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Will there be a new dawn for Welsh housing?

Will there be a new dawn for Welsh housing?Peter Williams writes in a personal capacity.

Celebrating 50 issues of WHQ reminds us that it is now over 12 years since the first issue. Since then, there has been a change of political control and direction of the UK government, devolution to Wales, local government re-organisation, at least two national housing plans and numerous changes to policy. Across Wales, local authority housing departments have become the exception rather than the rule, but with varying consequences. The housing association sector has grown in size, but not greatly in number, and accurately or not, it continues to have a mixed reputation most particularly, (and crucially), with senior politicians in the Assembly.

The Welsh Assembly Government’s publication of the National Housing Strategy and related wider plans for the regeneration of Wales have rightly raised expectations of a better future, one where all the people of Wales can enjoy good quality safe and affordable housing. The Assembly has put in place a number of building blocks to achieve this, not least the Welsh Housing Quality Standard and the Welsh Programme for Improvement and at long last it has begun to slightly increase the housing budget. However, although we are beginning to see the flow of policies and resources, there remain a number of significant constraints and key amongst them are the vehicles through which policy is delivered.

It would be wrong to suggest that the performance of local authorities in Wales is the only problem, but it is very significant. In housing terms, the slow and patchy response to the requests for stock condition information and business plans is symptomatic of the limited resources, skills and political will which exists in some authorities. The Audit Commission report on public services in Wales identified housing performance as being particularly weak with only 2 out of 19 inspections being judged ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. Depressingly, the response from the WLGA to these findings was to dismiss the report for its metropolitan bias, (presumably a reference to London although the work was carried out by the Audit Commission Wales), and to explain away poor performance by reference to historic underfunding.

This defensive stance by local government was also evident in the WLGA housing manifesto Putting our house in order. Although the report rightly stresses the wider benefits of housing investment and points to the good work undertaken by authorities, it continues to stress two areas, the need for more money (ironically as the report states ‘to put their house in order’) and real alternatives to stock transfer. Perhaps most significantly, it argued that only local authorities had the strategic capacity and community leadership capable of delivering the Welsh housing agenda.

So, on the one hand we have a government agency pointing to the poor performance of local authorities with respect to housing and on the other, we have local authorities saying that only they can deliver the Welsh housing agenda. Who is right? And how do we break out of this Catch 22? Particularly when we add to the pot the underspend by local authorities on housing as outlined by Steve Wilcox in his article in the last issue of WHQ.

The Assembly response has included making stock transfer more palatable by putting the focus on community ownership and it seems a major repairs allowance will be introduced which will aid a number of authorities to opt for stock retention. Perhaps other incentives for better performing authorities are needed, but those that can’t or won’t improve their housing performance must now stand aside and relinquish the direct housing role, recognising their wider duty to their communities. Housing associations are not perfect, but overall their delivery has been good. It is a shame that this fact has not been more evident given the shameless citing of exceptions to prove that they are not good enough to inherit this responsibility. Valleys to Coast will hopefully be the first of many to prove this wrong.

Local authorities are not the only problem and housing associations, the private sector and the Assembly must also take a share of the blame, but authorities are central to the issue of how things can be changed. Will there be a new dawn? Could there be a consensus on the way forward? It is time for the providers to find a common way forward otherwise the next ten years will look rather like the past (and the Welsh Rugby Union!).

Peter Williams is Deputy Director General of the Council for Mortgage Lenders, [email protected]

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