I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the serious issue of damp and mould existing in many Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) properties; expresses concern that this poses a substantive risk to the health and well-being of tenants and is a contributor to fuel poverty; highlights the need to examine the causes of damp and mould and identify viable solutions to resolve these issues; notes that particular consideration should be given to property cavity wall insulation; notes with regret the inability of the Housing Executive to address the situation thus far; and calls on the Minister for Communities to take firm action, finally, to resolve the issue of damp and mould within the current Housing Executive stock as a matter of urgency.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Over the past decade, I have received numerous pleas for help from my constituents regarding cold, damp homes where, in the worst cases, mould was also present. It was affecting their health and well-being, with many feeling totally frustrated and depressed, unable or embarrassed to invite friends and family to their homes. I know from talking to many of you that you have experienced it in your own constituencies. The majority of these homes are rented from landlords — in particular, the Housing Executive — but those are not the only instances. A few years ago, I asked the Minister for Communities, in a question for written answer, how many cases of damp had been reported to the Housing Executive over the past four years. The total was 25,150, which is absolutely massive.
Many of the householders have told me that, when they report the problems, they are told to open their windows or stop drying clothes on the radiators, and that that is the extent of the response that they receive. If they persist, they may get an extractor fan in their bathroom or kitchen, but that does not address the problems. I know that many of you will have similar stories to tell. A few quick trawls through social media will highlight plenty of similar cases. Occasionally, the issue appears in the media, with the latest example being the recent article in the 'Newtownabbey Times' that highlighted problems in Ballycraigy and Three Mile Water. The problems that we see here in Northern Ireland are also prevalent in the rest of the UK. Recent studies have shown that landlords need to do more to tackle the problem, emphasising the health problems that cold, damp and mould cause. Nearly one in five people in Northern Ireland are affected by lung conditions. Traditionally, lung disease has a long profile in the public mind and in healthcare, even though nearly twice as many people per day are diagnosed with respiratory disease as with non-respiratory cancers. Lung disease is costing £250 million a year in Northern Ireland. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 2,000 people died every year from respiratory disease in Northern Ireland. Damp and mould are key triggers for asthma attacks and can also lead to rare lung conditions. If any of the 182,000 people who have asthma in Northern Ireland live in a damp house, there is a high chance that it will trigger an asthma attack, which will likely result in a trip to hospital and, in a small number of cases, can even lead to death.
In the 1980s, the Housing Executive carried out an extensive programme of wall insulation on its properties. At that time, the right to buy was in its infancy. The number of properties likely to have been insulated was around 150,000. Many of those properties are still in Housing Executive ownership, but even more have now been sold into private hands. The insulation in the walls is now nearly 40 years old. The material that was used in most of those homes and houses is mineral wool, which has been discontinued in Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years due to the fact that it retains water and thus is likely to cause cold spots and subsequent damp.
Very few of those houses have had their insulation inspected to ensure that it is still effective, and even fewer have had it upgraded.
If the Housing Executive is going to eradicate cold and damp issues in its properties, it needs to begin to address the problems in those houses that have old and ineffective insulation. This is not the first time the topic has been brought before the Assembly. In 2017, on virtually the last day before the Assembly crashed, there was a debate on the subject. From memory, I believe it was debated twice before that. It is truly shocking and a damning indictment of the Assembly and the Department for Communities that here we are again debating the issue and nobody is holding the Housing Executive to account — nobody.
You all may remember that a motion was passed calling on the Housing Executive to be held to account for its failure to address the problems of cavity wall insulation in its housing stock. Our new First Minister was the Minister for Communities at the time, and he participated in the debate, promising the Assembly that a further survey of 1,000 houses would be carried out in order to assess the problem and to produce an action plan. A smaller survey of 236 houses had been previously carried out. What has happened since that motion was debated?
The survey was carried out, and a specialist organisation called the British Board of Agrément (BBA) was appointed that summer. It completed the surveys in 2018 and produced a report in 2019, which identified that almost two thirds of Housing Executive properties did not have cavity wall insulation up to current standards. The report made a series of recommendations. That was pretty much the same conclusion that was reached and recommended on in an earlier report by the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) in 2014. Five years later, at an additional cost of £400,000, we got told what we already knew. Really, Members, how many surveys and reports need to be done on the issue? It is a scandal, and we are allowing it to happen.
Two years have passed since the report's publication, and those recommendations have still not been implemented. The Housing Executive will tell us that it issued a consultation on its proposed actions in March this year and that it is now finalising an action plan. Its proposal, however, while acknowledging that there is a serious problem, is to do nothing until its financial situation is stabilised in future. We are all aware of the financial difficulties that are facing the Housing Executive and the increasing state of disrepair of its stock. To be fair to the Minister, she has highlighted that several times and is planning to bring forward proposals that may change in future. In the meantime, due to COVID-19 and procurement problems that arose a few years ago, the Housing Executive has built up a surplus of nearly £200 million in its landlord reserve account. Why can some of that funding not be used to begin to address the problems of cold and damp in our houses?
Since the resumption of the Assembly, we have heard many speeches about climate change. A Climate Change Bill is progressing through the Assembly, with the likelihood of a similar Bill being introduced by the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in the coming months. Those Bills will bind us to targets for energy efficiency and will require us to better insulate our homes. There will be much reference to a just transition and not leaving the poor behind. I suggest that the greatest need exists in our social housing and private rented stock, where people are now being placed because we do not possess enough social housing to accommodate them all. Surely our biggest landlord should lead the way on energy efficiency, insulating our homes better and, consequently, reducing fuel bills and carbon emissions.
Many of us are digesting the energy strategy consultation, which was recently issued by the Department for the Economy, and we will be preparing a response. The document is an extensive piece of work that reflects a very complex problem and asks more questions than it provides answers, as it acknowledges that more work is required. However, one of its proposals is for the introduction of a retrofit scheme in 2022. It does not provide any details of the scheme, but surely the focus must be on a fabric-first approach, as we still do not have the answers to the problems of replacing fossil fuels. A fabric-first approach ensures a focus on insulation, and, if we are ensuring a just transition, surely Housing Executive stock must be dealt with in a similar fashion. Introducing a scheme for the public while ignoring social housing properties makes little sense.
Last week, Lord Deben, the chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, said in his report to the Government that Northern Ireland was further behind the curve than it needed to be with immediate action on climate change. It is nearly 10 years since the insulation industry highlighted the historical problems with cavity wall insulation and the difficulties that that would create. All the political parties from across the board have met the industry, so they know the issues. We will never eradicate fuel poverty, meet our climate change ambitions and provide the poorest in society with warm, healthy homes unless we begin to address the problem now.
I ask the Assembly to call on the Minister for Communities to ensure that funding is available now for the Housing Executive to address the issues of cold, damp homes caused by poor ventilation and insulation and that the affordable warmth scheme focuses on those issues. The Minister for the Economy must take these things into account when finalising the energy strategy for residential buildings and, if possible, accelerate the proposed retrofit programme.
