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When this war is over

The sector is rightly focussing on combatting the unprecedented health and wellbeing challenges facing people and communities in Wales. But we should also be planning for the ‘peace’ that must eventually follow, says Keith Edwards.

Like people and communities across the country, the housing sector has had to adapt to the biggest crisis in public health, and consequently economic wellbeing, since the Second World War. Without exception social landlords across Wales have mobilised rapidly, needing to keep their organisations afloat to be sure, but above all driven by their missions and values: to keep tenants, staff and the wider community safe and look after their health and wellbeing.

That this should follow the recent floods that wreaked havoc across many parts of Wales seems particularly cruel. In both cases – the floods and in our response to Coronavirus – the sector stepped up not just in terms of mitigating the immediate impacts, but quickly adapting the way we work to meet peoples changed circumstances.

The go-to, can-do sector

This shouldn’t be a surprise. In a recent blog I described housing as the ‘go-to, can-do sector’ for our partners in Wales. For as long as I can remember, whatever the challenge, we have stepped up to be a part – often a big part – of the solution.

So when we do come out of the current crisis the sector will once again need to be a key agent of the recovery, a constant and reliable partner. Many businesses will struggle, some won’t have survived. Public services will continue to be stretched to their limits. The ‘fit’ with what we can deliver and what Wales needs will be even more apparent. We are reliable collaborators whether building more homes and combatting homelessness, having a major impact on health and wellbeing, tacking climate change or making a massive contribution to the economy. This last point will be even more crucial going forward. Building sustainable, local economies is our turf.

‘Everything we do is foundational in nature

These are the words of Steve Cranston of United Welsh in his evidence to the recent Assembly Economy Infrastructure and Skills Committee inquiry into procurement and the foundational economy. There is a lot going on in this space, and housing is involved in all of it.

Debbie Green of Coastal chairs Lee Waters’ ministerial Foundational Economy Steering Group which is driving this agenda at the heart of government. Linked to this, Welsh Government is funding 52 demonstration projects under its foundational economy challenge fund and a number are housing sponsored or related including Rhondda Housing Association and United Welsh Housing.

The Future Generations Commissioner is carrying out the first inquiry under section 20 of the impact the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act has had on public sector procurement with housing recognised as leading the way in this area.

With colleagues I have been working on the next iteration of Can Do Toolkits, widely recognised as the best example yet of how to maximise foundational economy benefits from public spending. We will be launching our Can Do Declaration, co-designed with the sector, in July and follow this with the next generation of toolkits. They will be based on our experiences to date and the conclusion that we need to be more radical in future. This will involve redefining value and challenging the ‘lowest price default’ that may deliver short term savings but costs much more in the long run. The Grenfell tragedy should provide a constant reminder of the true costs of cutting corners.

Decarbonisation: the biggest challenge, the greatest opportunity

When we emerge from the current health crisis, the foundational economy will be even more important in delivering a prosperous Wales. This is not just about dealing with things as they are. It involves stepping up to face an even bigger challenge ahead: climate change.

As a sector we know that this will bring opportunities too. Community Housing Cymru’s recent economic impact research showed that delivering Welsh Government’s decarbonisation ambitions would mean investing £11 billion, building 75,000 zero carbon homes, creating 50,000 jobs and generating more than £23.2 billion for the Welsh economy. No other opportunity comes close in its potential to deliver community regeneration. In the words of Steve Cranston:

‘Reducing carbon emissions by 95 per cent by 2050 – that’s potentially a 30-year pipeline of work on our homes and our communities. If we get that right, then I think we’ve got a massive opportunity…to really make the foundational economy model work.’

But we shouldn’t wait until the current crisis ends. We can start planning, developing  strategies and doing research immediately. That way we will be ready to step up at a time when problems may have intensified but the potential for our sector to be a major part of delivering Wales’ future will have significantly increased.

Keith Edwards is a member of Welsh Government’s foundational economy steering group and the Future Generations Commissioner’s inquiry into procurement project group. The Can Do Declaration will be launched

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