Belfast Telegraph

Maskey: NIHE situation 'chaotic'

Problems within the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) have dented public confidence, it has been claimed.

The latest £35 million underspend was partly blamed on delays to some planned maintenance work, the authority said.

The executive has faced critical inquiries into its handling of contracts for jobs like installing kitchen replacements amid evidence of substantial overcharging by firms employed. The organisation's chief executive Dr John McPeake is to step down at the end of the year.

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey said: "I think it is quite a chaotic situation, I think it is very unhelpful. I don't have a high degree of confidence in the way in which this matter related to housing is being handled.

"A lot of this has (created) a serious public headache and to me a dent in public confidence."

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 been embroiled in controversy over its handling of maintenance contracts and underwent extensive change at the top of the organisation.

The executive's governing board has commissioned an independent consultant to conduct a review into how the organisation dealt with planned work.

An internal investigation has indicated an estimated £18 million has been overpaid to scheduled maintenance contractors, although that figure was challenged at Stormont today.

The executive's planned work covers kitchen replacements, double glazing and external improvement in around 60,000 homes. The agreements have run from January 2008 - January 2013 and include four contractors, organised through five contracts, one for each of the Housing Executive's administrative areas. The total expenditure is around £172 million.

Until the issue is resolved, the four contractors will not receive any new work, the executive has said.

Dr McPeake this week announced his intention to step down, probably at the end of this financial year. He has led the organisation since 2011.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland is intent on splitting the executive into a regional body with separate landlord functions outside the public sector.

Mr Maskey told Stormont's social development committee: "The Housing Executive appears to be operating a revolving door or an empty desk strategy.

"In the midst of all of these big important matters, in mid air, we have another change at senior level."

He added: "We are talking about throughout the past year tens of millions of pounds routinely being underspent, allegations of misspent public monies."

He said he understood no money had been misused and claimed some tenants had been affected by delays in maintenance work.

Mr McCausland said he was dealing with legacy issues dating from 2008 during a period of change within the housing sector.

"It would have been totally wrong to allow those problems to just continue. They need to be dealt with and there are difficulties that emerge once you start to deal with them, dig into them, problems emerge, complexities arise, but we need to dig into those to get them resolved," he added.

"I would have been castigated by the committee and other MLAs, and rightly so, if we had simply allowed this to go on unchanged and unchallenged."

The £35 million underspend from the start of this financial year in April, money which the executive would like to spend but has not been able to, is out of a total budget of £577 million.

Separate housing associations are responsible for building new homes.

DUP MLA Sammy Wilson said the underspend belied a housing shortage and maintenance backlog.

"The real danger is constant underspends could result in money being removed permanently from the department's budget," he said.

"Discussions will be starting on the budget for 2015/16 and one of the obvious issues will be how have departments performed in the past with the budgets they were given.

"A track record of continual underspends hardly gives strong arguments when making budget bids."

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