Looking at the future of housing in Wales

Aaron Hill sets out the opportunity presented by the Welsh Government’s independent review of affordable housing supply

They say a week is a long time in politics, and last Wednesday must already feel like a world away for Theresa May. Prior to her trip to Salzburg, the Prime Minister used the National Housing Federation conference to announce an injection of £2bn into social housing in England, grabbing all the headlines, and successfully keeping Brexit off the front pages, at least for a short while.


The announcement, which pre-empts a UK Government spending review, signals a significant step change in the UK Government’s rhetoric towards social housing, following much hostility in recent years. However, it is worth contrasting the funding settlement – £2bn of funding over 6 years– with that in Wales. By the end of this Assembly term, Welsh Government will have invested more than £1.5bn over just 5 years for a population around 5% of the size of England.


The contrast is stark, but it is not the quantum of funding in England from which we in Wales should be seeking to learn, but the long term stability which it heralds for housing associations and local authorities there. Strategic partnerships between Homes England – the UK Government’s funding agency – and housing associations, backed up by government guarantees over the funding, will allow housing associations to stretch their business plans to deliver more.


In Wales, we have had a much more positive policy environment for housing than that across the border, and the current Welsh Government has rightly prioritised housing in Prosperity for All and matched its 20,000 homes ambition with the funding required to deliver. However, with the housing crisis still affecting thousands, it is important to ensure that a benign policy environment does not constrain our future ambitions.


Last year, Community Housing Cymru launched our Housing Horizons vision of a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all. Within the vision, we’re stretching ambitions for the sector, including our intention to develop 75,000 homes by 2036, investing more in local supply chains, and doing our bit to tackle climate change and fuel poverty by building near zero carbon homes.


Upon launching our vision, we called on Welsh Government to undertake a review of housing policy in Wales, and we were delighted when the Housing Minister Rebecca Evans AM responded to our ask by announcing an independent review of affordable housing supply earlier this year.


The last review of its kind, chaired by Sue Essex in 2008, laid the foundations for the housing association sector we now know. However, with deep and long lasting economic downturn, huge welfare reforms, and significant political upheaval, the world around us has changed significantly since 2008. In that time, the housing crisis has deepened in Wales, and if we are to deliver a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all, the policy environment must evolve and adapt now, or risk embedding the housing crisis for future generations.


In our response to the current Review’s Call for Evidence, which closed recently, we set out a number of recommendations to the Panel, and we were clear that the current policy arrangements are not maximising the delivery of affordable homes in Wales. It became apparent throughout our work, which engaged more than 200 people from across the housing sector, that there is a need for greater flexibility and more collaboration to allow housing associations to build the homes Wales needs.


Flexibility over rent policy, for example, would allow housing associations to better plan their business over the long term, taking greater account of affordability for tenants and the need for a secure income stream. Similarly, flexibility over grant rates would allow greater recognition of some of the geographic and economic challenges brought about by developing in some parts of Wales.


There was also recognition that housing associations can work together more. As skills in the construction industry are squeezed through retirement and pressure on inward migration, could we perhaps see the sharing of development teams across the sector? Housing associations are already working together to explore the possibility of an offsite manufacturing facility in Wales, looking at how the sector shares the risk to develop larger sites, and there is a clear desire for a policy environment which enables more of this.


When we called for a Review, we knew that internal conversations within the sector would not solve the issue, so we have been delighted to receive challenge from both Public Health Wales and the Future Generations Commissioner in developing our response. Our Housing Horizons vision is about more than just the number of homes. If we are to feel the significant benefits to the economy and our health that good housing for all would bring, we need to address the chronic under supply of good quality, affordable homes.


As independent, social businesses, who are committed to their tenants and their communities for the long term, housing associations are well placed to be the organisations delivering those homes. All those who desire a Wales where good housing is a basic right for all, must now show the leadership, ambition and long term thinking required to get there.


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Aaron Hill is Assistant Director of Policy and Public Affairs at Community Housing Cymru

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