Housing providers in Wales need to improve the quality of their homes, says partner at Morgan Cole Joanna Rees
Ten years ago the Welsh Government set out its long-term vision, recognising that housing affects people’s health, well-being and ability to find a job. Its stance was simple; improved housing would create social benefits.
The Welsh housing quality standards were therefore introduced with the aim of maintaining and improving all existing housing stock before 2012.
The emphasis of WHQS is that homes should be: safe and comfortable; in a good condition and structurally stable; safe and secure; fuel efficient with proper heating and well insulated; fitted with up to date kitchens and bathrooms; well-managed; situated in attractive and safe environments and able to meet the needs of specific tenants, particularly those with disability issues.
The aim of WHQS was more ambitious than comparable targets in England and Scotland. Compliance was always going to be a challenge. It required providers to have up to date information on the condition of their stock and implement comprehensive maintenance and improvement strategies with tenant engagement.
The scheme was ambitious, and for many providers it became more challenging when, in the 2010 comprehensive spending review, £122.5 million was cut from the social housing grant budget. The Welsh Government’s stimulus package of £30 million could only partly plug the gap.
Struggling to deliver
So, 2012 has arrived and it is generally accepted that the 10-year target will not be achieved nationally. In fact, the Wales Audit Office estimates that just 79 per cent of properties will be up to the standard by 2017.
Houses are currently most likely to fail for not having an economical heating system (addressed to some extent by the arbed - which means ‘save’ in Welsh - fuel poverty scheme), because of insecure doors and windows and a lack of mains-powered smoke detectors. Hazards include risk of falls, excess cold, fire risk and radiation.
While providers struggle to comply with the exacting standards of WHQS, what has been done has produced a much-needed community benefit. As part of the maintenance and improvement programmes, providers have entered into framework agreements with local contractors creating jobs, training opportunities and apprenticeships with these ‘community benefit’ requirements being written into their contracts. There is evidence that crime has been tackled as well as improvements to estates reducing anti-social behaviour.
Plans for the future
Earlier this year, the Welsh Government announced that all buildings built in Wales from September 2013 will have to be fitted with automatic fire sprinklers. Detractors point out this will increase the cost of a new build in Wales and make it a less attractive proposition for development. Despite this, it indicates that safe good quality housing remains firmly in the sights of Welsh Government and providers should therefore prepare themselves and their stock accordingly.