Housing Executive offices in Armagh, Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge could close and the services they provide centralised in a new ‘hub’ based at Marlborough House in Craigavon.
This is anticipated to be carried out on a phased basis with Portadown and Lurgan – the closest to the central base – the first to go.
The Housing Executive’s south area manager John McCartan has confirmed the changes – which include outright closures or significantly reduced opening hours – in a letter to local councillors.
He says it is part of a review to deliver services “in light of the changing trends in ways our customers interact with us”.
He says there has been an “increasing demand for digital and telephony services” and it is this which is “driving our thinking in terms of reviewing our current structures”.
Across Northern Ireland as a whole, there are 34 offices delivering a walk-in service to the public.
This office network has altered little in the past 40 years and reflects former district council boundaries and a Housing Executive stock which was more than double the current 85,000 dwellings.
The result is that there are now five office outlets within the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area.
In 2015, with the reform of public administration, the Housing Executive did amend the area and regional management boundaries but continued to retain all the office outlets.
In the early 2000s, the Housing Executive significantly changed how services were delivered, with specialist units set up to deal with housing benefit, rent account management and repair reporting, moving staff away from local offices.
However, the Executive did not alter its network to reflect these new practices.
That, however, looks set to change.
Mr McCartan, in his letter to councillors, says that, in the last the number of years, there have been a range of factors influencing its review of current services.
He writes: “Significantly, South Area offices have shown a 27% decline in footfall between 2014 and 2018, with indications of this decline increasing due to changes in the benefit system and increased mobile/agile working.
“The sustainability of smaller offices to maintain a walk in services is now severely under pressure with issues around adequate staffing levels to cover, premises security and health and safety issues and the ability to maintain a supportive management presence for staff at each location.
“Since 2016 the Housing Executive has carried out a major review of how we interact with customers, the main thrust of which is providing a tailored service to each customer with more emphasis on one-to-one interaction with ‘patch managers’ in the customers’ homes, which also reduces the need for calling to our offices.
“Our customers preferred method of contacting the Housing Executive is by telephone with our switchboards handling on average 98,000 calls per month. Digital online services are viewed as the biggest growth area and we have launched our new-look website in March of this year.
“As with many other public services, we are facing increasing demand from our customers to provide online services. Over the next six to 12 months there are plans to deliver a tenant portal, pilot a webchat service and once fully developed, provide 24/7 access to services and information.”
Mr McCartan said that in South Area, there are four local outlets in Armagh, Banbridge, Lurgan and Portadown, as well as a regional office located in Marlborough House in Craigavon, which houses support services such as housing benefit, ‘placeshaping’, asset management, rent accounting and a customer service unit.
He added: “The local office structure is based upon a former district council model reflecting customer needs pre the digital era. With reducing office footfall, increasing digital and telephone and face-to-face contact, the need for these four outlets has steadily reduced.
“As a result, I can confirm that in South Area, we are considering a number of options which include phased relocation and reduced hours given there are five offices within a short geographical distance of each other.
“Any proposals are subject to a formal consultation process with union, staff, customers, the local community and political representatives.
“It will also assess the impact on equality and rural areas.
“Our main proposal is that South Area frontline services from our four local outlets are relocated to an integrated hub in Marlborough House, where we have the opportunity to provide the full range of Housing Services in one location.
“It is proposed that we implement this relocation on a phased basis commencing with the immediately adjacent offices in Lurgan and Portadown.”
Further details on the proposals will be made available to councillors who have been asked to provide “initial feedback” at this stage.