Charting housing’s future

Grainia Long

Owen McQuade discusses the work of the Northern Ireland Housing Commission with Grainia Long, who advises it as Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing. The province has reached a turning point for housing; the sector has many strengths as well as having room for improvement.

Leading the work of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) since November 2007, Grainia Long is a well known face in the sector and since this April has served as chief advisor to the think tank looking into the future of how we live.

The Commission on the Future for Housing in Northern Ireland, usually known as the Northern Ireland Housing Commission, has a one year remit and is tasked with assessing the key challenges and opportunities associated with delivering housing in the province, and providing a space for housing professionals to contribute their knowledge, skills and ideas.

“Essentially the origins of the commission are from a sense over the past year or so that the housing sector needs to come together – it’s already quite consensusled – to help government to shape a long term vision for housing. Government doesn’t always have the luxury to look ahead by a decade. The role of the commission is to bring the sector to focus on a long-term vision for housing principally, but also for places, for communities and everything within that, so everything from regeneration to community development.”

Grainia Long

Government, in this context, means the three departments with most relevance to housing i.e. the Department for Social Development (DSD), the Department of the Environment (DoE), responsible for development control policy, and the Department for Regional Development (DRD) which covers regional planning.

“Certainly since devolution, we’ve seen a considerable increase in both the scale and the nature of the policy debate on housing, which is very positive,” she remarks. Specific examples include the New Housing Agenda which has set a “very strong” direction for housing from Margaret Ritchie, and “full and substantial” planning reform through the DoE under local Ministers. Added to this is the revised Regional Development Strategy and spatial framework from the DRD.

The commission, which is independent of government, is considering the question of where we want to be in 2020. People within the sector wanted a time-limited and tangible exercise, and Long sees the fact that the initiative is sector-led as a key success factor.

Its Chair is Lord Richard Best (interviewed in agendaNi June 2009, pages 32-33), who was formerly Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation in England and Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A cross-bench peer, Lord Best was involved in a policy review in Northern Ireland back in the 1990s and has also chaired a housing commission for the Westminster City Council area.

The other Commissioners are Professor Greg Lloyd, who heads the University of Ulster’s School of the Built Environment, and barrister Alyson Kilpatrick. Lloyd was involved in advising on planning reform and also has experience of community planning from his work in Great Britain. Kilpatrick is from the province and specialises in housing and human rights law.

“I think the three of them together bring a real wealth of experience but they also have a depth of knowledge and understanding in different areas,” Long comments. Her own role is to help bring direction to the commission, inform it on policy and give it a grounding in the sector.

Its terms of reference are very wide but this is something of which she is glad, as “you can’t pick one part of the sector out on its own.” Different tenures have an impact on each other, as seen by house price inflation’s knock-on effect on private rented and social housing.

Whole system

One of the commission’s key messages is that the housing system as a whole needs to be working together: “It’s taken very much a whole system approach to how housing works.” That was not necessarily true in the past, in part due to how responsibilities were split between the three departments.

“What we hope to do as a commission is to help to bring some coherence to policy debate across government and think across the piece. What’s the relationship, for example, between housing and planning, and how do we need to knit the two together? And how do the tenures need to knit together more?”

So far, the Commissioners have met with over 60 organisations and also 80 tenants, through an event organised by the Supporting Communities organisation.

“Again our independence has been helpful here. Because we’re not a public commission, we’ve been able to hold ‘Chatham House rules’ meetings with a lot of individuals and organisations. We’ve very much taken a listening approach, an informal approach to the meetings.”

It also will take as much time as it needs to make its conclusions. An issues paper was to be produced in early November and a final report of recommendations is due in early 2010.

“We’ve been very keen to give ourselves the time and the space to come to conclusions, to give ourselves the space to listen and learn from people within the sector here, people within housing in Northern Ireland, and also look to other jurisdictions,” Long explains.

To this work, the Commissioners have also brought their own contacts and a strong network of other experts has been able to provide its advice. Lord Best, for example, hosted a meeting in the House of Lords with, among others, the Chief Executive of the English Homes and Communities Agency, Sir Bob Kerslake, and Baroness Margaret Ford who has also conducted work for the DSD on housing finance and investment.

