It is refreshing to receive a straight answer, an answer which clearly demonstrates that something must be done about the balance between the two parts of west Tyrone.
The Minister will be aware of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive consultation document, ‘Places for People — A Rural Housing Policy Review’, the overall objective of which relates to the regional development strategy. A recent audit in the places for people review has identified the need for a clearer focus on rural new build. Will the Minister assure the Assembly that he will use his influence to ensure that planners, even though they may be located in another Department, are encouraged to be supportive of rural new build?
First, I thank the Member for his reference to straight answers. It helps if a precise question is put to which one can give a definite answer, and in turn I compliment him on his question.
Planning issues lie outside my remit. Although the Member makes a relevant and important point, it is not something over which I have any control. With regard to my Department addressing issues such as unfitness in rural areas, the Member will know that there are provisions in the housing Bill, which is due to come before the Assembly, to address some of those issues. I hope that they will go some way to alleviate the issue of unfitness not only in rural cottages but also in rural areas generally.
Who will carry out the refurbishment of rural cottages? Why have housing associations not undertaken this work in the past? How can the Northern Ireland Housing Executive continue to plan, design and complete such work when its new build capacity has been removed? I hope the Minister can be precise.
I certainly will be precise, because the answer is clear, and anyone who knows anything about housing would know the answer. The Housing Executive is involved in the design and planning of all new build programmes, and housing associations may carry out this work. The Housing Executive plays a central role in identifying needs throughout Northern Ireland, and in consultation with communities draws up new build schemes. There is nothing different about rural cottages. To be precise, the replacement cottages are being provided by housing associations. The schemes have been included in the social housing new build programme, and the timing will depend on how speedily the technical problems can be resolved.
Of the 50 cottages in the Omagh area, 18 have been replaced, nine have been improved, 20 have either been sold or tenants have refused the work and three remain to be assessed. In the Strabane area there are 212 cottages, of which 46 have been replaced, 12 have been improved, 22 are in the process of being replaced by housing associations, 20 are in the housing association new build programme, 89 have either been sold or tenants have refused the work and 23 remain to be assessed.
As I said in answer to the earlier question, the housing Bill will include provisions that will go some way to addressing some of those issues. It will give the Housing Executive the power to use more discretion in relation to the private sector grants scheme, and that provision is aimed specifically at allowing it to target resources to areas such as the western part of the Province, where unfitness levels are highest, and to other rural parts of the Province. Members have frequently drawn my attention to that issue, and we will be addressing it in the housing Bill.
I have already mentioned that a programme of work is under way to tackle unfit cottages in rural areas and to replace them. We are trying to address rural unfitness, and the provisions in the housing Bill will be critical in that regard.