Northern Ireland’s housing market, housing supply and tenant participation – adding value to the policy debate

Photo (left to right): Colm McDaid, Dr Neale Blair, Prof Joe Frey, Jordan Buchanan, Prof Paul Hickman

In this blog, Professor Joe Frey gives an overview of the fourth meeting of the Northern Ireland Knowledge Exchange Hub meeting, which took place on 6 February 2020. The meeting covered two themes: Northern Ireland’s housing market and housing supply and best practice in tenant participation in the social housing sector.

We were pleased to welcome over 40 participants to our fourth Northern Ireland Knowledge Exchange (KE) Hub which took place on 6 February. In addition to our KE Hub members, attendees also included a number of key policymakers from the Department for Communities. Stakeholder input into policy development has been reinvigorated by the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly after an absence of three years and, for the first time, the appointment of a Sinn Fein Minister for Communities with overall responsibility for housing policy in Northern Ireland.

The first presentation was given by Jordan Buchanan, Chief Economist at PropertyPal, Northern Ireland’s leading property website, who provided a very comprehensive, well-illustrated and balanced overview of the Economic Context and Housing Market Outlook in Northern Ireland. Jordan’s presentation highlighted some of the key global challenges that could impact Northern Ireland’s economy and property market, including slowing growth in China and geopolitical uncertainty in the Middle East, and closer to home the ongoing challenges surrounding Brexit.

Recognising the key role of the labour market in determining the buoyancy of the housing market, Jordan highlighted the very substantial growth in employment over the last decade but also showed that this was driven to a considerable degree by part-time and temporary jobs. This, together the stagnation of real wages over the last decade has had obvious implications for first-time buyers’ ability to save for a deposit.

Northern Ireland’s housing market is still in the process of recovery. Since 2015 both house prices and rents have risen by approximately 7.5% and Jordan’s analysis of micro-level house price data provided some fascinating insights into housing market ‘hotspots’, with analysis of transactions indicating that despite a subdued economy, the housing market would experience growth in terms of transactions and prices. His closing thoughts focussed on the importance of increasing supply – but stressed that this had to be in the right location and take the needs of an ageing population into account as well as having an appropriate tenure mix – including addressing the clear need for more social homes.

The future trajectory of Northern Ireland’s economy and housing market also provided the context for my own presentation on the findings emerging from one of CaCHE’s Northern Ireland-focussed research: Evaluation and illustrative pilot of Scotland’s Housing Need and Demand Assessment Tool in the context of NI. It highlighted that the Scottish Model’s emphasis on ‘alternative futures’ offered an ideal vehicle for collaborative scenario planning for future housing supply. The Scottish model is conceptually simple and provides an integrated analysis of the whole housing system, as well as for the first-time offering a flexible evidence-based algorithm that enables overall future housing supply/requirements to be categorised by tenure. In doing so, it offers a rationale for estimating the need/demand for Northern Ireland’s Co-Ownership scheme under a range of economic scenarios comprising different income, house price and rental projections.

Of course, as with all such predictive models, there are also disadvantages, including, in particular, the accuracy of the future rate of household formation. The research team also felt the application of the model in Scotland was based on a very narrow definition of backlog need given the much larger number of households in ‘housing stress’ (urgent housing need) on Northern Ireland’s waiting list for social housing. If the model were to be adopted in Northern Ireland, its algorithms may well have to be tweaked to suit the idiosyncrasies of its housing market, but overall, the study concluded that the model could provide a valuable additional tool to aid decision making in the planning for housing process.

The ensuing stakeholder engagement session was chaired by Ulster University’s Dr Neale Blair, who has recently joined CaCHE’s team of co-investigators. It focussed on the issue of increasing housing supply. Using mentimeter software participants were asked for instant feedback on three issues. The responses indicated that the most pressing issues that needed to be addressed were limitations on infrastructure (9), land availability (8) and affordability (9). Potential solutions highlighted the need for additional capital investment in infrastructure, more social housing and more joined up thinking.

Professor Paul Hickman, Sheffield Hallam University, opened the second half of the event with a concise, insightful summary of a CaCHE research project examining on understanding social housing landlords’ approaches to tenant participation. Based on the views of social housing landlords and stakeholders from across the UK and guided by Cairncross et al.’s (1994) typology the research found that landlords could not be neatly categorised. However, in England and Wales there appeared to be a predominantly ‘consumerist’ approach focussed on improving housing services rather than the ‘citizenship’ model of tenant empowerment. In England, there is evidence of a continued reluctance to cede real power to tenants, the hallmark of the ‘traditional’ approach, whereas Wales is now moving more to the ‘citizenship’ model, partly as a result of a new regulatory framework. In contrast, in Scotland, there are many community-based (and even community-controlled).

Key learnings emerging from the study included the need to involve tenants in determining the approach to participation and having more informal methods. Evaluation may not be so important from a tenant point of view but is imperative at a time of financial constraints to defend budgets.

Colm McDaid’s presentation drew on his extensive experience of tenant participation in his role as Chief Executive of Supporting Communities (NI’s equivalent of TPAS). It illustrated the tremendous contribution that Supporting Communities had made on the ground over the years in partnership with the Housing Executive, housing associations and the wider voluntary sector. Northern Ireland is in a similar position to Wales – having made a sustained effort to move towards a ‘citizenship’ model fired by an ambition to be ahead of the game. The Department for Communities’ current Tenant Participation Strategy (2015-20) was a major step forward and included the need for compliance with a Consumer Standard and a Housing Policy Panel for tenants to provide direct input to the policy development process. However, Colm highlighted the need to progress this further by appointing a tenant advocate and exploring ‘empowerment models’. A recent Social Return On Investment study had indicated that for every £1 invested in tenant participation in Northern Ireland there was an added economic and value of approximately £10.

The second stakeholder engagement session indicated general agreement that Northern Ireland’s experience of tenant participation was generally positive and that there was an appetite for moving towards a greater emphasis on the ‘citizenship’ model, including support for the idea of tenant representation on the Housing Executive’s Board. There was also support for a greater emphasis on empowering tenants economically by creating opportunities for communities to play a role in wider economic activity, but also a recognition of the challenges of engaging residents in the private rented sector on large  mixed tenure housing estates.

All in all another useful engagement with stakeholders that provided policymakers with more food for thought.

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

Photo credit: Jordan Buchanan


Date: March 2, 2020 11:48 am


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