposals not only build on the success of the past, but create structures that will ensure social housing delivery is on a sound basis to build for the future,” said Mr McCausland, stressing that his department would have responsibility for overall housing strategy, policy, legislation and funding, together with the significant enhancement of its regulation and inspection function.
The department would be supported in the delivery of strategy and policy by a Regional Housing Body staffed by housing professionals to deliver regional housing services, programmes and operational strategies – in effect, the non-landlord functions of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
“There is a need to consider the role of the Housing Council in the context of the proposed new housing structures; the role of Assembly scrutiny; and the Local Government Reform proposals and future functions of councils,” he added.
“Going forward, I will bring forward proposals to ensure that the Regional Housing Body engages formally and works closely with the new 11 councils given, in particular, their new role for both land use and community planning.
“I and my department will work closely with the Social Development Committee in their scrutiny role in relation to the development of my proposals with the aim of maximising consensus and addressing any concerns that my ministerial colleagues hold.”
It was key, too, for stakeholders to be consulted throughout the programme, he said, stating that communication and engagement with staff and stakeholders would be “an important part of the overall work programme”.
The proposals were welcomed by Cameron Watt, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), who said the minister was to be congratulated for a significant step forward.
“Today’s announcement is good news for tenants, taxpayers and people in housing need in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Stating that the Housing Executive deserved great credit for its achievements over the last 40 years, he said it had made huge progress in providing good homes, regenerating communities and ending discrimination in social housing.
“But times change and new structures are needed to guarantee high quality social housing in the future, not least to secure private investment to refurbish the Executive’s 90,000 homes and to build new social homes.
“There is a shortfall in funding of over £1 billion that has to be filled to bring existing Housing Executive homes up to a good standard.
“That’s why we welcome confirmation that the new landlord function for the Housing Executive housing stock will be out with the public sector.
“We expect the new landlord function will be in the housing association movement, building on the success of existing associations. These are thriving social businesses that have already secured £500 million of private investment in social housing.
“NIFHA believes there is a compelling case for independent regulation of rented housing in Northern Ireland, as recently introduced in Scotland and England. This would provide most reassurance for tenants and certainty for landlords, and we’ll continue to make this case ahead of the housing bill.”
However, Alison Millar, of the union NIPSA, said Mr McCausland had failed to explain how staff would be transferred to any new body.
“There’s absolutely no reference in the ministerial statement that would allay the fears of the staff, the 2,800 staff currently employed by the Housing Executive,” she said.
Describing the Housing Executive as symbolising the “one great progressive move in dealing with the north’s pitiful legacy of political housing”, the SDLP’s Mr Durkan said Mr McCausland was wed to a dual agenda of pursuing Tory cuts and re-politicising housing allocations.
But noting that the review of the agency was begun by former DSD Minister, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, Mr Maskey said the review and the need for fundamental change had been recognised and welcomed by all stakeholders – including the Housing Executive.
“The Housing Executive was set up in 1971 to address the sectarian allocation of housing and to remove the slum dwellings across the north,” he said.
“It has achieved a good deal but more still needs to be done.
“Sinn Féin’s approach to this review has been very clear. Any outcomes must ensure an increase in social housing provision, the allocation of such housing stock on the basis of objective need and the need to continue to ensure the rights of tenants are protected.”