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Experts call for more investment to reduce housing stress in Northern Ireland
Street art in North Street, Belfast, reflects concerns over the social housing waiting list. Picture by Chris Scott.

PRESSURE is growing for more social homes to be built in Northern Ireland as new analysis predicts it could take another 22 and a half years to tackle the current waiting list.

The first of The Detail’s special two-day report on social housing revealed yesterday that more people waiting to be allocated a social home are in priority need of housing than ever before as concerns grow over the impact of welfare reforms.

In exclusive analysis carried out for The Detail, commentator and journalist Paul Gosling estimates that Northern Ireland’s social housing stock needs to increase by 30% in order to provide enough homes for the 37,859 applicants who were on the waiting list at the end of March.

In his commentary, which is published today and can be read here, he said: “At the current rate of house building it would take 22 and a half years to build enough homes to meet the demand. Except, of course, many of the applicants currently on the waiting list would have died in the meantime.”

He added: “These figures represent a social housing crisis of too few homes being built. It is made much worse by a political dispute over the future of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive – a conflict that it seems cannot be resolved while the Executive and Assembly do not function.”

The Detail can also reveal today that:

  • While Stormont achieved targets it set for the number of new social homes started over eight consecutive years since 2010, it failed to meet its target for the 2018/2019 financial year;
  • In addition, targets for new social homes started in rural areas were only achieved once since 2014/2015;
  • Officials at the Department for Communities (DfC) have also reduced the number of new social homes they plan to start building between 2016 and 2021 from 9,600 to 7,600;
  • Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) believes an additional 14,995 new social homes are needed over the next five years until the end of March 2023,
  • Northern Ireland is still the only region in the UK without a developer contribution scheme - either through a financial contribution or by introducing a quota on the number of new homes in a development that must be affordable or social – despite this being identified in Stormont’s first housing strategy as one way to provide more homes and the required legislation to facilitate this already existing.

Housing experts have warned that Stormont’s new social homes programme is not keeping up with the increased demand for housing and have called for more investment.

Concerns have also been raised about the capability of housing associations to continue to build in future if a decision which restricts their access to private financing is not reversed.

The roll-out of welfare reforms has also been identified as a major concern – both for households being able to pay their rent and for the ability of housing associations to continue to build new homes if their tenants fall into arrears.

Radius Housing Association director of communities Eileen Patterson said: “I believe the biggest challenge to the housing market in Northern Ireland is affordability.

“Many people are excluded from home ownership because of the tightening mortgage credit and the need for a substantial deposit. Private rented accommodation can be costly in some areas and short in supply in others and, even in social housing, the changes to welfare benefits and introduction of Universal Credit are making it very difficult for tenants to be able to meet their rental liability.”

There is also an ongoing debate around how to solve the financial crisis facing the Housing Executive which estimates it requires a cash boost of £7.1bn over the next 30 years to help maintain its current housing stock.

Other initiatives to increase the supply of social and affordable homes, as outlined in Northern Ireland’s first ever housing strategy, and a Fresh Start Agreement commitment to reform social housing provision have failed to be fully realised in the absence of a functioning Executive at Stormont.

Social housing on Glenbryn Drive in west Belfast. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Social housing on Glenbryn Drive in west Belfast. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Chartered Institute of Housing policy and engagement manager Justin Cartwright said: “Social housing creates stability and builds communities. It is a housing option that reduces poverty, enables people to live independently, and addresses homelessness. It contributes positively to many societal outcomes, saving money in areas of public spending such as health.

“It also plays an important role in reducing the level of housing stress in Northern Ireland. Government recognises this; reducing housing stress is one aim of the Programme for Government and the Social Housing Development Programme is a primary way of achieving it.

“However, despite the relatively ambitious social housebuilding programme, housing stress levels are going the wrong way, so it is important that an investment level is secured that reduces housing stress.”

Stormont’s most recent Programme for Government (PfG) committed to invest approximately £147m into social housing, co-ownership schemes and initiatives in 2018/2019 to prevent homelessness and help people live independently.

It also said the NIHE will provide £72.8m to help around 17,000 households through its Supporting People Programme – which aims to provide vulnerable people with more independence and often benefits those living in purpose-built accommodation.

A body representing housing associations has called for this budget to be increased.

Patrick Thompson, deputy chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), said the programme saves the public purse £1.90 for every £1 spent in terms of costs associated with hospital admissions, health and social care referrals and crime prevention.

He added: “Supporting People funding hasn’t been increased for years and for accommodation-based services has actually been cut. It is imperative at a time of rising costs for service providers, that the cut is reversed to ensure that the quality service being provided can continue, and a realistic programme of funding that meets existing and future needs is implemented.”

