British-Irish Council Collaborative Spatial Planning and Housing: Communities

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 1 March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:30, 1 March 2021

I have received notice from the Minister for Communities, Ms Deirdre Hargey, that she wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish to make the following report on the British-Irish Council's (BIC) joint ministerial meeting on the collaborative spatial planning (CSP) and housing work sectors, which was held in virtual format on 25 February. It was a joint ministerial meeting, which I co-chaired with the Minister for Infrastructure, from whom you have just heard. I will make a statement to the Assembly in respect of the housing elements of the meeting. Minister Mallon addressed the Assembly on the spatial planning aspects of the meeting. Gary Middleton MLA, junior Minister in the Executive Office, also represented the Executive at the meeting. This report has been endorsed by junior Minister Middleton, and he has agreed that I make the statement on the housing element of the meeting on behalf of both of us.

The British-Irish Council, established in 1999, is a forum in which its members discuss, consult and use their best endeavours to reach agreement on cooperation on matters of mutual interest. The British-Irish Council's housing work sector group is led by the Executive, and it has proven to be a constructive forum for facilitating the exchange of thematic evidence and practical collaboration.

The meeting last Thursday focused on the housing work sector group's programme of work as well as on the joint work that the two groups had undertaken recently. The meeting also considered how the future work of the housing work sector group can enable BIC member Administrations to continue to work together on the key areas of planning and housing, particularly in the context of the impact of COVID-19.

As I said, I jointly chaired the meeting with Minister Mallon on behalf of the Executive. Ministers considered and reflected on the papers from each of the work sectors that were presented at the ministerial meeting. That included a discussion on challenges and opportunities to improve housing supply. Ministers also endorsed a joint publication that was prepared by the spatial planning and housing work sector groups on the key spatial planning and housing challenges associated with an ageing population: 'Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations'. The booklet acknowledges that the issue of changing demographics is important and that it needs to be considered in order to increase the supply of social and affordable homes for some of the most vulnerable in our communities. The booklet highlights a number of examples of emerging innovations in the design and completion of housing units, and I am keen to continue working with planning colleagues to maximise the role of the planning system in increasing housing supply.

That work will inform the development of the housing supply strategy that I will bring forward for Executive consideration in this mandate. The strategy will explore and seek answers on how we can increase the supply of quality, sustainable and affordable homes. The key principles and examples of best practice that are outlined in the joint housing and CSP work sector booklet can help to inform that work.

Ministers noted and agreed the content of the forward work plan for the housing work sector group, which identified the group's areas of focus over the next three years. The obvious point is that we all face the same challenges, and there is so much that we can learn from each other.

The first area of focus for the housing work sector group agreed by Ministers is the challenge presented by climate change, which affects us all. Constructing new homes generates pollutants, which accelerate global warming. Similarly, heating the homes that we have as well as the new homes that we build will mean that we end up burning more fossil fuels. About 14% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from our homes. To be carbon-neutral by 2050, that will have to change. We will need to find new ways to ensure that those challenges do not limit the supply of homes, particularly for those who need our help the most. We must all address that issue, and I am particularly keen for my officials to work with their counterparts in the other BIC Administrations to come up with solutions to the challenges that affect all of our society.

The second area of focus is the provision of suitable affordable housing. I strongly believe that housing is a basic need and right for all. Our Executive policy, as set out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, aims to achieve a fair and compassionate society that supports working families and protects the most vulnerable. Crucial to that is ensuring that every household has access to a quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate for its needs. Housing should be a stand-alone outcome in the forthcoming Programme for Government. I am therefore always interested to hear how policymakers tackle the difficult issues, and my officials engage regularly across the Administrations to share experience, knowledge and information.

Ongoing engagement through the British-Irish Council and the delivery of the work plan will be helpful in informing my ambitions for the housing agenda, which will, amongst other things, seek to expand the range of affordable intermediate housing options available.