I do not want to hear more excuses from the Minister today — I know that she has not been involved in previous discussions in the Chamber about this — because I have heard them all before. I do not want to hear of yet another report or review being announced. We all know the problems, and so does the Housing Executive. Minister, when will somebody hold the Housing Executive to account for its lack of willingness to engage on this issue, its lack of willingness to admit problems and its lack of willingness to fix problems? Do not make me have to come back to hold you and the Housing Executive to account on this issue. I ask the Assembly to support the motion.
I support the motion but would like it to have gone further. Damp and mould do not exist only in Housing Executive properties, so it is important for us to address and identify solutions for all homeowners. The right to a high-quality, safe and secure place to call home is one of the most basic and fundamental rights in any society.
Sinn Féin recognises the urgent need for investment in our housing stock. Minister Hargey's revitalisation programme includes not only building new homes to address the numbers in housing stress but maintaining and retrofitting existing stock to ensure that it is up to standard. My party recently responded to the Housing Executive's draft cavity wall insulation action plan consultation, on issues with cavity wall insulation in its housing stock.
The extent of the issues facing tenants was initially brought to light by the research carried out by the South Eastern Regional College in 2014. The research found that many homes suffered poor and inadequate levels of thermal protection, resulting in unnecessary energy losses and assumed high heating costs. More recently, a much larger piece of research was carried out by Consultancy, Investigation and Training (CIT), which was commissioned by the Housing Executive and published in May 2019. That research went further, looking at the fabric of the property to see other building deficiencies that could be causing damp.
For the purpose of today's debate, I will focus on Creggan in my constituency, where hundreds of homes have been affected for many years by damp and mould because of lack of ventilation and poor insulation. Following the SERC report, surveys were carried out of properties in Creggan in 2015 and 2016. The surveys found that insulation had broken down in all the properties that were inspected and that some had poorly fitted tiles and eaves. With these findings, tenants expected to see remedial works brought forward immediately, so when work was deferred in 2018, and CIT was commissioned, residents were disappointed.
In 2020, when Minister Hargey took up her post, I engaged on behalf of the residents of Creggan with her, her Department and the Housing Executive. I also carried out an online survey of residents who lived in Housing Executive and housing association properties affected by damp. Respondents outlined timelines of their experiences of damp and mould, with one resident reporting having experienced it for 33 years — absolutely shocking.
I am pleased that the Housing Executive has made progress. A scheme to address building defects and wall insulation is in the pipeline. The first phase will see £3 million investment into Housing Executive properties in Creggan. Tenants have waited too long and suffered too many cold and damp winters. I hope that there are no further delays. I know that Minister Hargey is committed to delivering on the highest standard of housing for all.
As I said at the beginning, the Housing Executive is not the only housing provider that needs to act. I want to see the housing associations putting plans in place immediately to address the same defects in their homes, with grants made more widely available to homeowners and those in the private rented sector, so that everyone can have a warm and safe home.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the perennial issue of damp and mould, which, it is fair to say, plagues many Housing Executive properties across the North and, indeed, many other homes, as Ms Mullan correctly said. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that housing standards are upheld. It is shameful that we are standing here today to demand action and ask for accommodation to be habitable so that it does not present a risk to the health and well-being of individuals and their families. Our constituency office staff have become accustomed to bearing witness frequently to tenants' horror stories. During my time as an elected representative, I have witnessed multiple serious instances of not just damp but black mould in Housing Executive properties right across the Foyle constituency.
One case that comes to mind is that of a young family who contacted my office last year. After a year of raising concerns with their housing officer and the Housing Executive, they were no further forward. Each time, the young couple was advised to open windows and ensure that the property was properly ventilated. Housing officers said that there was a superficial damp problem. Every member of the family suffered from persistent coughs and chest infections, including the couple's infant son, who had recently been diagnosed with asthma. Despite assertions from the family's GP that the illnesses were the result of their housing conditions, no action was taken. When I set eyes on the photographs provided, I was astounded that anyone lived in such conditions. Black mould ravaged almost every room, particularly the child's bedroom. The window frames were rotten, the cot and pram were covered in mould and were no longer fit for purpose. It was not until my office intervened that the family's complaints were finally heard, and they were rehoused.
What is most frustrating is that that case is far from unique. To add insult to injury, when attempting to rectify issues with damp, tenants are often treated like idiots. They are told time and time again that valid, genuine concerns are merely condensation. Of course, I can speak only to the experiences that I have encountered. However, too often, these issues are not dealt with, and, in some instances, records of complaints are not kept. It is shameful that the issue of damp and mould has become so rampant that it is treated with an almost blasé attitude in some quarters of the Housing Executive.
Mr Easton cited research by the British Lung Foundation on the very serious health impacts that damp and mould can have. In consideration of those facts, the failure to respond to concerns could have far-reaching and even fatal impacts on tenants. In the case that I mentioned, but for the grace of God, negligence had the potential to result in devastation for that family and their young son.
I fully appreciate the financial constraints faced by the Housing Executive and acknowledge the role that the cavity wall insulation plan will play in this matter. However, we cannot afford not to address the root causes of damp and mould in the existing housing stock and to identify solutions. The Housing Executive must look inwards and ask questions about how it spends money and the cost-effectiveness of certain schemes.
I had hoped that the motion would provide an opportunity to raise the review of the housing fitness standard. I spoke to Housing Rights, and issues of housing fitness remain a significant concern for many people who avail themselves of its advice service. Unfortunately, my amendment was not accepted. However, it needs to be said that the minimum housing fitness standard in Northern Ireland is very low. There have been calls for some time for the minimum housing fitness standard to be replaced with something more comprehensive that takes into account the impact that poor housing conditions can have on occupants' health.
In 2016-17, there was a discussion in the Department about replacing the fitness standard with the housing health and safety rating system model currently used in England. However, despite public consultation, it seems that progress on the review, like so much here, has ground to a halt. I hope that the Minister will update the Assembly accordingly in the time ahead, maybe even in her response later this evening. In conclusion, we support the motion. However, I reiterate the calls for the Communities Minister to review the current statutory minimum fitness standard for housing.
I thank the Member who proposed this important motion, which we are in favour of. My colleague Andy Allen apologises that he is unable to contribute to this important debate, Minister. However, he has fed into the remarks that I will make. Before I read those out, I think back to when I grew up in a Housing Executive house on the Low Road in Lisburn that I shared with my five brothers and sisters and my mum and dad. That was in the 1970s and 1980s, and there was no central heating or double glazing. The window frames were made of metal, and ice used to form on the inside. Black mould and damp were constant companions, and it was a battle for my mum and dad to tackle them with bleach and cleaning fluids. It was not acceptable in the late 1970s and 1980s, and it is not acceptable in 2021.
