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Stuart Ropke – Time to be bold

Time to be bold

Stuart Ropke was appointedgroup chief executive at Community Housing Cymru (CHC) in October 2014 after working at the National Housing Federation in England for almost a decade. He reflects on the similarities and differences between the two nations and (see below) on the economic and political impact of housing associations

Leaving the National Housing Federation was a big decision. Since taking the job at Community Housing Cymru, almost everybody has commented that it must have been difficult commuting weekly to London but I loved it. Leading the federation\’s policy and research work gave me an opportunity to help shape the debate and influence some of the key decisions. Influencing and working with Government on finance guarantees and a long-term rent settlement meant I could contribute to housing associations being able to do more.

I genuinely don\’t think that any area of public policy has had more change thrust upon it than housing over the last five years. And while there are some that will argue that housing associations in England have blurred their social purpose, I think they\’ve had to play the cards they were dealt by a coalition government who completely changed the rules of the game without truly understanding what impact those changes would have. If you add a housing crisis that has grown in depth and breadth it should be no surprise that housing associations have chosen to address that housing need where it is damaging communities as well as continuing to house the poorest and most vulnerable, and deliver a range of additional services.

It was that pragmatism and range of interventions, alongside the fact that it always appeared obvious to me that good quality, secure housing was the ultimate foundation stone in people\’s lives, that convinced me I wanted to work in housing when I was scratching around wondering what to do next after completing a degree in Modern History and Politics at Southampton.

I was lucky to be sponsored by the local authority in Swansea to study for the Post-Graduate Diploma in Housing at Cardiff University. One of the huge pleasures in the early weeks of my new role has been running into a number of alumni from the class of 1997, all working in housing, all in a variety of senior roles ranging from regeneration, energy efficiency, regulation, housing strategy and beyond. It certainly provided me with a base of knowledge that, at least earlier in my career, meant I felt comfortable taking on a range of roles in housing management, policy and strategy, and supported housing, both as a provider and as funder and commissioner in a local authority supporting people team.

For my part, I guess that sub-consciously at least there was always an intention to return to Wales on a more permanent basis. After leaving London originally in 2003, expecting never to return, I had the opportunity to take a senior role based at the federation\’s office in Holborn in 2009. On numerous occasions after that, we thought long and hard as a family about relocating back to London permanently. However, the fact that all those discussions were ultimately curtailed by my wife who when asked for her nationality will still instinctively say ‘Londoner’ and whose parents are still living in North London, tells you all you need to know about how attractive living in Wales is and how difficult it is to find good quality, affordable family housing in London. With two young children at a Welsh medium school in Cardiff, it\’s nice to have some certainty about our immediate future.

I\’m really excited about the possibilities that the opportunity of being group chief executive at Community Housing Cymru opens up. I\’ve always been most passionate about my work when there are a lot of different issues to get my teeth into, and the range of challenges facing the housing sector is immense. But the great thing about housing is that challenges become opportunities, and there is a solid base to work from here both in the policy environment and in an organisational sense that is already a very effective representative body.

I\’ve been struck by how different the conversation is in Wales around housing and how the culture of partnership is more heavily ingrained. In investment terms, Wales has so far avoided the mistake made in England where funding has been almost entirely switched from capital investment to revenue support. With the emphasis in Welsh Government on tackling poverty, it\’s vital that the link between lower rents and access to the labour market is uppermost in people\’s minds. Getting people into work wherever possible is always the best way to improve people\’s lives and the relationship between rent levels and distance from the labour market is a key part in that. That does mean maintaining capital investment at a time when budgets are being squeezed, but all the signs are that Welsh Government recognises that. Securing £32 million for housing out of the additional £100 million investment announced in the recent draft budget is a signal that Welsh Government not only sees the importance of housing but has faith in the ability of housing organisations to deliver.

At a time, when local government is under pressure like never before and when, alarmingly, it\’s not fanciful to suggest that the era of councils delivering anything but statutory services is over, it\’s understandable that attention is focused on what housing associations are delivering in communities and their potential. As the best resourced organisation in many communities, there is an expectation that associations will step in where local government walks away. I think that\’s a compliment to the sector but that expectation also brings challenges.

Which services should associations consider taking on? Do they fit with the association\’s mission and purpose? What risks, both financial and reputational, will the organisation be exposed to? How easy will it be to walk away from the service provision? All similar questions to those that need to be asked by boards when considering whether to continue with existing service provision such as support projects which are under increasing financial pressure.

More so than ever, housing association boards need the right skills and competencies required to direct increasingly complex businesses. That\’s why the soon to be launched Code of Governance is so important. It\’s absolutely right that it is owned by the sector and used by the regulator as part of their assessment process. It\’s also just a baseline for good governance. The ultimate aim for housing associations is to become the best governed group of organisations in Wales. We owe it to our tenants and the communities that we work with to be the best organisations we can be.