The final area of focus is housing's role in health and social care, and I am particularly pleased to see that being considered as part of the forward work plan. Throughout the pandemic, I have seen at first-hand how an effective, joined-up, collaborative approach from the housing sector, health professionals and the third sector can make a huge difference to those in acute need of support. That work has been critical and has provided support and refuge to those who might otherwise have been left to face a truly desperate situation. For example, my Department has worked closely with health and social care professionals to support the chronically homeless, who are some of the most vulnerable, and, at the start of the pandemic, I was very concerned that they would be left exposed. The work included the Department of Health housing rough sleepers with no right to homeless assistance. I thank the Minister of Health for providing assistance so that everyone on our streets was able to come inside and comply with the Government's guidance on shielding, self-isolation and social distancing. Collaboration like that makes a real difference to people on the ground. Unfortunately, that issue is common across all the BIC Administrations and was discussed at last week's meeting. Collaboration on it and other issues where housing impacts on health and social care will be further explored as part of the ongoing work programme.

Finally, I put on record my thanks to the ministerial colleagues across these islands who participated productively in the meeting. I look forward to a further meeting on the housing work sectors in 2023.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Before I call the Chair of the Communities Committee, I remind the House that I have quite a lot of Members on my list, and there is an hour for questions. The Committee Chair will get a bit of leeway, but I ask Members to be succinct in their questions. I said, "a bit of leeway", Ms Bradley, not "too much leeway".

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for bringing forward this statement today. The statement talks about "improving housing supply" and:

"how we can increase the supply of quality, sustainable and affordable homes."

Councils have been asked to submit their draft community plans, which detail, amongst other things, GP surgeries, libraries and many other services, yet planners and developers do not seem to look at those services when future-proofing, especially when it comes to affordable housing. They think that affordable housing should be the housing that is stuck out in the middle of nowhere. How can you ensure that our councils' community plans are used for any future social and affordable housing and that such housing is in areas that are suitable for lifelong living, given that we have an ever-increasing ageing population?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

That is a critical area when looking at housing supply, waiting lists and, indeed, where homes are being built. My primary focus is on increasing the supply of social homes. Affordable homes also come into that equation. I am looking at a housing supply strategy to start to deal with those issues. That has to be mapped to the availability of publicly owned land, and the local development plans that councils are exploring come into question around that. We are doing a fresh mapping exercise across Departments, and, indeed, across local government, to see what land is available in the time ahead. I am looking at introducing ring-fencing in areas with the highest housing need and longest waiting lists. It will be a combination of all of those.

The Minister for Infrastructure and I have discussed and looked at the changes that need to be made to the planning process. Councils need to take responsibility as well, and I know that many have done so. They all have ambitions for growth, but that growth has to be sustainable. Housing needs to be prioritised. That has caused debate and conversation in many councils. Many have come forward with public inquiries into local development plans that included thresholds or limits for social and affordable homes. I want to work with local government in the time ahead to ensure that they prioritise such housing as they develop their local development plans and identify other public land that they or other parts of government own.

Creating more homes is the quickest way of dealing with some of the issues around homelessness and all the vulnerabilities that we have listed. As we move forward with the strategy on housing supply, we will start to identify what we need to do in the time ahead.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin 12:45, 1 March 2021

I thank the Minister for her statement. Can the Minister provide an update on her plans to increase the stock of social and affordable housing?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The statement on revitalisation of the Housing Executive was made by Carál Ní Chuilín when she was temporarily the Minister at the end of last year. That looks at the financing issues and the ability to build social housing again. I am looking at the supply strategy, and we are working on that at the moment. We are also looking at the right to buy, and there will be a consultation on that, because of the loss of social homes over the last few decades. As I said, we are also looking at public land for public housing and doing a remapping exercise of available land that we can identify for housing.

