Affordable Housing

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 15th January 2007.

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Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

The Business Committee has agreed to allow two and a half hours for each of today’s debates: the Member moving each motion will have 15 minutes, with a further 15 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have a maximum of 10 minutes.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the affordable housing crisis; notes the deliberations by the committee chaired by Sir John Semple; and demands that any new Executive make affordable housing an urgent Government priority.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leat as ucht an seans a thabhairt domh labhairt ar an ábhar seo, nó is ábhar an-tábhachtach é. 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the issue of affordable housing, which is crucially important to me and to many homeowners, tenants and prospective buyers.

On 11 January 2007, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ informed us that:

“First-time buyers in Northern Ireland now have to save more than 80% of their take-home pay to cover the upfront costs of buying a house”.

That is one aspect of a worsening problem that faces many people on our streets.

I note the amendment to the motion, but first I wish to define affordable housing. The widely accepted definition is social-rented accommodation; lower-cost housing that is for sale; and some private-sector rented accommodation. Unfortunately, through a lack of provision, the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to the point where Northern Ireland faces a housing crisis. Last year, 40,453 people were on housing waiting lists, with 20,121 households presented as homeless. In the past three years, including 2006, social new-build housing starts fell behind the Government’s projected figure by almost 2,000 houses. Therefore, Government- led projected new-build figures have fallen far short of what is needed. In the districts of Magherafelt and Cookstown in my constituency, which have 972 people on housing waiting lists, six — yes, six — houses were built in two years.

Members are aware of people who are offered private rentals as their only alternative. Housing benefit accounts for only part of the rent, with the deficit sought from disability living allowance, attendance allowance, income support, or worse, from loan sharks. That is a downward spiral to deeper poverty, all because not enough housing is being built for public-sector social renting.

Earlier, I referred to first-time buyers. Last year, in mid-Ulster, the average house price before the now notorious Planning Policy Statement 14 — ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ (PPS14) — was £177,000. Since PPS14, £30,000 to £40,000 can be added to that figure. PPS14 is the deliberate action of a Government that are, allegedly, committed to social and affordable housing.

House prices have trebled in my constituency, with a growth of 30·6% in one year alone. As Northern Ireland’s housing costs are the highest and its wages among the lowest in these regions, it is little wonder that the Nationwide building society reports that people are borrowing up to 5·2 times their annual income. The average in Scotland is 3·6 times the annual income. The median advance for first-time buyers in 2001 was £50,000. By 2005, however, that median had increased by 55% to £77,480.

There have also been human costs. In 2005-06, 2,614 actions for mortgage repossession were recorded — an increase of 19·5% from the previous year. I am sure that we elected representatives could share tales of rural constituents who simply cannot build or buy a house because of the consequences of social engineering via the political project known as PPS 14. It is a political project by an urban adviser to a Labour Government with absolutely no idea of the needs of our rural society. Indeed, the role of that particular adviser beggars description. Will the real Secretary of State please stand up?

As for all problems, there must be a solution. Those of us who have met Sir John Semple and made submissions to his committee have identified many issues. Those issues can be prioritised under three headings: land; planning; and investment. Land priorities include the slowness of approvals for area plans that are tied to restrictive capped figures — the housing growth indicators — which have driven land costs to an artificially inflated level, and have had a knock-on effect on new builds.

I have already referred to the negative effects of PPS 14 on rural areas. We need to revise zones and zone more land to help reduce basic land costs. We must also introduce measures to de-zone land that is not used or likely to be used, or that in some instances has been land banked, because it is also contributing to knock-on inflationary costs.

We must introduce a proper, sustainable planning policy — rather than the artificial one that has driven costs exorbitantly though the roof — that meets the real needs of rural communities. There must be a complete review of the planning process, including resources, in order to speed it up; currently, applicants endure entirely unacceptable waiting times. By the time that some planning offices deal with an application and issue an approval, the construction costs of a dwelling may have increased by 20% to 30%. Section 106 of England’s Town and Country Planning Act 1990, part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 in the South of Ireland and section 75 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 contain provision for similar measures that assist the planning system to develop affordable housing. Those measures must be seen in action in Northern Ireland. Importantly, there must be substantial investment in the social-housing new-build programme.

A major housing crisis is welling up. We hope that the details that are contained in the Semple report will be listened to; that the Assembly will be listened to; and that it will soon be in a position to prioritise that most basic of human rights, the right to a decent home, through the establishment of an Executive in Northern Ireland. Those measures are not major or undeliverable. Many could be brought about at the stroke of a pen, but for the inhumanity of indifference that is displayed by the Government.

There are too many reasons why there must not be indifference. We owe it to the people who are on waiting lists, and those who cannot afford a decent home, to demand that a new Executive make affordable housing an urgent Government priority.

Arís, a Cheann Comhairle, gabhaim mo bhuíochas leat agus cuirim an rún os comhair an Tionóil.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 15th January 2007

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after “crisis;” and insert

“and the serious under provision of social housing due to lack of investment and the absence of any strategy; noted the deliberations by the committee chaired by Sir John Semple; and calls on an incoming Executive to make social and affordable housing an urgent priority, and for the development of a strategic response, including action to end homelessness by 2010, and to bring vacant properties back into use to address the unmet need in the provision of social and affordable housing.”

A Cheann Comhairle, I commend the Member for bringing this important issue to the Floor of the Chamber. Without the amendment, the motion misses an important element of housing — the provision of social housing, a sector that for many years has been totally neglected and that has suffered from serious and sustained underinvestment. In today’s housing market, affordable housing, social housing and the other elements that make up the housing mix should run hand in glove. Mixed-tenure housing, developed as part of a strategic frame-work, is the way forward. I hope that the building of vast housing estates without any infrastructure is a thing of the past.

The question of creating an affordable-housing sector has been to the fore of many people’s thoughts for some time. However, the fact that the only offering from the Government is co-ownership shows how bankrupt of ideas they are. Again, it shows what advice David Hanson has been given by his advisers.

At many meetings Sinn Féin has raised the issue of creating an affordable-housing sector. It has been painted up for successive Ministers that, unless action was taken to at least begin the debate, Northern Ireland would find itself in crisis. I have warned British direct-rule Ministers that the inability of the Department for Social Development to manage the social new-build housing programme, if not acted on, would lead to major problems in the supply of social housing. I take no pleasure in saying that both warnings have come to pass. The crisis could have been avoided.

The refusal to respond to intense lobbying from many housing groups, political parties, and individuals has left us in a position where in the last recorded quarter — April to June 2006 — 98·3% of all housing starts were for the private sector. That is part of the reason for the crisis in the provision of social housing. We are simply not building enough new homes in the social sector. Current targets are not being met — and those targets were not ambitious enough in the first place. The social-housing sector is virtually non-existent. When annual new-build figures are released, they are manufactured to give the impression that more houses have been built than were actually constructed.

In 1995-96, 2,403 new social houses were built; in 2005-06 only 782 were completed. That is a huge decline over 10 years. Only a third as many houses are being built than was the case 10 years ago. If one matches those figures against the number of people declaring themselves homeless, it puts the crisis into perspective. In 1995-96 10,468 people were declared homeless. Ten years later that figure had risen to over 20,000; for the first two quarters of 2006 the figure was 10,460. The trend is still upwards. That is an indictment of the way in which housing has been mishandled.

Sinn Féin hopes that the appointment of John Semple to produce a report on affordability and social housing development will prove to be a new beginning in the development of a strategy to pull Northern Ireland out of the crisis. Sinn Féin had serious reservations about John Semple’s appointment to oversee the exercise, given his former connection to Government, and we told him so at our meeting. He assured us that he was his own person and would not bend to anyone’s wishes in the pursuance of producing an honest report. His interim recommendations are interesting and thought-provoking; we await the final package. The Government initiated the review, but are they committed to fully resourcing its findings?

Will the Government find the finance required to implement a housing revolution: the eradication of homelessness; the building of high-quality affordable houses; and the creation of mixed-tenure estates with the infrastructure to allow them to thrive? Northern Ireland needs an incoming Executive to make affordable and social housing a priority. We need a future housing Minster to promote sustainable communities and ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a house at a price they can afford in a place where they want to live and work. Members need to recognise that housing is a right, and I hope that work on a bill of rights will take a broad approach to social and economic rights.

The British Government have made a huge invest-ment in social housing in England. The same cannot be said in the Six Counties. We need to ensure that the concept of sustainability in housing estates is realised.

The British Government’s definition of sustainable communities is:

“places where people want to live and work, now and in the future. They meet the diverse needs of existing and future residents, are sensitive to their environment, and contribute to a high quality of life. They are safe and inclusive, well planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all.”

That is a British Government priority; they have embarked on a massive programme of building social and affordable housing and heavily resourced its sustainability. That is the situation in England, but over the next number of years in the North, there will be cuts to the housing budget.

The approach to affordability in the Twenty-six Counties has been to bring in legislation to ensure that contractors set aside 20% of each private-housing development for social and affordable housing. That was done under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. The Twenty-six County Government has recently tightened that Act to ensure that non-compliance is a thing of the past. Sinn Féin TDs have been at the forefront of the campaign to ensure progress, because there were serious concerns that policy was being driven by the demands of speculators rather than by people’s housing needs.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I have limited time left, so I will not give way.

Councils in the South bank land to use in negotiations with contractors to ensure the continuous supply of social and affordable housing. Several years ago, the British Deputy Prime Minister challenged the construction industry in Britain to build an affordable house for £60,000, and thousands of new high-quality houses were built there. Changes to the planning legislation in England speeded up the process.

We must be proactive in our approach to affordable and social housing. Those in society who are most in need must have a roof over their heads, and we must ensure that those who wish to buy their own home are able to do so at an affordable price. Speculators must not be in a position to freeze young first-time buyers out of the market — a situation that is presently the norm. Legislation must be put in place to protect low earners who bought their properties in a super-inflated housing market, only to struggle with mortgages beyond their financial means and find their homes being repossessed. We await the impact of the latest increase in the cost of borrowing. Statistics show that there were 1,540 actions for mortgage repossessions in 2001-02 — an 11·5% decrease on the previous year. However, there were 2,614 such actions in 2005-06 — an increase of 19·5% on the previous year. That shows the extent of the problem.

