Recently, the proposed Housing Strategy by the Department for Communities was opened for comment. This provided us with an opportunity to engage with the Department and the wider industry, stressing the key role of SMEs in delivering key objectives.
Speaking at the Westminster Forum Policy event on Housing, I was able to stress the need for ambition, financial support, and an improved planning system to help our members build the new housing needed.
The Minister for Communities has spoken of the need to deliver 100,000 homes over a 15-year period. We are keen to encourage a clear vision and ambition for this goal. However, if we break that figure down it amounts to just under 7,000 per year, which is roughly what we are delivering now.
What are the FMB’s asks?
A bolder target for yearly home building
We would ask for a bolder vision, with short term targets that drive us over and above the figures that are already being currently delivered and not meeting Northern Ireland’s housing needs. Why not provide the finance to deliver some 10,000 homes per year over the first three-year period for example?
This would have a huge impact and represent a real move forward. It would attract more contractors to commit to homebuilding and re-energise the recruitment of new talent to work in the industry.
So how do we do this? What do we need to implement?
Make more small sites available for SME developers
The home building sector in Northern Ireland is comprised of several large private developers and housing associations. However, there are many small developers, many of whom we are proud to have as FMB members, who are well placed to put a high value on quality projects and who can develop smaller sites, an essential aspect to any housing strategy.
As detailed in our report Small is beautiful: Delivering more homes through small sites, significant effort is needed on the part of the public and private sectors to make more space available for house building projects.
Develop more homes on the high street
It's important to explore all options to increase our housing supply. Given the changing nature of our town centres, the Department should explore the role of spaces on our high streets for potential use in residential development. More information on this can be found in our report, Homes on our high streets.
The population of the inner-city Belfast is at its lowest since the 1890s, and has seen a gradual decline since 1971. We acknowledge that towns and cities have not always been the most advantageous places to live here in Northern Ireland, but reintroducing people with the right skills and the right opportunities back into our town centres is achievable and could revitalise these areas.
The rationale for exploring the opportunity for residential development on our high streets extends beyond solving the housing crisis. Recent years have seen significant changes in our working patterns, internet accessibility and shopping habits which mean former commercial spaces are ripe for repurposing.
Simplify our planning system with investment in local council planning departments to speed up the process
We need to build confidence in a planning system which is fit for purpose. Many FMB members feel a sense of frustration with long drawn-out processes which have hindered development. For more on this matter, you can read our response to the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report on the planning system.
Looking forward we need to see an Executive who invest in the skills, finance, incentives and planning to deliver a program of housing which all of society deserve.
Contact Gavin McGuire, Director FMB Northern Ireland on 07341 869 080 or send us an email.