The coming of age for the National Assembly as a law making institution

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

Mike Hedges is the Assembly Member for Swansea East.

4 thoughts on “The coming of age for the National Assembly as a law making institution

  1. hmmm … the parts on empty property and second homes are to be welcomed. A sign of how the Assembly can make differences to suit Wales’s situation. Good.

    But on the ground it seems to me that Labour’s driving force in housing policy is to make a lot of money for landowners and make Wales one big retirement home and place for displaced poor or unemployed people from the big English cities. Without an economic boom and opening of dozens of new factories it’s difficult to see where the new occupants for many of these new houses will come.

    How does Mike Hedges high minded words compare for instance to his party’s Local Planning Document to build 40,000 new houses in Cardiff alone? Labour seems to conflate having a lot of people with having a better economy. There’s a short-term boom for builders and developers but then your back to square on.

  2. I like the idea of people having to pay more, much much more for a second home. It should help improve the ‘quality/social class’ of second home owners and the areas in which these second homes are located.

    All good news as far as I can see.

  3. Re Urien: Where will the new occupants of the new houses come from? The economy is picking up, and will hopefully continue to do so. Many people in their 20s have been living with their parents, when ideally they would be living on their own, with their partner, or in shared accommodation with those there own age. As the economy picks up, and as those people find employment or better-paid employment, they will want to live somewhere. So new household formation will go up.

    Further, the average household size is falling, as families breakup at a higher rate than was the case a generation ago. This is not necessarily a bad thing; better that people break away and remain a suitable relationships. This second factor is also an influence on housing demand.

    These two factors in combination served to increase the demand for housing even if the population remained static, or increases at a slower rate. This is not a Wales-specific phenomenon; it takes place across the UK and many, if not most, other advanced industrial economies. The rate of employment growth in Cardiff is significantly higher than the rate of employment growth in most other areas of Wales. Again, this is not a Wales-specific phenomenon: major urban centres across the UK are experiencing jobs growth at a far higher rates than rural areas, or smaller and more peripheral settlements. Over the period anticipated by the local development plan, Cardiff is likely to absorb most of the increased housing capacity planned.

    In any event, even if there is oversupply, it would serve to reduce housing prices, or slow their rate of growth, which would have positive distributional implications.

  4. Three factors to consider to explain why we need to create ‘new suburbs’: First, enormous English in-migration. This will rise dramatically as ‘white flight’ goes up a notch or two. Second, EU migration, as our fellow EU citizens ‘discover’ Wales, and are enticed by job offers and an improving economic situation. Finally, non-EU immigration. I was talking recently to a group of Russians who are looking to move to Wales to explore buiness opportunities. This will be replicated across other nations, especially in areas such as South Asia and South America. Add all three together and we’ll inevitably see massive demographic change in the years and decades ahead, if we desire it or not.

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