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The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. As two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List, 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will, therefore, have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive. If amendment No 1 is made, the Question on amendment No 2 will not be put.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes that, in June 2016, there were 37,347 households on the social housing waiting list, of which 22,986 were deemed to be in housing stress and 15,474 were deemed to be statutorily homeless; and calls on the Minister for Communities to commit to providing at least 8,800 new-build social housing units and 2,900 affordable housing units over the term of the Programme for Government 2016-2021.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want confirmation that, when the motion that is about to be debated was submitted to the Business Office, it referred to the years 2017-2021, and that, because of the internal procedures of the Business Office in respect of the names of documents — in this case, the Programme for Government 2016-2021 — the dates in the motion submitted by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were changed. In so doing, the Business Office did not consult the sponsors of the motion. I accept the ruling that you have made in that regard; namely that, because the motion has been published in that way, it will be debated in that way, but will you confirm that, when the motion was submitted, the effective dates were 2017-2021?
I sympathise and empathise with the Member's frustration in the matter. It is routine for the Business Office to correct official titles of documents, as they did in this case. The correct title of the forthcoming Programme for Government is the Programme for Government 2016-2021. However, it is your intention, I assume, to refer during the debate to the dates that you mentioned.
Further to that point of order. I thank the Speaker for his comments and clarification. If something is not in inverted commas, which is how I normally refer to an official document of the Government, such as the Programme for Government, the Business Office should assume that the words submitted in a motion are the words of that motion.
As my colleague pointed out, on 4 October at 11.07 am, the SDLP submitted the following motion verbatim to the Business Office:
"That this Assembly notes that, in June 2016, there were 37,347 households on the social housing waiting list, 22,986 deemed to be in housing stress, with 15,474 deemed to be statutorily homeless; and calls for a commitment of at least 8,800 new-build social housing units and 2,900 affordable housing units over the term of the forthcoming 2017-2021 Programme for Government.".
As my colleague pointed out, that motion, without any consultation with the SDLP or the other signatories, was changed by the Business Office, substantially altering its intention and outworkings. Regrettably, when the error that was made by officials was brought to the attention of the Speaker's Office, it was not corrected, and the motion that appears in the Order Paper is not the motion that was submitted by the SDLP. However, the original motion is the one to which I will address my comments.
There are five human rights that are essential if each of us is to fulfil our potential: the right to food, healthcare, education, work and a home. I have argued, and will continue to do so, that access to a good-quality, safe and secure home is the anchor and the glue that holds the other facets of a person's life together. Having access to a good-quality, safe and secure home increases your life chances multifold, especially when children are involved. Housing is, without doubt, an enabler for health and well-being and it is key to tackling disadvantage, driving economic growth and job creation and building a better environment and a more equal, shared and safe society that respects diversity.
Housing is both an end and a means, yet, sadly, it has not appeared in the draft Programme for Government as a strategic outcome. By the Executive's own figures, as of June this year, as I pointed out, we had huge numbers of people on the social housing waiting list and deemed to be in housing stress. A staggering and shameful 15,500 people are deemed to be statutorily homeless.
The fact is that thousands upon thousands of our citizens are sitting in poor-quality, overcrowded housing not suitable to their needs. Citizens are living for months on end in hostels with their children or they are sofa-surfing at the discretion of friends and families. Meanwhile, their health deteriorates, educational attainment is challenged and economic opportunities are reduced.
I thank the Member for giving me the opportunity. When the SDLP held the housing portfolio, we built more houses than any Minister prior or since.
Since I was elected to the House, we have debated two housing-related motions. The first was brought in the name of Mr Fra McCann, calling for reform of the common selection scheme, particularly in the area of the award of intimidation points, and the SDLP was fully supportive of that. The second motion was brought by the Ulster Unionists and ourselves, calling on the Executive to detail their structured and timelined response to the reclassification of our 22 housing associations. That was a development of profound financial consequence for housing associations' ability to finance and build critical new homes — the focus of the motion before us today — and the wider financial consequences for the Executive to carry out their functions with an additional £1 billion added to their balance sheet. Perhaps today the Minister will give us an update on how his negotiations with the UK Treasury are going in respect of a derogation; what contingency plans he has in place if legislation is not brought forward within that time frame; and how that might impact on the target of building new social homes.
It is right that we debate the issue that, above all else, is the game changer in tackling our housing crisis: that is, the need to make land available and to build new homes. It is not a vague indicator to "improve the supply of suitable housing", which lacks definition and, as a result of using vague and ambiguous terms such as "improve" and "suitable", leaves this indicator too open to subjective interpretation. We need a clear commitment to build a set target of new homes, which contains within that a commitment to build homes for complex needs and older people. That will ease the greatest pressure on the housing system: the shortage of supply, not least in my constituency of North Belfast.
Of course, to make that happen, land must be identified and made available. In response to a question for written answer that I posed on this issue, the Minister said that he had commenced a public land for housing project, to identify land suitable for reuse for housing. The SDLP welcomes that initiative, and I ask the Minister to provide an update to the House today on the progress of that project and what consideration he is giving to the vesting of land and the use of compulsory purchase orders, where and when required, to tackle the persistent obstacle of land availability to build new homes in real time.
We also invite the Minister today to share with us discussions he is having with local government to ensure that we maximise opportunities in the devolution of planning powers and the development of local area plans and, in particular, what plans he has to bring forward the transfer of regeneration powers to maximise the opportunity that lies within local government.
The truth is that thousands of our citizens are waiting — and waiting — on the housing list. Over 500 disabled households are waiting for wheelchair accessible accommodation, with no certainty or comfort in sight. Those families deserve better. The families living in hostels deserve better. They deserve more than honeyed words. They need to be given certainty and comfort, with a clear commitment to build an ambitious number of new homes each year.
In respect of the land supply issue, the Minister is aware that the Housing Supply Forum brought forward a series of crucial and meaty recommendations. We invite the Minister to provide the House today with an update on that report.
The Executive must give clarity on the impact of welfare reform on the many social housing tenants. Given that almost a half of housing association stock is already at or above the local housing allowance cap, we also ask the Minister to share with us his plans to protect those tenants.
We will undoubtedly face the question from across the Chamber of how we plan to pay for all of this. We have the money drawn down from the European Investment Bank (EIB), with which I know the housing associations that are party to that are keen to get moving. That will allow us to build some 5,000 new social homes. We also brought to the Minister's attention the potential for Barnett consequentials from the home building fund that was recently announced at the Tory party conference. We invite the Minister to give us an update on that today as well.
My colleague will go into detail on the amendments before us, but I will make just a few comments. I have to welcome the honesty in the Sinn Féin amendment. It is the first time that I am aware of an Executive party being open about its failure to deliver, admitting that, since 2007-08, the number of people in housing stress has got worse. Although we welcome the honesty in its amendment, what I cannot understand is why Sinn Féin brought forward an amendment on housing without making reference to a single target of at least one new-build house. That will not bring any comfort to the many people who are struggling and waiting desperately on a new home.
The amendment also calls on:
"the Executive to ensure that the Housing Executive has the powers to allow it to build social homes".
The Housing Executive has that power in legislation, but, again, we have no detail on how the Executive plan to finance that, so I look forward to hearing further detail on that from the party beside me.
I turn briefly to the DUP amendment. It refers to delivering:
"9,600 new social homes and 3,750 new affordable homes between 2016 and 2021."
I am very interested to learn where those figures came from, and I would like to know exactly when and how the Minister made that announcement, because, as far as I am aware, it certainly was not made in the House, which leads one to suspect that it is in direct response to the motion brought forward by the Opposition today.
Leave out all after "notes" and insert "that since 2007-08 until today the number of households in housing stress has remained constant, averaging around 22,000 per year despite significant investment by the Executive in new social housing; calls on the Minister for Communities to suspend the house sales scheme to ensure that housing can be retained within the social sector; and further calls on the Executive to ensure that the Housing Executive has the powers to allow it to build social homes and to work with housing associations to ensure maximum investment in social housing.".
