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Housing Budget

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 9th June 2009.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:00 pm, 9th June 2009

The next item of business in the Order Paper is the motion on the housing budget. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech, and all other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the £100 million shortfall in the housing budget; notes in particular the lack of finance available for planned maintenance and improvement works, including private sector grants; calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give top priority to housing in the forthcoming June monitoring round; calls on the Executive to recognise that investment in social housing can boost the construction sector and the wider economy at this time; and further calls on the Minister for Social Development, the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Executive to put long term measures in place to secure the financial future for housing.

I am pleased to propose the motion. I very much regret the absence of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, whom I had understood was going to be here to respond to the motion. In being absent without any explanation, he is not giving proper courtesy to the Chamber.

The essential argument of the motion is that investment in housing confers great social benefit in dealing with homelessness and, more particularly, it offers the Executive the best route available to addressing the effects of the current recession. In one sense, therefore, I am making an argument that everyone here agrees with.

In the Programme for Government, a high priority was given to the provision of social housing. That was done to address a crisis in housing. As we know, a special report was commissioned from Sir John Semple. He recommended a dramatic increase in the newbuild social housing programme to 2,000 houses a year, up from about 800 a year, which was the rate at that time. The Executive adopted that recommendation and set a target of 10,000 new social homes in five years. The Minister for Social Development made immediate plans to put that into effect, budgeting to build more than 5,000 houses in the first three years. Members will remember that her initial budget was inadequate for that task. Some told her to keep quiet and accept the money; however, she did not, and an increased budget was allocated.

We all know what has happened since then. Much of the housing budget was predicated on house sales and other property sales; those have largely vanished into thin air. Last year, the housing budget was £80 million short. By year end, through the monitoring rounds and diverting Department for Social Development (DSD) funding, that was brought down to about £35 million, but that left many projects unfunded. It also created great uncertainty throughout the year, as building and maintenance firms did not know whether funding was coming. That crisis continued to the year end, as many Members will know from their having been approached by constituents who have such firms and businesses.

Officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) have told the Committee that:

“In terms of the actual delivery…the only significant problem area in this financial year has been in respect of social housing”.

They were referring to the 2008-09 financial year. That is a remarkable statement. If one considers the many pressures in that year, including the loss of an anticipated £175 million from Workplace 2010 and the need to finance slurry tanks on farms as a result of the nitrates directive, it seems that housing was not given the same relief as other schemes. According to DFP, the single major capital scheme that did not receive its quota of funding was social housing.

This year, the deficit is £100 million. There are 1,750 projected housing starts this year. That is the highest for many years, and the Department for Social Development and its Minister need to be given due credit for that. The heaviest pressure is on maintenance and private sector grants. Major improvement schemes have been deferred, affecting some 850 homes. Single element schemes, such as heating and kitchens, and so on, have been severely reduced.

Many economists have argued that putting more money into housing, particularly the house building sector, is the most effective intervention that can be made by Government to counteract—

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will give way, although I feel that I can anticipate the Member’s comments.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Does the Member agree that it would be beneficial if the Minister were to open up discussions with the credit union movement, the Treasury and the Executive to see whether there is some way that the credit union moneys could be released to help in the social housing budget?

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 9th June 2009

The Member will know that the SDLP published a substantial paper recently that outlined many measures for generating more funds that could then be used in a number of areas, including the housing sector. The SDLP is interested in discussing all possibilities, including the Member’s proposal. I do not know how practical it would be to gain access to credit union moneys, but we are certainly open to discussing the matter.

I referred to the general support from economists for investing money in house building, and DSD and the University of Ulster published an important paper this week that was written by Mike Smyth and Dr Mark Bailey. That paper argues that there is a greater multiplier for that form of investment through supplies purchased and the spending of incomes than for any other form of investment. That is a very strong and important statement. Specifically, they calculate that for every 10 jobs that are created directly, a further seven will be sustained elsewhere in the economy. They say that that applies both to direct house building and maintenance programmes.

A further factor is that housing programmes give very good value for money. Material costs have dropped by as much as 17%, and we all know that labour costs have dropped dramatically. That means that we can get more for our pound now than we could have in recent years. There is also the desirability of maintaining skills and employment in Northern Ireland, including having a flow of apprentices. The Ulster Bank’s quarterly economic review shares the opinion that is outlined in the paper. It states:

“Efforts by the Executive to stimulate this sector will have the largest impact on reducing unemployment.”

Of course, there are sound social reasons for investing in housing. Homelessness has increased in recent years, at a time when it was decreasing dramatically in England. With unemployment and repossessions on the increase, homelessness will almost inevitably rise as well. We continue to have serious problems with overcrowding and with poor housing conditions. The House Condition Survey 2006 found 3·4% of houses, that is, one in every 30, to be unfit. One third of those houses are owner-occupied, hence the importance of improvement grants, which have been cut drastically. The connection between poor housing and poor health is known. There is now a major emphasis on public health. If we are serious about public health, we must ensure that the house improvement budget is guaranteed.

I turn to the plight of the contractors who do the one-off maintenance work on heating and kitchens, that is, the so-called Egan contractors. Those firms invested heavily and took on workers after getting firm commitments from the Housing Executive, but they are now reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence and are subject to the vagaries of monitoring rounds. That is no way to plan the maintenance of our housing stock or to get firms to work strategically.

I am at a loss to understand the Minister’s position on the matter, because I think that he says contradictory things. In a letter to the DSD Minister in January 2009, he said that he believed that there is a way through the current financial difficulties. He recognised:

“they risk having a materially disproportionate and undesirable impact on the local construction industry.”

I appreciate that stance, yet in a response to a question for written answer that I asked about the risks to the delivery of this year’s capital programme, he dumped the problem entirely on individual Departments. There was no sense of collective responsibility or of leadership from the Finance Minister. Again, I regret that the Minister is not here to answer that point. It is very disappointing and unnecessary, and it is not what people expect or want from the Assembly.

