Monday 15 January 2007
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Madam Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. At last Monday’s plenary sitting, I raised the matter of the inquiry into certain happenings in the House after the Assembly recess. I understand that there has been a meeting; can you tell the House when there is likely to be a report? As you know, Madam Speaker, time is running out for this Assembly, and we would like the opportunity to debate the findings in the House.
Madam Speaker: Thank you, Dr Paisley, for raising this matter. I understand your continuing anxiety about this important issue. The Transitional Assembly Commission went to Scotland last week to talk to people there about a number of issues in relation to the security review. However, it is not my intention to make a statement about the security review, which I announced to the House on 27 November, until it is completed. I am sure that you and other Members will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to do so. However, like you, I am aware of the time element, and I will endeavour to get it done as soon as possible.
Madam Speaker: I should like to announce to the Assembly that further to the resignation of Ms Patricia Lewsley as a Member for the Lagan Valley constituency, I wrote to the Chief Electoral Officer, as required by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to inform him of the vacancy. The Chief Electoral Officer has advised that Ms Marietta Farrell has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the Lagan Valley constituency. I invite Ms Farrell to take her seat by signing the Roll of Membership.
The following Member signed the Roll of Membership:
Farrell, Marietta Nationalist
Madam Speaker: I am satisfied that the Member has signed the Roll and has confirmed her designation. Ms Marietta Farrell has now officially taken her seat.
Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow two and a half hours for each of today’s debates: the Member moving each motion will have 15 minutes, with a further 15 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have a maximum of 10 minutes.
Mr McGlone: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the affordable housing crisis; notes the deliberations by the committee chaired by Sir John Semple; and demands that any new Executive make affordable housing an urgent Government priority.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leat as ucht an seans a thabhairt domh labhairt ar an ábhar seo, nó is ábhar an-tábhachtach é.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the issue of affordable housing, which is crucially important to me and to many homeowners, tenants and prospective buyers.
On 11 January 2007, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ informed us that:
“First-time buyers in Northern Ireland now have to save more than 80% of their take-home pay to cover the upfront costs of buying a house”.
That is one aspect of a worsening problem that faces many people on our streets.
I note the amendment to the motion, but first I wish to define affordable housing. The widely accepted definition is social-rented accommodation; lower-cost housing that is for sale; and some private-sector rented accommodation. Unfortunately, through a lack of provision, the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to the point where Northern Ireland faces a housing crisis. Last year, 40,453 people were on housing waiting lists, with 20,121 households presented as homeless. In the past three years, including 2006, social new-build housing starts fell behind the Government’s projected figure by almost 2,000 houses. Therefore, Government- led projected new-build figures have fallen far short of what is needed. In the districts of Magherafelt and Cookstown in my constituency, which have 972 people on housing waiting lists, six — yes, six — houses were built in two years.
Members are aware of people who are offered private rentals as their only alternative. Housing benefit accounts for only part of the rent, with the deficit sought from disability living allowance, attendance allowance, income support, or worse, from loan sharks. That is a downward spiral to deeper poverty, all because not enough housing is being built for public-sector social renting.
Earlier, I referred to first-time buyers. Last year, in mid-Ulster, the average house price before the now notorious Draft Planning Policy Statement 14, ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ (PPS 14), was £177,000. Since Draft PPS 14, £30,000 to £40,000 can be added to that figure. PPS 14 is the deliberate action of a Government that are, allegedly, committed to social and affordable housing.
House prices have trebled in my constituency, with a growth of 30·6% in one year alone. As Northern Ireland’s housing costs are the highest and its wages among the lowest in these regions, it is little wonder that the Nationwide reports that people are borrowing up to 5·2 times their annual income. The average in Scotland is 3·6 times the annual income. The median advance for first-time buyers in 2001 was £50,000. By 2005, however, that median had increased by 55% to £77,480.
There have also been human costs. In 2005-06, 2,614 actions for mortgage repossession were recorded — an increase of 19·5% from the previous year. I am sure that we elected representatives could share tales of rural constituents who simply cannot build or buy a house because of the consequences of social engineering via the political project known as Draft PPS 14. It is a political project by an urban adviser to a Labour Government with absolutely no idea of the needs of our rural society. Indeed, the role of that particular adviser beggars description. Will the real Secretary of State please stand up?
As for all problems, there must be a solution. Those of us who have met Sir John Semple and made submissions to his committee have identified many issues. Those issues can be prioritised under three headings: land; planning; and investment. Land priorities include the slowness of approvals for area plans that are tied to restrictive capped figures — the housing growth indicators — which have driven land costs to an artificially inflated level and have had a knock-on effect on new builds.
I have already referred to the negative effects of Draft PPS 14 on rural areas. We need to revise zones and zone more land to help to reduce basic land costs. We must also introduce measures to de-zone land that is not used or likely to be used, or that in some instances has been land-banked, because it is also contributing to knock-on inflationary costs.
We must introduce a proper sustainable planning policy — rather than the artificial one that has driven costs exorbitantly though the roof — that meets the real needs of rural communities. There must be a complete review of the planning process, including resources, in order to speed it up; currently, applicants endure entirely unacceptable waiting times. By the time that some planning offices deal with an application and issue an approval, the construction costs of a dwelling may have increased by 20% to 30%. Section 106 of England’s Town and Country Planning Act 1990, Part V of the Planning and Development Act, 2000 in the South of Ireland and section 75 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 contain provisions for similar measures that assist the planning system to develop affordable housing. Those measures must be seen in action in Northern Ireland. Importantly, there must be substantial investment in the social-housing new-build programme.
A major housing crisis is welling up. We hope that the details that are contained in the Semple Report will be listened to; that the Assembly will be listened to; and that it will soon be in a position to prioritise that most basic of human rights, the right to a decent home, through the establishment of an Executive in Northern Ireland. Those measures are not major or undeliverable. Many could be brought about at the stroke of a pen but for the inhumanity of indifference that is displayed by the Government.
There are too many reasons why there must not be indifference. We owe it to the people who are on waiting lists, and those who cannot afford a decent home, to demand that a new Executive make affordable housing an urgent Government priority.
Arís, a Cheann Comhairle, gabhaim mo bhuíochas leat agus cuirim an rún os comhair an Tionóil.
Mr McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after “crisis;” and insert
“and the serious under-provision of social housing due to lack of investment and the absence of any strategy; note the deliberations by the committee chaired by Sir John Semple; and calls on an incoming Executive to make social and affordable housing an urgent priority, and for the development of a strategic response, including action to end homelessness by 2010, and to bring vacant properties back into use to address the unmet need in the provision of social and affordable housing.”
A Cheann Comhairle, I commend the Member for bringing this important issue to the Floor of the Chamber. Without the amendment, the motion misses an important element of housing — the provision of social housing, a sector that for many years has been totally neglected and that has suffered from serious and sustained underinvestment. In today’s housing market, affordable housing, social housing and the other elements that make up the housing mix should run hand in glove. Mixed-tenure housing, developed as part of a strategic frame-work, is the way forward. I hope that the building of vast housing estates without any infrastructure is a thing of the past.
The question of creating an affordable-housing sector has been to the fore of many people’s thoughts for some time. However, the fact that the only offering from the Government is co-ownership shows how bankrupt of ideas they are. Again, it shows what advice David Hanson has been given by his advisers.
At many meetings, Sinn Féin has raised the issue of creating an affordable-housing sector. It has been painted up for successive Ministers that, unless action was taken to at least begin the debate, we would find ourselves in crisis. I have warned British direct-rule Ministers that the inability of the Department for Social Development to manage the social new-build housing programme, if not acted on, would lead to major problems in the supply of social housing. I take no pleasure in saying that both warnings have come to pass. The crisis could have been avoided.
The refusal to respond to intense lobbying from many housing groups, political parties and individuals has left us in a position where in the last recorded quarter — April to June 2006 — 98·3% of all housing starts were for the private sector. That is part of the reason for the crisis in the provision of social housing. We are simply not building enough new homes in the social sector. Current targets are not being met — and those targets were not ambitious enough in the first place. The social-housing sector is virtually non-existent. When annual new-build figures are released, they are manufactured to give the impression that more houses have been built than were actually constructed.
In 1995-96, 2,403 new social houses were built; in 2005-06, only 782 were completed. That is a huge decline over 10 years. Only a third as many houses are being built than was the case 10 years ago. If those figures are matched against the number of people declaring themselves homeless, it puts the crisis into perspective. In 1995-96, 10,468 people were declared homeless. Ten years later that figure had risen to over 20,000; for the first two quarters of 2006 the figure was 10,460. The trend is still upwards. That is an indictment of the way in which housing has been mishandled.
Sinn Féin hopes that the appointment of John Semple to produce a report on affordability and social housing development will prove to be a new beginning in the development of a strategy to pull us out of the crisis. Sinn Féin had serious reservations about John Semple’s appointment to oversee the exercise, given his former connection to Government, and we told him so at our meeting. He assured us that he was his own person and would not bend to anyone’s wishes in the pursuance of producing an honest report. His interim recommendations are interesting and thought provoking; we await the final package. The Government initiated the review, but are they committed to fully resourcing its findings?
Will the Government find the finance required to implement a housing revolution: the eradication of homelessness; the building of high-quality affordable houses; and the creation of mixed-tenure estates with the infrastructure to allow them to thrive? We need an incoming Executive to make affordable and social housing a priority. We need a future housing Minster to promote sustainable communities and ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a house at a price they can afford in a place where they want to live and work. Members need to recognise that housing is a right, and I hope that work on a bill of rights will take a broad approach to social and economic rights.
The British Government have made a huge invest-ment in social housing in England. The same cannot be said in the Six Counties. We need to ensure that the concept of sustainability in housing estates is realised. The British Government’s definition of sustainable communities is:
“places where people want to live and work, now and in the future. They meet the diverse needs of existing and future residents, are sensitive to their environment, and contribute to a high quality of life. They are safe and inclusive, well planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all.”
That is a British Government priority; they have embarked on a massive programme of building social and affordable housing and have heavily resourced its sustainability. That is the situation in England, but over the next number of years in the North, there will be cuts to the housing budget.
The approach to affordability in the Twenty-six Counties has been to bring in legislation to ensure that contractors set aside 20% of each private-housing development for social and affordable housing. That was done under Part V of the Planning and Development Act, 2000. The Twenty-six-County Government have recently tightened that Act to ensure that non-compliance is a thing of the past. Sinn Féin TDs have been at the forefront of the campaign to ensure progress, because there were serious concerns that policy was being driven by the demands of speculators rather than by people’s housing needs.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr McCann: I have limited time left, so I will not give way.
Councils in the South bank land to use in negotiations with contractors to ensure the continuous supply of social and affordable housing. Several years ago, the British Deputy Prime Minister challenged the construction industry in Britain to build an affordable house for £60,000, and thousands of new, high-quality houses were built there. Changes to the planning legislation in England speeded up the process.
We must be proactive in our approach to affordable and social housing. Those in society who are most in need must have a roof over their heads, and we must ensure that those who wish to buy their own home are able to do so at an affordable price. Speculators must not be in a position to freeze young first-time buyers out of the market — a situation that is presently the norm. Legislation must be put in place to protect low earners who bought their properties in a super-inflated housing market, only to struggle with mortgages beyond their financial means and find their homes being repossessed. We await the impact of the latest increase in the cost of borrowing. Statistics show that there were 1,540 actions for mortgage repossessions in 2001-02 — an 11·5% decrease on the previous year. However, there were 2,614 such actions in 2005-06 — an increase of 19·5% on the previous year. That shows the extent of the problem.
Sinn Féin wishes John Semple fair wind in his endeavours, because he has a difficult task. His recommendations may well form the basis of a future housing strategy. That is why we should be at the helm to guide, push and resource the strategy, deal with affordability and social housing, and eradicate homelessness. The only people who are committed to making the necessary decisions are in this Chamber. Therefore, it is imperative that the Assembly get up and running. We owe it to the 30,000 people who are awaiting social housing and the thousands who are waiting for affordable homes.
The number of vacant properties in the North of Ireland is a scandal. Out of a total housing stock of 702,000, 36,200 are vacant. They are in various states of repair, and many have been left empty by investors as their profits accumulate. One house in every 20 is empty. By tackling that problem — and without building a single house for the affordable or social sectors — we could go a long way to providing homes for thousands of people and families and meeting the commitment to eradicate homelessness.
All aspects of housing policy are in a mess and need urgent attention. A key element in life is a place to live — a home. That is a fundamental right, but it has been diminished by the incompetent management of the Department for Social Development. Those who have overseen the crisis and made excuse after excuse should consider their positions.
This motion is timely, coming just before the Semple deadline for responses to the consultation, 26 January. It is also a reminder of the obligations that we, as elected Members, have to show leadership on crucial issues such as housing affordability and social-housing supply. Let us hope that, when the time comes, we are up to the challenge required to make the difference.
Mr Poots: I welcome Sinn Féin’s concluding remarks about everyone being entitled to a home and trust that that also applies to those who were ethnically cleansed from the border areas, banished from their homes and sent over to England, because they were not allowed to live in republican areas.
The motion has two elements to it: public- and private-sector housing. I will address the public-sector housing issue briefly. The Housing Executive has failed miserably to supply houses over the past years. That failure has taken place particularly in unionist areas. I think in particular of east Belfast and Lisburn, two areas where there is high demand for housing, but where the Housing Executive has not met, and cannot meet, the demand with its current policies.
The Antrim Street Housing Executive office in Lisburn has 1,200 people on the waiting list, half of whom are in housing stress. Over the past number of years, people have not been able to get houses, yet each year the Housing Executive is selling off more houses than are being built in the area. Our party raised the issue a number of years ago, and due to the pressure that the DUP applied, 180 houses are now to be developed there over a three-year period. However, that will neither address the problem nor meet the needs there.
It appears that the Housing Executive is to some extent relying on the article 40, of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, agreements with private developers, but the problem with that is that the developers have already got planning permission for dwellings, and there is no prospect of their actually building social housing. We are going to have a continued social housing problem in Lisburn and other parts of Northern Ireland unless the Housing Executive amends its ways and goes out of its way to provide housing for people.
One of the issues that has arisen is the inability of the housing associations to proceed with new building and to exercise their powers to procure land for new developments.
That leads me to my other point, which is the private-sector issue of the price of houses — a continual topic of conversation among people now. In my area, the average price of a house is £236,000, and, additionally, there were rises in the last year of 36% — that is unsustainable.
Mr Campbell: One issue that has not been raised in the debate is precisely the one that the Member is about to talk about, which is the private sector. Given that house prices in Northern Ireland have more than doubled while the level at which stamp duty begins has remained static, could the Chancellor not put several thousand pounds into stamp duty for first-time buyers to make housing much more affordable in Northern Ireland?
Mr Poots: Mr Campbell is in danger of setting me off on a rant by raising that topic. It is a grievous tax to impose on individuals who are buying property, and particularly on first-time buyers. Our deaths, wages, even our fish suppers are taxed; it is wholly illegitimate to have any tax on people.
Mr Simpson: Fish suppers?
Mr Poots: Yes, Mr Simpson, we are even taxed on our fish suppers, not that it seems to have applied too much to you. It is grievous that we get taxed when buying our homes.
However, what it comes down to is a simple issue of supply and demand. If supply cannot meet demand, prices are driven up; that is the logic of it. It does not seem to have got through to the Planning Service yet given its area plans. In Ards, for example, land was de-zoned and taken out. In that instance, the Planning Service implied that there was too much housing land available. It did not need to develop as many houses as was proposed in the former area plans, so it took de-zoned land, and the new area plan reflected that.
In the area plan for Newry and Banbridge, no significant additional land was zoned. Newry has the highest house growth prices anywhere in the UK. Newry does not need more land, yet people are saying that it does because the house prices there are rising consistently; indeed the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) is crawling along, failing miserably to meet local needs.
There is nothing over and above the Lisburn area plan in that element of BMAP; in fact, land that was anticipated to have come forward in BMAP in Lisburn for development was excluded from it. This was land that would have delivered the critical road linking Knockmore and Sprucefield in the Lisburn area, and it has clearly failed to deliver that.
I note that the regional development strategy identified that the housing growth indicators could not be adjusted upwards. However, it is now acknowledged that the figure of 51,000 new houses in the original estimate should be adjusted upwards to 66,500, but BMAP still has not met that figure and gives no indication that it will do so.
The critical problem is land supply. Mr McGlone was correct to say that more land must be zoned. We also need to be able to de-zone land, because developers are causing further problems by land-banking. One of the leading accountancy companies in Northern Ireland has advised developers to slow down and to build fewer houses, thereby making greater profits. If people are told that they should work less and that they will get more money for it, most will take up that option. If developers can make more money by building less, that is what they will do, and who could blame them?
There must be a requirement that forces developers to continue with developments once work has begun and that allows land to be de-zoned if the work is not started. Developers must play ball with the community. There is no point in identifying land that is suitable for development and allowing it to sit and stagnate while our young people cannot get into the housing market. It is essential that that issue be addressed.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)
Ten years ago there were many vacant houses in the Old Warren estate in Lisburn and a lot of deprivation in that area. Now houses that were bought by their occupants and are up for sale again are reaching prices of £150,000. That is incredible, given the circumstances that existed in that area in the past. It is an indication that the present market is, to some extent, a false market, although I suspect that it will not be a falling market, given the environmental constraints that are imposed by the Planning Service.
We in Northern Ireland need to address this issue, and the clearest and easiest way to do that is to make more development land available. In conjunction with that, we must ensure that developers make significant contributions to the provision of roads and sewerage systems in those areas, so that no environmental damage results from those new developments. However, the policy of sustainable development that was put on us in Northern Ireland does not lead to sustainable development; the prices of new homes and the rate at which they are rising is unsustainable. Young people cannot afford new dwellings, and the only people who benefit are those who have multiple houses and those who own development land.
Therefore, it is incumbent on any new Executive that might exist after Sinn Féin clearly and definitively supports the police, in deeds as well as words, to deal with this issue. They must ensure that those who push up the price of houses purely out of greed, and drive young people out of the prospect of acquiring new homes, do not get their way all the time and that young people have the opportunity to get onto the property ladder.
Mr Cobain: It could be said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. When I first read Sir John Semple’s interim report, I thought that I was in a time warp. The report is written as if the issue of affordability is something new that has somehow sneaked up on us without warning. Much of what has been written in the report has already been written, and much of what has been said today has already been said.
