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Welsh Labour – Achievements and challenges

Mike Hedges hails progress on housing since devolution but says much more remains to be done.

It is not possible to overestimate the importance of housing. After food and drink it is the next necessity for life but we know that many people in Wales are either inadequately housed or effectively homeless where they are either staying in hostels, sofa surfing or actually homeless and living on the streets.

Recent housing legislation has made some positive impacts on housing in Wales. Under the Housing Act passed in 2014, all private landlords and letting agents are required to register, undergo basic training on their legal rights and responsibilities, pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test, become accredited and must follow a Code of Practice. This means that for the first time, tenants can have confidence that their landlords are expected to meet certain basic standards and that there are measures available to them if their landlords do not. I believe the registration and licensing of landlords and letting agents is a positive move towards improving the management of housing in the private rental sector. As the number of people living in private rented accommodation increases, we need to tackle the bad behaviour by a small minority of landlords and the poor condition of some privately rented properties.

In terms of dealing with homelessness, the Act had two major strengths. First, the legislation outlined the key role of local authorities in wherever possible preventing homelessness, thus making Wales first of the UK nations to turn this principle into a legal requirement. Too often councils waited for someone to present as homeless rather than taking action when it was threatened when in many cases, early action could have prevented the resultant homelessness.

The second major strength is that the legislation requires local authorities to offer meaningful and early assistance to all people who face homelessness. Whilst I am not happy with the ability of a local authority to discharge the homeless duty by placing people in privately rented accommodation, the reality is that with the current lack of social housing and increasing demand for housing such a decision is inevitable.

The legislation was also intended to further facilitate the development of co-operative housing by allowing fully mutual housing co-operatives to grant assured tenancies, thus protecting the interest of lenders. In some European countries co-operatives make up 20 per cent of all housing but they only provide about 0.1 per cent in Britain. With such a shortage of housing in Wales I do not believe that we can let the potential for providing accommodation via the co-operative model be almost unused.

There is also a new statutory duty on local authorities to provide new gypsy and traveller sites where a need has been identified. As I know from Swansea, if official sites are not provided then unofficial sites will be created. The legislation aims to improve the standard of accommodation, reduce illegal sites and unauthorized encampments. This can only be good, not just for the gypsy traveller community but for the community as a whole.

We have also seen the ending of the right to buy of council housing which has caused a huge reduction in available social housing. Inthe decades after the Second World War, when publicly funded council housing accounted for roughly half of all homes built, sufficient housing to meet need was being produced. We have seen the start of council house building again in local authorities such as Swansea but nowhere near the scale of the 1945 to 1979 period.

There are large obstacles to a renaissance of council-built housing, including the obvious one of money. Claire Bennie, an architect and housing developer formerly of the housing association Peabody, says that councils should be allowed to borrow more, against the long-term value of their developments and I fully agree with her.

There are three housing challenges that need to be addressed: increasing the number of houses being built for sale and self-build; increasing the number of social houses for rent; and bringing back into use the empty properties that we see across Wales.

On building houses for sale and self-build, identifying small plots of land available to build on, would allow more houses to be built outside the large scale developments of the large house builders.

Changing the definition of public debt, in the same way private debt excludes mortgage borrowing would allow councils to borrow to build as they did pre 1979.

On empty houses we need to give councils the power to compulsory purchase properties left empty for a certain period of time for example, over five years.

Mike Hedges is Labour AM for Swansea East and chair of the cross party group on housing in the Assembly

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