The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Communities to hold the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to account for its failure to address the lack of, or poor quality of, cavity insulation within many Housing Executive properties; and calls on the Housing Executive to formulate a plan of action to ensure that all its properties have adequate and proper cavity insulation.
I ask Members to indulge me for a few moments to explain why I have proposed the motion and the reason for its wording. Cavity wall insulation has been raised many times in the last few years by nearly all of us in the Chamber in some form or other, and it has been debated recently in the Assembly, lastly in November 2013. Sadly, little has changed since then.
Roy Beggs, Andy Allen, Pat Sheehan, Patsy McGlone and Steven Agnew have all expressed interest with Assembly questions, have met the industry and various residents, and have had the seriousness of the issue explained to them. I hope that I will have cross-community support for the motion.
It is acknowledged that there are UK-wide issues with regard to the deterioration of certain insulation materials, such as fibre, over time, exposure to water, and the quality of workmanship. That is a problem not only for the Housing Executive, but across the total housing stock. In the mid-1980s, the Housing Executive carried out an extensive programme of insulating cavity walls across a housing stock that was twice what it is today. In many ways, that programme was ahead of its time, but nearly 30 years have passed and many problems are now coming to light.
In November 2013, I tabled a similar motion in the Assembly on the topic. After a lively debate, the motion received all-party support. The debate covered many of the issues around fuel poverty, the health issues from living in cold, damp homes, and the opportunity to create jobs and reduce consumer bills. Therefore, I wish to focus on what actions have occurred since the motion was passed and update Members on my views of progress to date.
Following the motion, several Members enquired about progress, including the current Minister. We were all referred to a study that had been commissioned by the Housing Executive: the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) report. We were told that the report would determine the condition of the insulation in cavities and that the Housing Executive would:
"carry out an evaluation of the results to determine whether there is substandard insulation in its properties and will develop whatever action plan is indicated with new strategies and policies."
We were further told that the project would provide an evidence base to underpin a programme of remedial work if required. It all sounds good so far.
The study was commissioned and a report duly completed. Two hundred and six properties were thoroughly investigated, and the report was completed in March 2014. It found that 39% of cavity walls were in severe and critical need, 26% were unsatisfactory with grave needs, 11% were in significant need, 14% had specific needs, and only 9% were fit for purpose.
The report was then suppressed by the Housing Executive and published only after questions in the Assembly. It was finally released with two important provisos and its publication included a letter from the then director of regional services for the Housing Executive. It stated that:
"As a result of the findings contained in the report, a much larger survey is being commissioned as part of the stock condition survey of Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties commencing in the autumn of 2014. This will inform the future strategy and programmes required to address the issues in the report."
The letter refers to the report as "small", yet the 206 sample houses had all been included in the 2011 house condition survey (HCS) and were noted as being in good condition. The HCS provided robust data to inform on fuel poverty, energy efficiency, quality of housing stock and state of repair. It is quoted extensively throughout government, yet the sample that was used in it was only 0·18%. In comparison, the SERC sample was 0·31%, which is nearly double the size. It also appears that we were misinformed as to the purpose of the study, as it has now become a small-scale exploratory research study aimed at providing an initial indication.
The director of regional services added:
"As a result of the findings contained in this report, a much larger survey is being commissioned as part of a stock condition survey".
So, the SERC report was condemned to the dustbin, but at least a bigger survey would be done. The larger survey is commonly known as the Savills report and, thanks to questions from other parties, we now know that it cost £4 million.
It was a holistic, detailed, formidable body of work. Over 22,000 houses were examined for thermal efficiency and other issues, and over 22,000 lofts were examined.
Not at the moment.
Amazingly, not one single cavity wall was inspected or borescoped. So a much bigger, more expensive study was completed. Yet, for some reason, the Housing Executive chose to ignore the findings of the SERC report and not to investigate further.
In reply to questions about cavity wall insulation over the last year or longer, the Housing Executive has now put forward a consistent response regarding the issue, namely, that it intends to investigate further through its external cyclical maintenance (ECM) schemes, to carry out samples with borescopes when deciding a programme of works and to deal with individual houses on a response basis. The ECM programme that the Housing Executive has referred to includes roofs, walls, fences etc. It is my understanding that the specifications for this work have already required inspections of walls, but I am glad to hear that the Housing Executive is now saying that it is committed to carrying out these inspections.
This answer is a reasonable approach, which has some merit, until you dig in further and ask what is actually happening. In October of last year, Roy Beggs asked how many cavity walls had been surveyed under the ECM programme. He was told that:
"as this intrusive inspection approach has only commenced recently, the Housing Executive is unable to provide the information requested."
Would the Member like in now?
I find it quite astonishing that the answer could not be given. What I also find quite astonishing is that, having known from the report on the smaller sample that there were major defects in cavity wall insulation, Savills was not required to carry out any further investigation or commissioned to ensure that would happen.
I totally agree with the Member: it should have included that.
So, it appears that they still have not started this yet. Likewise, the claim to deal with individual houses on a response basis seems hollow. The SERC report identified 135 houses across other constituencies that had serious deficiencies with their wall installation. In answer to questions from the Minister, the Housing Executive has stated that two houses have had remedial work carried out over the last three-and-a-half years. Not very responsive by any definition.
In 2005, I asked, via the Minister, how many claims have been made against the Housing Executive for substantial cavity wall insulation problems. I was told that the information was not available under that classification but was included under dampness and that over 200 claims have been dealt with. The Housing Executive often use the term "lifestyle issues" to explain damp on walls. In many cases, it is much more likely to be a lack of, or poor, cavity wall insulation. As such, in December 2006 I asked another question through the Minister. This time I asked how many cases of damp had been reported to the Housing Executive over the last four years. The answer horrified me: 25,000 cases.