This is still an important issue that affects far too many households across Northern Ireland, and it has been a scourge for many years. There are many examples of families and individuals living in unacceptable conditions in constituencies across Northern Ireland, some of which I have seen at first hand, and which many Members will discuss today. Dampness and mould can have a detrimental impact on our health, as we know. The first thing that I want the Minister to respond to is this: how does she intend to address the high level of instances of dampness and mould in Housing Executive stock? I am sure that it is in her hands to do so.
Northern Ireland faces a housing crisis that is compounded by the poor state of some of our housing stock. The Housing Executive stock condition survey, which was carried out by Savills in 2015, highlighted that the required investment, at 2015 prices, to meet the tenantable repair standard over 30 years for all properties was in the region of £5·84 billion, which is an incredible amount, and that the total cost to meet the commonly adopted standards was £6·7 billion. Given that the report and recommendations are now six years old, can the Minister — this may be hard for her to do — provide an update on the progress made on that?
If we look at the Department for Communities statutory minimum fitness standards for housing, we see 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."
However, there are many examples of homes with severe mould and dampness that would fail to meet any of the standards set out, but there is little by way of a joined-up, proactive approach to that. Indeed, in most cases, constituents are advised that the mould and damp are a consequence of lifestyle choices, such as a lack of heating, too much heating or a lack of ventilation, causing condensation to develop. They are told that this condensation creates mould and damp in the house. We have all been there and heard those reasons, and, sometimes, there may be an element of truth to them. However, there is no doubt that, where condensation and mould exist, the overriding factor is a lack of cavity wall insulation or, indeed, the wrong type of cavity wall insulation. None of us across the House accepts that the conditions and standards that our constituents have to live in and endure are appropriate, so I pose this question: are we collectively — I use the word "collectively" because there are no stand-alone Ministries in 2021 — doing all that we can to responsibly tackle and address this important issue? I note that the Member who proposed the motion spoke about the need to tackle the issues collectively and collegiately.
It has been identified that cavity wall insulation in much of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive stock is non-existent, insufficient or generally of poor quality, which can lead to severe cases of dampness and mould. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive stated:
"Cavity wall insulation installed in homes across the UK in the 1980’s and 90’s", which probably refers back to when I was a child,
"has been a major concern across all housing sectors in recent years."
In 2017, the Housing Executive commissioned an independent construction certification body to examine cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive and privately owned homes in Northern Ireland. That report found that 63% of the Housing Executive dwellings surveyed had cavity wall insulation that was non-compliant with current industry standards. I will finish with this question: can the Minister provide an update on that work stream and any other actions that she has taken to address this important matter? We support the motion.
Thank you very much to the proposer of the motion, which we absolutely support.
Like other Members, I have been invited into constituents' houses, albeit before COVID, to see the state of their home. When one goes into someone's home, looks up into the corner of their bedroom and sees that it is encrusted and black with mould, or goes into their bathroom and sees that underneath the sink is thick with mould that has started to form circles of spores, and one knows that, in that household, lives a vulnerable person, small child or someone who is not very mobile and cannot get about much, one asks, "What sort of Northern Ireland do we live in when we have people living in such conditions?".
As Mr Durkan said, many of those people are told that it is condensation and that they do not open their windows enough. Really? Damp and mould are key triggers of asthma attacks and can lead to rarer lung conditions, such as aspergillosis. Forgive me, but I probably pronounced that incorrectly. We must remember that mould is dangerous. A while back, I wrote to the Department for Communities to ask whether mould is tested. I was told that it is not. Some of the homes of that landlord, the Housing Executive, are therefore incredibly old and have bad cases of mould in them, but that mould is not tested. If someone who lives in one of those houses gets ill, what does that mean? It means that they are probably looking at a limited life; at illness, with further cost to the health service; at restricted or limited mobility; and, potentially, at lung disease. Those are all things that should not be put upon people because of the house in which they live.
I looked at the Housing Executive's Decent Homes Standard. Really? Although many Housing Executive staff work hard and try their best, those very old homes could not possibly pass its house condition survey. Will the Minister consider bringing in some means of testing the mould to see whether it makes homes dangerous for human habitation?
A consultation has begun on cavity wall insulation. The Minister has updated the Housing Council on the revitalisation of the Housing Executive. A lot of things are going on. When I look at some of the reports that we have been provided with, however, I can see that £32 million will just about scratch the surface of the remedial work needed to get rid of the category 1 hazards in 1,559 houses. That is just damp and mould growth. There are a heck of a lot of older houses. As Mr Butler said, we in the Assembly need to work together. We cannot allow people in our communities to live in houses in which there is black mould on the walls, the clothes in their wardrobe are covered in mould and the mattress on their child's bed has mould on it, all because the home is damp. It is not condensation. I do not know anybody in Northern Ireland whose breath is so hot that it will create enough condensation for a bed to be covered in mould.
The Housing Executive has an enormous stock, and it needs a heck of a lot of work. I will back the Minister to the hilt to get as much money as possible to put into the Housing Executive to fix those houses. While the Housing Executive is able to sell off properties, however, with the money going into a big pot and all that maintenance still not being caught up on, we really need to think about Housing Executive revitalisation. It is not fair to many of our older people who are living in homes that are not fit for human habitation. Mould is horrible. It smells. It gets into people's clothes. It is getting into people and making them sick.
I thank Mr Easton for bringing the motion to the House. He has talked about the issue for years. He has talked about cavity wall insulation for years. I went into one house in which there was a pool of water on the person's living room floor because the water had run straight down the cavity wall and into the living room. Another skim of plaster had been put on the wall. How does that fix the issue? There is therefore a lot of work to be done. Further education colleges are an excellent way forward. They can provide some of the solutions and some of the help so that we can meet future climate change requirements. For now, however, people are living with black walls, and that is not good enough.
I support the motion. I thank my party colleagues for securing the debate on an important subject.
As constituency representatives, we all deal with Housing Executive tenants daily. The range of issues can be varied, as indeed can the experience of dealing with the Housing Executive to get a remedy to the issues raised. I must say that I find the issue before us today — damp in Housing Executive properties — to be one of the most serious matters.
The health impact of living in such conditions ought to prompt swift and decisive action from the Housing Executive, as the responsible landlord. Nearly one in five people in Northern Ireland is affected by a lung condition, and those conditions can be COPD, asthma, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), sleep apnoea, long COVID and severe asthma, amongst others. Traditionally, lung disease has a low profile in both the public mind and the healthcare system, even though nearly twice as many people per day are diagnosed with respiratory disease than are diagnosed with non-respiratory cancers. Lung disease is costing over £250 million a year in Northern Ireland, and, prior to the pandemic, nearly 2,000 people died every year of respiratory diseases. Kellie Armstrong has already mentioned that damp and mould are key triggers for asthma attacks and can also lead to rare lung conditions. It is a fact that, if you have damp and mould in your home, you are more likely to develop respiratory problems. No individual or family should be put at such a health disadvantage by their landlord, yet it is to the Housing Executive's shame that it does that.
