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13 March 2020

Housing Associations role in a challenging time

Housing Associations role in a challenging time
At Community Housing Cymru's Governance Conference 2020, Stuart gave a speech on the role housing associations can play in times of difficulty, and also the impact we can have on the economy. Read the full speech here:

Bore da pawb a croeso cynnes i’r gynhadledd.

It’s a pleasure to see so many of our members, commercial members and other partners joining us at our Governance Conference this year, particularly given everything that is going on elsewhere at the moment.

Once again, board members and senior leaders in the sector have come together to make this CHC’s largest ever conference in terms of delegates. That is a testament to the commitment, curiosity and character of leaders in this sector and their ability to come together to learn from their peers and some of our brilliant speakers in the face of some serious challenges.

You all take your responsibilities as Board Members and leaders of housing associations seriously, and I want to thank you for your hard work and the time you put into making housing associations brilliant. This is going to become even more important

The role of housing associations as anchor institutions at the heart of communities right across Wales will only become more important as Wales, and indeed the world, faces up to some major questions about our future. And that will be the main focus of my speech today.

Last year on this stage, I quoted the Italian philosopher and Communist Party founder, Antonio Gramsci, in an attempt to summarise the pandemonium that surrounded us at the time. Twelve months on, I didn’t expect to be quoting another leading political theorist of the far left, but nobody quite captures the chaos of the last couple of weeks like Lenin, who said:

“There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.”

I’ve known for some time that I wanted to use today to talk about the big existential challenges Wales faces and the leadership required from housing associations to respond to these. Little did I know then that at the forefront of our minds would be our response to a global pandemic.

Those of us who take a keen interest in history in the room could be forgiven for predicting that the history books would look back on 2020 as the year of Brexit, a totemic US Presidential election, and further tensions in the Middle East. However, it seems likely that only three months into 2020, coronavirus (COVID-19) could well be the defining moment of the year. The actions of individuals, organisations and governments in responding to this will define how the history students of tomorrow will look back on this year.

From the discussions I’ve been having with many of you in the room, it is clear to me that housing associations have been taking your own response to coronavirus (COVID-19) seriously, prioritising the safety and wellbeing of your staff and tenants.

I’m pleased to say that we have also been able to put our own project team in place to respond to this emerging issue. As well as working to manage our own business continuity and ensuring we are able to continue serving members in a variety of scenarios, it is clear that there is an important policy and support role for your trade body in this space.

In the first instance, that team has been acting as a conduit between members and Government to ensure important information is circulated quickly. Working with Government and our partners across public service, we will continue this role, and we hope to be able to support associations with clear information and resources to deliver their business continuity plans. We have offered to work with Government to provide robust and relevant data where it is required, and reduce the need for duplication as we have seen in response to other events, ensuring you can deploy resources where they are most needed. And we stand ready to adapt our support offer in the face of this rapidly changing situation.

It is likely that we will eventually need to work remotely, and this will be easier for some than others. If there's anything you think we can help with, please ask us.

Beyond the serious immediate medical and public service implications of this virus, the wider impact could be profound. If the early reports of 20% decreases in volume at US ports are sustained, the early economic impact felt in China is mirrored elsewhere, and the markets continue in their downward trajectory, this will become an event of global economic importance.

Closer to home, we can only hope that the sad loss of thousands of jobs last week as a result of Flybe’s fall from grace is not a sign of things to come. However, once allied with the uncertainty that still lingers over the UK’s future relationships with our European neighbours, we need to be prepared at least for a situation that could well be as deep as that which we saw following the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

It took some time for the shock-waves of that economic shock to fully reach some of the communities and partners we work with, and we will need to keep our eye on the ball as this plays out. We know that housing associations are in it for the long term, and you will all be key to the future economic and social wellbeing of communities right across Wales once again, but there may be some tough times ahead. In difficult, uncertain times, our role as anchor institutions and our ability to be resilient and responsive to the communities we serve is never more important.

Our latest economic impact research, launched last week, shows that housing associations continue to deliver for Wales, but with the right investment, our impact could grow vastly. This year we secured record Welsh Government capital investment in new affordable homes, and it is a case we will continue to make loudly and clearly.

When we launched our Housing Horizons vision in 2017 of a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all it put a marker in the ground for our ambition as a sector. We wanted a Wales which would be more prosperous, healthier and better connected, and to get there we pledged to do our bit:
  • 75,000 zero carbon homes.

  • Decarbonising our existing stock.

  • Investing 95p in every £1 in Wales.

When you consider the existential challenges Wales faces – a growing climate emergency, rising homelessness and an ageing population with widening health inequalities – the time has come to put those ambitions into action.

At our Annual Conference late last year, I spoke about the rising public concern and the increasing volume of the calls to action around the climate emergency. From the bushfires in Perth to floods in Pontypridd, the spread of serious climate related events only stands to highlight that we are running out of time.

Whether we are working towards the sector’s ambition of zero carbon homes by 2036, or that of the Better Homes, Better Wales, Better World report for all homes to reach EPC A by 2030, decarbonising our homes is only part of the story. It is increasingly clear that where we build, how our communities are connected to one another, and how we use community resources as a whole – not just carbon – will be vital in our response to one of the great challenges of our age. This is not a challenge we face in isolation. Every public service in Wales is grappling with the same challenges, and any solutions found will need to be shared at pace, and delivered at scale. Housing associations can lead the way on this, but partnerships are no longer optional extras or nice to dos – they are a vital tool we need to equip ourselves with as a matter of urgency.

Meanwhile, the challenge of homelessness grows in front of our very eyes, and I am pleased to see this running as a theme throughout our conference over the next two days. Our co-Chairs, Jonathan Huish, and Mark Gillette, alongside Fran Beecher of Llamau, have ensured that we are hearing the voices of tenants and people who have experienced homelessness in a way we haven’t before at this conference. It’s a challenge we must continue to rise to.

Whilst Wales has led the way on prevention, with innovative legislation and commitment from all political parties, the levels of rough sleeping and homelessness across the nation continue to rise, - the problem has not gone away. You will hear much more from Clarissa on this later, but the Minister’s Homelessness Action Group has laid down a challenge to all of us who believe we can aspire to be a nation that does not tolerate homelessness.

If we are to be successful in this, it must be a whole public service response, but housing associations have a key role to play. We have committed to end evictions from social housing into homelessness, but we need to challenge ourselves and challenge Government about what more can be done in this space. In the midst of the doom and gloom, there was a glimmer of light in yesterday’s UK Government budget in terms of the additional funding made available through the block grant. Welsh Government must now deliver on their commitment to increase Housing Support Grant in response to this injection of cash.

But I can’t talk about the big challenges Wales faces without talking about health.

Beyond the very current strain that will be put on the health service by coronavirus (COVID-19), we face some of the most challenging health inequalities of any of the UK nations. The Public Health Wales Observatory’s figures show that there were virtually no improvements in life expectancy in Wales during the past decade, having grown by 2.5 years for men and 2 years for women in the previous decade.

The most recent intervention on health inequality by the pre-eminent voice in that field, Sir Michael Marmot, contained an important message for all of us.

While his work was restricted in its scope to England, Sir Michael has been clear in his commentary that the declining health outcomes of those in our poorest communities is a UK-wide problem. He was also emphatic in his conclusions that investment in new social housing and reduced carbon emissions from all of our homes was an important part of the solution.

Having worked in housing policy for 20 years, I can’t help but feel that some of the challenges I’ve spoken about today are familiar challenges that we have gone backwards on as a nation in recent years. Others feel like an accumulation of things we knew could theoretically happen, but never would in reality.

These challenges have many things in common, but in your role as leaders of housing associations, I know you will ensure that tenants are at the forefront of your minds in responding. It may feel today that we are on the frontline, but it is our tenants are the most likely to feel the brunt of these existential threats.

Whether it is those with life-limiting conditions who may require additional support in the coming weeks, or those who have been affected by the recent climate events, it is incumbent on us all that we work with them to meet these challenges head on.

We talk often about acting as anchor organisations, but what does that mean in challenging times? How do we support communities to be resilient? How do we best deploy our resources when they are stretched? And what can we offer to the most vulnerable in society as a whole?

Too often in Wales, your life chances are determined by where you were born and by your early life experiences. Where you live and the tenure of your home has a disproportionate impact on your health, your chances of becoming homeless and the opportunities presented to you in life.

Over 200,000 children experience child poverty in Wales with some areas of Wales seeing rates of child poverty at near 50%, and as the pace and scale of Universal Credit roll-out grows, this situation could become even more acute.

This cannot go on. This is serious. And I know housing associations are serious about their response.

Our vision of a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all does not come cheap. The research I referred to earlier estimates the cost of building 75,000 new homes at £11.7bn. But we know that across the board housing associations match every £1 of Social Housing Grant with at least £1 of private investment to make public funding go further, effectively halving the bill for Government to deliver those homes.

The cost of decarbonising homes could also be enormous, with estimates close to £5bn, and we will need to demonstrate similar value and creativity in finding solutions to stretch public money to benefit tenants and our planet.

These are large sums of investment by any measure, but the value this investment could bring would be enormous. Our research last week shows that by 2036, if housing associations are successful in delivering our vision, the sector would:
  • Support a huge £23.2bn of economic activity across Wales

  • Create 50,000 jobs in the wider economy

  • Provide 19,500 training and apprenticeship opportunities

  • Grow to employ a total of 16,000 employees

These traditional Wales-wide economic measures only tell part of the story. For the first time, our research demonstrates what the impact of our vision would be in each region. This will help associations tell your story to new local and regional decision makers as power of important decisions that affect housing associations moves away from Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

The impact of delivering our vision will go way beyond jobs, training and GVA. If we decarbonise our homes, we could prevent more than £0.5bn worth of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. At the same time, we could save our tenants more than £1bn on their fuel bills, and see their wellbeing increase by a value of nearly £200m.

In turn, we would save millions to Governments at either end of the M4.

This will all be an important part of the story we tell decision makers heading into the Welsh General Election next May. Just over a year from now, we will have a new Welsh Government, and the current polls show it could be the closest contest we’ve seen for control of the Senedd.

We need to ensure that in the face of the challenges I have described today, housing associations have an offer that speaks to every party who could form the next Government.

Over the coming months, we will be talking to you about what our asks of the next Government are, but perhaps more importantly, what is our offer?

In a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all, housing associations will have a serious role to play.

We are serious about tackling the climate emergency.

We are serious about ending homelessness.

We are serious about improving people’s life chances.

Over the next twelve months, we want to work with all those who share these commitments.

In 2008, against the backdrop of the biggest economic crash of our time, housing associations stood tall, and provided more new homes than at any other times in recent memory.

The challenges that 2020 brings may be even greater in scale, and so must our response.

Diolch yn fawr, thank you.