Sinn Féin wishes John Semple fair wind in his endeavours, because he has a difficult task. His recommendations may well form the basis of a future housing strategy. That is why we should be at the helm to guide, push and resource the strategy, deal with affordability and social housing, and eradicate homelessness. The only people who are committed to making the necessary decisions are in this Chamber. Therefore, it is imperative that the Assembly get up and running. We owe it to the 30,000 people who are awaiting social housing and the thousands who are waiting for affordable homes.

The number of vacant properties in the north of Ireland is a scandal. Out of a total housing stock of 702,000, 36,200 are vacant. They are in various states of repair, and many have been left empty by investors as their profits accumulate. One house in every 20 is empty. By tackling that problem — and without building a single house for the affordable or social sectors — we could go a long way to providing homes for thousands of people and families and meeting the commitment to eradicate homelessness.

All aspects of housing policy are in a mess and need urgent attention. A key element in life is a place to live — a home. That is a fundamental right, but it has been diminished by the incompetent management of the Department for Social Development. Those who have overseen the crisis and made excuse after excuse should consider their positions.

This motion is timely, coming just before the Semple deadline for responses to the consultation, 26 January. It is also a reminder of the obligations that we, as elected Members, have to show leadership on crucial issues such as housing affordability and social housing supply. Let us hope that, when the time comes, we are up to the challenge required to make the difference.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I welcome Sinn Féin’s concluding remarks about everyone being entitled to a home and trust that that also applies to those who were ethnically cleansed from the border areas, banished from their homes and sent over to England, because they were not allowed to live in republican areas.

The motion has two elements to it: public- and private-sector housing. I will address the public-sector housing issue briefly. The Housing Executive has failed miserably to supply houses over the past years. That failure has taken place particularly in unionist areas. I think in particular of east Belfast and Lisburn, two areas where there is high demand for housing, but where the Housing Executive has not and cannot meet the demand with its current policies.

The Antrim Street Housing Executive office in Lisburn has 1,200 people on the waiting list, half of whom are in housing stress. Over the past number of years people have not been able to get houses, yet each year the Housing Executive is selling off more houses than are being built in the area. Our party raised the issue a number of years ago, and due to the pressure that the DUP applied, 180 houses are now to be developed there over a three-year period. However, that will neither address the problem nor meet the needs there.

It appears that the Housing Executive is to some extent relying on the article 40 agreements with private developers, but the problem with that is that the developers have already got planning permission for dwellings and there is no prospect of their actually building social housing. We are going to have a continued social housing problem in Lisburn and other parts of Northern Ireland unless the Housing Executive amends its ways and goes out of its way to provide housing for people.

One of the issues that has arisen is the inability of the housing associations to proceed with new building and to exercise their powers to procure land for new developments.

That leads me to my other point, which is the private-sector issue of the price of houses — a continual topic of conversation among people now. In my area, the average price of a house is £236,000, and additionally there were rises in the last year of 36% — that is unsustainable.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

One issue that has not been raised in the debate is precisely the one that the Member is about to talk about, which is the private sector. Given that house prices in Northern Ireland have more than doubled while the level at which stamp duty begins has remained static, could the Chancellor not put several thousands of pounds into stamp duty for first-time buyers to make housing much more affordable in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Mr Campbell is in danger of setting me off on a rant by raising that. It is a grievous tax to impose on individuals who are buying property, and particularly on first-time buyers. Our deaths, wages, even our fish suppers are taxed; it is wholly illegitimate to have any tax on people.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, Mr Simpson, we are even taxed on our fish suppers, not that it seems to have applied too much to you. It is grievous that we get taxed when buying our homes.

However, what it comes down to is a simple issue of supply and demand. If supply cannot meet demand, prices are driven up; that is the logic of it. It does not seem to have got through to the Planning Service yet given its area plans. In Ards for example, land was de-zoned and taken out. In that instance, the Planning Service implied that there was too much housing land available. It did not need to develop as many houses as was proposed in the former area plans, so it took de-zoned land, and the new area plan reflected that.

In the area plan for Newry and Banbridge, no significant additional land was zoned. Newry has the highest house growth prices anywhere in the UK. Newry does not need more land, yet people are saying that it does because the house prices there are rising consistently; indeed the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) is crawling along, failing miserably to meet local needs.

There is nothing over and above the Lisburn area plan in that element of BMAP; in fact land that was anticipated to have come forward in BMAP in Lisburn for development was excluded from it. This was land which would have delivered the critical road linking Knockmore and Sprucefield in the Lisburn area, and it has clearly failed to deliver that.

I note that the regional development strategy (RDS) identified that the housing growth indicators could not be adjusted upwards. However, it is now acknowledged that the figure of 51,000 new houses in the original estimate should be adjusted upwards to 66,500, but BMAP still has not met that figure and gives no indication that it will do so.

The critical problem is land supply. Mr McGlone was correct to say that more land must be zoned. We also need to be able to de-zone land, because developers are causing further problems by land-banking. One of the leading accountancy companies in Northern Ireland has advised developers to slow down and to build fewer houses, thereby making greater profits. If people are told that they should work less and that they will get more money for it, most will take up that option. If developers can make more money by building less, that is what they will do, and who could blame them?

There must be a requirement that forces developers to continue with developments once work has begun and that allows land to be de-zoned if the work is not started. Developers must play ball with the community. There is no point in identifying land that is suitable for development and allowing it to sit and stagnate while our young people cannot get into the housing market. It is essential that that issue be addressed.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)

Ten years ago there were many vacant houses in the Old Warren estate in Lisburn and a lot of deprivation in that area. Now houses that were bought by their occupants and are up for sale again are reaching prices of £150,000. That is incredible, given the circumstances that existed in that area in the past. It is an indication that the present market is, to some extent, a false market, although I suspect that it will not be a falling market, given the environmental constraints that are imposed by the Planning Service.

We in Northern Ireland need to address this issue, and the clearest and easiest way to do that is to make available more development land. In conjunction with that, we must ensure that developers make significant contributions to the provision of roads and sewerage systems in those areas, so that no environmental damage results from those new developments. However, the policy of sustainable development that was put upon us in Northern Ireland does not lead to sustainable development; the prices of new homes and the rate at which they are rising is unsustainable. Young people cannot afford new dwellings, and the only people who benefit are those who have multiple houses and those who own development land.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon any new Executive that might exist after Sinn Féin clearly and definitively supports the police, in deeds as well as words, to deal with this issue. They must ensure that those who push up the price of houses purely out of greed, and drive young people out of the prospect of acquiring new homes, do not get their way all the time and that young people have the opportunity to get onto the property ladder.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP 12:30 pm, 15th January 2007

It could be said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. When I first read Sir John Semple’s interim report, I thought that I was in a time warp. The report is written as if the issue of affordability is something new that has somehow sneaked up on us without warning. Much of what has been written in the report has already been written, and much of what has been said today has already been said.

As Chairman of the Committee for Social Develop-ment during the Assembly’s previous mandate, I, and several Members from other sides of the House, expressed concern about the importance of maintaining a sensible level of social housing. That was back in 2002. I contend that direct-rule Ministers pursued their own agendas and paid no regard whatsoever to what local politicians had to say.

The people of Northern Ireland are suffering, and there are several ways to tackle the issue. People must have access to affordable housing; there should be an aggressive social housing building programme; co-ownership should continue to be part of the solution; and there is, of course, a role for the private-rented sector. To rely on one or two of those solutions would be a folly. The outcome will inevitably lead to a rise in the already unacceptable levels of homelessness. In 2005, almost 16,000 houses were built in the Province, which is a 10% increase on the previous year’s figure. Fewer than 5% of those were available to the social-rented sector.

There is undeniable evidence that there is a need for a programme of social housing of the order of 2,000 units per year. What is happening is that 30,000 people are on the waiting list for housing. Last year, only 700 new builds were completed. This year, funding is available for 800 new builds only. That is not the fault of the housing associations. There is a lack of investment and impetus.

Many people in the private-rented sector are on low incomes. Housing benefit rates do not keep pace with prices. An interest rate rise has already been announced, with a further rise predicted for February or March, which will lead to landlords seeking to pass on the costs to their tenants. Many people will not be able to afford their rent, and even if there was an increase in housing benefit, people in Northern Ireland face water bills and an increased regional rate. Therefore, the demand for social housing can only increase, and the planned response is inadequate. The 30,000 people on the waiting list will not diminish.

We are all diminished by the experiences endured by homeless families, children and young people. We all lose when the barrier of homelessness prevents them from fully sharing in, and contributing to, our society. Surely this underlines the need to develop affordable housing for low-income families.

Although the housing market here has benefited somewhat, spiralling house prices are causing massive problems. Exceptional growth potential has resulted in landlords and private investors contesting a market traditionally associated with first-time buyers. We must disentangle the competing interests of investors and first-time buyers.

Over the past 10 years, average house prices in Northern Ireland have tripled. Last year, house prices rose by a third, and they now stand at an average of £153,000. How can young people compete with that? Usually, deposits for mortgages are around 5% of the house value. Therefore, to buy an averagely priced house in Northern Ireland, young people must come up with a deposit of over £7,000. That is far beyond the means of many.

In 2005, the Ulster Bank found that two thirds of potential first-time buyers were unable to finance a deposit. Not only that, £1,500 has to be handed over for stamp duty, and, with solicitors charging around 1% for conveyancing, a buyer must come up with another £1,500. In Northern Ireland, it takes an extraordinary amount of money to make the dream of buying an averagely priced house happen, and first-time buyers just cannot keep up.

