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Social Housing

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 21st April 2009.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 21st April 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes, with concern, the Department for Social Development’s recent priority change which gives greater emphasis to the refurbishment of social housing, as opposed to redevelopment; further notes the huge detrimental effect this will have on the most vulnerable people in our society; and calls on the Minister to provide social homes fit for the twenty-first century throughout Northern Ireland.

I believe that this issue ranges somewhat further than social housing, so I will spend the first couple of minutes explaining the context of the motion.

A number of weeks ago, the DUP tabled a motion on the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2009, and its members praised their Minister for bringing forward proposals to freeze rates for the next three years. However, there was no mention of the people who are so poor that they do not need to pay rates: the working poor, near-benefit level families, pensioners and people on disability living allowance. I was never taken with that scheme, which basically uses pensioners to subsidise multimillionaires. Nevertheless, the movers of the motion identified what the Executive were doing for the community — not for the whole of it but for part of it.

I will now talk for a few moments about what the Executive are doing for people who do not pay rates, because they are socially and economically deprived; in other words, the poor. The Executive identified a number of targets in the Programme for Government to deal specifically with poverty: severe child poverty was to be halved by 2010; child poverty was to be eliminated by 2020; and pensioner poverty was to be dealt with over the incoming years. That is all drivel.

The number of children living in severe poverty is rising, the number of children living in poverty is rising, and the number of pensioners living in poverty is rising. On average, 70% of boys who are eligible for free school meals leave school with five GCSEs or less. We spend day after day arguing about academic selection — and we did it again today — but there has never been a debate about children who are marginalised in schools and who have been failed by the education system.

More than 1,000 people die every year from cold-related illnesses; in other words, they freeze to death. However, the Executive cut the warm homes scheme, and they are spending less on warm homes this year than they did last year.

We were told in the Programme for Government that 1,500 new social and affordable homes were going to be built. A number of weeks ago, the Minister corrected me to tell me that we did not need 2,500 new homes, as I had said, but that we needed 3,000 new social homes.

Photo of Adrian McQuillan Adrian McQuillan DUP 2:30 pm, 21st April 2009

Does the Member realise that his party has two Ministers on the Executive? What are they doing to uphold what he is saying?

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

If the Member was interested in people who are living in poverty, he would challenge his Ministers to see what they are doing for those people; however, he is indulging in point scoring. People in our community are living in poverty. This is about point scoring, not about facing the issues.

We were told that we needed 2,500 new social homes, and the Minister told me that we needed 3,000 new social homes to meet the need. We are now in an economic crisis, and those numbers are going to rise, so there will be more housing pressures and growing numbers of homeless people. That is what is going to happen, and the Executive are doing nothing for those people.

The point that I want to raise today relates to the issue of building new homes and refurbishing homes. I am old enough to remember the previous period of refurbishment in the 1970s and 1980s; instead of knocking down the slums in Belfast, the Housing Executive refurbished them. The slums that were refurbished in the 1970s and 1980s are the same slums that people are living in today. In the Woodvale area and the Shankill area, which the Minister visited, people are living in slums.

The Housing Executive carried out an economic appraisal, which concluded that those houses needed to be knocked down and rebuilt. However, the Department, together with the landlord in that area, has been dragging its feet for almost three years. Naturally, the landlord does not want to knock those houses down, as he will only be able to put back 40% of what he knocks down. Therefore, he wants to keep the slums up, with people in them, so that his revenue streams can continue.

Older people live in those homes who cannot climb the stairs. Therefore, they sleep, wash and toilet downstairs. Those are the conditions that we have in the twenty-first century in Belfast, and the Department, instead of knocking them down and building proper twenty-first century homes, wants to refurbish them.

An environmental architect now works in the Department for Social Development (DSD). That architect wants to retain some of those houses because of their environmental advantage, in some sense. Of course, he does not live in one of those houses; he probably lives in a £400,000 house elsewhere. No one will refurbish homes in the Woodvale area. The Department and the housing associations will knock those homes down and build proper twenty-first century homes for the people who live in that area.

The people who live in that area are not rich. Many of them are on benefits, and many are pensioners. However, those people deserve the same as everybody else in our society. This is not an Executive for the haves and not for the have-nots.

Members talk about social justice, but do nothing about it. I have said that before. Individuals and Back-Benchers must stand up and be counted on these issues. The people who we are talking about today do not have a voice and are dependent on those in this Chamber standing up and speaking on their behalf. We must break this politburo-type Executive.

People like Mr McQuillan talk about the fact that the UUP has two Ministers on the Executive. I do not care about how many Ministers the UUP has on the Executive. If it is wrong, it is wrong, and this is wrong. The reason why it is wrong and the reason why people like Mr McQuillan do not care about it is because those people are poor and come from a generation that is poor. However, the days of those people not having a voice in this Chamber are over. I am speaking to people here —

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

On the back of the issue of refurbishment versus newbuilds, there are elements that must be taken into consideration, particularly the recent decisions to cut multi-element replacements and maintenance. Does the Member agree with me that if those issues are not dealt with, more and more houses will fall into disrepair and will need more money spent on them in the long-term?

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

I thank the Member for his point. It was one of the issues that I missed, and I am sorry for that. Indeed, there are no cyclical maintenance schemes any longer. The warm homes scheme and disability adaptations have also gone. We may be getting 1,500 new homes, but we will not be getting any further maintenance or adaptations. That is the sort of society that we are living in.

In conclusion, there is a historical precedent for not carrying out refurbishments on homes. It is a waste of public money. It was a waste of public money 30 years ago and it is a waste of public money now. However, and more importantly, what one is left with is a tarted-up slum, not a lifetime home —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Bring your remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP

As far as those of us in the Chamber with a social conscience are concerned, the days of refurbishing slums are over.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

The Social Development Committee received a ministerial briefing on 26 March 2009, in which the Minister advised the Committee of the budget constraints that she faced and of the impact that they would have on housing-related maintenance and refurbishment programmes and the social housing development programme.

We are all aware that the funding of housing programmes was based on an expectation of significant capital receipts from house and land sales. The majority of the Committee agrees that the funding difficulties that those programmes now face are the inevitable consequence of the so-called credit crunch and the collapse in house and land values. The Minister has advised the Committee of her plans to deal with those difficulties.

