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WLGA question and answer

WLGA question and answerWHQ posed a number of questions to Steve Thomas, new Director of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA).

What is the WLGA’s vision for housing in Wales?

The vision for housing for Wales was very clearly articulated in the Better Homes document and the very inclusive partnering process which produced it. It is one which we would all subscribe to. The real debate is around how this vision is delivered within the context of the wider public policy debate. Particularly around Health and Wanless, within effective community based regeneration, and the context of increasing problems of affordability in housing and the impact this has on the wider economy, I’m more interested in the practicalities of delivering better housing. Critical to this happening is the continued understanding and development of each local authorities strategic role in meeting housing need across all tenures and localities. Therefore I’m disappointed that the current Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) consultation on Social Housing Grant seems to suggest that local housing strategy will have no explicit role in determining what the investment priorities will be for SHG and that this is best decided by WAG nationally. If this isn’t what the local housing strategies are about, then what is their purpose? This is something I would urge the Assembly to seriously reconsider.

What will WLGA be doing to enable this vision to be delivered?

There is no one process which will magically enable this to happen. It may be slightly boring, but it will be a range of different things which reflect the complexity of some of the issues facing housing in Wales. The WLGA are facilitating a debate amongst our members over the strategic role of the authority within housing, a far wider and comprehensive role than acting as a major local landlord. Of course, this will remain important in many localities. However it is the role that good housing plays in the sustainability and health of our communities that is critical.

The type of investment that is banded about in terms of achieving the Welsh Housing Quality Standard is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice, leaving aside the somewhat problematic debate around where this investment will come from. The WLGA, along with WAG and the Welsh Development Agency, are undertaking a project to see how this investment could be made to work best for the local communities that it involves. This process has began in Bridgend. However, the lessons learnt can be understood on a wider basis across Wales in terms of all the investment local authorities potentially make within communities.

The Health team within the WLGA are currently undertaking a mapping exercise to try and quantify the contribution that various services make to the health of the nation. This fits very much with work done by the CIH Cymru to place housing at the heart of the wider policy debate. I think this will be increasingly critical as the Assembly struggle to come to terms with the implications of Wanless.

What would WLGA like the Assembly, local government and other partners do to support this?

I think we need to get beyond the command and control structure which operates within some parts of public life in Wales. We need a maturity in the relationship between national and local government that accepts that we are seeking to achieve the same broad objectives, and we need a proper dialogue about how we achieve it. Something which doesn’t achieve it is a plethora of new plans and strategies.

There also has to be a serious debate around the level of resources that go into housing. Whilst a certain amount will be drawn in from the private sector for those authorities and their tenants who decide that stock transfer is the most appropriate course, the majority of expenditure will still come from the public purse. If the Assembly are serious about dealing with housing issues, then they face some incredibly difficult decisions regarding their investment priorities.

However, what is required from all within the sector is a willingness to be innovative and supportive of new approaches. Sometimes, the risk adverse nature of public life does prevent some more radical solutions from coming forward. This is something we’re trying to capture in the Excellence Wales scheme we’re developing with WAG and the regulators. Not only are we identifying good practice, but we’re trying to capture and share innovative activity which may not have the weight of evidence behind it, but does appear to be a more creative way of responding to issues. This is change and improvement through shared learning experience, rather than prescriptive regulatory guidance, and as such is far more effective.

The national level

The WLGA have been very keen to highlight the potential benefits of housing investment on a scale required to meet WHQS – what needs to happen to realise those benefits?

Essentially this is what we’re looking at now – the development of practical guidance/resource to ensure that all authorities can maximise this benefit. Housing is littered with projects which did much to improve the built environment of any locality, but did little to improve the sustainability of those communities. This is mainly because the policy constraints upon such projects militated against this holistic approach. However, with the power to take into account the social, economic and environmental well-being, authorities can be more creative in how they approach these issues.

The introduction of Major Repairs Allowance (MRA) has guaranteed a flow of investment into local authority housing which is welcome. However, to what extent has this undermined local authorities’ ability to deal with private sector housing issues?

The reality is that MRA will do much to ensure investment within the local authority housing stock. However, it was funded by a finite pot of money for housing with the net effect that funding for private sector renewal strategies are likely to cut. Whilst it is fair to say that authorities make their own investment decisions and therefore could put more resources into this, the reality is that this can only come from cutting investment in local schools or other vital services. In much the same way as this resource reallocation is problematic for the Assembly, it is equally so for local politicians. At the end of the day, if locally accountable politicians decide on one set of investment priorities then that is an acceptable outcome of local democratic processes.

However the WLGA and Assembly will need to look what potential impact this reduced level of investment will have on the majority of housing stock in Wales. Again innovation such as national equity release and loans schemes may be the way forward.

The Barker Review made some startling policy suggestions in terms of the supply of both private and public housing. As yet, there has been little debate in Wales on these issues – should there be?

The Barker Review was very useful in as much as it significantly raised the profile of housing in UK terms. This has already had an impact upon the ODPM and in the attitude of the Treasury to housing investment. The review did not have much to say about Wales, nor should it have done. However, it is important that we look at the outcomes of the review and see if the analysis has much to say in a Welsh context. What is apparent is the proposed additional level of house building would cause a significant environmental impact, especially as it would have to be located in specific areas if it is to have the desired impact upon price expectations of the market. What must come out of this debate is a dialogue about affordable housing and especially the interaction between planning, housing and local communities in determining need and how that need will be met.

The Spatial Plan has begun to differentiate between different regions in Wales and identify the key factors that underpin our thinking about how regions are developing. What impact will this have on the development of Welsh housing policy?

The draft spatial plan wasn’t as explicit about the role that housing plays on a regional basis as we would have anticipated. Housing markets do not operate in isolation within organisational boundaries. This is recognised through the work of the north Wales and the south east Wales partnerships and the dialogue which goes on between many individual authorities. However, the Spatial Plan requires a good deal of development to provide authorities with a working resource that they can use in the provision of housing services, not least in getting the Spatial Plan to take account of twenty two community strategies and reflect what those have to say about the key drivers in each locality. Any plan which characterises Cardiff, the Vale, Monmouthshire and Rhondda Cynon Taf into one similar region is going to have a difficult job in justifying how these areas are similar, especially in housing terms.

The local level

The Wales Programme for Improvement is the main vehicle for driving improvement in services delivered by local government in Wales. Do you think that WPI has resulted in better services for tenants and other housing service users to date and will it in the future?

The first part of WPI is all about authorities coming to an informed view about which areas of service need to be prioritised for improvement. This critical self analysis has tended to be more honest and open than the usual external regulatory processes and as such has led to a high degree of ownership of the problems thrown up by the process.

The risk assessment process has identified housing almost universally as a high risk factor in terms of the capacity to meet the WHQS. What is important now is that this is progressed into the actual improvement of services on the ground. This may already be happening in a number of areas. I’m sure we’ve all being impressed with the remarkable work being done in Denbighshire in relation to their rents services.

This drive for improvement must now be bedded within local improvement plans and a clear improvement journey mapped out for the authority. This process will require constant vigilance and the development of a new performance measurement framework for local government with a clear outcome driven basis will be instrumental in this.

New political structures, such as Cabinet and Leaders, or elected Mayors, represent a significant shift in how policy and decisions are developed locally. Has this shift had a positive or negative impact on housing?

There was a great deal of unease amongst some when the new political structures started to be implemented. There was a feeling that it was dangerous to concentrate too much power in the hands of a few individuals. In terms of housing, there was a danger that a great deal of experience and expertise would be lost with the demise of the committee system. Whilst the new systems are still in their infancy, what we have seen is a sharpening of the political debate in each locality with a higher degree of accountability and clear scrutiny of decision making. It will continue to develop as Councillors gain expertise in their new roles and a better understanding of how they can more effectively perform their advocacy role as well as hold the executive to account.

What is critical within this model is that housing continues to be outcome/outward focussed and articulate the role that housing can play in helping authorities meet their strategic objectives. In this regard, it will be instructive to see how housing figures in the Community Strategy process.

What role does WLGA want to see authorities taking in ensuring that housing need is met in the future?

It is essential that housing need is determined using a sound, robust methodology which engages with local communities in helping identify that need – this is especially relevant in a rural context. This is a critical role and one which encapsulates the authority’s community leadership role.

This is obviously also closely tied in with authorities’ strategic housing role and must be articulated through all their major planning documents such as the community strategy, local housing strategy and local plan.

This is far more than undertaking a one off survey and then attempting to manage the dwindling resource of local authority stock to meet that residual need. It is clearly about partnership, both within the authority and specifically between housing and planning, but also externally with housing associations and house builders to ensure a range of activity which meets a broad range of housing need, including homelessness, where prevention proves impossible.

Meeting the WHQS presents a range of difficulties for authorities – how do you see them beginning to address these issues?

There are very real and genuine issues around some of the more aspirational elements of the WHQS. We are working with Housemark to try and clarify some of the elements around safe and secure communities and so on, so that authorities are looking at broadly the same issues when trying to understand what the impact locally will be. Until we have a clear sense of what is involved, it is difficult to see a clear way forward.

What is vital is that authorities continue to broaden their dialogue with tenants and other stakeholders so that any way forward is broadly consensual. Most authorities are at various stages of engaging in this dialogue around what options are available for meeting WHQS. Indeed there is some useful innovation in areas such as Carmarthenshire where the authority and the tenants are discussing which elements of WHQS should be a priority. The development of robust business plans must also be a priority, not necessarily just to satisfy the Assembly, but to allow an informed local debate. We will be working with the Assembly on the emerging Right to Know to ensure it is meaningful in a local context.

Does housing have a high enough corporate priority within local authorities? If not, how can this be achieved?

There are a range of issues which vie for attention at the corporate level. Each new Assembly initiative is triumphed as the issue which should be top corporate priority. Therefore there are issues around the messages the Assembly has given authorities about the relevant importance of housing on a national basis – essentially it rarely figures.

Not withstanding this, we fully expect that issues such as affordability and homelessness will increasingly move housing up the political agenda. What organisations need to do is recognise the constraints under which authorities operate and work with them to maximise the potential benefits.

What about homelessness and a perceived lack of corporate priority for the issue within local government? What will the WLGA do to tackle this issue?

The WLGA contributed a practical guidance chapter (Route Map) to the Shelter research First Contact last year and ensured that every senior officer and key elected Member received a copy. This was in addition to contributing heavily to the HACAS report into the implementation of the new homeless legislation.

This has being taken forward in the negotiations with the Assembly over potential Policy Agreements and the development of a target area for homelessness. Imperfect as that was, it did have a role in raising the profile of the issue on the corporate agenda.

The new tranche of Councillors represents an opportunity to frame this debate differently in line with the Route Map – with the emphasis upon prevention and the longer term benefits that accrue both to the individuals, communities and the authority from this approach.

And finally, what are the three things that WLGA would like to see change in the housing landscape in Wales over the next two years?

The publication of the joint WAG/WLGA/WDA research on the economic, social and environmental impact of housing investment allowing an empirical case to be presented for the necessary additional investment required.

A reduction in strategies and plans to be replaced by robust local planning processes which draw upon the new performance framework for local government, a more focussed regulatory framework and a sense of real partnership.

The Health debate progressing to a stage where we begin to see investment in a range of preventative activity which underpin good health – housing being critical to this.

Steve Thomas is Director of WLGA, email: steve.thomas@wlga.gov.uk

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