I support the Sinn Féin amendment to the Opposition motion on housing. The other day, I was reading on the Housing Executive home page that, up to 31 March 2016, there were 37,586 households on social housing waiting lists, of which 22,654 were considered to be in housing stress, and, of those, 12,202 were deemed to be statutorily homeless. I also read in the Department's housing bulletin that, in the year ending March 2016, some 18,628 people presented as homeless, and that, between January and March this year, 4,550 people presented as homeless. That is a drop of 296 over the same period last year.
Those figures hide a frightening figure about an issue that I have raised time and time again, and that is the number of people presenting as homeless who are not accepted as being homeless. They are mostly young people under the age of 25, many of whom are advised to go to the private rented sector, and, with no mechanism for tracking them, it is then difficult to understand the journey that they are forced to travel.
We in the Assembly have a duty to ensure that we do everything in our power to deal with the problem of homelessness. We believe that we constantly need to review how we can develop a strategy that allows us to deal effectively with this difficult and complex matter. Yes, we believe that we constantly need to deliver additional social housing units. Yes, we believe that there needs to be more investment to ensure —
I appreciate the Member giving way. He is absolutely right: we do need to build more social and affordable housing. It is important to put on the record that, in the period 2007-2011, 9,192 new units of social and affordable housing were commenced. In the period 2011-16, that figure was 12,359. That directly contradicts the answer that the lady from North Belfast gave me a few moments ago.
That certainly does not surprise me. Thank you for the information, and I will deal with that as I go on.
We believe that there needs to be more investment to ensure that new social houses can be delivered, but there are other ways in which we can tackle waiting lists. One such way — again, this has already been mentioned — is to encourage housing associations to look at new ways of raising finance to increase their supply. There are housing associations that have taken that step, and they should be commended for their efforts to increase the supply of social housing.
A chairde, whilst social new builds are seen as the most direct way of providing new, modern and accessible homes, we need to look at other ways of providing much-needed housing. Social new builds are not the only way in which housing providers deal with waiting lists. They also rely on the thousands of relets that become available every year. These relets happen because people give up their tenancies and move on, or because people die and their home becomes available for allocation.
At the moment, social housing providers have over 130,000 social housing units under their control, roughly 88,000 of which are in the hands of the Housing Executive and 40,000 in the hands of the housing associations. If you consider that over 100,000 houses have been lost to this sector because they were sold under the house sales scheme, and then you think of the impact that having these homes still in the sector would have on waiting lists, we believe that the only way to protect what is left of the social housing stock is to suspend the house sales scheme. Many of the problems that we face with social housing supply can be put down to the constant sale of social houses.
Whilst there has been a serious decline in the numbers of houses being sold, any change in that would have serious consequences for the remainder of the social housing stock. Failure to act on this now could see the total collapse of the social housing sector in the years ahead. We should go down the road of the Scottish Parliament, which totally abolished the right to buy in July 2014. Tenants had up to 31 July this year to buy their home. The selling of social housing is now a thing of the past in Scotland.
Action is being taken in Wales by the Welsh Government, who have decided to restrict the house sales scheme by cutting in half the incentive. This is in front of legislation that will abolish the scheme altogether in this mandate. We need to follow this example of protecting what is left of our housing stock for future generations. I know that many in the House see the house sales scheme as a protected species, but we need to look beyond the perceived popularity of the scheme and grasp the nettle which will ensure that we are willing to go the extra mile in protecting what we have left.
The other element of the amendment is the need to look at how we can bring the Housing Executive back into the housebuilding arena. It is my understanding that the Housing Executive retains the power to build but its lack of financial resources prohibits its ability to build. If we could find ways to tackle this problem, we could see the flow of additional social houses into the sector, and that would go a long way in dealing with the housing crisis that we find ourselves in. We need to put a strategy in place that looks at all possibilities. We should rule out nothing. Adopting our amendment, along with other strategies, will move the debate on and send out all the right messages that we are serious about getting to grips with long waiting lists.
Sometimes, it is easy to get up and continuously quote terrible statistics on homelessness and maybe get a few lines in the press, but when we are speaking about waiting lists, we should remember that there are faces behind those statistics. There are families in housing stress who know that, in their area of choice, it will be years before they are considered for a home. There are parents and their children lying in homeless hostels, sometimes for years, waiting to be housed. There are young people who are forced into the private rented sector under the shared room allowance who live their lives in fear because of the conditions and drug abuse that exist in many of these dwellings. Then, there are those who suffer from disabilities and live in social houses that are totally unsuitable for their needs. These are the realities of being homeless.
I encourage the Assembly to throw its weight behind the Sinn Féin amendment. I cannot understand where the Opposition motion came from. Where did they come up with the figures of 8,800 new social houses and 2,900 affordable houses? I have always believed that there are those who will opt for an affordable home, either through co-ownership or other options that might be on offer. I have also always believed that there is a huge difference in numbers between people on waiting lists for social housing and people on waiting lists for affordable housing. However, the selective memory of some, certainly of the SDLP, never fails to amaze me when it comes to the delivery and development of housing matters. To listen to them, you would believe that the huge waiting lists appeared in recent years and this was down to Sinn Féin, but the facts tell a different story.
I was reading a departmental housing bulletin which makes interesting reading. During the reign of the SDLP in the Department for Social Development, between 2007 and 2011, the number of people who presented as homeless in 2010 was 20,158 and in the following year the figure was 19,737. The figure for 2015-16 was 18,628.
I also remember the removal of protections for areas of high demand, such as Derry, west Belfast and north Belfast by the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie, which has impacted in the delivery of social housing. I further remember the removal of grants for renovations, improvements and repairs. That has had a huge impact on the fabric of the homes of thousands of people who relied on those grants for urgent repairs.
These properties are fast becoming the slums of the future. Many of the homeowners are in no position to afford essential works, repairs or major works to bring their homes up to a decent standard. That decision by the SDLP Minister has had far-reaching consequences for —
Sorry, I have only a couple of minutes left.
— for the less well off, who depended on those grants because of their financial circumstances. And where do many of them end up? They end up on the waiting lists, made homeless in their own homes.
Under her new housing agenda in 2008, the then Minister, Margaret Ritchie, extended the house sales scheme, which made it easy for people to buy their social homes, thus, again, putting pressure on the waiting lists. So, forgive me for being a wee bit cynical when I listen to the promises made by the SDLP and the figures it has plucked out of the sky —
— to cobble together a motion for today's debate. This is like the debate we had last week, when they put a motion together from nothing to give the impression that they are truly concerned and interested in moving the argument forward. We have the same thing today. They come with figures that are questionable, as a colleague across the Chamber said.
Our amendment offers a good way forward, that will allow us to tap into more social houses and the retention of the social housing stock. I support the amendment.
Leave out all after "homeless;" and insert "further notes the Executive’s success in exceeding the last Programme for Government target by providing 7,669 new social homes and 4,685 new affordable homes between 2011 and 2016; and acknowledges the plans of the Minister for Communities to deliver 9,600 new social homes and 3,750 new affordable homes between 2016 and 2021.".
I should declare an interest in that I spent the formative years of my life with two wonderful parents in social housing accommodation. I believe passionately in the need for social housing. If devolution is to mean anything, it is that we have to do more and better, particularly for those most in need.
It is more in sorrow than in anger that I propose this amendment, given the abject inadequacy of the SDLP and Ulster Unionist motion, which was selling people short in social housing. It was selling them short, and this amendment is coming forward because we have to do better. This party, with this amendment, is not prepared to follow the SDLP and Ulster Unionist line of continuing to sell short the people most in need of social housing.
I support opposition. I thought we were going to get something challenging and invigorating. Instead, we have an amalgamation of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP to sell short hundreds of people on the social housing list, yet they purport to say that they are their priority. Well, we are not prepared to sell those people short.
We understand the need: 37,347 people on a social housing list; 22,986 in housing stress; 15,474 statutory homeless. Even the figure of 8,800 they gave this morning is still inadequate and not good enough. The message coming from people in social housing need is that the Opposition need to get their act together and do better for them.
