agendaNi issue 118 April 2024

Page 1

€4.95 / £2.95 Aug/Sep 11 issue 8 Carbon Tax • Special Reports: Health • ICT £2.95 April/May 2024 Issue 118 Housing • Infrastructure and transport • public affairs Delivering what matters NI Water’s Tzvetelina Bogoina Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd MLA discusses the delivery of a connected economy Communities Minister Gordon Lyons MLA on a commitment to increase housing supply Chief Executive of the Housing Executive Grainia Long on building for a climate-resilient future ...informing Northern Ireland’s decision-makers

• Government Departments

• local council listings

• election results: NI Assembly, Council and Westminster

• your local MLA / MP

• health and education bodies

• housing organisations

• charities and NGOs

• the Northern Ireland economy

• justice agencies

• tourism bodies and conferencing

Order your organisation’s copy! Tel: (028) 9261 9933 Email:
The essential guide to the public sector in Northern Ireland Northern Ireland Yearbook 2024

Digital Events Publications

A promising portfolio…

While there are many obstacles to the successful delivery of the many ‘priorities’ which have been announced prior to –and in the early months of – the return of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, a unique opportunity for alignment has gone somewhat unnoticed.

Fresh challenges compound existing hurdles including the delivery of a sustainable long-term budget, publishing binding carbon emission targets, addressing the worsening health crisis, and increasing housing supply, to name but a few.

However, for a long time now, aspirations of economic growth have gravitated to an understanding that Ireland as an island has a unique opportunity in the delivery and generation of green energy. Once a leader in renewable generation, Northern Ireland is now lagging its counterparts, driven by a failure to deliver coherent policy amid successive political deadlocks.

The DUP threw a curve ball during the Executive formation in opting for the communities portfolio, leaving Sinn Féin to take on both the finance portfolio and the economy portfolio, which encompasses energy policy. Sinn Féin also opted for infrastructure, for which a major focus is planning reform.

Getting the renewable transition right represents the single greatest opportunity to overcome long-standing economic stagnation. To date, the three major barriers to renewable growth are clear, concise, and long-term policy, financing, and planning delays.

In the current Executive make-up, one party has the potential to address all three and in that lies a great economic opportunity.


David Whelan, Editor

Fiona McCarthy

Ciarán Galway

Joshua Murray

Chloe Murray

Circulation and Marketing

Lynda Millar


Jillian Wallace


Gail Kinkead


Gareth Duffy, Head of Design

Jamie Hogan


Sharon Morrison




Owen McQuade, Publisher bmf



Business Services 19a Maghaberry Road Maghaberry, Co Antrim, BT67 0JE
+44 (0)
28 9261 9933
@agendani Web: Printed by: GPS Colour Graphics
agendaNi Issue 118 April 2024
Editor FSC® is an acronym for the Forest Stewardship Council®, which is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization that was established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. The FSC® system provides an assurance that products such as wood and paper have been harvested in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. The FSC’s Chain of Custody certification provides a way in which the material can be tracked from the certified initial source through the manufacturing process to the end user and other controlled sources.
David Whelan
04 08 08 Issues 08 Stormont resilience 14 Cover story: NI Water’s Tzvetelina Bogoina discusses the importance of infrastructure delivery 18 Meeting Northern Ireland’s spending needs 22 The European Commission’s Marcel Haag on ESG in the financial sector 24 Round table discussion: Educating for a secure and growing economy 30 Energy actions for 2024 Digital Events Publications 04 Matters arising 07 Quoteworthy contents 39 39 Housing report 40 Communities Minister Gordon Lyons MLA on increasing housing supply 48 Housing Europe’s Dara Turnbull offers a European housing policy perspective 52 Delivering a Housing Supply Strategy 70 The future of the House Sales Scheme Hosted by Sponsored by ®
22 100 Public affairs 100 Makeup of Northern Ireland Assembly committees 104 Alliance Party conference 2024 106 Megan Fearon: Choosing hope for Assembly delivery 110 The ICTU’s John O’Farrell on deepening devolution 112 Back page: Mental health champion Siobhán O’Neill on the value of transport connections 100 94 24 106 14 08 77 77 Infrastructure and transport 78 Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd MLA on building a foundation for better communities 82 Assessing value for money in major capital projects 88 The state of Northern Ireland’s roads 94 QUB’s Brendan Murtagh on the value of active travel 98 Planning improvements: Resource dependent 112 48

Robinson appointed interim DUP leader

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson has been named as the interim DUP leader for the party after the resignation of Jeffrey Donaldson MP.

Donaldson resigned as the party leader and had his membership suspended after he was arrested and charged over historical sexual offences. He is due to appear in court on 24 April 2024.

Robinson, who has represented East Belfast at Westminster since 2015, was unanimously appointed as interim party leader by party officers in the wake of Donaldson’s resignation.

A former Lord Mayor of Belfast and special advisor to then-First Minster Peter Robinson, Robinson has acted as the party’s deputy leader since June 2023 but may well face a contest for the permanent leadership role after the Westminster general election.

Emma Little-Pengelly MLA, who was co-opted into Donaldson’s Assembly seat and subsequently made deputy First Minister has said that she will work closely with the new interim leader to “provide stability”.

Simon Harris TD: Ireland’s youngest Taoiseach

Simon Harris TD has been confirmed as the new leader of Fine Gael and new Taoiseach following the resignation of Leo Varadkar TD.

Harris was the sole contestant for the leadership following Varadkar’s decision to step down “for personal and political reasons”, and at the age of 37, made history as the country’s youngest Taoiseach.

Harris, who entered the Dáil aged 24 and gained a cabinet position just five years later as Health Minister, will lead the

coalition government for only a short period, with a general election to be held by 22 March 2025 at the latest.

Former Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney TD, who was heavily involved in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland in January 2020, and negotiations around the implications of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement, has also stepped aside from his role in the cabinet.

4 agenda matters matters arising
Credit: UK Parliment
Credit: Fine Gael

The ‘real’ rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland could be as much as three times higher than the official data, a report by Ulster University (UU) economists has suggested.

The spare capacity in the Northern Ireland labour market report suggests that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) unemployment rate for Northern Ireland “underrepresents a number of groups within the labour market who would like to work if a suitable job opportunity was available”.

The current unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is close to a record low of 2.6 per cent, however, 312,000 individuals are classed as economically inactive, and are excluded from how the rate is calculated. Economists estimate that some


15.4 per cent of this group have stated they would like to work and when added to the 2,600 people on government training schemes, the ‘real’ unemployment rate could jump to as much as 8.2 per cent.

Commenting on the report, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson Sinéad McLaughlin MLA said: “These statistics help to illustrate the scale of the challenge the North faces to create jobs for those who are seeking work…

“The exclusion of this group has skewed the statistics to suggest that Northern Ireland is in a better situation regarding unemployment, compared to the rest of the UK, than is actually the case.”

Credit: Press Eye ltd.

rate of unemployment could be higher than 8 per cent New Justice Permanent Secretary JUSTICE

Hugh Widdis, the Head of the Government Legal Service in Northern Ireland has been appointed as the new Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice.

Widdis’s appointment comes after a decision to appoint Richard Pengelly as the new Chief Executive Officer of the Education Authority (EA).

In 2017, Widdis was temporarily appointed as Permanent Secretary to the Department of Finance but returned to his post following the appointment of Sue Gray.

Pengelly had served in the Department of Justice since April 2022, having previously held the Permanent Secretary role for health. His term begins in April 2024 and lasts for three years.

Pengelly is to replace Sara Long, who was Chief Executive of the EA for five years.

Announcing his appointment, Education Minister Paul Givan MLA said: “I am pleased the board has agreed to the appointment of Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly as CEO of the Education Authority and I am grateful to the Head of the Civil Service for agreeing to release Richard to undertake this role.”

Widdis will take the new position of Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice on April 15. Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA has spoken highly of the new Permanent Secretary, saying he “has a proven track record and is well respected amongst his peers”.

5 agenda matters matters arising

Credit: The Northern Ireland Assembly

Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee (DSC) established

A new standing committee created to examine the economic, political, legal and constitutional implications of the Windsor Framework has been established in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee (DSC) met for the first time on 15 February 2024 and is chaired by Sinn Féin’s Philip McGuigan MLA, with the DUP’s David Brooks MLA acting as deputy chair.

The Committee’s purpose is to assist with the observation and implementation of Article 13(3a) and (4) of the Windsor Framework.

Leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland Mal O’Hara has been elected unopposed to the upper house of the Oireachtas.

O’Hara, who took over the party’s northern leadership from Clare Bailey in 2022, had previously been elected to Belfast City Council but failed to get elected in either of the most recent Assembly and lost his Belfast City Council seat in 2022.

The resignation by Sinn Féin’s Niall Ó Donnghaile for health reasons earlier this year forced a by-election for his replacement, however, O’Hara was nominated by his party unopposed and became the party’s fifth sitting senator.

Currently, the UK and EU have agreed the Windsor Framework, and have provided a new set of arrangements in three key areas: “restoring the smooth flow of trade within the UK internal market by removing burdens that have disrupted the east-west trade; safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the union; and addressing the democratic deficit that was otherwise at the heart of the original Northern Ireland Protocol.”

If certain conditions are met, 30 MLAs, from two parties, can request that the UK Government ‘pull the Brake’ on amended or replacement EU law which would otherwise apply in Northern Ireland under the terms of the Framework.

Green Party leader becomes member of Seanad

O’Hara said: “I am honoured and humbled to become a senator today. I am proud to make history as the first northern Green to take a seat in Seanad Éireann. It is vital that there is northern representation, and I am pleased that all parties recognised that need for representation and did not contest me.

“I look forward to joining a strong Green team in the Oireachtas and working with colleagues in government and cross-party to continue to fight for social and environmental justice.”

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan TD said O’Hara will bring “a unique all-island perspective”.

6 agenda matters matters arising
Credit: House of the Oireachtas.
“It has been a devastating revelation…”
“It is important… that we have these forums to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern.”
“Instinctively, I want to see a united Ireland and cost isn’t the overbearing factor.”
“I couldn’t respond to Mr Allister and he certainly would have got his clock cleaned if I would have.”
7 agenda quoteworthy
Deputy First Minister Emma LittlePengelly MLA following the North South Ministerial Council meeting. New Taoiseach Simon Harris TD New Assembly speaker Edwin Poots MLA, refering to TUV leader Jim Allister MLA DUP Interim Leader Gavin Robinson MP on Jeffrey Donaldson MP being charged with historic sexual offences.

issues agenda

Stormont resilience to be tested

While the Stormont institutions have navigated the early months with some success, the inevitable fragility of power-sharing is set to be tested by both predictable and unpredictable challenges, and by the demand for delivery.

Following a two-year absence, the return of power-sharing in Northern Ireland was always going to endure a period of sustained turbulence but no one could have predicted the levels of upheaval caused by the arrest of Jeffrey Donaldson MP and his subsequent resignation from the DUP. Undoubtedly, Donaldson’s arrest will have ramifications for the DUP and the Executive. Charged with historical sexual offences, the party has said that all political links with Donaldson have been cut.

However, he remains an independent MP for Lagan Valley. Whether he will resign that seat remains to be seen, but interim DUP leader Gavin Robinson MP has already stated that the party is searching for a candidate to contest the next Westminster election.

One of the potential frontrunners will be sitting Lagan Valley MLA and Education Minister Paul Givan. Givan’s name has not been formally touted by the party, potentially because of the instability it could cause. Robinson himself will be vying to hold his Westminster seat in the coming months and the addition of a sitting Executive minister to the ballot, alongside questions already being posed about the legitimacy of an unelected deputy First Minister, could be a step too far in the balance of stability.

To some degree, Donaldson’s sudden departure has relieved some of the mounting pressure on the new Executive for delivery beyond rhetoric, but a unified touting of ‘business as usual’ from Executive partners, means that questions will be asked of what progress has been made since the decision to re-enter Stormont was taken.

Even prior to Donaldson’s departure, the looming Westminster election posed challenges for the new Executive.

Although not yet formally confirmed by their party, both the UUP’s Health Minister Robin Swann MLA and Alliance Party Leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA are expected to contest for seats.

Political opponents will question whether individuals can balance ministerial portfolios with canvassing for an entirely different role. With over two years of the current mandate lost to suspension, any further departmental disruption during the remainder of the mandate would be an unwelcome development.


The new-look Executive, led by a nationalist First Minister for the first time, also faces a new look challenge in the form of a pioneering Official Opposition.

Whether the SDLP, with only seven MLAs – minus Justin McNulty MLA – will have the critical mass to be effective remains to be seen. However, their potential impact can be best assessed in the context of early efforts on behalf of ‘the big two’ to undermine the opposition.

Neither the First Minister nor the deputy First Minister were in the chamber to respond to calls to reform the institutions to prevent further collapses, which earned a rebuke from the Assembly speaker Edwin Poots MLA.

However, a look at the impact the UUP and SDLP made as an opposition partnership during a short lifespan in 2016 on bringing the RHI scandal into the public eye, is evidence of how opposition can scrutinise a sitting Executive.

The SDLP set out its stall on its intentions to enter opposition over two years ago, claiming at the time that its role would be “constructive”, as opposed to ‘sniping from the sidelines’, an accusation often levelled at those outside of government in other legislatures.

agenda issues

They have landed some early blows. Opposition Leader Matthew O’Toole MLA accused the Executive partners of announcing several specific policy commitments through Assembly motions while failing to publish a Programme for Government (PfG).

“These indicative motions, however, have no binding effect and ministers have, to date, tabled no legislation to give effect to any of the proposals,” he stated.

Calls for the publication of a Programme for Government are pointed, not only because of the shortened mandate, but also because in the absence of a functioning Executive, the four main Executive parties and the Head of the Civil Service, Jayne Brady, continued to meet around PfG formation.

Similarly, on gaining acknowledgment from the Speaker that “the proper procedural approach” was not being followed by some ministers with regard to providing information to written and oral questions, O’Toole’s party colleague Mark Durkan MLA said: “We’re in the absurd position at the moment where ministers are tripping over themselves to claim good news stories but refusing to front up to tough questions about the stark positions that many people find themselves in. They can’t have it both ways.”

Criticism has centred on a lack of concrete legislative progress in areas, which prior to the Executive and Assembly’s return were heralded as urgent priorities. Most prominently, is the

necessity of sustainable public finances and an envisaged multiyear budget.

Additional finances attached to the return deal were welcomed, and helped initial pressures around demands for pay increases, however, the long-term sustainability of these finances has been raised as a challenge, as too have the attached strings of the deal, including the need for Stormont to introduce additional revenue-raising measures.

Hopes that a new budget could be in place by the turn of the new financial year in April 2024 were optimistic and it now appears that the Executive has settled on using the cover of the current Secretary of State’s annual budget as cover to undertake negotiations. Given the number of priorities to be balanced, those negotiations are unlikely to run smoothly.

A further caveat is the requirement for a further Westminster capital injection into any multi-year budget planning. With the UK Government’s Spring Budget already published on 6 March 2024, the forthcoming election could pose a challenge to securing long-term commitments needed to deliver an Executive budget at pace.

The stability of the current Executive will be determined by its ability to effectively overcome not only ad-hoc challenges, but also those long-standing problems which have yet to be addressed. Reducing waiting lists amidst a growing health

crisis, increasing housing supply amidst growing levels of housing stress, and funding the necessary infrastructure for economic growth, such as water and waste water, are just some of the challenges to be tackled.

Overshadowing these challenges is the climate and biodiversity crisis, brought into sharp relief by recent severe weather patterns and the ecological disaster at Lough Neagh. The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 mandated the progression of Northern Ireland’s Climate Change Act. More pointedly, also forthcoming is the need to publish and implement carbon budgets. While the established GHG emissions targets are a net figure for Northern Ireland, each department will have to ensure that total emissions for each budgetary period do not exceed the carbon budget for that period.

As seen in other legislatures, the need for investment and carbon emission reductions in separate departments in the strive towards net zero can make for testing conversations at Executive level.

The Stormont Executive has a remaining mandate of around three years to not only make up for lost time, but set the waypoint for key economic sectors. Given the scale of the challenge, greater resilience will be needed than has previously been exhibited.

issues agenda 9 agenda issues

issues agenda

A new look Executive

Michelle O’Neill

First Minister

The Executive Office

Vice President of Sinn Féin and an MLA for the Mid Ulster Constituency since 2007, O’Neill made history upon becoming the first nationalist First Minister for Northern Ireland in 2024. She has held previous posts as deputy First Minister, Minister for Health and as Agriculture and Rural Development Minister.

Special advisors: John Loughran; Ronan McGinley

Emma Little-Pengelly

Deputy First Minister

The Executive Office

Little-Pengelly was nominated as the deputy First Minister in February 2024, having previously been coopted to take up Jeffrey Donaldson MP’s seat in May 2022, shortly after he won the seat. Little-Pengelly was a special advisor to former party leaders Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson before she was appointed Junior Minister between 2015 to 2016. She served as an MP for South Belfast from 2017 to 2019.

Special advisors: Alastair Ross; Ashleigh Perry

agenda issues

Junior ministers

Aisling Reilly MLA

Junior Minister

First co-opted to the Assembly to replace Fra McCann in 2021, Reilly was re-elected in 2022 and subsequently made Junior Minister in February 2024.

Executive ministers

Andrew Muir MLA

Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

A first time entrant to the Executive, Muir has been an MLA for North Down since 2019, having previously served as a local councillor and Mayor of North Down in 2013. Muir’s appointment represents the first time the Alliance Party has held two seats in the Executive.

Special advisor: Jodie Carson

Paul Givan MLA

Department of Education

Givan takes up post as the Minister of Education having most recently served as First Minister. Nominated during a time of leadership upheaval for the DUP, Givan was elevated by then leader Edwin Poots MLA, and retained as First Minister by Jeffrey Donaldson MP before his resignation in February 2022 forced the collapse of the Executive. Givan has represented Lagan Valley as an MLA since 2010 and in 2016 was appointed Minister for Communities.

Special advisor: Richard Bullick

John O’Dowd MLA

Department for Infrastructure

Pam Cameron MLA

Junior Minister

First elected in South Antrim in 2011, Cameron has previously chaired the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. She is a former Mayor of Antrim and has served as deputy chair on a number of Assembly committees.

Gordon Lyons MLA

Department for Communities

Appointed as an MLA for East Antrim in 2015, Lyons’ appointment to the Department for Communities represents his fourth Executive portfolio, including as Junior Minister and as temporary Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Most recently, he served as the Economy Minister from July 2021.

Special advisor: Peter Johnston

Caoimhe Archibald MLA

Department of Finance

Another debutant in the Executive, Archibald has been an MLA for East Londonderry since 2016. Her career background is in applied horticulture research. She qualified with a BSc in Molecular Biology and PhD, and also completed a PGDip in Management and Corporate Governance from the University of Ulster.

Special advisor: Dara O’Hagan

Conor Murphy MLA

Department for the Economy

First elected to the Assembly in 1998, Murphy is the MLA for Newry and Armagh and takes up the Economy portfolio having most recently served as Finance Minister in the last mandate. Between 2007 to 2011 Murphy had served as the Minister for the then-Department for Regional Development. Murphy was elected as an MP in 2005 and re-elected in 2010.

Special advisor: Eoin Rooney

Robin Swann MLA

Department of Health

Swann’s reappointment as Health Minister was somewhat surprising, as larger parties passed over the challenging portfolio. Swann’s intention to contest the Westminster election later in 2024 did not dissuade his party leader’s decision to elevate him, and Swann takes up the post on the back of a high profile gained during the Covid-19 pandemic. A former leader of the UUP, Swann announced that he was steping down in 2019, but the MLA for North Antrim was appointed to the Executive in early 2020.

Special advisor: Mark Ovens

O’Dowd’s appointment as Minister for Infrastructure comes on the back of previous portfolios including as Education Minister and acting deputy First Minister. He was a surprise exclusion from Sinn Féin’s Executive team following the New Decade, New Approach agreement in 2020 but took up post as a caretaker Infrastructure Minister in May 2022 following the loss of a seat by the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon. He was first elected to the Assembly in 2003 and represents Upper Bann.

Special advisor: Bronagh O’Kane

Naomi Long MLA

Department of Justice

The Alliance Party leader’s return as Justice Minister was somewhat unsurprising considering the need for a crosscommunity vote in the Assembly, as was the case when she held the post between January 2020 to October 2022. Long was first elected to the Assembly in 2003 but resigned her seat in 2015 on winning election to Westminster. After a return in 2016, she resigned again in 2019 to become an MEP before returning to take up the Justice portfolio in 2022. Long is another Executive Minister expected to contest the upcoming Westminster election, however, her party has yet to confirm her selection.

Special advisor: Claire Johnson

issues agenda 11 agenda issues

Workforce pressures underpin GP ‘crises’

Efforts to increase the number of general practitioners in Northern Ireland are not having the desired effect, as fewer GP sessions are being delivered, a report has found.

Examining access to general practice in Northern Ireland, the Audit Office finds that despite a 9 per cent increase in the total number of GPs between 2018 and 2023, changing patterns of GP work has led to an overall decrease in whole-time equivalents, making it likely that fewer GP sessions are being delivered.

Despite efforts to grow the general practice workforce in recent years, including the establishment of a departmental working group in 2021/22 and an increase in training places from 65 to 121 over the decade from 2014, the report identifies a trend of increased training places being taken up by international medical graduates, who are deemed less likely to remain in Northern Ireland after completion.

The findings were part of a wider report detailing the “extreme pressure” facing GP practices in Northern Ireland, including that almost one-in-three GP practices has sought crisis support services in the last four years.

The Department of Health spends around £375 million

per year on over 300 GP practices in Northern Ireland, which equates to roughly 5 per cent of the total health and social care budget.

GPs, under contract with the Department of Health, provide services as independent contractors and are a vital part of primary care delivery in Northern Ireland.

In total, 13 GP practices in Northern Ireland either handed back or gave notice to hand back their contracts in Northern Ireland in the year between March 2022 to March 2023. While alternative providers have been found for all of these practices, nine are on a temporary basis.

The potential for more practices to hand back their contracts is evident in the findings that in the past four years, 30 per cent (98 practices) have sought support from the General Practice Improvement and Crisis Response Team, which develops and implements recovery plans for practices identified as ‘at risk’.

agenda issues issues agenda 12

issues agenda

GP investment in UK regions

Investment in general practice in Northern Ireland has been traditionally lower than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Investment per capita in general practice in Northern Ireland has traditionally been lower than the rest of the UK and as a result, GP earnings in Northern Ireland have been lower than England and Scotland, and on par with Wales.

Service delivery by general practitioners has been impacted by growing waiting lists in secondary care and an ageing population. In 2022/23 funding per patient for general practice saw a 7 per cent real-time cut compared to the previous year.

One of the recognised challenges for GP practices is the cost of up to £1,000 per day to attract locum doctors. The report by the Audit Office highlights that while paying such rates may help immediately stabilise practices “it may have distorted the locum GP market, resulting in higher costs being incurred more generally.”

While acknowledging efforts by the Department of Health to address some of the workforce challenges facing GP practices, the Audit Office has highlighted the absence of a specific workforce strategy for general practice, or specific targets for the growth of the GP workforce, as exists in England and Scotland.

Among the Comptroller and Auditor General’s recommendations is the need for a workforce plan for general practice and refresh the retention schemes that are currently in place.

Multi-disciplinary teams

Compounding pressures on primary care is a longstanding failure to transform healthcare delivery in Northern Ireland. While incremental changes have taken

place since the publication of the Bengoa report in 2016, financial and political instability have stymied successive transformation programmes.

This is evident in the “limited progress” identified by the Audit Office in relation to the rollout of multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) within primary care settings. Considered a key component of health and social care service transformation, MDTs were launched in September 2018 with an incremental five-year roll out plan across all 17 GP Federation areas. However, MDTs have been fully introduced in just one area to date, with partial introduction in a further seven areas.

The Audit Office finds that just 8 per cent of registered patients have access to a full range of MTD roles, and points to a lack of available and qualified staff as a key constraint.

Commenting on the report’s findings, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Dorinnia Carville, says: “Measures taken to date have largely been short-term, which can be costly for public finances. At the same time, progress on delivering more meaningful transformation, such as the planned rollout of multidisciplinary teams to work alongside GPs, has been significantly delayed.

“Ultimately this results in patients not receiving the timely support and access to treatments that they need.

“It is important to note that there are no quick or easy solutions. What is essential now is the development of sustainable long-term plans to address the significant challenges facing GP services in Northern Ireland.”

13 agenda issues
Credit: X/Unite The Union NI.

Delivering what matters

discusses the underpinning role water and wastewater infrastructure has in improving Northern Ireland’s economic and environmental future.

Bogoina explains that an insight into the future role NI Water can play in growing and protecting Northern Ireland’s economy can be garnered by looking back to the strides made by the organisation since its inception.

Originally established in 2007 as a regulated utility and a government company, NI Water has a single shareholder in the form of the Department for Infrastructure, from which, alongside commercial customers, it derives most of its income.

As Northern Ireland’s largest electricity user, and second largest landowner, it manages some £3 billion of assets and, since its

origin, has closed an almost 50 per cent efficiency gap with comparable neighbouring water companies to less than 5 per cent in 2024.

Not only does NI Water pride itself on the efficient use of public money, as an organisation that pays interest on its government loans – as well as dividends –it is estimated that it has returned almost £1 billion pounds to the public purse via infrastructure investments since 2007.

Describing NI Water’s evolution into a highly efficient and purpose-driven organisation, the Director of Infrastructure Delivery insists it is testament to its leadership and staff, pointing to this as a

major factor in her decision to take up the role six months ago.

“I have been inspired by the commitment and dedication that exists in NI Water, not just to doing the job, but to doing what is right and delivering what matters for Northern Ireland. The journey NI Water has been on is inspirational. There are not many organisations who deliver the complexity of infrastructure that we do, with the limited resources that we have.

“Even in times of recent financial constraint, we are constantly designing and innovating to meet the challenges of the future, such as the climate emergency, making it an exciting organisation to be a part of.”

14 cover story cover story

Crisis point

While NI Water prides itself on being a forward-thinking organisation, it continues to operate in the context of a legacy of underfunding in Northern Ireland’s wastewater system, which Bogoina explains has now reached “crisis point”.

Concerns around underinvestment in Northern Ireland’s water and wastewater infrastructure have been long-standing. However, progress was made in 2021 when over a decade of investment neglect by central government was acknowledged in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to restore power sharing.

A pledge to “invest urgently” in wastewater infrastructure, which was at or nearing capacity, and therefore limiting economic and housing growth, was underpinned with the approval of NI Water’s regulated business plan for 2021-2027 (PC21). This confirmed the need for a £2.1 billion capital investment programme for the delivery of water and wastewater infrastructure adjusted to recognise the challenging efficiency target set by the regulator.


Bogoina explains that the PC21 investment pledge was not a silver bullet to the challenges posed by a legacy of underinvestment, but the first major milestone in plans to address and rectify underspend, over a series of successive investment periods.

She expresses significant concerns that budgetary pressures within the Department for Infrastructure could see the planned investment reduced.

“The PC21 award was significant because it was an external recognition of the need for investment in our infrastructure, particularly in relation to wastewater, and set us on a pathway to deliver a very important and ambitious programme.

“It is important to note that our PC21 submission was not a wish list, it is heavily regulated, and we started from a point of need, recognising the importance of being realistic in the

Tzvetelina Bogoina, Director of Infrastructure Delivery, NI Water
“If we connect more load to an already overloaded system, we will simply see an increase in the levels of spills and pollution, that will flow into rivers, lakes, seas, or people’s homes.”

investment we could achieve, and the work that we could deliver in the timeframe.

“NI Water fully recognised the challenges of previous underinvestment. PC21 is our plan to mitigate those risks, prioritising the areas of greatest need. Importantly, we pointed to our legacy of quality service delivery, in the most efficient manner, to emphasise that when we are properly equipped, we are at the forefront of world-class delivery.”

Outlining current challenges and their wider consequences, the Director of Infrastructure Delivery outlines: “The modelling that we do on our systems now tell us that many of our wastewater assets are at capacity, meaning that we are spilling into the environment more frequently than we should, and as a result development constraints are in place across Northern Ireland.

“We have come to the end of the line of maximising efficiencies or operating treatment works beyond their capacity, meaning that the connection of further load is not just challenging, but now impossible.

