Facing an uncertain future

210313WC1_087 Jim Dennison chaired the 2013 Northern Ireland Housing Conference. Here, he shares his perspective on a sector in transition and the key factors for delivering a successful long-term future in housing.

Over the past number of months, housing has been in a state of transition. This transition has been caused by a variety of different factors, many of which we as housing professionals have no direct control over.

These include: the reduction of public funding, less readily accessible private finance, planning and regulation, the tightening of procurement legislation, and the lack of confidence in housing and labour markets, to name but a significant few.

However, not having direct control doesn’t mean to say that we as a housing industry cannot inform and influence key policy- and decision-makers both in the immediate, medium and longer term futures.

agendaNi’s annual housing conference, ‘Facing an uncertain future’, could not have been timelier. The title more than adequately summed up the fact that, as yet, we still do not have a definitive direction of travel for housing here. The conference aimed to both raise the challenges that we collectively face and to provide opportunities for discussion and debate on solutions to those challenges.

I think it is fair to say that although there is a considerable amount of uncertainty, there is also a significant amount of optimism and energy.

Optimism in that the draft Housing Strategy is now a real document rather than a hypothetical one.

Energy in that housing professionals along with others with a connection to housing (which includes the legal profession, researchers and academics, the community and voluntary sector and trade bodies) are all engaged in discussion about what they can meaningfully do to ensure that housing becomes an integral part of public policy.

The themes

Themes covered in the sessions ranged from the future shape of housing in Northern Ireland to meeting housing needs in turbulent economic times, from investing in social and affordable housing in Northern Ireland to the implications of welfare reform. I was struck by a number of comments made by both contributors and attendees:

• the DSD is committed to a strategy which would provide housing choices and would be the focus of housing-led regeneration;

• change in the current structure of the Housing Executive is not only necessary but inevitable;

• housing continues to be a major contributor to division and separation among our communities, rather than a catalyst for sharing and integration;

• any future transfer of NIHE stock would be used to leverage other additional investment, and would be to organisations outside the public sector;

• investment in housing is crucial and the return would be dramatic (not only would it increase choice and open up new options and areas for people but it would also yield a return of £2.41 for every £1 spent in the wider economy, and create 2.3 jobs for every house built);

• Northern Ireland will be availing of its share in the Get Britain Building fund (an announcement by the department to follow);

• government should be responsible for housing policy, with a separate regional body leading on housing strategy; and

• a call to abolish the bedroom tax.

The ultimate challenge is how we articulate, plan, resource and implement a long-term vision that is outcome-focused and creates and sustains a functioning housing system in Northern Ireland. In doing this, we need to think about a number of key components.

Supply and stability

It was clear from the conference that housing is fundamental for economic growth. Ensuring that new house-building is linked to emerging labour markets and investment opportunities is integral to realising the aims of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Economic Strategy.

There is very little emphasis on increasing private housing supply and supporting the local house-building industry within the Housing Strategy. Intervention in the private market is crucial to ensure long-term sustainability and to prevent the continued loss of construction skills that could prevent our ability to build new private, affordable and social homes in the future.

Addressing barriers to delivery

The delivery of social, affordable and private housing was a recurring theme. This has slowed and, in some cases, been halted altogether by a number of obstacles which need not necessarily be obstacles.

Planning, procurement and regulation are all fundamental to effective housing delivery. However, in many cases they have become unnecessarily complex, bureaucratic and process-driven. The innovation called for in the Housing Strategy cannot be realised in a risk-averse culture dictated by compliance with prescriptive planning, procurement and regulatory frameworks.

My organisation, the Chartered Institute of Housing, has urged that consideration is given to creating a more flexible, realistic and outcomes-focused approach to housing delivery across all tenures.

Focusing on function over form

It was felt that the housing reform programme provides a unique opportunity to improve the housing system and create bodies that enable the delivery of better housing outcomes. However, the focus must be on the desired outcomes and how they can be achieved before detailed discussion on establishing new structures. This is particularly important in the case of the new regional housing authority. It has been suggested that this should be a strategic enabler that:

• pro-actively facilitates land assembly, increased supply, investment and growth and planning for place-making;

• encourages new thinking, and pilots new ideas and models;

• supports the development of new partnerships; and

• becomes a centre of housing expertise.

Consideration and discussion of the potential roles and responsibilities of this new body should be an early and fundamental part of the housing reform programme.

In summary, we know there is much to be done. As one contributor said on the day: “It’s not all doom and gloom. We’re not the first to have faced these problems.” He was right.

We need to learn from good and best practice happening locally, nationally and internationally. We need to be mindful of the risks but not afraid to take some. We need commitment, drive and energy; things we have as an industry in abundance. We need to play our part in contributing to making our future housing system great. And I’m sure we will.

Jim Dennison is Head of Operations of the Chartered Institute of Housing in Northern Ireland.

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