Tower blocks facing axe within five years

Woodland House (image Google).
Woodland House (image Google).

Four of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s Newtownabbey tower blocks could be “decommissioned” within five years, it has been revealed.

The housing authority has published a list of 15 high-rise blocks of flats that it hopes could be redeveloped in the short-term (one-five years).

The buildings earmarked for possible decommissioning in phase one of the Executive’s Tower Blocks Draft Action Plan are located in Newtownabbey, Belfast, Dunmurry, Larne, and Portadown.

Locally, they include Woodland, Rush Park; Beechwood, Rush Park; Monkscoole, Rathcoole, and Abbotscoole, Rathcoole.

The briefing document also details an indicative redevelopment timetable for 10 other tower blocks in the medium-term (six-10 years), and lists a further eight that will be looked at in the longer-term (10 years+).

In 2014 the Minister for Social Development requested the Housing Executive to produce a “Tower Block Strategy”.

A draft action plan in relation to tower blocks was prepared in May 2017 for consultation, but was put on hold following the Grenfell Tower blaze in London, which claimed the lives of 72 people.

In May this year the NIHE board approved the draft plan as the basis for consultation with stakeholders.

That consultation is now under way, and the Housing Executive has stressed that it hasn’t made any final decisions on the future of any of the blocks. The Housing Executive has 1,931 flats across its 33 tower blocks - 1,650 owned by NIHE and 281 privately owned.

But according to a report by property firm Savills, many of the buildings require significant investment to extend their useful lives and achieve and maintain modern standards.

With the bill to upgrade and maintain the blocks in years to come expected to run to hundreds of millions of pounds, councillors were informed that the “cost of retention is excessive” and that there are “considerable imperatives for decommissioning the portfolio”.

They were also told that even with all possible fire safety measures, tower blocks would still be the housing stock with the greatest fire safety risk.

While NIHE admits that a decommissioning plan for the entire portfolio “is not possible or deliverable at this time”, its long-term aspiration is “to stop using all of the blocks.”

The 15 blocks earmarked for closure in the short-term are buildings where NIHE has identified an “opportunity to clear and replace with new build or (where there is potential) seek a private sector option.”

“In many of these locations there are opportunities to replace the blocks with new housing that matches need and is more financially sustainable,” councillors were informed.

The briefing report proposes no further re-lets at the 15 blocks, rents to be frozen, no further sales of flats, no investment beyond cyclical maintenance and that efforts be made to vest privately owned flats.

Tenants were due to receive letters over the past couple of days updating them on the Executive’s plans and inviting them to take part in the public consultation process.

“We would stress that this is the commencement of a full consultation process and final decisions will not be taken until this exercise has been completed, evaluated and considered and the necessary approvals from the Housing Executive Board and the relevant government departments have been secured,” the NIHE said.

Macedon councillor David Hollis, who lives in the Woodland House tower block in Rush Park, suggested the demolition of the flats was not a viable option for residents in that location.

“There’s about 75 percent owner-occupied [units],” he said. “Most people want to stay on in their area and there needs to be proper consultation with them.”

Outstanding maintenance issues would also need to be resolved before the possibility of selling the blocks on is considered, he added.

In April of this year, NIHE launched an investigation after a pane of glass fell from one of the high-rise residential properties at Rush Park.