Following the temporary step down of Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey on health grounds, the experienced Carál Ní Chuilín has taken up the brief on an interim basis. The former Housing Minister talks to agendaNi about progressing the Department’s ambitions in relation to housing and the challenges posed by Covid-19 for the sector.
What are your priorities upon taking up the role as interim Minister for Communities in regard to housing?
My priority is to continue to progress much of the important work that Deirdre Hargey had got underway in the Department. Housing is an area very close to my heart. It has many challenges but it is also such an enabler and so vital in building and sustaining communities.
The Housing Amendment Bill has been progressed in a bid to prevent a reduction in social homes build. You’re on record calling for the reintroduction of policy which ringfences new build allocations to ensure social housing is delivered in areas most in need. Will you seek to progress this in your time in office?
Minister Hargey has done great work in moving this important legislation forward. It is a complex piece of work but one which, if not addressed, was going to severely impact on the delivery of new social housing for those on the waiting list. Over the past four years, 5,910 new social homes have been delivered for people in need across our society, including families, young people and vulnerable adults including the elderly and people with disabilities. I think though we can all agree that more needs done in terms of quantity and in terms of directing new build at the areas of greatest housing need. Officials are already working with the Housing Executive to explore how best this can be done and I hope to drive this work forward as much as I can in my time in office.
The Bill potentially creates an inequality between housing association and NIHE properties in relation to right to buy. Minister Hargey has stated her desire to examine the Housing Executive scheme. Is that something you’ll progress?
Protecting our housing supply is vitally important and the priority in the Housing Amendment Bill has been to do what is needed to secure the reversal of the classification of housing associations. We will consult separately on access to affordable homeownership which will include consideration of the future of the Housing Executive House Sales Scheme. This will aim to support people into homeownership as well as retaining the social housing stock wherever possible.
Has Covid-19 had an impact on the housing ambitions set out in New Decade, New Approach?
Undoubtedly we have felt the impact of Covid-19 right across society. It is a major public health emergency and the first priority for everyone has been to protect life.
But Covid-19 has not impacted on our ambition to enhance delivery of new homes. It has had an impact on the 2019/20 new build social housing target, which was to deliver 1,850 unit starts: the actual outturn was 761 unit starts. This is of course extremely disappointing. The majority of the new build social housing activity falls in the final quarter of the financial year, which this year coincided with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with housing associations understandably reluctant to enter in to contractual arrangements. I know the housing sector as a whole have been disappointed at this unavoidable situation.
While we missed last year’s target, it’s important to remember that a lot of progress was made before the end of year, so there is now a supply of land and approved schemes that stand ready to boost new build and economic recovery in the future.
I am committed to working with the sector to ensure we now redouble our efforts in ensuring we deliver homes for those who need them. While we missed last year’s target, it’s important to remember that a lot of progress was made before the end of year, so there is now a supply of land and approved schemes that stand ready to boost new build and economic recovery in the future; budget and the capacity of the construction industry permitting of course.
I welcome the priority afforded to housing in New Decade, New Approach. There is still a persistent level of housing stress across our community and we all must work together to address it. There will be no one quick fix. It will require a collective effort across the Executive and I am committed to playing my part.
The Department aims to have an amended definition of ‘affordable housing’ in place by Autumn 2020. What are the implications are for the change?
The work my Department is taking forward on the definition of affordable housing is to ensure that we can look more widely at new measures and products outside of the traditional co-ownership scheme whether that is assisting people in to home ownership or developing new models of renting. As we look at the housing picture in its entirety, we have to look at all sectors, the role they play and how they interact with each other. This includes the planning system and the importance of a new definition in the context of the emerging local development plans.
The investment challenge is substantial, and the cost will only increase if we do not soon build a consensus to reinvigorate it and enable investment in its homes.
Finally, could you outline any potential opportunities you see going forward for positive change in the housing sector?
Housing is crucial to our health, wellbeing and to that of our families and our communities. My Department is working hard towards the goal that every household has access to a good quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate for its needs. There are four main themes that I see as critical to achieving this.
- Increasing housing supply and options across all tenures for those whose current housing circumstances do not meet their needs – my Department is working hard to look at increasing output from our new build social housing programme to deliver more social houses in the longer term. It is also looking at ways to increase the range of intermediate home options to help increase mixed tenure. There is a common set of issues affecting all of these (e.g. planning, construction skills, infrastructure, carbon reduction and ageing population) as well as the ongoing impact of the coronavirus crisis and work has already commenced to develop a long-term Housing Supply Strategy to underpin delivery of this ambition.
- Making the best use of our existing housing: The investment challenge is substantial, and the cost will only increase if we do not soon build a consensus to reinvigorate it and enable investment in its homes. Additional to that challenge, I am considering the proposals for changes to social housing allocations that were consulted on in 2017, and I am keen to look at how we can make sure that routes into home ownership are the same for Housing Executive and housing association tenants. We have given a commitment to bring forward proposals on that as a priority. I particularly want to consider how we help people into home ownership, without reducing the social stock. Supporting people to live in their homes is also critical; with this in mind, my Department is also updating its Fuel Poverty Strategy and ensuring alignment with the Energy Strategy and Climate Change Bill.
- Improving the private rented sector: I want to ensure that the private rented sector is the best that it can be for those who look to it as their preferred housing option. My Department will be looking closely at the recommendations which came out of the Review of the Private Rented Sector, and how to take this work forward. The recommendation to transfer landlord registration functions to local councils is one example of where detailed work has commenced.
- Improving housing for the most vulnerable: My Department is committed to Improving our response to homelessness. There is already significant interdepartmental work going on, in particular building on the response to the coronavirus emergency, including the production of a Chronic Homeless Action Plan.
I will also want to improve the Supporting People Programme.
I want to ensure ongoing protection of the budget, along with ensuring the programme is delivered as efficiently as possible by implementing the recommendations of the 2015 review. The programme needs a more strategic approach, and the Housing Executive is continuing its work to deliver that.