Work will take place with the Minister for Infrastructure on the waste water and sewerage infrastructure and what we need to do in terms of future connections. That was brought up earlier. We will also look at new work on how we can build homes more quickly; for example, building off-site and looking at new methods of construction. We will engage with the Housing Executive, housing associations and others as we start to bring the plans forward. They are at an early stage of design, and I hope that, over the coming months, I can bring more intensive discussion papers on what I propose to do in the time ahead. The ultimate aim is to be more ambitious with our housing development programme for the social housing that we can bring forward. We are looking at the issue of intermediate rents and at affordable housing as an option for people.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement. The Minister has referred to the plans announced by her predecessor and party colleague to reclassify the Housing Executive's landlord function to a mutual or cooperative designation to enable it to borrow and build. I may be mistaken, but I believe that the transfer of 85,000 public homes would be the largest ever on these islands. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss with her counterparts from elsewhere the impact that such transfers in their jurisdictions have had on rents and security of tenure?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

There was no direct discussion of that at the meeting last week. However, obviously, the supply of housing and increasing social and affordable housing is a key work programme that we are looking to do in the time ahead. The statement last year on housing — it was welcomed by all in the Chamber — said that something needed to be done as our current housing system is broken. I think that people across these Benches recognise that we need to see change, because those on housing waiting lists demand it, and ensure that we can increase and be more ambitious about the supply of homes. At one point, the Housing Executive owned more than 240,000 homes, and that has been reduced to just over 80,000 homes, as the Member said.

We need to deal with the fundamental issues. Allowing the Housing Executive to be able to build and to have the finances to do that will be crucial. I am exploring whether I can find a way of doing that while keeping the function as it is at the moment. There are other options, such as a cooperative. I am clear that any change will be in consultation with tenants, those on the waiting list, the Housing Executive and others. I am also ensuring that there will be ownership, so that, if it is a different model from the one in place now, tenants will have a central role in the ownership and in where we will take this forward. We are still at an early stage in looking at the reports and drawing up the plans.

Part of that will be looking at other jurisdictions and at models of best practice. The incoming chief executive of the Housing Executive has extensive experience across this island and, indeed, across the islands. I will work closely with Grainia and others as we meet the challenges in the time ahead.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I thank the Minister for her statement, which refers to 'Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations'. I have been contacted recently by some of our ageing population in Knocknagoney who are being uprooted from their homes. Minister, what do you intend to do as part of that vision to ensure that people who have lived in our communities all their life are not uprooted and forced to move to other areas?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The big thing to say about future housing supply is that we are becoming an ageing population. People are getting older, and that presents unique and specific challenges. I want to maintain traditional communities. I think that it was Paula who said that it is not just about building homes but about the services and the infrastructure that go with it to make sustainable communities.

I want to look at a co-design approach, working with communities and with the various age groups and sectors as we start to look at the future trends and the needs of our communities. That will be done on a geographical basis as well for communities that are already there. We will look at their future needs to determine how they can grow and develop. We will consider what social housing provision and affordable homes will look like. That may mean that, if people want to upsize or downsize, we need to look at that in a longer-term way.

It will also mean working with councils. Councils have ambitious plans for growth in the local development plans. What will those look like in the time ahead if we start to utilise more town and city centre spaces that have traditionally not been built on in the past 30 to 40 years? There is a real opportunity to do that, particularly when we look at the economy, at future working trends and at office accommodation and other unutilised buildings.

Is there an opportunity to look at having, for example, more city centre living? That should not happen at the expense of displacing people or forcing them of their home. That should not be what it is about; it should be about choice. It should be about where people want to live and the type of accommodation that, they feel, meets their needs. We need to start planning more for the longer term to meet those needs. I am talking not just about the next year or the next five years but about the next 20, 30, 40 and 50 years. What will that look like? How do we ensure that we design housing, communities and infrastructure to go along with that? Even climate change and its impact need to be considered. I sit on a recently established cross-departmental working group with the Department for Infrastructure, the Department for the Economy and DAERA. It is to look at the challenges and at what we need to do over the next 20, 30 and 40 years.

Sorry, Andy. If you have a specific question about Knocknagoney, I am more than happy to come back to you on it or to speak to you after this.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Minister, I am delighted to hear your reflections on the flexibility of tenure to ensure that people can stay in their community when the house that they live in is no longer fit for purpose as they grow older.

