Empty

Total: £0.00

 Mailing ListTwitterFacebook  YouTube

When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Minister delivers "once-in-a generation" statement on housing policy in Northern Ireland

Minister Carál Ní Chuilín outlined her plans for housing in Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 4 November. The statement was described by Assembly colleagues as visionary, radical and ambitious. The intentions announced in the statement will make monumental change to housing policy in Northern Ireland, and will have a huge impact on people dealing with poor housing and homelessness. 

Redesignating the Housing Executive

The Housing Executive's future has been a focus for many years. Financial pressures have pushed the body to the brink. A leaked letter from then Department for Communities permanent secretary suggested that approximately half of Housing Executive (NIHE) stock would be decomissioned without urgent investment in the organisation. Amongst the financial difficulties faced by NIHE are an annual corporation tax bill of more than £7million and significant historic debt. The New Decade New Approach deal agreed a commitment to examine options to remove this debt and liability for corporation tax from NIHE, and Minister Ní Chuilín sees this work as an important contribution to her plans to revitalise housing in Northern Ireland. 

The Minister stated that she is considering options to revitalise NIHE as a mutual or co-operative. It is believed that designating the organisation thusly would allow NIHE to borrow money, enabling it to invest in stock again.

I am looking at a mutual or a cooperative in designation, because the Housing Executive as it is currently configured cannot borrow money. In order to do that and to protect the 85,000 homes, let alone look at our maintenance budget and our much-needed adaptations, we need to give it the freedom and flexibility to be able to borrow money, including FTC. We also need to do that to make the Housing Executive exempt from corporation tax and to try to get its historical debt written off. There will be no threat to any public accountability. People will not even notice any difference. In my opinion, this also protects for the future the jobs of Housing Executive staff who currently work on the landlord side. This is what we need to do. We need to protect our public services, but, even more so, we need to protect our social housing stock, which 85,000 tenants live in.

Other plans for NIHE include a commitment that the regional authority will remain accountable to a publicly appointed board and under the oversight of an Executive Minister, and end to the right to buy for NIHE tenants and a rent review to ensure that NIHE rents remain "the lowest social rents in these islands". The Minister anticipates returning to the Executive with proposals before the end of 2021/2022.

Returning to the review of housing allocations

Later this year, the Minister will publish a report of the 2017 consultation “The Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations”, and an accompanying action plan. The Minister proposes acting on all but 2 of the proposals contained in this review. The Minister will not remove intimidation points from the selection scheme, but commits to broadening their application to include victims of domestic abuse and other types of trauma; and to strenthening the verification process, including considering creation of a new statutory authority to oversee verification of these points. 

The Minister has also that she will not abolish interim accommodation points, as per recommendations in the fundamental review. Instead, she proposes reviewing these points to ensure that persons living in insecure housing arrangements, such as those who are sofa-surfing, have their housing need recognised in the same way as people who have been placed in temporary accommodation by NIHE in pursuance of their statutory duties under the Housing (NI) Order 1988. 

It is concerning that amongst the other proposals contained in the fundamental review are plans to allow NIHE to discharge its housing duty to homeless households with an offer of a 12 month tenancy in the private rented sector. Rachel Woods, MLA, questioned the Minister on this contentious proposal. In response, the Minister stated that she is looking at this proposal, and recognised that "for a lot of people — in fact, for everyone — a year is too short."

Changes in the private rented sector

Drawing attention to the particular issues faced by private renters in Northern Ireland, the Minister committed to ensuring change in this sector. 

There are twice as many families with children in private rentals than in social housing. They can be asked to leave within 4 weeks. Imagine the stress if that happened to you.

Amongst the Minister's stated intentions are:

  • plans to review the minimum notice period for private tenants
  • consideration of grounds for eviction
  • consideration of fair rent requirements within the rented sector
  • regulation of letting agents

When questioned about the continued charging of fees by letting agents operating in the private rented sector, the Minister committed to looking at that issue. 

We also need to ensure that the systems, intermediate rent homes and mediation that we need are in place so that people are clear about what is available to them and what support they have.

Housing Rights is excited to work with the Minister, the Department for Communities and colleagues across the housing sector on these plans. We hope that the views and experiences of renters, such as those engaged in our Renters' Voice project, will be at the heart of plans to improve the private rented sector for everybody who needs it. 

Homelessness

Importantly, the Minister stated an intention to prioritise action to improve the response to homelessness in parallel with all the other intentions set out in her statement. Northern Ireland's response to homelessness, particularly street homelessness and rough sleeping, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis has been rightly praised. Future homelessness policy will "build on lessons learned from how we dealt with the COVID-19 crisis". The Minister advised that an interdepartmental homelessness action plan will be rolled out to help achieve this. 

Tagged In

Private Tenancies, Policy
This article was written on 4 November 2020. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.