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Social Housing

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 6th October 2009.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 10:30 am, 6th October 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 in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes in which to speak.

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

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the particular impact on the housing construction industry of the current economic downturn; further notes the recent research by the University of Ulster that investment in social housing would have a multiplier effect on job creation; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make moneys available to invest in a programme of new build social housing across Northern Ireland.

I am very pleased to propose the motion. Members can approach the matter in two ways: we can score points against one another — we have done plenty of that — or we can have a constructive debate. We can recognise that there is a real and large problem here for us all. We need a long-term, joint approach by all parties to social housing and investment in social housing. That is what the public is looking to the Assembly to provide.

A good place to start would be Sir John Semple’s ‘Review into Affordable Housing’, which was issued in spring 2007. He said that a target for social housing completions — he emphasised “completions” — should be set at 2,000 per annum expressed as 10,000 over the next five years. The review said that a firm funding commitment needed to be put in place by government to achieve that.

That was in direct rule days. The review goes on to say:

“Significant economic, social and environmental imperatives exist that cause me to recommend in the strongest possible terms that, should an elected Assembly be restored … it and its Executive should make amendment to the planning and housing systems a priority”.

To be fair to the Executive, it did that, although its target figures fall short of Semple’s estimate of need. They also fall short of Housing Executive estimates of need. The Housing Executive, in its ‘Northern Ireland Housing Market: Review and Perspectives 2009-2012’, which was published this year, says:

“There is an annual requirement for at least 3,000 additional new social dwellings for the period 2009-12”.

The need is clear. There are about 40,000 applicants on the waiting list, half of whom are in urgent housing need. In one year, about 9,000 households are deemed homeless. Be clear, therefore: even if the Executive target is met, it is by no means obvious that we will have resolved our problem. I have concern about how the Executive target is expressed. The public service agreement plans to ensure the provision of 10,000 social and affordable houses by 2013. There is no distinct figure for social housing alone. Perhaps that is why DFP claims that achievement of the target is still on track, even though last year’s milestone of 1,500 houses was not achieved. It was 364 houses short. In the current financial environment, there is clearly a real difficulty in even meeting the Executive target. I hardly need to repeat the effects of the collapse in sales of Housing Executive houses and other DSD property. The budget is now seriously short.

This year, the Minister has given priority to the newbuild programme, at the cost of other housing elements, particularly improvement grants. The essential problem remains. I hardly need to emphasise the arguments in favour of investment in social housing. In summary, the house-building sector has taken the strongest hit in the current downturn, and there is no faster way to prime the economy than investing in houses. House-building is labour-intensive, and for every 10 jobs that are created directly another seven will be created indirectly. Those are the conclusions of the University of Ulster report, and land, materials and labour all offer good value for money at present.

The Northern Ireland Housing Council recently published a report entitled ‘Bridging the Gaps’, which was issued after it held a convention on the issue of how to bridge the gap between what funding is needed and what funding is available. It is a serious and valuable report that has not yet received the attention that it deserves. It refers to a funding deficit of £200 million in the next two years, and the shortfall over the 10-year investment strategy to 2018 is £1 billion. We all know that finding money will be even more difficult from 2011 onwards.

The Housing Council says that the waiting list for housing is growing annually and is at its highest level since the 1970s. It believes that the current model, which is based on public subsidy and receipts, is no longer sustainable, and it says that the use of developer contributions, although still a viable policy in the medium term, is not realistic at present. It proposes a number of measures for discussion, including stock transfer; new governance arrangements for the Housing Executive; permitting the Housing Executive to borrow; and examining how the Housing Executive could become self-financing. It suggests ways to enhance the role of the private rented sector.

The Minister for Social Development supports the Housing Council’s view that there is a clear need to change the way that social housing is funded. Similarly, the Housing Executive has said that we need to examine additional funding provision and more innovative options to allow private finance to contribute. Among other ideas, the SDLP has proposed the restructuring of Housing Executive debt and the sale and leaseback of the Housing Executive headquarters.

The problem presents a stark challenge to the Assembly. I call for all parties to adopt a long-term, joint approach. The ideas put forward by the Housing Council and others will need a lot of analysis and research, and we need a frank debate. At a more strategic level, we may need a new housing strategy. First and foremost, we need recognition that this is a shared problem, and I hope that such an acceptance will emerge during today’s debate. Our task is to put social housing on a sound long-term footing.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Although it may not sound like it, I might find some accord with the proposer’s comments during my contribution. It is a pity that his comments about innovative and futuristic measures and looking at the social housing strategy in Northern Ireland have been bound up in one of the most juvenile types of motion that we can face in the Chamber: the identification of a problem and a call for more resources. The Member knows fine well that, even in the best of times, the resources available to the Executive are limited. That is a particularly acute problem at the moment.

Nobody will deny that there is a serious need for social housing across Northern Ireland that affects many thousands of people. There is a grave need for social housing across Northern Ireland, as those of us who do constituency work every week know. However, the issue is so serious that simply demanding more money will no longer suffice.

Recent history shows that the Executive, in totality, agreed that the development of more social housing was one of their priorities, and they set ambitious newbuild goals and targets. That is to be welcomed, and we encourage the Minister for Social Development to make progress on achieving those targets as swiftly as possible. Clearly, she feels that there are pressures on her budget. That is understandable, but all Ministers are facing pressures on their budgets.

Those pressures and problems have not gone unnoticed or unrecognised by the Minister’s Executive colleagues. Over the past two and a half years, the Minister has received reallocations to her budget of approximately £160 million from the monitoring rounds. That is not, in difficult times and with limited amounts of money to play with, an insubstantial amount.

The call for more moneys is, in part, based on the new Bible and the new religion of the Smyth and Bailey report. Although I do not deny the importance to the construction sector of building new social houses — that is self-evident — some of the elements of the Smyth and Bailey report are questionable. The fact that they use five-year-old figures from Scotland to illustrate their argument about the multiplier effect is dated and, therefore, somewhat questionable.

It is absolutely questionable to talk about the non-economic benefits of social housing, using homelessness as a barometer and juxtaposing social housing with public transport and road development. The report shows that social housing has an effect on homelessness that is greater by a factor of 10 to one than that of public transport. If we remove homelessness from the figures in the report, public transport scores higher in the overall assessment. We cannot build a case for social housing on the basis of the Smyth and Bailey report.

Mr O’Loan mentioned the Northern Ireland Housing Council’s report, ‘Bridging the Gaps’. That leads me to concur with many of the points that he made. There is now a growing need — if we have a crisis, as we supposedly do in social housing — to do things differently. We must change; we cannot do things as we have always done them and expect the problem to be resolved. In particular, in the current increasingly challenging economic environment, we must find a much more sustainable way of financing social housing than we have at present.

