Theresa May’s new allies in Government, The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have been urged to ensure that further cuts to benefits don’t result in increased rent arrears and a rise in homelessness.
The Chartered Institute for Housing (CIH) Northern Ireland says the DUP should use it’s newly found influence to unsure that UK-wide social security cuts don’t affect social housing provision.
CIH director for Northern Ireland, Nicola McCrudden, said: “The DUP has held the Department for Communities ministry for the past five years. During this time a number of positive housing and social security outcomes have been achieved.”
She added: “Much of the conversation today around the DUP has focused on the big questions like Brexit, their unionist agenda as well as their stance on equality issues such as same sex marriage.
“It is also important to consider their position on other social issues including housing and social security which are relevant across the UK.
“Firstly, the party has maintained a strong commitment to building new social housing. Over the last five years the amount of public funds offered to support new developments was actually increased, to over 50 per cent on average.
“Northern Ireland continues to enjoy the highest proportion of its public spending on housing in the UK, which has helped to keep social housing affordable for the people who need it.”
CIH Northern Ireland says that it’s not only social housing that needs to be prioritised.
Nicola McCrudden said: “The DUP continues to promote home ownership, with funding prioritised for co-ownership housing. They also supported the house sales scheme (right to buy) for housing associations, which has been in place for over ten years in Northern Ireland.
“However they recently proposed to scrap this in order to reduce government control over housing associations and ensure they are classified as private bodies for national accounting purposes, so public investment in social housing is not reduced.
“The most recent DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan MLA also made proposals for reform of the regulation of the private rented sector.
“He acknowledged that there were specific issues that needed to be addressed in order to make private rented accommodation a more attractive housing option, such as property conditions, management standards and a system for disputes resolution.”
As with housing matters, social security is devolved in Northern Ireland and together with housing is the responsibility of the Department for Communities.
However, CIH says local policies are broadly similar to those of the UK Government in order maintain a UK-wide social security system and to avoid deductions to Northern Ireland’s block grant.
CIH welcomed some flexibility in how welfare reform has affected people in Northern Ireland, such as allowing Universal Credit claimants to have rents paid directly to landlords when the new benefit is introduced in Northern Ireland from this September.
Universal Credit claimants in Northern Ireland will also receive twice-monthly payments, compared to those in other parts of the UK who will only receive payments on a monthly basis.
Nicola McCrudden said: “Flexibilities in Northern Ireland’s social security policies will go a long way to keep people out of rent arrears, and ensure they have enough cash flow for essential living expenses as well as keeping a roof over their heads.
“It’s also positive that tenants affected by the bedroom tax and benefit cap have their benefits fully topped-up by supplementary payments, although this will also apply until March 2020.”
The DUP should ensure this support for effective housing and social security policies is reflected in UK government negotiations, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland.
Nicola McCrudden said: “The DUP has to date helped to ensure that people adversely affected by welfare reform are supported, which could make a real difference for these people.
“While housing is devolved, a practical way that the party could continue to help people at the national level is by seeking that the Conservative Party reverse its planned cuts to housing benefit for people living in social housing, which will apply from April 2019.
“Not doing so will severely impact on tenants’ ability to pay their rent and will have serious consequences for new social housing development in certain areas.
“CIH will shortly be publishing a report that shows this change will impact on pensioners in Northern Ireland, and threatens the ability to build new social housing.”