Northern Ireland is building little more than half the homes needed to meet current and projected future need. This well-known fact is referenced in and provides the context for the DSD-commissioned Housing Supply Forum report, published today.
As a member of the Forum, I want to thank John Armstrong of the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) for chairing the diverse group comprising private house builders, statutory bodies, banks and academics. Although supported by government, the Forum acted independently.
The report is mercifully concise and contains ten recommendations which, if implemented, could help achieve a much needed step-change in the level of house building across Northern Ireland. As well as ensuring more people have access to a decent, affordable home, this is urgently needed to create jobs and boost our sluggish economic recovery.
Access to land is a major problem for housing associations and private builders alike. Strengthening planning policy and practice is vital in rectifying this situation. For example, the major delays in adopting the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) and progressing successor plans, means that there are very few sites left that were zoned for housing.
Given potential delays in new councils adopting new local development plans (LDPs) with adequate land allocated for homes, the report’s first recommendation is that consideration should be given to adopting a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in NI.
Following similar policy in GB, this would mean that applications that can demonstrate they are sustainable development, as set out in planning policy, cannot be refused through councils not having up-to-date plans in place.
Releasing more surplus public sector land is also considered vital to increase housing supply. To enable this, the creation of a register of all public land assets is recommended.
The new Programme for Government should also include a robust target to build an ambitious number of new homes on surplus public land.
Greater encouragement and support for joint ventures between private developers and housing associations is recommended to increase supply. Such JVs are well-established in GB, such as in a 1,500 home development between Places for People and Balfour Beatty in the former Olympic Park in east London.
Less prescriptive imposition of NI public procurement policy and practical support for one or two JVs could help realise this potential. In further support of mixed-tenure housing, it is also proposed that councils should be given powers to assemble sites to be assembled for the benefit of the whole community and to ensure the appropriate delivery of housing need.
Among the other recommendations, the report makes more technical proposals around streamlining planning processes to ensure a more speedy and straightforward negotiation of planning and other regulatory processes.
Ahead of the Assembly elections and preparation of a new Programme for Government, this is an important and timely report. For the sake of our people and economy, meeting the range of housing needs must be a higher political priority.
As they prepare their manifestos for May, the Housing Supply Forum report gives the parties concrete and workable ideas on how to get NI building.