“The ramifications of this are huge when you consider how much of our society and economy is underpinned by our infrastructure. The absence of capacity means that we cannot connect new housing schemes, upgrade schools, improve hospitals, or expand industry.”


Such constraints in our wastewater system not only have economic ramifications but are also environmentally detrimental at a time when public concern about pollution is growing.

15 agenda issuescover story cover story

“The legacy of underinvestment in our wastewater system means that it is challenging to achieve the levels of performance currently set for Northern Ireland which remain below UK standards,” explains Bogoina.

“The PC21 investment was necessary to bring our assets up to standard because the current situation is that networks are undersized, meaning that storm water can overwhelm those networks and result in flooding or excessive levels of wastewater spilling over.

“If we connect more load to an already overloaded system, we will simply see an increase in the levels of spills and pollution, that will flow into rivers, lakes, seas, or people’s homes.”

In December 2023, the Department for Infrastructure, prior to the Executive returning, mooted the possibility that amidst financial pressures, it may have to cut the funding for the capital programme by up to 50 per cent, a figure described by Bogoina as a “nightmare scenario”.

Outlining the significance of this potential cut, Bogoina explains that the initial years of PC21 have been focused on priority schemes, but also around creating delivery frameworks, and building supply chains. Signals to contractors that funding to some of the planned works may now be in danger, will have detrimental consequences for jobs and skills in the local construction sector.

The launch of Phase 1 of the Sicily/Marguerite Park flood alleviation project in south Belfast, the completion

of a major wastewater improvement project in Ards north, and upgrades of water treatment works in south Down and Fermanagh, are some of the examples listed by Bogoina of how NI Water has continued to successfully deliver schemes in the early phases of PC21.

However, the Director of Infrastructure Delivery believes that now is the time for a mindset change if delivery of crucial infrastructure is to continue.

“NI Water has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to provide world-leading water and wastewater services when properly resourced. We stand ready to deliver at pace. I think decision-makers must step away from viewing resources as going towards NI Water programmes, and instead see this funding for what it is: critical investment in assets which are owned by and provide services to the whole of Northern Ireland.

“We remain hopeful, particularly with the return of the Executive and Assembly, that the scaling back will not materialise, because if it does, Northern Ireland will be in a very bad place with regard to its wastewater treatment,” she adds.

Asked whether the current funding model for NI Water needs revised, Bogoina says: “Our ask has always been that we need a sustainable funding model that enables a multiyear programme that we can deliver. Delivery of large infrastructure on a yearly basis, and without financial certainty is very difficult, for NI Water, and for our delivery partners.

“One of the major challenges we face is that our infrastructure is largely unseen, and to some extent, it is taken for granted. We turn the tap, and we get top quality drinking water, or we flush the toilet and do not have to think about how it works. The invisibility of our infrastructure means that it has, in the past, been overlooked when resources are being allocated. However, our message is clear, failure to properly invest in our infrastructure will have long-term economic and environmental impacts.”


Bogoina is quick to point out that NI Water has not been resting on their laurels when it comes to addressing constraints in the system. Recognising both the difficulties posed by the wastewater network, but also its role in enabling economic development, NI Water, working alongside the Environment Agency, have developed several temporary zero-detriment solutions to be deployed on the understanding that pledged investment was forthcoming.

In addition, NI Water has utilised predevelopment enquiry (PDE) forms for developers to submit, to essentially work through potential solutions, before developers enter a lengthy planning process.

While additional costs for wastewater impact assessments have been the source of public frustration for some developers, Bogoina reiterates the reality – a system at capacity cannot accept any additional load, without the risk of greater levels of pollution.

Carbon neutral

Informing the solutions being delivered by NI Water is an acute understanding of the role the organisation has in helping to meet the overarching target of a net zero Northern Ireland by 2050. Describing NI Water’s Climate Change Strategy as “ambitious”, Bogoina explains that the organisation has gone “further and faster”, with its own target of net zero in energy use by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2040.

The ambitious climate change strategy is built upon NI Water’s The Power of Water report, a forward-looking analysis of how NI Water’s assets have the potential to

16 cover story
cover story

become a catalyst for transforming Northern Ireland’s energy system.

Outlining work to date, the Director of Infrastructure Delivery says: “We are pursuing a wide range of initiatives, spanning from how we reduce our overall energy demand and ‘green’ that energy, through to how we can recover energy for our process emissions,” she explains.

“Equally, we are also looking at how we drive efficiencies in our processes by protecting our water sources. We recognise that if we can protect the clean water entering our system, then we can use less chemicals and energy to process that water. That feeds into our work around expanding our sustainable land management.

“Decision-makers must step away from viewing resources as going towards NI Water programmes, and instead see this funding for what it is: critical investment in assets which are owned by and provide services to the whole of Northern Ireland.”

“As one of Northern Ireland’s largest landowners, we have made great strides in demonstrating our desire to be a key player in the region’s net zero journey. A key example is the completion of a £7 million solar farm at our Dunore Water Treatment Works (WTW) in south Antrim, which will save over £500,000 annually in energy costs for NI Water. As well as meeting the energy needs of the treatment works, the project will also enable the company to contribute spare capacity to the grid.”

Another example provided by Bogoina is a recent upgrade to Ballykelly Wastewater Treatment Works which has seen NI Water’s first battery energy storage system switched on.

In total, NI Water has identified over £400 million worth of investable projects on its net zero journey and divided these into three specific categories:

1. projects which address their own energy use;

2. projects which offer a shared benefit, such as the production of hydrogen to be used by transport providers; and

3. projects in which NI Water act as support, for example, providing land to enable others on their green journey.

Bogoina explains: “We see our role as greater than that as a provider of water and wastewater services. We are all dependant on a healthy environment, and we have a responsibility to bring together stakeholders who can best protect it.”

The Director of Infrastructure Delivery believes that the purpose-driven nature of the organisation has been a critical part of the ability to attract talent. NI Water attracts high level apprentices and graduates through its programmes, developing skills for the future.

“We are seeing a trend of people coming into the business because they are excited about the opportunities that exist to deliver decarbonised solutions. They are excited by the scale of our infrastructure project delivery pipeline, but equally excited about their ability to make a meaningful contribution to protecting the environment.”

Concluding on what the future looks like for NI Water and critical infrastructure delivery in Northern Ireland in the coming years, Bogoina says: “My hope is that in a few years’ time we will be setting out our next business plan, safe in the knowledge that we have worked to address a legacy of underfunding through PC21 and set the foundations for an economically expanding, prosperous and net zero Northern Ireland.

“The reality is that PC21 has been agreed as the necessary expenditure needed to address capacity constraints across our system, and if that funding is not delivered, we face constraints not just on the system, but on the whole economy.

“NI Water has a proven track record of delivery, we have the people, the partnerships, and solutions to deliver what is needed for Northern Ireland. We now need the sustainable funding to enable us to get on with doing the job.”

Tzvetelina Bogoina

Prior to joining NI Water, Tzvetelina Bogoina was Capital Programme Director in the Strategic Investment Board. She has previously worked as Development Director at Balfour Beatty Investments and has over 15 years’ experience across key commercial, governance, and financial aspects of developing major public infrastructure, regeneration, and property investment projects in UK and Europe.

Outside of work, Tzvetelina is a keen volunteer, with a particular interest in in the creative culture and heritage sectors and serves as chair of the Cathedral Quarter’s Business Improvement District, Destination CQ.

17 cover story cover story

Meeting Northern Ireland’s spending needs


a new Executive takes the reins of Northern Ireland’s finances, the Minister for the Economy and the Minister of Finance have set out their visions for the local economy.

Analysis from the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council states that Northern Ireland needs £124 per head for every £100 per head spent in England.

Although Northern Ireland has higher public spending needs than the UK average, the most recent figures available show that while public spending in Northern Ireland is indeed above the UK average, that level is considerably lower than the need outlined by the Fiscal Council.

According to the House of Commons Library, in 2022/23, public spending per person in the UK as a whole was £12,549. Northern Ireland currently has the second highest level of public spending per head out of the four constituent parts of the UK, at £14,453 (15 per cent above the UK average). This is slightly below Scotland, which

has a public spend per head of £14,456, 15 per cent above the UK average. In England, public spending per head is £12,227 (3 per cent below the UK average), and in Wales, public spending per head is £13,967 (11 per cent above the UK average).

Spending allocations

When Caoimhe Archibald MLA assumed the role of Minister of Finance, she outlined her allocation of the £1.045 billion in new monies made available under the Executive Restoration package and announced that £688 million of this finance is to be allocated to pay rises for public sector workers, who are the lowest paid out of all regions in the UK and Ireland. £22 million of this resource funding was also available from the Executive’s own funds.

Separate to the Executive Restoration Agreement funding, £83.5 million of available capital DEL funding was also agreed for allocation. £40.9 million of this will be allocated to departments for capital projects, £42.6 million has been allocated to the Department of Education, and £30,000 to the Public Prosecution Service to meet capital overspends.

On the capital allocations, Archibald said: “The Executive has agreed £40.9 million of new capital funding allocations today to provide much needed investment in housing, education, and infrastructure projects. This funding will also see investment in research and innovation in higher education.”

Concluding, Minister Archibald said: “While the allocations today will provide much relief to our public sector workers and help offset the pressures facing departments, we must be clear that significant challenges exist across all areas of our public services. Having to complete this process at this time in the financial year has compounded the pressure.

“I will continue to press Treasury to provide sufficient funding based on our level of needs which enables us to invest in and reform our public services.”

agenda issues
issues agenda

Towards a 10X economy?

Setting out his vision for the economy, new Minister for the Economy Conor Murphy MLA made no specific reference to the 10X strategy, the economic strategy which Executive departments have been implementing since its publication in May 2021.

Speaking in the Assembly, Murphy set out four key priorities as part of a “new economic mission”. He said: “One objective is to create good jobs. Many workers and their families are denied a decent standard of living. We must change this by investing in affordable childcare and by strengthening trade unions, particularly in low-paid industries.

“A third objective is to promote regional balance. Everyone, no matter where they live, should have the same opportunity to earn a living. To achieve this, I will fund local economic strategies and prioritise projects that promote regional balance, such as the expansion of the Magee campus.”

Another objective is to raise productivity, and the Minister explained: “Productivity is a fundamental driver of overall living standards. We can improve our productivity by using dual market access to grow domestic exports and attract highly productive investment. Investment in skills, research and development, and innovation will also drive better productivity.

“My final, critical objective is to reduce carbon emissions. Reaching net zero by 2050 is a legal requirement and a moral obligation to the wellbeing of future generations. Done right, the transition can also generate prosperity for all.”

The 10X economy strategy is guided by the 10X objectives, grouped into three pillars of activity: innovation, inclusive growth, and sustainability. Published in May 2021, the strategy document states that the “concept of 10X… embraces innovation to deliver a ten times better economy”.

Concluding his statement to the Assembly, Murphy asserted that there is a need to “move quickly” to realise this new economic vision and said: “My department will move at pace to put this vision into action. Its focus will be on delivery. We have a lot of work to do to turn this economy around and that work starts now.”

Historic per head speading on agriculture

Spending allocations

The overall allocations to each department and public body resource DEL allocations for general pressures and pay costs include:

• Department of Health – £550.6 million

• Department of Education – £296.8 million

• Department of Justice – £75.3 million

• Department for Infrastructure – £87.8 million

• Department for Communities – £19.4 million

• Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – £14.7 million

• Department for the Economy – £12.1 million

• Department of Finance – £6.7 million

• The Executive Office – £3.4 million

• Public Prosecution Service – £2.0 million

Capital allocations

The capital allocations are as follows:

• Department for Infrastructure – £16.0 million

• Department for Communities – £13.2 million

• Department for the Economy – £9 million

• Department of Education – £2.6 million

issues agenda 19 agenda issues

An inclusive vision for tourism in Northern Ireland

Our vision is for tourism as an ecosystem to bring opportunity for all, with lasting economic and social benefits that are felt by communities across the whole of Northern Ireland, writes Carolyn Boyd,

Industry Development Manager of Tourism Northern Ireland.

We are aiming for a fairer distribution of opportunities, specifically ensuring that our young people have access to better opportunities across Northern Ireland.

Tourism is a people-oriented industry and so it therefore has a major role to play in delivering inclusive, balanced subregional growth. In 2019, employment in the tourism and hospitality sectors was geographically dispersed with 70 per cent of those jobs existing outside of Belfast, showing that the tourism sector in Northern Ireland offers inclusive opportunities throughout all regions and to all ages.

Tourism has the ability to address economic inactivity in both our urban and rural communities and is one of the few industry sectors which has the potential to create substantial employment across every part of Northern Ireland and within every section of our society.

By placing an emphasis on our people, their skills, and professionalism, we aim to enhance the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a world class visitor destination.

Inclusive initiatives: Embrace the Inclusive Spirit

Understanding that 23 per cent of people in Northern Ireland have a disability, 40 per cent of households in Northern Ireland include a disabled resident and £249 billion is spent by disabled customers in the UK each year, businesses should be prioritising this section of the community and doing as much as they can to improve accessibility for all.

Inclusive initiatives and partnerships which we have supported at Tourism NI include Belfast’s first inclusive tourism

event. On 20 February 2024 Belfast City Council, supported by Tourism NI, hosted Belfast’s first inclusive tourism seminar called ‘Embrace the Inclusive Spirit: How welcoming disabled visitors makes business sense’. The aim of this event was to bring together a range of stakeholders, agencies, and tourism businesses to explore how we improve our tourism offering, making it accessible for all.

The day-long seminar was a partnership initiative developed by Belfast City Council and supported by Tourism Northern Ireland, Visit Belfast, Titanic Belfast and Open Arts. It was free to attend and concentrated on how welcoming disabled visitors makes business sense.

Hosted by disability rights activist Seán Fitzsimmons, the seminar included guest speakers including: Irish writer, educator, disability activist and director of Tilting the Lens Sinéad Burke; Mary Jo McCanny from Visit Belfast; and Amy Waumsley from AccessAble. This free resource supports tourism providers and services to put inclusivity at the heart of their business covering topics such as; welcoming and communicating with tourists with disabilities, accessible communications and guidance as well as audio and web accessibility.

Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Ryan Murphy, with speakers at the ‘Embrace the Inclusive Spirit’ launch at Titanic Belfast ; Sean Fitzsimons; Sinéad Burke; Ross Calladine; and Amy Waumsley.

Tourism NI also provides guidance online for businesses on how to make their websites more accessible and inclusive as well as providing guidance for tour guides on how to promote inclusivity through their guiding. More accessible tours delivered by skilled, professional tourist guides benefits every visitor, not only those with additional needs. For example, Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast now offers British Sign Language, which allows their material to be interpreted via sign videos, making the tour more accessible and enhancing the inclusiveness of their self-guided tours. Inclusive success will mean more sectors of the economy across the whole of Northern Ireland will benefit from tourism. Tourism investment, conferences, and events will also have tangible benefits to local communities and the sector will be actively engaged with local communities as valued stakeholders in tourism development and delivery. Our aim will be that tourism will be an inclusive employer offering a diverse range of desirable career paths to people throughout Northern Ireland.

Contributing to a more inclusive economy

One challenge for the sector is understanding the perception of tourism as a career choice. Without a confident, well trained, and professional workforce there is no visitor experience. Therefore, there is an urgent need to address the skills gaps within the tourism sector, to develop tourism career opportunities and life-long career pathways, and to create a sector that people of all ages aspire to work in.

Ways to improve inclusivity in the tourism sector include:

• employers being able to offer staff competitive salaries;

• staff seeing career pathways in the tourism industry;

• staff having the opportunities to secure further training and qualifications; and

• comfortable and equitable working conditions which facilitate an accessible, competitive and attractive industry in which to work.

Taking these actions should result in an annual increase in the number of employees within the tourism sector from underrepresented groups. This includes those who are economically inactive, those who have disabilities, and those who come from deprived areas all

contributing to an equitable distribution of opportunities to all our people.

Case study: Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast opened in 2012 with the aim of establishing Belfast as the home of RMS Titanic, celebrating the city’s maritime and industrial heritage, and showing the spirit that built Titanic from strength to strength on a local, national, and international level.

Titanic Belfast is recognised as industry leaders on a local, national, and international level for accessibility standards. As recognised ambassadors, Titanic Belfast is continually working to further develop a five-star customer service by ensuring that all visitors’ access requirements are not only met but exceeded.

Having recently refreshed around a third of the Titanic Experience following a £4.5 million investment, designed to deliver a world-class spectacle, it was incredibly important to ensure accessibility was taken into consideration at every turn. Titanic Belfast worked with various organisations and charities covering off a number of different accessible needs, who provided input and insights to its plans and tested the new spaces ahead of opening to ensure everything was catered for those with additional needs as much as possible.

Titanic Belfast also has a long-standing partnership with Orchardville, a charity who support people with a learning disability or autism to live, learn and work. Each year, they host a ‘takeover day’ where participants from the charity are paired with one of the Titanic Belfast team in a buddy system to learn the ropes of working in a busy visitor attraction, giving them valuable work experience and training in new skills.

They have detailed accessibility information about the attraction available on their website so that visitors can familiarise themselves with this before they arrive. The attraction itself is accessible across all spaces, with level access, lowered ticketing desks, hearing loops and wheelchairs and mobility scooters which can be reserved on request by contacting us in advance.

To help individuals with ASD to enjoy their visit, Titanic Belfast has a sensory guide which can be downloaded from its website in advance to help prepare for a visit, alongside a number of different aids including ‘VIP’ Wristbands which can be shown to a member of staff if assistance is required particularly in areas where you may encounter increased sensory input, queues or crowds. They also have ear defenders and/or black out tents which can be loaned to those who you benefit from it.

All staff are JAM card trained so guests can show they need a minute, as well also partake in disability and diversity awareness training to ensure everyone is given the same five-star service and welcome when they come through their doors. They also operate a free essential carer policy for those who require assistance to visit the attraction and annually host a ‘Community Day’ where they open the attraction for free to a number of community groups, often those with accessibility needs.


X: @NITouristBoard

L: Tourism Northern Ireland

Titanic Belfast Reimagined, New Galleries, Titanic Quarter, Belfast.

EU pursues long-term ESG measures

Marcel Haag of the European Commission’s Directorate-General in charge of financial services says that ESG regulation targeting sustainability in the financial sector is key to supporting green policies at an EU level.

European Union decision-makers are determined to ensure that green and sustainability policies agreed as part of the Green Deal are brought forward and on course toward implementation prior to the European elections in June 2024.

ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance. These are the pillars in ESG frameworks and represent the three main topics that companies are expected to report on. The goal of ESG is to capture the main sustainability-related non-financial risks and opportunities inherent to a company’s day to day activities.

Haag states that the objectives of the EU framework are to align the private sector with the EU’s broad vision for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and that the different requirements and tools are designed to help companies finance their transition, rather than forcing them to adopt specific practices.

Broad ESG measures

Under the 2022 Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), reporting begins in 2025. Haag elaborates that, under the CSRD, sustainability reporting standards “will ensure that companies are transparent about their impact on people and the environment as well as the risks they face from climate change and other sustainability issues”.

Another measure is the EU Green Bond Standard, which Haag explains “aims to support financial market participants in their efforts to align their investment with the climate and the environmental goals”.

On the latest additions to the EU Taxonomy from 2023, he says: “Eligibility reporting by non-financials has started and alignment reporting on turnover, capital expenditure, and operational expenditures, and KPIs will come as of 2025.”

agenda issues issues

issues agenda

In the area of greenwashing, Haag states that the Commission has asked European supervisory authorities for input on “several aspects relating to greenwashing”.

“We expect the supervisory authorities to provide final reports in the middle of 2024,” he says.

In parallel, regarding biodiversity, the Commission, working also with the OECD, has contracted work toward a methodological supervisory framework for financial risks stemming from biodiversity-related financial losses, to be published “soon”.

Sustainable finance

In the summer of 2023, the Commission issued a comprehensive recommendation detailing how financing for the transition can be undertaken by companies at various stages of sustainability development.

Haag says: “The recommendation provides practical examples and explanations on how companies’ banks, investors, and financial intermediaries can use the taxonomy and other sustainable finance instruments on a voluntary basis.”

The recommendation builds on the four pillars to the Commission’s sustainable finance strategy adopted in July 2021. The first pillar is transition, which means that the EU aims to be “more supportive of intermediate efforts towards sustainability”. Haag elucidates: “We have articulated various options of how the markets can use the existing green taxonomy for transition purposes, which would allow markets to innovate and develop their own instruments and tools such as transition bonds.”

The second pillar is resilience, which involves increasing the ability of banks and insurance companies to manage sustainability-related risks and financial losses resulting from them. “This is key for financial stability and to support the real economy,” he states.

The third pillar is inclusiveness, which is centred on the “need to make sure no one is left behind” in the green transition and that “everyone can fully benefit from sustainable finance opportunities”.

The fourth is about ensuring a global perspective. “For the EU, it is essential to promote interoperability of approaches, provide the private sector with usable tools and metrics such as taxonomies in the EU, but we also want to support developments outside the EU,” he asserts.

Haag points positively to the “encouraging” early signs of the EU’s sustainable finance initiatives. “Many market actors are using the EU framework. Major data providers started reporting green ratios in 2023 based on company disclosures. For example, regarding alignment with the Taxonomy, the average levels are low to begin with, but those who have reported non zero values from among large listed companies reported on average 17 per cent of green revenue, 23 per cent green capital expenditure, and 241 per cent green operational expenditure, mostly in energy, utilities, transport, and manufacturing.”

He adds that the EU’s Sustainable Finance Disclosures Regulation “ensures that financial market participants and advisers disclose all relevant information related to sustainability of their products”, and that “investors can then decide which products to buy”.

In addition to these measures, the European Banking Authority has published a report in December 2023 on green loans and mortgages. Haag states that this is currently being examined by the Commission.

Haag’s broad point is that “regulation for sustainability” is the key to creating green policies at the EU level which are long lasting. This mirrors comments made to agendaNi by Antoine Oger of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, who said that there is a need for green energy policies to be able to survive an anticipated swing to the right in the upcoming European elections.

The results of the European elections remain to be seen, but with opinion polling showing that these electoral prospects may materialise, implementation of long-term green policies will be a top priority for European Commission decision-makers between now and the elections in June 2024.

23 agenda issues

Educating for a secure and growing economy

Fortinet hosted a round table discussion with key stakeholders in the cybersecurity and education sectors to discuss the importance cybersecurity plays today in protecting the economy of the future.

How has the acceleration of digitalisation changed the threat landscape for organisations across the economy in recent years?

Chris Parker

Digital transformation has accelerated at a rapid pace, meaning that so too has the cyber threat to organisations. One of the major changes Fortinet has observed in the past five to seven years is the need

for a shift from security of networks to security driven networking. Traditional security tools can no longer provide the consistent security that networks require. Cars provide a good analogy for the current landscape. On our roads there are vehicles which are modern, efficient, and of the highest safety specifications, but there are also legacy cars, which are older, less efficient, have problems, but enable the user to complete their journey. Ultimately, Fortinet wants everyone to have the best ‘vehicle’ because the threat level demands it, but we know that

there are time and resource barriers. The challenge, therefore, lies in transitioning the whole of society to be best protected and prepared against threats.

Lousie Warde Hunter

The pandemic required many organisations to pivot their services to incorporate a digital offering which inevitably increased the surface area which bad actors could attack. The impact on Belfast Metropolitan College was twofold. Firstly, from an organisational perspective, we had to ensure that our systems were secure. Secondly, as an education and skills provider, we recognised our role in enhancing our provision of a pipeline of skills and qualifications that would be required by industry.

Our schools often reflect our wider Round table discussion hosted by ®

Damian Harvey

24 round table discussion

society and we have moved to a world where we are now immersed in technology. In the 1990s someone had the foresight to ensure technological equity across every school in Northern Ireland and that has been really advantageous. C2k is responsible for providing these schools with internet and other services, enabling us to provide a single solution and a platform for technology to educate our young people. The provision of a single solution has also allowed us to de-risk the cybersecurity arena within our schools because the solution eliminates the need for a single technician to manage cyber threats.

Sandra Scott-Hayward

Accelerated digitalisation has lowered the bar for malicious actors to access cheap tools to launch an attack. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable as they are drawn into digitalisation of their services e.g., online payment methods and client information databases that can be targeted, and for which they may not have the security protections. The increasing threat landscape means that organisations now need to prepare for an attack on a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’ basis. Cybersecurity training needs to include planning and preparation for recovery from an attack or incident.

Joe Dolan

In a single generation, we have become a society from using modems to one which embraces ubiquitous global WiFi and connectivity. This poses challenges because while there are some organisations which have the agility to invest in cybersecurity solutions, there are others, including critical national infrastructure, which have 30- to 50-year investments in assets which also need protected. Similarly, we have evolved from tightly controlled on-premises connectivity to cloud service adoption, making it very difficult for organisations to define their security boundaries, particularly when considering supply chain threats. If we want to successfully defend against threats to a modern society, there is a need for us to fully understand the technologies we are using, how we are using them, and to bring society along with us on that journey.

What is the role of early education in enhancing cyber protection?

Educators have a role in developing the pipeline of knowledge and skills required

Round table participants



Joe Dolan

Joe Dolan is the Head of Compliance and Enforcement for the Network and Information Systems Competent Authority within the Department of Finance. He oversees the regulation of CNI organisations in health, transport, water, and energy sectors in Northern Ireland. He has worked as an IT profession in the public sector for over 30 years, including as Head of the Northern Ireland Cyber Security Centre. He is a fellow of the British Computer Society and a certified security professional with CISSP, CISM, and ISO 27001 credentials.

Damian Harvey

Damian Harvey is the Interim Head of C2k for the Education Authority. He started work as a teacher in 1996 and joined C2k in 2004. He is currently involved in supporting the rollout of the Education Information Solutions (EdIS) programme and continues to lead a Portable Teacher Device Strategy which has delivered over twenty thousand MS Surface Pro 7 Plus devices and professional development to all nursery, primary, special, and post primary teachers in Northern Ireland.

Sandra Scott-Hayward

Sandra Scott-Hayward is an Associate Professor with the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a member of the Centre for Secure Information Technologies at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB). She began her career in industry and became a chartered engineer in 2006. She is Director of the QUB Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Education (ACE-CSE), co-lead of the QUB Leverhulme Interdisciplinary Network on Algorithmic Solutions (LINAS) doctoral training programme and was a polymath fellow of the Global Fellowship Initiative at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) from 2021 to 2023.

Louise Warde Hunter

Louise Warde Hunter is Principal and CEO of Belfast Met, the largest of the Northern Ireland Further Education colleges. Prior to her appointment in April 2020 she worked as a senior civil servant across a range of government departments including education, agriculture and rural affairs, environment, justice, and communities.

Chris Parker

Chris Parker is Fortinet UK’s Director of Government Strategy, having joined the organisation in 2020. He is co-chair of the MOD IDA Industry Working Group and Chairs the Governance Group for UK Government Energy Resilience COPP. He has an MBE, is a Fellow of the Tällberg Foundation and holds a technology masters' degree and two post-graduate diplomas in strategic management. Chris is a visiting lecturer on FCDO’s Chevening Fellowship at Cranfield University.

25 round table discussion
“The earlier we can cultivate awareness of good cybersecurity practices among young people, the more we can build an implicit security understanding for life-long development.”
Sandra Scott-Hayward

by the growing cybersecurity sector. However, there is also a role in enhancing the knowledge and awareness of the population as a whole, such is the reach of technology in every aspect of our lives. The earlier we can cultivate awareness of good cybersecurity practices among young people, the more we can build an implicit security understanding for lifelong development.

Louise Warde Hunter

Children are innately curious and creative and that should be harnessed. If we can cultivate safeguarding practices for children and young people navigating their tech-enabled world, then they will have a very strong basis for ethical practices as they enter the world of work.

Educators have a role in cultivating ‘digital citizens’ because while not everyone will enter the cyber industry, many will go into a working environment where the protection of data is critical.

Joe Dolan

Our education system has a healthy

focus on cyber safety training but not on cybersecurity and it’s an opportunity missed in development of this life skill. We also have a massive opportunity to leverage cyber education at an early age to enhance our economic competitiveness. Cybersecurity is a discipline that touches everything we do, irrespective of the sector, and if we can be better at informing pupils and parents around the career opportunities, then we can get more people into this space across all sectors.

