Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Social housing shake-up is more than just a facelift

Doing nothing to tackle housing reform is not an option. Now is the time for change, says Nelson McCausland

I recently announced my social housing reform programme proposals to the Assembly and will soon bring forward an action plan following on from my consultation on the first Northern Ireland housing strategy.

 These two things combined will bring housing in Northern Ireland forward for a new generation.

A change to housing structures is essential if we are to continue to deliver well-maintained housing stock, improve the focus on strategy and ensure value for money for taxpayers. This is an opportunity for us to become more effective and innovative in delivering and maintaining social housing to taxpayers and tenants alike.

The Savills Stock Condition Survey report on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's housing stock (May 2009) identified that more than £5bn investment would be required over the next 30 years to maintain the current Housing Executive stock. This is a bill Northern Ireland simply cannot meet from public funds alone.

In addition, ensuring the sustainability of housing structures is key. As a public body, the Housing Executive cannot borrow to facilitate building and, therefore, the housing association sector is the only option. Any new landlord structure will have to have the confidence of financial institutions to ensure long-term sustainability.

The Housing Executive has a long track record over the past 40 years of improving social housing stock; however, the current model and structures no longer allow optimal delivery of either strategic housing, or landlord services.

The consensus from reports and, indeed, meetings with stakeholders concluded that the 'do nothing' option was not a realistic solution.

My department will engage and consult widely with stakeholders and Executive and Assembly colleagues to develop the detail behind these proposals and to ensure there is consensus. I have no preconceptions and welcome the input from stakeholders.

What I can be clear on is that these proposals do not set out to abolish the Housing Executive, but rather to improve the structures for the delivery of those functions.

They will remove uncertainty about the future of social housing in Northern Ireland and open debate on how we move forward.

They do not herald large-scale job losses, but aim to have a sustainable housing system, which delivers regional social housing needs through new landlord structures and housing associations.

There will continue to be robust regulation and inspection of the housing sector. There will be an independent social housing rent panel. There will be a new Northern Ireland regional housing body to carry out non-landlord functions.

This is the beginning of the process and there is nothing within these proposals that will have an immediate impact on those living in Housing Executive homes. They do, however, mark a new age in the future of housing here.

I am committed to working collaboratively on this process and am keen to explore all options for the delivery of sustainable social housing for both tenants and taxpayers.

I am committed to ensuring that the implications for staff arising from future structural changes are carefully managed.

Alongside these structural changes, I will be taking forward a significant agenda of new housing initiatives and policies, as outlined in the housing strategy.

The aim is simple: to ensure that everyone can have access to a decent, affordable home, be that as a social tenant, a private-sector tenant, or as a homeowner.

I also want to ensure that housing continues to focus on meeting housing need and supporting the most vulnerable, while, at the same time, playing its part in supporting economic development and helping to regenerate and revitalise our communities.

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