Housing matters

Devolution has made a difference in housing with extra funding and the launch of a new government policy agenda for the sector. Ryan Jennings and Peter Cheney discuss progress on this plan with Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie.

Margaret Ritchie has had an “abiding interest” in making sure that social and affordable housing is provided throughout her political career and now within the Executive, she has put it at the top of her department’s agenda. She contrasts this approach with the lack of attention the issue received under previous direct rule administrations.

“The housing crisis back in April and May ’07 could have been characterised by large numbers of people on the social housing waiting list, people trying to get on to the housing ladder and trying to stay on it and the large number of homeless people throughout Northern Ireland,” she explains.

“That was the issue I was confronted with and very clearly coming from a social democratic perspective, coming as someone who believes in social justice and equality and believing that the needs of people come first and delivering improvement for people, my job as Minister was to put housing as [my] number one priority.”

After securing an increased funding for housing in Budget negotiations, she outlined the New Housing Agenda to the Assembly on 26 February this year, setting a goal of building 5,250 social houses over the next three years.”

The Minister is also keen to see developers make a financial contribution towards social housing; Northern Ireland “is the only part of these isles that it doesn’t exist in so I believe we need to do that and we need to cater for that”. The Department of the Environment is the lead department on this issue as it involves changes to planning policy and Ritchie has raised it with Environment Minister Sammy Wilson.

With the credit crunch, she understands the difficulties faced by local developers and says that developer contributions would be “phased in to reflect difficulties”. Building social housing, Ritchie points out, also provides an opportunity for firms at this time.

One existing example of a developer contribution is a pilot project in Portadown for the first-time buyers’ shared equity scheme, involving the developer, the housing association and the lender. A further project has also been launched by North and West Housing Association in Derry.

Ritchie plans to introduce a new house sales scheme for co-ownership in social housing in November, to allow people in social housing to part-buy a house rather than purchase the full house as they have to do at present. A mortgage rescue scheme is also currently out for consultation and she hopes to get the financial resources to bring this in as well.

To deliver the Executive’s social housing targets, housing associations will come together in four groups to procure builders for houses. “It means greater efficiencies so the housing associations are getting greater value for their money and ‘more bang for their buck’,” she states.

“I want to see those houses on the ground. It’s about improving the lives of people and a house is the most fundamental commodity for any of us. It’s a fundamental building block in society and it ensures that we have stability, security of tenure as a home.”

Shared future

As well as building houses, Ritchie wants to see the province’s estates shared between its communities, thus breaking down the traditional divisions seen in Northern Ireland society.

“Whilst we have political stability in Northern Ireland now – relatively speaking – whilst we have economic prosperity, people and particularly in urban areas live in deeply segregated, polarised communities,” the Minister continues.

“To move on politically, we must all engage in a process of healing and a process of reconciliation. We have the product in education through integrated education but I believe that there is another product in housing, and that’s through Shared Future neighbourhoods.”

A programme to deliver shared housing in existing estates, involving the Housing Executive, has been launched with funding from the International Fund for Ireland in August this year.

Shared housing has been promoted in new estates such as the Habinteg housing association’s development in Sion Mills, where the first resident has already moved in. There are similar schemes planned for Enniskillen and Loughbrickland.

However, delivering a shared future on a more strategic level will mean changes to the common selection scheme which the Housing Executive uses to select tenants, so that it takes an applicant’s community background into account. This is a sensitive area and the department is currently looking at how to do this.

“There is a need to cater for us moving on, for us to cater for that new society in Northern Ireland. It’s not about peaceful co-existence, it’s about people moving to live together, to heal the wounds of the past, to live in reconciled communities,” she continues.

“I don’t want to impose a shared future on anybody. I think there’s a great element of choice there but we need to look at it where people can come together [that] we facilitate that reconciliation process, that we facilitate people living together, that healing process. That’s always been a job for my party [and] what we have been about.”

She is realistic enough to see that integration requires much more than a change in policy or a piece of legislation. “It takes a change in culture and it takes a change in mindset. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight and it’s not something that’ll happen in a couple of months.

“[The] physical walls and mindsets have to come down. They will start to come down when people have trust and confidence in each other and people see value and benefit in them [the Executive and Assembly] and having ‘trust thy neighbour’ attitude.”

She refers also to the cost of segregation (Deloitte has estimated a figure of £1.5 billion) as reason enough in these tough times to bring an end to separated society. “People have lived apart too long and it impacts greatly on the budget and now that we’re having less money to go around, and we need to provide for people, there is a need to take that on board and address that and I do believe that maintaining the status quo is no longer an option,” she stresses.

