Minister for Finance and Personnel, Simon Hamilton, answered questions on the behalf of the unwell Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, during today’s Question Time.
Mr Hamilton provided an update on the housing repossession taskforce, a group established by the Social Development Minister to investigate the issue of negative equity and repossessions in Northern Ireland. The first phase of the process is to produce an initial research report focussing on the nature and extent of the possessions issue in Northern Ireland – this should be completed by the end of June 2014 and will then inform the second phase of developing evidence-based recommendations for potential mitigating actions by the end of 2014. Members expressed concern about low-income families being forced to buy properties in the rented sector and potentially spiralling into debt. Mr Hamilton moved to ease concerns by pointing to the Social Development Minister’s commitment to building more social and affordable homes and schemes such as co-ownership housing, as well as the availability of social housing, to show that there are different options open to people depending on their circumstances.
Mr Hamilton then provided the House with an update on the Building Successful Communities pilot schemes, a Departmental initiative aimed at regenerating communities beginning with six pilot areas in Belfast and Ballymena. The scheme aims to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access good housing at a reasonable cost and tackle problems of blight, vacant housing stock, antisocial behaviour, high incidences of reported crime and economic inactivity. Currently three of the pilot areas have established their regeneration forum and will meet soon to identify their area’s specific physical, social, environmental and economic needs, with a view to developing a plan to address those issues.
The Minister also answered questions on housing needs in north Belfast and the alleged gerrymandering of housing allocations and resources in north Belfast. During topical questions he also answered Members’ queries on topics such as work capability assessment, welfare reform, neighbourhood renewal schemes and the new responsibilities of the super-councils.