Debate of the Week: Housing Selection Scheme
Stormont is back. New mandate, new Executive, new departments, a proposed new Programme for Government.
The elections being in May meant the few weeks in session were, in a non-derogatory sense, phoney. Even on its own terms it is not a lot of time to get much done, never mind the necessary post-polling carve up and, this time, the fallout from Brexit.
But now it is autumn and things begin for real.
This week Scope has decided to look at a Private Members’ Bill put forward by Sinn Fein and tabled by Fra McCann, who proposed:
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Communities to bring forward a replacement to the housing selection scheme that ensures a fairer and more transparent system of assessing housing need.
He said the motions highlights “serious difficulties” with the housing selection scheme, that he had raised these for many years, and that the current Minister has accepted there are concerns about the present system used by the Housing Executive to allocate points to those on social housing waiting lists.
Some of the concerns Mr McCann raised about the current points system were that it lacks transparency, only takes into account some of the very difficult personal circumstances of individuals in a crude way (such as domestic violence or targeted anti-social behaviour), and also that the act of declaring oneself or one’s family as homeless is extremely traumatic, with Housing Executive staff not receiving sufficient training to handle such scenarios.
On the other hand, he claimed that many people will falsely claim to have their lives under threat in order to get to the top of waiting lists.
All of these issues, he said, are exacerbated in areas of high demand such as L’Derry and West and North Belfast.
However, Mr McCann did not propose any firm solutions himself, even noting that proper alternatives had not been brought forward, instead saying a “wide range of experts” from the voluntary sector, Housing Executive, housing associations and the department should bring forward a new plan.
The DUP’s Jonathan Bell agreed things need to change, and said that there recently has been two solid reports into the matter which should be taken into consideration, alongside best practice from the rest of the UK.
Like Mr Bell, the UUP’s Andy Allen declared an interest as a private landlord, before saying that he has come across serious problems with breaches in confidentiality (a particular concern for former members of armed services), and also an inability of the current method to deal with circumstances arising when a couple or family go through a separation.
Nichola Mallon, of the SDLP, said the housing selection scheme is “broken” and so must be replaced, with a shortfall in supply only making this worse, while the vast majority of her constituency work relates to housing. She highlighted the lack of houses as a fundamental issue but also reiterated Fra McCann’s warnings about abuses of the system through fake complaints of intimidation, while saying people with disabilities were the people being most let down currently.
Alliance’s Stewart Dickson said that no system is perfect but that current outcomes are unacceptable, that manipulation does occur (often by individuals or families who themselves are desperate), and reiterated points made by previous members; that the system is supposed to help those most in need but often does the opposite.
He said further: “There are many recommendations in a joint University of Ulster and University of Cambridge paper on the matter but there are three areas, in particular, that should be of importance to the House and the Minister when considering a review of the housing selection scheme.
“First, moving away from the current points-based system would allow us to move to what is described as an active choice-based approach. This would allow people to see what is happening in the social housing market and to actively bid on properties that they are entitled to. On the surface, it would increase people's participation in the rehousing process and research has shown that this will increase success in obtaining a property.”
Consensus, sort of
Fra McCann said he found these arguments “interesting”, but that most of the data came from huge housing estates in England where there are large numbers of empty properties – with Mr Dickson then saying that the minister has already admitted that “£6·5 billion was needed over the next 30 years to address the upkeep of social housing in Northern Ireland.”
Steven Agnew, leader of the Green Party, said that lack of housing was the main problem, and also warned against the “slow privatisation” of the system, and the fact that too many homes are in poor repair. Gerry Carroll, from People Before Profit, said the Housing Executive and the principle of public housing need to be protected, and also said that all people in need should receive help (highlighting asylum seekers in particular).
The Minister, Mr Givan, said work is being done in reviewing the housing selection scheme – with a review first started in 2013 now on the brink of having firm proposals brought forward, and that these will all be based on evidence and work towards a fair and transparent scheme.
“I am considering five outcomes at present, which I will outline for Members now. I believe that these outcomes will clearly address the fundamentals of the motion that we have before us today and ensure a fair and transparent system of assessing housing need. First, the outcome of any review must be to deliver a greater range of solutions to meet housing need. Secondly, there must be an improved system for the most vulnerable applicants. Thirdly, I want to see a more accurate waiting list that reflects the current housing circumstances of those on the list. Fourthly, and this is unquestionably the most important outcome, I want to see that those in greatest housing need receive priority. Finally, I want any changes to the scheme to enable better use of public resources by ensuring that the waiting list moves smoothly. That is my vision for a renewed housing selection scheme. While I will give the detailed proposals careful consideration before publishing them, I am glad of this opportunity to set out some key elements that have emerged during the research and evidence gathering phase.”
He said new provision on independent advice could be brought forward, and also the issue of claims of intimidation is being looked at.
Unsurprisingly, the motion passed.
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