Becoming the best

Stuart Ropke’s Governance Conference 2019 speech in full:

Good afternoon everybody.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the opening morning at our Governance Conference and are refreshed after lunch.  It’s fantastic to see so many board members and staff here from housing associations across Wales.  This is the biggest conference in terms of delegates that Community Housing Cymru has ever run.

While I’d like to think that is down to the quality of the programme we’ve put together – I think that what it says most of all is that board members of housing associations are incredibly committed people, who want to network with their peers and expand their knowledge and learn. You all take your responsibilities incredibly seriously and I want to thank you for your hard work and the hours you put in to make your associations and the wider housing association movement in Wales, the best it can be.

The role of a board member is challenging and getting more so.  The range of topics at this conference is testament to the range of issues that board members need to consider.  But in short, you are the people charged with ensuring your organisation has a sustainable future and operates in a sound and ethical way with sufficient resource and capability to achieve its mission.

While your first responsibility is of course to your own organisation, this is a movement which is interconnected. We share a collective reputation, we often present ourselves to Government and other decision makers as a cohesive body of organisations – responsible for building the vast majority of new social housing across Wales, spending over £1bn a year in the Welsh economy and directly employing in excess of 9000 people,  as well as the jobs we support in the wider economy.

Yes,our strength lies in the diversity of housing associations of all shapes and sizes operating across Wales, but also in the impact we make as a collective of organisations who are investing and invested in communities for the long-term.

This is the 5th Governance conference that I have had the privilege to speak as Chief Executive of Community Housing Cymru. At my first conference in early 2015, I said that our ambition was that housing associations should be seen as the best governed organisations in Wales. And I think over that period we’ve seen a leap forward not just in the quality of governance across the sector but in recognition of its importance. But in a world where increasingly tough decisions have to be taken, we should never stop challenging ourselves and improving.

That is why as your representative body, we reviewed the Code of Governance, establishing a set of high-level principles that you as boards are applying in a way which works for your organisation.

To support you in using the code, I’m delighted that we’ve launched our training offer to boards. The offer is based on the principles in our Code of Governance, and provides opportunities for those who are new to board membership to get to grips with the sector, as well as opportunities for experienced board members to review and reflect on their skills. This builds on the partnership we launched with HQN last year. Their courses which I know so many of you have enjoyed, form a key part of the offer.

I’m also pleased that we’ve revamped our wider offer to board members – offering a new series of networking events for board members supported by Hugh James and establishing a Strategic Delivery Group for Chairs and Vice-Chairs. The establishment of that Group ensures that the voice of board members helps set the agenda and priorities for our work as your representative body and will have significant influence on the wider debate.

But now as we face the future, it would be easy to be negative. We are at a moment of flux. When old certainties are no longer there.  This applies as much to housing associations and the world we work in as it does to the wider environment.

It would be easy to be despondent. To reflect on the fact that in the almost 3 years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, we still do not have a political consensus about the way forward. To be angry, that to a large degree the Brexit debate has meant that frankly more pressing issues including the impact of austerity, the rising tide of homelessness, the housing crisis and the existential issue of climate change amongst others have been pushed out of the headlines by ongoing political machinations surrounding exit from the European Union.

The failure, and yes it is an absolute failure, of the Westminster political system brings to mind Antonio Gramsci.  Those of you who know your political theory will know that Gramsci was an Italian political philosopher who died in 1937, a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and was jailed by Mussolini’s fascist regime. He’s perhaps best remembered for this quote though;

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”

Regardless of the personal political philosophy you carry – I can’t think of a better quote that sums up the state of chaos that exists at the moment and the inability to deal with the challenges that really matter.

But I refuse to be down-hearted and I’ll tell you why.  In fact I’m optimistic.  I think we are actually at a moment in Wales which offers a once in a generation opportunity.  A once in a generation opportunity to do things better and do things differently.  A moment when if we are brave as a nation we can make good on the promises of devolution.

Firstly, a new First Minister, a Housing Minister sitting once more around the Cabinet table who has made it clear she is absolutely committed to increasing the amount of social housing that we build in Wales, in a substantial way. Two opposition political parties in Plaid Cymru and the Conservative Party who have both published housing strategies that commit to significantly increasing the building of new homes.  Is that political consensus I see?