The commission has support from across the sector because people round the table from private, public and volunteer sector “spent a long time getting its terms of reference right” in the preparation stages. One result is that expectations are now high but the commission is determined to take a careful, thoughtful approach in its work.

“When there’s an opportunity to really effect substantial and long-term positive change, you’ve to grab it but you also have to do it right,” she points out. “So it’s getting that balance right, not rushing headlong into this. It would be quite easy for the commission to make recommendations that are highly populist but the risk is that they will not work. Its conclusions, when Commissioners reach conclusions, will be informed by expert views from across the sector and that will make the next phase workable.”

Some funding has also been made available to source academic expertise from outside the commission. Professor Steve Wilcox, from the University of York, carried out an affordability analysis which identified the peak in house price inflation and compared Northern Ireland’s lack of affordability with the rest of the UK. While London ranked at the top, the province was in second place. Steve Partridge, the CIH Group’s Director of Financial Services and Policy, is undertaking financial modelling for the commission.

Long’s contention is that the housing system, while currently working, is not sustainable in the long term.

Grainia Long

Price inflation meant that many people wishing to buy and own a home were unable to do so and “that demand is not going to go away all of the sudden,” she says. In social housing, the waiting list is 40,000-long, of which 20,000 people are in housing need. However, the list is recognised as “not a particularly good indicator of need” as large numbers of eligible people do not put their names forward for it. Northern Ireland’s private rented sector has also increased in size.

“We still tend in the main to build housing on the basis of tenure so we haven’t seen the long-term benefits in Northern Ireland of mixed tenure, mixed income communities, which makes social cohesion and integration all the more difficult. That, in the medium term, is not sustainable,” she says. This marks Northern Ireland out from other jurisdictions, which is not always a bad thing, but the clear benefits to mixing communities have been demonstrated elsewhere.

“Good housing, that is well mixed, leads to better health and well-being,” Long continues. It’s the norm in the Republic, it’s taken for granted in England, Scotland and Wales and as a result we need to find ways in which we do that.”

Northern Ireland could also take the lead on flexible tenure e.g. where people change their tenure even when living in the same property. An older or retired person who owns their own home may wish to release equity and become a housing association tenant, without leaving the property. Quite a lot of thinking has been done on this in England, but the concept is far from simple. Northern Ireland, though, has a single model of shared ownership through the co-ownership model and Long thinks there are “some interesting ways” in which Northern Ireland can do some lead thinking on this issue.

Reducing volatility in the market will also be important as this has had consequences for the economy, investors’ confidence and people’s mobility within housing.

Innovation

Some “real opportunities to innovate” also exist within housing.

Long states: “We do have a very highly skilled sector in Northern Ireland. People who work in housing are well-educated, well-trained. They tend to stay in housing which is a real strength. We don’t have a lot of movement out of the sector and I think that distinguishes us from others.

Among other positives are the restoration of devolution, and resulting political stability, and the subsequent new thinking and opportunities, and the excellent condition of the province’s social housing stock. Research from the University of Ulster also suggests that levels of satisfaction in private rented housing are high, at over 80 per cent. Owner occupation has, until the early part of this decade, been affordable.

The Housing Executive and housing associations also have a good reputation. The main downside, though, is the “relatively small” scale of the sector, which may put off institutional investors such as pension funds. Responding to the issue of scale and incentivising more partnership working – e.g. through joint ventures – is also important for the commission.

Back to the advantages, another positive is that housing developers tend to be small, family-run companies, which are interested in more than profits. Regeneration and communities are also key interests.

“I think we need to diversify the role of all providers; we need to help the NIHE and housing associations to do what they do best. We need to support developers to build and also to invest in their communities, as many are already doing. The bottom line is that for a long-term vision for housing, we need genuine collaboration across government and the public sector and long-term partnerships across the public, private and voluntary sectors to make this work,” she explains.

“Delivering an effective housing system is not easy, and we’ve all seen what happens when it goes wrong. The essence of this commission is that the greater the collective effort to fixing existing problems, the better the long term solutions will be.”

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