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Election 2016 – Lessons for the future

The election in May will see several Assembly Members standing down, including two of housing’s best advocates: former deputy housing minister Jocelyn Davies of Plaid Cymru; and chair of the Cross Party Housing Group, Sandy Mewies of the Labour party. They reflect on what the National Assembly has achieved so far and offer some advice for future AMs

The challenges ahead – Jocelyn Davies

I will have been an Assembly Member for 17 years when I stand down at the election in May.

It has been a privilege to be part of our institution’s growth during a period of great change for Wales as a nation. I have witnessed the Assembly develop from being a corporate body with no primary law making or fiscal powers, to having the powers to make our own primary legislation. Now, as Wales prepares to begin to collect its own taxes for the first time in 800 years, I look forward to watching as a new generation of AMs take on the challenges and opportunities of this next chapter in our country’s history.

In the early days of the Assembly we had frequent debates on housing but didn’t have the powers to do anything. As the Assembly’s powers have grown, and as housing has become an increasingly prominent political issue, it has become a central part of the work we do.

In 2007, I took on the role of deputy minister for housing in the One Wales Coalition Government. I am proud of what I achieved in office, for the first time housing became a priority for the Welsh Government. One of the most important things I did was to establish the Affordable Housing Task and Finish Group, led by Sue Essex. The group produced a report which called for a culture change towards the housing sector in Wales. As a result of its recommendations, we met our affordable housing target, which was a testament to the hard work and commitment of the local authorities, housing associations and others in the sector I worked alongside.

Since leaving Government and taking on the role of Plaid Cymru’s opposition spokesperson for housing, I have been disappointed with the lack of ambition of the Welsh Labour Government’s approach. The Assembly has passed two pieces of legislation relating to housing in the last few years: the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2015. Both deliver improvements to the housing sector in Wales without offering the radical change we will need to truly tackle the housing crisis.

With a greater number of people finding their homes in the private rented sector, Government must plan significant reform to housing law to ensure that everyone can have access to a comfortable home that suits their needs. I’d like to see more secure, longer-term tenancies, the introduction of rent controls, and a ban on unfair letting agents’ fees.

The homelessness provisions included in the Housing (Wales) Act were a particular disappointment. We did not see the end of the intentionality test, as we had been promised. The Welsh Government also enshrined the ‘Pereira Test’ for vulnerability in legislation for the first time. This test was first introduced by a High Court ruling in 1998 and defines a vulnerable homeless person, and therefore someone with a right to housing assistance from a local authority, as someone who is less able to fend for themselves than the ordinary homeless person. Given the hardship faced by homeless people, and their often great vulnerability, the test sets the bar for assistance almost impossibly high.

Just months after the Welsh Government made the Pereira Test a part of Welsh law, it was struck down in England by the Supreme Court for being unjust. I have yet to hear a proper explanation from the Welsh Government as to why Wales should not follow suit and repeal this, now outdated, test as soon as possible.

Sometimes the work of an AM is hugely frustrating. One of the reasons I decided to stand down at the next election was the realisation that I’d seen five Assembly enquiries into the provision of home adaptations for disabled and older people, each highlighting significant variation in the service provided in different areas. We’ve seen improvement, but the problem still hasn’t been wholly sorted out. It can feel as though you’re running in circles.

My advice for any future AMs with housing in their portfolio is that the ability to deliver any housing policy depends on the finance. Housing is not like other areas of public policy, you cannot just pass a law to, for example, guarantee a certain number of affordable homes. Instead, you have to work with the sector, listen to those who know more than you, and put the work in to ensuring that the necessary finances are in place. Many factors will be outside your control: land prices, mortgage availability, a change of building regulations. In the end, if the arithmetic doesn’t work out, your policy will fail.

There are significant challenges ahead. The Conservative Government in Westminster’s welfare reforms are putting a strain on Welsh public services. The Auditor General for Wales found that the bedroom tax has disproportionately affected social housing tenants in Wales, compared with the other constituent nations of the UK. Coping with the knock-on effects of these changes in a time of ever-shrinking budgets will be difficult for both Government and local authorities.

