Landlords in NI cream £140 million in benefits…

Or rather other people’s benefits. Sinn Fein MLA Fra McCann has claimed that “people are being forced into the arms of an unregulated private sector”.

“The buy-to-let market has grown over this past number of years and the rents set by the private rented sector by far surpass that of the Housing Executive, which is also forcing people into debt. “A review needs to be carried out to look specifically at this sector and how they set their rents.”

But, Barry Corscadden, chairman of the Landlords’ Association in Northern Ireland, argues that rental levels are market led:

“I do believe that those people who are receiving Housing Benefit are choosing the private sector more and more because it offers more choice than the social sector.”

Ah… but which market? The rental, or the buy to let market? Maybe we just are on our way to a new relationship with property? But if public money is in question, perhaps regulation of responsibilities, as well as rights, might usefully be put on the table?

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  • Dessertspoon

    People should should NEVER have been able to buy their council houses/flats. Social Housing should be just that. Once you are in a position to afford to buy a property or to pay rent privately then you should move out of the council estates freeing up the properties for those who need them. If this were the case then we wouldn’t be spending so much Housing Benefit on private landlords. Who knows maybe even the buy to let profiteers wouldn’t have such a hold on the housing market and house prices wouldn’t be so ridiculously high.

  • circles

    What was that ball and man thing mick?
    FFS sort that out will ya – thoughs comments are more than beside the issue.

  • Mick Fealty

    Those comments were removed a good five minutes before your post appeared circles. Ball and man means what it says, no matter who breaches it!

  • ru

    Mick, the Belfast figure is actually ‘only’ £38.5m to private landlords. £140m is NI wide, with Belfast taking £55m in Housing Benefit of which 70% goes to private landlords.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sorry… trying to multitask… amended…

  • willis

    Not an area I know much about but I wonder if the description “Unregulated” is fair or accurate?

    Is the Housing Executive still the largest Landlord in Europe?

  • Crataegus

    Dessertspoon

    People should should NEVER have been able to buy their council houses/flats. Social Housing should be just that. Once you are in a position to afford to buy a property or to pay rent privately then you should move out of the council estates freeing up the properties for those who need them.

    I agree and as a result of a stupid policy we now have a shortage of social housing.

    Also in many areas landlords would prefer not to have tenants on benefit. Many take the view that on average they are more trouble than they are worth. Given the choice between a young couple who work and a young couple who don’t which would you chose?

    As for bringing house prices down, buy to let just does not make sense at present so only lunatics are investing in it. I still maintain there is a shortage of housing particularly at the lower end of the market. You don’t get much for £160000 and many can’t afford any more, hence the demand for crap apartments.

    There should be some minimum space standards for the apartments being built. We worry about disabled access but in some you couldn’t turn a wheel chair in the living room once you get it in. It is really sick to have wide stairs and corridors for disabled access on one hand and tiny rooms to live in. The disabled visitor is more important than those that have to live there. We are building tenements the slums of tomorrow. We need regulation on minimum sizes of rooms ASAP!!!!!!!!

  • Fra McCann has a proven track record here. Back on 21 May he raised the topic of empty properties on Private Members’ business.

    The gist of that was to show a reservoir of available and empty properties across Northern Ireland. McCann had some specific figures:
    South Belfast … 2,350; north Belfast has 1,200 empty properties; there are 810 in east Belfast; and 520 empty dwellings in west Belfast. In Lisburn, 1,460 dwellings are empty; in Derry the total is 1,800.

    He also showed that the figure is historic and seemingly worsening:
    In 1991, more than 31,000 homes lay empty; in 1996, the figure was more than 33,000; in 2006, the total stood at 38,000 — those are the most recent figures.

    Alban Maguinness pointed out that bringing the NI vacancy percentage (5.4%) down to the UK average (3%) would bring something like 16,000 properties back into use.

    The SF solution (compulsory purchase) seems excessively brutal, and would be quite prolonged. The essential problem is one of contract management by the Housing Executive (for the public sector) and disincentives for hoarding (in the private sector).

    Anyone know what’s the state of play on the Semple Report? As I understand the thing, the approach recommended was “carrot and stick”. To me, this story looks all carrot.

  • Crataegus

    Malcolm

    Many of the empty houses are in fact owned by government departments or agencies. A good example of this is Tigers Bay area of N Belfast or areas that are being vested. Also some should look at the land bank of the various government bodies including the small parcels. I would be only too glad to assist for a small consideration, usual terms. You would be surprised what I could accrue for the good of NI (of course) on those neglected corners. The problem is that government departments don’t think like developers, they don’t see potential added value.

  • Crataegus @ 12:42 PM:

    Precisely: I take that as agreeing with the essential points that McCann is pressing.

