'Housing' by Martin Melaugh (1992), in, Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Second Report
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The following chapter has been contributed by the author Martin Melaugh with the permission of the publishers, Blackstaff Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
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Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland:
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The Second Report, 1991-1992
The Social Attitudes survey routinely includes a section that deals with a number of housing issues. In 1990, respondents were asked whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with their accommodation, what they felt about the area in which they lived and what problems their housing area suffered from. In addition, respondents were asked about their tenure and how long they had lived at their current address. This chapter examines the responses to these questions and relates them to some key characteristics of the respondents and their households.
Housing is not a key issue in Northern Ireland. When respondents were asked to choose a priority area for extra government spending, only a few respondents (7 per cent) picked housing from a list of alternative spending areas, and only 14 per cent gave housing as their second priority. Other recent surveys have found similar results. For example, only 4 per cent of people mention 'bad housing' as being the most important problem facing Northern Ireland (Policy Planning and Research Unit, 1988). If housing is not viewed as a priority now, this was certainly not the case in the recent past. The Cameron Report (1969), which looked at the causes of the civil disorders which started on 5 October 1968 in Londonderry, found that the lack of housing provision, together with discrimination in the allocation of housing, was among the main grievances of the Catholic population. At the time, housing was an important political issue, in addition to being of socioeconomic importance: for example, sub-tenants did not have a vote in local government elections.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) was established in 1971 to correct the neglect, mismanagement and unfair allocation of housing of previous years. In 1974, it published the first comprehensive house condition survey, which showed that 20 per cent of dwellings were unfit for human habitation (Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 1974). The NIHE was given substantial financial support to increase and improve the housing stock. It also had the task of setting up a system of allocation that would be seen as fair.
As a result of a programme of building new houses, closing and
demolishing unfit property, and providing finance for repair,
the standard of the housing stock has improved considerably in
the last 20 years. In the most recent house condition survey the
rate of unfitness was estimated at 8 per cent (Northern Ireland
Housing Executive, 1988) compared with 5 per cent in England and
Wales (Department of the Environment, 1988). Although problems
still remain, notably of disrepair and unfitness in rural areas
(Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 1987), housing is no longer
the controversial issue it was at the beginning of the 1970s.
Different sources provide slightly varying estimates of the size
of the main tenure groups. However, all have shown a general trend
to increased owner-occupation, a significant reduction in private
rentals and a slight decline in the size of the public rented
 'Other' includes, housing association, private renting, rent
There have been a number of reasons for the increase in owner-occupation. The main spur during the 1980s stemmed from government's policy. Government gradually moved the NIHE away from building houses, relying on the private sector to fill the gap. It was estimated that the number of new dwellings started by the NIHE during 1990-91 would be 800, down from the previous year's 1,400 (Department of Finance and Personnel, 1991). The introduction of legislation allowing banks to provide mortgages, and the increased number of mortgages available, have also helped the shift to owner-occupation. The government has sponsored special schemes, such as co-ownership, to help those who would normally rent in the public sector to begin the process of buying their home. Legislation was introduced in 1983 that gave NIHE tenants the right to purchase their home at a discounted price. Approximately 45,000 houses have since been bought (Department of Finance and Personnel, 1991).
The level of owner-occupation indicated by the Social Attitudes survey is slightly higher than the figures obtained by, for example, the 1988 Continuous Household Survey (CHs) (Policy Planning and Research Unit, 1989b) and the 1987 House Condition Survey (Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 1988). Whilst the movement to owner-occupation has no doubt continued in recent years, the figures from the latest Social Attitudes survey may slightly over-represent owner-occupiers. It is unlikely, however, that this has more than a very minor effect on the results to be reported here.
Almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of respondents in the middle age group, 35-54 years, live in owner-occupied accommodation, compared with 67 per cent of the 18-34 age group and 64 per cent of those aged 55 and over (Table 8.1 at the end of this chapter). Ninety per cent of respondents who are in a household with an annual income of £12,000 or more live in owner-occupied dwellings; only 7 per cent live in public rented (NIHE) property. At the lowest end of the income scale, in households with incomes of less than £5,000, 55 per cent of respondents live in public rented housing and 30 per cent are owner-occupiers. Employment status is also important: the highest level of owner-occupation is among those in employment. Those who rate themselves as members of the lowest social classes are much more likely to be in public rented accommodation than those in the higher classes.
An employment - and income-related issue is that of housing benefit. A sizeable proportion (13 per cent) of respondents report living in a household that has been in receipt of housing benefit at some point during the previous five years. This figure is a reflection of the high unemployment and low average income in Northern Ireland.
In response to the question of whether or not it is the government's
responsibility to 'provide decent housing for those who can't
afford it', 91 per cent of those who expressed an opinion say
that it 'definitely should be' or 'probably should be'. The respondents
implicitly, however, place a limit on the potential sites for
these 'decent houses'. Fifty-four per cent of those who express
an opinion say that the building of new housing in country areas
'should be stopped' or 'should be discouraged'. This concern for
the environment is also apparent when 12 per cent of respondents
select 'urban growth' as the greatest threat to the countryside.
The most important housing issue covered by the survey was that of respondents' satisfaction with their accommodation. The majority (85 per cent) expresses satisfaction; only 9 per cent report that they are 'quite dissatisfied' or very dissatisfied'. Comparisons with results obtained from earlier surveys and with surveys conducted in Britain show a fairly consistent pattern, both over time and also between Northern Ireland and Britain. For example, information from the 1985 CHS (Policy Planning and Research Unit, 1989a), the 1990 Social Attitudes surveys, and an earlier General Household Survey (GHS) (Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, 1980) shows a very large, and similar, percentage of respondents who were either 'quite satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with their accommodation.
There are methodological differences between the Social Attitudes
surveys and the more 'factual' CHS and GHS. In particular, the
latter seek to interview the head of household, whilst the Social
Attitudes survey randomly selects an adult from the household.
This may in part explain the lower number of respondents who say
that they are 'very satisfied' with their dwelling in the Social
Attitudes surveys, 45 per cent and 44 per cent, compared with
51 per cent and 53 per cent in the CHS and GHS.
 CHS wording: 'Taking everything into account, how satisfied
are you with your accommodation?'
While only a minority of people express dissatisfaction with their accommodation, it must be remembered that these figures represent a large number of households. The 9 per cent of dissatisfied respondents in the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey amounts to approximately 43,700 households, containing about 130,300 people. (This assumes that the number of households is 485,850 [Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 19881 and that the average household size is 2.98 [Policy Planning and Research Unit, 1989b].)
The tenure of a dwelling has a significant influence on the level
of expressed satisfaction. Ninety-one per cent of owner-occupiers
are either 'very satisfied' or 'quite satisfied', compared with
72 per cent of public renters and 75 per cent in the 'Other' category.
Three times as many people in public rented housing (18 per cent)
express dissatisfaction as in owner-occupied (6 per cent). There
are also high levels of dissatisfaction among the other tenures
(21 per cent).
These findings can be compared with figures from the 1987 House
Condition Survey (Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 1988) on
the level of unfitness and disrepair in different tenure groups.
While higher levels of dissatisfaction are reported by respondents
who are public renters, unfitness and disrepair are much more
of a problem among owner-occupied and other tenures than in the
public rented sector. Part of the explanation for the apparent
discrepancy between the two sets of figures lies in the many other
reasons for dissatisfaction with public rented housing than with
owner-occupation. Owner-occupiers may have made a substantial
financial commitment to their property: regardless of its physical
state, they may be reluctant to admit dissatisfaction. Those who
are renting property have a landlord, to whom they can and do
report faults, and perhaps are less reticent about expressing
Source: Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 1988
Another factor that may have some impact on the level of expressed satisfaction is the type of dwelling people occupy. Those who live in detached or semi-detached houses express the highest levels of satisfaction with their dwelling (89 and 95 per cent, respectively), while the figures for terrace houses and 'Flats or other' are significantly lower (76 and 72 per cent, respectively).
If one examines housing satisfaction and dwelling type for the
owner-occupied and public rental tenure groups separately, it
is noteworthy that respondents in owner-occupied dwellings express
much lower levels of dissatisfaction than those in public rented
dwellings (see Table 8.2). Within owner-occupied housing the type
of the dwelling has little effect on the figures. Within the public
rented sector more dissatisfaction is expressed with terraced
One other variable that is usually associated with satisfaction
is length of tenure. Normally, those who have lived longest at
their current address express the highest level of satisfaction.
The survey data show that both the highest level of satisfaction
(88 per cent) and the lowest dissatisfaction (7 per cent) is reported
by those who have lived at their present address for between 10
and 20 years. The most dissatisfaction (13 per cent) is reported
by those who have lived less than two years at their current address.
The older age groups tend to be significantly more satisfied with
their accommodation than the younger ones (18-34 years). More
than twice as many 18-34-year-olds as older people express dissatisfaction.
Older respondents may have lower expectations of their housing.
They may complain less and be reluctant to express dissatisfaction
with accommodation that suffers from serious defects or is no
longer suited to their needs. Seventy-four per cent of the 35-54
age group are owner-occupiers, compared with 67 per cent of the
18-34 age group and 64 per cent of those aged 55 and over. As
was reported above, owner-occupiers express higher levels of satisfaction
with their dwelling.
An examination of respondents' self-reported social class shows
that while levels of satisfaction are roughly similar for the
higher classes (90 per cent), upper working (87 per cent) and
working class (84 per cent), the figure for the poor is much lower
(65 per cent). The levels of dissatisfaction are higher for the
lower social classes; the poor express more than twice as much
dissatisfaction as the higher classes.
Respondents were asked whether their area had 'got better, worse or remained about the same as a place to live during the last two years'. Most people (71 per cent) report that it has stayed the same, while 17 per cent feel that it has improved and 12 per cent say that it is worse. Seventy-three per cent think that the area will remain about the same over the next two years, 15 per cent say that it will get better and 12 per cent feel that it will get worse.
The type of area in which a respondent lives is an important factor in the amount of change reported (see tables 8.3 and 8.4). Urban areas are seen as the most subject to change, with only 51 per cent of respondents reporting that their area had remained the same, as a place to live, during the previous two years. The outlook for the future is viewed as almost as unstable: 54 per cent anticipate that there will be no change. Rural areas are viewed by the majority of respondents who live there as not having changed (83 per cent) and as being unlikely to do so (84 per cent). Only 3 per cent of those living in a rural area feel that their area had deteriorated as a place to live, and only 5 per cent think that it is likely to get worse in the next two years.
A relatively small number (9 per cent) of respondents living in
owner-occupied dwellings feel that their area has deteriorated
as a place to live during the previous two years, with a similar
number (10 per cent) expressing the opinion that it will get worse
in the next two years. The figures for the public rented sector
are approximately twice as large (19 and 17 per cent, respectively).
Social class is also related to the figures, particularly with
regard to the outlook for the next two years. One-quarter (26
per cent) of working-class or 'poor' respondents feel that their
area will get worse in the next two years. The age of the respondent
makes little difference to these findings.
Respondents were asked how common or uncommon a number of problems were in their area. The problem most frequently referred to is 'rubbish or litter lying around', with over one-third (37 per cent) of respondents saying that it is 'very common' or 'fairly common'. Other important issues are 'teenagers hanging around on the streets' (22 per cent) and 'graffiti on walls or buildings' (18 per cent).
There is some variation in the problems mentioned according to housing satisfaction, tenure, social class and the type of area (see Table 8.5). In all cases, problems are mentioned at least twice as often by respondents who are dissatisfied with their accommodation, as by those who are satisfied. For the most part, problems are mentioned three or four times as often by public renters than by owner-occupiers. In almost every case the frequency of mention increases with declining social class.
Those who live in the countryside report significantly fewer problems
than those who live in a big city. However, 'rubbish or litter
lying around' is a particular problem even in the countryside.
The proportion of respondents in suburbs, in small cities or towns
and in country villages or towns which reports various problems
is, for the most part, very similar. One exception is that 'teenagers
hanging around on the streets' is viewed more often as a problem
in the more rural areas. A lack of social venues in country villages
or towns may account for this.
In Northern Ireland, religion can be a powerful indicator of attitudes
to a wide range of issues. Earlier, I referred to the grievances
of the Catholic community over housing and the role they played
in the civil unrest that began in the late 1960s. I will now look
at the current attitudes of Protestants and Catholics to their
housing and at how they view the NIHE. This section concentrates
on Protestants and Catholics only; those who report being of no
religion, other religions, or are unwilling to say are not included
in the analysis.
Source: Policy Planning and Research Unit, 1989a
The information on religion and housing satisfaction in the Social Attitudes survey agrees fairly consistently with that in the 1985 CHS (Policy Planning and Research Unit, 1989a). In each survey, Catholics report slightly less satisfaction, and correspondingly more dissatisfaction, with their housing. Earlier CHSs, for the years 1983-84, show a similar pattern (Policy Planning and Research Unit, 1989a). The Social Attitudes survey suggests that since the 1985 CHS there may have been a small drop in the level of dissatisfaction expressed by both Protestants and Catholics.
Some of the difference in satisfaction between Protestants and
Catholics may be explained by the different housing characteristics
of the two groups. There are, for instance, significant tenure
differences: Protestants are more likely than Catholics to be
owner-occupiers. Even though it has been government policy to
encourage people to make the move to owner-occupation, public
rented accommodation still forms a large proportion (40 per cent)
of Catholic housing.
 Figures are based on unweighted data.
There are also important differences in the housing type of the
two religious groups. A greater percentage of Protestant respondents
live in detached and semi-detached dwellings, while a larger proportion
of Catholics live in terraced dwellings.
 Figures are based on unweighted data.
In the NIHE's 1990 Public Attitudes survey, 81 per cent of respondents who express an opinion feel that the NIHE does not discriminate on religious
grounds. There is no significant difference between Catholics
(82 per cent) and Protestants (81 per cent) (Northern Ireland
Housing Executive, 1990). A slightly different picture emerged
from the 1989 Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey. When people
were asked how the NIHE treated the two groups, 64 per cent of
Protestants and 71 per cent of Catholics felt that both communities
were treated equally (Curtice and Gallagher, 1990). A sizeable
minority of respondents, 20 per cent of Protestants and 16 per
cent of Catholics, felt that people from the opposite religion
were treated either 'a bit better' or 'much better'. This minority
opinion changes little when the views of owner-occupiers are separated
from public renters. One difference that is apparent, however,
is the higher percentage of both Protestant and Catholic NIHE
tenants (73 per cent and 78 per cent, respectively) who felt that
the NIHE treats all those 'applying for a home' equally; there
were correspondingly fewer respondents who were unable to express
HOW DOES IT TREAT CATHOLICS AND PROTESTANTS WHO APPLY FOR A HOME?
 1989 Social Attitudes survey
The latest assessment of equality of treatment by the NIHE can
be found in a report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human
Rights. It concluded on the basis of research undertaken by the
Policy Studies Institute that there was no evidence of direct
or indirect discrimination (Standing Advisory Commission on Human
Rights, 1990). This report did note some differences between the
two communities, however, in the quality of and access to public
sector housing. Figures for the year 1985-86 show that in the
Belfast urban area the average repair costs for structural defects
and the average improvement costs for defects in dwelling standard
were higher on Catholic estates than on Protestant or mixed estates.
In rural areas, the position was reversed: Protestant estates
had higher repair and improvement costs than Catholic or mixed
estates. The commission expressed concern over differences between
the two communities in the levels of allocation to public sector
houses. Segregation between the communities was more pronounced
in the public housing sector than in the private. These differences
may have some bearing on expressed levels of satisfaction. On
the basis of the report, the NIHE has decided to monitor religious
differences more closely: '. . . the Board of the Executive approved
the inclusion of religion questions on relevant research commissioned
or conducted by the organisation' (Northern Ireland Housing Executive,
1990, p. 18).
The finding of both this survey and other surveys conducted in Northern Ireland and in Britain is that people are very satisfied with their housing. The evidence presented in this chapter shows that levels of satisfaction remain remarkably stable both over time and from one area of the UK to another.
The 1978 report of the General Household Survey contained a caveat, however, about interpreting general questions on housing satisfaction: 'an expression of overall satisfaction with one's housing situation does not necessarily indicate a complete absence of dissatisfaction with all its aspects' (Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, 1980, p. 58). Given the comparatively high levels of unfitness and disrepair in the housing stock, it is quite probable that some respondents have expressed satisfaction with a dwelling that has one or more serious defects.
Higher levels of satisfaction are expressed by owner-occupiers, by those who live in detached and semi-detached dwellings, by older age groups and by those who view themselves as members of the higher social classes. There are slight differences in the level of satisfaction expressed by Protestants and Catholics. Data from the 1989 Social Attitudes survey show that the majority of respondents felt that the NIHE treated Protestants and Catholics 'who applied for a home' equally. Many people from both communities, however, continued to believe that people from the other religion were treated better.
The majority of respondents report that their housing area has
neither improved nor deteriorated during the previous two years;
a similar number feel that there will be no change in the next
two years. These figures vary according to the type of area in
which the respondent lives, the tenure of the dwelling and the
self-rated social class of the respondent. From a list of problems
that may occur in housing areas, the ones most commonly referred
to are 'rubbish or litter lying around', 'teenagers hanging around
on the streets' and 'graffiti on walls or buildings'. All the
problems are more commonly perceived in the public rental sector,
by the lower social classes, in urban areas and by respondents
who express dissatisfaction with their housing.
I am grateful for guidance and suggestions received from Derek
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CURTICE, J. and GALLAGHER, T. 1990. 'The Northern Ireland dimension', in R. Jowell, S. Witherspoon and L. Brook (eds), British Social Attitudes: the 7th report, Gower, Aldershot.
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STANDING ADVISORY COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS. 1990. Religious
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Ireland, Second Report, Cmnd. 1107, HMSO, London.
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