Secondly, we await the publication of the recommendations of the Affordable Housing Supply Review. A review agreed to by the previous Housing Minister in the wake of the Housing Horizons project.  Our ambition in Housing Horizons which has become Community Housing Cymru’s mission is simple – “A Wales where good housing is a basic right for all”. But there was more to our vision for Housing Associations than just building more homes – 75000 of them by 2036.

By 2020, we want all the new homes we build to be near zero carbon, and by 2036 as many of the existing homes we own as possible too. We want to work in partnership with others across the public and private sector, collaborating to share resources and skills where it makes sense. And we want to use our economic heft to boost local communities. As a movement we already spend 84p of every pound in Wales – by 2036 we want that to be 95p in every pound.

We called for a review as we knew that the ambition of our members could not be met by a continuation of the status quo. A decade on from the last review of housing in Wales – the time was right to look again at the whole system.  Our evidence to the review panel, based on extensive work with our members was based on the three pillars of certainty, flexibility and collaboration.

Long-term certainty in capital funding for housing and a rent policy which put affordability at its heart and control with housing associations in collaboration with their tenants.  Flexibility to build the type of homes with amenities that tenants value.  A framework that encouraged collaboration between housing associations and with local government.

So as we await the launch of the panel’s report at the beginning of May – a reminder of the tests we will be applying to the recommendations that emerge. Do they enable more homes to be built to tackle the housing crisis we face in Wales?  Will those homes be genuinely affordable for tenants? Will those homes be of high quality and fit for the future? And do those recommendations enable the potential of the whole housing association movement to be utilised in building homes in communities across Wales both rural and urban?

The challenges we face today are different than those that existed before the financial crisis in 2008. It is rare to have an opportunity to look at some of the most important building blocks of a system in one over-arching review.  This is really an opportunity that can’t be wasted.

And of course, if the nation is to succeed, we need to see Welsh Government following up the report with a long-term commitment to the quantum of capital investment that is required to build the social rented and affordable homes that Wales desperately needs.  We have seen record levels of investment in social housing in Wales in the last few years – the nation can’t afford for that commitment to waver now.

So if we stand at a cross-roads for housing, what of the wider economy in Wales and the role that housing associations can play?

As organisations working in communities across Wales, especially after a decade of punishing austerity for public services, we are often the best resourced, most flexible agencies that our partners in the wider third sector and local government can turn to.  The economy in a post-Brexit world may well present even greater challenges.

Just in the last week, we have seen Welsh Government ministers, I think refreshingly, acknowledge the failure of orthodox economic policy to drive sustainable, inclusive economic growth in Wales. They are backing up their warm words on a new approach with £1.5m to test innovative ways of supporting the Foundational Economy in Wales, and housing associations must be a key player in this new approach.

Every day, we see stories of large companies reacting to the economic uncertainty that surrounds us by choosing to take their business elsewhere, leaving those who live in many of our communities facing an uncertain future.

Acting as anchor institutions, housing associations have a role to play in offering certainty to local businesses and people who, like us, will be there no matter what.

So as boards make decisions over future investment, we must look to the communities in which we work to build on the strengths that already exist, mobilising individuals, institutions and associations to come together, realise and develop those strengths.

Yes our first priority should always be our core business of providing safe, good quality, affordable housing and associated services but the success of our organisations is built on the health of the communities that we work in and the opportunities that our tenants have access to.

At the heart of this approach, every housing association in Wales must build relationships with tenants which are built on trust and are truly transparent and open.

Your organisations are increasingly stepping up to the challenge of delivering the homes that Wales needs, but as your role grows in delivering public services, so does the scrutiny. From politicians, from the media, and most importantly from tenants.

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is undoubtedly the most extreme example of the relationship between tenants and their landlord breaking down, and it is one that we must all learn from.

Everybody who lives in a housing association home should be very clear on what they can expect from their landlord in terms of the information they have access to, the way in which their queries and complaints will be listened to, and how they can challenged and scrutinise the decision their landlords make.

The method in which you deliver this promise may differ, based on your values and the way your organisation operates. But a culture of trust and transparency must be driven by the board.

While we’ve been doing some thinking as a sector on this, it is time to open this conversation up and develop something which can meaningfully engage tenants in the discussion. As the body that represents you, we may not be the best placed to engage with tenants in a meaningful way, but as this work develops over the coming months, we will be speaking to those who can.

Our ambitions as a sector are huge. To deliver a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all, we need to take tenants, politicians and those who work in our communities with us. To deliver our ambition, we don’t just need to aim to be the best governed organisations in Wales, we need to aim to be the most trusted too.