In my constituency I see this repeated time and time again, but I am totally frustrated by the approach of the Housing Executive. I have been involved in trying to resolve a complaint for a tenant in the last few months, and it highlighted the approach adopted by the Housing Executive. The usual excuses were lifestyle choices, condensation and not using heating properly and airing the house. The real reason was that there was no cavity wall insulation in the property. I will read out an excerpt from a letter written by a lady after the Housing Executive had fixed her problem. She told me:
"Until you live in a house with insulation problems, you will never know how much stress and worry I had. I am trying to keep a nice home, only for it to be eaten up by black, dangerous mould. I have had to constantly strip back wallpaper, wash walls with antifungal and redecorate."
She then went on to say, once the Housing Executive had actually bothered to resolve the situation:
"I feel like a weight has been lifted off me, as I will no longer have to worry about the mould making us sick and will no longer have to redecorate."
In closing, I understand that the Housing Executive has financial restraints and must prioritise its budget, but having a warm home, free from damp, is at the top of everybody's wish list. From my experience and that of my constituents, the plan is not apparent, and very little progress appears to have been made on the motion agreed in the Assembly over three years ago. That is why I believe that the Minister needs to ensure that this is remedied, progress monitored and the Housing Executive held to account. A plan has to be developed and not a quick fix; it may take a decade. We need a plan, and it needs to be delivered.
I understand that a lot of this stuff is based on Savills, but, if my memory serves me right, back in 2007 or 2008, Savills came in again and was heavily critical of the Housing Executive for what it called over-maintaining homes. It brought them up to the decent homes standard-plus. After that, there was a reduction in the level of maintenance that it carried out in homes. The issue has its genesis back in 2008. I always thought that that was a foolish decision that was made at the same time. We cannot over-maintain our houses; the better they are, the better for the tenants who live there.
Cavity insulation, and all insulation, is crucial to maintaining the fabric of any home and the well-being of those who live there. Although I support the motion, I am sorry that it does not include the thousands of people who own their home but, because of their financial circumstances, cannot afford to insulate or upgrade it.
I understand that, some years ago, when the SDLP had the Ministry, it removed a number of grant options that allowed grants for people to renovate and upgrade their properties, which would have included heating, new windows and the upgrade of the fabric of their homes. That ill-thought-out decision by the SDLP Minister at that time has ensured that people, some of whom are the most vulnerable in our community at present, see their homes continuing to deteriorate. It is quite likely that they will be the slums of the future, thus costing more to put right in the end.
In recent times, people living in relatively new homes are suffering the consequences of poor insulation. I think of people who live in Lagmore, where contractors did not adequately insulate the homes. There is an onus on the Housing Executive, which had those homes constructed, to pursue those who made the mess. If that is not possible, there is a duty on the housing provider to put right that problem.
Insulation is non-existent in many tower blocks. People in the flats are living in freezing and damp conditions. The only advice that they are given, as you said, is to leave their windows open. Several months ago, the Minister for Communities visited Divis Tower. He saw the flats for himself. They are well-kept by the tenants, but the complaints are the same: the lack of insulation makes them a cold house to live in. It is a place where tenants sit wearing heavy coats while watching TV. Of course, those are not the only flats that suffer those problems; I am sure that many in the House see the same conditions in their own areas. The Minister looked at those conditions and spoke to tenants. I thank him for his visit. I believe that he had a great deal of sympathy for the plight of tenants.
The Housing Executive board, which met several weeks later, had on its agenda for that meeting a decision on the strategy for the future of all tower blocks, which included options that would see the demolition of those that it wanted rid of. Also included was investment in those blocks of flats that needed immediate investment. I understand that Divis Tower was included. What did the board do? It fudged the matter by putting any decision back a number of months. Tenants in tower blocks were waiting on good news at Christmas. Instead, they got a slap in the face.
The board is looking at removing all tower blocks over a period of time because it says that they are not financially viable and so should be demolished. It has missed the fact that we are dealing with people and their living conditions, not a strategy. Any demolition could take over 25 years to unfold. It would take that length of time before they get to Divis Tower. It did not look at the chronic problems faced by tenants. It did not discuss how tenants felt or whether it would be in a position to house people from Divis or any other tower block. In fact, people are happy living in Divis —
There were a number of attempts in the past; the repairs carried out at that time did nothing to remedy the problems that exist. It is poor heating, no insulation and a serious problem with dampness.
If people looked into the flats and decided they were surplus to requirements, where would they put the tenants? West Belfast has the longest waiting list in the North, with over 4,000 people looking to be housed. What would they do with the tenants in the other blocks who wished to remain in their locality, which is often the case? Have they properties to move them to? The decision taken by the Housing Executive board to not proceed with investment in Divis Tower has condemned tenants to live in a never-ending nightmare. The replacement of windows and heating systems along with proper insulation could transform those flats and the life of those who live there.
Does the Member agree with me that, while the situation in the tower blocks is dire, many homes in rural areas are solid wall with no cavity wall insulation — indeed, no insulation at all — and that something needs to be done to rectify that, especially given that COPD, asthma and other respiratory conditions can result from it?
The Housing Executive sits today with roughly 88,000 houses in its stock. Many of those are 20 years old, and some are far older. The point is well made by the Member; often, when we speak about housing, we forget about the serious problems in rural areas.
I take this opportunity to thank the Members responsible for bringing this important motion before the House, and I thank the Minister for coming today to listen to the concerns of Members from across the House.
If we look at the Department for Communities's statutory minimum fitness standard for housing, we see it outlines that one of the criteria is that a home should be:
"free from dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants".
It further states:
"Under the fitness standard a dwelling is fit for human habitation unless, in the opinion of the relevant authority, it fails to meet one or more of the above requirements."
Further on, under the heading, "Reasonable degree of thermal comfort", it states:
"Associations should take the opportunity to improve the energy efficiency and install insulation that meets current NI Building Regulations standards. Providing a reasonable degree of thermal comfort requires efficient heating and effective insulation."
