By Nelson McCausland, Minister for Social Development
In 2012, I published ‘Facing the Future’ Northern Ireland’s first ever housing strategy which recognises the fundamental role of housing in shaping our communities. It centres on a vision that everyone should have the opportunity to access good quality housing at a reasonable cost. More high quality sustainable housing, alongside regeneration and building communities are central themes for me as Minister for Social Development.
My Department is committed in the Northern Ireland Executive Programme for Government 2011-2015 to deliver 8,000 new social and affordable homes by 2015. I aim to go beyond that with almost 7,000 new homes delivered in the first three years and 2,500 more expected in this final year. My Department will contribute funding of £545m alongside £260m match funding from the housing association movement to not only achieve but to exceed the PfG target.
Addressing shortfalls in housing supply is one of my main priorities and as Minister I want to do all in my power to continue to support local employers and businesses. Indications are that the construction industry is enjoying some growth after six difficult years. This is to be welcomed but to move onwards and upwards, this is the time for fresh thinking.
In January, I set up the Housing Supply Forum under the chairmanship of John Armstrong of the Construction Employers Federation and a wide range of key stakeholders. The Forum has been tasked with helping to find solutions to increase the level of house building in Northern Ireland. They have already begun their work and will report to me next year on viable ways that we can work collectively to increase private housing supply in a sustainable way.
I have also already approved plans to significantly increase the number of new social houses. Plans are to provide 2,000 in each of the next three years, up from 1,200 or so in recent years. I believe this must be more than simply meeting important need but also about creating real communities and places where people want to live. That is why I am asking Housing Associations to think critically about community involvement, community spaces and supporting local employment.
In October 2013, I launched a pilot scheme ‘Building Successful Communities’ which aims to regenerate communities which have sadly been allowed to decline and become blighted by vacant and derelict properties, undeveloped land and poor infrastructure. Six areas have been identified as meeting the criteria to pilot the initiative.
Whatever government strategies have been in place up to now, and there are a multitude of agencies no doubt all doing their best to make a difference, these strategies, taken in isolation, are failing in many communities. I am determined to test a more joined up and community centred approach with the aim of providing better homes, better places to live, better places to work and better opportunities for everyone
At the same time, the existing Co-ownership Housing Scheme is being supplemented by the new £19m Affordable Home Loans Fund. Over the next six years, three of our leading housing associations will use this new funding to provide 600 extra affordable homes to complement regular Co-ownership activity.
My Department is committed to making significant new investments in social and affordable housing. This is a time when we can collectively make a real difference to the lives of our local communities. I want to take this opportunity to encourage the house building sector to renew the challenge of investing in our young people through training and in providing them with long term employment. Up skilling should now be high on everyone’s agenda.
As the housing market improves, my expectation is that social and affordable housing will continue to play a major role in supporting and sustaining existing jobs and new opportunities. My Department will not be found wanting as we once again seek to rebuild this important part of our economy.