Belfast Telegraph

Stormont under fire for losing £1m buying social housing land

By Suzanne Breen

A Stormont department lost over £1m of public money buying land for social housing in areas where there was little need for new homes.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that huge losses were incurred buying land in Protestant areas of north Belfast, despite there being lengthy waiting lists in Catholic districts.

The three sites purchased in Ballysillan, Glenbryn, and the Oldpark Road were later sold, resulting in losses of over £1.1m.

The human rights group Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), which uncovered the startling statistics, said they raise serious questions for the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive.

Both organisations last night defended their actions on the issue.

The Department for Communities bought a site in Glenbryn Park for £90,000 from Nama in 2014 and sold it to Clanmil Housing Association in April 2016 for £20,000 for the purpose of building 12 family homes.

Between 2002 and 2007 the Department acquired homes in Ballysillan for £922,855, but sold them for just £245,000 to Choice Housing Association to build 13 social homes, making a loss of £677,855.

The Department acquired at least 10 homes in the Oldpark Road area between 2006 and 2007 at a cost of £431,222. They were sold to Choice Housing Association in March 2015 for £50,000 to build eight town houses, representing a loss of £381,222. PPR said that the areas where the sites are located fell within the Housing Executive's Housing Needs Assessment Area North Belfast 2, which is composed of predominantly Protestant areas and where the Housing Executive itself assessed that only 38 more social homes are needed.

In contrast, according to the Housing Executive's own statistics, North Belfast 1 - made up of predominantly Catholic areas - needed 938 additional social homes, the group claimed.

Nicola Browne, Director (Policy) at PPR said: "Families in need of housing have consistently called on the Department for Communities and NIHE to secure land in order to build social housing to meet need.

"Housing patterns and statistics clearly show that over 900 homes are needed to address the well documented housing inequality impacting the Catholic community in north Belfast.

"In that context, it beggars belief that the department has instead used its powers to secure land where little need exists, and have done so at a huge cost to the public purse. "

Ms Browne said the transactions raised questions as to "how effectively" the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive were using their vesting powers.

"The department's own guidance on vesting makes clear that use of these powers must be justified by housing need and value for money. It is clear that these decisions fall short on both counts," she said.

A Department for Communities spokesperson said: "Land values at the times of both acquisition and disposal are determined by market forces and public authorities are advised in this regard by Land & Property Services, which is part of the Department of Finance.

"The responsibility for addressing housing need lies with the Housing Executive, who work with local housing associations to identify potential development sites in areas of high social housing need."

A Housing Executive spokeswoman said that the three schemes in Ballysillan, Glenbryn, and the Oldpark "were developed to meet identified social housing need". She said the Housing Executive was committed to meeting the high demand for social housing in north Belfast.

"Since the launch of the North Belfast Housing and Regeneration Strategy in 2000, a total of 2,775 new social homes have been acquired or built," she said.

"This year, there are currently 388 new social homes under construction, with plans to develop a further 26 social housing schemes, which will deliver 425 additional social homes within the North Belfast parliamentary constituency over the next three years."

PPR highlighted the case of Mohammed Idris and his family, who have been on the housing waiting list for three years since being forced out of Tigers Bay after a racist attack.

The family, who fled Sudan in 2012, are campaigning for homes to be built on the 11-acre vacant Hillview Retail Park site on the Crumlin Road, which was bought by Nama and sold back to the private developer.

Mr Idris called on the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive to move to vest the land immediately for social housing. He said it was unacceptable that his three young children were living in a hostel for so long.

The Housing Executive spokeswoman said the site was in private ownership and was currently zoned for industrial/retail use.

"Belfast City Council's Planning Services will determine any future change of use," she added.

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