Housing Statement from Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín 3 November 2020

Date published: 03 November 2020


Housing Statement from Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín

Thank you for the opportunity to make this statement to the Assembly today, in which I intend to outline my plans to address some of the most significant challenges facing our housing system. These are challenges that I will not shy away from and I am asking today for your support in progressing this ambitious programme of work. Everything I do will be focused on ensuring equality, focused on addressing the highest need and focused on fundamental transformation.

Members will know that the number of households in housing stress means the number of households on the social housing waiting list with an acute need for a home. At the end of 2002/3, the number of such households was 13, 042. At September, 2020, the number was 29, 539.

Successive Executives have invested in increased social housing supply and I commend them for it. However, in the 18-year period housing stress has increased by 17, 000. The Executive has invested £2.3bn to build 30, 000 new social houses, and in the last 7 years, we have on average started the construction of nearly 1550 new social homes each year. However, housing stress has risen by an average of 1000 in each of those years. We see the human face of this every day in our constituency offices.

Our population is changing. The number of households is projected to increase as we are living longer. The broader housing market has also changed dramatically over the past few decades. A generation whose parents are homeowners or who live in social housing is now renting privately. There are far more families with children living in the private rented sector than in social housing with all of the insecurity of tenure and the high costs that comes with that.

The demographic and economic forces that are pushing increasing numbers of our households into housing stress are too great to be countered by our current efforts to increase supply. We must do more social housing development. But up-scaling current action will not be enough. We have to face that. We need more, but we also need change.

We need to secure the future of the social houses we have. We need to increase the rate at which we add to them. We need to build and allocate more social homes to meet growing need. We need housing sectors beyond social housing to provide affordable and suitable homes. This was reflected in New Decade, New Approach. Amongst a range of vital housing priorities, this committed to the inclusion of a housing outcome in the next Programme for Government. This was recognition that a good home is the foundation of social, physical and mental wellbeing and is central to addressing our most pressing societal challenges, including poverty and inequality.

Today I wish to specify how I plan to deliver against these challenges in the current mandate. These will include proposals for legislative and structural change. My ambition, ultimately, in delivering this programme of work, is to ensure that every household has access to a good quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate to its needs.

First, I will revitalise our Housing Executive. The huge investment challenge facing the Housing Executive is a long-standing issue that has previously been communicated to the Assembly. New Decade, New Approach committed the Executive to tackling this challenge. I have, therefore, recently written a letter to my Executive colleagues setting out my plans. I may now share these with the Assembly.

Many of you will be aware of the current set-up of the Housing Executive. It is composed of two areas, the Landlord piece and the overarching Regional Housing Authority. The Housing Authority side is responsible for vital and sensitive housing functions such as assessments of need, the management of the Common Waiting List and the geographical distribution of new social build. The landlord side is focused on the 85, 000 homes.

A 2018 analysis found that the Landlord side needed to invest around £7.1 billion in these 85, 000 homes over the next 30 years if these are to remain decent homes for our households and families. £3 billion of this investment was required over the next 11 years. The Housing Executive can only afford about half of this requirement.

The Executive could fund this by allocating about £100m of its Capital DEL each year to the Landlord’s maintenance requirement. But from where should we take this? From hospitals? From schools? From all of the money my Department currently invests in building new social homes? It would have to be that kind of choice if we as an Executive were ourselves to fund the Housing Executive’s investment requirement. Our choice would be either to lose 40, 000 of our old social homes or the next 11 years of new social development. Either option would propel housing stress faster and higher. Neither option is acceptable to me, nor without doubt, to this Assembly.

We are seeking an alternative which can enable the Housing Executive as a Landlord to borrow. While the Housing Executive remains classified as a quasi-public corporation, as a Landlord it cannot borrow. If we can change this classification, then the Housing Executive as a Landlord will secure the freedom to borrow and have the ability to invest in its own homes.

I plan to change the classification of the Housing Executive landlord to a ‘mutual’ or co-operative designation so that it may borrow and secure a sustainable future for all of its 85, 000 homes and provides security for current tenants and future generations.

To change the classification of the Housing Executive landlord in the manner I propose will mean its separation from the regional part of the Housing Executive. The Housing Executive Regional Authority will remain accountable to a publicly appointed board, and continue to remain under the oversight of an Executive Minister meeting objective housing need in an Equality and Human Rights context.

The current rental structure does not work. Therefore, an important part of these plans will be a comprehensive rental review leading to financial sustainability, in line with agreed commitments in New Decade, New Approach. Social rents must be affordable to tenants and they will be. The Housing Executive currently has the lowest social rents in these islands. I will ensure that they remain the lowest.

An important contribution to my plans for revitalisation may also be made by exempting the Housing Executive from Corporation Tax liabilities and by finding better options for the removal of its historic debts. My officials are exploring these issues actively with colleagues in the Department of Finance and with the British Government. These were commitments in New Decade, New Approach.