As Chairman of the Committee for Social Develop-ment during the Assembly’s previous mandate, I, and several Members from other sides of the House, expressed concern about the importance of maintaining a sensible level of social housing. That was back in 2002. I contend that direct-rule Ministers pursued their own agendas and paid no regard whatsoever to what local politicians had to say.
The people of Northern Ireland are suffering, and there are several ways to tackle the issue. People must have access to affordable housing; there should be an aggressive social-housing building programme; co-ownership should continue to be part of the solution; and there is, of course, a role for the private-rented sector. To rely on one or two of those solutions would be a folly. The outcome will inevitably lead to a rise in the already unacceptable levels of homelessness. In 2005, almost 16,000 houses were built in the Province, which is a 10% increase on the previous year’s figure. Fewer than 5% of those were available to the social-rented sector.
There is undeniable evidence that there is a need for a programme of social housing of the order of 2,000 units per year. What is happening is that 30,000 people are on the waiting list for housing. Last year, only 700 new builds were completed. This year, funding is available for only 800 new builds. That is not the fault of the housing associations. There is a lack of investment and impetus.
Many people in the private-rented sector are on low incomes. Housing benefit rates do not keep pace with prices. An interest rate rise has already been announced, with a further rise predicted for February or March, which will lead to landlords seeking to pass on the costs to their tenants. Many people will not be able to afford their rent, and even if there were an increase in housing benefit, people in Northern Ireland face water bills and an increased regional rate. Therefore, the demand for social housing can only increase, and the planned response is inadequate. The 30,000 people on the waiting list will not diminish.
We are all diminished by the experiences endured by homeless families, children and young people. We all lose when the barrier of homelessness prevents them from fully sharing in, and contributing to, our society. Surely this underlines the need to develop affordable housing for low-income families.
Although the housing market here has benefited somewhat, spiralling house prices are causing massive problems. Exceptional growth potential has resulted in landlords and private investors contesting a market traditionally associated with first-time buyers. We must disentangle the competing interests of investors and first-time buyers.
Over the past 10 years, average house prices in Northern Ireland have tripled. Last year, house prices rose by a third, and they now stand at an average of £153,000. How can young people compete with that? Usually, deposits for mortgages are around 5% of the house value. Therefore, to buy an averagely priced house in Northern Ireland, young people must come up with a deposit of over £7,000. That is far beyond the means of many.
In 2005, the Ulster Bank found that two thirds of potential first-time buyers were unable to finance a deposit. Not only that, £1,500 has to be handed over for stamp duty, and, with solicitors charging around 1% for conveyancing, a buyer must come up with another £1,500. In Northern Ireland, it takes an extraordinary amount of money to make the dream of buying an averagely priced house happen, and first-time buyers just cannot keep up.
On a pan-UK basis, Northern Ireland first-time buyers are suffering the most. In the space of five years, the number of first-time buyers here has dropped by 25%. This is at a time when the overall number in the UK has decreased by just 7%.
In 2004, the University of Ulster’s housing market survey warned that:
“first-time buyers are finding it increasingly difficult to raise the deposit needed to get into the market.”
The Ulster Bank said that:
“Strong house price growth in Northern Ireland has outstripped wage increases, resulting in many potential home-owners being unable to buy a property”.
The Government saw that coming: in July 2006, Labour Minister Yvette Cooper told the House of Commons that:
“We have simply not been building enough homes to meet rising demand and changing social trends”.
She went on to say:
“If housing supply is not increased, affordability will continue to worsen.”
Nevertheless, the rise in house prices has been good for the Treasury. The Halifax discovered that £5·5 billion was paid in stamp duty in 2005 — an increase of £1·8 billion from 1999. It is time for the Treasury to respond with some good news for first-time buyers across the United Kingdom.
The UK’s £3 trillion housing market had undergone major changes at the time of the Chancellor’s last Budget, but he missed a major opportunity to move with it. In his tenth Budget, Gordon Brown pegged stamp duty at £125,000, which simply does not reflect the reality of the housing market — the average house price for first-time buyers in Northern Ireland is higher than that. A sustainable and affordable market must be created for young people, and there are options to take a more imaginative UK-wide approach.
What are the options for young people? It is anticipated that co-ownership will help to support about 2,500 applicants up to 2008. Although I welcome the recent announcement of £23 million of funding for the scheme, co-ownership should be extended by abolishing or modifying the house-value limits to which it applies.
Too many families do not have the security of a decent home. The early years of too many of our children are blighted by exclusion, instead of being full of promise. Government should be about making a difference and providing leadership. Under direct rule, however, Northern Ireland lags behind the devolved Administrations of Scotland and Wales. The Scottish Executive have said that, in areas of need, up to 25% of houses in new developments should be for rent or low-cost ownership, and they have moved forward with plans to invest £1·2 billion to deliver 21,500 low-cost and social-rented homes by 2008. Devolved Administrations have shown imagination in dealing with the issue. The core aim of any future local Administration must be to help to build fair and decent communities for all.
In the face of direct rule’s failure, the best people to understand and reflect the concerns in society are Northern Ireland’s locally elected representatives, operating in a devolved Assembly. It is time to act. The Housing Executive was responsible for a highly successful building programme that was well regarded and seems to have solved a housing crisis.
However, there is a different sort of housing crisis now, and the Housing Executive should be financed to intervene again. I stress, however, that the Housing Executive cannot solve the problem alone: housing associations and the private sector must also play their part. Without an urgent investment of public funds, the crisis will become a nightmare.
Mr McCarthy: As Members have said, there is undoubtedly a crisis in relation to the availability of affordable housing. Unless the Government act quickly to help first-time buyers, the majority of our young citizens will find it impossible to buy a home, and that could result in increased levels of homelessness and associated problems.
I welcome, as a first step, the Government’s initiative to ask Sir John Semple to compile a report on the causes, reasons and, I hope, remedies for affordable social housing throughout Northern Ireland. Despite being in interim form, the report demonstrates that there are many and varied reasons why the provision of social housing and affordable housing is difficult. A major problem is that developers buy land and leave it for a long time until its value increases. The land is then sold on again and again.
That can happen many times over before any houses appear on such land. In those circumstances, the Government might have to introduce a compulsory purchase order. There is also the matter of land acquisition and the call for a land register to identify all surplus public-sector land, which should be aimed at providing all forms of affordable housing.
I know that housing associations simply cannot afford to buy land on the open market, so we continue with the shortage of new social housing. In his interim report, Sir John Semple highlighted the number of vacant properties in the private sector. The report states that there are up to 39,000 empty private-sector homes throughout Northern Ireland. Surely there are grants or other incentives to encourage private owners to get their houses up to standard and offer them to housing associations or let them to tenants.
The report contains many good ideas that need to be worked on. In supporting Patsy McGlone’s motion, I hope that an incoming Executive will make affordable housing an urgent priority. Time is of the essence or this housing problem will worsen. The Assembly must be seen to be working to enable young people to get onto the housing ladder as soon as possible. I support the motion.
Mr Simpson: I promise not to take too long; I know that a number of my esteemed colleagues want to have their say, despite the fact that one of them talked about ranting and raving and named me when it came to the tax added onto the price of fish suppers. I do not know why he picked on me; perhaps it was something to do with my slim physique.
There is no doubt that a major affordability crisis exists in the Province’s housing market. There have been many changes in recent years, and we have witnessed a continuous rise in house prices, rising private-sector rents, increases in the number of buy-to-lets and second-home ownerships, increased land and labour costs, increasing evictions and mortgage repossessions and late entry by age onto the housing ladder by first-time buyers.
It is also worrying to note the increase in the number of homeless applications across the Province. In 2003-04, a total of 17,150 applicants presented themselves as homeless to the Housing Executive, 8,954 of whom were accepted. By 2005-06, the number of applicants had risen to 20,121, of whom 9,749 were accepted. In 2004, 2,579 people were homeless for well over a year, but by 2006, that figure had risen to 4,252. The Government should intervene to address the problem.
There is a need not only for more social housing but for more private rental accommodation of various housing types to meet the changing demographics of the country. There is also a need for more affordable homes for first-time buyers.
The Government must ensure that the Planning Service brings forward sites for social housing. Turnaround periods in the Planning Service are considerable. In my constituency of Upper Bann, in the borough of Craigavon, as Members who sit on that council know, the average turnaround period is 33·5 weeks. In Banbridge District Council area, which is also in my constituency, the turnaround period is 55·7 weeks. Turnaround periods must be speeded up. Last year, in the Banbridge District Council area, growth in housing was 16%; in the previous year, that figure was the same. In the borough of Craigavon, it was 14%; and, in the year before, the figure was slightly smaller.
Mrs D Kelly: Whereas housing growth in both of those council areas has increased, the figures for new-build starts in social housing remain dismal. In the Banbridge District Council area, 680 people are in need of social housing, and in the Craigavon district, the figure is 1,687. Despite those startling figures, in the past two years, only 30 new houses were built by the Housing Executive, through the housing associations. Those statistics are appalling.
Mr Simpson: I believe that Mrs Kelly has stolen a copy of my speech. [Laughter.]
I thought that only the DUP had information such as that forwarded to it. Obviously, Mrs Kelly has seen it, and she is quite correct. She sits on Craigavon Borough Council just as I do, so she has a limited knowledge of what goes on. [Laughter.]
There is a major difficulty in the whole Upper Bann constituency with respect to social housing. Land should be released for development more quickly. The Government should look again at Draft PPS 14 and address the demand for social housing in rural areas, where people have a strong sense of belonging and attachment.
Mr Hussey: Will the Member give way again?
Mr Simpson: I will. Have you also stolen my speech?
Mr Hussey: I have not. [Laughter.]
Does the Member agree that the obvious social engineering in Draft PPS 14 prevents maintenance of extended families on family land in rural areas and results in the enforced corralling of rural dwellers into settlements? Does he agree that it assists private developers in effecting rampant increases in house prices and, as such, is to be condemned?
Mr Simpson: I agree with the Member. There is a sense of corralling, which is a major issue.
Another point is the co-ownership scheme. Craigavon Borough Council recently had a presentation from the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association. Councillors believe that the scheme could be developed further by revision of the price limit that applies to property eligible for purchase through co-ownership to make the limit reflect more accurately the rise in house prices. The upper limit for co-ownership is £130,000, yet, as Members have heard today already, the average price of houses across the Province is £186,000. In my constituency, terrace houses are selling at £160,000 or £170,000.
It is a very difficult situation. The co-ownership scheme helped 1,500 applicants last year, but that does not put much of a dint in the overall social housing problem.
I welcome the recommendation in Sir John Semple’s report that 2,000 homes should be built for social housing purposes. Last week, I spoke to a developer in my constituency during a meeting with Invest Northern Ireland. He is contracted to build 12,000 homes right across the Province, yet not one of those houses will be used for social housing.
There is a major problem in the Province. Young people are finding it more difficult to buy houses and are opting for 40-year mortgages. That puts massive pressure on young married couples and those who wish to set up home. I call on the Government to intervene and try to make the housing issue easier for young people, who must get help from their families to invest in their homes. The Government should concentrate on that issue.
As my council colleague Mrs Kelly said, we must deal with the number of houses in different areas. The housing situation in the Banbridge area is especially horrendous. Social housing is one of the biggest issues dealt with by my constituency office. The Government should move on this issue and assist first-time buyers.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next Member to speak is Mr Tom Elliott. Before calling Mr Elliott, I must emphasise that, when a Member wishes to speak, it is normal protocol that he or she is present throughout the previous Member’s contribution. However, Madam Speaker has taken a generous view of that protocol in the past, and I will therefore call Mr Elliott. However, I emphasise that it is important that Members are present in the Chamber for the previous Member’s speech if they expect to be called.
Mr Elliott: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not aware that I would be called so early to speak in the debate, which is why I was not in the Chamber for the previous Member’s contribution. I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the Member concerned.
It is clear from the debate that there is a serious housing shortage. I have often asked myself why that is so, despite the massive increase in the number of houses being built and developed in the Province over the last number of years.
I have researched the reasons for the housing shortage. There is clearly better and improved healthcare in the Province, which has meant that, in general, people are living longer and therefore need more housing. Younger people are moving away from home earlier in life and living alone. That has also contributed to the increasing number of houses that are required.
With increased wealth in the Province, more people are purchasing second, or holiday, homes. That trend is most noticeable on the north coast and in tourist areas such as the Mournes and County Fermanagh. Large-scale immigration into Northern Ireland, which is particularly prevalent in south Tyrone and the Dungannon area, has created a new demand for privately rented accommodation in that area, and private landlords have bought houses to meet demand.
Last week, the Bank of England caused considerable surprise and concern in the property sector by increasing the base rate of interest from 5% to 5·25%. I fear that continued increases in interest rates could result in the burden of mortgage repayments tipping many householders into a situation where their financial obligations cannot be met. Nowadays, we often hear of people being advised to take out 50-year mortgages, as opposed to 20- and 25-year mortgages, which were the norm in the past.
Just getting onto the property ladder has become increasingly difficult. Last week, a local newspaper revealed the findings of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ study, which found that young couples who wish to get on the property ladder in the UK need to save 81·2% of their joint take-home pay. In fact, the situation is likely to be worse in Northern Ireland; in this part of the United Kingdom, wages are lower and property prices are rising faster than on the mainland. The study showed also that affordability in the UK is at its worst for 16 years.
The interim report of the housing affordability review, headed by Sir John Semple, makes several proposals for tackling the lack of affordable housing in the Province and for increasing the provision of social housing. The proposals include: a social-housing building programme of 2,000 properties a year; changes to the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association; increasing the threshold for stamp duty and making low-cost homes purchased by first-time buyers exempt; providing the Planning Service with increased resources; and, perhaps most importantly to me, the need to examine the reasons for the current area-plan system’s failure to deliver.
The report quantifies yet again the problem facing many first-time buyers, as huge property price increases continue to outstrip paltry wage rises. It is staggering that between 2001 and 2005 — a four-year period — seven district council areas witnessed an average house price increase of over 81%. Indeed, five of those councils, in the north and west of the Province — Fermanagh District Council, Omagh District Council, Strabane District Council, Limavady Borough Council and Coleraine Borough Council — had increases of between almost 90% and 116%. Some might suggest that those figures represent the market here catching up with the rest of the UK; however, such increases, in this part of the world, are unsustainable.
My own council area of Fermanagh is quoted as having an average house price of between £148,000 and just over £161,000. Those figures are on a par with the figures for many eastern areas of the Province that, in the past, have been far above those in the west. Incomes in the Province as a whole, especially in areas such as my constituency, are not able to sustain either those property prices or the rises.
Many reports of a similar nature have preceded Sir John Semple’s. However, only limited action has been taken to remedy the situation, even though the warnings have been around for some time. In 2004, HM Treasury published a review of the housing supply in the United Kingdom, conducted by the economist Kate Barker. The Barker Review highlights an average yearly UK house price increase, in real terms, of 2·5% over the past 30 years. That contrasts with France, Sweden and Germany, where prices have remained constant or, indeed, have fallen. One of the main reasons cited for this phenomenon is the lack of responsiveness in housing supply in the UK. In other words, there is not sufficient housing to satisfy the demand, leading to large price increases.
In Northern Ireland, the supply of housing has been stifled further by the moratorium placed on single rural dwellings by Draft Planning Policy Statement 14. I am concerned to note from the interim report that Sir John Semple supports that policy.
In December 2006, a report on the situation in Great Britain entitled ‘The Geography of Affordable and Unaffordable Housing’, which was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggested improving mobility to allow people to purchase dwellings in more affordable areas. That is not acceptable either. People should be allowed to purchase affordable dwellings in their own areas. The report also expressed concern about the ratio of high prices and mortgage costs to incomes and called for the introduction of policies to assist working families who are being priced out of the market.
High levels of unaffordability, therefore, are a problem across the UK and not just in Northern Ireland. The problem has been gaining momentum in recent years, with little indication of a willingness to tackle the issue on the part of the Government. Nobody can deny that it has become difficult for first-time buyers to purchase a home, or that those on the Housing Executive waiting list have a long wait for accommodation. Efforts must be made to help these groups.
House prices and demand have increased — particularly in the Dungannon area, among others, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which I am focusing on — due to factors such as the number of foreign workers. Also, businesspeople are buying up large numbers of houses — which is not against the law, I must add — and filling them to capacity with multiple occupants. That is not helpful.
There needs to be some protection for first-time buyers and the socially disadvantaged. There is an urgent requirement for the Government to secure development land and ring-fence it for social housing and low-cost starter homes. Otherwise, young individuals and couples will not be able to access social housing or enter the property market. That could and should be done through local area plans. Sir John Semple’s report acknowledges that.
Where there is land available in the Government estate, it should be protected and kept for social housing, rather than being sold at the current market value, which in some cases is over £1 million per acre. The Government should look seriously and quickly at protecting some of their land for such purposes.
As many Members do, I regularly wade through the planning quagmire. There is little doubt that the Planning Service has a continual backlog. It needs more staff and more flexibility. A strategy needs to be formulated and implemented to ensure a supply of affordable housing that will allow first-time buyers to get into the property market.
I support the motion.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As other Members have done, I want to congratulate Patsy McGlone for moving this motion and giving us the opportunity to debate affordable housing, Housing Executive waiting lists, etc. However, I support the amendment, which enhances the motion. I have not heard anyone say that he or she does not support the amendment, so I assume that we are going to have agreement at the end of the debate.
I am struck by the number of young people in the Gallery. Statistics have been thrown around this morning about the length of time that people spend on waiting lists for housing. How many of these young people in the Gallery — I hope that they are not thinking of buying houses now — will be able to afford a new house in a few years’ time? We have talked about how much first-time buyers have to pay. Equally, how many years will those young people have to spend on a waiting list before they can get social housing? We have a duty to invest in their future and ensure that the Executive starts working as quickly as possible, not only for young people but for everybody’s future.
We all know that good housing is essential to the maintenance of a healthy population, and we know that there is a crisis with the provision of affordable and social housing. I do not want to go over all the statistics that have been highlighted. People need space to live in and facilities that are adequate for looking after themselves. We need to ensure that the housing stock is there and up to the proper standard.