However, Wales is in a better position than ever to carve out our own political direction and set our own priorities. My hope is that the AMs who enter the Assembly in May will continue to choose a policy direction for housing that is increasingly distinct, radical, and tailored to meet Wales’ unique needs.

Jocelyn Davies is Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East. She was deputy minister for housing and regeneration in the Third Assembly from 2007 to 2011

Building a consensus – Sandy Mewies

The recent launch of the Rent Smart Wales Landlords Licensing System was a reminder to me of just how far we have come in housing legislation during this Fourth Assembly.

A reminder because it was just before the Assembly Elections in 2011 that a groundbreaking report into the private rented sector was published by the then Communities and Culture Committee which I was fortunate to chair.

It is with pride that I can say that report helped lay some of the foundations for what has since followed. Members of the committee believed that our inquiry back then highlighted a number of areas where the private rented sector in Wales could be improved to deliver both better housing and better management standards. Our recommendations included the potential effectiveness of a licensing scheme, and also the development of guidance for local authorities for bringing empty homes back into use, using a system of recyclable loans.

Those recommendations were achieved thanks in no small part to the evidence and co operation which we, as Assembly Members, were given by the individuals and organisations from the housing sector and also from the then deputy housing minister Jocelyn Davies. I believe that spirit of partnership has been further developed through the Assembly’s Cross Party Housing Group which I have had the privilege to chair since its inception.

Fast forward to 2014, dubbed the Year of Housing in Wales by Housing expert Keith Edwards then of CIH Cymru and the Cross Party Group’s secretary.

Keith had rightly recognised just how momentous the year was for housing in Wales with the eagerly awaited Housing Act (Wales) receiving Royal Assent. We had come a long way since 2011 in our efforts to improve the supply and quality of our housing and we celebrated the landmark at the Cross Party Group with a ceremonial cutting of a housing cake.

And why not? After all the Group had, I believe, played its part in helping to shape the legislation. Again, that is because of the co-operation we displayed as politicians and also because of the tremendous input and support we received from the housing sector organisations through H4AC. The number of organisations represented at all our Cross Party meetings, from the public, private and third sectors, has been an indication of the passion and commitment they all have for housing. In addition they have brought a wealth of ideas to meetings through discussion and through presentations, not least at our last meeting held in November when several topics were discussed including Right to Manage, Making Rent Right and the cross sector Homes for Wales campaign.

My thanks must also go to my fellow AMs on the group, Jocelyn Davies, Peter Black and Mark Isherwood. Their expertise and determination to succeed has been invaluable. Even if politically we have not always been in agreement we have always sought to find a way forward and a major strength of the group has been the high level of commitment across all parties.

The housing ministers from Jocelyn to Huw Lewis, Carl Sargeant and now Lesley Griffiths must also be praised for their willingness to listen and take on board the ideas and views the group have put forward. Access to a Minister has never been a problem for the group.

Back in 2011 the Communities and Culture Committee highlighted that housing has a critical impact on peoples’ lives. It can affect our health, our financial situations, our ability to access work and education.

It is a statement that is recognised by all politicians, no matter what their party, and that is why housing will, I am sure, remain at the forefront of the Welsh Government’s agenda in the next Assembly.

I am standing down at the elections in May but it is important that the Cross Party Housing Group continues to provide a platform for the views and innovative ideas of the housing sector.

Much has been done to address some of the housing needs in Wales, and we have celebrated the successes of our affordable homes and empty homes schemes. But whilst 2014 was the Year of Housing it was only the start.

In the new Assembly the Welsh Government must continue to build on that in a challenging environment of further austerity and budget cuts. It is essential that a Cross Party Housing Group also continues, to build a consensus on housing issues and perform a key role in helping to craft policies which have the broad support of all parties and importantly, the housing community.

Sandy Mewies is Labour AM for Delyn. She is chair of the Cross Party Housing Group

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