The Committee understood that funding was to be concentrated on the delivery of the social housing development programme, with a view to achieving the relevant public service agreement (PSA) target to provide 10,000 social and affordable homes by 2013. In order for the Minister to live within her budget, she decided to cut back on maintenance and refurbishment programmes, such as the decent homes programmes.

The Committee welcomed the Minister’s decision to deliver on the social housing development programme in 2009-2010. Having said that, the Committee sought details of where houses are to be built or bought under that programme. The Committee is also seeking clarification on procurement issues that, it is understood, may affect the social housing development programme.

Needless to say, the Committee was greatly concerned about the impact on householders and contractors of the decision to reduce housing maintenance and refurbishment programmes. The Committee supports the view that all social housing should be fit for the twenty-first century and should be healthy homes that comply with the decent homes standard. Social homes should also be energy efficient to ensure that income-poor tenants are not also fuel poor.

Finally, the Committee believes that social homes should set a quality standard that the private-rented sector follows. In that way, it is hoped that the greater number of families and individuals who are dealing with homelessness or housing stress, or living in unfit accommodation, will experience the benefit of better housing.

The Committee has sought further information on how the Department will maintain stability between redevelopment projects and refurbishment and maintenance programmes. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomes the debate. The House should be aware that the Committee recognises the difficult decisions that the economic situation has thrust upon the Minister and the Executive as a whole.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I think that the Member will agree that, over the past two years, there have been lengthy debates in the Committee on social housing, and that questions have been asked. Councillor Cobain — rather, Assembly Member Mr Cobain; that was another of his hats — mentioned the situation in Woodvale. There are other areas throughout the North in which residents are pushing for old homes to be demolished and more modern ones to be built. However, does the Member agree that the present approach seems to favour refurbishment, which means that in 30 years’ time we will be back in the same situation?

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Yes, I understand where the Member is coming from. I agree that we do not want to be back in the same situation in 30 years’ time. We do not want to be in that situation in the first place, but, unfortunately, that is where we find ourselves.

The Committee is also concerned about changing priorities within the social housing programmes, and it awaits with interest the report on the housing conditions survey, which I understand is due to be published this May.

That report will allow the Committee to evaluate the impact of those changes. The Committee will scrutinise the Minister’s plans in the light of the survey and assure itself that all reasonable alternatives have been considered and that mitigating measures are employed to limit the impact that the changes will have on householders and the employers.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 21st April 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl do na Comhaltaí sin a thug an rún os comhair an Tionóil inniu.

I thank the Members who moved the motion. This issue goes to the heart of housing provision. Three weeks ago in the Chamber, my colleague Carál Ní Chuilín moved a motion on the redevelopment of a number of streets in north Belfast that are known locally as upper long streets. The houses in those streets have outlived their usefulness as units of accommodation by many years, and residents and tenants’ associations have campaigned actively to have them replaced with modern housing. I understand that the Minister has met representatives from the upper long streets in the past several days, and I hope that their representations and considerations are taken on board. Their campaign has been long, and we hope that their vision and dreams come true in the near future.

I spoke to one of the proposers of this motion when that debate took place, and I learned that he was concerned about the direction that the Minister and her Department were going in and the decisions that they were making. That direction and those decisions condemned residents to living in outdated accommodation. Her decision flies in the face of her recent assessment of the Village area of Belfast, when she rightly said that redevelopment was the only course of action. I commend those from the Village who fought a lengthy campaign to have their area redeveloped and the houses there replaced with decent housing. Perhaps the Minister will explain the difference between her stance on that area and her position on others.

I remember that some years ago I was involved in the campaign to have the Divis Flats complex demolished. I also remember the efforts of the Housing Executive to force refurbishment, rather than redevelopment, on residents. Residents resisted those efforts, just as they did in areas such as the Rossville Flats in Derry, the “Weetabix” flats in the Shankill, and the Unity Flats in Carrick Hill in Belfast.

One argument against refurbishment is its long-term cost. That is because it does not represent good value for money. In fact, the lifespan of a refurbished unit is only half that of a newbuild house. There is clear evidence of that in my own area of the Falls. Two old streets were totally rehabilitated over 20 years ago, but they are now in need of major works again. That calls into question how the Department for Social Development’s housing policy and budget are operating, particularly when one takes into account the recent decision to cease multi-element housing-improvement schemes, including work on kitchens and other replacements. The decision to not allocate money to such schemes will cost more in the long run when continued deterioration has an impact on other parts of those houses.

Not only could that freeze put 1,000 people on the dole, but much of the work that was to be carried out in that sector was being done for health and safety reasons. I question whether the Minister is taking that fact into consideration when she makes decisions that will have an impact on the health and well-being of many tenants.

Will her decisions on those issues start to erode the good work that has been done over the years in creating decent house standards and energy efficiency? What will be the cost of picking up the pieces here? The Minister said that social housing newbuild is her number one priority. If that is the case, why does she insist on refurbishing outdated housing over constructing newbuilds?

Sinn Féin has always argued that more resources are required to address the serious shortage in social housing, but we also believe that the direction that the Minister has taken — which has caused many schemes to be delayed or suspended — is storing up trouble for the future. She refers constantly to newbuild social housing and to putting the construction industry back to work, but she then buys houses on the open market and buys apartments from developers who have difficulty selling them. That was demonstrated when the site of the Curzon cinema on the Ormeau Road was purchased — that matter was mentioned in the media recently. Was that cost-effective? Did it provide the type of family accommodation that is required for the area, or could the money have been better used to redevelop those areas to which the motion refers? Perhaps the Minister will explain that situation to the House.

Many of the areas that ask to be redeveloped do not make the decision to do so lightly. It is usually when an area has been neglected over many years and has fallen into decline that people ask that demolition and redevelopment be considered. In all instances of redevelopment that involve inner-city areas, many of the places to be redeveloped are socially deprived. It is of prime importance that the wishes of residents and their representatives are taken into consideration. We need to communicate with those residents, rather than telling them that we know what is best for them.

