18 March 2006

Hain sparks 'poison pit' housing row

Belfast Telegraph

By Noel McAdam
18 March 2006

Fury erupted last night over Government plans to restore full housing powers to councils in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State Peter Hain was warned the move could return the province to the "poisonous pit" of the past.

Insisting the Government abandon the idea, the SDLP argued it could seriously dent fragile community relations. Assembly member Patsy McGlone said: "It is incredible a Labour Government could think of doing this."

A senior Ulster Unionist MLA also called the plans a "recipe for disaster" and predicted council chambers would become "sectarian bear pits".

UU Assemblyman Fred Cobain said: "Can you imagine councils allocating houses along sectarian interfaces? It would be a nightmare."

Under the blueprint, the seven new 'super-councils' would have control of housing management and allocations - effectively dismantling the Housing Executive. But the proposal will raise the spectre of one of the most contentious issues - discrimation - which underpinned events leading to the Troubles.

Mr Hain is expected to announce the potential transfer of housing powers to local government as part of a massive shake-up of Northern Ireland quangos next week. But it is understood he will hold out the prospect of a completely restored housing function until after the new councils are up and running by 2009.

But SDLP housing spokesman Mr McGlone said last night: "This is totally crazy territory. It is incredible to think the Government could be so stupid and naive."

In a letter to Mr Hain he warned the return of housing allocation and management to councils would open up every opportunity for a step back to the "poisonous pit" of discrimination.

A spokesperson for the review of public administration, whose blueprint for the unelected quangos is to be unveiled on Tuesday, said they could not respond. The Belfast Telegraph yesterday revealed the Housing Executive could lose a number of other key functions to councils, including grants, health environmental schemes and the fuel efficiency programmes.

While it declined to respond, senior Housing Executive officials were said to be "extremely concerned" about the operational changes.

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