We must fight Housing Executive changes

Mark H Durkan
Mark H Durkan

Housing has always been an issue in this City but I believe that the situation now is as bad as it has been in many, many years. We have thousands of families and individuals on the waiting list for homes that just aren’t there and show little sign of being built.The Assembly budget for social housing has been reduced as demand continues to grow.At the centre of this storm is the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, charged with allocating homes when they do become available.

It is a difficult and often thankless task - dealing with people’s emotions and frustrations as they feel like they are going nowhere. These pressures are only going to increase as, if passed, the Welfare Reform Bill is going to plunge more people into need of support.

Last week saw the latest development in Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland’s protracted and public decision in relation to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

In a written statement to MLAs the Minister gave a very vague outline of how he sees the delivery of Social Housing in the future.

The NIHE will lose its landlord function with its 90,000 properties transferred to four or five associations.

Other key responsibilities of NIHE, such as housing allocation, will fall back into the Department.

There can be little doubt that a review of NIHE is essential. After forty years of striving to provide and improve housing, through the worst of the Troubles, the Housing Executive now finds itself hamstrung by governance and its inability to borrow money. It is the SDLP view that a review of NIHE should address this anomaly, allowing the organisation to compete on a level playing field with Housing Associations who are able to match fund Government subsidies with private finance in order to build new houses and improve existing stock.

The Minister’s preferred option is to transfer the stock to Housing Associations.These associations - and we have several operating in Derry - play a crucial role in providing quality homes. Their access to finance enables them to carry out projects that NIHE cannot. Locally, we have previously seen a transfer of NIHE homes in Rinmore Drive to Apex, which enabled much needed improvements to be carried out.

Whatever the new model of housing, it must provide good service to the tenant and good value to the taxpayer.

The minister’s statement has thrown up many questions for tenants, other tax-payers and, not least, staff.

Will rents rise as a result? Will anxious staff retain their positions in the shake-up? I have asked the Minister to engage with staff and he is meeting representatives next week, something that should have been done prior to his hamfisted announcement.

A massive fear I have is that the dismantling of the NIHE will also see a move away from its ethos of allocating housing on the basis of need. The Executive was formed to take politics out of housing after decades of Unionist misrule had used it as a tool of oppression, nowhere moreso than here in Derry. Any move to the re-politicisation of housing will be resisted by the SDLP even though it seems that we may be alone in this fight.