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John Simpson: Why it's time for reform of Northern Ireland Housing Executive



Homeless numbers are the highest since the Housing Executive was formed

Homeless numbers are the highest since the Housing Executive was formed

Homeless numbers are the highest since the Housing Executive was formed

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive urgently needs to be given a restated role in the provision of social housing, a reformed financial structure and an updated set of responsibilities. It's currently operating in an increasingly difficult organisational environment, limiting its effective role.

News website The Detail has published a review describing Northern Ireland's social housing sector as facing a crisis.

Claire Smyth at The Detail offers statistical evidence that:

• There are nearly 38,000 applicants on the social housing waiting list;

• Over 19,000 on the waiting list are officially considered homeless;

• Nearly 4,000 homeless people have been on the waiting list for more than five years;

• Homeless numbers are the highest since the Housing Executive was formed over 50 years ago.

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Contributory features to the growing scale of the housing problems are, first, the decision several years ago that the Housing Executive should no longer directly contract for the building of new homes, alongside an approved policy for tenants to have the right to buy their houses and, second, a financial regime for the Housing Executive which leaves it with an operating budget that is inadequate for the maintenance of its houses at satisfactory standards.

In recent months the Housing Executive has publicly argued that it will be unable to maintain about half of the 85,000 units in its estate.

It has the impossible task of providing a supply of housing, particularly for tenants in greatest need, with current budget arrangements that are inadequate.

Housing Executive social housing policy faces immediate budgetary constraints. In addition, the number of new housing units being provided each year is less than the number needed to cope with an increasing population and the emerging need for programmes of housing regeneration, replacing older housing which is not meeting contemporary standards.

One consequence of the absence of housebuilding by the Housing Executive is that other housing providers face greater demands. The immediate pressure falls on the local housing associations (where this writer declares a personal interest).

Housing associations are maintaining a stable annual house building programme, but there is no indication that it will increase to fill the gap and there is no official policy to offer that solution.

There are a number of policy decisions pending, some of which will need to be persuasively explained. The scale of housing need means that the Housing Executive should again be enabled to contract for more new housing and, importantly, additionally to engage in redevelopment to replace older housing. This might be eased if the existing Housing Executive estate and its financing were separated into a new Housing Executive subsidiary with its own financial remit.

The critical issue is that the existing executive must be given a financial structure that allows it to trade out of its inherited debts and commitments.

In turn, that points to an arrangement for a significant capital write-off, as well as the introduction of rental policies that adjust for inflation as well as identifying issues about housing benefit and mitigation of social security changes as they relate to the adjustment of rents.

Less palatable, but necessary, the current rent freeze would be reassessed. The 'right to buy' scheme for existing tenants might be closed so that more housing is kept to meet social need.

A new Housing Executive subsidiary, with financial structures to facilitate new housebuilding, might be financially viable if given capital sources comparable with housing associations. Additionally, operationally the business plan should pay its way and rents would be adjusted annually to balance the budget. Each local authority is currently preparing a local development plan. These plans should have a stronger public appeal if the housing components offered a combination of modern new housing and major housing redevelopment for a higher quality of life-styles beyond 2020. That calls for strategic management in each local authority.