DfC told The Detail a total of £178.4m was invested in 2018/2019, of which £121.6m was for social housing. A spokesperson said this resulted in 1,786 new social homes started, of which 200 were shared housing, and 5% of new build homes were accessible to wheelchairs.

They also said the funding allowed 1,496 first-time buyers to buy a new home through co-ownership or similar schemes, provided housing advice to 7,770 people resulting in homelessness being prevented in 456 cases and supported approximately 19,000 households to live independently through the Supporting People Programme.

The spokesman added: “Following analysis of the extensive consultation responses in relation to the review of social housing allocations; the department is considering next steps and what might be progressed in the absence of a minister. The 20 proposals for change build on the strengths of the current scheme; enabling it to work more efficiently and effectively for those in housing need.

“The department has proposals for how a returning Executive can meet the investment challenge of the Housing Executive. These await minsters.”

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How many social homes are being built?
New build social homes in west Belfast managed by Radius Housing Association. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

New social homes are delivered through Stormont’s Social Housing Development Programme (SHDP) which includes new build properties and empty homes that have been brought back into use.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) no longer builds new homes and Government incentivises housing associations – private organisations with a charitable status – to deliver social housing.

Housing associations receive grant funding for every unit they deliver through the new homes programme.

The SHDP is managed by the NIHE which allocated £496.6m to housing associations between the start of April 2013 and the end of March 2018 for completing 7,727 new homes. This is equal to a Government subsidy of, on average, 57% towards the cost of every home delivered. The remainder was financed by private borrowing.

Data published by DfC show annual targets for bringing new social homes into the housing stock have been achieved for eight consecutive years since 2010.

The NIHE confirmed that the target of 1,850 new homes started in the 2018/2019 financial year was missed by 64 units however a target of completed homes was surpassed.

A spokesman blamed “planning issues during February and March 2019” for a shortfall in new homes for the last financial year but said “the number of social housing starts in 2018/19 was still higher than the previous three years”.

He added: “The overall new build programme is formulated based on available funding and the levels of projected need. We carry out an annual Social Housing Need Assessment and Housing Market Analysis to determine the level of additional accommodation required to meet housing need.

“This assessment considers the historic and anticipated trends in available supply and demand from applicants registered in housing stress on the waiting list. As such, in addition to the numbers in housing stress, we also take into account other factors including existing vacant stock and the re-letting and allocation of social housing properties (which is about 7,000 each year). Using this method we estimate that 14,995 new social homes will be required for the period 2018/19 to 2022/23.

“Delivery of social housing is not just a matter of available finance or target setting – it also requires suitable and available land in areas of housing need for housing associations to develop.”

A table showing the number of new social homes started and completed through the Social Housing Development Programme.

A table showing the number of new social homes started and completed through the Social Housing Development Programme.

NIHE figures also show targets for the number of social homes started in rural areas were not met in four of the last five financial years – falling short by 292 homes.

Increasing land prices, objections from local residents and constraints with rural sites, such as challenges accessing water, electricity and sewage infrastructure, were given as reasons for missing the target in a 2017 report prepared by the NIHE’s Rural Residents’ Forum and seen by The Detail.

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The department measures its new social homes target against the number of new homes started each year however some housing experts believe the number of new homes completed is a more reliable measurement.

Building has commenced on 90,000 new social homes in Northern Ireland since 1976, the department said.

Radius Housing Association director of communities Eileen Patterson said: “The SHDP has been very successful in delivering new build social housing. However, the supply of new social housing is not keeping up with the increased demand and there is a real challenge of providing the right type of homes in the right location.”

She added: “The supply of suitable land sites is a real challenge for housing associations and does impact on their ability to deliver new homes. There have been some delays in the planning process as the councils embed their new role in planning and pressures on existing infrastructures in some areas can hinder further new developments.”

The 2016-2021 Programme for Government promised to provide an extra 9,600 social homes over the five-year period however this figure has since been reduced to 7,600.

Although the PfG was not fully approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly before the collapse of its institutions in January 2017, it is still being used by civil servants as a blueprint for public policy.

A DfC spokesman told The Detail: “The department adjusted the PfG targets to reflect the level of capital funding that is available to the department over this five-year period. The number of social units that can be delivered is wholly dependent on the budget made available for each financial year.”

While 13,450 new social homes were started through the SHDP between the beginning of April 2010 and the end of March 2018, only 73% (9,783) of these were newly built as social homes, according to NIHE housing statistics published by DfC.

A further 13% (1,730) of the new homes started during the same timeframe were built by private developers and bought by housing associations for use as social homes. These are known as ‘off-the-shelf’ homes.