It will take some time to get there, and CHC as the membership body has a role to play too. By promoting the sector effectively and working with others, we can encourage a more diverse set of potential board members across Wales to step forward and get involved. The regulator also has a role to play. A trade press article after CHC\’s recent annual conference suggested that I thought the regulatory system needed to be torn up and started again. That\’s not the case. I think the move towards proportionate co-regulation is the right one but that consistent implementation of that system is the challenge. It\’s clearly important that the regulator has access to the right skills to be able to achieve that and, in a time when budgets are tight, it is important that Welsh Government looks at ways of making that happen.

This is an absolutely vital time for housing associations in Wales, when their mettle will be tested as never before. The next 18 months are also punctuated by two big political events – the Westminster General Election in 2015 followed by the Welsh Elections in May 2016 (see box).

The range of challenges that housing associations are facing, the new relationships that are being forged, and the huge changes in the political environment on the back of the Scottish Independence Referendum also mean it’s only right that Community Housing Cymru looks again at the work that we are focusing on and our offer to our members. The shape of the housing sector in Wales is also likely to look very different over the next few years and we need to ensure that we are responding to the priorities of housing associations. We\’ll look at our ways of working, how we engage with our members and how we can best influence their operating environment in the coming months.

The challenges are massive but we should be optimistic. The conversation is changing and we’re no longer a marginal voice. Social media is helping grassroots organisations to find their voice. There is a once in a lifetime opportunity in a time of great change to put housing at the centre of the agenda. It\’s time to be brave and be bold.

More than housing

The Welsh Economy Research Unit’s recent report highlighted the vital role that housing associations are playing in the economy and in the delivery of services above and beyond those of a landlord. With the UK elections less than six months away and the Welsh Assembly Elections in 2016, Stuart Ropke looks at why we need to ensure that housing is a key policy battleground in both

Welsh housing associations directly spent an estimated £1 billion in the economy last year, 80 per cent of which was retained in Wales. Added to indirect transactions between different sectors of the economy, the combined direct and indirect economic impacts total almost £2 billion.

The housing sector is a major employer in the Welsh economy. CHC members employed 8,400 full time equivalents in 2013/14 compared to 3,300 in 2008. For every one full time person employed within the sector, one and a half other jobs are supported within the Welsh economy in other sectors.

We are regeneration agents. Last year, our members spent an estimated £514 million on projects with a community regeneration impact. The sector is leading projects that reduce pressure on the NHS in Wales, support tenants to get back into work, tackle fuel poverty and transform the physical environments in which they work. 

In 2013/14, our members contributed 1,850 new affordable homes towards Welsh Government’s affordable housing target. While we are well on our way to achieving the target of 10,000 for this term of Government, we know that there is much more to do.

Our sector is changing and the role we now play in our communities is broader and more integral than ever before.

We know that there is a housing crisis in Wales. We know that there are an estimated 284,000 additional homes required between 2006 and 2026. We know that the average house price in Wales is now £171,000, and that the average salary is around £24,000. We know that many young people are priced out of the housing market in areas where they grew up and have no chance of getting a foot on the property ladder. We know that rural schools and amenities are closing because of a lack of affordable housing.

Yet, a recent Ipsos Mori poll found that housing is not in the top ten issues that matter to the electorate. So why should political parties prioritise it? The housing crisis affects us all. However, the housing crisis is not just about building new homes. As the solution is not just about new supply, many policy makers don’t think there is a real housing crisis!

The mainstream parties usually gear their agendas towards the interests of home owners and, in particular, older home owners who are more likely to vote. Our needs and the needs of our tenants may not be so pressing as to demand a substantial response from politicians. This needs to change.

We need to make sure that regeneration is also a top priority along with housing.  We need to make connections with other organisations and sectors that have a contribution to make in order to ensure that we have the right housing in the right place with the right facilities. We need strong local economies and we need to campaign collectively to ensure that our voice is being heard.

Housing straddles so many other policy areas – devolved and non-devolved, and the UK Elections in 2015 give us a real opportunity to highlight the work we do, the wider impact we have and the chance to identify crossover of policy areas where we can influence. It is an opportunity to stand united with the housing world to ensure that housing and regeneration finally find their voice in Westminster and subsequently in Wales for the Assembly Elections in 2016.

In collaboration with CIH Cymru we will be supporting the ‘Homes for Britain’ campaign that calls on all political parties to commit to end the housing crisis within a generation. This campaign was launched at party conferences in 2012 and will culminate with a 2,500 strong rally in the heart of Westminster on 17 March.

In order to ensure Welsh MPs are involved in conversations during the ‘Homes for Britain’ campaign, we will also hold a reception for elected representatives and peers in the House of Lords. This is our opportunity to meet with MPs from all parties on the day that housing is the key focus in and around Westminster.

The scale of the challenges that communities across Wales will face in the coming years is unprecedented. Members are changing rapidly to adapt to these pressures and needs, and CHC will continue to make the case for investment in housing. However, we need to work together across all sectors involved in housing and regeneration to not only make housing a key political discussion point among prospective parliamentary candidates, but to change the conversations among voters to ensure that they realise the importance of housing investment and how the housing crisis is affecting them. We all have a role to play.

If you would like to join us for the rally and the reception, please contact CHC to secure tickets. To read the economic impact report, please visit our website: chcymru.org.uk/en/publications/weru-report/


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