I want to come back to this point. While we can talk plenty about the growth and development of new housing, we still have 85,000 houses in the Housing Executive and many of them require significant investment and retrofitting to enable our zero-carbon targets to be met by 2050. We could meet those earlier. Have there been any discussions about how we will make the homes of existing social tenants fit for purpose?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

That is key to the revitalisation statement made in the House last year. The Housing Executive faces financial challenges not only in investing in new homes and having the ability to build again but with existing stock, some of which is in poor condition and needs upgraded. We have some of the highest fuel poverty numbers not just across these islands but across Europe. There are specific challenges that we have to face over the next couple of years and, indeed, over the next few decades.

As I said, I sit on the working group to look at the challenges of climate change along with the Infrastructure, Economy and Agriculture Departments. One area that we look at is the work that needs to be done to replace boilers and retrofit properties. Obviously, that will have a huge financial impact, but it can also build the green economy. We are looking at job creation in that sector and how we will make sure that we design the new houses that come on-site so that they are fit for purpose for the next 20, 30 or 40 years. We are not just looking a couple of years ahead; we are ensuring that we look a few decades ahead with regard to climate change. There is a target.

The cross-departmental group has had only one meeting. There will be a follow-up meeting. From that, a specific work stream will look at boiler replacements, retrofitting properties and changing housing build standards in the time ahead; indeed, building standards need to be upgraded desperately. Obviously, more families, particularly children, now live in the private rented sector rather than in social housing. I will also look at legislating during this mandate on health and safety conditions in the private rented sector to ensure that landlords upgrade properties and ensure that they are safe and provide a good standard of living.

Various work streams are ongoing. As I said, once those start to develop into concrete plans, I will bring them to the Committee and to the Chamber.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. She mentioned climate change, building new homes, the fact that 14% of greenhouse gas emissions come from our homes and trying to be carbon-neutral by 2050. As my colleague Kellie Armstrong said, the Housing Executive cannot even sort out social housing. What guarantees can the Minister give the Assembly that we can hold the Housing Executive to account for issues such as cavity wall insulation or roof insulation, for example, that it cannot even sort out now?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. It is an important area. We know that the Housing Executive has challenges with historical debt, corporation tax and other issues. The main reason for the housing statement in November 2020 was to start to look seriously at those issues. We have been talking about them for over 10 years, but we have not really looked at or moved on them seriously. Since the statement, that has started to change. We are saying that it needs to be a priority and that, if we want to look at upgrading existing properties and be more ambitious in our house-building projects to build more social homes, we need to deal with the issues of historical debt.

At the moment, the Department is starting to look at that. Work plans are being developed. We are also looking at teams and experts who can help us with that work in the Department. We are working with the Housing Executive and looking at external bodies. I suppose that the role of the British-Irish Council will be to allow us to look at best practice and the challenges faced in other places. We want to bring all homes in the Housing Executive's existing stock up to a good standard. Building regulations also need to change. That needs to happen as well to make sure that new homes are built that are fit for purpose. We have to deal with the historical issues of debt and look at ways to allow the Housing Executive to borrow, so that it can look at a more ambitious house-building programme while maintaining its existing stock.

Tied in with that is the assessment of rents and making sure that, while there is a trajectory for rents, we maintain some of the lowest rents across these islands; indeed, we do that through the Housing Executive. There is an investment challenge. At the moment, work is ongoing, on the back of the statement in November, to look at that more seriously and to put teams on it to come up with proposals for the changes that we need to make. There are ongoing discussions with DOF and the British Treasury on the historical debt and corporation tax issues.

They are ongoing, and, once we have a conclusion on those issues, I will bring the matter to the Executive, the Committee and, indeed, to the Chamber.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP 1:00, 1 March 2021

Minister, Mr Andy Allen referred to Knocknagoney Avenue, where, for the last 10 years, discussions have been going on about the future of the maisonettes and the shops. My understanding is — it has been confirmed — that the Housing Executive has made a recommendation to you and is awaiting a decision from you on the future of that block. I believe that demolition was the recommendation.

