Setback for Welsh second bid for housing powers

Nick Bennett of Community Housing Cymru reflects on the failure of the Welsh Government’s second bid for housing powers

A riposte to many constitutional debates is that they lack the attraction to the electorate of “bread and butter” issues. But what could be more “bread and butter” than the ability to take greater action to improve the supply of affordable housing in Wales, to fight homelessness and improve support for our most vulnerable citizens?

In Wales we have over 20,000 empty properties and 90,000 in housing need. Yet what JK Galbraith termed “private affluence and public squalor” seems to be turned on its head as we see the second attempt to bestow legislative competence on the National Assembly in the critical area of social housing fail in the space of two years.

We have failed to see powers come to Wales to help those in dire individual need despite a relatively well-resourced public democracy. The All Wales Convention, of which I was a member, estimated that the cost of the current Welsh legislative (LCO and Framework Bills) system was at least £2m per annum, and that only an estimate of costs at the Cardiff end of the system.

With the housing crisis that arose during the “nice decade” continuing to scar Welsh communities in a post credit crunch world, Community Housing Cymru felt, along with our key partners in the housing world – Cymorth, the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru and Shelter Cymru – that we had to intervene. We wrote to Cheryl Gillan, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, urging her not to block the passage of the LCO through Parliament as the order would be lost.

Whilst we understood Conservative concerns in relation to the Right To Buy, our collective view was that the LCO would not be used to abolish the RTB but would allow a measure to be developed that could be used as a tool to address local housing need, and only in very specific circumstances, backed by robust local evidence and with the approval of the National Assembly for Wales. Ironically during the impasse on the first Housing LCO, right to buy sales in Wales dried up – suspended not by WAG or Whitehall but by the credit crunch!

The measures in the Housing LCO are urgently needed to address the most serious housing problems we have faced in a generation. The order would have hugely increased the capability

  • to provide housing for homeless people and those with support needs
  • to take more effective action on empty properties including second homes ownership in areas where the Welsh language’s survival as a community language is fragile.
  • to fashion a strengthened regulatory system that would give confidence to lenders and secure additional private investment to support more affordable housing across Wales, which could be worth millions of pounds.
  • to introduce a unitary set of social tenure rights in Wales
  • to require local authorities to provide sites for gypsies and travelers.

Some people have already suggested to me that if we see a Conservative government at Westminster after 6 May that this LCO may prove to be the first test of the relationship between a left of centre Welsh Government and a right of centre Westminster government. For my own part I believe that any further Welsh housing legislation will have to await a positive vote in a referendum on primary law making powers for the National Assembly. Clearly the current system has failed to give Wales the tools to move towards a more affluent society.  A nascent democracy needs the tools to tackle inherent poverty and need.

Nick Bennett is Chief Executive of Community Housing Cymru.

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