We should listen to their concerns and ideas for the future because, after all, many of them have invested a lifetime in their areas and have a good understanding of the type of housing and infrastructure that is required and that many of us take for granted. Ultimately, we have a responsibility to provide the type of housing that people require, and that is what we must do.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member should draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I am finishing off now. We should not be persuaded into taking what is on the developers’ shelves, and then have to spend more money trying to make those fit the requirements of the waiting list. Ultimately, if housing is of poor standard, it is impractical to refurbish it.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I support the motion.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree that we must provide social housing that is fit for the twenty-first century: no one disputes that that is what everyone wants to see. People have the right to have a roof over their heads, no matter who they are or where they are from. However, the motion seems to suggest that the Minister does not want to demolish old houses, redevelop rundown areas or build new homes and that she prefers to give a few houses a coat of paint. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The motion also states that the Minister is getting her priorities wrong and has made bad choices. That is totally untrue. The motion, as it stands, misses the point. I make that very clear. The Department for Social Development does not have enough money to do what needs to be done. The Minister is doing her best to make savings within her budget, but the fact is that, for the most part, the DSD is a spending Department. More money must be found for the DSD budget. I do not mean that the Minister should wait for a few handouts from the monitoring rounds; I mean that there must be a review of the entire Budget and of the Programme for Government — and I am sure that I do not have to dwell on that subject too much.

I am not trying to blame the Finance Minister for the global economic downturn. In fact, he is probably feeling the pressure most within his Department. However, the DSD will face a £100 million shortfall this year and a £100 million shortfall next year, mainly due to the collapse of land and property sales. There is no way that the Minister for Social Development will be able to make up that shortfall on her own. If the Finance Minister does not come up with more money, very tough choices will have to be made. A £100 million shortfall could mean that thousands of planned new homes will not be built and that badly-needed redevelopment and regeneration will not take place in some areas.

In addition to cutbacks in newbuild and redevelopment, what other cutbacks might be required? Will we have to cut back on the co-ownership scheme, the warm homes scheme and the mortgage rescue scheme as well? If we are serious about hitting the Programme for Government’s targets, the DSD must have more resources.

Although we all know this, I will repeat it anyway — building new social housing and repairing existing houses not only helps people in housing stress and homelessness but is by far the best way that the Assembly can help the construction industry and give the local economy a boost. The Minister should not be asked to choose which policy to implement; she needs enough money to implement them all.

The Assembly and the Executive must see that there is a black hole in the housing budget, and something must be done about it quickly; it cannot be ignored.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

The Alliance Party supports the motion, because there is nothing in it with which we profoundly disagree. However, we would like to hear more about some aspects of the motion, if the opportunity arises. We think that the clash between redevelopment and refurbishment depends significantly on local circumstances.

We want the Minister to provide social housing that is fit for the twenty-first century, as the motion requests. However, it would be a major surprise to me if that was not her plan. The Alliance Party does not accept that refurbishment will have a detrimental effect on the most vulnerable in our society. Surely, that depends on circumstances. Housing is not only about the present; the future sustainability of housing is another major issue.

We cannot escape the implications of the Budget. Although a higher budget allocation would enable her to pursue redevelopment rather than refurbishment in more cases, the Minister must operate within her allocation.

To achieve a higher allocation now, the Alliance Party has stated on more than one occasion that it would raise more revenue from the public to invest in public services. That could be done by raising rates in line with inflation and not running with the £400,000 rates cap, for example. We have also stated frequently that we would make our case for funding to the Treasury by accepting a need to cut the cost of division over the current Assembly term. That would include making some hard decisions on such issues as the closure of leisure centres, the amalgamation of schools and the shifting of funding from urban roads and into public transport.

The electorate may judge whether it wishes to invest in public services now or accept underinvestment alongside low rates, but one cannot have both. The other parties continue to advocate more spending, but they continue to fail to explain from where the money for that would come.

Not everyone is convinced by the neighbourhood renewal concept. It is, undoubtedly, well intentioned, but it seems to be a policy that has been transferred from England and that will not necessarily work in all of our local circumstances.

Part of the argument for neighbourhood renewal and for opting for increased refurbishment over redevelopment is that it helps to preserve the identity of local communities. However, it is noted also that it saves money. Ultimately, refurbishment is often used as a cost-cutting measure — that is implied in the motion, and we agree with that being done in many cases.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I accept the Member’s comment about maintaining the coherence of local communities. I am sure that he will agree that that can also be achieved by the careful decant and relocation of residents during rebuild programmes. That has been done — albeit with more success in some situations than in others — and should be a top priority when those issues are being considered.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I do not disagree with that. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue; every case is different. However, there are undoubtedly cases when refurbishment is not only the cheaper option, but the better option. There are parts of Northern Ireland where the character of an area very much exists in its heritage, and it is in such instances where the people who live in an area do not realise what they have until it is gone.

The preference for redevelopment should not be seen as universal. It is possible to refurbish properties in such a way as to make them fuel and carbon efficient.

I would like clarity on the “huge detrimental effect” that is mentioned in the motion; however, I see that the proposer of the motion has left the Chamber. It is assumed that those words apply to vulnerable people. There will always be cases in which a whole area can be regenerated — partly through redevelopment and partly through refurbishment. It may be that that requires strong community leadership that is able to explain why refurbishment is acceptable for some properties and redevelopment is suitable for others.

The Alliance Party will support the motion; we will live with it. We would like to hear a lot more about the universal detrimental effect on vulnerable people and about how the proposers of the motion intend to finance the redevelopment that they are calling for. Although we welcome the issue being raised, we would have preferred a motion that does justice to the complexities of how social housing priorities should be reformed within current budgets.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 3:00 pm, 21st April 2009

Everyone in the Chamber is well aware of the issue of social housing; it is not the first time that the topic has been debated. I spoke before of the fact that some 3,000 people in Ards are on the waiting list for social housing, 900 of whom, in the town itself, are in priority need. Need will not be met simply by renovating existing buildings, although that is still necessary, but by investing in long-term solutions, and the Minister knows that.

The Minister attended a sod-cutting ceremony at a social housing development on the Donaghadee Road in Newtownards in January. That development consists of 40 units and will take a number of people in the Ards area off what are extremely long waiting lists. As the Minister and I know, what makes that development even more special is the fact that Sky Developments, the company responsible, has ensured that the units will be carbon-neutral. Therefore, that company is doing its part to provide homes and to help the environment. Energy saving, which is part of the issue, is involved. Legislation that is in place puts us ahead of many other EU countries, and such developments point to the fact that we in the Province are aware of our environmental responsibilities and try to face up to them.

The homes are designed to perfection, and, although it was a long time coming, the sod-cutting was certainly worth the wait. The benefits are there for many to see, and they will be realised through the allocation of the properties later this year. Sky Developments has a reputation for building superior housing at affordable costs. Through its work, we can see that houses that save energy can be built keenly, and that is something that the Minister should be promoting. More such housing would lead to a reduction in waiting lists in that area, and that could be replicated everywhere else. The desire and the need is there, and companies such as Sky Developments have the know-how and the ability to produce superior, environmentally friendly housing at affordable rates, and the Minister must tap into that market.

Las week A wus aa a plennin maetin aa Airds Cooncil where thair wur 38 options tae pit aff oan the schedule – monie o’ thaim wur plens fer hoosin schemes at wur provisionally mairked fer social hoosin – hits gyely important at the Meenester’s Depairtment waarks wi’ the Plennin Service fer tae mak siccar at social developments ir gien aa needfu’ hefts tae mak’ siccar at the plens ir wi’ in what bes acceptable tae the Plennin Service an’ at they ir passed.

Last week, wearing my councillor hat, I attended a planning meeting. The schedule for the meeting had 38 options to defer, which was the largest number for a long time. Many of those options involved plans for housing developments that were provisionally marked for social housing. It is of great importance that the Minister’s Department liaise with the Planning Service to ensure that social developments are given all the necessary help to ensure that the plans are acceptable and that they are passed.

A large amount of the work that is handled in my office concerns the Housing Executive. In my area, some families have waited for years to be housed, and there is no hope of that happening in the current climate. Others are in homes that are badly in need of upgrading, and I understand that the Minister is trying to deal with those issues. Those people cannot afford mortgages or private rental taxes. On their behalf, I ask that the Minister ensure that newbuilds become a priority.

I also want to comment about extensions for people with disabilities. I was in touch this morning with the Housing Executive grants office in Dundonald, which covers Ards, north Down and Castlereagh. I was informed that that office has been unable to pay for any of the extensions that have been completed for people with disabilities. Some 60 such extensions are on the books, and the office has no idea of what to do. There is a meeting tomorrow, so perhaps the Minister can tell us whether it will result in that money being made available so that grants for those extensions can be paid out, allowing the scheme to continue.

I have questioned the Minister on many occasions about funding for grants for extensions for people with disabilities. It is now becoming clear that new methods can be used to resolve such issues. A good method is the pod scheme, which is a ready-made extension that can be attached in two parts. It takes three weeks to complete, instead of the normal 12 weeks. That scheme demonstrates that other ways of producing extensions at a suitable price are available.

The Minister has other options, and she must look at them. This is a serious issue and one that will not be resolved without serious consideration. The Minister must ensure that homes are built and that everyone is looked after. She has a budget, and she must do the job.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Although Fred Cobain is not in the Chamber, I thank the proposers for tabling the motion. Fra McCann has already mentioned and the Minister already knows that Gerry Kelly and I met two residents groups here yesterday. Refurbishment and redevelopment are needed in those areas.

Trevor Lunn referred to preserving the identity of local communities. There are a lot of Victorian properties in North Belfast. In the past, it was often the community and the tenants who fought to preserve the character of some of those old houses and buildings. However, in this case and in many other cases, we are talking about houses that are over 150 years old. They were refurbished in the 1970s, and that refurbishment was meant to last for 20 years. However, matters have moved beyond that. We are talking about quality-of-life issues, rather than maintaining the Victorian character of a street. Mr Lunn took an intervention from his colleague that clarified that issue. Quality of life is the main concern. The motion deals with the social-justice issue of ensuring that those in need of social housing are placed in homes that are fit for purpose and fit for the twenty-first century.

The other important aspect that needs to be clarified by the Minister is the confusion around special adaptations for vulnerable tenants and people with disabilities. Jim Shannon referred to that matter. I understood that those adaptations would be honoured and that outstanding contracts would be carried through. The issue was raised in the Committee for Social Development and, perhaps when the Minister is replying to the debate, she will clarify the situation.

Thomas Burns referred to the Minister building brand new homes, as opposed to bland homes. I think that the Minister would take exception to that. However, I understand that he was talking about trying to boost the construction industry.

Small and medium-sized enterprises have hardly been mentioned — the small contractors whose livelihoods depend on Housing Executive contracts to maintain and repair houses. Those contracts will go, and that is hugely disappointing. That should be resisted, and all MLAs should make more of that issue. We are talking about small businesses that have been at the heart of communities, although very few are taking on apprenticeships.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Does the Member agree that part of the problem is that many of those small developers diversified from building houses to building extensions for disabled people to keep themselves going through this lean time? The key issue is the importance of the flow of money.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

That is a key issue. Fra McCann said that, if there were no maintenance and repair programmes, houses would eventually fall into even greater disrepair and we would be left with a bigger bill. Setting aside the issue of money, it is not just the bill at the end; it is the quality of life for the people who have to live in the houses. If repairs are not carried through, we will not nudge but push more people into fuel poverty, and that is a big concern.

There can be no contradiction of the fact that there is a connection between poor housing and ill health, poverty and inequality; those factors are all interlinked, and that is no accident. Most members of the Committee for Social Development have raised that issue on various occasions, especially during our inquiry into poverty.

All Members will acknowledge that the Minister has inherited a Department that has seen underinvestment and one that has not done much for social housing. However, the Minister now has responsibility, and she must meet the challenge of ensuring that social homes are built, that houses are maintained and repaired and that they are suitable for the twenty-first century. That is why I struggle to understand the Minister’s actions. She said:

“give me the money, and I will build the houses.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 22, p134, col 1].

We gave her the money, and she handed £90 million back. That is a circle that cannot be squared. The money was surrendered.

As Fred Cobain said, this issue is all about people who cannot speak for themselves. It is about people who live in poor housing in some of the most deprived communities in our constituencies, and we need to stand up for them. If we cannot provide people with housing that is fit for the twenty-first century, we are relegating those people and creating a legacy of poor housing, poor health and poverty. That is a legacy that I am not prepared to carry for Margaret Ritchie — or any other Minister, for that matter. I thank Fred Cobain and Billy Armstrong for tabling the motion, and I support it.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I will not rehearse the reasons why social housing is important, but there are some interesting statistics that I will outline. For example, there are 38,000 households on the waiting list, 20,000 of which are in urgent need of housing and 7,500 of which are classed as homeless. That tells us everything that we need to know about social housing — a huge demand for it exists.

Until the recent credit crunch or economic crash — whatever one chooses to call it — house prices here were among the fastest rising in the whole of the UK. Speculators were buying up land left, right and centre, and housing associations could not afford to buy it. That situation has completely turned around since the crash. However, that change has brought equal pressures to bear. There is now huge pressure on Government spending, and sales of existing Housing Executive houses have also crashed, as people face the twofold pressures of difficulties in obtaining mortgages and, due to job uncertainties, a lack of cash to spend on purchasing homes. That has led to huge difficulties for the Housing Executive, as a whole income stream has disappeared off the radar almost overnight.

A large portion of that income was being used for maintenance. There is a hole in the budget and there is no point in sitting here and denying it; it exists, and we must re-profile Government expenditure to allow for it.

The economic crash has unexpectedly brought some strange opportunities. Land prices are at an all-time low, and now is the perfect time for housing associations to purchase land, even if only to bank it for the future development of social housing.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

The issue of land has been raised in the Social Development Committee a number of times. Committee members have asked about whether, rather than buying more land, the Department could build houses on strategically placed land that is owned by the Department or the Housing Executive. That would certainly have a great impact on the price of each unit built.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

The Member has raised an important point. Do all Government offices own land that could be used for building social housing? I do not know the answer to that on a Province-wide basis. I know that in my constituency there is, unfortunately, no such land. That has been a massive issue for the past five to seven years. That is why the opportunities for housing associations to purchase new land are so important in my constituency.

Other issues exist as a result of the huge downturn in the market. All of a sudden, developers are falling over themselves to build social housing. In fact, they are trying very hard to offload their existing housing stock as social housing. Some of that housing is suitable, and some of it is not. However, those are huge opportunities for social housing that have been brought about by the economic downturn, and the Department ought to cash in on them.

However, there are huge challenges ahead. How do we fund all of this? Do we refurbish or rebuild? That is not a terribly important question. I welcome the fact that we are debating social housing, but the thought occurred to me that a house has to be brought up to the latest building specifications and regulations, regardless of whether it is refurbished or rebuilt. That mechanism will take care of a lot of the fuel poverty issues anyway.

It is an interesting debate, and only the Minister can answer the question of how we move forward with a restricted Budget and meet the social housing targets that were agreed by this Government and — let us face it — this House.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP 3:15 pm, 21st April 2009

The motion addresses issues surrounding how our regional Government and we as a society help the most socially deprived people. The Ulster Unionist Party is dedicated to helping people from socially deprived backgrounds and ensuring that they are given the opportunities and capabilities to improve their situations. The current economic climate shows that circumstances can lead people into poverty and deprivation. Unfortunately, it can often be very difficult for people to get out of that situation.

There are areas in Northern Ireland with cycles of deprivation, and we must work together to break those cycles. This morning, we heard how educational underachievement can create a cycle of underachievement. Similarly, cycles of people living in unfit accommodation can have an impact on families’ ability to get out of poverty. The Ulster Unionist Party recognises that there are arguments for refurbishing houses which take into consideration sustainability and heritage issues. However, there are many houses in Northern Ireland that are not fit for purpose.

Our roads have many potholes and are in a desperate situation, and, just as we need new roads, we need new houses. Furthermore, we must look at the heritage that our parents left for us. If they had merely repaired old houses, we would not have been left with the good houses that we have today. Regardless of how much refurbishment they receive, some houses are too old and are inappropriate for families to live in in the twenty-first century — they are not fit for purpose. The situation in many areas of Northern Ireland is acute, and we can no longer ignore the plight being endured by too many families.

I recognise that the Minister for Social Development is facing a very difficult Budget position. However, in the face of that pressure, we must not revert to policies that will potentially fail the people who are most in need of our help. Northern Ireland has some of the most socially deprived areas in western Europe, which is a statistic that we should no longer accept. Adequate and appropriate housing is crucial to regenerating deprived areas. I urge the Minister not to revert to the wrong policies as the financial pressures increase, because that approach could be more expensive in the long run.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

As an SDLP Member, I welcome today’s debate. The people here are committed and passionate about social housing, because we all represent many constituents who have a high dependency on it. As other Members have said, the Minister who is responsible for social housing has a poisoned chalice at times of crisis and when, as Jonathan Craig said, the Budget is so restricted. However, a lot of those comments do not reflect the terminology of the motion.

The SDLP cannot support the motion, because it is based on three inaccurate assumptions. Number one: the SDLP does not accept that there has been a “priority change” with respect to demolition and newbuild versus refurbishment. Number two: the motion assumes that redevelopment is always a better option than refurbish­ment, but we all know that, in real life, it depends. Number three: the SDLP also takes issue with the motion’s implication that the Minister is not providing social homes that are fit for the twenty-first century throughout Northern Ireland. I will talk about those assumptions for a few moments.

First, it is the SDLP’s understanding that there has been no change in policy or priority with respect to newbuild housing or refurbishment. There is, however, as many Members have said, a major hole in the Budget, caused by the collapse of the housing market. That means that people are not purchasing their Housing Executive properties as they did previously. As a result, Housing Executive revenue was down £80 million last year. That is a serious amount of money that the Minister could have spent on modernisation and refurbishment. Revenue will fall by a further £100 million in the next two years. Given those circumstances, which affect other Departments as well, one might have expected that there would have been a new Budget or, as was said by a Member on the DUP Benches, a “re-profiling” of the existing Budget and a re-profiling of the Programme for Government and a new investment strategy. The SDLP has been making those points for months.

On the second point, the SDLP is concerned at the assumption that redevelopment is better than refurbish­ment. Is it always better from social, economic and environmental points of view? The answer to that question is that it depends on circumstances and on what the people in those areas want.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

The Member has misinterpreted something that I said earlier, and I would not like the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give me a clip round the earhole outside the Chamber. [Laughter].

I said that we might need to re-profile the Minister for Social Development’s budget. Whether we have to re-profile the entire Government’s Budget to readdress the issue is something that only the Executive can decide. It is not something on which I would dare to comment. They have the wisdom to make up their own minds on that. However, as Mr Lunn said earlier, we need to look closely at how we should re-profile the DSD budget. That is what I was getting at.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I accept the Member’s point, although I clearly understood that he called for re-profiling. Anyway, that is beside the point.

From a social point of view, redevelopment can mean the break-up of communities and friendships. From an environmental point of view, one must take into account many factors, including the embedded energy content of an existing home; the energy savings that can be provided through refurbishment and retrofitting; and the energy consumed during refurbishment. Those considerations must be set against the energy used in demolition and in producing building materials in new development. Of course, there is also a consideration of cost: which gives better housing return per pound spent, retrofitting or redevelopment? All those considerations are complex. As Trevor Lunn said, the complexity of housing is immense because it affects people in so many different ways. The decision on whether to refurbish or redevelop needs careful, case-by-case consideration, especially when money is so limited.

The third point is the quality of new homes. I have seen newbuilds being constructed. They are built to a very high specification as regards quality, energy conservation and micro-generation. They are probably of a higher specification in building quality than most private-sector homes built across Northern Ireland at present. The Minister provides very high-quality newbuild homes in Northern Ireland and squeezes every pound that she can out of her budget.

As to the economy, there is no doubt that refurbishments, newbuilds and rebuilds can create employment in dire circumstances, when unemployment is high. At the same time, it creates long-term, high-quality housing infrastructure. However, for the Minister to do that, she clearly needs more money. That will require a new Budget, a new Programme for Government and a new investment strategy. I ask why the DUP and Sinn Féin are so opposed to doing that, but the answer is no great mystery.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

There is no doubt that social housing is one of the most critical issues in Northern Ireland today. The Housing Executive acknowledges that in the ‘Northern Ireland Housing Market: Review and Perspectives 2009-2012’, in which it states that:

“there is an annual requirement for … 3,000 additional new social dwellings … to meet both ongoing need and address the substantial backlog which has arisen since 2001.”

Those words show just how great the need for additional homes — I stress the word “additional” — is in Northern Ireland today.

The best way to address that backlog is through a combination of newbuilds and redevelopment. Refurbishment is not the entire solution, but it does, to a lesser extent, play an important role. The Minister’s Department has placed a great deal of emphasis on the receipt of house and land sales in order to increase her Department’s spending power. We must learn that those receipts cannot be a dependable source of cash flow in future. However, we must deal with the need of today. The motion calls for more emphasis to be placed on the redevelopment of our housing stock. Without that emphasis, I cannot see the Housing Executive being able to make the necessary moves forward to provide housing stock.

I am sure that every MLA has had the same experience as I have in dealing daily with constituents who require housing. Too often, I have had to inform constituents that, because the waiting lists are so long, the prospect of their acquiring accommodation is remote. Too often, I have had requests for help owing to difficulties with what is, thankfully, a very small number of private landlords. It is true, as the motion states, that those same constituents make up what could be termed vulnerable groups. As a matter of urgency, the Minister must seek solutions to the social housing problems. I support the motion.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Assembly has expressed its commitment to supporting the Minister in her endeavours to tackle the shortfall in social housing. That shortfall is one of the many legacy issues that the Assembly and its Executive have inherited. We should recognise that, in the past financial year, substantial additional finance was allocated during the in-year monitoring rounds, and I expect — indeed, I hope — that that will continue. Improving the standard of the existing housing stock is a related issue, and it calls for massive expenditure from the Minister and the Housing Executive. Even in the best of circumstances, those would be very difficult issues to resolve.

Members referred today to the fact that, in many debates, the Minister has pointed out that, even with the incremental additions gained through the monitoring process, her budget does not and cannot stretch to meet her targets as set out in the new housing agenda. The explanations for that should be considered objectively. It is neither reasonable nor sensible to blame the Minister for the collapse in the housing market, the credit crunch, the collapse in the sales of Housing Executive properties, which have sunk to such negligible levels, or the wider issue of the collapse of land and property values, which has impacted on the receipt of surplus asset projections.

As has been said repeatedly, social housing is a priority for all the parties. Given the current financial and economic realities, it is one sector in which last year’s aspirations and targets are unlikely to be met. An ultimately sterile blame game could emerge as one, perhaps predictable, response to the difficulties. However, the people who are in need of housing and the people who are affected by the related crisis in the construction trades are entitled to a measured and strategic response from the Assembly to those challenges.

The motion addresses a concern around the Minister’s approach to the financial and economic realities — realities that, I think, cannot be denied. As I said, she did not create those realities, but they have an impact on her ability and that of other spending Ministries to deliver on the Programme for Government targets.

I support the motion; however, I do so to be constructive. The Minister is entitled to our critical support in dealing with a very challenging brief and Ministry. Therefore, I urge her to consider how best we can maximise the value-for-money aspect of what are very finite resources under tremendous pressure. That might be the concern behind the motion, and that was reflected in some Members’ comments. I do not agree with all the comments that were made, but a thread of concern ran through them that the Minister and perhaps the Assembly are not responding to the crisis in the most appropriate fashion.

There is an inextricable link between the difficulties in the housing sector and the provision of new social housing stock. It is an absolute requirement, as far as we can afford it, to deal with the existing and growing waiting list. The modernisation or redevelopment of existing housing stock is also a priority, as is the refurbishment of social housing stock where appropriate.

All that costs money, and while factoring those arguments into the financial equation, we should also factor in the direct benefit to economic well-being. The issue has cross-departmental implications, which have been absent from the debate. I describe it as an investment in recovery, and we must familiarise public opinion with the direct benefits to the economy of maintaining in employment those in the construction industry and allied associated trades. If those two issues were linked, perhaps people could see the opportunity for a more collaborative and supportive approach. That is a win-win scenario.

I commend the motion, and I commend some new and strategic thinking in addressing the problems. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:30 pm, 21st April 2009

I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. I welcome the opportunity to respond to each of the contributions, not least because it gives me the opportunity to clarify and correct some of the issues that were raised. I shall try to address all the questions and points that Members raised, and I assure the House that I will study the Hansard report and write directly to any Member who raised an issue that is not covered in my response.

The motion refers to a “recent priority change” in my Department that favours refurbishment over redevelopment. I must admit that I was not aware of that change, and I thank the Members for bringing that phenomenon to my attention. It is, of course, a nonsense. There has been no priority change or policy shift. From my first day in office, my priority has been to address housing need wherever that need exists. I have already brought forward change that will deliver the most modern social housing ever seen here, and I have re-prioritised my budget to ensure that we provide housing solutions that support those in greatest housing need.

However, it is too simple to say that, in meeting that need, we must adopt a singular approach. That is my fundamental difficulty with the motion, which suggests that redevelopment is the only answer to the housing problems that afflict many communities. That suggests that our only option is to demolish old homes and build new ones. Everyone knows that, when one demolishes, one can put back only a proportion of what was taken away.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

Let me continue.

At a time of record long waiting lists and record high housing stress, I wish to increase the supply of housing across the North. Therefore, I will not sign off automatically on demolition orders simply because it is convenient to do so. Houses should be demolished only if they are no longer fit to live in and cannot be brought back into use. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case, and demolition has often been sought without proper consideration of alternatives through refurbishment and regeneration.

Recently, I met representatives from the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, and I was impressed with what they had to say about the restoration and retrofitting of existing homes. In January 2009, the Government launched a retrofit for the future competition, which is specifically aimed at improving energy efficiency and the environmental performance of the housing stock. In fact, a conference on that very subject will be held in Belfast in May 2009. We must not close our minds to the new opportunities that it might bring.

Fred Cobain — who, I note, is no longer in his place — is supposed to be the demolition and newbuild enthusiast. I ask him whether he recognises the expression:

“It is old but it is beautiful”.

Members will be aware that refurbishment is often dismissed as being a sticking-plaster solution that buys only a short-term reprieve from the inevitability of demolition. That is not necessarily the case. There can be significant refurbishment that is more akin to rebuilding, such as when external facades are maintained, but all internal structures are restored and replaced. In such a scenario, three old houses can become two new houses, and their historic appearance is retained, which is not a sticking-plaster solution. That has yet to be tried in Northern Ireland, and I am minded to pilot it in a suitable area.

I also recognise, however, that full-scale redevelopment is often the only realistic way forward, and, in some cases, that involves total demolition. Usually, redevelopment involves a combination of demolition and refurbishment. The motion fails to recognise that it is not simply a case of redevelopment or refurbishment, because one can complement the other.

I refer Fra McCann to what is happening in the Village area of south Belfast. Plans there include proposals to demolish 580 homes, refurbish a further 730 and put back 270 new homes. That is a perfect example of how refurbishment and redevelopment can be delivered side by side.

There are also plans to refurbish the seven tower blocks that are known as the “Carlisle multi-storeys” in the north of the city. Plans there will certainly not all involve the demolition and redevelopment of those seven blocks. I fail to see how the refurbishment of those seven blocks will have a huge detrimental effect on tenants who live there. Perhaps the Members who proposed the motion will clarify that matter.

We must also listen carefully to people who live in communities where major improvement works are planned. We must ensure that the proposed work will support and develop those communities rather than disperse and break them up. We must examine the long-term benefits and sustainability of our work. There can be no doubt that better housing leads to better communities. We must not lose sight of the wider benefits that our intervention can bring about, particularly in many of those areas that already suffer from high levels of poverty and social exclusion.

Setting aside the debate on refurbishment versus redevelopment, I think that Members need to be aware that the resources that I need to deliver those improve­ments are simply not available at present. Currently, there are 15 separate economic appraisals with my Department, each of which seeks approval to deliver a wide variety of work throughout those areas, many of which have been mentioned during the debate: for example, Tigers Bay, which was mentioned by Mr Cobain. Only a few weeks ago in the Chamber, the Assembly debated plans to improve the housing stock in the upper long streets.

The combined cost of all those improvements is over £125 million and is, undoubtedly, rising. I understand that more economic appraisals are heading my way. Members will, by now, be aware that, because of the collapse of the land and property market, the DSD budget had a shortfall of £80 million in 2008 and faces a further shortfall of £100 million in 2009 and 2010. That has created huge pressures in the housing budget, which Members must recognise will impact directly on many of those proposed improvement plans.

I am not sure that people have got their heads around the housing budget shortfall. Even if we play with newbuild targets and squeeze maintenance budgets, little money will be left to fund redevelopment. Furthermore, people need to get real about the unit costs associated with some redevelopment proposals that come my way. I can build three, or, perhaps, four, newbuild homes on a greenfield site for the cost of a single home in some of the north Belfast redevelopments that have been recommended to me. That factor alone — and I recognise that there are many others — brings the Girdwood Barracks site increasingly into focus as part of the overall solution in lower north Belfast.

During the economic downturn, we have a wonderful opportunity to support the local economy and, at the same time, address housing need by funding a programme of improvements to our housing stock. I have made that case to my ministerial colleagues, and I welcome Members’ words of support today. I heard the comments of Jonathan Craig and Mitchel McLaughlin and those of my party colleagues Pat Ramsey and Thomas Burns. Without funding, the whole debate on refurbishment and redevelopment is, in many respects, meaningless.

Mr Cobain and Mr McCann mentioned the warm homes scheme, disability adaptations and multi-element improvement schemes. This year, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will have over £140 million available for maintenance, improvement and refurbishment programmes. Moreover, the warm homes scheme has not been stopped. Anybody who makes that assertion is wrong.

Mr Cobain referred to the environmental architect —

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will continue, because I have started. The Member was not present at the beginning of my response and missed most of the contributions.

DSD has no environmental architect. The Department receives professional and technical advice from Department of Finance and Personnel colleagues from the Central Procurement Directorate. David Simpson referred to energy-efficient homes. The new housing agenda introduced the most environmentally friendly housing ever built in the social sector. Code 3 sustainable homes are now 25% more energy efficient than ever before. That links clearly with my work on fuel poverty.

I want to re-emphasise that the Village is in line for refurbishment and redevelopment. As I said earlier, Mr McCann seems to miss that point. I want to make it clear that I support redevelopment and refurbishment wherever that meets the need. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Trevor Lunn highlighted the debate about refurbishment versus redevelopment, and he wanted to hear more about that matter. I agree entirely with Pat Ramsey; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We must assess each scheme on its own local merits. The motion is fundamentally flawed, because it does not allow for local solutions to local housing problems.

Jim Shannon and Carál Ní Chuilín referred to disabled grant extensions. Yet again, the Housing Executive has been given its budget, and it must prioritise how it will be spent. Disabled facilities grants are awarded on a statutory basis, and, if the applicant meets the criteria, the Housing Executive will have to consider how to meet that need within its budget. I have not stopped those grants.

Other Members mentioned reprofiling the budget. I agree with Mitchel McLaughlin; we must do our best with what we have. However, I currently have a significant amount of economic appraisals before me at a cost of £350,000 per unit. If we demolish and build new homes, I will be confronted with those costs, which, given my budget, are simply too high at the minute.

The wording of the motion is unfortunate. There has been no policy change. In fact, I do not think that there is any disagreement between the Members who have expressed their views today and me. I will support demolition and redevelopment when that is the best way forward. Equally, I will support refurbishment when that is the best way forward. Each set of proposals must be assessed on its merits, and we should not be constrained by a one-size-fits-all approach.

I am proud that social housing across Northern Ireland today is among the best in these islands. I pay tribute to those who have worked tirelessly over many years to raise standards. Of course, there is still much more to do. If the resources are available to me, I will invest them wisely in the sort of improvement programmes we have discussed here today. I am already committed to delivering the most modern social housing ever built here, and to meeting the needs of those in greatest housing need. I will not rule anything out in my desire to deliver on that.

However, there is an argument to be won about putting housing on a proper financial footing, and I hope that the proposers of the motion, when winding up the debate, will recognise that housing redevelopment does not lend itself to quick-fix solutions or ill-tempered slogans. A mature discussion is required; one that is grounded in the reality of our financial situation. I look forward to the support of every Member in the House, and every Minister around the Executive table, to put housing on a sound financial footing once and for all.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP 3:45 pm, 21st April 2009

It has been an interesting and useful debate — although the Minister may not entirely share that view.

My colleague Mr Cobain opened the debate by setting the scene of the entire social-justice agenda and outlining the areas in which the Assembly and Executive are failing to address many issues and some targets. Other Members backed that up. We are not going to meet our targets for the alleviation of child poverty, fuel poverty and pensioner poverty. Some of the Programme for Government targets are simply unrealistic. Reference was made to the need for up to 3,000 social homes, and the difference between redevelopment and refurbishment.

Mr McQuillan, in an intervention, asked Mr Cobain what our party’s Ministers were doing about this. In the area that I am most involved with, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety supported schemes like Home Start, which actually make a real difference in the most deprived communities. Perhaps Mr McQuillan will take that on board and begin lobbying his own party’s Ministers for more finance, resources and action on the social justice agenda.

Mr Simpson outlined the view of the Committee for Social Development, and set out some of the issues relating to the collapse of property values. He commended the real effort being made to make newbuilds energy efficient, which, as the Minister pointed out, is having a major impact on helping address fuel poverty.

Mr McCann spoke about residents living in outdated accommodation. He mentioned the long-term costs of refurbishment, and that that is probably not always good value for money in the longer term. Buildings end up being refurbished for 20 years, and 30 years later they need to be completely rebuilt. It is not useful for public money to be spent in that way. Redevelopment tends to be a better outcome.

Mr McCann criticised the DSD budget: of course, more resources are needed. He also criticised the purchase of some homes from the private sector for social housing, and supported the view that, in deprived areas that need social housing, there must be consultation with residents and local elected representatives.

Mr Burns did not support the motion, but he made some useful points about the pressure that the housing budget is under. We all accept that that pressure will continue and that the housing budget will be a major issue as we move forward, and, in particular, into the next comprehensive spending review period. Mr Burns and the Minister mentioned shortfalls of £80 million rising to £100 million against a fall in receipts to the Housing Executive. That will have a major impact on the housing budget, particularly in light of the vast sums of money that will be available to the Minister, and on meeting housing need.

Trevor Lunn spoke about redevelopment and refurbishment for local circumstances; Mr Ramsey spoke on a similar theme. Mr Lunn mentioned the Alliance Party’s desire to make the hard choices of raising taxes, closing leisure centres and amalgamating schools. In doing so, however, as my colleague said at the start, he would hit some of the families that we most want to help. Closing leisure facilities, for example, could increase problems in health inequalities.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

We were talking about a priority change that might involve some hard choices about, for example, the cost of division. Will the Member address the point that although the motion refers to a recent priority change by the Department, the Minister clearly stated that a priority change is not involved? That would cause us to change our view of the motion.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I was about to address the Minister’s comments. I was relieved to hear the Minister say that there was no priority change, but I was concerned when she later said that she was not opposed to refurbishment and that in some cases it was a much better alternative. It sounded slightly as if she wanted the best of both worlds, and that is what concerns us.

Mr Shannon said that 3,000 homes are needed in the Ards area and that refurbishment alone would not help to reach that goal.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way; I will be brief.

I am slightly concerned because the debate was about refurbishment versus redevelopment, but then expanded into how to provide new homes, which is a separate issue. Redevelopment leads to less housing stock than would be the case with refurbishment; that has been the experience across Belfast, and it has caused major problems. Increasing the number of social housing units is a separate discussion about newbuild.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Those issues are linked to how we address the entire social justice agenda. Overall, a better quality home can be obtained in a newbuild development, which will be more energy efficient and will help to reduce fuel poverty. A newbuild home is the best long-term option for spending public money. That is what the motion is about.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Well, all right. [Laughter.]

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Perhaps he can answer some of my questions.

I would have thought that whether a property is refurbished or demolished and rebuilt is for the architects or builders to decide; ultimately, it is a financial decision. Is it cheaper to refurbish or to knock down and rebuild?

I am at a bit of a loss as to why we would do away with refurbishment, especially of historic homes. That worries me. For 30 years, I lived in Hillsborough, which has lots of historic buildings, and I do not want those types of houses to be demolished; rather, they should be refurbished. Whether the Minister gives a direction on the matter is academic, given that it is the architects and the engineers who surely make the decision.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Your time is up.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I see that Mr Shannon is trying to replace you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Oh, all right. [Laughter.]

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Mr Craig’s argument is an interesting one. However, the quality and standard of houses in some areas of Belfast are far different from the quality and standard of houses in Hillsborough.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

One would certainly hope so, because Hillsborough is a very different setting. [Laughter.] Mr Craig is probably in enough trouble with his party after calling for the reprofiling of Government spending, which almost bordered on calling for the Budget to be redone. He might have clarified what he said, but I think that Mr Ramsey heard him correctly; he called for the reprofiling of Government spending — that was the phrase that he used. Mr Craig may eagerly await a clip on the ear from the Finance Minister.

Members generally agreed that we need to do much more to address the need for social housing. The Minister assured the House that she did not change the priority as regards refurbishment or redevelopment. However, we definitely support the building of new homes. That should be the priority, because it is the best use of public money.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am terribly sorry, Mr McCallister, I cannot give you any extra time after all those interventions.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes, with concern, the Department for Social Development’s recent priority change which gives greater emphasis to the refurbishment of social housing, as opposed to redevelopment; further notes the huge detrimental effect this will have on the most vulnerable people in our society; and calls on the Minister to provide social homes fit for the twenty-first century throughout Northern Ireland.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]