Editor's Viewpoint: Another example of public money wasted
Anyone who believes that government departments or arms length agencies are the prudent guardians of the public purse is naive in the extreme.
Every year, it appears, the Northern Ireland Audit Office reports on yet more squandering of public money.
The botched RHI scheme was the extreme example of this waste and the report into the so-called cash-for-ash is expected some time later this year following a judge-led public inquiry.
While the latest squandering of public money is far removed in scale from the RHI debacle, it nevertheless demonstrates a woeful lack of oversight by both the NI Housing Executive and its parent department, the Department for the Communities.
The Audit Office has revealed that almost £400,000 was wasted on 'ghost gardening' - the maintenance of land which the Housing Executive no longer owned or which had undergone a change of use.
Were it not for the actions of whistleblowers the final bill could have been as high as £1.3m, according to estimates.
Most of the money went to one contractor, although the NIHE's own direct labour organisation also received some £97,000 in the period from May 2016 to September 2018.
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The NIHE's excuse is that its land ownership and use records were not kept sufficiently up-to-date. An organisation which maintains 60,000 open spaces in the province should have the most rigorous record keeping to ensure that their current status is known at any time.
There is no suggestion of fraud in this waste of public funds, which in a way makes the NIHE's incompetence all the more shocking. It is solely responsible for the spending of this money.
Thanks to the lack of a devolved administration at Stormont, the public purse has rarely been so restricted and therefore it is important that every pound is spent wisely and can be accounted for.
Social housing is under enormous pressure and the housing mix in Northern Ireland does not fully take account of demand. The NIHE has a vital role in this area and works closely with housing associations in the provision and maintenance of social housing. Confidence in its ability to tackle the large scale problems which arise will be dented after this example of incompetence.
What sanctions, if any, will be taken against those responsible at all levels of the housing body?