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CIH Cymru – Anything but standard

Matt Kennedy analyses the new Welsh Housing Quality Standard

Two decades ago the Welsh Housing Quality Standard bounced on to the housing scene following consensus that a programme of large-scale improvement within the sector was sorely needed. In the early years it was plagued by differences in interpretation and a lack of monitoring data making it difficult to pin down its impact. That saw the implementation deadline leap to 2020, with the pandemic causing a minor extension to 2021. At that point 99 per cent of social homes in Wales met the standard.

Fast forward to today and we’re in the middle of the consultation period for the new iteration of the standard, WHQS 2023. We’re at a crossroads where a desire to push on and improve homes further could be tempered and hampered by the contemporary forces placing a pinch on businesses and households alike.

The new standard is attempting a difficult balancing act, by being ambitious enough to make meaningful progress on huge challenges, like tackling climate change and addressing fuel poverty whilst remaining achievable for housing providers tasked with meeting it in practice.

Whilst it mirrors much of what was included in WHQS with some modernising of the technical detail, it’s the section that focuses on improving the environmental/comfort credentials of homes that as new elements, are worthy of additional scrutiny.

This section embodies the level of ambition the standard seeks to realise. Homes that reach EPC A and EIR 92 reflect huge strides forward in terms of efficiency and reducing the carbon output of homes. Low-carbon heat sources, methods of heat retention and storage wrapped up in a fabric first approach is highlighted as the key phased approach to achieving these measures.

Measures to save water also feature prominently with the standard asking for fitting that promote aeration and the installation of water butts. From a comfort/practical perspective the standard seeks to promote a number of elements. Limiting the impact of noise travelling between and from outside the home, installing flooring in all habitable rooms, and bike and recycling storage.

Whilst there’s a positive approach overall to tenant engagement, with a real emphasis on meaningful consultation on programmes of work, and the general approach taken, there’s little detail on how this activity will be assessed and is less stringent when compared to, for example, the tenant engagement obligations as part of the new fire safety legislation.

Although the standard is set to be realised over the next 10 years, there’s clearly some tension with the experiences of social housing providers at present – and these will inevitably be the subject of debate over the coming years/months.

Affordability is a term used within the context of achieving EPC A, but as a concept it has been stretched and distorted to an extreme by the rapid rise in energy prices and the broader cost of living crisis. Further narrative will be needed to better understand how the standard will recognise what is and is not considered affordable within the context of these pressures.

Of course, funding and competing priorities will be the main cause of concern for many organisations. Significant changes to fire safety measures, the push to build 20,000 low-carbon social homes, supply chain pressures and an ongoing skills challenge all combine to create a challenging operating environment. Resources are already stretched and given the scale of challenge the new standard represents there’ll be continued anxiety over how the standard is met if details from the Welsh Government are not forthcoming at the earliest opportunity to outline the approach to financing to match the timescale for implementation.

Whilst the standard provides some guidance on the ‘how’ around key ambitions, such as achieving EPC A, there’s a wider need for organisations to rapidly share their own learning and data about what works well for them so that those procurement challenges in identifying the right component/part/technology to realise change in a cost-effective way without compromising quality is possible for all organisations operating in this space.

Whilst there’s much still to be decided we can to some extent take heart from the fact that WHQS is a more stringent standard compared to its counterparts in other parts of the UK (it’s a good news story for the sector here) and has generated a huge amount of economic and social value within Welsh communities. And this time around the sector is on a stronger footing in terms of understanding quality – it now needs to transcend what we’ve known up until now and be the kitemark of quality of any type of home built in Wales (and more widely the UK/world!).

Matt Kennedy was policy and public affairs manager at CIH Cymru until the end of June

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