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Editorial – October 2011

Watch your language!

We hear much about the challenging times we are working in. Hardly a week goes by without the publication of a report written in the English policy context. Tenancy strategies, how to make affordable rent work, how affordable rent just won’t work in many areas, what comes after the current investment programme which ends in 2015, what about the interface with welfare benefit reform?

In Wales, although the reports are not coming quite as thick and fast, we are not short on action. The development of the Welsh Housing Partnership, exploration of the potential of pension funds and the possible development of a Welsh Housing Bond, just to name a few.

All exciting stuff; new ideas and thinking. But I have a niggling concern. Affordable rent has a very particular definition in the English policy context – 80% of market rent. This may well be affordable to some people living in some areas and will be distinctly unaffordable to others, but there is a shared understanding of what is being talked about.

A number of recent articles pieces in the Welsh press have used the term affordable rents. It is not clear whether they mean social rents (as determined by the Welsh Government), intermediate rents (which can vary significantly as a proportion of market rents) or rents at Local Housing Allowance levels. At the risk of being seen to be pedantic, we need precision in our language. Not least because language impacts on understanding and expectations. It is also how policy intent is conveyed. We have not had a debate at national level exploring whether the English policy direction moving from social rents to affordable rents might work in Wales. And I would hate to think we are drifting in that direction aided by sloppy use of language.

We need to be clear about our intent, clear in our use of language and ensure that the way in which public money is used is transparent and clearly understood.

So, to get more ‘units’ from a small Social Housing Grant budget, should we spread grant thinner and deliver homes at ‘affordable’ rents? Or should we use other mechanisms to stretch the Grant such as making use of land already in the ownership of housing organisations, to enable Social Housing Grant to increase the number of homes available to rent at ‘social’ rent? And maybe explore other financial instruments to support the development of homes at higher rents, whether intermediate rents or Local Housing Allowance levels?

Just some of the questions that need collective consideration.

Tamsin Stirling

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