When I look at the vision of the —
The point I was making is I am standing up, as you well know, for the people in social housing need. That was the only meaning I had in that, and I will continue to stand up for people in social housing need.
You will hear, when I go on, that part of the proposal that I want to see is for more wheelchair accessible social housing. Coming from a family with significant disability within it and with members who are wheelchair-bound, I know that we are not doing enough in social housing. The Ulster Unionist and SDLP motion does not do enough for disabled people. It sells them short.
Let me point out the inadequacies first. To bring forward the pathetic motion that they have, selling short the need of hundreds of people, speaks to me of people who want to talk the talk. This Government and this Executive are prepared to walk the walk. Look back at the record of what there was — I had the privilege of serving for five years in that Executive. We set ourselves a target of 7,500 new social housing units, and we delivered 7,669. What was achieved in terms of new units and affordability? The target was 2,450, and we achieved 4,700. I suggest to you that that is the reason that the people of Northern Ireland gave us the mandate to govern them. Not only could we set a target but we could over-deliver on that target. Having got that mandate from the people, the last thing that we are going to do, and the last thing that we are going to allow, is for the people who are most in need in this society to be sold short by a so-called Opposition whose self-appointed senior leader and self-appointed, I presume, by definition, junior leader have not even bothered to turn up. They are not prepared to do that.
Let me move on to what we need to do. We need a delivery strategy. We have a First Minister who is focused on delivery, and we have a Minister who has a comprehensive vision not to do just what the audit tells him to do — by the audit, I am referring to the net stock of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. That audit — welcome to your Opposition — involves some 8,000 people, and the Minister comes to the House not just with the audit of need but with some 1,600 houses in excess of that audit by 2021.
I felt embarrassed for the proposer when she tried to defend the SDLP's record of 2007-2011, because, if you take those four years and the subsequent five years when our party had control, hundreds more new homes were built year after year by these Benches than by those Benches. What do they do? They come today with another record of failure and inadequacy. It is time for ambition. It is time for us to seize the day. It is time for us to look at how we can access money. I encourage the Minister: if we have housing associations, which can build two houses with the different facilities that they have, compared with the Housing Executive, which can only build one house, surely we should focus the energy on the housing associations, their capacity to borrow and the ability to build two houses, rather than focus on where there could only be one.
That is only one aspect. We have to look at finance. There is no unlimited supply of money. We have to look at where land is available, and we have to look at the area of co-ownership. Against targets of hundreds, in the past we have achieved targets of thousands. We also have to look towards how we can provide people who are most in need with the best advice possible tailored to their needs and a person-centred approach to their families.
I welcome and encourage the Minister to continue to put money into the housing advice service. I believe, and I have found it numerous times in my constituency, that when you get the right advice early on, significant problems, including homelessness — one report states that up to 500 people could be saved from homelessness with just the right amount of advice. Yes, people will say, "Why are you paying for advice?". We are paying for advice because we believe that prevention is better than cure.
Housing is fundamental to shaping the needs of our society. The Minister needs to keep his mind open, and, thankfully, we have a Minister with an open mind who is not just prepared to accept an audited target but is prepared to look at possibilities, see what can be done, and exceed that 8,000 target by 1,600 in this mandate by 2021. That is the measure that we will go by. We will go by delivery. We will not accept the failed policies of the SDLP that were evidenced from 2007 to 2011, when hundreds of people, compared with the next number of years, were deprived of adequate need. We will not accept the lack of vision and the poverty of ambition of an Ulster Unionist Party and an SDLP joining together to deliver less than what the Government will deliver. We want more; we want better. The challenge to all of us around the House is to unite behind this amendment because, through it, we will deliver the 9,600 new social homes and the 3,750 affordable homes. I encourage the House to get behind this amendment —
Like the previous Member, I declare an interest as an individual who was raised in social housing, so I will not take any lectures from him or, indeed, from any other Member, on the needs of those in social housing. Indeed, I will not take lectures on championing the needs of those with disabilities because I think that I full well understand the needs of those with disabilities. I will not sit here and take any lectures, thank you very much.
On the problem with housing, we need to ask four questions. What is the problem? What is the solution? What is the existing legislation? What are the proposed changes? As we have heard already, we know full well the problem: we have 37,347 individuals on the housing waiting list, of whom 22,986 were deemed to be in housing stress and 15,474 were deemed to be statutorily homeless. As the Member from Sinn Féin pointed out, yes, they are statistics, and I will take no lectures on the reality of those statistics either. I do not quote those statistics loosely. Like the Member and other Members, I see, day and daily, individuals who cannot access social or affordable housing. We, in the House, need to do all that we can to give them the opportunity to access that.
In 2013, the homeless charity Crisis carried out research that identified that Northern Ireland had a higher rate of homelessness than any other region in the UK. Indeed, the SDLP Member and my Opposition colleague pointed out that there are five basic human rights and that housing is fundamental to that. It is well established, for example, that poor housing is one of the biggest detriments to the health of any population.
In fact, recent research by NIHE identified a potential annual saving to the NHS in Northern Ireland of £33 million if targeted improvements were made to housing. Additional research pointed to the cost of homelessness to the NHS as being between £24,000 and £30,000 per annum per individual. Prioritising the prevention of homelessness and the improvement of homes therefore has cascading and multiple impacts on our health and public purse. Indeed, I firmly believe that we need to see cross-departmental working on this issue; we need to see all Ministers stepping up to the plate. As my party leader pointed out, when we had the Programme for Government (PFG) discussions, we should have been around that table, housing should have been put on the whiteboard, and we should have been discussing how we will collectively approach the housing crisis.
Does the Member not find it interesting that Sinn Féin lectures the SDLP about its shortcomings when it took the housing portfolio, but, in nine years, Sinn Féin refused to take it because it clearly does not deem it important enough?
Yes, I do; I am happy to come in. The Member made the point that people should have been around the table having discussions. His little lecture would be more believable were it not for the fact that his party could have been around the table but opted instead for irrelevance in opposition.
The Member knows full well that we were around that table and would have continued to be around that table if he and his Executive colleagues were not escaping to the Castle for their secret talks.
Yes; OK. Thanks very much for that.
In short, we need to build more homes. I will reiterate and point out that it is disappointing that our original motion was changed. I take on board the rationale and reasoning for that, but we should have been consulted. Our motion calls on the Minister for Communities to commit to prioritising at least 8,800 new builds. That is more than the DUP amendment calls for, because ours is four not five, remember.
We have moved to an outcomes-based PFG, and the fact that we have moved to that is a realisation that the previous Government were not working. We have had nine years of the DUP and Sinn Féin not delivering for our people.
I am quite happy to sit here and say that we are not totally faultless. We are quite happy to stand up and take the criticism. We are here and are prepared to deliver, instead of putting things forward when it was made quite clear to the Chamber that our motion referred to a four-year period and Members tried to put that down —
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and the amendments. Social housing is an absolutely crucial part of our infrastructure and is a key public service. In my constituency of East Belfast, I have seen at first hand the impact that housing stress and homelessness have on individuals and families in terms of their health and well-being, and I am content to support the motion.
The challenges facing the private housing sector, reform of the common selection scheme and the recent reclassification of housing associations have all been debated in the Chamber, which, I think, reflects the fact that housing is important to everyone in the Chamber. Despite the nature of the exchanges this morning, I think that it would be more reflective of the concerns of people outside if we focused on the core issues.
The motion highlights the global picture on housing need. However, in my constituency, over 1,000 applicants face housing stress and 555 people are registered as homeless. Behind each of those statistics are individuals who are living in entirely unsuitable accommodation for their needs, are in overcrowded homes, are living from day to day sofa-surfing, in hostels and, in a number of cases that I have dealt with, sleeping in cars. That is a failure to protect human dignity, and for two reasons it is an issue that the Executive need to approach with urgency.
First, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency has documented that the population here is due to rise to 2 million by 2034, therefore increasing the pressure on housing. Secondly, given the financial uncertainty that the sector faces due to the recent decision by the ONS, there is an uncertainty in that sector about how it will continue to do the work that it has done to contribute to new builds.
Thank you. It is important that the financial flexibility that housing associations have be deployed to address housing need.
