Lack of funding for housing is literally making us sick
Rather than concern themselves with how homeowners can line their pockets, the Executive should address our chronic social housing stock, says Robin Wilson
To most people, housing is about having a roof over one's head. Yet how housing is talked about in public – by politicians, in the media – is quite different. It is about the housing 'market', a focus fuelled by those formulaic TV programmes about making money through buying, improving and selling 'property'.
Thus evidence that house prices are beginning to recover in Northern Ireland from their downward slide, since the financial crisis began five years ago, has been presented as a 'good news story'. As if for every benefiting potential seller there were not a struggling first-time buyer.
As if, too, it would be a good thing to have investment diverted into another doomed asset bubble, rather than into the real economy.
The alternative, roof-over-our-heads understanding of housing recognises that it should be thought of as a public good.
That way of thinking leads us to look more closely at social housing – at how the needs of the homeless and those who are priced off the lowest rungs of the property ladder can be met.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive stock, a big success story of the 1970s, has been run down ever since the Thatcher years.
And that erosion has continued under devolution. Indeed, the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, intends to dismantle the Housing Executive and hand over the stock to housing associations – oblivious to the resonances of this within the Catholic community, given the history of discrimination in housing allocation by local authorities, under the old devolved government at Stormont
Since 2007, when devolution was renewed, the waiting list in Northern Ireland has swollen from some 36,000 individuals to more than 41,000, as the funding allocated to social housing by the Stormont executive has failed miserably to keep pace with housing need.
It has failed, too, to ensure the necessary improvements in our overall housing stock. An important part of the Housing Executive success story was not just the quantity of new homes it built but their quality, against a background of high levels of unfitness, particularly among housing built before the First World War. Many will be surprised to discover from research just published by the NIHE that there are still pre-1914 dwellings in the region's stock.
The research shows that fully one in five homes here contains a serious safety hazard.
Indeed, the NIHE calculates that it will cost the health service an additional £33m per year if these hazards are not removed. Yet Mr McCausland has had interest in the improvement of the housing stock diverted by the controversy over the fate of a contractor, Red Sky, which had become a major player in improvement work – a highly flawed one, as we know from the recent BBC Northern Ireland investigation.
The devolved government has made a clear political choice – not just to favour the idea of housing as property, but to favour the wealthiest property owners. It rejected the progressive proposal by the anti-poverty campaigner, Paddy Hillyard, in his official review of how to fund reinvestment in our decrepit water and sewerage system, that the regional rate be enhanced to include the full cost of water. More, it put a cap on the rates for those owning properties worth more than half a million pounds.
The DUP, particularly responsible for the rate cap for the rich, argues that this offers relief to the ratepayer. As if we were all average owners of property rather than being highly stratified by household wealth.
As if, too, there were no consequences in terms of cuts in the budget for social housing, health and education.
Sadly, indeed, because we have what one former permanent secretary described as a 'chopped-up' devolved government, the logic of spending more on housing to spend less on health is one lost on ministers with their separate Stormont fiefdoms.