More work needs to be done on the proposal briefly outlined here. Two years have passed since the last analysis of the scale of the investment challenge. The current situation is most certainly worse and the scale of the investment even greater. New investment requirements have materialised since 2018: the consequence of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the ambition to reach a position of carbon neutralisation in our homes by 2050.

I have set out to my Executive colleagues that I will focus consideration on options that promise to retain what is valuable about our Housing Executive model. I am interested in options which would see part of the Housing Executive revitalised as a co-operative, or as a mutual. We can learn from models of best practice, we can avoid the pitfalls that other models have experienced, and ultimately we can build a model that is effective, and meets the needs of tenants here.

I have asked officials to commence this work. I anticipate that I will return to the Executive before the end of 2021/22.

The Revitalisation of the Housing Executive is also about the other ways we need to protect the social housing stock and the imperative for us to reduce housing stress. While we have invested well over £100m of Capital in building about 1800 new social homes, we have sold on average, 483 social homes under the right to buy. We have sold these social homes at a discount up to £24,000 – a discount that the public have funded. Clearly we have one policy that is in direct conflict with another. I will make sure we have a suite of options to secure community stability and enable everyone to buy a family home if they so wish. But this must not reduce social housing supply that we are striving to increase.

In June of this year the Assembly passed legislation which will end the House Sales Scheme for Housing Associations in August 2022. At that time I committed to bring forward a consultation on the future of the Housing Executive House Sales Scheme. I will do this in November and I aim to make changes before the end of this electoral mandate. This will address the need to protect social housing stock and deal with the inequity in the social housing.

We have never achieved more than 2200 social new build starts in one year. I want to change that as soon as possible. I have already told this Assembly that I believe the targets for social housing are far too low.

I am looking at assigning sufficient budget and policy changes to increase the capacity of the Social Housing Development Programme. I need to ensure that those areas such as, North and West Belfast, and Derry City, and all areas of acute housing need are prioritised. So we intend to re-introduce ring-fencing. We need mechanisms that means houses are built where houses are needed. I have asked the Housing Executive to identify these mechanisms. And I am confident that they will provide them.

I am also working with Housing Associations and have been encouraging them to identify land that is available for social housing. I am conducting, on behalf of the Executive, an exercise to identify surplus public land that can be used for social housing.

My officials and Housing Executive officials have been engaging with a range of public bodies, to explore the delivery of increased social housing. Some of these initiatives can be implemented in the immediate to short term, others are more strategic measures to be explored in the longer term.

Revitalisation of the Housing Executive is also about how it allocates social housing. Ensuring an effective and fair social housing allocations system is fundamental to easing housing stress and making sure allocations to social housing are be based on objective need.

This is why I have been actively considering how I wish to progress the outcomes of the 2017 consultation “The Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations”. I have committed to Executive colleagues that later this autumn I will publish a report of this consultation and an Action Plan for implementing changes.

Two of the 20 proposals need more work. The first is regarding intimidation points. I do not intend to proceed with the proposal to remove intimidation points. People in danger in their own home need prioritisation under the selection scheme. The manner of that prioritisation needs to be tightly focussed on such people, including victims of domestic violence. But, consistent with this, the mechanisms for such prioritisation need to prevent abuse and provide robust verification. They need to ensure that the manner in which the scheme responds to cases of intimidation does not distort the list. Officials are investigating options for an alternative proposal, including consideration of a statutory body to independently manage this verification process. I will be able to update the Assembly further on this in due course.

The second proposal that will not proceed as per the consultation is the removal of interim, or temporary accommodation, points. I believe that people who find themselves in all forms of temporary accommodation should be awarded these points to recognise the additional stress associated with being insecurely housed in whatever form that takes – whether in hostel accommodation or sofa surfing with friends or family. This would involve extending interim points to a wider range of people who are homeless. This new proposal will require further analysis and again I will update you on this in due course also.

As this plan will make clear, I will implement the other 18 of the 20 changes proposed in the 2017 consultation. These changes will make our selection scheme fairer and better at responding to objective housing need. We will also consider what support before and after allocation can facilitate a successful and sustainable tenancy. There are other areas of challenge. I know there are long-standing issues with adaptations, which have affected some of those most vulnerable in our society. There have been issues with procurement which have led to some of the problems experienced. The Housing Executive’s pilot project in its Southern region has shown that it is possible to reduce the time taken for this work – by an average of 43 weeks. I will be ensuring that the Housing Executive continues to prioritise this work.

I will revitalise our social housing. I will make it work better, and I will make sure there is a lot more of it. I also want to talk about another group of people who struggle with their housing - our private renters.

The private rented sector is now similar in size to our social sector. It houses an increasingly diverse range of households, including a growing number of households with children. There are twice as many families with children in private rentals than in social housing. They can be asked to leave within 4 weeks. Imagine the stress if that happened to you.

