British-Irish Council: Housing

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 1st March 2011.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 10:30 am, 1st March 2011

I have received notice from the Minister for Social Development that he wishes to make a statement to the House.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

In compliance with the requirements of section 52C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and of Standing Order 18, I wish to report on the second meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC) housing work stream, which was held in St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road in Belfast on 16 February. The report has been agreed by, and is being made on behalf of, junior Minister Robin Newton MLA, who accompanied me at the meeting.

Before I get into the body of the report, I want to make some overarching comments. As Members know, sometimes in politics it is difficult to see the wood for the trees when trying to identify the big strategic issues beyond the details and vagaries of political life. What I found useful about the British-Irish Council meeting in housing sectoral format was that, when politicians at a ministerial or equivalent level were brought into the room to interrogate and bear down on the particular issue of housing, the fog began to clear.

I found that, in conversation at a political level, when the democratic interest is properly asserted, one can bear down and get conclusions that are very useful in terms of shared practice and common interest going forward. That was very clear in the meeting. Although we came from a diversity of jurisdictions, the common interest in housing — housing finance, housing models and housing need — was crystal clear.

That is a further reason I felt the meeting to be very important. It all arises from the initiative of Margaret Ritchie, as it was she who identified the gap in the institutional structures that suggested to her that the British-Irish Council could usefully bear down on housing issues. The report from Robin Newton and me indicates, and the work of the sector confirms, that her judgement was timely and appropriate in beginning to scope how we move forward on the issues. I am the sweeper in the Department, taking forward the legacy of Margaret Ritchie, and that was true of the BIC housing sectoral meeting last month.

At its summit in Cardiff in February 2009, the British-Irish Council identified housing as a new work stream. The fact that Margaret Ritchie was asked to lead that work was indicative not just of her personal commitment to the issue but of the fact that the Northern Ireland housing sector and the Department were ahead of the game in best practice in housing developments in the jurisdiction of the BIC. For those reasons, Margaret Ritchie was asked to take the matter forward.

The first ministerial work stream was held in the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle in December 2009, and I hosted the second ministerial meeting, at which all eight jurisdictions were represented. The British Government were represented by Neil McDonald, who is the director of housing standards, homelessness and support at the Department for Communities and Local Government. The relevant Minister was unable to attend as there was a three-line whip in Westminster — in the Commons and the Lords — on legislation that was proceeding at the time.

The Irish Government were represented by Michael Finneran TD, the then Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local services. Given the various demands on Ministers in the South, including electoral demands, it was important that the Minister from the South was there. He made a substantial contribution to the meeting. I congratulate all the parties that performed successfully in the recent election in the South and commiserate with many good TDs who no longer represent their constituency in the Dáil. Many good men and women are no longer fulfilling that role.

The Scottish Government were represented by Alex Neil MSP, the Minister for Housing and Communities. As we will hear, his contribution was particularly timely. I had a long meeting with him in January when we scoped how we might proceed over the next five, 10 or 15 years, including considering housing models and housing financial options. Alex Neil spoke to those issues usefully and in some detail at the meeting.

The Welsh Assembly Government were represented by Judith Askew, a senior housing official, and the Jersey Government by Carl Mavity, also a senior housing official. His Housing Minister could not attend because he had been elected Housing Minister only the day before. The Guernsey Government were represented Graham Guille, the Deputy Minister for Housing, and the Isle of Man Government were represented by the Hon Martyn Quayle MHK, Minister of Social Care. Junior Minister Robin Newton and I co-chaired the meeting; together we represented the Northern Ireland Executive.

During the day, we considered papers on three areas of work and received two short presentations from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The first paper sought to identify new forms of investment for affordable housing. Ministers agreed that, given the very challenging budgetary position that each of us faces, it was important to find new ways of financing our work. The paper that Alex Neil presented on behalf of the Scottish Government identified alternative financial opportunities that we will explore further. I am sure that I will be asked questions about those opportunities.

The second paper, which was presented on behalf of the British Government, looked at the issue of mobility in social housing. Evidence suggests that finding suitable social housing can be a problem where tenants move from one area to another. Details of the proposed house swap scheme were shared, and Ministers agreed in principle that that is an area that each Administration should explore further. However, we noted that there were regulatory and legislative issues associated with such transfer of tenancy. Indeed, some Administrations attach specific residency conditions to social housing provision in their jurisdiction.