Furthermore, it is all too common. My friend and colleague the Member for North Down Mr Easton asked the Minister, last November, how many claims against the Housing Executive had been made in relation to damp in the preceding 10 years. There had been 869 claims. Indeed, my friend and colleague from South Belfast Mr Christopher Stalford, who is in the Speaker's Chair, ascertained from the Minister that, from February 2020 until February 2021, a total of 2,121 defects associated with damp had been reported to the Housing Executive, with a further 55 connected to housing associations. Those figures are startling. They show the prevalence and seriousness of the issue and how it is affecting so many people day and daily. What does it say about government that it is letting people live in homes like that? These are not just houses; they are homes. When mushrooms are growing on walls and wallpaper is falling off as soon as it is hung, it tells us that we are failing our neighbours and that we must strive for better.
Recently, the problems facing Housing Executive tenants in the New Mossley estate in my constituency were highlighted in the local media. Those residents are at their wits' end awaiting repair work to their homes after multiple inspections and promises of a scheme to address extensive damage caused by damp over several years. I urge the Housing Executive to ensure that the long-overdue maintenance work takes place at the earliest opportunity. There should be no more delays.
We need a clear pathway and a targeted programme of intervention from the Minister to address the damp crisis in our social housing stock. We also need to look at how, across local and central government, we can work more closely with the environmental health teams to tackle the problem. We also need to get the powers to take the necessary action to fix the problems when issues around ownership occur.
I know of one example where a Housing Executive property is now experiencing damp because the adjacent property has been vacated by the private owner for some seven to eight years and the place has been left to ruin. Charges exist against the property, and all interested parties are washing their hands of addressing the problem. That is not good enough for the tenant who lives next door.
I want the best for my constituents, and I am sure that the Minister does too, but the reality is that we are offering some people homes that are simply not good enough and that, if we are honest, we would not live in. How dare we do that. The time to address the issue is now. No more kicking the can down the road — now.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion today. The issue of dealing effectively with dampness and mould growth in housing is one that, I believe, everyone in the Chamber will support, and, listening to testimonies and speeches, I have obviously got that right. It is quite shocking to hear some of the statistics that people have talked about.
I am sure that all of us have been in a house, whether it was a Housing Executive house or one in the ownership of another housing provider, and been shocked at the conditions that we witnessed.
I commend the Members who have brought the matter to the Chamber. This is not the first time that we have debated the issue, and I have no doubt that it will not be the last. We have debated this issue a number of times and asked the Assembly to take action to deal with this serious problem. While I agree that it is an issue that needs our urgent attention, it needs to be done as part of a strategy. I have been in many homes that suffer from the blight of dampness, and I have witnessed mould growing on walls and seen the health consequences of that for those who live in those homes. It is not just a blight suffered by Housing Executive tenants; it goes much wider. Homeowners also face huge problems from dampness and mould as well as huge disrepair, and many are elderly and unable to financially meet the cost of dealing with that growing problem. I have heard it said that, unless we also prioritise that housing sector, we will be dealing with the slums of the future.
The right to a good, safe and secure place to call "home" is fundamental to providing a firm foundation for individuals, workers and families and impacts not only on their physical mental health and well-being but on their educational attainment, welfare, family relationships, stability, human dignity and quality of life. Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living and continuous improvement in living conditions, including housing conditions.
I reiterate that we should not look at this in isolation; let us look at all the sectors of housing. The Minister has a plan to deal with housing as a whole, but it requires financing. We all have a duty to ensure that we join the Minister in demanding that she gets the resources that she needs to deal with the issue. Minister Hargey has promised a housing revolution to bring the sector in from years of neglect and build it into a sector that we can all be proud of. That will include dealing with the serious problem of unfitness, which includes dampness and mould growth. For that, we need the input and support of all parties.
I am grateful to my colleagues on the Communities Committee for tabling the motion and thus allowing us to voice a significant problem for our constituents across Northern Ireland. As we have heard from Members today, damp and mould in Housing Executive properties is a common theme across all constituencies and among those we represent, some of whom have reached the end of their tether.
People's homes are, in theory, a sanctuary and a place of respite, solace and recovery from everything else outside. Yet, for some, the condition of their home means that it is the last place that they want to be, to go or to spend time. Couple that with the fact that there were COVID-induced breathing problems and that the COVID messaging for many months was to stay at home, work from home and not visit other people's homes, and you have circumstances where damp and mould have not just a physical health impact but an impact on the emotional and mental well-being of tenants.
Of course, there are many reasons for such damp conditions leading to mould, including old and problematic windows, some of which will not shut once they are opened, and hence tenants are eager to not lose heat; old and expensive heating systems that force people to choose between heat and food; a lack of loft and cavity wall insulation; a lack of vents on windows that have been newly installed as part of schemes; delayed decision-making, which I will come to later; and poor inspections, which blame it all on not opening windows and putting clothes on radiators but completely ignore the fact that it is never black and white and that they are failing to get to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is that it is a combination of all of those factors, most of which are beyond the tenants' control.
Given that the Housing Executive is the biggest landlord in the country, there is no excuse. Given that its home Department is essentially the regulator of landlords and thus the keeper of standards, we must get beyond the familiar "Do as we say and not as we do" approach. It should set an example to other landlords.
According to the Department for Communities, the statutory minimum fitness standards for housing are that a home is:
"free from dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants" and that it has:
"adequate provision for ... heating and ventilation".
In some areas of my constituency, those standards are not being met. I am not clear how the first standard of:
"dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants" is measured and monitored, and I am not clear on what actions follow that.
I appreciate that the Minister has already agreed that the housing system, as it stands, is failing and must be reformed. She outlined her commitment to revitalise it, but that will take time. Many tenants do not have time. The detriment to their health and well-being is too great, and the processes take too long.
By way of an example to illustrate the practical outworking of the problem, I turn my focus to my constituency of East Belfast. The bulk of my casework is on housing. My office is contacted daily by constituents seeking support for individuals, families and those with disabilities who continue to struggle with their housing situation. Day in and day out, we hear how individuals are expected to live, with many having to decide whether they should heat or eat. That is not any kind of choice.