The level of home ownership in deprived areas is low. It is common for people to be forced to rely on public-housing programmes for accommodation for themselves and their families at an affordable cost. There is a huge under-provision of affordable and social housing. The housing market is dominated by private landlords and property speculators.
I support my colleague’s amendment. I wish also to congratulate Patsy McGlone for bringing the subject to the Floor of the House. In 2004-05, approximately 17,000 households presented as homeless. Some 6,000 of those households had dependent children. The vast majority of those households without dependent children were made up of single people rather than couples. In 1995-96, the comparable figures were 11,000 and 4,500. Over that period of fewer than 10 years, the numbers have grown substantially, with most growth occurring in households that do not have dependent children. More specifically, almost all the growth took place during the four years from 1999-2000 to 2003-04.
Behind each of those statistics are stories of great stress and the hidden reality of people struggling to achieve the housing stability and security that they need to live healthy lives. Recently, the Assembly discussed mental-health issues. I assume that the added stress of housing worries adds to that experienced by families and individuals. The breakdown of relationships contributes to the figures for single people. There are long-term waiting lists for single people, never mind families.
Across the four Belfast constituencies, 55% of people live in flats or terraced housing. That is well above the average for the North, which is 35%. This situation must be remedied. The growing waiting list for public or social housing must be targeted. We must recognise that the problem is made worse by the fact that housing stock is diminishing before our eyes. There is severe pressure on first-time buyers.
I agree with the last two Members who spoke that there is a need for major investment in social-housing programmes in targeted areas. Fra McCann mentioned that one in 20 houses is empty. To target the issue of waiting lists and affordability, those empty homes must be put to good use. He mentioned also that Sinn Féin raises the issues of social housing and affordable housing at every opportunity. The party had reservations about the appointment of John Semple. However, we will hold back and wait to see the report.
We need to get an Executive up and running and make affordable and social housing one of their priorities. Every Member agrees that every person should have access to health, education and housing.
I support the amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next Member to speak is Ms Marietta Farrell. On this occasion, Ms Farrell will speak for the first time. As this is her maiden speech, convention dictates that it be heard without interruption.
Ms Farrell: I am very pleased to speak to the House for the first time, particularly today, as it is Martin Luther King Day. Martin Luther King is a hero of mine. He was an inspiration to me and to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, from which my party, the SDLP, was born.
I am pleased to support the motion, especially as my constituency of Lagan Valley has the highest house prices in Northern Ireland. According to the University of Ulster’s quarterly house price index, in the second quarter of 2006, the average price of a house in Lisburn was over £195,000, which is roughly £34,000 higher than the average Belfast house price, and £32,000 higher than the Northern Ireland average. House prices in Northern Ireland are rising by approximately £600 a week. Those statistics are most certainly out of date now. Recently, I looked at advertisements in estate agents’ windows in Lisburn. A former Housing Executive-owned terraced house was selling for £165,000.
A quarter-acre building site with outline planning permission for one house in the city had an asking price of £235,000. A local estate agent told me that it was not uncommon for a house price to jump £20,000 or £30,000 in one afternoon between her showing a house to a client and returning to the office. She also told me that there used to be around one mortgage default every two months; now, there are four to five every month, with most defaulters being young couples.
As stated earlier, statistics from the Nationwide show that first-time buyers in the North are borrowing over five times their annual income. That is well above the UK average, especially in comparison with Scotland, where the average sum borrowed is 3·6 times a person’s annual salary.
Unlike in England and Wales, the Government have no clear strategy to tackle the problem of the lack of affordable housing in Northern Ireland. Unless a clear strategy is put in place and followed through, the lack of affordable housing will be an increasing problem for young families and low-income households and will become a barrier to their accessing jobs and participating in communities.
Although the Semple Review examined the obstacles and identified a series of recommendations, which have already been mentioned by other Members, immediate action from a new Northern Ireland Assembly is needed in order to develop a strategy for improved access to affordable housing and to make a commitment to the proper provision of social housing.
I am very concerned about the current inadequate levels of social housing, the corresponding high waiting lists and the number of homeless people in Northern Ireland.
According to statistics published by the Department for Social Development in 2006, second to Belfast, Lisburn City Council has the highest social-rented housing waiting list, with a figure of 3,344 people. Only 1,229 new dwelling starts were undertaken by housing associations in Northern Ireland in the last financial year,144 of which were in the Lisburn City Council area. In Northern Ireland as a whole, a further 69 dwelling starts were commenced during the first quarter of the current financial year. It is a cause for great concern that the figure for new dwelling-house completions is much lower, with only 782 completed in the year 2005-06. That figure is down by 46 from the previous period.
Demand for social housing has increased greatly since 2002. In the year 2002-03, over 40,000 people in Northern Ireland were on social-housing waiting lists. That figure increased to over 47,000 by 2005-06. Those figures illustrate that provision of new-build social housing is, indeed, inadequate and has greatly increased the demand for privately rented accommodation, which has led to a significant increase in rental prices.
On taking over the constituency office in Lagan Valley recently, I asked the staff to compile a list of problems most often presented by constituents. Social housing was high up on that list, particularly issues concerning the notorious Draft PPS 14, which has already been mentioned. As in other parts of the North, rural housing prices in Lagan Valley have rocketed, making it impossible for young people to buy houses in their communities. Having to move away from extended family and deep community ties causes its own problems.
In a statement in September 2006, David Hanson said that the availability of:
“good housing can help improve people’s health and well-being. It can influence children’s educational attainment and help individuals to take part in normal social activities. It also contributes to the stability and economic well-being of our communities.”
The reverse is also true: bad housing can lead to ill health and stress; it can have a significant influence on poor educational attainment and lead to unhappiness, isolation and disaffection from community and society.
The motion uses the term “housing crisis”. As I, and other Members, have illustrated, that term means a great deal more than the constant discussions about, and our frequent obsession with, house prices.
Northern Ireland, with its strong community and family ties, has not experienced the same level of homelessness as some parts of the UK, but that is changing. In 2005–06, there were 9,749 “unintentionally homeless” people in Northern Ireland. Although not the only reason, house prices are, increasingly, a contributing factor. There is a growing strain on resources, both for the Housing Executive and for the voluntary agencies that deal with homelessness. Currently, the Simon Community Northern Ireland — to name just one organisation — provides emergency accommodation in Belfast, Bangor, Coleraine, Derry, Downpatrick, Lisburn and Newry.
In the past few years, we have seen some tragic examples of people, especially those from the migrant communities, who have fallen through the net of support with dire consequences. I am thinking of 46-year-old Anika White from Slovakia who was found dead in Ballymena and of Oksana Sukhanova from the Ukraine who was found in a Coleraine street in January 2005 and, subsequently, almost died from frostbite. Last night, as happens most nights, homeless people were sleeping on the streets of Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that some of them are victims of our growing house prices.
Forty years ago, the BBC televised a docudrama called ‘Cathy Come Home’. It told the story of a family’s disintegration and spiralling descent into homelessness due to unaffordable housing, with a mother and her children ending up sleeping on the streets. That play was set in London. However, if the new Executive do not tackle the affordable housing crisis as a priority, we may have a Northern Irish Cathy, more Anikas and Oksanas and a growing number of men and women who have to sleep rough on the streets of Northern Ireland.
I support the motion.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Storey: I pay my compliments to the previous Member who spoke. If, as we have heard today, she delivers her addresses in the Assembly and represents her constituency in the manner in which she has today, there is no doubt that she will be a capable advocate for the constituents of Lagan Valley.
At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to the Members who proposed the amendment — sorry, not the amend-ment, the motion — [Laughter.] I do not want to give any credence to a Member whose party cannot even deliver. Therefore, I pay tribute to the Members who moved the motion, and, in particular, I commend Mr McGlone, who has ably chaired the rural planning subgroup. For those who cannot get onto the property ladder, rural planning is not unrelated to affordable housing.
The DUP wholeheartedly supports the endeavour to provide, as a matter of urgency, affordable, social-rented and intermediate housing. Several Members have referred to the problem of affordable housing. When we debate issues in the Assembly, the same difficulty arises: although Members can easily identify the problems, we must formulate realistic solutions to those problems. It is not enough to say that an incoming Executive will tackle the issues. Indeed, given what happened at the weekend, no one knows when there will be a new Executive. It seems as though the republican movement cannot bring itself to say simple words such as “delivery, delivery, delivery”. Therefore, it is quite possible that there will not be a new Executive for some considerable time. Rather than utter the words that we need to hear, we are given ambiguity and four pages of republican spin. However, we must not allow ourselves to be trapped in this position for ever. Members should come to the House with recommendations that can give leadership to how we address the problems facing first-time buyers.
In particular, in the light of the planning policies, I want to focus on an issue concerning affordable housing, which is raised in Sir John Semple’s report. I commend Sir John Semple on the interim report. Members must remember that it is an interim report, which is subject to consultation.
I urge Members to respond to that report in the same manner in which they have articulated their concerns during this debate. There is to be further consultation and a final report, which I understand is to be presented in March. Sir John raises the use of article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. However, that is not a viable tool for providing a significant number of affordable houses in the private/developer sector, which is more likely to deliver new developments that meet the aims of mixed tenure, community balance and citizens’ well-being. The main reason for the problem is the steep rise — particularly in the past three years — in the cost of land for building. A horrendous figure is contained in chapter 5 of Sir John’s report, which states that:
“Land prices have risen dramatically in the past three years with the average cost of housing land rising by 300% since 2003”.
All Members, particularly those who represent rural constituencies, know about the pressure that that situation has created.
Mrs D Kelly: In my constituency, which the Deputy Speaker knows well, a 0·2-acre site on former bogland was sold for £138,000 due to Draft PPS 14. That site might normally have fetched only between £25,000 and £40,000. In Banbridge, a plot of housing development land fetched £1·1 million three weeks ago, which equates to £100,000 per housing unit. That is unsustainable in any society.
Mr Storey: I am grateful to the Member for bringing that to our attention; I am sure that all Members could provide examples of similar situations from their constituencies. Those price rises are a fundamental consequence of the planning limbo that exists in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency, which I cite because it is the one that I know best.
A draft northern area plan has been published, which is subject to a judicial review. That plan should be operational, or should at least be at the stage of a public inquiry. However, that is still a very long way off, and 2011 looks a likely time for a public inquiry rather than for the implementation of that plan.
The draft northern area plan has crucial and unpredictable implications for issues of major concern, which the Planning Service is not currently addressing, thereby contributing to the problems. The most crucial of those unpredictable implications concerns whether existing town boundaries will be extended. Mrs Kelly referred to the price of rural land; let us look at the situation that has now developed in urban settings because of Draft PPS 14. There has been an unacceptable rise in the prices of those properties because a ban or moratorium has been placed on development in the countryside.
Towns have become constrained in their ability to deliver affordable housing within the urban boundaries. Arguably, as a result of the aforementioned continuing uncertainty, certain speculative development land — which makes up the majority of unused building land in my home town and its urban footprint — including brownfield and redevelopment sites, has been bought and is being financed at prices that are beyond the level of a developer in the building industry who wishes to provide affordable housing within the existing town boundaries.
In the past 12 months, the prices of the lowest-rung housing in my constituency have increased hugely, creating a situation in which many aspiring first-time buyers are unable to access home ownership. Instead they are driven to what can only be described as spending dead money on renting houses or apartments from investors, which, ironically, are the very same properties that they would have bought had it not been for the greed-driven building prices that have been created by this situation.
A typical property on one of the lower rungs of the ladder in my town, a house with two or three bedrooms, costs some £170,000, of which the land element accounts for an astounding £100,000. Unfortunately, the average first-time-buyer household income can only support a mortgage on attractive terms of £120,000, which will be less if interest rates continue their recent upward trend. Accordingly, we have a shortfall of some £55,000 to £60,000 — more than half the land element cost — which, under article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, a developer could be obliged to fund in respect of the 20% of all dwelling units on a major mixed-tenure development.
Since the publication of the article 40 affordable housing obligations, building land prices could be driven down by the release of additional lands for an extension of boundaries and by the consequent market forces, which would enable developers to provide affordable housing. The immediate introduction of arbitrary measures or set targets under article 40 would be ill-advised. It would be preferable to introduce certain targets incrementally.
To speed this matter up we also need to look —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?
Mr Storey: We also need to look at the rural community, landowners and farmers, and relieve the pressure that developers put on them. They need an opportunity to develop their own land.
Dr Birnie: This is a timely debate on an issue that is vital to those who are finding themselves hard-pressed to get a home, particularly a first home.
As has been noted, it is striking that, during the five-year period after 2000, the number of first-time buyers in Northern Ireland decreased by almost a quarter, whereas the figure for GB was a reduction of only 7%. That indicates a problem. It is obvious that the situation is being driven by the very rapid increase in house prices, as several Members noted. Indeed, the increase has been much higher than recent average UK growth. The very rapid growth in house prices, and the consequent difficulties for house buyers, is almost certainly produced by the demand for housing being much greater than the supply to meet it. We should bear that analysis of the problem in mind as we consider the correct policy response, and particularly — the motion refers to this — the interim report on housing affordability by Sir John Semple.
We need to note, in particular, some of the recom-mendations in the Semple Report, especially the recommendation that the Department for Regional Development should look again at its housing growth indicators for the period 1998 to 2015, which are set at 208,000 new houses. That figure, even though it was revised upwards in the past, is still almost certainly too low. As my party colleague Mr Cobain said, we support the recommendation in the interim report that the number of newly built social houses be increased substantially to 2,000 a year. Other Members mentioned the serious impact — perhaps at the margin but none-theless significant — of stamp duty on the expenses of house buyers, particularly first-time buyers. The Chancellor should examine stamp-duty levels and the house-price threshold at which they first apply.
Land will be needed for an aggregate supply of houses to be built. We should note that Sir John Semple’s interim report recommends: that the Department of the Environment should undertake an annual housing and land availability study; that selective de-zoning should be considered; and that the Department for Social Development should examine the scope for stronger, increased vesting of land for house building.
(Madam Speaker in the Chair)
Any policies should be sensitive to the different types of household that seek accommodation. For example, there is a demand for family housing, and that is not often provided in the market; that is the case in my constituency of South Belfast. There is also an increasing demand for dwellings for single people. That may reflect an increase in the number of families breaking up, or the growth, over the past three years, in the number of migrant workers in Northern Ireland. The supply of housing must therefore reflect diversity of demand. There is a need for urgent action.
Mr N Dodds: Like Dr Birnie, I think that this debate on affordable housing is important to many of our constituents.
The work that has been undertaken so far by the affordability review team, under Sir John Semple, has been extremely worthwhile. The interim report is a thorough and commendable piece of work. The production of an interim report is a good move, as it allows time for feedback before proceeding to a final report. A few weeks ago, I met Sir John and his team, and I was impressed with the seriousness and dedication with which they approached the issue. This is a timely debate that will make an important contribution to Sir John’s work.
Several Members have already mentioned the current high prices of housing and land, and they have referred to the fact that there has been a period of sustained low interest rates. There was a slight rise in interest rates last week, but continuing, substantial increases in house prices have been forecast. It may comfort some people to hear that the market will readjust, or will self-adjust, and that the situation will even out. Unfortunately, many people — first-time buyers and those wanting to enter the housing market — will be unable to catch up with last week’s increase in interest rates.
I do not intend to quote many statistics, but figures in the interim report compare the current proportion of income that is needed to buy a house with past statistics, and the figures are staggering. In 2002, when I was Minister for Social Development, I discussed this issue with officials. Here we are in 2007, and escalating and exorbitant costs are much more severe. Something must be done.
Members have referred to land prices, which have gone up threefold in three years. There is much land speculation, and many private investors are buying up land or holding on to land in the hope that the price will increase. Similarly, many properties are being bought for investment purposes. That is adding to the problem.
Sir John suggested some solutions that are worth considering. I am particularly intrigued with the suggestion to set up a land assembly agency; however, Sir John has said that more work needs to be done on that proposal. It is an interesting argument, and such an agency would mirror similar bodies that have been set up in England. He has also suggested that the period for which planning consent applies should be reduced to prevent land-banking and proposes greater powers of vesting.
The review referred to open spaces, particularly those that are in many of our Housing Executive estates. For example, in the lower Shankill, which is in the West Belfast constituency of my hon colleague, there are enormous swathes of vacant, open land that are not being used for housing; there are also other estates like that. There is a case for saying to the Housing Executive that it should be more proactive in identifying land in such estates for housing use. More and more often, residents of those estates tell us that they want areas to be used for housing rather than left lying derelict or being used for antisocial behaviour, as is often the case. Clearly, it is fair enough for land to be needed for recreational, open-space purposes. However, in many cases, such land is simply not being used for any particular purpose. As Sir John recommends, the Housing Executive:
“should adopt a proactive approach to making use of appropriate open space for affordable housing and should start a number of pilot projects as soon as possible.”
That idea should be pursued.
Sir John also suggested that community land trusts be established. Under such schemes, people would effectively buy the house or property — but not the underlying land. Examples of that model across the water have proved to be reasonably successful. Anything that increases people’s ability to get into the housing market is worth considering.
Since its inception, the co-ownership scheme has been most worthwhile: 19,000 to 20,000 households have benefited from it. Recently, however, it has suffered in that the uptake has not been the same as in previous years. That has a lot to do with the rise in house prices; massive increases make it difficult for people who want to get into the property market through co-ownership to compete. The Member for Lagan Valley Ms Farrell mentioned the speed of price increases; they can rise by £10,000 or £20,000 in an afternoon. Therefore more flexibility needs to be introduced into the co-ownership scheme.
Low current-value limits need to be reviewed, and a reduction in rent levels should be considered. The co-ownership scheme still has the potential to help a lot of people get into the property market, and it should therefore be sustained.
Sir John also referred to stamp duty and the effect that it can have. Given that it can add a substantial cost to the price of a property, it can significantly affect people’s ability to get into the housing market. Although stamp duty is part of the wider fiscal and taxation arrangements that are decided at a higher level than this Assembly, it should be impressed on the Chancellor that changes to the stamp duty system should be encouraged strongly. That is because some areas suffer as a result of high levels of deprivation and a great deal of social exclusion and need.
