Over the past year or so I’ve been reflecting on social housing policy in Northern Ireland since devolution, and particularly during the 2007-11 administration during which local elected representatives were involved for the full period. The result is a working paper: ‘Policy difference and policy ownership under UK devolution: social housing policy in Northern Ireland’.
The starting point was to recognise how important social housing policy is to all parties here, and how that commitment has, if anything, increased since 1999. For example, the Committee for Social Development held an inquiry into Housing in Northern Ireland during 2001-02, very early on in the life of the Assembly, where the call was first made for a housing strategy for Northern Ireland, following the example of Wales. But subsequent legislation has been used mainly to bring social housing policy in line with England, and no overall housing strategy has been developed from that day to this although we are told that a consultation document will be available in September.
The paper also reviews three key issues for social housing from the 2007-11 administration: the governance of social housing; the procurement of new social housing; and improving access to shared space and a shared future. Governance is currently under scrutiny with the delayed report on the organisational review of the Housing Executive awaited eagerly: I hope it will include a stronger and more streamlined regulatory mechanism for social housing providers. The procurement of new social housing is undergoing change driven by EU procurement policy and the drive for efficiency at both UK and NI Executive level. And the social and economic advantages of mixed community housing are becoming more obvious and better supported by the public over time, but the major challenge remains to give people the confidence to share space in more contested areas.
So has devolution made a difference? In terms of policy, not really. But I came across a concept developed by another academic, called ‘policy ownership’. What this means is that our politicians moved towards presenting Northern Ireland policies as their own, and appropriate for the jurisdiction, whether or not they were original. The turning point was Margaret Ritchie’s promotion of the New Housing Agenda in 2008, which, I said:
... marked the beginning of a new phase in Northern Ireland housing policy, in which the previous technocratic approach, dominated by officials, was to be supplemented - although not replaced - by more direct political control by the Minister for Social Development (p.10).
It’s not surprising that this has happened. Of course politicians are going to take the credit for popular policies, such as providing homes. Whatever we may think about current politicians and political parties, the best option for Northern Ireland’s democratic future is that local political control is here to stay. If we as citizens regard the political system as inadequate then we have to do something about it.
It was also clear from some interviews I carried out that the more direct involvement of politicians was not welcomed by many others involved in social housing policy-making and delivery. The dynamics of the policy field had shifted, and I think this continues to cause problems not only in housing but also in other areas where we have seen difficulties with making decisions, such as education and community relations. During the 2007-11 administration, governance issues were regarded as having had far more impact than economic change on policy-making. It’ll be interesting to see whether this remains the case over the next few years, as cuts begin to bite.