The Minister has informed the Committee and the House of his intention already to build 1,600 homes next year using the £106 million allocated by the social housing development programme. It was noted at his initial meeting with the Committee that the figure was less than the 2,000 recommended by the Housing Executive. However, Alliance is happy to support today's amendment from the DUP, despite its best efforts to dissuade us, because the amendment shows an increase in its ambition for social housing. If that is prompted by an Opposition motion, congratulations to the Opposition for drawing it out. It is disingenuous for some to suggest that those figures were in the public domain prior to the debate. It is therefore a credit to those in the Opposition who have drawn this out into public discussion and seen that increase in ambition. That is something that we welcome.
Unfortunately, we will not support the Sinn Féin amendment, because it takes a broad-brush approach to what is, I think, a very difficult issue. In some localities, it would be helpful as a short-term measure to protect housing stock. It ignores, however, the contribution that right-to-buy has made in stabilising neighbourhoods and helping people get a foot on the housing ladder. I do not believe that the housing sector is clear that it is not the policy but how it is applied that is the issue. Instead of suspending the scheme, consideration could be given, for example, to reducing the discount available to tenants, ensuring that the debt burden of new builds is cleared before houses are sold, alongside a commitment that every home purchased will result in another being built and that the money will be reinvested in housing stock.
Does she not appreciate, though, that continually selling off homes and then reinvesting, given that the homes are sold at less than market value, means that we are forever having to subsidise further, much more so than if we did not have the house sales scheme?
Yes, we do have to subsidise, but the house sales scheme is good for building viable, sustainable and vibrant communities. It is important that people be able to get a foot on the housing ladder in the communities in which they have grown up and be able to contribute back to those communities. A broad-brush approach to stopping the house sales scheme is not the way forward. That will become clear from what I say next.
Alliance believes that there is a number of things that we can do to tackle the housing crisis that we are in. First, there are 20,000 properties lying dormant across Northern Ireland. A focus on returning them to use would not only add to the housing stock but reinvigorate communities that often find dereliction a real challenge, associated as it is with antisocial behaviour and other problems. A scheme to deal with that would be very welcome. Secondly, to create viable, sustainable and thriving communities, we believe that expanding the emphasis on development of mixed tenure housing is hugely important so that people in social housing are not stigmatised, are not cut off from the services that others enjoy, and are able and encouraged to progress in society. Finally, we need to look at the barriers to people being able to accept housing in which they feel safe. Intimidation, whether sectarian or within communities, continues to render people homeless, and we need to deal with shared housing to allow people to have more choice, not less.
I am delighted to participate in today's debate. To a certain extent, I agree with Nichola Mallon's opening remarks: housing is a fundamental human right. Indeed, the issue of housing, or lack thereof, is the reason for my involvement in politics.
The Housing Executive was set up after the eviction in Caledon in 1968 and has worked to deliver the building and allocation of social housing for almost 50 years. However, in the SDLP's PFG submissions — six themed documents on poverty, infrastructure, justice, economy, health and childcare — social housing is not mentioned. It makes no mention of housing need or provision in rural areas.
Again, housing in rural areas has always been of great interest to me. I am on record numerous times during my time in the Assembly, in this Chamber and the Committee for Social Development, talking about the level of unfitness, particularly in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I was horrified when the then SDLP Minister removed the Housing Executive maintenance grant scheme and condemned many rural dwellers to live in accommodation that was not fit for purpose. I was aghast to hear that a scheme that was helping to bring houses up to a level of fitness in my constituency was done away with.
Around the same time, other changes in the allocation of the housing budget were to have unprecedented implications for the housing stock. For example, 2,201 house sales were completed during 2006-7, yet, in 2008, Margaret Ritchie chose to extend the house sale scheme. Further to that, she announced that she would provide funding for the purchase of off-the-shelf homes for private developers. Under this scheme, Clanmil Housing Association bought 40 private apartments valued in the region of £7 million, which meant an approximate cost of £175,000 per property. Who benefited from that? The developer certainly did, and so did the tenants, but was it the best use of public funding?
Will the Member also appreciate that, as I recall, people in the Village area had been fighting for many, many years to get redevelopment and proper housing, and, at the time when the SDLP Minister was in place, they were told that there was no funding for that, but the same Minister was able to find funding to keep a big wheel at the side of the City Hall?
I am not sure of that. In fairness to the Minister, while I was preparing for the debate, I did actually see references to the Village and her commitment to try to bring the housing stock up in that area.
The difficulty with buying off-the-shelf houses meant that, yes, some tenants in Belfast benefited from it, but there was decimation to the budget that had a knock-on effect across the region. It meant that, in real terms, housing associations had been given more than £130 million in taxpayers' money to purchase 1,400 homes and turn private developments into social housing. The collapse in the property market meant that the average cost of an off-the-shelf home in 2011 dropped to just £60,000; less than half of the original price four years previously, so that was a very poor investment in monetary terms from the public purse.
Taking that along with the extension of the house sale scheme, I found that there was a knock-on effect across the board and much less in the way of social housing available to constituencies like mine. The decimated Housing Executive stock, which, I understand, now stands at around 88,000, means that we do have a knock-on effect, and there is not enough social housing for many of the people who need it most.
Before I run out of time, I would also like to talk about the 70% of adults with learning disabilities who currently live at home with carers. That needs to be properly assessed. I ask the Minister to extrapolate the figures from the different trusts and bring in the need that is there currently; the need not just of people with physical disabilities, of which there are many, but of those with learning disabilities. They need to be factored into the waiting lists to ensure that we have a proper grasp of the need that is out there, and we can then find ways to meet that need and provide quality, affordable social homes for people right across the board.
The debate refers to one of the most pressing problems that many people experience today; that of finding social housing that is suitable for their needs and at a price that they can afford. The motion states that a further 2,900 affordable housing units are desirable. I would ask the Member who signed it to read the DUP's 2016 manifesto, which states that my party wants to see 8,000 affordable homes delivered in the Programme for Government period to 2020. That is 5,100 more than the motion states. I am sure that those who proposed the motion will be relieved to learn that. When it comes to new-build properties, there is no doubt that that is an important way of achieving —
You had your say.
— what the motion seeks. It is an important way of dealing with the 37,000 households awaiting homes.
I wonder whether those who moved the motion have had discussions with the Finance Minister regarding the funding of the new-build homes. It is an unpleasant reality that all plans need to be funded and that the financial cake that we have in Northern Ireland is already divided thinly. In the previous mandate, 2011-15, £400 million of public-sector money and £315 million of private-sector funding was spent, resulting in over 8,500 social and affordable homes being constructed during the period. That is a respectable record.
We also have to look at bringing empty properties back into use. In my town, I have seen quite a few void properties being repaired and returned to use and there was great appreciation from the families who were awarded them. When I look at this, I understand the value of that approach. There is also merit in looking at developing empty space above commercial premises. I appreciate that people moved out of our town and city centres due to the Troubles but, now that the bombings and firebombings have ceased, the time is right to utilise empty domestic properties in the centres of towns and cities.
There is a need for social and affordable housing, but, to solve the current situation, we must look at all possible solutions. We must ensure that what finance is available is used in the best way to reduce the level of families needing a home.
I cannot support the motion.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak in support of amendment No 2 today. There is no doubt that there are real challenges that continue to exist as we try to meet the housing needs of our population.
A growing population, which is projected to reach two million by 2034 and 1·9 million in the next five years, reinforces the need to continue to plan and build in a measured and strategic way to ensure that the housing needs of our communities are met. I welcome the Minister's recent commitment to housing when he increased the budget for the social housing development programme, with the aim of creating 1,600 new starts this year. Every day in my constituency office, housing continues to be a major issue for many people, from young people seeking their first home through to the elderly person seeking suitable ground-floor accommodation in a sheltered housing scheme, if available. Demand continues to grow as Housing Executive stock continues to diminish as houses are sold off to tenants. That has given many people a great opportunity to get their first home.