I accept the points that Mr O’Loan made about the current funding model; therefore, we have to look at things differently. The Northern Ireland Housing Council’s report contains many ideas that are worth reviewing. Perhaps, at a later stage, the Assembly could consider the suggestion that we need an independent assessment of social housing delivery in Northern Ireland so that it is put on a much firmer foundation.

There are many ideas and models of good practice in the UK and Ireland for delivering social housing, such as stock transfer — there is a pilot stock transfer programme in place in Londonderry. There are opportunities to get the private sector involved. The thorny subject of rent convergence was mentioned in the Northern Ireland Housing Council’s report. There is a range of subjects to consider, but time does not permit me to explore them. A fuller debate is needed, outside the Chamber as well as inside, on how we can better deliver social housing in future and finance it in a sustainable way in what are increasingly challenging economic times.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 6th October 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion. Mr O’Loan and Mr Hamilton made worthwhile comments not only about the direction of the debate but about what we do afterwards. That is where the challenge lies. Sinn Féin supports the motion, and we agree that there is a deficit in the social housing budget. However, our support is conditional. Simon Hamilton laid out some of those conditions when he talked about considering other ways of addressing the massive problem of social and affordable housing.

In July, £20 million of extra funding for social housing was announced. At the time, the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, stated:

“The £20 million for housing is a boost both for tenants and for the local construction sector. As well as ensuring that tenants receive much needed maintenance to their homes, local maintenance contractors will be able to sustain around 800 jobs in the construction sector.”

In these times, the prospect of 800 jobs for the construction industry would be supported by every Member of the House as it would create a lifeline for an industry, which, like many others, has experienced hardship.

Declan O’Loan touched on issues in the Smyth and Bailey report. For every 10 jobs created by expanding the social housing programme, a further seven jobs will be sustained elsewhere in the economy. That is grand, but the questions that I have rattling around concern where those jobs will be created and who will get them.

We have previously discussed the economic impact on our communities, which is something that we see in our constituency offices practically on a daily basis and certainly on a weekly basis. There is also the issue of apprenticeships, particularly for young people. If a programme such as this is a way of improving that situation, it has to be welcomed.

I am not point-scoring, but procurement guidelines need to be discussed, as does the issue of tackling long-term unemployment. Communities, particularly those that have rarely seen the benefits of investment, need to see social outcomes too. I represent one such community. Eight hundred jobs could be created through the proposed social housing development programme, and working-class areas have the right to expect to see these jobs and apprenticeships.

My other concerns are about the tables in the Smyth and Bailey report that are referred to as the “Framework for Impact Assessment Screening” and “Weighting Issues”: that is “w-e-i-g-h-t-i-n-g”. I thought that those tables made for interesting reading, although I must confess that I had to read them three or four times before I got a handle on them. I hope that someone from the SDLP can address my concern: what is the connection between those tables and the proposed removal of ring-fencing by DSD from the social housing guidelines? I am concerned because this is about addressing need; it is about 800 jobs in the construction sector and houses built for people most in need. Ring-fencing is a protective measure, particularly for areas such as north and west Belfast and indeed the north-west. The editorial in the ‘North Belfast News’ on 26 September stated:

“According to the Housing Executive’s own statistics, by the year 2012, 95 per cent of those on the waiting list for housing in North Belfast will be Catholic.”

That is totally unacceptable.

I have a copy of a report by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that I will be happy to place in the Library. The committee, in May, stated that it was concerned about the chronic shortage of housing. It said that it was particularly concerned about the lack of social housing in disadvantaged areas. I will skip through a lot of what is said, but it says that there is massive concern about people with disabilities, particularly in Scotland, and Catholic families in North Belfast, in spite of financial resources provided and other measures taken.

I understand that there is a need for a wider debate, and it probably would be better if it happens outside the Chamber. I support the need to create more jobs in the construction industry.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I will. However, we cannot have examples such as that highlighted in POS magazine, in which over £1 million was spent on six houses. That is not value for money. That does not help the construction industry, and it does not address the social housing debate.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

The motion does not specify how much money the Minister should make available, nor does it say what funding a programme of newbuild social housing entails. Members will recall that, in August, the Ulster Unionists published an excellent document called ‘Putting Things Right’. We followed up the August document with a detailed part two continuation in September. I commend both publications to the House, and I reiterate our demand for an honest debate to concentrate our minds on our deepening economic difficulties.

We also included a new convention for the Assembly. Any party that proposes additional spending commitments, as the SDLP does in this motion, should identify how and where the money can be found to fund those proposals. Rather than to stand accused of grandstanding — I am not making that accusation — it would be useful for the SDLP to address the cost implications of its proposals.

I want to record the genuine and deep distress about the disproportionate impact that the economic downturn has had on the construction sector in Northern Ireland. In the past year, the lion’s share of the increased redundancies has come in the construction sector. Unemployment has doubled since this time last year, and it is set to rise further before any expected improvement.

In the last quarter, 1,580 jobs have been lost in construction. Indeed, official figures underestimate the impact because they do not take account of self-employment, which is the norm for many trades in the building sector, particularly in my Strangford constituency. Official figures also do not take account of underemployment and short-time working, which is widespread across the construction sector. It should be remembered that short-time working means less pay.

A great deal more could have been done to soften the blow and minimise the damage to the construction sector. I do not hesitate in placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of our past Ministers of Finance and Personnel, whose inactivity has become almost legendary. In failing to address their budgetary black hole, even though I warned them about it more than a year ago, they have created a situation in which unemployment in the construction sector has been maximised.

Time and time again, we have said that the Programme for Government should have been re-prioritised and based on the concept of job creation and job protection in the real-world financial climate rather than on an aspiration that is well past its sell-by date. I wonder just how many Government building programmes — for example, on schools and roads — have been kicked down the line into next year and beyond to cover the black hole that, until recently, Ministers of Finance and Personnel would not admit existed.

Recently published research shows how social housing can have a multiplier effect on job creation. Like many others, I was impressed by the University of Ulster paper that is referred to in the motion. It states that house-building created more jobs than any other form of capital investment and, indeed, that for every 10 jobs created by building social housing seven jobs will be created or sustained elsewhere in the Northern Ireland economy. The one standout sentence with regard to that report is:

“The world has changed in the time since the Executive agreed a budget. Other governments have responded to these changes by channelling additional resources into house building.”

The University of Ulster paper supports the case that my colleagues and I have been making for months. The world has changed in the time since the Executive agreed the Budget, and that sums up how the Executive and the Department of Finance and Personnel have stood still.

I welcome the ideas that are emerging from today’s debate, but we need to have a further debate that is larger, more localised and more embracing. We need to ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to at least try to act where his predecessors failed to act. We need to think outside the box to unlock Northern Ireland’s potential, and we need to have the debate that has been requested. Perhaps the Minister of Finance and Personnel will come to terms with the situation that he has inherited and move to restore confidence in the social housing sector.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

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

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

I am now finished.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Alliance Party supports the motion. However, I want to comment on it and, indeed, on some of the problems that Members have already identified. At the outset, it is worth placing the matter in its wider context. Investment in social housing has been a key element of the responses of many Governments, around the world and close to home, to the economic downturn that we are all suffering.

If we look to our own UK Government’s response to the downturn, we can see that something like £500 million has been invested in social housing in England and Wales. Indeed, our counterparts in Scotland have also gone down that road. However, we in Northern Ireland have not. Instead, we have taken an approach — and it is entirely within the Executive’s remit to do so — that is essentially about cutting the costs that businesses and individuals face. That may be a very good way of sparking demand as far as expenditure is concerned; however, it misses two important points.

First, we are missing the opportunity to make the necessary investments in our infrastructure, including in our housing stock. Secondly, we are missing the opportunity to rebalance our economy and to change existing structural weaknesses fundamentally. When we come out of recession, as some day we surely will, our economy will still have those weaknesses because we have not taken advantage of increased spending.

In so far as we recognise what has happened elsewhere in these islands to encourage an uplift in spending, we must also recognise that, by global standards, the fiscal stimulus in the UK has been quite small. A debate is ongoing about how quickly that stimulus should be taken off the table. The Labour Party seems to be more willing to keep some lag in spending, while the Conservative Party, which is having its party conference this week, seems determined to introduce cuts as quickly as possible.

I certainly recognise the argument that the multiplier effect of investment in social housing would get people back into the workforce, but there is another aspect of investment in social housing that has not been touched on. Investment in energy efficiency, both in businesses and homes, is perhaps the most effective — indeed, cost-effective — way to tackle climate change. There is a substantial body of evidence, including the often-quoted Stern review report, to show that, pound for pound, investment in energy efficiency is the most effective way to deliver change and to reduce our carbon emissions.

Although I recognise the merits of the motion, I am concerned about a number of aspects of it. I share Mr McNarry’s concern about the lack of detail on where the money for investment would come from. Having noted that common ground, I must also say that although Mr McNarry may praise his own documents that look at the state of our finances in Northern Ireland, they essentially point to his version of the problem. I have not come across any proposal, in any shape or form, from the Ulster Unionist Party that outlines how to close the black hole that Mr McNarry has indentified. The gap exists, but no proposals have been made on how to close it. The Member may wish to continue to point out the problems that we face, but it would be nice to hear a proposal or two.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP 11:00 am, 6th October 2009

Does he want me to do the Finance Minister’s job?

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

Does the Member accept that the SDLP has put forward substantial proposals to raise money, which it would then ask to be spent constructively?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Dr Farry will have an extra minute of speaking time.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I intended to mention Mr O’Loan’s comments, but let me first respond to the comment that Mr McNarry made from a sedentary position. I dread the day that the Ulster Unionist Party takes over the finance portfolio, particularly in the light of the approach to cuts that its Conservative Party partners seem intent on inflicting on all of us. [Interruption.]

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I certainly acknowledge that the SDLP has put forward proposals to raise revenue. However, the SDLP needs to reflect on the accuracy and sustainability of a number of those proposals. That party must make a choice. It is extremely clear in saying that it has a manifesto commitment to having no water charges in Northern Ireland. Its commitment is absolute; it will not support water charges in any shape or form or under any circumstance. That is fair enough, but the consequence is that there will be a loss of revenue in Northern Ireland. Water services are not funded out of our block grant, so we have to take that money out ourselves. Therefore, choices must be made. The SDLP should, perhaps, reflect on the situation: it is demanding more money for social housing at the same time as resisting the introduction of water charges in any shape or form. Something may have to give. In outlining its approach to social housing, the SDLP quotes economists. I recognise that the economic advice is sound —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member must bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

However, the SDLP should recognise that the same economists also point out the financial challenges that face the Assembly, including facing up to water charges.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

I welcome today’s debate, the more so as it presents an opportunity, as Mr Hamilton said, to discuss the bigger picture. Many issues should be debated in a full consideration of housing.

Construction and house-building in the public sector has, undoubtedly, reached something of a crisis point. The building industry creates much direct employment, and associated employment, a point that was highlighted earlier. More than 8,000 jobs in the Northern Ireland construction sector have been lost or are under threat as a result of the credit crunch, not to mention the difficulties with apprenticeships that the Assembly is also looking at.

Investment in building more social housing will stimulate jobs in a way that no other capital investment can. Evidence suggests that the refurbishment of existing housing stock may be at least as labour-intensive as the construction of newbuilds.

An expansion of the activity in social housing would represent better value for money than many other types of intervention. There is also a practical need to support the construction sector, as it will retain skills and employment in Northern Ireland, rather than individuals having to migrate to where work is available. I recognise the plight of those who are self-employed in the industry, as highlighted by Mr McNarry.

It is imperative that the Department for Social Development and the Minister act as soon as possible. Her Department must come up with innovative ways of funding new social housing and improving existing housing. Mr Hamilton raised some of those matters.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

This morning’s debate concentrates on the provision of social housing. However, in looking at social housing, we have to look at the entire housing sector. Many people in other parts of the housing sector, including maintenance and adapted living, have lost their jobs. If this goes on the way that it is going, more jobs may be lost in that sector than in the newbuild sector.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has an extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

I share the Member’s sentiments. Those matters have been the subject of previous debates in the House, and I appreciate that they remain on the table

Investment in housing will tackle deprivation and fuel poverty, and it will take the pressure off other Departments’ budgets. It also has the potential to relieve housing stress, child poverty and homelessness.

Earlier this year, Clanmil Housing secured some £15 million from a European investment bank to deliver three new social housing projects across Belfast. It is the only one of 36 registered housing associations successfully to access that type of funding. Together, the three schemes will deliver somewhere in the region of 240 new homes to those in greatest housing need. I urge the Minister to look at ways to encourage the other housing associations to avail themselves of similar funds, grants or schemes. The Department must be proactive and lead from the front on such matters.

It is, perhaps, unfair of the Department to request more money time and time again from the Department of Finance. The Department for Social Development received £20 million in the June monitoring round in extra funding for social housing and maintenance. Other Departments had bids turned down and, therefore, had to adjust their spending. The Department for Social Development must act accordingly. The Department must make much more effort to deliver better housing and think outside the box. I strongly support Mr Hamilton’s suggestion of an independent review to ascertain the best way forward, because a number of housing issues in Northern Ireland remain outstanding.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will also vote in favour of the motion, but I have some difficulty in endorsing it wholeheartedly. The last phrase of the motion is indicative of the SDLP’s perennial approach of transferring responsibility. There is significant agreement in the House on this issue.

There are many issues in this House on which the parties predictably fall out, but there is quite a remarkable amount of consensus in relation to housing. However, I do not see that consensus being built upon or exploited.

