Minister for Communities, Deidre Hargey, recently announced that in 2020-21 the programme to encourage the building of social homes started 2,403 new housing units: well above the target of 1,850, which was set last year.
While that is a welcome result, the Minister would probably also agree that other aspects of the plans to provide social housing leave continuing deficiencies which should be tackled in the continuing Programme for Government.
Year by year, the number of new houses being built, both for social housing and for private sector rent or sale, has remained below what would represent an adequate supply.
Taking account of the age and condition of some of the older social housing, the level of investment in new houses in Northern Ireland is less than would ensure an adequate supply of housing to provide for an increasing population and replacement for older housing which is either incapable of being brought up to modern standards or is in an area that merits comprehensive urban redevelopment plans.
Minister Hargey acknowledges that she has inherited a demanding agenda in terms of housing needs and standards across Northern Ireland.
In a comprehensive review of housing policy published on November 3 last year, the Minister said that she would not shy away from the challenges.
In a partial recognition of the problems the Minister has secured a budget of £162m for the next financial year: an increase of £26m from last year's allocation.
Replying to a request for details of the forthcoming housing programme, the Department for Communities has said that central to the plans is the revitalisation of the Housing Executive which will enable the Housing Executive, in its role as a landlord, to borrow, invest in homes and, ultimately, contract to build houses.
This confirms the announcement some months ago that the Housing Executive is planning to contract to build new homes in its own name to resume a role that it relinquished some years ago.
That statement of intent means that the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive must develop workable answers to questions on the financial budgeting for the change.
The department has confirmed that it has commenced work to update the financial analysis and assess the options to revitalise the Housing Executive to allow the Minister to bring recommendations to Ministers before the end of this electoral mandate. Those will include timescales and a budget for implementation of the reshaped plans.
In the past, based on the former financial arrangements, the Housing Executive had difficulty, having built houses, in repaying the costs of funds borrowed from Government.
Also, year by year, rental income was inadequate to provide sufficient funds to maintain the homes in good standards.
An assessment in 2018 concluded that the Housing Executive needed large sums to maintain the 85,000 homes it owned. One estimate was for nearly £275m each year.
The revitalised Housing Executive must be structured to avoid these financial problems. Recognising these issues, the policy statement by the Department last year said that the classification of the Housing Executive (as a landlord) would be changed to be a mutual, or a co-operative, separate from its regional authority status.
Though the official statement stops short of this conclusion, the new arrangement may put the mutual organisation into a role which parallels that of a Housing Association.
If that is correct, then housing contracts might have the same assisted funding as is currently used by housing associations with a form of capital subsidy when building takes place, not in the form of an annual variable rent subsidy.
The capital subsidy would then be a charge on the Stormont budget and critically would not normally be repayable.
The telling statement in the reassessment last year was that the Housing Executive currently has 'the lowest social rents in these islands'.
The Minister may have difficulty in maintaining that position for contracts to provide further new housing.
Revitalising the Housing Executive is an attractive proposition. However, in the reconsideration of housing policies, Ministers need to consider the emerging and expensive problem of urban renewal.
Northern Ireland has had no comprehensive area-based programme to convert housing in older urban areas through the provision of modern higher standard units in areas where housing, often approaching a 100-year timescale, is overdue for replacement.
Private landlords or developers will be less likely to undertake these challenges. Older policy observers (this writer included) recall the comprehensive area redevelopment ideas of the 1960s and 1970s.
There is a need for a fresh look at the built urban environment.
Are Ministers ready to look for answers meeting the need for a sustainable urban society in 2030 and beyond?
Is there still time to add this dimension to the plans for City Deals as in the Belfast Region and for Derry and Strabane?