Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Report eyes new housing policy

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland wants to split the Northern Ireland Housing Executive into a regional body with separate landlord functions outside the public sector

A new and innovative social housing policy could be delivered without scrapping the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), a new report has claimed.

With Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland intent on splitting the executive into a regional body with separate landlord functions outside the public sector, trade union Nipsa insisted there was an alternative to "privatisation".

Research compiled on behalf of the union, due to be launched today, warned breaking up the executive would lead to rent increases and "huge suffering".

It proposed instead to bring the executive in line with the rest of the UK.

"These alternatives have the benefit of keeping the Housing Executive in the public sector, which in turn leads to lower rents, greater value for money - for tenants and taxpayers - full political accountability and increased economic activity," the report said.

It also urged the minister, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly to "stop mimicking the discredited policies of other jurisdictions, drop the current privatisation plans and develop a sustainable publicly funded, publicly-delivered first-class housing service that we can all be proud of".

The report, written by Queen's University Belfast lecturer Stewart Smyth, who has researched housing and funding models across the UK, said the minister could put the NIHE on the same "level playing field" as local authorities with council housing in England, Scotland and Wales.

It suggested adopting a borrowing model used by the local authorities, which allows them to access private finance without the consent of central government.

This enables them to fund improvements and build new social housing.

According to the report, Mr McCausland has the power to change existing rules that prohibit Northern Ireland from borrowing this way.

Nipsa deputy general secretary Alison Millar said moving social housing out of the public sector was full of pitfalls.

"Nipsa believes the model suggested by the minister is purely to fund the building and maintenance of social housing from the private sector," she said.

"Nipsa does not believe the effective privatisation of social housing is an appropriate model for citizens of Northern Ireland."

The report insisted its alternatives - of levelling the playing field with the rest of the UK, changing existing borrowing rules and investing in the future - were all preferable to inevitable privatisation.

"Any one of these alternatives would allow the Housing Executive to remain in the public sector as a financially viable and sustainable landlord," it said.

"All three combined would represent a major stimulus package for the Northern Ireland economy as a whole."

The 40-year-old NIHE provides social housing let at low rents and on a secure basis to people on low incomes and benefits.

It has faced controversy over the handling of maintenance contracts and underwent extensive change at the top of the organisation.

Mr McCausland announced plans in January to scrap the executive and said an independent rent panel would agree rent levels, understood to be within a framework set by the minister to ensure affordability.

Critics have argued rents will increase as a result, leaving tenants struggling to pay rents.

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