Notwithstanding those issues, Ministers were supportive of any plans that could increase the social mobility of those in public housing, and work will begin to scope out areas in which that could be done on a voluntary basis.

The third paper looked at the possibility of including social clauses in government contracts. I introduced that paper, as I insisted that spending in my own Department must include conditions to provide work placements and, ultimately, apprenticeships for the long-term unemployed. I confirmed to ministerial colleagues that the initiative under way in my Department was brought forward unilaterally by me on 1 January 2011. In 2009-2010, government spending here among Departments, agencies, and non departmental public bodies accounted for more than £2·3 billion. I firmly believe that such spend can be used more constructively to provide real opportunities for those who are out of work. Details of that unemployed clause were discussed, and Ministers agreed that the introduction of such a clause would assist in providing the long-term unemployed with much needed skills that will help them to find suitable employment in the future.

Plans are also in place to introduce additional clauses on a phased basis for apprenticeships and student placements, and I updated Ministers on that. I also instructed officials to scope out how the social clause provisions could apply to supplies and services. At all times, the threshold at which a social clause will kick-in in the Department for Social Development (DSD) is much lower than the threshold in other Departments. That is done in an effort to ensure that the maximum number of people get work opportunities through DSD’s spending on newbuilds and regeneration. No doubt, I will be asked about that subsequently, and I will be pleased to give Members much more detail.

Two presentations were made by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The first was entitled ‘Housing: A West Belfast Context’, and the second was on retro-fitting. The first presentation gave a context to our meeting by showcasing how good housing can be a catalyst for regenerating communities and providing the building blocks to lift them out of poverty and deprivation. As we had many visitors and the meeting was in the heart of the West Belfast constituency on the Falls Road, I thought that it was appropriate to give an overview at the start of the meeting of where housing had travelled over the past 40 years in the entire constituency, from the Shankill to Twinbrook.

The second presentation on retro-fitting and energy efficiency looked at the challenges of adapting existing homes to make them more energy efficient. A passive house project from Newry was showcased in the presentation, and it provided Ministers with an opportunity to see how older housing can be repaired, improved and retained to modern standards of thermal comfort and sustainability. Housing stock and energy efficiency and how they relate to fuel poverty in Northern Ireland and across Britain occupied a great deal of the attention of those who were present.

Ministers agreed that the issue presented challenges and opportunities for their respective jurisdictions, particularly in the current economic climate. Officials will continue to share good practice as we take forward the actions that were agreed at our meeting last week. I have made the minutes from our first meeting in December 2009, together with a communiqué from our meeting last week, available to Members to see the range of issues that are being taken forward on their behalf.

We considered the meeting to be particularly useful. The exchange on housing need, models and funding is work that can be usefully developed in the future, and officials have been asked to gather and share information, including best or innovative practice, to inform how each jurisdiction plans for the future. It is anticipated that the sector will return quickly to the issue.

Before concluding, I want to acknowledge the president of St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road, Professor Peter Finn, and his staff, including the harpist and those who prepared the Irish stew and wheaten bread. They were very good hosts. Given that the meeting dealt with housing, I deliberately took it away from a hotel into a community with historic and current housing needs. I congratulate all those in St Mary’s and my own officials, who worked hard to put together a very productive day.

New ways of doing housing that at all times firmly embed the principle of community benefit are essential. Perhaps somewhat to my surprise, the BIC housing sector can be important in achieving that objective.

We concluded that the good models and good practice that were discussed during the meeting should be collated by officials and shared among officials and Ministers in the next two or three months. The issue of housing sector reform, housing financial models, housing generally and housing need in particular will preoccupy the Assembly in the next mandate. It will preoccupy all the jurisdictions in all their mandates, and the BIC will be critical in all that work.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP 10:45 am, 1st March 2011

I thank the Minister for his statement and for the additional information that he provided to the House. I wholly support the comments that he made at the outset. I think that we all agree that the sharing of ideas across various jurisdictions in the British Isles on the complex issue of housing can only be to our mutual benefit.