I add my voice of support to those who want new-build social housing to be increased year on year. Currently, 1,500 new houses a year are being built. I agree with those who say that that figure should be increased, even though a cost will be attached. I remember fighting battles with two Ministers of Finance and Personnel about getting money for the DSD for new social build. Back then, the view was always taken that compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland did rather well in allocating money for housing and that consideration had to be given to paring back expenditure in that sector. However, given that John Prescott announced massive investment in housing in England, that argument is no longer sustainable. In any case, the need for housing exists. If we are serious about putting TSN and combating poverty at the top of the agenda, Government here — whether direct rule or devolved — should make new housing a priority.
I could deal with many areas, but I do not have much time left. I want to mention voids in the private-rented sector. Many areas are blighted by houses and properties that lie void for extended periods, but getting something done about them involves a lot of red tape: the process is slow and cumbersome, and articles are served. It becomes a whole rigmarole; the owner sometimes does not want to know, and the matter has to go back and forward, and so on. People who live in areas that are affected by those voids feel that they blight those areas. I very much believe that action should be taken to address that.
Sir John mentions the empty dwelling management orders that have been introduced in England. When we met as part of the review, I urged him to consider recommending their introduction here. Such orders allow a local authority — in this case, probably the Housing Executive — to step in, take control of a house that is void or derelict and bring it up to standard. The problem is thus proactively addressed, and houses are not left derelict and void for years.
The private-rented sector is increasingly dominating some estates and housing developments. There is a strong case for greater regulation, not just of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) but of all privately rented houses. There must be stronger controls to deter landlords who buy houses and then neglect their upkeep or who do not care terribly to whom they let the house. Stronger regulation is needed as this is one of the biggest areas of complaint raised with me.
We could spend all day discussing the many issues that this debate raises. However, I want to make one final point. Much work needs to be done to ensure the availability of low-cost housing in urban renewal areas, and people must be incentivised to stay in such areas. Often they are bought out at a certain price, but because the new houses are sold at such a high price, they cannot afford to buy them. I am pushing the Department to do something about that.
Mrs D Kelly: I am late in joining the debate, so it is difficult to add anything new.
I want to lend my support to Mr Dodds’s comments on regulation of the private-rented sector. The highest number of complaints that public representatives hear concerns antisocial behaviour and the lack of care of rented houses — overgrown hedges or overhanging trees or whatever.
Some parties have been concerned about whether or not their members support Draft PPS 14 — both the DUP and Sinn Féin have had problems with that. However, I can assure the House that, from the outset, the SDLP realised the dilemma that Draft PPS 14 poses for rural dwellers. I too welcome Sir John Semple’s report, but, like Mr Elliott, I do not support Draft PPS 14.
I have young daughters at university, one of whom is now studying for a postgraduate degree. Under the student loans scheme, she will leave university with loans and debts potentially amounting to £30,000. That is appalling. How on earth will she ever be able to afford a house? As soon as she gets a job — and I hope that she will — she will have to start repaying her student loans. Contrary to what many of us thought, student loans do incur interest, so long repayment periods result in additional costs. Thus many young people and first-time buyers will find it increasingly difficult to buy a home. That is a great concern and must be one of the key challenges for any new Assembly and restored institutions. Some Members talked about the need to show leadership and the need for a restored Assembly. The onus is not just on one party; as we all know, there are two parties in this dance. They need to get their act together because the community is crying out for decisions.
There are solutions to the affordable housing crisis. A lot of land is in public ownership. Some weeks ago, my party colleague for East Derry, Mr Dallat, talked about the amount of land that is owned by the Water Service. In Craigavon, a lot of land was taken and kept aside by the old commission. It is still there and is still unused, yet over 2,000 people are on housing waiting lists in the Upper Bann constituency, many of whom are in dire circumstances.
The issues of affordable housing and home ownership are easily within the gift of direct-rule Ministers. We do not have to wait any longer. Members of Parliament have raised and debated at Westminster a range of measures that could be implemented soon.
Many Members have referred to homelessness, and I share their concerns. Recently, someone in my parish died, and six people suddenly became homeless. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive must address, as a matter of urgency, the test for homelessness and how waiting lists for the homeless are handled, because there are peaks of homelessness when a house becomes vacant.
The message has not yet been conveyed to the public, and in particular to young people, about how houses are built for social need and how areas are determined. It is not a matter of waiting for someone to die. My constituency office now receives calls to say: “So-and-so is on their last legs. Will you see what you can do for me?” It is a dire situation that reflects the tension and stress in the community. Members are aware of the link between housing and ill health.
Affordable housing is a key challenge, and I wait eagerly to see whether Sir John Semple has taken the views of the parties on board. Some Members have reservations about Sir John Semple but have taken as their own the appointment of Lord Carlile as the overseer of MI5. I find that surprising.
I will finish, because a number of other Members wish to speak. I support the motion.
Mr Copeland: I join in the congratulations to the proposers of the motion and of the amendment.
Housing is the largest single issue in my constituency office, which deals with approximately 1,000 citizens. Some of them are one-person households, some two-, some three- or more.
Members must not forget that behind all of the statistics, research and views that have been put forward, there are citizens — people. I will cite two cases that sum up the core issue that Members are attempting to address.
My wife and I were married 27 years ago and enjoyed regular and fairly well-remunerated employment. My wife was a police officer, and I was in the construction industry and a part-time officer in the UDR. In other words, we were not short of a shilling. We purchased our first house for £12,500, and I remember sitting with my wife to work out how we could afford the mortgage. That property is now valued in excess of £200,000. Today, with our combined income, we could not raise a mortgage to purchase the property that we bought 27 years ago. What hope is there for young people who do not command enormous salaries to get a foot on the housing ladder?
The second case is more interesting and more tragic. It is the case of a young couple whom I will call Mr and Mrs T. He was employed in security work in entertainment establishments in Belfast and earned a few pence above the minimum wage. His partner, the mother of their two children, secured work at just above the minimum wage for 16 hours a week in a local hotel. He lost his job; they fell behind in their rent and were evicted from their privately rented property — which had been consuming in excess of 70% of their combined income — rendering them homeless.
The Housing Executive, bound by legislation, adjudicated that they were intentionally homeless. Mrs T, the couple’s three-year-old child and three-month-old baby are now living with her mother. Mr T is living with his parents.
If the motion has any failing, it is that it concentrates on affordable housing and does not mention social housing. It is not rocket science to work out that affordable —
Mr McGlone: It is pretty widely accepted that the definition of “affordable housing” not only embraces privately owned or privately rented property but social housing. That is accepted widely, including by Sir John Semple.
Mr Copeland: I accept the Member’s point.
There is a difference between what people can afford to pay and what they are being asked to pay. Housing could only be affordable if there were a swing in the balance in order to bring the cost of houses down or raise the wages of the people who want to buy those houses. Neither is likely to happen to such a degree that it will restore the equilibrium. Ways can be sought to address the issue. However, for an increasing number of people — be they people who were brought up in housing estates or in small streets, or people who attended grammar schools and lived in nicer houses — renting a property may be the first way to find a place to call home. There has been a focus on houses in the debate. For many, there is a difference between a house and a home, and in the social circumstances that surround them. There are many houses in east Belfast, but not enough has been done to ensure that its citizens can transform those houses into homes.
The Housing Executive was once charged with improving the awful housing conditions that pertained in the Province. Over time, great steps were taken to ensure that there was a supply of good-quality rented houses. However, the Housing Executive is now required to make annual efficiency savings of 2·5%, which amount to around £15 million of the Housing Executive’s entire budget each year, or an average of around £4,405 from each office. The effects of that are such that, in some offices, senior housing managers do not even have someone to type a letter for them. Thought must be given to that matter.
Mr S Wilson: Given that house sales are around 4,000 each year, which is the equivalent to the housing stock of one Housing Executive district office, does the Member accept that the Housing Executive could make considerable efficiency savings in order to meet the Gershon requirement of 2·5%?
Mr Copeland: I do not doubt that it could do so through reorganisation. My contention is that the Housing Executive should address housing need. Increasingly, because of house sales, it must deal with a diminishing stock that is of diminishing quality, and it cannot discharge its statutory responsibility. That is done by housing associations. However, in my experience, housing associations do not build sufficient houses for the need.
The Member for Upper Bann Mr Simpson referred to “applicants” to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I confirmed with him that the term “applicants” was inappropriate. There are approximately 2,500 applications in the East Belfast constituency. In the part of south Belfast that most people believe is part of east Belfast, there are a further 1,000 applications. In the greater Castlereagh district, which most people also assume to be part of east Belfast, there are 2,700 applications. The total number of applications is around 6,200. Each of those applications may cover three, four or five people. It is not, therefore, a matter of the number of applicants, but of the number of citizens; that is important. In east Belfast, I am confronted with around 10,000 to 15,000 people who do not have appropriate accommodation.
The basic building block of society is the home, which should be in close proximity to places of education, medical treatment and places to shop. Something has gone terribly wrong. I note the calls from the Member for Upper Bann Mr Simpson for the Government to intervene to address the problem. I am sick, sore and tired of calling on the Government, because the Government do not stand to gain or lose one single vote cast in an election by any citizen in the Province. I hope that sooner or later all of us in the House can create the circumstances whereby Members discharge the responsibilities placed on us at the time of election and deal with problems as they ought to be dealt with.
Mr Shannon: I rise to support the motion. Each year in Northern Ireland, 30,000 people make enquires about housing issues. There are 2,500 enquiries a month. That is a huge number of people with housing problems, when one considers the small population of the Province. In March 2006, approximately 32,000 people needed affordable housing, and of those 17,500 were con-sidered urgent cases. There is need for change, and the Assembly has a vital part to play in the process.
In my constituency of Strangford, the average price of a house this year is in the region of £179,000, and that continues to rise by between £4,000 and £5,000 a month. The Halifax states that there has been a 43% growth in house prices in that area. The average income of my constituents is £13,500, so it is not difficult to work out the mathematics. Even a two-income household would find it impossible to get onto the first rung of the property ladder. People renting properties are faced with huge rent bills as they pay the increase that the landlord has laid out to buy the property. Those mounting bills are the reason that so many have no option but to put their names on the waiting list for Housing Executive flats and houses.
That is not taking the easy option; there are no other options for many to take. It is part of the reason that the number of first-time buyers has halved since 2001. There has been, on average, a £30,000 increase in the price of houses, yet in the same period there has been only a minimum increase in wages. That loss cannot be borne by first-time buyers and low-income renters, and could well explain why 30% of those who apply to the Housing Executive are living in poverty. It is becoming increasingly impossible for people to try to manage rent and the ever-surging utility and basic living costs on their own, particularly if they are one of the thousands of hard workers who earn the minimum wage. It is no small wonder that the waiting list is beyond the means of many.
The average person who has worked hard to buy his or her own small house is now working equally hard to pay the bills, let alone buy the property. Many semi-professionals, instead of studying for a degree and getting a job and house, are now clubbing together to buy small terraced houses, praying that the current trend continues so that they can all make enough money to start out on their own.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors fears that 50 families a day will lose their homes due to defaulting on their loans and mortgages this year. The mortgage should not exceed 30% of the income of the home; when it is larger than that, people are faced with making a choice between defaulting on their mortgage or providing food and heating for the household. The number of repossessions in 2006 increased by 76% on the same period in 2005 — a startling figure. Subsequently, the Housing Executive is being presented with over 20,000 homeless people, half of whom are accepted as genuine. That is an increase of over 1,000 from the same time in the previous year. That cannot be allowed to continue. The fact that the Bank of England has increased interest rates for the third time in five months means greater hardship for mortgage payers. Rates have gone up from 3·5% to 5·25% in the last three years. That is a significant figure. When added up, that will mean an extra £100 a month in mortgage costs for many households in my constituency.
House prices in the Strangford area are the fourth highest in the United Kingdom, and the 0·25% increase in the lending rate has, for many, pushed an average of £50 for this month up to, perhaps, £100.
Not many years ago, one could have bought a terraced house in Ards for about £60,000 or £70,000. Today it will cost £130,000. Developers from all over the United Kingdom and, especially, the Republic of Ireland are coming here with seemingly bottomless pockets of money to invest, and they are buying houses everywhere. There is the real fear and threat of a 40-year mortgage and a mortgage that will be passed on to a borrower’s children.
Those are the clear and bare facts that illustrate how much the situation has got out of hand and how it requires drastic change. In rereading the reports and figures, one will find a lot more figures that challenge the system, and we must look at those. One might ask what our options are or what the Assembly should take on board and implement when the time comes? The Semple Review’s recommendations concerning vacant properties would be most effective when coupled with the proposals to convert into apartments the first floors of shops in our towns. The living over the shop (LOTS) scheme has been piloted in my area, but more could be done in Strangford and the rest of the Province with that. It is an excellent scheme that affords a grant of £25,000 or 75% of the value of the upper level refurbishment to a property owner. Not only will that provide more long-term, valuable, cost-effective housing but it will rejuvenate our towns and villages.
Some Members mentioned the valuable co-ownership scheme. My colleague Nigel Dodds from North Belfast mentioned it earlier. Many people in North Belfast, Strangford and across the Province have taken advantage of it. It should be promoted more widely, so that more people know to take advantage of it. Anyone who buys a £150,000 house through the co-ownership scheme will require a mortgage for only £75,000. The scheme gives the house buyer an opportunity to get on the first rung of the property ladder, and it should be widely promoted.
There is a number of unoccupied — or void — Housing Executive houses in the Ards area. My colleague from Lisburn said that there are 1,200 to 1,500 people on the waiting list for a house in Lisburn and east Belfast, but there are between 2,500 and 3,000 people on the waiting list in the Ards area. If that is not the longest waiting list in the Province, I would like to know where there is one longer. I am sure that it is a Province-wide problem.
Over 4% of the properties in the private rental scheme in Ards are vacant, and those houses could be reintro-duced into the property market. The increased turnover of those would mean a wider market place, and the less desperate the need was for housing, the less money that investors and property developers would be able to squeeze out of consumers. One way of further aiding the refurbishment process is to lower the VAT on materials for such work to the lower figure of 5%. That clear aid would assist those who need a house.
The theory of turnover is mentioned often in the Semple Report, and it is one that is perhaps a basis of finding more affordable housing. Other initiatives such as an increase in the threshold for stamp duty in line with the substantial hike in house prices should be implemented as soon as the Assembly has the power to do so. It is unfair to expect first-time buyers to pay those costs as well as everything else, so I support the recommendation to exempt first-time buyers from that.
It is also imperative that local authorities release unused land for building; that would give a twofold benefit. First, there is the obvious benefit of making affordable housing available as requested in the motion. Those houses should be affordable and designed for first-time buyers and not for property magnates who are one of the major causes of the current problem. Secondly, the release of the land would enable local authorities to put the money to much better use and to where it belongs — in the community.
Perhaps Mr McGlone will consider the “kinship clause”, as it is referred to in planning, whereby people who live in the countryside and rural communities can have an input into staying on the land. Many people would benefit if such a kinship clause were put into planning.
As an MLA, I want to be able to tell those who come to me in desperate need of a home that the waiting list is short and that they will soon be accommodated. I do not want to have to tell them that they will be forced to split up their family and live in hostel accommodation. Instead, it should be my duty as an elected representative to inform a young couple searching for a new house that there are tax breaks and grants to help them take that first step.
Furthermore, it should be my commission to ensure that the property developers, with their seemingly bottomless pockets, do not have the wherewithal to buy up — and thus inflate the prices of — houses in Strangford and, indeed, the rest of the Province.
A developer from the Republic came to Portavogie, a village in my constituency, and offered to buy nine houses for cash from a local builder. The builder said that he was not interested in the offer because he wanted to preserve the area and ensure that the houses were sold to people who lived in the village — first-time buyers — to give them an opportunity. I admire that builder because he took a clear stand: he wanted to ensure that local people got an opportunity to buy houses in the area. That attitude is to be welcomed.
The responsibility for ensuring that people can buy houses in their local areas should lie with a devolved Government, whose priority would be to improve the quality of life for our constituents. For that reason, I support the motion. The Government should take into account the report’s findings and make the resolution of the housing crisis a top priority for the elected Executive.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As Mr Shannon said, statistics illustrate the crisis mentioned in the text of the motion. In March 2006, 32,215 people were on the common waiting list for social housing. Of those people, 17,433 were in housing stress. In 2005-06, over 20,000 people presented themselves as homeless, of which 48% were accepted as such. That was an increase of over 1,000 people compared with the previous year.
In Northern Ireland, fewer than 50% of housing benefit recipients have their full rent paid compared with 30% to 40% of the recipients in GB. The proportion of houses being bought by first-time buyers is declining. In 2001, 60% of house sales went to first-time buyers. By 2005, however, that figure had fallen to 36% and has, no doubt, fallen further since then.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said recently that those seeking to get onto the property ladder must now save an average of 81·2% of their joint take-home pay. That figure covers the upfront costs of buying a typical home, including stamp duty and a deposit. The average two-person household spends about 22% of take-home pay on their mortgage. It is clear that, unless more affordable housing is built, and the Government raise the stamp duty threshold, more and more households will struggle to access the housing market.
First-time buyers in Northern Ireland face a tougher challenge than their counterparts in the UK. Average salaries in Northern Ireland are lower, yet average house prices are much higher than in other UK regions and are continuing to rise quickly. It is expected that affordability conditions will worsen during 2007, with a predicted growth in house prices of between 8% and 10%. In addition, there is the potential for a further interest rate rise next month.
Affordability is, without doubt, the biggest issue facing the housing market. Earlier this month, a survey of regional house prices in the last three months of 2006 showed that the fastest growth was in Northern Ireland. House prices in Northern Ireland jumped by 44·1% compared with the same period a year earlier. That rate of growth was three times higher than in Scotland, where prices rose by 16%. The biggest increases were in Northern Ireland, where prices rose by 53%.
In my constituency of Newry and Armagh, 2,667 people are on the waiting list for public housing, yet only 90 new units have been built in the last two years. More and more people on benefits are being forced into private rental accommodation, where there is a growing differential between rental allowance and private rents. Private rents are currently running at around £500 per month, thus plunging people into a further downward spiral of poverty, with its own associated problems.
House prices in Newry have rocketed. Three-bedroom semis have increased in price by 30% to 40% over the past year; prices have broken the £200,000 barrier, the average being £230,000. Those three-bedroom semis have in some instances become second-buyer homes.
