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Viewpoint – Keith Edwards

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Housing associations and local authorities have a shared agenda when it comes to delivering good quality and locally accountable services that should develop further says Keith Edwards.

If like me you were hoping for the public spending cavalry to arrive after the general election you will have been bitterly disappointed. Indeed you would have lost most of your hope well before election day itself, with both major parties sounding the more-cuts-to-come bugle, particularly for local authorities. But we are where we are. The important thing now is to focus on what we can do to address, not just current challenges, but those that are sure to come on the back of further austerity. For me that means more than ever that we need to fashion Welsh solutions to our public service challenges.

A key issue will be how to develop and support new models of service delivery and asset ownership that are viable alternatives to privatisation, redundancies, boarded up facilities and service closure. Welsh Government is increasingly talking of transformation rather than reform. The Co-operative and Mutuals Commissionand the ideas outlined in the white paper Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People are two examples of a quest for radical solutions that is pretty much across government and also includes social care, housing and tackling poverty. The common threads are the desire to ensure services are citizen centred, accountable and sustainable, aspirations shared with the RSL sector.

 

‘At a time when public service organisations all around the world are learning that the old ways of doing things are not sufficient for the future, Wales has the opportunity to leap beyond others if our minds are open to the possibility’

 

Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People

 

Local authorities across Wales face the ‘double whammy’ of progressively less funding and increasing demand driven by demographic changes. Well in advance of legislation, many councils are developing their own transformational strategies and interest in creating new partnerships with housing associations is increasing rapidly. Traditional associations s and stock transfer organisations are themselves amongst the best examples of new service models, with the former assuming the responsibility to build social housing from the late 1980s, and the latter taking over the housing of 11 local authorities since 2003

So why are associations such attractive partners? Well for a start they have strong asset bases with an impressive record of business resilience. They have vast experience of delivering ‘housing plus’ initiatives in partnership with their local authority and other public bodies. Within the sector there is particular expertise. For example, community mutuals and other transfer organisations successfully achieved service transformation and asset transfer on a massive scale and hardwired community accountability into their governance.

 

The range of innovation in service delivery continues apace including:

  • Playing a leading role in delivering over one hundred new co-operative homes in the next year with many more in the pipeline
  • Creating thousands of jobs and traineeships using the Can Do Toolkit
  • Embracing new forms of governance through community mutuals and, in the case of Merthyr Valleys Homes, exploring options to create a governance model based on tenants and workers as joint shareholders
  • Housing-related support providers leading the way in encouraging and supporting the development of social care mutuals
  • Running projects for young people linking homes to jobs and work
  • Working in partnership with social enterprises to deliver services and aiding them in their development
  • Running after school clubs, adult literacy projects and parenting classes
  • Leading for partners on a range of major health, environmental and family intervention projects
  • Supporting local groups to take over community assets
  • Securing the future for external workforces by establishing subsidiaries repair and maintenance organisation
  • Engaging rural communities in the provision of new affordable housing and services.

The sector is clearly up for increased partnership working provided management boards are convinced that proposals are consistent with their values and objectives and that risks are manageable. It is also important that any partnerships or transfer of services are viable financially and as one sector leader put it, do not rely on tenants’ rents as a subsidy. However one thing is clear; it is impossible to conceive transformation of public services without strong and growing partnerships between local authorities and associations.

Keith Edwards is an independent consultant. He is currently working on a review of public service delivery models jointly for the ministers for the economy and public services and for a number of project for local authorities and RSLs [email protected] @KeithEdwards121


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