The Chartered Institute of Housing’s report from the Independent Commission on the Future for Housing in Northern Ireland is published today. It's a terrific achievement and to be warmly welcomed.
The report's three most important features are, in my opinion, the proposal for a Northern Ireland Housing Strategy; the emphasis on the importance of housing for the economy; and the need for greater coherence between housing and planning policy. It places less emphasis than I would have liked on housing support for people with special needs such as mental health problems and physical disability.
However, this being Northern Ireland, many people will be turning first to the section on housing divisions by religious background and also by income.
The section begins with some rather misleading statistics citing the most extreme figures for small area religious segregation in Belfast’s Housing Executive estates as if they are for the whole of Northern Ireland and for all social housing. The situation outside Belfast is much more varied, unsurprisingly (there is a second NIHE report covering this, but I can't find a web link). Then, for contrast, we are told that the Life and Times Survey says 80% of us want to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood. Perhaps we know what to tell the nice person with the clipboard, or perhaps it’s a genuine aspiration but, for some, not quite the right time. Whatever the reason, as the Commission accepts, the problem has always been how to instil a sufficient sense of security to encourage individuals to make the move.
The Good Friday Agreement aspires to ‘the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing’. More pragmatically, the Housing Executive, which is in charge of allocating social housing, promises in its community cohesion policy to ‘support individual housing choice whether it is exercised in favour of single identity or mixed neighbourhoods’. That’s because the closer you get to having to deal with the consequences of getting it wrong, the more cautious you have to be.
The Commission’s consultation document last year reported mixed views about the speed of change, with some urging a more prescriptive approach but most endorsing the Housing Executive’s existing method of promoting greater sharing where there is support for it on the ground – as does the final report. One suggestion is that a different way of allocating social housing, called choice based lettings, could help housing applicants to be more proactive in selecting a mixed religion area. The economic crisis may be a further driver. The report notes that segregated housing is an inefficient use of land. It doesn’t say that the current practice of spending public money on building new houses in one area while others nearby lie empty will become increasingly untenable as budgets shrink.
The report’s discussion of housing segregation by income will be less familiar to many in NI. Housing tenure is usually a proxy for income: in other words the poorest people live in social housing, and nowadays quite often also in the private rented sector, with richer people owning their own homes or renting more expensive property from a private landlord. The housing policy orthodoxy is that ‘mixed tenure’ schemes will dilute deprivation, create better environments and encourage social mixing between people of different backgrounds. Unfortunately, the actual evidence on mixing is patchy – it appears that no amount of social engineering can make you talk to your neighbour if you don’t want to. However, there’s no doubt that the alternative of living in a highly disadvantaged area is worse in other ways, and from that point of view the report is right to point out that mixed tenure reduces ‘stigma and social disadvantage’. But it’s unrealistic to propose that ‘mixed tenure developments should become the norm by 2015’, not least because some people with purchasing power will never choose to live in them. Small amounts of new social housing (say, 6 houses, or a block of 6 - 8 flats) in more affluent areas create mix in a different way - but that might upset influential people.
The most contentious point comes when the report tries to link the two forms of segregation, proposing that ‘mixed tenure schemes could also play a part in breaking down the barriers of the religious divide. Not least because there is less propensity to live separately as people become better off’. This is a new angle on the idea that mixed tenure somehow modifies the bad habits of the poor, in this case sectarianism. Although I am prepared to be corrected, I have never seen this connection made in the academic literature and it may be significant that it’s worded very conditionally. Now it may be that more affluent areas are less segregated, although more research is needed. But moving into a new mixed tenure scheme isn’t going to be like moving to Malone or Culmore.
It has taken the Housing Executive ten years to get from commissioning a report on how to promote integrated housing to the current, still small scale, shared housing programme. Any attempt to introduce a new model fusing both mixed religion and mixed income housing will also require a great deal of preparation and should be handled with care.