There has been a real transformation in so many estates throughout Northern Ireland with the investment that has gone in through the Department, formerly the Department for Social Development. We should commend all the good work that has been done through housing associations and the Housing Executive as they continue to transform many estates, working with the local communities. In my constituency of North Down, I think of areas like Kilcooley, which is one of the largest estates in Northern Ireland, Whitehill, Bloomfield and Rathgill in Bangor, and West Green in Holywood. They have all benefited from major investment; it has helped to transform those areas. I recently had the pleasure of joining the Minister in Rathgill to see an exciting new Fold housing development being opened. That scheme, which had considerable consultation between Fold and the local Rathgill Community Association, will add to the housing stock in that area. Many new purpose-built quality homes have been constructed to meet the needs of many of our young people, the elderly and those with disabilities. I know how grateful many of the new tenants are who are living in those properties.
As of June 2016, there were 2,045 on the waiting list in North Down, and 810 of those were classed as homeless. This shows that more that needs to be done. However, we must continue to build on the progress that has been made to date.
Co-ownership is also a great way to give young people an opportunity to own their first home. I commend the efforts of the Minister with regard to that. It is so important, as young people try to meet the challenge of getting on the property ladder, with property prices still being excessive. We need to see investment in the supply of affordable homes for our young people. A lot of good work continues to be done. I want to put on record our thanks to the Housing Executive in the Bangor office, whom we work with on a regular basis, for the constructive work that they have done and continue to do in helping to meet the housing needs of the local people. More could be done to acquire land in areas of high demand like North Down through cooperation with our councils and other government agencies in relation to surplus land. I support amendment No 2.
I have a habit — probably a good habit — of wishing Ministers well, especially Ministers of welfare and housing, and I wish this Minister well. My memory of being housing Minister is that it is one of the most valuable pieces of work that you can do in government. I met the Minister of Education coming here this morning, and he said that he had a series of school visits planned. That tells the tale that going to schools, going to new-build housing or announcing housing plans is part of the best work of any Minister. I wish him well in all of that.
I was not planning to do this, but I have to comment on some of the earlier debate by making two remarks — on the new build figures and on waiting lists. In the debate this morning, there was a sense that it was 'Play Your Cards Right': "Higher, higher, higher" seemed to be the claim of some. In order to get clarity and break through the fog, let us look at what a DUP Minister said in reply to a question in the House about new-build social housing, going back to 1998. I will lodge the answer to the question in the Library. I hope that this Minister, from the same party as his predecessor Nelson McCausland, will not dispute the figures of the previous Minister and that nobody in the Chamber will dispute the figures of the previous Minister. What did those figures confirm? They confirmed that, in the years 2007 to 2010-11, when the SDLP had the housing brief, there were 8,394 new-build housing social starts. That includes new build, off the shelf, existing satisfactory purchases and rehab and re-improvement. That is Nelson McCausland speaking. Then he went further and said that, in the four years from 2011 to 2015, the comparable figure was 6,704. The facts from the DUP confirm that, in the four years when we were in the Ministry, compared with the four years since or the eight years before we were in the Ministry, new-build social housing starts were at their height of any mandate, of any Government who had responsibility for this area. I hope that settles the issue about the facts.
I will in a second.
I want to turn to what Mr McCann said. He gave us further facts on what housing waiting stress and housing stress were in previous times. The one thing that he did not dispute was the figures in the SDLP motion, the figures that refer to 37,000 and more on social housing waiting lists, 22,000 and more in housing stress and 15,000 and more deemed to be statutorily homeless. He did not dispute those figures, which are the most acute in a generation. Therefore, whatever the figures were when the SDLP was in government, they are far worse now and are deepening as we speak. Those two facts — the achievement in government and the size of lists now — should conclude the argument about facts once and for all.
There was also a reference earlier by Sinn Féin that there was nothing in the Programme for Government negotiations from the SDLP. In our submission, did we not propose three Bills on housing? Did we not also have an entire section of our document on housing?
I do not know where Michelle Gildernew gets her information; probably where John O'Dowd gets his. Yesterday, he did not know what Martin McGuinness had said the previous day, and, today, Michelle Gildernew does not know what we submitted to the PFG. I wrote part of it, and we set challenging targets for new-build and affordable housing, as, I am sure, the Minister is aware. I hope that Michelle Gildernew will reflect on that.
In conclusion, I want to ask a number of critical questions. If the Minister can answer them in a positive way — if not today, then subsequently — the new targets outlined in the DUP motion might be met. I welcome the new targets. The curious thing about them is that, pro rata, they are virtually identical to the SDLP's amendment. The figures that we propose over four years are, pro rata, identical to the figures that the Minister proposes over five. I think that the Opposition has proven their worth today, because they have smoked out the DUP, without reference, of course, to their colleagues in government, to the point where they have had to put hard figures on the public record in response to the hard figures proposed by the Opposition.
I will write to the Minister with a series of 12 questions that I have, and I look forward to his response, because, in that way, the figures —
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I had absolutely no idea that you were going to call me, but thank you very much; I did not assume that I would be called straight after Mr Attwood.
First, I welcome the fact that this is the first day that we have had joint motions from the Opposition. We hear cries from across the room that the Opposition cannot get their act together, but we have today got at least two motions with names on them from the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. I am also very glad, as Mr —
Would the Member agree that this debate highlights the division between the two Executive parties? We have a Sinn Féin amendment castigating house sales that the DUP is patently not going to accept. In so far as the debate highlights division, is it not a chasm at the centre of the Executive on housing policy?
I thank the Member very much for his intervention. He must have seen some of the notes that I have in front of me. It is absolutely clear, given the criticism that comes from the other side of the room and sometimes from this side of the room as well that, "God, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP do not agree on every single aspect of policy" — why would we? — "God, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP have a slightly different approach to the European Union" — why would we not?
— "Oh my God, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists do not have the same manifesto" — why would we? I will tell you what we do: we work together in the interests of democracy and in the interests of the House. That is why I strongly believe that the Opposition are having an impact.
As Mr Attwood has just pointed out, we have seen new figures from the Minister. We welcome them very much. The new figures from the Minister, the new commitment from the Minister and the new understanding that we need to build more social housing and more affordable housing to a level that is appropriate and required all say that the Opposition are working. They are pushing the Executive to do more and better things.
When we went into opposition, we did not say that we were just going to oppose everything for opposition's sake. In fact, we said the exact opposite. We said that we would work with the Ulster Unionists. We would work with any political party, either in government or outside the Government, to make sure that the Executive do the best possible things for the people who need it most.
It is strange; maybe it is deliberate — I am not sure, Mr Allister — but we have seen a real attempt in radio and TV studios and in this Chamber, and I am glad to see the two Government parties working together. Unfortunately, today, somebody did not get the memo. It is strange. It looks a bit like the last mandate. Maybe they have slipped up, and maybe we are going to see more of this to come, but we have two opposing amendments from the two Government parties.
Would the Member note with interest that, every time you refer to the previous mandate, those on the opposite Benches continually refer to the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP being in that Government, but they now no longer have that cover to blame the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP for their failure, and they will be found out for exactly what they are?
I thank the Member very much for his intervention. Yes, of course we were in the last Government. The SDLP had one member of that Government, and for all the talk of the collegiate, partnership working that we now hear, there was not much of that when we were in government, I can tell you very clearly. There was not much of that. There was not much respect for our mandate, or the Ulster Unionist mandate, or the Alliance Party mandate around that particular Executive table, and if things have changed, I welcome that. I believe —
I believe, Mr Stalford and Mr Deputy Speaker, that it is the fact of an Opposition that is forcing this Government to work together. We will see, when it comes to the final production of the Programme for Government, whether it is just going to be about bluer skies and greener grass or whether we are going to see some real commitments to the people; people in my constituency, people in West Belfast, people in North Belfast and people right across the North of Ireland who have been let down by nine successive years of bad government.
Hopefully, the Opposition will put those guys and these guys in their place and get them finally delivering for the people of Northern Ireland and that will make sure that people my age and of my generation do not have to leave our shores to find work or a university place. Hopefully, it is the Opposition that is putting the Government in the right place once and for all.
