Our two week #RuralHomesNI Twitter and Facebook campaign, in partnership with NIFHA and the Rural Community Network, showcases the role social and affordable housing plays in helping rural communities to thrive, highlights the challenges faced by people living in rural areas, and celebrates the community champions who have made their hamlet or village a better place to live.
As part of the campaign we sat down with our Rural & Regeneration Manager, Sinead Collins, to find out more about the specific housing needs and issues facing people in rural areas. Sinead comes from and lives in a rural community with her young family, so it is not only a job to her but important to her on a personal level.
Q1 – How do you find living in a rural area?
“I live in a semi-rural area just outside Lurgan and I love it! I am close to family, the local primary school and sports club. Where I live allows me to enjoy the peace and quiet that rural living has to offer, as well as to access walks in the countryside and along the shores of Lough Neagh.”
“Finding a suitable home in this area wasn’t without its challenges. I know that there are many people who have grown up in our village who haven’t had that luxury and have had to relocate to access a suitable home. Diversity and sustainability of our rural communities is vital – ensuring affordable homes for young people and families is the best way for us to achieve this.”
Q2 – Why is living in a rural area different to living in a town or city?
“Living in a rural area has many benefits, like being surrounded by the beautiful countryside, enjoying better air quality, having more space for families to thrive, and having a more relaxed pace of life.”
“Choosing to live in a village or hamlet can also present challenges, particularly in more remote areas. Access to opportunities, facilities and services is limited when compared to urban living. Being in a town or city, it is easy to take for granted the availability and speed of broadband, or access to frequent public transport. A combination of any of these challenges can have an impact on rural living, particularly for those who are vulnerable or require additional support.”
Q3 – How does your team support rural communities?
“In the late 1980s it was clear that a lack of appropriate social and affordable housing could threaten the sustainability of some of our rural communities.”
“In order to deliver on its statutory responsibilities and to improve the lives of those in rural communities, the Housing Executive sought to define the particular issues facing its rural customers across Northern Ireland. The aim was to develop a specific approach, not just for housing delivery, but for the improvement of existing properties, homelessness, regeneration and care in rural communities.”
“This led to the development of our first Rural Housing Policy in 1991, and since then we have continued to evolve our approach to meeting the needs of our rural customers.”
“I am responsible for managing our dedicated Rural Unit. My team works across the organisation to support the work of our Rural Strategy Implementation Panel and our Rural Residents Forum, who scrutinise our policies and services through a rural lens. We are also mid-way through our fourth Rural Strategy and Action Plan which was developed in collaboration with my team, our stakeholders and rural customers.”
“Since 2002, we have embraced ‘rural proofing’- to review and examine public policy to ensure it does not disadvantage rural areas. We have welcomed the introduction of the recent Rural Needs Act. This has given us the opportunity to reinforce the importance of ensuring every one of our policies, strategies, services and plans ensures the needs of rural communities are taken into account.”
Q4 – Why are rural housing need tests so important?
“Rural areas are unique in that there can be a limited amount of social housing with a low turnover of tenants. It is important that those who want to remain in the heart of their rural community see social housing as a viable option. We recognise that our waiting lists may not always present a true indication of housing need in rural areas. That’s why we undertake a programme of rural housing need tests each year to increase our understanding of housing requirements at a very local level.”
“A rural housing need test is our way of reaching out to a community, encouraging anyone in need of a home, or those who just want to have a conversation about their housing circumstances, to come forward and speak to one of Housing Advisors. If we find that there is evidence of demand, and people are added to the waiting list, we will support a housing association to take forward a housing scheme in that area.”
“Since 2000, over 200 tests have been undertaken across Northern Ireland and almost 400 new homes have been built which has helped rural communities to grow and thrive.”
Q5 – Are there any projects that you have been really proud to be involved in?
“Every housing need test is completely different and we can never anticipate the level of response we will get. I think that the test that stands out for me the most is the one that took place on Rathlin - Northern Ireland's only inhabited off-shore island - back in 2016.”
“The population of Rathlin has steadily risen over the past 10 years and the island community has lobbied for more housing to support and encourage people to stay. A test was first carried out back in 2008 and as a result an Apex Housing Association scheme of 10 units was built at Church Bay. The scheme was so popular that it wasn’t long before the community group requested a further test - the local economy was finding its feet, young families were growing, and alternative housing options were limited due to the popularity of the island during holiday season.”
“We organised a day long drop-in event in the community centre. We took a holistic approach and invited our Grants Team and other agencies with funding and support opportunities for those living on the island. What became evident from touring the existing housing and discussions with local people was the difference that social housing (old and new) had made in sustaining this rural community and allowing it to thrive. Safe to say, we were overwhelmed by the response we got that day!”
“As a result, we have given our support to Rural Housing Association to take forward another 10 units scheme in Church Bay. I am looking forward to visiting again when the construction of this scheme is underway.”
Q6 – What is the best thing about living in a rural area?
“The best thing about living in a rural area is being part of a small, tight-knit community where people come together to make life better and look out for each other.”