We have previously commented on various housing and homelessness developments in Wales. These have been individual interventions into homelessness and the legislative competence order giving legislative housing powers to the Assembly. Moves are now afoot to do something radical with housing. In December 2011, Huw Lewis, the Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, published a wide-ranging and quite personal vision for the future of housing policy in Wales: Meeting the Housing Challenge: Building a Consensus for Action. It is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, but without much detail (yet). Views are sought by 17.02.2012 by email to email@example.com. It looks like housing policy in Wales may well be moving in a different direction to the approach in England and the statement makes clear that there is an opportunity for a housing bill in forthcoming Assembly sessions. Two of the key elements of that Bill are going to be preventing homelessness and improving conditions in the private rented sector (para 16).
The major concerns addressed by the statement are about housing tenure, quality, homelessness and advice, private finance, and housing supply.
On tenure, what is particularly radical is the recognition that the private sector is simply unable to cope with demand and a desire for flexibility. Flexibility is not the English coalition’s (odd) approach to flexibility but one which involves not necessarily moving house (one assumes, therefore, that something like tenure shifting is envisaged, but more detail is necessary) (para 45). It has been no secret that in the past the Assembly has been drawn to the Law Commission’s approach in Renting Homes (links to the full report – not for the faint hearted!). Although not committing the Assembly to this approach, the statement makes clear that tenure reform is up for grabs, as it
has clear potential to contribute to a more efficient housing system; a system that makes best use of existing social housing and which caters for people with different needs and circumstances by allowing organisations such as local authorities more scope to meet people’s needs. At the same time, and reflecting the reality of housing markets today, it can help provide more choice for people by allowing options and flexibility for people to move between tenures, with appropriate safeguards for vulnerable people. Creating a level playing field between local authorities and housing associations as social landlords and private landlords is considered important for a number of reasons including the removal of barriers – perceived or otherwise – that currently prevent or constrain people’s ability or willingness to move between tenures. (para 17)
There is a desire to establish a “new, bold, and ambitious Welsh co-operative housing movement”, signalling a geographical move away from the English model to a more European model (para 30), although they would do well to heed the tenure problems caused by some tenancy agreements (as per the UKSC analysis in Berrisford – links to our report).
On quality, there are issues addressed across all housing tenures, and, in relation to private renting, there are correlative concerns about poor standards and management. They are moving to adopt compulsory registration of landlords (para 60).
On homelessness and advice, there is a comprehensive review of homelessness legislation already under way (para 67), with one aim of prevention through possible legislative change. I don’t think that they mean a tightening up of the legislation (as one might expect of the English coalition government), but a more rigorous prevention service. That is signalled by the earlier discussions about the significance of quality, holistic housing advice services addressing general and particular needs (paras 64-6) – the idea mooted is a series of housing hubs across Wales, which are visible, accessible and quality; it would be preventative and proactive (paras 19-20).
Other aspects of housing advice, not related to homelessness, suggest that shared owners should be entitled to staircase down and reduction of the risk of entering into “buy and rent back” schemes (para 44).
On private finance, it is recognised that affordability is a crucial factor, and the author demonstrates considerable sensitivity to that notion (paras 11-13). There is support for the development of credit unions in providing mortgage finance (para 22).
Housing supply is obviously key and addressed at paras 31-40, and empty properties at paras 46-8. This issue doesn’t really turn me on, but it looks like a similar approach to the English coalition.
All-in-all, we should be watching Wales with interest; my friend Simon refers to devolution as a laboratory of social and legislative change. With the devolved governments moving so clearly in directions which run counter to the English coalition’s approach, there is considerably greater scope to assess by comparison the Pickles/Shapps retrograde steps around tenure and homelessness as well as the Dromey response (which, so far, appears to be zero beyond the occasional tweets, some of which are not particularly well-informed – I might be being a little unfair on him, but he just appears to be politically so absent).