On a pan-UK basis, Northern Ireland first-time buyers are suffering the most. In the space of five years, the number of first-time buyers here has dropped by 25%. This is at a time when the overall number in the UK has decreased by just 7%.

In 2004, the University of Ulster’s housing market survey warned that:

“first-time buyers are finding it increasingly difficult to raise the deposit needed to get into the market.”

The Ulster Bank said that:

“Strong house price growth in Northern Ireland has outstripped wage increases, resulting in many potential home-owners being unable to buy a property”.

The Government saw that coming: in July 2006, Labour Minister Yvette Cooper told the House of Commons that:

“We have simply not been building enough homes to meet rising demand and changing social trends”.

She went on to say:

“If housing supply is not increased, affordability will continue to worsen.”

Nevertheless, the rise in house prices has been good for the Treasury. The Halifax discovered that £5·5 billion was paid in stamp duty in 2005 — an increase of £1·8 billion from 1999. It is time for the Treasury to respond with some good news for first-time buyers across the United Kingdom.

The UK’s £3 trillion housing market had undergone major changes at the time of the Chancellor’s last Budget, but he missed a major opportunity to move with it. In his tenth Budget, Gordon Brown pegged stamp duty at £125,000, which simply does not reflect the reality of the housing market — the average house price for first-time buyers in Northern Ireland is higher than that. A sustainable and affordable market must be created for young people, and there are options to take a more imaginative UK-wide approach.

What are the options for young people? It is anticipated that co-ownership will help to support about 2,500 applicants up to 2008. Although I welcome the recent announcement of £23 million of funding for the scheme, co-ownership should be extended by abolishing or modifying the house-value limits to which it applies.

Too many families do not have the security of a decent home. The early years of too many of our children are blighted by exclusion, instead of being full of promise. Government should be about making a difference and providing leadership. Under direct rule, however, Northern Ireland lags behind the devolved Administrations of Scotland and Wales. The Scottish Executive have said that, in areas of need, up to 25% of houses in new developments should be for rent or low-cost ownership, and they have moved forward with plans to invest £1·2 billion to deliver 21,500 low-cost and social-rented homes by 2008. Devolved Administrations have shown imagination in dealing with the issue. The core aim of any future local Administration must be to help to build fair and decent communities for all.

In the face of direct rule’s failure, the best people to understand and reflect the concerns in society are Northern Ireland’s locally elected representatives, operating in a devolved Assembly. It is time to act. The Housing Executive was responsible for a highly successful building programme that was well regarded and seems to have solved a housing crisis.

However, there is a different sort of housing crisis now, and the Housing Executive should be financed to intervene again. I stress, however, that the Housing Executive cannot solve the problem alone: housing associations and the private sector must also play their part. Without an urgent investment of public funds, the crisis will become a nightmare.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

As Members have said, there is undoubtedly a crisis in relation to the availability of affordable housing. Unless the Government act quickly to help first-time buyers, the majority of our young citizens will find it impossible to buy a home, and that could result in increased levels of homelessness and associated problems.

I welcome, as a first step, the Government’s initiative to ask Sir John Semple to compile a report on the causes, reasons and, I hope, remedies for affordable social housing throughout Northern Ireland. Despite being in interim form, the report demonstrates that there are many and varied reasons why the provision of social housing and affordable housing is difficult. A major problem is that developers buy land and leave it for a long time until its value increases. The land is then sold on again and again.

That can happen many times over before any houses appear on such land. In those circumstances, the Government might have to introduce a compulsory purchase order. There is also the matter of land acquisition and the call for a land register to identify all surplus public-sector land, which should be aimed at providing all forms of affordable housing.

I know that housing associations simply cannot afford to buy land on the open market, so we continue with the shortage of new social housing. In his interim report, Sir John Semple highlighted the number of vacant properties in the private sector. The report states that there are up to 39,000 empty private-sector homes throughout Northern Ireland. Surely there are grants or other incentives to encourage private owners to get their houses up to standard and offer them to housing associations or let them to tenants.

Sir John Semple’s interim report contains many good ideas that need to be worked on. In supporting Patsy McGlone’s motion, I hope that an incoming Executive will make affordable housing an urgent priority. Time is of the essence or this housing problem will worsen. This Assembly must be seen to be working to enable young people to get onto the housing ladder as soon as possible. I support the motion.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) 12:45 pm, 15th January 2007

I promise not to take too long; I know that a number of my esteemed colleagues want to have their say, despite the fact that one of them talked about ranting and raving and named me when it came to the tax added onto the price of fish suppers. I do not know why he picked on me; perhaps it was something to do with my slim physique.

There is no doubt that a major affordability crisis exists in the Province’s housing market. There have been many changes in recent years, and we have witnessed a continuous rise in house prices, rising private-sector rents, increases in the number of buy-to-lets and second-home ownerships, increased land and labour costs, increasing evictions and mortgage repossessions and late entry by age onto the housing ladder by first-time buyers.

It is also worrying to note the increase in the number of homeless applications across the Province. In 2003-04, a total of 17,150 applicants presented themselves as homeless to the Housing Executive, 8, 954 of whom were accepted. By 2005-06, the number of applicants had risen to 20,121, of whom 9,749 were accepted. In 2004, 2,579 people were homeless for well over a year, but by 2006 that figure had risen to 4,252. The Government should intervene to address the problem.

There is a need not only for more social housing, but for more private rental accommodation of various housing types to meet the changing demographics of the country. There is also a need for more affordable homes for first-time buyers.

The Government must ensure that the Planning Service brings forward sites for social housing. Turnaround periods in the Planning Service are considerable. In my constituency of Upper Bann, in the Borough of Craigavon, as Members who sit on that council know, the average turnaround period is 33·5 weeks. In Banbridge District Council area, which is also in my constituency, the turnaround period is 55·7 weeks. Turnaround periods must be speeded up. Last year, in the Banbridge District Council area, growth in housing was 16%; in the previous year that figure was the same. In the Borough of Craigavon it was 14%; and, in the year before, the figure was slightly smaller.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Whereas housing growth in both of those council areas has increased, the figures for new-building starts in social housing remain dismal. In the Banbridge District Council area, 680 people are in need of social housing, and in the Craigavon district the figure is 1,687. Despite those startling figures, in the past two years only 30 new houses were built by the Housing Executive, through the housing associations. Those statistics are appalling.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

I believe that Mrs Kelly has stolen a copy of my speech. [Laughter.]

I thought that only the DUP had information such as that forwarded to it. Obviously, Mrs Kelly has seen it, and she is quite correct. She sits on Craigavon Borough Council just as I do, so she has a limited knowledge of what goes on. [Laughter.]

There is a major difficulty in the whole Upper Bann constituency with respect to social housing. Land should be released for development more quickly. The Government should look again at draft PPS 14 and address the demand for social housing in rural areas, where people have a strong sense of belonging and attachment.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Will the Member give way again?

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

I will. Have you also stolen my speech?

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

I have not. [Laughter.]

Does the Member agree that the obvious social engineering in draft PPS 14 prevents maintenance of extended families on family land in rural areas and results in the enforced corralling of rural dwellers into settlements? Does he agree that it assists private developers in effecting rampant increases in house prices, and, as such, is to be condemned?

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

I agree with the Member. There is a sense of corralling, which is a major issue.

Another point is the co-ownership scheme. Craigavon Borough Council recently had a presentation from the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association. Councillors believe that the scheme could be developed further by revision of the price limit that applies to property eligible for purchase through co-ownership to make the limit reflect more accurately the rise in house prices. The upper limit for co-ownership is £130,000, yet, as Members have heard today already, the average price of houses across the Province is £186,000. In my constituency, terrace houses are selling at £160,000 or £170,000.

It is a very difficult situation. The co-ownership scheme helped 1,500 applicants last year, but that does not put much of a dint in the overall social housing problem.

I welcome the recommendation in Sir John Semple’s report that 2,000 homes should be built for social housing purposes. Last week, I spoke to a developer in my constituency during a meeting with Invest Northern Ireland (INI). He is contracted to build 12,000 homes right across the Province, yet not one of those houses will be used for social housing.

There is a major problem in the Province. Young people are finding it more difficult to buy houses and are opting for 40-year mortgages. That puts massive pressure on young married couples and those who wish to set up home. I call on the Government to intervene and try to make the housing issue easier for young people, who must get help from their families to invest in their homes. The Government should concentrate on that issue.

As my council colleague Mrs Kelly said, we must deal with the number of houses in different areas. The housing situation in the Banbridge area is especially horrendous. Social housing is one of the biggest issues dealt with by my constituency office. The Government should move on this issue and assist first-time buyers.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The next Member to speak is Mr Tom Elliott. Before calling Mr Elliott, I must emphasise that, when a Member wishes to speak, it is normal protocol that he or she is present throughout the previous Member’s contribution. However, Madam Speaker has taken a generous view of that protocol in the past, and I will therefore call Mr Elliott. However, I emphasise that it is important that Members are present in the Chamber for the previous Member’s speech if they expect to be called.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not aware that I would be called so early to speak in the debate, which is why I was not in the Chamber for the previous Member’s contribution. I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the Member concerned.

It is clear from the debate that there is a serious housing shortage. I have often asked myself why that is so, despite the massive increase in the number of houses being built and developed in the Province over the last number of years.

I have researched the reasons for the housing shortage. There is clearly better and improved healthcare in the Province, which has meant that, in general, people are living longer and therefore need more housing. Younger people are moving away from home earlier in life and living alone. That has also contributed to the increasing number of houses that are required.

With increased wealth in the Province, more people are purchasing second, or holiday, homes. That trend is most noticeable on the north coast and in tourist areas such as the Mournes and County Fermanagh. Large-scale immigration into Northern Ireland, which is particularly prevalent in south Tyrone and the Dungannon area, has created a new demand for privately rented accommodation in that area, and private landlords have bought houses to meet demand.

