Housing Executive Structures

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to instruct the chairperson of the Housing Executive to cease immediately the dismantling of Housing Executive structures until full political debate has been held on the future of housing. — [Mr F McCann.]

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Like others, I am somewhat at a loss to understand the nature of the motion, although I understand the sentiments around it. I would like to start by saying that I started my married life as a tenant of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. It housed me at a time when it was appropriate for it to do so, and I was able to move on when it was equally appropriate for me to do so. I value the work done and the role played by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive over the many years since its inception.

I have to express some surprise and concern at the nature and content of the motion. The call on the Assembly to ask the Minister to "instruct" the chair of the Housing Executive certainly rings some alarm bells with me. The call for an instruction implies that something has gone wrong in a fundamental area of governance. As a member of the Committee and in my time in the Assembly, I have had concerns about how many organisations operate, but I do not think that I share the concern that would require an instruction to a chairperson of an arm's-length organisation funded by the Department.

We are all aware that reforms of the Housing Executive remain in discussion. They are important and sometimes contentious issues, and, from that perspective, Sinn Féin is right. There are areas that need serious debate, but the nature and tenor of the motion is premature. It is important that we have that discussion and that the new Minister — not so new now — comes to us when he is available, and we have a genuine opportunity to go through all the issues that have been raised and continue to need to be raised on how we deliver quality public-sector and social housing for all those citizens who require it today and in the future. I do not think that a motion like this will advance the cause of that debate in any direction at all.

Inevitably, there are very serious issues when it comes to the situation in which the Northern Ireland Housing Executive finds itself. We were told at a Committee meeting last week that some £1·5 billion will be required for repairs and maintenance over the next five years. The challenge is: from where will the funds come? On the one hand, we have housing associations that have a much more modern housing stock; on the other hand, we have a Housing Executive that has a decreasing quality of stock because it is ageing. That requires innovative ways forward, whether stock transfers or increases in rent. However, the party that is proposing the motion does not want anybody to spend any more on anything or give any more money towards how we take things forward. Expressing concerns that the Minister should take this matter up directly with the Housing Executive rings alarm bells with me.

I welcome the steps taken to address the issue in Committee. I believe that the Committee will see housing as its key focus in the remaining days of this mandate, however short or long that will be. However, I have to say that the fundamental message that the Alliance Party and I want to send out today is that we support the Housing Executive and its work. We are opposed to its wholesale dismantling or change for change's sake, but, like all organisations in the public sector, it needs to meet the challenges of change and those of delivering in this day and age. We cannot look back through rose-tinted glasses at what the Housing Executive has done through its many achievements. There have been many achievements, but, equally, there have been many failures. It is important that the Housing Executive is supported in its changing and evolving role, but I do not believe that today's motion aids that situation at all, and I encourage the Member to reflect on what he is asking the House to do. That debate should continue, as it has done since 2013, in Committee.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

Along with other Members, I am somewhat bemused as to why the motion has been brought forward at this time, albeit I understand a lot of the sentiments that lie behind it. I know that it was recognised, even in the last mandate of the Assembly, that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was going to face huge financial challenges over the years ahead if some reform did not take place. Mr McCann, along with others, spoke about the 2011 PwC report and its review of the Housing Executive.

I am sorry to see that Mr Attwood has disappeared from the Chamber because I join my colleague, along with other Members, in commending the Housing Executive. It worked in Northern Ireland for over 40 years, during the most difficult times. No other part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, the Republic of Ireland has had to face the same pressures as our Housing Executive. Mr Attwood tried to paint a picture that all members of the DUP are against the Housing Executive, and he was quite surprised by my colleague Mr Douglas's comments. I find Mr Attwood's assertion quite unbelievable because I would also make such comments. Like Mr Dickson, I grew up on a housing estate. I am very proud to say that and very proud of my roots in living in that housing estate, so I have a connection.

Over the years, we have come to recognise that there is a need for significant change not only in how the Housing Executive is structured and but in the delivery of our social housing programme.

It was over two and a half years ago that the then Minister, Nelson McCausland, addressed the Assembly with a statement in which he outlined the changes in structure that were required for a more sustainable social housing market that would benefit tenants and taxpayers. In a statement at that time, he made it very clear that the Housing Executive reform was not about abolishing the Northern Ireland Housing Executive but was about improvement in the delivery of its functions.