The quarterly monitoring round process demonstrates that Ministers are prepared to stand back in favour of addressing the deficit in social housing and making more resources available. That is in a context of finite financial resources and the ability of the Minister of Finance, particularly in straitened economic circumstances, to find additional resources. In itself, attempting to squeeze out efficiencies is not a sustainable process; one does get to the point at which the direct impact on front line services is inescapable and unavoidable. In those circumstances, even with what I regard as a very genuine commitment to addressing the question of social housing, we will get to the point at which Ministers feel that their programmes and departmental priorities are not just under significant pressure — because they all are — but in significant jeopardy.

It would be better if the SDLP adopted a less confrontational approach in relation to this issue. Simply demanding more resources begs the question of where we find the resources and whether we do it in an arbitrary fashion. That squanders the understanding, goodwill and commitment that is quite obviously present among the political parties and across the Executive table.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I listened very carefully to the Member’s remarks in relation to funding for housing. The Department of Finance and Personnel needs to be creative in relation to how it approaches this issue. One of the most creative ways of putting housing on a sound financial footing would be to provide the Housing Executive with additional borrowing powers. In Britain, local authorities currently have what is called prudential borrowing powers. That is a creative approach, but the Department of Finance and Personnel is particularly lacking in creative thought in relation to financing.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member has an extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for those comments. In a sense, they illustrate the point that I am making. There are creative opportunities. There is also a challenge for us all and for the Finance Minister to address the question of whether the very significant resources in the Department, which are programme budgetary items, can nonetheless be applied in these circumstances. It is very often evident that the Minister for Social Development is looking for money for the housing budget while the Minister of Finance and Personnel has unspent budgetary resource. Rather than having an argument about it —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I am sorry for interrupting the Member in his flow, but does he agree that the significant resources in the Minister for Social Development’s budget need to be managed better? We saw the whole fiasco around the surrender of millions of pounds. Equally, in relation to the first intervention, the whole issue of tax-varying powers was raised in this House previously. I am not sure whether the SDLP supported that proposal, but the comments that followed during the debate lead me to think otherwise. Does the Member care to comment?

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

I do, because I made that proposition. I was disappointed that people did not consider the full implications of it. The fact of the matter is that every member of the Executive has the same view: the overall budget resources that are available to meet the needs of a society that is emerging from conflict, and to address years of underfunding in relation to the social infrastructure, were not there to begin with. There were very significant negotiations with the Treasury and the British Government to try and inject further funding. However, out of it all, people recognise that every Department faces a budget deficit.

Social housing is an example of an issue that has wider strategic significance in our efforts to make devolution work and to be better than direct rule. Therefore, in order to address it, Ministers should consider the benefits of getting around a table and negotiating with party representatives.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 11:15 am, 6th October 2009

The Member should draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

The Minister for Social Development should attempt to establish consensus before Executive meetings, rather than simply demanding more money to build houses. That does not address the problem.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

I have a feeling of déjà vu when we come to this subject; we seem to debate it time and time again. The simple truth is that the Finance Department cannot issue blank cheques. Although I support the motion — I would love to see more social housing built in Northern Ireland — I share Finance Committee members’ concerns that it makes no provision for finance and that it has no bottom line. I repeat: blank cheques, quite rightly, cannot be issued. The Executive have a process whereby Departments, rightly or wrongly, get their share of the limited Northern Ireland Budget.

I share some Members’ concerns about how the Department for Social Development manages money, and I have raised those in the House and in the Committee for Social Development. The downturn in the economy has caused a huge problem in the private housing sector and an even bigger problem in the public housing sector. Cash flow for building public sector houses is slowly but surely dwindling; it lags behind that for the private sector, and over the next few years, that situation will get worse.

However, such a situation also brings opportunities. For instance, no one in the House believes that the price of land, which was the issue two years ago, is the issue today. It is no longer the issue, and anyone who believes that the Department will be paying the same price for building land that it paid two years ago is living in cloud cuckoo land. The Department is getting land at a fraction of its previous cost. Therefore, the downturn has opened up certain opportunities.

The Government could exploit those opportunities, although not necessarily directly. The Conservative Party has stated openly that tax revenues will dwindle drastically. Considering who may be in Government within a year, those reduced revenues will lead to problems for the housing sector and for every Department in this country. Therefore, massive opportunities exist for the Department for Social Development.

I listened with care to the opening remarks in the debate, and I agree fundamentally with one issue that was raised. We should review how the housing strategy in Northern Ireland is delivered. Things have changed so fundamentally that a review must take place. Such a review could afford the Department an opportunity to give more freedom to housing associations to self-finance some public housing builds. The Clanmil Housing Association was mentioned, and it has been successful in getting private finance to deliver social housing in Northern Ireland. Do we need to take some of the economic shackles off such associations and allow them to get on with the job without intervening with public finance? Do other opportunities exist that need to be exploited?

Over the past few years, the Minister has put together other action plans for the rating of vacant properties, in an attempt to provide the owners with an incentive to rent them out. At what stage are those plans? Have they progressed? Are they dead in the water? That is why there is merit in reviewing the whole strategy.

I agree that the Programme for Government, with respect to housing, needs to be put on a sounder footing. The Minister should not be pouring an inordinate part of her budget into newbuild at the expense of repairs to existing housing. If that policy continues, it will create a disaster in public housing in the near future.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP

I thank the Members who tabled the motion. There is a serious problem with the Department for Social Development’s budget, as there is with the entire Northern Ireland Budget. The problem is that many spending plans have been based on securing capital receipts. However, due to the ongoing recession, those receipts have not materialised.

In addition, there is serious mismanagement and denial of problems by successive DUP Finance Ministers and spokespersons. Problems ought to have been tackled when they emerged; tackling them now makes the achievement of positive outcomes extremely difficult.

I appreciate the arguments put forward by the SDLP. There is clear evidence that increased investment in housing construction will boost the economy, especially through creating employment in the construction sector.

The Minister is struggling to meet her Programme for Government targets of creating social and affordable housing, and increasing investment there will help many vulnerable people. However we must approach the issue in full recognition of the problems facing the Executive. The Finance Minister has already outlined cuts in the region of £370 million that do not factor in the effects of swine flu or the equal pay claim.

In such circumstances, according priority to social housing will be a difficult and bold decision; but the Executive must debate it. An open and honest debate, based on all the facts and figures, is essential, and it has been lacking to date. For Northern Ireland to emerge from the recession in a strong position, the Executive must outline a coherent vision of public spending that will give confidence to business and protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Minister (Europe), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I thank the Members who have spoken already. I agree with some of their points and disagree with others.

We are in difficult and trying economic times. Local businesses are experiencing great difficulties, and unemployment is rising. One of the industries hardest hit is construction, and one of the simplest ways of getting it off its knees, or even getting its face out of the mud, is by applying a stimulus to the housing market. Some Members have said that too much money is going into housing; others have raised other objections. I do not understand some of those objections. Some have also said that there is enough money going into the construction of social housing, if only it were properly managed. That is completely false. During the past couple of years, management of the housing budget has been comparable to the miracle of the loaves and fishes: money has been stretched to achieve far beyond what we thought it had the potential to achieve. Fundamentally, not enough money is being invested in housing development, whether it is in new housing or in the renovation and repair of existing houses.

The Department for Social Development is facing a unique problem in that its mainstream programmes, outlined and planned over a number of years, have been massively undermined by a shortfall in expected capital receipts. No other Department has been undermined in that way. The facts, as distinct from the speculation, are as follows: there was a shortfall of £80 million in 2008-09; there is a shortfall of £100 million this year, and a shortfall of £100 million is expected next year. Those shortfalls represent gaps between what is required to meet the demands, needs and plans and what is available.

Executive support and assistance for the DSD budget have been inadequate and patchy. For the record, some help was given in September 2008. However, three months later, in December 2008, there was a smash-and-grab raid in which the Executive removed £30 million that had been released for housing from the DSD budget. In February 2009, the DSD was allowed to transfer some other moneys into housing. In June 2009, £20 million was transferred to housing, but that was done under strict conditions and with a focus on special needs and circumstances. As I understand it, the Executive plan to cut the DSD housing budget further.

To my mind, the situation with social housing is a bit like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The housing budget has been managed well recently because, despite there being a shortfall of £80 million last year — the equivalent of building 800 new homes — the DSD managed to build only 350 fewer than that; it squeezed enough money from its existing budget to build 450 homes that were not budgeted for. That was a fair achievement. This year, in spite of the £100 million shortfall — the equivalent of 1,000 homes — the Housing Executive and the DSD are on course to meet a target of 1,750 newbuild homes, unless, of course, their kitty is robbed in the meantime.

The work that has been done is very cost-effective. To meet the demand across all communities, geographically, socially and in every other way, the budget is being managed cost-effectively. We are getting good value for money. Members referred to land. One of the ways in which that good value for money is being achieved is that, in many cases, the Housing Executive is not buying land on which to build houses but is using up spare land that it has had on its books for some time. Therefore, because land does not have to be bought, all the money can be used to build new houses.

An unprecedented amount of money is being spent on renovations. In addition to that, the Minister has protected —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Business, Innoviation and Skills), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Minister (Europe), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The Minister has protected vulnerable people from cutbacks, when those have to be made.

I support the motion fully. We must unite around it. The detail can be put in place later, but let us first agree on the principle.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

A chairde agus a Cheann Comhairle, I support the motion, although I have some concerns about the SDLP’s assumptions.

Sinn Féin has always supported a proper newbuild programme. At Committee level, our group has supported the Minister and her Department when additional resources have been requested, as have all members of the Committee for Social Development. We realise that housing is a cross-cutting issue. There is an impact on the health, education and quality of life of those who do not have a home. We argue that all aspects of housing are underfunded. The SDLP motion refers to a recent report by the Ulster of University that states that the development of a proper social housing programme has a multiplier effect on employment. That is true, but it can be said of any sector.

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

The fact remains that the major impact on the construction industry was not the collapse of the social housing market but that of the private housing market. In 2006-07, 95% of all houses built were for the private housing market; in 2007-08, that figure was 90%. Of the 6,356 housing starts in 2008-09, 5,493 were started for the private market; there were 863 starts in the social housing sector. I wonder how many of those were paper starts. More than 300 homes in the social housing programme were not built and were carried over into 2009-2010. Therefore, the remainder of them must have been built for the private market originally and bought from private developers.

When Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he stated that one way in which to kick-start the economy and to create jobs is to upgrade the present housing stock. However, the Minister for Social Development has gone in the opposite direction; she has suspended most grants, and that will put many people on the dole.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 11:30 am, 6th October 2009

The Member talked about buying off-the-shelf housing from developers, and about that being factored into the housing figures. Does the Member agree that a substantial amount of public money has been spent on buying houses off the shelf that have not been up to standard; that additional public money has had to be spent on bringing them up to the Housing Executive’s standard; and that that is not a good way of managing the budget for social housing development?

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member has one extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I agree with the Member. Some housing associations that I have spoken to say that they may have to spend —

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I am sorry; I am running out of time.

Several months ago, we heard from a group that represents 900 small builders that they are being put out of business by the Minister’s policy. We heard also from the Egan contractors, who were disappointed that commitments given by the Housing Executive were being gone back on. Those contractors informed us that they were about to shed jobs. Roughly 1,000 people are employed in the Egan sector, but that number does not include those who rely on the custom of the sector for survival.

We agree that additional resources should be given to housing, but we are also concerned at the way in which the present budget is being run and the impact that it is having on existing housing stock in the private and social sectors. The Housing Executive admits that it is unlikely to meet the target of bringing all houses up to a particular standard by 2010. Perhaps the Minister will explain whether the Housing Executive will reach the new target date of 2014, given the suspension of much of the grants programme.

The Housing Executive set itself a target of making 3,200 external maintenance improvements, but it completed 2,105, which is a shortfall of 1,095. It also set itself a target of 4,500 kitchen replacements, but it achieved 2,566, which is a shortfall of 1,934. Furthermore, it set itself a target of 3,150 multi-element heating installations and other works, but it achieved 2,064, which is a shortfall of 1,086. Much of the failure to achieve targets was due to budget restrictions.

A statement that was released recently by the Housing Executive shows that we will not fare much better in the programme for the coming year. The Housing Executive usually issues 7,000 grants to help homeowners, but that will be cut to only 2,000. All group repair schemes have been put on hold, and discretionary grants that are not already in the system will not be approved. The statement goes on to say that £157·25 million has been allocated to newbuild. In normal times, we would commend the Minister for her commitment, but we are not in normal times. The Minister cannot continue to rob other parts of her budget to put into newbuild, no matter how commendable that may seem.

The Minister also needs to explain why many of the 1,500 houses that the Housing Executive has lying empty for use in decanting for major works have been brought into use to house those who are homeless. Furthermore, she needs to explain what happened to the report that she was to bring regarding the almost £1 billion of land owned by her Department and the Housing Executive, some of which is in areas of high demand. It is not always about selling land, but about using it strategically to gain houses.

When will we realise any houses from the developer contribution, which has provided thousands of units in Britain and the South? We lack resources for all aspects of housing, but we also lack a strategy to deal with the problem.

The SDLP should not continue to accuse people of attacking its Minister. We criticise where criticism is warranted. The SDLP should look at its record of attacking other Ministers in the House. When all is said and done, we will support the motion, and we ask the Minister of Finance to look favourably towards providing additional resources for housing and to ensure that it is spent wisely, not on only one element of the housing sector.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

The motion is a lot of humbug. There is no sincerity about tackling a real problem and a real issue. I have listened carefully to what some of the Members have said, and, to put it mildly, it is an absolute farce.

