Unelected body dealing with our precious assets
Spit and feathers have been flying in the Assembly this week over the DUP's use of a petition of concern to prevent a vote on whether Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland had misled MLAs over an aspect of public housing procurement.
In contrast to this raging melodrama, plans to get rid of the north's entire stock of public housing are proceeding with scarcely a word of comment.
The scheme to give away the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's (NIHE) 89,000 homes is being driven with quiet resolution by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), an unelected body, in theory at least, reporting to the office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).
The minutes of meetings of the SIB, the NIHE board and the Housing Council over the past two years leaves no room for doubt that the SIB sees the sell-off of housing not as one possible option, but as the only acceptable way forward. (The Housing Council is an advisory body made up of local councillors.)
This would be the biggest-ever single transfer of housing in the UK and — with stock valued at more than £3bn — the biggest single commercial transaction in Northern Ireland history. In spite of this, the plan has yet to be the subject of a set-piece Assembly debate.
There are also concerns that perceived conflicts of interest might arise from SIB recruitment of outside personnel to deliver the plan.
At a meeting of the Housing Council in Magherafelt on November 14 last, Lisburn DUP councillor Jenny Palmer is minuted as expressing “alarm” that Martin Armstrong, chief executive of Scotland's largest housing association, the 50,000-home Wheatley Group, had said in an interview that he was “providing assistance to the (Northern Ireland) Department of Social Development in terms of the way forward on housing matters” and had added that the Wheatley Group was “considering taking over the Housing Executive's stock of 90,000 houses”.
Mr Armstrong, originally from Northern Ireland, is one of a team of consultants appointed by Mr McCausland to advise on dealing with NIHE stock.
Did this not indicate a conflict of interest, Ms Palmer wanted to know, potentially giving the Wheatley Group an unfair advantage if the transfer of stock were to go ahead? (It should be stressed that there is no evidence of wrong or inappropriate behaviour by Mr Armstrong or the Wheatley group.)
Ms Palmer had been somewhat in the wars on another housing issue last year after she told the BBC's Spotlight programme that she had felt pressurised by her own party to change her vote on the NIHE board in relation to a maintenance contract given to the Red Sky group.
A senior DSD official attending the Magherafelt meeting, Stephen Martin, responded that he had no knowledge of the interview Ms Palmer had referred to, but could say that the minister wanted “an open conversation about the future direction of housing” and towards this end “is consulting with experts who … have a legitimate view to put forward”.
Mr Martin's reference to the minister's desire for an “open conversation” on housing was puzzling. The SIB's Business Plan 2013-2016 put the position more plainly: “Prepare the business case for a programme of stock transfers of NIHE assets.”
Mr Armstrong's Wheatley Group is the parent company of the Glasgow Housing Association, from which the SIB recruited Mags Lightbody, first as Director of Transformation, then, since March this year, as acting CEO of the NIHE.
The possibility of a conflict of interest arising from this tangle of professional connections was raised in the Assembly in October last year by Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice in a question to minister McCausland.
In response, the DSD minister was not at his most fluently articulate, but did tell the TUV man that, “You can rest assured that any decisions I make … will be in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.” It is not known to what extent Mr Allister's concerns were soothed by this assurance.
The NIHE was set up in the early-1970s amid the tumult of civil rights agitation. It was seen by many as a significant, long-sought democratic advance. Now the process has gone into reverse.
The extent to which policy and practice have been cut loose from any lines of accountability was encapsulated in a remark by SIB chief Brett Hannam in a report to his board in September last year, explaining that the SIB had appointed four people to run the NIHE assets sell-off project, subject to approval by OFMDFM. He added: “It later transpired that such approval was not required.”
These people have been elected by nobody. But it seems they need no approval when it comes to dealing with precious public assets.
Democracy, how are ye.