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Interview with the Chief Executive

Sarah Webb, Chartered Institute of Housing Chief ExecutiveIn an interview with WHQ, Chartered Institute of Housing Chief Executive, Sarah Webb, takes stock.

Q – As the new Chief Executive of CIH, what are your priorities for the organisation and what differences might we see in the organisation in the coming months?

A – I can’t believe how lucky I am to have this job – I’m really proud of the work CIH has done over recent years, but of course we have to keep refreshing our offer – not least because the world around us is changing so much. So I have two key priorities. An externally-facing one which is about positioning ourselves at the heart of the new place-shaping agenda – leading the move towards a future in which traditional tenure-based distinctions are blurred and in which what matters more is your success as a genuinely customer-driven business. My internal one is about making a reality of the ‘CIH golden thread’ that links our blue skies policy work – with our practice and consultancy support – with our learning activities. There’s no point in us shaping the national financial inclusion debate if we don’t include skills in building financial capacity in our arrears recovery training.

Q – Do you see any particular challenges or issues for CIH Cymru that are different from the organisation as a whole?

A – The two issues above are clearly relevant for CIH Cymru – as are many of the challenges we face in the sector, but there are some particular issues for us and the sector in Wales. I guess I’d highlight the ongoing need to achieve the Welsh Housing Quality Standard as part of wider regeneration plans. A number of areas are still to decide on their options for delivering WHQS and those that have rejected transfer have still got to respond to the 1000s of tenants living in homes that don’t reach the standard. If you add the environmental challenges around the 27% of CO2 emissions that come from housing into the pot, then you have a significant and expensive problem, particularly as the Welsh Assembly Government’s 2011 aspirations for zero carbon are ahead of the 2016 target for England.

Q – CIH is an international organisation – how do you think that this international base can be used to best effect within Wales, eg to:

  • stimulate innovation
  • improve practice/services
  • better support the housing profession etc

A – We now have international members from 20 countries in 5 continents and are working with housing professionals in a wide range of places from China to Nigeria, from Malta to Montserrat. We have launched a regular international ‘ezine’ called ‘Housing World’ (an example is online), and through it and discussion groups on the website, I hope we can act as a portal for shared learning across the world. This may sound over-aspirational but, in the international visits I’ve been fortunate to do over the last couple of years, I have been struck by the extent to which we are all facing essentially the same problems. I’m hopeful that our efforts to gaze beyond the UK will provide us with new ideas and approaches that will, in turn, improve the support we can offer to UK professionals. Incidentally, I’d also like us to be able to facilitate some international secondments and placements as a way of supporting personal development and shared learning.

The policy agenda and devolution

Q – What do you see as the main policy issues to be debated and developed over the next year or two?

A – The exciting and scary thing is that there are just so many. In the immediate term, we need a discussion about flexible tenure and reverse equity – so that we can enable social landlords to buy a % stake in an owner’s home as an alternative to repossession. In the short term, I know that CIH Cymru has recently produced a briefing paper which explores the potential for flexible home ownership in Wales which should stimulate further debate. I’m still concerned about the cost of land for housing, about the ongoing tendency to develop new housing schemes without an appropriate mix of affordable homes to rent and own and about the need to transform the monolithic council estates that are managed by local authorities (or their ALMOs in England). In the medium term, we have to look at retro-fitting our existing housing to reduce its carbon footprint and we have to have a real plan for meeting the housing and support needs of an aging population.

Q – Which organisations do you see as the main allies of CIH in developing these issues and why?

A – I’m convinced that our success at partnership working is one of our key strengths so I have a great long list of different kinds of organisations that I want to work with to develop our ideas. The straight-forward answer is to list all the private, public and voluntary organisations working in housing – and, of course, we will develop alliances with them – but I think we also need to do a better job of talking to people outside our sector – including the people who don’t like what we do. I’d like us to talk more to Ed Balls about the links between poor housing and poor education – and, whilst I might not want to – I think we have to start talking to those sections of the media that are part of the residualisation and stigmatisation of social housing and its tenants.

Q – Are these issues universal across the UK or do you think that there are different resonances in Wales?

A – I would suggest that these particular points have as much resonance in Wales as in other parts of the UK. The additional challenges for parts of Wales are around non-decent housing and the need for significant socio-economic regeneration.

Q – What are your overall observations on devolution and housing – considering the experience in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

A – In general, it seems to me that there’s a new-found confidence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the 3 communities are reaping clear benefits from this in terms of high level debate around a range of complex issues. Unfortunately, not all the decisions to have emerged from this process have been great. In Northern Ireland, CIH has had to work with others to argue for more money for affordable housing and in Scotland, we lost Communities Scotland as part of the SNP review of quangos. It will be interesting to see whether there will be any gains for housing in Wales from the Assembly’s new legislative powers. But, overall it’s been really positive and I think CIH has responded well to this – not just with the creation of our National Business Units – but also in terms of our partnership approach to working with all three devolved governments.

Q – It’s always useful to get an external perspective on things – as someone who doesn’t work within in Welsh context, could you provide a brief critique of One Wales.

A – I like it – it’s aspirational, it’s strong – with some firm commitments on difficult housing issues like Right to Buy – and it reflects the importance of housing in delivering healthy, successful communities. My main criticism in relation to housing is the lack of action around both CO2 emissions and ways of helping vulnerable owners in non-decent homes. My other brief observation is that someone needs to make the policy and funding links between the different silos. Our ‘Making the Case for Housing’ programme and the CIH Cymru report ‘Housing and its Benefits…the added value’ were about demonstrating that you can’t deliver your health, education or economic prosperity goals without decent affordable housing. I know the Assembly recognises these links, but we may need some more articulation about how they are going to be made in practice.

Q – Any closing messages you would like to give WHQ readers?

A – For me, CIH exists to support people involved in housing so they can, in turn, do the best job they can to support tenants and residents. The most effective way for us to do this is by having as many members as we can so I’ve just launched a membership survey to find out, both what our existing members want from us, and what we can do to encourage non-members to get involved. If you aren’t a CIH member, I’d really appreciate you taking 5 minutes to complete a quick on-line survey. My aim is to make CIH an indispensable tool for you and the best way I can achieve this is to have a clear idea what kinds of support you would most value. (The survey is online at www.zoomerang.com)

Oh, and if think you can cope with a visit from ‘Head Office’ please invite me to come and see the great things that are happening in your area – it’s what makes the job real for me.

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