The Northern Ireland energy strategy, which was updated on 18 January 2017, states that one of its goals is:
"To achieve substantial progress towards a 34% improvement in the energy efficiency of the housing stock in Northern Ireland over a ten year period."
There is no doubt that energy efficiency is the best way to tackle fuel poverty.
We are told in the Programme for Government that there is a major desire to tackle fuel poverty, and one of the key ways of doing that is to address the lack or poor quality of cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive homes. At the time many of the homes we are talking about were built, often the highest industry standard was used, but, as the years have progressed, those standards have improved and the materials used then have become not fit for purpose.
We have, on many occasions in the House, discussed the need for new social housing; indeed, we point to the 40,000-plus people on the social housing waiting list and demand that the Minister does more. Although the House is coming down and the Minister leaves office on 1 March, I welcome that he committed to building 9,600 new social starts and to funding 3,750 co-ownership homes. It is important we build new homes and invest in new homes for people, but it is also vital that we invest in our current stock to bring it up to a standard where they are fit for purpose and habitation.
Mr Speaker, I have attended many constituents' homes —
I am glad you raised the point about the 9,600 houses, which are essential to try to deal with the long waiting list, but we need to be adventurous in what we look at in housing and houses that are being built. Recently, I saw an item on TV about a number of factories opening in England that make pre-packed houses that have the highest energy standards, are well built and put together and could provide an alternative at half the price of a normal house.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for his intervention. Whilst I realise the Minister said that building 9,600 homes is an ambitious target, I would like to see it go beyond that. Indeed, if we look at the housing growth indicators in the regional development strategy, we see it points to 6,000-plus units per year being needed to address the housing shortage. I believe the 9,600 target is ambitious, and I commend the Minister for setting it, but I do not think it goes go far enough. I believe we need to challenge ourselves to set those targets higher.
As I was saying before the Member's intervention, we hear often in the House about the need to improve our current housing stock to ensure that it is fit for habitation. Indeed, I have attended many constituents' homes and have seen pictures of homes of a shocking standard.
Is the Member looking to come in there? No? Sorry, my poor eyesight means that I could not tell whether you wanted in.
Quite often, constituents are being informed by Housing Executive staff, who are often operating under severe financial constraints, but that is not an excuse. We cannot afford to take our eye off the ball and allow constituents to live in houses that are not up to the fitness standard. I have seen walls and ceilings that are completely covered in black moss, and, as Mr Easton rightly pointed out, people are often told that that is down to lifestyle choices, the lack of heating, too much heating, a lack of ventilation or condensation developing. In many cases, it is a result of the lack of cavity wall insulation. It is important to recognise that having poor housing was often not the intention. No one set out to provide poor housing, and no one set out to provide housing with a lack of cavity wall insulation or housing made with poor materials that would deteriorate over years. Housing was provided to the best standards of the time, but we have progressed, moved on and advanced. It is important that we adapt and overcome the difficulties in front of us.
There is no denying that, over the next 20 years, as stated in the Savills report, the Housing Executive will face severe financial constraints in maintaining and bringing its level of housing stock up to a fit-for-purpose standard. It is important that we as Members do all that we can to challenge the Minister, and it is also important that we constructively add to the debate and the argument and that we support the Minister on Statutory Committees and in the House through coming up with alternative ideas and options that can be taken forward to maintain our housing stock.
In finishing, I share with the House a recent constituent enquiry that I came across. It concerns the affordable warmth —
I support the motion. My view on the critical importance of housing and the intrinsic role that it plays in successfully tackling disadvantage, driving economic growth and job creation and creating a better environment and a healthier, more equal shared society is well-documented, and I have articulated it several times in the House. It is also well known that I believe that there are five human rights. People have the right to food, to healthcare, to education, to work and to a home, and access to a secure, affordable and good-quality home is the anchor. It is the glue that holds other aspects of an individual's and a family's life together.
We know the extent of the problem that the motion is trying to address. We see it every day in our constituency. In North Belfast, the vast bulk of my constituency work is housing-related. I do that almost daily, and I see daily the intrinsic connection between health and housing, which is perhaps most starkly laid bare in the motion before us and the issues that we are debating today. The extent of the problem, and its prevalence in social housing and in the private-rented and homeowner sectors, has been well-documented by other Members, so I do not intend to repeat the statistics. Like many Members, I could paint the walls of the Chamber with photographs of the homes of my constituents that are black with mould and damp, where, in little children's bedrooms, the corners are completely black, where parents are spending a fortune trying to clean the walls and decorate over the mould, and where their children are suffering a series of respiratory conditions as a result.
Like many Members, I can share my story of the bureaucratic battle that we have on a daily basis. When a constituent comes to us for help, we contact the environmental health team in the respective council area and then engage in a protracted debate with the Housing Executive over what is at the root of the problem. The case continuously put forward by the Housing Executive is that it is, in fact, a ventilation or condensation issue and that the solution lies in simply opening the window.
I want to make it clear that I am not using this opportunity to level universal criticism at the Housing Executive or at the many good people who work and deal with me and with many of us in the Chamber. I believe, though, that there is reluctance to accept the real reason for this issue, which is one of resources. They simply do not have the resources to deal with the problem and therefore there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in the first instance. As a result, the cost is paid by the individuals and families who live in these homes. They pay that cost through their health and when they try to clean and redecorate, and they pay it through fuel and through the warmth that is lost from their homes. The cost to these families is unacceptable.
It brings me on to my second point on the issue of fuel poverty, and a number of Members have touched on this. We have the highest rates of fuel poverty on these islands and we urgently need a more effective and coordinated fuel poverty strategy that properly deals with the issue; it should be a critical strand of it. It will not only try to address our fuel poverty crisis but will create employment opportunities and opportunities in the construction sector that could benefit our economy across the North.
