First Minister goes into oppositional mode over SPED case…

With that three year long budget now stretching to breaking point, there’s a full scale row going on between the First Minister and his one SDLP minister, Margaret Ritchie over the latter’s refusal to fund the rehousing of a police officer and his family. Noel McAdam has the latest:

“I am outraged that this matter has not been dealt with expeditiously. Margaret knows very well that colleagues have never failed to deal with emergency situations. The people faced with these emergency circumstances should not be used a pawns in a political push for wider Departmental funds.”

Ms Ritchie said she totally agreed. but her bid for an additional £5m for SPED in the June monitoring round was refused. “I have not sought publicity regarding this. However, I find myself having to respond to media statements made by Ian Paisley jnr, Simon Hamilton, Sammy Wilson and now Peter Robinson who have all raised the matter in the media,” she said.

“If the Finance Minister or the First Minister are prepared to guarantee that they will find the funds later, I will borrow these funds from the maintenance budget in the short term to help those people affected. Yesterday the First Minister said some positive things about an inclusive approach to government. It is disappointing that government ministers are pursuing the SPED issue across the airwaves.”

It perfectly exposes the problem with a mandatory coalition. On Tuesday at Evolve, the First Minister noted:

Some have argued that the SDLP and UUP’s present “opposition mode” in the Executive is tactical and cynical. However, both parties say they want to make a full contribution to the Executive’s work.

It’s not difficult to see why the First Minister would go on a full blown attack over such an emotive issue. But it is also putting himself into that same ‘oppositional mode’ he’s accused his junior executive members of adopting themselves…

The same economic pressures which are straining the overall budget are playing merry hell with DSD’s SPED’s capacity to fulfil increased demand of the last few months:

The police were unable to provide details of how many officers had sought to be rehoused. But officials say in recent months the targeting of police officers’ homes has been stepped up, as dissident republicans seek to force a hardline security response and in that way embarrass Sinn Féin, which now supports the police.

In a rising property market, the minister would normally be able to fund the purchase of new houses by selling the homes the police officers had vacated. In 2006 the Northern Ireland housing executive, which handles all public housing in the province, sold 2,201 houses, typically to their occupiers. That raised £100m. Last year 54 houses were sold, raising just £4m.

Under the special purchase of evacuated dwellings scheme, the minister has so far this year bought eight houses at a cost of £1.5m, yet there are 61 applications being processed – and not all those who apply are police officers.

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  • Jo

    This is a bit past the post isn’t it?

  • Mick Fealty

    You want the five minute argument or the two and a half hour argument?

  • Jo

    There is no longer “a full scale row” – albeit that the cracks are papered over somewhat.

    Nothing ideological – despite wishful thinking – it is seasonal cantankerousness. Not an unfamiliar concept? 🙂

  • Big Maggie

    Did Sammy capitulate? I watched the pair on the 10 o’clock news last night. But all’s well that ends well and the policeman and his family can rest easy.

    Wonder what the next acrimonious spat will be about.

  • fin

    not relevant to the cops needing to move but the figures don’t add up or possibly my math is wrong.

    “In a rising property market, the minister would normally be able to fund the purchase of new houses by selling the homes the police officers had vacated. In 2006 the Northern Ireland housing executive, which handles all public housing in the province, sold 2,201 houses, typically to their occupiers. That raised £100m. Last year 54 houses were sold, raising just £4m.”

    Where people buying houses in 2006 at the top of the housing boom for less 45k each?

    Where people buying houses at the bottom(ish) of the market in 2008 for 80k each

    2008 was a better year for Ritchie she doubled her money on sales

    incidently unless you’re Sarah Beany buying and selling at the top or bottom of the market cancels itself out for obvious reasons.

    A suggestion for Ritchie is to contact NAMA and ask if they have any properties for sale in NI

  • Ian

    Brian Feeney’s column from last week was pertinent to this:

    Time to produce a policy to fulfil our housing needs

    By Brian Feeney The Wednesday Column
    02/09/2009

    Social housing policy in the north is in a mess. Unfortunately no one discusses it. Instead, money for housing has become the political Frisbee which the combative housing minister Margaret Ritchie tosses at the DUP and they toss back at her with added spin.