Last week, the Bank of England caused considerable surprise and concern in the property sector by increasing the base rate of interest from 5% to 5·25%. I fear that continued increases in interest rates could result in the burden of mortgage repayments tipping many house-holders into a situation where their financial obligations cannot be met. Nowadays, we often hear of people being advised to take out 50-year mortgages, as opposed to 20- and 25-year mortgages, which were the norm in the past.

Just getting onto the property ladder has become increasingly difficult. Last week, a local newspaper revealed the findings of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ study, which found that young couples who wish to get on the property ladder in the UK need to save 81·2% of their joint take-home pay. In fact, the situation is likely to be worse in Northern Ireland; in this part of the United Kingdom, wages are lower and property prices are rising faster than on the mainland. The study showed also that affordability in the UK is at its worst for 16 years.

The interim report of the housing affordability review, headed by Sir John Semple, makes several proposals for tackling the lack of affordable housing in the Province and for increasing the provision of social housing. The proposals include: a social-housing building programme of 2,000 properties a year; changes to the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association; increasing the threshold for stamp duty and making low-cost homes purchased by first-time buyers exempt; providing the Planning Service with increased resources; and, perhaps most importantly to me, the need to examine the reasons for the current area-plan system’s failure to deliver.

The report quantifies yet again the problem facing many first-time buyers, as huge property price increases continue to outstrip paltry wage rises. It is staggering that between 2001 and 2005 — a four-year period — seven district council areas witnessed an average house price increase of over 81%. Indeed, five of those councils, in the north and west of the Province — Fermanagh District Council, Omagh District Council, Strabane District Council, Limavady Borough Council and Coleraine Borough Council — had increases of between almost 90% and 116%. Some might suggest that those figures represent the market here catching up with the rest of the UK; however, such increases, in this part of the world, are unsustainable.

My own council area of Fermanagh is quoted as having an average house price of between £148,000 and just over £161,000. Those figures are on a par with the figures for many eastern areas of the Province that, in the past, have been far above those in the west. Incomes in the Province as a whole, especially in areas such as my constituency, are not able to sustain either those property prices or the rises.

Many reports of a similar nature have preceded Sir John Semple’s. However, only limited action has been taken to remedy the situation, even though the warnings have been around for some time. In 2004, HM Treasury published a review of the housing supply in the United Kingdom, conducted by the economist Kate Barker. The Barker Review highlights an average yearly UK house price increase, in real terms, of 2·5% over the past 30 years. That contrasts with France, Sweden and Germany, where prices have remained constant or, indeed, have fallen. One of the main reasons cited for this phenomenon is the lack of responsiveness in housing supply in the UK. In other words, there is not sufficient housing to satisfy the demand, leading to large price increases.

In Northern Ireland, the supply of housing has been stifled further by the moratorium placed on single rural dwellings by Draft Planning Policy Statement 14. I am concerned to note from the interim report that Sir John Semple supports that policy.

In December 2006, a report on the situation in Great Britain entitled ‘The Geography of Affordable and Unaffordable Housing’, which was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggested improving mobility to allow people to purchase dwellings in more affordable areas. That is not acceptable either. People should be allowed to purchase affordable dwellings in their own areas. The report also expressed concern about the ratio of high prices and mortgage costs to incomes and called for the introduction of policies to assist working families who are being priced out of the market.

High levels of unaffordability, therefore, are a problem across the UK and not just in Northern Ireland. The problem has been gaining momentum in recent years, with little indication of willingness to tackle the issue on the part of the Government. Nobody can deny that it has become difficult for first-time buyers to purchase a home, or that those on the Housing Executive waiting list have a long wait for accommodation. Efforts must be made to help these groups.

House prices and demand have increased — particularly in the Dungannon area, among others, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which I am focusing on — due to factors like the number of foreign workers. Also, businesspeople are buying up large numbers of houses — which is not against the law, I must add — and filling them to capacity with multiple occupants. That is not helpful.

There needs to be some protection for first-time buyers and the socially disadvantaged. There is an urgent requirement for the Government to secure development land and ring-fence it for social housing and low-cost starter homes. Otherwise, young individuals and couples will not be able to access social housing or enter the property market. This could and should be done through local area plans. Sir John Semple’s report acknowledges that.

Where there is land available within the Government estate, it should be protected and kept for social housing, rather than being sold at the current market value, which in some cases is over £1 million per acre. The Government should look seriously and quickly at protecting some of their land for such purposes.

As many Members do, I regularly wade through the planning quagmire. There is little doubt that the Planning Service has a continual backlog. It needs more staff and more flexibility. A strategy needs to be formulated and implemented to ensure a supply of affordable housing that will allow first-time buyers to get into the property market.

I support the motion.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin 1:00 am, 15th January 2007

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As other Members have done, I want to congratulate Patsy McGlone for moving this motion and giving us the opportunity to debate affordable housing, Housing Executive waiting lists, etc. However, I support the amendment, which enhances the motion. I have not heard anyone say that he does not support the amendment, so I assume that we are going to have agreement at the end of the debate.

I am struck by the number of young people in the Gallery. Statistics have been thrown around this morning about the length of time that people spend on waiting lists for housing. How many of these young people in the Gallery — I hope that they are not thinking of buying houses now — will be able to afford a new house in a few years? We have talked about how much first-time buyers have to pay. Equally, how many years will those young people have to spend on a waiting list before they can get social housing? We have a duty to invest in their future and ensure that the Executive starts working as quickly as possible, not only for young people but for everybody’s future.

We all know that good housing is essential to the maintenance of a healthy population, and we know that there is a crisis with the provision of affordable and social housing. I do not want to go over all the statistics that have been highlighted. People need space to live in and facilities that are adequate for looking after themselves. We need to ensure that the housing stock is there and up to the proper standard.

The level of home ownership in deprived areas is low. It is common for people to be forced to rely on public-housing programmes for accommodation for themselves and their families at an affordable cost. There is a huge underprovision of affordable and social housing. The housing market is dominated by private landlords and property speculators.

I support my colleague’s amendment. I wish also to congratulate Patsy McGlone for bringing the subject to the Floor of the House. In 2004-05, approximately 17,000 households presented as homeless. Some 6,000 of those households had dependent children. The vast majority of those households without dependent children were made up of single people rather than couples. In 1995-96, the comparable figures were 11,000 and 4,500. Over that period of fewer than 10 years, the numbers have grown substantially, with most growth occurring in households that do not have dependent children. More specifically, almost all the growth took place during the four years from 1999-2000 to 2003-04.

Behind each of those statistics are stories of great stress and the hidden reality of people struggling to achieve the housing stability and security that they need to live healthy lives. Recently, the Assembly discussed mental-health issues. I assume that the added stress of housing worries adds to that experienced by families and individuals. The breakdown of relationships contributes to the figures for single people. There are long-term waiting lists for single people, never mind families.

Across the four Belfast constituencies, 55% of people live in flats or terraced housing. That is well above the average for the North, which is 35%. This situation must be remedied. The growing waiting list for public or social housing must be targeted. We must recognise that the problem is made worse by the fact that housing stock is diminishing before our eyes. There is severe pressure on first-time buyers.

I agree with the last two Members who spoke that there is a need for major investment in social-housing programmes in targeted areas. Fra McCann mentioned that one in 20 houses is empty. To target the issue of waiting lists and affordability, those empty homes must be put to good use. Fra mentioned also that Sinn Féin raises the issues of social housing and affordable housing at every opportunity. The party had reservations about the appointment of John Semple. However, we will hold back and wait to see the report.

We need to get an Executive up and running and make affordable and social housing one of its priorities. Every Member agrees that every person should have access to health, education and housing.

I support the amendment.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The next Member to speak is Ms Marietta Farrell. On this occasion, Ms Farrell will speak for the first time. As this is her maiden speech, convention dictates that it be heard without interruption.

Photo of Marietta Farrell Marietta Farrell Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am very pleased to speak to the House for the first time, particularly today, as it is Martin Luther King Day. Martin Luther King was a hero of mine. He was an inspiration to me and to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, from which my party, the SDLP, was born.

I am pleased to support the motion, especially as my constituency of Lagan Valley has the highest house prices in Northern Ireland. According to the University of Ulster’s quarterly house price index, in the second quarter of 2006, the average price of a house in Lisburn was over £195,000, which is roughly £34,000 higher than the average Belfast house price, and £32,000 higher than the Northern Ireland average. House prices in Northern Ireland are rising by approximately £600 a week. These statistics are most certainly out of date now. Recently, I looked at advertisements in estate agents’ windows in Lisburn. A former Housing Executive-owned terraced house was selling for £165,000.

A quarter-acre building site with outline planning permission for one house in the city had an asking price of £235,000. A local estate agent told me that it was not uncommon for a house price to jump £20,000 or £30,000 in one afternoon between her showing a house to a client and returning to the office. She also told me that there used to be around one mortgage default every two months; now, there are four to five every month, with most defaulters being young couples.

As stated earlier, statistics from the Nationwide building society show that first-time buyers in the North are borrowing over five times their annual income. That is well above the UK average, especially in comparison with Scotland, where the average sum borrowed is 3·6 times a person’s annual salary.

Unlike in England and Wales, the Government have no clear strategy to tackle the problem of the lack of affordable housing in Northern Ireland. Unless a clear strategy is put in place and followed through, the lack of affordable housing will be an increasing problem for young families and low-income households and will become a barrier to their accessing jobs and participating in communities.

Although the Semple Review examined the obstacles and identified a series of recommendations, which have already been mentioned by previous Members, immediate action from a new Northern Ireland Assembly is needed in order to develop a strategy for improved access to affordable housing and to make a commitment to the proper provision of social housing.

I am very concerned about the current inadequate levels of social housing, the corresponding high waiting lists and the number of homeless people in Northern Ireland.