Staying with social housing, the Varney Report referred to a process which councils in England and Wales use to maximise the efficiency in social housing. Arms-length management organisations are being set up, independent of local councils though with representatives on the board, to administer social houses. Councils are shifting their stock to these organisations, allowing them to borrow on the strength of their assets from private sources, rather than relying heavily on central government funds to meet need.

“That matter has been discussed internally and with the Housing Executive as well. I do believe in the Housing Executive as a strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland. What I have to ensure is that there’s a greater provision of social and affordable housing available to people and I have to explore every mechanism to do that. I’m about delivering for people and providing for people and getting the best value for the money that’s available to me.” Indeed the Minister has been true to her word, with the news of the private sector procurement scheme in Lurgan.

Fuel poverty

Anticipating a fuel poverty crisis this winter due to rising energy prices, Ritchie set up the Fuel Poverty Task Force which reported back to her in August. The task force, which had input from the public sector and private sector, including the energy companies, analysed the impact of fuel poverty on health and well-being and the problems that it causes for the working poor i.e. people who are above the benefit level but on low incomes.

The Minister could not make an announcement on what action she would take at that as she knew the Prime Minister would be making a statement on tackling fuel poverty. Gordon Brown tripled the weekly level of cold weather payment from £8.50 to £25 but this is only paid when a long, cold spell of weather is expected.

Asked if there was any way that Northern Ireland could ‘buy in’ to the rest of the PM’s Home Energy Saving Programme, she replies: “I honestly feel that there was nothing additional that we weren’t already doing ourselves”.

The Minister points to the Warm Homes scheme, to which she has increased funding, and her attempts to raise fuel poverty with the Executive as evidence of local action to tackle the problem.

Fuel poverty is a cross-cutting issue and government departments have different responsibilities for tackling the issue: DSD for home energy efficiency, OFMDFM for anti-poverty policy, DETI for energy policy, DARD for rural homes.

On the back of the task force report, Ritchie prepared a paper for the Executive for discussion on 18 September. The meeting did not take place, although she has had several meetings with individual Ministers since then and submitted a revised paper based on their comments.

“There needs to be a response to that paper as I asked for it to be dealt with under the urgent procedure [which allows the responsible Minister to advise the First Minister and deputy First Minister of the decision to be taken without waiting for the next Executive meeting],” she continues.

“This is about delivering for people, delivering for people on low incomes, delivering for the working poor and ensuring that people keep warm this winter.”

To take action against fuel poverty this winter, Ritchie emphasises that other Ministers need to come back to her “very, very quickly” as the weather is worst in January and February.

“People – particularly elderly people and young people and those on low incomes – will feel the punitive nature of the cold more acutely.”

She says that it would be “admirable” if energy companies kept their prices down and points out that they have a “duty of care” to the people whom they are charging. Ritchie adds that the companies are “gaining significant profits” and “would very much like to see a financial response” from them which would help their customers.

Winter fuel payment has been increased this year from £200 to £250 for over 60s and from £300 to £400 for over 80s but the Minister thinks that more can be done. She plans to meet Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell to highlight Northern Ireland’s specific need – due to a colder climate and lower incomes – and suggest a special allowance for the province so that it gets the best deal from this benefit.

Private rented sector

The private sector is currently providing nearly as much housing as the public sector and that is something the Minister is all too aware of. Co-operation between the department and local councils is an integral part of regulating the sector given that local councils have responsibility for environmental health.

“I now want to see what is being done in each of the 26 councils to ensure that the issue of unfitness is tackled within the private sector and ensure that all landlords fulfil their responsibilities,” she says. That would begin with the mandatory registration of all private landlords.

The Private Tenancies Order was introduced in April 2007, with a view to regulating the private rented sector in a way which was aimed at “rewarding the efforts of landlords who wish to provide good quality housing for their tenants”.

Ritchie’s officials meet with the Landlords’ Association on an ongoing basis in order to ensure that “we have the best possible practice implemented here”, though the process is hindered at the moment given that the increased regulation will form part of the second Housing Bill – the first is still caught up in the Executive logjam.

The New Housing Agenda set a figure of 12,000 new build social and affordable houses over the next five years. Construction, more than any other industry, has suffered as a result of the troubled economic climate, so it was put to her whether that figure is going to be met.

“I hope it is, though I’m realistic in all of this. I don’t discount that there are challenges and there are difficulties out there but I am determined to do the job.”

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