I want to relate the issue to yesterday’s election results. The two issues might seem to be very different, but I see a close connection between them. The DUP took a substantial hit yesterday. Jim Allister and the TUV did very well, and we know that he is bitterly anti-agreement. The DUP could react to that by becoming more anti-agreement itself and by pulling away from partnership and any attempt to work towards consensus. That would be another colossal strategic failure for unionism.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Has the Member not wandered from the subject of the motion, which he is prone to do in the House? What is the relevance of what he is talking about now?

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to stick to the motion.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am sticking to the point; I said that I would make the connection, and I will now do so. The right response to yesterday’s election results is to make the institutions work better for the people and to take the argument to them that the Assembly is delivering for them. The motion is as good a place as any to start on that work. I say to the Minister in his absence: adopt the problem of the housing budget as a collective Executive issue and work out a strategic solution, not just for this year, but, as the motion proposes, for the future.

I wonder whether there is some hope that thinking is changing in the Minister’s Department. At the Committee meeting on 27 May, one of his officials said:

The Executive could agree to a pro rata reduction in departmental allocations and make money available for addressing other pressures.”

That was one of a number of comments made by departmental officials recently that indicate that there are thoughts about altering and rewriting the Budget.

That is not the right way to go about it: it is not the new Budget that we have sought, nor would it be as effective as the new proposals that the SDLP put forward in its recent substantial paper. However, it may be the beginning of the change that I am asking for in the motion. I ask the Assembly for its support.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I call Mr David Simpson, Chairperson of the Social Committee.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Chair; we almost got it right. I apologise for arriving late. I was attending another meeting.

The challenges that face the housing budget are well known and will, undoubtedly, be well articulated today. They have been articulated already, but whether they have been well articulated is a different story. In acknowledging those challenges, the Committee for Social Development has carefully considered the new housing agenda and its ambitious and welcome targets for new social homes. The Committee has also considered other housing-related programmes, which are ambitious and have equally welcome targets, including bringing more houses up to the decent homes standard.

All those programmes and their targets, and the ambitions behind them, are a recognition of the key role that better housing plays in our society. All sides of the House accept that creating more and better social housing has a positive and profound effect on the individual families and communities that benefit directly. We would all concede that the benefits of social housing programmes are keenly felt in the construction and related industries.

The funding of programmes for the building and refurbishment of social homes is based on expected receipts from land and some house sales. As Members know, the Northern Ireland property market has undergone a very bad decline. The majority of Committee members agree that the inevitable consequence of that decline has been a reduction in available resources for social housing. As everyone knows, times are tough, budgets are tight and hard decisions are required.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

The theme of the debate is maintenance, Egan contracts and replacements. As for urban regeneration, a contract on the Royal Exchange has been delayed, and there is £110 million available in the budget. Does the Member agree that if that £110 million were moved across by the Minister, it would deal with the problems that we face?

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Yes, I take that on board. I got briefed on that only this morning, and I have been told that the new date could be September or October. Yes, £110 million is available, and there is the possibility that it could be used to offset the shortfall in social housing. The Committee will look at that at its meeting on Thursday, when it will reach a conclusion.

Times are difficult, and there is the unrelenting pressure of homelessness and housing stress. Undoubtedly, there are economic benefits in investing in new houses or housing refurbishment and maintenance. On the other hand, the Executive face the requirement — as does every householder in Northern Ireland — to do the best that they can with a very difficult budget.

In relation to the housing budget, I have a letter written by the Finance Minister that states:

“I have met with the Social Development Minister to consider the options that might be explored in what remains a very difficult economic and public expenditure environment. To help alleviate the pressures on the DSD budget resulting from a very significant shortfall in anticipated receipts I have provided £20 million in additional funding to DSD over recent monitoring rounds and have supported in the February monitoring round a reallocation by DSD of £10.5 million to housing.”

What has happened to that £30-odd million that was allocated to DSD? What priorities did it fund? The handling of the DSD budget is a major issue; therefore, the Minister should look at how that has been handled and the priorities on which it has been spent. That might alleviate difficulties not only in the housing budget but with the Egan contractors as regards the maintenance and renovation of homes —

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

No, I will not give way, because I am almost finished.

Many families have been waiting on contractors to carry out renovations to their homes; however, that work has been suspended.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle agus a chairde. All parties in the Chamber have fully supported calls for additional resources to be given to social housing provision in the past. In fact, in many previous monitoring rounds, tens of millions of pounds have been awarded to the Minister for Social Development to deliver an effective social housing programme. However, the Members who tabled the motion would have us believe that the Executive have given little money to pad out the housing budget over the past two years.

In February 2008, after more than £200 million of additional money had been given to the Minister —

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I am sorry; I have a lot to say.

She stood in the Chamber and said that she now had what she needed to deliver her programme. In the past year, more resources have been given to housing, and we fully supported that to ensure that all aspects of the housing programme were delivered fully. The Assembly even supported the Minister after she raided the social security budget by moving money to the social housing budget.

In December 2008, the Minister gave back £50 million from the social security budget, resulting in the building of two new social security offices being suspended. Those projects would have provided much-needed work for the construction industry. However, the Department for Social Development lost that money when —

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

No thanks.

The Department for Social Development lost that money when it gave it back to the Executive for redistribution among other Departments. In the December monitoring round, the Minister tried to move £4 million from the neighbourhood renewal programme, which was set up to deliver resources to those most in need in society, to the housing budget. However, that money also was lost when it went back into the central pot.

In October 2008, the Housing Executive told all Egan contractors who fit kitchens that they should be ready to start major replacements — [Interruption.]

