As Northern Ireland struggles to offer a coherent and unified contribution to the Brexit negotiations in the absence of an Executive, Dave Whelan talks to MEP Jim Nicholson about his role in bringing Northern Ireland’s precarious position to the attention of both Brussels and Westminster. By his own admission, the official triggering of Article 50...
Connswater Homes Chair and Professor of Housing Paddy Gray believes that a dual strategy incorporating resilience and innovation will be key to addressing the social housing shortfall in Northern Ireland.
Acknowledging a clear need for more social housing in Northern Ireland, Gray is assertive that a bricks and mortar solution alone will not be the answer to reducing Northern Ireland’s lengthy social housing waiting list. In fact, he believes that a narrow focus on dwellings would be detrimental to the future wellbeing of communities. Instead, he advocates a ‘housing plus approach’ whereby services and support are integral elements to developing new housing.
“Services and support comes in a wide variety of forms and requires partnerships and joined up thinking right down from government, through housing associations and linking in with the voluntary sector,” he says. “One example is the link between housing and health, often the impact that poor housing can have on a person’s physical and mental health is overlooked. People living with a lack of services and support are going to see a deterioration in their health, with one likely by-product being a rise in the overall health bill. Unfortunately, there has been a legacy of our government departments working in silos and we have yet to witness genuine joined-up thinking whereby better housing and services could potentially reduce wider healthcare costs.”
Gray illustrates that, in recent years, both large and small housing associations have worked to expand their offering to tenants and believes that they are now more than ever able to offer homes, not just houses. Speaking about innovation within Connswater Homes, the fourth housing association Gray has chaired over almost four decades working across the sector, he points to the planned appointment of a community development officer, a welfare advice officer and a maintenance officer as an example of wider service delivery for their approximately 1,000 households and the wider community.
“The reality is that the majority of people living in social housing are those on low-incomes and welfare cuts have put a bigger squeeze on such households in terms of debt, which has a further knock-on effect on issues such as mental health. There also exists a high level of unemployment amongst social housing tenants and our increased services have been tailored to try to aid and address this. Ourselves, and other housing associations which we work in partnership with, recognise that there are significant benefits in not just improving the lives of our own tenants but also the wider community in which we live.
“There are significant benefits in not just improving the lives of our own tenants but also the wider community in which we live.”
“One of the programmes our community development officer will take on is a new gardening project with funding via Groundwork NI, where the community will be offered gardening opportunities – and potentially qualifications – which amongst other leisure activities will be used to grow vegetation for a local church to then use in its larder scheme. That’s just one example and other initiatives will involve wider activity creation, potentially upskilling young people through apprenticeships, creating social environments for the community to share and hopefully some form of employment creation.
“I think there is a much wider understanding that improving individual wellbeing can have a collective impact regarding housing and I think greater partnership in the housing sector can produce much more of this type of innovation.”
Key to improving overall community wellbeing, argues Gray, is integration and the development of more mixed-tenure estates. However, he also acknowledges the challenges of enforcing such developments in the current economic climate. “Everywhere else in the UK, excluding Northern Ireland, it is legislative that developers are required to identify 20 per cent of their new stock as social and affordable housing. Talks of introducing something similar in Northern Ireland had received support across the board but the property crash rendered such a move invalid at the time.
“Hopefully that interest can be revived. There is no doubt that communities will benefit from having high and low income groups in the one area, especially if the majority shop and work in that area. However, proper integration requires partnership. As well as encouraging the private sector to invest in building, housing associations need to be innovative in working with developers to ensure that people are comfortable and take pride in their local area.”
Like most housing associations in Northern Ireland, Connswater Homes (previously Connswater Housing Association) is relatively young, with many associations only forming in the 1970s. Originally established to help aid the vision of regenerating the Connswater area of east Belfast, in 2003 the association opted to expand and actively seek development opportunities province wide. To date it continues to expand with housing developments throughout Belfast, as well as Antrim, Lisburn, Newtownabbey, Newtownards, Portaferry and Downpatrick. “We are classed as a small association but at the same time we punch well above our weight in terms of development and service excellence,” explains Gray.
Connswater’s growth correlates with the increasingly important role housing associations in Northern Ireland are now playing in addressing housing need. Gray points out that associations’ ability to borrow from the private sector and keep the debt off the public balance sheet, has ensured they successfully meet the targets set for them under the Social Housing Development Programme. However, he believes there is an evident gap between the need being identified by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the level of government funding required to address it.
“The associations are building what is required of them but they are restricted in what they can do because of funding and the limitations of our regulatory framework. It is hoped that a review of the framework, which appeared to be at an advanced stage prior to the current political impasse, will free up associations to be more creative in their funding models. That of course comes with the caveat of enshrining public accountability because public money will still be involved. I have no doubt that our associations are capable of leading the way in building the necessary housing that is required. There is certainly interest from the private sector, although they have voiced concerns that there is currently not enough incentive to build and they face unnecessary hurdles around areas such as land acquisition. I think the crash damaged a lot of developers and we’re now in a process where there needs to be consolidation and encouragement to build.”
“I have no doubt that our associations are capable of leading the way in building the necessary housing that is required.”
Gray states that he is not fully comfortable with the idea of associations in Northern Ireland following suit with some of their counterparts in Great Britain, who have become increasingly involved in buying and selling within the private sector to cross-subsidise their necessary building. “Whilst there is a need to look at new funding models, many, in my view, have downgraded their social purpose at the expense of commercial activities and are now providing for higher incomes who can afford to pay the higher rents being charged.”
With demand for social housing being so high in Northern Ireland, Gray says that he has been highlighting the plight of what he calls the “forgotten social tenants”. “A lack of suitable social housing and long-waiting lists has pushed a lot of people into the now vibrant private rented sector. It’s estimated that around 70,000 tenants who live in the private rented sector are on housing benefit, which is an indicator of low-income, and many of these tenants would have been in the social housing sector had housing been available. Yet they are not being offered the benefits that social housing tenants get.
