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GUEST BLOG: John Paterson, Director, ARK Consultancy

John Paterson, Director from ARK Consultancy sees exciting development opportunities ahead for Northern Ireland’s social housing sector. To prosper the sector needs the right skills, products and partnerships in place.

The Belfast Telegraph reported last week that the Northern Ireland housing market is in “very good shape”. The evidence? A return of rising house prices and high sales demand.

The real “shape” of the Northern Ireland Housing Market remains unbalanced. And the biggest single problem remains one of housing supply.

Positively, Department for Communities statistics suggest some room for optimism. The number of new housing ‘starts’ in 2015/16 was at its highest level in five years. Encouragingly, our sector has driven a large proportion of this improvement with social housing starts up by 58 per cent from the previous year.

So what can we do now to further build on this success?

  • Working better together through partnerships – even if resources were unlimited, we can’t do it on our own. Modern housebuilding relies on a complex set of interdependent relationships between diverse specialists. So, the sector needs to get good at working with everyone from land agents, housebuilders, local councils and funders, to supply chain partners. We could achieve even more by looking at a wider range of ways to combine the sector’s buying power, resources and skills.
  • Continuing to innovate with new products – while there’s clearly huge demand for affordable homes, we shouldn’t mistake this for people necessarily wanting what may have been provided in the past. Uniform or mono-tenure estates have proved problematic, and what many local people really want is to choose a tenure or accommodation option that suits their circumstances at different stages of life.
  • Embracing new production methods – there may be resistance but to build homes at scale fast we have to explore modern methods of construction including off-site manufactured and other quick-build homes. This approach can create new employment opportunities.
  • Focussing on jobs and skills – recent research has highlighted that the adverse influence of a lack of skills on Northern Ireland’s construction sector. Britain’s exit from the European Union may further reduce the availability of skilled construction labour. Development activity needs to focus on not only local jobs but also maximising skills for the future through training and apprenticeship schemes. Local jobs and apprenticeships may also help build community support for development where there has been opposition in the past.
  • Leading regeneration and place-shaping – constructing dwellings is the easy bit. The sector will really be judged on how well we are able to create and sustain pleasant, thriving communities where people want to stay. Health, education, transport, shops, leisure and other community amenities provide the vital glue to bind new neighbourhoods together. We need to think through how the sector will lead the regeneration and place-shaping agenda.

The sector’s track record has shown that we can provide the homes and communities we all want to see in Northern Ireland. Indeed as a sector, with the support of policy-makers we have the skills and the determination to help address the housing supply challenge.

For further information on ARK Consultancy, click here.