Considering equalities in retrofit

Ross Thomas is Head of Policy & Public Affairs at Tai Pawb

It’s fair to say it has been a long time in the making – but the new iteration of the Welsh Housing Quality Standards (WHQS) is upon us.

But, first, to be able look forward with confidence, it is often useful to look back at what has been achieved. Some 99 per cent of social housing dwellings have been rated WHQS compliant (including acceptable fails), with three quarters fully compliant, a clear indication that social housing more generally is in better condition that it might have been without a national standards impetus.

Alongside a broad range of stakeholders, over the last 18 months Tai Pawb has played its role in helping shape a new framework that builds on that progress – a framework that is fit for purpose, bold and ambitious.

It has not come without its challenges – nor do those challenges disappear because the new framework is live. Anybody working in and around the housing sector in Wales knows it’s a busy place to be with many competing demands, and that’s putting it mildly.

It almost goes without saying that Tai Pawb welcomes the keen focus and additional expectations on equalities in the new standards.

On flooring, the framework outlines that “at change of tenancy, all habitable rooms… located within the home should have suitable floor coverings”. Under the existing framework – which has been in place since 2002 – there has been no expectation that social housing providers would supply new flooring in areas other than kitchens and bathrooms, meaning many homes have floor coverings removed and are left without a suitable covering when newly-let.

In 2020, we published a paper alongside TPAS Cymru, highlighting the impact of a lack of flooring on tenants. In a survey carried out at the time, social tenants reported that the cost of purchasing flooring themselves was prohibitive while homes lacked warmth and safety. Further, health issues were cited such as breathing difficulties and depression, while tenants with children highlighted safety problems with hard concrete or wooden flooring, including splinters. The report made a series of recommendations, calling on social housing providers to consider grants for flooring, options for tenants to keep existing floor coverings and for Welsh Government to undertake a review of WHQS to include the provision of appropriate flooring.

Three years on, we recently launched a new paper to highlight practice among social landlords in both keeping existing flooring within properties as well as providing new flooring. ‘Floored: a practice compendium’ is the culmination of partnership work where social landlords across Wales have shared case studies on piloting and adopting new practice in the provision of flooring:

  • North Wales-based housing association, Clwyd Alyn, has piloted vinyl flooring in void properties before re-letting, resulting in fewer empty properties, less anti-social behaviour and an improvement in well-being.
  • Monmouthshire Housing Association initially trialled new flooring in newly-let flats; buoyed by positive feedback, including improved tenant and staff satisfaction, impact on rent arrears, anti-social behaviour and tenancy sustainability, the scheme has been rolled-out to all new-lets, since 2018, under its ‘void gold standard’.
  • Pobl Group, meanwhile, has gradually increased its pilot from 22 homes to 226 in the last three years, also with positive feedback from tenants and colleagues carrying out neighbourhood roles; where possible, existing flooring is retained for new customers.
  • Swansea-based social landlord, Caredig, piloted a ‘Homes not Houses’ scheme and evaluated tenant satisfaction in homes without flooring, with retained flooring and with new flooring, the latter showing a much greater sense of satisfaction. Homes that have benefitted from the scheme have also seen a reduction in rent arrears, repair requests and antisocial behaviour.

This is a classic case of tenants’ feedback directly influencing a change in policy to ensure flooring provision is a standard in its own right.

On accessibility, there has been a strengthening of the framework’s wording: “Disabled and older people’s housing requirements must be planned for and met in accordance with the duty for reasonable adjustments”.

Not only do we have a general housing crisis, we have a disability housing crisis. Put simply, there are nowhere near enough accessible homes – and of those that do exist, there isn’t clarity as to how many. When you consider the statistics, it puts the problem into focus. Wales has a higher proportion of disabled people than any other part of the UK[i] at 26 per cent (39 per cent in social housing); meanwhile, government projections suggest there will be a significant uplift of people in Wales, over the age of 65, with a mobility impairment over the next decade. That same report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, looking specifically at the issue in Wales, outlined the impacts of not having an accessible home, including mobility problems, the indignity of not being able to live independently, poorer mental health, the higher likelihood of being out of work and feelings of social isolation and anxiety.

Indeed, the framework requires social landlords to “properly consider” Lifetime Homes and higher accessibility requirements, and implement them “if and where achievable.” And for the first time, housing bodies are required to gather data for wheelchair-accessible standard housing. So, context considered, it is only right that the social housing sector is asked to step up to the mark

A new addition to the framework is the focus on cultural adequacy, recognising that homes can and should adapt – and be adaptable – according to the needs of those living in it. Social landlords are asked to “consider the specific cultural needs of the tenants” with particular attention to be paid to “the design of kitchens… and bathrooms”.

This takes account of the likelihood of, for example, additional storage space in and around the kitchen for some Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic households as well as considering different bathing practices when retrofitting bathrooms.

Moreover, at a recent joint Tai Pawb and TPAS Cymru session for social landlords specifically on WHQS, Dr Satish Basavapatna Kumaraswamy of Cardiff University outlined some initial research[ii] highlighting the impact of cultural behaviour on air quality within the home, based on typical White British cooking methods versus British Asian. The research highlighted that, in this case, as a result of cooking more often and for longer, the temperature of the British Asian household remained higher for significantly longer; while, in general, the ‘ambient’ temperature of the property was some two degrees higher in a British Asian home.

This is an area of practice that Tai Pawb, alongside its Deeds Not Words work and the Welsh Government’s Anti-Racist Wales Action Plan, is committed to exploring further.

Ultimately, everybody is working to the same, simple goal across the new standards: to provide good quality homes. Tai Pawb stands ready to support social landlords in navigating the new framework, in particular around the new equalities-related elements, and supporting them in developing their thinking and implementing positive changes for tenants.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2023 edition of WHQ.