Belfast Telegraph

Probe lambasts incompetent bosses at social housing body

By Noel McAdam

Management at Northern Ireland's biggest housing association has been blamed for an "almost total breakdown of control" in a major investigation.

Helm Housing is paying back nearly £700,000 in grants from the Department for Social Development - of which £142,000 has already been recouped.

The probe concluded the association - which builds houses - found itself "out of its depth" after attempting to be part of the "bigger game" of property development during the boom years of the last decade.

It also drew attention to the use of "middle men" - some of whom made millions in land transactions - and said it remained unclear why third-party "site-finders" had become involved.

Investigators could see "no evidence of any value" brought about as a result, particularly when the association already had two development directors.

In 16 cases the development committee of the social housing organisation was either misinformed or not given full information on specific schemes, and the same consultant was used in 17 out of 48 schemes examined.

In the aftermath, out of five senior members of Helm management, only one remains. Two have left through sickness, one has resigned and a fourth has been suspended.

But none of them are named in the report or identified at a briefing and interviews at Stormont yesterday.

However, minister Nelson McCausland (below) told the Assembly there was no evidence of fraud or illegal behaviour, and officials said the senior management involved were guilty of incompetence rather than deliberate negligence.

The report said "the most significant errors in practices and excesses were perpetrated around the time when property prices were going through the roof and it was a developers' market with developers playing one association off against another.

"Unfortunately, the Helm development team fell foul of these practices and developed an ethos where the association was determined to get development land at any price."

Overall, Helm spent £11m on sites which cannot now be developed in the way they were originally envisaged. On one, for example, a total of 34 housing units had been drawn where there is room for a maximum of only 12 apartments.

"All the issues raised in this report ... represent an almost total breakdown of control by senior management" with "failures in virtually all of the key elements of the development process".

There was no explanation of the use of 'middle men' which, after addressing MLAs, Mr McCausland said had only been identified as an issue recently and he would be producing guidance for other organisations.

"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 DUP minister added.

The report found confidence in the management team had been misplaced and the reasons were "difficult to understand". A worrying lack of knowledge of the Housing Association Guide had been accompanied by a 'management knows best' mentality which created an unrealistic and dangerous attitude to risk taking."

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