2014/15 was a particularly challenging year for housing associations, with a nearly 60% increase in delivery targets. Although the numbers are still being crunched, we are hopeful that the 2,000 new social homes target will be met. And for me, and NIFHA’s members, new homes are good news. That means more families, older people, people with disabilities and support needs getting a high-quality, energy efficient affordable house.
Over the last few months, though, the number of stories in the local media about communities opposing new housing in their area has been troubling. I think we can all relate to the fundamental human need for security and a space to call our own. A home really is the foundation for access to support, good health, educational and employment outcomes and opportunity.
Northern Ireland has real housing need – many people living in housing that just isn’t suitable for them, living on family and friends’ sofas and goodwill, some in hostels and on the streets. We have high levels of economic inactivity, areas of multiple deprivation and communities that have lost hope; this impacts on all of us, on our society as a whole. Housing isn’t the answer to all of these problems, but it is a good starting point. So why are so many people in Northern Ireland saying no to social and supported housing?
Sometimes the issues raised by neighbouring residents and elected representatives relate to material planning considerations; the suitability of access routes into schemes, potential pressure on existing physical and social infrastructure; the design and visual appearance of the new houses etc. These are valid concerns and should be addressed throughout the consultation process. Housing associations can and will amend plans where possible to respond to material considerations. The planning application process is intended to publicise new developments so that people can comment and enable planners to take concerns into account before approving a development.
However, not all objections raised relate to the physical layout, design and impact of a new housing scheme. New social and supported housing in an area is often seen to be controversial, prompting ‘angry reactions’ and opposition. It is less about the houses and more about the people who will be living in them. These are not planning issues; perceived losses in the value of existing properties because of the presence of a social housing scheme next door or fears of anti-social activity because of social housing tenants are not something that planners can or should take into consideration when determining whether to approve an application.
Yet, in spite of the non-material nature of many of the objections raised to social and supported housing, they are increasingly causing delays or, in the worst case scenario, housing associations to step away from sites. In some cases, where supported housing is being opposed, associations simply cannot risk placing vulnerable people into an unwelcoming and potentially hostile environment. With housing need continuing to increase and a health agenda that advocates independent living, the demand for social and supported housing has never been greater.
The current opposition to development isn’t sustainable if we are to provide the required levels of housing, care and support in Northern Ireland.
It is easy to dismiss opposition to development as NIMBYism and sometimes it really is as simple as that. But really understanding some of the concerns behind planning objectives and responding to them, not just on a scheme or community basis, but across our society might be the key to removing these barriers.
Research in England has demonstrated that a growing awareness and anxiety about the scale of the housing crisis has seen a swing towards development with all ages, regions and voter groups realising that this isn’t someone else’s problem, it’s in their backyard. With homeownership accessible only to the few and, increasingly the privileged and renting in the private sector often short-term, unsuitable and unaffordable, the argument for more new homes to meet demand and prevent people having to just take anything they can get is finally being accepted.
Northern Ireland faces different housing challenges and opposition is often focused on social and supported housing, but the need to raising public awareness of the impact of blocking new development, challenging misperceptions about social housing and making clear the realities of housing need and how it affects peoples’ lives may help mitigate some of the non-material opposition to new schemes. And that has to be a priority for everyone involved in delivering new homes.