More than a roof over our heads

Matt Dicks argues that the housing sector should be front and centre when looking for solutions to wider public policy problems.






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The housing environment is complicated. The ongoing impact of welfare reform, addressing homelessness, tackling poverty, revitalising communities, building high quality homes are all features of a profession that is truly engaged in solving and alleviating some of the most pressing issues within Welsh communities.

In Finland they have adopted a “Housing First” approach to tackling homelessness. That is, the starting point is to see housing as the first step in tackling homelessness and then using that as the base from which to offer the advice and support networks that allow people to get back on their feet.

The Housing First approach originally developed in the USA recognises that it can only be achieved by collaboration across the public policy landscape rather than sectors working independently of each other.

Encouragingly, there are signs of the approach being adopted here, not least Anglesey Council’s Housing First Project, but we still have some way to go in matching our counterparts in this part of Europe.

This discussion is not meant as a criticism of Welsh Government policy.

Significant ground has been made in terms of supporting those presenting as homeless with recent data suggesting that policies introduced under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 are beginning to have a positive impact.

To further support these measures, the homelessness prevention grant has, since its introduction last year, provided vital support to local authorities and third sector organisations in addressing the issue. The fund has supported Local Authorities and partners in implementing a refreshed approach to addressing homelessness, yielding encouraging results in its first year. For example, in 2015/16 this saw 65% (4,599) households supported to secure accommodation.

But housing is much much more than simply putting a roof over someone’s head. It is a public policy foundation stone that can, and should, influence and inform solutions in other sectors. One clear example being how high quality warm homes, that are cost-effective to run, can decrease the pressure on A&E services over the winter months.

Public Health Wales’ work on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has also more recently laid the foundation for further cross-sector collaboration. ACEs are traumatic experiences that occur before the age of 18 and are remembered throughout adulthood. They include trauma such as physical, sexual or verbal abuse, or living in households where there is domestic abuse or parental separation. The evidence suggests that children who experience such trauma are more likely to develop anti-social behaviours, more likely to perform poorly in school, more likely to be involved in crime and ultimately less likely to be a productive member of society.

The housing sector is already providing services which reduce the impact of ACEs – but there is more we can do to highlight, learn and share best practice. I certainly see a role for CIH here in ensuring the profession is able to demonstrate work that may sometimes go unnoticed, particularly in terms of community support and community safety initiatives. This type of work shows that there is so much scope for collaboration with a variety of other sectors, where housing can be front and centre in addressing issues.  

Housing is vital as a preventative tool.  Wales has the highest proportion of older people compared to the rest of the UK. Housing professionals support this key demographic, whose skills experience and expertise provide so much to Welsh society. It is both right and proper that housing continue to be featured as one of the main elements contributing to Welsh Government’s Prudent Healthcare approach.  

With all of this in-depth community based work,  we should never forget that housing is infrastructure. Investment in projects such as the M4 relief road, the South Wales Metro and the Swansea bay tidal lagoon should be inextricably linked with investment in and the planning of homes.

It was encouraging that last month, the Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee published its report into a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. All of us in the sector should take heart that its number one recommendation was to increase the remit of the commission to include housing.

The sector has a strong track record in delivering affordable housing,  and in light of the 20,000 affordable homes target the conversation must continue to be focussed on getting the mix of homes right, not just on boosting supply. This is an ambition that as CIH Cymru, we remain firmly behind.

These are some of the themes I want to explore as CIH Cymru Director but it of course all requires increased collaboration, and more importantly better partnerships across sectors. The Welsh Government is attempting to drive this agenda by encouraging more links between local authorities with the recent publication of its local government White Paper. This is supported by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which seeks to ensure community well-being is addressed via a joined-up approach and measured across public services.

CIH Cymru is committed to developing these partnerships and I hope to discuss some of these ideas further with colleagues in Government, across local authorities and housing associations, and the private rented sector over the coming weeks and months.

Matt Dicks is the new Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru