Belfast Telegraph

Social housing may get boost as groups hold merger talks

Three of Northern Ireland's biggest housing associations are to enter talks to negotiate a possible merger.

Oaklee Homes Group, Trinity Housing and Helm Housing Association have signalled their intention to explore creating a new organisation.

It's a move which commentators have said would strengthen access to private finance and create more social homes for Northern Ireland.

It also comes in the recent wake of calls for the release of more land for social housing, and moves by the Republic's bad bank Nama to sell some properties on its books to housing associations.

Discussions of a merger follows the sale by Nama in recent months of 31 apartments at College Court Central in Belfast to Oaklee Housing Association.

A spokesman for the associations said: "Oaklee Homes Group, Trinity Housing and Helm Housing will now explore the potential of creating a new organisation that would enhance services to tenants and make a significant contribution to building successful communities across Northern Ireland.

"We recognise that a combined organisation could also give us a stronger position to respond to and lead changes in the housing environment.

"A working group drawn from the three boards will seek to conclude their work in the next few months."

Between them, the associations manage nearly 14,000 units of accommodation across Northern Ireland.

A working group which includes representatives from all three organisations will discuss the potential tie-up over the next few months.

Housing Associations have been listed among Northern Ireland's biggest and most successful social enterprises.

In 2012/2013 the sector recorded a turnover of £185m and started construction on 2,336 new social and affordable homes.

The head of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations said a merger could significantly improve the buying power of the sector.

Cameron Watt said that the move would "increase its borrowing power to raise low-cost finance to invest in more local homes".

Mr Watt said he believed a larger body comprising the collective might of the three smaller associations would "strengthen its ability to raise private finance".

He said moves have been afoot recently within the field towards "consolidation".

He said the social housing sector had faced numerous challenges including recent welfare reforms, amid a backdrop of "trying build more homes with less government funding".

The chief executive said, "there are strong, well-established reasons how they can work more effectively" through merged groups.

He added that efforts to create a better service for tenants continued to go alongside measures toward achieving better value for money.

He said: "It's not just about getting more homes but it's also about the whole community investment role."

Belfast Telegraph