According to statistics published by the Department for Social Development last year, second to Belfast, Lisburn City Council has the highest social-rented housing waiting list, with a figure of 3,344 people. Only 1,229 new dwelling starts were undertaken by housing associations in Northern Ireland in the last financial year,144 of which were in the Lisburn City Council area. In Northern Ireland as a whole, a further 69 dwelling starts were commenced during the first quarter of the current financial year. It is a cause for great concern that the figure for new dwelling-house completions is much lower, with only 782 completed in the year 2005-06. That figure is down by 46 from the previous period.

Demand for social housing has increased greatly since 2002. In the year 2002-03, over 40,000 people in Northern Ireland were on social-housing waiting lists. That figure increased to over 47,000 by 2005-06. Those figures illustrate that provision of new-build social housing is, indeed, inadequate and has greatly increased the demand for privately rented accommodation, which has led to a significant increase in rental prices.

On taking over the constituency office in Lagan Valley recently, I asked the staff to compile a list of problems most often presented by constituents. Social housing was way up high on that list, particularly issues concerning the notorious PPS 14, which has already been mentioned. As in other parts of the North, rural housing prices in Lagan Valley have rocketed, making it impossible for young people to buy houses in their communities. Having to move away from extended family and deep community ties causes its own problems.

In a statement last September, David Hanson said the availability of:

“good housing can help improve people’s health and well-being. It can influence children’s educational attainment and help individuals to take part in normal social activities. It also contributes to the stability and economic well-being of our communities.”

The reverse is also true: bad housing can lead to ill health and stress; it can have a significant influence on poor educational attainment and lead to unhappiness, isolation and disaffection from community and society.

The motion uses the term “housing crisis”. As I, and other Members, have illustrated, that term means a great deal more than the constant discussions about, and our frequent obsession with, house prices.

Northern Ireland, with its strong community and family ties, has not experienced the same level of homelessness as some parts of the UK, but that is changing.

In the year 2005–06, there were 9,749 “unintentionally homeless” people in Northern Ireland. Although not the only reason, house prices are, increasingly, a contributing factor. There is a growing strain on resources, both for the Housing Executive and for the voluntary agencies that deal with homelessness. Currently, the Simon Community Northern Ireland — to name just one organisation — provides emergency accommodation in Belfast, Bangor, Coleraine, Derry, Downpatrick, Lisburn and Newry.

In the last few years, we have seen some tragic examples of people, especially from the migrant communities, who have fallen through the net of support with dire consequences. I am thinking of 46-year-old Anika White from Slovakia who was found dead in Ballymena and of Oksana Sukhanova from the Ukraine who was found in a Coleraine street in January 2005 and, subsequently, almost died from frostbite. Last night, as happens most nights, homeless people were sleeping on the streets of Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that some of them are victims of our growing housing prices.

Forty years ago, the BBC televised a docudrama called ‘Cathy Come Home’. It told the story of a family’s disintegration and spiralling descent into homelessness due to unaffordable housing, with a mother and her children ending up sleeping on the streets. That play was set in London. However, if the new Executive do not tackle the affordable housing crisis as a priority, we may have a Northern Irish Cathy, more Anikas and Oksanas and a growing number of men and women who have to sleep rough on the streets of Northern Ireland.

I support the motion.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I pay my compliments to the previous Member who spoke. If, as we have heard today, she delivers her addresses in the Assembly and represents her constituency in the manner in which she has today, there is no doubt that she will be a capable advocate for the constituents of Lagan Valley.

At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to the Members who proposed the amendment — sorry, not the amend-ment, the motion — [Laughter.] I do not want to give any credence to a Member whose party cannot even deliver. Therefore, I pay tribute to the Members who moved the motion, and, in particular, I commend Mr McGlone who has ably chaired the rural planning subgroup. For those who cannot get onto the property ladder, rural planning is not unrelated to affordable housing.

The DUP wholeheartedly supports the endeavour to provide, as a matter of urgency, affordable, social-rented and intermediate housing. Several of the Members who have spoken have referred to the problem of affordable housing. When we debate issues in the Assembly, the same difficulty arises: although Members can easily identify the problems, we must formulate realistic solutions to those problems. It is not enough to say that an incoming Executive will tackle the issues. Indeed, given what happened at the weekend, no one knows when there will be a new Executive. It seems as though the republican movement cannot bring itself to say simple words such as delivery, delivery, delivery. Therefore, it is quite possible that there will not be a new Executive for some considerable time. Rather than utter the words that we need to hear, we are given ambiguity and four pages of republican spin. However, we must not allow ourselves to be trapped in this position forever. Members should come to the House with recommendations that can give leadership to how we address the problems facing first-time buyers.

In particular, in the light of the planning policies, I want to focus on an issue concerning affordable housing, which is raised in Sir John Semple’s report. I commend Sir John Semple on the interim report. Members must remember that it is an interim report, which is subject to consultation.

I urge Members to respond to that report in the same manner in which they have articulated their concerns during this debate. There is to be further consultation and a final report, which I understand is to be presented in March. Sir John raises the use of article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. However, that is not a viable tool for providing a significant number of affordable houses in the private/developer sector, which is more likely to deliver new developments that meet the aims of mixed tenure, community balance, and citizens’ well-being. The main reason for the problem is the steep rise — particularly in the last three years — in the cost of land for building. A horrendous figure is contained in chapter 5 of Sir John’s report, which states that:

“Land prices have risen dramatically in the past three years with the average cost of housing land rising by 300% since 2003”.

All Members, particularly those who represent rural constituencies, know about the pressure that that situation has created.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

In my constituency, which the Deputy Speaker will know well, a 0·2-acre site on former bogland was sold for £138,000 due to PPS 14. That site might normally have fetched only between £25,000 and £40,000. In Banbridge, a plot of housing development land fetched £1.1 million three weeks ago, which equates to £100,000 per housing unit. That is unsustainable in any society.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I am grateful to the Member for bringing that to our attention; and I am sure that all Members could provide examples of similar situations from their constituencies. Those price rises are a fundamental consequence of the planning limbo that exists in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency, which I cite because it is the one that I know best.

A draft northern area plan has been published, which is subject to a judicial review. That plan should be operational, or should at least be at the stage of a public inquiry. However, that is still a very long way off, and 2011 looks a likely time for a public inquiry, rather than for the implementation of that plan.

The draft northern area plan has crucial and unpredictable implications for issues of major concern, which the Planning Service is not currently addressing, thereby contributing to the problems. The most crucial of those unpredictable implications concerns whether existing town boundaries will be extended. The Member for South Down referred to the price of rural land; let us look at the situation that has now developed in urban settings because of PPS 14. There has been an unacceptable rise in the prices of those properties because a ban or moratorium has been placed on development in the countryside.

Towns have become constrained in their ability to deliver affordable housing within the urban boundaries. Arguably, as a result of the aforementioned continuing uncertainty, certain speculative development land — which makes up the majority of unused building land in my home town and its urban footprint — including brownfield and redevelopment sites, has been bought and is being financed at prices that are beyond the level of a developer in the building industry who wishes to provide affordable housing within the existing town boundaries.

In the last 12 months, the prices of the lowest-rung housing in my constituency have increased hugely, creating a situation in which many aspiring first-time buyers are unable to access home ownership.

Instead they are driven to what can only be described as spending dead money on renting houses or apartments from investors, which, ironically, are the very same properties that they would have bought had it not been for the greed-driven building prices that have been created by this situation.

A typical property on one of the lower rungs of the ladder in my town, a house with two or three bedrooms, costs some £170,000, of which the land element accounts for an astounding £100,000. Unfortunately, the average first-time-buyer-household income can only support a mortgage on attractive terms of £120,000 — it will be less if interest rates continue their recent upward trend. Accordingly, we have a shortfall of some £55,000 to £60,000 — more than half the land element cost — which, under article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, a developer could be obliged to fund in respect of the 20% of all dwelling units on a major mixed-tenure development.

Since the publication of the article 40 affordable housing obligations, building land prices could be driven down by the release of additional lands for an extension of boundaries and by the consequent market forces, which would enable developers to provide affordable housing. The immediate introduction of arbitrary measures or set targets under article 40 would be ill advised. It would be preferable to introduce certain targets incrementally.

To speed this matter up we also need to look —

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP 1:30 am, 15th January 2007

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

We also need to look at the rural community, landowners and farmers and relieve the pressure that developers put on them. They need an opportunity to develop their own land.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

This is a timely debate on an issue that is vital to those who are finding themselves hard-pressed to get a home, particularly a first home.

As has been noted, it is striking that, during the five-year period after 2000, the number of first-time buyers in Northern Ireland decreased by almost a quarter, whereas the figure for GB was a reduction of only 7%. That indicates a problem. It is obvious that the situation is being driven by the very rapid increase in house prices, as several Members noted. Indeed, the increase has been much higher than recent average UK growth. The very rapid growth in house prices, and the consequent difficulties for house buyers, is almost certainly produced by the demand for housing being much greater than the supply to meet it. We should bear that analysis of the problem in mind as we consider the correct policy response, and particularly — and the motion refers to this — the interim report on housing affordability by Sir John Semple.

We need to note, in particular, some of the recom-mendations in the Semple Report, especially the recommendation that the Department for Regional Development should look again at its housing growth indicators for the period 1998 to 2015, which are set at 208,000 new houses. That figure, even though it was revised upwards in the past, is still almost certainly too low. As my party colleague Mr Cobain said, we support the recom-mendation in the interim report that the number of newly built social houses be increased substantially to 2,000 a year. Other Members mentioned the serious impact — perhaps at the margin but none-theless significant — of stamp duty on the expenses of house buyers, particularly first-time buyers. The Chancellor should examine stamp-duty levels and the house-price threshold at which they first apply.

