Housing Exec spent £116k making homes close to bonfires safe
More than £100,000 spent boarding up homes ahead of Eleventh night bonfires across Northern Ireland in five years has been branded "ridiculous".
Between 2012 and 2016, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive spent £116,884 of taxpayers' money covering houses to protect them from damage.
The costs rose year-on-year from £9,668 in 2012 to a staggering £37,202 in 2015, and most recently £19,586 in 2016.
Since 2013, the highest amount was spent boarding up homes in the Shankill area of Belfast with £6,449 spent in 2016 and £7,993 in 2015.
The figures were obtained after a Freedom of Information request to the Housing Executive.
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said: "That is a really large amount of money for something unnecessary. It's ridiculous that to facilitate reckless behaviour we are actually boarding up - at cost to the public purse - to protect people's homes.
"We know that many of these people were very distressed about it. Bonfires which are outside reasonable parameters and do cause risk to property are just not acceptable. Nobody is trying to ban bonfires, but some structures are beyond the pale."
However, Belfast DUP councillor Brian Kingston said that continued "engagement and co-operation" with communities is key and that "fewer bonfires have the potential to cause damage".
In 2015 there was a substantial cost in east Belfast amid fears a whole street could go up in flames when a huge bonfire was lit and 52 houses boarded up. Some families in Chobham Street, off Ravenscroft Avenue, moved out ahead of its lighting.
In Bangor in 2015, £5,874 was spent boarding up houses.
The figures show 2012 was the lowest cost of bonfire protection, with the highest individual bill being £2,007 in the Collon Terrace area of Londonderry.
However, despite the preventative measures in 2016 a pensioner and a young family were left homeless after the bonfire in the Shankill Road area ignited a row of terraced houses. Three properties were significantly damaged as burning embers caught by the wind rained down on their rooftops.
The figures also reveal that in 2016 it cost the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) £11,312 to attend Eleventh night-related bonfires. NIFRS said it "continues to work closely with partner agencies and local communities to provide safety advice in relation to bonfires".
Bonfires have been a hot topic this summer as Belfast City Council tried to take action against some unregulated pyres.
A court order banned loyalists from stacking up more wood for the fires ahead of the Eleventh night - an order that subsequently appeared to be broken.
In addition a Sinn Fein motion was passed at Belfast City Council after it said a small number of fires were built dangerously close to homes or businesses and that poisonous gases were affecting the health of nearby residents.
A last-minute amendment saw a clause meaning it only applied to those fires which posed a threat to life or property.
The council is currently reviewing its bonfire policies after it stored pallets for an east Belfast pyre which were stolen.
Mr Kingston said bonfire issues were best dealt with at a local level, adding: "It is necessary to engage and to co-operate with communities in order to have influence. On some occasions the Housing Executive has taken the precaution of placing boards over the fronts of properties which could be damaged by the heat from bonfires.
"Tragically the catching fire of the roofs of a few houses in Lower Shankill last year, due to embers blown from the bonfire by strong winds, demonstrated that there is always an element of risk with bonfires; that bonfire was moved this year.
"My party colleagues and I remain committed to continuing to engage with local communities in order to bring about designated sites and arrangements which will enable Eleventh Night bonfires to take place in an appropriate manner and to reduce the negative effects of poorly-managed bonfires. This matter will be discussed at the forthcoming cultural convention."
A Housing Executive spokesman said the work required is determined by the sites affected and properties at risk.
"This work is only carried out when properties are deemed to be at severe risk of damage," he said. "The Housing Executive has a duty of care to protect residential properties from damage and the boarding up is required in order to facilitate this.
"This proactive approach was requested by residents living across Northern Ireland and actioned by Housing Executive staff, helping to reduce disruption to those directly affected.
"We continue to work with the local community and a range of other organisations to reduce the impact of bonfires built.
"These figures refer to the whole of Northern Ireland over five years. Some of the properties affected are both Housing Executive and private properties.
"As bonfires are located on council, Road Service, private and NIHE lands, it would be impossible to give an accurate figure but it would be estimated a large majority of houses affected would be social housing as the bonfires are largely located in or around social housing estates."