STAFF from the Housing Executive at Marlborough House were out in force on Tuesday lunchtime as part of a series of province-wide protests against plans to reform the organisation.
The protests were organised by the public service union NIPSA amid fears that up to 75 jobs in the local area could be lost under the plan.
There are also fears that rents could rise under the plans announced last week by Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland.
The minister has proposed splitting the Housing Executive into a regional housing body which would deliver services and programmes, with the landlord function removed from the public sector to allow for access to private funding.
Isobel King, who has worked for the housing body for 32 years, said staff had been waiting for an announcement for the past 15 months but it was only on Monday that they were formally contacted by the Minister.
She said, “We all got an email saying there was no cause for worry over jobs. They Housing Executive took the discrimination out of housing and raised the standards for tenants. There is no reason why social housing can’t be reformed within the Housing Executive.
“There are 90,000 Executive homes and we don’t know what’s going to happen to the tenant section. The big housing associations may be brought in to run then .”
Louise Dodds, who has been an employee for 20 years, said she had no doubt that rents would rise for tenants. She said, “Housing Association rents are more expensive and we don’t want to go back to the days of gerrrymandering.”
Public sector worker Helena McSherry does not work for the Housing Executive but had gone along to support her colleagues. She said, “I have family and friends in Housing Executive homes and I am currently looking for one myself.
“What is going on is going to have a knock-on effect on all of us. It is going to hit low paid workers on welfare. It will be more difficult to find a house and more expensive.”
Alison Millar, deputy general secretary of NIPSA, said, “Members are angry at the Minister’s announcement last week. It is widely accepted that NIHE members delivered an excellent service over 40 plus years without fear or favour in what was on many occasions very difficult conditions during the ‘Troubles’.
“NIPSA intends to fight this decision to ensure both our members, tenants and prospective tenants, know the whole truth. It is not true that there is no alternative. There is an alternative. The NIHE could be allowed to borrow money, as they did during the 70s and 80s to improve existing stock and new, much-needed social housing,”
She added: “NIPSA is challenging our political representatives to press treasury and this government to change treasury rules to allow the NIHE to borrow money. NIPSA would question what representations have been made to treasury - we expect the same level of engagement as there has been in relation to corporation tax.”
In a statement Housing Executive chief executive Dr John McPeake said the Housing Executive recognised that change is required to sustain investment in social housing in Northern Ireland. He said, “We welcome the Minister’s commitment that tenants will be consulted and involved in any major changes. We believe this is essential in order to maintain high standards in housing services.
“In the intervening period we will be arguing the case to ensure that: whatever structures are in place, they are underpinned by our core values of fairness and equity which have served our customers well for over 40 years; and all our staff will have a clear understanding of their future roles as soon possible.
“We welcome the commitment from DSD that the Housing Executive and its staff will be engaged in the subsequent design and implementation of the new arrangements.”