Concerns were also raised recently over the future ability of housing associations to continue to build new social homes in Northern Ireland after a decision by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to reclassify the organisations from private to public bodies.

This would have transferred an estimated £1bn of housing association debt onto the public balance sheet and denied them access to private borrowing streams.

The ONS decision has been reversed elsewhere in the UK but could not be reversed in Northern Ireland due to the absence of a functioning Government.

Inside Housing revealed in April that the UK Treasury has extended a temporary mechanism to delay the reclassification until March 2020 to give politicians at Westminster enough time to pass legislation which would permanently reverse the ONS decision.

DfC confirmed draft legislation has been prepared by the Northern Ireland Civil Service “to address the issues identified by ONS and which should facilitate a review of the ONS decision to classify the Northern Ireland housing associations to the public sector”.

Ben Collins, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), said: “It is crucial that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland brings forward the necessary legislation through Westminster, to enable reclassification to be reversed, as soon as possible.

“The number of people in housing stress is increasing and we need to build more homes. Continued access to private finance means that housing associations can build twice as many homes as would otherwise be possible.”

Marie Tully and son Gerard at their home on Springfield Avenue in west Belfast. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Marie Tully and son Gerard at their home on Springfield Avenue in west Belfast. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Marie Tully was living in private rented accommodation when her landlord served her with an eviction notice towards the end of 2017 as he wanted to sell the property.

Ten weeks after the birth of her first child, the 34-year-old was forced to declare herself homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) which secured her temporary accommodation in a hostel while she waited to be allocated a permanent home.

Marie was offered a new-build house in west Belfast managed by Radius Housing Association around nine months later and she moved in with her son Gerard last October.

She told The Detail: “I can’t believe how lucky I am because I’ve never been in that situation before. I love the house. I can decorate it the way I want. Some private landlords don’t allow that.

“Eviction is never a fear now because my housing benefit gets paid directly to the housing association. I’m on a probation period for a year but that doesn’t bother me. I can turn this into a home and I will never be asked to leave it. We are never living in fear of being put on the street.”

Marie claims Universal Credit payments to help pay her £390 monthly rent which she said would not be enough to cover the £500 monthly rent she paid in the private sector.

The Springfield Avenue resident added: “I’m looking forward to getting back into work but some people don’t have that luxury. Some people can’t work for a reason.”

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How can more social homes be built?
Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

There have been calls for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) to build new social homes again after a move by Westminster to allow local councils in England to resume housebuilding.

As revealed by The Detail yesterday, the NIHE is working on a proposal that could see it build again for the first time since the early 2000s however this requires approval by Stormont officials who might be reluctant if it means more public debt.

The 2015 Fresh Start Agreement included a commitment to progress “significant structural reform of social housing provision” in an effort to reduce departmental financial pressures.

This followed the first major review of social housing in Northern Ireland for a generation, called the Social Housing Reform Programme, which was set up in 2013.

Officials even got as far as preparing an outline business case looking at the merits of converting the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) into a single housing association which would make it eligible for private borrowing.

It is thought this will allow it to build again, as any debt associated with housebuilding would be kept off the public balance sheet, as well as helping to address its maintenance backlog.

However, it is believed civil servants may be reluctant to press ahead with the proposals in the absence of a minister due to the political controversy it could attract.

Writing for The Detail today, journalist Paul Gosling said: “Even when the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were functioning, it was impossible to achieve political consensus about the Housing Executive’s future.

“Discussions focused on whether it should be converted into a single, massive housing association; broken up into new regional housing associations; or sold in part or whole to an existing housing association.

“The political ante was increased because some parties argued that housing associations, despite being unable to create distributable profits, are private sector bodies and that any change to the constitution of the Housing Executive would constitute privatisation.”

Another way to increase the supply of social and affordable homes is through developer contributions, according to Stormont’s first housing strategy which covered the five-year period from 2012 to 2017.

Northern Ireland’s 11 councils are at various stages of creating their local future development plans and all told The Detail they are considering the merits of introducing a developer contribution scheme to help increase the supply of affordable homes.

Three provided more information around how this could look in terms of quotas of either 10% or 20% of new developments over a certain size consisting of affordable homes. These were Belfast City Council, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council.

Mid Ulster Council said developers could provide infrastructure or community facilities instead of a direct contribution to the authority.

Belfast City Council recently consulted specifically on developer contributions while Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council said it would put any proposed scheme out to public consultation if this was agreed as the way forward.

Joe Frey worked for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) in housing policy and planning for 35 years.

Joe Frey worked for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) in housing policy and planning for 35 years.

Former NIHE head of research Joe Frey, who has been a housing lecturer for around 20 years, said previous discussions on how to introduce developer contributions continued until the 2007/2008 housing market crash which then made it “unrealistic”.

