Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Privatisation will crack foundation of social housing

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland

Everything must go. That's the rallying-call of top management at the Housing Executive and the Department of Social Development as they prepare to flog off Northern Ireland's stock of social housing to private business. As well as the 90,000 homes owned by the Housing Executive, depots, offices and parcels of land will be up for grabs.

What's in prospect is not a break-up, but the wipe-out of the housing authority formed more than 40 years ago, which has been one of very few copper-bottomed success stories to come out of Northern Ireland in that period.

Under the privatisation plan, it's intended that the 3,200 NIHE workers will be transferred from the public to the private sectors, which experience tells will mean job-cuts and loss of pension and other entitlements for employees and rent rises for tenants.

The determination of senior executives to proceed to full-scale privatisation emerges clearly from the minutes of a meeting of chief executive John McPeake's business committee on December 16.

Mr McPeake commented on "the need to consider the inclusion of other NIHE stock in the transfer programme to make stock transfer packages more attractive to housing associations".

The director of transformation, Mags Lightbody commented "that NI Federation of Housing Associations have been lobbying the minister on this issue [and] suggested the need to communicate with the Board to rally support for larger scale transfers".

The meeting heard that the director of landlord services was set to meet with the landlord restructuring project director this month "to review and streamline the stock transfer process".

The minutes dispose of any notion that privatisation is a matter of practical necessity, or a means towards greater efficiency.

There would be nothing pass-remarkable about a political party, or business lobby, trying to drum up support for a measure it considered in its interests, or to harmonise with its ideas, or to discuss how the measure might be made more attractive. But the appropriateness of public servants meeting to consider how to "rally support" for privatisation will not immediately be clear to everyone.

DSD Minister Nelson McCausland (above) makes little secret of his passion for privatisation. He wants a "new landlord function out-with the public sector ... enabling access to private funding to allow for suitable investment". (In fact, the only reason NIHE itself cannot borrow on the market – "access ... private funding" – is that regulations kept in place by the Executive prevent it from doing so.)

The minister claimed a year ago that his policy had been "agreed" by the Executive. But MLAs from other parties insist that all that was agreed was that different models for delivering social housing should be looked at. If this is right – if the Executive has not given the go-ahead – then the basis on which the NIHE bosses are discussing the matter is, at the least, intriguing.

Mr McCausland and the NIHE hierarchy may believe that they do not need Executive backing to sell off public assets; that under our "silo" system of governance the DUP man can decide for himself.

If that is the truth of it, the fact that his thinking has not been frontally challenged by supposedly anti-privatisation Executive parties is difficult to understand – particularly against the background of the confidence of Mr McPeake and Ms Lightbody that they can dance down the privatisation path as far as they fancy.

Three years ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers – no fans of the public sector they – declared that: "NIHE is one of the success stories from Northern Ireland's recent history. Since its introduction nearly 40 years ago, it has delivered significant social benefits throughout Northern Ireland, with the quality of the housing stock having moved from one of the worst in Western Europe to what is now regarded as the best-quality stock. It is rightly regarded nationally and internationally as a leading authority on 'best practice' on both housing management and community building."

It is worth mentioning that the most publicised problem to have afflicted the NIHE in the meantime, the Red Sky fiasco, arose precisely from management's resort to private, rather than public, sector maintenance.

NIHE workers are staging lunchtime protests today against the threat to jobs and calling for social housing to be kept in public hands. Their action is the best hope we have of protecting the rights of families in need of housing and the jobs of people who have served our society well.

It may well be that they will need more than lunchtime rallies to win.

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