    I know that one of Gordon Brown’s measures at the Exchequer was to require Departments to search out such vacant land and look for redevelopment. I don’t think this was merely an empty gesture at off-setting expenditure. I presume that the same exercise must have applied across NI. If so, the information you imply must already be to hand.

    However, it ought to be easier and quicker to bring into use vacant properties, than to develop on void sites. Then, are those potential sites “grey” land or “white”? (I assume those terms are still in use). If it’s “white land”, there are planning procedures to slow things down.

    I’m not au-fait with the present state of affairs in Tigers Bay. As I recall, the Housing Executive had a small song-and-dance session about environmental improvements, some three years back.

  • Insider

    I am sure I heard Fra McCann saying something about DSD and the Housing Executive having £1 billion of land assests on GMU this morning – although I don’t know if this is unused land or all land/buildings in total.

    Only a while back the DARD minister agreed to sell off a big site to get the money for farmers (can’t remember what for). What is wrong with DSD using some of the land to either build social housing on or to bargin with some of the big developers to create more social and affordable housing.

    I also reckon that it is probably time for some type of rent regulation. I remember back when Thatcher abolished the old rent councils thinking that it would lead to profiteering and housing crisis.

    Not sure about stopping the sale of social housing though – surely this allows people to accumulate some equity – which given the crap state of pensions (especially state pensions) is a good thing. Perhaps the problem is not putting the money raised from the sale of HE properties back into creating new stock.

  • Dessertspoon

    Insider – I suppose if the homes were sold at their market value you could re-invest but they are often sold at large discounts. I just don’t agree with any social housing being sold off at all, it just goes against the ethos of providing it in the first place. Not selling social housing may not solve the problem but it I think it would go a long way towards alleviating it.

  • Crataegus

    Malcolm

    I am a developer so I am by nature a vulture. You would really need someone like me to look at holdings. Civil servants just don’t have the right outlook and don’t realise what may have value.

    Tiger’s bay, is an area I am not that familiar with myself, but was looking round it a year or two ago. It is full of relatively new boarded up houses and there are whole streets that were being vested around the Grove baths. Hundreds of houses.

    There are a number of problems, inherent to the system. The first is the planning service; it is painfully slow and increasingly difficult in a pointless clerical sense.

    Also the whole approval process has become complex and fragmented to no one’s advantage.

    Someone needs to sort the mess out. It is costing the local economy a fortune. I now mainly work abroad, I don’t see why I should put up with nonsense and petty officialdom. I don’t mind people who have valid points, or procedures that result in better safety or a better design, but some of it in NI verges on the surreal and is utterly inconsistent.

    The planning service really do need to appreciate that they are not just dealing with applications for extensions to businesses and dwellings and new developments but people’s livelihood. Some people are borrowing large sums to develop and if the application sits around it is costing them a fortune in interest. Planning Service is causing the local economy massive costs due to inefficiency. It is an utter disgrace.

  • Crataegus @ 02:00 PM:

    I feel your pain (no, I’m not totally cynical).

    The truth is there are large areas of NI towns crying out for sympathetic renewal: and I, albeit a dyed-in-the-wool bolshie, wouldn’t trust any public corporation near such a task. We’ve lost enough heritage to bomb, bull-dozer and blight already.

    I reckon that the present Administration would be much more positive, more open to the private sector mucking in than the dead-Whitehall-hand nonsense of recent years. Which is why, despite the daft SF policy commitment to “compulsory purchase”, I’m cheering for McCann and those of all parties who sing from similar song sheets.

  • Crataegus

    Malcolm

    The people you really need to hit are
    1 The people who buy and sit on a property in the hope it will go up in price. Perhaps time to think of allocating a high rateable value to empty housing stock in private and public ownership.
    2 The people who let sub standard flats. There is legislation but it could be used more effectively.

    Sometime buildings can sit empty for a considerable time because, planning delays, legal reasons, people trying to acquire an adjoining property and others holding out in the belief they can hold a development to ransom and so on. So not all empty property is available most of it is in the process of changing ownership or awaiting development.

    Basically we need to build more social housing.

  • Crataegus @ 03:55 PM:

    This is very worrying: again I totally concur.

    McCann and other speakers in that Private Members’ Business debate (to which I referred in posting no. 8 @ 12:27 PM, above) made similar points.

    Margaret Ritchie, replying as Minister, argued that only 5,000 social-housing properties were unoccupied, and accounted for them thus:
    * Over half of these undergoing major repairs, improvements or being used for decanting – that is to say being temporarily occupied by families while their own social homes are being renovated. Gone are the days when such families would be put up in caravans instead – and rightly so.
    * Around 700 are vacant due to their locations,
    * About 1000 are earmarked for resale for development purposes or demolition.
    * That leaves only about 300 are actually available for immediate re-let.