“Since then the market has picked up somewhat - reflected in a small but significant increase in private new build output - but in my view there may still need to be some form of Government subsidy to private developers to make this happen,” he added.

David Fry, executive assistant director of the Construction Employers Federation which represents 800 construction firms based in Northern Ireland, told The Detail its members would need more information before they would agree to such a scheme.

He said: “Industry is not opposed to developer contributions in principle. However, as we have seen from the evolution of several local councils’ proposed developer contributions policies, we have a number of substantive concerns which we believe must still be addressed.”

These include an understanding around how much profit would be acceptable per development and if any financial contribution could be paid over an agreed timescale rather than before building begins.

Through her work with the human rights group Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), Elfie Seymour supports homeless families campaigning for large vacant sites in Belfast to be used to tackle housing need.

She said: “Over 11,000 children are classed as homeless in our society. This is a shameful reflection on councils, the NIHE and the Department for Communities (DfC) who have wide ranging powers available to them to build homes and tackle inequality.

“These include planning, vesting and funding powers that are not being used. The existing culture which elevates political and developer agendas over the needs of homeless families needs to end now and councillors must act to ensure homes are the priority.”

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Where will the homes go?
Divis flats in west Belfast which are earmarked for demolition and replacement. Picture by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

While local councils are in the process of developing their future development plans, DfC is currently undertaking an exercise of identifying surplus public land and has released three sites to be developed for housing.

Two of these - Glenbryn in Belfast and Galliagh in Derry – have been sold to housing associations and are expected to provide 40 new social homes between them. A third site, at Lisnisky Lane in Craigavon, is currently going through the public land disposal process, managed by Land & Property Services.

A DfC spokesperson said: “The project has digitally mapped all DfC registered land and to date has released three sites for housing. The project has also expanded its work into the three major landholding Departments of Health, Education and Infrastructure and is currently working with officials in these departments to identify opportunities to release further land for housing. The project has a PfG target to release a total of 10 sites by March 2021.”

DfC told The Detail it is leading the project, in conjunction with the Strategic Investment Board’s asset management team, and that it was initiated in 2016.

Radius Housing Association director of communities Eileen Patterson, who was appointed chair of the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland this year, said: “In order to be able to meet housing need and demand we should be identifying land which is in public ownership and which could be used to provide housing.”

She added: “Other approaches should also be considered, such as councils introducing measures to address issues where planning permission has been granted to developers but no building has commenced and ensuring that land is zoned for housing to meet demand in their areas.”

The NIHE provided information on land it owned at the end of last year, covering 346.54 hectares, which could potentially be developed for housing.

This includes 152 sites of land earmarked for new social housing and surplus land which will be sold, as well as 297 sites of open land in housing estates covering just under 173 hectares. The NIHE said some of this open land has development potential “subject to overcoming planning restrictions” as it is currently being used for amenity purposes.

Click here for more information on the NIHE’s landbank.

Using Freedom of Information legislation, The Detail asked all 11 councils for information on land they own that is currently redundant.

Four councils provided information on 56 pieces of land they own that is surplus or no longer used and covers a combined area of 127.9 hectares. Belfast (91.29 hectares), Newry, Mourne and Down (21.23 hectares), Antrim and Newtownabbey (9.99 hectares) and Ards and North Down (5.36 hectares).

Five councils told The Detail they do not have or do not hold information on redundant land, with several councils referring to the fact they are currently reviewing their land and property assets as part of the local plan process.

View the full list of council-owned redundant land here.

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The Detail also asked the councils how much land they had zoned for housing.
All referred to the fact they are still planning for future development with some declining to provide any further information for this reason.

Four councils told The Detail it had a combined capability for 63,427 new homes on land they had zoned for housing between March 2017 and March 2018. This included the potential for 22,354 homes on zoned land in Belfast and 15,305 homes in the Fermanagh and Omagh Council area.

Derry and Strabane District Council referred us to a document from May 2017 which said there were 502 hectares of land remaining out of 800 hectares zoned for housing in the most recent Derry and Strabane Area Plans. The Derry Area Plan outlined planning intentions from 1996 to 2011 while the Strabane Area Plan covered the period between 1986 and 2001.

A Department for Communities spokesman said: “Northern Ireland has options that could transform housing. These could provide investment in its existing social homes. These could maintain and increase the rate at which we build new social homes. These could keep much valued independence and fairness in social housing allocation. These could harness the power, and improve the standards of other sectors to meet housing need. We just need to take the decisions and choose the options – beginning with a fundable plan for the NIHE’s homes.”

Read Paul Gosling's commentary in full here.

The first of The Detail's special two-day report on social housing can be read here and our look at six months of Housing Executive repairs can be viewed here.

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