Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Housing associations can deliver in wake of change

Northern Ireland's 30 housing associations are rising to the challenge of Nelson McCausland's reforms, says Cameron Watt

In 21st century Northern Ireland, everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford. Providing good quality social housing is vital in achieving this goal.

The break-up of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), announced last week by Nelson McCausland, heralds major changes to our system of social housing.

Most significant for NIHE tenants is the decision to transfer its 90,000 homes to housing associations.

NIHE has a hugely impressive record. Over the last 40 years, it has provided good homes, regenerated communities and ended discrimination in social housing.

Housing associations are proud of our successful partnership with NIHE, such as in building new homes and providing care and support to vulnerable people.

With such success, why the need for change? NIHE has identified a shortfall of more than £1bn required to refurbish its 90,000 homes, many of which require major works.

NIHE's public sector status prevents it from borrowing privately, in contrast to our 30 housing associations that have already raised £500m of competitively priced finance to build new homes.

Private investment is not privatisation. Housing associations are not-for-profit social businesses that re-invest surpluses in providing more homes.

There is no comparison with the likes of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals in the NHS, where private firms have made excessive profits for shareholders.

Affected tenants and housing staff have, of course, had concerns about issues such as rent levels and terms and conditions under the new arrangements.

However, these have been satisfactorily resolved, for example, through agreements at the point of transfer fixing rent increases and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) deals, securing workers' rights.

Northern Ireland can, therefore, benefit from this well-proven approach that meets the needs of tenants, taxpayers and people in housing need.

The minister's announcement was intentionally high-level. With the new structures due to be in place by March 2015, there is a huge amount of work required to determine the details.

For example, will there be one new landlord? Or several? Will the new landlords be established along geographical lines? And, if so, which ones?

It is vital the minister gives tenants, NIHE staff and all of civic society a full opportunity to help work through these issues.

During these discussions, the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) and many others will be making the case for independent regulation of social rented housing in Northern Ireland, as recently introduced in Scotland and England. This will provide maximum safeguards for tenants and certainty for landlords.

There has been some speculation that NIHE homes might be transferred to some 'super-associations' from Britain, raising concerns about accountability.

Options should not be discounted at this stage. However, Northern Ireland has the skills, capacity and potential to complete this successfully ourselves.

Housing professionals in NIHE and housing associations have impressive and complementary skills. Our largest housing associations currently have around 5,000 homes, but these existing landlords have the expertise and capacity to grow much bigger.

Reform on this scale is an immense challenge, requiring new and perhaps unlikely partnerships. A polarised debate will get us nowhere.

Current tenants and the 20,000 households in acute need are relying on us to deliver the billions in private investment to ensure that, finally, we all have a decent place to call home.

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