The situation for first-time buyers in the Newry area is extremely difficult. For a first-time buyer to purchase a £180,000 house, they require a minimum 5% deposit of about £9,000; they pay stamp duty of about 1%, which is a further £1,800; they pay solicitor’s fees of £1,800; and surveyor’s fees of around £1,000. In total, they will need savings of about £13,600. That is a year’s salary for many first-time buyers. Their mortgage pay-ments on a loan of £180,000 will be on a repayment basis, probably over 30 years, at £1,100 a month.
In Newry, development-land prices are usually a good indicator of future market expectations. Due to a very conservative and restrictive area plan and the introduction of Draft PPS 14, development opportunities for builders have become scarce. The present dearth of development land, coupled with the stifling effects of Draft PPS 14, is pushing house prices sky-high.
Development land in Newry costs about £1 million an acre, with individual sites making more than £200,000. As the price of houses increases, the builder pays more for the land. The only way to alleviate that is to release more land for the development of both public and private housing and to undo the stringent curtailments of Draft PPS 14. I support the motion.
Mr McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Most Members who spoke this morning had their fingers on the pulse, regardless of which party they belong to. People are well tuned in to the crisis that we face and how it should be dealt with, so I will be fairly brief in support of the amendment.
Patsy McGlone said that affordability covers social housing, but many people see a clear separation between affordability and the supply of social housing from either housing associations or the Housing Executive. That is why the amendment deals with that issue separately.
I included vacant properties in the amendment because they are such a problem. John Semple said that 5% of all housing stock is lying vacant and that something must be done about it. We can also widen the debate because there is more to the housing mix than the issues that I identify in my amendment or that Patsy McGlone identifies in his motion: problems such as the allocation system and homelessness. In my constituency, young people stay in hostels for three or four years before they can even get a house. We have all heard the figures on the rise of house prices. In my constituency, former social housing is selling for between £200,000 and £210,000. We need to get to grips with a wide range of housing issues. However, I thought that to include them in the motion would offer us a way of looking at affordable housing, social provision and vacant properties.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr McCann: No, Sammy. Most Members spoke about housing, but Edwin Poots tried to sectarianise the issue, which was very sad. We could have argued with one unified voice and not had a sectarian argument. A review into how housing need came about would come to a different conclusion from the one that Edwin Poots put forward. I commend the amendment; it is important that Members support its three elements. It does much more than Patsy McGlone’s motion, and it will be more widely accepted by the community.
Mr Burns: Madam Speaker, I thank you for the time allowed for this very important debate, which has united the House. Members really do understand the seriousness of the housing crisis. The difficulty that people face in getting housing is a major talking point in all our constituency offices. Young people simply cannot afford housing. Others can get onto the Housing Executive list, but they cannot get a house.
Patsy McGlone kicked off today’s interesting debate. He emphasised the huge lack of new affordable and social housing. Fra McCann came in with his amendment, and also brought to our attention the fact that if a large amount of social housing is built, it is vital that amenities follow in that area. Along with housing, the infrastructure needs to be put in place.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that, given that the report clearly defines social housing as including housing rented from the Housing Executive or a housing association, as well as housing rented from a private landlord, that part of the amendment really was not necessary?
Mr Burns: I very much agree with that. Perhaps it was not really an amendment but a different way of putting our motion forward.
Edwin Poots was very concerned about the huge sell-off of Housing Executive houses and the fact that more are being sold than built. He brought to our attention the stamp duty on housing and the fact that many builders are now land-banking housing land because the cost of the land is rising at such an alarming rate.
Fred Cobain spoke of his support for John Semple and the need for more housing in three categories — more social housing, more affordable housing and more private housing. He told us that it was essential that 2,000 homes be built every year; that was a very important point to get across. Kieran McCarthy from the Alliance Party talked about how difficult it is for young couples to get into the housing market.
That brought us to David Simpson of the DUP, whose first remark was that he would not be long. That reminded me of the minister who says that his sermon today will not be long, but David went the full distance of 10 minutes. He did allow two interventions, and then accused those people of stealing his speech. In fact, the whole tone of the debate has been one of unity.
Tom Elliott talked about the increase in the Bank of England base rate this week and how that put more pressure on the ability of first-time buyers to afford houses.
Sue Ramsey highlighted the social side of housing and how private landlords dominate the private rental market. She told Members that one in 20 houses in her constituency lies empty and that bringing those houses back into the private rental market would significantly ease the housing situation.
In a brilliant maiden speech, Marietta Farrell reminded Members that today is Martin Luther King Day.
Mr S Wilson: There was no bias in that remark.
Mr Burns: No, none at all.
Ms Farrell expressed her alarm at the high prices of houses in her Lagan Valley constituency and spoke of her fear of many more people becoming homeless.
Mervyn Storey of the DUP spoke about rural planning and how article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, if implemented, would alleviate the situation.
Mrs D Kelly: Mr Storey mentioned the requirement of a political party to show leadership. However, the DUP requires leadership as much as Sinn Féin.
Mr Burns: For the Ulster Unionist Party, Dr Esmond Birnie highlighted the great difficulties experienced by first-time buyers. The SDLP will ask the Department of Regional Development to re-examine the figures relating to the land that will be released for new builds. He also talked about how stamp duty affects first-time buyers.
Nigel Dodds spoke of his support for Sir John Simple — [Laughter.]— Or rather, Sir John Semple. That was some slip of the tongue — [Laughter.]
Mrs D Kelly: It was right the first time.
Mr Burns: Mr Dodds covered all areas of the debate, including co-ownership and stamp duty. He referred to housing voids and acknowledged the great need for housing across the Province.
Dolores Kelly spoke about Draft PPS14 and the need for a homelessness test for those who join waiting lists for houses.
Michael Copeland gave a great speech on his history of buying houses. Some 27 years ago, when he bought his first house for £12,500, he wondered how on earth he would be able to pay that mortgage.
Mr McNarry: By joining the Assembly. [Laughter.]
Madam Speaker: Order.
Mr Burns: Mr Copeland reminded Members that at today’s valuation, that home would now be worth over £200,000 and, based on his and his wife’s income 27 years ago, it would have been impossible to pay the mortgage. Today, that is the situation facing many young couples, who simply cannot afford to buy new homes.
The DUP’s Mr Jim Shannon spoke proudly about a builder in his area who was not prepared to sell to the highest bidder but was interested in providing houses for his local community.
Dominic Bradley told us of the difficulties faced by first-time buyers in getting into the housing market.
This debate has united the House; we are all aware of the seriousness of the affordability issue, and of the great need for social housing.
Mr McGlone: I agree with Mr Burns that the debate has been an important one. Will he accept that the situation requires a response that is not only strategic, but comprehensive in all its aspects? I note that the amendment ties us into one particular strategic approach to the unmet need, which is the renewal of vacant properties. Many of us who represent rural areas could argue that there are other important aspects, such as additional investment in new housing stock; in housing replacement and renovation; and home repair assistance grants, etc. The strategic response must be a comprehensive one that embraces many other facets as well as vacant properties, important as that is.
Mr Burns: I thank my colleague Patsy McGlone for his timely intervention. I support the motion.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the affordable housing crisis; notes the deliberations by the committee chaired by Sir John Semple; and demands that any new Executive make affordable housing an urgent Government priority.
Madam Speaker: I shall give Members a few moments, after which we will move to the motion on rural schools.
Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow two and a half hours for this debate, the Member proposing the motion having 15 minutes to propose, with 15 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have a maximum of 10 minutes.
Mrs Foster: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the threat to rural schools in Northern Ireland; calls upon the Government to recognise the vital role that such schools play in the community; and urges the Government to put in place a strategy, where possible, to protect the viability of these schools.
The motion is intended to place on record the high value that Members place on rural schools and the value they have both for the communities that they serve and for the children who attend them. Members want the Govern-ment to recognise their worth and protect their viability. Instead of allowing schools to run down, the Govern-ment should be trying to sustain and maintain them.
Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a man who, at 64 years of age, had succumbed to cancer. The archdeacon who gave the address at the service of thanksgiving for his life, reminded us that that good man had attended Moybane Primary School. Moybane is a townland near Letterbreen in west Fermanagh. I mention it because there was a time, some 60 years ago, when one would encounter a small primary school in the country at every couple of miles or so. Times change, and the situation is now almost reversed. Few rural schools remain, and those in my own constituency are under constant threat of closure. I do not suggest that every townland needs a school, only that those who live in rural communities should not be forced to have their young children transported long distances to primary school.
When I was four years old, I travelled daily the one mile from my home near Rosslea to Aghadrumsee Primary School, where I had a most enjoyable time. Unfortunately, after the IRA tried to murder my father, I was moved, at the age of eight, to Lisnaskea Primary School, as the family was forced, for its own safety, to move out of its home. Newly arrived from little Aghadrumsee, Lisnaskea Primary School seemed huge to me. It was virtually a town school, yet now, with only 100 pupils, it would barely survive the cull. The Bain Report has set a new minimum enrolment for a functioning rural school.
Before passing on to other matters, I pay tribute to all the teachers who teach, or have taught, in rural schools. They say that one never forgets teachers. I have fond memories of most, if not all, of my teachers, but I can say that unreservedly of all my teachers at primary school. I hope that they can say the same of me, but one can never be sure about that.
The Bain Report envisages that the minimum enrolment for rural primary schools should be 105. It would be hard in any rural constituency — but particularly in my own — to find a rural school with such an enrolment. However, the Minister with responsibility for education, Maria Eagle, has said that:
“this is not an agenda to close small schools.”
I say to the Minister that, if it looks like an agenda for closing small schools, and it results in the closing of small schools, it is an agenda for closing small schools. When my colleagues and I have visited the Department of Education on behalf of small schools, it is always stressed that the Department puts children at the heart of all of its decisions. If that is so, why does the Department not listen to the voice of parents whose children are at small schools? Surely parents want what is best for their children. I know that I do.
My two eldest children attend a small primary school in Brookeborough, at primary 1 and 3. I would not have them attend any other. Each teacher at that school knows all the children, and all the children know one another. There is a positive atmosphere of goodwill and, because I see the benefits at first hand, I will continue to fight for small rural schools. Pupils are content; there is no bullying; and worries and problems are quickly identified and dealt with. That is also true of small secondary schools. Last year, the former Duke of Westminster High School, now Devenish College at Kesh, was closed, and the children were bused from north Fermanagh to Enniskillen. When the parents were fighting closure, they were concerned about the loss of individual attention to pupils that they had come to expect at the school at Kesh; large class sizes; and the impact that it would have on children who were perhaps not as quick as their peers.
They were also very worried about the long journey — over 20 miles — that some of their children now have to make on an overcrowded bus to Enniskillen. Apart from the obvious worries about safety on the roads, parents told me about the incidents of bullying that take place on buses and around the bus stops. Those parents were told that it would all be worthwhile as a new Devenish College was being built in Enniskillen. Needless to say, we are still waiting for that new school to be built, and, with the moratorium on building after the Bain Report, we will be waiting for quite some time.
I will be watching the costs of transporting those children to Enniskillen from Kesh and beyond. Due to the rural nature of the Western Education and Library Board area, transport costs take a huge part of the budget. Surely, with more thought, some of the transport budget could be put to better use in maintaining those schools under threat of closure.
No one wishes to retain schools that are falling apart — no matter what their size. However, policy-makers and administrators appear to have ignored evidence that refutes many of the claims that small schools are deficient and instead highlights the positive learning environments created in those schools.
One argument often put against small schools is that they limit children’s learning experiences. However, education needs to serve the requirements of the individual, and if parents and children choose a small school — for whatever reason — why should the Government interfere with that choice?
Mr Mervyn Benford, a spokesperson for the National Association for Small Schools (NASS) in England, pointed out that small schools in England, with a smaller intake than has been proposed by the Bain Report, are getting the best results. He said:
“there is enormous long-term significance in the worth of keeping early education close to home and enriched by access to the local neighbourhood.”
That certainly confirms what I have long thought. As long as there are good-quality schools — big or small — serving the community, and children to attend them, then surely it is worthwhile.
It is a truism that many rural communities in this country have suffered long and hard in the past 40 years. During those tough times, it was often the small rural school that provided continuity of normality — a happy, relaxed place for children who may have been living in a climate of fear. For some families, including my own, terrorism led to an enforced exit from the home, school and community. There is no doubt that the IRA’s ethnic cleansing campaign along the border added to the fall in the number of children attending rural schools. My colleague Lord Morrow and I know all about Minterburn Primary School near Caledon, which has had to deal with such events and is now under severe threat of closure. The chairperson of the board of governors told us that the school had been a safe haven for children throughout the Troubles, and now they felt that the Government were dumping them.
If the Government are going to look at education merely in terms of numbers, they are missing out on all of the added value that rural schools provide for our children. The extra resources required to run small schools are a legitimate investment in rural communities, which otherwise benefit little from Government expenditure.
Statutory guidance for school adjudicators in one part of England says that the presumption should be against the closure of rural primary schools. However, it does not rule out school closures if a strong case can be made. That would be a good starting point for the Department of Education: the presumption should be for, not against, rural schools. However, numbers have a part to play in that decision, and in some cases it becomes very stark. That is why I regret that I am unable to accept the amendment. The motion is about the viability of schools, and I want to see the Government putting in place a strategy to make existing rural schools viable.
As far as my party is concerned, Government should move away from the policy of setting up schools in some sectors with as few as 12 pupils. Those new schools have an impact on the existing rural schools, be they controlled or maintained — as happened very recently in Fivemiletown — and they remain a threat to the viability of those existing rural schools.
Another small school in my constituency — at Carntall, near Clogher — is a fine example of what a good rural primary school should be. The only problem is that it is full to capacity. Last year, that school had to turn away a number of children because the Southern Education and Library Board would not allow it to admit any more. It is completely bizarre that, although that small rural school is bucking the trend and increasing numbers, the pen-pushers in the Department of Education have decided on an arbitrary number of pupils that the school can take, and that is that. One size does not fit all. I plead with the Department to consider flexibility in the way that it handles all schools. The Department needs to recognise that small can be beautiful.
The local rural school is much more than bricks and mortar; it can have many functions if its potential is used to the full. In many areas, the school is the heart of the community and can act as a focal point for the development and attractiveness of an area as it attempts to become self-sustaining. It has long been recognised that school buildings represent a potential community resource. It is absurd that they are closed throughout the summer months and, indeed, most evenings.
The Government are withdrawing services from rural areas at will. The debates in the House over the past months have reflected that with regard to post offices, police stations, libraries, acute health provision, rural planning or education. Frankly, rural proofing has become a complete joke.
No doubt there are those in the House who will say that if a fully functioning Executive were up and running, it all would be different. I have two answers to that. First, I am not naive enough to think that if an Executive were up and running in the morning, there would not be tough choices to be made — of course there would. However, I like to think that there would be an acknowledgement of the individual needs of Northern Ireland as a country. That is what this motion seeks, and it is why my party is devolutionist.
Secondly, once those who have been wedded to the policy of an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other finally put aside their violent ways for good, by word and deed, and support the police, the courts and the rule of law, we will be able to get on with securing our children’s futures. What Sinn Féin says and, more importantly, does over the coming months can open the door to devolution. That is not up to anyone on this side of the House; we have already signed on in word and deed. Get on with it, so that we can get on with saving rural schools.
Mr D Bradley: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out “where possible” and insert:
“based on quality of educational provision rather than pupil numbers”.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm an leasú don rún a mholadh. I commend the Members opposite for bringing the motion to the House. The amendment seeks to draw attention to the need for the provision of quality education rather than a simple numbers game, to be behind any Government strategy to protect the viability of rural schools. As Mrs Foster said, greater numbers do not necessarily mean better education. Many smaller schools provide a first-class education for their pupils.
We have already debated the threatened closure of post offices, both urban and rural, and now we must turn our attention to rural schools, which are already threatened by Draft PPS 14, as I have said before. The Bain Report has raised anxieties about the future of small rural schools and, indeed, some urban schools. It states that a third of schools — a total of 440 — do not have the minimum number of pupils that are required in order to be viable in its terms. People fear that, when the Department of Education gets round to publishing its sustainable schools policy, it will use the recommendations of the Bain Report to cut a swathe through the smaller schools and to cut the heart out of many communities. They fear that Bain has broken the ice for the Department to act, if not axe.
Of all of the civic institutions in the countryside, the school serves the youngest constituency. The capacity to maintain a school is a continuing indicator of a community’s future well-being. For many rural areas, the school is not only the hub of the community, but it contributes to a community’s sense of survival. The rural school is a unique feature of country life and an integral part of a local community. Schools in rural communities play many roles; they are part of communities’ shared histories and traditions and are hubs for many community activities.
The report recommends that the minimum enrolment for primary schools in rural areas should be 105 pupils; the current minimum is 60 pupils. That quota is to be applied regardless of the type of education that a school provides to its local community. It is a game of numbers rather than an educational assessment.
Raising the numerical threshold could sound the death knell for many schools, which, in addition to providing basic education, serve as social and cultural centres, as I said. They are places for sport, amateur drama, music and other civic activities. Local schools are essential to the survival of our rural communities. Quite often, schools carry the name of the community and serve as symbols of community autonomy, vitality and identity.
Schools do not only meet a community’s educational needs; they are often a source of employment for village residents, from teachers to cleaners, dinner ladies to caretakers. The local school is a valuable source of employment in many areas where jobs are usually extremely scarce.
If the Bain proposals become part of the sustainable schools policy, teachers’ unions estimate that between 1,200 and 1,900 teaching jobs will no longer be needed. Sir George Bain has not said what lies in store for those teachers. Will they be thrown on the scrap heap? Will they be redeployed to reduce pupil-teacher ratios? Will they be employed to improve special-needs provisions? Will they be employed to implement the Curran Report in order to allow teachers preparation, planning and assessment time? Will they be employed to allow school principals to carry out onerous administrative duties? We do not know the answers to those questions, and we need to find out.
The local school is a place where generations come together and where community identity and lifelong friendships are forged. A school is part of the history of a local area and part of the personal history of each pupil who receives his or her education there, whether at primary or secondary level. To close a country school is to destroy an institution that holds a rural community together; it is to deal a body blow to communities in the smallest rural areas, which have the least resources, and it damages the social and economic well-being of a community.
