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Bob Smith: Social housing in Wales

Following the publication of the latest Social Housing Policy Working Group paper, Dr Bob Smith shares the positive lessons that have been learned from social housing in Wales and also highlights the challenges that still need to be addressed. 

This year has seen a renewed interest in social housing in the UK. The sector has started to explore the role it plays, questions of access, quality and affordability, the relationships between social landlords and their tenants (with particular emphasis on how the voice of tenants is heard). There has been a revival in debate about the potential future direction which social housing might take. The Conservative Government’s Green Paper, A new deal for social housing, has set out a vision for social housing. However, housing issues and policy responses often require more localised solutions. The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) has recognised the varied housing challenges facing different parts of the UK, with its development of five regional Knowledge Exchange Hubs. These Hubs bring together key stakeholders to identify housing evidence gaps and research priorities and help shape a shared research agenda. Devolution in the UK has also meant an increasing degree of divergence in housing policies and practice. The CaCHE Social Housing Policy Working Group, in seeking to inform debates around the Housing Green Paper, has sought to reflect this diversity by producing papers on social housing in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, considering their different housing circumstances, approaches, dilemmas and policy responses.

Recent independent research commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) Cymru has shown that social housing in Wales is often highly valued. Although there are some negative perceptions, particularly amongst some of those outside the sector (and the issue of stigma still needs to be addressed) there is strong recognition of the need for social housing in Wales. Over the last decade under their devolved powers, the Welsh Government has given serious attention to housing issues, with the development of national housing strategies (and sub-strategies), specific housing policies and programmes. Having gained enhanced statutory powers, it has allowed the introduction of ground-breaking legislation not only specific to housing (e.g. the Housing Wales Act 2014, with its fundamental reform of homelessness) but also the flagship Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015. This Act places a duty of sustainability on public bodies across Wales to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Of course, broader agendas of austerity, and non-devolved policies such as welfare reform, have impacted upon social housing in Wales, and of the lives of many of those living in social housing or seeking access to the sector, but Wales has worked hard to develop “made in Wales” solutions to its own housing challenges.

Wales is a small country (around 3.1 million population), with a relatively small social housing sector which provides homes for about 16% of Welsh households. It has only 35-40 active housing associations and only 11 of its 22 local authorities provide social housing; a sector which in total accounts for just over 230,000 homes. However, perhaps because of its scale Wales has adopted an approach to social housing which has been collaborative, rather than competitive. In terms of the Welsh Government’s 2016-2021 programme for delivering an additional 20,000 affordable homes (within which there is a strong commitment to delivering more social housing at affordable rents), there is strong partnership working between Welsh Government, local government and the housing association sector. Collaborative working is also developing innovative approaches to funding additional social housing and to developing new models of housing design and construction. Recently Wales has followed Scotland in ending the Right-to-Buy and as in other parts of the UK, we are seeing a modest renaissance in additional council housing provision. At the local level there are encouraging innovations in terms of linking the benefits of investing in social housing to opportunities for local procurement, employment and training, to economic and social regeneration and to securing wider health and community dividends.

There are positive lessons to be drawn from the experiences in the social housing sector in Wales but there are still challenges. There remain significant levels of unmet current and projected housing needs in Wales (and a need for more affordable social housing provision). Whilst provision has been increasing over recent years there is evidence of a fall in the level of extra affordable and social housing provided in Wales in 2017-18. Considerable progress has been made in improving the overall quality of the social housing stock in Wales, but there are still parts of the sector where Welsh Housing Quality Standard (WHQS) has not yet been achieved. There remains an urgent need for increased investment (public and private) in social housing. Wales has also placed an increased focus on good governance in the social housing sector, and there are signs of progress having been made, though still concerns to be addressed. Good governance is about having the appropriate skills and experience to ensure social housing organisations are well run in an ever-changing and increasingly complex environment, but it is also about values, listening and learning. There is more to be done in Wales to ensure that the voice of tenants is heard (and listened to) and to continue the improvements in governance, ensuring greater equity across the social housing sector, as well as continuous improvements in the quality of housing services.

There are also questions around the affordability of social housing in Wales (where unlike England rents have continued to increase over recent years), the relationship between rents and subsidies and issues of value for money in the sector. In a period when public expenditure is still tightly constrained (and with other competing priorities) these are important issues to which there are no easy solutions. There is also evidence of significant skills shortages within the social housing sector (and beyond, for example in land use planning and the construction industry) and these deficits, together with limitations in data, need to be addressed. This suggests further opportunities for collaborative working at a more local level in Wales. Current debates around the reform of Welsh local government raise the prospect of closer partnerships or mergers between local authorities and increased collaboration between housing associations and local authorities in delivering services in the social housing sector. The importance of these challenges has been reflected in the establishment of an Independent Affordable Housing Supply Review which will report to the Welsh Government in the Spring of 2019.

The CaCHE paper on Social Housing in Wales highlights some of the changes seen in the social housing sector in Wales over the last two decades and also some of the difficulties which remain. In doing so it seeks to make a contribution to ongoing debates around the UK Government’s social housing Green Paper and the continued ambitions in Wales to increase the supply of good quality, secure social and affordable housing. Investing in an enhanced social housing sector will be critical to tackling the housing crisis; an overused phrase but one which reflects reality for very many people.

Dr Bob Smith is a Knowledge Exchange Broken for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Geography and Planning at  Cardiff University.

 
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Date: October 26, 2018 12:38 pm

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