We welcome the move from the Minister to take our consideration and our proposals on board to change this desperate situation in which we need to build more social housing for our people.
I had thought that we had moved to the era of outcomes. Unfortunately, this debate has been very much about outputs — arguing over numbers; who built more houses than whom — when the reality is that, whether it was the last five years with the DUP holding the ministerial position or the four years previous to that with the SDLP, effectively there has been little change in housing need, housing stress and homelessness. There may have been some variation on a minor scale.
Effectively, what we have done is to keep a lid on the problem, but we have not got to the point where we have been able to address or tackle it. It is not just about those two parties. We have had five parties in government. Sinn Féin can criticise, but it has been the second-largest party in government for a considerable time. There needs to be collective responsibility but also collective action in seeking to address it.
I do not make those points to criticise the record of any party. I do so just to criticise the tone of the debate, which has not been particularly constructive. Sometimes, it is important in politics that we disagree; absolutely, that is what politics is about. But we actually do not disagree on this issue. We do not disagree that our levels of housing stress and homelessness are too high. We agree that we need to build more housing. We might disagree marginally around the issue of the house sales scheme, and I will come to that, but on the majority of the issues we agree. Yet to listen to the tone of the debate, it sounds as though we are at complete odds, and there is almost an accusation that some parties support homelessness — it is a wonderful thing, and we should have more of it. Nobody subscribes to that view. We all want to tackle the issue, and we should work together to do so.
Different approaches are laid out in the motion and in each of the two amendments. I accept what the SDLP said about how the figures in the motion were arrived at. However, that is the motion that we will vote on, so I am inclined to support the Sinn Féin amendment, because it talks about going beyond what we do currently to doing some things differently. It is my view that we should suspend the house sales scheme. Although house sales are modest at the minute, another boom in the housing market will undercut our investment in public housing. Look at the effect of the scheme over decades: in 1973, there were 155,000 Housing Executive houses, while today the figure is 88,000. In the past few years, when we have been building more than we have been selling, over the course of the right to buy scheme, as it is commonly known, we have sold off more than we built. That cannot continue, so it is right that we suspend the scheme.
It is also right that we look at options for allowing the Housing Executive to finance new builds again. Rightly, a call will go out asking me, "What have you done?". I have commissioned research on what those options should be. Once that research is complete and I have had time to look at it, I will come back with my proposals for how that should happen. Right now, I want to support the principle of giving power back to the Housing Executive. There has been a call — I think that I am right in saying that the Minister, to be fair, is opposed to it — for rent convergence between the Housing Executive and housing associations. The reality that the Housing Executive would be able to borrow at a cheaper rate, given its 88,000 housing assets, weakens that argument. It can also help us to resist any drive to increase social housing rents in the Housing Executive, allowing it to raise finance in other ways, without putting an additional burden on those already on some of the lowest incomes.
I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate. From the outset, let me reassure Members that my motivation to deal with housing issues is very much grounded in my experiences as an elected representative — I was a councillor from 2005 — and the experiences of all my colleagues in a party that is very much grounded in the working-class community. My motivation is not based on the Opposition. It is not based on the Opposition tabling a motion to which, within a couple of days, we came up with an amendment that increases the ambition. If the Opposition believe that that is how government operates, that is why they are in opposition.
I want to make clear what my motivation is. My motivation is based on being in Seymour Hill a number of weeks ago and seeing the damp conditions that people in the tower blocks have to live in. It is based on the experience of being in the home of a young girl who, sadly, paralysed and in a wheelchair as the result of a car crash involving her boyfriend, had faced delays in getting adaptions to her home because of the failure of the housing association responsible, which led to my intervention. My motivation is based on Nichola Mallon bringing a constituent to me who is also struggling to be housed. That is what drives me to tackle housing issues, not the politics of responding to the Opposition.
Ms Mallon talks about "honeyed words" not being enough, but you will not get honeyed words from me when it comes to dealing with housing matters. You will get hard work. I appeal to Members: hysteria will not achieve what we want to achieve, but what I heard from some in the official Opposition was more hysteria than a real solution.
The most considered contributions to the debate from oppositionists came from two Members who are not in the official Opposition — Ms Long and Mr Agnew — and they spoke about how we can deal with this.
I appreciate and understand the need for the two official Opposition parties to try to have relevancy. We, as a party, want them to be relevant because we negotiated that there would be an Opposition through Fresh Start, so we want the Opposition to work. I think that Members should reflect on how they have added to the debate when it comes to dealing with what is a very important issue.
Let me get to dealing with the substance around the issues that Members have raised. Hopefully, I will address most of the points that Members have brought to the Floor, and, time permitting, I will deal with some more specific ones.
The motion allows me to recognise the success of previous Ministers in exceeding the last Programme for Government targets on social and affordable housing and an opportunity to set out my ambition to do even more during the current Programme for Government period. Increasing housing supply across all tenures is an important issue. While the private housebuilding industry continues its slow but steady recovery, it remains important for government to provide more than its fair share of new housing supply through additional social and affordable homes. In the last five years, the Executive, including, I acknowledge, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, did an excellent job, setting ourselves targets of starting 7,500 new social housing units. Not only did we meet that target but we exceeded it, starting 7,669 new social homes over that period. There is a similar story on affordable housing, where we helped almost 4,700 households take the first step to owning their own home, against a target of 2,450. That success should rightly be recognised and applauded, and, for that reason, I support amendment No 2, tabled by my colleagues.
I am keen to build on that success and do even more, particularly around social housing, during the current mandate. The Housing Executive has statutory responsibility for assessing housing need, and, using the net stock model, it has identified a need to build 1,600 social homes a year to meet population change. That equates to 8,000 homes between 2016 and 2021, and I have already committed to building to that level as a minimum. However, I want to be even more ambitious than that, and, as long as enough funding is available, I want to start 9,600 homes by March 2021. To achieve that, we will have to maximise the potential of the existing delivery system, and, for that reason, I welcome the new delivery strategy developed by the Housing Executive in partnership with my Department and the Federation of Housing Associations. As well as improving the way in which the social housing development programme operates, the strategy aims to increase the land bank available for social housing development and encourage housing associations to take on bigger sites.
Amendment No 1 calls on me to ensure that the Housing Executive has powers to build social homes: I can confirm that it already has those powers. However, for reasons of affordability, the Housing Executive no longer builds. It could only build if its income from rent or other sources, such as house sales, allowed it do so. The Housing Executive’s current income falls short of what is needed to maintain its existing 88,000 properties, and I believe that that is where the priority should first be. Also, it does not currently make financial sense for the Housing Executive to build homes. With their ability to borrow commercially, housing associations can deliver almost two houses for every one that the Housing Executive could deliver using grants alone.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Has he engaged or will he engage with the Ministry of Defence, which has now scheduled its surplus housing stock in Aldergrove to be demolished next year? That is housing stock that could be used for homeless veterans, families leaving the services in transition or, indeed, given the debate that we had yesterday on domestic abuse, as emergency housing for families involved in domestic abuse.
Of course, the Executive negotiated with Her Majesty's Government to have transfer of surplus properties, and a lot of that has come from the Ministry of Defence. In my constituency, surplus housing is being provided. That is an ongoing programme that we are working on. The point is well made about making sure that, when the properties become available, they are used. It comes with its challenges. There can be a significant number of houses released, and managing that process is something that a community at large needs to be able to do. I will touch on how we need broader support from the community to make the changes that we want to make.
Amendment No 1 also calls on me to suspend the house sales scheme. My officials have just completed a policy review of that scheme, and I will consider options for its future shortly. Whatever I decide, I am keen to ensure that I support aspiration, helping those with the necessary desire and financial capability to move into home ownership. I am also mindful of the need to ensure that we have sufficient homes available for those who need to rent.
It is right to be ambitious, but delivering 9,600 new social homes over the course of the mandate will not be easy. Money will never be endless, land in areas of high need is in short supply and we face community opposition to social housing development in some areas. Communities sometimes need that extra bit of reassurance, and I would welcome support as we look to build new homes across Northern Ireland.