The Minister will be familiar with the Kings Road flats in Tullycarnet, given the number of times I have raised them with her and continue to raise them with the Executive. From the correspondence that I have sent and the images enclosed with that, she will have seen how Housing Executive tenants are expected to live in horrendous conditions in the "flats from hell". There are numerous problems with the buildings, including enormous amounts of damp and mould that cover tenants' flats, furniture and belongings. No property should be left to reach that point. In one home, mould is growing on every piece of furniture that the tenant has, and the inside of the front door is pure black from top to bottom. The ceilings are covered, there is visible mould on the curtains and cushions, and even the pillows are damp to the touch. He has to wash his wooden bed frame every other day to get rid of the green algae. As is so often the case, a public liability claim (PLC) does not cover him because the Housing Executive does not accept responsibility. Tullycarnet is in that state because of perpetual delays in decision-making and everything being weighed against nugatory expenditure. In the meantime, what of the tenants who have to live there because the waiting lists are so long that it will be years before they get out? There are other examples in Braniel and Cregagh.
I will finish by saying that I am grateful, because we in East Belfast are blessed with senior managers and area managers who do their utmost. They are pragmatic, adopt a common-sense approach and, most importantly, care about their tenants and work with elected reps to find solutions within their designated authority. However, they can do only so much, and that is why we call for ministerial intervention. For the sake of our constituents, I trust that she will intervene. I call on colleagues to support the motion.
There are two Sinéads in the one constituency, so it is understandable. Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to speak on today's motion, because it is a chance for us not only to deal with the substantive issues in the motion but to discuss the overarching need for investment in the Housing Executive stock.
We have seen welcome progress recently on the Irish language commitments in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement. That is, of course, good, but we want to see delivery of all the commitments in NDNA, including the commitment to tackle the lack of investment in Housing Executive stock.
The discussion about damp, mould and cavity wall insulation cannot be taken in isolation. It is wrapped up in the financial realities of the Housing Executive and the ongoing challenge of revitalising it and enabling it to borrow again. That is a challenge that the current Communities Minister has not shied away from. I accept that, while a large proportion of Housing Executive houses are built to a decent standard, the Housing Executive has acknowledged that there are problems and instances of damp and mould in its housing stock. Regardless of how widespread the issue is, it is not acceptable for any of our citizens to live in a home that is riddled with damp or does not meet the standards any of us would expect.
Cavity wall insulation is critical for maintaining the fabric of homes and the people who live in them. The discussion should be extended to the many people who own their home but who, because of their financial circumstances, cannot afford to insulate or upgrade it. As other Members have said, over 180,000 people in the North suffer with asthma. Many of those people are homeowners, and living in a damp house could trigger an asthma attack in any of them. Equally, homeowners should not be put at a disadvantage simply because they own their property. Absolutely no one should have to live in a home that could have an adverse impact on their health.
The right to a good, safe and secure place to call "home" is fundamental to providing a firm foundation for people and families. A good home is a firm foundation for good health, well-being, stability, human dignity and a good quality of life. For many young people and families in places such as Rostrevor in South Down, there is no prospect of one day owning or living in a home in the place where they grew up and where their family is from. The cost of homeownership coupled with the total lack of investment in any social or affordable homes in Rostrevor means that some people will be forced to move out to the hinterlands of Warrenpoint, Hilltown or Newry. That means that they will lose the connection to their community — their local GAA and soccer clubs — and children will not go to the school that is their parents' first choice. The choice to live and work in the community that they grew up in and are from will be out of reach for some people. The knock-on effect of a lack of good, affordable homes in the likes of Rostrevor will have far-reaching consequences for the fabric of the community there.
The task of revitalising the Housing Executive is vast. It includes not only building new homes to address the numbers in housing stress but maintaining and retrofitting existing stock to ensure that it is up to standard. The Housing Executive needs to give full consideration to the responses to the cavity wall insulation consultation, which was closed at the beginning of this year. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has exacerbated the difficulties over the past 18 months, but it is now fundamental that the repair and replacement retrofitting project be undertaken without delay. The £217 million spend on planned maintenance for the 2021-22 year must be focused on that issue to ensure the comfort and safety of citizens who have already waited far too long and in poor conditions.
I was shocked to hear that the issue was discussed many times in the House before my time. The problem is out there, it is real, and you see it in houses that you visit. As of January this year, nearly 30,000 out of 42,000 people on the housing waiting list are in housing stress. We need not only to create more homes to house those people but to make sure that homes are fit for purpose to allow people to live in dignity.
The issues with mould and damp in Housing Executive properties go a lot further. Poverty has huge implications for health. It has been shown that conditions such as respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer overwhelmingly affect those on low incomes. Mould and damp have a massive impact on those conditions and put those who live in substandard homes at critical risk.
Due to climate change, there has been an increase in rainfall over the past few years. That has negatively affected housing in Northern Ireland, because the increase in rainfall has meant that mould and damp have become more prevalent problems for homeowners. That will require us to take more action with the aim of fixing and preventing the problems that are caused by mould and damp.
Outside the social housing sector, there is also a massive issue in the private rented sector. Removing mould and damp can be an expensive job. It requires money and resources that people cannot afford to use when they have to use their limited resources to, for example, make sure that they have enough food or can send their children to school. That feeds into the cycle of poverty and makes it that much harder for families to break out of the cycle and have a self-sufficient home.
It is hugely important that tenants know their rights. That is why the fantastic work by organisations such as Housing Rights is so important. I have found the work of Housing Rights to be invaluable, even for legislators like us. When tenants are better informed, the whole system works better. Better homes are available, which are better kept by better landlords.
Tackling mould has additional benefits. It creates more efficient homes, which helps to tackle the issue of fuel poverty. I hope that the Housing Executive will continue its work and try to utilise unused wind energy for the homes that are most affected by fuel poverty.
My daughter bought one of the little army houses with her boyfriend. I do not know whether it is all right to speak about this now. They got new carpet. Both of them have learning difficulties. When I went into their house, I was shocked to see the mould on the walls that was coming from a disused chimney breast. I have since written to Clanmil Housing. I have no problems with saying that. It was only on Thursday. It is not that Clanmil did not know. I have already said that there were learning difficulties, but I had never been upstairs in their house until they got a new bed, and they needed me to assemble it. I was shocked to see the wall and the room that they are living in. They moved in only four years ago, and they are buying it through co-ownership. We should expect better when we put people into those homes. They should be finished to a high standard, and the onus is on those who rent out the houses or are selling houses to see that the houses are fixed.
I, too, join others in congratulating my colleague and friend from North Down for tabling the motion, along with colleagues from the Communities Committee, and for his excellent contribution to the debate.
Some five years ago, I visited a house with my colleague Councillor Gareth McKee, who has subsequently stood down and been replaced as a councillor. There have been elections since we visited that home five years ago in the Silverstream estate. When we visited the home, we met the parents of two young girls. The young mother was acutely embarrassed at the home’s smell and state of repair. It was very clear that she was immaculately clean, but there was only so much that she could do. She asked us to visit the bedroom of the two young girls, and we went upstairs. They were sleeping in bunk beds. There was mould on all the walls, particularly the exterior walls, which had travelled to the interior walls, and in the corners. When you opened the built-in wardrobe in the bedroom, it was absolutely disgusting. You could not have stored anything in there, certainly not clothes. The bed and the bedclothes were completely covered in black mould. There were spores right across the room: the ceiling, the floors and right up the walls. The solution from the Housing Executive was to say that it was condensation. A device was produced, and a needle was placed against the walls. "There you are; it is condensation. There is not enough air travelling around the room". I could not believe what I was hearing or the complete lack of compassion and empathy from the Housing Executive official. I will not embarrass them by naming them in the House. I said, "What is the solution, then?". He said, "We will drill a hole and put in a vent, and you can open and close the vent". I said, "The two young girls have severe, acute asthma. What do they do with the holes in the wall and the vent in the winter when it is freezing?". He had not thought of that.
