Social Housing: How can we do more?

Bore da pawb a croeso cynnes i’r gynhadledd.

I’m delighted to see so many of our members, commercial members and other partners have joined us at annual conference this year.

Our event this year comes at an especially crucial time. In the midst of an election campaign to elect a government in Westminster – a government that will have a big influence on the environment we work in Wales regardless of the fact that housing policy is devolved.

We might finally discover what the future nature of our relationship with the European Union will be and who knows, perhaps a clear view from a UK government on what economic model they believe is best placed to go forward with in the future.

2019 also marks the 30th birthday for Community Housing Cymru.  The Welsh Federation of Housing Associations was founded in 1989, when housing associations in Wales chose amicable divorce from our colleagues across the border in England.  Our very own ‘Wexit’ if you like.

But that decision to go it alone was made with a clear vision, consensus and clarity of purpose. A consensus that – in the wake of the 1988 Housing Act which introduced large scale private finance into the provision of social housing, and marked the point when housing associations became the main builders of new social homes – it was important that housing associations working across Wales had an independent voice. It was a decision that recognised that Wales was very different from England and housing policy was likely to diverge, 10 years before devolution became a reality, and particularly as the 1988 Act also conferred the responsibilities for funding and regulation of housing associations in Wales to a new independent arms-length quango – Tai Cymru.

30 years on, and in the face of massive political, economic, social and environmental challenges, consensus and clarity are just as vital. The world in which we operate is in constant flux. New challenges are being thrown our way. Brexit dominates the political airspace; there is rising public and political concern about homelessness and climate change; the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has resulted in an increased focus on safety and the importance of hearing the voice of tenants. That rightly has made its mark in Welsh policy; local authorities are once again able to build new council housing; and regional working arrangements are an increasing feature of delivery in Wales. Whilst the challenges and environment are different to those that led to our formation, our shared mission in the face of them has never been more important.

I have had the honour and privilege of leading this organisation for the last five years. Today I’d like to pay tribute and say thank you to all those who have contributed to Community Housing Cymru becoming the organisation that it is today.  To current and former members of our board and national council, to past and current members of staff – thank you all.  And special thanks to our member housing associations – your willingness to support us and empower us to represent you over the last 30 years means that I firmly believe that together we have been able to make a positive impact.  We look forward to continue working for you and closely with you in the future.

Our 30th birthday is not the only anniversary I want to acknowledge today.  This year also marks 100 years since the Housing & Town Planning Act more commonly known as the Addison Act of 1919 became law in the United Kingdom. While the 1988 Housing Act unleashed housing associations to be, in my view, the most successful public-private partnership in history – the Addison Act also established the principle of large-scale, state funded and comprehensive public housing provision. Local councils across the nation were empowered to respond to the huge shortage and demand for good quality, affordable housing after the 1st World War had ended.

When we launched our Housing Horizons vision in 2017 – our ambition was to see a ‘Wales where good housing is a basic right for all’. We also said that housing associations stood ready to work with anybody and everyone who shares our ambition. Now with the chains that restrained local authorities from borrowing to invest in new social housing provision finally broken – we have a once in a generation opportunity to tackle the pressing need for new social and affordable homes that exists right across Wales from our cities, to our former industrial heartlands and rural villages and towns.

Only last week, it was confirmed that the number of new social homes built in Wales had reached a ten year high, with a 20% increase in the number of homes built by housing associations. The 2,592 new homes delivered in 2018/19 is something to celebrate, but just as significant is the contribution made by local authorities across Wales who completed over 200 new social homes.

To our friends from local government elected to serve their communities and those working at the sharp-end of service provision, we stand ready to work with you. We know a decade of austerity has meant you are facing unprecedented challenges especially in social care and other front-line statutory services, and we also know that things are unlikely to get easier in the coming months.

We understand that your capacity to quickly embrace the opportunities of building social homes once again is limited in some cases.  Housing associations across Wales want to collaborate. We know that effective partnership working can make the most of opportunities and will mean that we can build more social homes than if we just stayed working in our own silos, ploughing our own furrows.

Housing associations want to share their experience of building new homes, regenerating communities and delivering community benefits. Sharing resources and risks, working together for the benefit of all and establishing win-win partnerships that ultimately benefit people and communities across Wales.

To tackle the scale of the housing crisis we face in Wales, it is only when all those involved in the house building economy are working at full capacity that we stand a chance of making a lasting difference. To meet our ambitions, we need to change the operating environment and challenge ourselves to do things differently.

So as we approach the General Election, there are three priorities that we are challenging ourselves, Welsh Government and the UK Government to take action on.

Firstly, we know that poverty is a key indicator of the likelihood of individuals becoming homeless, and if we are to make a serious impact on poverty in Wales, we need to see urgent reform of Universal Credit. Working together with our sister federations from across the UK, we have already won numerous improvements to the way the benefit is delivered, including a reduction in the initial waiting time for money.

