CIH Northern Ireland urges DUP to ensure UK-wide social security cuts don’t affect social housing provision
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) should ensure that plans by the UK government to make further cuts to benefits don’t result in increased rent arrears and a rise in homelessness says the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland.
"The DUP has held the Department for Communities ministry for the past five years. During this time a number of positive housing and social security outcomes have been achieved," said Nicola McCrudden, CIH director for Northern Ireland.
She added: "Much of the conversation today around the DUP has focused on the big questions like Brexit, their unionist agenda as well as their stance on equality issues such as same sex marriage. It is also important to consider their position on other social issues including housing and social security which are relevant across the UK.
"Firstly, the party has maintained a strong commitment to building new social housing. Over the last five years the amount of public funds offered to support new developments was actually increased, to over 50 per cent on average.
"Northern Ireland continues to enjoy the highest proportion of its public spending on housing in the UK, which has helped to keep social housing affordable for the people who need it."
CIH Northern Ireland says it’s not only social housing that has been prioritised.
Nicola McCrudden said: "The DUP continues to promote home ownership, with funding prioritised for co-ownership housing. They also supported the house sales scheme (right to buy) for housing associations, which has been in place for over ten years in Northern Ireland.
"However they recently proposed to scrap this in order to reduce government control over housing associations and ensure they are classified as private bodies for national accounting purposes, so public investment in social housing is not reduced.
"The most recent DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan MLA also made proposals for reform of the regulation of the private rented sector. He acknowledged that there were specific issues that needed to be addressed in order to make private rented accommodation a more attractive housing option, such as property conditions, management standards and a system for disputes resolution."
Housing is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, but social security is also devolved and together with housing is the responsibility of the Department for Communities. However, local policies broadly mirror those of the UK Government in order maintain a UK-wide social security system as far as possible, and to avoid deductions to Northern Ireland’s block grant.
Some flexibilities in the way that welfare reform has been implemented have been positive, says CIH Northern Ireland. When Universal credit is introduced in Northern Ireland this September, there will be automatic payment of rents direct to landlords, and twice-monthly payments of universal credit.
Nicola McCrudden said: "Flexibilities in Northern Ireland’s social security policies will go a long way to keep people out of rent arrears, and ensure they have enough cash flow for essential living expenses as well as keeping a roof over their heads.
"It’s also positive that tenants affected by the bedroom tax and benefit cap have their benefits fully topped-up by supplementary payments, although this will also apply until March 2020."
The DUP should ensure this support for effective housing and social security policies is reflected in UK government negotiations, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland.
Nicola McCrudden said: "The DUP has to date helped to ensure that people adversely affected by welfare reform are supported, which could make a real difference for these people.
"While housing is devolved, a practical way that the party could continue to help people at the national level is by seeking that the Conservative Party reverse its planned cuts to housing benefit for people living in social housing, which will apply from April 2019. Not doing so will severely impact on tenants’ ability to pay their rent and will have serious consequences for new social housing development in certain areas.
"CIH will shortly be publishing a report that shows this change will impact on pensioners in Northern Ireland, and threatens the ability to build new social housing."