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order. I remind Members that all remarks should be made through the Chair.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Many of those kitchen replacements were required on the grounds of health and safety. Some weeks later, on 18 December 2008, the Housing Executive informed the contractors that those replacements would not go ahead due to a lack of funding. We still do not know what happened in the intervening weeks, other than that the Minister made her smash-and-grab statement on 15 December. However, we know that DSD, the Housing Executive and the SDLP advised people to complain to the DUP and Sinn Féin about the lack of any resources from the December monitoring round.

In January 2008, the Housing Executive sent an instruction to cease all maintenance and change-of-tenancy repairs. That left hundreds of people who were allocated houses unable to move in, because repairs could not be carried out to their homes, and that upset many people. In February 2008, we were told that no money existed to complete 400 of the housing programmes for that financial year but that those would be completed in this year’s programme.

In April 2009, Egan contractors were again informed that £10 million would be allocated for replacements. When contractors took on Egan contracts, they were advised to anticipate a roll out of 4,500 kitchen replacements and 9,500 houses for external maintenance.

I understand that many of those contractors will find themselves without work after June and that they will begin to lay off many workers. That could result in more than 800 workers losing their jobs, not to mention the implications for suppliers of materials and for local shops that will be denied the income that workers would have spent. That is yet another blow to the construction industry. Those workers have been at pains to point out that their sector provides an essential service. Many people’s kitchens have not been replaced for more than 25 years and are deteriorating.

The cyclical maintenance programme must also continue. Not to proceed with that work is short-sighted and will cost more in the long run.

In his pre-Budget report of November 2008, the British Chancellor declared that the upgrading of public authority housing to meet the decent homes standard should be prioritised to maintain employment in that section of the construction industry. On 26 March 2009, the Minister for Social Development said that she would rather put a roof over people’s heads than provide kitchens. However, she forgets that people in social housing pay rent and, as such, are entitled to continued maintenance and replacements, in line with their tenancy agreements.

More recently, another disaster has befallen the construction industry with the suspension of the design and build packages as a result of legal action in Europe. That will impact on many hundreds of construction workers, small builders and developers, all of whom rely on that work. Furthermore, it has been said that little information was provided to those small businesses that believed that the contracts were ongoing, only to discover that they were suspended. The Minister must make a statement to the House and explain what she is doing to assist —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:30 pm, 9th June 2009

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

The Minister must explain what she is doing to assist those people, and what legal advice she has received. In its statement, the SDLP said that investment in social housing can boost the construction industry.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

Spending Government money on the creation of jobs and on the realisation of projects, such as housing, seems a desirable way in which to proceed. However, to do so would require a reprioritising of that sacred cow, the Programme for Government. According to the DUP, amending that programme is impossible because it is perfect. Some of us, however, suspect that the real reasons behind that rigid and inflexible attitude is the control freakery that so characterises the DUP and Sinn Féin leaderships. Those leaderships cannot agree on how to reprioritise the Programme for Government, and that has resulted in political sterility, with 81% of the Assembly’s time being taken up with private Members’ motions, which, as we know, are not binding on Ministers, and only 18% of our time used to debate Government business.

What did the DUP blame for the demise of its vote and for its failure to reach the quota yesterday? Was it not something pathetic such as it had been too busy in Government? Where is the evidence that it has been too busy in Government? What may be closer to the truth is that that party has been too busy eating out at the taxpayer’s expense, purchasing six or seven tables and looking after two homes, never mind double- and triple-jobbing —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order. The Member should resume his seat. As I have already said, the motion under debate concerns housing.

The Member may now continue

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

I accept what you say, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, we have heard nothing today about housing, and there will be no ministerial response to the debate. Instead, all the House has heard is talk of a hokey-pokey shuffle, without the electorate’s being allowed to choose. That shuffle means that MLAs who are also MPs can remain at Westminster but cannot stay here. It is a kind of cull. The issue of housing has been sent to the back of that internal cull to protect the salaries, pensions and perks that have been taken for so many years at Westminster.

If the DUP is not interested in housing — the issue that the House is debating today and of which the Deputy Speaker has reminded me — let it go to the electorate. Let the electorate choose and give that party its verdict on who stays or goes from this or any other place. Let the electorate also give that party its verdict on housing. Let the DUP give the people another opportunity, as it did yesterday, to tell that party that the game is up.

There is a sound case for housing’s being afforded a higher priority in the Programme for Government. Most of us can see the win-win nature of providing more social housing and not falling short of targets, as we undoubtedly are. In the process of doing so, we can provide more construction jobs and help offset the alarming rise in unemployment in that sector. Housing is a priority, yet others do not seem to recognise that fact.

We should have had such debates earlier. It must be difficult for treble-jobbers to understand the plight of unemployed people and people whose jobs are threatened. How could anyone with two homes empathise with people who suffer the consequences of a financial shortfall for housing? How could they see the consequences? Therefore, decisive decision-making must improve the turnaround time in implementing decisions in an Executive that does not function properly.

On 29 May 2009, it emerged that the UK Government’s much-heralded £285 million mortgage rescue scheme had helped only two homeowners in its first four months of operation, despite having 4,202 applications for help. In a nutshell, that is an indication of what the motion is about. It was taking up to five months to process a claim. That is all the more reason for us to move towards making those decisions, instead of burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the real issues that face us on housing and on everything else will somehow disappear. They will not disappear; the electorate said so yesterday, and will say so again at the soonest opportunity.

Until we prioritise the Programme for Government, we are going nowhere, and we are letting our people down.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I support the motion. A serious debate on the issue is urgently required. As the proposer of the motion said, a shortfall of £100 million for this year and next year exists because of the dramatic fall in receipts from land and house sales. DSD’s capital receipts have been worse hit than all the Departments. DSD has been dependent on bids in the quarterly monitoring rounds to make up its programme deficits. Depending on short-term firefighting measures without any long-term planning is poor practice, and, surely, is no way to run a Department.

The Committee for Social Development has heard from the Egan contractors, and Mr Fra McCann also mentioned that. The Egan contractors were responsible for maintenance, with the anticipation that the annual spend would be approximately £40 million. Contracts started to roll out in July 2008, but, in December 2008, the contractors were told that there would not be any starts in January 2009. The Minister of Finance and Personnel then agreed to provide additional funding, and the contractors were told in January 2009 that they had to spend the £10 million in less than three months to the end of March. They were paying staff overtime to do the work to spend that £10 million. Surely, that is not the way to run a Department.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member is quite right: the Department for Social Development should be properly funded and resourced. Does the Member share my concerns that it seems that the DUP and Sinn Féin are punishing the Minister for Social Development because she stood up to them on a wide range of issues in the Executive?

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

We all need to work together as a joined-up Government; infighting does not help anyone.

The Egan contractors paid staff overtime, and their staff had no work to do in April. That is a wasteful way of working; it is ridiculous. Instead of the Egan contractors’ budget being ring-fenced at £40 million, it was reduced to £10 million. It is difficult for the construction industry to work to budgets that swing so much in a short period.

Planned maintenance is important if we are to keep the housing stock in good shape and to prevent houses from falling out of use. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has a responsibility to tenants who pay rent every month to keep up maintenance.

However, 40,000 people are still on the Housing Executive waiting list. Undoubtedly, there is a huge need for more social housing. The Minister of Finance and Personnel’s press release of 23 April 2009 stated that the Government are on course to deliver the public service agreement target of 10,000 social and affordable houses by 2013: that is, 2,000 units a year. Last year, the housing budget had a shortfall of £32 million, and only 1,100 new starts were completed. There was a shortfall of 364 units. This year, it is planned that the Housing Executive should commence 1,765 newbuilds and catch up with last year’s shortfall. That is a total of 2,000 newbuilds with a £100 million shortfall. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that the Housing Executive will be unable to do that. It is unrealistic, and we desperately need a short-term injection of cash from the June monitoring round. More importantly, the Department needs to take long-term measures to secure a sound financial footing for the Housing Executive.

It is important that housing is prioritised. As Members said, construction of newbuilds and maintenance work will help the economy. It will maintain jobs in the construction sector and in allied industries.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. By leave of the Assembly, I propose to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The next Member to speak will be Mr David Hilditch.

The sitting was suspended at 12.42 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP 2:00 pm, 9th June 2009

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion.

The Minister for Social Development and her Department seem to be under the impression that the members of the Executive, particularly the Minister of Finance and Personnel, do not support her proposals for investment in social housing. That is simply untrue. As I look around the Chamber, I can see that, from all Benches, there is support and a desire to help to solve the problem. My party and I are keen to do as much as we possibly can on housing. It is a matter of record that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has already prioritised housing in previous monitoring rounds. At some stage, the penny must drop.

Members are all aware of the current economic climate and of competing priorities. As Members from all parties table their private motions, there must be a realisation of from where resources come. The Minister of Finance and Personnel must have the freedom to choose which priority is most deserving. I remind the Members who tabled the motion that other Departments have received much less in previous monitoring rounds.

Members are all aware that sales of social housing have dropped dramatically. However, it is unfair to say that that crisis appeared simply because of the global economic downturn. Although there is no doubt that it has had a significant impact on the housing market, we cannot simply blame the economic downturn for every financial shortfall.

It is time for the Department for Social Development to look at ways in which to try to alleviate its in-house problems and to review its policies, particularly on financial management and contractual matters. Other Members have mentioned the unacceptable way in which some matters have been handled, with Egan schemes being cited as a main example.

The Minister has committed herself in making housing her number one priority. I ask what exactly her Depart­ment has done with its budget to redirect funding to provide extra social housing rather than for her simply to pass the blame on to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. Again, Members have given glaring examples, which can be studied in the Hansard report.

Although the Department for Social Development has, I believe, tried to put housing at the top of its agenda, if it is to succeed in the current economic climate, it must make serious adjustments and amendments in order to eradicate the waiting list of those in housing stress, on which there are 20,000 people. Housing stock must be maintained, refurbished and improved, regardless of the economic downturn. The Minister and her Department must find ways in which to do that rather than blame the Department of Finance and Personnel.

I look forward to the Minister’s approval of the social housing programme for 2009-2010, which, it is to be hoped, will put housing on a secure footing and will have a positive impact on the economy, particularly on the construction industry. Given the delays with the plan, which revolve around procurement, it might be best to defer it and to put extra resources into decent homes and Egan schemes, the immediate spin-off of which would be economic activity.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

The debate centres on the £100 million shortfall in the housing budget. It is one of those stories that asks whether there is ever enough money in any budget. Even on a personal level, does anyone ever have enough money to spend on what he or she wants? The answer is always no. The same is true of DSD. There will never, ever be enough money to spend on public housing. There will never be enough money to spend on what the Assembly wants.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I wonder whether the Member will accept that he is not expressing the situation accurately. When he says that there is not enough money in anyone’s budget, and that everyone wants more money, he makes a valid point. However, the fact is that a three-year budget was allocated to DSD, of which a substantial section was intended for housing. That money was not realised. That is quite different to every Department’s saying that it wants more money in its budget. Does the Member accept that point?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member will have a minute added to his time.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

Any Member can put his or her own spin on the matter, but there are facts. The reality check for DSD, as there is for every other Department, is that budget allocations are flexible.

Certain people in the Chamber have criticised the whole Executive’s inflexible approach to the Budget and their reluctance to change it to adapt to circumstances. Changes have been made to that Budget. The real criticism in the debate is that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has failed to allocate money to housing. The history speaks for itself: £20 million has been reallocated to the housing budget. If £100 million is missing, to where did that £20 million disappear? Moreover, the Minister of Finance and Personnel reallocated another £10·5 million to the housing budget. Where has that money gone? Is the figure now £70 million? Is it still £100 million? Is it £200 million? So many figures have been floated about as regards the housing budget.

