Housing: Single Occupant Applications
Northern Ireland Assembly
2:45 pm

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Peter Weir (DUP)

5. asked the Minister for Social Development how the issue of single occupant applications for housing is being addressed, particularly in light of the upcoming housing benefit changes. (AQO 1318/11-15)

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

I believe that the Housing Executive and, to a lesser degree perhaps, my Department have overlooked the single occupant group for a number of years. I expect single accommodation dwellings to be provided for in next year’s social housing development programme. I will not consider the draft programme until it addresses that issue in a significant and appropriate way that deals with the needs of single and older people.

The size and style of our newbuild programme needs to change to ensure that smaller, more suitable accommodation is available, particularly for single applicants, such as older people, who may be looking to downsize and who, in doing so, could free up larger homes for families.

Plans are being drawn up to bring forward a comprehensive housing strategy that will help me to ensure that the available money targets those most in need. That includes the provision of social and affordable homes to meet the needs of the differing categories. However, although building more new social homes is important, it is not the only answer. We must look for alternatives to suit the wide range of housing needs that people have.

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Peter Weir (DUP)

I thank the Minister for his answer. Is he content that his plans will meet the housing needs for that sector?

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

The wide range of housing need in Northern Ireland can never be met by building more new social homes alone. We need a range of solutions that includes more new homes but that will also seek to do more with the homes that we already have. We need, therefore, a much wider and more holistic approach to tackling this issue. Therefore, the forthcoming housing strategy, which I mentioned, is particularly important. That is why I am preparing it and why I will seek, through that strategy, to do the very thing that we are talking about.

However, it is often overlooked that the biggest role that the social housing sector plays in meeting housing need is not as much through newbuild allocation as through the reallocation of existing units. There is a very high level of underoccupancy in Northern Ireland. For example, this year, we expect to reallocate approximately 8,000 social homes to people who are in housing need. When that is combined with our newbuild, it will go a long way to providing low-cost, quality housing to those who need it most.

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Fra McCann

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers up to now. Recently, I spoke to a number of housing associations, and they told me that, to date, they have not been advised about the direction they should be going to fill the gap in lets for single occupants. Will the Minister tell us whether the introduction of the single-room allowance has the potential to leave 25,000 people homeless over this mandate?

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

The first issue that the Member raised is a reflection of the fact that, during the previous mandate, there was no focus on accommodation for singles. It is important, therefore, that we recognise that, in the matter of months that I have been in the Department, we have started to address the issue, which has been around for a very long time but was simply ignored. For example, we have looked at good practice, not only in Northern Ireland but elsewhere, as to how it might be done in different areas. Therefore, we are keen to look at best practice elsewhere, including within the United Kingdom, to see what can be done to address the needs of singles, who, as I said, make up over half our waiting list.

The housing strategy is coming forward in the spring. Actually, it is the first time that we have had such a strategy in a very long time. In fact, I am not aware of a previous strategy. That is a disappointment, because, no matter what area of work you want to do in government, if you do not have a strategy, you are never going to get anywhere. You need to have a strategic view. That is why this comprehensive and holistic piece of work is so important. How will the proposed changes to housing benefit impact on single householders who are renting privately?

How will it impact on people in the social sector? We are still working through the figures to find out the precise impact. For all these things, there are various figures being quoted. We are still trying to get to the bottom of them to find out the exact situation. It will impact on a substantial number of people, but it is premature to put exact figures on these things.

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Michael Copeland (UUP)

I too thank the Minister for his answers thus far. He may recall that when the matter was brought to this House as a prayer of annulment, he confirmed that not approving the statutory rule would breach parity. He further confirmed that he would examine whatever steps he could take to mitigate the effects of the changes to housing benefit for single people, such as the age of qualification for the single-room rate being extended from 25 years to 35 years. Will the Minister give some indication as to how far along the path of investigation of the steps he could take to mitigate the effects of the changes he has got?

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

I am sure the Member is aware that it is only a matter of weeks since that discussion took place. The issue is extremely complex, as the Member will be aware. All I can say at this stage is that it is still a work in progress. We do not have a resolution to it yet.

These are things that effectively are being directed towards us from Westminster. We are doing our best to mitigate the circumstances, but we are still working on the exact measures. That work is being taken forward with the involvement of the Department and the Housing Executive.