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Text: Martin Melaugh ... Page Design: Fionnuala McKenna

Majority Minority Review 3
Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland

by Martin Melaugh

Section 6: Housing in the 1980s


This Section will take a brief look at some of the changes that occurred in housing during the 1980s and review some of the assessments made of housing policies at that time. The first part of this Section looks at the work carried out by the NIHE and reviews some of the literature on the pressures under which the Executive operated. The results of the 1984 and 1987 House Condition Surveys are also considered to see what evidence they contain on the housing characteristics of Catholic and Protestant households. Due to the limited amount of work that specifically addresses the equality issue in housing a report on this topic by Hillyard (1986) is considered in some depth.


The election of the Conservative government in 1979 was to have a profound impact on housing policy in the United Kingdom. While there had been a decrease in construction in the public sector under the previous Labour government, the Conservative administration was to oversee a major decline in the fortunes of UK public sector housing. As will be seen below, the effect in Northern Ireland was less than in Britain but it was not entirely immune from the effects of changes in spending plans.

The emphasis in Conservative policies on the private sector in general, and on encouraging owner occupation in particular, had a very significant impact on the mix of tenures in England and Wales. While the public sector in Northern Ireland was protected, to a certain degree, from the deepest of the cuts in public expenditure on housing, a range of policies were introduced designed to encourage home ownership. These policies had the desired effect and owner occupation increased significantly as will be shown in Section Seven.

Housing expenditure

As mentioned in Section Four there had been a decease in government expenditure on housing in the region towards the end of the 1970s. Under the Conservative government elected in 1979 there were additional cuts (Connolly and Knox 1991). However further reports on the relatively poor position of Northern Ireland housing (for example, Northern Ireland Economic Council 1981) were to bring a change in policy in the region and result in increases, in real terms, in expenditure on public housing. These changes were reflected in increased housebuilding activity during 1983-84: see Figure 4.1.

During the middle period of the 1980s Northern Ireland had a relatively favoured financial status in comparison with regions in Britain (Singleton 1985, 1986). By way of illustration Singleton (1986) examined the public expenditure figures on housing between 1979-80 and 1987-88 in the UK regions. By converting the 1979-80 figures to an index of 100, Northern Ireland was shown to have increased to a figure of 179 (based on cash prices) by the end of the period; the figures for the other were England 59, Wales 63 and Scotland 87. Taken on a per capita basis the expenditure information for Northern Ireland looked just as favourable. At 1979 prices, spending per capita in Northern Ireland stayed at a comparatively high level during the period, while all other regions suffered a significant decrease in expenditure: see Figure 6.1. In addition Singleton considered Expenditure in Northern Ireland against the retail price index:

Although it is clear that Northern Ireland has been relatively favoured in public expenditure terms during the period 1979-80 to 1987-88, plotting the course of the retail price index over the same period indicates that such expenditure in Northern Ireland has not quite kept pace with inflation. (Singleton 1986 p6).

There were other differences in financial policy between Northern Ireland and Britain which had an important impact on housing in Northern Ireland. One example is that the NIHE has been permitted to spend 100 percent of the receipts from the sale of its dwellings while, until recently, the figure in Britain was only 20 per cent. The importance of this difference has lessened as the sales of NIHE properties declined; from a figure of 6,504 in 1981 (DoE NI 1992) to 3228 in 1992-93 (NIHE personal communication).

Figure 6.1 Public expenditure (regional per capita spending at 1979 prices) on housing,
1979-80 and 1987-88

Data for Figure 6.1

Singleton (1986) noted two main reasons for the favoured position of Northern Ireland during the mid-l980s. The first was the availability of housing statistics from the House Condition Surveys and other sources which could be used by ministers and civil servants to strengthen their argument for priority spending. The second had more to do with the conflict in the region:

... relatively high levels of public expenditure can... be seen as part of the British Government's perceived "reformist" strategy for Northern Ireland. Such a strategy is based on the premise that a "high"' level of public expenditure on housing may also contribute to the amelioration of the province's wider political problems. (p5).

It was also the case that the average unit cost of a new dwelling was lower in Northern Ireland that in any region in Britain so making new build a more attractive option. Northern Ireland's relatively better financial position began to change with The Government's Expenditure Plans 1988-89 to 1990-91 (Cm. 288 1988) when the reduction in gross expenditure was justified in terms of other priorities:

Because of the pressures in a number of other important programmes it is no longer possible to continue to provide resources for housing on the scale of recent years. (Vol. II p342).

Housebuilding by the public and private sectors

The most striking thing about Figure 4.1 is the substantial decrease in the number of houses built by the NIHE during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. As mentioned in Section Four, part of the explanation for the decline was the shift in emphasis towards rehabilitation, but it was also government policy to move the NIHE away from being a main provider of new housing to a residual role which is designed to supplement the private sector. The decrease in expenditure levels, mentioned above, became an important factor in the late 1980s. The combined effect of these and other factors has been that the targets set for NIHE new building have been revised downwards. In The Government's Expenditure Plans for 1982-83 the target for new building by the NIHE was set at 4,500 houses per annum (Cmnd. 8494), in 1985-86 a figure of 2,250 was given (Cmnd. 9428), and the projection for 1992-93 was 1,000 (Cm. 1917).

The decrease in housebuilding activity has continued in recent years to such an extent that in this area the Housing Executive is now almost on a par with the housing associations. During 1991 the NIHE had a housing stock of approximately 157,031 and began building 999 new houses (DoE NI 1992). Assuming that the new housing replaces obsolete housing, at this rate it would take 157 years to replace the current stock[1]. Under similar assumptions the equivalent figures for the private sector give a replacement period of 64 years (DoE NI 1992). Even allowing for the very approximate nature of these figures it is clear that the current level of public sector building therefore assumes an unrealistically long lifetime for NIHE houses. The residual policy for deciding how many houses to build appears to take no account of replacement cycles. Even allowing for the continuation of the sale of NIHE property and the general movement towards increased owner occupation, there will remain a sizeable section of the population which will require public sector housing. At the moment a disproportionately large number of Catholics live in public sector housing, so any shift of resources which threatens a long-term decline in the provision and quality of the public sector stock will have a relatively greater impact on the Catholic community. One of the criticisms made of housing authorities during the inter-war years was that they failed to maintain a "rolling programme of renewal" (Brett 1986 p22), the danger of such a situation happening again will have to be kept in mind.

The other point of note from Figure 4.1 is the apparent compensation by the private sector for the decline in NIHE house building activity. As mentioned above, even with the special circumstances of Northern Ireland society, such as the greater levels of deprivation, the Conservative government has made clear its desire for a high level of private enterprise in housing provision and has introduced various measures to encourage it. In response to the increase in the private sector during the 1980s the planned output of the NIHE was revised downwards.

While it is clear from Figure 4.1 that during the 1980s private house building in the region increased dramatically, there are problems in trying to compensate for reductions in public sector building with private development. It is inevitable that the major developers will be attracted to the centres of population where income, wealth and the numbers of new households are sufficient to encourage demand. Hendry, Neill and McConaghy (1986) in an investigation of private housebuilding activity during 1982-85 found an uneven pattern of construction across the region: "...over 50% of private housing new build has been within the Belfast travel to work area. If the council area of Craigavon is added the total is almost 60%. Adding the districts of Londonderry and Coleraine, the percentage exceeds 70%." (Hendry, Neill and McConaghy 1986 p27). When they considered the distribution of new private houses within the wards of Belfast City Council area they found construction concentrated in the south and parts of the north and east: "it comes as little surprise to observe that the private sector is not engaged in rebuilding the inner city." (Hendry, Neill and McConagh, 1986 p37). There were also difficulties in relying on the private sector in some areas in the west of the region, for example Fermanagh, where unfitness remains a problem: "The rural area itself appears to hold no interest for developers, with speculative housing limited to the Enniskillen Urban Area and the surrounding small towns." (Hendry 1989 pl13).

In response to worries among the private housebuilding industry about the unsustainability of the high levels of building during the mid-l 980s, the Department of the Environment commissioned a report into the potential demand for new private sector dwellings in the period 1988 to 1993 (Centre for Environmental Planning, The Queen's University of Belfast, and Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre, 1989). The downturn in private sector activity in the late 1980s was attributed to lower demand caused by a combination of high interest rates and increased migration amongst those in the household formation age-group. The Department was reassured to be told that economic forecasts predicted a return by 1993 to the 7,000+ starts level. Nevertheless this illustrates one of the problems involved in placing a heavy reliance on private sector building to cope with the wide range of housing need.

Repair and improvement

As mentioned in Section Four the NIHE operates a system of grants which are intended to fund improvements in the stock of dwellings in the private sector. Table 6.2 gives detailed figures for the number of completions of grant-aided work broken down by type of grant, for the years 1977 to 1991. Given the differences in tenure between the two main religious groups the benefits that accrued as a result of this policy would have been different for each of the communities. There is however no information about the uptake of the various grants broken down by religion of household. Therefore it is not possible to say whether Catholic and Protestant owner occupiers managed to take advantage of the grants on an equal basis. Economic and social differences between the two communities may have resulted in a differing uptake of grants. For example, during this period earnings among Catholic households tended to be lower, so they may have been less able to afford to avail of schemes which required the householder to pay part of the total cost. This point is considered below. On the other hand it is probable that among the applicants there was a higher proportion of younger households. Given the younger age structure of the Catholic population this may have been to the disadvantage of older Protestant owner occupiers .

Table 6.2 Grants to the private sector for dwelling repair and improvement,
completions 1977-1991

Improvement grants
Repair grants
Conversion grants
Insulation grants
Total (excluding insulation)

* Excludes first-quarter figures which are not are not available

Source: DoE NI (1981, 1992)

It is clear from Table 6.2 that there has been a substantial downturn in the number of repair grants given since 1984-85. This has happened even though repair is being increasing identified as a major and growing problem. The Housing Executive also carries out repairs to its own property. The work is classified according to scale, that is, major, intermediate and minor improvements, and rehabilitation. Table 6.3 gives details of the number of improvements (excluding minor repairs) carried out by the NIHE between 1982 to 1991.

Table 6.3 Improvements (major, intermediate and rehabilitation)
to NIHE dwellings, 1982.1991
YearNumber of improvements

source: DoE NI (1992)

It is clear from the Table that there have been large fluctuations in the amount of work carried out from year to year. In previous years funding for this work took second priority to new building and was thus more affected by changes in the Housing Executive's financial resources. The programme of demolition, new building and grants for improvement and repair, etc., has depended on preferential funding of housing in Northern Ireland at a time when this area of public expenditure was being curtailed in Britain.

The strategy adopted by the NIHE over the past 20 years has changed to meet different circumstances and as the housing situation has improved the level of government support for the various housing programmes has declined. There is little doubt that the benefits of the differing aspects of the housing programme of the NIHE have accrued in different ways to the two communities. Some indication of the effects in terms of housing conditions is considered next, while a review of an assessment of the probable effect of the programme during the 1970s and 1980s follows.


To comply with its statutory obligations the NIHE carried out House Condition Surveys in 1984 and 1987. While the 1984 survey was a large-scale survey of 9,685 dwellings (NIHE 1985), the 1987 survey was carried out with the intention of bringing the Northern Ireland surveys into line with those in England and Wales, and was smaller than usual at 4,021 dwellings (NIHE 1988). The effect of the smaller sample was that information at a district council level was not considered to be statistically reliable and was thus not included in the published report. This obviously reduces the scope for considering associations between the proportion of Catholics and housing conditions at an area level. As mentioned earlier the NIHE still had a policy at that time of not collecting information on religion during its ad hoc surveys.

Table 6.4 contains details of key indicators of house condition derived from the 1984 and 1987 House Condition Surveys. The most important of these is the rate of unfitness and it is clear that considerable improvements had been made since 1974. However, while Northern Ireland's unfitness rate improved, the relative position compared to England remained similar (England's unfitness rate was 4.8 per cent in 1986). The reduction in unfitness had not been evenly spread across the region. Differences in the rates of unfitness between urban and rural areas remained a problem that was recognised by the Housing Executive: "...progress in tackling unfitness in rural housing has not matched that achieved in urban areas" (NIHE 1986a p9). Between 1984 and 1987 there had been a 26.7 per cent reduction in the number of unfit dwellings in urban areas but the corresponding figure for rural areas was only 9.4 per cent (NIHE 1988 p62). Much of the reduction in the unfitness rate over the past 20 years or so has been achieved by area clearance or area redevelopment schemes which, by their nature, tend to be located in inner city areas. The high level of single unfit dwellings common in rural areas have not had the same level of resources devoted to them. Although it is difficult to be certain it is likely that the emphasis in these policies would have had a differential impact on the two communities, given that the Protestant population is more urban.

Table 6.4 Key indicators from House Condition Surveys for 1984 and 1987
Unfit dwellings
Dwellings lacking 1 or more basic amenities
Fit dwellings lacking amenities
Dwellings requiring repairs over: (a) £3,000*
Dwellings requiring repairs over: (b) £8,000*
1984 …%
1987 …%

* At 1987 prices
Source: NIHE (1985, 1988)

An examination of unfitness by district council areas, Figure 6.5, shows that for all but one area (Fermanagh) the rate had dropped below 20 per cent, a significant improvement on the situation in 1971 (see Figure 4.6). The level of association between unfitness in a district council area and the percentage of Catholics living in the district had also declined.

Figure 6.5 Percentage of dwellings unfit (1984) by percentage of Catholics (1981),
district council areas

While the position in terms of unfitness was reasonably promising the repair situation, as shown in Table 6.4, was much worse; 22.5 per cent of dwellings required repairs in excess of £3,000. The figure for dwellings requiring urgent external repairs over £1 000 was 15.1 per cent; the equivalent figure for England was 12.9 per cent (NIHE 1988 p51). Between 1979 and 1984 there was an increase in the number of dwellings which required repairs, a point mentioned by the NIHE: "Progress in tackling the most serious problems of statutory unfitness has been counterbalanced by an increase in disrepair..." (NIHE 1986a p9). The position for the district council areas is summarised in Figure 6.6 which shows a marked variation in the extent of the repair problem across the 26 areas; from 10.9 per cent in Newtownabbey to 39.1 per cent in Belfast. While there was a slight association with the proportion of Catholics in each area this was not statistically significant. Despite the improvement between 1984 and 1987 this is an area that requires a continuous commitment to combat the natural deterioration in the housing stock.

Figure 6.6 Percentage of dwellings requiring repairs over �2,500 (1984)
by percentage of Catholics (1981), district council areas

Northern Ireland has had a long history of poor amenity provision compared with England. The 1987 figure for dwellings lacking one or more basic amenities in the region was 5.5 per cent an improvement on the 1984 figure: see Table 6.4. There has also been a narrowing of the gap with England which had an estimated 2.5 per cent of dwellings lacking amenities in 1986 (DoE England 1987). The 1981 Census data on amenity provision, see Section Five, showed the differentials in amenity provision between Catholic and Protestants had narrowed significantly since 1971. Figure 6.7 shows the percentage of dwellings lacking at least one basic amenity in each of the district council areas. The scale of the improvement can be seen by comparison with data from the earlier surveys: see Figures 4 . 5 and 4.7.

Figure 6.7 Percentage of dwellings lacking at least one amenity (1984)
by percentage of Catholics (1981), district council areas

One relative measure of housing provision is the stock of dwellings per 1,000 of the population. in 1991 the figure for Northern Ireland was 364.4 while the equivalent figure for Britain was 426.2; that is 17 per cent higher than the Northern Ireland provision (DoE NI 1992). On this measure of housing provision Northern Ireland has been consistently behind the revel in England, with no relative improvement during the 1980s. Some of the difference between Northern Ireland and Britain will be accounted for by differing average household sizes. In 1990-91 the average (mean) household size in Northern Ireland was 2.91 while in the same year the figure for England was 2.46 (PPRU 1992). Part of the explanation also lies in the larger number of second homes in England and Wales. Imperfect though they may be, waiting list figures give some indication of housing shortage in Northern Ireland. While the NIHE had some success in reducing the waiting list during the early 1980s, the total number on the list at the end of 1991 was 21,851 of which 9,691 were 'priority' cases (DoE NI 1992). These figures are not spread evenly through the region. The Derry City Council area, for instance, had the greatest proportion of NIHE properties and also the highest proportion on the priority waiting list. Figure 6.8 shows the total waiting list in each district council expressed as a percentage of the NIHE stock in Northern Ireland. While it is clear that there are differences between the areas there would appear to be no association with the proportion of Catholic households in each area. This point will be considered in Section Eight.

Total waiting list expressed as a percentage of the total NIHE
housing stock by percentage of Catholics (1981), district council areas

Data for Figure 6.8

The 1987 HCS estimated that 22 per cent of the housing stock was built prior to 1919, 30 per cent was bust during 1919 to 1960 and the remaining 49 per cent had been built since 1960. The Executive stated that this pattern "differs from England which experienced relatively high rates of interwar building activity" (NIHE 1985 p10) whereas it would be more accurate to say that Northern Ireland had relatively lower rates of housing construction during that period (see Section Two). There has been a significant improvement in the age structure of the housing stock since 1974 when, for example 35 per cent of the stock had been built prior to 1919. Much of the change has been brought about by the demolition of the older stock and by new building.

While the size and condition of the stock are obviously very important aspects of housing, attention should be given to whether household size is matched by dwelling size. While this issue is quite complicated, the OPCS Bedroom Standard gives some indication of how well households and dwellings are matched. Although the NIHE's HCS does not provide information on the bedroom standard there is data available from the Greater Belfast Area Household Survey for 1985 (NIHE 1986). The data for the Belfast District Council area showed that 8.6 per cent of households were overcrowded, while the figure for the Belfast Urban Area was 7.4 per cent (NIHE 1986). There were significant differences in the extent of overcrowding between specific areas:

Within Belfast district, overcrowding is most pronounced in the west of the city where 17 per cent of households are living in conditions with insufficient bedrooms to meet their family needs. (NIHE 1986 p23).

Other information on the bedroom standard is available in the Continuous Household Survey and is reviewed in Section Seven.

The estimates of the tenure of occupied dwellings in the 1987 HCS put owner occupation at 60 per cent; public sector rental that is, NIHE and housing associations 34 per cent and private rented dwellings at 5 per cent. Over the past 15 years there has been a gradual increase in the size of the owner-occupied sector, a steady reduction in the size of the private rented sector and, after a peak in 1979 and 1980, a decline in the public rented sector (DoE NI 1992). Differences in tenure among the main religious groups are considered in Section Seven.


As mentioned in Section One, there have been few attempts at a systematic assessment of the effect of housing policy on Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. This is especially true since the setting up of the NIHE and the subsequent decline of interest in housing in the social/political agenda. One important piece of research was that carried for the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights by the Policy Studies Institute, and this is reviewed in Section Eight. A few years earlier Hillyard (1986) produced an unpublished report entitled Inequalities in opportunity among Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland[2] . As this is one of the few studies in this area the information presented and the conclusions drawn are reviewed at this point.

Hillyard's intention was to examine the issue of equality of opportunity between Catholics and Protestants in relation to a number of housing policies, mainly operated by the Housing Executive. The areas investigated were: new build and redevelopment by the NIHE, the policy of selling public sector stock, measures concerning rehabilitation and grant aid for home improvement, the use of home loans by the NIHE, and lastly, issues related to public sector rents and housing finance. Policies related to allocation and transfer practices were omitted because they were considered to be relatively well researched. Hillyard's analysis was based on a review of published material; no new data was presented in the report.

The lack of a religion variable in work done by NIHE and government at that time was noted and criticised by Hillyard. As discussed earlier criticism of this type has been addressed by the NIHE who now collect information on religion in their ad hoc surveys and are also in the process of setting up a system of monitoring the religion of tenants. In order to conduct an assessment of the effects of housing policies on Catholic and Protestant Households, on the basis of information collected before these recent developments, there were three possible approaches. One was to reanalyse and reclassify existing information on the basis of religion; this was the approach adopted in the policy Studies Institute report, but it requires accurate local knowledge of housing areas and sufficient resources to complete the classification. Another method is to consider housing activity statistics by district council area in conjunction with the religious composition of each area. This approach, as mentioned earlier, faces problems of aggregation that make the results difficult to interpret. One final approach is to examine the socio-economic characteristics of those who benefit from particular policies, and compare these with the known characteristics of Catholic and Protestant households. As Hillyard himself noted this final method is only suggestive. In his report Hillyard used the latter two approaches but added a warning about his assessment:

The major point to emphasise is that the paper is highly exploratory and does not attempt to make categorical statements on inequalities between the two communities. The analysis does however identify other types of inequalities, particularly spatial and class inequalities. (p3).

Hillyard considered the historical background to the housing problem in Northern Ireland, including a discussion of the allegations of discrimination during the Civil Rights movement and a brief assessment of the work of the NIHT. He also looked at the available evidence from the 1971 Census data (covered in Section Three) and some of the material available at that time from the Continuous Household Survey (see Section Eight). Following this assessment of the general housing situation Hillyard looked in detail at the impact of the various policies and programmes of the NIHE. His report was critical of the lack of any specific policy to guarantee equality of treatment. The explanation lay in the fact that the NIHE felt that if housing need was the criteria to determine priorities then equity would not be a problem. While the Housing Executive recognised potential problems with allocations Hillyard noted that this concern may be too late if the issue of the location of new build is ignored. Hillyard makes the point that housing need is not a neutral concept but "involves ultimately making political judgments about how to measure different types of need and how to weigh the relative position of different needs, for example between unfitness and over-crowding." (pl3). The two communities are, in a number of cases, affected differently by different needs making the procedure far from objective. He also underlined the fact that the broader issues of, for example, subsidies to owner occupiers through tax relief on mortgages, are seldom addressed.

New build and redevelopment by the NIHE

The first policy area of the NIHE to be considered by Hillyard was that of new build and redevelopment. As was mentioned earlier in Section Four the Housing Executive inherited not only the stock of the various agencies involved in public sector housing provision, but also housing under construction and numerous sites purchased for planned development. This had the effect of limiting the Executive's ability to carry out independent plans in the first few years. For this reason Hillyard assesses the pattern of new building between 1975-76 and 1983-84, a total of 40,937 dwellings for which the NIHE was responsible. He concluded that:

... much of the new build has been concentrated in the East of the Province. Belfast (22.9%), Lisburn (7.7%), Antrim (4.0%), Craigavon (3.7%), Ards (3.5%), Down (3.4,%), Newtownabbey (3.1%), account for nearly 50 per cent of all completions. Only Derry (9.5%), and Fermanagh (4.5%) in the west and Newry and Mourne (6.0%) in the south have rates comparable to these areas. All other districts, predominantly situated in the north and centre of the province experienced low rates. (p26).

In terms of the rate of building per 1,000 of the population, Derry (45 per 1,000), Lisburn (37 per 1,000) and Antrim (36 per 1,000) all had high rates of building. On the basis of this analysis and earlier data Hillyard concluded that "No clear pattern emerges from all these figures concerning the distribution of new build between the two communities." (p27). A detailed look at the Belfast District Council area showed the number of houses built in Catholic areas was more per capita than in Protestant areas. Even if this pattern was repeated there was sufficient justification, Hillyard maintained, in the greater level of need among Catholic households.

Sales of public sector housing stock

The Housing Executive (Northern Ireland) Act included a provision (Clause 12) which gave the Executive the authority to sell public sector property. The level of sales was low during the 1970s with a substantial upturn occurring in 1979. Some of the public statements of the Housing Executive gave the impression that the organisation had a preference for owner occupation over public renting:

The Housing Executive has 'powers to build houses for sale and the sale of its existing properties'. However, while the Executive favours the encouragement of home ownership it will only build houses for sale in certain limited circumstances. (NIHE 1974 pl1).

Apart from the building of new homes and modernisation of older dwellings throughout the Province to satisfy demand from the waiting list, our efforts to encourage home ownership have met with considerable success during the year... which means that some 9, 000 families, who otherwise would have been looking for Public Authority housing, are now owner-occupiers. (NIHE 1978 p7).

Given that a substantial proportion of the population were dependent on public sector housing during this period, some might find these sentiments to be slightly surprising.

In the mid-1970s the Executive adopted a stronger policy in favour of sales in those areas where demand for public rented accommodation was deemed to have been met. Hillyard makes the point that it was likely that demand would have been met sooner in Protestant areas thus giving a potential advantage to those interested in buying their dwelling. The number of houses made available for sale increased further when the Conservative government came to power in 1979 and the later Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 introduced the 'right to buy'. Many of the dwellings were available to tenants at considerable discounts. As Hillyard notes however:

In all the public statements over the years concerning the sale of public sector dwellings there is no reference either to issues of equality of opportunity between the two communities or to the possibility that the policy might have a differential impact. (Hillyard 1986 p30).

The lack of information on sales broken down by religion makes it difficult to gauge precisely the impact of the operation of this policy on the two communities. In these circumstances one approach is to make an assessment based on the level of sales and the religious mix of particular areas. As mentioned earlier in this report this type of approach can only be tentative. It is likely that the different economic, social and housing circumstances of the two communities would have meant that a range of differing factors would have been acting on Catholic and Protestant households to produce differing outcomes at different times. It should be remembered that throughout this period a larger proportion of the Catholic community was housed in the public sector, than was the case for the Protestant community. It follows therefore that a larger proportion of Catholic households could potentially take advantage of the sale of NIHE property.

Hillyard examined sales as a proportion of housing stock between 1980 and 1985. He found that "The largest proportion of sales have taken place in the east of the Province particularly in Craigavon (24.5%), Castlereagh (21.2%), Larne (21.1%) and Carrickfergus (20.2%). In only one predominantly Catholic District Council - Newry and Mourne (15.4%) - have sales been attractive." (p31). The average discount on sales for each year was also available and it enabled a rough estimate of the distribution by district council areas The distribution was found to be more uneven with five, predominantly Protestant, areas receiving over 40 per cent of the subsidy. His tentative conclusion was that in all district council areas Protestants would have received 65 per cent and Catholics 35 per cent of the subsidy. This assessment must be treated with a certain degree of caution as it is based on district council are data.

As discussed in Section Two, the high rents and location policies of the NIHT are likely to have produced an under-representation of Catholic households in what was then the better quality public rented stock. Those households considering purchasing their home in the early 1980s who were renting their dwellings prior to 1972 would have had the advantage of lower historic cost and considerable discount as a result of the length of time in residence. This combination of factors, together with general economic differentials between the communities at that time, may have made purchase a more attractive option for Protestant households than for Catholic households. By the mid-l 980s, in addition to being over-represented in the public sector, it is very likely that Catholic households were housed in the most recent stock. While this gave a potential advantage to Catholic households of purchasing a new dwelling there would have been the disadvantage of higher cost for the newer property. At the time he wrote his report Hillyard believed that the combination of factors would have meant that "Catholics are less likely to want to by their dwelling..." (Hillyard 1986 p33). While this analysis was very tentative there was support for it in a study carried out by the NIHE and the Planning Department of Queen's University (Singleton 1981). This study, which concentrated on the Greater Belfast area, found that the typical economic and social profile of buyers was:

... a household whose head is between 35-45 years old, normally in employment with a white collar, or skilled/semi-skilled manual job with a household income around or in excess of £100 per week. (Singleton 1981 p8)

In other words, those households that were financially able to make the move to owner occupation. At that time this profile is more likely to have represented Protestant rather than Catholic households. More up-to-date figures for sales by NIHE housing management district reveals quite a high level of sales in parts of Catholic West Belfast (NIHE private communication ). While there is a lack of research on this topic in recent years, it is possible that the level of sales has balanced out between the Catholic and Protestant communities.

Rehabilitation and grant aid for home improvement

In 1974 the Housing Executive proposed a rehabilitation programme to run in parallel to the redevelopment programme. it was an attempt to slow down the rate at which the housing stock was becoming unfit. It began with the 1976 Housing (Northern Ireland) Order which introduced the concept of Housing Action Areas (HAAs). In addition, new grant provisions were introduced and grant levels increased in September 1977. The first HAAs were declared in February 1977, but in each year since then there was some change to the grants policy. Hillyard made the point that while the Housing Executive has control over HAAs it has no control over the take-up of grants. It appeared that the assumption was made that so "long as the HAAs are distributed on the basis of need, however defined, there will be no problem." (Hillyard 1986 p37). It should be noted that the NIHE did conduct campaigns to try and encourage grant uptake in the areas in question.

Looking at data for the period 1976 to 1984 Hillyard found that a high proportion of investment in improvement grant aid (22%) and repair grant expenditure (45%) was concentrated in Belfast. It was difficult, Hillyard concluded, to discern any unequal treatment in the overall pattern of improvement grants. There were, however, still issues of concern. One had to do with the fact that rehabilitation policy concentrated on a 1 0 point standard dealing with the physical aspects of a dwelling, ignoring the household size. So problems of overcrowding, which are more likely to affect Catholic households, are not covered. In addition households also had to find the difference between the eligible expense and the total cost for grants; this would have had the effect of discouraging poorer sections of the community: "On the face of it, all this evidence would suggest that Protestants would take-up proportionately more grants than Catholics, because, as was noted above, they tend to be better off." (p39). Hillyard's final conclusion was that there was a greater differential in terms of economic position than religious denomination:

While there is no clear evidence on inequalities in grant aid between the two communities, there is much evidence to show that the better-off in both communities have gained disproportionately from the £171 million investment in improvement and grant aid. In other words the most visible inequality has been between the poor and better-off sections of the two communities. (p41).

Housing finance and management

Since 1972 the NIHE has operated a system of home loans designed to help households who were unable to borrow from the normal sources. The categories of households that are eligible for home loans have always been restrictive and they have changed over the years since the scheme was introduced. The scheme was designed to help, for example, households who had to move home because of statutory action or due to civil disturbance. It was also used in those areas where lenders were reluctant to provide mortgages as in the case of inner city terraced property. Hillyard calculated that between April 1972 and March 1984 16,000 people were given loans totalling £81 million. However, he was unable to make any assessment of the potential inequalities in the system because of the remarkable "lack of published information on how the scheme was operated or who obtained loans." (p44). It is possible that the majority of those areas which experienced most difficulty in attracting mortgages were in fact Catholic areas. If this were the case then Catholic households would have benefited disproportionately from this scheme.

The aspect of Housing Executive policy which is most visible to tenants is probably decisions affecting the level of rent. In December 1984 a new points-based rent scheme was introduced by the NIHE. As Hillyard pointed out the new scheme reduced the points component of the dwelling's age relative to other factors, is based on property and ignores differences between areas, that is the quality of the environment. These factors may have a differential impact on the two communities. Steady increases in average rent, to a weekly average of £23.09 in 1991-92 (DoE NI 1992), have made it an increasing large part of revenue. At the same time a growing percentage of tenants have become dependent upon means-tested benefits to meet rents. Catholics, because of higher unemployment rates and the lower percentage in skilled employment, are disproportionately dependent upon benefits and therefore receive a disproportionately larger amount of the subsidies accruing in this form. Protestants are more likely to be able to pay the total rent and this increases the attraction of owner occupation.

Hillyard made the point that it was important to consider the financing of the public sector in relation to benefits and subsidies to other housing sectors. Mortgagors receive tax relief on payments, in effect a subsidy which in the UK exceeds the subsidy to the public sector. This imbalance is likely to be the same in Northern Ireland. The fiscal arrangements for owner occupiers will, Hillyard asserts, disproportionately favour the Protestant community:

They [Protestant households] are more likely to be owner-occupiers and in the higher social classes. But the inequalities between the two communities in terms of the overall distribution of housing subsidies are likely to be less than the inequalities between the poor and the better-off. It is clear that the system of housing finance is highly regressive and confers the greatest benefits on those who are least in need. (p50).

It has to be remembered that the level of owner occupation among Catholic households has been slowly increasing (from 42.3% in 1971 to 58.2% in 1991). This will have the effect of reducing any disparities in terms of subsidies to the private sector.

Hillyard's conclusions

While Hillyard regretted the lack of data to allow an accurate assessment to be made of the impact of housing policy on the two communities. Nevertheless he pointed out that a system of continuous monitoring would not of itself guarantee equitable treatment. Indeed he asserted that it might concentrate attention on the "divisions among the deprived sections of both communities" and distract from the larger issues of policies in the private sector. As already mentioned the NIHE have taken the decision to include religion in their ad hoc survey work and to establish a system which will allow the monitoring of general housing management functions by religion. Hillyard also stressed the point that housing problems are themselves partly attributable to wider socio-economic problems of employment conditions, unemployment, poverty and inequality. While differentials in terms of unemployment between the two communities have changed little, there appears to have been a gradual narrowing of the gap in household income in the higher income categories (PPRU 1993). This process has continued since Hillyard wrote his report. This may reflect an increase in the size of the Catholic middle class. As the class structure of the two communities becomes similar some of the issues raised by Hillyard, for example that of private sector subsidy, are likely to decline in importance in religious terms. The greater differential between the upper and lower social classes will of course remain.


[1] This sort of calculation only provides a rough estimate and is intended only as a guide to replacement rates. It should be noted that sales of NIHE houses will have the effect of reducing the length of the notional replacement period. It is also the case that the NIHE stock has a younger age profile which would justify part of the slower replacement rate.

[2] Although Hillyard's report was not published, it was submitted to SACHR at the time it was assessing the situation of public sector housing in the region. A copy of the report has been deposited with the library at the University of Ulster, Coleraine campus.

Data for Figure 6.1 Public expenditure (index of per capita spending, 1979 prices)
on housing 1979-80 to 1987-88
Northern Ireland

Source: Singleton (1986)

Data for Figure 6.8 Total waiting list expressed as a percentage of the total NIHE
housing stock by religion, district council areas, 1991

District council area
Percentage of Catholics (no adjustment)
NIHE dwelling stock, October 1991
Total Waiting list (A + B)
waiting list as a % of total NIHE stock
Newry & Mourne
North Down
Northern Ireland

Source: DoE, NI (1992)

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