CAIN: Key Issues - Housing. Majority Minority Review 3: Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland, by Martin Melaugh

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Majority Minority Review 3: Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland, by Martin Melaugh

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Majority Minority Review 3
Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland

Section 10: Further Research Areas


This Section takes a brief look at some of the housing issues that will face the region during the remainder of the 1990s and will also examine how these may affect the two communities and to discuss some areas that might be the focus of further research. As mentioned at the beginning of this review (Section One) the amount of available data that allows an analysis of housing information by religion is very limited. The latest Census information on household tenure put the figures at 62.3 per cent for owner occupation, 31.0 per cent for public rented (mainly NIHE property), 5.8 per cent private rented and 1.0 per cent for other tenures (Registrar General Northern Ireland 1993). Although the balance in tenure is towards the private owner-occupied sector, much of the discussion about the different housing experiences of the two main communities is based on information about the public rented sector. This is not surprising given that public funds are being used and there is a concern to see that there is equality of treatment for all tenants of and applicants to the NIHE. The way in which the NIHE seeks to fulfil this obligation is chiefly through the operation of an allocation system based on a measure of need and the targeting of resources towards identified problems in the housing stock.

From the information reviewed in Sections One to Four it is clear that at the end of the 1960s there were important differentials in the housing circumstances of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Much of the difference between the two communities was a result of wider socio-economic differentials (some of these were covered in the first two reports of the Majority Minority Review; Gallagher 1989,1991). Part of the observed difference came about as a result of failure by government, both at Stormont and local level, to implement policies which would make available sufficient housing of an adequate quality to meet the needs of the Northern Ireland population. There was also an element in the different housing circumstances of Catholics and Protestants that was a direct result of discriminatory practices on the part of a number of local councils in the west and south of the region.

Since the establishment of the NIHE there has been a remarkable improvement in the total housing stock, as evidenced in the House Condition Surveys and Censuses. Within the public rented stock most tenants believe that there is equality of treatment for Catholics and Protestants from the NIHE and an investigation by the PSI (Smith and Chambers 1989) found no evidence of direct or intentional discrimination by the Executive. One of the problems that researchers interested in this topic have faced is a lack of information that would allow a comprehensive assessment of the position in both the public and private sectors.


At its formation the NIHE decided not to adopt a policy of monitoring the religious denomination of its tenants and applicants (see Section Eight). In a discussion of the issue with the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR) the Executive gave two main reasons for this 'religion-blind' stance. The first was that the NIHE believed that monitoring would give the impression that religion was part of the decision-making process. It was argued that by being 'religion-blind' the Housing Executive could not be accused of direct discrimination. The second reason given was that there would be hostile public reaction to such a policy. Given the highly segregated nature of a large proportion of NIHE estates, local Executive officials will generally be well aware of the religion of the tenants and applicants they are dealing with. This being the case the first argument loses some of its validity. On the second point, given the reaction following the introduction of the monitoring of religion in employment, it is probable that there would indeed be a hostile reaction. This, however, is not a sufficient reason of itself to decline to monitor.

In its Housing Strategy Review 1992-1995 (NIHE 1991a) the Executive announced a major change in its approach to the question of the monitoring of religion:

It is proposed to introduce monitoring on key Executive services using two linked approaches: First, using standard application forms with a common religion question and monitoring through existing and planned computerised administration systems within the key areas; Second, use of research surveys to examine specific areas of service and provide vital baseline data against which future differences can be assessed at least in the early years and to supplement religion information collected through standard application forms. (NIHE 1991a p33).

Information collected under the first approach would allow the NIHE to categorise households for example, as being Catholic, Protestant, mixed, or not stated. This would allow the Housing Executive to monitor the impact of a range of policies on the main religious groups. It is obvious from previous experience that a voluntary question about religion on housing application forms results in a low response rate. The value of the proposed changes will depend on how comprehensive the information on religion is. It is not clear how the NIHE intends to improve on the previous situation, whether through active encouragement of tenants to supply the information or through imputation of religion based on, say, knowledge of area of residence. The second approach is a continuation of the policy adopted in 1990 of adding a religion variable to ad hoc and regular surveys. The most important of these so far carried out is the 1991 House Condition Survey. Undoubtedly the matching of such data will provide greater volumes of information of better quality than has been available to the Executive before. Whether or not the NIHE can implement a comprehensive system which would provide the type of comprehensive data required to meet the standards proposed by SACHR and PSI remains to be seen.

As mentioned above the public rented sector accounts for approximately 31 per cent of the total occupied housing stock. Among the remainder, mainly the owner-occupied and private rented sectors, much of the observed differences between Catholic and Protestant households could be explained in terms of the operation of choice in a free market. It remains a possibility however that some discrimination on the grounds of religion or political belief occurs in these sectors. At present there is nothing in the law covering Northern Ireland to prevent it. It is also an area which appears to attract little research interest, hence the lack of concrete information.

The government is currently considering the introduction of legislation equivalent to the 1976 Race Relations Act to cover Northern Ireland (Centre for the Study of Conflict, 1993). If this happens it would probably become illegal to discriminate in the provision of goods and services, including the public sale or letting of housing, on the grounds of ethnicity but not necessarily on the grounds of religion or political belief. In its Second Report the SACHR recommended that any legislation introduced should take account of circumstances in Northern Ireland and make it illegal to discriminate on religious or political grounds. The Commission believed that the distinction drawn between 'public' house sales and lettings involving an estate agent and 'private' sales, as set out in the legislation covering Britain, would be acceptable in the Northern Ireland context. The only potential exemption suggested by the Commission was for sales and lettings in mixed estates where the maintenance of a balanced estate would take priority.


Mention has already been made of the fact that public sector estates tend to be more segregated than those in the private sector (Section Four). While both the NIHE and the NIHT attempted at various stages to build new estates with the aim of attracting a religious mix of tenants, these plans were always overtaken by events. For those who believe that mixed estates are to be preferred to segregated ones there remains the question of whether the NIHE could have done more to encourage applicants and transferees to opt for mixed estates, and to maintain the position of those estates which were mixed. There are certainly those who argue for a more active role on the part of the public sector housing authorities:

If residential mixing is a basic prerequisite to other aspects of structural change... then the conclusion must be drawn that negotiated change will only be possible when both largescale structural relationships between Protestants and Catholics and their residential arrangements are altered. It is proposed, then, that the fostering of some opportunities for residential mixing in the public sector must be an immediate goal, a base from which to build. (Keane 1990 p106).

While segregation outside the public sector is not as extensive there remains a considerable percentage of the population in private accommodation who live in segregated areas. Given a solution to the current civil unrest the natural processes involved in new household formation and movement within and between localities might be expected to result in greater mixing among those groups with the greatest economic mobility. Certainly one would expect this to occur more quickly among the middle classes. One area of research that deserves more research is how some mixed residential areas have managed to survive while others have become the dominated by one or other group. An understanding of the processes involved in these situations may provide indications of whether, and in what ways, a mixed community could be maintained during the periods when it is most at risk.


The third report of the 1991 House Condition Survey is likely to show a narrowing of the gap between housing conditions in England and Wales and those in Northern Ireland. Part of this decrease may result from a deteriorating situation of the housing stock in Britain and part from improvements in Northern Ireland. However, it is likely that Northern Ireland will remain behind England and Wales in comparative terms. These regional figures reflect a number of housing problems which have had, over the years, a differential impact on the two communities. Some of the remaining issues are now briefly considered.

Evidence from the 1991 Census points to one of the persistent anomalies in public sector housing. Information on the number of persons per room (which is closely associated with the bedroom standard) point to the fact that Catholic households tend to be more overcrowded than Protestant households across all tenure groups. This result is mainly due to the higher percentage of Catholics households in the large family category.

Differences in the private sector might be explicable in terms of personal choice, but those in the public sector are more problematic. Among those living in NIHE property the percentage of Catholic households living at a density of one person per room or over (11.9%) is three times greater than the equivalent figure for Protestant households (3.6%). There are no recent figures for the bedroom standard in the public rented sector, but there is no reason to suppose that the relative position would be significantly different.

Section Four included a brief discussion of the problems faced by the Housing Executive in undertaking the development at Poleglass. The need for Poleglass arose out of a shortage of housing in Catholic West Belfast. The demolition of much of the Divis Flats complex has involved a net dwelling loss in the area and together with other factors has exacerbated the housing shortage. While both space for building and vacant properties are situated in nearby areas they are politically unavailable because they lie within is 'Protestant territory. A 'green field' site solution, while having certain attractions, is probably not a feasible option.

A significant proportion of rural housing, particularly owner occupied dwellings in isolated settings, remain in poor condition. In response to this problem the NIHE has initiated a number of policy measures designed to bring about improvements in the physical condition of rural dwellings (NIHE 1991b). One has been the designation of 67 Rural Priority Areas on the basis of electoral wards containing at least 65 unfit and occupied dwellings. Most of these areas are in wards in the south and west of the region. These are the same rural areas which were mentioned in Section Two and which featured in the results of the 1971 Census in Section Three. The dwellings which are being targeted for improvement are part of the legacy of the housing policies followed during the early and middle part of this century which allowed for low standard housing with few amenities and often no services. Although the areas have been targeted on the basis of need, it is likely, given the distribution of priority areas, that this initiative will benefit proportionately more Catholic households. So one outcome of the NIHE's rural housing strategy may be to reduce some of the remaining differentials in the housing circumstances of Catholics and Protestants. The results of the 1991 HCS show some improvement in the figures on repair.

Nevertheless, further work will be required to tackle the backlog of disrepair and to provide a rolling programme to maintain the housing stock in good condition. One of the ways in which improvements in this and other aspects of housing conditions are made is through the Executive's policy for dealing with 'problem estates'. The 1991 strategy review set a target of improving 7,500 dwellings each year for six years, to be achieved mainly through 62 'Estate-Based Strategies'. Many of the designated areas are inner-city areas of Belfast, together with a large number of estates in Craigavon. A smaller number of estates have been designated in places like Coleraine, Newtownabbey and Derry.

One of the longer-term issues for the public rented sector is the phenomenon identified by a number of researchers and known as residualisation (Saunders 1986; Forrest and Murie 1988), which highlights the increasing welfare role of public sector housing. In 1991-92, 69.5 per cent of NIHE tenants were in receipt of housing benefits (DoE NI 1992) and it is probable that as many as 40 per cent of tenants were receiving the maximum amount of benefit. The high level of benefits are partly a result of the low percentage of tenants who are in full-time employment. In addition the age profile of Housing Executive tenants is skewed towards both ends of the age spectrum (NIHE 1991), and survey data collected by the NIHE also shows a trend towards increased occupation by families with heads of household who are of retirement age. Those leaving the public sector tend to be younger and have above average income. One of the problems with these processes is that those left behind "are more easily identified and labelled by where they live and this may affect their ability to break out of the stereotypes imposed upon them." (Murie 1992 p57). After considering the available evidence the NIHE came to the conclusion that "there is evidence to support the view that the processes of residualisation and marginalisation are occurring in Northern Ireland although perhaps not as rapidly as in other parts of the United Kingdom." (NIHE 1991 p12).


During the next few years several reports will be published and a number of sets of data will be made publicly available which will allow researchers to undertake an analysis of housing related issues. The most important are the three reports of the 1991 House Condition Survey; reports two and three are due for publication during 1994. The second report will contain information on the religion of the household occupying the dwelling being surveyed. This means that it will be possible to consider assessments of such things as whether the dwelling is fit for human habitation, the type and level of repair required and the amenity profile, in association with the religion of the household. it would be surprising if the data showed any significant differences in the physical condition of the dwellings of Catholic and Protestant households in NIHE properties. It is more likely that such differences will be reported within the owner-occupied sector.

The 1991 House Condition Survey was the fifth to be carried out since the Housing Executive was created. Each of the surveys represent a considerable investment in time and money to collect and process the information. It is a matter of some regret that this information, gathered at public expense, is not subsequently made more readily available for academic research through, for example, the ESRC Data Archive.

In addition to the remaining reports of the 1991 Census which will be available during 1994, the Northern Ireland Census Office is to make Census data available in a new format at the end of the year. The intention is to provide researchers with 'microdata' in the form of Samples of Anonymised Records (SARs). The samples will take two forms; a two per cent sample of individuals and a one per cent sample of households. The advantage of this type of data is that the researcher is not limited by predetermined table formats. One disadvantage, in the Northern Ireland context, will be the level of aggregation required to protect confidentially. Nevertheless, this type of data will be of interest to many researchers and will allow (among other things) further examination of the housing information by religion.

The Policy Planning and Research Unit (PPRU) of the Department of Finance and Personnel have been carrying out the Continuous Household Survey (CHS) since 1983. The PPRU intends to publish a report based on the trends over the first 10 year period. In addition PPRU will deposit the CHS data in the ESRC Data Archive. This again represents an important source of data for researchers interested in Northern Ireland society. There will be some scope in the data to consider aspects of housing characteristics broken down by religion which have not already been covered by the published PPRU Monitors.

The data from the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Survey is made available through the ESRC Data Archive on an annual basis. This data contains some information on the respondents' view of their home which can be analysed in terms of religion. As the modules of questions tend to change from year to year housing issues may form a key component during one of the future surveys.

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