29 Jan 2021

Northern Ireland Housing Executive reform: homes fit for the future

There is major change on the horizon for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) – Northern Ireland’s strategic housing authority and landlord of some 85,000 homes. The recent announcement by the minister for communities – to classify the NIHE landlord arm as a mutual or co-operative so it can borrow – was both significant and welcome.

Drawing on our experience on governance, CIH organised a member webinar to explore what the reform could mean. 90 people registered to hear from speakers:

  • Professor Peter Roberts, chair, NIHE
  • Eileen Patterson, chair, CIH Northern Ireland
  • John Perry, policy adviser, CIH.

The webinar was chaired by our NI policy and engagement manager Heather Wilson. Heather opened the event by revisiting former minister Carál Ní Chuilín’s ambitious housing statement, with the observation that there is broad understanding that doing nothing is not an option.

Indeed, the most recent estimate is that £7.1 billion over 30 years is needed to invest in NIHE’s homes, if they are to be decent homes for tenants. £3 billion of this is needed over the next 11 years. At present the Housing Executive can afford around half.

Funding the gap would need £100m of capital investment annually from public funds. At a time when the public spending environment is tough and there are many calls on resources, it must be asked where this additional funding would come from.

And this question is not new – every year that passes without an answer, more tenants will find their maintenance needs unmet, and the risk of decommissioning NIHE stock increases. Peter summarised much of the stock as old, in some cases near to end-of-life, below modern standards and environmentally inefficient.

He also set out the consequences of inaction, including a spiral of decline and blight which undermines community cohesion, as well as undermining NIHE’s founding purpose of offering communities a fair deal on their housing needs.

The answer to the problem is to enable NIHE’s landlord arm to borrow. At present it is classified as a quasi-public corporation, so it cannot borrow. If it were theoretically allowed to, any new borrowing would need capital budget cover from public funds anyway, since the debt would be bound for the public balance sheet, which defeats the purpose.

John took delegates through this financial issue. He outlined how principally CIH wants a rule change that would exclude the debt of public corporations from the public balance sheet. This would actually bring the UK in line with international norms, where the EU, IMF and OECD for example do not account for public corporations in their measures of public debt.

But with no rule change (for which CIH has been pushing for 25 years), the options for the Housing Executive are either the status quo where investment is controlled at insufficient levels, or a classification change that will secure for NIHE the freedom to borrow and invest in the upkeep of its homes.

The current proposal is welcome not only because it will enable NIHE to borrow, but because a mutual or co-operative governance structure would promote the involvement of tenants and employees. John touched on the ‘community gateway’ – one such governance model that CIH developed with the Confederation of Co-operative Housing and Co-operatives UK. It enables tenants to take more control of the decisions about their homes and neighbourhoods.

Of course – while this is about NIHE tenants and rightly so, this reform will impact on the whole housing industry for housing professionals and tenants alike. Eileen emphasised the importance of partnership working and housing professionals being part of the solution. This point was echoed by Peter, who was also supportive of the democratic buy-in of NIHE staff and tenants for the reform.

Eileen stated that housing delivery structures should be informed by purpose, policy and people. This approach will be vital for a reform that will be both challenging and ambitious, not least due to the size of NIHE. It is important that we get this reform done and done right.

If we do, it will change the game for tenants. As a board member of Supporting Communities, I recently heard from Jim Ripley of Phoenix housing co-op in London. Jim gave an inspiring talk about his organisation, which I could summarise as “everything is resident led”.

And, given the size of NIHE, he offered a relevant point that Phoenix operates large community areas that promotes representation. A similar point was echoed by Peter on the webinar, giving an example of neighbourhood groups operated by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.

From past CIH research with tenants in Northern Ireland, I know there is no shortage of NIHE residents who are passionate about their communities and who can make a difference. And from working with CIH members in NIHE, I know there is no shortage of brilliant staff who are passionate about their work.

It would be great to see them as shareholders of NIHE with real influence.

Written by Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright is the national director for the Chartered Institute of Housing in Northern Ireland.