I welcome the statement, particularly the fact that you are beginning to identify the role of housing and the provision of housing in a much wider sense than just the provision of a house, particularly in the final area of focus. You understand housing's role in health and social care.

Minister, it is my belief that we will never, certainly in the Belfast area, see the provision of bungalows again. I hope that I am wrong about that. There are many folk who, in the future, will look towards a bungalow and will never attain a bungalow, yet they will be offered accommodation in apartments. There is nothing wrong with apartments for a certain age of person, but, when people reach a mature age, many are looking for the peace and quiet that can be established within the boundaries of their own home, and, at that age, that, generally speaking, is a bungalow. Minister, can you give consideration to the provision of bungalow-type accommodation for those whom you are dealing with in the statement?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Thanks very much for your question. It is an important one. All options are being looked at the moment. When you look at housing supply and the future needs in population trends and demographics, all those issues have to be considered. Availability of land becomes critical as well, and that is why the local development plans are crucial. We know that many councils have an ambition for housing growth through those plans. They are looking at the ageing population and how future population trends are taken into account. When we are looking at all these plans, it will be important that we engage with people, including those who are on the transfer list, those who are on the waiting list and those who are in housing. We should engage with the different sectors and the different age groups when looking at future housing needs and supply. That all comes into question in terms of the type of home.

I dealt with the issue even as councillor in Belfast. You will know, Robin, that, in the Belfast City Council area, communities that have been there for a long time are used to the area in which they live and they often want to stay in that area, but they want homes to be available to meet their needs. That is why we are looking at those areas and ring-fencing areas of highest housing need to ensure that we are building, where possible, homes where people want to live. I do not want a scenario where people are being forced to move 10, 15 or 20 miles away, because, again, that leads to a breakdown in the social fabric and their support networks. We want to look at that in the time ahead. There is a commitment that that will include different types of homes that meet the needs of older people.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

Including bungalows?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Yes. All those options will be considered.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

A former Speaker should know not to chunter from the Back Bench like that.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Given the positive impact of the initiatives that you mentioned in your statement, Minister, do you intend to increase the level of collaborative work with the Department of Health?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

That is an important area. Thanks for the question. The pandemic, in many areas, has really shone a light on issues that we knew were there. Some of the good work that has taken place has been done through housing officials in my Department and also with officials in the Department of Health. Real, practical steps have been taken through collaborations to ensure that no one from the vulnerable categories is homeless and on the streets.

We have also looked at those who have no recourse to public funds to ensure that housing was made available to them at the height of the pandemic. If that can be done at the height of a pandemic, it should be done outside the pandemic as well. There is a willingness in my Department and the Department of Health to increase collaboration and to look at cross-departmental working groups on the issue. There is a cross-departmental working group on the anti-poverty strategy and its impact, and housing will be a key component of that.

The answer is yes. We have a memorandum of understanding on accommodation that was agreed between the Departments and the Housing Executive, and we can only increase that collaboration and understanding in the time ahead.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Minister, you have touched on this slightly. We have heard of increasing difficulties with costs and conditions for tenants in the private rented sector. What measures can the Minister put in place to address that?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I am looking at the private rented sector and will bring forward proposed legislative changes in this mandate to strengthen protections in that sector, including the health and safety checks that need to be conducted. I am looking at letting agents and some of the precarious characteristics and behaviours there. I am drawing up a Bill to strengthen the protections for those in the private rented sector. Again, during the pandemic and as a result of it, we were able to make changes to things like the notice to quit period. All those are being considered, and I will bring forward a Bill to the Executive and the Communities Committee very shortly.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, what discussions you have had with the Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister of Finance about upgrading existing waste water treatment capacity to enable the construction of social housing in places like Newry and elsewhere?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

There have been ongoing discussions through the work streams not only on climate change, which I touched on, but on what we need to do on infrastructure. There is ongoing collaboration between the Departments. On the draft Budget and reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing, the two key areas in the draft Budget are housing and infrastructure. There is a recognition that the two issues are linked.

