Today Minister Nelson McCausland announced plans to dismantle the Northern Ireland Housing Executive stating that:
“My Department will have responsibility for overall Housing Strategy, policy, legislation and funding – setting the strategic vision for housing in Northern Ireland and developing the policies which underpin that vision.”
This development begs the question ‘What will be the impact on those most in need of social housing?’
There are many who have been failed by the last 30 years of housing policy in Northern Ireland. Seven months ago Minster Nelson McCausland announced plans to regenerate Girdwood Barracks in North Belfast, an area of chronic housing need. The announcement, discussed in a previous blog post represented for many the latest in a long line of decisions made by the Department for Social Development(DSD) and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) which failed to address the plight of Catholics on the waiting list in North Belfast where there is a need for additional social homes. It was a decision which represented both a failure to target public monies to address housing inequality and tackle objective need in accordance with the law.
At the time, political representatives commented that all homes built on Girdwood would be allocated on the basis of need, when the actual issue at hand was whether homes were being built on the basis of objective need and tackling inequality.
The dismantling of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive reminds us that the requirement to allocate on the basis of need is a principle right at the heart of its foundation.
As we reflect on the news of the plans to dismantle the NIHE, we need also be concerned about the Department’s plans to detract from this core principle upon which the NIHE was built as identified in the recent Department for Social Development consultation Facing the Future; Housing Strategy for Northern Ireland 2012-2017. Facing the Future is the first national housing strategy ever produced in Northern Ireland. A dilution of this principle of allocation on the basis of need is suggested by the consultation document which proposes looking at the potential of housing allocation to address other priorities such as “social mobility and creating a shared future”.
A further sign of a move away from the principle of allocating homes on the basis of objective need is contained in the Terms of Reference for the upcoming DSD Fundamental Review of Allocations Policy, which is to consider, among other priorities, access to the social housing waiting list for those applicants with little or no demonstrated housing need, and wider factors (other than individual need) such as social, economic and policy issues and factors which support good housing management.
This move, overseen by the DSD, towards a situation where we do not allocate social homes on the basis of who is in the greatest need is not acceptable. In a democratic society, in particular one which is still in the process of bedding down a sustainable peace, all international examples tell us that there are principles that we must safeguard.
In May of last year North Belfast residents campaigned for equality in decisions made about social housing in their community, in particular on the Girdwood site, and produced a short Equality Can’t Wait video to make the modest and reasonable request that the Minister simply implement the law. The law in this respect is Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the practical translation of this legal requirement is normally carried out through equality screening or Equality Impact Assessments (EQIAs). The Department’s Housing Strategy is lacking in both. The failure to adequately equality screen or assess for impacts means there is no practical assessment of who is in need, who is facing inequality and then on the basis of this information, no attempt to tailor policies to appropriately improve the situation. By not doing this as a first step, the Housing Strategy is setting itself up to fail the most vulnerable. For not only is it a legal obligation, but also, quite plainly, it is just common sense.
The impact of the absence of equality in the DSD’s Housing Strategy, will be felt not just by residents in North Belfast, but right across Northern Ireland. Proposals for long term leases of apartments from private developers which will do little to address the housing needs of those with families or the elderly have made it into the document. The Strategy flatly states that despite recognising an increasing need for wheelchair adapted social homes, the way they plan to spend their funding means that they won’t meet this need. The recognised and documented statistical evidence about serious religious inequality in social housing in Northern Ireland, which has attracted the attention of both the United Nations and the European Commission, is not mentioned once in a Strategy which runs to almost sixty pages.
Indeed, that the NI Executive and DSD can show disregard for the findings of these authorities – findings which should ring alarm bells given the history of civil disturbance in Northern Ireland – is an indication of the growing levels of unaccountability and non-evidence based decision making the heart of our government.
In a post-NIHE housing era in Northern Ireland, the principles of equality and objective need must be adhered to. Otherwise, rather than ‘Facing the Future’, we will be ‘Reliving the Past’.