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Joe Frey: Social Housing in Northern Ireland

Following the publication of the Social Housing Policy Working Group paper, Social housing in Northern Ireland: challenges and policy options, Joe Frey outlines the purpose of the paper and what he hopes it will achieve. 

In September 2017, Sajid Javid, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, announced that a forthcoming Green Paper on social housing would provide a “wide-ranging, top-to-bottom” review of the sector. In response, the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) established the Social Housing Working Group, with the aim of producing a series of briefing papers examining different aspects of social housing, to help inform the civil servants in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) who are preparing the Green Paper.

Too often UK housing policy has (justifiably) been accused of being London-centric. A key task for CaCHE therefore was to provide evidence from all four countries within the UK. Over the past 10 years, different housing market conditions and policy divergence has meant that the policy challenges require somewhat different solutions in the four jurisdictions. It is hoped that country-specific analyses will help ensure that the Green Paper encourages and facilitates a more nuanced and flexible policy environment for addressing the serious issues facing social housing in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as England.

A draft of the briefing paper on Northern Ireland, along with papers on Scotland and Wales, was shared with attendees at the first Social Housing Policy Working Group meeting in January 2018. Attendees included representatives of MHCLG and other leading housing bodies such as Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) and National Housing Federation (NHF). The final paper, which was published earlier this week, highlights the fact that although the key challenges facing social housing in Northern Ireland are not dissimilar to those facing the rest of the UK, some issues are distinctive to Northern Ireland, where for example, there has been no Large Scale Voluntary Transfer. The briefing paper addresses four key challenges: the supply of new social homes, the impact of Welfare Reform, homelessness and funding for the Housing Executive. However, the paper begins by emphasising that housing is very much a part of the recent political history of Northern Ireland and the resolution of political differences (not only the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, but also addressing the political issues that surround the Social Housing Reform Programme and the future of the Housing Executive, in particular) are adding considerably to the difficulties of tackling the finance and governance issues that face social housing in Northern Ireland in a way that is not the case in the rest of the UK.

The Green Paper was finally published in August. While the length of time taken may reflect the substantial civil service resources being devoted to Brexit, there can be little doubt that it also reflects the complexity of the challenges at a time when government is still pursuing its policy of austerity. The Green Paper commits the government to tackle the stigma associated with living in social housing by “celebrating social housing, encouraging professionalization in the sector and supporting good quality design” and while this is to be welcomed along with the proposed relaxation of borrowing controls for local authority building programmes there is little evidence of the new resources required to make a significant impact on rising housing need in all its aspects.

There is obviously no silver bullet − particularly at a time when public finances are so tightly constrained – and much of the content of this briefing paper will be familiar to policymakers and practitioners in Northern Ireland. However, I hope it makes a small contribution to the Green Paper and will influence the outcome of the current consultation process that ends on 6 November 2018. In my view, the issue of stigma in Northern Ireland is not so important. For decades, the Housing Executive and, in more recent times, the housing associations have had an exemplary record in terms of their professional approach to tenant consultation and participation. The generally superior physical quality of Housing Executive estates compared to their English counterparts, combined with the historical significance of Housing Executive homes in Northern Ireland, has probably contributed to the relative lack of stigma in Northern Ireland. What Northern Ireland needs urgently is a significant increase in government resources for social and affordable housing as part of a wider transformation of the UK housing finance system.

Coincidentally, the Office of National Statistics recently produced figures on total net worth in the UK, which showed that more than 50% of the UK’s wealth (£5 trillion out of a total of £9.8 trillion) is held in the form of land – the highest of any G7 country (FT. 30 August, 2018) – a sum that would support an emerging view among academics that in order to procure the necessary resources for achieving the desired goals in terms of housing policy, more radical approaches are required, such as a Land Value Tax and more emphasis on Community Land Trusts. However, in the short to medium term, it is important not to underestimate the value of policy initiatives that are viable within the limitations of the current housing finance system, and in this context I am looking forward to the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland’s launch of its final report on Rethinking Social Housing in Belfast on 14 November 2018.

Joe Frey is Knowledge Exchange Broker for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.

 
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Date: October 19, 2018 4:27 pm

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