Social Housing: South Antrim

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 22 June 2021.

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Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP 2:00, 22 June 2021

1. Mr Clarke asked the Minister for Communities how her Department plans to meet the need and demand for suitable social housing for people aged 55 years and above in South Antrim. (AQO 2268/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Thanks very much for the question. I am aware that the South Antrim constituency has a need for suitable accommodation for those aged 55 and over. The Housing Executive does not hold a waiting list for the over-55s, and the elderly cohort is normally measured by those aged 60 and over. Housing need is met through the reletting of existing social housing and through the contribution of new build homes under the social housing development programme.

In the last financial year, 42 properties suitable for elderly tenants were allocated in the South Antrim constituency. Last year, 11 homes that meet the needs of elderly residents were completed in the constituency. Currently, there are 28 homes under construction in the South Antrim constituency that meet the needs of elderly residents. I recently approved the new three-year social housing development plan from 2021 to 2024. That contains a further 45 social homes that will meet the needs of elderly residents in that area. Staff in the place-shaping team in the Housing Executive continue to work with registered housing associations to highlight the gaps in supply and identify opportunities to address those needs.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I thank the Minister for her detailed answer. Does she accept that, whilst houses are being built, they do not necessarily meet the needs of the elderly? On many occasions, the houses designed for the elderly or for those who are 55-plus are eventually allocated to others because of the design and the type of housing that it is. The elderly population do not want to live in flats or apartments; they want to live in quality build properties that have a front door and a back door and that are more akin to the earlier schemes that the Fold Housing Association embarked on. Will the Minister work on the needs of the elderly? This is not unique to South Antrim. Across the Province, there is a real need for quality housing for our elderly population. If that were provided, some of the housing stock would be freed up for general housing needs.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The needs test that is done in order to get points for the points system takes into account the needs of those who need a home. All of that is assessed. That is fed into the social housing development programme to identify standards and what will be needed in following years. In addition, all new build homes are built to lifetime homes standards to ensure that, as people get older, the house adapts to their needs.

We have made a statement on the huge changes that we need to make in housing. The system is broken; I have already said that publicly. We are doing the biggest shake-up in housing in 50 years, since the creation of the Housing Executive. Part of the work that will be done to implement that is the housing supply strategy, which will be presented to the Executive before the end of the mandate. That looks at the supply issues to make sure that we meet the needs. It also recognises that we have an ageing population, that people live longer and that they may want to live differently. There are new opportunities to work through local councils, as you will be aware, and the local development plans; indeed, the councils will look at those in the time ahead as they reimagine their town and city centres and how people will potentially live in the future. As part of that revitalisation agenda, we want to make sure that housing meets the growing needs. The housing supply strategy is open for consultation. I ask the Member to make sure that anyone with whom he is engaging, such as communities and activists involved in that sector, engages with that supply strategy consultation.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Minister will be aware that one of the biggest concerns is about the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's ability to keep a lot of the social housing for the over-55s up to standard. She will be fully aware that we have real concerns about ongoing issues with properties across South Antrim that were to go across to housing associations. The residents, quite rightly, did not want that; they wanted to go back to the Housing Executive. However, there seems to have been a failure on the part of the Housing Executive to catch up with its responsibilities and to maintain the properties, particularly those for the most vulnerable and those over 55.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Can the Member ask a question?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

What is the Minister doing to make sure that the Housing Executive stands up to its responsibilities?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Again, that feeds into the huge challenges for the Housing Executive and, particularly, its financial viability as it stands. It was pointed out to the House in the November statement, when Carál was in my position, that, unless changes are made now, the Housing Executive could lose nearly half its stock because it cannot maintain the stock that it has. It does not have the finances to do that. We would need over £8 billion overall to look at that in the time ahead. Fundamentally, that means finances coming from the block grant or looking at my Department's budget over an eight-year period and just putting it into rectifying existing properties. Therefore, there are huge challenges. That is twinned with high levels of fuel poverty due to the standards and conditions of housing. The shake-up from the revitalisation programme for housing is desperately needed, because change is needed.

The Housing Executive has engaged in a process. My Department, working with the Housing Executive, has set up a programme board to take forward that work. Obviously, the supply strategy is part of that, looking at what the Housing Executive model will be going forward to make sure that it can borrow, because that is one of the restrictions. We have removed the corporation tax issue. I am glad that that was in the British Chancellor's statement earlier in the year. We are looking at the clawback.

Through the budget, by way of in-year underspends and COVID money, I have been able to direct extra resources into the Housing Executive, which it can then put into its reserves to start to deal with maintenance issues. I know that, soon, at its board meeting, it will come forward with contracts to deal with the maintenance backlog. However, it is a huge problem. That does not get into looking at the green agenda and trying to retrofit properties as we start to go forward. We need to deal with the fundamentals. It is not fit for purpose in its current form. Obviously, I want to keep it as close to its current form as possible. Work is ongoing.

As regards the timescale for that, I will present a way forward to the Executive before the end of the mandate. The programme board has been established. We are putting contracts in place —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind the Minister that she has two minutes in which to answer a question.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Sorry. We are putting contracts in place to continue that work. I will update the Assembly when we progress.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Can the Minister give the House further information on her Department's assessment of community plans for housing and how finance will be allocated to ensure that all constituencies have a fair allocation of social housing going forward?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

As the Member will know, one of the fundamentals of social housing and the reason why the Housing Executive was formed — it is why I will ensure that it is kept — was to ensure that housing is allocated on the basis of equality and where there is need. Fundamentally, any public housing needs to be allocated on that basis going forward. Of course, there are differences in urban and rural areas. Indeed, I understand and reflect that, when you look at the list of areas of need, understanding the differences between the urban and rural context is not a clear picture.

As we continue to go forward, I am keen that we build more social homes and upgrade the stock that we have, because it is recognised that the stock is falling apart and the Housing Executive does not have the finances to deal with it. Obviously, a critical part of the revitalisation will be to make sure that existing stock is maintained. For example, I want to get the Housing Executive building again. That is part of the revitalisation programme. We have had a bigger number of social homes this year. We can be more ambitious if the budget allows and build houses on the basis of where they are needed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I should have advised Members that question 4 has been withdrawn.