I listened to Billy Armstrong trot out comments about how evil the Finance Ministers of the past were and how they had fallen far short of the mark. Dr Farry is the only Member to come to the debate with a degree of honesty and sincerity; he attempted to set out before the House the real issues, and he put the challenge to the Ulster Unionists and to the SDLP, who proposed the motion. However, none of the Members of those parties who have spoken has taken up that challenge.

I listened to Mr McNarry, who told the House that if everyone had listened to him long ago, we not be in the current predicament. He has told the world at large that there is a “black hole” in the Budget and that, had the Executive taken the appropriate action long ago, we would not be facing this predicament. That is another lot of nonsense, which the House has come to expect from that quarter on a regular basis.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member referred to Mr McNarry’s claims of there being a “black hole” in the Budget, but surely Mr McNarry is correct to the extent that the denials made by the previous Finance Minister, Mr Dodds — who came to the House on a number of occasions and denied that there was any problem with the Budget or the Executive’s finance — were based on a false premise and that there is a very serious black hole in those finances?

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

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

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I do not accept that at all. In fairness to Mr Maginness, he normally brings some light to debates in the House, but he has also missed the mark. It seems that the Member is being influenced by a tendency to gang up, which is unfortunate, given that the issue of social housing should have the full support of all Members of the House. Some of us find the insincerity being spewed out today so contemptible that it is very difficult to listen to. However, despite the fact that the DUP has many reservations about the motion and the sincerity behind it, it will not divide the House on it.

We are in the midst of a severe economic downturn. Previously, the Housing Executive has, quite rightly, relied on house sales to stimulate its budget and its house-build programme, and that factor has not been properly and fully taken into account. Rather than the Assembly uniting as one body to deal with the serious issue of housing, with over 20,000 people on the housing waiting list, it is divided. Furthermore, the Minister for Social Development seems to be oblivious to the whole issue and does not want to take any advice on board. Rent arrears are spiralling out of control, houses have been purchased under the SPED scheme, and what has the Minister done about those issues? The sad fact is that she has done little or nothing, and we are moving further into a housing crisis on a daily basis.

When the Minister for Social Development was appointed, I believed that she had the heart for the job. As district councillors, we served on different bodies in the past, and I thought that her social intuitions would have steered her to strongly tackle those issues. However, to date we have seen no movement and there has been no effort by her Department to stand up and be counted. Instead, she has taken the facile approach of trying to blame everyone else, rather than admitting where the blame lies, fair and square.

I appeal to the SDLP to stop and think what it is doing when tabling motions such as the one before the House. In proposing such motions, it is making the job more difficult and is depressing those who have been on the housing waiting list for years. However, that party still believes that it is, in some way, attempting to address social issues.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

Just last week, I received a response from the Minister for Social Development regarding the renovations of dwellings for pensioners and disabled people in Coleraine, which is in my constituency.

Although I appreciate the Minister’s budgetary difficulties, her response informed me of yet another setback for that long-planned renovation scheme, and there is no starting date for the project. What are the additional moneys awarded to DSD from the spending rounds being spent on? They are not being spent on objective 1 in the PSA 12 delivery document.

There is another example in Limavady in my constituency, where another much-needed renovation scheme has no start date. I am sure that the Minister remembers her visit to that area last year and can recall the deprivation. Therefore, there is an urgent need for that project to begin. Those are just two examples from one constituency, and I am sure that Members can recount similar delays from their constituencies. That fails to meet objective 2 of PSA 12.

There is also the crisis in the availability of suitable housing. I call the situation a crisis because of the numerous enquiries for assistance that my office receives every week, and I am sure that other Members are in a similar situation. There are not enough public-sector homes available for tenants. The Minister has the unenviable task of addressing that situation, and there are two ways in which that can be done: newbuild or renovation of property, with newbuild being the long-term preferred way forward. The Minister has had significant financial help from successive Finance Ministers through the spending rounds to address the problems on her plate.

The reliance on the sale of public-sector homes has been a major factor that has led to the Minister’s current budgetary problem. In previous years, there was a predictable number of sales. However, the current economic downturn has led to a crash in the volume of house sales and, therefore, a depletion in her spending power. That economic downturn is not the fault of the Finance Minister, but the result of poor planning by the Minister and her predecessors, and has impacted heavily on the desired newbuild targets of the Minister.

It is essential that, in future, the same budgetary problems do not beset DSD. It must develop a way forward that will eliminate many of the mistakes that have been made, and that can be done only by an independent review of social housing in Northern Ireland. It must be a truly independent review, with DSD providing information and awaiting the results of the inquiry’s findings rather than its having the responsibility of carrying out the review. As a result, the people of Northern Ireland would have confidence in the review and its findings.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am disappointed that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will not be in the Chamber to respond to this important debate. This is the second time that the Minister has failed to respond to such a debate, and that is not good enough.

It is well known that there is a lack of funding for social housing. Simon Hamilton is right: the Minister for Social Development was given £20 million in the last monitoring round. However, that is not enough to fund the huge shortfall. Simon Hamilton also argued that the Minister for Social Development must make changes in her Department in order to fund housing. That has already been undertaken. Unfortunately, due to a dire lack of money, it has led to shortages elsewhere: for example, hampering attempts to continue with the normal Housing Executive repair schemes.

The DSD Minister has tried to bring forward other ways of producing funding. It was Simon Hamilton’s party colleague the Finance Minister who stalled some of those initiatives, including the possibility of re-profiling Housing Executive debt.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I will not.

Simon Hamilton should ask his party colleague to recast the Budget and the Programme for Government — something that all serious economic commentators are aware is necessary — before criticising the DSD Minister. He also criticised the University of Ulster report ‘Addressing the Economic Downturn: The Case for Increased Investment in Social Housing’ because it makes reference to homelessness. Has he no social conscience?

As the Northern Ireland Housing Council report ‘Bridging the Gaps’ states:

“Homelessness levels are at a high level and it is taking increasingly longer to provide permanent rehousing.”

Social housing is also a big contributor to health and has a strong impact on fuel poverty.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I am not giving way.

The Northern Ireland Housing Council report also states:

“It is widely accepted that housing generally makes a major contribution to Health.”

Fra McCann referred to that point, so I hope that he and his party remember that when we ask for their support in getting money to give people decent homes.

The Minister for Social Development is doing a great deal to protect the vulnerable in our society. Her Executive colleagues should assist, not hinder, her. She has protected the budget for the warm homes scheme, thus helping the fuel poor. She has also protected the Supporting People scheme, meaning that instead of people being in institutions, they can live independently in the community. We are all asking for that. I urge the Minister of Finance and Personnel to assist Margaret Ritchie in the good work that she is doing.

