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A Programme for Government housing outcome will be a building block for a better NI

Ben Collins


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The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us many things, but a key one is the crucial role which good quality housing plays in all of our lives.

At the start of 2020 we were pleased to see the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) document commit the incoming Northern Ireland Executive to delivering a specific housing outcome in its Programme for Government.

At that time we already had record numbers of people in urgent need of housing. Since then, due to the pandemic and consequent economic fallout, the need for housing is now greater again. Of particular need is housing that is affordable – an important part of the hardship for people during the crisis has been the struggle to pay their rent or mortgage.

Housing is central not only to a social recovery – the Northern Ireland Executive has stated that the construction of newbuild housing will be key to the region’s economic recovery.

NIFHA (Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations) research has previously shown that the Social Housing Development Programme (SHDP) has an economic multiplier effect of around £1billion per year, when the impact on the wider supply chain is taken into account.

If we add in the additional impact of both affordable and private newbuild, the economic multiplier effect is even more significant, as much as £3 for every pound spent according to the CEF (Construction Employers Federation).

Both as housing bodies and those involved in the wider housebuilding industry in Northern Ireland, we want our sectors to play their part in meeting this urgent need for housing and to work with others on economic recovery.

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We are calling for the Programme for Government to include a specific housing outcome, because this can only be successfully delivered by a number of government departments working together with the housing sector and construction industry.

To meet this growing need for housing, we need many things to work together. These include identification of suitable land, including surplus public sector land from across all departments.

Our planning system needs to become outcome focused and incorporate strict timelines for decision making to encourage development and reduce avoidable on-costs for buyers and landlords.

There needs to be increased investment in infrastructure for roads, water and particularly wastewater, without which the construction of the required number of new homes is simply going to be possible, making existing homes unaffordable for those wishing to enter the market.

We also think that an increased use of Financial Transactions Capital, a form of low cost funding provided by the UK Government, should be used to help build more affordable housing.

Currently funding for the SHDP and most infrastructure is done on an annual basis. Moving to multiyear budgets across all government departments, as set out in the NDNA document, will provide both year-end flexibility for construction projects and greater certainty for the construction industry over the longer term.

To achieve all of these things will require truly joined up government across departments. A specific housing outcome will give the NI Executive the necessary focus to ensure delivery across all of these interconnected issues.

We realise that the Northern Ireland Executive does not have control over the arrival of a pandemic, but it can choose to focus its precious resources in a way which will have a significant societal and economic benefit for all of the people in Northern Ireland. The commitment to a specific housing outcome has support across the political spectrum, given the recognition of the wide range of positive impacts it can bring.

There are good times ahead as multiple vaccines are being rolled out and we need to build an economic recovery for the long term. Delivering new much needed good quality housing across all tenures can provide a foundation stone for society and also help us to address climate change.

There has been much talk about people relocating to Northern Ireland to take advantage of our excellent quality of life. This provides us with a unique opportunity to grow our economy, but to do so we need to have sufficient good quality homes. Ideally these should enable remote working and learning, so that we can create resilient and balanced communities across Northern Ireland.

Ben Collins is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations


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