Land will be needed for an aggregate supply of houses to be built. We should note that Sir John Semple’s interim report recommends: that the Department of the Environment should undertake an annual housing and land availability study; that selective de-zoning should be considered; and that the Department for Social Development should examine the scope for stronger, increased vesting of land for house building.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

Any policies should be sensitive to the different types of household that seek accommodation. For example, there is a demand for family housing, and that is not often provided in the market; that is the case in my constituency of South Belfast. There is also an increasing demand for dwellings for single people. That may reflect an increase in the number of families breaking up, or the growth, over the past three years, in the number of migrant workers in Northern Ireland. The supply of housing must therefore reflect diversity of demand. There is a need for urgent action.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Like Dr Birnie, I think that this debate on affordable housing is important to many of our constituents.

The work that has been undertaken so far by the affordability review team, under Sir John Semple, has been extremely worthwhile. The interim report is a thorough and commendable piece of work. The production of an interim report is a good move, as it allows time for feedback before proceeding to a final report. A few weeks ago, I met Sir John and his team, and I was impressed with the seriousness and dedication with which they approached the issue. This is a timely debate that will make an important contribution to Sir John’s work.

Several Members have already mentioned the current high prices of housing and land, and they have referred to the fact that there has been a period of sustained low interest rates. There was a slight rise in interest rates last week, but continuing, substantial increases in house prices have been forecast. It may comfort some people to hear that the market will readjust, or will self-adjust, and that the situation will even out. Unfortunately, many people — first-time buyers and those wanting to enter the housing market — will be unable to catch up with last week’s increase in interest rates.

I do not intend to quote many statistics, but figures in the interim report compare the current proportion of income that is needed to buy a house with past statistics, and the figures are staggering. In 2002, when I was Minister for Social Development, I discussed this issue with officials. Here we are in 2007, and escalating and exorbitant costs are much more severe. Something must be done.

Members have referred to land prices, which have gone up threefold in three years. There is much land speculation, and many private investors are buying up land or holding on to land in the hope that the price will increase. Similarly, many properties are being bought for investment purposes. That is adding to the problem.

Sir John suggested some solutions that are worth considering. I am particularly intrigued with the suggestion to set up a land assembly agency; however, Sir John has said that more work needs to be done on that proposal. It is an interesting argument, and such an agency would mirror similar bodies that have been set up in England. He has also suggested that the period for which planning consent applies should be reduced to prevent land-banking and proposes greater powers of vesting.

The review referred to open spaces, particularly those that are in many of our Housing Executive estates. For example, in the lower Shankill, which is in the West Belfast constituency of my hon colleague, there are enormous swathes of vacant, open land that are not being used for housing; there are also other estates like that. There is a case for saying to the Housing Executive that it should be more proactive in identifying land in such estates for housing use. More and more often, residents of those estates tell us that they want areas to be used for housing rather than left lying derelict or being used for antisocial behaviour, as is often the case. Clearly, it is fair enough for land to be needed for recreational, open-space purposes. However, in many cases, such land is simply not being used for any particular purpose. As Sir John recommends, the Housing Executive:

“should adopt a proactive approach to making use of appropriate open space for affordable housing and should start a number of pilot projects as soon as possible.”

That idea should be pursued.

Sir John also suggested that community land trusts be established. Under such schemes, people would effectively buy the house or property — but not the underlying land. Examples of that model across the water have proved to be reasonably successful. Anything that increases people’s ability to get into the housing market is worth considering.

Since its inception, the co-ownership scheme has been most worthwhile: 19,000 households to 20,000 households have benefited from it. Recently, however, it has suffered in that the uptake has not been the same as in previous years. That has a lot to do with the rise in house prices; massive increases make it difficult for people who want to get into the property market through co-ownership to compete. The Member for Lagan Valley mentioned the speed of price increases; they can rise by £10,000 or £20,000 in an afternoon. Therefore more flexibility needs to be introduced into the co-ownership scheme.

Low current-value limits need to be reviewed, and a reduction in rent levels should be considered. The co-ownership scheme still has the potential to help a lot of people get into the property market, and it should therefore be sustained.

Sir John also referred to stamp duty and the effect that it can have. Given that it can add a substantial cost to the price of a property, it can significantly affect people’s ability to get into the housing market. Although stamp duty is part of the wider fiscal and taxation arrangements that are decided at a higher level than this Assembly, it should be impressed upon the Chancellor that changes to the stamp duty system should be encouraged strongly. That is because some areas suffer as a result of high levels of deprivation and a great deal of social exclusion and need.

I add my voice of support to those who want new-build social housing to be increased year on year. Currently, 1,500 new houses a year are being built. I agree with those who say that that figure should be increased, even though a cost will be attached. I remember fighting battles with two Ministers of Finance and Personnel about getting money for the DSD for new social build. Back then, the view was always taken that compared to the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland did rather well in allocating money for housing and that consideration had to be given to paring back expenditure in that sector. However, given that John Prescott announced massive investment in housing in England, that argument is no longer sustainable. In any case, the need for housing exists. If we are serious about putting TSN and combating poverty at the top of the agenda, Government here — whether direct rule or devolved — should make new housing a priority.

I could deal with many areas, but I do not have much time left. I want to mention voids in the private-rented sector. Many areas are blighted by houses and properties that lie void for extended periods, but getting something done about them involves a lot of red tape: the process is slow and cumbersome, and articles are served. It becomes a whole rigmarole; the owner sometimes does not want to know, and the matter has to go back and forward, and so on. People who live in areas that are affected by those voids feel that they blight those areas. I very much believe that action should be taken to address that.

Sir John mentions the empty dwelling management orders that have been introduced in England. When we met as part of the review, I urged him to consider recommending their introduction here. Such orders allows a local authority — in this case, probably the Housing Executive — to step in, take control of a house that is void or derelict and bring it up to standard. The problem is thus proactively addressed, and houses are not left derelict and void for years.

The private-rented sector is increasingly dominating some estates and housing developments. There is a strong case for greater regulation, not just of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), but of all privately rented houses. There must be stronger controls to deter landlords who buy houses and then neglect their upkeep or who do not care terribly to whom they let the house. Stronger regulation is needed as this is one of the biggest areas of complaint raised with me.

We could spend all day discussing the many issues that this debate raises. However, I want to make one final point. Much work needs to be done to ensure the availability of low-cost housing in urban renewal areas, and people must be incentivised to stay in such areas. Often they are bought out at a certain price, but because the new houses are sold at such a high price, they cannot afford to buy them. I am pushing the Department to do something about that.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:45 am, 15th January 2007

I am late in joining the debate, so it is difficult to add anything new.

I want to lend my support to Mr Dodds’s comments on regulation of the private-rented sector. The highest number of complaints that public representatives hear concerns antisocial behaviour and the lack of care of rented houses — overgrown hedges or overhanging trees or whatever.

Some parties have been concerned about whether or not their members support draft PPS 14 — both the DUP and Sinn Féin have had problems with that. However, I can assure the House that, from the outset, the SDLP realised the dilemma that PPS 14 poses for rural dwellers. I too welcome Sir John Semple’s report, but, like Mr Elliott, I do not support draft PPS 14.

I have young daughters at university, one of whom is now studying for a postgraduate degree. Under the student loans scheme, she will leave university with loans and debts potentially amounting to £30,000. That is appalling. How on earth will she ever be able to afford a house? As soon as she gets a job — and I hope that she will — she will have to start repaying her student loans. Contrary to what many of us thought, student loans do incur interest, so long repayment periods result in additional costs. Thus many young people and first-time buyers will find it increasingly difficult to buy a home. That is a great concern and must be one of the key challenges for any new Assembly and restored institutions. Some Members talked about the need to show leadership and the need for a restored Assembly. The onus is not just on one party; as we all know, there are two parties in this dance. They need to get their act together because the community is crying out for decisions.

There are solutions to the affordable housing crisis. A lot of land is in public ownership. Some weeks ago, my party colleague for East Derry, Mr Dallat, talked about the amount of land that is owned by the Water Service. In Craigavon, a lot of land was taken and kept aside by the old commission. It is still there and is still unused, yet over 2,000 people are on housing waiting lists in the Upper Bann constituency, many of whom are in dire circumstances.

The issues of affordable housing and home ownership are easily within the gift of direct-rule Ministers. We do not have to wait any longer. Members of Parliament have raised and debated at Westminster a range of measures that could be implemented soon.

Many Members have referred to homelessness, and I share their concerns. Recently, someone in my parish died, and six people suddenly became homeless. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive must address, as a matter of urgency, the test for homelessness and how waiting lists for the homeless are handled, because there are peaks of homelessness when a house becomes vacant.

The message has not yet been conveyed to the public, and in particular to young people, about how houses are built for social need and how areas are determined. It is not a matter of waiting for someone to die. My constituency office now receives calls to say: “So-and-so is on their last legs. Will you see what you can do for me?” It is a dire situation that reflects the tension and stress in the community. Members are aware of the link between housing and ill health.

Affordable housing is a key challenge, and I wait eagerly to see whether Sir John Semple has taken the views of the parties on board. Some Members have reservations about Sir John Semple, but have taken as their own the appointment of Lord Carlile as the overseer of MI5. I find that surprising.

I will finish, because a number of other Members wish to speak. I support the motion.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

I join in the congratulations to the proposers of the motion and of the amendment.

Housing is the largest single issue in my constituency office, which deals with approximately 1,000 citizens. Some of them are one-person households, some two-, some three- or more.

Members must not forget that behind all of the statistics, research and views that have been put forward, there are citizens — people. I will cite two cases that sum up the core issue that Members are attempting to address.

My wife and I were married 27 years ago, and enjoyed regular and fairly well-remunerated employment. My wife was a police officer, and I was in the construction industry and a part-time officer in the UDR. In other words, we were not short of a shilling. We purchased our first house for £12,500, and I remember sitting with my wife to work out how we could afford the mortgage. That property is now valued in excess of £200,000. Today, with our combined income, we could not raise a mortgage to purchase the property that we bought 27 years ago. What hope is there for young people who do not command enormous salaries to get a foot on the housing ladder?