Damian Harvey

In recognition that children have technology in their hands from an increasingly early age, the new EdIS programme is bringing nursery schools into the conversation. The expectation of technology access from our young people is changing and we want to cultivate the curious and creative side of our young people in a safe environment.

Chris Parker

I believe awareness of the importance of

early education is growing within the education sector, but also within industry. Fortinet staff are required to engage in monthly training to stay ahead of the technology, so how can we expect educators, many of whom are digital migrants, to keep pace with best practice? Acknowledging this, Fortinet recently launched an education-focused version of its Security Awareness and Training service and has made it available for free to all primary and secondary schools across the UK. Industry has a role in partnering and helping society through the education sector and there is a huge opportunity to capitalise on such partnerships locally.

How can educators be best equipped to share cybersecurity best practice?

Chris Parker

There is a moral imperative on cybersecurity organisations who are benefiting from the pace of digital transformation to be reciprocal. The pace of change is so rapid that the skill level and resources of those whose core business is to educate cannot keep up alone. In the spirit of true collaboration, industry must lean in and help.

Joe Dolan

Expecting educators to layer cybersecurity expertise on top of the services they currently provide and to

round table discussion 26 2626

stay ahead of the curve, is a big ask. The only way this is viable is in true partnership with industry. Curriculum change can be a slow process, which is not conducive to the pace of digital change. As such, we must establish the fundamentals of what schools should deliver, and then utilise the expertise of industry to layer on those additional skills. If we can do this in an engaging and enriching way, we sustain the interest of young people into the future, irrespective of what new technology comes along and for everyone’s benefit.

Damian Harvey

Teachers cannot be expected to be cybersecurity experts. However, what we have found is that the workforce can play a leading role in designing and delivering best practice. Through our delivery of teachers’ professional learning, we have aligned leading practitioners with industry, enabling the co-creation of materials. This ensures both that the needs of industry are met and teachers have material that best suit their needs, in their setting. That collaboration between education and industry is extremely important and very powerful.

Louise Warde Hunter

Belfast Met is the digital IT curriculum hub for the further education sector, where we strive to ensure that best practice is common practice. We do that through collaboration with our five sister colleges and with industry partners. FE leaders know that the best way to support educators in a rapidly evolving space is through continuing professional development for those at the forefront of delivery in partnership with business. At Belfast Met we walk the talk.

Sandra Scott-Hayward

One of the greatest tools for educators to meaningfully share best practice is engaging material. Rapid digital transformation is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to use that technology to teach best practice. As part of QUB’s Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Education, we explored the potential to increase the efficacy of cyber security training for third-level students by using immersive experiences supported by virtual reality design. Immersive learning can be more impactful and, though designed for university students, our solution has received interest from schools and industry.

“The pace of change is so rapid that the skill level and resources of those whose core business is to educate cannot keep up alone. In the spirit of true collaboration, industry must lean in and help.”
Chris Parker
4 round table discussion 27 2727
“We have a strong message to sell the world in the form of our single education technology solution.”
Damian Harvey
“There is a need to enhance the understanding of what is needed and what is being offered, so that businesses can make informed investment decisions to meet their needs and better their security.” Joe Dolan

What key qualities must cybersecurity solutions possess to ensure usability across the economy?

Chris Parker

They must match the complexity of the threat, in a landscape that is constantly evolving. However, in doing so they must also be usable. A solution that is so complicated that it restricts the usability will not stand up. Many of the most prominent cybersecurity challenges faced today will not be mirrored in five years’ time because of the role played by automation. Therefore, solution design should be undertaken with an eye to the future. Northern Ireland, with its agility, demographics, and single technology solution approach across schools is well placed to lead on future solutions.

Sandra Scott-Hayward

Solutions must be accessible, which can be best achieved with interdisciplinary design and development. At Queen’s, we have several programmes to address interdisciplinarity in cybersecurity education and research. For example, students of the MSc Applied Cyber Security take a Data, Privacy, and the Law module while LLM Law and Technology students can take Foundations of Cyber Security. Applying different perspectives to cybersecurity solutions provides much richer outcomes.

round table discussion 28 2828

Joe Dolan

Almost 90 per cent of businesses in Northern Ireland’s economy are micro businesses, meaning they have 10 employees or less. The reality is that many of the cybersecurity solutions and training on offer are beyond their financial reach. There is an opportunity for affordable cybersecurity solutions for businesses for industry to package these in a way that makes them accessible. There is a need to enhance the understanding of what is needed and what is being offered, so that businesses can make informed investment decisions to meet their needs and better their security.

Louise Warde Hunter

There is a non-technical aspect to cybersecurity solutions that must be appreciated. The qualifications being delivered must match the needs of industry and have practical application. The best way to ensure this is development in partnership with industry.

Damian Harvey

The best cybersecurity solutions must understand and be tailored to the context in which they are being deployed. All sectors of the economy want a do it ‘with us’ rather than a ‘to us’ approach to solution delivery. The pace of change means that a lot of smaller organisations are now opting for a more managed services solution, but it is worth questioning how agile those services are to the specific needs of the sector you are operating in.

Outline the greatest opportunity increased cyber education for learners can offer the wider economy?

Joe Dolan

Northern Ireland has a strong digital offering with many pathways to succeed. If we continue to get this right we can continue to be seen as a world class provider of digital, IT, and cyber. With the opportunities digital unlocks, we can offer people the opportunity to service the world from this island, which is a fantastic economic opportunity.

Sandra Scott-Hayward

There are high costs from cyber-attacks on businesses and individuals. A less recognised individual cost is wellbeing and mental health implications. A good

“If we can cultivate safeguarding practices for children and young people navigating their tech-enabled world, then they will have a very strong basis for ethical practices as they enter the world of work.”
Louise Warde Hunter

economy stems from a healthy and educated society.

Damian Harvey

We have a strong message to sell the world in the form of our single education technology solution. Northern Ireland is a global exemplar, but we do not shout loud enough about it. Our unique economic context gives us access to European and global markets. Now is the time to take our world class education technology solution and build a world class economy on top of that.

Chris Parker

The greatest opportunity lies in creating a

digitally agile workforce. The future of work may look very different in just a few years from now, especially as automation grows, but if we can build that digital agility in from an early age, the economic opportunities are huge.

Louise Warde Hunter

Digital agility is huge. There is a massive opportunity to promote IT careers that sit outside the IT sector. There is also an opportunity to ensure that cybersecurity becomes a lateral theme across all aspects of education, preparing people for employment in all sectors via a collaborative cross-sectoral approach.

round table discussion 29 2929

Regional planning and smart metering lead energy actions for 2024

A new Regional Strategic Planning Policy on renewable and low carbon energy will be published in 2024, Northern Ireland’s latest energy action plan has stated.

Released at the end of March 2024, the third successive annual energy action plan was published under the guidance of a minister in place for the Department for the Economy (DfE) for the first time in almost two years.

Alongside plans to deliver a new renewables-focused regional strategic planning policy, actions to be delivered in 2024 include:

• the delivery of an industry-led green skills delivery plan;

• the development of a net zero accelerator fund; and

• the launch of a public consultation on a new fuel poverty strategy.

Launched in 2021, the Executive’s overarching Energy Strategy The Path to Net Zero Energy requires the publication of annual action plans and subsequent progress reports.

Despite the presence of a new Minister in place in the Department, the action plan does not contain any

major policy shifts or directions beyond the pathway that had already been outlined within the original strategy.

It is expected that a functioning Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will now work to reduce previously identified barriers to the overall ambition to reach net zero by bringing forward legislation to improve areas such as planning system reform, as well as providing the political cover for decisions such as the delivery of a renewable support scheme and longterm financing.

Replacing fossil fuels

Significantly, the action plan commits the Department for the Economy to, in 2024, develop a final policy position for Executive consideration and approval on a proposed moratorium and legislative ban on onshore exploration and extraction of oil and gas.

A further action relating to biomethane is more vague, failing to set an identifiable timeline. Following the completion of a call for evidence on feedstock

agenda issues
issues agenda

management, production economics, and treatment costs, the Department says that it will analyse the evidence base and liaise with other departments to shape future policy for biomethane production and usage.

In relation to heat, two further actions concern the publication and analysis of the first geothermal demonstrator feasibility studies, helping to inform the next steps and potential future delivery locations. Additionally, the Department intends to publish a call for evidence for hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) and biofuels.

Improving energy efficiency

In the context of rising energy costs and the broader cost of living crisis, one of the most welcome features of the action plan is the notice by the Department for Communities to launch a public consultation on a new draft Fuel Poverty Strategy to support a Just Transition by December 2024.

In June 2023, the Department for Communities announced that despite budgetary pressures, the Affordable Warmth Scheme, targeted at people on lower incomes and living in private accommodation, would be extended by two years until 2026, with changes to how the scheme is administered. The energy action plan highlights an ambition to develop a replacement scheme for when the current term ends. Pointing to an the delivery of a preconsultation engagement on a new fuel poverty intervention by September 2024, public consultation on the scheme is expected to be launched by March 2025.

Work by the Department for Communities will likely happen in parallel with the Department for the Economy’s outlined ambition to publish a consultation on the future of domestic energy efficiency support and delivery. Alongside this, DfE has said that it will assess options to scale up the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP) in 2024, by augmenting its existing budget.

For businesses, DfE outlines that through Invest NI, it will launch an energy and resource efficiency support programme for small and medium businesses.

Supporting the electricity grid

In 2024, the Department intends to appoint a contractor to develop and finalise a plan for the design and roll-out of smart metres, following a consultation on smart metering design. Similarly, the Department says it will publish the Smart Systems Flexibility Plan consultation response, which will inform the finalisation of the plan.

In addition to ambitions to publish a call for evidence response and continue delivery of the plan to update Grid Connection Charging Policy, alongside the Utility Regulator, DfE says that in 2024 it will also work alongside the Department for Infrastructure to plan a support scheme to futureproof electrical capacity at key strategic sites along identified key transport corridors.

Finally, in relation to the grid, the Department says that it intends to commission research into the costs and benefits for the consumer for increased interconnection, energy storage options, and the planned increase in renewable electricity generation.

Growing renewable electricity

Ambiguously, the action plan sets out an intention to “identify solutions to rapidly increase the quantity of onshore renewables on the electricity grid”. The first energy action plan published in January 2022 pledged to consult on a renewable electricity support scheme in 2022 for delivery in 2023. The subsequent 2023 action plan pledged to publish the final design of renewable electricity support, along with a pathway and timeline for the support being in place. In February 2023, the Department published a consultation on design considerations for a renewable electricity support scheme for Northern Ireland and the latest action plan says that in 2024, DfE will complete modelling work and financial assessment for a future renewable electricity support scheme.

Plans to publish a new Regional Strategic Planning Policy, dovetail with intended work to identify areas for potential development of offshore renewable energy for Northern Ireland. The Department says that as part of its Offshore Renewable Energy Action Plan (OREAP) 2024 it will complete a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA/HRA) for offshore renewable energy in the marine area.

Growing the green economy

The final two actions of the 2024 action plan represent progress, likely accelerated by the return of the Executive. Following the publication of an energy skills audit in June 2023, the Department says it intends to facilitate an industry-led green skills delivery plan, initially focused on the built environment and utilities.

Additionally, the Department intends to establish a government support fund to facilitate the development of innovative net zero technologies, intellectual property, and solutions through a netzero accelerator fund in conjunction with the Strategic Investment Board (SIB).

31 agenda issues
issues agenda

Digital approach: A smart approach

Business Development Director at BT, Janet Burns and Digital Transformation Manager at Belfast Harbour, Laura O’Neill talk to David Whelan about the latest technological advancements and innovations that are driving the digital transformation of Belfast Harbour and BT’s Smart Port.

With origins dating back to 2017, the partnership between BT and Belfast Harbour has gone from strength to strength and includes their successful UK-first trial of 5G technology in 2019.

At the time, the driving force behind the partnership was the promotion of innovative collaboration to drive digital transformation. This involved the creation of a sophisticated digital ecosystem comprised of 5G as well as other emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, and connected vehicles.

(L-R): Laura O’Neill, Digital Transformation Manager at Belfast Harbour, and Business Development Director at BT, Janet Burns.

As BT’s Janet Burns articulates, the partnership recognised the potential for businesses to work together and not only drive positive change for the region as a whole, but also drive industry forward in their ambitions.

The creation and eventual signing of the Belfast Region City Deal in December 2021 served as a further catalyst for even greater collaboration and further success.

A global company with a local focus, BT Group, which includes EE, BT Business, and Openreach, has a long-standing legacy of providing connectivity solutions for both public and private sector organisations in Northern Ireland. Digital evolution has mandated the organisation to successfully transition from a telco to a techco. This is underpinned by their record investment in next generation networks such as full fibre broadband via Openreach, where Northern Ireland is now the most digitally connected region in the UK as well as the business’s investment in developing 5G solutions via its mobile network EE.

Laura O’Neill of Belfast Harbour explains that while maybe not immediately recognisable, a synergy exists between BT’s solutions-led connectivity programme and the ambitions of Belfast Harbour to create a world leading regional port.

Home to a diverse range of over 760 businesses across a 2,000-acre land estate, the strategic plan entitled A Vision to 2035: A Port for Everyone encompasses three core themes of developing a world leading regional port; a key economic hub; an iconic waterfront for the city enabled by a focus on being a green and a smart port.

O’Neill explains that with connectivity serving as a key enabler of a smart port, BT stood as the perfect partner for future innovation.

“Belfast Harbour being a regional port could utilise our size and proximity to the city to be a leader and exemplar of innovative programmes and technology,” explains O’Neill.

“BT not only offered us the connectivity we were looking for but saw the potential for the port to serve as a testbed for technologies which, if successful, could then be scaled up and rolled out across the region.”

“Together, we have implemented or piloted some of the solutions and technologies that will shape the future of port industry.”

5G network

In 2020, BT and Belfast Harbour announced plans to build a state-of-theart 5G ecosystem within the port, enabling a series of 5G-led innovations to help accelerate Belfast Harbour’s digital transformation. A UK and Irelandfirst, 5G private network was designed specifically to achieve the highest levels of ultrafast mobile connectivity across the port’s main operational areas.

Burns says: “At BT, we are proud to partner with Belfast Harbour on a range of exciting and innovative projects that

showcase how the port can harness the power of technology to enhance its operations, security, and sustainability.

“Together, we have implemented or piloted some of the solutions and technologies that will shape the future of the port industry.”

The provision of a 5G private network across the operational port enables the transfer of high-volumes of data remote control of devices and machinery, and real-time analytics, O’Neill says, has been critical to further enhancing productivity and performance. 4

Burns, Business Development Director at

The solutions and technologies enabled by the network help the port to handle increasing demands, improve safety and security, and prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the future, and, as Burns explains, also “demonstrate how BT and Belfast Harbour are leading the way in transforming the port industry and creating a smart and sustainable port for the 21st century”.

Following creation of the 5G private network, the collaboration also extended to the creation of a 5G private network for tenants of Belfast Harbour. With Belfast Harbour serving as an anchor project for grant funding from the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, as part of the Belfast Region City Deal 5G innovation regions project, aimed at accelerating advanced wireless adoption in Northern Ireland, the project created a use case in port operations for businesses along West Bank Road in Belfast.

Quizzed on the benefits for BT in such a project, Burns explains: “By supporting Belfast Harbour to be the first port in the UK with a 5G private network we had the opportunity to not only improve connectivity of Belfast Harbour and their tenants but to also use this unique area to showcase the value of 5G connectivity to businesses on a broader scale.

“As a large organisation, BT were looking at our own role in the creation of smart place and smart cities, and the creation of that digital fabric to ensure that digitally enabled innovation and transformation was available to all.

“Belfast Harbour presents a unique opportunity to test and showcase network-enabled technologies that can and will be scaled up, for example, around air quality monitoring and mobility monitoring, which can not only benefit the port and its tenants and customers, but also provide proof of concept for wider usage.

“The port is an innovation showcase for all smart place projects in Northern Ireland, supporting Belfast Harbour, wider city, and Northern Ireland business in achieving its green recovery, operational efficiencies, an increase in productivity, and sustainable ambitions.”

Committed to delivering an ambitious long-term plan to maximise the Belfast Region City Deal, Belfast Harbour is central to the City’s Innovation District ambition and both Belfast Harbour and

BT fed into a study highlighting where strategic decisions could be made on infrastructure, which in turn would enable the adoption of technology on a wider basis, with the partnership piloting many of these innovations within the port.

Supporting this idea, O’Neill highlights just some of the technologies that have emerged as a result of the partnership in recent years include the installation of Internet of Things sensors across the port and Queen’s Island area to collect and transmit information of various aspects of the port’s environment ranging from noise pollution and water quality through to weather conditions. The real-time presence of this data on a digital dashboard enables insights and alerts on how the port can optimise its operations and identify and manage any potential issues before they escalate.


While all of these technologies have wider use cases, the potential jewel in the crown, however, is their current ongoing work to deliver Northern

Ireland’s first autonomous transport system in the form of the Harlander project.

Recognised as the UK’s first 5Genabled self-driving electric vehicle, the passenger shuttle service, which is expected to be operational in 2025, will provide “last mile connectivity” in the Harbour Estate from Titanic Halt railway station to Thompson Dock in Queen’s Island.

Belfast Harbour is leading the development of the service alongside a consortium of partners including BT, Oxa, eVersum, Angoka, and Horiba Mira following the award of £5.5 million in funding from Innovate UK.

O’Neill says that the project is a prime example of how Belfast does not always need to be behind the curve in a UK context and can instead serve as a leader.

“This project showcase’s Belfast’s ability to innovate but it also highlights our openness to innovation and the culture that exists here in the region. In the past, this area was recognised for

Laura O’Neill, Digital Transformation Manager, Belfast Harbour.

innovations such as the Titanic and the DeLorean, and that culture has not left. There is a great opportunity to put ourselves on the map and show that we are open and willing to lead on groundbreaking innovation.”

Burns adds: “This project is groundbreaking, and it is important to say that it was made possible by those early connections and our ongoing partnership. BT has a huge role to play in the development of future mobility and transport well into the future. What we are doing in Belfast now, alongside Belfast Harbour, showcases our ability to enable these future technologies and innovations which will become a major part of our lives, and all of those involved are pioneers in that regard.

“What the Harlander project presents is, not just the ability to put an autonomous vehicle on the road, but to showcase a whole connected ecosystem ranging from managing cybersecurity through to mobility patterns. The potential exists to demonstrate the operation, learn from the system, and potentially create something that is viable for future transport operators to utilise.

“The pilot feeds into our core purpose of ‘connecting for good’, and not only using our talent, expertise, and leading technology solutions to benefit our customers and communities but presents a massive opportunity to pioneer new technology which could significantly enhance our economy and create jobs.”

The port itself serves as a microenvironment, encouraging businesses to use the surrounding infrastructure to drive their own innovations. Interestingly, the wider impact is already being felt with Northern Ireland’s further education institutions involved in building upon the success of the relationship so far to develop and test future innovative solutions, which when proven, can then be adopted on a wider scale. That relationship ensures that both BT and Belfast Harbour have a role to play in helping to advise on the skills pipeline needed for a future labour market.

Concluding on how the relationship can help develop the region of Northern Ireland for the future, Belfast Harbour’s O’Neill says: “In the delivery of a smart port, we see innovations across our land, sea, and air assets. The ports of the future will look very different from the

“BT and Belfast Harbour are leading the way in transforming the port industry and creating a smart and sustainable port for the 21st century.”

ports of the past and part of our ambition is to ensure that those businesses that interact with the port can utilise and benefit from that progress and grasp the digital industrial revolution that is taking place.”

Janet Burns

Janet Burns is the Business Development Director at BT and previously served as the organisation’s Senior Deal Architect. She has worked for BT for over 30 years and across multiple BT companies and divisions. She graduated with a degree in information and communication technology from Queen’s University Belfast in 1992.


T: 028 9021 6161


Belfast Harbour

T: +44 (0)28 9055 4422



Laura O’Neill

Laura O’Neill is the Digital Transformation Manager at Belfast

Harbour and is Project Director for the Harlander project. She has a MSc in mathematics from Queen’s University Belfast and has previously worked with PwC, Belfast, Japan Tobacco

International (JTI), and CCEA.

Addressing carbon emissions in supply chains

John Coyne, director of commercial and procurement at the Welsh Government, talks about the value and challenges of decarbonising public procurement.

The Welsh Government currently has a Welsh public sector procurement expenditure of around £8 billion per annum on procured goods, works, and services. The most recent emissions assessment for the whole of the Welsh public sector showed that the supply chain activities associated with this expenditure makes up 65 per cent of all emissions.

Coyne explains that the Welsh Government is examining cross-sectoral means of reducing emissions. The Climate Change (Wales) Regulations 2021 (March 2021) brings Wales in-line with the UK net zero 2050 target. This was an amendment to the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 that set an 80 per cent emissions reduction target by 2050.

Like Northern Ireland, the Welsh Government measures targets and carbon budgets against the baseline year of 1990

(although some gases can only be examined from 1995) established in the Environment (Wales) Act 2016.

The legislative commitment to net zero by 2050 is supported by a collective Welsh public sector net zero by 2030 ambition, set out in the Net Zero Carbon Status by 2030: Public Sector Route Map, published in July 2021.

Although reducing emissions from procurement presents significant challenges, Coyne is optimistic, stating: “Supply chain activities can be influenced by the purchasing organisation’s procurement processes, specifically procurement strategies, which give us insights as to how we approach the market; how we specify requirements; evaluate tenders and set KPIs; and by ensuring the anticipated outcomes are delivered through our contract management relationships.

agenda issues issues agenda 36
“We are very much on a journey in Wales where we need to up our focus and we need the necessary investment to do that.”

“We can go further by planning our future procurements to incentivise continuous improvement and innovation over the period of the contract.”

Supporting the private sector

At the heart of Coyne’s argument is that there is a need for “considerable step change around how we work with our supply chain” for the private sector to be incentivised, rather than feeling coerced, into decarbonising their procurement, which will lead to decarbonisation across entire supply chains.

“If you want to make big targets like that you need to fundamentally change the way we engage with our supply chain and we have to fundamentally change how we support our supply chain,” he says.

“If we are expecting SMEs to invest £10 million in becoming much more carbon neutral, they will not do it because the reality of life is that their goal is to keep people employed and make a profit to reinvest.”

Arguing that suppliers are currently sent a very strong signal but not sufficient in terms of how they can reduce their carbon output, Coyne states: “We can send as many strong signals as we wish, but if we need to recognise that sometimes, support is not just about issuing new regulations, sometimes support comes from an investment.”

John Coyne

Cost challenges

On meeting the necessary investment for decarbonising procurement, Coyne says that the Welsh Government is “currently in a very difficult position in relation to its budget”.

“We are not investing in our supply chain to actually back up the strong signals that we have been sending suppliers. It is a piece of work that we must do as we go forward.”

Although there are cost challenges, Coyne praises the role played by the Welsh Government’s Business Wales unit, which he says is “highly effective at targeting support and skills development within the supply chain”.

However, he nonetheless is realistic on progress made so far, outlining: “We are only scratching the surface so far and we really need to invest in this area. That is a particularly common theme that comes into my discussions with ministers.

“We are tinkering around the edges, we are making very bold statements like the need for net zero by 2030, and you just have to have an element of realism in the room.”

Reflecting on Wales decarbonising and procurement journey, he concludes: “We are very much on a journey in Wales where we need to up our focus and we need the necessary investment to do that, so watch this space.”

John Coyne has been the director of commercial and procurement at the Welsh Government since September 2020. In a career spanning four decades, Coyne has held leading corporate roles at companies including Irish Ferries, Stena Line, and Liverpool Football Club.

issues agenda 37 agenda issues

Northern Ireland Housing Conference

The 2024 Northern Ireland Housing Conference recently took place bringing together key stakeholders to discuss the latest in housing policy and look at how we can fulfil the need for safe, affordable housing both now and in the future. agendaNi was delighted to have a range of expert speakers, local and visiting, join us including Gordon Lyons MLA, Minister for Communities; Grainia Long, Northern Ireland Housing Executive; Justin Cartwright, Chartered Institute of Housing; Ad Hereijgers,

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our delegates, speakers, and exhibitors who joined us in the Europa Hotel, Belfast and made the conference a huge success.

Speakers: Justin Cartwright, Northern Ireland Chartered Institute of Housing; Richard Ramsey, Ulster Bank; Grainia Long, Northern Ireland Housing Executive; Gordon Lyons MLA, Minister for Communities; and Paddy Gray, Ulster University. Neil McIvor, Creagh Concrete speaks with attendees at the Creagh Concrete exhibition stand. Tracey Ellis and Clára Robinson, Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) with Sharon Nelson and Claire McKeown, Ulster Bank. RITTERWALD; and Tom Longley, Switchee. Speaker: Tom Longley, Switchee. Conor McCambridge, Alpha Housing Association and Mark McEvoy, Camden Group Ltd. Angus Kerr, Department for Communities asks the panel a question.
38 conference report
Gillian Greer and John Goudy, Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Sponsored by Housing report
The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Minister Gordon Lyons MLA: ‘Collective commitment’ needed to increase housing supply

Minister for Communities, Gordon Lyons MLA, outlines his housing priorities, including the need for a “collective commitment” from the Executive for a Housing Supply Strategy.

Lyons identifies the finalisation of the Housing Supply Strategy as one of his first priorities as the new Minister for Communities.

The strategy, which envisages the delivery of over 100,000 homes, including 33,000 social homes, over a 15-year period, has been in draft form since early 2022, narrowly missing out on approval when the Executive collapsed.

Outlining his belief that the Housing Supply Strategy will “provide the framework to help bring about the system change we need”, Lyons emphasises his intention to enshrine a “collective commitment” from the whole Northern Ireland Executive in the forthcoming strategy.

Discussing “well-rehearsed” barriers to the ability to build new homes including limitations on water and wastewater infrastructure, the Minister says: “My first priority is securing Executive endorsement for the Housing Supply Strategy, and importantly, securing my Executive colleagues’ commitment to deliver the necessary actions to support its delivery.”

Social homes

With the number of people waiting for a home in Northern Ireland continuing to grow, most of those deemed to be in housing stress, there is a widespread recognition of the need to deliver more social housing.

Speaking in the context of a capital budget allocation in 2023/24 which is set to deliver almost 500 fewer social homes (1,500) than in the previous year (1,956), despite a draft strategy ambition of 2,200 homes annually, the Minister says that he is “committed to investing in more social housing”.

“I am keen to ensure that we continue to find ways to deliver more ambitious schemes,” he states. “Continued efforts [to deliver social homes] is positive in the context of wider funding constraints, but clearly, it is less than we need.

“Budget and capacity are two critical areas that currently constrain these ambitions. My officials are progressing work to address the issues and pressures associated with the existing delivery model.”

40 housing report
The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland
Minister for Communities, Gordon Lyons MLA
There are a few things that are more foundational and more fundamental than having a decent home.”

Stressing the need to not only deliver new supply, but also maintain the quality of current stock, Lyons says that he is determined to find a solution that will allow the Housing Executive, the region’s largest social landlord, to be put on a more sustainable financial footing.

“This will enable additional much-needed investment to improve the quality of housing stock, but I am also keen to see the Housing Executive contribute to new housing supply.”


Lyons identifies homelessness as another priority, highlighting his recognition that services are under significant strain, manifested by a rapid increase in the need for temporary accommodation.

“I want to make homelessness brief, rare, and non-recurrent,” he stresses. “I will support the shift to prevention.”

Highlighting that temporary accommodation provision currently occupies some 87 per cent of the Housing Executive’s homelessness budget, the Minister recognises that this is money that could be better spent on homelessness prevention or supporting housing schemes.

“I want to prioritise prevention to create as much capacity as we can in homelessness services and make a long-term commitment to developing housing-led and housingfirst provision.”

However, Lyons points to a recognition that such a shift will take time, meaning a short-term focus will continue to be supporting those currently in crisis.

Supporting People

Turning to one of his first announcements as Communities Minister of an additional £3 million in funding for the Supporting People programme, Lyons says that his department and delivery partners can be very proud of the delivery of how high quality, effective housing support is making a real difference to peoples’ lives, and enabling them to live more independently in the community.

“I wholeheartedly believe in the benefits this housing support provides to people that can help smooth the transition to independent living, for those living in an institutionalised environment. It prevents problems that often lead to hospitalisation, or institutional care, homelessness, or repeat offending.

“It has the potential to benefit the whole of society and I am proud that my department is playing its part. The additional funding is an acknowledgement of the need that exists within our society.”

41 housing report The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Climate change

Having previously served as Minister for the Economy, Lyons oversaw the launch of Northern Ireland’s long-term Energy Strategy in December 2021, which included a target to deliver energy savings of 25 per cent from buildings by 2030.

Undoubtedly, one of the largest programmes of work ahead of the new minister will be his department’s delivery of its obligations as per the Climate Change Act.

The Department for Communities is leading on the residential elements of the building sector and Lyons says that the focus of its work on the proposed first Climate Action Plan will be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the sector by “reducing energy consumption, raising standards, and using low carbon options for heating across all residential tenders”.

However, in identifying the move as a “significant transformation”, the Minister emphasises his desire to ensure any actions are people-centred and leave no one behind.

“I want to ensure that there is a just transition for all households as we move to meet our challenging net zero targets,” he explains. “I will ensure that we protect the most vulnerable communities and that they benefit from this transformational change.

“I also believe that working in this area will support innovation and job opportunities in our local construction sector, particularly when it comes to retrofitting homes.”

Concluding, Lyons says: “I understand the difficulties that we are facing, but I want to assure you that I will work to prioritise the delivery of good quality, affordable, and sustainable homes. I am committed to a genuinely ambitious and strategic programme of work that will deliver results.

“I will seek the Executive endorsement of the Housing Supply Strategy and I will continue to prioritise building more social homes.

“I will press for a positive way forward for the future of the Housing Executive and I will protect the Supporting People scheme.

“I will work to make homelessness rare, brief, and normal. And I will challenge colleagues within and outside of government to work with me to deliver real results and make sure everyone in our society has a place to call home.

“Finally, I am going to make sure that in my department we deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. There are few things more foundational and more fundamental than having a decent home.”

42 housing report The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Temporary accommodation provision dominating homelessness budget

An increase in the number of households requiring temporary accommodation is impacting the delivery of prevention services.

Rising homelessness figures for Northern Ireland are being driven by a sharp increase in households requiring temporary accommodation, a senior housing official has said.

David Polley, with responsibility for Housing Supply Policy in the Department for Communities, was speaking before the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Communities Committee in March 2024 in the context of rising levels of homelessness.

Polley explained that rising figures are being driven by a rise of people in temporary accommodation, with a notable source being those coming out of the private rented sector after the pandemic.

Limitations on social housing supply means that the timeframe in which people are staying in temporary accommodation are getting longer, increasing costs for the Housing Executive, and leaving more people in what he described as a “limbo land” of temporary accommodation.

The latest Northern Ireland Housing

Bulletin covers the period between July and December 2023, and shows that, as of January 2024, 4,556 households were living in temporary accommodation.

This is a 15 per cent increase from the corresponding time in 2022, when there were 3,945 households living in temporary accommodation.

The March 2024 publication further states that, during the period of July to December 2023, there was a total of 8,183 homeless presenters, again an increase from 2022 when there were 7,478 homeless presenters.

The statistical bulletin, published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) using figures from the Housing Executive, says that the top three reasons for presenting as homeless were accommodation not being reasonable; sharing breakdown/family dispute; and loss of rented accommodation.

In order to be accepted as statutorily homeless, a household must meet the four tests of: eligibility; homelessness;

priority need; and intentionality. Any household that meets these four tests will be accepted as a full duty applicant (FDA) and will be there entitled to full housing duty.

Full housing duty includes ensuring that accommodation is made available for the household as well as the provision of temporary accommodation where necessary and assistance with the protection of the household’s belongings.

Speaking before the Assembly’s Communities Committee on 21 March 2024, Housing Executive Chief Executive Grainia Long said that the Housing Executive’s trend in relation to new build social housing has increased by 73 per cent since 2015, with a fiveyear projection of new social housing of 24,922.

Long called for a new housing strategy which focuses on supply to be brought forward, and for housing to be given a cross-government approach which is seen as an economic driver.

43 housing report Credit: Housing Executive

Transforming our built environment for a climate-resilient future

As global temperatures continue to cause grave concern, Northern Ireland is witnessing a stepchange in the delivery of decarbonised, future proofed housing. Grainia Long, Chief Executive of the Housing Executive, makes the case for purposeful, strategic intent on the path to net zero, and climate-resilient homes.

In February 2024, the European Union’s climate service confirmed our global climate breached 1.50C above preindustrial levels for an entire year for the first time in history. Since June 2023, we have witnessed monthly record temperature breaches, with February itself clocking in at 1.770C above the norm.

According to the United Nations, levels of carbon dioxide concentrated in our atmosphere are at the highest level for at least two million years and human activity is the key factor.

The impact of climate change is being felt globally, and locally. Our tenants and our communities require us to ensure they are protected from the worst effects, but also to ensure that rapid

decarbonisation becomes the norm, both in terms of how we build our homes, and how we heat them.

From strategy to action

The Housing Executive’s (NIHE) Sustainable Development Strategy is the critical document driving the pace and scale of change across the strategic housing authority, which is also the largest public landlord on these islands.

The action-oriented plan is approaching its midway point, so now is a good time to reflect on how this is being delivered.

The Sustainable Development Strategy and Action Plan is grounded in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and sets clear targets for greenhouse gas

reduction, and commits the organisation to a singular focus on adaptation. It focuses on the key impact areas of the built environment, the biosphere, sustainable communities and transport, as well as the need for educational empowerment, and improved health and wellbeing through sustainable living.

A key pillar of the strategy is that a ‘just transition’ is essential – the energy transition must not deepen pre-existing social inequalities.

As soon as the strategy was launched, we ensured the people, time and financial resources necessary were put in place to deliver on our ambitions.

To date we have:

• trained 1,650 staff in carbon literacy, more than half of all NIHE staff;

• grown demand for our NI Energy Advice Service, answering more than 15,000 queries in the past year;

• launched a new energy savings calculator, available to everyone to give them an overview of the interventions they can make to their home to reduce the cost of energy;

• planted over 11,000 trees during

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland
Representatives from the Housing Executive; the Department for Communities; and GEDA Construction at the launch of the new build pilot project at Sunningdale Gardens, north Belfast.
44 housing report

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

the 2022/23 planting season, exceeding our target of 7,000;

• completed a major programme of 1,400 retrofits, the largest social housing programme of its kind in Northern Ireland;

• gone beyond our fabric-first retrofit, and commenced a 300-home low carbon energy retrofit programme, putting ultra-low carbon heating systems into our stock for the first time;

• commenced a landmark new-build pilot, building social housing to Passive House standard using modern methods of construction, another first for Northern Ireland;

• allocated a £200,000 budget for social enterprise grants in 2023/24;

• begun the decarbonisation of our fleet; by introducing 10 electric vehicles in the past year; and

• commenced development of an organisation-wide climate adaptation plan, which is on course to complete this year.

Our action plan will continue to drive our efforts to ensure that everyone is able to live in an affordable, sustainable and decent home, appropriate to their needs, in a safe and climate-resilient place.

A new departure for social housing

For the first time in a generation, the Housing Executive is building homes again.

As I write, a pilot project in the Sunningdale area of north Belfast is delivering six, low carbon, new-build homes to Passive House standard.

Working with construction company, GEDA, we are building future-proofed homes that will be constructed to a standard beyond that of current building regulations in Northern Ireland.

The ultra-low energy building methods being used to construct these houses will mean that our tenants benefit from improved energy efficiency and a reduction in carbon emissions, savings from reduced fuel costs and more comfortable homes.

This scheme will help us to investigate how modern methods of construction can be utilised to deliver much needed homes within a faster timeframe, to a higher level of fabric performance, and

explore ways to drive down costs, in comparison with traditional construction methods.

Alongside our housing association partners, we are witnessing a step change in housing delivery, where developments at scale will provide suitable, future-proofed properties built to last beyond this century.

Retrofitting at scale

While new build is critical to ensuring decarbonised stock, the bulk of our focus must be on our existing stock.

We recently completed the Energy Efficiency in Social Housing project, funded jointly by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and NIHE reserves. More than 1,400 properties across Northern Ireland benefited from works to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, assisting tenants in managing the cost of living and reducing carbon emissions from our stock. Taking a fabric first approach to non-traditional housing stock, the work included a variation of: external wall insulation; window/door replacements; cladding and roofing work; roof and floor insulation; and providing ventilation to kitchens and bathrooms, where required.

The programme enabled us to select the right method of retrofit for our particular construction type. But importantly, it also enabled us to consider procurement techniques, contract management approaches, and the skills development needed to scale up retrofit in social housing stock in Northern Ireland.

The pilot has been transformational for

us as an organisation; building our capacity to ramp up retrofit across our housing stock. But most importantly, for those tenants living in newly refurbished homes, it has made a hugely positive impact on their lives.

Going beyond fabric first

While our 1,400 home retrofit programme gave us the experience we needed to understand a fabric first approach to retrofit, it is crucial that we also understand the performance effects of placing low-carbon heating systems into energy efficient homes. To understand this more fully, we have recently launched our 300 Low Carbon Energy Retrofit Programme. This programme will see the implementation of low carbon retrofits to 300 homes by March 2025.

Phase One will include upgrades to 98 homes in the Strabane, Dunmurry, and Newtownards areas. Phase Two will include homes in Sion Mills, Dungannon, Antrim, Newtownards, and Dunmurry. This programme amounts to an investment of £9 million by the Housing Executive.

It will follow a whole house approach to reducing carbon emissions and householder bills, providing homes that promote health, through a combination of the following interventions:

• improved energy efficiency measures through retrofitting;

• low carbon heating options, principally air source heat pumps (ASHP), with options for biomethane and hybrid;

• improved ‘time of use’ electricity tariff options;

Six low carbon, new build homes being bult to passive house standard as part of a pilot in north Belfast.
45 housing report

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

• improved householder education to effect behaviour change; and

• renewable energy for power generation and electric storage.

Based on our previous experience we know that retrofit programmes of this nature work best when we implement them in partnership with our tenants. To ensure our tenants get the maximum benefit from upgrades we carry out education and familiarisation visits to enhance and encourage best use of the energy efficient measures.

Putting tenants first

While a focus on our housing stock is central to reducing our carbon emissions, improving the lives of our tenants is always our ultimate goal.

As a responsible landlord we are committed to bringing our tenants along with us on the journey to net zero. With cost-of-living pressures and an increased awareness of energy efficiency we want to ensure that our tenants are supported to make changes and benefit from help on offer.

There are a number of support services available:

NI Energy Advice

NI Energy Advice offers free independent and impartial energy advice to domestic householders in Northern Ireland, including advice about energy grants and other sources of help.

Funded by the Housing Executive, the service is a one-stop shop for energy advice, providing information to help with energy efficiency grant signposting, renewable energy advice, energy saving tips, how to switch energy provider, debt assistance, fuel poverty advice signposting and how to benefit from oilbuying savings across Northern Ireland.

Affordable Warmth Scheme

End-to-end delivery of the Affordable Warmth Scheme transferred to the Housing Executive in September 2023.

Delivered on behalf of the Department for Communities, it is designed to help those on lower incomes, and who are living in private accommodation, with the costs of energy efficiency measures.

Funding for the scheme has been extended so that it will continue until March 2026.

Customers may be entitled to help under the scheme if they:

1. own their own home and occupy it as their sole or main residence, or rent from a private sector landlord; and

2. have a total gross annual household income of less than £23,000.

Applications to the scheme can be made through the Northern Ireland Energy Advice Service.

Home Energy Saving Tool

Our Home Energy Saving Tool was launched in November 2023.

Looking ahead

The return of the Northern Ireland Executive provides an immense opportunity to launch a strategic approach to green growth, to deliver on the Northern Ireland Energy Strategy, and to ensure a robust path to decarbonisation of our residential housing stock. It provides new impetus to revise building regulations, to build partnerships with industry, to invest in research and innovation and to ensure a just transition for communities. It is a hugely optimistic time to be working in the build environment.

Much work is needed to ensure that the targets we have set are robust, and that the pathways we are choosing are realistic. Building our delivery capacity is critical which is why the NIHE has chosen to deliver a number of pilots at scale to ensure we have the funding models, procurement strategies and delivery frameworks in place before we scale up.

As government looks to the future, strategic intent is crucial to ensure that investors, industry, and consumers understand Northern Ireland’s path to decarbonisation, so that we can all work together in the best interests of our communities.

Once the right strategy and purpose is in place, organisations like the Northern Ireland Housing Executive are ready to deliver at scale.

Housing Executive

T: 03448 920 900



It can help householders to lower their energy bills and make their homes more comfortable. By answering a few basic questions about their home, householders can find out how energy efficient their home is and what changes they could make for further efficiency.

The tool will create an action plan to outline potential steps to improve energy efficiency.

Developed in partnership with the Energy Saving Trust, the tool is available to everyone on the Housing Executive website.

46 housing report

A European housing policy perspective

Dara Turnbull, research coordinator at Housing Europe, compares the housing context in Ireland with exemplar EU member states.

Speaking on behalf of Housing Europe, the European federation of public, cooperative, and social housing, Turnbull unpacks Delivering on housing in Ireland: A European policy perspective. Commissioned by the European Parliament’s Renew Europe group, the report examines the context of the Republic’s housing sector relative to other European states and offers potential solutions for decisionmakers.

Ireland’s housing crisis has several elements, but the most consistent theme is that the cost of housing is outweighing wage growth, thereby making home ownership and rents inaccessible or unaffordable for many Irish residents.

For prospective homeowners, for example, statistics from the Central

Statistics Office (CSO) and the Republic’s Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, show that the average house price increased from €40,283 in 1990 to €311,514 in 2022, a growth of almost a factor of seven or a 673 per cent increase.

Meanwhile, the average annual earnings in the Republic in the same period grew from €25,811 to €66,914, a 159 per cent increase. This disparity between wage growth and house prices has meant that, whereas in 1990 the average house price was around 56 per cent higher than annual earnings, house prices are now around 4.65 times greater than annual earnings.

Supply shortfall

Housing Europe’s report determines that Rebuilding Ireland, the Irish Government’s previous housing

strategy, had a goal of building 25,000 new homes per year, but that “actual output was only around 76 per cent of that”.

Although the housing crisis is being exacerbated by undersupply, delving into these building statistics, Turnbull asserts that the area of most significant underdelivery was primarily in private sector construction.

“A relative overdelivery by the public sector has helped to compensate for an underdelivery by the private sector,” he says.

“Government needs to be more aware of the direct policy levers that it has over public housing policy versus demand side incentives and schemes which are not necessarily leading to delivery of infrastructure.”

48 housing report The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Affordability disparity

Examining Ireland’s housing market compared to those of Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands on housing affordability specifically, Turnbull explains that in Ireland in 2022, around 9 per cent of the total housing stock was classified as social and affordable housing. This figure is significantly below figures of 24 per cent in Austria, around 20 per cent in Denmark, and just under 30 per cent in the Netherlands.

Comparing Dublin with the exemplar state’s capital cities, Turnbull states that the “disparity is even greater”. Around 11.3 per cent of Dublin’s housing stock is classified as being “social or affordable”, while this figure surpasses 40 per cent in Amsterdam and Vienna.

The Housing Europe research coordinator explains that this disparity may well be down to the European practice known as ‘build and retain’. “They build social housing and the objective is to retain the system in perpetuity,” he outlines.

Contrasting this model with Ireland, Turnbull states: “The majority of publicly supported and publicly built housing that we have constructed in the State since the 1930s is now privately owned. We have been very good at building public housing in this State, but we have not been very good at holding onto it, so that is a missed opportunity.”

Meeting cost challenges

To meet the challenge of under delivery by the private sector in housing supply, Turnbull cites a cooperative model utilised in Sweden which could be adapted for the Irish market.

Essentially based on what Turnbull describes as a ‘cost purchase’ principle, the Swedish model is backed up by a national cooperative housing guarantee fund, which enables newly forming local housing cooperatives to unlock the necessary construction loans from commercial banks, which would otherwise not be possible given a lack of collateral to ‘back up’ such lending.

“A local housing cooperative can come together and pool their resources to build new housing. When the development loan is repaid, that lending

Wages/house prices growth comparison in Ireland

is refinanced as standard mortgage lending,” Turnbull explains.

As a result, around one in four Swedish primary residences are part of the cooperative housing sector.

Housing for All

In 2023, the Irish Government met its overall housebuilding target under its Housing for All policy of constructing 30,000 homes, and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien TD has expressed his confidence that a similar number will be achieved in 2024.

Turnbull warns of a potential “dark cloud” for construction, as the raising of interest rates by the European Central Bank may prevent private construction from playing an optimal role in house building due to prospective inadequate yields.

As interest rates are likely to reduce through the course of 2024 as inflation is projected to decline, there may be long-term optimism that supply will increase in the Irish housing sector which is the ultimate key to solving the state’s housing crisis.

However, Turnbull states that even if interest rates do decline towards the end of 2024, or in early 2025, they will nevertheless be much higher than in the

Dara Turnbull

preceding decade. Thus, other investment will remain more attractive, meaning real-estate will not be as attractive as prior to the ongoing inflation crisis.

He continues: “Given strong protections for tenants, which are completely justified, the long-term return on things like build-to-rent are not as attractive as in the past, when there was effectively no clear limit to potential returns. As a result, the capital value of BTR apartments is today, and will remain in the future, below the actual cost of construction. This effectively means that such projects are not viable.

“Even if interest rates decline, it does not suddenly mean that residential construction kicks back into gear. I think the dark clouds over the sector will not lift so easily. Having said that, it seems that in the Republic, large Approved Housing Bodies have become important purchases of residential developments that had originally been earmarked for large corporate investors.

“The State may be able to pick up some of the development already in the pipeline, but it is not clear how this pans out over the longer term,” he concludes.

Dara Turnbull is the research coordinator at Housing Europe – The European federation of public, cooperative, and social housing, where he has worked since 2019. He is responsible for managing various research projects, and working to promote the uptake of new approaches and best practices by housing providers.

49 housing report
66 914
40 283
311 514
200 000
300 000
350,000 Average annual earnings Average house price
1991 2022
Sources: CSO/DHLGH

Helping meet the unmet housing need in Northern Ireland

The Chair of Woven Housing Association (formerly Habinteg), Neil McIvor, discusses the urgent need to deliver more homes across Northern Ireland and the challenges which stand in the way.

Northern Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis. Over the past decade, the social housing waiting list has been growing, outstripping the supply of available housing. Today, there are almost 50,000 people waiting for suitable accommodation. There has been a significant rise in the number of households with homelessness status and the need for temporary accommodation is increasing every month.

In 2023, the number of new homes completed locally fell to its lowest level in more than 64 years causing a housing supply crisis.

To address this problem there is an urgent need to deliver more homes across Northern Ireland in both the private and social sectors. Housing

associations, however, face many challenges in meeting this need.

Over the past two years, increased construction and running costs, borrowing costs and pressures on rent levels all played a part and threatened the viability of continued growth which is a massive strategic issue for all associations.

The financial capacity of associations to deal with a range of adverse scenarios, even with grant funding, is hugely impacted by factors such as rising costs, inflation, and cost of living pressures for our tenants.

As an association, Woven is working hard to keep rent levels affordable but with rising costs across all aspects of delivery and funding limitations this is challenging.

The proposed cuts to Northern Ireland’s capital budget are alarming and threaten to further reduce the supply of much needed social housing at a time when demand has reached an unprecedented high. Investment in social housing positively impacts the local economy through job creation and supply chain benefits, in addition to significant human and community benefits. Having a home is the basis for happier, healthier and more positive lives.

Furthermore, budgetary pressures on funding streams such as Supporting People have impacted on the development and delivery of adequate supported housing solutions. At Woven, we are committed to providing residents with independence, whilst having access to some on-site support services to enhance their living experience.

50 housing report

Statutory approvals including planning permission is a laborious and lengthy process which is impeding housing supply. Challenges around sewage infrastructure and wastewater capacity are also having a detrimental impact.

Section 76 (planning gain), however, has been a welcome addition, ensuring that house builders and developers provide a certain amount of affordable housing in larger schemes.

Unfortunately, these homes are also impacted by statutory approval delays. A priority for the Executive must be to streamline the process and timescales which are holding all housing developers back.

Unfortunately, there is much stigma around social housing with many still believing that the sector attracts high levels of antisocial behaviour and settlement issues.

In particular, one-bedroom properties and apartment developments struggle with negative perceptions, but these are one of the most needed property mix on the waiting list. Demographics are changing; we have an ageing population and more singles with no dependants who need homes.

By developing more one-bedroom homes, associations can accommodate tenants who are ready to downsize. This frees up larger properties for larger families on the list, helping meet unmet needs.

Due to social and affordable policies coming into councils such as Belfast City Council, and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council there has been a shift towards encouraging mixed tenure and mixed-use developments.

Thriving and sustainable communities

Mixed tenure developments will not fix the housing crisis alone, but they will encourage more development opportunities that foster a greater social, economic and community mix. This will support thriving and sustainable

communities and help break down unfounded perceptions of social housing.

In addition to developing more homes, Woven are committed to investing in refurbishing existing homes to meet and exceed the current standards and tenant expectations, while achieving government sustainability standards. Committed to achieving net zero through energy efficiency and sustainable development, these refurbishments allow Woven to reduce running costs for tenants which is critical given the costof-living crisis.

Following Woven’s rebrand this year, we have committed to investing over £150 million in new developments, stock upgrades, and enhanced housing services over the next five years.

Currently, Woven provides over 2,500 homes across a range of housing solutions including supported, sheltered, and general needs housing. We are committed to working in collaboration with our partners to explore mixed tenure and mixed-use developments, which offer a sense of place where communities can be woven together as one and provide opportunities for residents to live and work within a

vibrant and integrated environment.

Current pressures on the local housing system cannot continue and there will be substantial adverse consequences for individuals, families, and society if additional funding and reform are not prioritised. With the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running, we look forward to working with MLAs and other housing associations to implement positive changes across the sector.

We welcome the opportunity to discuss new partnerships and opportunities to meet housing need. If you would like more information, please email

T: 028 9042 7211


51 housing report
Girona Close, one of Woven’s ‘Housing for All’ schemes.

supply strategy

could be approved ‘fairly quickly’
Northern Ireland which narrowly missed out on Executive approval, remains in “good shape” and could be approved quickly, MLAs have been told.

Answering questions before the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Communities, the Department’s senior official with responsibility for housing, Mark O’Donnell, said that while he did not want to be over confident, he believed that the draft Housing Supply Strategy, initially due to be published in March 2022, could be taken to the Executive “fairly quickly”.

Preparatory work for the Strategy, which plans to deliver over 100,000 new homes by 2037, began back in 2020. Initially delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, finalisation of the draft strategy coincided with the collapse of the Stormont institutions,

meaning it has yet to receive Executive approval.

Within the 100,000 home target at least a third are set to be social homes, prompting calls for the strategy to be prioritised by the Executive amid rising levels of housing stress in Northern Ireland.

At the end of 2023, there were 46,461 applicants on the social housing waiting list, 34,651 of whom are deemed in housing stress, a 7 per cent increase on Q4 2022. Increasing the social housing stock is recognised as a critical part of addressing this challenge.

If agreed by the Executive, the new

Housing Supply Strategy would require delivery of an estimated 2,222 new social housing units per year.

Currently, recent social housing targets set by the Department for Communities average below 2,000 units per year.

The Social Housing Development Programme set a target of delivery of 1,950 social housing starts, and 1,400 social housing completions for the 2022/23 year.

Recently released figures show that housing associations narrowly exceeded those targets, completing 1,449 homes across 82 schemes, while starting work on 1,956 new homes.

However, targets for the current

52 housing report The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

2023/24 year have been reduced.

Despite exceeding targets, housing associations have warned that reductions in the capital budget allocated by the Department, in an annual budget format, alongside rising costs, could severely reduce delivery in the coming years.

The most recent annual budget, set by the Secretary of State in the absence of a functioning Executive, the Department recognised a 27 per cent shortfall in capital required for 2023/24.

O’Donnell, the Deputy Secretary of Housing and Sustainability, attended the Communities committee alongside Permanent Secretary for the Department, Colum Boyle. In an opening address to committee members, Boyle laid out the “incredibly challenging” budgetary position for the Department in recent years, but stressed that housing was a main priority for the new Minister Gordon Lyons MLA.

One potential sticking point is that the Housing Supply Strategy was drafted on the assumption that the Executive would publish and operate a multi-year budget. Although such a budget is likely to be an ambition of the restored Executive, a squeeze on public finances raises doubts over whether ambitions of the strategy will be fully funded.

The draft Housing Supply Strategy sets out a vision that “everybody has access to a good quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate for their needs and is located within a thriving and inclusive community”, acknowledging that the adoption of a whole-system approach can ensure inclusive transformation of supply.

Rising levels of homelessness, coupled with a social housing waiting list in excess of 45,000, the vast majority of which are in housing stress, has been compounded by inflationary pressures on supply, rising rents, and an acknowledgement that current housing stock is not reflective of the changing needs of the population.

Social Housing Development Programme (SHDP)

New Social Housing Dwelling Completions 2010/11 –Q3 2023/24

The draft Housing Supply Strategy is centred on five key objectives:

1. Creating affordable options: Increase supply across all tenures and establish new intermediate products;

2. Prevention and intervention: Developing a holistic approach to housing provision, including wraparound and support services;

3. Quality: A comprehensive review of fitness standards;

4. Better places: New approaches to place-making; and

5. Decarbonisation: Working with housing providers to ensure new build homes are net zero carbon by 2026/27.

The return of the Executive has reenergised calls for inclusion of a standalone strategic housing outcome in any future Programme for Government. The New Decade, New Approach deal to restore power sharing in 2020 included a pledge to include housing as a specific priority in the Programme for Government (PfG), however, no such PfG was developed prior to the subsequent collapse.

At the end of February 2024, new First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly MLA told the Executive Office Committee that the Executive was focused on bringing forward a PfG “as soon as possible”.

Undoubtedly, a critical element of an increase in Northern Ireland’s social housing supply will be progression of plans to revitalise the Housing Executive, including the reduction of prohibitive barriers for the organisation to borrow, and therefore build new social homes.

Speaking in late February 2024, O’Donnell said that officials in the Department were set to meet with the Minister to discuss “the pressing need” to address the huge levels of investment needed in the Housing Executive’s some 82,000 stock.

He added that discussions with the UK Treasury are ongoing around the budgeting treatment of the Housing Executive’s borrowing and the impact on public finances.

53 housing report
0 500 1,000 1,500 2,000 2,500
2010/112011/122012/132013/142014/152015/162016/172017/182018/192019/202020/212021/222022/23Q32023 Completions

Landmark housing development officially opened in west Belfast

The largest housing development currently under construction in Northern Ireland has been officially opened by Communities Minister, Gordon Lyons MLA.

The Black Ridge development in west Belfast will see Apex Housing Association (Apex) provide 653 new homes, including 549 social homes to rent and 104 affordable homes for sale. Constructed by the Braidwater Group, the keys to 50 of these new homes have been handed over in recent weeks to the first residents of Black Ridge, with the entire development expected to be completed by 2028.

The £102 million scheme has been supported by £52.4 million Housing Association Grant funding from the Department for Communities and £49.4 million private finance investment by Apex. The development will also feature a community hub with MUGA (multi-use games area), two care homes, a neighbourhood retail centre, a hotel, and a number of children’s playparks.

Speaking at the opening event,

Communities Minister Gordon Lyons MLA, commented: “As Minister, I am pleased to be opening this transformational project. Landmark developments such as Black Ridge are a significant step in addressing the housing need which exists in this community. Everyone has a right to a decent standard of housing. And yet, a home is much more than bricks and mortar. It begins with a roof over someone’s head. But it extends far beyond that, into a collaborative effort which supports individuals and families.

“We recognise that houses can be designed and built, but communities are developed and nurtured. I commend Apex Housing Association, and indeed all those involved, and wish the residents every happiness in their new homes.”

54 housing report
Pictured at the official opening of Black Ridge in west Belfast (L-R): Joe McGinnis, Managing Director of the Braidwater Group; Gordon Lyons MLA, Communities Minister; Nicole Lappin, Chair of the Housing Executive; and Peter Caldwell, Chair of Apex Housing Association.

One of the first residents to move into her new home at Black Ridge was Nicola Marshall. Nicola and her family waited two decades for a suitable home in the area and were delighted to be offered their new house in Black Ridge View: “It has made a big impact on us as a family. After renting privately for 20 years, it is great to know that this house is all ours. As a mummy, it has taken a weight off my shoulders knowing that my kids now have their family home.

“It is close to the shops, my daughter Fiadh’s school; and near our family, who all live in and around the Andersonstown area. We are really excited to be in the middle of a growing community which will see lots of families living together, with a sports hub, hotel and playparks all on our doorstep.”

Peter Caldwell, Chairperson of Apex Housing Association, says: “We are delighted to mark the official opening of Black Ridge and to recognise the impact that these new homes will have on local people and families. The scale of this development means it will continue to play a significant role in addressing the demand for social and affordable housing in west Belfast. We look forward to seeing this new community grow and develop in the coming years.”

Housing Executive Chair, Nicole Lappin, says: “Congratulations to Apex Housing and all the other partners involved in delivering these new properties at Black Ridge in west Belfast. Social housing developments of this nature, funded by grant from the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive, are crucial to tackling current waiting lists across Northern Ireland. Fifty families are already enjoying their new homes at this site and I very much look forward to witnessing further allocations to hundreds of households in the weeks and months ahead.”

Joe McGinnis, Managing Director of the Braidwater Group, comments: “Having started onsite in 2021 and recently handed over the first of the 653 homes, the Braidwater Group is delighted to be involved in a significant milestone and the official launch of Glenmona, or Black Ridge as it will be known going forward. It was our pleasure to welcome Minister for Communities, Gordon Lyons, to officially open Black Ridge and we thank all of our partners involved in ensuring the development matures and helps alleviate the significant housing demand for the area.”

“The scale of this development means it will continue to play a significant role in addressing the demand for social and affordable housing in west Belfast.”
Peter Caldwell, Chairperson of Apex Housing Association

Construction began on the Black Ridge development in March 2021, with the first homes completed in late 2023. ‘Black Ridge’ was chosen as the street name of the development with the help of pupils from St Teresa’s Primary School, which is located next to the development.

For more information about the Black Ridge development, please contact:

Apex Housing Association

10 Butcher Street


BT48 6HL

T: 028 7130 4800


55 housing report
Pictured with Harry Dyer from Apex Housing Association, Nicola Marshall and her daughter Fiadh getting the keys to their new home in Black Ridge View.

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Tenant engagement strategy ‘formally paused’

The development of an overdue strategy aimed at linking social landlords with tenants to improve services has been “formally paused” due to a lack of resources.

The Tenant Participation Strategy, which previously ran from 2015 to 2020, has not been renewed and it now seems unlikely that the Department for Communities will publish an updated strategy unless additional resources are allocated.

Originally published in 2016, A Tenant Participation Strategy for Northern Ireland: 2015-2020 sets out a framework for the introduction of tenant participation services within Northern Ireland’s social housing sector.

The Housing Executive and various housing associations act as Northern Ireland’s social landlords, and the previous strategy recognised inconsistencies in the approach to tenant-focused services across housing associations, with an acknowledgement that tenant engagement works best when government provides leadership and support.

Among the main achievements of the original strategy and subsequent action plan was the founding of an Independent Tenant Organisation (ITO), the establishment of a Housing Policy Panel, and the introduction of a Tenant Advocate Role.

Importantly, the strategy mandated all social housing providers to develop and put in place their own tenant participation strategies.

It was envisaged that a review at the end of the strategy would identify any improvements that should be included in a successor strategy. However, work on the strategy has been stalled and no timeline has been set for work to resume, even after the return of the Executive.

Speaking before the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Communities Committee, the Department’s Rent Project Manager Heloise Brown said that following a resource review, work on the Tenant Participation Strategy is now “formally paused”.

Outlining that the policy teams within the department were now focused on areas including developing the ‘decent home standard’, the review of regulatory policy and affordable rent for social homes, Brown indicated that Tenant Participation Strategy work had been “paused”.

However, she stressed that engagement between the Department and housing associations continues, adding that the Department was still “very confident” that the various housing associations have their strategies in place for tenant participation.

In response to a question by the Committee’s vice chair, Ciara Ferguson MLA on whether a timeline had been established for the development of a strategy, Deputy Secretary of the

Housing and Sustainability in the Department, Mark O’Donnell, stressed the resource pressures his department is facing, including some 600 vacancies.

“Unfortunately, there are things that we are not able to take forward and the development of the new tenant participation strategy is one of them,” he stated.

Ferguson has since described the decision to pause work in this area as “disappointing”.

“The Tenant Participation Strategy is important because it gives people living in social housing input on the quality of their home,” she says.

“Previously we have seen issues caused by sub-standard social housing, such as extensive mould in homes, and the negative impact that has on people’s health.

“This underlines the importance of maintaining and improving social housing and the voice of residents is an important part of that conversation.

Talking and listening to social housing tenants on an ongoing basis is something that the Department and the Housing Executive must do going forward.

“I will continue to raise this directly with the Minister and his department,” she concludes.

housing report 56

Putting housing on a firm footing

A new Northern Ireland Executive means a new opportunity to proactively address the challenges we face as a society, and when it comes to housing, Northern Ireland’s record is on very shaky foundations, writes Seamus Leheny, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations.

In 2022/23 housing associations exceeded new build completion targets set by the Department for Communities of 1,400 by delivering 1,449 despite facing considerable challenges including record levels of inflation. Housing associations brought the total number of homes managed by the 20 associations in Northern Ireland to more than 59,000 in that period and will surpass the 60,000 milestone mark by year end 2023/24.

But it is well short of the number of homes needed, and in 2023/24 a budget cut of 14 per cent has seen the new build targets from the Department reduced significantly – down from 1,950 to less than 1,500.

The sharp rise in material and energy costs in recent years has seen construction costs soar. It is not just stadiums like Casement Park and multimillion pound infrastructure projects which are impacted by this, but social housing providers have also felt the pinch.

real terms, that only means fewer building sites, fewer jobs for construction workers, and fewer social houses built. While some housing associations are able to raise significant finance in the private market, this is not a long-term solution to the lack of prioritisation of social housing within the wider Northern Ireland Executive budget.

With half the funding for social housing construction coming from the public sector, and these budgets declining in

Even with finance secure, the process of securing planning permission is unnecessarily bureaucratic and plagued with delays, including those from statutory consultees. Belfast’s new Local Development Plan – which requires all developments over 10 units to include 20 per cent social housing – is welcome, but its implementation is in the very early phase and it is too early to reach a verdict.

Further problems then arise when trying to connect to the water and wastewater infrastructure, where NI Water says it does not have the capacity to connect new projects in many areas.

With a new Northern Ireland Executive in place, when we pose the question ‘do we really recognise the importance of housing’? What is the answer?

Along with our sector colleagues, I wrote to the new First and deputy First Ministers, asking them that housing be properly recognised by including it as a standalone outcome in the Programme for Government. What that would mean is that housing would be considered as one of the most fundamental and important elements of our society. It would see that government departments working together to improve housing stock and new build, as it will have positive, knock on impacts across several parts of society including health and education.

Taking a strong approach to housing policy and investment will therefore deliver positive economic and social outcomes to the benefit of everyone. The Northern Ireland Executive putting housing on a firm footing – with a concrete pledge in the Programme for Government – would be a great step to recognising the importance of housing.

T: 028 9023 0446



57 housing report

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Improved productivity in construction key to multi-market supply challenges

key challenges to supply in all housing markets in Ireland and Britain, research has found.

In an extensive report analysing the Irish – north and south – Welsh, Scottish, and English residential markets, with a particular focus on their capacity to increase housing supply over the short to medium term, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) highlights a need for changes to traditional recruitment methods.

Suggesting adaptations that include hiring trainees and apprenticeships to allow young workers to learn on the job, alongside attracting skilled workers who have left the industry to return, the research highlights that while the challenge exists across all markets, the situation is particularly acute for the Northern Ireland and British markets, where Brexit has made net immigration into the UK more difficult.

“Traditionally over the past 25 years, housing markets in Ireland and the UK have sourced a significant amount of

labour from the European Union. By definition, this is now more difficult for the UK and the Northern Ireland markets,” it states.

Brexit has also had an impact on the ‘hard costs’ experienced by individual housing markets. While the Republic of Ireland has in recent years experienced higher materials and labour costs than housing markets in Britain, the rate of growth in costs in those markets has been faster, exacerbated by Brexit.

“This is putting further upward pressure on wages and prices of materials, on top of international trends generally,” the report states.

However, it is noted that Northern Ireland’s housing market has been somewhat shielded from Brexit-related cost increases in relation to materials, due to the arrangements of the Windsor Framework. This is not the case when it comes to wages, with Northern Ireland seeing the fastest rate of wage increases compared to the

Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Contrasting housing supply in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom identifies a number of substantive factors impacting the supply side of the housing market, not least production costs, regulatory environments and the economic dynamics, across the different markets.

Alongside labour market shortages, another key finding across all markets is evidence that the “traditional financial sector” no longer appears able “to provide the requisite amount of credit for the level of housing activity which has been deemed necessary to meet the underlying structural demand for housing”. The report identifies increased government investment in social and affordable stock across all markets but highlights the Republic of Ireland as the most prominent case.

58 housing report

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Total housing supply per capita (1,000): Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland

From around the 1970s, governments have been less involved in the housing markets as the private sector worked to increase supply, however, the financial crash in 2008, a significant weakening of the construction sector, aligned with slow recovery and increasing demand has seen sharp rent and house price increases.

“Governments have become more active again in the housing markets, with many publishing housing plans outlining specific targets for housing supply.

Given the significant fall-off in supply in Ireland, it is not surprising that the Irish Government has set the highest targets per capita across the regions discussed.”

However, recognised by the report is the fact that government housing plans usually refer to the annual increase in housing required to meet new demand due to demographic pressures, but typically do not take into account the backlog of demand due to targets not being met in the past.


While all housing markets share similarities in navigating challenges of the planning systems, the ESRI research suggests that Northern Ireland is being most hampered by a lack of standardisation in planning across local areas. Highlighting recent reform of the planning process in Ireland, the report suggests that the Scottish model, whereby local authorities when preparing local plans place a significant emphasis on consultations with interested parties and community members, might be beneficial across other markets.

“The report therefore suggests a greater degree of aggregation may be more practical in devising and implementing such development plans,” it states.

Linked to the planning system is a suggestion that housing markets in Ireland and Britain could benefit from greater regulation in the provision of land for housing, recognising the potential to reduce land prices, and lower overall production costs. In this regard, it is noted that Irish and British housing markets are “somewhat idiosyncratic” compared to other European models.

Detailed statistical analysis within the report also identified a number of key findings, namely: that compared to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland’s housing market has a much stronger longrun price elasticity of housing supply, suggesting that investment in the Irish housing market responds more strongly to an increase in house prices than in Northern Ireland.

Additionally, Irish house prices have a significant negative relationship with housing stock, meaning that an increase in stock will lower house prices. However, the impact is weaker than in Britain, while in Northern Ireland, where increases in dwellings do not have the same deflationary impact.

Finally, the report points to analytical data which suggest that across all housing markets, house price response to changes in supply is weaker when the percentage of social housing stock is increased.

0 5 10 15 20 25 1 9 71 1 9 73 1 9 75 1 9 77 1 9 79 1 9 81 1 9 83 1 9 85 1 9 87 1 9 89 1 9 91 1 9 93 1 9 95 1 9 97 1 9 99 2 0 01 2 0 03 2 0 05 2 0 07 2 0 09 2 0 11 2 0 13 2 0 15 2 0 17 2 0 19 2 0 21 Northern Ireland Ireland England Wales Scotland 59 housing report

SSE AES: Making homes cosier and more energy efficient

SSE Airtricity is working with governments, local authorities, and domestic customers to support the decarbonisation of homes across the island of Ireland.

Generation Green Home Upgrade

As a leading provider of cleaner, greener energy for homes and businesses across Ireland and Northern Ireland, we are all about making the island of Ireland a more sustainable place.

Stuart Hobbs is the Director of SSE Airtricity Energy Services (AES), a business dedicated to delivering home energy upgrades and utilising energy efficiency technologies to deliver a cleaner greener environment. SSE AES offers home energy upgrades under a number of different government-funded programmes: Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP), SEAI One Stop Shop retrofit programmes, Better Energy Homes, Local Authority Energy Efficiency Retrofit Programs (EERP), and SEAI Warmer Homes.

Up to two million homes across the island of Ireland are in need of energy upgrades by 2050, as energy efficient buildings are essential to meet our climate action targets. These upgrades typically include external wall insulation,

energy efficient windows and doors, attic insulation, heating controls, heat pumps, solar PV, and battery systems, and electric vehicle (EV) charging points.

Part of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Climate Action Policy includes a national retrofit programme aiming to see up to 200,000 homes, retrofitted to a B plus EPC rating by 2030. SSE AES is supporting the retrofit of over 40,000 homes on the island of Ireland over the next 10 years, with around 4,000 upgrades already completed. These works will drastically reduce the emissions of thousands of homes, saving millions on energy costs for consumers and making their homes warmer, healthier. Once delivered, this will equal approximately £20 million in reduced energy costs every year.

1. One Stop Shop:

A Generation Green Home Upgrade from SSE Airtricity is the perfect way to upgrade your home. Hobbs states: “We offer an award-winning retrofit service with a full range of home upgrade options, expert project management and a streamlined grant application process. We have partnered with Ireland’s leading experts in energy efficiency upgrades. From solar PV to windows and doors, internal and external insulation, heat pumps, and EV chargers, we only work with the best. Our customers receive a free home consultation to discuss their home upgrade requirements and receive expert recommendations from our team of specialists. It is one call, it is one job, it is one point of contact.”

2. Local Authority Energy Efficiency Retrofit Programmes (EERP)

SSE Airtricity has been providing home energy upgrades since 2012, working with SEAI, local authorities and other

60 housing report

housing bodies on joint initiatives. SSE AES help local authorities deliver their Energy Efficiency Retrofit Program (EERP) obligations by taking a lot of the hassle and complexity away, enabling them to deliver larger projects at a better cost and with more flexibility than their own resources might allow. “Over the last decade, we have delivered significant energy upgrades to fuel poor and social housing units, and we have significant ambitions to expand and increase these partnerships. SSE AES’s award-winning service provides a full EERP turnkey solution for local authorities, managing the works from start to finish on a partnership basis with local authorities or housing bodies. We offer pre- and post-BERs, full project design, guidance and preparation and management of all tender documents to be fully compliant with EU procurement requirements, including full end-to-end project management.” SSE AES also compiles all certificates and associated paperwork for the local authorities to make a successful claim to the department. In addition, SSE AES offers financial support to the project in the form of energy credits generated, as well as offering bridging finance for local authority EERP projects. SSE AES has a body of retrofit contractors and resources ready and able to deliver in all 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland.

3. SEAI Warmer Homes

Warmer Homes is a nationwide retrofit scheme administered by the SEAI delivering free energy upgrades for households in receipt of certain government benefits. Energy retrofit measures delivered under this scheme include high energy efficiency heating systems, ventilation, external wall insulation, attic insulation and in some cases windows and doors – making these homes warmer, healthier, and more economical to run. SSE AES is a registered SEAI Warmer Homes contractor to deliver energy upgrades under this national scheme. SSE AES has delivered over 270 home energy upgrades under this scheme since 2020 across a range of shallow and deep retrofit measures and have recently been successfully reappointed to the SEAI 2023 Warmer Homes Contract, to continue delivering energy retrofit upgrades on behalf of SEAI over the next four years.

“It is cosier. There was a desperate draught from that door and that is all gone. The heat - and being able to regulate it - is wonderful. It is excellent.” Local resident of Beaufort OAP Complex in Glasthule.

Award winning service

SSE AES retrofit programs received awards and recognitions over the past few years for their various retrofit services. Last year alone, SSE AES

received nominations and secured wins alongside their local authority partner, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, for their upgrade to 58 units in Beaufort OAP Complex in Glasthule. These included winning the Residential Energy Upgrades Awards category at the SEAI Energy Awards 2023, the Local Authority Innovation Award category at the Chambers Ireland Excellence in Local Government Awards, and achieving the gold award in the Energy Initiative/Project of the Year at the AllIreland Sustainability Awards.

For further information on SSE AES programme supports, contact

Stuart Hobbs on:

T: 00353 87 923 6404



SSE AES and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council receiving their SEAI Residential Energy Upgrade Award 2023 for the Beaufort Project. (L-R): Darrell Crowe (SSE AES), Stuart Hobbs (SSE AES), Willie Walsh (SEAI), Denis O’Callaghan, (Cathaoirleach, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council), James Ryan (DLR CoCo).
61 housing report

Housing in Northern Ireland

These statistics cover the 2022/2023 period unless noted otherwise and have been obtained from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Institute (NISRA) and the Irish Central Statistics Office (CSO).


Housing tenure 2022/2023

6,051 new dwelling starts in 2022/2023

• 18.6% decrease on 2021/2022

• 4,988 of dwelling starts in the private sector

• 1,063 in the social sector

Source: NISRA

Owned outright

Ownedwithmorgage Rentedprivately

Rented (NIHE)

Rented froma housingassociation

Rent free

Social housing

New social housing dwelling starts 1,956 in 2022/23

46,461 applicants on the waiting list

34,651 in ‘housing stress’ (30 or more points on social housing selection scheme)

Average social rented sector rent per week £82

Sources: NISRA/DfC

62 housing report
Total housing stock 814,200 Average household size 2.5 Housing stock per 1,000 population 430 Occupied housing stock 762,000
42% 30% 13% 10% 4% 1%
The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland


15,965 households presented as homeless

• 8,388 households (52.5%) accepted as full duty applicants

• 2,742 (17.2%) rejected

10,349 households statutorily homeless

Families (37.1%) and single males (24.7%) groups with the highest proportion of homelessness acceptances

Source: NISRA

Private rented sector

Average weekly private rent £109 in 2021/2022

• £46 below the UK average (£155)

• lower than England (£161), Scotland (£127) and Wales (£115)

• lower than Republic of Ireland (€273/£234)

Sources: NISRA and Irish Central Statistics Office

63 housing report

Looking to the future as Housing Rights turns 60

With 60 years’ experience, Housing Rights can conclusively say that high quality, independent housing advice changes lives, writes CEO, Kate McCauley.

As the leading provider of housing advice in Northern Ireland, our advisers change lives every day. Last year, amid a cost-ofliving crisis, our advice services helped

13,517 households and we directly prevented 1,398 households becoming homeless.

First established in 1964, in response to the appalling housing difficulties linked with widespread slum clearance in Belfast, our founders understood the urgency in addressing the immediate hardship many in the city faced.

Six decades later, we work throughout Northern Ireland within communities and across sectors with our services extending from advice, advocacy, and representation to policy and capacity building. Whilst our work has grown and the backdrop has changed significantly, many people still have difficulty finding and keeping a home that meets their needs.

Poverty remains inextricably linked with homelessness. Housing conditions, while dramatically improved overall, still have a debilitating impact on health and wellbeing for people on the lowest incomes. Legal and policy protections can and should go further.

The communities we serve, face real and pressing challenges

The experience of the pandemic and the economic shock which followed have not been felt evenly across society. Recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that housing costs take up three-and-a-half times as much of the budgets of low-income households, compared to those on a high-income with significant implications for living standards.

The stubborn challenge of poverty is now matched by a profound crisis in housing supply. Over the last 20 years, there has been a 72 per cent increase in the number of people in need of social housing. In the same period, the number of homes allocated to those on the housing waiting list, has fallen by one

64 housing report
Housing Rights’ CEO, Kate McCauley.

third. Last year, there were more temporary accommodation placements than at any time since records began. New threats, posed by the impact of climate change, risk deepening long standing inequalities in housing. Extreme weather events, including flooding are increasing and we want to ensure that the needs of those most in need of our services are not left behind in the ‘race to net zero’. This provides a new lens for our focus on affordability and poor housing standards. In an updated report (February 2024), the Institute for Health Equity (IHE) has noted that despite improvements in housing insulation since 2011, just over half of all households in the UK are living in energy inefficient housing. This, the IHE states, together with excessive costs of fuel and increasing poverty, means that more of the population are at risk from the poor health and mortality associated with cold homes than when their first report was published more than a decade ago.

Our work has never been more needed

We recognise the challenges ahead, but we are encouraged by our track record in effecting positive change. As an independent charity with strong links across the community and voluntary sectors, we see the value in and results of effective collaboration. We are proud of our work with others, and we have proven ourselves to be an important delivery partner for government.

Innovating through experience and data insights

We are values led and solution focused. We know that we must continue to be agile and innovate, so we can best meet the needs of the communities we serve. Going forward, we will shape inclusive,

“The stubborn challenge of poverty is now matched by a profound crisis in housing supply.”

prevention focused services by working with and through communities. We intend to build on our track record of involving people affected by poor housing and homelessness. For a long time, we have involved ‘experts by experience’ in the delivery of our services, such as our peer advice work in Northern Ireland’s three prisons.

This experience has taught us that the services we deliver are better when they are designed in partnership with the people who use them. Our new strategy, which itself was informed by the insights from people affected by poor housing and homelessness, commits to increasing our work in this area.

Developments in technology and insights from data will help us make the best use of limited resources. We are already using these advancements to make it easier for people who need our help to access it. Our online advice and information content has been completely rewritten and we provide advice across multiple channels. This year, we are excited about our partnership with Altair, who we have commissioned to help us make better use of the data we hold. We want our services to be more responsive and evidence informed, and we know that timely and accessible data is a key enabler for this. Strategically, we also

know that data about the level and nature of need for our services is also a key indicator about how well government housing policy is working. We consistently ensure that our contribution to public policy development is informed by the experience of the people we serve, and we are working hard to strengthen this evidence base further.

Looking forwards

As we look forwards, we feel the same urgency and commitment as our founders did to ensuring everyone has a home. We remain steadfast in our determination to provide quality services which prevent homelessness and help people with their housing problems.

T: 028 9024 5640


65 housing report
A snapshot of Housing Rights’ impact in 2022-2023 with key statistics from their advice services.

HMO review: Changes to 2016 legislation recommended

While changes made to regulations around houses in multiple occupation (HMO) have been met with broad satisfaction from houseowners and tenants alike, a Department for Communities review on HMO legislation outlines seven proposed changes which also have a considerable level of support.

The Houses in Multiple Occupation Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which came into effect in April 2019, transferred the responsibility for the regulation of HMOs from the Housing Executive to local councils, while also changing the scheme from a registration scheme to a licensing scheme.

A challenge raised by the Department is that many HMO occupiers are “unaware of their rights, or have few housing choices, and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation”.

The main objective of the review, entitled Review of Houses in Multiple Occupation Scheme and published by the Department for Communities in July 2023, was to examine how the scheme is working on delivering the original policy intent to “improve the conditions for tenants in this type of accommodation”.

66 housing report
strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland
Credit: William Murphy

The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland

Proposed legislative changes

Although the report states that there is broad satisfaction for the 2016 legislation from tenants and houseowners alike, the review raises seven prospective legislative changes to the Houses in Multiple Occupation Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 raised:

1. The first of these was amending section six of the Multiple Occupation Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which pertains to notice regarding continuation of occupation. Belfast City Council’s NI Houses in Multiple Occupation (NIHMO) unit has requested that the time limit of four months in section 6 is extended to six months as with some properties which are let to students, the property may be empty from May to October. The Department states it will “consider a change to this section”.

2. The second proposed change is to section 12 of the Act, which pertains to overprovision. Currently, section 12 states that in considering whether granting a licence would result in overprovision of HMOs in an area, the Council must have regard to: (a) the number and capacity of licensed HMOs in the locality, and (b) the need for housing accommodation in the locality and the extent to which HMO accommodation is required to meet that need. The Department, however, states that “historical overprovision is outside of the scope of the Act and therefore of the review”.

3. The third proposed change is to sections 15 and 16, which are on temporary exemption notice and extension of temporary exemption notice, respectively. Currently, section 15 of the 2016 Act applies where the owner of an unlicensed HMO makes an application to the Council which specifies steps which may be taken with a view to securing that the HMO ceases to become a HMO and includes a declaration that the owner intends to take those steps. This provision allows landlords to give tenants notice to leave the property. A temporary exemption notice has an effect for three months.

Additionally, section 16 allows the exemption notice to be extended for a further three months. Belfast City Council has requested the ability to charge a fee for such notices, which is currently a free service, and that charging be allowed under this provision to bring it into line with the other notices under the scheme for which there is a charge to cover the administrative costs associated with issuing such notices. The Department for

Communities has agreed to “work with councils to determine the appropriate fee” and to propose changes to the legislation “to allow such a fee to be charged”.

4. The fourth change proposed in the review is to section 29, which is on the death of a sole licence holder. Section 29 states that when a sole licensee dies, an existing HMO licence is to be treated as being held from the date of death by the licensee’s personal representatives. Section 29 transfers the licence of a deceased sole licence-holder to that person’s executor. The licence expires three months after the date of death, unless the council is satisfied that it is reasonable to extend it in order to wind up the holder’s estate. The Department proposes that this time limit is extended to 12 months.

5. The fifth change proposed is to schedule two, paragraph three, which currently states that a council “must send a copy of any application for an HMO licence to the statutory authorities”. The Department recommends the removal of the requirement for statutory agencies to be notified of all HMO applications. However, the Department states that under current legislation, the police, fire service, NIHE and the Department all get notified of applications and it is not required.

6. The sixth proposed in the review is to schedule two, paragraph 12, which sets out a time limit of three months for a council to process a HMO licence application. The NIHMO unit has reported difficulties with the current three-month limit which it states has been “exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the changes to ways of working this has entailed”. The NIHMO unit also claims that the requirement for an extension to the time limit to be made through a court is incurring significant expenditure, with the court service also querying the number of applications received in this regard. The Department proposes extending this time limit.

7. The seventh and final proposed change is to the Houses in Multiple Occupation Regulation (Fees), which currently stipulates that the maximum fee that can be charged to process a licence application is £45. The Department acknowledges that this upper limit “will have to be reviewed” to ensure that the income generated by the licensing scheme “continues to meet the costs of the scheme”.

The Department for Communities states that these proposed changes mainly involve amending the primary legislation, and therefore will “take some time to complete”.

67 housing report

Homes for people to live well at any age

Clanmil’s Older People Strategy sets out the roadmap for providing homes and services for an ageing population.

As one of Northern Ireland’s largest housing associations, Clanmil provides homes for people to live well at all ages and stages of life, including a range of accommodation options for over 2,800 older people with varying levels of independence and support needs.

We are living in an ageing population, with one in six people in Northern

Ireland now aged 65 or over. That figure is predicted to increase substantially in the next 25 years, and we need to be ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

As well as more demand for specialist housing, there will also be more pressure on support services and social and healthcare provision.

• Clanmil Housing is one of Northern Ireland’s leading housing associations and currently owns and manages over 5,800 homes throughout Northern Ireland including family homes, homes for single people, and homes for older people.

• Clanmil provides a range of accommodation and support for 1,800 older people including category 1 apartments for active older people, independent living schemes, housing with care for frail older people and supported housing for older people with dementia. A further 1,000 older people live in general needs accommodation.

Our focus is to ensure that older people can live independently for as long as possible. In addition, we want them to be comfortable and safe within their communities and most importantly, to feel they are valued, and their voices are heard.

To navigate the challenges ahead, we launched a new three-year Older People Strategy in December 2023. The strategy was co-designed with customers and colleagues, as part of our commitment to focus our efforts on areas that really matter.

With six strategic goals outlining our vision, the strategy describes our commitment to providing high quality homes for older people to live well, now and in the future, and delivering the right services for customers, including through effective partnerships where appropriate. We will also continue to advocate for older people and ensure that their voices are heard as well as supporting them to live fulfilling lives, with dignity and choice.

Commenting on the new strategy, Pól Callaghan, Director of Housing, Customer and Communities at Clanmil says: “People are now living for longer and their expectations are changing. At Clanmil we recognise that our services need to be flexible and adapt.

“Our new strategy will ensure that we are focusing our efforts where they have most impact and that we are providing the types of homes and services people need, so that they get the most from life as they grow older.”

To find out more about Clanmil, visit

68 housing report

Fun and friendship across the generations

One of the issues that informed Clanmil’s Older People Strategy is loneliness. It has become a significant challenge, with 30 per cent of people in society over 80 describing themselves as feeling lonely.*

To combat this, we work with a range of

partners to deliver programmes and activities that increase wellbeing and encourage socialising.

One of these partners is Linking Generations, who have been connecting people of all ages in communities across Northern Ireland

since 2009. They have provided training sessions for Clanmil colleagues on making links between residents of independent living schemes and schools and nurseries in their communities.

In Ballymoney, a group of year 6 pupils at a local primary school have been visiting residents of Cramsie Court, an independent living scheme in the town.

Each Friday afternoon, the young people from Ballymoney Model Integrated Primary School visit the scheme to learn how to play traditional board games and crafts like knitting, while chatting over juice and biscuits and getting to know each other.

Kathy Murphy, who lives at Cramsie Court, said she really enjoys the weekly visits: “It is very good for the children and for us residents. It is good for us to mix and to show the children our skills, like knitting and playing games. I have been teaching one of the wee girls knitting and she is getting on very well.”

Fitness has no age limit for Clanmil care

Staying active through physical activity is just one of the ways to enjoy a happy, healthy old age. When former boxing champion and coach Joe Harvey recently brought his boxing classes to De La Cour House in Belfast, the residents discovered a new lease of life.

The class proved hugely popular with residents, some of whom are over the age of 80 and many living with conditions such as dementia. As well as helping build up strength and fitness with the use of boxing gloves, pads and resistance bands, the class also saw


some of the quieter residents become more confident and sociable.

The success of the initiative led Clanmil to roll out the classes to two more care homes; Giboney House in Belfast and Marriott House in Magherafelt. Residents at one of Clanmil’s independent living schemes, Cook Court in Newtownards, have also enjoyed classes with Joe.

As well as helping to improve their strength and endurance, the classes have encouraged residents to socialise with others, which is important in combatting loneliness and isolation. Staff at the care homes also reported that residents were mentally more alert and their sleeping and eating patterns improved after the classes.

Boxing Fit at Clanmil: Pictured from (L-R): De la Cour Manager Tammy Forsythe; resident Sammy Johnston; boxing coach Joe Harvey. Annie Pollock, a year 6 pupil at Ballymoney Model Integrated Primary School with Kathy Murphy, one of the residents at Cramsie Court
69 housing report

‘Right to buy’ scheme to remain for Housing Executive homes

New Housing Minister Gordon Lyons MLA has said that he has no intention to bring forward legislation to end the Housing Executive’s House Sales Scheme.

The Minister was responding to a question posed by the SDLP’s communities spokesperson Daniel McCrossan MLA, whose party is calling for the scheme to be scrapped in a bid to reduce the number of households on the growing social housing waiting list.

The Housing Executive’s House Sale Scheme was first introduced in 1979 and has seen over 120,000 properties sold to tenants at a discount.

As Northern Ireland’s largest social landlord, the Housing Executive currently maintains a stock of over 80,000 homes but that number has been falling, in part due to the House Sales Scheme.

While the number of house sales under the scheme varies per year, it is understood that on average the number of homes sold by the Housing Executive per year is in the hundreds.

Under the scheme, eligible tenants of the Housing Executive have a right to buy their home at a discount. A five-year secure tenancy usually brings a discount of some 20 per cent of market value, but discounts can increase by 2 per cent for every additional tenancy year to a maximum of 60 per cent or £24,000, whichever is lower.

The scheme, which previously applied to all social landlords, was closed to tenants of registered housing associations in Northern Ireland in August 2022 following the passing of the Housing (Amendment) Act (NI) 2020.

The legislation was passed in recognition that social landlords were losing stock at a time when the social housing waiting list and volume of households deemed as in housing stress were increasing. At the end of 2023, 46,461 households were on the housing waiting list, 34,651 of whom were deemed as in housing stress.

70 housing report The strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland


The waiting list challenge has seen a renewed push for an increase in supply of new social homes. The Department for Communities’ draft Housing Supply Strategy estimates the need for an average of 2,222 new social housing units per year by 2027 to address need. However, despite this, financial pressures have seen a reduction in the number of social homes (1,500) delivered this year, compared to last (1,956).

Previous housing ministers have indicated an intention to potentially close the scheme in recognition that the need to increase to supply is in contrast to the loss of social housing stock to the private sector.

Housing officials have highlighted that the cost to build a new social home is significantly more than the money received from social unit sales. In addition, those social housing units sold tend to be of the best quality, meaning a deterioration the average overall condition of the remaining social housing stock.

Any loss of stock equates to a loss of rental income, further restricting the finances available to the Housing Executive to maintain its existing stock.

Following the passing of legislation to end the House Sales Scheme for housing associations, in November 2020, then-interim Housing Minister Carál Ní Chuilín MLA announced her intention to bring forward a consultation on the Housing Executive’s House Sales Scheme and make changes before the end of the electoral mandate, with the aim of addressing “the need to protect social housing stock and deal with the inequity in the social housing”.

“The selling of our social housing stock has been a huge contributory factor to our spiralling housing waiting lists”.

However, following the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in February 2024, new Housing Minister Gordon Lyons MLA has now stated that he has “no plans” to bring forward legislation to end the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s House Sales Scheme.

This is despite recognition from a senior official in his department that the decline in the number of Housing Executive-owned home is potentially unsustainable.

Mark O’Donnell, Deputy Secretary of Housing and Sustainability at the Department for Communities, told the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Communities committee that: “There is no doubt that the number of Housing Executive homes is declining at a fairly, maybe unsustainable, rate because of the ‘right to buy’ scheme.”

O’Donnell said that while he knew the abolishment of the scheme had been on the agenda for other ministers in the past, he was not in a position to pre-judge the current minister’s outlook.

Speaking after receiving written confirmation from the Minister that he did not intend to legislate, the SDLP’s McCrossan highlighted that his party has long called for the scheme to be scrapped in recognition that “the selling of our social housing stock has been a huge contributory factor to our spiralling housing waiting lists”.

McCrossan added: “When the Assembly returned, I asked the new Communities Minister Gordon Lyons to give his view on the policy only to be told he has no intention of ending it. This seems particularly short-sighted given the failure to accelerate housebuilding in the North over recent years, with the cost of materials spiralling, all while social housing stock is being sold off.

“I would urge the Minister to look again at this proposal and the SDLP opposition will continue to push for the end of this practice that has undoubtedly contributed to our housing crisis.

“We will never address these issues without taking tough decisions and the Minister needs to act now before things get even worse.”

71 housing report
Daniel McCrossan MLA
strategic housing authority for Northern
Choice Group must be caring, committed, and creative to succeed
Michael McDonnell, Choice
Chief Executive, outlines the housing association’s new roadmap for effective and efficient services.

A clearly defined ‘roadmap’ is important to ensure the smooth and successful operation of any organisation and Choice Group is no different. On 1 April, Choice launched our Strategy to 2027, a document that will feed directly into the day-to-day activities that take place at one of Northern Ireland’s largest housing associations and social enterprises.

It will also provide clear direction in terms of decision-making, and the creation and implementation of new policies over the next three years.

Reflecting the views of our stakeholders,

including trustees, tenants, staff, partners, and others across the Northern Ireland housing sector, we believe that we have a bold vision for the future. Choice Group has listened carefully over recent months and we have identified three strategic priorities which create a framework for our activities from now until 2027.

There are many opportunities for our tenant-centred, community-focused, notfor-profit organisation to change and improve the way that we do things. Ultimately, Choice seeks to make a positive difference to our stakeholders

through effective and efficient services and a focus on maximising our resources to keep our rents as low as possible. We will also continue to access development funding at competitive rates to enable our growth aspirations.

Our first priority is to Provide Great Homes. In the case of new homes, we intend to contribute significantly to the Social Housing Development Programme with a clear focus on high-demand, general needs housing. All Choice homes should be safe, affordable and of a high quality. We will continue to lead the sector with our mixed-tenure strategy

Choice scheme on the Woodstock Road, Belfast.

using the skills and expertise of our Maple and May subsidiaries to ensure we create communities that are free from stigma and segregation. We will also champion the ‘Housing for All’ initiative which promotes diverse, integrated, and sustainable neighbourhoods.

Supporting Communities to Thrive is our second strategic imperative and this should underpin every Choice scheme across Northern Ireland. Listening to our tenants, taking their views on board and reflecting their feedback in our service delivery is fundamental to our charitable status. Tenancy sustainment is crucial, too, and we will achieve this through the provision of excellent housing and property management services, including best in class maintenance response times through our subsidiary Choice Services.

Other objectives include working through mutually beneficial partnerships to meet sheltered and supported housing priorities and informing and influencing public policy and debate around the issues that affect tenants and communities.

As a large employer across Northern Ireland, we are committed to Empowering our People by investing in their skills and wellbeing. This strategic priority reflects the fundamental importance of our people and the need to develop talent in a competitive labour market. We will also make better use of our systems, data, and reporting to improve the decision-making process. Enabling technology to simplify both the staff and customer journey will promote both high satisfaction with our service delivery and enhanced value for money.

Whilst Strategy to 2027 sets a new and exciting direction forward for Choice Group, our mission is unchanged as we seek to enrich the lives of our tenants and communities through the provision of great homes and services.

Our vision is to excel in everything we do in the eyes of our customers, partners and staff. Our ultimate ambition is to empower staff and partners to make a positive and sustainable difference by: increasing the supply of high quality and affordable homes; ensuring access to excellent support services; enabling our communities to flourish; and making best use of our collective talent and resources.

Underpinning everything are the Choice values which remain unchanged. We will be caring through listening, being helpful and always act professionally. We will be committed through our determination, being a reliable housing provider and always acting with integrity. And we will be creative through innovating, being responsive and always seeking to improve.

But Choice should always be judged by what we do rather than what we say. So, we will continue to develop challenging annual business plans and budgets with specific deliverables and robust key performance indicators and targets. Progress will be monitored with group board, subsidiary boards and committee members and we are going to report regularly to stakeholders on our achievements, future intentions and investment plans. We will also deliver annual reports on our performance to the Department for Communities and

Charities Commission who act as our regulators.

These are challenging times for the Northern Ireland housing sector with lots of risks to manage and obstacles to overcome. However, the recommencement of the Northern Assembly provides a basis for optimism and renewed hope that housing will feature prominently in the new Programme for Government.

Whatever the context, Choice Group through our new strategy will continue to focus on supporting our tenants, their families, and communities across the region.

T: 0300 111 2211



Michael McDonnell, Chief Executive, Choice Group.

Showcasing Northern Ireland’s ESG on a European platform

Radius Housing recently hosted some of the UK and Europe’s leading housing associations and stakeholders to share best practices on the delivery of affordable and sustainable homes.

In November 2023, Radius and Belfast hosted the Autumn Conference for the European Federation of Living (EFL).

The EFL is a consortium of European and the UK’s leading housing associations, universities and expert private businesses which specialise in all matters social housing. Members include Places for People, Clarion, the Peabody Group, the Wheatley Group and Cluid.

Whereas other European housing bodies focus on policy and research, the EFL seeks to share best housing practice and to create practical solutions to create more affordable, sustainable housing.

It comprises 70 members and associates from 19 European countries, with a joint portfolio of more than 1.3 million homes across Europe. The EFL combines the shared knowledge of member social housing providers with the cutting-edge thinking of leading associate partner universities, and the innovative work of private sector companies. Through events, research, and projects, EFL ensures that members and associates are at the forefront of innovating property and community development in Europe.

Radius joined the EFL with the intention of collaborating on projects and

knowledge sharing across a broad range of topics including: ESG and sustainability; modern methods of construction; community investment; capital financing options; technology in housing; older people housing and services, to name a few.

The EFL regularly hosts workshops for topic groups as well as development programmes for young managers. A number of Radius managers have had the opportunity to network and participate in these programmes and benefit from the unique opportunity of collaborative thinking and problemsolving with peers from different

74 housing report
Delegates from 2023 Autumn European Federation of Housing, hosted in Belfast by Radius Housing.

countries and backgrounds. This experience has helped widen their perspectives and expand their personal networks such that they are better able to tackle the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

EFL members were keen to come to Belfast and not only sample the hospitality of the city but also understand how the region was regenerating sustainable communities, providing for its older citizens, maximising independence through technology and exploring the potential for AI.

In recent years, Radius adopted the UK’s Sustainability Reporting Standard (SRS) as a means of aligning an extensive list of community investment, governance, and eco-friendly initiatives and commitments.


In 2023, Radius further added the Sustainable Finance Framework approach as it became the first Northern Ireland business to draw down a £20 million Green Term Loan with Barclays Plc. This will help fund new developments designed to EPC-Level A sustainable homes. We were proud to win the Belfast Telegraph’s ‘Climate Initiative of the Year’ award in 2023 with the judges citing our “strategic and holistic approach” and further stating “Radius has delivered a range of initiatives to decarbonise both their existing properties and their newbuild developments as well as a number of other environmental improvements”.

At the event, the Radius community investment team were able to showcase their outcomes as they have been particularly active in all matters societal, promoting initiatives to improve tenancy sustainability; inclusivity, awareness and respect; wellbeing, education and employment; together with intergenerational biodiversity. Advice officers over three years have identified over £2.5 million of entitlements which have had life-changing consequences for many.

Tenants across Northern Ireland engage with Radius through a network of committees, focus groups and community-based events. Last year, over 10,000 participants joined 260 community events, programmes, and projects, jointly arranged with 110 statutory and community partners.

Radius’s much heralded Schools

Biodiversity Project was one of several highlights in the year with 23 schools and 607 pupils coming together under the ‘Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful’ initiative, aimed at promoting good relations and inclusivity within the theme of better biodiversity. Older people took part in the programme adding an intergenerational dimension to proceedings. Radius is one of many local associations promoting shared living through the Housing Executive’s Housing for All programme covering new-build communities. No less than 14 Radius neighbourhoods have signed up to the government-backed initiative, each with detailed good relations plans, aimed at building respect and understanding and celebrating diversity.

In 2023, Radius commenced work on 94 new energy efficient homes on the former Gasworks Site in the Market area of Belfast. EFL members listened with keen interest to Fionntán Hargey of the Market Development Association (MDA) as he described the process of community engagement and the pivotal role the new development will play in the wider regeneration of the historical area of the city. Members would later participate in a discussion on the Belfast Local Development Plan and the ’15-minute-city’ urban concept whereby most daily necessities and services, such as living, work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk, bike ride, or public transit ride from any point in the city.

Environmental Architect Sofie

Pelsmakers gave her perspective on senior living while Marcel Staub of Lookthrough explored the potential for AI in a housing context. The conference attendees visited the Titanic Quarter and toured residential neighbourhoods across Belfast. They were captivated by the remarkable stories that contributed to Belfast’s complex history. They were welcomed to the Belfast City Hall by Lord Mayor Ryan Murphy, followed by dinner that evening in the Great Hall of Queen’s University, hosted by Kellie Armstrong MLA. Further presentations on housing IT, ESG, energy poverty, and assistive technology made for a memorable conference.

The Radius Housing team were delighted to be recognised at the Social Enterprise NI awards, as Social Enterprise of the Year 2023. This was in recognition of their "exceptional social impact and ongoing work with communities and partners, locally, nationally and across Europe". Their commitment to ESG and to building resilience across their shared communities is helping to sustain tenancies and improve the prospects for citizens across Northern Ireland.


75 housing report
In 2023, over 10,000 participants joined 260 community events, programmes, and projects, jointly arranged by Radius Housing with 110 statutory and community partners.

Energy Ireland Yearbook 2024

The essential guide to Irish energy for your organisation

Secure your copy today!

• the latest energy policy

• renewable energy

• gas in Ireland

• electricity

• sustainable energy

• digital energy

• transport and fuels

• Who’s who: 200 key players profiled

• A–Z directory

Web: Tel: +353 (0)1 661 3755 Email:

Events Publications
Infrastructure and transport report Digital

Infrastructure: A foundation for better communities

Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd MLA outlines his priorities in the delivery of a connected economy.

I believe that infrastructure is the starting point for a more prosperous and productive economy; it is an economic driver and a social enabler. It must be safe, accessible, and inclusive.

I am putting plans in place which will deliver positive and transformative change for our communities. I have a number of decisions to take and I know there will be many challenges ahead but there are also big opportunities to get our infrastructure right.

Of course, this will require funding to address the decade of underfunding and austerity by the Tory government. Capital funding remains largely absent from the UK financial package and as an Executive we would welcome separate discussions on the Government’s commitment to major projects.

It has been widely known for years that my

own department has been dealing with this shortfall which is seen daily on our roads and the development of water infrastructure.

Since I came into office, I have announced an additional £9.1 million for road maintenance to deal with potholes and resurfacing.

The Climate Change (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 places significant obligations on all departments. In the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) we are focused on transport decarbonisation and a modal shift towards active and sustainable travel removing traffic congestion from our cities, towns, and villages.

We will support local councils to develop transport plans that consider how to allocate road space in our urban areas to enable high quality public transport and active travel links

78 infrastructure and transport report
“Capital funding remains largely absent from the UK financial package and as an Executive we would welcome separate discussions on the Government's commitment to major projects.”
Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd MLA

and to help facilitate town centre and city centre living, a vibrant culture, and the development of a connected economy.

An effective planning system will support this work. Good progress has already been made here through the Planning Improvement Programme but this also needs to be properly resourced to become fully fit for purpose to deliver a collaborative, efficient, and timely service which will meet for local and regional needs.

Working with my department and others we are going to create a transport network that safely connects the island on a north-south and east-west basis. The Executive’s flagship project, the A5, will connect the north west with Dublin and all of the areas in between to also form a western transport axis, which will connect with the M1 and the M2, as well as the A1 between Belfast and Dublin. The €600 million from the Irish Government towards the scheme is very significant and most welcomed.

There is scope for future funding from the Irish Government and for collaboration in cross border projects such as our rail network and active travel such as greenways.

My department will continue to build on current engagement and collaboration with our colleagues in the South as we deliver positive change for people across our island.

Under the All Island Strategic Rail Review we have an opportunity to develop our rail networks to reconnect people and communities and deliver economic and social growth. Including electrification of rail services; strengthening Belfast-Dublin rail

services; creating a new line to the International Airport; as well as new services between Belfast and the north west, via Portadown and Omagh.

This also offers an opportunity to continue to support the decarbonisation, through the use of hydrogen technologies and electrification based on renewable energy supply.

Protecting our water courses, investing and developing our water and sewerage systems so that they are cleaner and greener, will play an important part in future proofing the environment. This will involve investment in technological solutions, as well as the development of nature-based water conservation and management. The more that we can live in harmony with our environment, the more we can grow in a sustainable way, supporting the development of more much needed housing supply.

My department will be working with NI Water and the Utility Regulator to assess the budget requirement for 2024/25 and to consider the detail of this funding to assist with budget decisions and prioritisation.

We can shape a better future for everyone by decarbonising key services and investing in climate adaptation measures and support economic productivity through projects, policy and legislation.

Getting infrastructure right – and investing in it – can create the foundations for better rural and urban communities.

In other words, it all starts here.

79 infrastructure and transport report

Legislative priorities

The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has identified five potential pieces of priority legislation it hopes to bring before the Northern Ireland Assembly during the remainder of the mandate.

80 infrastructure and transport report

The failure to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland for almost two years following the May 2022 election has resulted in a shortened mandate for Executive Ministers and departments to progress necessary legislation.

Provided there are no further collapses, the next Northern Ireland Assembly election must happen on or before 6 May 2027, meaning that ministers have just over three years to bring forward and finalise legislation.

Speaking in March 2024 to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Infrastructure Committee, Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd MLA said that his department has identified five priority bills.

The first, and most advanced piece of primary legislation, is the Water, Flooding and Drainage Bill. The Bill, which will seek to give additional powers for water shortage measures, create new measures for dealing with drainage and flooding, and include technical and procedural improvements to existing legislation, has already undergone public consultation and is included in the draft Programme for Executive Bills for introduction in 2024.

Pre-legislative scrutiny of the Ports and Harbours Bill has been scheduled for the Assembly’s Infrastructure Committee for 12 June 2024. The bill is expected to comprise three main elements, including changing the Office for National Statistics (ONS) classification of trust ports, by removing the legislative controls exercised by the Department. Further elements of the Bill centre on giving trust ports extended commercial powers, and additional provisions aimed at statutory harbour authorities relating to marine safety.

The Minister has stated that substantial policy developments have been undertaken and key issues have been identified in conjunction with key stakeholders, meaning that the Bill may be introduced in the first quarter of 2025.

A third bill, the Rail/Road Transport Bill, which was described by the Minister as “significant in size”, is expected to cut across a large number of policy areas. Likely to be divided into six parts, the Minister has suggested that each part could potentially be taken forward as a separate bill. Depending on progress and agreement, the Bill could form part of year three of the Executive’s legislative programme in 2026.

Two further pieces of legislation relate to transport decarbonisation and a planning amendment bill, both of which are described by the Department as at “initial policy scoping stage”.

Further to primary legislation, the Minister has indicated an intention to address a number of subject areas including reservoirs, electric vehicles and free period products through secondary legislation.

81 infrastructure and transport report

Departments not achieving ‘value for money’ in delivering major capital projects

Delays in the delivery of the majority of Northern Ireland’s major capital projects have led to projected cost increases worth billions of pounds, with only a fraction of almost 80 projects expected to be delivered on time and within cost.

Northern Ireland’s Comptroller and Auditor General has estimated that almost £2.5 billion of costs have been added to the original business case costs for major capital projects between April 2019 and April 2023.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) estimates that of a total of 77 projects listed by the Northern Ireland Executive’s departments, only nine are expected to meet their original time and cost estimates.

Among the projects are seven flagships, identified by the Executive as of highest priority, only one of which, the Belfast Rapid Transit project, has been delivered.

Those projects yet to be delivered include hospitals, critical care centres, major roads, Casement Park, and schools.

The report by Comptroller and Auditor General, Dorinnia Carville, follows up on a piece of work carried out in December 2019 by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), which analysed the delivery of 11 major capital projects, including the Executive’s seven flagships.

Findings of significant delay and cost overruns where subsequently presented to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which issued 15 recommendations to reform how capital projects were being delivered in Northern Ireland.

Despite the recommendations, the NIAO estimates that cost overruns identified, in the original 11 projects assessment, of some £700 million, have now risen to almost £2 billion.

In its latest report, the NIAO says that of the 77 projects included in major capital projects portfolio across Northern Ireland, originally estimated to cost £5.53 billion to complete, only nine are expected to meet their original timeframe and budget, and full delivery will now cost over £8 billion.

Noting “no notable transformation of commissioning and delivery arrangements in Northern Ireland”, as had been recommended in 2019, Comptroller and Auditor General, Carville says: “It remains extremely concerning that, more than four years after my office’s last report on this

82 infrastructure and transport report

Departments Major Capital Projects portfolios, for the period 1 April 2019 to 31 August 2023

issue, there is little evidence of improvement or past lessons learned being applied to new projects.”

Adding that even amongst the flagship projects – those identified as of highest priority – progress has been “limited”.

“It is clear that departments are not achieving value for money in the delivery of these major capital projects,” she states.

The NIAO acknowledges the role of external factors, such as the pandemic and inflation, in delays or rising costs, but emphasises that failure to make fundamental reforms to the way capital projects are commissioned and delivered is a “significant contributing factor” in the substantial cost and time overruns identified.

The NIAO has called for an overhaul of the system for commissioning major capital projects, recommending a comprehensive transformation project be established.

It points to work currently being undertaken by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) to identify the root causes of delay and cost overruns identified in the 2019 report, as having the potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the system for the planning and delivery of major capital projects.

“As major capital projects run over the course of several years, it will take time to fully assess the impact of the actions that have been taken so far to improve delivery in Northern Ireland. However, given the lack of substantive progress since our last report, we are of the view that immediate action is needed to prevent further cost overruns and delays,” Carville concludes.

Major capital projects April to August 2023

Departments major capital projects portfolio consisted of 77 projects.

The portfolio was originally estimated to cost £5.63 billion to complete and is now expected to cost £8.08 billion, a 44% increase on the original business case cost estimates.

Only 9 of the 77 projects are expected to meet both their original time and cost estimates.

41 of the 45 projects with estimated/actual cost overruns either did not or are not expected to meet their target completion dates.

83 infrastructure and transport report
Source: NIAO summary of information provided by departments.

Belfast Grand Central Station on track for autumn operational opening

Belfast Grand Central Station, on track for operational opening this autumn, will be the largest integrated transport hub on the island of Ireland.

This hugely important Northern Ireland Executive Flagship project, funded by the Department for Infrastructure, will bring about a step change in public transport.

It will be the main transport gateway to Belfast, enhancing local and international connectivity with rail, bus and coach connections across Northern Ireland and beyond.

The impressive high-quality Belfast Grand Central Station will offer an enhanced user experience for around 20 million customer journeys every year.

There will be double the number of rail platforms currently available from four to eight and a total of 26 bus stands, significantly increasing current capacity.

Playing a central role in a greener city and a shift in people’s travelling habits from cars to public transport, Belfast Grand Central Station will integrate cycle provision as part of the scheme and enhance pedestrian access. This transformation will help encourage more people to choose more sustainable travel choices, tackling the climate emergency and creating a cleaner, healthier region for everyone.

With a clear focus on active travel, the streets adjoining the station will include allocation of road space to pedestrians and cyclists including the provision of more than 200 spaces for cycle parking. Translink has included provision for the Belfast Bike Scheme and is working alongside Belfast City Council to discuss the potential of including a new docking station in the Weavers Cross area.

Fully inclusive and accessible to all

Belfast Grand Central Station will be fully inclusive and accessible to all users with members of the public with challenges travelling and key organisations such as the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (IMTAC) closely involved in the design phase.

The new station will include features such as the inclusion of changing places toilets, provision of sensory space, innovative wayfinding systems, an assistance dog spending area and provision for wheelchair accessible vehicle parking.

The modern, spacious, transport facility with mezzanine level will also be a destination retail space. Outside there will be a new exciting public realm space – Saltwater Square with a strong emphasis on arts and culture which has potential to become a focal point for everyone to use and enjoy.

An important city regeneration project

Translink has partnered with MRP to deliver Belfast’s transformational Weavers Cross – the new city neighbourhood surrounding Belfast Grand Central Station with the potential for 1.3 million square feet of mixed-use office, life sciences, residential, student housing, hotels, and retail/leisure space.

Belfast Grand Central Station at the

84 infrastructure and transport report
Ireland’s largest integrated transport hub: Belfast Grand Central Station will be a modern, spacious, transport facility with a dedicated public realm space, Saltwater Square, for arts, culture and community events and activities.

heart of Weavers Cross, will be a catalyst for the regeneration of this area.

The wider Weavers Cross development is a transport led regeneration project supporting the Belfast City Council’s Belfast Agenda – a new vision for Belfast in 2035 which aims to attract 50,000 new jobs and £1 billion investment for regeneration projects in the city.

This presents a unique opportunity to transform and regenerate a current brownfield site and create a new destination in the heart of the city.

Welcomed by stakeholders

Translink is working with a range of organisations to advance the transformation of transport and help encourage more sustainable travel for a better connected city and help Northern Ireland reach its climate goals. There is widespread support for the scheme and the long-term benefits it will bring to the city and region as a whole with recognition that taking forward a world-class project of this scale will inevitably bring some disruption during construction.

The Consumer Council, Visit Belfast, Belfast City Council, Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Belfast City Climate Commissioner, Climate NI, the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee and Sustrans, are among key stakeholders who have welcomed Belfast Grand Central Station as providing social, economic and environmental benefits to Belfast and the entire region.

Claire Pollock, Head of Sustrans Northern Ireland said: “The development of the new Belfast Grand Central Station presents an opportunity for people to rethink how they travel and to choose sustainable modes. Active and sustainable travel has so many benefits to health, household budgets, wellbeing and the climate, we would encourage everyone to build active travel into their daily travel routine.”

Noyona Chundur, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland says: “Belfast Grand Central Station is an excellent project that will bring many socio-economic benefits to consumers in Northern Ireland. It is an ambitious plan which will strengthen connectivity across all parts of Belfast and beyond, improve the customer experience and offer greater choice for passengers.”

Similarly, Suzanne Wylie, Chief Executive, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber)

“A game changer, not only for Belfast but all of Northern Ireland.”
Suzanne Wylie, Chief Executive, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“An excellent project that will bring many socio-economic benefits.”

Chundur, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland.

has called the new Belfast Grand Central Station “a game changer, not only for Belfast but all of Northern Ireland”.

She adds: “For anyone who has had a glimpse of the scale of the development underway, they will have a sense of this. But we have no doubt that, when the station opens the people of Northern Ireland, businesses and tourists alike will be wowed by its quality and the part it will play in regenerating the surrounding areas – improving passenger experiences, numbers and services such as the planned improvements to the Belfast-Dublin service and attracting more investment.”

The Enterprise cross border train service

The Enterprise will relocate from Lanyon Place to the brand-new Belfast Grand Central Station when it opens moving this key service closer to the city centre and delivering more connectivity with other bus, coach and train services across Northern Ireland and beyond.

In February 2024, the Irish Government announced €25 million in funding to provide for an hourly Enterprise train service under the Shared Island initiative which will double current frequency and significantly enhance sustainable transport connectivity between the two largest cities on the island of Ireland.

The flagship Enterprise service represents a tremendous opportunity for growth with some 3.3 million people living within a 40-mile commute distance from the Belfast to Dublin railway corridor. This is projected to grow to over four million by 2030 representing around half of the island’s entire population.

Anyone who wants to follow progress on Belfast Grand Central Station including proposed timeline of key activity and milestones for the project should visit:

Belfast Grand Central Station’s transformation will encourage more sustainable travel choices.
85 infrastructure and transport report
Infrastructure improvement needed to encourage active travel
While a majority of people would consider active travel, satisfaction with walking and cycling conditions are declining, undermining efforts towards a modal shift to active travel.

The 2022/23 Continuous Household Survey provides an insight into modes of transport considered to be ‘active travel’, likelihood to walk or cycle short journeys, and satisfaction with walking and cycling facilities in their area.

Defining the Department for Infrastructure’s policies for the decarbonisation of transport, is the Hierarchy for Reducing the Carbon Impact of Transport.

The Department states that as “a continued initiative... to encourage the public to participate in reducing carbon emissions”, the hierarchy has three overarching policy areas:

1. reducing trips;

2. shifting modes; and

3. switching fuels.

As such, the Department’s recent survey is focused on a modal shift.

Perceptions of active travel

The findings within the survey highlight that 90 per cent of respondents considered walking to be active travel, while around four in five said the same for cycling.

Short journeys

Furthermore, 64 per cent of respondents said that they would be likely to walk short journeys of up to three kilometres (or two miles) and 19 per cent of respondents said they would be likely to cycle short journeys of up to five kilometres (or three miles).

Despite the high level of respondents saying they would undertake journeys via active travel, only 12 per cent currently walk and 2 per cent cycle to and from work.


In 2022/23, 65 per cent of respondents said that they were satisfied with walking conditions in their area, down from 74 per cent in 2020/21. Suggesting that while many respondents are happy, a significant minority feel that more could be done to encourage walking to and from work.

Similarly, 52 per cent of respondents said that they were satisfied with cycling conditions in their area, down from 53 per cent in 2020/2021.

Additionally, looking more closely at those who cycle to or from work by respondent group, a higher proportion in urban areas (3 per cent) said they cycle to or from work when compared with those in rural areas (1 per cent).

The detailed analysis of the population’s personal preference of travel suggests that continued encouragement of the population to take part in active travel to and from work could be increased by improving walking and cycling conditions.

In both urban and rural areas, a significant challenge remains in providing the active travel infrastructure to facilitate modal shift, reduce the number of trips taken by car, and help reduce the carbon emissions associated with transport.

86 infrastructure and transport report
Credit: Markus Spiske

Relative increase in construction

New work drove a small quarterly increase in construction output at the end of 2023 but annual output declined by 1.4 per cent.

The total volume of construction output increased by 0.8 per cent in Q4 2023 when compared with Q3 the increase somewhat masks a general decrease in output over the year.

Over the course of 2023, increases in output for repair and maintenance (+6.5 per cent), infrastructure (+2.6 per cent), and other work (6.7 per cent), were overshadowed by an annual decrease of new work (-5.5 per cent, including a 12.9 per cent fall in housing.

The Quarterly Construction Enquiry is a statutory survey of construction firms operating in Northern Ireland. The quarter-on-quarter change provides the most recent measure of how the construction output is changing.

Each calendar quarter is a sample of approximately 750 construction firms who are asked to provide details of the value of construction activity they have undertaken in the specified period. The survey also covers public sector organisations which carry out their own construction activity.

The latest results suggest that construction output at the end of 2023 was 6.1 per cent above the prepandemic level seen in quarter 4 2019 and 56.4 per cent above the series low in quarter 2 2020.

The increase in overall output in quarter 4 has been driven by 0.2 per cent increase in new work, which accounted for three-fifths of all construction output. Historically, new work has been the largest sub-component of overall construction output.

However, this was offset by a 2.1 per cent decrease in repair and maintenance, which accounted for over one-third of all construction output. Repair and maintenance consists of all onsite work not defined as new construction, for example, housing conversions, extensions, and improvements.

In regard to housing output, the volume decreased by 6.6 per cent over the quarter and 12.9 per cent over the year. Housing output is defined as “all public and private sector construction activity associated with housing”.

Furthermore, infrastructure construction activity increased by 1.6 per cent and the other work subsectors increased by 2 per cent.

Overall, the findings highlight that despite having an overall annual decrease of 1.4 per cent, construction output in Northern Ireland is continuing to improve in comparison to prepandemic levels.

infrastructure and transport report 87
Credit: C Dustin

Roads in Northern Ireland

Since reassuming his role as Minister for Infrastructure, John O’Dowd MLA has announced initiatives which aim to improve Northern Ireland’s roads. Amid this context, agendaNi outlines the state of our roads.

On 25 February 2024, Minister O’Dowd announced that there would be £8.1 million new capital investment in the structural road maintenance programme in 2024.

O’Dowd said at the time, “it is vital that all available capital budget within my department is fully utilised to deliver much needed investment in our infrastructure, including on the maintenance of our roads”.

The Minister added that work would “start immediately” on the planning and delivery of these new schemes and that the £8.1 million represented a “significant additional investment in our road network”.

This was the second such announcement made by Minister O’Dowd, following an announcement of a funding allocation of £1 million on 12 February 2024 for road maintenance, with focus on fixing potholes.

He stated that the £1million investment “is the start of addressing the problem”, further describing the funding as a “statement of intent”.

Although this extra funding has been welcomed, it comes amid a backdrop of a road network which, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General, needs at least £1.2 billion of investment in order to alleviate a structural backlog.

These statistics have been gathered from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) and the Department for Infrastructure and cover the 2022/2023 period.

88 infrastructure and transport report

Roads in Northern Ireland 2022/23

Road length

Total road length 25,858km

Proportion of roads by classification:

• A roads 8.9%

• B roads 11.3%

• C roads 18.3%

• Unclassified roads 61.1%

• Motorways 0.4%

77.2% of carriageway road lengths rural (speed limit of more than 40 mph)

22.8% of carriageway road lengths urban (speed limit of 40 mph or less).

Roads by classification

Road conditions

100,487 surface defects instructed following road inspections 84,900 surface defects repaired

89 infrastructure and transport report
8.9% 11.3% 18.3% 0.4% 61.1% A roads B roads C roads Motorways Unclassified 82.6%
‘generally good condition’. 2%
of A class roads in Northern Ireland in
of A class roads in
82.6% 74.6% 64.8% 15.4% 22.4% 31.0% 2.0% 3.1% 4.3% A roadB roadsC roads Good Average Poor
4 *Figures are rounded to the closest decimal point.

Road expenditure

Total expenditure on the roads in Northern Ireland £441 million

• 7.5% lower than in 2021/2022

Of the total expenditure on roads in 2022/2023:

• £127 million was spent on structural maintenance

• £111 million on capital expenditure

• £16 million spent on resource

• £66 million spent on new construction and improvement

9090 infrastructure and transport report

Capital coup for crossborder infrastructure

The Irish Government has committed to unprecedented capital investment in cross-border initiatives, including several major infrastructure projects.

In February 2024, the Irish Government announced funding commitments totalling more than €800 million for projects associated with its Shared Island initiative. This represents the single largest investment in cross-border projects to date.

Then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD used his keynote address at the third annual Shared Island Forum to outline his government’s priorities for the initiative in 2024. “A shared island needs a shared infrastructure, a shared all-island economy, a shared set of dreams about what we can achieve when we work together,” he asserted.

A5 road

Since the upgrade was first announced in 2007, over 50 people have been killed on the A5 road between Aughnacloy on the County Tyrone/County Monaghan border and Derry city.

The €600 million allocated to upgrade the A5 North-West Transport Corridor to dual carriageway marks a restoration of the funding committed to by the Irish Government as per the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 (€468 million) which was subsequently cut to €87 million amid the economic crisis.

This funding will also contribute to A5 linkage upgrades, including N2 Ardee to Castleblayney Road Scheme, the N2 Clontibret to Border Road Scheme in County Monaghan, and the TEN-T Priority Route Improvement Project in County Donegal.

Narrow Water Bridge

Meanwhile, spanning the Newry River –with tension cables emanating from two vertical towers anchoring the bridge deck – planning permission has been secured for the 280m bridge at Narrow Water which will connect the A2 in County Down to the R173 in County Louth, enhancing access between the Mourne region and the Cooley Peninsula. Complete with segregated driving, cycling, and pedestrian lanes, the bridge will be capable of opening to allow the passage of vessels between Carlingford Lough and Newry Canal.

While Louth County Council is expected to award the construction contract in the first half of 2024, no figure has been put on the total level of capital investment that will be channelled into the Narrow Water Bdge project from the Shared Island Fund.

Casement Park

Owned and managed by the Gaelic Athletic Association’s Ulster Council, the Casement Park redevelopment project is being pursued in cooperation with the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver the overall funding package.

Aimed at delivering a 30,000-capacity stadium as the home of Ulster and Antrim GAA, the Irish Government’s €500 million contribution to Casement Park was agreed between the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts,

Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, and the GAA and will be “progressed in cooperation with [Northern Ireland] and UK counterparts”.

Enterprise train

Operating between Belfast and Dublin, the Enterprise rail service currently operates only eight services in each direction per day between Monday and Friday, 10 on a Saturday, and six on a Sunday.

The Irish Government’s €12.5 million investment is aimed at doubling this frequency through the introduction of an hourly service “during peak times” as an “agreed priority for both administrations” which is anticipated to be completed by Q1 2025.

To date, the Irish Government has already allocated a total of €250 million from the Shared Island Fund, including €44.5 million for Ulster University in Derry and €47 million for the Ulster Canal restoration project.

“When I established the Shared Island Initiative in the Department of the Taoiseach in 2020, I was clear that for it to be successful, it needed to be a whole-of-government priority. As ministerial colleagues reach out to and begin visits with their Northern colleagues, I am excited about the future of the initiative,” Tánaiste Micheál Martin TD remarked.

91 infrastructure and transport report
Credit: Alan Grant

Plugging into progress: Improving EV charging infrastructure in Northern Ireland

Sean O’Callaghan, EV Operations Director at SSE, shares insights on steps Northern Ireland can take to accelerate the roll out of EV infrastructure.

Despite promising appetite for EV adoption in Northern Ireland, the region is lagging behind its neighbours in Great Britian and the Republic of Ireland. This, in part, can be attributed to the slow roll out of EV charging infrastructure in the region.

Increased provision of charging infrastructure and operators, the cost of charging and how to pay for charging have been highlighted by policy makers in Northern Ireland as fundamental issues which need to be addressed now for people wanting to make the transition from petrol and diesel to EVs.

SSE is heartened that the Department for Infrastructure will be working to

identify suitable charging sites along transport corridors, and is putting in place measures to resolve electrical capacity constraints at these locations, as part of its recently published Path to Net Zero Action Plan 2024. We believe this is a step in the right direction and must be implemented alongside other smart policy if Northern Ireland is to plug into the true potential of EVs.

Looking beyond home charging

With only 19 public chargers per 100,000 residents, Northern Ireland falls short compared to Scotland (69), England (56), and Wales (47)1. Home

charging, where available, is likely to be the cheapest and most convenient form of charging for EV owners in Northern Ireland.2 In 2022, the Department for Infrastructure established the EV Infrastructure Task-Force which recognised this. In its Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Action Plan for Northern Ireland, the task-force recommended that given that on average 80 per cent of homes in Northern Ireland are suitable for home charging solutions, EV infrastructure should focus on developing a rapid (DC) charging network which will help EV users top up their vehicles as and when required such as during long distance trips, but also support the light commercial


2. Energy Strategy - Path to Net Zero Energy - 2024 Action Plan Report (

92 infrastructure and transport report
“By plugging into progress, together we can ensure Northern Ireland has the infrastructure it needs to give drivers the confidence to go electric.”

logistics and freight market within Northern Ireland and connecting into the Republic of Ireland.

While SSE embraces this approach, we urge policy makers to also give adequate consideration to charging solutions in urban areas across Northern Ireland where, in some cases, only 60 per cent of people have access to off street parking.3

As policy makers in Northern Ireland navigate these challenges, SSE stands ready to deliver simplified, tailor-made solutions. Two years ago, SSE opened its first ultra-rapid EV charging hubs in Great Britain, powered by traceable renewable energy, part of a major commitment over the next five years to roll out a further 300 such hubs in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

SSE is also a member of ChargeUK which was established in 2023 and brings together 18 of the largest companies installing charge points in the UK. Members of ChargeUK are collectively investing over £6 billion installing and operating new EV charging infrastructure by 2030. Overall,

our track record of engaging with industry, as well as assisting business owners, landlords and local authorities with their EV infrastructure needs, positions SSE as a trusted strategic energy partner.

In the Republic of Ireland specifically, we are investing close to £30 million (€35 million) to install at least 30 ultra-rapid EV charging hubs across the country over the next four years. These hubs will deliver up to 13km of range per minute4, with an average charging session taking only 15-20 minutes.**

Although charging an EV takes longer than filling up a petrol car, this perceived inconvenience is an opportunity for businesses. EV owners are drawn to EV hubs which allow them to charge whilst they do other things. Charging hubs are consequently best located near shopping centres and business parks. Local authorities in Northern Ireland can therefore leverage EV charging infrastructure to drive regeneration and economic development. By strategically placing charging points in easily accessible locations, they can breathe new life into underserved areas.

4. Assumes market average efficiency of 187Wh/km* and requires capability to charge at 150kW.

* Energy consumption of full electric vehicles cheatsheet - EV Database (

** Subject to vehicle capabilities and battery condition

Driving confidence

At SSE, we are preparing to launch a 10-bay ultra-rapid charging facility located just off the M4 at Lough Sheever Corporate Park in Mullingar, County Westmeath in spring 2024. As we begin to make strides with our first EV charging hub in the Republic of Ireland, we are eager to explore similar future opportunities in Northern Ireland.

We call on all stakeholders in Northern Ireland including the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, landowners, business leaders, and consumers to build on existing collaboration and accelerate the roll-out of EV charging infrastructure in the region.

The time to act is now. By plugging into progress, together we can ensure Northern Ireland has the infrastructure it needs to give drivers the confidence to go electric. W:
Sean O'Callaghan, speaking at the EU Summit Expo 2024 in Dublin.
3. Action Plan for Electric Vehicle (EV) Infrastructure (
93 infrastructure and transport report

The value of active travel

high on the political agenda. Yet, it cuts across significant policy commitments including climate change, health, economic productivity, and poverty, writes Brendan Murtagh, professor of urban planning, Queen’s University Belfast.

The previous Programme for Government set an outcome indicator to promote active travel by ‘increasing the percentage of all journeys made by walking, cycling, and public transport’.

However, the baseline of 25 per cent has barely moved since 2015. The latest travel survey for Northern Ireland showed that of all journeys, 24 per cent were by walking, 1 per cent by bicycle and just 2 per cent by public transport.

We are still a society highly reliant on the car, despite the policy rhetoric. In one sense this is hardly surprising. Outcome indicators are, by definition, linked to inputs and there is no getting away from the lack of capital balance in our modal spending; the fiscal weakness of public transport; the dominance of pro-roads cultures in planning; the lack of a clear investment-led spatial transport plan; and an over-reliance on short-term, smallscale initiatives when surgical change is needed.

Policy in planning, transport, urban regeneration, and housing need to more clearly articulate how a modal shift would be achieved, not least by connecting these elements within a proper spatial framework.

This has happened in the past. The Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland in 2001 was closely aligned with the then Regional Transport Strategy (RTS, 2002). This enabled us to take a wider strategic perspective on how the region and the Belfast Metropolitan Area in particular, would be planned in a more compact and sustainable way. It aimed to make better use of brownfield rather than greenfield sites; reduce car-based commuting; strengthen connectivity between housing and labour markets; and invest in high-frequency and affordable public transport.

A benefit of this strategic approach was that it set out ambitious plans for transport investment in

94 infrastructure and transport report

order to affect a modal shift from the car to active travel. The RTS aimed to spend £3.5 billion on transport over 10 years, of which £2.2 billion (63 per cent) was on roads and £1.2 billion (35 per cent) on public transport (with a smaller element on walking and cycling).

The actual road-public modal split over 10 years was, however, 70 per cent to 28 per cent. Part of the problem is lock-in to high-cost, high-maintenance road infrastructure. The Queen’s University Reducing Car Dependency1 paper quoted Northern Ireland Audit Office data that showed that by 2018, £143 million was required to maintain the road network in a steady and sustainable state, but the average spend on maintenance was just £92 million.

The York Street M2-M3 interchange is currently estimated to cost between £120 million to £165 million, which is significantly more than the £100 million investment needed to build 193km of high-grade walking and cycling infrastructure under the Belfast Cycling Network Delivery Plan.

This is about choices in what to invest in and what return we get from each option. The last decade did see an investment in rail rolling stock, bus fleets, and new infrastructure including bus and cycle lanes. And it worked. Between 2016 and 2019 passenger numbers on Translink services increased by 5.8 million to 84.5 million per annum; 4.8 million car journeys have been removed since 2016; there are now 30 million bus trips per annum in Belfast alone; and the Glider has been a remarkable success, generating an additional 45,000 passenger journeys every week.

Translink commissioned a review of the economic impact of public transport that showed it created a gross value added of £198 million by leveraging retail spend, accessing education and labour markets, and reducing congestion. The Groundswell project2 at Queen’s University Belfast also evaluated the environmental, health, and economic benefits of walking infrastructure including the 16km Connswater Greenway completed in 2017 in east Belfast.

The cost-benefit analysis showed that every £1.00 invested in the Greenway created a net benefit of between £1.34 and £1.59, including significant impacts on biodiversity, climate change and both mental and physical health.

Other cities and countries have recognised transport as a public rather than a private good. Smaller states including Malta and Luxembourg have made public transport free; Estonia and the Czech Republic are getting there; and cities across Belgium, Germany, and France have had free transport at the point of use for decades.

Environmental benefit is the rationale for such approaches, but so too are economic and equity outcomes. The most socially deprived areas have the lowest car ownership levels but are often the places most likely to be impacted by car-based pollution.

If we want a modern economy, well-integrated labour markets, improved productivity, reducing inactivity and addressing poverty then connectivity needs to be a more central and meaningful policy objective, especially in active travel.

Brendan Murtagh is professor of urban planning at Queen’s University Belfast. He has researched and written widely on urban regeneration, conflict, and community participation.

95 infrastructure and transport report
1.Developing system-oriented interventions to reduce car dependency for improved population health in Belfast: policy mapping and socio-technical transitions. Authors Brendan Murtagh, Leandro Garcia, Ruth F Hunter. 2.
Brendan Murtagh, professor of urban planning, Queen’s University Belfast

Armagh: The only city in Ireland without a railway

There is a renewed momentum in the campaign for Armagh city to have a rail connection more than 50 years after the line was closed.

Armagh is the only city on the island of Ireland with no rail link, with the nearest rail station located in Portadown, around 12 miles to the north.

The All-Island Strategic Rail Review, published in draft form in July 2023, recommends the reopening of the Portadown to Armagh railway line as part of a wider reconnection of the rail network to Monaghan and to Mullingar via Clones and Cavan.

Following the recommendation, a feasibility study on the prospective reopening of the ArmaghPortadown railway line, published by Armagh City, Banbridge, and Craigavon Borough Council in November 2023, states that the reopening of the railway line would result in “shorter journey times between Armagh and Portadown, and Armagh and Belfast”.

The study further states that the reopening would result in a 10 per cent shift in sustainable tripmaking, and indicates that the line could attract 670,000 journeys each year.

Although there are challenges with land use and ownership changes since the line was closed in 1957, the report states that no significant engineering or built-environment constraints to reinstating the former railway line were identified

and there is clear evidence that the scheme is both technically deliverable and operationally feasible.

The study also claims that economic benefits to the reopening of the railway would “outweigh the investment and operating costs of the project”.

Responding to questions from Newry and Armagh MLA Justin McNulty, Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd MLA said that Translink is undertaking a feasibility study on reinstating the Portadown to Armagh railway line, and that the potential benefits of the restoration will be considered as part of the feasibility study, which is expected to be completed by spring 2025.

Since the All Island Strategic Rail review has only been published in draft form, it is currently undergoing a consultation, meaning that the return of a prospective Armagh railway is not currently being treated as a “priority by the Executive”.

However, Minister O’Dowd says that once the Rail Review is formally published: “Further work will be needed to prioritise the Review recommendations and then to undertake feasibility studies and develop business cases to support any future investment decisions, including those in relation to the Armagh to Portadown line.”

96 infrastructure and transport report

Broad analysis

The All-Island Strategic Rail Review’s proposals are broadly supported by politicians and civic leaders alike. In the north, the proposed rail projects which have received the most significant media attention have been those in Donegal, Derry, and proposed links to the Belfast International Airport.

The rail review’s inclusion of a recommendation for the construction of a railway line in Armagh underpins longstanding calls to rectify the situation whereby Armagh is the only city on the island of Ireland with no railway line. A similar case can be made on the absence of rail connections in County Fermanagh, a position which does not look set to change as the rail review makes no recommendations for rail connections in County Fermanagh.

Meanwhile, work is underway for the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise Service to become an hourly service, with an earlier start time. While this will be welcomed as Belfast and Dublin are the two most populous cities in Ireland, the fact that the priority for infrastructure investment does nothing to address economic regional imbalances, will be a point of contention for people who reside and work beyond the Dublin Belfast Economic Corridor.

MLA comment

William Irwin MLA, a DUP Newry and Armagh representative since 2007, answered questions from agendaNi on the prospect of the railway line reopening

What benefits can the return of the rail service bring to the local area and the Northern Ireland as a whole?

With a very clear direction and growing emphasis on the climate and the environment, transport and emissions from journeys are a key discussion topic. It is therefore obvious that improving the public transport system in Northern Ireland will help to go some way to achieve the ambitious targets that have been set around reducing emissions. The rail link would of course contribute positively towards those goals.

What timeline do you envisage for the return of a rail service to Armagh?

Armagh city is the only city on the entire island without a rail link and I know that a lot of people are keen to see progress on this, not least the Portadown Armagh Railway Society (PARS) who have been keen lobbyists in this regard.

In terms of a timeline, that is a very key question and I know that our local Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council pursued a feasibility study in to the project with the help of AECOM, which has recently reported that the project is operationally feasible, technically deliverable and would promote sustainable transport across the borough and wider region. The issue of a timeline is something that is the subject of continuing discussion.

What are the main challenges in rebuilding this particular railway?

Costs are of course a major discussion point and whilst there are clear benefits to the project there are considerable hurdles also. Pushing the project forward and maintaining momentum is also very important. The Department for Infrastructure’s Transport Strategy for Northern Ireland is another key directional document, and it will be vital that this project places highly up the prioritisation list.

Is the Portadown-Armagh rail project being treated as a priority infrastructure project by the Executive?

The word ‘priority’ is a key word and a key requirement. In order for this project to have any chance of success, it must be seen as a priority for our devolved institutions to pave the way for the necessary resources to be allocated to make this happen. I will continue to play my part in lobbying this regard.

97 infrastructure and transport report

Planning improvements: Resource dependent

New Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd MLA has said that progress to improve Northern Ireland’s planning process is resource dependent.

Northern Ireland’s planning system was deemed “not fit for purpose” by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in 2022, however, widespread acknowledgement of a need to improve the system could be financially hampered, even with an Executive in place.

Expressing alarm, the PAC said it was “appalled” by the performance of the planning system following an examination of how the Department for Infrastructure and local government have delivered planning decisions since reform was introduced in 2015.

In 2022, none of Northern Ireland’s councils met the statutory target for making decisions on major planning applications, with the average decision time of 57.8 weeks far exceeding the 30 week target.

An efficient planning system is critical not only to aspirations of economic growth for the region, but also enabling green energy infrastructure to help meet a legally binding net zero emissions by 2050 target.

In March 2024, Ian Snowden, Permanent Secretary for the Department for the Economy told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the “speed at which we can progress planning applications, or indeed the ability to get them passed at all, will be a significant

barrier to” achieving the 80 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 target.

“From our perspective, we would like quite a radical approach on the planning policy to make it more feasible for us to deliver the renewable energy that we like,” he told MPs.

In 2021, the Department for Infrastructure undertook a review of the 2011 Planning Act, which informed a wider Planning Improvement Programme (PIP), a collaboration between the Department, local government, and other partners, aiming to create an efficient, effective and equitable planning system.

With the return of ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive in February 2024, it had been hoped that planning reform would be an early priority for the new Minister for Infrastructure, however, budgetary pressures are set to have an impact on any planned reform.

Responding to a written question by the DUP’s Infrastructure spokesperson, Phillip Brett MLA, asking for details of his legislative plans to improve the planning process, John O’Dowd MLA said that “good progress” had already been made.

Progress pointed to includes an inflationary increase in planning fees of some 12.9 per cent introduced in April 2023, aimed at assisting councils and

the Department to cover the cost of processing applications.

Additionally, the Department says that it is progressing work to bring forward arrangements for statutory validation checklists, to improve the quality of applications entering the system, following the conclusion of a public consultation in January 2023.

A public consultation was also launched in December 2023 into a fundamental review of the Planning (Development Management) Regulations (NI) 2015. Proposed changes include a review of the classes of development; making predetermination hearings discretionary for councils; and the introduction of online/digital methods into the preapplication community consultation (PACC) process.

Further progress listed by the Minister include a review of the internal administration of the ‘call-in’ process and the introduction of the regional planning IT system.

However, responding to the question on planned legislative progress, Minister O’Dowd says: “I will be reviewing progress with my officials; progress is however dependent on the resources available to me within my department.”

98 infrastructure and transport report

22 AND 23 MAY • Croke Park, Dublin 2024

Energy Ireland 2024 will bring together all the key stakeholders in the Irish energy sector to discuss and debate the key drivers of the energy transition and energy security. Ireland’s main energy conference will look at the developments that will decarbonise Ireland’s increasingly integrated energy system.

Speakers include:

Eamon Ryan TD Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications

Conor Murphy MLA Minister for the Economy Northern Ireland

Aoife MacEvilly Commission for Regulation of Utilities

Dave Kirwan Bord Gáis Energy

Marguerite Sayers ESB

Commissioner Kadri Simson European Commission

Speakers confirmed so far:

Niamh McGovern

Arthur Cox

John Reilly

Bord na Móna

Richard Murphy

Pinsent Masons

William Walsh Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland

Brian Ó Gallachóir UCC

Klair Neenan SSE Airtricity

Major sponsors

Laura Brien Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA)

Colm O’Neill KPMG

Tara Reale Goodbody

Cathal Marley Gas Networks Ireland

Katie Petherbridge National Gas Transmission

John FitzGerald The Economic and Social Research Institute

telephone +353 (0) 1 661 3755 Online
Register now
Exhibition opportunities available!
Sponsors Technology partner
Nephin Renewable Gas

public affairs agenda

Northern Ireland Assembly committees

With the Assembly back up and running after a two-year hiatus, agendaNi profiles the roles, remit, and membership of the reformed statutory and standing committees.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has four main types of committees: statutory, standing, joint, and ad hoc. The most prominent committees are statutory, responsible for advising, assisting and scrutinising ministers and their departments, and standing, which undertake specific roles concerning the running of the Assembly.

Joint committees can consider matters of interest to more than one committee and ad hoc committees are established for a limited time to deal with a particular issue.

Statutory committees

Composed of 11 MLAs, committees tend to meet weekly within Parliament Buildings, although they can be held at external venues. They assist the Assembly in its work as a legislature by scrutinising bills at committee stage and possess the power to call persons and papers. While committees do possess the power to introduce legislation to the Assembly, it is a rare occurrence in Northern Ireland.

There are currently nine statutory committees, each shadowing a department, and proportionally reflecting party strength in the Assembly. Chairs and vice-chairs were nominated by parties under the D’Hondt process. Either the chair, or a vice-chair must be from a different political party to that of the minister. Membership must be made up from at least five political parties.

Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs


John Blair Alliance Party

Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin


Tom Elliott Ulster Unionist Party

Tom Buchanan Democratic Unionist Party

William Irwin Democratic Unionist Party

Vice-chair Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Patsy McGlone SDLP

Michelle McIlveen Democratic Unionist Party

Committee for Communities


Andy Allen Ulster Unionist Party


Armstrong Alliance Party


Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Maurice Bradley Democratic Unionist Party

Brian Kingston Democratic Unionist Party

Daniel McCrossan SDLP

Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

Vice-chair: Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Sian Mulholland Alliance Party

100 public affairs agenda

Committee for the Economy


Phillip Brett Democratic Unionist Party

public affairs agenda

Committee for Education


Gary Middleton Democratic Unionist Party

Mike Nesbitt Ulster Unionist Party Membership

Jonathan Buckley Democratic Unionist Party

Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Sorcha Eastwood Alliance Party

David Honeyford Alliance Party

Committee for the Executive Office


Paula Bradshaw Alliance Party

Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Sinéad McLaughlin SDLP


Nick Mathison Alliance Party

Vice-chair: Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin


Connie Egan Alliance Party

Claire Sugden Independent Membership

Padraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Harry Harvey Democratic Unionist Party

Brian Kingston Democratic Unionist Party

Sinéad McLaughlin SDLP

Committee for Health


Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

Alan Chambers Ulster Unionist Party

Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin


Danny Donnelly Alliance Party

Alan Robinson Democratic Unionist Party Membership

Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Diane Dodds Democratic Unionist Party Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

Committee for Justice


Joanne Bunting Democratic Unionist Party


Doug Beattie Ulster Unionist Party

Maurice Bradley Democratic Unionist Party

Nuala McAllister Alliance Party

Colin McGrath SDLP

Stewart Dickson Alliance Party

Alex Easton Independent


Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Justin McNulty Independent

Kate Nicholl Alliance Party Membership

Danny Baker Sinn Féin

David Brooks Democratic Unionist Party

Cheryl Brownlee Democratic Unionist Party

Robbie Butler Ulster Unionist Party

Committee for Finance


Matthew O’Toole SDLP

Cara Hunter SDLP

Cathy Mason Sinn Féin

Vice-chair: Diane Forsythe Democratic Unionist Party

Eóin Tennyson Alliance Party Membership

Steve Aiken Ulster Unionist Party

Phillip Brett Democratic Unionist Party

Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

Gerry Carroll People Before Profit

Committee for Infrastructure


Deborah Erskine Democratic Unionist Party

Danny Baker Sinn Féin

Patrick Brown Alliance Party

Paul Frew Democratic Unionist Party

Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Vice-chair: John Stewart Ulster Unionist Party

Peter McReynolds Alliance Party Membership

Stephen Dunne Democratic Unionist Party

Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Keith Buchanan Democratic Unionist Party

Mark Durkan SDLP

101 public affairs agenda

public affairs agenda

Standing committees

Standing committees are permanent committees set up under the Assembly’s Standing Orders with each performing perform a specific role. The Business Committee, chaired by the Speaker and attended by party whips, arranges the business of plenary meetings.

The Public Accounts Committee, the most powerful of the Assembly’s committees, scrutinises the use of resources by departments and government agencies and the Standards and Privileges Committee deals with privileges and the conduct of members, and under new rules for this mandate is now chaired by the Official Opposition party.

Finally, the newly-established Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee assists with the observation and implementation of the Windsor Framework.

Assembly and Executive Review Committee


Michelle McIlveen Democratic Unionist Party

Gary Middleton Democratic Unionist Party


Jonathan Buckley Democratic Unionist Party

Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

Kate Nicholl Alliance Party

Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Vice-chair: Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Tom Elliott Ulster Unionist Party

Cara Hunter SDLP

Standards and Privileges Committee


Membership Audit Committee

Alan Chambers Ulster Unionist Party

John Blair Alliance Party


Diane Forsythe Democratic Unionist Party

Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Nick Mathison Alliance Party

Public Accounts Committee


Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Tom Buchanan Democratic Unionist Party


Daniel McCrossan SDLP

Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Diane Forsythe Democratic Unionist Party

Procedures Committee


Robbie Butler Ulster Unionist Party

Trevor Clarke Democratic Unionist Party


Kellie Armstrong Alliance Party

Vice-chair: Cheryl Brownlee Democratic Unionist Party


Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Stephen Dunne Democratic Unionist Party


Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Connie Egan Alliance Party

Paul Frew Democratic Unionist Party

Business Committee


David Brooks Democratic Unionist Party


Edwin Poots Speaker

Sinéad Ennis

Sinn Féin

Vice-chair: Stewart Dickson Alliance Party

Harry Harvey Democratic Unionist Party

Cathy Mason

Sinn Féin

Colin McGrath SDLP

Vice-chair: Paula Bradshaw Alliance Party

Colin McGrath SDLP

Claire Sugden Independent

Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

David Honeyford Alliance Party

John Stewart Ulster Unionist Party

Trevor Clarke Democratic Unionist Party

Tom Elliott Ulster Unionist Party


Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

Danny Donnelly Alliance Party

Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin



Sinn Féin

Gary Middleton Democratic Unionist Party

Matthew O’Toole SDLP

Cara Hunter SDLP

Nuala McAllister Alliance Party

Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

John Stewart Ulster Unionist Party

Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee


Patrick Brown Alliance Party

Sorcha Eastwood Alliance Party


Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Jonathan Buckley Democratic Unionist Party

Joanne Bunting Democratic Unionist Party

Vice-chair: David Brooks Democratic Unionist Party

Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Steve Aiken Ulster Unionist Party

102 public affairs agenda

Return of the North South Ministerial Council


the return of the Executive, the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) met for the first time in three years in April 2024.

Held in Armagh, the April 2024 meeting brought together the leaders of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA described the meeting as “productive”, and outlined that discussions had taken place between the Irish Government and the Executive on a number of key all-island infrastructure projects, including Casement Park, the Ulster Canal, the A5 road, and the Narrow Water Bridge project.

O’Neill, who became the first nationalist First Minister in February 2024, added that there is a “huge opportunity to work collaboratively across the island and to take forward many of the areas that we have been focused on over the years”.

With the meeting taking place one-week after Jeffrey Donaldson’s resignation as DUP leader, deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly MLA in light of Donaldson’s resignation said that she is committed to provide “what stability I can”.

The plenary sitting of the North South Ministerial Council marked the final formal engagement for Leo Varadkar TD as Taoiseach, who has cited “personal and political reasons” for his resignation. The former Taoiseach, who served as leader of Fine Gael for seven years, remarked that the new Executive has “got off to a really good start”.

Varadkar reflected that in his spell in office, his post-Brexit priority had been to “make sure that we have a good and close relationship with Britain into the future and that as much as possible, whoever holds the office of Taoiseach, or whoever serves in the Irish Government, tries to reach out to all communities in Northern Ireland”.

Later in the same day as the plenary session, Varadkar travelled to Áras an Uachtaráin where he submitted his resignation to President of Ireland Michael D Higgins. The new Taoiseach, Simon Harris TD, was also in attendance at the NSMC meeting.

The NSMC is one of the core institutions (Strand Two) of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and ensures the development of “consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland”.

The council is responsible for 12 areas for co-operation, of which six are in areas where co-operation must be agreed together, but implemented separately in each jurisdiction.

Although the NSMC is formally obliged to meet twice per annum, the April 2024 meeting was the first meeting of the NSMC since 2021, the first in-person meeting since 2020, and only the second in-person meeting since 2016.

103 public affairs agenda public affairs agenda

Alliance Party focused on Stormont reform and EU re-entry

On the surface, the theme of the Alliance Party’s conference may have been vague – ‘Alliance works’ –but underneath some of the party’s core policies are undergoing tectonic change. Joshua Murray attended the conference and reflects on the change taking place in Northern Ireland’s third party.

Taking place at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast, the Alliance Party conference faced a challenge which some parties can only dream of – there was not enough space to accommodate the vast array of delegates, supporters, exhibitors, and journalists keen to scrutinise the party which presents itself as a centrist alternative to both unionism and nationalism.

Buoyed by a wave of increased support since 2016, Alliance has seen its numbers grow at both local government and Assembly level, and in the 2019 Westminster election the party won in the

North Down constituency and put up respectable second place performances in East Belfast, Lagan Valley, East Antrim, and Strangford, constituencies which will be key targets in the upcoming UK general election.

Founded in 1971, Alliance has historically been broadly perceived as a ‘light unionist’ party and has even made temporary changes in its Assembly designation to ‘unionist’ in the past. However, two dominant themes from the conference were firstly, the party’s overt respect for the Irish Government and secondly, its desire for Northern Ireland’s

immediate re-entry to the European Union.

In a panel discussion segment based on the BBC’s Question Time format, which was chaired by political scientist Jon Tonge, some of the party’s MLAs praised the Irish Government’s Shared Island Initiative, a project which has seen the significant investment in infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland. Praise for the Irish Government was repeated in speeches by leader Naomi Long MLA and deputy leader Stephen Farry MP.

This praise was in contrast to remarks about the British Government, which was

Kathryn Bigger, Stride and Sarah Topley, Haldane Fisher Ltd. Speaker: Carla Brogan, Social Media Belfast delegates at the 2023 Conference.
public affairs agenda 104 public affairs agenda
Credit: Alliance Party.

accused by the party’s North Belfast MLA Nuala McAllister of “acting like it does not care” about Northern Ireland.

The praise for Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin TD followed his keynote speech during the party’s pre-conference dinner, where he endorsed what has now become an Alliance flagship policy, reforming the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Again, the praise for Martin starkly contrasted with Naomi Long’s leader’s speech in which she accused Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP of being “keen to lock it up again and throw away the key” on the area of reforming the Assembly.

Assembly reform

In September 2022, the Alliance Party called for the removal of the veto wielded by the two biggest parties in forming an Executive. It proposes that in the event that a party refuses to nominate a First Minister or deputy First Minister, that this does not prevent other parties from being able to form an Executive.

Alliance argues that this practice would be consistent with D’Hondt, as there are prior examples of parties refusing roles in the Executive and ministerial roles being reallocated to other parties.

The fact that this proposal has been tacitly endorsed by the recently-departed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD and explicitly endorsed by Tánaiste Micheál Martin TD is significant and aligns with a proposal for reform produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster.

However, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP, as well as the DUP and Sinn Féin, remain either opposed to or refuse to comment on Assembly reform, meaning that unless there is vast public support for Alliance’s proposal, it is unlikely to manifest in the foreseeable future.

Electoral prospects

In elections for the House of Commons, likely to take place before the end of 2024, the Alliance Party has set its sights on four seats where it believes it can win or, at the very least, come close to winning.

These seats are: North Down, which is currently held by party deputy leader Stephen Farry MP; Belfast East, where party leader Naomi Long MLA is hoping to repeat her 2010 shock victory over the DUP; Lagan Valley, where Sorcha Eastwood MLA is hoping to gain the seat currently held by Jeffrey Donaldson MP; and the new Belfast South and Mid Down constituency, where boundary changes have been perceived as increasing Kate Nicholl MLA’s chances of unseating SDLP stalwart Claire Hanna MP.

In addition, although not formally mooted by anyone at the conference, it is entirely plausible that Alliance could emerge victorious in East Antrim, with Danny Donnelly MLA hoping to unseat the DUP’s Sammy Wilson MP.

This conference was not quite a rallying cry, but it was a moment of reflection for a party which has experienced the largest electoral growth of any party in Northern Ireland since the Brexit vote in 2016, and one which is confident that more success is to come.

Alliance is presented by many political commentators as being thwarted by the fact that it does not endorse a constitutional settlement for Northern Ireland. Eóin Tennyson MLA said that the party’s defining issue is a “united Northern Ireland”. Although this is often maligned by their political rivals, Alliance has stuck steadfastly to this position during its recent electoral highs.

However, the remarks about key Irish Government figures and support for re-entry to the European Union back up opinion polling which shows that a majority of the party’s members are reflective on the question of Irish unity and strive towards it in the long term, albeit without it becoming a defining issue for them politically, meaning that it is now inaccurate for Alliance to be defined as a ‘soft unionist’ party.

105 public affairs agenda public affairs agenda
Alliance Question Time featuring four MLAs and chaired by John Tonge.

Megan Fearon: Choosing hope for Assembly delivery

Former Sinn Féin MLA and Junior Minister Megan Fearon outlines her perspective on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and what she asserts is the urgent need for delivery of effective legislation.

February 2024 saw the fog lift and the mood music change as was led the DUP back to Stormont after a two-year boycott. Despite numerous false starts, sense prevailed and those who held onto hope were proven right in the end. I can admit, I was not one of them.

Since then, the positive leadership being shown by Michelle O’Neill MLA and Emma Little-Pengelly MLA has, dare I say, offered us all a glimmer of hope. The charm offensive and public gestures of goodwill is exactly what we needed. It no doubt also helped to garner even more international goodwill. Michelle O’Neill’s becoming First Minster feels seismic, because it is. It resonates deeply with many people. There is a newfound confidence in the air in our capacity to create something positive and enduring for our children.

The unanticipated ministry selections have led Sinn Féin to control three economic departments – finance, economy, and infrastructure – a rare scenario in any coalition government. This decision by the DUP might prove shortsighted. What frequently goes missing in our political commentary and, at times, policymaking, is the ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture.

The North is not isolated or adrift in the Irish Sea; developments here have implications across the entire island, no matter how minor they may seem. For instance, Sinn Féin holding three economic portfolios is not only significant for the North but also provides voters in the South an opportunity to see that the party is not ‘new’ to government.

In the not-too-distant future, Sinn Féin will lead both governments on the island. This

will have enormous implications for our future. Irish unity will feature prominently on the Irish Government’s agenda –something my generation has never witnessed.

How will the UK Government respond? How will the DUP adapt?

One thing is certain: the Assembly will not survive another collapse. It is in everyone’s interest to make Stormont work this time around. The DUP will not want to see Sinn Féin ministers from Dublin spearheading power-sharing negotiations in Belfast.

Fortunately, officials in the Department for the Economy can now openly discuss the advantages of dual market access – a topic previously considered taboo.

Minister Conor Murphy MLA leading the economy portfolio is a step forward in

106 public affairs agenda public affairs agenda
“As we now have only three years left in the mandate, the emphasis must shift to legislation rather than ineffective motions.”
Megan Fearon

optimising our post-Brexit reality. Harnessing our unique position was always an obvious choice. Embracing the all-island economy is another.

I hope to see more north/south cooperation going forward. If there was ever an example of how crucial this is, it was the pandemic. As a small island nation, we could and should have handled the pandemic much better; but we worked back-to-back.

If we are looking for another example where we are making the same mistake, it is in our approach to climate and energy policy. A joint approach simply makes sense. There is still time to get it right.

We can hope that the recent announcement by the Irish government of €800 million funding for cross-border infrastructure projects is a step in the right direction. The A5 project, in particular, will significantly reduce travel time between the north-west and Dublin, create jobs, and crucially, save lives.

Nevertheless, the challenge lies in ensuring Stormont’s own finances are sustainable. Calls for the Assembly to ‘make do’ with existing resources have been met with rightful resistance, especially considering the historical context. The Good Friday Agreement was signed merely 25 years ago. We often talk about that like its ancient history, and it is a long time in one sense, but not in politics. To put it in context, the Brexit referendum, which seems like yesterday to most of us, marks its eighth anniversary this year.

Comparisons of per capita government spending in parts of the UK are frequently cited. If you can show me another part of the UK where the British Government was directly involved in conflict for decades, then I will consider these comparisons valid.

Many of the significant challenges we face, such as poverty, mental health, addiction, violence against women and girls, skills shortages, and rising emigration, are directly linked to intergenerational trauma from decades of conflict. The Brexit fallout and the loss of EU funding only add layers of complexity to these issues.

We have unique circumstances. Circumstances we did not choose for ourselves. They demand an appropriate financial response.

The period just before the Assembly’s collapse in 2022 was hailed as one of the most productive times for the Assembly. This was due to the rapid passing of numerous pieces of legislation that made a difference and cooperation between parties was at a high. As we now have only three years left in the mandate, the emphasis must shift to legislation rather than ineffective motions.

Key areas requiring attention include childcare, a fully funded anti-poverty strategy, a revamp of our approach to further and higher education with a focus on part-time opportunities, infrastructure enhancements, public sector pay, and special educational needs, to name just a few.

We can focus on the big picture and still get the small things right. Indeed it Is often the things deemed ‘small’ that will most immediately improve lives.

As someone who was proven wrong before by losing hope, I am choosing to believe that we are at the beginning of a new era, both in the North and across the island.

107 public affairs agenda public affairs agenda

Opposition day: A new step for the Assembly

The return of the Assembly allowed a new feature, first outlined in 2016, to be played out as the Northern Ireland Assembly had its first official opposition day on 4 March 2024.

Since the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in its current guise in 1998, the way it operates has been characterised by the often maligned feature of mandatory coalition, which led to all major parties having Executive ministers based on D’Hondt allocation.

On 4 March 2024, the SDLP held the first of its 10 opposition days to which it is entitled to annually. Opposition day grants the party the right to put motions before the Assembly. The SDLP opted to put a motion on reform of the Assembly that would prevent one party collapsing the Executive, along with a commitment from Michelle O’Neill MLA and Emma Little-Pengelly MLA to not remove their parties from the Executive for the rest of the current term.

This motion was defeated, and both the First Minister and deputy First Minister were criticised by Speaker Edwin Poots MLA for their absence from the chamber, in spite of Assembly protocols dictating that, where matters for debate fall within a particular minister’s remit, they must respond.

The Executive parties further combined to defeat an opposition motion calling for the establishment of an ad-hoc committee to move forward institutional reform.

The SDLP, however, did achieve the passage of a motion calling for a resolution to public sector pay disputes before the end of March 2024.

108 public affairs agenda public affairs agenda

The journey to normalisation

Official opposition is now a feature of the Assembly following the aftermath of the 2016 Assembly election where, in an effort to present their parties as an alternative to their dominant counterparts in the DUP and Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the UUP refused the ministerial roles to which they were entitled in the sixth Assembly, and went into opposition.

This move led to the passage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which allows a party or parties to form an official opposition if they hold at least 8 per cent of the seats in the Assembly. This legislation followed new standing orders agreed by the Assembly on 14 March 2016.

Where only one party is recognised as the opposition, that party must nominate a member to become Leader of the Opposition. With the SDLP having won eight of the Assembly’s 90 seats in the 2022 election, and with the UUP and Alliance opting to return to the Executive, it now holds the role of the official opposition, granting the party’s nominee Matthew O’Toole MLA the official title ‘Leader of the Opposition’.

Further to the rights outlined within the Standing Orders, the Northern Ireland Assembly website sets out that the Speaker is expected to call on the opposition to speak first or ask a question at times not set out in Standing Orders.

For example, it is expected that the Speaker would call a member of the opposition to speak first after the minister in debates about the budget and Programme for Government, and after the committee chairperson on executive bill debates.

The first opposition day was a new feature in an Assembly context, and opened a new chapter in the history of Stormont, bringing it in line with legislatures across the UK and Ireland.

However, the fact that the leaders of the two main Executive parties were able to break the rules of the Assembly by not attending means that there remains a way to go before the role of official opposition is respected and taken seriously by the Executive parties.

Explaining opposition

The Leader of the Opposition is entitled to nominate the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the most powerful committee in the Assembly.

The role of opposition may be held by more than one party, and can be done on a coalition basis akin to the Executive it shadows. Where two or more parties form the opposition, the largest party must nominate a member to become Leader of the Opposition and the second largest party must nominate a member to become Deputy Leader of the Opposition.

The Standing Orders of the Assembly also set out further rights granted to the official opposition:

• ministerial statements: where there is an opposition, the first question on the statement shall be asked by a member of the opposition;

• topical questions: where there is an opposition, the first topical question to a minister shall be asked by a member of the opposition;

• committee membership: where there is an opposition, and so far as practicable, at least one seat on each statutory committee is allocated to a member of the opposition; and

• Business Committee: where there is an opposition at least one member of the Business Committee must be a member of the opposition.

109 public affairs agenda


Deepening devolution

Now that devolution is back, and the politicians we elect are enjoying the attention of their constituents, it may be time to consider looking at the depth of how we are represented rather than simple headcounts of MLAs in the chamber, writes the ICTU’s John O’Farrell.

If there is one lesson from the past 14 years of misrule from English nationalists masquerading as ‘one nation’ political leaders, it is that checks and balances are badly required. Not only in the treatment of regions of the UK with negligible Tory support, but the installation of ideological fellow-travellers to the boards of cultural institutions (Ofcom, the BBC, and universities) and cronies to quangos has left us with a vacuum in human capacity which will take years to undo.

State institutions here and across the UK depended upon a formal ‘neutrality’ and ‘independence’ on decision-making bodies.

There was, nominally at least, a series of moderating influences that kept the more obviously ideological zealots at bay. That has crumbled, especially since 2016 and the new great dividing line of where one stood on Brexit: Were you a true ‘believer’ or an obstructive ‘remoaner’?

That period has seen an acceleration of a trend affecting various parts of civil society, and especially trade unions. In Northern Ireland, public bodies with at least one trade union representative on their board declined from 24 in 1998, to 22 in 2008 to a mere eight in 2023.

110 public affairs agenda public affairs agenda
(L-R): Conor Murphy MLA; Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald MLA; and ICTU Assistant General Secretary Gerry Murphy at the launch of Democracy at Work Social Dialogue and the Tripartite Model. Credit: Department of Finance

public affairs agenda

Democratically nominated and accountable trade union representatives on NonDepartmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) have been replaced by retired civil servants, business representatives (including consultants), lawyers, and academics. The voice, expertise, and interests of the workforce have now been excluded from the boards that run or supervise public services.

There are other quangos that trade unions should, or previously did, have representation on until the post-Nolan (Michael Nolan established the independent system for public appointments) appointment processes were introduced, including the Equality Commission (ECNI).

Previously, ECNI and its predecessor organisations have had Northern Ireland Committee (NIC) of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC ICTU) representation on the Board of Commissioners. Not now. This is bewildering given the central role played by the trade union movement over the years in challenging discrimination, and promoting equality and good relations.

There are no trade union voices on the board of the Health and Safety Executive. Really.

In February 2024, the NIC ICTU launched a new document in Parliament Buildings, with Conor Murphy MLA who agreed to ‘sponsor’ the event before becoming Minister for the Economy during the very welcome restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. At the launch, the minister committed to a review of the appointments process.

The new policy paper Democracy at Work Social Dialogue and the Tripartite Model is intended to make the case to MLAs and leaders of public bodies for:

1. A social dialogue model including trade unions as equal partners, common among administrations across Europe and in these islands.

2. A form of social dialogue, the ‘tripartite model’ which served us all well at an earlier time of crisis, during the ‘Troubles’ and the more recent Covid pandemic. However, that inclusive model has gradually eroded with trade unions pushed to the sidelines.

3. Reversing the undermining of the tripartite model on crucial nondepartmental public bodies, such as the HSENI, and tribunals.

NIC ICTU sees this as the initial honouring of a pledge made four years ago in New Decade, New Approach, which committed to “creating good jobs and protecting workers’ rights… where workers have a voice that provides a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions…”

When implemented correctly social dialogue leads to better policymaking because it is informed by knowledge and experience from all social partners.

It democratises the policymaking process enhancing its legitimacy and a sense of ownership, and it increases transparency and trust in new policies making them easier to implement with widespread support.

It helps mitigate inequities and ensures representation of communities who are often shut out of the process, and it ensures that we can have economic growth while also creating a more equitable work environment.

It breeds cooperation which in turn nurtures innovation and productivity and better working conditions for all, and it reduces power imbalances in our labour markets which helps to alleviate and ultimately avoid conflicts and disputes.

111 public affairs agenda

Transport infrastructure can enhance social connections and mental health

As Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, my role is to promote the mental health of the population through the work of all the government departments. Some of the work may seem obvious, such as promoting wellbeing in schools, and leading improvements in mental health services.

However, the links with other departments can seem less clear, for example, the work of the Department for Infrastructure in promoting mental health and wellbeing is rarely highlighted, and often taken for granted.

Data shows that one in five people in Northern Ireland have a probable mental illness, and it seems that the mental health difficulties experienced by people here are more complex, as a result of the trauma and division that has characterised our society. The conflict’s legacy continues to affect people, particularly in deprived areas; whilst poverty and social inequalities create chronic stress which can result in mental illness.

We are social animals, and neuroscientific data from studies of relationships and mental health illustrate how, when we are in the company of people who understand us, our bodies and brains connect to regulate the effects of negative emotions.

Put simply when we are with our pack, we feel safe, protected, and calm. Almost one in five people in Northern Ireland feel lonely at least some of the time. Loneliness is an absence of emotional

attachments with people who share our perspective. It is a chronic stressor that places an enormous strain on our nervous system, activating our biological fight or flight response and increasing the risk of mental illness. It can affect people at any time in their life, but the rates among young people, older people, and those who experience discrimination and marginalisation are particularly stark.

The infrastructure that brings people together and allows people to connect is therefore vital to promote wellbeing, to prevent mental illness and to foster healing. Mental health is also nurtured in families and communities where people feel that they are valued. By functioning in roles within work and in our families, or socially, we flourish and grow.

Good transport and infrastructure are absolutely essential in allowing us to maintain our roles; whether it is getting to work, getting the children to school, or getting to the places where we can connect with our friends and peers. As a working parent in a rural area, I am so very grateful for the maintenance of the roads, for the school bus, and for the systems and structures that allow me to get from home to work safely.

The pandemic has taught us that whilst much of our business can be undertaken efficiently through online meetings, the relationships that generate creativity and innovation are established through faceto-face interaction. When we are together, our bodies and brains can respond to the subconscious cues that for the basis of communication.

Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion, Siobhán O’Neill, discusses the underpinning importance of good transport and infrastructure in the mental wellbeing of society.

The provision of efficient transport and infrastructure is particularly vital for those who are marginalised, who are more likely to suffer poor mental health through exclusion and discrimination. The transport network needs to be safe and accessible for disabled people, minority ethnic groups, those who experience poverty, as well as people of all ages and genders.

These are the groups who benefit the most from connecting with peers, and who often need to travel further to work, or access support and services. The public transport network also provides opportunities for people to connect and share a smile, or a nod, or a word of recognition, which can be the spark that ignites a friendship or romance or provide a vital glimmer of hope at a time of crisis.

At my recent meeting with the Minister for Infrastructure, we discussed the importance of the work of the Department to allow us to navigate our roles and to make our lives less stressful.

There are many opportunities to ‘design in’ safety, wellbeing, and social connection and to support those who suffer the impact of exclusion. This now needs to be a priority across all the departments as we work together to create the sort of functioning, connected, and healthy society that we aspire towards.

Siobhán O’Neill is a professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University. She was appointed the Mental Health Champion in September 2021.

112 public affairs agenda public affairs agenda
Minister John O’Dowd MLA with Siobhán O’Neill Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion.

agendaNi is Northern Ireland’s leading business and public policy magazine which reaches over 10,000 decision-makers and influencers in government, business, and the voluntary and community sector.

Digital Events Carbon Tax • Special Reports: Health • ICT Housing • Infrastructure and transport • public affairs Delivering what matters NI Water’s Tzvetelina Bogoina Grainia Long on building ...informing Northern Ireland’s decision-makers Carbon Tax • Special Reports: Health • ICT Policing and justice Digital government Public affairs A critical gateway to net zero NIE Networks’ Derek Hynes Paul Duffy ...informing Northern Ireland’s decision-makers Carbon Tax • Special Reports: Health • ICT Health and care services • Environment, waste, and water • Public affairs Delivering a decarbonised gas network Evolve’s David Butler milestone progress Kevin Hegarty the delivery Northern ...informing Northern Ireland’s decision-makers FEATURE YOUR ORGANISATION GET IN TOUCH CONTACT: Gail Kinkead E: T: 028 9261 9933 UPCOMING
IN THE MAY/JUNE 2024 ISSUE Energy • Skills for the future
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.