End of the road?
As the future of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive hangs in the balance, Rhiannon Bury spoke to tenants and staff to find out their fears for the future
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has endured two weeks of crisis. Rocked by allegations of dodgy land deals and under attack from ministers for its handling of contracts, the UK’s largest landlord is now struggling to keep its head above water in an increasingly rough political sea.
Last Tuesday, the Northern Irish Government took the extraordinary step of placing the 41-year-old organisation under supervision after a report found that work being carried out under its £170 million responsive repairs contracts was not being checked or billed correctly. Social development minister Nelson McCausland’s intervention followed the resignation of the executive’s long-standing chair Brian Rowntree, who had left days earlier citing a ‘challenging relationship’ with the Department of Social Development in an email to the organisation’s 3,000 staff. Then, just when things looked like they couldn’t get any worse for the 90,000-home landlord, last Friday the Audit Office released a damning report alleging the NIHE had carried out ‘questionable’ ‘off-market’ land deals to the buyers they wanted (see box: What the audit office said).
The turmoil now provides the backdrop for the long-anticipated announcement on the future of the NIHE from the Northern Irish Government due in September. There are plans to split its current landlord and strategic functions, so the organisation’s homes would be sold to five housing associations and it would remain the body in charge of delivering housing policy in Northern Ireland, much like the Homes and Communities Agency in England.
In May last year, John McPeake, chief executive of the NIHE, said its homes need £1 billion spent on them. The organisation needs to change just to keep its stock in order.
Speak to employees of the beleaguered NIHE about the series of scandals and the response is likely to be met with deep-rooted cynicism. As far as many of them are concerned, the timing of the news is no coincidence and belies a highly political vendetta. The NIHE has been hugely popular with tenants, and has been heralded a success story in terms of its work for community cohesion, particularly during the troubles. For the split to go ahead, tenants will need to vote in favour, so drip feeding stories of poor decision-making and dubious financial dealings could undermine tenant confidence at a critical time.
Last week, both the leading tenant organisation, Supporting Communities, and union NIPSA accused the government of using the repairs report to force questions of competency on the NIHE.
So, do the NIHE’s tenants realise what trouble it is in? And are they clamouring for reform? Or, despite the recent failings, are ministers likely to have a fight on their hands if they call for the end of the NIHE as we know it?
The day Inside Housing visits the Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey, north of Belfast, the news about Audit Office’s findings has just broken. It’s raining hard. But this isn’t stopping residents erecting Union Jack flags in their gardens in preparation for Orangemen marches on 12 July – the celebration of Protestant King William of Orange’s victory over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and often a time of civil unrest in Northern Ireland. Tensions are high among the people I talk to, not least because it is marching season. An unlit bonfire the size of a terrace house looms on a green in the centre of the estate, formed of piles of pallets and ready for burning as part of this week’s celebration. The influence of the Housing Executive looms large too: the four blocks of high rise flats which the organisation owns here have become something of an icon on the Belfast horizon.
Across the mainly Protestant estate, there are few tenants that support the idea of breaking up the NIHE. David Back, 64, (pictured above) lives in a new bungalow in the centre of the estate. He is keen to tell me how he has had problems with his bathroom ventilation, and how he has struggled to get one of the NIHE’s contractors in to sort it out.
When he is asked whether he thinks being part of a smaller housing association would be better, he shrugs. ‘It’s probably better the devil you know,’ he replies. ‘There’s no guarantee it’ll work any better, and it might put the rents up.’
Further down the road, I meet Sylvia Blakeney, 65, who lives with her husband in a house her son bought from the NIHE through right to buy. Her husband, David, has Huntingdon’s disease, meaning his movement and cognitive ability are increasingly impaired. She needs a bungalow or a ground floor flat to move into so he will no longer have to tackle the stairs, but the Housing Executive doesn’t have any suitable properties in the area.
‘We’ve been waiting six years to get a house and we went to the Housing Executive and they’re telling me there’s nowhere in Rathcoole,’ she says. ‘I ended up going to the Democratic Unionist Party to try and get them involved, but nothing’s come of it yet.
‘If the homes get sold to housing associations then maybe they will build more flats for older people.’
Christine McRoberts, 58, is chatting to her neighbours while her eight-year-old granddaughter Mia plays in the street. She’s been a tenant of the Housing Executive for 35 years, and although she has the odd gripe about maintenance not being done quickly enough, she is fairly happy with the service she has received.
‘At least it sorted out all the problems [councils] had with giving homes to one side or the other,’ she says. ‘Our rent at the moment is £64 a week. My husband works but I don’t, and if it goes up it will put a real strain on our money.’
Another young woman who I stop to talk to doesn’t want to be named. She doesn’t want to rock the boat, but she is really pleased that the Housing Executive found her, her husband and two young daughters a new home in February. ‘We had really bad damp in our old flat,’ she says, ‘and they found us a house to move into, which is much better.’
The responses are similar in the Markets area of Belfast, home to hundreds of predominantly Catholic families, just feet from the Housing Executive’s offices. Despite its central location, doors are left open as neighbours stand in the streets chatting, watching commuters rush past towards Belfast Central station.
‘I haven’t really got any complaints about the organisation itself,’ one woman tells me. ‘Lots of people round here bought their homes, but I still rent and it’s never been any trouble.’
There appears to be a widespread, if grudging, respect for what the Housing Executive has achieved since it was established in 1971. Its creation was linked to the civil disturbance in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, and before 1971, the allocation of social housing was decided by councils. This led to allegations of discrimination in some areas where certain families, either Protestant or Catholic, were given priority over others.
With a centralised system, allocations are now done purely on need, leading to what many think is a fairer system. But the legacy of the problems the Housing Executive was set up to resolve remain, in the bonfires that surround the estates across east Belfast, and historic political tensions visible across Belfast in the form of ‘peace walls’.
In 1994 the Protestant and Catholic areas were divided by 24 such walls. Today, despite all the political progress, which last month culminated with Queen Elizabeth shaking hands with former Irish Republican Army commander, and now Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, there are now more than 90 walls across the city. The latent tensions are further evidenced by the fact that neither the Chartered Institute of Housing or the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations want to comment on the Housing Executive’s current strife, nor its fate.
In Belfast, staff leaving the NIHE’s city centre offices are unwilling to speak. Morale, one employee who does not wish to be named tells me, is at rock bottom. No one wants to work in an organisation which is surrounded by so much uncertainty.
The problems the NIHE faces are not new. In order to understand why the Housing Executive is where it is, one has to look at when the plan to split the organisation up was first mooted in a report from Commission on the Future for Housing in Northern Ireland, chaired by Lord Richard Best, in May 2010 (see box: Northern Ireland Housing Executive timeline). This was followed by a report from Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2011. Both reports suggested that splitting the NIHE would allow it to access additional private finance.
Added to that, last year, the Housing Executive controversially ended a contract with Red Sky, a contractor with predominantly Protestant staff, which subsequently went into administration. Officially, the NIHE is saying very little about any of this. A statement released last week in response to the problems surrounding maintenance contracts said: ‘We do recognise there have been problems and over the last 18 months we have been working with the Department for Social Development to improve governance arrangements and will continue to do so.’
But behind closed doors, staff are furious at what they believe is a government ploy to undermine decades of good work. Some believe the radical intervention is an act of a ‘revenge’ for severing the Red Sky contract. ‘The DUP have always had an issue with the fact that more than 50 per cent of the Housing Executive staff are Catholic,’ one member of staff tells me.
Mr McCausland said: ‘As minister, safeguarding NIHE tenants is a key priority. However, I also have a responsibility to the NI Assembly and the citizens of Northern Ireland in ensuring public money allocated to all bodies under my portfolio, is spent appropriately and effectively.
‘My recent comments about the NIHE were in relation to the NIHE management of response maintenance contracts and have been backed up by recent findings from independent reports, including the NI Audit Office. My concerns have always been about the management of contracts, ensuring value for money for the public purse and most importantly quality service for tenants.’
The next few weeks present an opportunity for the NIHE to take stock. The government is in recess as of last Friday, and will not return until September. Only then will the Housing Executive discover its fate - many believe it is already sealed.
Northern Ireland Housing Executive timeline
Lord Richard Best and the Chartered Institute of Housing in Northern Ireland launch a commission on the future of housing in Northern Ireland.
The commission’s final report recommends splitting the landlord and strategic functions of the NIHE.
PricewaterhouseCoopers is brought in by the Department for Social Development to conduct a review of the Housing Executive’s functions.
Then social development minister Alex Attwood announces his support for plans to split the NIHE after PWC report their interim findings.
An announcement on the future of the NIHE is expected from the DSD, but never appears, allegedly due to political wrangling about its future.
John McPeake, chief executive of the NIHE, says the organisation’s stock needs £1 billion spent on it.
Inside Housing reveals that the Housing Executive’s stock could be split five ways.
2 July 2012
Long-standing chair of the NIHE Brian Rowntree announces his resignation.
3 July 2012
Social development minister Nelson McCausland slams the NIHE’s maintenance service and puts the organisation under supervision.
6 July 2012
An audit office report identifies ‘significant weaknesses’ in the control of maintenance contracts.
What the audit office said
A report written by Kieran Donnelly, comptroller and auditor general at the Northern Ireland Audit Office, said he was concerned by five major points:
- An inconsistence in addressing £10.2 million of overpayments of housing benefit.
- ‘Significant weaknesses’ in controlling maintenance contracts, and inspections which fail to identify poor standards of work.
- Overpayments to repairs contractors of around £500,000.
- Several ‘questionable’ land deals undertaken over a number of years.
- A ‘surprisingly’ large amount of grant paid to housing association Helm, which earlier this year was found to be underperforming.