I am very frustrated that, on the final day of the Assembly, we are debating an issue that impacts on so many homes across Northern Ireland. I am really frustrated that we have a housing crisis. I am really frustrated that we are not able to move forward on reform of the common selection scheme.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that competing priorities and the lack of funding to address the issue of cavity wall insulation are factors? The cost to the public purse would be around £140 million, which does not seem to be money that is readily available in the current circumstances.
I agree with the Member. It is regrettable that it seems that money can be found quite easily by this Executive for other things and maybe not so easily when it comes to issues that impact on homes and are detrimental to children's health.
We have a housing crisis and we need to stop tinkering around the edges. We need to actually deal with the problems, we need to be creative and we need to be courageous. We do not need to be stuck in political paralysis. A price is being paid by our constituents who are living in homes that just are not fit for purpose.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion today and I thank Mr Easton for raising the matter. For the last number of years — quite rightly so — the impact on the poor and the people who live in Housing Executive houses has been manifest and is being clearly demonstrated by others in the debate this morning.
Housing has been and remains a sector that moves from one crisis to another in Northern Ireland. Over the last number of months, we have debated the need for improvement in the housing selection scheme, the recent reclassification of housing associations by the Office for National Statistics and the need to protect the vulnerable from unscrupulous landlords in the private sector. Today, we return to the issue of the lack of, or poor quality, cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive properties. On the surface, this might seem to be a fairly innocuous issue, but when you look at Northern Ireland's context of having — as others have said — the highest rate of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom, at 42%, and rising excesses of winter deaths at 11%, we see the positive role that effective insulation can play in protecting the vulnerable in our population.
Over 30 years ago, I was elected to Carrickfergus Borough Council on the back of many local campaigns. I can proudly state that I was a tenant of two Housing Executive properties in my early married life. I know exactly, at first hand, what it was like — probably over 40 years ago — to live in Housing Executive properties that suffered from that type of damp.
I also saw kids chase the plastic beads down the street many years ago when the first cavity wall insulation schemes were introduced. This is an issue that I have known about for virtually every single day of my political career, both as a councillor and as an MLA. People have come to me, and I understand at first hand the serious problems of health and of the damage that the failure to be able to live in a decent, warm home can create for many people in our communities.
This issue, as I have said, is nothing new. Many properties that were built between the 1940s and the early 1990s are no longer fit for purpose because people struggle to heat them. The statistics reinforce this —
I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member agree with me that, in trying to address the fuel poverty situation for our families in their homes, a project was put before the Department from the Housing Executive to fit photovoltaic panelling, which would have allowed our homes to have been heated at a lesser cost, and that would have gone a long way towards eradicating fuel poverty, but, unfortunately, the Department kicked it out?
I thank the Member. What she has raised is an important issue. There are many creative and innovative ways in which we can deal with the problems around fuel poverty and the serious issue that the lack of cavity wall insulation or failed cavity wall insulation, as is quite often the problem today, causes for many.
This is not just about bashing the Housing Executive here today, because I am a staunch supporter of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I believe that it has done an amazing job with its hands tied behind its back by many politicians, some of whom are represented in this Chamber today. As stated in the motion, it is not just appropriate to hold the Housing Executive to account. This issue is well known to previous Social Development Ministers — Lord Morrow, Nelson McCausland and the Minister today. I wish the DUP was as consistent in its approach to heating homes as it is to heating sheds.
It is important to remember that the Housing Executive carries out a vital role in dealing with properties on behalf of tenants. Recent figures have stated that the Housing Executive requires somewhere in the region of £6·7 billion over the next 30 years to address maintenance issues and raise its properties to an acceptable standard. Moreover, the reclassification of housing associations has added more debt on the Housing Executive and placed it in an unhelpful situation.
I am clearly someone who supports the work of the Housing Executive, and I believe that where we have headed over many recent years has been away from support for the Housing Executive. I value the work that housing associations have done, but what should be core to providing safe, good-quality public housing in Northern Ireland should be the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I do not agree that it should be prevented from building more homes in Northern Ireland. That may sound controversial, but I believe that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive should be given the opportunity to build more homes. Today, we need to see environmental health officers, building control officers, the Housing Executive and the Department coming together to help us build homes fit not just for the future but for today.
I support the motion as far as it goes. It highlights the failure to date to address the defects and poor quality of cavity wall insulation, but there is a need to go further. The Department for Social Development and its Minister and, indeed, the Department for Communities and the draft Programme for Government have a key role in enabling the Housing Executive, through resourcing, to address the failings. What did previous Social Development Ministers McCausland and Storey, and the current Minister with responsibility, Paul Givan MLA, do about it? Very little, it seems.
Fuel poverty is identified when more than 10% of a household's income is spent providing heat for the home. Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates throughout the United Kingdom, at some 42%.
Fuel poverty is influenced by household income, the cost of energy and the domestic energy efficiency of the home. The only one of those issues directly under the responsibility of the Minister and the Housing Executive is energy efficiency. There is a responsibility to address that issue when there are difficulties.
Walls form the largest surface area of any home and have the greatest potential to radiate or lose heat from the house. To date, the major defects in cavity wall insulation have not been addressed. Since the publication in March 2014 of the cavity wall inspection report produced by the South Eastern Regional College in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, it has been known authoritatively that there are major defects with cavity wall insulation in Northern Ireland Housing Executive homes and indeed many private sector homes that may originally have been Housing Executive homes. The issue of cavity wall insulation was not examined in detail by the housing conditions survey. In answer to Assembly question AQW 9010/16-21, the Minister acknowledged that, despite the millions of pounds' worth of work spent on the Savills housing survey, the current quality of cavity wall insulation was unknown.
The cavity wall inspection report advised that some 206 homes throughout Northern Ireland that had previously been surveyed in housing condition surveys in 2009 and 2011 were examined in detail using physical investigative methods. Holes were drilled and borescope cameras inserted to see exactly what was inside the walls. What were the results? Thirty-nine per cent had severe and critical needs; 26% were unsatisfactory with grave needs; and 11% had significant needs. Major problems were identified.
