Stuart Ropke reviews the impact of the Autumn Statement on Wales.
Autumn Statement watching in Wales is a very different sport than the one practiced across the border in England. With the vast majority of domestic policy issues devolved to the Welsh Government with the notable exception of welfare, it becomes a game of “Spot the Barnett Consequential”, the process of identifying if and how much extra capital allocation the Welsh Government may or may not receive as a result of increased spending in England.
Philip Hammond’s first and last Autumn Statement as Chancellor (he’s abolishing the ritual), provided plenty of opportunities for the exercising of Welsh fiscal brains with £400 million extra as a result of new infrastructure investment.
While Welsh Government can choose where to target the additional resources they receive, our view is that this additional money would be best spent on a new programme focussed on housing led regeneration opportunities across Wales. It would enable the investment into a programme to succeed Welsh Government’s Vibrant & Viable Places, which is due to end in March next year. This programme put much needed investment into the heart of deprived communities across Wales, many of whom will likely soon be reeling from the withdrawal of EU social funds as the UK completes its departure from the European Union.
No-one can fail to be impressed by the transformation in Swansea High Street, a great example of regeneration of a failing city centre location led by local housing association Coastal Housing Group. While the redevelopment has included new commercial and cultural space, it is underpinned by bringing mixed housing development into the centre of Swansea offering homes for rent at social and intermediate rents and opportunities to buy.
That links nicely to another aspect of the housing announcements in England today, the empowering of housing associations to bid to deliver a range of tenures from social rent to shared ownership to rent to buy and receive a grant to help finance the development of that tenure mix. A departure from the Westminster government obsession with home ownership is overdue, and for the first time in a long time begs the question is there something here for us in Wales in this new approach adopted by our neighbours?
I think there might be, and perhaps it could be the key which enables housing associations in Wales to continue to prioritise the delivery of social homes in a challenging environment. In the coming years the focus has to be on the twin challenges of offering truly affordable rents for tenants that fit within the constraints of the Universal Credit regime and ensuring that housing associations remain strong viable businesses building homes and communities and contributing to the Welsh economy. To do that, we need flexibility and an opportunity to cross subsidise our development of social rented homes with different types of housing options.
Welsh Government already provides support for those taking their first steps on the housing ladder through Help to Buy Wales. It’s looking to develop a Rent to Buy product. We would argue that in some local housing markets in Wales more shared ownership homes are needed. Why not combine the funding streams for these programmes and let housing associations working with local partners including local government to decide what works in their area? We know that there are a variety of housing market conditions across Wales and a one size fits all approach does not work. There’s also huge potential to link new housing investment into big infrastructure projects like the Metro in South Wales, offering a range of tenure choices and bringing new life to communities that are currently in decline.
Housing the most vulnerable will always be at the core of the housing association movement in Wales, but it’s no secret to say that policy changes especially around Local Housing Allowance, a system completely unfit for purpose, make it more challenging to do that. Flexibility could help housing associations to continue their social mission while widening their offer to meet a wide range of housing needs in communities.
Next week Community Housing Cymru members meet in Cardiff at our Annual Conference. We’ll be launching our Housing Horizons project which will look to provide a vision of where housing associations want to be in 20 years’ time. While future focus and vision are critical, there is also an opportunity to look at how we do things today. The question we will ask is timeless – is there a better way?