'Councils have a hugely important role to play to meet our social housing challenge'
Wales needs to return to a rate of development not seen in decades to meet its ambitious social housing target – so helping ambitious local authorities build more homes makes complete sense, says CIH Cymru policy and public affairs manager Matt Kennedy.
Housing and regeneration minister Rebecca Evans told Inside Housing last week that she is exploring plans to transfer Housing Revenue Account (HRA) borrowing capacity between councils. The idea would see unused HRA capacity moved from local authorities with no intention to build, to those which have reached their debt cap but want to build more.
We heard some really positive noises on this from the housing minister when she first came into post so it’s good to see that plans are moving forward. Our members have been telling us for some time that the borrowing cap can be a barrier where there is the ambition and capacity to develop. It makes complete sense to look at transferring capacity from councils which aren’t building and don’t have plans to. Based on the projections in the Holmans report on housing need in Wales, we have got a more ambitious social housing target than we have ever had before. It’s clear that we are going to have to return to a rate of development that we haven’t seen for decades – and local authorities are going to have a hugely important role to play if we are going to meet that challenge. It’s about a combined effort from across the sector, with councils and housing associations both maximising their contribution. Flintshire County Council’s Strategic Housing and Regeneration Programme (SHARP) has shown how successfully local authorities can be in leveraging private investment, so there is more money coming into the system outside of the Welsh Government grant. This plan is another way of increasing the sources of investment councils have to call on.
I think there is a real recognition within government that we need to make sure that areas like Flintshire have got the borrowing capacity to build as many homes as possible, especially as their expertise and ambition increases. And of course local authorities are very clear about the vital role housing plays in other areas, such as health and social care. Councils in England have long argued that HRA borrowing caps need to be lifted for those with ambitious building plans – here in Wales I think that is something that current and future governments will have to look at especially as local authorities become bigger players.
Of course, underpinning any effort to increase supply we also need to focus on standards – that means improving the quality of our existing homes and making sure the new ones we are building are fit for the future. We know that 65-70 per cent of the homes that will be in existence in the 2050s are likely to have been built before 2000, and Wales has got some of the oldest homes around so it’s important to look at upgrading and improving standards. The Welsh Housing Quality Standard has gone a long way to improving things but we need to do more – it’s vital that any conversation about increasing house building also looks at the kind of homes we want to build.