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British-Irish Council: Housing

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP 10:30 am, 19th January 2016

At the outset, I should explain that I am reporting on a meeting that I did not attend. Furthermore, I apologise for the lateness of the statement getting to the Business Office.

In compliance with the requirements of section 52C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and of Standing Order 18 of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I wish to make the following report on the fourth meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC) housing work stream, which was held in Edinburgh on 4 November 2015. The report has been agreed by and is being made on behalf of junior Minister McCann, who accompanied my predecessor, Mervyn Storey, at the meeting.

The British-Irish Council identified housing as a new work stream at its summit in Cardiff in February 2009. Previous Ministers Margaret Ritchie, Alex Attwood and Nelson McCausland subsequently chaired the first three ministerial housing work stream meetings at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down in December 2009; St Mary's College, Belfast in February 2011; and at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Eland House, London in October 2013.

Minister Storey chaired a fourth ministerial meeting, which was hosted by Margaret Burgess MSP on behalf of the Scottish Government in Edinburgh and was attended by representatives from all the jurisdictions. The UK Government were represented by Peter Schofield, director-general for housing and planning. The Irish Government were represented by Paudie Coffey TD, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Scottish Government were represented by Margaret Burgess MSP, Minister for Housing and Welfare. The Welsh Government were represented by Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty. The Jersey Government were represented by Deputy Anne Pryke, Minister for Housing. The States of Guernsey were represented by Mike Hadley, deputy Minister in the Housing Department. The Isle of Man Government were represented by the honourable Juan Watterson MHK, Minister for Home Affairs. Minister Storey co-chaired the meeting alongside junior Minister McCann. Together, they represented the Northern Ireland Executive.

Ministers welcomed a presentation by John McCord from the Department for Social Development, Northern Ireland, on the report entitled 'Innovative Policy Interventions to Fund Housing Initiatives', which sets out the range of policies that are being adopted across all BIC member Administrations to fund housing provision. Ministers noted the enormous impact that the global economic downturn has had on the housing market and on the delivery of housing across all BIC Administrations. Many citizens had seen the value of their homes depreciate, resulting in their facing negative equity. Governments, too, had faced significantly reduced capital budgets and a rapidly contracted development industry, at the same time facing increased need as a result of demand outstripping supply. That combination of factors was having an adverse effect on the number of new social and affordable homes being built in the rental and private-rental sectors, as well as on the number of homes coming to the market for private sale.

Governments across the BIC member Administrations have developed policies to address that unprecedented situation. Ministers discussed the range of innovative solutions developed across member Administrations to address the unique difficulties faced by each and how those are assisting public, voluntary and private housing providers to access new and alternative funding mechanisms. Discussions included feedback from each Administration on their experience of the effects of their policy interventions and of the financial instruments used to increase the housing supply and improve the standards of the existing housing stock.

Ministers also received a presentation from Alister Steele MBE from Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association on partnership-working, which set out how the sector in Scotland has delivered by developing the relationship between government, the local authority, housing associations and stakeholders to deliver projects on the ground.

Ministers welcomed the updated housing directory, which provides details of good practice across Administrations.

Ministers requested that BIC member Administrations explore the possibility of having a common set of definitions to enable the collection and collation of common data sets to facilitate benchmarking. Ministers have tasked the group with examining how housing policy can continue to innovate to deliver increased housing supply through alternative funding mechanisms and collaborative relationships, as well as with examining housing policy's role in delivering wider regeneration and social value goals, such as inclusive communities, economic development and social enterprises. They have asked that the work sector look to provide a full report on the impact and future of innovative policy interventions to increase housing supply and an initial report on the possible role that housing policy can fulfil in delivering wider government regeneration and social value goals.

Ministers agreed that the next ministerial meeting will take place in Jersey, on a date to be confirmed.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I also wish him well. I believe that this is the first time in this mandate that he has come to the House as Minister for Social Development. I look forward to working with him.

I understand that he was not present at the meeting and that it was attended by his predecessor, but can he tell us why the meeting focused on policy interventions to fund housing initiatives?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank my colleague for her good wishes. I deeply appreciate them.

Yes, I did not attend the meeting, but I understand that a number of factors, including the global economic downturn, significantly reduced capital budgets and a rapidly contracted development industry, have had a major negative impact on the housing market, particularly the supply of new homes. Governments across all BIC member Administrations have been required to develop policies to address the deficit in housing supply across all tenures and to help all housing providers across new and alternative funding streams. I hope that that adequately answers the Member's question. However, following this, we will have a look at it, and if there is something that we feel that we need to add, we will write to the Member.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also wish the Minister well in taking up his new role. I look forward to working with him, at least for the rest of this mandate, as the Chair of the Social Development Committee. Housing is obviously a key element of the work facing all of us in the Assembly, and, as I say, I wish the Minister well in his endeavours.