The PRS was one of our most urgent areas of intervention as the coronavirus crisis developed. An emergency Bill was drafted from a blank piece of paper and passed by the Assembly in less than five weeks. This was a remarkable achievement and I want to thank you all for your help. This has ensured that around 140,000 Private Rented households will not have to leave their homes during the crisis. For me, the Bill focused our attention on the tens of thousands of families and hundreds of thousands of people who live in private rentals and highlighted just how vulnerable they are.

For some this is a suitable option. For many others it is their only choice. We haven’t built enough social housing, and therefore a generation has been excluded from having a secure home. I will provide a suite of options to help people get a family home and to secure community stability.

I will develop new ways to help people into home ownership if that’s their choice. We have supported shared ownership schemes such as Co-Ownership which has helped more than 30,000 families into home ownership. The Co-Ownership Scheme is currently helping over 1,000 people a year buy their first home, whether that be a new build or an existing home. But we need to deliver more.

As well as increasing the supply of social housing, I will expand the rental options available by introducing intermediate rent here. This will provide an additional supply of good quality, well managed and maintained homes, which are affordable for lower income people and families. Intermediate rent homes can be a stepping stone for some into low cost home ownership, or can provide a better more affordable rental solution for others. My officials are already working closely with the sector and exploring options to develop a type of Intermediate Rent that works here.

I will ensure that there is no need to choose between social housing investment and affordable intermediate housing by maximising the potential of newer funding streams, such as Financial Transactions Capital Loan funding to deliver on these additional housing options.

I will develop a fundamental Housing Supply Strategy. The Strategy will have mixed tenure at its heart, ensuring stable, secure communities for everyone.

I will work with Executive colleagues and Councils through the Local Development Plans.

About 40% of all Housing Benefit is paid to private landlords. More than half of all private tenants get housing benefit. It is right that we make sure that when hundreds of millions of pounds of tax payers’ money is paid to private landlords, it is not paying for low quality, over priced housing.

I will bring forward legislation to the Assembly that will improve the safety, security and quality of the Private Rented sector. Four weeks is too short a time for anyone to be asked to leave their home. To find a suitable new house you can afford, maybe find a new school and childcare for your kids, pack up your belongings. It’s not enough. My Department previously consulted on extending notice to quit to eight weeks. Which would be a start, but my view is that it should be a lot longer, more like 6 months. I will see what is possible given the limits of our legislation and bring proposals to the Assembly.

Rented homes should have safe electrics and tenants should be safe from the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. This is all fundamental stuff and I am sure no member of the Assembly will disagree with any of it. Part of my work will be to consider an enhanced role for our Councils in registration and enforcement.

I talked earlier about making sure social rents are fair. My work on this will also extend to rents in the private rented sector. Tenants in this sector face the highest rents, and often get the least for their money. I accept that landlords run businesses, but I will not let them exploit tenants, especially given that so much of the rent they receive comes straight from tax payers. It doesn’t matter if you rent a social house or from a private landlord, I will bring forward proposals to ensure your rent is fair and secures you a good home.

I am not stopping there either. There are other things we need to look at over a longer timescale. Issues such as Letting Agent Regulation, the introduction of Grounds for Eviction and Fitness Standards. We will start work on these as well. I am calling time on bad landlords and rogue letting agents. Houses are homes. Everything we do must be based on this fundamental principle.

It is a basic human right for individuals and families to have a safe and secure home. An average one and a half thousand people present as homeless here every month.

So in parallel to all this work to protect and enhance our social housing and improve the situation for those in the Private Rented Sector, I will be prioritising action to improve our response to homelessness.

Our future homelessness policy will build on lessons learned from how we dealt with the COVID-19 crisis. This will include informing the roll out of an Interdepartmental Homelessness Action Plan, as well as our work in continuing to support the Housing Executive to deliver on its statutory responsibility for responding to homelessness.

I know I can rely on your support with this work.

I have covered a lot of ground in this statement, and I have set out a way forward on a number of important issues. Some of these are deep, underlying issues which have been there for years. So if it sounds like a lot of work that’s because we can no longer afford to talk as housing stress spirals out of control. We need to get on with it.

We need to build more social homes. We need to sort out the long term future of the Housing Executive. We need to make sure it can repair its homes, regenerate its estates and start building again. We need to get the Housing Executive building again.

We need to make our social housing system work better. We need to make sure it is fair and helps the People and Families who need it most.

We need to help People and Families in the private rented sector. If home ownership is right for them, we need to help them. If it isn’t we need to help them. If the private rented sector is their only option, we need to make sure People and Families are paying a fair rent for a decent, secure home.

We need to change our approach to homelessness to focus on prevention rather than management. We need to make sure it occurs as seldom as possible. If it does we need to make it as short as possible. We need to make sure people don’t fall back into homelessness.

I am looking forward to your questions and comments. Before I sit down I want to remind you of our human rights obligation. Equality and Rights are the basis of my approach, and you can’t get more basic than the right to housing.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to housing. Everyone has the right to a house adequate for their health and well-being. We have work to do. We all agreed in NDNA we would do it. I look forward to your help and a busy two years.

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