With investment of over £300 million needed to upgrade its existing tower blocks, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s (NIHE) has proposed removing residents from the high-rise dwellings.
Thousands of residents currently living in the 33 tower blocks owned by the NIHE face uncertainty around their future housing after the organisation’s board brought forward a proposal that tower blocks will no longer be used for housing. In the 33 blocks there are 1,931 flats of which 281 are now privately owned and 29 are used for hostel accommodation.
While the tower blocks are largely located in the Belfast and greater Belfast areas, the likes of Larne and Portadown will also be impacted by the decision which has now been put out for consultation.
The NIHE has been reviewing the condition of all their housing stock since 2015 and consultation was to take place early this year but was put on hold following the tragedy in Grenfell Tower in London.
It estimates that £300 million over the next 30 years will be needed to ensure existing tower blocks meet a “decent standard”. In a statement they said: “The approach that has been agreed by the Board is to consult with residents, political representatives and the wider community about future plans for each of the tower blocks and surrounding neighbourhoods.
“This includes the decommissioning of tower blocks over an agreed extended time period and after exploration of future housing options available at each location.”
All of the tower blocks are now more than 50 years old and a requirement for substantial investment has long been flagged by existing residents. However, while some have advocated for a move to more suitable housing, the tower blocks have also been recognised as providing security and community for others, especially older people.
There are now concerns about the availability of alternative accommodation for existing residents if the proposal goes ahead. Currently there is already an extensive waiting list for NIHE property in Belfast, with acute need in many of the areas where tower blocks are located.
It’s estimated that there are 10,000 families on housing waiting lists in Belfast, with a further 7,000 in “housing stress”, however, in the 2017/18 financial year, the NIHE completed only 468 housing units.
Sean Brady, Development Worker with Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), who has been working with residents on housing conditions and availability for many years, believes that a clear development strategy must be established if the tower blocks are to be removed.
“The current conditions of the tower blocks are unsustainable and the need for investment has been long overdue. Many of these blocks need major works and it is not surprising that the NIHE see no value for money in doing so, given the of lack upkeep investment in recent years.
“However, it must be noted that for many of the residents, especially older people, tower blocks offer security and community, without which they might experience isolation. Investment is needed to address the wider housing problem in Belfast and these residents should not become another figure to be added to this list.
“The announcement has come to a shock to many of the residents and early engagement prior to the consultation announcement has been poor. It is hoped that any decision that is taken will be carefully measured, with resident’s needs at the forefront.”
The Housing Executive launched the consultation on June 25.