The Chief Executive of the Housing Executive has confirmed that residents in the Bogside will have the final say on whether they transfer to a housing association or not.
Clark Bailie was speaking as he delivered a presentation before Derry & Strabane Council addressing widespread concern at the proposed transfer of 255 Executive properties in the Bogside to Housing Associations.
Mr. Bailie also said that following a 20-year moratorium, he too wanted to see the Housing Executive begin building social houses in the north.
In answer to concerns raised, he also vowed that he did not take up the post at the helm of the organisation to see it dismantled.
His comments came after Derry City & Strabane District Council last week passed two motions officially opposing the Rossville Street area housing transfer in Derry, which is part of wider proposals to transfer a total of 2,000 Executive properties across the north to Housing Associations.
Speaking in the Guildhall on Tuesday, Mr Bailie told the Council’s Governance & Strategic Planning Committee that residents would have the final say on whether this transfer happened, and that the Housing Executive will take a neutral position on this.
Mr. Bailie said the stock transfer was “small scale” and affected specific estates in Ballymena, Larne and Ballyclare, Belfast, Portadown and Lurgan, as well as the Rossville area in Derry.
Mr. Bailie said the selection of housing estates was down to financial considerations, in terms of which estates would need investment over the coming years.
Formal proposals from the Housing Associations concerned are expected to be tabled in early summer.
“It is very important to stress the tenants will have the final say on this,” Mr Bailie said. “The Housing Executive will not encourage or discourage. We will appoint an independent advisor to the tenants to act as a lobbyist on their behalf.”
SDLP Colr. Shauna Cusack said there was a bigger question over the likelihood of the Executive being able to start building houses again and also raised questions over what would happen to the Housing Executive’s Housing Benefit staff in Derry once Universal Credit was introduced.
Mr Bailie responded: “We would have ambitions to get back into newbuild. We make no secret of that, but it is a matter of timing. That is a longer term aspiration.”
He stressed that as things stood, the Executive did not have access to the substantial grant aid open to Housing Associations to build homes.
In terms of the local Housing Benefit staff, he said he has been in close contact with them and were that they were currently trying to work their way through the coming changes.
Sinn Fein Councillor Colly Kelly said his party has been inundated with calls from HE tenants worried over the uncertainty now hanging over their homes.
“There’s a lot of elderly and long term residents who are quite happy with the Housing Executive,” Colr. Kelly noted.
He also said that it was essential there was a level playing field for the Housing Executive and that bodies such as Housing Associations, were allowed to build new homes.
Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly said that the official “corporate position” of the council was that they were against the sale of the Housing Executive homes to Housing Associations. He also said some of the residents affected in Derry have been tenants with the Executive for over 50 years.
“If the residents stay with the Housing Executive can you assure them that down the line the finances will be there should anything happen to their homes?” he asked.
Mr. Bailie responded that while there were funding challenges, the Executive very much valued the relationship with its tenants. “I see it as a critical friend and we want to work more with our tenants and we recognise they have every right to hold us to account,” he said.
Independent Councillor Darren O’Reilly warned that any transfer of Executive homes could lead pave the way for all Housing Executive being sold off. He also questioned, along with other councillors, the role of the Strategic Investment Board in the transferring of stock and it was said at the meeting that the SIB was a non-elected body “operating on high.”
“When I became Chief Executive of the Housing Executive it certainly wasn’t my intention to manage its dissolution,” Mr Bailie said, adding that the organisation was “more than bricks and mortar” and wanted to deliver good quality homes for tenants, many of whom were living on incomes of under £11,000 a year and many of whom were out of work or suffered from illness.
Independent Colr. Paul Gallagher said the stock survey being undertaken by a third party was costing in the region of £6m - £3,000 per house.
“This is paving the way to privatising the complete stock of 88,000 houses and I think the Housing Executive has an onus to be defending, and not just saying we are taking a neutral position,” he said.
DUP Councillor David Ramsey concurred with other councillors that there was “a fear out there that everything is going to be privatised.”
He said that numerous private companies had already failed inspections by the DSD, “which is a major issue.”
Colr. Ramsey said he and his colleagues wanted to see current tenants being protected and the Executive building again.
Committee chairperson, Sinn Fein Councillor Karina Carlin, said that in terms of social housing, “the Housing Executive is always going to be our first choice.”