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Housing Leadership Cymru: The housing manifesto

Robin Staines calls on the next government to think differently about housing with plans that will not cost a penny. 

Unless you have been cleaning Tim Peake’s shoes on the space station, you may have noticed it is election and referendum season. If you haven’t read the election manifestos yet, I urge you to do so for several reasons. Not only do they give us a clear indication of the intention of the parties, we will also get an indication of the priority given to housing and regeneration. With the possibility of horse trading to form a coalition should no one party win overall control, it will be fascinating to see which issues makes it to the new government’s legislative and policy programme. Critically, where will the money go, and will it address root cause or symptoms?

It is for this reason that implementing this alternative manifesto will not cost a single penny. In fact, it will do exactly the opposite, it will save money. The case for more money to increase housing supply is well rehearsed and documented. It is highly tempting to follow this well-worn path. Community Housing Cymru’s well researched, presented and rehearsed manifesto robustly argues the case for more, and is an excellent starting point. There is a clear consensus amongst politicians, pressure groups and practitioners that more affordable housing is good thing for many reasons. The issue for the new administration is whether or not this case will be backed by political will and by creating the economic imperative.

However this alternative housing manifesto starts with asking the new government to think differently about housing, to commission differently, deliver differently and secure better outcomes. Rather than the inevitable but correct call for more homes by spending more money, re-imagining housing starts by understanding what it does and what difference it makes. Housing can be an agent of positive change in so many ways. This can be funded by the long-term savings housing can make if we get the investment right now.

The vision has to recognise that sometimes a little more spent now delivers significantly more in the future. For example, lifetime homes is a tremendous aspiration, however, this means little without lifetime environments and delivering accessible neighbourhoods. We need to think differently and the vision has to encompass this.

This challenge to think differently includes how we use the housing we have rather than only focussing on the additional housing we need. Of course we need more homes, but the 7,000 or so new homes delivered in Wales last year is a tiny fraction of the current complement of 1.4 million homes for the three million of us fortunate enough to live here. A greater national understanding of the level of inappropriate tenure, wrong size and type of home together with unsustainable stock in areas of declining demand within the existing housing stock would provide a good start. With insufficient cash, interventions have to be appropriately targeted. We need a clear view and understanding of what the data is telling us. Do we really understand demand and the real gap in supply? Market assessments are relatively blunt tools when understanding the accommodation needs of carers and care leavers, those with mental health issues, or those with learning or physical disabilities. This doesn’t even begin to consider the needs of an ageing and growing population. The vision needs to encompass housing for all.

Within the national housing stock, we saw 284 demolitions last year. This suggests our stock (which is comparatively old and energy inefficient anyway) will have to last roughly 4,900 years – the same as Stonehenge and the Pyramids. More immediately worrying are the 20,000 wasted homes that are lying empty. It was genuinely impressive to see the last administration prioritise this area and make capital funding available to turn empty houses into much needed homes. Any existing (or potentially new) tax raising powers could be directed at further tackling the problem of empty homes.

So our vision should encompass making the best use of the existing homes, understanding the data, and re-investment of other public sector budgets to deliver meaningful change.

However this is of little use without backing it with political will and action. We need a purposeful champion and a powerful advocate at the Cabinet table as a full housing minister. Linking housing with other areas may strengthen those priorities, but arguably weakens housing’s position. As a housing community we need to back our minister by providing our ideas, energy, skills and knowledge. Critically, we need to evaluate the differences our services make and the impact they have.

This will help to ensure housing is prioritised in the new legislative programme, hopefully in an intelligent and integrated approach. How much more of an impact would the homelessness legislation have if it was part of the Social Services and Wellbeing Act? We need to guard against legislation for legislation’s sake. Our ask is for meaningful legislation as an agent of real positive change rather than a rush for what seems to be every Government department and minister having their own Act. However a potential area could be to legislate to ensure homes are suitable to meet needs, perhaps a Warm and Suitable Homes Act to ensure our approach to adaptations is sustainable and energy efficiency is on statute. Our offer as a sector should be to continue the engagement and build on the very positive relationships engendered through our first Housing Act.

In asking for a more joined-up legislative approach, our aim should to see housing properly feature at the centre of the big policy issues. Sustainable development challenges are laid down in legislation. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act sets out a number of challenges for the housing community. The first challenge for us is to understand its requirements and implications. There is a real opportunity here for housing partnerships to make local offers to the newly created Local Service Boards. Welsh Government could require the LSBs to ensure housing is central to their agenda.

We should ask the next Welsh Government to use its influence as well as its legal powers. That influence is significant, for example in national and local infrastructure matters, and this can unlock a whole new potential. Further influence comes in the shape of workforce development. We know that social care and health workforces are beginning to converge to deliver generic community-based skills. Housing can and must have a role and responsibility in this.

Rightly, jobs and skills are key political priorities at a national and local level. Many of those without either just happen to live in homes we commission, procure, construct, own and manage. Jobs and skills don’t only come through construction where a million pounds of investment generates an apprentice. What about the other services we commission such as repairs and grounds maintenance? The challenge is very much what we do to help get tenants the skills needed for the work environment.

There are financial freedoms we need to deliver the national vision. For local authorities, exiting the Housing Revenue Account subsidy system was much welcomed. However, setting an artificial borrowing cap (based on controlling public expenditure rather than what business plans can actually sustain) has severely constrained potential. The financial capability of those 11 Housing Revenue Accounts needs to be deployed flexibly – we need to do the right things as much as things right. Rent policies could also be more reflective of local circumstance and ambitions. For the 11 local authority areas without a Housing Revenue Account, consideration has to be given to the levelness of the playing field. Bringing together key funding streams will help local partnerships bend and direct resources at key local priorities.

While this manifesto does not depend on new money, change can be accelerated by tapping into new and emerging sources of funding. There is no safer home for our pension funds than good quality homes. Potential new tax raising powers or local control could ensure additional capacity – for example a local stamp duty based on priorities (higher stamp duty for less energy efficient homes?) or further increases in council tax for empty or second homes? One day locally controlled VAT could be reduced or eliminated for housing repairs and refurbishment. Could the NHS could open up its considerable funding to housing providers as we move to a national illness preventative service?

When Tim lands in late June he will know if we are still in the European Union and if Labour are still in power in Cardiff. What we will know are the chances of a clear and unambiguous vision for housing the people of Wales.

Robin Staines is head of housing and public protection at Carmarthenshire County Council and former chair of Housing Leadership Cymru

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