Despite recent events, we must not forget the work the NIHE has done to stabilise Northern Ireland’s housing conditions
‘[There is] a rising sense of continuing injustice and grievance among large sections of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland in respect of the inadequacy of housing provision by certain local authorities; unfair allocation of housing and misuse in certain cases of discretionary powers of the allocation of houses in order to perpetuate Unionist control.’ These were the words used by Lord Cameron in his parliamentary report on disturbances in 1969.
The imposition of ‘direct rule’ from government followed, and this was accompanied by the creation of a province-wide powerful housing and urban renewal agency – the Northern Ireland Housing Executive – which took over housing responsibilities from local councils and other statutory bodies. Within a year of the Housing Executive’s formation, more than 60,000 people were forced to leave their homes as a result of intimidation and people moving to the safety of their own communities, and there was a rapid and immutable development of segregation, which had implications for the new housing authority.
A concern of the government at the time had been the management of intense social conflict and distinctive administrative machinery was designed for this purpose. Many government agencies have played roles over and above their substantive functional brief, and the NIHE, in particular, has been at the front, providing emergency accommodation and longer-term relocation for those who were forced out of their homes by sectarian violence. The NIHE has subsequently played a major part in transforming housing conditions over the past 40 years, undertaking massive programmes of slum clearance and new public housing construction and it has dominated the sector throughout this period.
Today we are now in a more stable environment with the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and more recently the working partnership that has evolved between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. Progress is being made and the administrative machinery set up to deal with the troubles is slowly being dismantled. Recently, however, the NIHE has suffered intense criticism after official reports highlighted concerns over contract management.
A statement by minister Nelson McCausland on how housing will be managed in the future has been further delayed until September at the earliest. There is a view that this is deliberate in order to allow the negative impacts of the reports to embed in people’s minds before a move towards stock transfer to one or more new organisations.
We must not forget, however, the achievements of the NIHE. It has gone through difficulties recently in operational areas, but this should not be used as a tool to break it up. We do need a new model that will allow alternative forms of investment in building new housing and maintaining existing stock, and it is time to split the strategic role from the landlord role.
However, we must also preserve something that has worked and is acceptable to all sections of a population that is still suffering from an intense period of violence that has instilled suspicion and mistrust of the unknown.
Paddy Gray is professor of housing at University of Ulster