Members are telling us to support the motion for the benefit of people who need a home. That is all that those people are asking for — a decent home. We are asking for the appropriate funds to be given to the Minister so that those decent homes can be built. If that happened, the people in question would not face the health problems that Fra McCann spoke about, and if people are really serious, they should ask their Ministers to support the housing budget.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 11:45 am, 6th October 2009

The biggest issue that I deal with in my office is housing. Indeed, every Member who has spoken has said the same. Any Member who works hard in their constituency will be aware of the fact that the allocation and provision of social housing is a nightmare. Getting people housed and re-housed is a real quagmire and is very hard to negotiate. As good as Housing Executive and housing association staff are, there are only so many things that can be done at that level. However, something can be done — and, I believe, must be done — at ministerial level. I am talking about the Minister for Social Development.

I wrote to the Minister recently to express concern about the reduction of grants money that had been allocated to Housing Executive offices in the Province, particularly the Ards office; obviously, I have an issue with that. I urge the Minister to ensure that 1,500 new homes for this year are provided. Strangford, the area that I represent, has almost 3,000 people on the waiting list, which is well above the Northern Ireland average. If those homes are provided, the area will get its fair share of social housing.

Almost 1,700 people are classed as being in priority need in the Ards area, with some 900 on the ordinary list. That shows clearly that social housing need in the Ards area continues to grow. Indeed, such is that growth, it would take over 300 newbuilds in this year alone to address the present housing needs of those who are on the lists. Stephen Graham, the area manager — a real gentleman, hard worker and good manager — has indicated that, in this financial year and the next, around 200 newbuilds are being built with all the different housing associations. We know which associations are involved — BIH, Habinteg, Clanmil, Connswater, and so on. However, that is all subject to funding, which has come to mean that it is unlikely that some of those houses will be built. That is one of our concerns.

There is always a funding shortfall. Given that DSD has been allocated more and more funding in each of the monitoring rounds, I cannot understand that. There must be a turnaround in the way that things are done in the Housing Executive. That change must come from the top and work its way down.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

My friend will have noticed that I incurred the wrath of the previous Member who spoke. Does he agree with me that it is wrong to believe that we can meet the real need that exists through the current system, and that, when we are facing a challenging economic and resource environment, new and innovative ways of financing and delivering social housing in Northern Ireland are needed? That is why we need to take a fresh and independent look at how we meet that need in future. We should not continue to do what we have always done; it has not worked.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I thank the Member for his comments. I think that all Members will agree that we need new ways to address housing issues. Any time that you go into a housing estate in a town, you will see homes that could be used to house families lying empty. The Minister needs to implement the review to ensure that all homes that should be in use are in use and that homes are not sitting for months on end with no one in them. That is why the Minister must also provide money, not only for building maintenance and repairs, but for construction. That will give our construction industry, and, as a knock-on effect, the economy, a much-needed boost.

We do not simply want money to be thrown at the situation. It is a matter of thinking it through and getting a strategy that will benefit many sections of the community at once through provision of housing, maintenance and upkeep. There are clear ways in which the Department must tighten up.

First, it has taken the Housing Executive 32 weeks to sell one house in Newtownards — my goodness me. An ordinary private enterprise can do that in 12 to 14 weeks. There is something seriously wrong with the fact that it took the Housing Executive 32 weeks to sell one house.

I asked Margaret Ritchie to provide a breakdown of the number of houses sold by constituency. In the past year, 54 houses in the Province were sold. I know people in Ards who want to buy their house but cannot do so, and I want to know why. Perhaps the Minister can explain that to me. Something is seriously wrong with the system.

In times of economic uncertainty, the sale of homes should be encouraged, and all the revenue from house sales should be redirected to the Department’s budget. That could have happened if the process had been speeded up and if the people who enquired about buying their houses had had their enquiries listened to. A little more effort from the land and property section of the Housing Executive could result in more houses being built and sold more quickly. By and large, the Housing Executive is good and it replies, but I have some concerns over the time that it takes.

The Minister must implement greater efficiency in her Department as a matter of urgency so that funding can be freed to go to the right place at the right time. Wisdom must also be shown when allocating funding. Anyone who knows me will know that I completely support the promotion of culture and history and that I believe that we have a duty to preserve and enhance those. However, I also believe that all things should be done in moderation. I accept that help should be given, but I question the granting by DSD of £70,000 for a mural in north Down. Would it not have been better to have used that £70,000 to provide at least one house for a person on the list?

The onus is on the Minister to put her own house in order and to prioritise. As much as she should ask for and receive advice from her ministerial colleagues, she must do her part and accept that the funding that she has been given is adequate if she uses it in the right way. I support the view that social housing is needed, and the Minister knows that, because we have been working very hard to provide housing in Ards. When the Minister implements the review, the money that is saved will go a great way to providing the funds needed for newbuilds, which will also be beneficial to the construction sector.

I urge Members to think seriously about what they are supporting. We will not stand in the way of the motion. It is right that the issue should be raised, but the way in which it has been brought forward is wrong.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not know what has happened in the House this morning, but peace seems to have broken out. It reminds me of the little episode during the First World War when the German and British troops played football on Christmas Day. I do not understand it; there must be something in the water —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

What happened the day after that?

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was going to come to that. When the generals found out that the troops were playing football, they got them back to the trenches.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Please return to the motion.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will, Mr Deputy Speaker.

In any event, it is good to see that people are looking at the motion in a sensible manner. There seems to be a general consensus in the House that the motion is meritorious. Even Mr McCann said nice things about the motion, although he did not say nice things about the Minister; old habits die hard. Nonetheless, even Sinn Féin, including Mr McCann, and the DUP recognise the need for proper financing for housing.

On a serious note, it is accepted that, as stated in the University of Ulster report, investing in social housing in Northern Ireland has beneficial effects, such as its tremendous multiplier effect, which helps to stimulate the economy. It is not only for that reason that social housing is a good thing. People need houses, and the fact that almost 40,000 applicants are in need of housing in Northern Ireland shows that there is tremendous pressure. There is a great need to approach the issue in a creative manner.

I back the Minister’s record; she has done very well. As Dr McDonnell said, it is a miracle —comparable to that of the loaves and fishes — that she has produced so many houses and has maintained the services of DSD despite the fact that she has not had sufficient or proper financing.

The Minister has asked for housing to be put on a sound financial basis. There are two ways to do that; either directly through the Budget or by looking at public housing creatively in order to find new means of financing it. The Assembly can do that.

Earlier, I mentioned that in Britain, there is prudential borrowing, which allows —

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

Does the Member agree that the contribution that housing associations have made in Northern Ireland has made a big impact on social housing? Were it not for them, I do not know what situation social housing would be in at present.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I accept that housing associations have made a contribution. Indeed, the Minister, in trying to maximise her budget, has reduced the housing association grant. That means that housing associations must borrow more, indeed, an increased proportion of the cost of newbuild, which makes DSD money go further. That is a creative way to finance housing.

