Rathcoole residents call on Housing Executive to rent out empty flats

The Rathcoole estate, Newtownabbey.
The Rathcoole estate, Newtownabbey.

A Rathcoole community group has called on the Housing Executive to rent out dozens of flats within the estate that are currently lying empty.

Rathcoole Regeneration Group claims that more than 100 properties in the area have been lying vacant for some time, despite the fact that growing numbers of people are in need of social housing and homelessness is on the increase.

Through Freedom of Information requests and Assembly questions, the residents have discovered that despite millions of pounds of investment in refurbishment works, around 100 properties are lying vacant in the Abbotscoole, Carncoole, Glencoole and Monkscoole multi-storey tower blocks.

Representatives from the group were due to visit the Department for Social Development offices in Belfast on Wednesday (May 13) to hand over a petition calling on Minister Mervyn Storey to take urgent action to ensure the flats are made available to new tenants.

The residents, who are being supported by the human rights organisation Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), have also sent a letter to the Social Development Committee at Stormont calling for an investigation into the social housing situation in the estate. They claim the failure of the NIHE to rent out the flats is “effectively driving people to homelessness” and say releasing the empty units could reduce the housing waiting list in the area by almost 50 per cent.

“The Rathcoole estate has been neglected for years by Ministers and the NIHE, and the community is being gutted,” claimed David Crooks of Rathcoole Regeneration Group.

“Young people cannot get access to social housing in the area and are being told to move elsewhere. Some try to go private, but we have lost count of the numbers who come to us with horror stories about the cost and the poor conditions of private rental accommodation.

“This needs to change, and change now. We don’t need promises of additional social housing in the future when there is an abundance of empty properties now that can be used for people in dire need in our community. We need regeneration, and we need to start with renovating and opening these flats now.”

Mr Crooks also criticised the NIHE for trying to charge more than £800 to provide answers to questions submitted by residents under the Freedom of Information Act. But the NIHE has stressed that it operates within the FoI framework for public sector bodies and charged the appropriate rate.

A Housing Executive spokesperson added that the individual who submitted the “extremely complex” FoI request was advised to get in touch for “advice on how to refine the request and reduce costs.”

Dessie Donnelly, who works for PPR, said that NIHE and DSD officials have serious questions to answer about the current housing situation in the estate.

“What is happening in Rathcoole is as puzzling as it is unacceptable. How does the NIHE spend £3m on flats and then leave them lying empty for years when there is plenty of people on the list who are in dire need of such accommodation? In fact, by keeping the flats closed more and more people are added to the list when there is housing available,” he said.

“Why was this decision taken? Who took the decision? And when will the flats be opened? All of these questions need answers.”

Responding to the questions and concerns voiced by the residents’ group and PPR, the Housing Executive spokesperson confirmed that 91 properties are currently lying vacant across the estate’s four tower blocks.

“The Housing Executive has transformed Rathcoole with over £30m invested in the area over the last number of years. The estate had previously been an area with many vacant properties but due to our investment and our work with the local community the estate is now very popular,” she commented.

“We own four multi-storey blocks in Rathcoole: Abbotscoole, Carncoole, Glencoole and Monkscoole. Glencoole was successfully refurbished in 2011 and we are currently allocating properties at that tower block.

“We had planned to roll out a similar refurbishment project to the other blocks and had left a number of flats vacant for decanting of tenants while work was carried out to their homes. However, this was put hold as a result of significant reductions in the availability of capital funding generated through house and land sales. We also recently explored the possibility of transferring Monkscoole to a housing association as a way of levering the required investment for the block but this could not be progressed.

“We have just completed the largest survey we have ever carried out into the condition of our stock and this will help us develop a five year investment plan for all our housing stock across Northern Ireland. Importantly this will help us develop long term solutions that suit tenants’ needs now and in the future. We will of course be developing local plans alongside the community groups and tenants of Rathcoole,” the spokesperson added.