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Supply: The real value of new homes

What more can we do to boost housing supply? Three years after the ministerial task force that he chaired published its report, Robin Staines assesses progress so far and options for the future.

I recently came across a very interesting article on the considerable difference within, and between, counties on the happiness of residents. I guess this is no real surprise but it does beg the question ‘what if’ this research was cross referenced with other factors, such as wealth, health, housing conditions and life expectancy.

While the differences in happiness is interesting, the huge gap in life expectancy is alarming. Depending on where you live in Wales, you can expect to live up to five years longer and in terms of a ‘healthy life’ expectancy, this gap rises to ten years. While we often hear inequality described in financial terms, this is a stark reminder that those who live in the poorest communities live a shorter and less healthy life.

This is where we come in. The link between housing and health is well established, so much so that Community Housing Cymru is working closely with local government and Public Health Wales to make better, and healthier, homes and residents. The trials and tribulations of the NHS are partly due to our aging and energy inefficient homes, and partly due to resources being directed at cure instead of prevention.

Our long-term health impact study, being conducted with Cardiff and Swansea universities, points to the significant benefits of investing in our homes. This includes lower incidents of cardio vascular and bronchial related disease, fewer GP visits and fewer visits to A&E. Homes are easier and cheaper to heat and far more likely to meet the occupants’ needs.

We may have assumed much of this before the commencement of the research programme, but now we know. What stood out to us is the impact on mental health, with tenants telling us they feel less depressed, more confident and interact more socially as they feel proud of their home. This increase in dignity and respect has been telling.

That is why we should pay tribute to the Welsh government for confirming a target of 20,000 new affordable homes over the course of the administration (a shade under double that of its predecessor).

Further plaudits should go to the minister and his team for the recognition that this can only be achieved by working closely with providers and the recently signed pact with the Welsh Local Government Association and Community Housing Cymru sets out the responsibilities and accountabilities to meet the target, which we are fully determined to do.

On a more cynical note, it is doubtful that this highly politically driven target would be set unless the resources were already in place – as close to a done deal as possible. That is not to say there won’t be the usual issues, but these will be overcome and we will deliver.

The devil is always in the detail – what makes up the 20,000 and how this reflects need as much as aspiration? Rising enquiries to housing advice bodies, and the previous research (Holmans and Monk in 2010 quoted the need for 14,000 homes a year), suggests we will fall far short of what is needed, rather than what can be funded.

Politics is all about choice and where ‘housing’ stands in the funding pecking order of life. After spending three years studying politics as an undergraduate I came across a saying by Harold Laswell that is as true today, as it was in 1936. Politics is basically ‘who gets what and when’. If I had found out these five words earlier I could have saved myself three years.

This was very much reiterated when I was asked to chair a ministerial task force looking at housing supply. The then minister (who is now the now minister) was anxious the blocks to increasing housing supply were identified and swiftly unblocked. In the six months life of our project we came to the conclusion that while there is a common feeling that more homes are a good thing, and there is a no blame culture, it is everyone else’s fault.

The blocks are well known and well-rehearsed. The challenge was to build a sustainable consensus on how to overcome them. We established that many interests are engaged in delivering housing, the blocks aren’t all self-imposed, and, given points one and two, there are no easy answers.

We could find neither the magic bullet nor the white rabbit. There was pretty much nothing we could say that hadn’t been said previously – I doubt that the findings would be much different today. The answer is amassing many small gains rather than one big whole system change. It’s just too complicated for that.

That is not to say that work hasn’t been taken forward since the task force reported in January 2014 – however many of the issues, in one guise or another, remain. We made 23 recommendations in three broad bands of action – immediate (seven), medium (13) and long term (three). These covered a wide range of market drivers including land availability, planning, statutory services, standards and grant rates.

Given the occasionally conflicting interests, the working title of the report may as well have been ‘the penny and the bun’. There is, rightly, a drive for ambitious design standards but also maximising output – what gives and where is the trade-off? These are difficult choices for both central strategists as well as local providers.

