Wind of change
A host of new laws are set to change the landscape for Welsh social landlords. Michael Northcott reports
A whirlwind of new legislation is about to hit the housing sector in Wales. Last month, Welsh Assembly first minister Carwyn Jones, announced a raft of planned laws that the nation’s landlords cannot ignore. Here we run through the proposals and other key pieces of guidance that will bring big changes for housing providers and highlight the key dates to remember.
The Welsh Housing Bill
The Welsh Assembly Government hopes this major piece of legislation, announced last month, will improve the quality of both private and social rented accommodation in Wales. This includes improving the rights of tenants living in Wales’s 182,000 privately rented dwellings.
The bill will include proposals to tackle Wales’s most prominent housing problems: increasing housing supply, improving services for the vulnerable and homeless and bringing the country’s 26,000 empty homes back into use.
Keith Edwards, director of the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru, says that proposals follow an increased focus on the quality of housing in Wales over the past five years. ‘There has been such a lack of progress up until the mid-2000s,’ he states. ‘But now there has been a step-change in landlords’ focus - it’s positive for all involved.’
While no specifics for the legislation have been outlined, achieving the Welsh housing quality standard by next year should stand landlords in good stead for making the improvements that will be outlined in the bill.
Key dates: As yet, there are no dates set for the bill’s implementation, but a white paper with further detail is expected by autumn 2011.
The Welsh Planning Bill
Another weighty piece of legislation announced by the first minister last month, this bill aims to make the planning system more transparent.
According to first minister Mr Jones, it will ‘provide an opportunity to reconsider roles and responsibilities, helping us to ensure that we have a planning system that can help deliver economic renewal’.
Robin Shepherd, a partner at planning consultancy Barton Willmore in Cardiff, thinks new laws are unnecessary. ‘A whole new bill will cause confusion and, ultimately, delay delivery of the government’s objectives,’ he argues.
The confusion could stem from the fact that the UK-wide Localism Bill, which contains planning changes and is due to receive royal assent later this year, does affect Wales, even though the Welsh Assembly is technically supposed to have fully devolved responsibility for planning policy.
CIH Cymru’s Mr Edwards, however, reckons the bill will speed up delivery of affordable housing. ‘The current system does not always deliver the speed we’re looking for, so any legislative change that improves the situation has to be a good thing,’ he explains.
Key dates: A white paper setting out the bill’s proposals will be published towards the end of 2012. The bill is slated to become law at the end of 2014.
Welsh housing quality standard
No summary of housing policies in Wales would be complete without mentioning the Welsh Assembly’s WHQS, under which social housing in Wales must reach a specified minimum requirement by the end of 2012.
By then all 221,000 social homes in Wales must be in a good state of repair, safe and secure, adequately heated, fuel efficient and well-insulated, with up-to-date kitchens and bathrooms.
Social rented housing must be well managed, located in attractive and safe environments, and as far as possible suit the specific requirements of members of the household; for example disabled people.
WHQS upgrade work has been ongoing since the £2.3 billion programme began in 2002. Tenants must be offered consultation on draft upgrade plans in advance of a final plan and work starting. ‘This is the first time in 20 to 30 years that most tenants have seen such significant renovation to their homes,’ states CIH Cymru’s Mr Edwards.
The WHQS has, however, attracted criticism from some landlords which say it is too rigid an arrangement, explains Barton Willmore’s Mr Shepherd. ‘The WHQS is a one-size-fits-all template, which just isn’t the best approach to all housing stock,’ he says.
Key dates: The official deadline is ‘the end of 2012’, but, according to the findings of an exclusive survey by Inside Housing in March, five of Wales’ 22 landlords do not have a single property which reaches the standard.
Nevertheless, the Welsh Assembly estimates 86 per cent of landlords will meet the deadline on time, while around 98 per cent will have reached it by 2016 or 2017. Although the deadline has not been officially extended, the government has implicitly acknowledged that it will be untenable for at least some landlords for which WHQS will remain an ongoing challenge.
Code of guidance for local authorities on allocation of accommodation and homelessness
Originally published in 2003, this code applies to Welsh council housing employees. It is expected to come into force by the end of this year.
The code aims to, ‘achieve a balance between: the needs and preferences of [social tenancy] applicants; the well-being of existing tenants and the community as a whole; and the need to make best use of a publicly funded resource’.
It covers everything from tenant behaviour to the allocation of properties to immigrants and refugees, and is also relevant to registered social landlords, especially those which own former local authority property, says Tony Whittaker, chief executive of United Welsh Housing Association.
If landlords are found not to have complied with the code, they could be subject to investigation by The Wales Audit Office. ‘The Wales Audit Office may consider an authority’s compliance with this code under their inspection functions,’ says a statement by the Welsh Assembly made in March.
Key dates: The revised code is expected to come into effect after Welsh ministers see the results of a consultation, which ended
Consultation over the Assembly’s proposed social housing rents policy
The consultation over plans to set a national target average rent price began in March 2011, and will end in August. It is launched in response to the Essex Review 2008, which concluded that the way social landlords in Wales set their rents was unfair.
The Assembly’s plans aim to protect tenants from ‘excessive rent increases’ and landlords from lost income. But it has not explained what form this protection will take, stating it will provide some clarification ‘following feedback’ from the consultation.
This has made it difficult for landlords to gauge how local variations will affect them. Mike Owen, chief executive of 43,000-home housing association Merthyr Valleys Homes, thinks the proposals unfair. ‘It will dampen our future rent levels - they are redistributing the value of our future rent to build new properties in other parts of Wales.
‘The reason tenants in the Methyr Valley area voted for stock transfer was it meant there were sufficient resources to fund repairs over the next 30 years and any rent increases would be in line with the transfer promise document. They believe the rent proposals will take a wrecking ball to these promises,’ he says. As currently set out, the rent changes would take £9.1 million from the housing association’s income before 2034, Mr Owen calculates.
Key dates: Consultation ends on 1 August, 2011, and a tentative date for implementing the legislation has been quoted for 2012 to 2013.