Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Viewpoint: Side-effects of Ulster property boom

Even before devolution, Northern Ireland's housing market was booming, so now that local politicians have sunk their differences, there should be no let-up in the demand for affordable accommodation.

Yet for everyone who stands to gain, there is another priced out of the market - as well as an increasing number who resent how developers are changing the character of much-loved towns and villages.

No one can or should attempt to reverse a natural increase in house prices, which reflect growing prosperity in all parts of the UK and the Republic, but there is a need to control some of the unfortunate side-effects. Young people cannot get their feet on the ladder, without crippling mortgages or parental assistance, limited to the lucky few. And such is the demand for building the maximum number of units in the minimum space that people are seeing attractive town, country or seafront areas turned into concrete jungles. While the Assembly will take time to deal with most problems, and find solutions, here is one aspect of life that needs immediate attention. There isn't a home in the land that hasn't felt the effect of rising house prices, for good or ill, and everyone appreciates that if many in the next generation are to be denied the hope of owning their own home, society will suffer.

Housing Minister Margaret Ritchie must strike a balance between letting the housing market find its own level - and there are hints of a slowdown, not only in the Republic - and exerting some controls, to curb developers and encourage more low-cost social housing. In every large-scale development, there is a requirement for a mix of luxury and budget accommodation, which lets first-time buyers into the market. But far too often, property is bought to let, or left undeveloped, waiting for prices to rise. To stop this practice, and free up more houses and land, charges may have to be made on potential accommodation lying vacant.

With summers getting warmer, towns along the coast are becoming more and more desirable - even with property fairs offering guaranteed sunshine in southern European resorts. Local residents, who would have wanted to stay put, are being pressurised to sell up, to the extent that, in Portstewart, five families have combined to put their houses on the market, possibly to a developer. They complain about over-development, but they may reluctantly be contributing to it.

Although tighter controls have now been introduced against bungalow blight, enough applications have been passed previously to create fears for the future. And penalties for destroying mature trees and houses of character are much too low, at present prices. Certainly there is plenty for the housing minister to get her teeth into.

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