Sir George Bain has offered several options that may help to maintain local provision. I expect any Government strategy to help small schools. Further-more, I expect that any future strategy will revolve around those options, which include confederation, federation, co-location, shared campuses and extended schools. The Bain Report also provides a set of indicators against which each of those options could be assessed locally.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that, given the recent rumours of the Catholic Church organising against the review of public administration, the idea of confederation and co-operation among schools becomes more difficult if the Church, through the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), is seeking to keep its iron grip on schools in the maintained sector?
Mr D Bradley: It is my understanding that CCMS is quite prepared to engage in those arrangements in the future.
If we are to protect our rural schools, the Department of Education must formulate the suggested arrangements into a coherent and effective strategy, with much greater available detail on the implications of each model. The key element in the implementation of any forthcoming strategy must be full consultation with all community interests, including local people, parents and the trades unions of teachers and other staff. Solutions must be arrived at locally, not imposed from on high or from outside. I support the amendment.
Mr McNarry: I support the motion, and I compliment its sponsors for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. Although I am sympathetic to the motion, I am disappointed in its tone. Something more robust than “noting” seems appropriate in the circumstances. Of course, noting is about all that Members can do because of the current status of this House. However, the noting of a threat does not convey how serious that threat really is. One can note a report, but rather than limply note the threat to rural schools, I believe that, given the opportunity, Members would recoil from it, recognise the seriousness of it and, put bluntly, would reject it outright.
Another part of the motion:
“urges the Government to put in place a strategy, where possible”.
“Where possible”? Surely if a new strategy were put in place, it would by necessity be based on coherent and sustainable policies and therefore entirely possible to implement. In that respect, I recognise the intention behind the amendment, but the cull of rural schools stems from the strategy that is currently in operation. That is the problem.
In the light of the Government’s determination, I wonder how effective the amendment would be in removing the threat that rural schools face. Rural schools are suffering from years of ineffective and incompetent ministerial direction. The Department of Education has stumbled along from one crisis to another without a sustainable schools policy, and rural schools have been bounced into instability caused by the threat of closure. That is behind the chaos in education today.
The plight facing rural schools — and there are none that can be complacent — is not a flight of fancy. The threat to their future existence is real and faces many of them now. We debate this matter under the cloud of moves, by way of a strategy that is already in place, to close more than 50% of our rural schools within the next five years. That will result in the dismantling of not only our rural education provision but rural communities. That will be the inherent result of the current strategy, which is unemotional, mercenary, driven by money and part of a wider social agenda.
There is, of course, a financial argument for closures, but that case might be better appreciated if it were backed up with proper audited costs and if previous financial assessments were not replete with poor accountancy reports, mismanagement of money — some of which was not even printed, but it still seemed to go astray — and paper trails that were laid to cause confusion. If that happened, I am sure that the resulting valid costs could be extrapolated to secure the future of more rural schools that the Department of Education is assessing for closure.
In my constituency of Strangford, rural schools are reeling under the pressure of recent correspondence from the South Eastern Education and Library Board. There has been word from the top down telling many of them that their future school days are numbered. News travels fast in rural communities, and, in too many cases, the threats issued are seen as virtual notices of closures.
When parents and teachers talk of a departmental strategy, they view it as a strategy driven against their school and their local community environment. These rural folks are not foolish. They can read into the wider agenda an intention to wipe out local identities by forcing people into larger, less attractive, newly created, wider social settlements.
This issue involves our future stakeholders — young families and young children, primary 1 to primary 7 schoolchildren caught up in the chicanery of manipulative strategies and falling foul of the creative accountancy behind optimum number crunching. That simply cannot continue. Without intervention, and our objection to the lasting damage that this will cause to local communities and their environment, it would appear that nothing will be done to reverse the situation.
In the name of preserving rural communities and their schools, the Transitional Assembly deserves to be heard, as a representative collective advising the direct rulers of the disastrous ramifications that will follow in the wake of their current strategy. Pending the outcome of a satisfactory election, it is crucial that the significance of the motion is not lost on an incoming devolved Minister of Education. Today we call for the viability of rural schools to be protected, and a new devolved Minister cannot be found wanting in addressing this important issue.
However, when the Department of Education makes presentations to any Minister, it will — surprise, surprise — run behind the cover of the recent Bain Report. The timing of the publication of the report is a huge coincidence. Madam Speaker, when might we expect to debate the Bain Report fully? I would welcome that opportunity, and most Members of this place share concerns about further critical developments in education. This is an appropriate time for such a debate, given that mandates could soon be sought and that education is a priority for the public.
I look forward to reading the party manifestos on rural schools. I look forward to seeing that what is said in the House today — I have yet to hear it — may, in fact, find its way into print in those party manifestos. I look forward to one party in particular addressing the issue of school closures; it is blessed with having presented our communities with the only devolved Education Minister in recent times. How will that party explain what its Minister did in his term in office to bring about this situation? How, employing its new charm offensive that means it is sweetness and light to all people, will it put that down in its manifesto? How will it explain to the children who are suffering from the consequences —
Mr McElduff: Will the Member give way?
Mr McNarry: No, I will not give way. Sit down.
Mr Kennedy: He is sitting down.
Madam Speaker: Order.
Mr McNarry: When we debate your motion tomorrow, it will be interesting to hear how you explain that situation.
Madam Speaker: Mr McNarry, please speak through the Chair.
Mr McNarry: I do not wish to detract from the importance of the motion; I have complimented and congratulated those who tabled it. That is why it will be important to debate the Bain Report. However, that is not to dilute the importance of today’s motion, which I endorse fully.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin agus i bhfabhar an leasaithe don rún chomh maith.
At the outset, I declare an interest: I am a governor of St Patrick’s Primary School, Garvallagh — which, as you know, is near Seskinore — and of St Patrick’s Primary School, Eskragh, which is this side of Fintona.
Madam Speaker: I do know that.
Mr McElduff: The motion refers to a threat to rural schools — because there is a threat to rural schools — from the Bain Report and many reports that preceded it. The terms of reference of the Bain Report were to examine the funding, strategic planning and organisation of the schools estate while taking into account curriculum changes and demographic trends. Not to be unduly repetitive, the figure of 105 pupils as the minimum enrolment quota in new rural primary schools jumps out at us, as does the recommendation of 140 pupils as the minimum in urban areas. I do not think that a distinction has been made between rural and urban schools in the discussion about the post-primary minimum enrolment figure of 500. Those figures will be applied if schools are to be deemed viable in the future. The Bain Report recommends that all provisions be reviewed if enrolment falls below viable levels in existing schools.
In many ways, rural schools have always been under threat. A report that the Rural Community Network commissioned referred to the tunnel vision of the Department of Education, suggesting that it historically saw the typical primary school as being in an urban area and having a relatively large enrolment. In a way, policy-makers have always worked on the assumption that small schools may need to be rationalised into larger units. There is a presumption against the existence of small rural schools, and policy-makers have always sought to list the supposed disadvantages and place the onus on rural school communities to demonstrate that it is necessary to retain small schools.
Mr Elliott: Will the Member give way?
Mr McElduff: I am happy to do so.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for his generosity.
Does the Member agree that he is talking about a policy of the former Minister of Education, who came from his own party?
Mr McElduff: I am delighted with Tom Elliott’s intervention. I shall deal later with the four commitments that Martin McGuinness made to rural communities when he was the Minister of Education. Sinn Féin would be happy to take that Ministry again, should the opportunity present itself. We would be happy to accept responsibility for the Department of Education instead of criticising it and talking about it. Sinn Féin is happy to take responsibility, not just to criticise, as Maurice Morrow knows.
Mr Kennedy: That is Lord Morrow to you. [Laughter.]
Madam Speaker: Order. Please continue, Mr McElduff.
Mr McElduff: Thank you. “Maurice” will do rightly for me, Madam Speaker.
Other presumptions have been made. For example, it has been presumed that having one teacher for each age group and a non-teaching principal is the only proper approach to running a school.
Other Members have stated the value of rural schools. Some time ago, I was conscious of the value of a particular rural school in West Tyrone. I asked Dr Eddie Rooney of the Department of Education whether he had visited a school like that recently. He said that he had not.
Thankfully, he took up the invitation to visit that school. I thought that it would be useful to try to impress on senior departmental officials the value of rural schools, and, on that occasion, the rural school in question demonstrated that value. I am grateful to Dr Rooney for taking up that invitation.
There must be a greater appreciation of the serious implications of school closures for children and for the wider community. Last week, Derek Hussey and Francie Brolly in particular detailed anti-rural bias and the effect that the closure of a post office can have on a rural community. Likewise, a school is not merely a building; it is very much at the heart of the rural community.
I now refer to my esteemed friend and colleague, Martin McGuinness, who offered rural communities four commitments when he held the education portfolio. In my judgement, and in the judgement of the wider population, he did an extremely good job as Minister of Education. In an article published in ‘Rural Network News’ in 2001, Martin McGuinness offered rural communities the following four commitments:
“First, I will be flexible in dealing with this issue and I will not impose rigid or inappropriate models of provision. Second, I will look at every individual case on its own merits and I will listen to all the views expressed. Third, I will encourage and support creative solutions”
— and solutions are what we are about here —
“to the educational needs of rural communities, including options such as clustering and federation. And fourth, I will not approve any proposals for closure of schools unless I am completely satisfied that there has been full and open consultation with local communities and that every effort has been made to address their concerns.”
I commend Martin McGuinness on his very enlightened approach. For the benefit of David McNarry’s knowledge base, when the party’s manifesto is published, as it will be soon, it will be in two languages — Irish and English — and it will repeat such solid commitments to rural communities.
We are looking for creative solutions: hopefully, we will start off with the will, and then together we can devise a mechanism. Rural schools are already under pressure; consider the cuts in front-line services, the centralised catering facilities, the lack of funding allocation and the recent end of concessionary transport in education and library board areas.
I call on the Department of Education to change its outlook. The educational interests of the child, not financial or administrative criteria, must be paramount. Small schools offer positive learning environments. A solution-oriented approach must be taken. To lose a community school in a rural area is to weaken the community life, often irretrievably, as the Rural Com-munity Network has concluded; and that sets in train a spiral of rural decline. We must all do everything in our power to address this problem, and any solution must involve full consultation with rural communities. Martin McGuinness’s four commitments are a good foundation for moving forward on this issue.
Arlene Foster made interesting points about rural proofing. The Department of Education and other Government Departments charged with rural proofing must examine rural proofing in the context of Bain’s proposals as we await the sustainable schools policy.
A Member from the Ulster Unionist Party — I think that it was Mr Armstrong — said earlier that a local Administration would offer the best chance for rural schools. I take this opportunity to say to the DUP that people are waiting for its positive response to recent political developments. It should come away from the drawing board where it has long invented excuses and more excuses to avoid responsibility — such as taking important educational decisions. Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr McCarthy: Madam Speaker, I will be brief. I support any effort that will help us to retain our rural schools, which have always been at the heart of a country area.
First, I should say that I am a member of the board of governors at a couple of schools: Portaferry Integrated Primary School and St Patrick’s Primary School, Ballygalget.
As a product of a rural school, based in the townland — [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker: Are you asking for a point of order, Mr McElduff?
Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Do previous contributors to the debate have interests, in relation to governorships of schools, which they have not declared?
Madam Speaker: Including you, Mr McElduff?
Mr McElduff: I have done that.
Madam Speaker: I will check Hansard to see whether that is the case.
Mr McCarthy: I am a product of a rural school based in the townland of Ballycran Beg, outside Kircubbin in County Down — for those who may not know where Kircubbin is, let alone Ballycran Beg. That rural school provided a sound, basic primary education for generations until 20 years ago, when the powers that be decided to build a new school in the village of Kircubbin that is one of the present-day seats of primary education for that area.
I was delighted to hear Arlene Foster speak this morning of townland schools in her constituency. Undoubtedly, the closure of rural schools has contributed to the loss of townland names in Northern Ireland, and that is to the detriment of rural culture. Although it closed as an educational establishment 20 years ago, my school in Ballycran Beg is still there and is used as a social venue by people in that locality.
I am fearful for the future of the rural schools that are left. It appears that this Government are hell-bent on eradicating rural schools in favour of bigger, amalgamated schools, as happened 20 years ago at Ballycran Beg. In the Strangford constituency, we had to suffer a planning directive — a ministerial statement — that effectively banned new houses in rural areas. On top of that, we have Draft PPS14, which has been discussed and debated in the Chamber many times. It does the same thing, and will inevitably lead to the further closure of rural schools — all to the detriment of the rural community. The Bain Report will support a further reduction in the number of rural schools.
We all huff and puff hot air in this Chamber and blame the Government for all of our ills. I challenge the boys and girls of the DUP and Sinn Féin to get off their high horses and help to manage and run this place that we call Northern Ireland — then we will save the rural schools.
Mr G Robinson: As a person who was born and bred in a rural area of Northern Ireland and educated in a rural school outside Limavady, which is part of the East Londonderry constituency, I support Arlene Foster’s motion for the retention of the much-needed rural schools that have played a vital role in the education of our children. All people who live in Northern Ireland must have a choice about where they live, work and are educated.
Over the years, rural schools have competed well, despite threats of closure and numbers that have dwindled for various reasons. One prominent reason for the fall in numbers has been inflexibility and red tape on the part of the Planning Service, a large Government Depart-ment that over the years, and now through the imple-mentation of Draft PPS14, has ensured that rural communities have been, and will continue to be, ethnically cleansed. That is exemplified by the story of a farmer’s family: for medical reasons, he needs his family nearby to help on the farm, but due to Planning Service red tape they are not allowed to build a home there.
In some cases, therefore, farmers’ families must move to an urban area, thereby depriving a nearby rural school of much-needed pupil numbers. That is just one example of the reasons that some rural schools must close, which is music to the ears of the Government. I support the motion.
Mr K Robinson: In the first instance, I want to thank the hon Members for bringing this important matter before the House. I also want to declare an interest as a governor of both Whiteabbey Primary School and Hollybank Primary School in Newtownabbey. Although I am an unrepentant townie, I want to declare a further interest, because my first principalship was in a charming little two-teacher school in County Tyrone. Indeed, it was in the same constituency that is represented by the two hon Members that brought the timely motion before the House. It may also be of particular importance for certain Members of certain parties to note that, geographically, it was, therefore, west of the Bann. I hope that they take that point.
During my period in charge, I was constantly impressed not only by the loyalty of that community to their wee school but by the high degree of its interest in, and support for, the work of the school. The school was at the centre of that community and was its core. Every school event received enthusiastic support, whether it was the sports day, the nativity play or school visits to places such as the Armagh Planetarium.
Most importantly, the attendance at meetings to discuss pupils’ progress was also first class — perhaps our urban brethren could take note of that. Another positive aspect of life there was the total commitment of the staff to the task in hand and their willingness to take on a host of extra burdens without complaint, some of which our urban colleagues would not even recognise. That all added to the quality of the educational experience provided to the children there.
Even during my tenure, it became clear that the steady increase in administration was beginning to eat into valuable teaching time. A small rural school needs support in order to deal with the current excessive demands of the curriculum and the requirements for endless record keeping and form filling. As a teaching principal in those days, it was hard enough. It must be impossible for principals who teach nowadays.
I must pay tribute to the much-maligned education and library boards that have, down the years, despite other problems, recognised those problems and have attempted, in a variety of ways, to ease the strain on principals and staff in schools. In the interests of all, it is vital that children are taught in a safe, modern environment by caring, skilful teachers who identify with the challenges that are faced by rural communities. That may require some inventive management structures, some of which have already been mentioned. For example, a “confederation” is a cluster of schools that operates under the guidance of one principal, while staff may provide wider curriculum expertise by moving between schools or having children move in the opposite direction. Perhaps that is not desirable. It may, however, be a way forward.
In other instances, school buildings that have served their purpose well for previous generations, and which may not be able to be adapted to modern standards, may need to be replaced or put to a new use by the community, so that, at least, the building remains at the centre of the community.
In the coming years, population movement within rural areas for a variety of reasons, some of which were mentioned by the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mrs Foster, may also begin to dictate that brand-new, state-of-the-art schools should be built to satisfy current demand. Flexible approaches are vital if the confidence of rural communities is to be bolstered and renewed.
I noticed that the Member for West Tyrone made much comment about the four commitments given by the previous Minister of Education to be flexible, to look at individual cases, to seek creative solutions and to have open consultations. Those commitments must be built upon. I do not ascribe them to the previous Minister, however; I believe that they were already embedded in the Department before he arrived. The wonder is that they survived his tenure.
Population movements may cause us to look at more flexible situations. It is vital that that is done if the confidence of the rural community is to be bolstered and renewed. The turmoil that the agriculture industry is going through has forced many changes on rural communities, causing alarming suffering. Those communities deserve to be spared the double whammy of suffering as a result of those changes and as a result of insensitive school closures.
Perhaps the Assembly needs to take a careful, considerate and sympathetic look at our rural schools provision, and, in doing so, it must realise that the bums-on-seats approach that has been prevalent up to now needs to be replaced. How can we accept a proposal in which 105 school pupils on a roll become the touchstone? That would decimate 312 of our 510 rural schools, and it is absolute nonsense.
We need to recognise that good-quality educational provision already exists in rural schools. We require the Department of Education to speedily identify that good practice, support it where it exists, broadcast its benefits to a wider audience and enable other schools to adapt it to their individual uses. In that way, we can simultaneously begin to provide an excellent, modern educational experience for our rural children and inject a much-needed sense of confidence into the whole community. I support the motion.
Mr Gallagher: I welcome the motion. It is clear that the Government need to change their thinking on small schools. Everyone here is aware that the rate of closure of small schools is accelerating. I represent a western constituency, which undoubtedly has the highest proportion of small schools. As has been mentioned, those schools are at the centre of community life, and their closure will be a blow to their communities. I have no doubt that both traditions share those concerns; indeed, that has been articulated in the Chamber today.
I take issue with Mr Sammy Wilson, a Member for East Antrim. He interjected during Dominic Bradley’s contribution and referred to the iron grip of the bishops. He said that that would be a hindrance to co-operation and collaboration between small schools. Nobody need fear that the Catholic Church will have control of schools, which was what that Member suggested. That would be a barrier to co-operation and collaboration. However, the rather offensive remark about the iron grip that bishops have over Catholic schools must be corrected.
