The Future of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive

The NIHE was a key demand of the Civil Rights Movement.

A new-build at Marshall's Row in Sion Mills in the1980s. Photo: Northern Ireland Housing Executive | Twitter

In 1991 the Northern Ireland Housing Executive owned 170,000 homes; by 2016 this number was reduced to fewer than 90,000; in 2002 the Housing Executive stopped building new homes altogether. Housing associations now perform this function, although these associations are funded by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. (In 1975 sixty per cent of the ten thousand new homes built in NI were built by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. By 2014 this was reduced to 5,700 homes, of which the housing associations were responsible for just 10 per cent.)

As of 31 March 2020, there were 38,745 applicants on the social housing waiting list. 27,745 of these applicants were deemed in ‘housing stress’ and 11,323 households were accepted as ‘statutorily homeless.’ The housing crisis has never been as extensive in Northern Ireland as it is now. And the root cause is a housing policy that puts making money above the need to provide what is a basic human right: a home. 

The recent announcement by the Minister of Communities has raised deep concern among the trade union movement as well as many public housing activists. Most people agree that the housing executive has been consciously underfunded for the past twenty years. This has created the housing crisis that we now face. The proposal by the minister is nothing short of a plan to privatise the NIHE, which would, in effect, mean the end of the housing executive. The NIHE would become governed by an unaccountable board, who would have the authority to set their own rent levels and would hold the power of eviction without challenge over tenants. Instead of exacerbating the housing crisis by proposing the backdoor privatisation of the NIHE the minister should instead be looking at ways to fund the NIHE and ensure that tenants’ rights are protected. 

As the Belfast Trades Council has pointed out: “(tenants) are given an opportunity to vote on proposals which will have such a major impact on their own futures and that of their families. That is the process which has been followed in respect of every single housing transfer proposal across these islands and it would be a shocking indictment of this Assembly if that democratic right was not honoured in this instance.” 

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive was formed in 1971 and was a key demand of the Civil Rights Movement. Before the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, public housing in the north was mostly managed by local councils. Only ratepayers and their spouses were permitted to vote in council elections, meaning that sub-tenants, lodgers or adults living with their parents did not have a vote. This meant that housing allocation was used as a political tool to discriminate against those predominantly from a Catholic background and therefore keep Unionist control in the councils. 

The late ‘60s in the North were a time of extreme political turmoil and instability. Violence erupted in Derry and Belfast in mid-1969 resulting in entire streets being burned down. Around 2,000 families were left homeless and hundreds of homes were destroyed. Boundaries and peace walls were erected, and the north became divided. Two key demands for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association were improvement in housing provision and fairness in housing allocation. People took to the streets to protest long-held criticisms around poor housing conditions and the allocation of housing. ‘One Man, One Vote’ became the battle cry of the working class. 

Following the outbreak of violence, a commission to review housing, as led by Lord Cameron, was appointed by the Northern Ireland government. The commission found that ‘grievances concerning housing were the first general cause of the disorders which it investigated’. The report concluded: 

“A rising sense of continuing injustice and grievance among large sections of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, in particular in Derry and Dungannon, in respect of (i) inadequacy of housing provision by certain local authorities (ii) unfair methods of allocation of houses built and let by such authorities, in particular; refusals and omissions to adopt a ‘points’ system in determining priorities and making allocations (iii) misuse in certain cases of discretionary powers of allocation of houses in order to perpetuate Unionist control of the local authority.”

In 1971 the Housing Executive Act was passed, and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive came into existence. Interestingly, the Northern Ireland Labour Party had proposed a single all-purpose housing authority in 1964, an idea which had been dismissed; it was only after the then British Home Secretary, James Callaghan, forced Stormont to create a single all-purpose housing authority, following the riots, that Stormont conceded and began to take the idea forward. The bill was originally proposed by Ulster Unionist Minister of Development, Brian Faulkner, and unsurprisingly faced strong opposition from right wing unionists and Paisley-ites.

In 1971 the newly formed housing executive took on the role and staff of Northern Ireland Housing. Later in 1972 it took on the housing functions and staff from 61 authorities and, later, in 1973 the housing functions of the New Town Development Commissions for Derry, Antrim, Ballymena and Craigavon. The new housing executive also became landlord for over 150,000 homes. To ensure impartiality a new points based policy for the allocation of houses was introduced. 

Integrated housing was encouraged, and it continues to be encouraged by the executive. Sadly, however,  sectarianism continues. As of 2011 90% of all housing executive estates remain primarily of one religious identity. 

In 1974 a survey on housing conditions was undertaken. It found that Northern Ireland had the worst housing conditions in the UK, and that 20% of houses were unfit for occupancy. A programme of house building was undertaken which saw more than 80,000 new homes built between 1975 and 1996. This programme constructed two and three storey homes rather than the high-rise buildings of the 1960s. In addition to this a renovation grants scheme was introduced in 1976 which allowed for privately owned homes to be refurbished. Subsequent surveys on housing conditions were carried out in 1979 and again in 1984 which found that the percentage of unfit for living houses had fallen to 14% and 2.4% respectively. 

Sadly, the pro-private Thatcher era had a substantial effect on the executive. The right to buy scheme, introduced in 1979, allowed tenants to purchase their homes at incredibly discounted prices meaning derelict houses were sold off on the open market for as little as a few hundred pounds. Loans and grants became available to the buyer to support renovation. A piloted scheme of joint ownership led to the foundation of the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association. All these measures served to weaken the Housing Executive itself. 

As the housing crisis deepens there are very severe social implications to consider. As Stewart Smyth, Senior Lecturer in Accounting at Birmingham Business School pointed out in his report ‘Our Homes, Our Future – Protect our Public Housing’ 

“There is a desperate need for a ‘more radical, innovative housing policy that is geared towards the specific needs of Northern Ireland. This is a housing policy that puts the need for shelter at its heart, not the drive to make money or profit from such a basic human need. The Assembly is in an almost unique position having inherited a major social housing organisation with an excellent track record as outlined above. The NIHE should be seen as a unique public asset (arguably unlike anything that exists elsewhere in the world) rather than a problem that needs to be taken out of the public sector and gifted to the private sector.”

Gemma Weir, Workers’ Party representative for North Belfast has stated that “despite years of austerity the Housing Executive has managed to sustain attacks on its existence due in the main to its popularity with the population. The recent announcement by the minister provides no clarity on how the newly separated ‘landlord’ component of the Housing Executive will be governed. In fact, it is fairly obvious that the aim is to make sure it is no longer regarded as a public body and therefore its board will not be publicly accountable. The Assembly also continue to ignore those in the private rental sector. There must also be greater rights and protection for tenants in the private sector to include long-term tenancies and rent certainty. The proposals although filled with pomp have little to no substance and once the surface is scratched it will reveal plans to privatise.”

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive is one of the most important aspects and reforms to emerge from the civil rights movement. The core values of the Housing Executive are fairness, equality and accountability. These values must be protected at all costs.