That house is in the Silverstream estate. Over the years, I have raised it on many occasions with various Ministers. In fact, I have raised that issue with the current Minister at Question Time. I have written to the Minister. I have met the chief executive of the Housing Executive. I have met the current permanent secretary in the Department for Communities. It is batted back and forward between the Housing Executive and the Department. The reality is that nothing is done in the Silverstream estate.
A number of years ago, work was carried out on some properties. That was welcome. Many homeowners bought their properties, and they carried out the work themselves. There is still a sizeable number of houses across the Silverstream and Tyndale estates that have to deal with structural flaws such as Finlock guttering. The Minister is well aware of that. More recently, my colleagues Paula Bradley, the Chair of the Committee, and Councillor Dale Pankhurst met the Minister to raise the issue. Unfortunately, I could not attend. The problem is that, when Finlock guttering gets moist, it retains the moisture and becomes like a sponge. Therefore, serious remedial action must be taken, and I accept that that is expensive. Some of those families have been enduring that for 20 or 30 years. In this day and age, it is not acceptable that people have to live in those conditions. The time has come for it to be addressed. I ask the Minister to address the issue for my constituents who are living in Silverstream and Tyndale. The time for action is now. Minister, between your Department and the Housing Executive, please sort the problem out once and for all and let people live in dignity.
I am very pleased that the motion has been tabled in the House. We will, of course, support it.
The problem of damp and mould is extremely serious, and we heard that from all Members who contributed to the debate. It is a social problem, but, when it is your home, your friend's home or your child's home, it is also a very emotional and heartfelt problem. It is particularly heartbreaking when we see young children being reared in those homes. I have spoken to parents whose kids will not bring their friends home because of the smell in their house. Their house does not smell like their friends' houses. That is heartbreaking. It is essential that we act to eliminate damp and mould in properties that are owned and managed by the Housing Executive.
The motion also touches on a concern that I have raised repeatedly in the Assembly, particularly through questions for written answer: are we too focused on replacing oil boilers with gas boilers at the expense of the quality of our homes? We have limited resources — we all know that — and money is scarce, but we really need to focus on the conditions of our homes, including resolving the problems with damp and greatly improving energy efficiency. Quite often, people living in damp and mouldy homes also live in complete fuel poverty, which leads to child poverty. There is a whole social involvement there. While we recognise the need to balance spending, we do not have the right balance at present.
There are also questions about the standard of past improvements. Complaints have been raised in my constituency office, and, I am sure, in other Members' constituency offices, about, for example, cavity wall insulation that was no longer adequate having to be renewed. We are retrofitting the retrofits. It is a case of cutting costs at the expense of quality, which leads to work needing to be done a second time after a comparatively short period.
Over 60,000 homes in Northern Ireland do not meet the decent home standard. That is 8% of all homes. It would be remiss of me not to talk about the biggest problem of all. The Housing Executive and housing associations do not own all of those homes or properties, and we have an even worse and growing problem in our privately owned housing stock, particularly with homes in the rented sector. People in the most deprived areas who have to be placed in rental properties experience horrendous conditions. That sector has grown substantially in recent years, not least as a result of the right-to-buy scheme. That led to some former Housing Executive stock being owned by private landlords, who rent out properties but do not always maintain them in a good condition. In 2016, the private rented sector accounted for 17% of all homes, up from just 12% in 2006. It is, no doubt, even higher now. We know that social housing is better maintained than private sector homes that are rented out. For example, 79% of social housing has one of the best energy efficiency ratings, compared with just 49% of all homes in Northern Ireland.
Although we should be very concerned about Housing Executive homes that are damp, mouldy and cold, and we are, problems are vastly more common in the private rented sector. The motion might have usefully included a proposal to strengthen controls over private rented accommodation that is of poor quality, damp and inadequate and that has inadequate heating.
In the period ahead of the most recent house condition survey, more than half of all social housing had been repaired or improved. That is totally not good enough, but it is a higher rate of repair and improvement than amongst owner-occupied accommodation, and it is vastly higher than amongst homes that are privately owned and rented out, with fewer than one in five such homes being repaired or improved.
Too many people are faced with inappropriate housing conditions, and they include a large number of people in my constituency. They live in housing that has bad damp and other issues of disrepair. As other Members have said, such problems are not limited to Housing Executive properties, while landlords too often dismiss issues of damp as being able to be resolved by tenants simply opening their windows. Those are shocking comments. Even when windows are open day and night, the damp persists. That is something that I have experienced myself when renting privately.
Too many mothers of children who have been in and out of hospital owing to chest and breathing difficulties are dismissed when they raise concerns about damp and mould. I have heard too many of those heartbreaking stories over the years.
With all the focus over the past year on COVID affecting organs and causing respiratory issues, it is right and proper that the House should discuss the impact of damp and mould on homes, and on the tenants living in them, and, crucially, what can be done to eradicate that blight from our communities. We are talking about conditions in homes in which you would not even put dogs or cats.
A harsh reality for people on whom bad air quality has an impact outside the home and who live in deprived areas is that they are more likely to be impacted on by bad air quality in the home, with issues such as damp and mould being more prevalent in such homes and communities. Although some can afford not to live in crowded and bad housing conditions, not everyone has that luxury. During COVID, some people could self-isolate in reasonable comfort, if they had space and a big garden, but those living in an apartment or in a built-up area could not.
I support the motion and its aims. Ironically, the recently passed Budget did not have the resources in it to tackle this massive problem, but it passed anyway. The only way in which to tackle the problem is to keep the Housing Executive as a publicly run and funded body, and I urge against the plan of the previous, interim Minister to redesignate landlords, or any part of the Housing Executive, as mutuals. Such a redesignation, if proceeded with, would take housing out of public and departmental control. The example of Capita should serve as a warning to everybody about the deep problems caused by taking services outside of public control.
Finally, there is the issue of a just transition and green jobs. Faced with economic ruin, we should use the already existing skills of people to protect and insulate homes and to reskill the many more people who would be able and willing to do those jobs.
The only way in which to deal with the issues of housing waiting lists, damp and mould is to fund and protect the Housing Executive as a public body.
