The latest statistics by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive confirm the long-term decline in public housing at the behest of policies enacted by consecutive Stormont Executives. The parties have consistently failed to properly invest in public housing despite a huge sell off of stock over recent decades.
Unfortunately, the latest statistics are released on a council based basis and not all councils have the 2021 figures published yet. That said, it is clear that public housing policy is totally inadequate in the face of massively mounting demand.
Growing housing crisis
The latest Northern Ireland wide figures (from March 2021) confirm that there are currently 43,971 households waiting for a home. 24,717 children aged under 18 live in these households. 69 percent of those households are considered by the Housing Executive to be in housing stress with 16,713 children growing up in them. A staggering 13,906 children are recognised as ‘full duty applicant homeless’ that is acknowledged by the state as officially homeless.
Such statistics reflect years when the Housing Executive was prevented from building new public housing with the responsibility being given by Stormont to ‘independent’ housing agencies. Of course, the gap left with public housing was filled by private sector developers who went on a building spree with a nod and a wink from Stormont.
Private building surges as public housing shrinks
Statistics from Land and Property Services confirm that private owner/speculative development accounted for 30,514 dwelling completions in the last five years. By comparison social housing (don’t mention the words ‘public housing’ in Stormont!) – whether by housing agencies or so called ‘social housing’ development by private developers amounted to 4,613 (the overwhelming bulk of these in Belfast). The figures confirm the Stormont parties’ total reliance on private developers to meet housing need in Northern Ireland.
The result has been housing not suited for lower income families or first-time buyers – and rising prices. While prices in Northern Ireland remain relatively low (at £154k on average) – they have risen dramatically in the last five years (up 24 percent) and are unreachable for those on low incomes or zero-hours contracts: the average price of a newly built dwelling here is now £209k.
As ever there is huge variation in investment across Northern Ireland and this is where the latest NI Housing Executive statistics reveal the true scale and impact of public housing policy failure outside Belfast.
Need for social housing in the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council area is anticipated to grow by 646 over the next five years but last year only seven were built. In Mid-Ulster council area, social housing need is forecast to grow by 718 over the next five years, whereas only 30 houses were built last year. In Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, the need for social housing is anticipated to grow by 469, again only 18 units were built last year.
Considering two towns in the west: Enniskillen and Dungannon, the impact of this failure is clear. In Enniskillen, social housing need is forecast to rise by 211 – but only one house was built in the town last year and none the year before; in Dungannon, demand for social housing is set to rise by 293 while only 12 were built in the last year.
What is the real level of demand for social housing?
And even these forecasts of social housing demand by NIHE appear highly conservative when you look at the real numbers of applications for social housing.
Considering Mid-Ulster Council area alone – in the last year there were 659 people who presented as homeless, 362 of which managed to jump the hoops involved in being accepted as homeless by the NIHE and 237 of whom went into temporary accommodation. In Fermanagh and Omagh, there were 609 homeless, 353 accepted as homeless by NIHE, and 222 in temporary housing.
To look again at Enniskillen and Dungannon, the lead urban centres of their respective council areas, the number of applicants for social housing in both areas at March 2021 far exceeded the NIHE forecast need for social housing. In Dungannon, 644 people were on the social housing lists, 420 of whom were judged to be in ‘housing stress’; only 71 housing units were allocated (mostly units that had come free and were recycled). The Enniskillen figures were 552 applicants for social housing, 392 of whom were in housing stress, and only 60 allocations.
Rural housing policy
Clearly not only is Stormont’s housing policy failing but it relies on understating demand for social housing. But the situation in smaller villages is perhaps even more scandalous.
There are numerous wards in Fermanagh and Omagh council area in particular, in which the NIHE figures project absolutely no housing need over the next five years! Indeed no need for social housing there has been forecast for as long as I’ve been a councillor! Despite these statistics, in many villages the numbers of applicants judged to be in housing stress run into the low dozens.
Tied to this sleight-of-hand, is the impact of Stormont Housing regulations which contribute to understanding rural housing need. Applicants for social housing can only identify two potential locations and few are likely to use one of their two choices to put in a request for social housing in a village where public housing hasn’t been built in decades. The system creates a self-fulfilling reduction in demand for social housing outside the main population centres and, as we’ve seen, even where need is identified there is little to no social housing built.
