Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Red tape 'limiting plans to build social housing'

NIFHA chief Cameron Watt
NIFHA chief Cameron Watt

Housing associations are calling for major changes in the system used to release land for social housing.

They said difficulties in securing building land is the biggest barrier to developing social housing and blamed planning red tape and procurement processes as the greatest hindrances.

The call comes as the heads of Northern Ireland's housing associations wind up their NIFHA conference in Londonderry today and at a time when there are record levels of private finance available to provide social homes.

Accounts from the NI Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) showed that for the year 2012-13, associations had secured £125m to add to the housing stock – up 27% from the previous year.

But the NIFHA wants a major change in the manner in which land for social housing is released from both the public and banking sectors.

One member said housing associations "are being asked to act commercially when it comes to development, but the procurement routes open to them mean that they cannot always make the best business decisions".

"Much of the public sector land currently being offered is at unrealistic asking prices and comes with constraints around contamination, poor title, presence of services etc."

The NIFHA accounts showed the sector grew faster than in the previous year, increasing turnover by more than 7% to £185m, as the total value of the sector's assets topped the £3bn mark for the first time.

The operating surplus of the housing association sector has also increased by 17.4% to £48.7m – an encouraging sign of efficiency.

This enabled associations to invest more in refurbishing existing homes and building new homes.

Cameron Watt, chief executive of NIFHA, said the accounts confirmed that housing associations are Northern Ireland's biggest and most successful social businesses.

"Our sector is efficient and in sound financial health, generating significant private investment to match and multiply government funding for new homes," he said.

The sector, however, still needs change to meet demand, said Anita Conway of the Fold Housing Association.

"We develop about 300 units a year (new builds) for mixed tenure, so we are always looking for new sites to sustain that level of development," she said.

"We work with the banks and estate agents but it remains difficult to unlock sites where there is a willing vendor."

Niall Sheridan from Oaklee Housing Association said his industry faced manifold issues in procuring land from the banks in control of land from collapsed developments.

"The banks have been willing to engage but though we are able to pay fair prices, there is an impression that the banks are trying to get more value for those landbanks, making it harder for the associations," he said.

£125m

The amount secured by housing associations in 2012-13 for new stock