Home Truths: A coherent case for investing in more social housing

It’s been fifty years since the establishment of the Housing Executive in 1971. Here, the organisation’s current Chairman, Professor Peter Roberts, delivers some home truths on social housing, arguing a partnership for change must be established to open the gates to a more positive future for housing in Northern Ireland.

Over the past eight months, since Minister Ní Chuilín’s ambitious announcement on the future of housing and Minister Hargey’s commitment to the revitalisation of the Housing Executive, I’ve been asked many times why the provision of sufficient housing is not considered and acted upon in the same way as investment in health and education.

It’s a familiar dilemma in decision making in public policy, especially when governments are confronted with limited budgets and competing priorities.

Simply, while it is almost impossible to refuse admission to A&E or to deny the statutory right of a child to attend a school, it’s all too easy to put off tackling the need for additional or improved housing, even though it is a universal human right.

Further, the current pandemic has shown that quality housing makes an important contribution to good health and that children learning at home need space to study.

Ministerial announcements are all the more important because they demonstrate the need for more funding for social housing, the growing gap between housing supply and demand, the need for action to support vulnerable households and the requirement that housing must become much more energy efficient.

It’s not a question of housing competing with health or education for investment, they’re complementary human rights and deserve equal attention.

Calls for a specific housing outcome in a future Programme for Government reflects this argument for equity of treatment. This will be particularly important as we emerge from the effects of Covid 19 and its attendant challenges.

So how did we get into this situation and what is to be done to tackle decades of underfunding and insufficient provision?

Equally important, what lessons can we draw from the bold experiment, launched in 1971, when the Housing Executive was established in order to tackle a housing crisis that was, if anything, even more severe than that experienced today?

First, let me offer a tentative explanation for the current crisis.

The provision of sufficient fit housing, and especially social housing, has not in recent years experienced the consistent political or financial support that has been evident in the health or education sectors.

Rather than following a continuous pathway to ensure sufficient supply matches changing demand, housing has been subject to the vagaries of public finance, ideological shifts, and sometimes an attitude that having fixed the problem during a previous burst of house building, housing doesn’t require constant investment.

Individually, each of the above explanations would be a serious matter but, taken together, the three drivers of neglect have resulted in housing, and especially social housing, experiencing a long decline in the overall quantity and quality of provision.

This matter, while significant in many parts of Europe, is even more serious in Northern Ireland given the dominant position of the Housing Executive as the majority provider of social housing.

Put simply, the 1996 decision to curtail the Housing Executive’s ability to borrow and build new homes has resulted in a gradual aging and deterioration of stock – allied to an inability to increase the supply of new social homes at a scale that matches growing demand and which adds to the excellent work completed by local housing associations..

As a consequence, the supply of social homes has been constrained.

The quality of parts of the Housing Executive’s stock portfolio has fallen as the properties age and the much needed capital to maintain the existing stock has been beyond the financial resources available to the NI Executive.

To repeat – housing, like health and education, is a basic human right and, more than that, is also an important factor in determining the health and general welfare of everyone.

We know poor quality housing can cause or exacerbate ill health, while the Covid-19 crisis has also demonstrated the importance of ensuring that everyone has a fit and adequate dwelling with sufficient space for all, including people working from home and children who are attempting to study.

While these are complex and difficult matters, they are ‘known knowns’. We’ve many years of experience of dealing with homelessness and the health consequences of poor housing, and equally we understand the dangers of unsafe buildings or the debilitating efforts of overcrowding.

Covid-19 has demonstrated such issues in stark relief.  It has become commonplace during the pandemic to refer to crisis conditions and the need for urgent responses; for me the real lesson that we must learn is not about emergency responses, but the need for a vision of what a better, socially just, post-Covid world looks like.

The direct relationship between health, housing and social welfare was a key theme in the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, which laid the foundations for the postwar Welfare State and, more importantly for social housing.

It provided the basis upon which Nye Bevan established the NHS, while at the same time guiding a housing revolution.  Bevan viewed an adequate supply of fit housing as an essential component of social and medical welfare and as Minister of Health (including responsibility for housing) he recognised the need both to build new houses and to improve the existing stock.

In addition to providing sufficient homes, Bevan also insisted that houses built had to be of the right quality to ensure they were healthy homes; big enough to offer space and privacy and thereby ensure human dignity.

Bevan’s mission was comparable, in many senses, to the task facing the Housing Executive in 1971 and, because history has a tendency to repeat itself if we do not learn from it, it is comparable to the task which confronts us now.

In 1971, the Housing Executive was charged with delivering a basic right – Bevan’s ‘human dignity’ – the right to a home, and to deliver that right without favour or prejudice shown to any group or section of society.

Today, fifty years on, we find ourselves at the gates of change in terms of how we can deliver sufficient homes – especially social home – to meet the reasonable expectations of Northern Ireland’s population.

In order to unlock these gates the Housing Executive needs to be revitalised and equipped with the powers and resources to do what is required. The Ministerial statement of November 2020 does just that.

It offers the key to a future that will deliver additional, better and more appropriate homes to those in need and, as a bonus, it also provides the prospect of new ‘green’ jobs and skills training that will boost the economy.

This transformation will not only provide houses, it will also deliver social welfare and, assuming that new house building makes use of modern methods of construction, it will help address the interlinked challenges of combatting climate change, eliminating fuel poverty and creating jobs and income.

It is frustrating that we’ve known for some time what needs to be done. We’ve long had a strong housing authority – with 50 years’ experience – we’ve  capable and experienced housing associations and we’ve the technical capabilities needed to solve the problem.

What is now required is political endorsement and financial commitment to get to grips with the problem. A final question relates to the pace of change and what must be done sooner rather than later.

Three actions that can be taken now to get action moving and address the shortfall of social housing supply are:

  • The acquisition of existing residential and non-residential properties to add to the stock of social homes – the non-residential properties will be converted to provide city or town centre living, and will also provide a welcome boost for urban regeneration;
  • The establishment, through a competition, of standardised, low or zero carbon energy efficient home designs that can be produced locally at high volume and to high standards by using modern methods of construction; and
  • The rapid roll-out of pilot project developments that offer ‘proof of concept’ and create confidence so that government, investors and, most importantly, local communities can work together to provide solutions that address the problem of providing sufficient social homes.

Although the Ministerial statements provide a much needed focus on the many issues associated with providing more social housing, and even though they offer a clear pathway to the future, they will not in themselves ensure action.

What is now required is the establishment of a broad partnership for change that can deliver the homes that are needed and provide a massive post-Covid 19 economic kickstart.

Together with our colleagues in government (central and local), the housing associations, the construction industry, financial institutions and, most importantly, the communities that we serve, we must work together to re-establish Northern Ireland as a place of excellence in the provision of homes in sustainable communities.

This will be a fitting way to celebrate the Housing Executive’s half century of work and achievement, and will stand for decades as a beacon of hope for underserved communities, families and individuals everywhere.

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