I appreciate that he was not at the work stream meeting, so I appreciate that he may not be able to give a full response to some of the questions that he is asked. First, it is important to acknowledge that there has been a very negative backdrop in recent years, because of, as the Minister mentioned, the global economy, the lack of capital funding for social housing provision in particular and a range of other negative factors, not least the quite significant number of people in negative equity.

It is also important to welcome the fact that innovative measures have been taken to address some of the issues, not least the Department's establishment of a task force for mortgage support.

Does the Minister know whether any of the Administrations at the work stream meeting considered the key role of each Government for the provision of enough capital funding to support the social housing market, given the acute housing need across these islands?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP 10:45 am, 19th January 2016

I thank the Chairman of the Committee for Social Development for his good wishes. I suspect that I will need them as we go forward.

Yes, my understanding is that those issues were discussed. Housing, of course, is a big, important issue. Housing is in my DNA because, at one time, I worked in the private housing sector. However, since I became a councillor in 1973, housing has been one of the major things to come across my desk. I share the concerns of Members and the Committee Chairman. I believe that good housing makes good citizens, and we should strive to get the housing issue as far up the agenda as we possibly can, because I want it to be one of our priorities.

I do not have the full answer in front of me on the issues that the Member raised, but I will certainly get in touch with him following this sitting with a more definitive response. I agree with him that they are important matters.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I join others in congratulating Lord Morrow on his appointment as Minister for Social Development. I too look forward to working with him.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss innovative measures to assist Governments and housing providers to find the financial means to build more houses. Is the Minister in a position to inform us, today or at a later date, about areas of best practice and models that the Department is actively considering? We know that waiting lists are rising, as are the number of people on the homeless list.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Again, I thank the Member for her compliments and look forward to working with her in my capacity as Minister for Social Development.

From the reports that I have gone through, it is significant that a common thread runs through Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in that there is great housing need. Innovative ways, I understand, have been considered, and perhaps Scotland is marginally ahead of the field in tackling the issue.

The BIC has set its mind to take a closer look at the issue. I suspect that, come the meeting in Jersey, new thinking and ideas will be brought forward collectively. Hopefully, that will assist not only here but other regions of the United Kingdom in improving the housing stock and making more houses available. We have a big waiting list not only in Northern Ireland — that is my primary concern and the primary concern of the Assembly — but in other regions like Scotland and Wales.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I too congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I am sure, however, that he did not relish his first task of reporting on a meeting that occurred two and a half months ago that he did not attend. That is not the best of starts, but I wish him well.

The report, 'Innovative Policy Interventions to Fund Housing Initiatives', covers an important area, with housing stress being a continuing problem for constituents. What practical examples that have been developed in Northern Ireland to assist in addressing housing stress were we able to promote? What practical methods, as opposed to innovative potential methods, have been delivered elsewhere that are being examined for introduction to Northern Ireland to improve the housing situation?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Member for his question and for his good wishes. He raised the matter of the lateness of the report, and, to be truthful, I raised that, too. I would like to outline to the Member that he must remember that, before we can come to the Assembly with a report or a statement, it has to be cleared by all of the jurisdictions — Scotland, England, Wales, Jersey and Northern Ireland. It has to do the rounds, and that can take considerable time. I know that it is a bit bureaucratic, and, if there is way of cutting through that bureaucracy in the time that I am in the Department for Social Development, we will certainly look at that. It was a time when each jurisdiction shared its ideas, so, hopefully, through the sharing of those ideas, we can have a collaborative way of going forward. I accept that there will be situations, quite often, that are unique to each jurisdiction and may not be suitable for that. Therefore, those are the issues that are being probed and looked at as a result of that meeting, and they will come forward in the future.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Lord Morrow, thank you for taking on the role of Social Development Minister at this late stage in the mandate. You are very welcome to that role.

Minister, in respect of the funding of housing initiatives, can you assure the House that you will not go down the road of your Tory colleagues in the sale of housing association property and that Northern Ireland will be spared that Tory initiative, which must be debated in the current round of your discussions with colleagues, to ensure that housing association stock in Northern Ireland will be maintained in the public sector and allowed to grow in the public sector?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank Mr Dickson. I think that I can answer yes to most of your questions. However, I will make one small correction. You talk about my "Tory colleagues". When we look closely at things, the Tories might not be any more colleagues of mine than they are of yours. Let me be very clear that I disagree on much with the Tories in relation to social issues, not least how they tackle social housing. You can be assured of that, Mr Dickson.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

As a non-Tory colleague, I wish Lord Morrow all the very best in this, his second term of office.

