Northern Ireland must get on with addressing its housing problems
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive was set up in 1971 in response to claims of gerrymandering by local authorities in allocating social housing. By any measure it has been a phenomenal success, generating cross-party and public support.
Over the past few years however, the foundations which the 90,000-home landlord has painstakingly constructed have begun to weaken. The problems culminated this week in a stinging rebuke over responsive repairs contracts from Nelson McCausland, the social development minister, when he called for ‘urgent change’ in the operation of UK’s largest social landlord.
The NIHE’s 3,000 staff might well say ‘OK, let’s get on with it’. Although the details of the report into the management of £170 million-worth of responsive repairs contracts will not be made public, it seems clear that this is an area in which the landlord dramatically needs to improve its service for tenants. But, besides this investigation, the landlord has been the subject of several other reviews, inquiries and commissions over the past two years and there are more to come.
While any reform of the NIHE needs to be undertaken with care and in full knowledge of the facts of its operations, dragging the process out over a potential five years is unnecessary and will do further disservice to the NIHE’s paying customers.
Mr McCausland has been in his post since May 2011, yet it will take until September this year at the earliest before he sets out his plans for a fit-for-purpose Northern Irish housing service. If, as seems likely, he follows the recommendations of the various reviews available to him and outlines an approach which splits the landlord and strategic functions of the NIHE, and seeks to transfer its stock to housing associations, this will require legislation. Tenants would then need to vote in favour. The former can be achieved, but the latter is by no means guaranteed - even for tenants who have been experiencing first-hand some of the dodgy repairs which have been outlined this week.
All the while the £1 billion backlog of repairs and improvements will grow larger. This is the bigger issue and an ‘urgent’ solution is needed now, not in 2015.