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Housing Governance Must Change to Build on a Better Future

16 November 2012

A 'new breed of housing professionals' is needed if Northern Ireland is to shed its negative legacies such as segregated housing, according to a leading academic.

Delivering his inaugural lecture last night Paddy Gray, Professor of Housing at the University of Ulster said figures showed that over 90 per cent of our social housing is currently segregated.

“Today’s housing situation requires a new set of solutions instead of the governance arrangements that now exist,” he told an invited audience at the Belfast campus.

“A new breed of housing professionals is needed to shed the legacies of the past. They must bring innovative and imaginative policies which will create not only better housing conditions but secure and vibrant communities.

“They need to be equipped with skills in leadership, governance, private finance and dealing with social enterprise.

“And they must understand the connections between housing, employment, health (both mental and physical), education and welfare.

“The emergence of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) in 1971 and its dominance of housing provision and management over the following 40 years was important in tackling serious, unfit conditions and introducing fairer methods of allocating social housing.

“However we still have a situation where the housing of today is highly segregated and this must be addressed.”

Professor Gray’s lecture was entitled “A Century of Change: Housing Policy in Northern Ireland” and he began his historical journey by looking at the housing crisis today and the many challenges facing politicians and policy makers.

“We have a situation where 35 per cent of mortgages taken out since 2005 are in negative equity – the nearest regional equivalents in England are the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside at 15 per cent,” he explained.

“Average house prices have fallen almost 50 per cent since the peak of the housing boom and transaction rates are running at about one third.

“In the year 2011/12, 20,000 households declared themselves homeless – and 9,000 of these have been accepted as statutorily homeless.

“New housing construction, particularly in the private sector, has plummeted from 14,000 in 2006/07 to 4,500 in 2011/12. At the same time there is a growing backlog of repair and improvement that needs to be addressed.

“The cost of improving Northern Ireland’s social housing stock is approximately £1billion while the proportion of unfit houses has almost doubled from 2.4 per cent in 2009 to 4.6 per cent today, according to recent press sources.

“The NIHE budget has been cut from an annual £63m for stock improvement five years ago to £5m a year in the Executive’s current four-year programme.”

Professor Gray said owner occupiers were particularly at risk from the downturn in house prices and there was a possibility of disinvestment in the private rented sector.

“We need to do more to enable organisations to manage their housing assets more effectively and adopt different policies to meet local needs,” he continued.

“That could mean changing the rent management systems and access routes to social housing and the introduction of a more imaginative use of staff resources from the public and/or private sector.”

Professor Gray also spoke of how mechanisms to secure the adequate supply of new housing in high demand areas were inadequate