WHQS maintaining the momentum

Unfortunately I didn’t have much time at the  Tai 2012 conference to convey fully my thoughts on WHQS, due to the Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, Huw Lewis waiting in the wings to make some important announcements. So I will take this opportunity to provide a more complete commentary on recent developments on Welsh Housing Quality Standard (WHQS).

We all recognise that much has been done to improve housing in Wales.  When first discussed almost a year after devolution in Wales, it was estimated that we needed to invest more than 3billion to bring our homes up to somewhere near a decent standard. What emerged was 7 core elements to drive up the standards, these included: In a good state of repair; Safe and secure; Adequately heated, fuel efficient and well insulated; Contain up-to-date kitchens and bathrooms; Well managed (for rented housing); Located in attractive and safe environments; As far as possible suit the specific requirements of the household (e.g. specific disabilities)

More than ten years on from the development of the WHQS to fill that sought after ‘structural vacuum’, we have yet to achieve that investment, or the volume of homes completing that important benchmark. However, as the recent Wales Audit Office report ‘Progress in delivering WHQS’  demonstrated 61% of social rented homes in Wales will meet the standard by March 2013, increasing to 79% by 2017 with some not being able to achieve the standard by 2019-20, a full 15 years after WHQS was bedded into mainstream fiscal planning of registered social landlords. 

While the standard is higher here than in England and Scotland, it still provides for only basic facilities, deserving of a modern democracy providing subsidised homes for those that cannot afford market rents.

At the conference (tai 212) we received the news that tenants of Flintshire decided to opt to stay with the Council, with 71% voting no, and just 12% of tenants voting yes to the ballot offer. With an 88% of tenants voting, the Flintshire ballot is the most emphatic result since the policy was adopted in 2002, this followed quickly on the heals of the Caerphilly ballot that also voted no. Both these authorities now require significant investment to meet the standard, Flintshire requires £166m of investment while Caerphilly £188m. Money which would have to be provided for out of the rents we pay as tenants.

While I respect the views of tenants who obviously were not convinced that this was the best option for them, there now has to be some serious thinking about how we ensure that tenants receive decent standards in those areas, as it is too important a measure to not only improve the physical condition of the home but to improve both the social and economic development of some of our poorest communities.

What concerns me most, is that the past three ballots, there has been a trend to release information about ‘counter offers’ during the ballot period with very few of those plan B promises being fully scrutinised by tenants and other stakeholders, or certainly not being challenged in the same manner in which the stock transfer appraisal process has to be conducted.

This reminds me of the song my son often plays, by Plan B ‘Who needs actions – when you got words’ in which the singer muses on the power of words to misinform, but also to fight back and inspire.

A further worry is the that while the majority of the audience at the Tai2012 conference was committed to the principles of providing decent quality affordable homes, there was a worrying mood music around ‘asset prioritisation’ approach, more concerned about the liability of WHQS, rather than the aspiration for tenants, with asset management consultants content to knock the homes down in favour of realising the asset for affordable housing for the more deserving, rather than for the benefit of the family’s that reside in them.

There were also clearly mixed emotions among the tenant audience when Swansea city council representative stated that he was “glad that they voted no”, leaving many wanting to say how appalled they were that an ideological position overrode their responsibility and obligation to undertake repairs and improvements to  Swansea’s appallingly bad stock such as those found in Town hill, one of the first large council estates to be built in Wales.

For my part, I do hope that the condition of some of their homes don’t leave the Swansea representative wishing that they had voted yes, and improved the home that burnt a family, or gassed them because of a faulty boiler, or ruined the life chance of a young child because they developed emphysema through the mould spores growing in her bedroom, or the broken hip of that 64 year old that fell down the dodgy garden steps, or because they lacked the investment to house the homeless and respond to the needs of future generations of people who have been priced out of the private rented sector.  I do hope that Swansea representative doesn’t find himself regretting his comments.

Landlords who don’t have the freedoms presented through stock transfer will undoubtedly struggle to deliver better homes for tenants in the current economic climate. For our part, we will be looking to the sector to provide greater accountability in the delivery of WHQS in the future, addressing the democratic deficit highlighted in the WAO report. Providing greater opportunities to scrutinise and challenge and better monitoring of the delivery programme will undoubtedly feature highly in years to come.

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