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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

The importance of an independent, tenure-neutral housing advice service for NI

The Department for Communities (The Department) within their recent consultation- “A Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations” ask for views on a proposal to have an independent, tenure-neutral housing advice service for Northern Ireland (NI).

What are the Department proposing?

In their publication, The Department state that there should be an independent, tenure neutral housing advice service for NI, which should be open to all adults, including those whose immigration status or history of antisocial behaviour does not allow them to apply for a social home, and to anyone who requires advice on private housing.

The Department propose that the service should offer tailored advice to help individuals and households meet their specific housing need and find or keep suitable accommodation in any tenure. It should provide clear information to help people understand their housing options and the implications of the choices they might make. The service could help clients to:

  • Apply for a social home
  • Look for private rented accommodation;
  • Get support to stay where they are (whether rented or owned);
  • Consider co-ownership; or
  • Consider full home ownership.

The service should also be accessible to individuals who are vulnerable through disability, long-term illness, mental health issues or lack of competency in English. Provisions should be in place to ensure client privacy and confidentiality.

The Department ask for views on whether a single organisation should be the main provider of this service or whether it could be carried out by a number of organisations (statutory and non-statutory) who commit to a standardised level of service.

It is highlighted by the Department that this advice service is a critical component of the service government provides and the effectiveness of a number of the other proposals within the Review. 

At present, individuals in NI seeking advice on their housing options have a number of options open to them.

Housing Rights

We are the leading provider of specialist housing advice services, providing independent specialised advice and advocacy on the entire spectrum of housing issues, on a tenure- neutral basis. We also have a Community Housing Advice Project (CHAP) which ensures that this high level specialised assistance is available to everyone who needs it across NI, on a consistent basis. Furthermore, Housing Rights holds the legal quality assurance certification “Lexcel” which recognises the quality in relation to legal practice management standards such as file management, client care and confidentiality.

In addition, other advice agencies and indeed private solicitors offer housing advice throughout NI. 

Northern Ireland Housing Executive

The NIHE have also been implementing a “Housing Solutions” service in certain areas. In these areas their “Housing Solutions and Support Teams” (HSST) work with individuals who contact NIHE regarding a housing problem, to provide housing advice, guidance, prospects and support service to help them find a solution. This service is provided in tandem with NIHE’s statutory duties, under homelessness legislation and the HSS and is not an alternative to an individual’s legal rights. The HSST will engage with individuals and a range of statutory and voluntary agencies.

Housing Rights View

Housing Rights strongly agrees that there is a need for a model which provides independent, tenure- neutral housing advice service for NI.

It is our experience that often individuals do not have the information they need regarding their specific housing rights and options; for example they may not know the avenues of redress open to them in order to challenge a housing decision, they do not know ways in which they can sustain their tenancy or the financial assistance open to them. We believe in order for an individual to make informed housing choices, it is crucial that they receive independent, specialised and timely housing advice. Housing Rights support the need for a service that provides housing advice for NI which is both independent and tenure–neutral and as such wish to explore this concept in more detail and highlight some of the key components which must form a part of any such service.


Black’s Law Dictionary defines independence asNot dependent, not subject to control, restriction, modification, or limitation from a given outside source”. Housing Rights assert that these principles should be at the cornerstone of any housing advice service. It is essential that the advice service “stands alone” and that the advice given is not constrained in any way.

We have some reservations with the parallels being drawn in the Review between a proposed advice service and NIHE’s “Housing Solutions” pilot. While the ‘Housing Solutions’ model has worked well in other jurisdictions, the evaluation report of the NI Pilot is still pending; we would welcome information from the Department. Housing Rights would suggest that ‘Housing Solutions’, in isolation, cannot be said to achieve the intention of this proposal.

It is our experience that often clients are making contact to seek assistance with making a formal complaint against their social landlord, or wishing to formally challenge their negative decision. Housing Rights believe that providing independent advice of this nature, would be difficult for “Housing Solutions”, if they are both the adviser and the landlord. Indeed, we believe that the public may not perceive this as “independent” advice; they may believe that their advice is being constrained in some way. In order for this to be an effective service, public confidence is essential. Housing Rights believe that in order for there to be a fruitful independent, tenure-neutral housing advice service, it must be seen as a truly independent service that can hold housing providers accountable for their decision making without any qualifications.

Level of advice

We wish to seek clarity from The Department with regards the level of advice they envisage this service to provide.

Currently, under Housing (Amendment) Act (NI) 2010, NIHE have a duty to secure that advice about homelessness and the prevention of homelessness, is available free of charge to any person in NI. Subsequent Homeless Persons Advice and Assistance Regulations (NI) 2011 and ‘Homeless persons – duty to provide advice and assistance” guidance issued by the Department specify the nature of this advice. While indeed it is clear that this advice is to be comprehensive, this advice is on the “lower tier” of advice. Advice can be seen to encompass several levels: from signposting to legal challenge. Housing Rights strongly believe that any advice service should be able to deliver the entire spectrum of advice. The scope to challenge a housing provider should be at the cornerstone of any housing advice service. Housing Providers and other statutory agencies should be able to be held accountable for their decision making.

A Suggested Model

We recommend that a hybrid model is considered for this service. The advice service could encompass a number of bodies, that can work together to ensure that comprehensive independent tenure-neutral housing advice is available. This service should include avenues of legal challenge and independence should be at the heart of this. In addition any service should be a standardised service and have external peer review; quality assurance is essential. Indeed, The Promoting Social Inclusion (PSI) in their 2013 Report states that

“…One of the recurring concerns about the development of Hubs was the lack of central guidance which led to criticisms of a lack of uniformity in standards, inconsistency, inadequate monitoring and difficulties in benchmarking. No strategic objectives had been produced by the Scottish Government and little guidance was offered to individual Hubs or to local authorities on how services could be redesigned to operate the Housing Options model…. If Housing Options is to be introduced in NI it is our view that a framework should be produced clearly setting out standards, policy, and procedures… There is evidence that good case management standards from initial contact right through to case closure is crucial in helping households in order to achieve a successful outcome…”

Read our full response to The Department for Communities consultation- “A Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations”

Tagged In

Policy, Opinion


Sarah Corrigan

This article was written on 21 December 2017. 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.