I believe that the Social Development Committee works very well together when it is discussing issues that affect our constituents. When proposing the motion, Mr McCann talked about working together. I think that we have that within the Committee; we work together on many things. There are things that we will, maybe, never see eye to eye on, but we do work together. I understand. He brought up issues, some of which are very close to my heart. He talked about homelessness and how the new structures are going to affect that. Yes, I believe that we, as a Committee, need to scrutinise and look at that further, because I believe that we still have a big black hole in our plans when it comes to homelessness. One of the first decisions the Social Development Minister made when he was appointed to his position was to ring-fence Supporting People, although I do not believe that that goes far enough in supporting our homeless in Northern Ireland. Maybe we need to look at something a little bit more innovative.

I picked up different points from Members. In bringing forward the motion, there do not seem to be any strong proposals on what Members want us to put in place. As a constituency MLA, I, along with everyone else in the Chamber, know about the situation. There is no party or person in the Chamber who does not represent the vulnerable in their community. I think Mr Douglas brought up the point. Daily, or, at least, weekly, someone enters our offices with a housing problem. The majority of those who come into my office are homeless and are having to present as homeless. So, we know the level of need that is out there for good, sustainable, effective housing for the people we represent.

I understand the issues. In his proposal, Mr McCann also said that the changes taking place within the Housing Executive should be politically driven. I believe that we, as an Assembly, have worked hard to get to the stage we are at with the reform and restructuring of the Housing Executive. I believe there is still a role for the Committee to look further at faults that have occurred, to recognise those faults and to do something about them, but I do not think that we should be calling for the motion as it sits today.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht thábhachtach seo. I welcome the debate on this important motion. From speaking to people, I know that there is a widening and growing concern about the proposed governance arrangements within the housing sector. I, at my most optimistic, remain to be convinced that the dismantling of the Housing Executive is the best way to deal with this situation. I strongly believe that politicians need to show a lead on the issue and build consensus on the way forward. I do not think that these decisions can be taken without political consensus and political support behind them. It is largely for that reason that we have brought the motion forward.

We need to see increased levels of accountability and transparency in how housing is delivered across the North. The current governance arrangements within housing associations are not good enough. From sitting on the Public Accounts Committee with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is clear to see that there is a serious difference between how the Housing Executive and housing associations are treated when providing transparency and accountability to the Department and to those of us who are elected to the House to hold them to account. I believe that a mechanism such as the Housing Executive is a much better way of doing it than having a third-party agency, such as a housing association, running it. These are the types of debates that we need to be having to ensure that there is cross-party consensus on any future arrangements.

Many Members have spoken about the PwC report, and there has been considerable commentary on some of its findings, but it is important to remember that one of the things that it said was that the Housing Executive:

"is one of the success stories from [the North's] recent history... it has delivered significant social benefits throughout [the North], with the quality of the housing stock having moved from one of the worst in Western Europe to what is now regarded as the best-quality stock."

So, like other Members, I pay tribute to the Housing Executive for the work that it has done since its foundation and will hopefully continue to do. It has dealt with what is a very sensitive issue in our community. The rationale for the establishment of the Housing Executive has not gone away. Very many people believe that some politicians cannot be trusted to allocate houses and that we still need the Housing Executive for at least that purpose, if not much more. It is not simply about allocating houses; it is about deciding where houses are based. For that reason, I do not think that we are at a stage yet where there is consensus about the delivery of social housing.

From my point of view, one of the greatest strengths of the Housing Executive is its ability to command respect and support from right across all sections of our community.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

I will certainly, Gregory.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I presume that the Member was talking about the past when he talked about politicians being trusted to allocate properties. Now he is talking about the Housing Executive being trusted as an institution. He has not at any time during his contribution in the debate lamented or even referred to the notorious under-representation of Protestants amongst the workforce in the Housing Executive that has prevailed for over 30 years.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his contribution, but it is my understanding that positions at all levels in the Housing Executive are awarded purely on merit. Maybe the Member wants to see a different process, but it is my understanding that, in the Housing Executive, places both for houses and for employment are offered on merit, and that is the way it should stay.

To conclude, a decision of this nature should not take place without a substantial level of political debate, political oversight and consensus. That is why we are asking the Minister to stall progressing this move. We think that there needs to be consensus. There needs to be a much broader debate and much more agreement amongst political parties before such a drastic move of dismantling the Housing Executive proceeds any further.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I share some of the puzzlement as to the timing and purpose of the motion, because this process began many years ago with the PwC report. Indeed, some time ago, when I quizzed some officials in the Committee, they said that the process of "reform" in the Housing Executive might continue for another 10 or 12 years, so the purpose and timing of this particular call is not immediately clear to me.

