Legislating to reduce homelessness in Wales

Mike Hedges outlines the main provisions in the Housing Bill currently being scrutinised in the National Assembly

The Housing (Wales Bill) was introduced into the Assembly in November 2013 and is currently undergoing scrutiny. It has four main parts: regulation of the private rented sector, homelessness, Gypsy and traveller sites, and standards for social housing.

The Bill also sets out to allow councils to charge a higher rate of council tax on empty properties, allows housing associations to give assured tenancies, and deals with the abolition of the housing revenue account subsidy so a portion of the rent paid by Council tenants will no longer be returned to the Treasury.

Housing Policy debate

 Tomorrow: Peter Black says the Welsh Government’s emphasis on preventing homelessness rather than managing it is long overdue.

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

The legislation seeks to regulate the private rented sector in Wales. Every landlord or letting agent, if one is being used by the owner, will need to be licensed. As most people are aware, there has been a substantial growth in private rented properties across Wales.

There is a current voluntary landlord accreditation scheme run by Cardiff Council on behalf of the 22 local authorities and a key element of the new legislation is to establish a comprehensive online database of all private landlords and letting/management agents in the private rented sector. After a private landlord or agent registers they will then have to become accredited following the attendance at an approved training scheme. For agents they will have to join an approved body and at least two thirds of their staff must be trained.

The aim of the legislation is to improve standards in the private rented sector, provide more information on landlords for local authorities (for example, many landlords live far away from Swansea) and raise awareness by landlords and tenants of their respective rights and responsibilities. A possible unintended consequence could be a reduction in rental properties.

The Bill seeks to prevent people becoming homeless and build on the work currently being done by local Councils on homelessness prevention. The legislation aims to ensure greater emphasis on preventing homelessness, extend the help available and improve the services for those not considered to be in priority need, and improve the ability of local authorities to offer secure accommodation via the private sector.

The two major changes are that from 2019 local authorities will be expected to secure accommodation for households with children, even if they have been found intentionally homeless, but only if this is the first time in the past five years.

At the Assembly the most contentious part of the proposed legislation is to remove the automatic right of all former prisoners to be given housing priority. If the legislation is successful they will be assessed in the same way all other applicants. This is a policy that I believe is fair and just because I do not believe that ex- prisoners should have greater rights than anyone else.

Just to correct a false rumour circulating, I would like to confirm that applicants who are subject to immigration controls are not eligible for assistance under the 1996 act.

The intended effect of the Bill is to produce:

  • Fewer households suffering homelessness.
  • Better prevention work.
  • Increased help for those who currently receive limited assistance.
  • More informed choice for those facing homelessness.

However, unless there is an increase in the quantity of rental accommodation then all that can be achieved will be a different way of sharing out rental accommodation.

The third major part of the legislation is the proposal to place a new statutory duty on local authorities to provide new gypsy and traveller sites where a need has been identified. As we know in Swansea, if official sites are not provided then unofficial sites will be created. The legislation aims to improve the standard of accommodation, reduce illegal sites and unauthorised encampments.

The fourth major part of the legislation is to set standards for rents and service charges for local authority housing, ensuring that they are clearly and separately identified. The legislation is intended to further facilitate the development of co-operative housing by allowing fully mutual housing co-operatives to grant assured tenancies protecting the interest of lenders.

In some European countries co-operatives make up 20 per cent of all housing. However, they only provide about 0.1 per cent in Britain. The housing co-operative model also provides a substantial amount of accommodation in North America. With such a shortage of housing in Wales I do not believe that we can let this potential for providing accommodation go unused.

Mike Hedges is Labour AM for Swansea East.

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