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Housing needs true investment

By Cameron Watt

In his recent column (DebateNI, April 27), David McNarry argued that the Conservatives' plans to extend the "Right to Buy" to housing association tenants should be implemented in Northern Ireland.

The Tories are proposing that 1.3 million English housing association tenants can buy their homes at reductions of up to 50%. These discounts could be worth £102,700 in London and £77,000 in the rest of England.

Such largesse will cost the taxpayer £5.8bn - well over half Northern Ireland's annual block grant.

Here, our equivalent of Right to Buy - the House Sales Scheme - is well-established. Unlike in England, housing association and Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) tenants are equally entitled to apply. Discounts can be up to 60% of the home's value, or £24,000.

David McNarry suggests that the House Sales Scheme has been a great success, but the picture is mixed. Since 1979, 110,000 NIHE tenants have been helped on to the housing ladder, peaking in 2003, when 6,000 families bought their homes.

The pace has slowed significantly, but still it is estimated that a further 3,250 homes will be sold over the next 10 years.

Many such homes end up being rented out privately to people on housing benefit at greater cost to government.

Currently, there are 40,000 households on the waiting list for a social home, with 22,000 of these in severe need.

The House Sales scheme has made it much harder to provide a decent home for vulnerable people. Instead of extending the policy, we should, therefore, consider following Scotland and Wales and withdraw it completely.

Local housing associations strongly support extending home ownership. This year, 1,000 families will be helped on to the property ladder through co-ownership. Three other associations are also launching a new FairShare shared equity scheme.

To support aspiration, but also avoid huge giveaways to a favoured few, government should invest in these schemes, rather than Right to Buy. They are far more effective than gimmicky giveaways at election time.

Cameron Watt is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations

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