Northern Ireland news

PLATFORM: We need a stable government to tackle housing crisis

Patrick Thompson, interim chief executive of the NI Federation of Housing Associations
Patrick Thompson

SOCIAL housing professionals from across Northern Ireland were able to come together earlier this month for the NI Federation of Housing Associations annual conference in the Slieve Donard Hotel. It was the first time the sector has been able to meet in person since 2019.

A lot has happened since the 2019 conference. We saw the rise – and fall again – of the Stormont Executive, and of course Covid and the lockdowns. We very rapidly saw unprecedented change in the way we lived our lives, and it was the social housing sector that was front and centre in the community helping the most vulnerable during that very difficult time.

Housing association staff showed how resilient the sector is, and how could adapt at very short notice to immense challenges in how best to engage with tenants and customers.

Despite the challenges that Covid brought, NIFHA continued to seek the best possible conditions for housing associations to thrive. We finally saw the reclassification of housing associations reversed, allowing associations to continue to draw down private finance – being able to raise private finance helps to make the public funding go further.

The sector continued to build new homes during the pandemic, but worryingly, by the end of May 2022 there were a total of 44,426 applicants on the housing waiting list. We urgently need to build more homes.

We have hope that the new Housing Supply Strategy will be ambitious enough to see a step-change in the supply of new social and affordable homes and the prospect of a multi-year Social Housing Development Programme will bring an end to the congested process for developing new sites.

We saw success for the sector was securing new welfare mitigations legislation to protect households who would have been impacted by the bedroom tax. NIFHA as part of the Cliff Edge Coalition campaigned tirelessly to protect social housing tenants and we saw the fruits of our labour in February 2022 after an intense lobbying and communications effort. This will protect around 7,000 housing association households to the tune of £5.6m per year.

This just touches upon some of the work of housing associations in recent years. The work of our members goes far beyond the houses that people see.

We have a £1 billion cumulative impact on the NI economy, through construction, maintenance and repair. We have a central role in community building through community investment work, which is having positive impact on neighbourhood relations and the outcomes for individuals.

We provide a range of care and support for thousands across NI, and are helping to ease pressures on the health system. With more than 3,000 directly employed in social housing, and many more in the supply chain, the sector has a strong and important voice.

The sector faces many challenges. But have more than enough ability, desire and passion to overcome them. But there is one major challenge that cut be addressed.

We have a straightforward but essential ask of the political parties. My call to the political parties is for the urgent formation of government. It is critical that we get a stable NI Executive up and running.

We need a government that is working, as it underpins absolutely everything the sector does – we need it to deliver on a housing outcome, to tackle waiting lists, increase new build, release surplus public land, develop affordable housing products, support housing for all, review intimidation points, release a proposed £10 million for Supporting People in the draft budget, streamline planning and put in place multi-year budgets.

Government aspirations on social housing cannot be delivered without housing associations, we are a critical part of that aspiration, and housing associations cannot deliver to their full potential without the NI Assembly working. We need them back. We need them back now.

:: Patrick Thompson is interim chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations

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