Welsh Government has the unenviable job of making decisions regarding where resources will be targeted to meet these action points. Within this, the need to balance immediate results and performance with longer-term structural change never goes away. It takes money to invest now to save money in the long term. It is all too easy to see public services as a cost burden.

Housing should been seen as a good return on investment (in a number of ways that benefits society and reduces costs elsewhere) rather than a financial liability. As the old saying goes, ‘it is not about cost, but value’. On this note, I think we can all do more to establish the value.

However, there is also the need to consider not just how the cake is divided, but also the size of the cake. There may just be the realisation that if we want the public services (and in that I will include housing) we desire and expect, someone has to pay.

I have heard that housing is up against health and social care (let alone education, transport, infra structure, regeneration). But I would argue we are not up against, we are complementary too and a fundamental enabler. Housing can be part of the long term structure that will reduce dependence on front end health and care services – and provide choice to boot.

The quicker investment (rather than seeing money as spend) is directed at appropriate housing models and pathways the quicker the demand and pressures on critical public services are managed and mitigated. The Melin-led In One Place initiative (a collaborative approach for providing accommodation and continuing care for people – eight housing associations and five local authorities have joined forces to provide a high quality health and housing service) is a great start.

It has been a little over three years since we reported our findings. The taskforce left ministers with a blueprint of how things can be better. Not perfect, just better. On reflection it may have helped drive the change we need if the post reporting governance was clearer.

Good governance is often the prerequisite for good performance. We got out of the blocks but never maintained the political and industry momentum, oversight and engagement that could have moved the needle a little further.

This is ever more pertinent given the need to bring very different economic sectors, agencies and interests together to achieve our desired impact of shared purpose (where it exists) and common good.

You only have to talk to housebuilders, for instance, about their continuing frustration with the planning system, especially at a regional level. Hopefully the local government white paper (Resilient and Renewed) sustainable services delivered at a regional level (where it is appropriate to do so) will help us to think differently to deliver differently. The white paper also talks about housing being delivered on a regional basis – which makes an interesting conversation in itself.

While it would be an interesting academic exercise to revisit the task force to appreciate what has been, and what can’t be, done there are other pressing issues. Assuming we respond positively and deliver the 20,000 (which I believe we will), the next question is additionality. It would be very cosy for us if the minister can persuade his colleagues to allocate resources (including land) over and above the 20,000. If not, we need a plan B. Where these is no money, we will just to think differently.

So, the proposition is how do we provide ‘additionality’. We can start with the 30,000 or so empty, no, wasted, homes in Wales. These have the added advantage of not needing planning, are connected to services, and many are bang in the middle of resilient communities.

The Houses into Homes programme is a great start to recycling these back into use, but a start is all it is. Capacity in terms of will, skills, technical expertise and resources can help reverse this wasted resource. Maybe it is time for a national empty homes agency to co-ordinate the approach and support owners and providers?

The private rented sector is growing significantly and, at over 200,000 homes, it is only marginally behind social housing. Social lettings agencies have been very successful in opening up areas of the private rented sector to those in the most need. These types of agency can provide landlords with good quality management and maintenance services, and tenants with a degree of security otherwise not afforded.

Making better use of the existing stock is part of the answer, but building more has the wider impact of securing jobs and skills in the construction industry and local communities. Given the scale of the problem, it is not time to be precious about who provides as there is more than enough opportunity for all social landlords and enablers to contribute.

While land is a finite commodity, money can usually be found if the deal adds up. It is with this in mind that we should be acutely aware of the opportunities the new City Deals may bring.

Other initiatives such as local housing companies (such as the excellent example in Flintshire) can attract new investment over and above the borrowing limits which  artificially restrict landlord authorities from developing. It is innovation such as this we will need to embrace.

Money may not be able to buy you love, but it can ensure your housing conditions are such that where you live does not have a detrimental effect on your health, wellbeing and happiness.

Robin Staines is head of housing, public protection and care and support at Carmarthenshire County Council. You can contact him [email protected]. You can find the taskforce report at gov.wales/docs/desh/publications/140130delivering-more-homes-for-wales-en.pdf

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