Homelessness legislation a damp squib

Jocelyn Davies says the Welsh Government’s Housing Bill does not live up to the expectations promised in the preceding White Paper.

The Welsh Government White Paper’s approach to homelessness was well received throughout Wales for its progressive vision to end family homelessness by 2019. Its aim was to switch the focus onto prevention by phasing out priority need status and ending the intentionality test. The aspiration is to tackle the root causes of homelessness. The White Paper also outlined other proposals I was very pleased to see, including:

  • Professionalising of the private rented sector.
  • Strengthening the co-operative housing movement.
  • Addressing the wasted resource of empty homes.
  • Introducing statutory standards for council housing.
  • Measures to meet the demand for sites for Gypsies and Travellers.

There is no doubt that the Bill itself is an attempt to address some longstanding housing issues and that is to be welcomed. However, those who expected the Bill would take a rights-based approach will be disappointed, while the homelessness section, although moving in the right direction, does not live up to the radical reform promised in the White Paper. The reversal of the previous policy of assisting prison leavers in order to reduce re-offending is contrary to all available evidence.

During the passage of the Bill many have argued that the legislation largely describes what is current best practice rather than creating the statutory basis for whole scale change.  As we know, best practice has proved to be a very poor traveller across the public sector and measures that ensure all housing authorities are intervening at an early stage with those who might face the threat of homelessness is a positive move. Those of us who expected to see a great stride forward on homelessness will have to be content with this step in the right direction.

The section on the mandatory registration and licencing of all private sector landlords has been controversial. I for one was unconvinced that a registration scheme will do anything to raise standards. I preferred an approach that seeks out and bans bad landlords, rewards the best landlords, and leaves the rest to the pressures of the market. And I had a specific concern about deterring those with just one property available for rent from being landlords at all.

However, the evidence I’ve heard has led me to change my mind, although I still have reservations. The registration and licencing scheme will require all landlords to undergo a fit and proper persons test and mandatory training. It will be illegal to rent out a home without a licence to do so. We heard that the number of private landlords could be more than 100,000 and those with just one property make up a very significant proportion of them. One third of Shelter Cymru’s casework relate to this sector. The landlords’ organisations point out that there is a huge amount of regulation relating to renting out properties requiring knowledge of over 100 pieces of legislation containing 400 specific items.

It became clear to me that private landlords are responsible for many thousands of homes across the country. Their statutory obligations are complex and the sector would benefit from professionalisation. I still have grave doubts about the Welsh Government’s chosen scheme as it fails to distinguish the best from the barely good enough. Moreover, without the resources for enforcement local authorities will struggle to implement it. The standard of privately rented accommodation is sometimes woeful and, sadly, the Bill does nothing on this front apart from re-enforcing the legal bare minimum requirements. I think this is a missed opportunity and shows a lack of ambition to raise standards in housing generally and to promote tenants’ rights to decent housing.

On the whole, the Bill has some very good points. Sadly, it is not the legislation the White Paper described, but I suppose a damp squib of a Bill is better than no Bill at all.

Jocelyn Davies is Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East and was Minister for Housing in the One Wales coalition between 2007-11.

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