The second case is more interesting, and more tragic. It is the case of a young couple whom I will call Mr and Mrs T. He was employed in security work in entertainment establishments in Belfast, and earned a few pence above the minimum wage. His partner, the mother of their two children, secured work at just above the minimum wage for 16 hours a week in a local hotel. He lost his job; they fell behind in their rent and were evicted from their privately rented property — which had been consuming in excess of 70% of their combined income — rendering them homeless.

The Housing Executive, bound by legislation, adjudicated that they were intentionally homeless. Mrs T, the couple’s three-year-old child and three-month-old baby are now living with her mother. Mr T is living with his parents.

If the motion has any failing, it is that it concentrates on affordable housing and does not mention social housing. It is not rocket science to work out that affordable —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is pretty widely accepted that the definition of “affordable housing” not only embraces privately owned or privately rented property but social housing. That is accepted widely, including by Sir John Semple.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

I accept the Member’s point.

There is a difference between what people can afford to pay and what they are being asked to pay. Housing could only be affordable if there were a swing in the balance in order to bring the cost of houses down or raise the wages of the people who want to buy those houses. Neither is likely to happen to such a degree that it will restore the equilibrium. Ways can be sought to address the issue. However, for an increasing number of people — be they people who were brought up in housing estates or in small streets, or people who attended grammar schools and lived in nicer houses — renting a property may be the first way to find a place to call home. There has been a focus on houses in the debate. For many, there is a difference between a house and a home, and in the social circumstances that surround them. There are many houses in east Belfast, but not enough has been done to ensure that its citizens can transform those houses into homes.

The Housing Executive was once charged with improving the awful housing conditions that pertained in the Province. Over time, great steps were taken to ensure that there was a supply of good-quality rented houses. However, the Housing Executive is now required to make annual efficiency savings of 2·5%, which amount to around £15 million of the Housing Executive’s entire budget each year, or an average of around £4,405 from each office. The effects of that are such that, in some offices, senior housing managers do not even have someone to type a letter for them. Thought must be given to that matter.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Given that house sales are around 4,000 each year, which is the equivalent to the housing stock of one Housing Executive district office, does the Member accept that the Housing Executive could make considerable efficiency savings in order to meet the Gershon requirement of 2·5%?

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

I do not doubt that it could do so through reorganisation. My contention is that the Housing Executive should address housing need. Increasingly, because of house sales, it must deal with a diminishing stock that is of diminishing quality, and it cannot discharge its statutory responsibility. That is done by housing associations. However, in my experience, housing associations do not build sufficient houses for the need.

The Member for Upper Bann Mr Simpson referred to “applicants” to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I confirmed with him that the term “applicants” was inappropriate. There are approximately 2,500 applications in the East Belfast constituency. In the part of south Belfast that most people believe is part of east Belfast, there are a further 1,000 applications. In the greater Castlereagh district, which most people also assume to be part of east Belfast, there are 2,700 applications. The total number of applications is around 6,200. Each of those applications may cover three, four or five people. It is not, therefore, a matter of the number of applicants, but of the number of citizens; that is important. In east Belfast, I am confronted with around 10,000 to 15,000 people who do not have appropriate accommodation.

The basic building block of society is the home, which should be in close proximity to places of education, medical treatment and places to shop. Something has gone terribly wrong. I note the calls from the Member for Upper Bann Mr Simpson for the Government to intervene to address the problem. I am sick, sore and tired of calling upon the Government, because the Government do not stand to gain or lose one single vote cast in an election by any citizen in the Province. I hope that sooner or later all of us in the House can create the circumstances whereby Members discharge the responsibilities placed on us at the time of election and deal with problems as they ought to be dealt with.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 2:00 am, 15th January 2007

I rise to support the motion. Each year in Northern Ireland 30,000 people make enquires about housing issues. There are 2,500 enquiries a month. That is a huge number of people with housing problems, when one considers the small population of the Province. In March 2006, approximately 32,000 people needed affordable housing, and of those 17,500 were con-sidered urgent cases. There is need for change, and the Assembly has a vital part to play in the process.

In my constituency of Strangford, the average price of a house this year is in the region of £179,00, and that continues to rise by between £4,000 and £5,000 a month. The Halifax Building Society states that there has been a 43% growth in house prices in that area. The average income of my constituents is £13,500, so it is not difficult to work out the mathematics. Even a two-income household would find it impossible to get onto the first rung of the property ladder. People renting properties are faced with huge rent bills as they pay the increase that the landlord has laid out to buy the property. Those mounting bills are the reason that so many have no option but to put their names on the waiting list for Housing Executive flats and houses.

That is not taking the easy option; there are no other options for many to take. It is part of the reason that the number of first-time buyers has halved since 2001. There has been, on average, a £30,000 increase in the price of houses, yet in the same period there has been only a minimum increase in wages. That loss cannot be borne by first-time buyers and low-income renters, and could well explain why 30% of those who apply to the Housing Executive are living in poverty. It is becoming increasingly impossible for people to try to manage rent and the ever-surging utility and basic living costs on their own, particularly if they are one of the thousands of hard workers who earn the minimum wage. It is no small wonder that the waiting list is beyond the means of many.

The average person who has worked hard to buy his or her own small house is now working equally hard to pay the bills, let alone buy the property. Many semi-professionals, instead of studying for a degree and getting a job and house, are now clubbing together to buy small terraced houses, praying that the current trend continues so that they can all make enough money to start out on their own.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors fears that 50 families a day will lose their homes due to defaulting on their loans and mortgages this year. The mortgage should not exceed 30% of the income of the home; when it is larger than that people are faced with making a choice between defaulting on their mortgage or providing food and heating for the household. The number of repossessions in 2006 increased by 76% on the same period in 2005 — a startling figure. Subsequently, the Housing Executive is being presented with over 20,000 homeless people, half of whom are accepted as genuine. That is an increase of over 1,000 from the same time in the previous year. That cannot be allowed to continue. The fact that the Bank of England has increased interest rates for the third time in five months means greater hardship for mortgage payers. Rates have gone up from 3·5% to 5·25% in the last three years. That is a significant figure. When added up, that will mean an extra £100 a month in mortgage costs for many households in my constituency.

House prices in the Strangford area are the fourth highest in the United Kingdom, and the 0·25% increase in the lending rate has, for many, pushed an average of £50 for this month up to, perhaps, £100.

Not many years ago, one could have bought a terraced house in Ards for about £60,000 or £70,000. Today it will cost £130,000. Developers from all over the United Kingdom and, especially, the Republic of Ireland are coming here with seemingly bottomless pockets of money to invest, and they are buying houses everywhere. There is the real fear and threat of a 40-year mortgage and a mortgage that will be passed on to a borrower’s children.

Those are the clear and bare facts that illustrate how much the situation has got out of hand and how it requires drastic change. In rereading the reports and figures, one will find a lot more figures that challenge the system, and we must look at those. One might ask what our options are or what the Assembly should take on board and implement when the time comes? The Semple Review’s recommendations concerning vacant properties would be most effective when coupled with the proposals to convert into apartments the first floors of shops in our towns. The living over the shop (LOTS) scheme has been piloted in my area, but more could be done in Strangford and the rest of the Province with that. It is an excellent scheme that affords a grant of £25,000 or 75% of the value of the upper level refurbishment to a property owner. Not only will that provide more long-term, valuable, cost-effective housing, it will rejuvenate our towns and villages.

Some Members mentioned the valuable co-ownership scheme. My colleague, Nigel Dodds, from North Belfast mentioned it earlier. Many people in North Belfast, Strangford and across the Province have taken advantage of it. It should be promoted more widely, so that more people know to take advantage of it. Anyone who buys a £150,000 house through the co-ownership scheme will require a mortgage for only £75,000. The scheme gives the house buyer an opportunity to get on the first rung of the property ladder, and it should be widely promoted.

There is a number of unoccupied — or void — Housing Executive houses in the Ards area. My colleague from Lisburn said that there are 1,200 to 1,500 people on the waiting list for a house in Lisburn and east Belfast, but there are between 2,500 and 3,000 people on the waiting list in the Ards area. If that is not the longest waiting list in the Province, I would like to know where there is one longer. I am sure that it is a Province-wide problem.

Over 4% of the properties in the private rental scheme in Ards are vacant, and those houses could be reintro-duced into the property market. The increased turnover of those would mean a wider market place, and the less desperate the need was for housing, the less money that investors and property developers would be able to squeeze out of consumers. One way of further aiding the refurbishment process is to lower the VAT on materials for such work to the lower figure of 5%. That clear aid would assist those who need a house.

The theory of turnover is mentioned often in the Semple Report, and it is one that is perhaps a basis of finding more affordable housing. Other initiatives such as an increase in the threshold for stamp duty in line with the substantial hike in house prices should be implemented as soon as the Assembly has the power to do so. It is unfair to expect first-time buyers to pay those costs as well as everything else, so I support the recommendation to exempt first-time buyers from that.

It is also imperative that local authorities release unused land for building; that would give a twofold benefit. First, there is the obvious benefit of making affordable housing available as requested in the motion. Those houses should be affordable and designed for first-time buyers and not for property magnates who are one of the major causes of the current problem. Secondly, the release of the land would enable local authorities to put the money to much better use and to where it belongs — in the community.

Perhaps Mr McGlone will consider the kinship clause, as it is referred to in planning, whereby people who live in the countryside and rural communities can have an input into staying on the land. Many people would benefit if such a kinship clause were put into planning.

As a MLA, I want to be able to tell those who come to me in desperate need of a home that the waiting list is short and that they will soon be accommodated. I do not want to have to tell them that they will be forced to split up their family and live in hostel accommodation. Instead, it should be my duty as an elected representative to inform a young couple searching for a new house that there are tax breaks and grants to help them take that first step.

Furthermore, it should be my commission to ensure that the property developers, with their seemingly bottomless pockets, do not have the wherewithal to buy up — and thus inflate the prices of — houses in Strangford and, indeed, the rest of the Province.