I regret that we do not have the Minister here to reply to the debate, because I think that it would have been important to hear from him about the current sense of direction within his vision. Undoubtedly, his predecessor, when he came to the House in, I think, January 2013 almost in crusading spirit, seemed to have a very distinct agenda about overhaul if not dissolution of the Housing Executive.

The sense that I have from the current Minister is that he is tamer in those matters and not as exercised as his predecessor, but one would have liked to have got a sense of direction from him about the future, particularly in circumstances where we pass through a process called transformation in the Housing Executive. We had all sorts of staff recruited, and a director of transformation was brought in who was going to — I do not know what she was going to do, but she was going to transform things pretty mightily. Then she was chief executive, and then she was gone as quickly as she arrived. Yet, last year, the transformation staff in the Housing Executive cost us three quarters of a million pounds. I would have liked to have probed and to have heard just what the import of Mags Lightbody was to that transformation, where it has left, where it is now headed and whether there is any really purposeful direction to what is happening in that regard.

I would also like to comment on the fact that, well in advance of any other voluntary exit scheme, we have had a voluntary exit scheme in the Housing Executive targeting some 500 staff, of whom, I think, 149 have already gone at a cost of £5 million, it seems. Given that, as I understand it, the age profile of most of those who have gone was 60-plus, one asks whether there was a value-for-money approach to the voluntary exit scheme in the Housing Executive. There are certainly issues there to be explored.

At the same time, a developing part of the Housing Executive, in consequence of the collapse of Red Sky and other companies, has been a huge increase in the direct labour force. I would like to have heard from the Minister what is the sense of direction about the future of the direct labour force and whether they will be properly integrated with the resulting benefits, which they deserve, or kept as some sort of adjunct in the Housing Executive.

There are many issues in flux in the Housing Executive that it is right to identify and discuss, but the focus of the motion does not seem to be on those issues. It seems, rather, to be driven by some sort of ideology that I question the relevance of. I regret that it has not focused on what would have been more pertinent issues.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I thank Fra McCann for tabling the motion and all the Members who participated in the debate. I want to clear up a couple of points. Obviously, on reflection, one could have rephrased the motion but, having listened to the Members' contributions, I note that everyone, to one degree or another, usually quite positively and strongly, has given support to the Housing Executive and commended it for the great work that it has done over many years, albeit that every one of us, me included, would add caveats around the Housing Executive's failures over the years. However, it is heart-warming to hear all the Members who spoke express confidence in the Housing Executive to some degree or another. That vindicates us in tabling the motion, albeit, as I said, that we could have, perhaps, reflected on the use of the words.

It is important to say also that I would benchmark this against the appointment of the current Minister, Mervyn Storey. I have no doubt — I have personal experience of it — that this Minister has made very important efforts to stabilise uncertainties not only in the Housing Executive but in the broader housing sector. Our motion reflects a long period when people inside the Housing Executive and people outside it involved in housing provision have had a concern that there was, initially, an agenda essentially to get rid of the Housing Executive. I have heard that expressed to me by people who should have known better. I am talking about people who were, in some way or other, involved in the development of policy around the Housing Executive. Clearly, there were proposals on the table that would have got rid of the Housing Executive and dismantled it into a landlord body, with all the social housing transferred to a number of housing associations. We would then have had a regional housing authority that would have dealt with other issues including homelessness, supporting housing and a raft of other important policies, a number of which Members have addressed this afternoon.

People in the Housing Executive were witnessing those things and expressing concerns about them. Those concerns have been raised in the Committee for Social Development but also directly in public and in private with Members. People see that there was an effort made. Amid all the other turmoil of the past couple of years, concerns were expressed to us and others by people in the Housing Executive — senior people at that — that what was not being delivered by way of political agreement and consensus was being delivered by stealth. In other words, important policies and delivery mechanisms were being taken away from the Housing Executive. That is where the motion stems from. It is about addressing the fear that many in the Housing Executive and the wider housing body have expressed. Those people have been expressing concern that, while we have not ultimately agreed on what we are going to do on social housing provision, there are things happening now to the Housing Executive that are significantly damaging that organisation's ability to do that which we have all commended it for doing and that which it has done well for a number of years. I apologise if people think that the motion is unclear or uncertain, but it is clearly designed to say, "Let's get political agreement on the social housing structures to be delivered". That has to reflect the best of what was the Housing Executive, which everybody has praised this afternoon. Any efforts that may be ongoing to take away some existing functions from the Housing Executive really should not proceed until we get the political agreement.

