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Delivering Genuinely Affordable Homes in Northern Ireland: Conference Report

Grainne Walsh speaks at Affordable Housing Conference

Housing Rights, in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Housing, held a conference on ‘Delivering genuinely affordable homes in Northern Ireland’ on Monday 14th October 2019 at the Skainos Centre in Belfast. Below, Policy Officer Kathleen Smyth summarises the thought-provoking presentations delivered on the day. 

Defining the problem

After a welcome and overview from Housing Rights’ Director Janet Hunter, and an introduction from the morning chair Professor Paddy Gray, the Department for Communities Acting Director of Housing Supply Policy David Polley provided an update on the definition of affordable housing consultation. The Department is currently reviewing the 23 consultation responses received as part of the consultation for an updated definition of affordable housing. David highlighted the increasing role which the private rented sector plays, making up 17% of housing tenure in Northern Ireland, and highlighted the need for a new consultation on the role and regulation of the PRS.

Download David Polley’s presentation

Following David Polley, Paul Hackett Director of the Smith Institute and Secretary for the Affordable Housing Commission presented an alternative approach to defining and measuring affordability based on research and an interim report published by the Commission in June this year. Paul gave an overview of the confused policy landscape and the myriad of measures which define and measure affordability in different ways but which ignore the problem. Paul suggested that the Department could take an alternative approach to defining and measuring affordable housing in Northern Ireland, and reiterated the need to factor in housing costs and household income.

Download Paul Hackett’s presentation

Setting a baseline

Section 2 of the conference began with an introduction from Joe Frey of CaCHE to the launch of Housing Rights’ research, ‘Falling Behind’ which explored the gap between Local Housing Allowance and the availability of affordable private rented accommodation in Northern Ireland. Housing Rights’ Research and Evaluation Officer, Dr Martina McAuley carried out the research and presented the key findings at the conference and highlighted that:

  • 90% of 

tenants in receipt of LHA experience a shortfall

  • All LHA rates in NI fell below the 30th percentile
  • Only 12% of advertised rental properties across NI are fully covered by LHA

Download Dr Martina McAuley’s presentation

Justin Cartwright, National Director of CIH Northern Ireland took to the stage to discuss the ‘Rethinking Social Housing’ Project and the policy recommendations which emerged from the project. The project involved a review of literature as well as group interviews with stakeholders and tenants. The key themes which emerged from research participants included creating security and stability for tenants, providing housing for people in need, and affordability. Justin explained that whilst the people involved in the research did not explore the definition of affordability, several responses highlighted the relationship between affordability and rent levels and state assistance.

Download Justin Cartwright’s presentation

Mark Graham, Chief Executive of Co-Ownership delivered a presentation on affordability in the owner occupied/mortgage sector. Mark discussed what homeownership means to people, the rise and fall of homeownership, as well as the household composition, incomes and age ranges of those who avail of Co-Ownership to get on the property ladder. Mark finished his presentation by stating that an effective housing system should provide homes which are affordable, sustainable, accessible, secure and of high quality.

Download Mark Graham’s presentation

Approaches elsewhere

Following lunch the afternoon chair Gráinne Walsh welcomed delegates back to the conference and introduced Steve Stride CEO of Poplar HARCA as the first speaker to present approaches elsewhere. Steve gave an overview of the geographic and demographic context of Poplar, a district in East London, and outlined the range of rent models offered by Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association). Steve spoke about the vast levels of regeneration taking place as a result of £2.5 billion leveraged investment, but also as a result of the success of the affordable rental models introduced and the transformative impact this has had on people and place.

Download Steve Stride’s presentation

Tom Barclay, Group Director of Property and Development at the Wheatley Group presented the Wheatley experience of Mid Market Rent in Scotland and discussed the interventions which have contributed to the success of MMR. Tom explained that the most influential factor in providing affordable housing in Scotland was that Affordable Housing was made a National Infrastructure Priority and that £3 billion was invested by Scottish Government to fund the delivery of 50,000 affordable homes. MMR has established itself as tenure of choice in Scotland and a high proportion of customers come from the PRS. Tom highlighted that MMR is popular with customers who value affordability, quality and security of tenure.

Download Tom Barclay’s presentation

Before the final section of the day, there was a panel discussion, which reflected on the opportunities and challenges for delivering affordable housing in Northern Ireland with a particular focus on target groups. Contributors to the panel included Hannah Russell from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Deborah Howe from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and Jon Anderson from Maple & May/Choice Housing. The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A session.

Adapting an NI specific approach

Karen Smyth, the Head of Policy and Governance at the Northern Ireland Local Government Association discussed the challenge for local government in planning for affordable housing. Karen gave an overview of current local government activity including the progress reports for Community Planning across the 11 councils which are due in November 2019, and also discussed the differing stages of the 11 local development plans. Karen discussed the importance of working across internal silos and with partners to deliver on the ground in order to meet need as well as to meet policy aspirations.

Download Karen Smyth’s presentation

The final presentation of the day was from Seán Cullen of the Belfast Housing Lab, who gave an insight into the design, development and trials undertaken by the Belfast Housing Lab with the aim of improving housing affordability and accessibility in Belfast. Seán provided examples of innovative affordable housing from Berlin, Sweden, York and Dublin, and discussed four ongoing trials in Belfast which focus on small living, matched savings, services and opportunities under one roof, as well as home-sharing.

Download Seán Cullen’s presentation