Officials and groups lobbying government need to change their attitude to ministers as devolution takes root, according to Alex Attwood. Speaking at the Northern Ireland Housing Conference, the Social Development Minister emphasised the primacy of elected ministers over officials.
“The democratic interest is here and if ministers get into government and get into power, the democratic interest is going to get stronger,” he stated.
Northern Ireland was “good at doing reform” and needed a new phase of it, he added, highlighting the housing sector as a “trailblazer”.
However, he also pointed to a letter that he had received from the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), dated 26 January, which laid down 13 conditions for government, rather than suggestions.
One was worded: “The Minister will raise no objection to Housing Executive rent increases that do not exceed the rate of inflation”.
“That’s the problem,” Attwood retorted. Federations and representative groups should not direct ministers on how they approach policy or finance, he explained. That was up to a government.
Attwood had asked for the letter to be withdrawn but this was refused.
Separately, he was worried about the character of Northern Ireland’s government, as the DUP and Sinn Féin were attacking smaller parties for objecting to the draft Budget.
The Minister had also asked housing association chief executives and his senior civil servants to take a voluntary pay cut, but said none had done so. He was particularly disappointed with the attitude in DSD, as the department is responsible for helping the most disadvantaged members of society.
“When things are not right, you demand the right to dissent because there is much to dissent from,” Attwood said, describing this as the “most severe” Budget in a generation.
Attwood described the previous day (22 February) as one of his most difficult days as Minister, due to resistance to change within his own department. He observed that some other ministers were in government “but certainly not in power”.
He also re-emphasised the need for a fundamental review of the Housing Executive and warned that fuel poverty would increase, due to rising oil prices, reduced incomes and welfare reform. Attwood also admitted that he “didn’t move quickly enough” when the Housing Executive properties were affected by the December water crisis.
Attwood has been seeking an exemption for Northern Ireland from welfare cuts. He pointed out that Lord David Freud, the UK Government’s Welfare Reform Minister, had previously studied the peace process and would have understood that the province was a distinct region.
Housing was also discussed by the British-Irish Council, when it met at St Mary’s University College on 16 February. Attwood was most impressed by Scottish Housing Minister Alex Neil and his proposals to match housing reform with need. The Scottish Government has just published its new housing strategy: ‘Homes Fit for the 21st Century’.
The SDLP MLA was appointed Social Development Minister last May. All ministers continue in office until the new Executive is appointed, after the 5 May Assembly election.
Asked to reply to Attwood’s criticism, NIFHA Chief Executive Chris Williamson said: “In responding as positively as possible to the proposed 40 per cent cut in the budget for social house-building, our registered housing association members made a substantial offer of help to the Minister for Social Development.” He added: “NIFHA’s members will continue to work with the DSD to maximise social housing output, provide construction jobs and stimulate the wider economy.”