I thank the Members who tabled the motion. It provides an opportunity to discuss a really important issue. It is not a surprise. The party that brought the motion to the House and the party on the Benches to my left held the portfolio for this Department for almost two decades, from 1999 until 2017, so they are acutely aware of the fundamental challenges that face housing.
Obviously, I came into post in January last year. We were hit with the biggest global health pandemic, which nobody could have foreseen. That having been said, following the housing statement that was made in the Chamber in November last year, work is ongoing to fundamentally deal with the issues that we are discussing and to look at housing more broadly.
As I have said, I grew up in a working-class community where social housing is the main provision of housing. I grew up in a social home, and I have asthma. On Friday, I met the Housing Executive on constituency business, and I completely understand the issues of residents living in substandard homes. That is why I have said that we are in a housing crisis, not just in that people are waiting for a home and we do not have enough social homes for the number of people who re waiting but regarding the condition of those homes and the fundamental investment deficit that we have. That was reported widely in 2018. This is not a new phenomenon but one that has been building over the past couple of decades.
I am glad that the statement that was laid out in November of last year said that I am firmly putting down a way forward for dealing with those decades of problems. We know that, in 2018, the deficit stood at £7·1 billion being needed over the next 30 years. We knew from that period that, if we did not deal with this challenge, the Housing Executive, because of the very issues that we are discussing about not maintaining and not having the ability or the resources to maintain the stock, could potentially lose nearly 40,000 homes. Obviously, the Assembly does not want that. As the Minister, I do not want that. I am sure that the previous Ministers who held this portfolio did not want that either. We need to deal with the huge investment challenge and hole of £7·1 billion. That is just to bring the existing stock up to standard; it does not deal with anything new going forward.
It also does not deal with increased prices or the issue of moving to zero carbon, which the House is debating. On the challenges with climate change, that is the direction of travel that we need to go in, particularly around housing. For the building and safety work that is required, that figure of £7·1 billion will be much higher when you start to look at all the issues in the round. The importance of tackling the Housing Executive investment challenge has never been more critical, and that was recognised through the commitments set out in NDNA, which committed the Executive to tackling this challenge. That is why I intend to introduce proposals for the revitalisation of the Housing Executive to the Executive for consideration by March next year.
On looking at the issue of damp, the Housing Executive acknowledges that there is dampness and mould in its stock. It is not widespread, with a large proportion of the stock meeting the decent home standards. However, I completely acknowledge and understand that, if you live in one of the homes with dampness and mould, that is the most important issue for you and that issue needs to be resolved. Through the engagements that I have had with the Housing Executive, I have been assured that it takes issues of dampness and mould seriously. In all instances, the circumstances will be inspected and assessed on what the cause of the dampness may be and the action that will be taken as is necessary.
In February, I answered a question for written answer on this issue and said:
"The Housing Executive has advised that, in the last 12 calendar months, it has had 2,121 defects reported by its tenants associated with damp where corrective action has been taken."
If investigation shows that it is a one-off problem specific to an individual property, it will most likely be addressed through the Housing Executive's response maintenance programme. However, if there is a clear cluster of problems in an area, consideration may be given to addressing that through a remedial works scheme. Those works could be a combination of improved ventilation, insulation and heating. Where the source of the dampness is identified as condensation, advice will be provided to tenants on its causes and how to avoid a reoccurrence.
Cavity wall insulation was specifically raised in the debate. As was stated earlier, the 2019 BBA report on cavity wall insulation rightly found that 63% of Housing Executive properties surveyed had cavity wall insulation that was not compliant with modern industry standards, and around 1% exhibited issues of damp that may have been a result of water penetration in the external wall and defects in the cavity wall insulation. The fact that there may be defects in the cavity wall insulation, in that it is not compliant with modern industry standards, does not necessarily translate into problems for the home. It is a combination of the physical condition of the property, the external walls and the defects in the cavity wall insulation that create the problem. The report highlights that 1% of Housing Executive properties fall into that category.
What the report terms as class 1 — incidentally, it should be noted that this is exactly the same for private sector housing. Further to that, the BBA report highlighted that 84% of Housing Executive stock surveyed demonstrated evidence of external facades not being adequately maintained and showing various levels of stress. The Housing Executive and I both acknowledge that cavity wall insulation and external fabric issues in its cavity wall stock were identified by the BBA, and the draft cavity wall action plan was put out to public consultation in December 2020, setting out proposals for addressing the BBA's findings and recommendations. The Housing Executive is considering the responses from the public consultation and from the industry. From that information, the Housing Executive will prepare the final action plan for approval in late summer or early autumn this year.
The draft cavity wall insulation action plan notes that a remediation or replacement programme will be required at some point for all cavity wall stock. That will be an integral part of the Housing Executive's future energy efficiency strategy. It is estimated that such a programme will cost in the order of £150 million to £175 million. As things stand, the level of funding required for a comprehensive cavity wall insulation remedial package is not available, due to the combination of other competing priorities, rental income not being adequate and the Housing Executive's inability to borrow to invest in its stock. In 2014-15, Savills endorsed a response maintenance approach to cavity wall insulation issues — a fabric-first approach. Looking at heat retention, airtightness and ventilation is the right way to go about property maintenance.
Members will be aware that the Housing Executive has a substantial sum held in its reserve. The reserve was established to provide the Housing Executive with the flexibility to plan and manage the financial implications of large planned maintenance schemes that start and finish in different accounting periods without detriment to vital rental income. That allows it to carry forward and set aside funding to make provision for future liabilities and commitments, as well as providing some contingency for the unexpected. Having access to reserves significantly aids the Housing Executive in its delivery of long-term stock investment, allowing it to smooth its investment spend over the medium or longer term. That flexibility allows it to strategically plan for the future, as it gives certainty to future programming and effectively deals with the natural peaks and troughs associated with maintenance cycles that do not always fit within the boundaries of each financial year.
Although the reserve balance has increased significantly over the past few years, procurement issues and the COVID lockdown, which stopped the Housing Executive delivering anything except emergency maintenance for some time, mean that the total held is nothing more than a tiny down payment on the huge investment challenge that I addressed earlier.
The Housing Executive's future energy efficiency strategy will help to address any occurrence of damp and mould. As I discussed, the fabric-first approach is aimed at improving heat retention, airtightness and ventilation. As with the cavity wall insulation programme, the energy efficiency strategy will require significant funding and will similarly be a medium- to long-term programme. However, in the interim, the Housing Executive has begun to address a number of non-traditional stock through the energy efficiency in social housing programme, which is funded by the European regional development fund and through which external wall installation and other thermal improvement measures are being installed. That major investment from the European Union is being match funded by the Housing Executive and will significantly deliver for the tenants of those properties.
Some Members raised a review of fitness standards. Preliminary work has started on that. That review and bringing forward the legislative changes that will need to be made will take about a year. Some Members touched on the fact that you cannot fix just one problem, because that has a knock-on effect on the others. As part of addressing the challenges, we need to look at a whole-house approach to making the necessary changes and to ensuring that we upgrade the properties as a whole for those who live in them.