The first paper presented at the meeting was on new forms of investment for affordable housing. The Minister will know that I have a very close interest in that issue. Will he give more detail on the types of models that were discussed? In these very difficult economic times enforced on us by Tory cuts, is there scope not just for us — in his belief — in Northern Ireland to seek out new ways of funding housing development, but also working on a collaborative basis with our partners in the British Isles to do something more?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his contribution. He touches on a vital point. The issue of housing need and housing finance is going to preoccupy and challenge us politically and operationally. Because of the setting up of the BIC housing sector, the leadership of Margaret Ritchie and the work of all the other Ministers responsible for housing, housing associations have been able to access additional sources of funding from the Housing Finance Corporation, the bond market and the European Investment Bank (EIB). The European Investment Bank has made £345 million available to housing associations, and the bond market has made available over £70 million. Of that, £30 million of the EIB money and £21 million of the bond money has come to Northern Ireland housing associations.

Already the BIC housing sector, and Margaret Ritchie’s input in particular, has demonstrated that one can draw down other sources of funding at lower interest rates in an effort to subsidise the public and affordable housing sector and maximise newbuild. That model — the bond market and the EIB — clearly needs to move forward. However, as the Member said, we need to stretch ourselves in scoping out other potential opportunities.

Beyond EIB and the bond market, the matter of what might be available in terms of pension funds making money available to the housing sector is going forward. The Scottish Government is scoping out a large number of pilot schemes to identify alternative funding opportunities and different tenure approaches modelled to suit local market conditions in the Scottish jurisdiction. We will interrogate those models, as will all the jurisdictions, to see whether anything appropriate comes across.

My view is that we do not exclude any possibilities and that we exhaust all possibilities, but we caution ourselves. My sense is that there are some predatory instincts that think that there is easy money to be made off housing stock in the short term, and I caution against that. Yes, we must exhaustively look at all funding options. However, we must not be casual, opportunistic or short-sighted in looking at those options and thinking that, just because the Housing Executive has 90,000 units, there is easy and quick money to be had to fund newbuild.

Subject to that caveat, and to the principle that it falls to government to be responsible for the provision of public and social housing, we need to get to the bottom of the models developed over the past couple of years and other alternative finance models, and where there are reasonable opportunities, exploit them.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

I also welcome the Minister’s statement and that he took the event from a hotel in a leafy suburb into a working class community. Those are all good signals to send to the people living in the area. The areas surrounding that location have some of the worst social deprivation but also contain some of the better social housing that has been built —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Do I detect a question somewhere?

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I am sorry; I lost the run of myself.

The Minister mentioned social clauses. I remember a debate a number of months ago in which someone from the Welsh Assembly said that the Welsh Assembly Government had successfully used social clauses in social housing. Has the Minister set any time limits for when the objective of obtaining jobs and apprentice­ships through social clauses can be met?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

It was not the case that I removed the meeting from a hotel in a leafy suburb. The proposed location was a hotel in the heart of east Belfast, rather than in a leafy suburb. Nonetheless I thought that a non-hotel venue, and one in west Belfast, was appropriate.

The issue of social clauses is not speculation; it is already in place. From 1 January, housing associations must have the new social clause in place for newbuilds. In addition, regeneration contracts, through the urban side of DSD, must also have it in place. The consequence is that for every £500,000 spent on labour, a contractor is obliged to employ a long-term unemployed person for 26 weeks, or two long-term unemployed people for 13 weeks. So, this is not a matter of speculation; it is something that I instructed the Department to put in place late last year and it became live on 1 January.

The Member might be interested to know that, if he were to visit the newbuild by Clanmil Housing on the Bass (Ireland) site on the Glen Road, he would see that the new social clause is in place there. Clanmil Housing is applying it on a voluntary basis, because contracts were signed before 1 January. However, I hope that all other organisations will follow the lead given by Clanmil Housing and adopt a social clause voluntarily in contracts that are already live.

The social clause went live on 1 January 2011 on the newbuild and regeneration sides and is a requirement in contracts since then. However, it is only a requirement in contracts at that threshold under the DSD. I want to acknowledge the assistance of the Construction Employers Federation, and that of Ministers Empey and Kennedy, in making those schemes available. People are coming from the register and are being employed under various Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) schemes.

Across the rest of government, and under every other Department, the old thresholds are still in place; namely that the main contractor has to employ one long-term unemployed person for each £5 million of project value, and one apprentice for each £2 million of project value. My view is that those thresholds are far too high. So, last autumn I brought in officials and began to interrogate them, if that is not too immoderate a word, on how we could lower the thresholds.

