Northern Ireland Housing Statistics 2017-18: Insights into the private rented sector

Northern Ireland Housing Statistics 2017-18 is essentially a compendium of the latest statistics drawn from a wide range of mainly Government sources – both operational data and household surveys. It provides a rich source of information for housing market and policy analysts. Its publication in early December provides an ideal opportunity not only to examine a number of statistics relating to Northern Ireland’s private rented sector but also to highlight the importance of exercising some caution in their interpretation.

The first section of the report focuses on housing supply and includes basic statistics on overall stock and tenure. Coming up with a robust estimate of Northern Ireland’s total housing stock has always been a challenge – not only because it is constantly changing to reflect new build completions, conversions, demolitions, etc., but also the need for ongoing survey work to assess the viability of dwellings in various stages of disrepair and dilapidation. However, in recent years collaborative work by a number of Government bodies has ensured an increasing accuracy and consistency that is gradually bringing us ever closer to the ‘real’ figure for Northern Ireland’s viable housing stock. The figure of approximately 790,000 for 2018 (Table 1.2) is broadly in line with the 2016 NI House Condition Survey’s figure of 780,000 and the annual growth in the overall stock in recent years closely reflects what would be expected given ongoing housing completions figures.

A problem arises, however, with the most recent estimate of the private rented sector (Table 1.3). The private rented sector in Northern Ireland grew rapidly in the years following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) – a trend that was consistent in all four countries of the UK. However, according to the most recent Housing Statistics, the proportion of occupied homes in the private rented sector fell from 17 per cent in 2015-16 to 14 per cent in 2017-18. Setting aside the 28,500 vacant properties (most recently estimated by the 2016 NI House Condition Survey, Table 3.2) this three percentage point reduction would effectively represent a transfer of approximately 20,000 dwellings (16%) out of the private rented sector into the owner-occupied sector – a development for which there is no other statistical evidence. There is anecdotal evidence of some ‘accidental’ landlords selling up and a number of small private landlords selling one or two properties, but nothing that would explain a reduction of this magnitude.

The answer to this conundrum probably lies elsewhere. The overall sample size of the survey used to estimate the size of the private rented sector (more than 4,000) means that a 3.0 percentage point change is well outside sample error – therefore statistically it should be considered a ‘real’ change. However, the metadata for Table 1.3 in Appendix One to Housing Statistics 2017-18 indicates that the response rate achieved was only 56 per cent and Table 1.3 is based on unweighted data. Experience from six NI House Condition Surveys repeatedly confirmed that, for a variety of reasons, it is generally more difficult for surveyors/interviewers to gain access to a dwelling in the private rented sector. The apparent reduction in the private rented sector is therefore more likely to represent a statistical undercount. For housing market analysts and policymakers it would at this stage be wiser to continue to assume the figure of 18 per cent of all occupied homes that emerged from the 2016 NIHCS (Table 4.1), a survey that adjusts for non-response via a weighting and grossing procedure that takes into account the tenure of all dwellings in the overall sample.

Section Four on the private rented sector contains only three tables, but one, in particular (Table 4.1), that is based on the Family Resources Survey, provides further useful insights into the position of the private rented sector in Northern Ireland, where an estimated 32 per cent of all tenants have been in their current property for five or more years, the highest of all UK regions (a figure that is very close to the 31 per cent emerging from the Housing Executive’s 2016 Private Tenant Survey. The comparable figure for the UK as a whole is 25 per cent, a difference that may reflect a combination of a number of factors, including higher levels of benefit dependency and lower average incomes in Northern Ireland, but may also reflect differences in landlords’ attitudes and security of tenure.

Finally, it is also worth highlighting a figure that re-emphasises the close inter-connections between social housing and the private rented sector. Table 3.11 provides statistics on the number of homeless households accepted as Full Duty Applicants over a fourteen year period. In 2017-18, more than 1,500 were accepted on the basis of ‘loss of (private) rented accommodation’,  a figure that has been rising on an irregular upward curve in recent years (from 988 in 2011-12) and the first time that it has exceeded 1,500 since 2007-08, the year of the post GFC housing market slump.

This blog has highlighted a number of key figures emerging from Housing Statistics 2017-18 that illuminate aspects of the private rented sector in Northern Ireland. It has drawn attention to the particular challenges of providing accurate data on this sector of the market and recommends caution and triangulation where apparently contradictory or unlikely figures emerge. Good quality information on the sector is important – particularly given the ongoing interest in private rented sector related legislation, policy development and evaluation. This indeed will be a particular focus for the second meeting of CaCHE’s Northern Ireland KE Hub in January 2019, when as part of the Hub meeting, CaCHE Director, Professor Ken Gibb, will lead a stakeholder engagement session that will draw on the research undertaken with the Urban Big Data Centre, based at Glasgow University, to help inform the development and evaluation of private rented sector legislation and policy in Northern Ireland.

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


Date: December 11, 2018 3:46 pm


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