Flávia Gouveia: Housing and anti-poverty strategies need to be top of the political agenda

Last summer, the housing waiting list hit more than 45,000 people. File photo from Wikicommons

Last summer, the housing waiting list hit more than 45,000 people. File photo from Wikicommons

FOR all of the successes and political headwinds of the last few weeks, already there are hints that without challenge Northern Irish politics will not deliver for the most vulnerable.

As new ministers take up their posts, issue statements of intent, and business at Stormont resumes, priorities are beginning to emerge.

Issues like public sector pay, affordable childcare and women’s healthcare have seen some progress.

But for one department in particular the emerging priority is missing the mark entirely.

Over the last couple of weeks, communities minister Gordon Lyons and his new department have been repeatedly asked about the Casement Park development.

The time sensitivities and historic delays mean that the project has become more pressing, leading to considerable public interest.

But have we really already forgotten some of the issues which dominated news headlines over the last two years?

Last summer, the housing waiting list hit more than 45,000 people. That’s 10% higher than a decade ago and almost twice as many as two decades ago.

While Stormont was on hiatus the cost-of-living crisis ravaged families who were forced to choose between heating and eating.

Demand for food banks reached record highs as more and more people faced relative poverty in the face of rocketing costs.

Research by fuel poverty charity National Energy Action last year found that over 40% of households in Northern Ireland were considered to be living in fuel poverty.

Poverty and social housing are both within the remit of the Department for Communities, which currently only faces scrutiny over Casement Park.

That’s not to say that the project should be abandoned, investment in sports, the arts and culture is to be commended and should always be welcome.

Flávia Gouveia

Flávia Gouveia

The arts sector in particular needs - and deserves - far more funding than it currently has access to.

It would be fair to argue that perhaps the remit of the department is far too wide, making the priorities too hard for a minister to balance.

Arts, culture, and sport should not have to compete with housing and poverty strategies. And while they fall under the same umbrella, one should not take a back seat to the other.

Mr Lyons has issued a statement in which he said that his focus would be transformative “programmes and policies”, of which housing was one, but failed to reveal any detail of how this would be achieved.

The next few months will be crucial as funding and budgets are finalised and ministers set out priorities for their departments.

A new poverty strategy which accounts for the events of the last three years and aims to support those most deeply affected must be a priority.

And housing waiting lists must be tackled with updates to existing stock and new housing developments.
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