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Paula Bradley MLA: Chairperson of the Committee for Communities

Following the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Chair of the Communities Committee Paula Bradley talks to agendaNi about the Committee’s work in relation to housing within a diverse portfolio.

With the committee resumed in January, could you outline the major issues that were in the in-tray of the Minister and subsequently the Committee in relation to housing?

The Minister briefed the committee on her priorities in February, only a few weeks before the impact and significance of Covid-19 became increasingly apparent. At that time, housing was clearly a central part of her work programme, but it’s important to realise that within housing there are a number of inter-linked priorities. The reclassification of registered housing associations to private organisations was an immediate priority, something which the Assembly has dealt with very recently. The future role of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) was also a key priority, and one that linked to several important issues relating to the social housing sector.

Regulation of the private rented sector was also an area of immediate concern that the committee was eager to look at.

The important point to make is that these issues must be considered in a strategic and comprehensive way. Treating them in isolation runs the risk of producing a disjointed approach to what must be a holistic approach to housing policy.

Communities is a vast brief, how much time is housing allocated in terms of the committee’s work? Would housing be better suited to a dedicated department?

The brief is incredibly diverse and the work of the department affects everyone in Northern Ireland, whether that’s through sport, the arts, the administration of benefits, the numerous strategies that fall within its remit such as the anti-poverty strategy, or housing. Our engagement with the Department in the last three months has related almost solely to the impact of Covid-19 on many of these issues.

However, all members of the committee acknowledge that housing is likely to be the key priority of the committee’s work programme over the remainder of this Assembly mandate.

While the issues that we face in housing are multi-faceted, I don’t believe that a separate department is the answer. That, in itself, wouldn’t ensure that funding is increased or delays in getting planning and other relevant consents are addressed.

The absence of ministerial decision-making was lamented by many across the previous three years but oversight and scrutiny are also important elements of how government works. Could you outline the value in having a Committee re-established in relation to the Communities portfolio, in particular housing?

The formal role of Assembly Statutory Committees is to “advise and assist” the Minister. The committee does this through its scrutiny of draft policy proposals, strategies and of course, legislation. In the relatively short time that the Assembly has been restored, the committee has worked collaboratively with the Minister to support her initiatives throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

Under ‘normal’ conditions we would be working very closely with stakeholders not only as a means to inform the committee on departmental proposals, but also to ensure the development of a partnership approach with the committee. The committee puts stakeholder engagement at the very heart of its scrutiny role, whether that’s to help inform its decision making on housing or any other issue.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has and will continue to alter much of what was once considered normal. However, thinking back prior to the outbreak would you give an assessment of how you viewed the housing sector in Northern Ireland, in particular, the delivery and management of social and affordable homes to date? What further challenges do you recognise arising as a result of the pandemic in regard to housing?

It’s worth remembering that housing is a priority action in the Programme for Government (PfG). There is a commitment that the PfG will have specific outcomes and indicators to ensure that every household here will have access to good quality, affordable and sustainable homes. That recognises the critical and central importance of housing in our lives, and is in itself a significant step forward.

Every member of the Assembly accepts that we need more housing, whether social, affordable or private. As someone who grew up in a social sector home, I know the particular importance of this sector in giving people an opportunity to access a home, the stability that creates and the other opportunities that opens up that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Housing doesn’t just provide a roof over your head. It can ensure a secure environment and a safe, personal space where people can learn, engage with others and develop confidence and self-esteem. Everyone in our society deserves that very basic opportunity.

Although we won’t know the full impact of Covid-19 on housing until later this year, the committee was informed that the new build overall requirements have been reduced from £162 million to £127 million, as this is the maximum that can now be delivered in 2020/21. But housing is a long-term policy issue. So, we need to look beyond the impact of the pandemic and develop multi-year capital funding for housing to facilitate long-term strategic planning with ambitious but realisable targets.

One result of the pandemic outbreak has been the use of accelerated passage of Bills by the Executive. Recently the Housing (Amendment) Bill was granted such passage and you supported the move. However, some members raised concerns around the limitations of scrutiny in such instances. What are your thoughts on the use of accelerated passage as Committee Chair?

You won’t find any MLA who welcomes the use of accelerated passage. By definition, it excludes the Committee Stage and therefore scrutiny is obviously limited. The committee supported accelerated passage for the Housing (Amendment) Bill, but that decision recognised the importance of ensuring that the Office of National Statistics reversed its decision to classify registered housing associations as public bodies as soon as possible. Without this, the ability of housing associations to raise money to build social homes would likely cease and the Co-Ownership Housing Association would be unable to access financial transactions capital which would ultimately cost the department £3 million per month to fund. So, in this particular instance it was very much a question of evaluating the pros and cons and, on balance, we thought it the right decision to support accelerated passage, but it’s never a decision that the committee takes lightly.

All members of the committee acknowledge that housing is likely to be the key priority of the committee’s work programme over the remainder of this Assembly mandate.

What do you view as the main challenges and opportunities in addressing Northern Ireland’s social housing shortage?

In relation to challenges the key issue is funding, both public and private. But in addition, the availability of land in areas of housing need has also been a perennial problem, as has the time taken to get all the relevant consents, particularly the approval for planning applications.

I think the Northern Ireland Executive’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that when the political parties work collaboratively with civic society, the focus can switch to implementing solutions that we previously thought were unachievable. Maintaining that mind set is key if we are to overcome the recurrent problems we face in relation to housing.

The Housing Executive celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Recently it has discussed the possibility of having to de-invest in a large chunk of its portfolio and signalled its desire to be allowed to build social homes. What is your outlook on the necessary reforms that ensure the Housing Executive stays fit for purpose?

Potentially, the NIHE is a key element in the future development of social housing. At the heart of this is whether or not the organisation can be reconstituted in a way that allows it to raise necessary funding and to build social homes. That could be a game changer in terms of new build as well as tackling the maintenance backlog in its current stock. This will require a clear vision for the NIHE and the collective political will to implement it. The Committee looks forward to engaging with the department on this issue in the autumn.

New Decade, New Approach also committed the Northern Ireland Executive to looking at options for writing off the historic debt of the NIHE and excluding it from having to pay Corporation Tax. Again, these will be important elements in the revitalisation of the NIHE and the social housing sector more broadly.

Proposals in relation to the reform of the NIHE will form a key part of the committee’s work programme, in the overall context of a range of housing issues.

Are there any specific targets or outcomes in relation to housing you would like to see included in the Programme for Government?

I will leave the specifics to the economists but I’d like to see the inclusion of outcomes that lead to a balanced, sustainable and affordable housing market over the course of this, and the next Assembly mandate.

Outline the future challenges and opportunities you see in regard to the committee’s work on housing?

The Committee is determined that housing and the myriad strategy and policy issues that stem from it will be the key priority for the remainder of this Assembly mandate. Covid-19 has brought a number of unforeseen challenges, but we are ready and willing to work with the Minister and her department to seek the necessary solutions.

We also look forward to more engagement with our stakeholders, by working together we have enormous opportunities to pool the expertise, resources and the knowledge required to create impetus and to stimulate and reinvigorate a partnership approach to housing in the future.

The budgetary challenges as we emerge from Covid-19 are potentially immense but there are strong arguments that housing could, and should, be a central part of the economic recovery. The direct creation of new jobs and apprenticeships in the construction industry, as well as the positive impact on the supply chain coupled with delivering on a key aspect of social policy, are hard to ignore. But we need to win the argument about the many tangible and intangible effects of good housing on society as a whole. The Committee is up for that challenge.