The point that I was making about the Housing Executive’s borrowing powers was that the Assembly needs to look at that creatively in order to determine where the Housing Executive can raise additional finance for housing. I see no reason why the Assembly cannot do that. If it does so, I believe that the Treasury —

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Mr Maginness is aware that the Committee has discussed that issue: indeed, it did so when he was a member. The Committee is awaiting papers on how that proposal would work, which, so far, have not been forthcoming. It seems to everyone that that could be a long way off. The Committee needs those papers urgently so that it can discuss the issue.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am grateful for Mr McCann’s intervention. I support the Committee’s consideration of the issue in order to find ways and means to support the Minister in being creative and putting housing on a sound financial basis.

I believe that borrowing powers for the Housing Executive are crucial. As has been pointed out by other Members, house sales and land sales are no longer sufficient to finance housing in Northern Ireland: it is as simple as that. There is not the same volume of sales as there was previously. Therefore, the housing budget is under severe pressure.

The Housing Council’s paper entitled ‘Bridging the Gaps’ is a useful contribution to the debate. The council must be congratulated for its innovative work in that regard.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion and repeat the call for more money for social housing. The SDLP has made that point many times previously, during many different debates. I make it again, unashamedly.

Putting money into social housing programmes is one of the best ways that the Assembly can help the local economy. That has been the SDLP’s position, and it is the position of people such as Professor Mike Smyth of the University of Ulster. Other Members mentioned the report, in which he makes a number of clear points. Although all those points have been mentioned in the debate, I will run through them again briefly.

In general, house building creates more jobs than any other investment. For every 10 jobs created through building houses, seven other sustainable jobs are created elsewhere in the economy. That is a clear multiplier: jobs created in the construction industry help the entire economy. The cost of land for construction has fallen sharply, which makes now a good time to invest in construction.

We will get value for money if we build on land that we already own. New houses will help us to deal with the housing waiting list, homelessness and housing stress, and better houses will help us to counter deprivation and to lift people out of fuel poverty.

The Minister for Social Development received £20 million in the June monitoring round, and we thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for that extra money. However, the Social Development budget still falls short. Originally, DSD needed an extra £100 million; it now needs £80 million. The SDLP has made that point again and again. The reasons for the budget shortfall are well known, so I will not repeat them. However, I remind Members that the receipts from house and land sales have virtually disappeared, so the budget for social housing has been reduced.

We need to put the social housing budget on a firm financial footing once again by continuing to press the Finance Minister for more money. Living hand to mouth from one monitoring round to the next is no way for the Minister for Social Development to have to run her Department. That is why we have asked for the Budget and the Programme for Government to be revisited.

As Mr McNarry said, much has changed since the Executive agreed the Budget. It is time for a change: we must revise our spending priorities. Based on the evidence and on the report from the University of Ulster, it is clear that investment in social housing should be a bigger priority.

More money has been brought forward for social housing in England and Scotland, and we should do the same. Thousands of new homes are urgently required. In the current economic climate and with housing stress at an all-time high, the demand for social housing will only increase as waiting lists grow longer, repossessions become more frequent, and homelessness rises. We should address those problems by building new houses, as that will also help the economy in the best possible way. That is why we are committed to the newbuild targets; however, we cannot reach those without extra money.

I thank all the Members — I think that there were 18 in total — who participated in the debate. We are, however, disappointed that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is not here to respond to the motion. The Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, has been here on no fewer than 10 occasions to respond to Members’ queries and to motions on the issue of social housing.

In proposing the motion, my colleague Declan O’Loan set out the case for investment in social housing very well. Simon Hamilton, the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, said that he understands the problems that the Minister faces. He asked the Minister for the report: the Minister has already asked for it, and it should be coming to the Committee.

Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín said that she under­stands the importance of building new houses, because that will increase the number of apprenticeships. Having more apprenticeships will help to reinvigorate the construction industry and make it grow. Apprentice­ships are the lifeblood of the construction industry; they should not be cut. I, therefore, agree with Carál that there needs to be more support for apprenticeships.

David McNarry said that the whole world has changed due to the economic downturn, and that we really need to revisit the Programme for Government and the Budget. That is very important. It does not mean only the Social Development budget and the housing problem; that goes right across all the ministries in the Assembly.

Stephen Farry brought us, as Lord Morrow might say, back to reality. But he wanted to shift the emphasis in the Budget to water charges, as if by bringing in water charges everything would be solved. Tell that to the electorate; let him announce that the Alliance Party is all for water charges.

David Hilditch spoke well. He understands the problems that the Social Development Minister is facing. Mitchel McLaughlin feels that the SDLP is always coming back to the Assembly to ask for money. He said that our one and only cry is that we do not have enough money for housing. He said that we are always back here begging for money. Well, we have to come here and ask for money for housing because the housing budget was £100 million short. We got £20 million, but we are still £80 million short.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

No.

Mitchel McLaughlin did not mention all the other priorities that the Social Development Minister has, such as the warm homes scheme, the Supporting People programme, neighbourhood renewal, the economic downturn, and the creation of more jobs in benefit offices. The Department for Social Development is a big-spending Department, and it deals with a lot more than just housing.

Jonathan Craig spoke well. He mentioned that there was better value for money to be got. He said that, in the construction industry, prices now are better value than they would have been two years ago. I thank Billy Armstrong for his contribution, and I think that Alasdair McDonnell spoke very well, too.

Fra McCann understands the problems in social development. He gave us the facts and figures for the entire Department and for social housing. I thank Fra for his contribution.

Lord Morrow nearly stole the thunder from my winding-up speech. He referred to the whole debate as a farce. I totally disagree; the debate has been far from a farce. There has been a complete acknowledgement of the underspend in social housing. Every Member knows and understands that.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member will bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. My party colleague Alban Maginness said that when the war broke out, the soldiers went out and played football, and then went back to the trenches. I do not want us to go back into our trenches. I want us to work together to solve the social housing problem.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

The SDLP wants to build more houses.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes with concern the particular impact on the housing construction industry of the current economic downturn; further notes the recent research by the University of Ulster that investment in social housing would have a multiplier effect on job creation; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make moneys available to invest in a programme of new build social housing across Northern Ireland.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UUP

Manchester United went into the trenches.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Order.

As the Business Committee has arranged to meet at 12.30 —

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We had an unprecedented situation this morning, and I fully respect the rulings of the Speaker on that. However, the only remaining business in the Assembly today is Question Time and an Adjournment debate. I think that a lot of us are conscious of the credibility of this institution among the public in Northern Ireland. The number of hours that we will have on the Floor is extremely disappointing. Is there any possible way that the Business Committee can reflect on whether it is possible to bring any business forward this afternoon so that we can have a working Assembly, rather than one which sits for only one and a half days this week?

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 12.30 pm. Members can raise with the Business Committee any issues that they have at that time. As the next item of business is Question Time, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 3.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.10 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —