Our Director of Regional Services, Siobhan McCauley, explains how our Rural Housing Need Tests supports rural communities across Northern Ireland.
There is no doubt all of us have been impacted by the lockdown measures due to Covid-19. Suddenly, we were all isolated within our communities and having to rely on our phones to communicate with friends and family, and on TV, radio and social media to keep up-to-date with developments and how services were continuing and how they could be accessed.
For many people, especially those who are elderly, vulnerable or just living on their own, the lockdown proved particularly challenging. Doorstep deliveries are just not the same as gong to the shops and having a chat; not being able to see families and loved ones has caused loneliness and distress. Many people may not have embraced mobile technology and will have felt more isolated than ever.
When asked to reflect on the particular needs of rural communities, it is not hard for any of us now to relate to the issues which come with living in a remote area. Many people have always been faced with reduced or unavailable services, and, perhaps, dealing with loneliness and social isolation.
At the Housing Executive, we have long recognised that the experience of our urban and rural communities may differ and we must adapt our approach in order to ensure that we fulfil our statutory duty of identifying, assessing and addressing housing need, regardless of location.
It is for this reason that we have a dedicated rural unit who are focused on engaging with rural communities and community representatives in order to reach out to anyone who needs and cannot access an affordable housing solution in a rural area.
We understand that many people will not approach us when they see there are few housing options available in an area in which they want to reside. Perhaps, this is due to limited availability of social homes in rural areas. Our rural housing need tests are aimed at reaching out to those who need a helping hand to get a decent and affordable home in their rural area.
Through engagement – whether it is community meetings, information events, interactions with primary schools, press reports, social media, email or phone calls - we encourage people to come forward to have that important first discussion regarding their housing options.
If we find that enough people are added to the waiting list for a given area then we will work with our housing association partners to facilitate a new housing development.
Since 2000, over 200 housing need tests have taken place across NI, enabling almost 400 new social homes to be built for families in areas where housing options where previously limited and people often had to relocate to find the home they required.
Housing must come first, before a community can grow and thrive and demand those services and facilities required to support health & well-being and address accessibility issues and social isolation. We, as the strategic housing authority, must ensure that we continue to evolve our rural approach, working together with our partners in local councils and housing associations to respond to the needs of our rural communities and deliver the homes that will help to sustain our rural communities. It all starts with a home.