What can we expect from the new housing amendment bill?
A housing bill is to be introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly shortly. Nicola McCrudden CIH director for NI comments on its contents – which appear to be a trimmed version of what was expected.
It’s been a while since the NI Assembly passed housing legislation (2011) so I listened intently to the recent Department for Social Development (DSD) briefing to the Committee for Social Development on proposals for a new housing amendment bill. It contained fewer clauses than expected - although I was pleased to see some clauses had been removed.
The original departmental briefing on this bill had taken place a year ago. Then the main focus was on providing additional powers for social landlords to deal with anti-social behaviour. These included powers to enable social landlords to demote a secure tenancy to a short tenancy where a tenant was “guilty” of anti-social behaviour. This could lead on to a fast track eviction process if there was no behavioural change. At the time stakeholder concerns were raised about the range of additional powers being suggested and how they might be implemented in practice.
CIH made the point that current powers to tackle anti-social behaviour were sufficient and that there was no evidence that the removal of security of tenure would provide additional incentives for positive behavioural change. In fact, established practice has shown that intervention can be very effective where appropriate support is provided, rather than the tenancy threatened.
Departmental officials confirmed that the removal of these clauses was partly because of high levels of concern and partly because of drafting complexities - the proposed powers having been superseded by new laws in Britain. So while it’s good practice to look at housing laws and systems elsewhere, it goes to show that the one size fits all approach rarely works.
So what does this bill contain? It would appear to be a handful of clauses mainly relating to information sharing. It will be renamed an amendment bill to allow the Housing Executive to register a statutory charge on a property. This is to facilitate a pilot scheme whereby the Housing Executive provides loans to homeowners for renovation purposes. The charge is to provide security in cases of default. The bill will also allow Land and Property Services (responsible for rates collection) to share information with the DSD and the Housing Executive about empty homes, with the intention of bringing them back into use. It will also allow an individual/organisation to disclose information relating to someone’s anti-social behaviour to the Housing Executive or Registered Housing Association. With a common waiting list for social housing in Northern Ireland, it is hoped that better information sharing will facilitate better housing management arrangements. It was clear from the Committee’s reaction that they would like to see this go further to include information sharing with private landlords. The bill is to be introduced shortly and passed before the end of the assembly mandate.
There are major challenges facing housing in Northern Ireland – meeting supply shortages, dealing with negative equity and tackling homelessness to mention a few. Whilst I’m glad to see clauses to demote tenancies removed from the bill, I am also disappointed that we were unable to seize the opportunity which a housing bill could have presented to bring about positive change to people’s lives. We are fortunate in Northern Ireland to have a coherent housing strategy, but I believe that the need for effective housing legislation also needs to be fully considered.