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.

Stock transfer – Is there a trend appearing?


Stock transfer – Is there a trend appearing?
Council tenants of Caerphilly were balloted today (21st Feb 2012) on whether to transfer 10,980 properties to the newly developed social landlord Castell Mynydd. In a not so surprising result, they voted an 65.2% No! 33.8% stating yes. The result was quite emphatic given the turnout was 66.7% (I wonder if it will be this good in the May local elections). The newly formed association could have pumped up to £173 million into the properties to bring them up to the Welsh Housing Quality Standard by 2017, however, tenants will have to wait until 2019-20 before the standard could be realised.

The result is not surprising given that although the council had initially said it could not achieve the work, a financial review announced it could bring the properties up to the WHQS by 2019 or 2020, if tenants voted against the transfer. Providing tenants with at least an alternative, albeit, a wait and we’ll deliver approach. While I fail to understand why tenants seem to think that waiting another ten years to achieve even decent housing would be acceptable to them, I can sympathise having listened to some of the anti-transfer lobbyists propaganda that tend to permeate around the option appraisal discussions. This is by no means hindered (or helped) by the political debates concerning the various merits of trickle down devolution.

However, more worrying, is that there does appear to be a trend starting to appear, with the Vale of Glamorgan also voting No! in April 2011, by a slim majority of 51%, with a 70% turnout. Early indications would also suggest that Flintshire’s appetite to transfer is also wavering. Could the two successive defeats start an implosion of the stock transfer agenda?

The appetite for transfer has certainly been weakened since the treasury entered talks into the break-up of the housing revenue accounting subsidy system and discussions concerning prudential borrowing emerging inWales. No doubt both council’s will argue that the ‘regeneration gain’ estimated collectively to be in excess of 1.3billion from stock transfer to date, will be retained, albeit postponed by both authorities.

For tenants at least in Caerphilly, the fears propagated by transfer has diminished for a time. However there is now a larger concern, that of the welfare reforms that will cost landlords dearly over the next ten years. Lets hope that it will not impact on the ability of landlords to continue to deliver on the Welsh Housing Quality standard and the substantive regeneration gain that it has brought.

History of transfer in Wales

  • Bridgend: Stock transferred to ‘Valleys to Coast Housing’ in September 2003
  • Monmouthshire: Positive ballot result announced 17th November 2006 – 67% turnout, 60.3% of those in favour of stock transfer. ‘Monmouthshire Housing Association Ltd’ established in January 2008
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf: Positive ballot result announced 22nd November 2006 – 55% turnout, 57.9% of those in favour of stock transfer. ‘RCT Homes’ established 10th December 2007
  • Torfaen: Positive ballot result announced 16th March 2007 – 68.1% turnout, 59.2% of those in favour of stock transfer. ‘Bron Afon Community Housing’ established 31st March 2008
  • Newport: Positive ballot result announced 16th November 2007 – 63.3% turnout, 83.8% of those in favour of stock transfer. ‘Newport City Homes’ established in March 2009
  • Conwy: Positive ballot result announced 26th November 2007 – 61.7% turnout, 50.8% of those in favour of stock transfer. ‘Cartrefi Conwy’ established in September 2008
  • Merthyr Tydfil: Positive ballot result announced 27th March 2008 – 57% turnout, 50.3% of those in favour of stock transfer. ‘Merthyr Valley Homes’ established in March 2009
  • Ceredigion: Positive ballot result announced 18th November 2008 – 70% turnout, 58.3% of those in favour of stock transfer. ‘Tai Ceredigion’ established 30th November 2009
  • Gwynedd: Positive ballot result announced 31st March 2009 – 65% turnout, 72% of those in favour of stock transfer to ‘Gwynedd Community Homes’ in 2010
  • Blaenau Gwent: Positive ballot result announced 23rd July 2009 – 55% turnout, 73% of those in favour of stock transfer. Transfer will be to a new housing association Tai Calon Community Homes
  • Neath Port Talbot: Positive ballot result announced 16th March 2010 – 61.6% turnout, 56.6% of those in favour of stock transfer to NPT Homes. NPT Homes established in March 2011, with responsibility for 9.300 council house and flats

Those who voted no to transfer include:

  • Wrexham: Tenant ballot against stock transfer in March 2004. The authority is currently considering its position
  • Swansea: Tenant ballot against stock transfer in March 2007. The authority is currently considering its position
  • Vale of Glamorgan: Tenant ballot against stock transfer to Heritage Coast Homes in April 2011. 68.4% voted (3,245), 49.2% supported the transfer and 50.8% were opposed. Council to work with tenants to achieve WHQS
  • Caerphilly: Tenants Ballot against stock transfer 17th February 2012, 65.2% No, 34.8% vote Yes 66.7% turnout. Council to work with tenants to achieve WHQS by 2019/20
  • Flintshire: Business plans demonstrate that resources available will be insufficient to meet WHQS and resolved. Tenants were balloted recently and rejected transfer.