I do not wish to rake over history, but most Members will be aware that when Northern Ireland was set up, the control of teachers’ appointments was an issue for the Catholic Church. The Catholic community paid a price for that until the 1990s because it had to contribute to the cost of its schools.
Mr Hussey: Will the Member give way?
Mr Gallagher: No.
However, a particular ethos on Catholic education has grown from that situation. I am not here to claim that all or only Catholic schools are good; however, the ethos of Catholic schools is good for education. Anybody who doubts that has only to look at research that educationalists conducted, school inspectors’ reports and the work that other parties that are interested in education have done over the years.
The Government, which put financial expediency before children’s educational needs, frequently tell us that small schools are too expensive to run and that the ability range in their classes is too wide. However, many educationalists and teachers tell us that the disadvantages — for the teachers and, in particular, the pupils — are outweighed by the advantages. Those advantages include: a sense of community; the close contact that the families have with the school principal and schoolteachers; the support that parents give to the school; and the important sense of place and identity that those schools foster in their pupils. Why do Governments in other European countries such as Portugal and Spain not have a problem in accepting, and providing for, the needs of small rural schools?
We understand that the education system must adapt to the twenty-first century. We are not saying that all schools should remain open for ever, but there is a duty to retain what is best in our education system. Our small schools have an excellent record, and Members must take steps to ensure that they are not hurriedly dismantled.
Assemblyman Ken Robinson, a Member for East Antrim, referred to financial constraints. Although falling pupil numbers at small rural schools are a particular constraint, one must remember that small schools are working under financial arrangements that were imposed on them some years ago; those arrange-ments favour large schools while simultaneously weakening small schools. The educational needs of our children, whether they live in urban or rural areas, should be treated equally, and they must take precedence over the financial considerations of the Government of the day. I support the amendment.
Mr Buchanan: I support the motion. The threat of the closure of rural schools in Northern Ireland is a significant cause for concern and anxiety to many in the rural community. It is a further attack on the rural way of life. In the Chamber, in recent weeks, there have been debates on the closure of rural post offices; on the threats posed by the removal of fire appliances from rural fire stations; and on the closure of rural police stations. The threat to rural schools is another attack on the rural way of life, which the House must continue to oppose.
Rural schools play a vital role in rural communities, not only in their educational excellence but in helping to sustain a strong sense of place, culture and identity. Rural schools are also an important element of any thriving village or community. Children are educated closer to their homes, and they are normally more content and have a closer relationship with their teachers. Not only do rural schools provide easy accessibility for pupils and teachers, but they play an important role in the social and educational life of communities by providing a rich cultural resource and a focus for a wide range of activities.
Children living in rural areas account for the bulk of mainstream home-to-school transport in the primary sector. The closure of rural schools will result in many children having to travel many more miles to reach their schools, and, given the tragedies that occur on our roads network, that is another major issue of concern for rural communities.
Therefore, local authorities must have a clear vision for what constitutes a reasonable maximum journey time for pupils. That is preferable to defining a maximum distance, because that distance may vary according to the route chosen, for logistical reasons. Transport costs are a significant factor in calculating the projected financial benefits of any proposed reorganisation in rural areas. Transport implications must therefore play a critical role in determining whether the closure of a rural primary school can be justified.
Some small schools are finding it difficult to survive due to the declining birth rate in their area, coupled with a tightening-up of school budgets. The Government must put a strategy in place to ensure that rural children benefit from the opportunities of any new planned investment. The Government have already laid the axe at the root of many small rural schools. Future proposals to increase pupil enrolment requirements from 60 to 105, tougher budget constraints, and a wider curriculum must be reversed, and a sustainable schools policy implemented. Bigger is not better; such an approach creates many more problems and difficulties for teachers and staff, and it diminishes the one-to-one teaching relationship between teacher and pupil.
The local community and rural schools play an important part in the overall nurturing of our children and young people. We must ensure that that is taken into account in any future development of education in our rural areas. I support the motion.
Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a governor of Glynn Primary School, which is considered a small rural school. I express my disbelief — even shock — at the minimum school roll figures that were contained in the Bain Report: 140 for urban primary schools and 105 for rural primary schools. We must consider the implications of minimum school rolls, both generally and for specific schools.
In its submission to the independent strategic review of education, the Rural Development Council indicated that, in rural areas, 28 schools had fewer than 28 pupils; 90 schools had between 29 and 50 pupils; 194 schools had between 51 and 100 pupils; 159 schools had between 100 and 200 pupils; and 55 schools had 200 or more pupils. The recommendations of the Bain Report would put at risk almost 60% of our rural schools. That is unbelievable and unacceptable. I believe that the amendment has much merit, and it is clear that the quality of education is more important than an arbitrary number.
Schools, post offices, local shops and churches are at the heart of rural communities. As we heard during recent debates, the post offices and possibly the retail outlets in our rural communities are at risk. If the Bain Report were adopted, schools would be at risk — what then would be left in many rural villages?
In the absence of the community’s focal points from which a positive community spirit flows, there is a danger that a level of poor community spirit and antisocial activity will emerge. We will then spend additional money on policing and on trying to correct the ills that may occur. It is much better to maintain rural communities as they are presently constituted.
I am an active member of the Glynn Community Association, which tries to improve the local environment and community spirit by organising local events and tidy-ups. We receive some valued support from the Rural Development Council and the North Antrim Community Network. I believe that if 60% of our rural schools were to close, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s objectives would be unattainable. We need joined-up thinking between Departments.
I would like to turn to Glynn Primary School, of which I am a governor and at which my three children were fortunate enough to be educated. They experienced a happy, family, educational environment where they were encouraged to learn. Happiness and security are essential requirements if children are to do their best. Glynn has an excellent record on those requirements and on parental and community support. Those are important issues.
Glynn offers an incredible range of extra-curricular activities because of community and parental support: volunteers take football, hockey and rugby coaching in a school of some 50 pupils — fortunately, it is a growing school. The school participates in Irish dancing competitions and music festivals; there are Spanish lessons and a wide range of events. Many schools twice its size do not provide such a wide range of extra-curricular activities.
Glynn Primary School was at the advanced stage of gaining approval for an extension. Two mobiles have been in use for a long time — in fact, I used one of them myself more than 40 years ago. That is how long Glynn has had temporary classrooms.
However, as a result of this report, the extension, which was one of the priorities of the North Eastern Education and Library Board, has been put on hold. Such a delay in a school that is excelling, which provides quality education and which is well thought of in the local community, is intolerable.
Interestingly, large patches of ground around the village were recently sold to developers for significant amounts of money. I expect substantial housing development and an increase in the size of the village before too long, which would undoubtedly result in additional need for schooling in the area.
That does not apply just to Glynn Primary School: I could be talking about Carnalbanagh Primary School, Carnlough Controlled Integrated Primary School, Ballyboley Primary School or Toreagh Primary School. All are small rural schools with fewer than 105 pupils, and all are being put at risk by this report. The report must not be accepted.
I wish to highlight the issue of Islandmagee Primary School. The Island Magee Peninsula had three rural primary schools, which, five years ago, agreed to amalgamate on a new school site. The community was led to believe that a new school site would be purchased in August 2003, but that did not happen until November 2006. The Minister, the Department and the education authority must look carefully at the procedure for amalgamation where local communities agree that that is the best way forward. It is intolerable that it has taken so long. Delays in planning and in economic appraisal have added considerably to the time that it should have taken to complete the change. I ask the Minister to look carefully at the process and not only grant money to purchase the school but tell us when we will hear that the amalgamation, which was agreed more than five years ago, will receive money for the new build. It is intolerable that it is taking so long.
While I was researching this, I came across some interesting information from America. Dr Wenfan Yan carried out a study in Pennsylvania entitled ‘Is Bigger Better? A Comparison of Rural School Districts’. He concludes:
“This study, like many others, did not find consistent evidence to support the idea that bigger is better or, conversely, that smaller is better.”
He also states:
“The results indicate that school district size might not be the direct reason for lower or higher academic performance of students.”
Therefore, bigger schools are not necessarily better. There is a wide range of schools in Northern Ireland. Given the correct support and high-quality teaching, small rural schools can provide a broad curriculum and successful educational environment for their pupils. Size must not be the sole determination of whether a school continues to exist. I was struck by the amendment’s emphasis on quality, which ought to be an important element in determining the future of schools. If it is recognised that successful schools are providing quality education, that should be taken into consideration when providing quality education for all students in the future.
Many small rural schools continue to operate within budget. If a school provides quality education within budget, why on earth would anyone change it? I hope that all Members will join me in supporting the amendment.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I was not in the original starting line-up for Sinn Féin today, so my contribution is a hastily adapted version of another Member’s speech. I thought that I should at least change the first paragraph in which my colleague describes herself as a mother of young children. [Laughter.]
Madam Speaker: I congratulate Mr Brolly on his honesty.
Mr Brolly: I, and many other Members from rural constituencies, continue to spend considerable time working with rural schools, and particularly with primary schools that face closure — be they in our constituencies or schools in other constituencies that have asked for our support.
The debate on the threat facing rural schools underlines — as has every debate in the Transitional Assembly — the importance of ending British direct rule and having locally elected and, therefore, locally empowered and accountable Ministers. All parties must rise to that challenge, particularly the party opposite that brought the issue of rural schools to the Floor. In the real world, people are tired of hot-air debates. Although serious issues are discussed, the debates serve only to highlight that the parties are powerless to effect any change. A local, enlightened Education Minister is urgently required — someone like Martin McGuinness. [Laughter.]
During his period in office, Mr McGuinness demonstrated a genuine commitment to rural schools and had the power to make things happen. The four bullet points outlined by my hon Friend from West Tyrone Mr McElduff marked his reasonable approach. In December 2000, Mr McGuinness intervened to protect small rural schools such as Churchtown and Toberlane, two co-educational primary schools just north of Cookstown with enrolments of 25 and 24 pupils respectively.
A good example of the Minister’s innovative thinking was his creation of a federation of two primary schools at Glenullin and Tirkeeran, which are located, as I am sure all Members know, just outside Garvagh in my constituency. The federation involved the children from primary 1 to primary 4 being taught in Glenullin and the senior pupils being taught in Tirkeeran, and the principal of the latter was appointed principal of the federation.
The Department of Education and CCMS opposed Mr McGuinness’s idea, but he persuaded them to try it for a year. The federation has now been in place for five years and has been incredibly successful in every regard. I do not believe that direct-rule Minister Eagle would have been similarly motivated or determined.
An example of the serious ill effects that the closure of a rural school can have is the experience of St Mary’s Primary School in Aghadowey. After a long struggle, in which all the area’s elected representatives fought for two years to keep the school open with 20 pupils, it was closed. Five pupils went to St John’s Primary School in Coleraine; five went to one of the schools that I mentioned; and another five went to a school in Ballerin. The children were separated from one another, as well as being taken out of their own community. That is a stark example of what can happen when a rural school closes.
The Bain Report, and Maria Eagle’s immediate response to it, has caused deep concern in many rural schools. In the future, we need to work together as political leaders to ensure that we get the balance right. The threat facing rural schools is part of a broader threat to rural communities, which has been mentioned regularly. We should be aiming for statutory guidance that includes a presumption against the closure of rural primary schools. I share my Sinn Féin colleagues’ belief that the best educational and social interests of the child must be our primary consideration in considering a strategic response to threats to the viability of rural schools.
Other key factors must also be recognised. Like other Members, I believe that school policies, and those concerning small rural schools in particular, must recognise the valuable role that schools play in sustaining rural communities. We must also recognise that small rural schools with a good teacher-pupil ratio can bring out the very best in children. Collaborative working arrangements between neighbouring schools that are struggling for numbers should be considered an essential option.
It is also essential that a strong network of rural schools be preserved as part of the infrastructure required to reinforce rural communities and to ensure equality of opportunity and accessibility to education. At the same time, however, I am aware of the difficulties and challenges faced by small secondary schools in delivering good-quality education. Often, small schools must rely to an unreasonable degree on the commitment and dedication of too few teachers and cannot provide the same breadth of curriculum, teaching skills and opportunities for social interaction for pupils as larger schools. Such schools should be given additional support over a sustained period in order to minimise any educational disadvantages faced by their pupils.
Like other colleagues, I wish to pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of teachers over the years. They and their predecessors have put in enormous efforts to provide a firm educational foundation for children. Often, those schools were attended by the parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents of current pupils. The entire community knows and identifies with their local school and understandably cherishes and supports it.
All the research shows that partnerships between parents, schools and the wider community are the key to a successful education for our children. The aim must be to build on those relationships.
Members must also accept that in some circumstances, where schools are in a poor physical condition, the burden on teachers to deliver the curriculum — across a wide range of age groups and abilities — is excessive. Sometimes, change is needed, perhaps through amalgamation, as has been described or — sadly — through closure.
I refer once more to the approach of Martin McGuinness. We need flexibility, and we must consider each case on its own merits to ensure that schools are not closed without full engagement with the local community and without having explored fully every possibility of keeping them open.
I support the motion.
Mr S Wilson: Like the Member who spoke before me, I have not written a speech. However, I congratulate and thank the Members opposite for raising points that have given me the basis of one.
For many members of the public, debates in this place seem to involve a lot of tired hot air, because we have no responsibility to take decisions on the basis of the resolutions that we make at the end of each plenary sitting. The obligation, therefore, is on the party opposite to do what it has to do to ensure that the Assembly can get up and running. All other Members are united in the belief that there cannot be an Executive and a functioning Assembly while one party refuses to support the courts, the police and the functions of law and order. If Members want to get away from tired old debates, we must ask the party opposite, which has said that it is time to do the right thing on policing, to do precisely that. That is all that I want to say about that.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
I will not rehearse all the arguments in favour of small rural primary schools. Members have done that well already. I want to speak about what can be done to ensure the survival of at least some rural schools. Members know what the issues are: the costs; the quality of the educational experience; and the width of that experience. If schools were to share principals, or principals were appointed to look after a number of schools, the burden of management could be shared. Similarly, through sharing teachers — and employing peripatetic teachers — the educational experience could be widened. Of course, facilities should be shared between schools.
Recently, I attended the opening of the University of Ulster Sports Academy. There I met many youngsters from small primary schools. The only physical education that they received was through university students visiting their schools and training them in football, basketball, and so on. The students were able to give that additional help in schools to widen the youngsters’ educational experience.
However, even when we have done all that, there will still be the problem of surplus places and additional costs. Mr Gallagher implied that we should not have to worry about finance. Were they not having hot-air debates but making real decisions, Members would have to worry about finance. Whether they like it or not, per pupil, the smallest primary school costs three times— about £6,000 — the amount of schools that have over 150 pupils. In still larger schools, the costs even out. That is not a case for closing down all the small schools, but, since there are additional costs involved in keeping them open, we must consider how the extra finance can be raised. That is exactly what the motion says. Many of these policies should be subject to rural proofing to ensure that small rural primary schools are kept open.
Consider some of the solutions proposed in this debate and the attitudes adopted by the parties opposite. Rather than engaging on the issues of how money may be saved and how the communities may be encouraged to share schools and facilities and to co-operate, there is, among those parties, resistance to those policies.
I intervened when a Member opposite referred to co-operation among schools. One of the difficulties with co-operation among schools, and one of the problems with not co-operating, is the cost involved. The Bain Report states that supporting five sectors of education — controlled, maintained, voluntary, grammar, integrated and Irish medium — incurs significant costs. However, when it comes to addressing that problem, no value is added by having five separate administrative structures. If we want to keep schools open, we must accept that money should not be spent on expensive administrative structures. That must be faced up to, and Members should not forget that the boards will have to go.
There is, however, the suggestion that that would impact on CCMS, and, according to ‘The Irish News’ last Friday, the Church is ready to go to battle on the issue. It does not want to lose control of its schools. The Church would prefer to keep CCMS, with the control of teachers, schools and the cost of that administration, rather than face up to the financial consequences.
That also has a second impact, and it is not just the cost of administration. There will be painful choices for every Member. People in the North Eastern Education and Library Board are already lobbying me and asking if I realise the impact that the closure of the boards will have on jobs. Members in the Chamber will have to face hard decisions about the boards, and, if that is the case, Members opposite will have to face up to the consequences that that may have for CCMS and for the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE). We cannot have it one way for one set of administrators and a different way for another set of administrators.
Another consequence of not facing up to those issues is that the solution suggested by Dominic Bradley — to have greater collaboration, co-operation and sharing of premises to try to keep a local school — would be made much more difficult. People in the unionist community would be unhappy and hard to convince that their children should be educated in some kind of shared educational facility, half of which would be in the grip of the Church. CCMS and the Church must realise that, and they may realise it too late. Having embraced the Costello Report, the Burns Report and the idea of local collaboration, they are now beginning to realise the consequences. If Members opposite are so enthusiastic about that kind of model of co-operation, they must realise the consequences for the structures that will administer that model.
I noticed that Sinn Féin supports — as one would expect — locally elected “enlightened” Ministers such as Martin McGuinness, and I suspect that that is part of the reason for the amendment. Look at one of the policies that the “enlightened” Minister, Martin McGuinness, instigated. Against the background of falling rolls, surplus places and rising costs, the enlightened Minister introduced a policy under which Irish-medium schools and integrated schools with an intake as low as 12 pupils could be opened and financed by the state. The Bain Report states:
“The establishment of new Integrated and Irish-medium schools … increases the number of schools at a time of falling pupil numbers and, therefore, contributes to the incidence of small schools and the level of surplus capacity.”
Save us from enlightened Ministers like that is all that I can say. [Interruption.]
I am nearly finished.
If we persist with a policy of opening new, small integrated or Irish-medium schools because it happens to be the political flavour of the month for a particular party, there will be knock-on consequences for other schools. That is another issue that this Assembly has to face up to. In this debate there has been no evidence of that. We have heard Members saying that they want all the rural schools to be kept open, but they have not been prepared to look at the hard consequences of such a policy.
(Madam Speaker in the Chair)
Mr Armstrong: I am the chairman of the board of governors at Stewartstown Primary School and a governor of Coagh Primary School.
This issue is close to the heart of many of us in Mid Ulster. There are numerous small rural schools in the constituency that achieve excellent educational results, but they face the threat of closure as yet another Minister or professor produces a report or continues to roll out the Labour Government’s policies. It seems that the current policy is to concentrate on cities and towns, moving people’s homes out of the countryside by imposing the implementation of Draft PPS 14, and forcing people out of jobs in the countryside, whether in farming, rural post offices or rural schools, as proposed by Sir George Bain.