The Minister's statement referred to the future work programme:

"They have asked that the work sector look to provide a full report on the impact and future of innovative policy interventions to increase housing supply".

What is the rationale behind the request for a further report?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank Mr Douglas for his good wishes. I suspect that this honeymoon period will not last forever.

[Laughter.]

One day, it might change, but I will enjoy it while it is here.

I ask the Member to remember one thing: housing supply is not static, and we must strive to ensure that the policies that we introduce and the funding deployed to support them are used to best effect, achieving value for money while delivering decent, sustainable homes. Many of the policy initiatives introduced throughout the BIC member Administrations are relatively new, and the work sector must evaluate them so that we can continue to learn the lessons from all those schemes in order to continually improve and maximise the delivery of new homes.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also wish the Minister well in his new role. I know that this is his second time there, so it is just a matter of catching up.

Given the high levels of social housing need, which are particularly evident in my constituency of West Tyrone, what is the Minister's assessment of the current demand in comparison with the rest of the UK? What initiatives are planned to address housing need in rural constituency areas such as my home town of Strabane? I understand that you may not be in a position to answer directly straight away, considering that you are new to the role.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank Mr McCrossan for his kind words too. This gives me an opportunity to wish him well, as he is one of the Members to recently come into the House. I trust that Mr McCrossan will enjoy his time working for his constituents here in the Assembly.

Where housing need here in Northern Ireland is concerned, when I was first a councillor, way back in the 1970s, if there were a couple of thousand on the housing waiting list, it was deemed to be totally unacceptable. I am aware that there are now in the region of 40,000 on the housing waiting list, which seems astronomical. Of those on the list, I suspect that at least 50% are in housing stress. Therefore, there is a real issue with housing. Indeed, those in housing stress are finding it very difficult to get housed. So, for those who do not come into that category, where, oh where will they be in the whole system? I have a real concern about that. I feel that that will be a big issue for the Assembly in the new mandate in particular, because this mandate has nearly expired.

Some great things are being done, and new homes are being provided. I know that there are difficulties, not least as a result of the global downturn, but I assure the Member that, just as he is concerned about Strabane and areas like that, I too have that concern for the whole of Northern Ireland. Thank you for your question.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Minister patently is not culpable, but it is worth noting that it has taken two and a half months to make this statement. The Minister says that is because there are processes to be gone through, but this statement is in identical terms to the communiqué that has been on the BIC website for two months. So I do not understand the explanation that it takes processes to approve a statement that is in identical terms to one that has been on the record for two months. Is the truth of the matter that the BIC is seen as unimportant, given that, on this issue, in nine years there have been only four ministerial meetings? Is that because the BIC is the poor relation in intergovernmental relations for the House? Where is the substance in this statement? It took almost as long to read out who was there as what was done. Compared with the last communiqué, where is the difference in this? Where is the substance of the work being done, supposedly, in this work stream?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I am nearly as cross as he is about the whole thing. He refers to the fact that it has taken two and a half months. I think that that is not acceptable, and I agree with that. However, in those two and a half months, there was a Christmas recess too. I already made it quite clear that it takes time to try to get clearance from all the jurisdictions and it takes more time than I would want. I assure him of this: hopefully, the next statement will not take that length of time. I accept that it is not acceptable for that period of time to have elapsed. His points are well noted.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I call Mr Gregory Campbell. Gregory?

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

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was unaware that I was going to be called. The Minister is not long in office and has been reporting on a meeting at which he was not present. Would he agree with me that the housing stress in West Tyrone that he mentioned is applicable across Northern Ireland and that the housing associations will need to concentrate their minds on that in 2016-17?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Member. He has done very well, given that he did not get prior notice that he was going to be asking a question.

If we had housing stress in just one area, we could target that area more directly. Unfortunately, housing stress goes right across Northern Ireland, so it is a big issue. I think that it will be tackled only by more innovative ways forward. That is the task and the challenge for me, my Department and whoever my successor will be. They are going to have to really get to grips with housing stress, housing need and the housing waiting list, because, quite frankly, it is just not acceptable. Having said that, we must not let that blind us to the fact that there are many good things happening and houses are being provided. We need to do even more. We can and, hopefully, we will.