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Brexit and Welsh housing

Jules Birch asks what the EU referendum result will mean for housing and regeneration in Wales.

Wales voted 52.5% to 47.5% to Leave, behind England on Brexit but out of step with Scotland and Northern Ireland. Five council areas went for Remain – Cardiff, Ceredigion, Monmouthshire, Vale of Glamorgan and Gwynedd. The other 17 voted Leave.

Though Labour retained power in Cardiff Bay in the Assembly elections and campaigned for remain, many Labour heartlands voted to leave. The increase in support for UKIP in the Assembly elections was a sign of things to come: if we can elect Neil Hamilton, then anything is possible.

For the country as a whole, the result poses urgent questions about civic identity and politics. Here are some articles worth catching up with:

  • Laura McAllister asks how an apparent big lead for Remain in the polls a year ago could evaporate so quickly.
  • Gareth Evans argues the result was more a rejection of Westminster and Cardiff Bay than of Brussels.
  • Richard Wyn Jones cites the essentially ‘defensive’ nature of Welsh devolution, the lack of serious Welsh-level campaigning and the weakness and impoverishment of the Welsh media.
  • Former Labour minister Leighton Andrews argues that the result was a populist revolt against political elites. ‘Wales’s British identity asserted itself over its European identity, even as the nation’s football team was striding out on the European stage. No-one knows what comes next.’
  • Plaid Cymru AM Steffan Lewis calls for a National Mitigation Plan so that Wales can stand up for the national interest.

As in England, post-industrial areas that have benefited most from EU funding had some of the heaviest Leave votes; Blaenau Gwent was 62% for Brexit. Leave campaigners pledged during the campaign pledged that Wales would retain its EU funding and be paid direct from London but in the wake of other broken promises and chaos at Westminster, this very much remains to be seen.

The Valleys and West Wales are due £1.8 bn in EU structural funding up to 2020 but 40% of this has yet to be allocated. Cabinet secretary for finance Mark Drakeford said:

‘Wales must be involved in the negotiations so we get the best deal for Wales. This includes the need for urgent reform of the out-dated Barnett formula by the UK Government to ensure a fairer funding system for Wales, taking into account needs arising from EU withdrawal.’

The future of EU funding dominated the WHQ debate on Brexit at TAI at the end of April. Leave campaigners argued that the money would be better spent without being sent via Brussels while the Remain side said this could not be taken for granted at a time when talks between Cardiff and Westminster over future fiscal arrangements had already hit an impasse.

Jeff Andrews, specialist advisor to Welsh Government, said there was a direct and growing link between EU regional policy and the housing and regeneration sector as well as obvious benefits for farmers and universities. He said:

‘I’m not convinced a UK Government of either party would replace the money that currently comes to Wales from the EU. If it is not replaced there would be pressures and some of that would be on you, the housing sector.’

However, Lee Canning, chair of Business for Britain in Wales, said Wales had put £16 bn into the EU since it joined. ‘That could have been invested in Welsh communities and Welsh jobs.’

A vote taken after the debate showed an overwhelming majority in favour of Remain with only a few hands going up for Leave. However, the actual result was very different. For housing and regeneration professionals, the questions are why so many of the communities they serve took a very different view and why Wales voted against what seem to be its clear economic interests.

The June issue of WHQ went to press and was published before the Referendum but its major theme is regeneration. An article by Duncan Forbes on the future of CREW is especially relevant here. In it he questions the value of big infrastructure projects to local communities:

‘These schemes are confidently proceeding on the basis that the “trickle down” effect is a given when many communities and households in Wales have experienced and are experiencing a “trickle by” effect; seeing little or no economic benefit from many economic regeneration initiatives.

‘Across Wales, many communities are declining or starting to decline. We see it in rural and seaside towns, in rural villages, in Heads of the Valleys communities and in inner city communities. Money is being sucked out of the communities through benefit cuts, transport is getting more difficult, jobs are distant. The figures are masked in population trends because they only show local authority figures, but we see it in the steadily reducing numbers of people wanting to live in social housing in some of our communities.’

His call for a new regeneration strategy for Wales, one that works with local people to come up with local solutions, was important before last week’s vote. It is essential now.

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