5 ways social landlords can cut poverty

May 2nd 2017

Victoria Winckler outlines five ways that social landlords in Wales could help to reduce poverty.

 

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference in Wales about what social landlords can do to reduce poverty. The title ‘Time to Deliver’ could not have been more apt.

Social landlords in Wales are amongst the active in the UK on combating poverty. They were pioneers of the use of procurement to stimulate local jobs and training, with the Can-do toolkit helping to create more than 5,000 recruitment and training opportunities in five years. Many have introduced services such as benefits checks for tenants, financial advice and help with job search. When I asked people in the audience if their organisations delivered these kinds of services for tenants a forest of hands shot up.

The response when I asked how many organisations had reducing poverty as one of their organisation’s core aims the response couldn’t have been more different. Not a single hand went up. Not one.

Now it might have been that the audience weren’t familiar with their organisation’s corporate objectives, or maybe there were one or two hands hiding behind a pillar.  But I suspect it reflected a deeper issue – social landlords try to reduce poverty because it affects their bottom line and not because they regard it as their social duty.  So here are the five key actions that I outlined in my talk. They draw on the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on what works to ‘solve’ poverty.

1. Reducing poverty should be a core aim of social landlords

Social landlords have an absolutely key role to play in reducing poverty in Wales. In the UK as a whole, a third of all people on low incomes live in social housing – if the same is true in Wales, then the social housing sector accounts for around a quarter of a million people in low income households.

On top of this, social landlords have a duty to provide a home for the less well-off – a key expectation of the Welsh Government’s Regulatory Framework is that rents are ‘affordable’ low income households.

So, putting reducing poverty at the heart of a social landlord’s mission is a small – but potentially important – step.

2. Reduce poverty when setting rents

Wading into social rents is a fool’s errand for non-experts, but suffice to say that social landlords determine their rents within ‘bands’ set out annually by the Welsh Government. These bands, amongst other factors, are supposed to take into account local earnings.

It is a moot point whether the rents that emerge from this sausage machine are ‘affordable’ to people on the lowest incomes. Current year rents are 2.5% higher than 2016/17 – an uplift not seen in benefits (which are mostly frozen) or average wages.  The growing problem of rent arrears in Wales suggests that more tenants are struggling than five years ago.

3. Reduce poverty in the workforce

Many social landlords are big local employers. Wales and West Housing Group, for example, employed 531 people in 2014/15 according to its annual report.  Providing entry-level jobs for the local community, offering training and support for progression, and – crucially – paying employees and on-site contractors the voluntary Living Wage – can all make a big difference especially in communities where there are relatively few job opportunities.

4. Use procurement to stimulate the local economy

Social landlords spend a LOT of money.  Their expenditure on refurbishment of homes – £183m in 2013 alone – lay behind the Can-Do Toolkit, but they spend on other things too, whether construction, maintenance, energy efficiency, office equipment or catering.

Landlords need to ask if they could do even more to support and stimulate decent, local jobs.

5. Services for tenants and the community

Last, but not least, are the services that landlords provide for their tenants. These are the services that prompted the show of hands in my CIH conference session. It’s clear that they cover a wide range of activities, from advice on benefits to tenancy support for formerly homeless young people, to energy efficiency measures to holiday activities for families. There is some excellent work going on.

That said, it’s less clear how effective these services are at reducing poverty amongst tenants, and whether other services – such as support for relationships or mental health services – might be more effective. That’s not to say they aren’t working – it’s just we don’t know.

We endlessly hear how the Welsh Government doesn’t control tax and benefits – the main drivers of household income. This is true. But the Welsh Government does regulate social landlords, in whose property around a third of people on low incomes, and there is more, much more, that these bodies could do.

So with no signs of the number of people living on low incomes falling any time soon, harnessing the reach, impact and commitment of Wales’s 36 registered social landlords seems like a no-brainer to me.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. If you like this article, please help us by making a donation or why not take out a subscription for some great benefits too! 

 

 

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