Oral - Sue Essex`s Housing Report
After being appointed as the Deputy Minister for Housing, I spent my first weeks talking to as many housing practitioners as possible to find out how well we were meeting the housing challenges in Wales.
I spoke to the representative bodies of local authorities and housing associations, the staff and members of many different housing associations and local authorities across Wales, tenants’ organisations, and professional bodies. Although it was clear that much good work was being done, it was not being delivered consistently across Wales. The point made to me time and again was that opportunities to provide homes, services and community regeneration were being lost because of a regulatory system that is no longer wholly appropriate, and because of micromanaged processes that slow down delivery and performance. There was also a lack of clarity in the roles and responsibilities of the three parties involved: the Welsh Assembly Government, local authorities and housing associations.
The Welsh Assembly Government does not build houses; it relies upon its partners to plan and deliver new social housing. Given the consistent messages that I was receiving, in October, I asked Sue Essex to chair a review of the current system. My vision was that we should all be working together to maximise the gain from the resources that we have, as well as from new investment made. Every partner should be challenged to contribute more to help meet the housing needs that we face. The systems and processes that we use should help us meet that objective.
The brief for the Essex review was to look at how we could gain the maximum from the assets already held by housing associations; to encourage greater collaboration between them, to become more effective in delivering new homes; to look at ways to accelerate the meeting of our climate change objectives when building new homes; and to ensure that each partner had a clear understanding of its roles and responsibilities. Together, those four components, properly implemented, will improve performance and ensure that we are better equipped to meet the growing housing challenges that we face.
Sue Essex and her colleagues, Dr Peter Williams and Dr Bob Smith, have spent the best part of six months challenging all those involved in the housing movement. They spoke directly to more than 100 individuals, and over 70 organisations. As well as speaking to those directly involved and their representative bodies, they also spoke to staff employed in the housing directorate, private lenders and those involved in the private sector.
By Christmas, they had recommended five quick wins—changes that headlined the way forward, could reduce bureaucracy, and could enable housing associations to borrow more against their current assets by adopting a more social enterprise approach. We consulted widely and were encouraged by the overwhelming support that we had for this approach. We are currently looking at how to make progress on these recommendations as quickly as possible.
I have recently received the final report of the Essex review. To rise to the challenge of meeting our many and varied housing challenges, it recommends a new strategic direction and calls for strong and purposeful leadership to achieve it.
The review acknowledges the good work already being carried out and seeks to enable housing associations and local authorities to provide more homes and more community regeneration. To achieve that, it argues that a more comprehensive assessment of housing need across Wales is imperative. Resources should follow need, and my recently announced requirement for every planning authority to publish an affordable housing delivery plan with targets for delivery will provide a more focused and transparent mechanism to encourage higher levels of performance.
For housing associations, the report proposes a fundamental change in the regulatory system to encourage more innovation and greater freedom to use their not-for-profit status to invest more in their communities. To balance a less risk averse and more socially enterprising model, it recommends placing greater emphasis on governance and financial regulation, as well as continuing to deliver high-quality standards of management and maintenance for tenants.
Lastly, to ensure that the regulatory system remains fit for purpose, it suggests the establishment of a regulatory board, made up of key stakeholders, to take an overview and report to the Minister directly on the ability of the sector to deliver effectively.
The report also recommends incentivising faster progress to meet the climate change agenda in the new-build programme, and it suggests a new way to facilitate the improvement of housing stock in local authorities where tenants have voted against stock transfer. It also looks at ways to improve housing association consortia arrangements.
For anyone interested in housing in Wales, this is a seminal report. It is comprehensive and inclusive, and holds challenges for all those involved. For the Welsh Assembly Government, it challenges us to lead the change necessary. For local authorities, it challenges them to enable partnership working and to manage performance. For housing associations, it challenges them to become more innovative and to use their assets more effectively to increase investment.
Since this report was commissioned, the challenges have grown. When I took up office, our eyes were focused on 'One Wales’ and our housing commitments. With the changes in the economy affecting the housing markets, the challenges are now much greater. This report is a comprehensive analysis of the current situation, and it proposes a coherent way of improving our ability to meet it. I now invite a wide-ranging debate on the report, its recommendations, and how we can work together to implement it.