Helen Taylor puts the Welsh Government’s legislation published this week under the spotlight
This week marks a historic moment for the housing policy community in Wales, with the publication of the first Housing (Wales) Bill. The process began in 2011 with numerous consultations leading to the White Paper Homes for Wales in May 2012.
This week’s Bill has the tagline ‘making a difference’. The question is, how much? It is a Bill with two halves: one is robust, but the other lacks bite. Welsh Conservative Housing Spokesperson Mark Isherwood AM described the Bill as socially based rather than focused on increasing the volume of social housing. In many respects this social emphasis is to be welcomed. However, if the White Paper had been more closely followed, the Bill would have made stronger commitments to social justice.
Against the background of the Westminster coalition’s austerity programme and the ensuing cuts and reforms to public services, it would be fair to say that the Welsh Government had something to prove with this Bill. Former Housing Minister Huw Lewis described the coalition’s welfare reforms as an “atrocity”, while others in the Senedd have dubbed the bedroom tax as “pernicious”.
The White Paper explicitly identified the issue of welfare reform and proposed the Bill as a means to mitigate this. Furthermore, it emphasised the values of equality, social justice and sustainable development as running throughout the legislation, with particular weight placed on a distinctly Welsh approach. And, indeed, there are some proposals in the Bill – welcomed by AMs and stakeholder groups – that protect rights and demonstrate an innovative use of resources. These include:
- The proposed registration of landlords and letting agents will allow for standards to be raised within the rental market. Although controversial amongst landlords and agents, this extra regulation has been put in place to recognise the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords respectively.
- A proposed statutory duty on local authorities to provide new sites for Gypsies and Travellers in response to identified need. Again, this can be seen as a welcome move to protect rights, and encourage cohesion and fair access to services.
- A doubling of the time, to 56 days, that an individual can present as homeless to the local authority. This effectively doubles the time a suitable solution can be found, and the local authority has the same 56 day duty to those who are already homeless which again is a welcome move.
- To tackle the blight of empty properties, and encourage their use, the Bill allows for local authorities to charge 150 per cent council tax on empty homes.
On the other hand the White Paper delivered a much more robust approach to homelessness than appears in the published Bill. The Housing Solutions approach, as identified in Homes for Wales and dismissed in the Bill, provided temporary accommodation for all who were identified as homeless with nowhere safe to stay. This framework made redundant the currently relied upon tools criteria of intentionality and priority-need to recognise a need for all individuals who are without a place of safety. However, these tools have been retained within the legislation, which weakens the Welsh Government’s claim that its legislation will ‘make a difference’.
In the case of family homelessness, the Welsh Government has quite rightly committed to ending family homelessness by 2019 with secure accommodation being provided to households with children even where a household has been found ‘intentionally homeless’. But, the household will only qualify for this if it is the first time it has been found ‘intentionally homeless’ in five years. It is doubtful that the children in the household have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, and it is questionable whether this fits with the Welsh Government’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
A further concern raised by the current drafting of the Bill is the last minute removal of the priority-need order for prisoners. Although it may be quite right not to prioritise ex-offenders for housing simply on the basis that they are ex-offenders, it is questionable whether the definition of priority in this case – as being vulnerable as a result of being in custody or detention – is quite right. If the individual was vulnerable or homeless before becoming an offender, it appears that the local authority is within its rights to dismiss its duty to rehouse as there is not a necessary connection between incarceration and homelessness or vulnerability.
Of course, the Welsh Government is severely constrained financially and that this is not the ideal time to introduce a radical new housing policy. Nonetheless, the Bill has been rightly criticised for retaining old measures within homelessness policy and failing to go far enough to emphasise the creation of a dynamic supply of new homes. Plaid Cymru’s Housing Spokesperson Jocelyn Davis says the Bill is a “missed opportunity” for the Welsh Government to really create a distinctively Welsh approach to housing.