I speak as a political representative today and not on behalf of the Committee for Social Development, but I am very pleased that, as those of us who are members of that Committee are aware, we have adopted housing as a priority piece of work for the Committee for the next weeks and months, however long that takes. We will do that in conjunction with the Department and Minister on a constructive basis. The social housing reform programme has been reporting to the Committee on everything from rental policy to allocations, procurements, funding for social housing and so on. I hope that that programme and those reports can, as part of that prioritisation by the Committee for Social Development, be accelerated to make sure that we can, hopefully, get political agreement, before the end of the mandate, on the future delivery of social housing.

A feature of the housing sector for the past two or three years has been a terrible uncertainty and instability among providers. Clearly, when the Housing Executive was losing senior managers at the rate of nearly one a week for a time, and there was a lack of leadership and a loss of leadership and key managers for a variety of reasons, a lot of staff in the organisation, who were working hard every day to deliver social housing and working with tenants to deliver on their needs, were worried about their future. There was instability in the Housing Executive and the broader housing field because a lot of people in the housing associations, for example, were saying, "Are we going to have to pick up the pieces? Will we be getting some of those houses transferred to us? Where are we all on this?". I am certainly much more confident following the appointment of Mervyn Storey as the Minister for Social Development that we can have a constructive debate and good dialogue. I believe that the Minister is well up for that, and he has expressed that to me. I know that he has gone to great lengths to talk to people in the housing sector to explain that he wants housing need met on behalf of all the people we collectively represent and in a way that avails itself of structures that are modernised and improved.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. The motion states:

"cease immediately the dismantling of Housing Executive structures".

We all know that, with economic appraisals, the first option is to do nothing. Is that what this motion is about? If we are talking about doing nothing, there is very often a cost. Has this been costed? Will it cost the Assembly money if we just stop what we are doing?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

No, this has nothing to do with doing nothing. This is simply to say that people have a fear that there are things happening in the Housing Executive that should not happen until we have agreement. We all agree that what has been best for housing has been the formation of the Housing Executive and the work that it has been involved in for many years, albeit there is no doubt that there were failings. What we are up for is to properly consider the options that are on the table.

As people here will know, the social housing reform programme officers have presented to the Social Development Committee on a number of occasions. As far as I am concerned, this Minister is up for a proper early discussion on what structures we now need to modernise the Housing Executive. Our party's point of view is that it has to be what I have often referred to as the Housing Executive mark 2 with whatever sufficient reforms are required, because we need to get money into the system so that we can build more houses to meet the needs of people; we need to find the finance to update, repair and modernise houses that need it; we need to look at the allocation systems; we need to look at how need is met right across the board. So, we are saying that this is not about —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Sorry, I cannot give way, Mr Beggs, because I am running out of time.

We are simply saying that there has been a lot of uncertainty, particularly from within the Housing Executive. We are saying that there are people in there who believe that there are measures being taken in the Housing Executive. There may not be that many more measures being delivered at the moment. So, the motion may be slightly out of date, but it is very well intended. It is simply saying that, if things are done in there that undermine the Housing Executive's ability to deliver, they need to stop. We are asking the Minister to do that. That may simply require a conversation between the Minister, senior officials and the Housing Executive. Even the Housing Executive senior management is still going through change management, and that means that uncertainty can be created.

This is not a do-nothing option but is saying, "Let us look urgently with the Minister and the Department at the social housing reform programme and accelerate that work, particularly in the Social Development Committee". It is a matter for that Committee and the Minister to agree on, but I believe that an acceleration and intensification of the discussions on the social housing reform programme will make the Assembly a greater success, especially if we can agree on the new structures required for the provision of social housing before the end of the current mandate.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 31; Noes 51

AYES

Mr Agnew, Mr Attwood, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Byrne, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Ms Hanna, Mr G Kelly, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mr Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Maskey, Mr F McCann

NOES

Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Cree, Mr Dickson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Somerville, Mr Spratt, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells

Tellers for the Noes: Ms P Bradley, Mr Douglas

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I suggest that the House take its ease while we change the top Table.

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