New Decade New Approach: What Northern Ireland’s new deal means for housing
New Decade New Approach is the deal that has successfully seen the restoration of the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive. Heather Wilson, policy and engagement manager at the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland welcomes the heavy inclusion and elevation of housing throughout the text of the deal and looks forward to working with the Department for Communities to ensure housing remains a priority for the new Northern Ireland Executive.
So, what’s in the deal?
1. By introducing legislation to reclassify housing associations, the Executive will enable housing associations to continue building new social housing and intermediate housing, including the Co-Ownership Housing Scheme after March 2020.
The deal will introduce legislation to reclassify housing associations; this policy reversal has been long-awaited since the Office of National Statistics designated housing associations as public sector bodies in September 2016. This decision would have rendered any financial borrowing by housing associations as public expenditure; the implication being that all borrowing would compete with other public services for funding, risking a shortfall in the finances needed to meet housing need in Northern Ireland.
The action to reclassify housing associations in Northern Ireland will be welcomed throughout the sector. As it stands some 40,000 households are on the social housing waiting list, and without an increase in new social and affordable housing developments, this figure would continue to skyrocket.
In addition to this, the decision will allow Co-Ownership Housing to draw down the funds necessary, particularly Financial Transactions Capital (FTC) to grow co-ownership in Northern Ireland. This change will provide the help needed to those households currently locked out of the market.
2. Housing will be included as a specific priority in the Programme for Government.
Despite parties still to agree a Programme for Government, the descriptive of housing as a ‘specific priority’ suggests that housing could be a stand-alone outcome in the Programme for Government for the first time, which CIH and the local sector has called for. Given that secure and affordable housing is an enabler for many aspects of individual and family livelihood, its elevation is to be welcomed, and its distinction as a stand-alone outcome would be a step forward in bringing housing into sharp focus across various government departments.
3. The Executive will also enhance investment and agree a target for new social and affordable home starts and tackle the maintenance backlog for Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties.
The mention of enhanced investment for social and affordable homes is welcome as a vital means of reducing housing stress in Northern Ireland. Similarly, the agreement of a target for new and affordable home starts is imperative to ensure government can be held to account in its responsibility to deliver new homes for those in housing stress. Tackling the maintenance backlog is important to ensure that all tenants live in a decent home.
4. The Executive will examine options to remove historical debt from the NI Housing Executive and exclude it from having to pay Corporation Tax and set a long-term trajectory for the rental charges for NI Housing Executive homes which is sustainable and is affordable to tenants.
The potential removal of debt from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) offers an opportunity for a financial injection into maintenance repairs, as well as a review of rents to ensure they are both affordable and equitable while enabling NIHE to future-proof its stock.
5. The Executive will extend existing welfare mitigation measures beyond March 2020, when they are currently due to expire.
The significance that the Executive will extend existing welfare mitigations beyond March 2020 cannot be overstated. The sector had previously been uncertain as to the road forward once welfare reform had been implemented in full, threatening many households over a ‘cliff edge’. This announcement will come as a relief to the 34,000 households who had been set to be hit with the bedroom tax.