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CIH Cymru sponsorship feature

The state of the nation

Keith Edwards look back on year one of the fourth Welsh Government and assesses the prospects following the publication of Wales’ first Housing White Paper.

‘In perhaps no other area of public policy do the decisions of Government have a more profound impact on daily life than in housing’. The opening words of our first housing white paper Homes for Wales published in May would be arrogant were they not fundamentally true. The home you live in has a major effect on your physical and mental health, significantly impacts on your ability to get and keep employment and is the biggest determinant of the educational attainment of your children. If Government hasn’t always afforded housing the attention it deserves, we’re not going to complain about the strong intent that permeates this White Paper that has rightly been called historic. To start with, it is literally and obviously a first. A Housing Bill has been made possible because we now have primary law making powers.

A perfect storm

In addition it comes at a time of unprecedented challenges. We face what has been described as a perfect storm: double dip recession with the construction sector a major contributor to negative growth; chronic failure to meet housing need; slashed capital spending as a consequence of a sustained policy of deficit reduction; and the early impact of the UK Government’s welfare reform programme, with much more to come. In combination, they amount to the biggest challenge to housing providers across all sectors. As always harsh times impact hardest on the vulnerable – the increase in homelessness already occurring is one sad but inevitable outcome.

The view of the sector as a whole is complex and will vary depending on where the ‘camera’ is. We all agree on two things. First, we shouldn’t put all your eggs in the legislation basket. Laws can help combat homelessness, they can’t outlaw it. Secondly, we need to beware of unintended consequences. Even seemingly benign interventions can be counterproductive.

The paper includes some tough love for everyone. Private landlords are generally wary of proposals to increase regulation of the sector, but the best will recognise the ambitions for growth and improvement that underpin this. Tenants will be disappointed that they will have to wait before they get fairer and simpler tenancies, yet encouraged by the re-dedication of Government to ensure they live in good quality homes. Laying additional responsibilities without more resources may rankle with local authorities, but greater and more clearly defined responsibilities will be welcomed by most. Requiring housing associations to collaborate may seem excessive to a sector generally seen as willing partners, yet it will recognise its obligations to the most vulnerable in society. Raising expectations of what housing support services can deliver will be a challenge for providers, but a commitment to maintain Supporting People funding will boost sector morale after a glance over the border at the chaos in England.

What will success look like?

Chinese revolutionary leader Zhou Enlai when asked in 1968 what he thought the outcome of the French Revolution was answered ‘it’s too soon to say’. Although thankfully not on the same timeline, the White Paper certainly takes a long view of the scale of the challenges and consequently the period over which the housing system can be radically changed.

As part of our role to challenge Government and the sector – and ourselves – it is useful to focus on what success will look like. A lack of housing remains the ultimate challenge and the root cause of most of the imbalances in the system such as increasing homelessness and affordability. It is a complex problem to solve – the shortage is a symptom of wider economic drivers that require a range of interventions through the planning system, making land available and securing access to sustainable funding.

Private sector development has stagnated in the past few years. Two influential all party groups of Assembly Members – Housing and Construction – recently made a joint call for an immediate boost to house-building as a way of creating jobs and reviving the Welsh economy and for the targeted recruitment and training approach of the Can Do Toolkit to be a cornerstone of all programmes. Housing Chair Sandy Mewies AM summed this up:

‘With the economy struggling to get out of recession, action across all sectors to build new homes could create jobs and boost Welsh businesses. There is strong support across all four parties for concerted action.’

Inevitably the emphasis by Government on a whole system approach will broaden the scope of scrutiny. The review of building regulations and the requirement to fit new properties with sprinklers will impact on new homes. Improving poor standards in the private sector which accounts for four out of five existing homes in Wales, remains one of our biggest challenges. Scarcity of resources means there will be a growing tension between improving standards and increasing supply. CIH Cymru has called for an honest debate to get this balance right as housing more and more becomes about making difficult choices.

A better private rented sector

The private rented sector is seeing unprecedented growth, equalling social housing as a percentage of all homes in 2013 and projected to grow to one in five homes by 2020. It has been described as a ‘sector of extremes’ ranging from high quality, well managed properties to what Lee Cecil of the National Landlords Association calls the ‘Rachman and Rigsby’ end. At that extreme, the experience is typically one of poor property conditions, bad management and insecurity of tenure. There is strong evidence also of exploitation by letting agents through unfair charges and penalties. CIH Cymru welcomes the emergence of social letting agents run by local authorities and registered social landlords as one way of pushing up standards. We support an approach to the PRS based on an appropriate balance of sanctions and incentives including the introduction of a national mandatory registration and licensing scheme to regulate landlords, lettings and management agencies. We agree with the Minister that ‘good standards and growth in the sector are not mutually exclusive; they go hand in hand.’

Improving services and support

CIH Cymru has long advocated the needed to see good quality homes and support as the bedrock of society. Welsh Government continues to take a distinct approach to the key programme aimed at tackling these issues – Supporting People. Whilst in England and Scotland, the programme has been dismantled and services are being cut as a result, Wales is establishing a new structure. We are also renewing our call for a dedicated Health and Housing Fund to support pioneer partnership working and break the joint funding log jam.

In times of economic difficulty, research shows that we should expect increases in domestic abuse, mental ill-health, drug and alcohol problems, criminal and anti-social behaviour and often as a result, homelessness. Providing everyone with a decent quality home should be the one thing that unites the housing community. For housing professionals, it provides the greatest motivation of all and often the reason why they joined the sector in the first place. As the challenge to deliver will get tougher we shouldn’t lower our ambitions.

The long view

What will make an effective housing system in Wales in the future? Critically we need to move much closer to a balance between supply and demand.

Housing needs to be more closely aligned with the economy and although Welsh Government doesn’t yet have all the financial levers at its disposal – particularly borrowing, taxation, and benefits – it has great influence in many areas including the labour market and direct control over its own spending programmes. We will need to build on the simple, yet brilliant, concept of housing-led regeneration. More and more, we will need to measure the impact of what housing can do across the social, environmental and economic triple bottom line. Above all, we need to remember that we are not passive. We should refuse to be victims. After all, the sector’s origins are rooted in the fight for social justice in harsh times. This is where we came in.

The Welsh Housing Review 2012 is free to CIH members. To obtain your copy please contact [email protected]

WHR 2012 is sponsored by Altair, the Principality Building Society and Savills.

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