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Platinum or china?

Oliver Townsend reflects on homelessness policy after 20 years of Welsh devolution.

Full disclosure, I’m a big fan of devolution. I think it is one of the ways in which traditional, Westminster-focused policy approaches can be challenged.

And in the field of housing, particularly homelessness, you can see that devolution has given space for Wales to do things differently. Not only that, but you can see how the campaign for the Homelessness Reduction Act (2017), now law in England, was influenced by the progressive and largely successful Housing (Wales) Act 2014. It is a brilliant fulfilment of one classic ambition of devolution: to be a testbed for creative, forward-thinking policy that is then adopted elsewhere by the ‘central’ government.

We are now celebrating 20 years of devolution in Wales, and it gives us a space to reflect on what has happened since then. I want to focus specifically on the considerable progress we have made as a nation, in our aim to change policies around homelessness.

Traditional 20-year wedding presents can be either platinum, or china. Platinum is extremely durable, strong and resilient. China is notoriously none of those things – but it looks very pretty. So what do we have in homelessness policy in Wales: platinum, or china?

I’m aware, to coin an overused phrase, that with Welsh homelessness policy, we ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’. It took hard work, amazing perseverance and commitment, to deliver world-leading legislation. Before that legislation, there was a groundswell of work that helped develop consensus, which should still be celebrated, on both the need for action on homelessness, and the need to focus on prevention activity – not an easy feat in a devolved legislature, fresh to primary law-making powers, with resource challenges, and limited Welsh Government staffing.

There has been a lot of discussion about how the legislation managed to come into being, and I’d recommend looking at the work by Andrew Connell, Tamsin Stirling, Peter Mackie, and others, for an insight into how it was successful.

When Paul Bevan published his 1999 report, it was one of the first, housing reports given to the National Assembly for Wales.It was a progressive piece of research which made a raft of recommendations. Adopted or not, these recommendations laid the foundations for a shift in the way politicians, policymakers and practitioners considered homelessness: to see people more as people, with problems that can be prevented, rather than numbers in a system.

So, my first conclusion: 20 years on, our ability to generate consensus through evidence is platinum, and the creation of world-leading legislation is as well.

However, there are weaknesses. An early triumph, the Homeless Persons (Priority Need) (Wales) Order 2001, expanded groups defined as having priority need in Wales, to include people leaving prison. Regrettably, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 backtracked on this and the impacts are being felt by all local authorities now.

Current support systems are not enough to prevent homelessness in the ex-offender population. This is something that absolutely has to change.

Elsewhere, other organisations have noted a fundamental challenge to the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and its effectiveness. Jennie Bibbings from Shelter Cymru, for example, is clear that the Act works very well for ‘general needs’ prevention, but that the increase in people sleeping rough is a sign that relief duties are failing. Again, this is a structural problem in the Act itself, but discussions around the removal of intentionality, or priority need continue. This would be a big step for Wales, but very much in line with the values we’ve developed.

Twenty years on, we have a piece of evidenced legislation delivering well. We also have a tragic increase in the numbers of people sleeping rough, and the inability of our system to consistently prevent homelessness amongst people facing multiple challenges.

There is some hope, though. I’d like to highlight Housing First and psychologically informed practices. Not as the next ‘big thing’, but as examples of Wales using devolution as a chance to lead in areas we believe in.

For people failed consistently by the system, Housing First is a way of working which actively plugs the gaps. Psychologically informed practice challenges the ways we work person to person.

So 20 years on, there is cause to celebrate – but also to reflect on what still needs to be done.

We have a platinum system, but some of our joints are made of china. If we can replace the china, shift the way we work and make sure we have a piece of legislation that is, again, world-leading, building on the widespread consensus across Wales, then our housing system could be the envy of the world. So let’s do better.

In 20 years I would like to write another article which reads: 20 years on, does anyone remember that people used to be homeless in Wales?

Oliver Townsend is policy and public affairs manager at Cymorth Cymru

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