I was told that we could not get it down lower, until, one day, my deputy secretary said to me that he thought we had found the nugget. When you interrogate officials about what has been the prevailing rule and say that you want a different rule, consistent with evidence and good process, you can get things over the line. That is why today I am writing to all my ministerial colleagues, saying that, in my view, the social clauses provision, which is different in DSD from that in any other Department, should be deployed in every other Department.

For every £500,000 of labour spend, we are obliged to employ somebody who is long-term unemployed. I think that we should go further. I instructed officials to tell the Housing Executive that, as with the new maintenance contracts, which will be awarded, as Members know, in late autumn, given that I suspended the process a number of weeks ago, future Egan contracts must contain similar social clauses. The Housing Executive has agreed to that. I also instructed officials to identify how we will deploy social clauses for supplies and services in the Department. That is a bit difficult, because a lot of supplies and services are provided under government frameworks and are not going to fall to DSD. Nonetheless, I asked my officials to identify how we can do that.

The bottom line is that, if the social clause provision in DSD were to be deployed across government, upwards of 1,850 people over four years would have the opportunity for work. That is not many, compared with the scale of our unemployment figures, but, having upwards of 2,000 people in work during the lifetime of the next Assembly as a result of government spend seems to me self-evidently the way to go. I hope that other Ministers will go there with me.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I congratulate the Minister on his leadership of the British-Irish Council, and, indeed, that of his predecessor, and for introducing social clauses into public procurement. What does he think is the full potential for social clauses, if introduced by all Departments? Has he had any discussions with the Finance Minister or any other Minister?

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I am sure you were surprised at that question.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was shocked, not just surprised. I was overwhelmed and impressed. I did not write it myself. That last bit is true.

I instructed my permanent secretary to raise the model that we have now adopted with the Central Procurement Directorate. I have some serious issues with government procurement in general, which I raised at Executive level. I asked that we have a review of procurement going forward, because there are issues around, not just social clauses, but procurement generally and, in particular, about how procurement can be legitimately modelled to favour small indigenous and small to medium-sized indigenous employers and organisations. We can, quite legitimately, consistent with European procurement rules, remodel procurement in Northern Ireland in order to advantage, quite properly, the small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) sector.

My permanent secretary raised the issue with the Central Procurement Directorate, from which some of the more radical advice was forthcoming. However, when I was initially told that we could not go in that direction, one or two officials on the procurement side, somewhat to my surprise, said that I could go further. The social clauses initiative came out of that process. As I said earlier, I will be writing to all my ministerial colleagues today, telling them that the model is a live one, it is a start, not an end, and that everybody should follow in that direction.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I welcome the Minister’s comprehensive statement and report of the British-Irish Council meeting. It seems that there is a lot of interest in social clauses in government contracts. Have any of the other jurisdictions represented at the meeting introduced similar social clause initiatives?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:00 am, 1st March 2011

It is fair to say that the model that DSD now has is a more advanced one, in respect of not just our own Government but other Governments. Yes, social clauses are part of the picture as regards contractual requirements in other jurisdictions. However, my sense from other Ministers is that Northern Ireland — or, least, DSD in Northern Ireland — is ahead of the game. They all agreed that the principle of embedding social clauses in procurement and scoping social clauses as far and as wide as possible is the way to go in respect of not just newbuild projects and regeneration but consultancy.

There is no reason why we cannot work up a model that escalates what DSD has done and extends it beyond those who are long-term unemployed to include graduates who are out of work and apprentices who are not able to fulfil their apprenticeship. Whether it is newbuild, services, supplies, consultancy, human resources or finance, social clauses — in respect of the unemployed and/or apprentices and/or graduates — should be part of this Government’s narrative going forward. We in DSD have taken some useful steps, but we have not finished our journey. I hope that everyone will go down that path.

Photo of Sydney Anderson Sydney Anderson DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. There is great value in representatives from across the UK and the Irish Republic meeting in this way. I am interested in a number of issues that were dealt with at the meeting. One issue that was raised is mobility in social housing, which can be a problem. Can the Minister provide any more detail on how he intends to further explore the home swap scheme in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that question. As I said, there was useful discussion on social mobility.

As the Member is probably aware, the London Government have various views on social mobility, some of which I do not necessarily agree with. An example of social mobility that I would not advocate anywhere in these islands is the notion of managing and capping housing benefit, which, in London, for instance, forces people to live beyond greater London. Due to the pressures that are put on people in respect of their housing budget, they are obliged to move out of some­where where they may have lived for generations or for a long period and go outside greater London to find affordable housing. We need to be careful about social mobility.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that it is a voluntary thing. To be fair, the representative of the London Government — the director of housing standards, Mr McDonald — said that it was a voluntary approach. People should not be required, through financial pressures or any other mechanism, to move from one part of the country to another part. It has to be voluntary.

Thirdly, we have to acknowledge that Northern Ireland might be a little different. Given the history of this part of the world and the fact that people in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland have tended to live in single identity areas, through no fault of their own but as a consequence of conflict, social upheaval and all the other factors with which we are all too familiar. We have to be mindful that social mobility models, which we should exploit and explore, need to be fit for purpose when it comes to one or other jurisdiction. That is certainly the case in respect of Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.

Fourthly, officials are gathering information on social mobility models. There are house swap schemes, but they seem to be somewhat fragmented. They seem to be web-based, fragmented and not co-ordinated. If there are opportunities for people to move from one part of the city to a different part of the city or from one part of the country to a different part of the country, those opportunities do not seem to have been developed in a very cohesive way. As I recall — I am subject to correction — officials are collating all the house swap models and opportunities, in order to identify whether that approach can be explored and developed further. There is no doubt that that model would have some role to play if it could create better housing opportunities either through people downsizing to free up a larger property or moving from one part of the country to another for reasons of personal choice, employment or other good grounds. We shall certainly explore and exploit that. However, we are mindful that local jurisdictions would have to model that to suit their circumstances.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I understand that social clauses were successfully introduced in Wales. The Minister mentioned that a Passive House project in Newry was showcased, and that is a welcome and innovative project. An energy efficiency audit was also done in the same area. Based on the projected success of the Passive House project, is there an intention to extend that even further?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. I confirm that a retrofitting scheme involving a block of five houses in Newry will take place. One of the properties will be a Passive House development, and the other four will be upgraded to various energy efficiency standards. Arising from that exercise will be a robust analysis of the energy efficiency advantage and the cost consequences. It is only when we have a sufficient evidence base on the value of energy efficiency interventions and on the cost comparisons with other energy interventions that we will be able to draw a conclusion about whether that model can be rolled out. This is the first time that that will be done in Northern Ireland. Clearly, it would be easier to do it with newbuilds than existing stock; however, using existing stock will enable us to gain some useful learning that will determine whether we should take the model further.

The principle behind this is that we should bear down on the three causes of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland: low income; high energy costs; and poor energy efficiency. It has previously been the case that government tended to concentrate on the latter, and we should continue to concentrate on that. However, following representations from various Members, I confirm that the budget for the warm homes scheme will be increased over each of the next four years in recognition of the fact that the problems of energy efficiency and fuel poverty are acute and growing. If there is some learning to be gained from that model, I have no doubt that the future Minister for Social Development will try to apply that positively.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. I am interested in the work being carried out by the Scottish Government on alternative financing opportunities for housing. Does the Minister wish to outline or expand on some of those ideas? That matter is of great interest to the House.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that. The Scottish Government have made some useful interventions and innovations. However, the Northern Ireland Government still have work to do on financing options that we need to get over the line. Since July 2010, I have been trying to get a consultation on developer contributions out the door. Without prejudice to what model might be used and when that might be deployed, given the economic circumstances of Northern Ireland, the issue of developer contributions needs to be addressed now. Similarly, I am awaiting a PWC report on a leasing model. That model will provide an opportunity to explore alternative financial models that are very consistent with what the Scottish Government are doing.

In summary, the Scottish Government are throwing the net very wide, just as we did during the years of Margaret Ritchie’s leadership of the Department, and trying to turn over as many stones as possible to see whether any models of tenure or funding are appropriate. The scale of what they are suggesting is that they have 22 pilot schemes, 11 of which are already live and 11 of which they intend to roll out. Working with local councils, housing associations and the private sector, they scope out ways of financing housing with various tenures with government, state and non-state assistance. Interestingly, they are trying to identify what models work best, whether particular innovative models will work in an urban or rural location and new ways to work with the private sector in bringing forward funding. We will see where all that goes. However, it is my sense that Alex Neil is one of the more innovative and thoughtful Ministers I have come across, and the Scottish Government are engaged in a very interesting project.

A lot of that work is paralleled by the work of DSD. We now have three procurement groups for housing associations, which, through all their activities, are meant to procure collectively. That is work in progress that will drive down costs and make housing associations much more efficient in their internal costs and building costs. The fact that we are now building a third of our properties on government land drives down cost. The fact that Margaret Ritchie launched an initiative to draw down money from the bond market and the European Investment Bank is also an example of that. Margaret Ritchie reduced the level of housing association grant going to housing associations, and we will push that further over the next short while. When it comes to innovation in the housing sector, all that work demonstrates that DSD is the co-leader with Scotland, if not ahead of it, in that business.

Photo of Pól Callaghan Pól Callaghan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle Conallach. I thank the Minister for his statement. He mentioned details of the proposed home swap scheme. He and other Members will be aware that much of the movement in social housing at the minute is not necessarily a matter of choice but is driven by economic factors, such as joblessness, family and other factors. Will the Minister expand on what cross-jurisdictional dimensions there may be to any proposals that are afloat at the minute around the home swap scheme, such as people having to move from the North to other parts of the island, to the neighbouring island or back home again? Furthermore, given the devastation of the capital housing budget, will the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to expand on the high performance of himself and his predecessor in developing the number of newbuilds that are available for anyone who wants to come back here?

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to finish his question.

Photo of Pól Callaghan Pól Callaghan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I had nearly finished, Mr Speaker. That was the end of my question.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that question. That was not in the script. I genuinely mean that. Therefore, I may struggle to answer the first part of it. However, I certainly agree with the second part of the question.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Can you remember it?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes.

On a daily basis, it preoccupies me that under the draft Budget, whatever way it is cut or shaped, DSD, in going forward, will be fortunate to build 1,200 or 1,300 houses a year. The Housing Executive, on good authority, confirms that there is a need for 2,500 houses a year, in the context that Margaret Ritchie was able to get more than 1,800 newbuild starts over the line last year, a figure that may well be exceeded this year. That is all happening in an environment in which we are going to have increasing housing stress and need going forward. That does not work. It is inconceivable that we should build 1,300 houses when the demand is 2,500 and will increase as people lose their home, which is what is happening.

People in Ardoyne have, over the past number of days and at the weekend, received letters from their bank saying that orders for possession were now going to be enforced through the Enforcement of Judgments Office. I know that because people from Ardoyne talked to me yesterday and, in passing, mentioned that a significant number of families received those letters over the weekend, including the sister of one of the people who was in to see me. As I understand it, the banks have been sitting on orders for repossession granted by the High Court and not moving to enforce them because of the economic circumstances. However, the high street lenders and sub-prime lenders have now decided to enforce those judgements because they need to get the capital. Even though house prices continue to decline in Northern Ireland, unlike in other parts of these islands, high street lenders and sub-prime lenders have decided to go in that direction. The consequence is that mortgage stress, mortgage debt and the loss of homes will increase.

In that context — never mind all the other factors that I have outlined — how can we reduce newbuild by at least one third compared with recent years when we need to build more than in recent years? It does not add up. It will be measured in family stress and human misery. That matter needs to be corrected in the draft Budget, and mechanisms need to be put in place to correct it over the next four years. I continue to discuss that matter with the Minister of Finance and Personnel; I did so yesterday afternoon. I hope that, some way or other and without prejudice to the view that I may take on the draft Budget, those matters can become more fully acknowledged and recognised in the Budget.

The Member asked about interjurisdictional opportunities in the house swap scheme. That is a very interesting point that we did not touch on at the BIC. House swap schemes clearly work that way in Britain, but I am not aware of how the schemes work between the jurisdictions in Britain and Northern Ireland or, even more particularly, how they work on this island. The Dublin Government have a model house swap. I think that Minister Finneran referred to that at the meeting, although I stand to be corrected. How it might work on the island of Ireland never mind between the islands is something that we did not touch on in any great detail. Given mobility on this island and given family and other ties in these islands, it could govern how house swap schemes might work in future. I will ask officials to raise that with officials from the other jurisdictions and identify whether there is something further that we can work up.