Home truths about how housing must be central to NI’s future

Cameron Watt, chief executive Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations
Cameron Watt, chief executive Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations

When the politicians knock on your door ahead of May’s Assembly elections, what will you tell them to prioritise?

Health reform, job creation, support for farmers?

With austerity biting, welfare cuts imminent and the global economy teetering over a precipice, the next few years will be tough. Many pressing problems are beyond Stormont’s capacity to solve.

But not all. Everyone needs a home. Faced with 22,000 households in acute housing need, government and housing associations built 6,000 social homes over the last four years. A further 4,000 first-time buyers have bought through co-ownership. These figures exceed targets.

So have we fixed housing? Far from it. NI is building around 6,000 homes per year, when experts reckon we need at least 11,000. Squeezed supply is driving-up house prices, especially in Belfast. For some this will push homeownership out of reach; for others it will prevent trading-up as families grow.

Public money is not the answer. Instead, working closely with councils, the next Executive must commit to fully meeting our range of housing needs. By bringing forward surplus public land and quickly adopting new local plans with adequate zoning, government can achieve the necessary step-change in house building.

As construction has a powerful ‘multiplier effect’ in the economy, with money recycling through contractors and suppliers, the resulting jobs boost will be considerable.

Hundreds more jobs can also result from grasping the nettle of Housing Executive (NIHE) reform.

Billions of pounds of investment is urgently needed to bring its 86,000 homes up to a good standard. Private investors are eager to lend at low rates to enable this, but a structure has to be finally agreed to allow borrowing secured against NIHE homes.

The thorniest issue for Stormont is overhauling our creaking health and social care system, and housing is crucial in this too. Joining-up housing, health, care and support is vital. With telecare, telehealth and other services, people with chronic health conditions can live happier, healthier lives in the community, as envisaged by Transforming Your Care.

Whether it’s fixing the economy, creating jobs, reforming health or ending homelessness, harnessing housing’s potential is central to transforming Northern Ireland’s prospects.

So if the canvassers knock, please take a minute to discuss these home truths.

• Cameron Watt is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA)