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Association in warning over social housing plan

By David Young, PA

Published 26/09/2016

Cameron Watt, chief executive of the NIFHA
Cameron Watt, chief executive of the NIFHA

A target to deliver 2,000 new social homes every year in Northern Ireland could be dealt a major blow if an anticipated change to the official status of housing associations goes ahead, the sector's representative body has warned.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is expected to reclassify housing associations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales from independent social businesses to "public bodies" later this week. It made the same reclassification with English housing associations last year.

The NI Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) said the expected move, which will reflect the level of state involvement in these organisations, could have major ramifications for the associations and Stormont.

The NIFHA said turning Northern Ireland's 22 associations into public bodies will limit their ability to access the private finance they rely on to build new homes, while it highlighted that the £1bn of private debt already on their books will automatically be added to the Executive's balance sheet - an addition that would drastically reduce the administration's capacity to borrow money for other initiatives.

The Government's response to reclassification in England was to reduce regulation, so associations could once again be considered independent businesses.

Cameron Watt, chief executive of the NIFHA, said the Executive would have to take a similar approach.

But he warned that the timeframe to make the legislative changes was tight. Mr Watt said he hoped the Treasury would give Stormont a year's grace before registering the associations' accounts on the public balance sheet.

"With 22,000 households in housing stress, the NI Executive is looking to our sector to significantly increase delivery to 2,000-plus starts a year," he said.

"To maximise house-building, our sector needs to be independent and able to continue borrowing to match and multiply government funding for new homes.

"Reclassification threatens this and, without swift action to reverse it, there could be a significant reduction in the number of new homes housing associations can deliver.

"Therefore, if our sector is reclassified this week, we will be calling on the NI Executive to quickly take the necessary steps to reverse it."

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