As the motion recognises, affordable housing can also make an important contribution to meeting housing need and demand. My Department has also been able to secure £100 million in government loan funding for Co-ownership, which helped support 725 families into home ownership last year. We have also extended the number of affordable housing products available through the affordable home loans fund, including a rent-to-own scheme. Taken together, those initiatives mean that I aim to deliver 3,750 additional affordable homes over the mandate.
I appreciate the Minister giving way, seeing that he has already given way once during his response. He will be aware that Members have asked for clarity on where the increased figures before us have come from. Will he point us to where he has publicly announced the increased figure prior to today's debate, or will he have the maturity and the honesty to admit that they have come in response to the Opposition motion before him today?
The Member has met me to discuss these issues, and I note the change in tone when we are in the Chamber compared with when we are in a private environment. It is an issue that we are dealing with. It is one that I have been engaging on throughout the Programme for Government with my officials and in the Executive, and it is a priority for us to deliver more housing. Does the Member really believe that we came up with the figure in response to an Opposition motion? That is not how government works. Mr Attwood, who is very familiar with the need to provide housing, knows that you simply would not be able to provide the figures in response to a motion, when you have to go through the processes of engaging with officials, housing associations and the Housing Executive so that you can provide a credible figure that you can stand over. It is not simply a case, as Mr Attwood indicated, of "Raise me higher" and "Who's got the best cards?". That is not how politics works, and it is not how the delivery of housing works.
Would you, at least, concede that it is a curious coincidence that the figures being proposed by the SDLP over four years are in and around the figures that you now propose over five years?
Does the Minister agree that sometimes there is a difficulty with the Housing Executive's role and responsibility on regeneration? Therefore, does he agree, having visited the Building Successful Communities areas in north and west Belfast with me only a few weeks ago, that this is a really good pilot and a good example of how it can be rolled out across Northern Ireland. For example, in lower Oldpark, where 26 derelict houses have been brought back to life, confidence in the community has increased and the environment has massively improved. We have 10 houses being built on the front of the Oldpark Road and 15 affordable planned for Cliftonpark Avenue. This is an example of how the Executive can work when they are supported by the Department to work on the joined-up approach that the Minister talked about earlier in his speech?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. That visit demonstrated to me the importance of that programme. One of the arguments made by previous Ministers, when the DUP did not hold the Ministry, was that there was not enough need, whilst areas were allowed to continue into dereliction. Of course, who wants to move into those areas when you are not improving that environment?
The DUP, having implemented this new programme, has regenerated a number of those areas, particularly in north Belfast, and now you have people on waiting lists wanting to get into them. That has been as a result of DUP Ministers implementing that and of the representation made, not least by Mr Humphrey.
In respect of how we can take this forward, I want to do more. Let me finish by highlighting another area. The Department is responsible for the St Patrick's Barracks site in Ballymena, and we are developing plans that include the provision of social, affordable and private housing, all with a shared-housing ethos. I know that Mrs Long is not here at present; she touched on this issue in regard to comments that I made previously. Let me be clear. I support shared housing, but it is about creating the conditions and environment where people want to share housing. It is not about forcing people and it is not about manipulating a waiting list, on the basis of religion, to deprive people who need a house. I am very clear about how I want to see shared housing developed. I am keen to see more mixed-tenure housing of that type. I have asked my officials to develop proposals for how that can be achieved, potentially using money within the Fresh Start Agreement earmarked for shared housing.
Building new housing is clearly important, but housing need can also be met in other important ways. The private rented sector has a role to play, and, later this year, I will publish proposals for consultation on the future role and regulation of the private rented sector. Preventing homelessness is also of critical importance. This year, I am investing almost £1 million in housing advice services, to help over 7,000 households take action on serious housing issues and directly prevent homelessness in almost 500 cases. The Housing Executive is also rolling out a housing options service across its office network. It aims to provide a more holistic service to those with housing issues and take early action to prevent homelessness. Where possible, prevention is always better than cure, and I am also investing funding, through Supporting People and the homelessness strategy, in helping to end the cycle of homelessness for those who have found themselves homeless on a regular basis, including on the streets. I have seen some of that work at first hand, and it helps people to turn their lives around.
In conclusion, increasing the supply of housing across all tenures is a vital issue. I will do all that I can to increase the supply of social and affordable housing, but I cannot do it alone. I need the support of all in the Chamber to encourage local communities to embrace the opportunities that new development brings. I need the support of councils to zone enough land for housing and deliver a high-quality planning service. It will not be easy, but I want to be ambitious and for all in the Chamber to share that ambition and help deliver significant numbers of social and affordable homes over this mandate.
I would like to associate myself with the comments the Minister made regarding the contributions from the Member for North Down Mr Agnew and the Member for East Belfast Mrs Long. Whilst I did not agree with everything that both of them said, I thought that they were measured and sensible contributions that had useful ideas in them.
Like the Minister, I spent a long time in local government — 11 years, in fact. Like him, I have long experience of dealing with constituents who have encountered all sorts of difficulties, whether presenting as homeless or seeking improvements or adaptations to their properties. All of us, if we are doing our job properly, have had experience of that: constituents who are plagued with damp-ridden properties and people who have been waiting for a long time to get into housing. Like the Member for North Belfast, I agree that a home is a fundamental right. Stable and secure communities, families and societies are reliant on a supply of housing that is of a high standard. A recent survey showed that 40% of housing on the mainland was insufficient in the quality of housing provided. I do not think that the figure is comparable for Northern Ireland. There is a huge problem not only in the need for new builds but in the need for improvement and adaptation of existing properties.
House-building is important. An important and simple question to ask in the debate is this: is it better to build 9,600 social units or 8,800 social units? If the answer is that it is better to build 9,600 than it is to build 8,800, Members should support the amendment that we have tabled. It is unfortunate that some of the broad agreement — Mr Agnew referenced this — on these issues and on the need for action in these areas has been drowned out by some of the contributions in the debate, but perhaps all will be well when we get back into the Committee and have further discussions on the issues. I think, sitting on the Communities Committee as I do, that there is agreement across all parties on the need for action in these areas. If there is a bit of knockabout in here, that is the nature of the game, and people will see it for what it is.
I agree with the Minister: the notion that a motion tabled by the Opposition would, in some way, direct a Minister to change his housing target is laughable. I think that they know that; when they stand up and say those things, I think that they know that. The proposal from the Opposition shows a lack of ambition. I am glad that the Government are going further than the Opposition hoped, and I therefore welcome the chance to discuss that.
Mention was made in the debate of outcomes-based accountability. I welcome the shift to outcomes-based Government, as it is a positive route to go down. I think that, as a Government, we should be judged at the end of our five years on whether we met the targets that we set. I am happy that our target for house-building is an ambitious one that goes further than the Opposition suggested. I hope that, at the end of our five-year term, we will have delivered on it, and people will be able to look at our record, like a report card, and see that we met that target.
I disagree with the idea of ending the right-to-buy scheme, as the right of people to own their home should be encouraged. We should encourage people who wish to get on the property ladder if they want. I believe in the right of people to own their home and not to live their lives as clients of the state, paying the state rent, and upon their death having —
On the right to buy, I have no doubt that it is a popular scheme, but when you look at the destructive impact that it has had on the social housing stock over many years, you can only come to the realisation that it needs to cease. In Scotland —
We will not be supporting the motion. Having listened to the Minister's contribution this morning, which we welcome, and to the contributions from the DUP, we will be supporting its amendment and not calling a division on our amendment.
One of the striking aspects of the motion is that you get a sense from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists that they somehow believed that, once they opted for Opposition, all that went before did not exist. It is as if there was no time before a certain date. For them, day 1, year zero was sometime in June 2016.
I do not get an extra minute, so the answer is no.
However, the reality is that, no matter how hard they try or no matter how many times they say it, other people will remind them of the positions they have taken on particular issues.
So, even today, the motion states that by 2021 there should be 11,700 new homes — 8,800 social homes and 2,900 affordable homes. We received no explanation or rationale as to why the proposers came to those particular figures. I suppose the secret lies in what they have recently said.