A developer from the Republic came to Portavogie, a village in my constituency, and offered to buy nine houses for cash from a local builder. The builder said that he was not interested in the offer because he wanted to preserve the area and ensure that the houses were sold to people who lived in the village — first-time buyers — to give them an opportunity. I admire that builder because he took a clear stand: he wanted to ensure that local people got an opportunity to buy houses in the area. That attitude is to be welcomed.

The responsibility for ensuring that people can buy houses in their local areas should lie with a devolved Government, whose priority would be to improve the quality of life for our constituents. For that reason, I support the motion. The Government should take into account the report’s findings and make the resolution of the housing crisis a top priority for the elected Executive.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As Mr Shannon said, statistics illustrate the crisis mentioned in the text of the motion. In March 2006, 32,215 people were on the common waiting list for social housing. Of those people, 17,433 were in housing stress. In 2005-06, over 20,000 people presented themselves as homeless, of which 48% were accepted as such. That was an increase of over 1,000 people compared to the previous year.

In Northern Ireland, less than 50% of housing benefit recipients have their full rent paid compared to 30% to 40% of the recipients in GB. The proportion of houses being bought by first-time buyers is declining. In 2001, 60% of house sales went to first-time buyers. By 2005, however, that figure had fallen to 36% and has, no doubt, fallen further since then.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said recently that those seeking to get onto the property ladder must now save an average of 81·2% of their joint take-home pay. That figure covers the upfront costs of buying a typical home, including stamp duty and a deposit. The average two-person household spends about 22% of take-home pay on their mortgage. It is clear that, unless more affordable housing is built, and the Government raise the stamp duty threshold, more and more households will struggle to access the housing market.

First-time buyers in Northern Ireland face a tougher challenge than their counterparts in the UK. Average salaries in Northern Ireland are lower, yet average house prices are much higher than in other UK regions and are continuing to rise quickly. It is expected that affordability conditions will worsen during 2007, with a predicted growth in house prices of between 8% and 10%. In addition, there is the potential for a further interest rate rise next month.

Affordability is, without doubt, the biggest issue facing the housing market. Earlier this month, a survey of regional house prices in the last three months of 2006 showed that the fastest growth was in Northern Ireland. House prices in Northern Ireland jumped by 44·1% compared to the same period a year earlier. That rate of growth was three times higher than in Scotland, where prices rose by 16%. The biggest increases were in Northern Ireland, where prices rose by 53%.

In my constituency of Newry and Armagh, 2,667 people are on the waiting list for public housing, yet only 90 new units have been built in the last two years. More and more people on benefits are being forced into private rental accommodation, where there is a growing differential between rental allowance and private rents. Private rents are currently running at around £500 per month, thus plunging people into a further downward spiral of poverty, with its own associated problems.

House prices in Newry have rocketed. Three-bedroom semis have increased in price by 30% to 40% over the past year; prices have broken the £200,000 barrier, the average being £230,000. Those three-bedroom semis have in some instances become second-buyer homes.

The situation for first-time buyers in the Newry area is extremely difficult. For a first-time buyer to purchase a £180,000 house they require a minimum 5% deposit of about £9,000; they pay stamp duty of about 1%, which is a further £1,800; they pay solicitor’s fees of £1,800; and surveyor’s fees of around £1,000. In total, they will need savings of about £13,600. That is a year’s salary for many first-time buyers. Their mortgage pay-ments on a loan of £180,000 will be on a repayment basis, probably over 30 years, at £1,100 a month.

In Newry, development-land prices are usually a good indicator of future market expectations. Due to a very conservative and restrictive area plan and the introduction of PPS 14, development opportunities for builders have become scarce. The present dearth of development land, coupled with the stifling effects of PPS 14, is pushing house prices sky-high.

Development land in Newry costs about £1 million an acre, with individual sites making more than £200,000. As the price of houses increases, the builder pays more for the land. The only way to alleviate that is to release more land for the development of both public and private housing and to undo the stringent curtailments of PPS 14. I support the motion.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin 2:15 am, 15th January 2007

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Most Members who spoke this morning had their fingers on the pulse, regardless of which party they belong to. People are well tuned in to the crisis that we face and how it should be dealt with, so I will be fairly brief in support of the amendment.

Patsy McGlone said that affordability covers social housing, but many people see a clear separation between affordability and the supply of social housing from either housing associations or the Housing Executive. That is why the amendment deals with that issue separately.

I included vacant properties in the amendment because they are such a problem. John Semple said that 5% of all housing stock is lying vacant and that something must be done about it. We can also widen the debate because there is more to the housing mix than the issues that I identify in my amendment or that Patsy identifies in his motion: problems such as the allocation system and homelessness. In my constituency, young people stay in hostels for three or four years before they can even get a house. We have all heard the figures on the rise of house prices. In my constituency, former social housing is selling for between £200,000 and £210,000. We need to get to grips with a wide range of housing issues. However, I thought that to include them in the motion would offer us a way of looking at affordable housing, social provision and vacant properties.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

No, Sammy. Most Members spoke about housing, but Edwin Poots tried to sectarianise the issue, which was very sad. We could have argued with one unified voice and not had a sectarian argument. A review into how housing need came about would come to a different conclusion from the one that Edwin Poots put forward. I commend the amendment; it is important that Members support its three elements. It does much more than Patsy McGlone’s motion, and it will be more widely accepted by the community.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

Madam Speaker, I thank you for the time allowed for this very important debate, which has united the House. Members really do understand the seriousness of the housing crisis. The difficulty that people face in getting housing is a major talking point in all our constituency offices. Young people simply cannot afford housing. Others can get onto the Housing Executive list, but they cannot get a house.

Patsy McGlone kicked off today’s interesting debate. He emphasised the huge lack of new affordable and social housing. Fra McCann came in with his amendment, and also brought to our attention the fact that if a large amount of social housing is built, it is vital that amenities follow in that area. Along with housing, the infrastructure needs to be put in place.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the Member accept that, given that the report clearly defines social housing as including housing rented from the Housing Executive or a housing association, as well as housing rented from a private landlord, that part of the amendment really was not necessary?

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

I very much agree with that. Perhaps it was not really an amendment but a different way of putting our motion forward.

Edwin Poots was very concerned about the huge sell-off of Housing Executive houses and the fact that more are being sold than built. He brought to our attention the stamp duty on housing and the fact that many builders are now land-banking housing land because the cost of the land is rising at such an alarming rate.

Fred Cobain spoke of his support for John Semple and the need for more housing in three categories — more social housing, more affordable housing and more private housing. He told us that it was essential that 2,000 homes be built every year; that was a very important point to get across. Kieran McCarthy from the Alliance Party talked about how difficult it is for young couples to get into the housing market.

That brought us to David Simpson of the DUP, whose first remark was that he would not be long. That reminded me of the minister who says that his sermon today will not be long, but David went the full distance of 10 minutes. He did allow two interruptions, and then accused those people of stealing his speech. In fact, the whole tone of the debate has been one of unity.

Tom Elliott talked about the increase in the Bank of England base rate this week and how that put more pressure on the ability of first-time buyers to afford houses.

Sue Ramsey highlighted the social side of housing and how private landlords dominate the private rental market. She told Members that one in 20 houses in her constituency lies empty and that bringing those houses back into the private rental market would significantly ease the housing situation.

In a brilliant maiden speech, Marietta Farrell reminded Members that today is Martin Luther King Day.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, none at all.

Ms Farrell expressed her alarm at the high prices of houses in her Lagan Valley constituency and spoke of her fear of many more people becoming homeless.

Mervyn Storey of the DUP spoke about rural planning and how article 40 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, if implemented, would alleviate the situation.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Storey mentioned the requirement of a political party to show leadership. However, the DUP requires leadership as much as Sinn Féin.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

For the Ulster Unionist Party, Dr Esmond Birnie highlighted the great difficulties experienced by first-time buyers. The SDLP will ask DRD to re-examine the figures relating to the land that will be released for new builds. He also talked about how stamp duty affects first-time buyers.

Nigel Dodds spoke of his support for Sir John Simple — [Laughter.]— Or rather, Sir John Semple. That was some slip of the tongue — [Laughter.]

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Dodds covered all areas of the debate, including co-ownership and stamp duty. He referred to housing voids and acknowledged the great need for housing across the Province.

Delores Kelly spoke about PPS14 and the need for a homelessness test for those who join waiting lists for houses.

Michael Copeland gave a great speech on his history of buying houses. Some 27 years ago, when he bought his first house for £12,500, he wondered how on earth he would be able to pay that mortgage.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

By joining the Assembly. [Laughter.]

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Copeland reminded Members that at today’s valuation, that home would now be worth over £200,000 and, based on his and his wife’s income 27 years ago, it would have been impossible to pay the mortgage. Today, that is the situation facing many young couples, who simply cannot afford to buy new homes.

The DUP’s Mr Jim Shannon spoke proudly about a builder in his area who was not prepared to sell to the highest bidder, but was interested in providing houses for his local community.

Dominic Bradley told us of the difficulties faced by first-time buyers in getting into the housing market.

This debate has united the House; we are all aware of the seriousness of the affordability issue, and of the great need for social housing.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 am, 15th January 2007

I agree with Mr Burns that the debate has been an important one. Will he accept that the situation requires a response that is not only strategic, but comprehensive in all its aspects? I note that the amendment ties us into one particular strategic approach to the unmet need, which is the renewal of vacant properties. Many of us who represent rural areas could argue that there are other important aspects, such as additional investment in new housing stock; in housing replacement and renovation; and home repair assistance grants, etc. The strategic response must be a comprehensive one that embraces many other facets as well as vacant properties, important as that is.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank my colleague Patsy McGlone for his timely intervention. I support the motion.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

Times New Roman'; font-size:9.0pt; ">That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the affordable housing crisis; notes the deliberations by the committee chaired by Sir John Semple; and demands that any new Executive make affordable housing an urgent Government priority.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Speaker

I shall give Members a few moments, after which we will move to the motion on rural schools.