The Housing Executive is “Northern Ireland’s single comprehensive regional housing authority”. Under the Department for Communities, it is tasked with “identification and analysis of housing need” as well as planning, formulation and management of the Social Housing Development Programme of home-building, to meet that need.
As part of this work the Housing Executive collects, collates and, at the end of each financial year in March, finalises the set of statistics showing the state of the social housing waiting list, allocations and the estimated shortfall in social homes by area.
PPR request these statistics annually. In previous years the data has been released to show how the waiting list, and within it, measures of acute housing need like ‘housing stress’ and ‘Full Duty Applicant homelessness’, have grown over the year – as they consistently have in past years, across Northern Ireland as a whole and in individual areas of Belfast.
Every year PPR analyse this set of statistics in detail to understand;
- the minimum number of children living in households coping with housing stress and FDA homelessness, in Belfast and across the north
- the concentration of housing stress and homelessness in certain areas – most frequently, predominately Catholic areas – of Belfast
- the comparative growth of the housing waiting list, of housing stress and of FDA homelessness over time, in Belfast and across all of NI
This evidence is helpful in raising public awareness about the situation faced by families in acute housing need, and informing PPR’s work and the work of our colleagues who are working to address the housing crisis.
This April, however, the Housing Executive changed practice. In response to our annual Freedom of Information requests the Housing Executive refused to release the information, saying “subsequent to the similar request you made for this information last year, the Housing Executive has had to bring in reporting restrictions on its Waiting List statistics in accordance with Section 13(1) of the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007.” The Information Commissioner’s Office has clarified that the exemption from disclosure of information that the Housing Executive has claimed, under section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, is not subject to a public interest test.
The Housing Executive has not replied to PPR’s query about the basis for its change in practice.
This 2007 Act – which has never in past years been an impediment to the Housing Executive sharing the data – refers in its section 13(1) to a duty to comply with the Code of Practice for Statistics with regard to any ‘National Statistics’. (According to the Housing executive correspondence with PPR, the DFC Housing Bulletin is a designated National Statistic; as such the information cannot be shared until the DFC publishes the headline figures from the dataset - theoretically at end May.) The Housing Executive has not replied to PPR’s query about the basis for its change in practice.
Why does this matter? Analysis of last year’s data revealed a worrying rise in the incidence and severity of housing need and in child homelessness; it also uncovered deepening shortfalls in social housing in some areas and newly-emerging shortfalls in previously unaffected areas.
In January, the chief executive of Simon Community NI told Belfast media,
“We have never seen things so bad. Homelessness in North and West Belfast is at crisis point, and like elsewhere is heading towards a homelessness disaster with resources extremely stretched and many of those in acute housing need".
He said that the demand for his charity’s temporary accommodation places was 15 times greater than supply, and added
"Sadly we expect to see that demand rise significantly in the New Year as the cost of living crisis really begins to bite with people finding themselves unable to access private rent accommodation due to spiralling rents.”
PPR analysis of data from NISRA has also uncovered that an average of only 941 social homes have been completed every year across Northern Ireland since 2010, regardless of which Ministers, Chief Executives or Permanent Secretaries have been making decisions. At this rate of development it would take fifty years to house the 45,000 households on the social housing waiting list.
PPR submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Housing Executive to establish how many proposals to build homes were made to the Housing Executive for approval over the previous year. This request was also denied by the Housing Executive, which stated
“The Housing Executive therefore considers that fulfilling this request would be manifestly unreasonable under regulation 12(4)(b) of the EIR Regulations and it is refused on that basis.”
PPR have appealed these decisions. The housing crisis is getting worse and we believe that timely access to open data, and public accountability, are critical to enable policy makers, elected representatives, campaigners and the general public to make informed decisions about how public bodies are doing business.