People and their homes

John Puzey expresses Shelter Cymru’s view on the Housing Bill.

‘In perhaps no other area of public policy do the decisions of Government have a more profound impact on daily life than in housing.’ – Huw Lewis AM, Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, 2011-2013.

Without doubt, the Housing Bill is one of the most important developments for people and homes in Wales for a generation. It is the first time that we have been able to set our own agenda with regard to housing and homelessness to such a dramatic degree. With a scope that includes overhauling the regulation surrounding the private rented sector and transforming the way that housing and homelessness services are developed and provided, the potential impact of the Bill on the lives of ordinary people is huge. Perhaps the most immediate impact will be felt by the increasing number of families now making their homes in the private rented sector.

This week on Click on Wales

This week Assembly Members will debate the Welsh Government’s Housing (Wales) Bill, which has reached stage three in the legislative process. Although the Bill has been welcomed by many across the sector – with some calling it ‘extremely progressive’ – there are others who rue it as a ‘missed opportunity’. As the debate continues in the Senedd we are pleased to present a series of blogs from a leading academic, a former Housing Minister and a prominent Welsh housing and homelessness charity.

Tuesday: Dr Peter Mackie assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Housing Bill.

Yesterday: Jocelyn Davies gives her perspective as a Former Housing Minister now in opposition.

Today: Shelter Cymru give their view on the role of the Housing (Wales) Bill in tackling homelessness in Wales.

Tomorrow: Mike Hedges AM responds to the series

According to Census data, the number of tenants living in private rented accommodation in Wales rose by 42 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Over the same period, the number of families with dependent children living in the private rented sector rose by 62 per cent. Privately rented homes now make up nearly 15 per cent of all the housing stock in Wales – almost the same proportion as social housing.

It’s clear that the stereotypical image of private tenants as young, single people who value the freedom that renting offers no longer stands up and that many more people will be renting privately and for longer.

Yet standards and professionalism have failed to keep up with increasing demand. We recognise that there are many good landlords operating in Wales, but we still see far too many tenants suffering the impacts of poor housing conditions and unprofessional practice for us not to be highly vocal cheerleaders for wide-scale reform of the sector.

Under the Housing Bill, all private landlords and letting agents will be required to register, undergo some basic training on their legal rights and responsibilities, pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test and then become accredited and follow a Code of Practice. This means that for the first time, tenants can have confidence that their landlords are expected to meet certain basic standards and that there will be measures available to them if they do not. There are still some concerns about targeting the ‘rogue’ element of the market, but as tenants become aware of their rights (and responsibilities) and the professionalism of landlords increases, it will become more difficult for unregistered landlords to operate.

In the longer term, we can expect to see a significant impact from the Bill’s commitment to reform homelessness legislation, in particular the new universal homelessness prevention service and the commitment to end family homelessness by 2019.  Every year, thousands of people approach their local authority for help, yet around seven out of every ten of these households are not considered eligible for the main homelessness duty. We simply don’t know what happens in these cases. Very often, clients tell us that they don’t necessarily need the full homelessness duty; just some short-term support to find a home, such as advice or help with a bond or moving costs. However, the current ‘all or nothing’ approach to homelessness services means that many of them get no help at all.

The new system will be prevention focussed, with staff looking at what help people need, rather than – as often happens now – finding reasons why they should not be eligible for support. This can only help people who otherwise would become trapped in a cycle of insecure housing, homelessness and re-presenting to their local authority. This new focus will require a fundamental shift in the culture of homelessness services, from one where service users are supplicants who have to prove that they ‘deserve’ help to one of far greater equality between people who provide services and those who use them. Yet the very act of introducing this new system will help to bring this change about. Removing the need to decide who can or can’t be helped will free up frontline staff, time and resources to work with families to find and keep a home.

There are other aspects to the Bill that we consider to be very positive steps forward, not least the provision for the Minister to abolish priority need at a later date. Yet the key thing for us is the Bill’s unambiguous recognition of the vital role that access to decent, secure and affordable homes has to play in the long-term social and economic well-being of people in Wales.

As Wales’s people and homes charity, we can only applaud this.

John Puzey is the Director of Shelter Cymru.

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