Housing policy prompts Stormont love-in

6 Nov 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Nov 2020

Everyone has the right to a good home

We’ve become used to American politicians coming over to Northern Ireland to show us how to run a democracy.

After the toxic shambles of the American election perhaps there are some lessons they could take from us.

This week the Minister for Communities Carál Ní Chuilín announced a landmark new housing policy. It is potentially transformative and is destined to be remembered as the most important legacy of what has been, to put it politely, a stuttering, disjointed mandate.

The policy is bold and imaginative. To briefly reprise. The plan is to split off the landlord arm of the Housing Executive and make it into a mutual organisation. This would enable it to borrow money for extensive repairs to its current and increasingly dilapidated housing stock and also to build new  houses for the first time in 20 years.

At the centre of all this is the Minister’s declaration: “that a good home is the foundation of social, physical and mental well-being and is central to addressing our most pressing societal challenges, including poverty and inequality.”

This explicitly acknowledges that housing is one of the most important social determinants of health, demonstrating that the Executive understands that improving health outcomes involves much more than what goes on in our hospitals.

Surplus public land suitable for social housing will be identified and ultimately developed.

We can also expect a toughening of regulation on private landlords who currently get paid 40% of housing benefit. The Minister wants to see a better return on public investment: “The private rented sector is now similar in size to our social sector. It houses an increasingly diverse range of households, including a growing number of households with children. There are twice as many families with children in private rentals than in social housing. They can be asked to leave within four weeks. Just imagine the stress if that happened to you.”

Yet it is not just the policy itself that deserves recognition – but also how it was received in the Assembly.

It gave a heartening glimpse of how politics could be conducted in this part of the world when politicians focus on what unites rather than divides them.

And the fact that this almost joyous gathering was discussing what has traditionally been one of the most divisive issues of all – housing – and that the responsible Minister represents what is often seen as the cockpit of such division – North Belfast – makes it even more remarkable.

Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson said she was “blown away” by it and other members of that party were every bit as effusive. However it is the reaction from other parties that is the most striking.

First to respond was Paula Bradley of the DUP. She also represents North Belfast and chairs the Committee for Communities. She said: “We have had so much doom and gloom in the Chamber over recent months that it is good at this stage to get a statement that is positive, visionary and very much welcome.”

Her party colleague Alex Easton added: “I thank the Minister for her statement on what promises to be the biggest shake-up in housing ever. It is all very exciting.”

Independent Trevor Lunn was every bit as fulsome: “There is so much to welcome in the statement that I almost feel like a party pooper for even asking a question about it. It is a very good statement.”

Alliance also weighed in with its backing. This from Kellie Armstrong: “Thank you very much to the Minister for a very ambitious housing plan that has come to the House today. At the start of your statement, you asked us for support. The Alliance Party will not be found wanting in that, because this is well needed across Northern Ireland.”

Paula Bradshaw, also Alliance described it as “impressive” whilst the Green Party’s Rachel Woods called it “ambitious.”

There was even some cheery banter between Ms Ní Chuilín and the DUP’s Christopher Stalford about a certain area in South Belfast, with both agreeing that it is the Market with no “s”.

The last word went to the TUV’s Jim Allister who made some observations about the inadequacy of the sewage system in the north of his constituency. Ms Ní Chuilín revealed that her fellow minister the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon has been “banging on about the issue” ever since she came into office.

This of course is critical. You can’t build new homes without adequate sewerage and Northern Ireland is fast running out of capacity as Scope explained here.  Further evidence of both the need for joined-up government and willingness within the Executive to embrace it.

In this week, of all weeks when darkness has fallen on American democracy and the rest of the world looks on in bewilderment as toxic political discourse, a shambolic, arcane voting system and lawyers rather than voters are poised to determine who runs the country, we are reminded that there is a better way.

When politicians choose to come together to address major social problems and find common ground the results can be transformative.

These are early days for the new housing policy. The enthusiasm is for the principles behind the policy, the detail is yet to come and doubtless there will be obstacles, rows and skullduggery along the way.

However at a time when politicians’ stock has fallen so low, it is important to give credit where it is due and to encourage more of this approach. That is the least they deserve.


Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.