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The long march

Gareth Hughes assesses 20 years of progress from free swimming for the over-60s to the end of the Right to Buy.

‘Cool Cymru.’ It certainly was. Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, Stereophonics, the Zygotic Monkeys and many more Welsh groups were strutting their stuff.

And in politics change was in the air.

Twenty years ago after a nail biting referendum Wales had for the first time since the middle ages a modicum of self –rule. It was seen as a new start for an old country.

It certainly was modest – the new institution could hardly break wind without Westminster’s approval – but despite these constitutional crumbs it was seen as a start.

Whilst the Scots were steaming ahead with a fully fledged Parliament, Wales’s Assembly was crawling along in the slow lane with limited powers. But the long march towards meaningful devolution was under way.

Two constitutional reports, as many Wales Acts and another devolution referendum later, Wales is now approaching what Scotland had 20 years ago – a Parliament with law making and tax raising powers.

But as the chrysalis of the Assembly metamorphs into a parliament with real powers the grip of austerity continues to limit the cash available to meet any new ambitions the institution may have.

In the early days of the Assembly when money was more plentiful and virtually all the body had to decide was were the cash would go the then First Minister Rhodri Morgan decided his priority was to cement the Assembly in the affections of the Welsh people by embarking on number of populist measures.

Those over the age of 60 could travel the length and breadth of Wales for free with their bus passes. Everyone would get medicine without charge with a free prescription. The big debate in cabinet was whether or not they would give free swimming to the over 60s or to the under 18s. The over 60s won out – after all they had the vote.

All were popular measures and undoubtedly helped pave the way to a successful result when the next referendum was conducted to increase the powers of the Assembly.

But the resources needed to sort Wales’s housing crisis were not available. Not urgent.

The Welsh Government is now on its fourth First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and in his prospectus for the job he put housing as one of his priorities.

True to his word he created a housing and regeneration ministry with the minister having a seat around the cabinet table. This was a first for Wales; hitherto housing was only part of a minister’s much larger portfolio.

Even in the relatively short time that the Assembly has had law making powers they’ve filled the statute books with housing-related legislation. Starting with the Mobile Homes (Wales) Act 2013, Housing (Wales) Act 2014, Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 and Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Act 2018.

Despite all the legislation the homeless crisis is acute and the supply of housing, especially social housing, is well short of demand. The housing crisis seems like poverty, to be always with us.

The answer is simple enough – build more homes – but the problem is as always, cash. The Welsh Government has seen its budget chopped by 7 per cent since 2010. Less cash all round.

Politicians in Wales, like the rest of the UK, cannot be seen to refuse the insatiable demands of the health service so over half the government’s budget is already spoken for. Housing has to compete for what remains and it’s never enough to meet demand.

For good or ill housing policy has been made in Wales these last 20 years. The dream of many in earlier times for Welsh solutions to Welsh housing problems has come to pass.

Maybe at last under the Drakeford administration those dreams will become a reality and the basic need for shelter comes to all Wales’s citizens.

Gareth Hughes is a freelance journalist and broadcaster and political commentator


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