Is the Wales Bill a threat to housing policy?

Aaron Hill says the draft Wales Bill is a big step back for housing policy.

The draft Wales Bill, published last week, caused all the usual political rumblings. Amid all the talk of insults to Wales, Whitehall being a bad loser, and the looming threat of a constitutional crisis, there doesn’t seem to have been too much discussion about the practical implications of the proposals within the Bill.

A devolved legislature with extensive powers is now clearly the settled will of the people of Wales.

And while technical debates about constitutional mechanisms and legislation probably won’t be a topic of conversation as the people of Wales eat their tea tonight; job security, health, and housing probably will.

What will the draft Wales Bill mean to, for example, a social housing tenant in Bangor? Or a homeless woman in a hostel in Cardiff?

Housing is probably the area of devolved policy where we have seen Wales and England diverge most over the last 16 years.

Not only is devolved government the settled will of the people of Wales, but a vastly different approach to housing (amongst other things) is too.

In Wales, we have had successive governments committed to investment in social housing, through Social Housing Grant, which has allowed the housing association sector to provide an average of 2,000 additional homes each year. At the same time, Welsh Government supports a ‘Help to Buy’ product which allows better access to home ownership. Across the border, UK Government pursues home ownership as the be all and end all of housing policy, with funding for social housing sacrificed for a loosely defined ‘affordable’ home ownership offer.

Devolution has meant that the housing association sector in Wales has had an opportunity to define itself very differently from our friends across the border.

The Right to Buy for housing associations and the 1% cut to social rents will have a profound impact on affordable housing as we know it in England. In Wales, there are proposals afoot to abolish Right to Buy completely, and we hope that Welsh Government won’t follow the same path on rents – a path now roundly rejected by housing providers and tenants groups.

The draft Wales Bill threatens the ability to legislate for these policy differences – voted for by the people of Wales.

Welsh Government suggests that the Housing Act, which took action on the scourge of empty homes, created new models of co-operative housing and takes action to improve the private sector, would not have been within the competence of the Assembly. This is inexplicable.

It is not a leap to suggest that the proposals in their current form take us back to the dark days of the Legislative Competence Order (LCO). Those of us schooled in the history of LCOs, or indeed housing policy, will know that this didn’t work.

The Reserved Powers model this Bill seeks to enshrine should be about simplicity and clarity. For legislators and voters.

In its present form, the Bill adds to the confusion – not only threatening to slam the brakes on the devolution journey, but threatening to halt the significant progress Wales has made as a nation in a number of areas. For housing, devolution hasn’t just allowed us to do things differently; it has allowed us to better meet the needs, and the will, of the people of Wales.

Aaron Hill is Public Affairs Manager for the Community Housing Cymru Group

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