Back in 2002, the Welsh Government felt that local authorities and housing associations should have a standard to which their properties should be held. The Welsh Housing Quality Standards (WHQS) were introduced to set the bar for social housing, and ensure it is constructed and maintained at an acceptable condition for any hypothetical occupier. Nineteen years later, we consider what these standards are and whether they have actually been successful.
The standards consist of 7 categories, broken down in 42 individual elements on which properties are assessed. The categories are as follows. Houses must be:
- in a good state of repair
- safe and secure
- adequately heated, fuel efficient and well insulated
- contain up to date kitchens and bathrooms
- well managed (for rented housing)
- located in attractive and safe environments
- where possible, suitable for the specific needs of those living there, such as those with disabilities
The 42 elements cover several more specific aspects. These include how modern the kitchen and bathroom facilities are, how accessible the property is and various structural requirements. It is an extensive list which ensure the needs of the tenant are considered from every angle. However, the extensive nature of these standards is reflected in the time it has taken to implement it.
The Welsh Government has primarily implemented the WHQS through two key types of funding: Major Repairs Allowance and Dowry Gap Funding. Major Repairs Allowance goes to the local authorities who manage and look after council homes. Dowry Gap Funding is given to housing associations who have acquired council homes from the local authorities. The funding goes towards the improvement of these homes, to comply with the standards.
The standards have not been officially brought into statute in Wales. The closest to legal enforcement is Section 111 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. This gave the Welsh Ministers the power to set and revise standards for Local Housing Authorities. While the WHQS was probably implied by this section, it was not expressly stated. So, considering this lack of clear enforcement, how effective have these standards been in improving Welsh social housing?
This question has been answered by a recent evaluation carried out by Three Dragons, Cyngor Da and Ulster University on behalf of the Welsh Government. In the report, they give a statistical breakdown of the impact the WHQS have had and indicate how they can be improved in an updated version.
According to the ‘Living in Wales’ property survey carried out in 2004, only 0.8% of all social housing complied with the WHQS. In 2008, this had only increased to 6%. However, in March 2019, research suggested that 93% of all social dwellings now comply with the standards. This is a hugely impressive increase in a relatively short period of time, which speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the WHQS.
Not only is this statistic impressive; it is important. Demand for social housing in Wales has never been higher, with around 67,000 households currently on the waiting list. It is therefore essential to ensure that these houses are places where occupants can feel safe and accommodated.
So, what did the evaluation conclude? In short, the data suggests that the WHQS have been a success, and any subsequent update should be in a similar form. There are improvements to be made, particularly with regard to meeting national decarbonisation targets and ensuring a reliable broadband supply for tenants. However, generally speaking, the standards work and shall continue to apply.
The deadline for compulsory compliance by all registered social landlords has been extended several times. While the majority are now required to comply, a small remainder have until 31st December 2021 to bring their properties up to standard.
The WHQS have been, and will continue to be, a welcome assurance in Wales that social housing is maintained at an acceptable condition.