I had a meeting recently with the Minister for Infrastructure at which that was raised again. We look forward to a follow-up meeting to talk specifically about infrastructure and housing needs in the time ahead. Discussions are ongoing.

Those two areas have also been identified in the Programme for Government. Housing needs to be a specific outcome in the Programme for Government. I hope that, on the back of the public consultation, the Executive will agree to that in the time ahead.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The statement spoke of spatial planning, the challenges of an ageing population and climate change. The Minister has also indicated that people want to live close to where they grew up. In Larne, two blocks of multistorey flats were brought down some years ago, and the third and final one is in the process of being brought down. Will the Minister reassess the relatively modest plans to build social housing in that public space, given all the assets that come with it, its central location and its access to essential services and facilities for those who are 55-plus and, indeed, anybody else in need of social housing? It meets all the criteria that were spoken about.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Thanks very much. I signed off on an answer to a question for written answer about that from the Member last week. The housing development programme is based on where the housing need is.

I recognise that we are not building enough social homes to meet the growing need and demand. That has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and its impact on homelessness. We need to be more ambitious in our housing plans.

Work is progressing on projected needs and on how people want to live in the time ahead, in local development plans (LDPs), in the Programme for Government and in engagement with Infrastructure and others. We continuously look to identify public land for housing, but the housing development programme is primarily about housing need and where homes will be developed. Obviously, we need to build more homes. When you look at the housing development programme and the numbers experiencing housing stress in areas such as west Belfast, north Belfast and the Foyle area, we can see that more houses need to be built in those areas.

I wrote to you, Roy, specifically on the issue in Larne, and that will be based on the housing need in that area at that time. If there are other plans such as growth plans, we will link in with the local development plan and look at affordable housing and what that will look like in the time ahead. Those are in the early stages of discussion and will start to pick up pace over the coming months.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement and for her ongoing, steadfast commitment to the provision of housing. What work is ongoing in the Department to identify land that is needed to meet housing demand?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

An initiative for public land for public housing was commissioned as part of an asset management strategy action in 2016-17. A number of housing sites were brought forward as part of that. Developments were built and people are living in those homes. However, we need to be more ambitious in how we look at the issue. We need to work with councils, because local development plans are critical, in particular with public land that is in council ownership and in ring-fencing and targeting those areas for housing.

We are reviewing public land for housing. We are conducting an assessment and engaging with other Departments on the availability of land and matching that against where the need is and the projected growth is for LDPs. I am working with the Department for Infrastructure on infrastructure needs and what needs to run alongside that.

All of that work is being brought up to date and is part of the housing supply strategy that we are starting to devise. Once that is completed, the information and work programme will be shared with Members.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister rightly referred to the blight of homelessness across these islands. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that rough sleeping is not inevitable and is a consequence of political and budgetary choices. Is the Minister exploring other policy initiatives that colleagues elsewhere have implemented? What impact will the Finance Minister's rejection of her bid for homelessness services have on the number of homeless people here over the next 12 months?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

On the budgetary challenges, it is not a rejection by the Finance Minister, as, I am sure, the Member knows. It is about how budgets are made and how the block grant is given over. We were given a flat budget, which has been passed on to the Executive as a whole and which all Departments face. In real terms, a flat budget means a cut and an impact on services. Collectively, we need to highlight the impact of that to the British Government and the Treasury, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. We need to look at that critical area.

As I said, we have done a lot of good work with Health and housing about how we look at homelessness and at those who find themselves living rough on the streets. That has required resources, and we have managed to do it through COVID moneys. We are reviewing the homelessness strategy and working with the Housing Executive, the Supporting People programme and others.

I see housing as a fundamental right, and that is why it has to be included as a key outcome of the incoming Programme for Government. Then, we need an agenda for how we will address that issue. As I touched on, there are huge investment challenges for the Housing Executive in undertaking housing builds, and some of those may take a bit longer. However, the work has started to fix the broken system that we have at the moment.

We can learn from other areas. At the meeting, we touched briefly on the challenges of homelessness for all of the Administrations. My focus is on ensuring that we increase the supply of social housing, that we produce a renewed homelessness strategy to deal with the issue and that we find the finance for that. I hope that the Assembly, along with all the parties in the Executive, can make representations to and urgent requests of the British Government and the Treasury to change the proposed Budget to a more ambitious one that invests in public services, including social housing.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 1:15, 1 March 2021

Unable to see Mr McCrossan, I felt almost as though I was at a seance or something. There was just a voice coming from the Gallery.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Minister for her statement and for her specific comments about future-proofing. She will know of my interest in the need for zero-carbon Passivhaus standards, insulation and retrofitting. I also note the mention of collaborative work to address homelessness in light of the pandemic. However, we need to continue to provide permanent housing solutions for people who are homeless, and we need to ensure that those are sustainable. Will the Minister bring the housing supply strategy to the Executive with a budget and resources attached?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I take points of order at the end of the statement. I will be happy to do so after the statement.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The work on the housing supply strategy is ongoing. We are looking at all of those issues. That work will have to be costed. The Member is right: the fundamental issue for someone who is homeless is to have a home and a roof over their head. People who have complex needs need to be supported. Having a home will not, in itself, do that. We have found that some who get a home may lose it because they have not been able to sustain it. That is a critical issue that we need to fix.

When it comes to the Housing First agenda, we want to work with Supporting People and housing sector organisations such as Housing Rights to look at housing supply issues. I agree that having a house, in itself, will not deal with all of the issues. During the pandemic, our collaboration with the Department of Health has shown that we need to build health and social care. We need to make sure that we are working collaboratively, not in silos, so that the two services are stitched into one another. People have seen the value and the impact of the work that has been done, which has re-energised officials in both Departments. We need to ensure that we continue to step up the work and the focus on that in the time ahead.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I have heard very few questions or answers arising out of the subject matter of the statement, which is probably a reflection of its lack of substance. However, the statement says:

"there is so much that we can learn from each other."

What has the Minister learned from other Administrations? Is that just a platitude, bearing in mind that the group will not meet for another two years?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Other people may do platitudes, but I do not. I was not in the Assembly when the last meeting of the group took place, and the institutions were down for a period after that. Nevertheless, the work programme between officials continued.

There has been collaboration across the different areas. For many Members, it was their first time going to such a meeting, because of elections and everything else that has passed in-between. The issue is around how officials collaborate and engage on an ongoing basis. There has been collaboration about how we respond to the pandemic and to people who find themselves homeless and on the streets. We have had engagement on health and social care and the need to collaborate, and we have shared direct examples with other jurisdictions on that. We have also looked at the issue of public land for public housing and, indeed, sharing and collaboration. If you read the details of the reports and work plans, you will see the work that is being done at the moment. If I put it all in the statement, I would be here for another two hours and the Member would say that I am talking too much. I do not want to be accused of such a thing, so I kept the statement short.

There has been collaboration. My focus now is on the revitalisation programme, increasing the supply of social housing, looking at affordable housing and dealing with the historical debt that has impacted on the Housing Executive. We will engage with the BIC on whether other areas have faced similar challenges and how they have overcome them. We do that as a matter of course with official engagement.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

That concludes questions to the Minister.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. My colleague Daniel McCrossan will not appreciate the description of his contribution to this important matter as being akin to comments from a seance. The Chair should reconsider those comments.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Will the Member care to tell me which Standing Order he is referring to?

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I cannot refer to the Standing Order, but it is completely inappropriate.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Really? Your comments are on the record. The rules on behaviour and courtesies in the House remind Members to be of good nature and good humour at all times. I think that Mr McCrossan will appreciate that that was what it was. Do you wish to make another point of order?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Well, humour is obviously a subjective matter and is not referred to in the Standing Orders of the House.

Members, please take your ease for a few moments before we move on to the next item of business.