In their May 2016 election manifesto, just a few short months ago, the Ulster Unionists talked about the need to build 10,000 new social homes by 2021. There is no reference as to how they got that figure, but it is premised on a waiting list of 44,000. Today's motion states that the number on the waiting list is lower than that. We are not sure whether the motion is an SDLP motion or an Opposition motion, given the earlier point of order, but we are now told that in a lesser timescale they want to build more houses than was stated in their target in May and we are provided with no explanation. The only thing that has changed is that they are now in opposition and think they can say whatever they want and it sounds good.
(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)
The SDLP held the housing portfolio so, with the benefit of the inside track, so to speak, you would think that its figure would be worth noting. But when you look at its Assembly manifesto, you see that there was no real figure, no approximation. There was a vague, indeed, clever reference to the regional development strategy. It talked about the need to increase provision but there was no reference and no baseline. Now, in October 2016, there is a very precise figure. This world of opposition is a very wonderful place.
Nichola Mallon talked about the great need in North Belfast, and Colum Eastwood is to be congratulated for perhaps the most impromptu speech he ever had to make. To have your name down for a motion and then say that you did not know you were going to be called to speak is some admission in itself. However, he went on to say that there was also a great need in North Belfast, West Belfast and in his and my constituency of Derry. There once was ring-fencing for social housing in those three areas because of the need, which was well-identified. Fra McCann pointed out that many people thought that it was the sensible approach; where there was great need, to go after it. That scheme was brought to an end by the SDLP, initiated by Margaret Ritchie and then processed through by Alex Attwood. In case Colum feels left out, he was the undersecretary at the time.
For us, it is a very clear statement. We are part of the Programme for Government. In our manifesto, we set a minimum of 10,000 social homes, and that is what we will be tested on. That is what setting outcomes in the Programme for Government will do. We will be tested on what we say. It is very important for the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists to learn this about opposition. They remind me of the story of the person who grafted a hump onto a horse, called it a camel and expected everybody else to believe it was a camel. When you bring a motion to the House, it will be tested and scrutinised, and you will be reminded of what you have said in the past. We will certainly call your camel a horse because it is a horse.
At the outset, I welcome the Minister's intention to give an undertaking to build more new houses in this term. Although the causes of and the solutions to the issue that the motion grapples with are complex, the issue itself is simple. There is a desperate need to increase housing supply. There is not one person here who would disagree with that statement.
Every day, in every constituency office amongst us all, there are people who are in desperate need of housing and housing needs. We have families who have no homes and do not feel as though their children can be raised in a normal societal settlement. The lack of supply is having a dire impact on their health and education and is causing social problems. I thank Nichola Mallon for raising that issue.
There is only one way in which to address the problem: we must build more homes. We must increase capacity for the many thousands in housing stress. At the moment, we are delivering too few new developments, and the slow pace of public land release, coupled with the inflexibility of needs assessment, means that we often build 10 homes when we need 100.
Northern Ireland's status as a low-wage economy complicates the issue. The recent scandal of the much-lauded government-supported help-to-buy ISA scheme, which provided very little help to buy owing to a fatal flaw with the bonus, only exasperates the situation. The increasing private rental costs and shortfalls in housing benefit combine in a perfect storm to maximise housing need. Once again, it seems as though the Bank of Mum and Dad must rescue young families hoping to buy their home or pay rent. That is not an acceptable position. When we consider the prevalence of one-year tenancy agreements, it is hardly surprising that so many feel that their house is not their home.
There is a need for innovation in housing supply. We need more one-bedroom flats for older people and more two-bedroom houses with expandability. Again, the inflexible needs analysis needs to be modernised. Why can Northern Ireland not lead the way in exploring smart home technology that reduces crime, delivers energy-efficient outcomes and adapts to the needs of families and the disabled?
Housing should be backbone of local regeneration. It can be the catalyst to support inward investment in construction, infrastructure and employment and to build communities. Now is the time to look at the potential of pension schemes to finance housing programmes.
Nichola Mallon highlighted the cry from some DUP Members about there being financial constraints. There was certainly no difficulty in squandering over £1 billion on the renewable heat incentive. Just imagine how many homes that might have built.
The Member may be interested in an answer to a written question from me yesterday on the renewable heat incentive scheme, which states that the anticipated cost in the upcoming year is £37 million.
I thank you for that intervention.
Forgive me, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, for being a little bit parochial for one moment, as the Minister was. I would like to talk to the Minister as a fellow Lagan Valley representative. Minister, in our constituency there are 988 people in housing stress. There are 159 social houses being built in Lagan Valley. We must build more for the sake of those 829 people, and the many more across the Province. Fra McCann gave us the figure of 22,654 households being in housing stress. That just shows how important housing is.
Minister, housing is a plural, and you have the opportunity to give a massive boost if you are bold and brave enough to embrace new solutions that support people and offer them a home.
I thank Alex Attwood, who certainly put to bed the nonsense about statistics and damned statistics across the Chamber. All Members had statistics to suit themselves, but the statistics here are as Alex Attwood stated. Yes, we can all play games around statistics.
I pay tribute to my colleague Andy Allen, who took some abuse from my left. It was pretty hot at times, but he held his own in determining that he works solidly on social housing in his constituency.
I admire it that a man who has the disability that he suffers from champions disability and social and affordable housing in his constituency.
I remind Mr Bell of the figures that are being debated in the Chamber. The period 2007-2011 was a four-year term, and 2011-16 is a five-year term. You can work it all out, but I do not want to get fixated on figures; I just want to have a sensible debate here today about how we move forward and about the importance of delivering new solutions for housing in Northern Ireland. The Minister said that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive had the right and the power to build, but, unfortunately, at the time of the existence of the Housing Executive —
I will in a second. Unfortunately, at the very beginning, the Housing Executive was funded fully from the public purse, and the decision was taken that the Housing Executive would not be able to avail itself of full housing funding. There is an opportunity here to split the Housing Executive into two entities. One would become one of the largest housing associations, de-shackled, along with the housing associations, as we move forward. I believe that the Office for National Statistics is setting the scene for where the housing association movement will be. Why not de-shackle the Housing Executive as well and allow it to bid like anyone else for the new build programme and reduce the housing association grant and make it more competitive for all developers to challenge to build new and affordable social housing. I bet you any money that social housing would be built at a far better price. I am happy to give way.
I thought that I had moved into the SDLP there. Your last statement is correct. Whilst the Housing Executive retains the right to build, the lack of capital or financial resources means that it cannot, but it could be a game changer.
We are all talking about statistics this morning, but I said that behind the statistics are faces of families, young people and children in hostels and overcrowded homes. That is why we should never lose sight of the fact that this is happening. It is faces, not statistics, that we should be dealing with.
I hear what you say. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has a stock of 88,000 and, as one of the biggest commercial small business portfolios, would have the capacity to borrow on the strength of that if the shackles were removed to allow it to become an independent housing association as a charity, just like all the other housing associations. It is all in the detail, and it is for the Minister to solve that detail and to try to deliver far better housing for Northern Ireland. I welcome the motion today.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes that, in June 2016, there were 37,347 households on the social housing waiting list, of which 22,986 were deemed to be in housing stress and 15,474 were deemed to be statutorily homeless; further notes the Executive’s success in exceeding the last Programme for Government target by providing 7,669 new social homes and 4,685 new affordable homes between 2011 and 2016; and acknowledges the plans of the Minister for Communities to deliver 9,600 new social homes and 3,750 new affordable homes between 2016 and 2021.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In terms of the Standing Orders of the House, can you explain why, again, neither Member from People Before Profit has been called in the debate? The same thing happened yesterday in relation to the debate on withdrawal from the European Union, on which we were very anxious to speak because we have a distinctive point of view, different from that of other parties, and we want to be able to express it. Can you tell me whether the ruling comes from the Speaker's Office? Has it been imposed on the Speaker's Office by a Committee of the House? Is it based on precedent? Is it based on protocol? Will you explain this to us? We have 13,000 first preference votes between us. We believe that that is a mandate to express our point of view in the House. We are not being given the opportunity to do that, and I would like an explanation.