Turning back the clock on housing

The Northern Ireland Executive seems intent on allowing profiteers to once more take control of housing provision, with citizens set to lose out, reports Justin O’Hagan.

Throughout Northern Ireland in the 1960s many thousands of people were living in cramped and squalid conditions in Edwardian or Victorian houses, many of which were unfit for habitation. This was largely due to the failure of the market to meet the needs of poorer tenants and householders and the reluctance of local government to undertake redevelopment of primarily privately rented slum housing. At the time of the 1961 census twice as many households were living in poorly-provisioned privately rented accommodation in Northern Ireland – as in Great Britain – 36% compared to 18%.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which was formed in 1967, made housing justice and an end to the sectarian allocation of houses key issues in its early campaigns. At the direction of the Westminster Government reform of housing administration in Northern Ireland began in the autumn of 1969 as part of a general overhaul of public services in Northern Ireland. These changes would radically affect the administration of housing, taking it out of the hands of local councils. In 1971 control over public housing was vested in the new Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), a single-purpose body which, in the words of University of Ulster academic, Charles Paris, “both took over all public sector landlord roles and embarked on major programmes of public sector housing construction, slum clearance and redevelopment”.

Over a short period, the Housing Executive was to become owner of 150,000 homes and embarked on a major series of slum clearance programmes. The first House Condition Survey carried out by the NIHE in 1974 found that Northern Ireland had the worst housing conditions in Britain and amongst the worst in Europe.

Almost 20% of all homes in Northern Ireland were unfit for occupation, rising to 25% in Belfast. Between 1970 and 1978 the NIHE built over 120,000 new public sector dwellings compared to 35,000 private-sector completions during the same period so that by 1981, around 38% of households in Northern Ireland were publically housed. This was part of a wider trend: by the late 1970s, in Great Britain local councils provided affordable public housing to 6.6 million households, amounting to more than a third of the population. (In the Irish Republic, public housing was not as widespread as in Northern Ireland. For example, in 1991 while around 28% of households lived in public housing in Northern Ireland, local authorities in the Republic housed only 10% of households).

In Northern Ireland this revolution in housing provision was taking place against a background of civil disturbance and violence, which resulted in significant damage to domestic property and loss of life. For example, the NIHE notes that in Belfast between August 1969 and February 1973, 60,000 people, 12% of the city’s population, were forced to leave their homes.

Marking an early step in the cannibalisation of the state sector which has characterised the neo-liberal era, Thatcher’s Right to Buy legislation allowed tenants (and later speculators) to buy public housing at reduced prices. This was mirrored in Northern Ireland’s House Sales Scheme, which led to significant sales of NIHE properties to tenants. This was accompanied by renewed private sector building and a less pro-active NIHE building programme. Charles Paris notes that, “between 1986 and 1990, in stark contrast to the public sector dominance of the 1970s, the private sector completed about 2.5 times as many new dwellings (91,000) as the public sector (36,000)”.

By the mid 1990s the NIHE stopped building houses and all new public house building is now in the hands of Housing Associations, which are run on a not-for-profit basis but which may pay their directors large sums and may have greater freedom to charge market rents, evict tenants and build private housing.

As in the 1960s, rented accommodation is once again a growing sector as increasing numbers of people cannot afford to maintain their mortgage payments or get on the housing ladder. Whereas in 2001, 7% of total occupied stock was in private rented accommodation, by 2010/11 the figure had risen to 16%, 113,000 units.

In recent months the NIHE has come under attack from the Stormont Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland of the DUP, who has used a report on a poor record of repairs to NIHE buildings as the springboard for an attack on the NIHE itself. On July 7th, the NIHE’s chair, Brian Rowntree, resigned his post citing a ‘challenging relationship’ with the Department of Social Development.

According to the journal, Inside Housing (July 6th), “The NIHE’s trade union and tenant organisation branded McCausland’s statement a ‘vendetta’ against the organisation, designed to undermine confidence ahead of a planned break-up of the NIHE in the autumn. The Department for Social Development is currently carrying out ‘a fundamental review’ of the NIHE’s functions. It is likely to transfer the ownership of its homes to five housing associations, leaving the executive responsible for funding and strategy…. Brian Holmes, director of tenant organisation Supporting Communities, said tenants were largely satisfied with their repairs service, and that the minister’s report represented a tiny number of complaints: ‘The housing executive is one of the success stories in Northern Ireland during the troubles.’”

Nelson McCausland

The UK pressure group Defend Council Housing believes that placing public housing into the hands of Housing Associations is the first step on the road to privatisation. Any break-up of the NIHE is unlikely to go ahead before 2015. Progressive forces in Northern Ireland still have time to muster support to demand citizens maintain the right to decent housing.

This article appeared in LookLeft magazine vol.2 no.12