The Independent Review of Affordable Housing in Wales

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN Chief Executive

Do you eat meat? If so, I’m sorry to say it’s time to give it up and hit the salad bar for breakfast, dinner and tea. Why is that? Those 10 million or so sheep and cattle you’ve got in Wales are belching out a lot of emissions. And that's what’s getting in the way of net zero.

So, if you don’t mend your ways I’m afraid we will have to shoulder more of a burden in housing. That will be expensive – a whopping £15 billion pounds a year is the bill we’re talking about across the UK. So, my friends, you have a choice: hummus or no new homes!

That’s just one of the tricky issues this review has to juggle with. One council in Wales says it might have to spend £4.5 million to move a few people away from a busy road. The fumes are well over the legal limit. Will we see more of this? How will it affect the way you spend money? Or will it blow over?

The review team is trying to hit a moving target. Theresa May is saying she wants to get down to net zero and bring in stiffer consumer regulation. But if Boris Johnson takes over will he follow Trump and go the other way? And what will that mean for Wales?

Well, the Welsh want to do better than those on the other side of the bridge. And that’s fine on silly things like rugby that no one else gives a hoot about. That Tory rent cut in England was a devastating reverse pass, wasn’t it? You look to the Tories to put council rents up but here they were going the other way. At the same time rents in Wales were rising. So, by all the natural laws in politics the rents in Wales had to get back in line. It was a given.

What intrigues me is why people think you can have a rent policy anyway. Whatever formulae you care to come up with is only part of the picture. Surely rents must just track what is happening with wages and benefits? You can’t set rents in isolation.

Whenever housing in Wales is in a fix some bright spark will say it’s time to look again at the dowries. That’ll cover us for new homes, climate change, etc, etc. Whoa, boy! They were part and parcel of the transfer deals that tenants voted on. If you're a leaver type of person you will say suck it up and keep the dowry. No deal. While the remainers amongst you will retort that the dowry was the wrong number on the wrong bus. Things have changed. And on it goes. But you know where this is heading if you don’t all come together here. You’ll need a ballot for some big change again. It’s bound to happen. Can you say your word is your bond if you strip out the dowry? That’s the test tenants with long memories might apply. Think of the knock-on effect on trust.

Of course the review team ask if you're delivering VfM in Wales. We’d all ask that question. Can you save money? It could be one way of finding the cash you need for new homes. Yes, I agree you could do more in Wales to explain your costs. That’s fine. But you can take it too far. Some of our friends over the bridge used VfM as a dog whistle to cut costs to the bone, accept suicide bids from contractors and push repairs back for as long as they could get away with. This is why the regulator in England watches the spending on repairs like a hawk now.

What are you going to use all the money from rents, savings and dowries for anyway? That’s a big question. And sadly it’s a deep hole at the heart of the review. No one knows how many houses you need in Wales. And the way out of that for the review team is to call for more studies. I’m far from convinced. We don’t need studies, we need homes. Are the review team ducking out of rationing resources by punting the question back to the councils? Or do they just not have enough to go on? We need to get to the bottom of this.

Let’s say we do Brexit and it’s not going too well. It will be all hands to the pump to drive up GDP, won’t it? That’s the number everyone looks to. As you would expect, it depends on our biggest industry. What’s that? It’s homeowners letting homes to themselves. That’s crazy, but I don’t make the rules. Build those affordable houses quickly. You know what'll happen if you sit on your hands. All we'll get are homes for sale to hit the target. It could be now or never. How do we get cracking?

I’ve been in the new homes built by Cartrefi Conwy and they are a world away from the factory homes of the past. It’s the way ahead. They’re quick to build, cost effective and safe. You see that L&G are going for this in a big way to get round the challenges in the insurance industry. Should Admiral follow suit? Can Wales take the lead?

I doff my hat to the review team. They’ve done a better job that I could have, given the lack of basic facts on need and competing interests. While they were doing that I was on another job for the Welsh Regulator. And the tenants told me that they wanted a bit more action. I agree. It’s time to get building. We're not going to hit colossal numbers yet. So we should be able to find people who are glad to take the homes. The studies are a fine idea. But, if I dare quote a European in a leave nation, as Voltaire says: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good."