Empty Homes Strategy and Action Plan 2013-2018

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 30 November 2021.

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Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00, 30 November 2021

2. Mr McNulty asked the Minister for Communities for her assessment of the effectiveness of the empty homes strategy and action plan 2013-2018. (AQO 2823/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

As the Member will be aware, the Department's empty homes strategy was in place from 2013 to 2018. A review of that strategy was completed and published on the Department's website earlier this year. The house condition survey indicated that, overall, the number of empty homes fell from about 55,000 in 2006 to 29,000 in 2016.

As a result of that work, we are much better informed about the complexities of the issue and the reasons why so many properties appear to be vacant. We have learned, for example, that the data provided by Land and Property Services (LPS) does not contain any information on whether the vacant domestic properties that are held in private ownership have basic services or are even in a habitable state.

A significant portion of such properties are located in rural areas, where housing need is lower, and very few are in areas where housing need is greatest. Approximately one in five of the LPS-registered properties is brought back into use relatively quickly, and a similar number are held in the registered ownership of solicitors, indicating ongoing title or other legal issues. We also learned how much effort is required to bring individual empty homes back into use.

Given those findings, it is clear that there is limited opportunity for the Department to take effective action that would have a meaningful impact on reducing housing stress or provide a social home to those who need it most. It is important, therefore, that we look beyond the headline figures to clearly understand the full picture, rather than oversimplifying the matter on the basis of figures alone.

I appreciate that there are benefits in bringing vacant properties back into use, and I will continue to explore the most appropriate options to do so.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answer. Some 1,520 homes are lying empty across Newry and Armagh while 1,676 social housing applicants are in dire need of a roof over their head. Bringing those empty homes back into use would nearly eradicate housing stress in my constituency. I also highlight housing issues in my neighbouring constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the place where the great housing champion Austin Currie grew up and that he represented, where 2,084 homes —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I ask the Member to move on to a question.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

— are empty. That is the worst number in the North. People are trapped in a cycle of homelessness. Bear with me for one second, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

No. I am sorry, but you need to need to move on to a question, Mr McNulty.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

People are trapped in a cycle of homelessness while homes lie empty. It is not good enough. What specific actions does the Minister intend to take to tackle that crucial issue?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Before the Minister answers that question, I remind Members that there is a queue of Members waiting to ask questions. Their names are on the list of questioners. Already this afternoon, two or three Members have overstepped the mark, and that is a growing trend. I advise Members that we will cut down on it. When you are called, out of respect for other Members who are waiting in a queue to be called, get to a question.

Fair is fair, and I try to give latitude to as many Members as I possibly can, but people are making long speeches, and it is getting a wee bit out of control. I do not want to cut into the flow of Members' statements or questions, but there is a balance to be struck. Members need to move quickly to a question, and Ministers should keep their response to two minutes.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

As I said, the strategy that was rolled out had limited success in dealing with those who were in housing stress. We know that the areas where the number of empty homes was high were not the areas of highest need. We also know that it is not as straightforward as saying, "There is an empty home". There are legal issues. It is not simply a case of taking a house and turning it into a social home. We found that empty properties did not turn into homes in the numbers that we would have liked to see. <BR/>That is not the only way, however, and we should not put all our eggs in one basket.

We are developing a housing supply strategy.

Earlier this year, recognising the housing crisis that we are in, the Department issued a call for evidence to look at the supply of homes and what we need to do in order to build more. The Housing Executive's revitalisation agenda is a crucial part of that. It will ensure that we maintain the stock that we have and also allow the Housing Executive to start building again. The housing supply strategy will go out to consultation just before Christmas. It will clearly set out our ambitions for the number of homes that we can build over the next period. It will particularly target the areas of highest need, such as Newry and Armagh, Foyle, North Belfast and West Belfast. It is part of a wider strategy, and we will continue to keep it under review. There is much more beyond the strategy that we need to be doing.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 2:15, 30 November 2021

Minister, do you have any plans to provide funding to support buy-to-rent in order to address some of the housing shortfall?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We are looking at intermediate rent and stuff at the moment. We have put more money into co-ownership as well. We are in the midst of Budget discussions at the moment and are looking at our budget over the next three years. Housing needs to be a critical part of those discussions in order to address the shortage in our social stock. Trying to improve the terms and conditions and the standards in our private rented sector will be crucial as well. We continue to keep all the options under review. I cannot give a commitment about the budget until those discussions have concluded.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

My question has already been touched on. I think that most Members will agree that it is very difficult for many young people and families who are struggling to secure a decent, fit-for-purpose home to see premises lying dormant. Will the Minister detail what action she is taking to increase the provision of social housing and deal with empty homes?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The Housing Executive maintains an empty homes information page on its website. It is about encouraging owners to sell the properties or to bring them back into use. I have asked the Housing Executive to bring forward proposals to look at what we can do to increase significantly the supply of social housing. We have received some initial proposals, which we are working through. I will inform the House once we have come to a conclusion.

One critical issue is land availability. I am working to identify surplus land that can be used for social housing development. Indeed, I have encouraged local housing associations to identify and secure sites. Part of that is about working with the Department for Infrastructure, Land and Property Services and other Departments to identify public land that is available. As I have said previously, it is also about working with local government to look at strategic site assessments to identify, as part of councils' local development plans, sites for social and affordable housing. Some councils have started doing strategic site assessments. We are keen to see all 11 councils do the same thing.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

Minister, in the October monitoring round, your colleague the Finance Minister highlighted £66·7 million of unallocated financial transactions capital funding. Are any proposals under consideration by your Department to further leverage that funding?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We have drawn down additional moneys over the past period for co-ownership. We made sure that we secured that within this financial year. We continue to keep all the options under review. We have drawn down financial transactions capital for those schemes. There will be another monitoring round just after Christmas. I have not yet had an update from officials on proposals, but, if we can deliver a scheme within the time period, we will do so. We proactively set out to do that, so we will keep it under review, and I will update the Member in due course.