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Simon Hamilton (DUP)

4. asked the Minister for Social Development whether he plans to develop a housing strategy. (AQO 1709/11-15)

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

The issues that I face in housing are stark, and I am particularly concerned about three things. First, the empty homes blighting many of our communities; secondly, the challenges of welfare reform in relation to housing; and, thirdly, the drive and focus of social housing direction and spending. I, therefore, intend to publish a housing strategy for wider consultation later this spring. Key players within the housing sector have already contributed to the draft strategy that my officials are preparing.

The strategy will contain five themes, including how we ensure access to decent, affordable, sustainable homes across all tenures; how we meet housing needs and support the most vulnerable people in our communities; and how we drive regeneration and sustain communities through housing. We are also looking at how we develop housing services and initiatives to support people in these challenging times, taking account of the impacts of, for example, welfare reform; and, finally, how we get the housing structures right.

It will be an ambitious strategy, recognising that homes are at the heart of people’s lives and that good housing contributes significantly to creating a safe, healthy and prosperous society. In a time of constrained public finances, difficult decisions will have to be made, but we will have opportunities to make better use of what we have and to find better ways to do things differently.

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Simon Hamilton (DUP)

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am very glad to hear him confirm his intention to publish a housing strategy for Northern Ireland, and particularly the emphasis on affordable housing. I am sure that the Minister is aware of several initiatives that were launched recently in Great Britain on affordable housing. Will he confirm whether his Department has any plans to roll out similar measures in Northern Ireland?

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

I understand that the housing Minister at Westminster, Grant Shapps, recently brought forward two initiatives: a new-buy guarantee scheme, and the Get Britain Building fund.

The new-buy guarantee scheme will potentially require smaller deposits from first-time buyers and may help them take that first step onto the housing ladder. We already have a similar affordable housing scheme here, which we fund through co-ownership. Last week, during a visit to a successful co-ownership applicant in Ballyclare, I was pleased to learn that four banks are now prepared to offer 100% mortgages under the co-ownership scheme. That is very welcome news. I hope that it will encourage more people to take that first step onto the housing ladder at a time when house prices are so affordable compared to a few years ago.

I understand that the Get Britain Building initiative provides funding on a repayable loan basis to potentially help developers to build out what had been stalled developments. I am very interested in that sort of initiative, and I have started talks with the Finance Minister to see whether some form of Northern Ireland pilot can be established. I will be happy to update the Member on those discussions once they are concluded.

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Alex Maskey (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister assure the House that the housing strategy that he intends to bring forward will include and link with all aspects of housing, from housing associations, through social housing, to the private rented sector? Will it also take on board the fact that there are current reviews into the structure of the Housing Executive and housing associations? In other words, will the housing strategy be comprehensive and interlinked?

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

I assure the Member that it will indeed be comprehensive and coherent. All of the different elements need to fit together and complement each other, and the strategy will fit in closely with the work on the Housing Executive that is being taken forward by the Department. All of those aspects will be complementary.

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Mike Nesbitt (UUP)

In his original answer to Mr Hamilton, the Minister talked of his concern about empty housing. Does he intend to bring in powers to take possession of empty homes, similar to powers that I understand exist elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

If the Member looks down the list of questions for today, he will see that there is one specifically on the issue of empty homes. At the moment, we are operating two pilot schemes to see what, in the Northern Ireland context, is the best way of addressing that issue. There are areas in which we clearly see a concentration of empty homes. We need to know what the nature of that. What is the breakdown of ownership of those homes? Why are they lying empty and what can be done to get them back into use as quickly as possible? Once we have completed the pilot schemes — the results should be known within weeks — we will be in a position to take this to the next stage.

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Chris Lyttle (Alliance)

Will any housing strategy seek to establish the nature and extent of housing segregation in Northern Ireland and establish an action plan to facilitate the overriding preference to live in mixed neighbourhoods?

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Nelson McCausland (DUP)

The figures regarding segregation are well known and the facts about it well rehearsed. There is a very high level of segregation, particularly in social housing. There is a very high level of segregation even in private housing. So it is not simply a matter of looking at how you deal with that in social housing; it is a matter that spreads right across the board. That reflects the fact that not only housing but many other things are segregated in Northern Ireland. All of these things are elements that make up a person’s life. Where you live will be influenced by whether there is a school available for your children to go to and whether social and recreational facilities are available and accessible to you. Those are things that will encourage you to move into an area. It is much more complex than it may at first appear. Certainly, we are open to the issues, and I am sure that any proposals that people have will come forward during the consultation.