Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Queries over housing middle men

Housing Minister Nelson McCausland is to issue new guidance on how housing associations use middle men to identify land for development
Housing Minister Nelson McCausland is to issue new guidance on how housing associations use middle men to identify land for development

A damning report into Northern Ireland's biggest social housing organisation has questioned how middle men made millions in controversial land deals with the group.

Housing minister Nelson McCausland promised new guidance on using so-called "site finders" after a Government investigation struggled to identify what role they played.

The Department of Social Development found that Helm Housing Association, which builds social houses for the Executive, had bought £11 million-worth of sites which cannot be developed as planned. There are also doubts over a further site which cost £10 million.

The report identified significant failings by senior management and while no evidence of fraud was uncovered, the Government is to claw back nearly £700,000 of public money.

There is no allegation of illegality around the use of middle men, but the report questioned the need for their services and cited one case where a go-between secured more than £3 million in a £10 million land deal.

Mr McCausland said the report revealed that guidelines had not been followed and he also raised concerns over the use of middle men.

"The difficulty that the inspection team has raised about middle men or site finders is, in this case, the failure of the association to fully identify the role of the middle man," Mr McCausland told the Assembly. "Who were they working for? What was their financial interest or reward? And what value did they add to the land deal? There needs to be clarity around these things."

The review found Helm was driven by a desire to be "the biggest and best housing association", and while it was given a clean bill of health as recently as 2006, it became embroiled in the subsequent property boom before it was suspended from building social housing last year.

In a statement, Helm's interim chief executive Greg Lomax said the organisation was reviewing its management structures and significant changes had already been made.

He said: "Helm Housing staff have worked closely with Department for Social Development (DSD) officials during their routine inspection. A dedicated review team has been established and is currently implementing a comprehensive improvement programme to resolve the issues identified in DSD's report."

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