But new claimants, who are regularly in crisis, are still waiting too long, five weeks, for financial support. This payment must be made earlier, to prevent people being forced into sometimes unrecoverable debt. We desperately need a welfare system that provides support on time, and covers the true cost of living.

Poverty is just one cause of homelessness though, and building new homes is only one solution. Our recent perceptions audit suggested that too often key influencers in Wales don’t believe that housing associations are doing enough to work in partnership with others.

I don’t accept that perception is always reality.  We know that in 2017/18, housing associations in Wales housed 1,725 households who were priority need homeless and in some areas, over 4 in every 10 housing association homes were let to families experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness.

Housing associations in Wales go further than simply providing homes. Our members are experts in supporting people out of homelessness and provide over half of the available supported accommodation in Wales. They are at the forefront of initiatives such as Housing First to relieve homeless, but are we doing enough to keep people in secure accommodation in the first place? It is absolutely right that we continually challenge ourselves with the question, “How can we do more?”.

I know that this sector is fully committed to playing its part in ending homelessness. Our members run support services that identify and tackle challenges that tenants face early on so that homelessness can be prevented.  Those services are often funded from housing associations own resources – they include benefits and budgeting advice, digital literacy and a huge variety of crisis and specialist support.

However, further work needs to be done to address evictions, either as a result of rent arrears or anti-social behaviour where there is no alternative accommodation available.  That is why as a movement, we have committed to work with the housing minister to end evictions into homelessness.

But of course this is not solely a housing issue but a wider responsibility for all public services. This aspiration cannot be achieved without a partnership of equals, that includes housing, health and social services, and the police.  The forthcoming Welsh Government budget needs to recognise that the Housing Support Grant, which funds vital tenancy support services, has to be appropriately resourced if we are to make the inroads required to tackle this issue.

Key to solving this problem is increased resources alongside work to improve referral routes between housing associations and other partners including social and mental health services. But as organisations often set up to tackle homelessness, a moral imperative does lie with housing associations. It is down to us to make this change happen.

Those partnerships can also help tackle what is almost certainly the most visible aspect of the housing crisis in Wales today – the increase in rough sleeping in cities and towns across the nation. We know to tackle homelessness we need to build more social housing. Building more social homes is reliant on continued investment in social housing grant by Welsh Government. But it is also dependent on a certainty in the investment environment – and that is why we now need a quick decision on the long-term rent policy in Wales.

Our members have committed to adopt our own long-term local rent policies with affordability for tenants at their heart. Those policies will be based on extensive engagement with tenants and other stakeholders including our lenders. We will operate within the parameters set by Welsh Government to make those local policies a reality.

But we now need to know and understand what those parameters will be. Long term certainty on rental income combined with the detail on how the social housing grant system will work in the future will emerge shortly. That will enable housing associations to finalise their investment plans for the coming years.

Of course, building new homes and tackling homelessness aren’t the only issues where we have a moral duty to act. In 2017, our Housing Horizons work set out the ambition that all new homes built in Wales by housing associations after 2021 should be near zero carbon.  We also set the aspiration that by 2036 wherever possible our existing stock should be improved to meet that near zero carbon ambition.  It’s definitely true to say that particular commitment raised eyebrows across the sector. But we had heard loud and clear from young people working in housing associations across Wales that they expected and wanted to be part of a sector that was committed to tackling climate change.

Two years on, the voices of those young people have been echoed and amplified the world over, and the need to act to tackle the growing climate emergency has only become more urgent.  The recent independent review on decarbonising Welsh homes has set out very challenging ambitions including setting a target for social housing and homes in fuel poverty to achieve EPC A standard by 2030 and by 2050 the Welsh housing stock across all tenures must be retrofitted to achieve an EPC A rating.  While the report does recognise that not all homes will be able to achieve that standard, the scale of this challenge cannot be underestimated.

If we are to stand any chance of success – a clear route map is required and a realistic assessment made of what it is feasible to achieve in the next decade. It is already clear that housing associations do not have access to enough resources to fund this endeavour alone, especially when the need to continue to build new homes is taken into account. Substantial and continued grant funding for retrofit will be required if housing associations are to play their part and meet the ambitions set out by government.

And again the urgent work to decarbonise the housing stock is another area where collaboration has huge potential to deliver better results. We need to work with local government who face identical challenges, to learn what works from each other. With social housing in the vanguard of this change, now is the time to explore the creation of social businesses to complete and become experts in the retrofit work required.  That would see a virtuous circle of money being retained in Wales and being made available to reinvest for the benefit of communities.  On top of that, the scale of the work required could mean substantial opportunities being made available for training and apprenticeships across Wales.

So these are challenging debates and questions for housing associations and government.  But if anyone is questioning the value or benefit of the substantial investment required, I’d like to take this opportunity to trail some of the research we will be releasing early in 2020 on the economic benefits of investing in new homes.

