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I am glad that at least you recognised that I was in the House, Mr Speaker. I know a good optician that Mr O’Loan can use so that he can see me in future. I do not think that I have been called the invisible Minister before; this is a first.
Housing policy is an issue for the Minister for Social Development, and I would expect her to raise any proposal for the funding of social housing by credit unions. I understand that she has already met the credit unions, but, to date, she has not made any approach to my Department about funding from that source.
As I have already mentioned, this really is a matter for the Minister for Social Development. Housing associations can seek funding from whatever sources they wish; currently, approximately 67% of housing association funding for social housing comes from private sources. If the housing associations want to follow up on the possibility of funding from the credit unions, or any other financial institution, they are free to do so. Within certain rules, they are free to finance housing stock from that source.
The Minister will recognise that the future financing of social housing in Northern Ireland is a big issue, and Mr McCann’s question, the Housing Council and the Northern Ireland Housing Commission have all talked about the issue. There are dozens of different ideas, many of which could ease pressure on the public purse. Does the Minister agree that to get a better assessment of the validity and feasibility of those ideas, a review of social housing in Northern Ireland — one which particularly examines placing social housing delivery on a firm foundation in difficult economic times — would be a good proposal?
I understand the importance of investment in social housing, particularly as private sector house building has taken a knock, and that has impacted on the construction industry. The social housing sector is important. However, any review of the finance or structure of social housing is ultimately the responsibility of the Minister for Social Development, and she should be the first port of call on that issue.
There have sometimes been difficulties with the Department for Social Development’s finances and looking at innovative ways of using finance. Therefore, my departmental officials would be more than happy to help with any such review and give the Department some pointers.
As Mr Hamilton rightly said, there is a lot of novel thinking going on about funding for social housing. I understand what the Minister has said about the responsibility of the Minister for Social Development in that area, but clearly there are also serious financial issues. Therefore, I urge the Minister to go further than he has done in his contribution and say what his Department has done in researching the issue and what novel forms of funding his Department could bring to the table.
I thank the Member for his question. I hope that I am not treading on the Minister for Social Development’s toes, but I have already met a number of people who are interested in bringing private finance to the social housing sector. The sources of that funding range from the construction industry to pension funds, and I have looked at how that finance might be innovatively used. I know that some of them have spoken to the Minister for Social Development, too.
The Department of Finance and Personnel can help in a number of ways. First, once we go down the route of looking at innovative proposals, procurement issues will be involved, and some of those will be complex: the Department can bring its expertise to bear. Secondly, there is no point in looking for innovative sources of finance if finding them has an impact on the block grant. Again, the Department can provide advice and expertise on how any such finance might affect the Treasury’s view of money that it already gives to Northern Ireland and whether the method of finance involved is likely to have an impact on the block grant.
Thirdly, the Department of Finance and Personnel can help with the economic evaluation of such schemes. I looked at one scheme and met representatives of the pension fund. Such schemes are very often complex and will have long-term implications for housing association and social housing revenue, and my officials can evaluate the longer-term aspects.