The motion also states that the shortfall is causing major harm and concern and is reducing the maintenance budget for housing. That is an interesting issue. It was brought to my attention that there is a serious issue about a maintenance budget for housing; none of us will deny that. Letters have been sent out throughout the Province to residents who had expected schemes to be conducted for health and safety reasons.

I know of two examples from areas in my constituency, one of which was visited by the Minister for Social Development last week. She saw, at first hand, the ongoing problems in Hillhall. Houses have been built on top of garages where cars are parked, which has increased the risk of fires. A scheme that was intended to redevelop the area has been cancelled for the fourth year in a row.

The Minister was taken into a pensioner’s bungalow —

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

One theme of the debate is to create work for the construction industry. However, almost one third of properties, such as the Curzon cinema on the Ormeau Road, that were used in the 2007-08 newbuild project were bought in the open market or from developers.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I concur with the Member, and I will address those issues in a moment.

The Minister was taken into a pensioner’s bungalow, where she was shown a kitchen ceiling that had collapsed several months previously. However, the Housing Executive refuses to repair the ceiling because it does not have sufficient funds. It is waiting for a scheme, which was cut this year, to be implemented.

Furthermore, people have been moved out of the Dales flats in Seymour Hill because of health and safety concerns that arose from mould growth due to the lack of ventilation in the flats. A major £5·5 million scheme was cancelled this year.

If the issue was merely about a shortfall in budgets, I would speak to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. However, in reality, the Minister for Social Development made decisions that caused the shortfall in the main­tenance budget. The Housing Executive gave her options, one of which was to select a budget that balanced maintenance and newbuild matters. She opted for newbuild only and left everyone else to straggle and to struggle with maintenance problems in existing housing. That is the problem. The Minister for Social Development needs to sort that out, not the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

When Ministers make choices, they must realise that there is no wonderful pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If Departments want another £100 million, from whose budget will it be stripped?

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I apologise to Members for not being present in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate; I was at other meetings.

I support the motion, and all Members agree that there has been a dramatic fall in house sales, with a consequential shortfall in the social housing budget.

That shortfall in capital receipts is down to a virtual cessation in Housing Executive house sales. Its total house sales revenue was only £6 million this year, compared with more than £100 million two years ago, and we must acknowledge that. There has also been a dramatic drop in receipts from land sales.

As a result, the social housing budget is under stress, but it is not simply about money. The impact of the social housing shortage is felt most acutely in communities that are suffering the greatest disadvantage, as families and first-time buyers can no longer afford mortgages. It is important to give those people hope. We have a responsibility to them, but, most important of all, we have a responsibility not to play politics with the issue or with people’s hopes. Unfortunately, some parties here are playing politics with the issue today.

In a recent publication, the SDLP talked about how £400 million could be redirected to address pressing issues such as social housing. However, in allocating that £400 million, the SDLP did not allow for the equal pay claims of underpaid civil servants or for the deferral of water charges, which would cost approximately £100 million and £200 million respectively, while saying that it supports both. The SDLP’s notion that the Belfast Harbour Commissioners could simply reallocate £30 million to the Titanic signature project was not based on any realistic assessment of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners’ commitment to that project; the SDLP was simply looking for a cheap headline while pretending that it had something new to say. However, there was nothing new in what was said.

Even this year, when the Minister for Social Development proposed a fuel poverty payment, she was quite happy to exclude all pensioners from the scheme. It was only because other Ministers, particularly the deputy First Minister, to whom I give credit and congratulations, intervened and increased the number of people who were eligible for that payment from 65,000 to 150,000. The SDLP seems to believe that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We all know, of course, that there is not. The notion of constantly re-spending the same money reflects the SDLP’s political opportunism and the way in which it plays politics with people’s lives.

In seeking to address the issue realistically, the Executive must support their priority to fund social housing. Monitoring rounds and reallocations are appreciated and gladly accepted by Ministers who struggle with the limitations of their budgets. However, it is also important that in seeking additional resources, Ministers can spend what they have demanded. Unfortunately, in the case of the SDLP Minister for Social Development, that has not always been so; in the December monitoring round, Margaret Ritchie returned £38·7 million of her budget. This is the Minister who said that if she was given the money, she would build the houses. She was given money for neighbourhood renewal, among other demands, and she gave it back.

The Executive made it clear that social housing continues to be a priority. It is unfortunate that the Minister for Social Development is not here to respond to the debate. Money will have to be found to tackle such a vital issue, and I hope that the Minister finds the competence to deal with her budget effectively.

We must also recognise that the global economic downturn is having a negative effect on Departments and on the services that they provide. As such, it is likely that all Departments will seek additional funding to address pressing issues, which, in many cases, represent front line services. We must be careful that in trying to address one issue we do not have a negative effect on other front line services.

I would like the Minister to make proposals for targeted interventions in areas of greatest need, particularly in north and west Belfast, the north-west and Derry. I ask the Minister to inspire confidence by showing that she can manage her budget better than she has done thus far. I support the motion.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

My colleagues and I are happy to support the SDLP motion. The housing budget appears to be well short of what is required to meet the needs for which the Department for Social Development is responsible. There is little point in criticising a Minister or a Department without giving them the necessary resources, whether through a monitoring round or by reprogramming budgets.

The motion refers to the housing budget as being important to the general economy, particularly at the moment. It is accepted widely that housing can be a key mover in the local economy. It is incumbent on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to consider those benefits when making his quarterly monitoring round decisions.

I note, as have others, the recent work of Mike Smyth and Dr Mark Bailey of the University of Ulster, suggesting that housing projects produce a local economic multiplier effect, creating local employment opportunities and maintaining investment in the local and regional economy. A local economic multiplier effect encompasses further economic activity, which is associated with additional local income, local supplier purchases, and long-term development effects. In England, the same effect has been recognised by the fact that £600 million on top of existing budgets has been invested to stimulate housing development.

I question Gordon Brown’s reduction in VAT across the board. What benefit is there to the economy if people get a reduction in the price of their flat-screen televisions, which may be manufactured elsewhere? It is important that funding be targeted to areas that would benefit local employees.

The First Minister is very good at telling us that given that the Programme for Government is designed to put the economy first, it should not be rewritten. Indeed, he felt fit to get angry at a member of the press who took him up on that issue.

The actions that both DUP Ministers of Finance have taken in this devolved Assembly show their inability to adapt the Budget to changing circumstances. The motion highlights rightly that more money for the housing budget would mean more money for the contractors who are employed to carry out the work that is involved. That would mean more money for the employment of builders, plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen, many of whom have been laid off because of the decline in house building.

Although I question the actions of the Department of Finance and Personnel, it must be said that the Department for Social Development also has questions to answer. It appears to be handing back a lot of money in monitoring rounds. Are the Department and the Minister doing everything possible to minimise underspends in the Department? What assistance has the Minister and her Department received from the Department of Finance and Personnel on the issue? Should more of the money that has been returned centrally be passed back with the authority to spend it on other budget headings where it is clear that money can be spent? Those questions have to be answered.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office released a report recently stating that the Housing Executive is keeping to its accounting targets of reducing the amount of rent arrears by simply writing off large amounts of debt, which is some £10·6 million. Is that the best use of public money?

However, I do not wish to give the impression that the Minister for Social Development is responsible for the hole in the housing budget; clearly, she is not, and we accept that. The new Labour recession is affecting public finances across the UK. Given that her budget is so reliant on the capital value of lands and capital receipts, it is clear that her Department was always going to suffer the most from the downturn. I understand that last year, her Department was budgeting for some £80 million of receipt income. A press release that the Department issued in January 2009 indicated that some £8 million was being forecast at that time, meaning that there was a huge shortfall.

It is up to the Department of Finance and Personnel to show how best to serve the people of Northern Ireland by adjusting for such changes in the Budget. The two main parties who control the Executive both claim that one stops the other from having an issue added to the agenda, but it is up to them to change anything that they wish, if there is a will to do so. There is little point in their criticising others when it is in their gift to make those changes. The electorate showed their disgust of the current situation through the low turnout for the European elections.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 2:15 pm, 9th June 2009

I ask the Member draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

We must now start to address meaningfully the housing problem facing Northern Ireland, rather than merely bury our heads in the sand. I support the motion.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

The motion makes two essential political and practical points. The first is to give top priority to housing in the June monitoring rounds, and the second is to put long-term measures in place to secure the financial future for housing.

The first question — how to give top priority to housing in June monitoring — has been explored in a false and erroneous way by the people from Sinn Féin. Why do I say that? The Member for West Belfast Fra McCann, who is known around this Building as “I will ask others to give way but I will not give way myself”, was asked to give way three times by SDLP Members who wanted to make the point that the Minister for Social Development has not returned a penny farthing of her housing budget in monitoring returns.

Instead, as Mr Beggs said, in the December monitoring returns, the Minister asked that non-housing moneys of £38 million should be approved for housing by the Executive and the Minister of Finance and Personnel. The Minister of Finance and Personnel, backed by the Sinn Féin Ministers, refused to do that. Therefore, £38 million of non-housing moneys that could have been used for housing in December was blocked by Sinn Féin. Those are the hard facts.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Member is not reflecting in an accurate way. Was there not also £50 million moved from the social security capital budget across into —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. That is not an appropriate point of order.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr McCann for once again proving that, although he asks others to give way, he does not give way himself; he refused to give way three times during his contribution.

The irony and inconsistency of all that, welcome though it is, is that an hour ago in the Chamber, Sinn Féin changed its mind about what should happen with DSD moneys. Sinn Féin announced that if there were £110 million of unspent moneys in the DSD budget due to the Royal Exchange project not going ahead, it would back a reallocation of that money for housing by the Finance Minister. Will Sinn Féin explain why it blocked the very same proposal from the Minister in December?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will in a minute.

Six months later, when the Minister has won the public and political argument about housing need in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin changes its mind.

I welcome the fact that the Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, who was apparently speaking in his capacity as Chairperson but sounded very like a DUP MLA, also indicated broad support for that principle. I hope that the Finance Minister is listening to Sinn Féin, the DUP Chairperson of the Social Development Committee and the SDLP motion. We are all telling him that in the monitoring rounds he should reallocate unspent non-housing moneys for housing need.

Jonathan Craig simply does not get the second point that the motion makes. Housing is essential to the construction industry in the North for a short-term bounce in a recession and a longer-term uplift in the quality of people’s lives. Therefore, money for housing should be ring-fenced so that there is never a doubt in the next Assembly —

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I thank the Member for giving way, because, unlike other Members, I do give way.

Does the Member not agree that it is inappropriate to cut the entire maintenance budget in order to create new housing? It puts 750 jobs in the construction industry at risk. That is an unacceptable way to manage a budget. We cannot keep building new roofs over our heads and allow existing housing to fall into complete disrepair and then also have to be replaced.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member will have an extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

If the DUP’s Minister had agreed to the SDLP Minister’s request in December to reallocate the £38 million, the Member would not have had the nerve to say:

“the Minister for Social Development made decisions that caused the shortfall in the maintenance budget.”

She did not: the recession did.

Martina Anderson spoke about the lack of receipts. When that issue came home to roost, the Minister asked for a way out, and the Department of Finance and Personnel and Sinn Féin blocked it. This month, we must not repeat the error of December. This month, the Finance Minister needs to live up to his commitment in a letter to the Minister for Social Development on January 9 that, in the current financial difficulties, he accepts that the loss of expected receipts from the sale of land and houses risks having a materially disproportionate and undesirable effect on the local construction industry.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

We need to put housing on a secure and stable footing for this year, for the next two years, and for the four years after that.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I do not think that there is a Member in the Chamber who does not have an issue concerning the Housing Executive. Every day, we get complaints; every day, we hear concerns; every day, we are asked to help in allocating a house. That is how it is in my constituency office, as it is in everyone else’s.

Nor is it just about the allocation of houses, it is about repairs, contracts and renovations. The work is done, but not, perhaps, always to the appropriate standard. Just yesterday, a lady came to my office about work to her house that had almost caused her an injury. There are too many horror stories; a change is needed. There is a major problem with housing provision and upkeep, and that must be addressed and action taken.

Aa’ shoart whiel ago, Aa’ scrivven a letter tae tha Mannyistar tae pit fort mi’ worries aboot tha reducing o’ grants mony that haud bin sut asied fer tha Hoosin Executiv in tha Proavince, an in pertikular tae tha Airdes hoosin. Tha manager fer tha Airdes area noo is Owen Brady, an he daes a reel guid joab wi’ tha mony that bin putt aside fer him, but whut is mare than cleer is that ther isnae enouch mony fer tae dae aw tha woark that is needit

Tha Mannyistar is weel awor o’ tha social hoosin needs in tha Airdes. She kens that better than maist fowk an it is sae impoartan that fowk shud stae in ther haems an kerri oot repaers tae manage wi’ ther needs insteed o’ movin bakk oan tae tha hoosin list, whiel repaers er kerrit oot, an endin up wi’oot ocht fer a unshair amoont o’ tiem.

Recently, I wrote to the Minister expressing concern about the reduction of grants money that had been allocated to Housing Executive district offices, particularly the Ards district. Owen Brady, district manager for the Ards area, does a fantastic job with the money that has been allocated. However, it is abundantly clear that there is not enough to do the work that is needed.

The Minister knows better than most the social housing needs in the Ards. It is imperative for people to stay in their homes and to renovate to cope with their needs rather than move back onto the housing list and flounder for who knows how long. I urged the Minister to ensure that the 1,500 new homes that are needed are provided. Strangford, which I represent, has its allocation of those. Indeed, I would be happy to see all 1,500 homes built in Strangford, and I know that my colleague Iris Robinson feels the same. However, that would hardly be fair to everyone else in the Province.

There are almost 2,000 people on the priority housing list in the Ards district and about 1,000 on the ordinary waiting list; that shows that social housing need in the Ards continues to grow. The growth is such that it would take 300 newbuilds this year alone to address its housing needs, and that does not take into account those who come onto the list in the meantime.

Stephen Graham, Housing Executive manager for the Ards area, told me in response to a question that 200 houses are to be built this year with various housing associations, including Habinteg Housing Association (Ulster) Ltd and Helm Housing, for the years 2009-2010 and 2010-11. However, I told him that the need is there now. He replied that the Housing Executive was agreeing to 70 off-the-shelf purchases that could be built this year to address the core of housing need immediately.

While all that is happening, we have a change — and I talked to the Minister about this — in the way in which houses are built, whether design-and-build or other options, and we now find that there are legal issues. I spoke to the Minister, and I know that she, too, is unhappy that houses cannot be built as they once were. Even in the area that I represent there is great housing need, but schemes have not been given the go-ahead.

Concentrated newbuild programmes need to be undertaken every year. That is the only measure that will reduce the social housing list, and the Minister can bring it about. We need to boost the construction industry because that would boost the economy, create jobs and put money back into people’s pockets.

The Housing Executive manager in my area does the best that he can with his available budget, but, unfortunately, he is not given enough funds to meet the needs of the community. The Minister should allocate more funding to the newbuild process. Creating a strategy will immediately benefit many sections of the community by providing housing, maintenance and upkeep.

It is a big job, and there are no easy answers, but the Minister for Social Development has the necessary willpower to make a difference. I ask her to address the escalating problem with wisdom and to work cross-departmentally to find a solution.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 9th June 2009

I support the motion, and I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue once again. I am slightly discouraged by the fact that we continually have to debate the topic because little action has been taken to address the massive shortfall in the social housing budget. Every Member knows about the £100 million black hole in the housing budget, which is a direct result of the fall in the value of the Department for Social Development’s assets and the sale of those assets. It is obvious that the Department for Social Development, a spending Department, does not have enough money.

The Minister has done her best to make savings, but there is no way that she will be able to make up for such a shortfall in the existing financial package. That is why the SDLP feels that the housing budget should be given top priority in the next monitoring round. Any handouts in June will represent only a short-term measure: they will not be enough.

The SDLP has long called for a complete review of the Budget and the Programme for Government. The world is a very different place from what it was when the Budget was originally set, and the global economic crisis has hit every country hard. Every Government in the world has examined their Budget and made the necessary changes, and there is no reason that we should not do the same.

We have limited powers as a regional Assembly, but granting a massive cash injection to the social housing programme is undoubtedly one of the best things that we can do to help. By building new houses and carrying out repairs, we can cut waiting lists, help people who are in housing stress and give hope to the homeless.

The SDLP has shown where the money for newbuild and maintenance programmes can be found. We put forward the relevant proposals in ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’. We have put our plans on the table while others have done very little. Other parties in the House must see the merit in those plans. Many academics, such as Mike Smyth from the University of Ulster, support our ideas. However, one does not have to be a professor to know that building houses creates jobs.

If we undertake the programme in the right manner and build on land that the Housing Executive already owns, we will put money straight into the wage packets of construction workers and the accounts of local building firms. Rathenraw in Antrim, for example, is a perfect site for social housing. It has vast amounts of green open space, where many old houses have been demolished. All the land is owned by the Department for Social Development, and it makes sense to build social housing there.

