Building strong and successful communities
Finally, I turn to my commitment to building strong, successful, vibrant communities. Across Northern Ireland there are some communities that have been consigned to a future of decay and failure. Yes government, through initiatives such as neighbourhood renewal provides funding but this, I firmly believe, does not tackle the fundamental issues which are at the root of the problem and the approach is often piecemeal. Neighbourhood renewal has some fantastic success stories but for others the problem has just been, at best, kept at bay by such funding. There are those living in such communities who yearn that something – anything is done to make their lives better. I firmly believe these communities can be turned around.
At the end of October I announced six areas where we are going to take what for Northern Ireland will be an innovative approach. These are areas that have been blighted by dereliction and decay, with empty houses that are boarded up and land that lies derelict and undeveloped. These problems drag a community down, becoming magnets for anti-social behaviour and dumping. They blight the lives of the residents, creating despair and they are a lost opportunity. These same areas suffer from high levels of educational deprivation with many families being economically inactive. These same areas typically suffer from exploitation from loan sharks and pay day loan companies. They are in a spiral of decline with the communities dying and no one could be expected to want to move into these areas and set up home. I want to change this, I want it to involve each of the relevant government departments and I am pleased that ministers across the Executive have responded and nominated lead officials in their respective departments. Right now local community forums are being established and work is being taken forward by an assigned official from DSD.
Those derelict sites provide an opportunity to address housing need and an opportunity for affordable housing as well as social housing, thereby removing blight providing new homes. But that is only part of the answer. We need to think about such areas in a coherent and comprehensive way, looking at opportunities for social economy businesses that can create employment opportunities.
I also want to do something about the very real issue caused by Loan Sharks and Pay Day Loan companies preying on the most vulnerable. Whilst this is presently a problem largely isolated to larger deprived urban communities, if not dealt with it will quickly spread across Northern Ireland. We have to do something which tackles the issue of affordable credit being inaccessible, in particular for families for whom the traditional banks have nothing to offer. That is the only way we will stop paramilitary organisations and pay day loans preying on these families.
My department is currently looking at ways in which the credit union movement can be given assistance to aid them further in their commitment to serve low-income and financially excluded households and yet in a recent report, only 7% of credit unions surveyed said that ‘serving members who are financially excluded or living on welfare benefits’ is their primary purpose. We also know that although 34% of the Northern Ireland population are members of credit unions, only 4% of NIHE tenants have a credit union account.
Therefore conference, I am about to take forward a piece of work which would examine the potential for establishing a government backed ‘Peoples Bank’ scheme which could provide more affordable credit to financially excluded households, households which are even out of the reach of credit unions. I believe that some of our local housing associations would be ideally placed to partner us in such a venture.
The development of financial management skills is essential for any family wanting to lift itself out of poverty. Such a scheme would have, as part of its offering, advisors who will work with such families and help them build up these essential life skills. This will no doubt be a risky venture for government to take forward, and we can learn from such ventures currently in place in Great Britain. It will require careful scoping and planning but something must be done to tackle this issue.
We have achieved much in the first half of this mandate but there is so much more to be done if we are to build the strong successful and vibrant communities that we all want to see. Already the DUP is the party that is working hard for Northern Ireland and it is well able to meet the challenge.