Deputy Secretary of Housing, Urban Regeneration and Local Government at the Department for Communities (DfC) Northern Ireland, Louise Warde Hunter discusses the draft Programme for Government (PfG), the four trends that have characterised housing in Northern Ireland and the impact of the political situation.
Guided by the draft PfG, the DfC continues to focus on the key pillars of increasing the number of homes and decreasing the level of housing stress. The aim, according to Warde Hunter, is to ensure the Department is ready to make an “informed presentation” to an incoming minister.
“For Housing, the draft PfG is focused on positively turning two indicators of progress,” she says. “We are seeking to increase the supply of homes and decrease the numbers in housing stress. At the heart of both indicators is development. Over the past five years we’ve started over 7,660 new social homes against a target of 7,500. Any future housing minister will, no doubt, continue to put new build social housing at the heart of their Programme for Government.”
Warde Hunter continues: “Certainly within housing in DfC, work in relation to PfG has continued to progress at pace so we are in a position to present returning ministers with clear proposals to enable them to make informed decisions.”
Four long-term trends have characterised the Northern Ireland housing market over the last 25 years, the Deputy Secretary explains. These are: an increase in the number of households; a shift away from renting to more homeownership, although this has reversed in recent years; the inability of the construction sector to build enough housing to match household growth; and house price inflation.
“Our population here has grown by approximately 15 per cent between 1991 and 2015 because of a combination of people living longer on average and net inward migration. At the same time, the size of the average household has dropped from 2.9 people to 2.5 due to a number of factors, most notably, the trend towards smaller average family sizes and longer average life expectancy.”
Warde Hunter explains that, in reaching a consensus regarding current draft PfG proposals, extensive public and stakeholder consultations were conducted back in 2016 to identify and understand key issues, to develop suitable action plans and to determine the most effective delivery mechanisms and partners.
“In taking all this into account, we proposed a number of interventions which, when taken as a whole, are aimed at turning the curve on the stress on housing supply in a tenure neutral way. Our proposals ranged from the delivery of new social and affordable housing to specific initiatives aimed at improving housing choices within the private rented sector. The Department is committed, should adequate funding be available, to deliver 3,750 additional affordable intermediate homes across Northern Ireland by the end of the current PfG period . The overwhelming majority of these additional affordable homes will be delivered through the co-ownership scheme, but around 700 homes will be delivered through two ongoing pilot schemes; the rent to own scheme and the affordable home loans fund.”
However, reaching these targets will be dependent on the funding allocated to the DfC in the two budgets remaining in the period of the draft PfG. “The primary source of funding for affordable homes is Financial Transactions Capital loans. The affordable housing financing model is particularly suited to this method of funding and generating sufficient receipts to meet repayments,” Warde Hunter explains.
Despite facing into a future that contains much more uncertainty than certainty, the Deputy Secretary and her colleagues have developed a range of proposals around housing that could build and expand upon the current model, including an innovative idea to compile a new register of available public land.
“I’m keen to explore the supply of public land for housing with a view to developing a spatial catalogue of the registered public sector land and property held by all government departments and their arm’s length bodies that may be suitable for reuse for housing,” she says. “Analysis by the Strategic Investment Board’s Asset Management Unit has confirmed that to date an estimated 80 per cent of surplus government assets are sold or transferred for housing of one tenure or another. This fact supports a view that a more detailed examination of government assets could result in further opportunities to release land for housing.”
Warde Hunter is also keen to stress the importance of the Department’s Supporting People (SP) programme, which provides housing support services to over 18,500 vulnerable people in Northern Ireland each year, with support that is either accommodation-based or peripatetic ‘floating support’. “We led a review of the SP programme, which concluded with the publication of a report in November 2015. This report contained 13 recommendations to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the SP programme across policy, delivery and oversight. An implementation plan was agreed in March 2016 and progress has been made across all 13 recommendations.”
The Department is committed, should adequate funding be available to deliver 3,750 additional homes across Northern Ireland by the end of the current Programme for Government period.
Further progress is being made across other housing projects, not least the regeneration of the disused St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena. The St Patrick’s Barracks programme will span six years and it includes five individual projects: shared mixed-tenure housing; shared space and shared civic space; leisure and wellbeing amenities; social enterprise projects; and policing. “The partnership approach [with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, other departments, social enterprise partners, the PSNI and many other stakeholders] has been crucial in establishing an open and equitable process for distributing information, ensuring ongoing effective stakeholder involvement and supporting transparency, confidence and a collective understanding that promotes shared decision making and conflict resolution,” Warde Hunter says.
Looming over all of this progress is the reality that Northern Ireland currently has no Assembly or Executive and no immediate prospect of a return to the institutions. It is a situation that “clearly has an impact on our ability to pass legislation and strategic decision making” according to Warde Hunter, who says that civil servants are “simply the shapers of policy; ministers are the policymakers”. Significant challenges for the Department include progressing legislation on proposals arising from the Private Rented Sector review.
“The need for reform of the Housing Executive has been well documented for many years and clearly the current political situation is very challenging,” Warde Hunter says. “NIHE rents have remained frozen for three years. In response, we’ve had to do some things we would never want to do. The Housing Executive has suspended the introduction of certain aspects of its asset management strategy and is currently unable to invest to the Commonly Adopted Standard.”
The Commonly Adopted Standard is an investment standard equivalent to that adopted by social housing providers in Great Britain and housing associations in Northern Ireland. “Ultimately, if nothing was to change, the result of this lack of resources will be that the NIHE will have to start a process of divestment within the next three years,” Warde Hunter says. “This will of course reduce the amount of homes available to house people on the waiting list, and risk an increase in the number of people in housing stress.”
However, the Department remains committed to meeting the challenges of the political situation. “To do this, we will continue to collaborate with our non-departmental public body, the Housing Executive, housing providers and associations, who keep us on our toes in terms of ensuring that our policy agenda is as strong and robust as it can be,” Warde Hunter concludes.