Mike Hedges outlines the positive implications of the Housing (Wales) Bill.
The housing bill is a major piece of social legislation currently being considered by the National Assembly for Wales. Following the Social Services bill passed earlier this year, this can be seen as the coming of age of the National Assembly for Wales as a Law making institution. I am sure of two things, that the bill will not meet the hopes and aspirations of everyone and that there will be future housing bills.
As someone who supports the bill and is by nature an optimist I intend to highlight what I consider to be the main benefits from this bill. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of housing for people’s health and the life chances of children, with poor quality housing linked to ill health and children continually moving schools as their parent(s) move from one short term let to another failing to fulfil their potential.
This week on Click on Wales
This week Assembly Members have debated 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, a prominent Welsh housing and homelessness charity, and a backbench Labour Assembly Member.
Tuesday: Dr Peter Mackie assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the Housing Bill.
Wednesday: Jocelyn Davies gave her perspective as a Former Housing Minister now in opposition.
Yesterday: Shelter Cymru gave their view on the role of the Housing (Wales) Bill in tackling homelessness in Wales.
Today: Mike Hedges AM responds to the series
There has been both a reduction in the number of council properties and a return to large numbers of properties in the private rented sector in recent years. Under the Housing Bill, all private landlords and letting agents will be required to register, undergo basic training on their legal rights and responsibilities, pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test ,become accredited and they must 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 their landlords do not. I believe the registration and licensing of landlords and letting agents is a positive move towards improving the management of housing in the private rental sector. As the number of people living in private rented accommodation increases, we need to tackle the bad behaviour by a minority of landlords and the poor condition of some privately rented properties.
In terms of dealing with homelessness the bill has two major strengths. First, the legislation outlines the key role of local authorities, in wherever possible preventing homelessness thus making Wales first of the UK nations to turn this principle into a legal requirement. Too often Councils have waited for someone to present as homeless rather than taking action when it was threatened when in many cases, early action could have prevented the resultant homelessness. The second major strength is that the legislation will require local authorities to offer meaningful and early assistance to all people who face homelessness. Whilst I am not happy with the ability of a Local Authority to discharge the homeless duty by placing people in privately rented accommodation, the reality is that with the current lack of social housing and increasing demand for housing such a decision is inevitable.
The legislation is also intended to further facilitate the development of co-operative housing by allowing fully mutual housing co-operatives to grant assured tenancies thus protecting the interest of lenders. In some European countries co-operatives make up 20 per cent of all housing but they only provide about 0.1 per cent in Britain. With such a shortage of housing in Wales I do not believe that we can let the potential for providing accommodation via the co-operative model be almost unused.
There is also a proposal to place a new statutory duty on local authorities to provide new gypsy and traveller sites where a need has been identified. As I know from 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 unauthorized encampments. This can only be good, not just for the gypsy traveller community but for the community as a whole.
The bill allows councils the discretion to charge any council tax premium up to a maximum of 100% for long term empty properties. It also allows local authorities to adopt a stepping approach to council tax with incremental increases occurring over a period of time. The number of empty properties in Wales is one of the great scandals of the 21st century and as the Government has already offered the “carrot” of loans to improve dwellings for sale or rent then the “stick” of higher council tax charges will hopefully get many more of these potential homes back into use.
The bill also allows for local authorities to charge a council tax premium on second homes occupied periodically within their area. Whilst in most of Wales there are very few second homes, it is a problem in certain parts of Wales. This will not stop the purchase of second homes, but it will increase the annual cost of keeping one and will, I believe dissuade some potential purchasers. More importantly it will put downward pressure on property prices in areas of large scale second home ownership and thus make more properties in these areas affordable by local people.
In a short article it is impossible to go into detail on the many areas of the bill but I believe that the bill acts as a progressive piece of legislation that will make a substantial positive impact for the people of Wales