There is a growing housing crisis in the North. Yet the political establishment seem intent on selling off the remainder of our public housing. Fiona Ferguson takes a look.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) is slowly being strangled. Recent months have seen statements by senior civil servants claiming its financial funding is precarious and if not addressed in the near future could lead to homes being boarded-up.
However, the threat posed to the NIHE is potentially even greater, as a leaked letter from last August by the permanent secretary in the Department for Communities, Leo O’Reilly, shows: “Towards the end of 2017, the NIHE estimated that if by 2020 there was no prospect of the future investment that reform may secure, then the organisation would have to start de-investing in approximately half of its portfolio in order to provide a sustainable future to the other half.”
For tenants of the Housing Executive this is a frightening position. Yet it was only 8 years ago that a PwC report not only praised the NIHE for being internationally recognised as “a leading authority on ‘best practice’ on both housing management and community building”, and also found that the landlord activities of the Housing Executive were financially sustainable.
How have we now got to the position where half of the NIHE’s homes may need to be “decommissioned” over the next few years?
Softening-up for Privatisation
The answer lies in a combination of a hostile policy environment being imported, unfiltered from Westminster and local political indifference to the one concrete legacy of the NI civil rights movement.
Since the election of the Thatcher government in 1979 (public) council housing in Britain has been subjected to a series of direct attacks including massive public subsidies for the right to buy, transferring tenants’ rent direct into the Treasury creating a back log of repairs and restricting the ability to build new homes.
After twenty years of these policies a repairs and maintenance disaster had been created – the main proposed solution was to transfer council housing out of the public ownership to private limited companies, known as housing associations.
A similar path was followed in NI but at a slower pace. For example, in the middle of the 1990s the NIHE was banned from borrowing money to build new homes, with the last Housing Executive homes completed in 2003. The housing building numbers show where the problem lies; in 1976 the NIHE built over 55% of all homes in NI – in 2018 it was zero (see below).
|New Homes – Completions||1975/76||2017/18|
TABLE 1 – Source: UK Housing Review 2018 (Table 19j)
Recent years have also seen a squeeze on funding for repairs, resulting in the NIHE only being able to fund about half of the estimated £300 million p.a. repairs and maintenance needed over the next six years.
In part these numbers are being publicised by civil servants in an attempt to win over support for the Department’s preferred policy of seeking to transfer the NIHE “outwith” the public sector. This policy was put in place in 2013 by the then DUP Minister Nelson McCausland, and has not changed since.
The DUP have a long-term hostility towards the NIHE for both sectarian reasons and because it is an anathema to their free-market fundamentalism, i.e. the private market should be left to run its course and then people would find appropriate housing through the interaction of supply and demand. Thus in 2013 McCausland was acting in a consistent neoliberal manner when he proposed the transfer policy in NI – a policy that had been in place in Britain since the late 1980s.
If the DUP are openly hostile to the Housing Executive, Sinn Féin have done nothing to stop the attacks or try to defend the NIHE. Despite being in government for nearly a decade and claiming to be the party of the ’68 civil rights movement, SF has not taken the Ministry that covers the Housing Executive.
However, there is an alternative to this depressing scenario and it comes in the form of opposition from tenants, housing activists and the trade union NIPSA. Part of McCausland’s policy, back in 2013, was a programme to transfer 2,000 homes from the NIHE to housing associations. The first two proposed transfers, in the Grange, Ballyclare, and Ballee, Ballymena, were overwhelmingly rejected by tenants in consultative ballots.
Speaking after the rejection by over 90% on the Grange estate, Paddy Mackel, NIPSA, summed up the importance of the result; “It is a direct challenge to government to halt years of neglect … It is a call by citizens to properly fund the Housing Executive and allow it to borrow to enable it to carry out its own repairs and upgrades.”
This level of co-ordinated opposition on the estates forced the Department for Communities, in November 2018, to suspend the remaining transfer programme. This was a significant victory for people power.
However, the fight to save the Housing Executive is not over. We need to take inspiration and learn from the experience of Raise the Roof and the National Homelessness and Housing Coalition in the South. Those campaigns have been able to raise housing up the political agenda and consistently challenge the “do nothing” policies of the landlord parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
The success of the housing movement in the south has been built on two related understandings – first that local campaigns need to take place to defend tenants (e.g. anti-eviction actions) but there has also to be a national focus that brings local groups together and focuses attention on the inaction of the government. Second, we need people on the streets and we need political activists elected in council chambers acting as a focal point and advocates for alternative housing policies.
In NI the campaigns in the Grange and Ballee estates show that local grassroots campaigning can work. The next few weeks, in the run up to the local elections, present the opportunity to elect activists in Belfast, Derry and across NI who will fight to defend the Housing Executive.
After the elections it will be crucial that a general housing campaign is organised, with fully funding the NIHE as one of its core demands.