To build the new homes we need, our research suggests that total investment of £11.7 billion is required to deliver the housing horizons vision of 75,000 zero-carbon affordable homes by 2036. But that investment would generate more than £7.2 billion of additional value to the Welsh economy, and enable the construction of approximately 4,000 homes per annum.  In addition, this construction activity would support over 30,000 full time equivalent construction jobs and almost 12,000 training opportunities over the 20-year period.  Those figures don’t include substantial health and well-being impacts for individuals moving into new homes or potential savings on fuel bills.  Investing in affordable housing makes sense on so many levels.

The devolution of housing policy and investment has brought huge benefits to the sector in Wales. Welsh Government has invested to build genuinely affordable social homes, but low levels of capital investment in housing and infrastructure more generally across the border in England act as a constraint on Welsh Government’s capital budget and its ability to invest in their priorities for Wales. Social housing must be considered an infrastructure investment priority right across the UK.

In this context, it is hugely encouraging that as parties publish their manifestos – housing is front and centre. In particular, Labour’s commitment to invest £75bn over 5 years to build 100k council homes, plus 50k Housing Association Homes, would by my calculation represent a £900m consequential for Wales per annum. That would represent almost an 8 times increase in current resources invested in Social Housing Grant.

But – we know that ending the Housing Crisis will take more than just cash and recognition of housing as vital infrastructure. We also need solid action on skills, land and the local supply chains that underpin the construction industry.

At the start of this speech – I looked back and reflected on the fact that Community Housing Cymru is now thirty years old.  I have spent some time this week looking at the minutes of the first set of National Council meetings.  Typewritten and pasted into a minutes book – each minute a meticulous record of who said what and when. In fact, so detailed are those minutes that you get an insight into the personalities around the board table.

Some of those first members of the National Council are here at conference today  – Pete Cahill the first Chair of the Welsh Federation of Housing Associations and Graham Sturgess, now Chair of United Welsh – proof that housing isn’t just a career but a vocation.  Many of the issues that National Council discussed in 1989 we would recognise today – building new homes, grant funding, rent affordability – a reminder that building social housing isn’t rocket science. The ingredients demanded then remain the ingredients required today – capital funding, a stable rent policy, access to land and opportunities.  Allocations and homelessness were hot topics then too – unfortunately, even with the passing of time challenges that remain with us today.

Over the thirty years this organisation has been in existence, our structure and ways of working have constantly evolved.  We have grown as an organisation. The character and size of our movement benefited from the addition of the 11 stock transfer organisations who from 2003 onwards brought a different perspective to the table. We have always strived to be responsive to the needs of our members.

That is why I’m absolutely delighted to be able to give you more information on our Alcemi programme at this conference. When we launched our Corporate plan in April, co-produced with our members, one of our priorities was to equip housing associations to be fit for the future.

Our Alcemi programme will do just that and has a number of strands including our business transformation workshops, We are looking at how we develop our people – focussing on the skills we need both now and in the future, and later in 2020 launch a thought leadership strand, where we’ll identify systemic issues and rethink how we tackle them, with the evidence to back it up.

The final strand of Alcemi is to support and provide a space for collaborative innovation. To help us achieve this ambition, I’m pleased to be able to announce a partnership with the National Housing Federation for the Housing Futures Programme.  As part of the programme we’ll be working with innovation specialist !whatif? to come up with new approaches, products or services to tackle the big problems that we face collectively as a sector.

Not only will this programme provide fantastic personal development opportunities for all those who get involved, it will also support us to embed innovative thinking practices into our everyday work.

The Housing Futures programme will kick off in January – so keep an eye out for further information.  In the meantime, you can hear more tomorrow, when Sarah from ?Whatif! will be addressing conference delegates.

To conclude, I’d like to focus on the next four weeks until election day. Housing policy is devolved in Wales, and there have been undoubtedly many moments in the last decade when we have been grateful that this is the case. But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the UK Election!

Today, I have set out our three asks of candidates standing for election to Westminster on December 12th.

The often negative impacts of the Universal Credit system must be recognised, and the urgent need to reform Universal Credit reflected in manifestos. Political parties must prioritise investment in social and affordable housing.  It is some of the most important infrastructure that we have. And finally, in the event of Brexit finally happening – vital regional investment funds currently provided by the European Union and spent in communities across the length and breadth of Wales is protected and replaced.

But this is a team effort, if you are meeting candidates in the run-up to the election – please don’t just use the opportunity to talk about your own organisation and the fantastic work that you do but amplify our campaign asks.

This is an election that will not just shape the future of the country, our relationship with Europe, and the union, but will set the parameters in which we operate for years to come. It’s vital that the voices of housing associations are heard loudly and clearly right across the country.

Enjoy the conference and thank you all for your continued support.

Diolch yn fawr.

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