Alex Easton MLA has raised a debate at the Northern Ireland Assembly on the lack of or poor quality of cavity wall insulation in their housing stock.
Speaking today Alex Easton MLA said:
“This was a very important debate in the NI Assembly and got full support from all party’s. Every month get reports of residents who are living in Housing executive property’s that they have damp and black spores in many of their rooms. An excuse is often used by the Housing Executive is that it is down to condensation, or people not ventilating their property’s, this is a load of nonsense. In many cases this is down to the lack of, or poor quality of cavity wall insulation that is currently in peoples housed. One a property has had their cavity wall insulation corrected they find the black mold goes away, their lives improves and in some cases even their health. I am today calling on the Housing Executive for the North Down area after the debate held in the Northern Ireland assembly to put into place a plan of action to find out the serious nature of the problem and then get on with fixing it over a rolled out period of time. Residents deserve better from the Housing Executive and it is a no brainier to get sorted out.”
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Communities to hold the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to account for its failure to address the lack of, or poor quality of, cavity insulation within many Housing Executive properties; and calls on the Housing Executive to formulate a plan of action to ensure that all its properties have adequate and proper cavity insulation.
I ask Members to indulge me for a few moments to explain why I have proposed the motion and the reason for its wording. Cavity wall insulation has been raised many times in the last few years by nearly all of us in the Chamber in some form or other, and it has been debated recently in the Assembly, lastly in November 2013. Sadly, little has changed since then.
Roy Beggs, Andy Allen, Pat Sheehan, Patsy McGlone and Steven Agnew have all expressed interest with Assembly questions, have met the industry and various residents, and have had the seriousness of the issue explained to them. I hope that I will have cross-community support for the motion.
It is acknowledged that there are UK-wide issues with regard to the deterioration of certain insulation materials, such as fibre, over time, exposure to water, and the quality of workmanship. That is a problem not only for the Housing Executive, but across the total housing stock. In the mid-1980s, the Housing Executive carried out an extensive programme of insulating cavity walls across a housing stock that was twice what it is today. In many ways, that programme was ahead of its time, but nearly 30 years have passed and many problems are now coming to light.
In November 2013, I tabled a similar motion in the Assembly on the topic. After a lively debate, the motion received all-party support. The debate covered many of the issues around fuel poverty, the health issues from living in cold, damp homes, and the opportunity to create jobs and reduce consumer bills. Therefore, I wish to focus on what actions have occurred since the motion was passed and update Members on my views of progress to date.
Following the motion, several Members enquired about progress, including the current Minister. We were all referred to a study that had been commissioned by the Housing Executive: the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) report. We were told that the report would determine the condition of the insulation in cavities and that the Housing Executive would:
“carry out an evaluation of the results to determine whether there is substandard insulation in its properties and will develop whatever action plan is indicated with new strategies and policies.”
We were further told that the project would provide an evidence base to underpin a programme of remedial work if required. It all sounds good so far.
The study was commissioned and a report duly completed. Two hundred and six properties were thoroughly investigated, and the report was completed in March 2014. It found that 39% of cavity walls were in severe and critical need, 26% were unsatisfactory with grave needs, 11% were in significant need, 14% had specific needs, and only 9% were fit for purpose.
The report was then suppressed by the Housing Executive and published only after questions in the Assembly. It was finally released with two important provisos and its publication included a letter from the then director of regional services for the Housing Executive. It stated that:
“As a result of the findings contained in the report, a much larger survey is being commissioned as part of the stock condition survey of Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties commencing in the autumn of 2014. This will inform the future strategy and programmes required to address the issues in the report.”
The letter refers to the report as “small”, yet the 206 sample houses had all been included in the 2011 house condition survey (HCS) and were noted as being in good condition. The HCS provided robust data to inform on fuel poverty, energy efficiency, quality of housing stock and state of repair. It is quoted extensively throughout government, yet the sample that was used in it was only 0�18%. In comparison, the SERC sample was 0�31%, which is nearly double the size. It also appears that we were misinformed as to the purpose of the study, as it has now become a small-scale exploratory research study aimed at providing an initial indication.
The director of regional services added:
“As a result of the findings contained in this report, a much larger survey is being commissioned as part of a stock condition survey”.
So, the SERC report was condemned to the dustbin, but at least a bigger survey would be done. The larger survey is commonly known as the Savills report and, thanks to questions from other parties, we now know that it cost �4 million.
It was a holistic, detailed, formidable body of work. Over 22,000 houses were examined for thermal efficiency and other issues, and over 22,000 lofts were examined.
Amazingly, not one single cavity wall was inspected or borescoped. So a much bigger, more expensive study was completed. Yet, for some reason, the Housing Executive chose to ignore the findings of the SERC report and not to investigate further.
In reply to questions about cavity wall insulation over the last year or longer, the Housing Executive has now put forward a consistent response regarding the issue, namely, that it intends to investigate further through its external cyclical maintenance (ECM) schemes, to carry out samples with borescopes when deciding a programme of works and to deal with individual houses on a response basis. The ECM programme that the Housing Executive has referred to includes roofs, walls, fences etc. It is my understanding that the specifications for this work have already required inspections of walls, but I am glad to hear that the Housing Executive is now saying that it is committed to carrying out these inspections.
This answer is a reasonable approach, which has some merit, until you dig in further and ask what is actually happening. In October of last year, Roy Beggs asked how many cavity walls had been surveyed under the ECM programme. He was told that:
“as this intrusive inspection approach has only commenced recently, the Housing Executive is unable to provide the information requested.”
Would the Member like in now?
I find it quite astonishing that the answer could not be given. What I also find quite astonishing is that, having known from the report on the smaller sample that there were major defects in cavity wall insulation, Savills was not required to carry out any further investigation or commissioned to ensure that would happen.
I totally agree with the Member: it should have included that.
So, it appears that they still have not started this yet. Likewise, the claim to deal with individual houses on a response basis seems hollow. The SERC report identified 135 houses across other constituencies that had serious deficiencies with their wall installation. In answer to questions from the Minister, the Housing Executive has stated that two houses have had remedial work carried out over the last three-and-a-half years. Not very responsive by any definition.
In 2005, I asked, via the Minister, how many claims have been made against the Housing Executive for substantial cavity wall insulation problems. I was told that the information was not available under that classification but was included under dampness and that over 200 claims have been dealt with. The Housing Executive often use the term “lifestyle issues” to explain damp on walls. In many cases, it is much more likely to be a lack of, or poor, cavity wall insulation. As such, in December 2006 I asked another question through the Minister. This time I asked how many cases of damp had been reported to the Housing Executive over the last four years. The answer horrified me: 25,000 cases.
In my constituency I see this repeated time and time again, but I am totally frustrated by the approach of the Housing Executive. I have been involved in trying to resolve a complaint for a tenant in the last few months, and it highlighted the approach adopted by the Housing Executive. The usual excuses were lifestyle choices, condensation and not using heating properly and airing the house. The real reason was that there was no cavity wall insulation in the property. I will read out an excerpt from a letter written by a lady after the Housing Executive had fixed her problem. She told me:
“Until you live in a house with insulation problems, you will never know how much stress and worry I had. I am trying to keep a nice home, only for it to be eaten up by black, dangerous mould. I have had to constantly strip back wallpaper, wash walls with antifungal and redecorate.”
She then went on to say, once the Housing Executive had actually bothered to resolve the situation:
“I feel like a weight has been lifted off me, as I will no longer have to worry about the mould making us sick and will no longer have to redecorate.”
In closing, I understand that the Housing Executive has financial restraints and must prioritise its budget, but having a warm home, free from damp, is at the top of everybody’s wish list. From my experience and that of my constituents, the plan is not apparent, and very little progress appears to have been made on the motion agreed in the Assembly over three years ago. That is why I believe that the Minister needs to ensure that this is remedied, progress monitored and the Housing Executive held to account. A plan has to be developed and not a quick fix; it may take a decade. We need a plan, and it needs to be delivered.