    I fail to understand, in that reply, how a property can be simultaneously “unoccupied” and “temporarily occupied” by decanting.

    She, like you, identified the “buy to sit” private speculation as a more significant factor:

    There are a number of laws available to the Housing Executive to intervene where domestic property is unoccupied or, where due to deterioration, property is likely to become and remain vacant. There are powers to allow the Housing Executive to vest land and dwellings for housing purposes. This has been extensively used to facilitate large scale redevelopment and regeneration where areas of poor housing stock were concentrated.
    There are also powers to secure those vacant dwellings in the private sector which are causing a nuisance or damage to adjoining occupied properties and to encourage owners to bring properties in disrepair back into use. Assistance can be provided to owners through the Private Sector Grants Scheme to improve existing dwellings and bring back into use vacant stock.
    The law also gives powers to the Housing Executive to acquire land and dwellings and pay compensation to the owner and or occupier. But significantly, none of the provisions outlined provide the Housing Executive with powers to bring empty private sector dwellings back into use.

    Again, that reads like Civil Service boilerplate language: I have no way of ascertaining whether she overstates the amount of intervention going on.

    The one void in her reply is that final sentence. I don’t see much traction in the SF argument of compulsory purchase. What little experience I have of CP tells me it is a damnably long and tortuous process. On the other hand, racking the rates for unoccupied property (after, say, six months) would be cleaner and quicker. Something similar might be introduced for second homes, if we really want to be spiteful (and why not?).

  • Crataegus

    Second homes sometimes are necessary, tax may reduce the number, but you may find that the second homes are located in areas where there may not be a high demand for social housing and that these homes are essential for the local tourist based economy.

    The question of second homes is a difficult one. I quite like to see families going down to the cottage or caravan for the weekend. If it wasn’t for some of these second home owners many of the places may well be ruins.

    On the other hand it does seem more than a little off that someone from say London looking for a weekend hide away can out bit a local in Cornwall looking for somewhere to raise the family. Not sure how you would solve that one.

    I must confess I have access to a number of homes, I have one in London that I need for business others that are left in trust and with all sorts of complications. But they are all occupied. I don’t leave buildings empty if it can be avoided. Empty buildings seldom make sense.

    Putting up the tax I pay wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to me, but it may to others. The question still remains will it solve the problem? I doubt it.

    Need to build more houses in areas where there is a demand.

    There is another side to this and that is people thinking they are unable to help themselves. I would like to see more cooperatives set up with a view to aiding self build. If you can get 20 people together that can each raise £150000 that is 3 million. Buy a site and get on with it. I would prefer this sort of approach than the begrudging one.

  • Crataegus @ 05:43 PM:

    I quite like to see families going down to the cottage or caravan for the weekend. If it wasn’t for some of these second home owners many of the places may well be ruins.

    Lucky old you. I was born and brought up in one of those places. They are indeed part-time “ruins” and weekday deserts, all beautifully painted and furnished, no doubt in the best taste.

    All that is missing is real folk from Sunday evening to late Friday.

    Meanwhile the children and grandchildren of the people who used to live there are priced out.

    Compare that with the creative attitude of the Highlands and Islands Council who financed broad-band, long before it became commonplace; and grew and attracted small firms and e-commerce: with all that — repopulation. And what did the coast of Ireland, north and south get? The breeze-block bungalow.

    We are living through a second great migration to urban areas. The first, the industrial revolution, was caused by technological change and the lure of work. Engels described the results of that, from personal observation of Manchester in 1844. This time it is at least as sad, because we are corralling people into out-of-town “developments” which are soulless and based purely on the evening before the tv screen, and from which (not to which) people have to travel to seek remunerated employment.

    One of the sadder experiences of my recent experience was an enforced stay in Portrush, in February. This is a town which may have outlived any respectable function. Anything attractive and with a sea-view is being ripped down and rebuilt as a Costa Geriatrica or a weekend “hideaway”. Behind that is a developing wasteland of take-aways and thrift shops.

    Sorry, I’m looking for something nobler, more honest, more worthy.

  • Crataegus

    I’m all for strategies for developing the regions and small towns, but would Portrush be any better without tourists? A cemetery 12 month a year?

    Maybe I am a bit odd but I like tourist towns outside season.

    I think the development around our seaside towns could be a lot better but that is a subject in itself.

    The reason why I like to see families going to their caravans and cottages at the weekends is the children they love it and they are not all wealthy. Caravans and camp sites are great. Good outdoor fun.

  • cynic

    “Landlords in NI cream £140 million in benefits…
    Or rather other people’s benefits.”

    Or rather Landlords provide a socially useful service to tenants who would otherwise be homeless now that the state has reduced its involvement in the housing sector.

    Isnt it odd to get benefits to provide housing and then complain that its paid direct to landlords to pay for the housing it was meant to pay for?