    She complains she’s not getting enough money for housing – the DUP retort she’s not spending the money the executive gives her department.

    It’s the usual ya-boo sucks stuff that goes on between and within the two unionist and nationalist blocs.

    There’s no way Sinn Fein is going to allow Margaret Ritchie to be a success in housing any more than either the DUP or SF is going to allow one of the minor so-called ‘partners’ in the administration to get her own way.

    Sounds like realpolitik and it is.

    It all begs the real question which is housing policy.

    That policy hasn’t changed in any essential since Lady Hacksaw established it exactly 30 years ago.

    It’s quite simple and quite disastrous in the long-term. Instead of providing cash for social housing the Conservatives immediately passed legislation allowing any tenant of a council house or here, a Housing Executive property, to buy it at a knock-down price.

    The money from these sales would be used to build new social housing.

    As time went on the only money available for social housing came from sales of social housing.

    It doesn’t take a genius to work out that at some time most of the houses worth buying would be bought and there’d be no money coming in from sales.

    That time was delayed by 100 per cent mortgages and a couple of housing booms in the 1980s and in the last decade. Now it has happened.

    A couple of years ago the Housing Executive was selling over 2,000 houses – in 2007-8 it was 808.

    Last year it was, wait for it, 54. Rather than an expected income of £95 million, the figure was £10 million.

    The Housing Executive estimates the north needs about 3,000 new houses a year. With the bits of extra cash allocated from infighting at Stormont there will be a shortfall of at least 2,000 in the next two years. Meanwhile the waiting list continues to grow. It now stands at 40,000. Hmm. Bit of a gap there as you see.

    If the money available for building new houses continues to fall and 85 per cent of the demand for housing is met by re-lets of social housing and the number of re-lets is falling and the waiting list continues to rise steadily, how many years will it be before a Catholic family in north Belfast gets a house? Maybe a suitable question for the 11-plus selection test the unionists favour so much?

    The answer self-evidently is never.

    There’s another aspect to the problem. The Housing Executive no longer builds houses, hasn’t done since 2003.

    That’s the role of the 34 housing associations in the north. Not all of them have access to land they can buy for housing let alone the money to pay for it.

    There are also planning considerations for new developments which delay progress for years.

    Paul Krugman, last year’s winner of the Nobel prize for economics, says we’re living in the second age of Keynes, by which he means governments should be spending to promote employment.

    When there is demonstrable and growing need for social housing in the north and when there is rising unemployment which implies an increase in re-possessions there’s one economic arena in which the Stormont executive can make a difference and that’s housing.

    It’s long past time to take a look at the whole policy on housing which the Conservatives brought in 30 years ago. It was driven by ideology and fuelled by greed.

    It is blindingly obvious that you can’t tie the provision of social housing to the sales of social housing.

    After all, everyone can’t be an owner-occupier.

    Only 66 per cent of people in the north are.

    Its inevitable sales will dry up as they have done and that means there can’t be any new social housing.

    Bickering over the amount of money allocated to a department is a distraction.

    It’s time to produce a policy to fulfil housing need.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks Ian.

    That’s as perfect a demonstration of the stasis at the heart of government as any. The gambit from SF’s pov seems to be that it damages everyone else stature more than it does theirs.

    The sunset on Policing and Justice is 2012. Do you think the stasis Robinson’s complaining about will go that length?

    PS, A bit of concision would help when you are quoting someone else’s written work.

  • Ian

    Sorry Mick, a bit naughty I know. Irish News articles are available for non-subscribers to read for a week after publication (i.e until Wednesday past in this case), so I would have just posted the link had you blogged on the subject a couple of days earlier – the story about the police officer ‘left in limbo’ having been around since Monday: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8242549.stm