Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Red Sky, red faces and the nightmare of privatisation

Furore: Housing Minister Nelson McCausland is feeling the heat at Stormont over the Red Sky controversy
Furore: Housing Minister Nelson McCausland is feeling the heat at Stormont over the Red Sky controversy

None of the issues which brought MLAs hotfoot back to Stormont on Monday would have arisen if the repair and maintenance of public sector housing hadn't been privatised.

No privatisation, no meeting with Red Sky representatives in Nelson McCausland's office, no Stephen Brimstone/Jenny Palmer phone call, no dubiety about the stop-start progress of a double-glazing contract, no reason for MLAs to be recalled just days into their nine-week summer holiday.

At the heart of Mandy McAuley's brilliant BBC Spotlight programme were stories recounted by two women from west Belfast.

One told of the stomach-churning state her house had been left in, sewerage oozing across her living-room like lava, while the Red Sky representatives who had made the mess sauntered off and left her to get on with it.

Another woman, Sinead Flannery, talked seemingly without rancour about what was either spectacular incompetence or couldn't-care-less cynicism on the part of Red Sky representatives who had arrived to repair a bathroom leak, but instead managed literally to bring the roof down on her – four times.

We need to know what lay behind the Brimstone-Palmer conversation, of the identities of officials who authorised improper payments, about the roles of various individuals – Nelson McCausland in particular – who featured in the grimy scenario.

But it is at least as important, also, to know who, or what, was to blame for leaving decent people in such disgusting conditions.

Those directly responsible were the men who had arrived in the Red Sky vans. But you don't behave like that unless you are confident that there'll be no comeback.

Many thousands of people brought up in homes built and maintained by local councils, or the old Housing Trust, or the Housing Executive, will know that complaints about repairs were by no means unknown.

But can anyone recall their family being treated with the sort of contempt shown to the tenants interviewed by Ms McAuley?

Had the like of it happened around our way, there would have been someone from the street banging on the counter of the Housing Trust office a blink of an eye after they'd opened the door the next morning. And the damage would have been dealt with before the day was out.

Is there a slight sepia tinge to these memories? Maybe. The point is, though, that Housing Executive tenants have been the main victims in this sorry saga.

The collapse of Red Sky was symptomatic of a wider and deeper malaise than anything to do with politicians and their buddies in the building trade.

McCausland is right when he says that Red Sky isn't the only maintenance contractor to have failed to fulfill its contracts.

The Housing Executive is currently shelling out £100,000 a month to workers taken on to its payroll following the collapse of maintenance contractors.

Garrivan & O'Rourke, for example, with three four-year contracts for more than 10,000 homes in Belfast and Lisburn, went into administration in April.

Mel Davison Construction, with a 5,000-home contract in west Belfast, folded in January. The workers have been brought within the Housing Executive's direct labour organisation.

The direct labour organisation has depots in Belfast, Armagh and Coleraine, providing services including ground maintenance, adaptations for people with disabilities, electrical inspections, and the planting and tending of trees and shrubs in estates. Now it is also handling the Garrivan & O'Rourke and Mel Davison Construction contracts.

The Housing Executive says these contracts will be returned to the private sector once other firms are found to take them on. Why?

What new horror will have to unfold before politicians at Stormont accept that Nipsa and Unison have gotten it right – that housing maintenance should be brought back into the public sector?

Are they so mesmerised by the mindless mantras of the chancers who tell us day in and day out that the public sector is too big and is choking off the entrepreneurial spirit of... well, of the sort of business geniuses who have been handling Housing Executive maintenance contracts?

The Garrivan & O'Rourke and Mel Davison contracts should not be handed back to private companies, but retained by the direct labour organisation. As other contracts run their courses, they, too, should revert to the public sector.

The next time anyone tells you about the bureaucratic inefficiency and blah-blah-blah of the public sector, give them a two-word answer: Red Sky.

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