It is obvious that the Government are out of touch with realities in Northern Ireland, a predominantly rural region of the United Kingdom whose character is defined by precisely the things that the Government are trying to remove from our rural way of life. This is yet another issue that would benefit from the restoration of a devolved Assembly, which is essential for the future of Northern Ireland. It is time that we progressed to a fully democratic Assembly without delay.
There has been a lot of hot air today, but it has all fallen on deaf ears. Many policy-makers seem to work on the assumption that the typical primary school is urban, with a relatively large enrolment. This tunnel vision has encouraged the view that small primary schools are somehow deficient and should be rationalised into larger units. Northern Ireland has always had many small schools, mostly because of the rural character of the area. If we continue to lose these schools, there is great danger of weakening rural communities.
The Bain Report, published in December 2006, dealt a further blow to rural communities in Northern Ireland and created further doubt and uncertainty for parents, pupils and teachers. Sir George Bain recom-mended that rural primary schools with fewer than 105 pupils, and post-primary schools with fewer than 500 pupils should be considered for closure.
He also called for a radical reform of the school planning system to find ways of dealing with the problem of more than 53,000 empty desks in schools across Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that changes in the provision of education are required as that number continues to rise. However, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work across the Province, as it fails to take into account the particular characteristics of the area.
The difficulties faced by small schools as pupil numbers decline are not only a rural problem. Small urban schools are faced with similar problems. Demographic changes are having a strong impact on the long-term viability, both financial and educational, of schools across the board. The greatest impact of these recommendations will be felt in rural areas. The region could soon be facing the sort of depopulation of the countryside that has scarred central France.
We have seen time and again that the closing of the village primary school is the death knell of the community. It makes it more difficult for people to live in those areas; they are forced to transport their children considerable distances, and many are not prepared to do it.
A school that parents can trust to educate their children keeps people from moving away from villages, farms and rural businesses, of which there are many in Northern Ireland. Those schools can offer vital development and maintenance of rural communities. If a school disappears, along with other services, so eventually will the inhabitants.
The Rural Development Council has reported that there are at least 312 rural primary schools in Northern Ireland with fewer than 105 pupils, and 37 post-primary schools with fewer than 300 pupils. In my constituency of Mid Ulster, 13 of the 25 primary schools in the Cookstown District Council area and 15 of the 30 primary schools in the Magherafelt District Council area will face review under the Bain criteria.
Seven primary schools in Mid Ulster have fewer than 40 pupils, but they each form the bedrock of the community in their respective areas. Recently, I have been working in support of the Queen Elizabeth II Primary School in Pomeroy, which is fighting against closure. In October, I received a recommendation from the Southern Education and Library Board that closure was not an acceptable option and that the board would consider how it could find financial support so that the school could continue to operate in that isolated area. Should that school close, the result would be unacceptable travelling times to other schools. Likewise, schools in areas such as Stewartstown and Donaghmore face uncertainty and are working continuously to ward off the threat of closure.
There is enormous long-term significance in the worth of keeping early education close to home. It enhances the connection between rural schools and the community, creating a curriculum that is locally relevant and that links education in the school with the surrounding area. That, in turn, helps pupils to appreciate their local community and makes them more likely to settle there when they grow up.
A village school is not only a place to impart knowledge to pupils; it is a place for all of the community to learn, to act and to participate in local life. It has been assumed that bigger is always better, but that is not sustained by the hard evidence, and the case for the quality of education that is provided by small schools is indisputable.
The 2006 report of the chief inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate shows that many schools with 60 or 70 pupils performed outstandingly for successive years — better than many larger schools. Small schools can offer a warm, family-like atmosphere within which there are better opportunities than in large schools to address individual needs, experience mixed-age classes, and give opportunities to enhance individual learning, co-operation and group work.
We should examine the experiences of other European countries, such as Finland, which is a large country with only 5 million people but is the country with the most rural area in Europe. There are about 3,400 primary schools in Finland, more than half of which are considered to be small rural schools. Most of those schools have two or three teachers and between 11 and 60 pupils.
I wish to place on record my appreciation of the excellent work of the principals and teachers in all of the rural schools in Mid Ulster and across Northern Ireland. They continue to face doubts over their future, yet strive to provide education and guidance to our children and grandchildren that is second to none. They work very hard to transform barriers into opportunities. I urge the Government to put in place a strategy to protect the viability of those schools, similar to that in countries such as Finland and Sweden.
Mr Hussey: I declare an interest as a member of the Western Education and Library Board’s controlled schools working group, which was once called the small schools working group; as a member of the boards of governors of Gortin Primary School and Erganagh Primary School — both small rural schools; and as a former teacher in a rural secondary school, namely, Castlederg High School.
We have held some very interesting debates recently on agriculture, the Fire Service and post offices. I have welcomed those debates.
Surely it is obvious to everyone in the House that our Civil Service mandarins do not understand the reality of rurality. That is because they are financially driven and think about what is economically viable rather than about what is right and good for our people.
I see that Mr McElduff and Mr O’Reilly have joined us. They may realise that in the Western Education and Library Board area, for example, the main impact of rural-school closures will be on the maintained sector. They cannot deny that that is a fact. The demographics of the west mean that falling numbers are having an impact on that sector, particularly on primary schools. We have seen the impact that falling numbers have had on the secondary sector. For example, when a major school in Strabane was created, a secondary school in Plumbridge felt the impact.
Mr Gallagher would not take an intervention earlier when he was lauding CCMS — or the maintained sector, which is how he described the Catholic sector. I was planning to challenge him on the dictatorial nature of CCMS, particularly at diocesan level, and on the way in which it acted on the closure of a Plumbridge secondary school. The people of that area were not properly consulted, even though they fought bravely and sincerely to retain their secondary school.
As I have said, we are not necessarily referring only to primary schools: the proposals will have an impact on the secondary sector in many areas. As many Members have said, those schools are essential elements of hamlets, villages and parishes in the rural community: they are part of the rural hub.
I think that it was Mr Buchanan who talked about the lengths of time that our young kids spend on buses getting to and from school. Our schools are spread over a wide area. If we thin that number, imagine the amount of time that we will expect young primary-school kids and those who are going to secondary school for the first time to spend travelling to and from school. I am sure that some children in my area spend as long waiting for, getting into and transferring onto school buses as I do driving to get here. Kids might spend an hour and a half or perhaps two hours on school buses in the morning and again after school. Think of the impact that that has on extra-curricular activities. School is not just a 9.00 am to 3.00 pm operation; there are after-school activities. If we thin out the number of our schools even further, the distances mean that children cannot benefit from those additions to the curriculum that are available to many others.
Staffing is a major issue in the school budget. Many people forget that our small rural schools have loyal staff who remain there for a long time. In some cases, staff remain in those schools for their entire teaching life. Many of the staff are on the higher rate of pay. Think of the impact that that has on the school budget. Surely the sensible thing to do is to pay all teachers centrally. That would mean that teachers’ salaries would be removed from the school budget, which would then be properly distributed among the kids who attend that school.
To conclude, I will attempt to paraphrase Voltaire — I cannot translate directly from the French. He said that success does not necessarily go to the big battalions, rather to the best shots. Let us give our rural children the best shot that we can at a good educational start in their own rural communities and in their own local schools. Small, with imagination, can be best.
Mr Dallat: This has been a useful debate, which has been pitched at the right level. Arlene Foster began the debate by making the very important point that rural schools that continue to be successful are capped in numbers. That situation is like a two-sided coin: heads, I lose; tails, I lose. A school in Kilrea at which I taught is an example of one such school. That school had excellent examination results and full enrolment but was not allowed to increase its pupil numbers.
As a former teacher, I admit to a certain amount of nostalgia about the teaching profession. I began my teaching career in a school in north Donegal, which was surrounded by the mountains, the lakes, the sea and lovely places such as Malin Head, Culdaff, Gleneely, Moville, Clonmany and Ballyliffin. Madam Speaker, I cannot leave out the area that you frequent, which is Fahan.
Dominic Bradley told us that schools are part of the history of a place and that the closure of a school destroys the history of that place. That is true. I thank David McNarry for pointing out that the purpose of our amendment is not to rubbish the motion but to add to it. Barry McElduff told us that he is a school governor, and there will now be a demand for new road maps to that area. No doubt, one of those seeking a map will be the Duchess of Abercorn.
Kieran McCarthy asked the DUP and Sinn Féin to get off their high horses. I am pleased that he did not bring back the pantomime horse. Ken Robinson upstaged Barry McElduff by saying that he is a governor of two schools. He made very important points and acknow-ledged the contribution made by the education and library boards.
Sammy Wilson — if he is still listening to the debate — attacked the Catholic Church for its support of Catholic education. Tommy Gallagher pointed out that in every other part of the civilised world, that is not a problem. I was disappointed that Sammy Wilson later said that if the Catholic Church were in charge of schools, people from the Protestant community would have difficulty. That is absolute rubbish. The vast majority of Protestants are not bigots and they would have no difficulty with that. In my area, the involvement of the Catholic Church in education is an enhancement and an enrichment of children’s lives, and the Church has been involved for a very long time.
As a young father, Roy Beggs pointed out the difficulties that have arisen in his part of the North, and he mentioned research in the United States. Francie Brolly immediately admitted that he was cogging his speech. That is always a very dangerous practice, because if the speech contains mistakes, one has to take the rap for it. The small school in Aghadowey that was closed is called St Mary’s Primary School, not St John’s, which is still open.
Billy Armstrong talked about the rural part of his constituency, and Derek Hussey told us about Plumbridge, although he has probably heard just one side of the story.
The argument that small rural schools are not viable made its appearance in an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report in 1991. However, within two years, it was withdrawn because it was fatally flawed. Most of us were surprised that the same old findings reappeared in the Bain Report.
Several Members have accepted that there is always a need for some rationalisation. That is part of life. However, that should not entail turning the whole education system upside down. A cull on the scale that is proposed is outright madness and a direct attack on every rural community. In my constituency, that would undo all the good work that has been done to regenerate towns and villages that almost died during the long, dark years of the Troubles. For that to happen to them during peacetime when we are supposed to be progressive, thoughtful and committed to equality for all, would make a complete mockery of democracy.
The debate has relied on much research from England. I hope that I do not offend anyone by mentioning a recent report that was published in the Republic, which shows that small rural schools still take in 50% of pupils and a similar percentage of teachers. I know that some Assembly Members do not like to talk about our neighbours. However, the reality of life, North and South, is that we are still largely a rural people with similar needs and, of course, similar threats. As several Members have pointed out, that was true of post offices, schools and many other facets of life.
The report also recognises that smaller schools have several positive features and few of the drawbacks that have been traditionally attributed to them. I should, of course, mention studies in the UK, which show that curriculum provision in smaller schools is similar to that which emerged in studies of larger schools. There is no indication of greater social cohesiveness among children in larger schools. I should point out that, frequently, children of different ages work and play together and that the differentiation between those groups is not as pronounced as it is in large schools. Most importantly, research on the effects of class size has shown that pupils become more engaged academically and socially when class size is reduced and that increased engagement in the classroom is likely to lead to increased learning.
Teachers tend to find management easier in smaller classes, with fewer behavioural problems. They also feel more proactive and less reactive in their approach to managing student behaviour in smaller classes. Several Members raised that point. The research carried out by Veenman in 1996 suggests that multi-grade, consecutive-grade settings provide teachers with opportunities to use innovative teaching approaches that are associated with enhanced pupil learning.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr Dallat: I will give way, even though I am making my winding-up speech.
Mr S Wilson: I appreciate that, and I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member accept that although youngsters are more engaged in smaller classes — provided that they are not too small — one of the difficulties in some small rural schools is that problems can arise in classes where children of three or four different levels, perhaps primary 1 to primary 4, are being taught together?
Mr Dallat: I am glad that Sammy Wilson has raised that point. There are many devices and support mechanisms that can be used to overcome difficulties in small rural schools. Simply to cull rural schools is not the answer. Quite frankly, if a fraction of the energy that has recently been expended on some of those issues was channelled into the future of small rural primary schools and, indeed, small secondary schools — to which other Members have referred — threats to schools would not be gaining credibility but would be on the rubbish heap where they belong. Children are not battery hens. They do not have to be forced into large schools.
I want to finish on a positive note. I have absolutely no doubt that a new Assembly will be elected on 26 March. No one can be sure which parties will be biggest. I hope that the public uses its common sense when voting, because that crisis and others cannot continue.
It is wrong to allow the direct rulers to systematically strip this part of the island of its greatest asset — its children and its rural schools, whether they be primary or secondary.
Lord Morrow: It has been said many times that the rural primary school is the heartbeat of a rural com-munity; when the rural school is taken away, that com-munity starts to die. My colleague Tom Buchanan said that the Government seem to want to attack everything rural: post offices; planning; police stations; stores; churches; and now schools. It seems that the Government are making a determined effort to take on everything that is rural, decimate it and leave it a desolate place.
Some interesting comments were made around the Chamber today, particularly by Mr McElduff. He eulogised the former Minister of Education — I think that he had him at sainthood status at one stage. He said that Mr McGuinness, when he was Minister, listened to what everybody had to say before he made a decision. I am sure that the House will note how attentive and deliberate Mr McGuinness was when it came to abolishing the 11-plus. On the last day that the Northern Ireland Assembly was in place, he walked into the Chamber and, with a fell stroke of his dictatorial pen, he stroked out the 11-plus. Whether Members are in favour of the 11-plus or against it is not the argument or debate — the dictatorial attitude adopted by the Minister got many people annoyed. Mr McElduff, you should put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Madam Speaker: Please speak through the Chair, Lord Morrow.
Lord Morrow: Madam Speaker, I was not aware that you smoked a pipe. That is why I did not address the comment through you.
I have some interesting matters to bring to the attention of the House. Six days before Christmas, the NIO Minister David Hanson made an interesting comment to my party colleagues in the House of Commons. I will quote what he said so that we can put it up his nose too:
“Government recognise the important role that rural schools play both in children’s education and in the cohesion of rural communities.”
I am sure that many Members will forgive me if I am a bit cynical about those comments. It is not in my make-up to be cynical, as most people know. However, when I read such remarks, my cynicism begins to take over. Mr Hanson will be kept in mind of what he has said, because the DUP intends to hold the Government to that commitment.
I will proceed with my speech now that I have made the introduction — those were merely remarks. It is important that rural children are not disadvantaged by the Department’s plans for post-primary transfer. The needs of rural schoolchildren should not be overlooked when tie-breakers are being determined to resolve the allocation of pupils to oversubscribed schools.
Ronan Gorman is the chief executive of Countryside Alliance Ireland (CAI), the organisation that does such wonderful work for our countryside, rural sports and the rural way of life. I place on record my appreciation — and, I suspect, that of the whole House, with perhaps one exception, and he is not here — for what the Countryside Alliance does for the rural community. It was no less a person than Mr Gorman who said that the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006:
“has major implications for local children and their education. We welcome many of the proposals aimed at ensuring that all pupils must have the opportunity to acquire and develop specific cross-curricular skills and approve of the Department’s requirements for schools to provide access to a wider range of courses for older pupils.
However, the key for many rural children will be the criteria used to select pupils for particular schools.”
Mr Gorman continues and, as I found his remarks interesting, I want to quote him accurately:
“CAI is fundamentally opposed to selection criteria based primarily on the distance that rural pupils live from particular schools. This would unfairly discriminate against rural pupils who may live considerable distances from any school. We intend to …ensure every pupil has equitable access to appropriate education facilities.”
That is a true and timely remark, and such a situation must not be allowed to develop.
Children who live in rural areas and travel to schools in local market towns enrich and bring added value to those schools. The closure of rural schools is not a phenomenon peculiar to Northern Ireland. Members should consider what happens in other parts of the world. Mr Armstrong mentioned Finland, and I want Members to consider what has been said in America about the threat to rural schools that, believe it or not, is also faced there. A study of rural schools in all 50 US states was conducted, and they face the same challenges as here: students with disabilities, students who cannot speak English particularly well and students from ethnic minorities.
Those problems are all relevant in Northern Ireland, and there are many students from ethnic minorities in the town from which I come — probably the largest ethnic community in Northern Ireland resides in Dungannon. In the American study, rural schools in Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming all proved — relative to poverty levels and other challenges that they face — to be doing well. Rural education in those states is characterised by a smaller organisational scale, including a lower student-teacher ratio, smaller schools and smaller districts. Nonetheless, rural schools are still at risk.
My colleague Arlene Foster referred to an example of the risk to rural schools in Northern Ireland. In one district electoral area in South Tyrone, six rural or village primary schools are under threat. The decision has already been taken to close two of them, and the remaining four are equally vulnerable. Can anyone imagine the devastating impact that the closure of six village or rural primary schools will have on that community, which is part of a small district electoral area in Northern Ireland? If the Government proceed with closing down those schools, the impact will be devastating.
If the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored, difficult decisions will have to be taken. Not every single rural or village primary school will survive. No one on this side of the House, or anyone who supports the motion, says that that should happen. Realistically, a different approach must be taken to rural schools. My colleague Sammy Wilson said that other matters must be considered and that there should be closer co-operation in some cases. Why can that not happen?
I was amazed that the SDLP went off on a tangent and tried to say that that represented an irresponsible attack on its ethos and the Catholic education system — it is anything but. It was an attempt to bring a degree of realism into the education debate and particularly the future of rural primary schools.
I hope that the House will unite in agreeing the DUP’s motion and that parties will clearly say to the Government, and particularly to Mr Hanson, whose remarks I have quoted, that they will no longer put up with the decimation and closure of rural primary schools. The DUP intends to make a stand and will not allow that to continue month in, month out, year in, year out.
Mr Hanson does not pick up a single vote in Northern Ireland, yet he thinks that he can step in with impunity and, with the stroke of a pen, abolish rural schools that have provided some of the best students who could ever be expected of any education system. I appeal to the House to forget its pettiness and unite behind the motion to save and maintain the future of rural primary schools, and, vitally, rural communities.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the threat to rural schools in Northern Ireland; calls upon the Government to recognise the vital role that such schools play in the community; and urges the Government to put in place a strategy, where possible, to protect the viability of these schools.
Adjourned at 4.41 pm.