“Social housing tenants are given a package of benefits including the right to discounts on buying their homes, secure tenancies for life and good housing management, including extra support for those that require it, whilst those who have had to go into the private rented sector are not afforded any of these benefits. I think short of being able to meet the social housing waiting list demand, those making the strategic political decisions need to ensure that they are offering a level-playing field to all of those in need, whether they are in the social sector or the private rented sector.”
Northern Ireland’s current political stalemate could prove damaging to plans to advance the sector. Gray points out that, given that the budget for 2017-18 has still not been agreed, there is a degree of uncertainty amongst housing associations as to what government support they will get to build new housing. A move towards direct rule would enable civil servants to allocate 75 per cent of the overall budget initially, and 95 per cent by July 2017, however, as Gray explains the extra money will arrive late and undoubtedly cause, at the very least, delays in output. Budget restrictions will also have negative implications for the voluntary third sector, a crucial element to the ‘housing plus’ strategy.
The fact that there are no Executive ministers has also meant that a proposed reversal or the reclassification of housing associations as public bodies has yet to be enacted. However, Gray is confident that the decision will be made sooner rather than later. “The ONS decision effectively puts housing association borrowing onto the public balance sheet and essentially imposes unwelcome restrictions on borrowing as well as other activities. The idea of introducing a regulatory framework was to give housing associations more freedom and this reclassification would actually mean more regulation. It’s a contradiction and will be counter-productive. Thankfully this has been widely recognised and it is believed the reversal will take place as soon as ministerial approval is given. However, there is uncertainty over whether a direct rule minister would be able to or willing to sign it off.”
Referencing Brexit, he believes that a tougher economic climate has the potential to galvanise housing associations into closer relationships across the island. As an organiser, over the years, of north-south housing conferences, otherwise known as the Conference of the Isles, he sees the benefit in greater collaboration. “A lot of housing associations here in Northern Ireland have already established, or are linked to, associations in the south. I think in recent years we have seen the south look for guidance from the north because of their greater experience, while the north are keen to see how the south operates in an economy on the rise once more. Depending on the Brexit deal that is struck, I foresee even greater collaboration, with northern associations partnering in the south in the hope of attracting EU finance.”
“In recent years there has been a growing interest from the south in how housing is managed and delivered in the north while in the north there is an appetite to learn more on how the south is responding to an economy on the rise once more.”
In the meantime, Gray believes that housing associations are getting on with the job at hand in the absence of an Executive and still meeting the demands upon them. Having travelled globally in his roles as the first Irish and first academic President of the Chartered Institute of Housing and a member of the governing committee of European Network for Housing Research (ENHR), Gray has praised the resilience of the housing sector in Northern Ireland.
“I have great confidence in the housing movement here, more so than in other parts of the UK, mostly because of what it has been through in the past. Even during the Troubles, Northern Ireland created good quality housing and worked well within communities and I believe it has the resilience to face most pressures. I firmly believe that we do housing better here in Northern Ireland, we just don’t shout about it enough. The Housing Executive has shown great leadership in working with communities right across the country and Supporting Communities is an excellent example of an organisation working in partnership to improve community involvement and general wellbeing. Our advice services, in particular housing rights and Citizens Advice (Gray was Chair of the Derry CAB for 22 years and still sits on the board) are second to none and we have a wide network of excellent voluntary groups working in partnership with housing and support organisations delivering excellent services.”
Going forward with Connswater Homes, Gray states that there are two partnerships with which he would like to see further development. The first is between the education sector and housing associations. As an emeritus professor of Ulster University’s School of Built Environment, he is well aware of the benefits and experience housing associations such as Connswater can offer to the future leaders of the housing sector, through work experiences, workshops and interaction. However, he also believes that there is further scope for academic institutions to work alongside housing associations and the Housing Executive to provide skills, training and education to low income communities.
The second relationship, and one which is already growing, is with local councils. He believes that Connswater and other housing associations are already benefitting from increased powers for local democracy, and he says: “Whilst it’s still early in the process, local government has a role in shaping and creating policy that will better local communities. We are striving to work to the local objectives set out by the local councils within which we are developing and managing. That can pose challenges but it’s also very rewarding to know that we are fitting into a wider plan. Local councils are crucial to mapping out initiatives and creating a framework for the connectivity of services which we aim to promote.
Profile: Paddy Gray, Chair of Connswater Homes
Ulster University’s Emeritus Housing Professor Paddy Gray was recently named the top housing Power Player of the top 50 power players in the UK by 24 Housing which cited in particular his influence whilst chairing housing associations and sitting on boards across the UK and Ireland and encouraging influencing younger people in their housing journey. As well as serving as president of the Chartered Institute of Housing UK from 2010 to 2011, he is also the Institute’s external examiner and is responsible for approving courses internationally including Africa, China and Hong Kong.
He was awarded a Distinguished Community Fellowship at the University of Ulster in 2004 for outstanding work in the community and, in 2006, was appointed Visiting Professor of Real Estate at Spiru Haret University, Romania. In 2011 he was awarded an honorary Fellowship of RICS and in 2014 was named as Belfast Ambassador of the Year by Visit Belfast. This didn’t conclude the awards and in 2015 he won an award in London for Outstanding Contribution to Work Experience at the National Undergraduates Employability Awards UK and in 2016 was appointed as Visiting Professor at Jiangxia University, Fujian China 2016.
Gray says that he is lucky that his work allows him to fulfil his passion for travelling and meeting new people. To unwind Gray enjoys socialising, particularly eating out, walking, reading and watching most sports involving a ball.