A housing strategy for Northern Ireland
Jennifer Donald, head of policy and public affairs, takes an initial look at the new housing strategy for Northern Ireland.The long-awaited housing strategy for Northern Ireland was published on Tuesday under the somewhat ominous appellation of Facing the Future. And there is much to face what with welfare reform bringing major changes to the housing system, in an environment with reduced spending on housing, a shortfall in housing supply across the board, falling grant rates for the development of new social housing, an ageing population and socially and economically excluded and disenfranchised communities.
There is a lot to commend in the strategy – not least that we now have a strategy for the next five years, a blueprint for everyone working in housing and communities to follow. The thematic approach and core principles also help bring coherence and structure to government’s housing agenda.
One of the real strengths of the housing strategy is that it recognises the important role that housing has in driving regeneration and sustaining communities. We have long made the argument that housing is about much more than bricks and mortar, so the strategy’s focus on housing-led regeneration is to be welcomed. So too is the reference to doing more to develop the existing social clauses within procurement so that investment in housing – both in the delivery of new homes and the maintenance of existing stock – can provide more jobs and training opportunities. I am a big fan of the approach taken by colleagues in Wales to social procurement – hopefully the Can Do Toolkit will be embraced as a way to deliver similar results in Northern Ireland.
Other positives are: a review of social housing allocations policy; a continuing focus on the private rented sector with better regulation of HMOs and new ways of supporting low income and vulnerable households to afford, access and sustain tenancies in the private rented sector; plans to raise the fitness standard across all tenures. Some aspects of the strategy have a touch of déjà vu about them, such as the need to bring empty homes back into use, but there are at least definite proposals as to how this might be achieved.
However, there are some omissions too. Mixed-tenure/income development features only in relation to the House Sales Scheme (Right-to-buy) and although this is a cross-tenure strategy there is no real sense of what balance government wants to strike in terms across existing and potentially new tenures. The introduction of the much-mooted developer contribution is in the context of increasing the numbers of social and affordable homes rather than developing balanced and sustainable communities. Design and planning, which are fundamental to developing and delivering homes that people want to live in, respect the local natural and built environment and contribute to strong and sustainable communities, are notable by their absence.
Perhaps the biggest question that I am left with after reading Facing the Future is how are the aspirations and aims going to be achieved? What the housing strategy lacks is detail and targets. I appreciate that it points the way to specific measurable actions that will come in a plan to be developed once the final strategy has been agreed. But what I would have expected to see in the strategy is, for example, how many new homes government expects to be built over the next five years – what is the target that the sector needs to deliver on? How much will subsidy be cut by and just how much private finance do housing associations need to raise?
Aims, aspirations and proposals are important but they need to be accompanied by plans, targets and outcomes. One of the potential risks of this strategy is that it sets out to do everything without a real sense of how it will do anything.