With your permission, Mr (Deputy) Speaker, I wish to make the following report on the The British-Irish Council Collaborative Spatial Planning (CSP) and Housing work sectors joint Ministerial meeting via a virtual format on 25th February. This was a joint Ministerial co-chaired with the Minister for Infrastructure from whom you have just heard, and I will make a statement to the Assembly in respect of the Housing elements of the meeting.
Minister Mallon will address the Assembly on the Spatial Planning aspects of the meeting. Gary Middleton MLA, junior Minister in the Executive Office also represented the Executive at the meeting. This report has been endorsed by junior Minister Middleton, and he has agreed that I make the Housing element of the statement on behalf of both of us.
The British-Irish Council, established in 1999, is a forum for its members to discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on co-operation on matters of mutual interest. The British-Irish Council Housing work sector is led by the Executive, and this group has proved to be constructive forum for facilitating thematic evidence exchange and practical collaboration.
The meeting last Thursday focused on the Housing Work Sector programme of work as well as the joint work that the two groups had undertaken recently. The meeting also considered how the future work of the Housing work sector can enable BIC Member Administrations to continue to work together on the key areas of planning and housing, particularly in the context of the impact of Covid-19.
The meeting was jointly chaired with my colleague Nichola Mallon, Minister for Infrastructure and the Executive was also represented by Gary Middleton MLA. Minister Mallon has already listed the other attendees.
Ministers considered and reflected on the papers from each of the work sectors that were presented at the Ministerial meeting, which included a discussion on challenges and opportunities of improving housing supply. Ministers also endorsed a joint publication prepared by the Spatial Planning and Housing work sectors on key spatial planning and housing challenges associated with an ageing population entitled “Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations”.
The booklet acknowledged that changing demographics are an important issue and one which needs to be considered in terms of increasing the supply of social and affordable homes for some of the most vulnerable in society.
The booklet highlighted a number of examples of emerging innovations in the design and completion of housing units. I am keen to continue working with Planning colleagues to maximize the role of the planning system in terms of increasing housing supply.
Indeed this work will inform the development of a Housing Supply Strategy which I am bringing forward for Executive consideration in this mandate. This strategy will explore and seek to find answers in terms of how we can increase the supply of quality, sustainable and affordable homes. The key principals and examples of best practice outlined in the joint Housing and CSP work sector booklet can help inform this work.
Ministers also noted and agreed the content of the forward work plan for the Housing work sectors, which has identified the areas of focus for the work sector for the next 3 years. The really obvious point here is that we are all facing the same challenges, and there is so much we can learn from each other.
The first area of focus for the Housing work sector agreed by Ministers is the challenge presented by climate change.
The challenge presented by climate Change affects us all. Constructing new homes generates pollutants that accelerate global warming and similarly heating the homes we have as well as the new homes we have built means we will end up burning more fossil fuels. About 14% of our greenhouse gas emissions comes from our homes. To be carbon neutral by 2050 this has to change.
We will need to find ways to ensure that these challenges do not limit the supply of homes particularly for those in society who need our help most. This is an issue that we all must address and I am particularly keen for my officials to continue work with the other BIC Administrations to come up with solutions to a challenge which affects all of society.
The second area of focus is the provision of suitable Affordable Housing. I strongly believe that housing is a basic need and right for all. Our Executive policy, as set out in The New Decade, New Approach agreement, aims to achieve a fair and compassionate society that supports working families and protects the most vulnerable. Crucial to this is ensuring that every household has access to a good quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate for its needs.
I am therefore always interested to hear how policy makers tackle this difficult issue and I know my officials engage regularly across the Administrations to share experiences, knowledge and information. Ongoing engagement through the British Irish Council and delivery of the work plan will be helpful in terms of informing my ambitious Housing agenda which, amongst other aims will seek to expand the range of affordable Intermediate Housing options available.
The final area of focus will be to understand Housing’s role in Health and Social Care. I am particularly pleased to see this being considered as part of the forward work plan. I have seen first-hand during the pandemic how effective a joined up, collaborative approach between the housing sector, health professionals and the third sector can make a huge difference to those in acute need of support. This work was critical and provided support and refuge to those who otherwise may have been left to face a truly desperate situation.
For example my Department worked closely with Health and Social Care professionals to support the chronically homeless. These are some of the most vulnerable people in society and at the start of this pandemic I was very concerned they would be left uniquely exposed. This included unique work with the Department to Health to house rough sleepers with no right to homeless assistance. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Minister of Health for his assistance so that everyone on our streets was able to come inside and comply with government guidance on shielding, self-isolation and social distancing. It is collaboration like this which makes a real difference.
Unfortunately this is an issue that is common across all of the BIC administrations and collaboration on this and other issues where Housing impacts on Health and Social Care will be further explored as part of the ongoing Forward Work Plan.
Finally I would like to record my thanks to all of my Ministerial colleagues across these islands who participated so productively in the meeting. It was agreed that the next Ministerial meeting for the Housing work sectors would take place in 2023.
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