Social housing will quickly deliver the required economic boost. Projects are ready to go at any given time if the money is available. They can be started with little delay because the plans are already in place, and planning permission has already been secured. I urge the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the entire Executive to find the money to start the projects. We must do all that we can to help the economy and the people. Therefore, let us get the social housing programme back on track and give the whole economy a big shot in the arm.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the support from the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and Sinn Féin. I am not sure whether the DUP intends to support the motion.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Yes, we do.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you. Jim Shannon is always a good supporter of housing.

It is fair to say that the Sinn Féin Members who spoke attacked the SDLP Minister. In fact, political commentators have noted the sustained attacks over many years against the SDLP and its Minister. For example, Newton Emerson said that Sinn Féin’s commitment to attacking Ms Ritchie remains beyond question. Perhaps today that party was at it a bit more than in other days because it may be a bit sore about socialist politicians, given that they may not be good for Sinn Féin, as the people of Dublin pointed out over the past few days.

I want to pick up on a number of points. Jonathan Craig and other Members made the point that the debate should not be about newbuild versus maintenance. The issue is crystal clear: there is simply not enough money in the housing budget. The Executive need to revisit the Budget so that more resources can be given to housing. Mr Burns made that plea in his contribution, and he highlighted very eloquently a scheme in Antrim in which work could commence tomorrow if money were available.

Several Members quoted from Michael Smyth and Dr Mark Bailey’s recent publication in which they said that a number of successes could be made to address the economic downturn not only in creating construction jobs but in the ancillary services associated with construction. Many jobs depend on the construction industry, such as small plumbing supplies shops, tile and carpet shops, electricians and other tradespeople with whom Members are familiar. The Minister made it clear and Members acknowledged the fact that disabled facilities grants will not be touched in the home improvements.

Some Members talked about home improvements and pointed out that some constituents have very poor kitchens. We can all be sympathetic to that. Mr McNarry pointed out that some people who own two or three homes will not show much empathy with people who do not own any homes. Mr McCann must acknowledge that people should at least have a roof over their heads. That is the priority. It was a difficult decision, but our Minister makes difficult decisions: she does not shy away from them.

Later, we will hear about homelessness in Foyle from some Sinn Féin Members who want to see money being spent on newbuilds. The choice for our Minister was between new homes or new kitchens, and it is a very simple argument. What the motion asks for in the June monitoring round is that the Minister of Finance and Personnel should give whatever money is available to the Minister for Social Development for housing and allow that money to be ring-fenced. It is regrettable that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is not here this afternoon to respond.

Other Members accused the Minister for Social Development of giving money back in the December monitoring round. That was misleading and was not the case. Margaret Ritchie wanted to reallocate money in her Department, and, as Sinn Féin knows, she must get the Finance Minister’s permission to move money around the different elements of her Department’s programmes. Sinn Féin wanted that money to go to slurry tanks and slurry housing because of the failure of the Crossnacreevy site in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s budget. Therefore, if the cap fits, some of those Members should start wearing it. Our Minister has tried very hard to meet the needs of people and to put people first.

I agree with Martina Anderson’s comment that the shortfall in the Housing Executive’s budget particularly hits people who live in some of the most deprived and disadvantaged communities. Other Members also linked poor health outcomes and health inequalities to poor housing.

Members from across the Chamber rightly said that monitoring rounds are not a good way to run a Department. No Minister would seek to run his or her Department on a hand-to-mouth existence. In the short term, however, it is incumbent on the Minister of Finance and Personnel at least to give some hope to those on waiting lists for a new home that the money will be transferred and ring-fenced for DSD housing in the June monitoring rounds.

Next week, the Assembly will have the opportunity to debate some of the Budget allocations. However, some Members, including Mr Roy Beggs, pointed out that the two main parties that revise the Budget — the DUP and Sinn Féin — have an inflexible attitude to doing so. The Budget was set at a time of economic boom, but those parties have not allowed it to be revisited during the current global recession.

Mr Burns commented on the SDLP’s paper, ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’. He rightly pointed out that, although the SDLP has tabled its paper, no other party has yet tabled any proposals. I hear only silence from the Sinn Féin Benches on that matter. Perhaps Sinn Féin Members are embarrassed by their Minister’s performance on a wide range of issues. They seem to have no retort on that point.

Mr O’Loan highlighted the many benefits that investment in housing would bring. He related how the Programme for Government budget was predicated on land and housing sales, as did several other Members. Mr O’Loan ably and factually — unlike some — and as a matter of public record pointed out where the difficulties arose.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Which cap was that?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Which cap indeed?

The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Simpson, agreed with Mr O’Loan that poor housing has a profound impact on people and creates health inequalities. He also talked about the decline in resources for social housing. However, he proceeded to go off-script slightly by talking as a member of the DUP as opposed to the Chairperson of the Committee. Unfortunately, he is not present to respond to me on that point.

Some £110 million of the money allocated to the urban regeneration of the Royal Exchange may not be spent. My colleague Alex Attwood welcomed the support of the DUP and Sinn Féin for its reallocation within DSD for housing projects should that be the case.

Mr Shannon rightly paid tribute to staff in his constituency who work extremely hard in difficult times with people whose need for home improvement grants causes them distress. He acknowledged the impact that home improvements could have on the creation of jobs in the construction industry, as well as on people who have been waiting for such a long time. Indeed, unless the shortfall in money for housing is appropriately addressed, it looks as though they will wait a good deal longer.

I see that my time is running out; Members will be most upset about that. I ask for support from across the House. I request that the Minister of Finance and Personnel take note of the views of all parties present in the Chamber. I ask him to ring-fence any moneys given up in the June monitoring round for allocation to the Minister for Social Development so that they may be spent on housing.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the £100 million shortfall in the housing budget; notes in particular the lack of finance available for planned maintenance and improvement works, including private sector grants; calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give top priority to housing in the forthcoming June monitoring round; calls on the Executive to recognise that investment in social housing can boost the construction sector and the wider economy at this time; and further calls on the Minister for Social Development, the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Executive to put long term measures in place to secure the financial future for housing.