I completely understand, and I hear it in my constituency office, that housing is one of the major issues for us. There is no mistaking that we are in a crisis with waiting lists, the availability of more social homes and stock maintenance. That is why I am calling on all parties to support a stand-alone housing outcome in the Programme for Government. I know that all housing associations and those working in the housing sector support that call. It would really show the importance of addressing the huge challenges that we have and how they impact on our residents in communities.
Some Members mentioned the private rented sector. I will bring forward legislation shortly — it has passed through the Executive — to look at the private rented sector. It is one part of the legislation, because huge changes are needed in that sector. More consultation and engagement needs to happen, but a good part of the legislation that will be introduced in this mandate will be on health and safety in the private rented sector. I acknowledge that it is a huge area. We are not building enough social homes and therefore we now have more children and families living in the private rented sector than in the social homes sector. That is why revitalisation is key. We need to allow the Housing Executive not only to borrow to invest in existing stock but, importantly, to start building homes again. That is a critical priority for me.
Some Members touched on the independent advice sector. I agree that Housing Rights and others are excellent organisations. That is why the Department funds them to do the work that they do. They are also involved in the engagement on any new legislation. Those are issues that we need to look at.
One thing is clear: the Housing Executive simply cannot afford to fund the investment that is required in its stock purely from rental income and the reserves. It can afford only about half the total investment needed, so the Housing Executive needs a substantial capital injection. From where should we take the funding required? We cannot just do it on a stand-alone basis or take it from the existing budget. Where do we take it from? Do you take it from hospitals? Do you take it from schools?
We need a broader approach to allowing the Housing Executive to borrow to invest. We need to look at the work that DOF is doing on a fiscal council and at how we raise finance. I would like to see a fiscal commission follow up on a broader piece of work looking at putting our public finances on a more substantial footing so that we are not just relying on a block grant from Westminster. You can cut that cake only in so many ways. Taking the funding from hospitals or schools would not be acceptable options, and there should be no question of doing that anyway.
We have a duty to secure the long-term financial sustainability of the Housing Executive. I know that all Members will agree that the threat of the loss of 40,000 homes is just not acceptable. We need to build more homes —.
You will all be glad to hear that I do not intend to go on for too long. I see that this place is slowly emptying: it must be the thought of me getting up to speak.
I thank all of the Members who took part in the debate today. There is unanimity around the House that we need to do something. I do not know what that something will look like, given the financial constraints that we have talked about, but doing nothing — Mark Durkan made this point — is not an option. Something has to be done.
I thank the proposer, Alex Easton. Anybody who knows Alex will know that he has raised this issue on many occasions over the past decade. It did not matter who the Minister was; it was raised. The Minister talked about the past two decades. So many programmes have been rolled out over the past two decades — window schemes, composite doors, boiler replacement, the warm homes scheme and installation for roofs — to help people living in Housing Executive accommodation. However — Sinéad made this really good point — none of those schemes addressed the root cause issue for many: the insulation of the cavity walls in our homes.
When I first became an MLA, one of my first house visits was to a flat in Rathcoole estate, where there was a young family who had brought their newborn baby girl home from hospital a couple of weeks previously and had asked me to come down. There, in that beautiful, little pink nursery, were damp spores all over the walls. A Housing Executive official who came with me was able to tell me that they had been drying clothes in that room and had not opened the windows, which is the usual story that we all hear. That official did not go outside to check the brickwork. They did not get anybody outside to check the guttering. They did not think of going up to the attic to check what the insulation was like. No tests at all took place, but he was fit and able to tell me that it was due to closed windows and drying clothes. How many more times will we, as elected representatives, hear that old chestnut? We know better; we know that that is not the case. We all own or live in homes. Some of us, from time to time, will have damp in our home and will know the reason why. Hearing that excuse time and again is not good enough.
My colleagues behind me both mentioned the 'Newtownabbey Times' article. One of our councillors — Councillor Ross — dealt with that. He had a fight on his hands to get an independent review and inspection done on houses in New Mossley. When an independent review and inspection was eventually done, it stated that there was most definitely a really bad case of damp in those houses. He is now working on that on behalf of William Humphrey and me in Skegoneill. Mark mentioned photographs that he had received and some of the horror stories that he had heard: we have all received them. I received photographs last week of a home where the damp was so bad that, when they lifted the carpet, which they had to lift, the cement floor of their home was black with mould spores. That was not just walls and ceilings; it was also the floor. Yet again, that was another household who were accused of drying their washing in the middle of their living room, which is something that does not happen too often.
As other Members have said — I know that Karen certainly brought it up, as did others — this is not just the Housing Executive; it covers so much more than that. We have big issues in our private rented sector. We have issues in our housing association sector. Joanne Bunting made the point that the Housing Executive is the keeper of standards. Therefore, it should set an example.
Various Members brought up health issues. Kellie Armstrong and Pam Cameron talked about health inequalities for people who live in such conditions. Other Members spoke about inequalities when it comes to other aspects of our life, including education, relationships and all of those things. As someone said, you want your home to be your sanctuary. For many, the home is the last place that they want to be because of the conditions. It is the last place that our young people want to bring their friends to because their house smells of damp and damp spores.
Ms Bunting mentioned the flats in Tullycarnet and the competition for the flats from hell. Every one of us in the Chamber could enter that competition from somewhere in our constituencies where those problems exist. I heard the Minister say that the costs for cavity wall insulation amounted to between £150 million and £175 million. Those are eye-watering, staggering figures, but we cannot do nothing. We have to do something. Many people who have lived in their homes for years have taken good care of them and take pride in them. For them, it is not a house; it is their home. We have a responsibility as their Government to make their home as comfortable as possible and to alleviate their health issues. We also need to do something about their fuel bills, which was mentioned earlier.
There have been lots of schemes over the years to replace this, that and the other, and it is great to have really efficient boiler systems, with a great composite front door and great windows. However, if you are spending many pounds every week trying to heat your house when the heat is just travelling out of the walls, it is a false economy for all those people who live in those homes.
I thank everybody for taking part in the debate. I have no doubt that we will be back to discuss the issue again in a couple of years' time. We need to start making the improvements in our housing stock really soon.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly recognises the serious issue of damp and mould existing in many Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) properties; expresses concern that this poses a substantive risk to the health and well-being of tenants and is a contributor to fuel poverty; highlights the need to examine the causes of damp and mould and identify viable solutions to resolve these issues; notes that particular consideration should be given to property cavity wall insulation; notes with regret the inability of the Housing Executive to address the situation thus far; and calls on the Minister for Communities to take firm action, finally, to resolve the issue of damp and mould within the current Housing Executive stock as a matter of urgency.
Adjourned at 6.07 pm.