Fight for public investment in high-quality social housing for all in need

By Paddy Meehan

Earlier this month, Sinn Féin Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín announced that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) would begin building new social housing for the first time in about 20 years. In and of itself, that is a welcome development. However, it will be connected to sweeping changes which will see the de facto part-privatisation of the NIHE.

The NIHE was set up in 1971 to provide a single housing authority, taking housing allocation out of the hands of local councils where housing was distributed in a sectarian manner. It currently accounts for about 11% of the total housing stock – down from nearly 18% in 2001. Rent in this sector is significantly lower than the private landlord sector, with the housing stock constantly reported as being better maintained.

Stormont’s long-term plan for privatisation

The NI Executive previously attempted to outright privatise the NIHE in 2013, when then Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland attempted to turn the organisation into a de facto private housing association. In a consultation in Ballymena, 88% of residents opposed being transferred from the NIHE to housing associations.

The latest move aims to switch the landlord functions of the NIHE into a mutually-owned structure, citing tenant and employee-owned initiatives in Britain as possible examples. These models – although allowing worker and tenant involvement through elected bodies – would still be private organisations and assume the risk of taking on significant debt. The new housing will not be built through public funds, but through the NIHE borrowing against its existing stock. This could put housing – as well as tenants’ and workers’ rights – at risk if there is a crash in the market.

Publicly owned and controlled social housing is a much more cost-efficient and secure form of housing for workers and their families, through government ability to access cheap credit and to spread maintenance costs. However, social housing has been under massive attack for a generation: Thatcher’s attack on social housing by pushing ‘right to buy’ schemes; the constant running down of servicing of existing housing; the massive speculation in building and selling of houses; and the lack of public investment in social housing have all served to create a housing crisis.

For direct public investment to meet housing needs

Nearly 40,000 people are on the housing waiting list – 26,300 of them in housing stress. Nearly 12,500 households have been designated as officially homeless. Yet in 2018/19, only 937 units of social housing were built, in the main via housing associations. As a result, many people in need are reliant on the profiteering, unaffordable and increasingly insecure private landlord sector. A 2010 QUB report indicates £7 billion will be needed over the next 30 years to meet basic housing needs.

What’s needed is a crash programme to build quality, energy-efficient social housing at cost price. This must be publicly owned, as well as being built and maintained by workers receiving at the trade union-designated rate for the job. Instead of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s attempts to privatise the NIHE, this would require challenging the Thatcher-era laws concerning state borrowing for house building, and the rejection of any Westminster attempts to cut funding to Northern Ireland for other services. Fighting for this could create a mass campaign of tenants, people in housing distress and workers to properly house all who need it.