The report also highlighted that BuildDesk software analysis of blown-fibre insulation questioned its use in Northern Ireland. This is a private sector analysis of methods of insulation provision in homes. We have a damp, wet climate in Northern Ireland, and it is widely known that blown fibre can present difficulties in such climates. Unfortunately, a very high proportion of Northern Ireland Housing Executive homes has blown fibre that was installed in the 1980s; it may be as high as 60% or 70%. We have a very high risk of difficulties in those areas.
It is also widely known that, originally, poor techniques were used in installing such fibre and that there were voids and poor quality control. Add to that the damp that can occur and, instead of the insulation's providing a warm home, it acts as a thermal bridge and conducts the heat from the homes of many of those who are suffering from fuel poverty to the outside world, so they end up living in cold, damp homes. Indeed, I have visited the homes of constituents in Carrickfergus where damp has been highlighted as a problem. Constituents have assured me that they regularly keep their windows open for circulation —
— but officers and landlords frequently blame tenants' lifestyles for the damp, whereas the real cause may be damp blown-fibre insulation. That is why we need a detailed survey. We need to use modern technology, thermal imaging and borescopes —
I will not speak too long on this because many people before me have confirmed what we already know: that, unfortunately, Housing Executive homes that are of quite an age are in such poor repair that we are letting down our community. Poor insulation causes health issues; it creates social stigma and leaves people angry and alone, often coming to us politicians as a last-chance option.
I was fortunate to go along to a beautiful development in Comber where I saw at first hand the type of energy-efficient home that I would love our community to live in. The energy-efficient solutions that were put into those homes meant that those people would be able to heat them for as little as £5 a month. How much money do the people living in Housing Executive homes with cavity wall insulation problems pay per month to try to heat their homes? It is definitely not £5.
Housing Executive stock has homes that are substandard. There is mould and poor insulation. As many have said here, I have been in homes, across my constituency, where wee white insulation balls blow through the wall vents into the homes. They are not insulating the homes, they are being chased around floors with brushes and vacuum cleaners and being hoovered up out of the way.
Maintenance is not good enough. I completely appreciate that the Housing Executive maintenance teams are under terrible pressures, but that does not forgive the attitude of poor customer service. That is what we tend to forget: the people who live in these homes are customers. It is perceived that they have no choice and they will simply put up with mould, draughty homes, disgusting condensation and children living in bedrooms that you would not put animals in. The attitudes shown to some of my customers leave them sitting in my office in tears and leave them wondering whether they are going to heat the house or eat. Many of the people we hear about who are forced to choose whether to eat or heat live in the Housing Executive homes that we are talking about today.
Perhaps today the Minister could be very clear on what plans he has actually taken forward to make sure that the Housing Executive maintenance has enough money and actually have a good enough plan to stop this happening across our countryside?
Every single Member so far has mentioned the financial constraints on the Housing Executive. Does the Member agree with me that there are ways out of this problem of a lack of resources to deal with cavity wall insulation, damp and mould, which affects houses in every constituency? One obvious way forward, which is not being explored, is to give the Housing Executive the power to borrow money on the markets — it has never been cheaper to borrow — and also to stop the madness of lowering corporation tax and give the money, probably £300 million, according to some estimates, to the Housing Executive to finance a crash programme of building social housing. Can we also stop the gradual, surreptitious privatisation of the Housing Executive and its stock, which is changing the housing market for the worse?
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for bringing this up. My very next point is about this. Fresh Start had £500 million set aside for integrated education, shared education and shared housing. How much of that money has been spent on shared housing? Our people do need these new homes with better insulation, better heating options and which are more energy efficient. How much was spent? Of course, the Minister does not believe that shared housing is important.
I support the motion before the House today, and I thank Mr Easton for bringing it forward. It is unfortunate that it comes on a day when the Chamber is empty, because I am sure every single politician in this Building worth their salt actually has Housing Executive tenants who are complaining.
Absolutely nothing, as I can see from my tenants, because their complaints have been going on for, not four years, not five years but maybe ten years. It is very disappointing to find it back in front of this House with an almost empty Chamber today.
I do support the motion. I acknowledge the difficulties facing the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and I call on it to formulate a plan of action to address the issues so this Assembly can get to work on making it a reality. I hope that, after the election, we will actually have someone who will take it forward.
As people have already said, this is a very important issue. Everybody knows that people are living in homes that are not warm enough. We know that people have to pay a fortune on their gas and electricity bills just to heat their homes. We know that people think twice about turning the heating on. Fra McCann mentioned people putting on coats and extra jumpers indoors because they are watching the meter. They are literally watching their meter. Tragically, we know that people have died in their homes because they are unable to heat them. This is the reality in 2017.
We also know that 35% of heat in a home is lost if there is no cavity wall insulation installed in the house. If you put £200 of oil in an oil tank, you lose £70 right away because there is no cavity wall insulation.
That needs to be publicised and emphasised more, because it is a colossal waste of money and it is hitting people, who cannot afford it, in the pocket. Contrast that with taxpayers' money going to funnel heat into empty sheds with seven or eight heaters on full blast. It seems to me that there is one rule if you have connections in Stormont and another for everybody else.
This is a very serious issue. We have to ensure that people have heating and are warm and comfortable in their homes. We also have to ensure that people are not robbed blind by spiralling energy costs because their homes do not have cavity wall insulation. I sincerely hope that that is the intention of the motion, and it is not, as Mr McCann alluded to, an underhand attempt to further undermine the Housing Executive. In the past, we have witnessed attempts to undermine the Housing Executive to try to delegitimise it and break it up with stock transfers of housing from the Housing Executive to private associations. Definitely not on our watch.
I really hope that this motion is about providing support to tenants, and to get the Housing Executive to do what is expected of it as a public body and provide cavity wall insulation to tenants who badly need it.
As well as that, we have to state that the Housing Executive should be allowed to borrow money and should have the capacity to bring all its homes up to standard. Over the next 30 years, it needs around £5 billion to do that. It should be allowed to do that and all the barriers that currently exist and prevent it from doing so should be removed. It is a clear point; it is an investment in housing for the future and also will ensure that present housing is adequate for tenants.
Obviously, the motion is about Housing Executive tenants, and there should be no delay in ensuring that cavity wall insulation is implemented for Housing Executive tenants. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention tenants in private housing associations. They have been referred to already. People living in housing association properties also struggle to afford to heat their homes. They have to pay higher rents on average, compared with those in Housing Executive accommodation. Provision for cavity wall insulation should be extended to people in private housing associations as well.
The Member and others around the Chamber have made a number of references to cavity wall insulation. This perhaps takes the debate in a further direction. Who should install that cavity wall insulation? Does the Member agree with me that this is an ideal opportunity both to return to and to continue to allow social enterprise organisations to take the lead when it comes to the delivery of cavity wall insulation?
It could; but it could also use the expertise of the Housing Executive to do that.
It should also be mentioned that, last week, in my constituency, in the Riverdale area, the tenants of Victoria Housing held a meeting organised by a resident to hold the housing association to account. For decades, minimal maintenance work and upgrade was done. In most cases, the tenants themselves were forced to pay for work to be done on the properties, on top of rent increases year-on-year. Despite the organisation claiming to be a charity, the tenants were forced to pay through the teeth for rent, and they included pensioners and young families. The lesson there — the reason I mention it — is that they have shown what to do. If you are not getting maintenance done, or work is not being done by the House Executive or the housing associations, you have to get yourselves organised and fight and campaign until demands are met.
I also pay tribute to residents of Conars Court in Derry. Having been denied essential health and safety installation work for years, they organised and held an occupation of the office of the housing association. They demanded to meet the chief executive. Initially, he refused to meet them, but the residents said that they would not leave until he met them. Eventually, the chief executive came down, and the work on residents' properties has since been completed.
I welcome the motion, and I thank my colleague Mr Easton for bringing it forward. It gives me the opportunity to discuss not just cavity wall insulation but the long overdue investment in Housing Executive stock.
Defective cavity wall insulation is not a problem limited to social housing; it can affect all tenures. The issue is complex, and a full understanding of the issues is only beginning to emerge. Addressing it may require substantial funding. I make the point up front that the Housing Executive has a substantial maintenance and investment backlog. Before taking remedial action, it will have to consider cavity wall insulation in the context of all the other priorities identified by the stock condition survey, which was part of the DSD/Housing Executive joint asset commission. All these other priorities, including rewiring, kitchens, roofs and bathrooms, need to be addressed as part of the Housing Executive's asset management strategy. The Housing Executive has an investment requirement over the next 30 years of around £6·7 billion. That cannot be covered by rents alone, and the Housing Executive, therefore, has an investment backlog that is large and getting larger. Indeed, the Housing Executive ideally needs to double the amount it is investing in its stock for the next 10 years to get back on track. So, when Members are talking about everything they ideally want the Housing Executive to do, it is worth bearing in mind the responsibility of the Assembly to enable it to meet that investment requirement.
The stock condition survey involved a comprehensive survey of over 25% of the Housing Executive stock, which is around 22,500 properties. It has given the Housing Executive a holistic understanding of its long-term investment needs. As I said, that stands at £6·7 billion over the next 30 years. The survey allows the Housing Executive to plan and prioritise investment over the long term. Again, I would not be so brave as to tell the Housing Executive to ignore its professional advice and thorough and comprehensive survey data and to instead take an entirely different approach to investment planning. The planning of investment is an operational matter for the Housing Executive, and, as housing Minister, it is not my place to ask it to push one scheme or type of work ahead of another.
Given what the Minister just said, does he agree that all the problems in housebuilding and maintenance would be eased and ameliorated if the Housing Executive were given the right power to borrow money on the market to fund the work we all know needs to be done urgently? Does he agree that should be done? If he does not agree, why not?
The point is well made about the resources required to meet the demands the Housing Executive presents. That is a decision that, ultimately, the Assembly takes when budgets are allocated by the Executive and subsequently voted through in the House. That is something that, obviously, Members need to always be cognisant of whenever these decisions are made. The Housing Executive has the legal power to build, but, of course, we know that, because it cannot borrow on the markets, that is not a financially attractive option, given that housing associations are able to do that. For the Housing Executive to be put into the same position as housing associations, a change to the Housing Executive would be required, and that is something that, ultimately, Members will need to consider in the future. They will need to consider what framework they want the Housing Executive to sit within. It also ties into the reclassification issue the Assembly is having to deal with. That is an issue that is going to have to be grappled with, and, ultimately, Members will need to take decisions about where they believe the Housing Executive should sit and the type of functions it should be delivering upon. That is a decision now and an issue that will need to be grappled with by the next Assembly, obviously. But the Member raises very valid points.
I thank the Minister for giving way. When I was housing Minister in 2010-11, I conducted a fundamental review of the Housing Executive. It was based upon a number of principles, including protecting the institution of the Housing Executive, its legacy and name. One of the intentions behind that fundamental review was to prepare the ground to enable the Housing Executive to borrow from the market. That review concluded in March 2011. It was shared with the then Finance Minister in March 2011. It is now approaching March 2017. Given the preparatory work that was done, which is guarded against the DUP doing damage to the Housing Executive, can you explain why the issue Mr McCann raised repeatedly today about borrowing against Housing Executive assets not been resolved?
I do not know the detail of what went on in 2011, but let me make it clear that no one is interested in damaging the Housing Executive. I have the greatest admiration for the work that I see done day in, day out by the Housing Executive. I have responded to Members when they have raised issues about the way in which points are allocated. There was a motion to do with intimidation points. A review was announced of how we can go about seeking to ensure that we have a selection scheme that is fit for purpose.
As for the question about 2011, I am not in a position to give the answer. What I can say is that, since I have come into post, I have recognised the challenge for the Housing Executive. Ultimately, the challenge is that we have to provide the homes that our people need and find the best way to go about doing that. The Assembly will have to grapple with that in the next mandate.
As I said, the Housing Executive has a substantial stock investment backlog to deal with, and there are many other investment requirements. Some of those may be a higher priority than replacing cavity wall insulation, for example, and, on foot of that, I will make one key point. It must be remembered that the Housing Executive owns around 10,000 properties of non-traditional construction with solid walls. It also owns perhaps another 5,000 other solid wall properties, such as rural cottages and older terraced properties. The thermal performance of those properties is poor, and the vast majority have not benefited from any improvements to their wall insulation at all. The insulation of those properties is the worst in the Housing Executive portfolio, and they are an obvious priority when it comes to improving the stock.
On the topic of cavity wall insulation, the Housing Executive has acknowledged that some of the cavity fill carried out in the 1980s and 1990s could now be improved on. Some of the insulation has degraded through time, some of it was badly installed, and some of it might have been put into unsuitable cavities. No surveying of Housing Executive stock has been carried out that properly determines how that affects different types of stock. Different types of cavity filled in different ways with different materials at different times will have aged differently. The first step that the Housing Executive will take is to understand how much of a problem there is.
Going forward, the Housing Executive proposes to commission an independent, comprehensive research project based on a survey of 1,000 cavity wall insulated properties. That will determine the impact that degraded or inconsistent cavity wall insulation presents for thermal efficiency and potential health issues.
The Minister talks about remedial action and how to improve things. I have a pensioner constituent — an ex-serviceman, as it happens — who complained about his cold house. The Housing Executive acknowledged prior to September that there was no cavity wall insulation in it, so why is he having to wait right through the winter until after April before his home is insulated as part of a scheme? Where such a problem is identified, the work should be carried out much more expeditiously.
If the Member wants to give me the details, I will be happy to follow up on that to provide him with an answer that he can then provide to his constituent. Again, maintenance is an operational decision taken by the Housing Executive, but I am more than happy to follow that up for the Member.
We will get a response to you.
The research will also consider the suitability of properties for cavity wall insulation on the basis of location and construction type. The data will help to develop a robust methodology to deal with the problem in the long term. In the meantime, I am sure, we will all know of cases where cavity wall insulation has failed and the issues are urgent. Cavity wall insulation can fail to such an extent that it causes problems for the householder, such as damp or mould, and, in some cases, could affect their health. The Housing Executive has undertaken to address such problems immediately and without delay. Over 200 houses have had their cavity wall insulation replaced this way over the past two years. It will be done either through response maintenance or, if relevant and sensible, through ongoing planned maintenance schemes over the next few years.
The Housing Executive is committed to addressing both the energy efficiency of its properties and fuel poverty affecting its tenants. The Housing Executive will carry out a survey of the cavity wall insulation in its stock and use that to develop a longer-term strategy to address any systematic issues found in its stock. In the meantime, serious issues that emerge will be dealt with through response or planned maintenance. Any major programme to remove and reinstall cavity wall insulation broadly across the Housing Executive's stock would require substantial investment. It would have to be considered against other investment requirements, including the 15,000 homes without any wall insulation whatever.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. Do you acknowledge that, if we ever get to the point where the Housing Executive can borrow against its stock, the fact that there are now issues and that borrowing from the European Investment Bank will become problematic because of the Brexit decision will impede the Housing Executive's capacity in future to borrow at cheap rates to do the work that you have just referred to?
I appreciate the Minister giving way briefly. He will be aware that the way in which the European Investment Bank is constructed allows it to invest not only in European Union countries but in countries that are on the periphery of the European Union. Once Brexit happens, the United Kingdom will be on the periphery of the European Union but still eligible for funding from the European Investment Bank.
No. I am sure that the Brexit debate will be played out over the next six weeks. In fairness, I have been pretty generous to everyone who has asked me to give way.
I thank Members for the contributions they have made. During the period in which I have been the Minister responsible for housing, I have met a number of MLAs. Fra McCann brought me to Divis tower — somewhere that I did not ever necessarily anticipate getting to visit. I have to say that the people there are the salt of the earth, and I could see at first hand the situation that they have to live in. I met Nichola Mallon, and she brought a family to see me to talk about their serious housing need. I have engaged with other MLAs on housing issues, issues on which we can all find common ground.
Yes, we will debate and, at times, disagree on the best way to meet those needs, but we all, ultimately, want to achieve the same objective, which is to provide housing that people want to live in. There is excellent housing in Northern Ireland provided by our housing associations and the Housing Executive. It is maintained to an excellent standard, but there are people who are in houses that are, frankly, deplorable. I have been in them, and I have witnessed at first hand the mould on the walls and the consequences of that for the individuals' mental health and physical health.
In all these things, it is vital that we collectively recognise the issues. I hope that, in the next Assembly, we will identify all the things on which we have common ground. Yes, there will be things that we will disagree with and differ on. We need to work through them and tackle those obstacles whenever they arise. When it comes to housing, however, it is about meeting the need that exists and providing the best possible standards that the people expect us, as politicians, to provide.
Mervyn asked me to give way; I will do that and then I will finish.
I thank the Minister for giving way. As a former Minister for housing, I concur with his comments on the issue. Comments have been made today about lost opportunities. As the Assembly comes to an end, let us face reality: it is most likely that we will not be back in this institution in the way that it was formed and the way that it is. Let us all bear the responsibility for what has happened over the last number of weeks. There was one lost opportunity — the Members on the opposite Benches know about it — when I endeavoured to ensure that we found a solution to housing. If there is one thing that we need to sort in Northern Ireland it is to give our people good homes. I concur with the Minister's comments, and I look forward to a day when the people of Northern Ireland, across the piece, will share the benefit of good homes.
Some in the Chamber have alluded to the reasoning behind having this debate being to have a go at, or in some way discredit, the Housing Executive. That is certainly not the intention behind this motion. As a constituency representative, I am in contact with the Housing Executive daily, and I very much appreciate the work that it does and how responsive it is when we raise issues or queries.
Will the Member not agree, then, that they should perhaps have reflected on the wording of the motion, because it certainly comes across as pointing to a failure on the Housing Executive's part?
No, I do not. I think that I can praise and appreciate the work of the Housing Executive while, as a public representative, wanting to hold them to account and highlight where there are problems. That is our job as public representatives in this place. Yes, it is to support the work of our public services wherever they may be, but we also have a duty to hold them to account in the same way as we have a duty to hold our Ministers to account, but I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on the Housing Executive.
I thank the proposer of the motion, Mr Easton. He has certainly been consistent and persistent on this issue. He and I have met different people in relation to this. We have met previous Social Development Ministers including, most recently, Lord Morrow when he was in post. This is an issue that Mr Easton and indeed all Members clearly care about. The tone of today's debate has been largely positive, because there has been agreement amongst Members and we understand that there is an issue here that needs to be dealt with and that party politics should be pushed to the side.
The South Eastern Regional College report was clear. Over two thirds of Housing Executive properties that it surveyed have either critical or severe needs, and only 9% are fit for purpose. We all have personal experience of going into constituents' houses and seeing the problems that there are with damp and cold. We all have constituents who tell us that they never really feel the warmth in their homes. That should be of concern to all of us.
To go back to Mr Allen's point, I want to hold the Housing Executive to account when it repeatedly tells my constituents that the reason that their homes are damp or that they have problems is because of lifestyle issues and that they do not air out their homes. Another reason why some of my constituents find it so hard to heat their homes is because they have to keep windows open in order to get rid of the smell of damp. This is an issue that needs to be addressed. We should be saying to the Housing Executive, "Action needs to be taken here". I do not think that anybody is under any illusions as regards the scale and cost of the work that needs to be carried out, but that does not mean that we should not press on this issue and seek to ensure that it is addressed.
There are a number of reasons why we need to tackle the issue of cavity wall insulation, or the lack thereof. The first is the fuel poverty that is experienced in this country. I know that it is an old figure, but 42% of people in Northern Ireland are classified as being in fuel poverty, which is far higher than in the rest of the UK. It is estimated that almost 290,000 people here are living in fuel poverty. If we can take some action to address that by improving insulation in homes, surely we should be doing it.
As other Members have already said, this can also cut costs in the long term. If our homes are properly insulated, people will have to spend less money on heating and will have more money to spend on other things. Of course, keeping people warm also prevents health problems. I have seen children in my own constituency who are suffering as a result of the conditions in which they are living. We need an assessment of Housing Executive properties and of the ways in which that can be tackled.
The Energy Saving Trust said that:
"Cavity wall insulation is the single most cost-effective, low risk energy efficiency measure available for the existing housing stock, after loft insulation."
Here we have a real ability to help our constituents. Indeed, in addition to that, it has been estimated by the Energy Saving Trust that the cost of these insulation measures can be paid back in as short a time as two or three years, so it is an area in which we should, of course, take action.
I do not want to spend time going over all the points that Members raised, one of the reasons being that they were repeated again and again. I think, however, that, time and time again, we realised the scale of the problem and that action needs to be taken.
Nichola Mallon and Andy Allen raised the issue of housing being a human right. Not only should we provide and make sure that people have homes but the homes that we provide should be of the right standard, as Mr Allen outlined.
Mr Dickson's contribution was largely positive. He lowered the tone slightly at one point, but we will move beyond that. He showed his age by telling us how long he has been married and how long ago he was elected to Carrickfergus Borough Council. He raised the point that cavity wall insulation has consistently been an issue over many years.
I thank the Minister for —
I take it as a compliment that the Member acknowledged the length of time that I have been a locally elected representative. Does he agree with me that it is a terrible shame that we have had to wait — indeed, continue to wait — that length of time to see any genuine action? That is the sad reality of what we are talking about today: very little action and a great deal of annoyance caused to people whose property suffers in this way.
Well of course that is why we tabled the motion and that is why we are calling for action to be taken. I agree with the Member that we would love this to have been addressed a long time ago. He had the same issue 40 years ago when he was first elected, and it continues to be an issue today.
I thank the Minister for his comments. He brought to the debate, as Ministers need to do, a realism about the financial constraints, and we recognise the constraints that he is working under. However, we have already mentioned the opportunity to create long-term savings by investing in this way, and that is not —
Just one second. That is not limited to the Housing Executive; it extends to other savings that can be made across public services, including, of course, health. I welcome the fact that the Minister said that we need a longer-term strategy, and, in response to that, planned maintenance. If substantial investment is required, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that it can be found so that our people can live in homes that are fit for them and not detrimental to their health.
No. I want to finish my point. We will soon vacate this place as we head to an election and do not know what will come next. I have been in the House for about 17 or 18 months, and we have had numerous debates in that time. However, a debate such as this one today shows, in my opinion, the importance of having devolved government and not direct rule. As locally elected Assembly Members, we can come into this place, raise our concerns and impress upon the Minister the issues that our constituents bring to us. If we do not have a devolved Government in this place, we will be worse off for that. I welcome the fact —
— that we have been able to bring the motion to the House and am pleased with the response. I hope that all Members will support it.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Communities to hold the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to account for its failure to address the lack of, or poor quality of, cavity insulation within many Housing Executive properties; and calls on the Housing Executive to formulate a plan of action to ensure that all its properties have adequate and proper cavity insulation.