Stormont’s reliance on private housing developers
The root of the problem lies in Stormont’s refusal to take on the role of building public housing to make up for the stock which has been bought over the last three decades. The figures are stark.
In Mid-Ulster council area, 7,651 public housing units have been sold-off leaving only 3,855 units available for rent. In Fermanagh and Omagh, 6,553 housing units have been sold leaving only 3,597 free for rental tenants. Moreover, the bulk of units sold are standard houses meaning a real short-fall for families. In Mid-Ulster 6,070 Housing Executive houses have been sold leaving only 2,200 free in the entire council area; in Fermanagh and Omagh council area, it is 4,774 sold leaving only 1,849 free.
The situation is even more concerning in the urban centres where a higher proportion of Housing Executive houses have been sold off. In Dungannon town, 970 houses were sold off only 412 remain free; in Enniskillen it is 1,344 houses sold off leaving only 472 free.
The logic of Stormont’s policy is that the private sector should provide housing. The little social housing that has been built over the last decade or so is operated ‘at arms-length’ by Housing Associations.
The consequences have been a rapid increase in housing prices, in particular in rural areas. Although they remain far below those in the Republic and in the UK, housing prices in Northern Ireland have increased rapidly in recent years.
Meanwhile private property developers are facilitated at every turn. Money will come to money.
A legacy of Stormont’s failure
Housing has long been a highly-divisive issue in Northern Ireland. Policy in Belfast and many other areas is coloured by the intersection of the geographical division along sectarian lines and the realities of power-sharing in Stormont. The location and provision of social housing is a sharp focus of sectarian contention and in many cases, and despite the overriding pro-market approach taken, social housing has been built in Belfast. It has been allocated to either ‘side’ on the basis of ‘horse-trading’ between the parties.
That said, there have been parallel attempts driven by the DUP to accelerate the outright privatisation of public housing. They commenced with pilot attempt to transfer ownership of entire NIHE-built housing estates to ‘independent’ Housing Associations. In the two pilot areas (Ballymena and Ballyclare) they were defeated by powerful joint campaigns against such privatisation run by the trade union NIPSA and local residents’ groups. Failing on that score they attempted to go for the juglar and moved plans to scrap the NIHE entirely – again meeting stiff opposition.
The abject failure of Stormont’s housing policy is clear but it is most sharply felt by younger people in rural areas who are often unaware of any alternative and faced with no options; however it is a major factor pushing the accelerating depopulation of the west.
The latest turn by Stormont
Recent moves by Stormont Ministers to allow the NIHE to build social houses once again reflects the growing awareness of the failure of previous policies. That said, the announcement – by a Sinn Fein Minister – was tied to talk of the mutualisation of the Housing Executive and its ability to draw down ‘Financial Transaction Capital’ from the private sphere. That is widely interpreted as meaning that future rental income streams would be bundled as financial investment vehicle attracting investment on the basis that it provides lucrative returns for wealthy investors. In similaritude to their longstanding love-affair with PFI, Sinn Fein is clearly content to hand over future rental income to enrich the already rich in order to be seen to deliver. Build now and pay later (with interest!)
Such fears are compounded by recent moves, also by a Sinn Fein Minister, to re-define social housing to include any form of housing sold below cost price to those who couldn’t to buy on the private market (an issue we have dealt with previously).
Stormont’s wrong priorities
Stormont has never utilised even the limited borrowing capacity that was given it by Westminster. Instead of paying interest to shareholders out of future rental revenues, the demand must be put that Stormont use the existing facility to fund the building of public housing to meet need. Instead of spending years seeking the ability to lower corporate taxes – Stormont would be better off seeking to increase their public borrowing capacity to fund public housing and infrastructure.
The trade union movement, in conjunction with tenants’ and residents’ groups, has a lead role to play in making the socialist demand for publicly-built, publicly-owned, publicly-funded and publicly-maintained housing. That is the only way to make housing a right for everyone. Such a united front would raise the demand for affordable rents and proper schedules of maintenance and upkeep. Such a campaign would lay the basis to establish a mass cross-community working-class Labour alternative to the politics of the Stormont establishment putting forward the wider demand for economic democracy and internationalist socialism.