The Big Interview: We talk to Clark Bailie, head of Northern Ireland Housing Executive

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Clarke Bailie, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive

VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to Clark Bailie, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, about their Homelessness Strategy for 2017-2022 and other related issues, including the Supporting People budget

Question: What weaknesses were there in the 2012-17 Homelessness Strategy or do you see it as producing a successful outcome.

Answer: We asked the University of York to look at that strategy and see how well or not we’d done. Looking down at my notes I think there were 38 strategy actions and they said 31 had been completed and six had been partially completed. If you look at what we were trying to do before and what we want to do going into the future I think the big difference is a much greater emphasis on prevention. We think that the last strategy was, by and large, a successful one. Obviously it creates a good foundation to move on to the future.

Q: Will the new Homelessness Strategy for Northern Ireland 2017-22 significantly reduce homelessness? By how much?

A: We’re all committed to trying to eliminate homelessness. I think that’s aspirational. But we can all certainly do our best to work towards it. We haven’t set specific targets yet.

Q: Have you carried out a rigorous equality assessment of your homelessness strategy? Are the results of it freely available to the public?

A: Certainly we’ve met our obligations in terms of consultation. We’re looking at the impact – but yes, that information should be freely available.

Q: Would you like the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to start building homes again? Is there a budget for it?

A: We’re currently the main provider of social housing with our 87,000 properties. We’re the majority landlord in social housing. We certainly would have aspirations to play our part to increase the supply of social housing and extending choice. The issue we have is primarily one of funding. As the regional housing authority, our responsibility is to administer the housing association grant on behalf of the Department for Communities, so we have a role to play in terms of assessing the need for new social housing developments. I don’t think it’s any secret that our board would love to get back into building houses, but not to compete – but to supplement and complement. There would be issues around funding.

Q: What are your views on the Housing First policy and should increased resources be devoted towards it?

A: I know DePaul have done really good work around this and it does seem to offer a more successful model for certain groups. The idea of putting someone into a house or home and giving them that wraparound support I think would certainly give that individual a lot more confidence and a lot more support. I would like this supported. I would like to see how we can reconfigure and allocate our funding to allow us to look at that and even more innovative solutions. I can see a role for it in certain circumstances, but we have to go back and see how we can fund these new developments.

Q: How will welfare reforms (including the recent introduction of Universal Credit into Northern Ireland ) impact upon your efforts to combat the problem of homelessness?

A: We know from research that has been carried out in England in particular and there’s also a Wales audit office report which looked at the early implementation of welfare reform in Wales, that there seems to be an increase in arrears and an increase in evictions and that’s something that we’re very much focused on. I think we’re grateful that we have the mitigation in place but we’re looking to see, based on what we can gather from research and experience in other parts of the UK, what’s likely to happen when the mitigation comes to an end, if indeed it does come to an end.

Q: Would you appeal for Universal Credit to be halted?

A: Well our statutory responsibility is to administer a housing benefits system and to look to manage as best as we possibly can the transition from housing benefit to the housing component of Universal Credit. And as a non-departmental public body, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to call for it to be halted.

A: We are absolutely committed to the Supporting People budget, as is the Department for Communities. The budget for Supporting People is £72.8 million. As I’ve explained on several occasions now, we were faced with a situation where there were unavoidable cost pressures within the Supporting People budget, the reintroduction of special needs management allowance, the growth of schemes from pipeline schemes that were approved in previous years that are now coming to maturity. We had a really difficult decision to make if we were to remain within the overall budget. And as accounting officer I have certain obligations in that regard in that how can we best reconfigure allocations to stay within the budget. We decided that we wanted to protect floating support because we see that as a really important aspect of the Supporting People program. I did with a heavy heart write out to the colleagues in the various supporting organisations and confirm to them that we would have to reduce the non-floating support bit of their budget this year. At the same time I did say that I would take every opportunity during the year to submit requests for additional funding, and when we set our original budget at the beginning of the 2017/18 year we did ask the Department for Communities for additional funding. At that time they weren’t able to provide funding. I submitted an in year bid and I’m delighted to say our colleagues in the Department were able to find additional funding and that is now being allocated to Supporting People providers. As I told the Supporting People providers, that unfortunately is non-recurring funding. We will be working with the Department for Communities to see how we can confirm the allocation for next year. I really want to take this opportunity to assure everybody we have spent every single penny of that budget on Supporting People.I would love to be able to say that I’m expecting an increase but that would be unrealistic and dishonest. Certainly, I will present the best case I can to try and secure additional funding but it’s very much bound up in the state of government finances.Q: There was a dispute recently over a cut in the Supporting People budget. Is the Housing Executive still committed to supporting it and do you envisage an increase in their budget?

Q: What are your views on hostels? Do you envisage them still playing a key role in the years ahead?

A: We’ve a Supporting People programme and a homelessness program that has developed over quite a few years and maybe we’ve reached the point where we have to stop and say is this the way we want to do things in the future? I have quoted some research I have read with regard to Finland because Finland is very often put forward as an exemplar of how to deal with homelessness. We shouldn’t have any sacred cows, we should be open to new ideas.

Q: What is your personal reaction if you come across someone on the streets who are homeless. Do you give them money?

A: I think my attitudes have changed, and maybe because of my transition from an accountant to a chief executive. I naturally relate to them on a human level, that because of circumstances which I’m sure weren’t of their choosing, they find themselves in a position where they are sleeping rough on the street or they’re begging during the day. I wouldn’t give them money. The Housing Executive supported a campaign last year which was run by homelessness organisations, that said giving someone money with the best of intentions is actually allowing them to live on the street. What I would do is go back to my office and know that the work the Housing Executive is doing is aimed at trying to help people who find themselves in that situation.

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