I write following a further meeting with the DFC Minister, Carál Ní Chuilín in respect of the NIHE and her proposals regarding Social Housing Reform which includes “revitalising the NIHE” and the re-categorisation of the Landlord functions to a Mutual or Co-Operative.
NIPSA firstly referred to its submission which had been sent in advance of the meeting and included copies of NIPSA publications in respect of the NIHE and Social Housing Reform and whilst it was disappointing the minister had not received the questions and publications that were with her Secretary for some time she gave a commitment to respond to these in writing and ensure NIPSA receives the minutes of our meetings.
NIPSA outlined its long standing position built up over many years, under different ministers and identified a number of concerns for the NIHE as an organisation, employees, tenants and the community as a whole.
Firstly, NIPSA pointed out that the splitting up of the NIHE and the re-categorisation equates to privatisation and rather than being publically accountable would now be run on a privatised ethos with lower levels of scrutiny than the publically accountable body that the NIHE is presently.
NIPSA raised concerns from experience with regards to previous TUPE exercises and the impact this had on members’ jobs, terms and conditions and pensions. NIPSA asked if members would have a choice whether to move to the new Landlord Co-operative or remain in the NIHE Authority body. The Minister indicated we should not see any difference with a new model by either staff or tenants.
NIPSA reinforced the need for continuous engagement such as the previous Trade Union Forums which looked at Social Housing Reform across both the Department and the NIHE. The Minister agreed with this and suggested that we share the minutes of our meeting with NIHE management and staff as the beginning of this process.
The Minister advised she is here to do a job and her proposal is not about privatisation insisting the Co-operative would still be part of the NIHE with employee’s jobs, terms, conditions and pensions remaining the same with accountability to her. The model may be designated as a private body but would be public facing with accountability to her as the Minister and if there was another way to revitalise the NIHE, she would have taken it.
The Minister also indicated that all models where being looked at and what is arrived at will be a “bespoke model” of UK/ROI good practice indicating that she had also asked the TRADEMARK organisation to report on Community Wealth Building models.
The minister told us of her desire to ensure that the NIHE would develop a Board to include representatives who reflected the need to have Human Rights and Equality at its core.
In relation to timescales the Minister indicated that it was her intention to bring this proposal and associated legislation forward within the current political mandate ending 2022.
The Minister informed us that legislation would be drafted in respect of ending the right to buy scheme and public consultation will commence accordingly. Alongside this proposal the Minister indicated at the potential for properties to be bought back into the NIHE stock would also be coming forward in the New Year.
However, NIPSA remains concerned that any change to the ONS classification of the NIHE as a public body whether it aspires to be a mutual or co-operative would ultimately require it under current rules to become privatised in all but name.
NIPSA’s experience and research has reflected how housing mutuals and co-operatives become subject to business-style pressures, focused on finances, increasing the balance sheet, and attracting funding from a finance market that previously gave us the financial crash of 2008 and ongoing years of austerity.
Organisations evolve with a business-style focus on capacity/asset building and ultimately profit and loss which has been proven to be detrimental in the long term for both customers and employees, leading to higher rents, investments are time limited and profit driven while employee terms and conditions are eroded to reflect a more flexible approach and driven by efficiency in a bid to provide value for money, maximise income for investors and increase assets.
NIPSA reiterated that it would like to see the NIHE remain a fully public and accountable body that builds on its experience with those in the NI Assembly demonstrating leadership behind a social housing and reform model that has this at its core and recognises the need to provide the necessary legislation to make it happen rather than look to other uncertain models which are ultimately driven by a private sector ethos.
The Minister reiterated there was no other way or she would have taken it and she was there to do a job that would have human rights and equality as its key in ensuring the needs of those in need.
The meeting ended with a commitment to meet again in March 2021 to review progress and acknowledgement that while we will not see eye to eye on all issues the Minister remains committed to ongoing engagement.