Possible pipeline transfers

  • Pembrokeshire: Business plan to support stock retention approach under annual review.

 

Those who have the resources to retain include:

  • Carmarthenshire: Business Plan demonstrates that the authority can bring properties up to WHQS and maintain the standard with their own resources. Stock to be retained
  • Denbighshire: Business Plan demonstrates that the authority can bring properties up to WHQS and maintain that standard from their own resources. Stock to be retained
  • Cardiff: Business Plan demonstrates that the authority can bring properties up to WHQS and maintain that standard from their own resources. Stock to be retained
  • Isle of Anglesey: Business Plan demonstrates that the authority can bring properties up to WHQS and can maintain that standard from within their own resources. Stock to be retained
  • Powys: The authority is continuing to work towards meeting WHQS on the current understanding that it is likely to retain their housing stock

Source: WLGA and Welsh Tenants Fed collated results

Tenants say no! to Ground 8 in Wales!


People in touch with the Welsh Tenants will have heard of our concerns regarding under-occupation. It would appear the much feared response by landlords to this agenda have begun, with landlords drawing up plans to increase and improve their procedures to swiftly take action against tenants who fall victim to the change brought about by the Welfare Reform Act which became law on the 8th March 2012.

Many tenants in Wales both employed and un-employed, will be impacted on a multiple of levels, be that changes to their income support or the under-occupation measures that come into force in April 2013 or any other of the measures being introduced.

In a recent visit to Mid Wales Housing Association chief executive Shane Perkins, responding to tenant’s question relating to under-occupation stated, ‘Be assured, we will evict tenants who fail to pay their rent, we have no choice’. The comment followed a presentation by myself outlining the risk tenants faced as a consequence of the under-occupation tax coupled with the report that up to 25% of tenants below the age of pension credit in the social housing sector in Powys are under-occupied.

We too, have also raised concerns that landlord’s who normally use discretionary Grounds 10 and 11 to seek to gain possession of a home, will begin using the Ground 8, a mandatory ground for eviction which requires the judge to grant possession when a tenant falls into 8 weeks or more rent arrears or, has a patchy and inconsistent rent payment history. While many judge’s don’t succeed to the request preferring to suspend possession, this will mean that more tenants will be unable to exercise their right to mutual exchange because the majority of policy’s state that you cannot exchange until arrears are cleared. The issue raised its head again this week via an Inside Housing article that polled a sample of 20 landlords. The poll found that 35% of those polled will either use ground 8 more, or are reviewing their eviction policy as a consequence of the risks posed on their business plan models by the welfare reforms.

The Welsh Tenants are working with partners in the sector to identify more comprehensively the risks, while seeking to provide solutions to the under-occupation impacts. Our report ‘Priority Move-On’ identified that 47,000 tenants in Wales are at risk with a potential 5,000 tenants already in serious arrears in the social housing sector and thereby facing the threat of eviction which could cost local authorities in the region of 27m against savings to the treasury by introducing this measure of 22.8m.

There are several solutions that the sector can explore, including websites such as homeswapper or working with us to encourage downsizing within the existing stock, though working with credit unions to set up jam jar accounts to help facilitate arrears repayments, landlords themselves taking some of the hit because of size criteria of some of the properties they provide, lodging and priority move-on. Our goal is to develop a voluntary approach that reflects the particular circumstances here in Wales.

If landlrods move towards the use of ground 8 as a first resort! tenants throughout Wales have stated that they will resist. As a consequence of listening to tenants, we will be urging all our 320 member groups in Wales to demand that landlords sign a declaration, maintaining the current moratorium, that landlords would pursue possession on a discretionary basis only and refrain from using ground 8.

Any steps to change the current moratorium will fundamentally impact on the participatory culture tenants have developed with their landlords and truly test the sectors ability to work with tenants to shape the decision’s they make! I fear that if they don’t respond to our concerns, that will be the flint that sparks the touch paper for wide spread and co-ordinated protest by the tenant’s movement here in Wales.

A series of ATTAIN meetings are planned throughout May to discuss recent developments visit our website for a list of events and dates.