This is another one of our irregular posts on our theme of happenings in Wales; this time with an apology because it’s all rather later than I had hoped and SO much is going on in Cardiff that they must be in a state of permanent combustion. Following on from the Welsh Government’s magnificent White Paper in May, they published Proposals for a Better Private Rented Sector in Wales and then a new code of guidance on homelessness and allocations (all 257 pages worth), a Housing Bill is in preparation (2013) and there are all sorts of rumours afoot that they are preparing a subsequent Renting Homes Bill (to implement an updated and possibly different version of the Law Commission’s great work, which has gone largely unnoticed by the Westminster Parliament) to follow up their White Paper (para 4.107 et seq). If you were going to respond to any of this, I’m afraid it’s all a bit too late – blame the amount of teaching I’ve got this academic year.
So, what’s going on in Wales?
In essence, licensing, a proposal which New Labour toyed with and which derives to an extent from the watered down version presented in the Rugg and Rhodes review (don’t ask me what I thought of that, grr); except that Wales is doing what might be termed licensing +. The plan is to put together a comprehensive online database of private sector landlords and management agents, and there will be a penalty if they fail to register and commit a criminal offence. The “+” element is that landlord have to pass a “suitability” test. A person will only be licensed if they complete an accredited training course and encouraged to take CPD courses. Management and letting agents are part of the scheme although penalties for breaking the law are greater.
Homelessness and allocations
It would be impossible to do justice to the 257 page code of guidance here. [It is to be remembered that the Localism Act changes don’t apply to Wales (another reason for moving there?) although there is apparently going to be a similar provision regarding use of the PRS as a discharge of duty. There are also plans to get rid of intentionality.] But I really like it (I might not if I was a housing officer in a Welsh local authority) because it expands on areas where the English code signally failed to offer a lead. For example, on the unacceptable behaviour criterion for exclusion from an allocation (which is a ridiculously worded provision in my view), the code struggles to explain what this means and then goes on to nail the point that “… barriers to social housing should be minimised” providing a series of pointers to providers as to how to do so in this context (para 3.29). The emphasis regarding homelessness is also good – for example, the code seeks to explain (ch 10) how local authorities can manage and maintain housing rights while giving greater priority to the prevention of homelessness.
I gather that the Welsh housing minister, Huw Lewis, is also a member of the co-operative party. The White paper signalled a desire to increase the use of co-ops in housing through limited equity “mutual” ownership models as well as the more standard rented co-ops. They were “considering the need for a new form of co-operative tenancy” (White Paper, para 4.56) (although I can’t help thinking that they should beware of Mexfield’s problems – note, oddly, the Welsh Government have legislative powers in relation to “housing” law, and there is a question of their remit in relation to land law). It will be interesting to see if these proposals make it into the 2013 Bill.
Following on the White Paper, I gather there have been some moves towards tenancy reform although my suspicion is that this is unlikely to be in the 2013 housing Bill. Consumer Focus Wales produced some research on tenant understandings of the private rented sector, which demonstrated (unsurprisingly) a high degree of lack of knowledge and appreciation of tenancy agreements together with disclosure of what I think of as the usual problems with the sector, viz “the standard of properties that they were living in, describing a lack of cleanliness, poor quality fixtures and fittings”. What was particularly interesting about that research was that many landlords and letting agents who were interviewed by the researchers tended to support the reforming zeal of the government.
Approach to Regulatory/Legislative Reform
Whilst there are a lot of substantive changes being mooted and discussed, it is as well to reflect for a moment on the approach taken by the Welsh Assembly to reform. It is one of co-production – that is, proposals are mooted and developed together with and feeding from key stakeholders, as well as taking on board the results of their empirical research findings from marginal/ised groups. I suspect that, had Shapps taken that approach rather than an old-fashioned top-down approach, we might have had a rather different “affordable tenancy regime” that has been so importantly criticised by the Public Accounts Committee in their report published today.
Reflections on English Housing Law and Policy
As my old mucker Simon said a few years ago, devolution offers a laboratory of social and legal change. Indeed it does – housing law and policy has dramatically shifted in the devolved regions. Scotland initially led the way, Wales and Northern Ireland are following. Each has unique features. But what they appear to present are progressive amendments to the laws they inherited. This must reflect on the steadfast refusal of the Westminster Parliament even to consider housing law reform, to have a housing policy rooted in the discursive logic of “no red tape”, and (as my new students pointed out) contradictory approaches across different government departments. In other words, whilst one can wonder at the developments in the devolved regions, it must surely make the Westminster policy-makers and civil servants reflect on English law and policy, and possibly its impoverishment by contrast?