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Interview with the Deputy Minister

WHQ Editor, Tamsin Stirling, met with Deputy Minister for Housing, Jocelyn Davies AM in late November 2007.

Setting the scene

Q – What for you are the most challenging aspects of the housing portfolio and how will you/colleagues go about responding to them?

Firstly, everyone is talking about housing and the demand for affordable housing is affecting every community and every family across the country. However, as soon as a planning application comes in, there are lots of objections. We need to find a way of winning people over. It is very difficult for borough councillors not to get taken up with anti-new housing campaigns at the community level. In this context, our target for new affordable housing will be challenging.

However, there are effective local examples. I visited Crickhowell where the Rural Housing Enabler had worked with local communities and local councillors to address objections to proposals for new affordable housing – and now there is huge demand for the scheme from local people.

Secondly, the challenge of achieving the Welsh Housing Quality Standard can dominate my waking hours. If a local authority wants to keep its housing stock, that is fine by me – clearly, the authority needs to submit a business plan – but they should also be mindful of the conditions that tenants are living in – this is what is paramount, not the issue of ownership.

I would like to see the development of a single social housing tenancy, this could make a big difference. This is something we should be looking to use Assembly powers to do.

Lastly, working with local government can be a challenge, for example, where there are political differences. My approach is to be fair, consistent and transparent and ensure that exceptions are truly exceptions.

Joining things up

Q – How are you going to join issues up, both within your own portfolio and with other ministerial portfolios?

It is good that housing is part of a portfolio that also includes the environment, sustainability and planning. As we can see in One Wales, a lot of action to deliver affordable housing will involve planning mechanisms.

Working with Jane Davidson is one of the easiest things about my new role – she is very competent and open-minded. Housing can play a big role in helping achieve the target for carbon reduction which sits within her portfolio. For example, all housing that the Assembly funds/influences will need to reach the BREEAM Excellent rating. We are also looking at the devolution of building regulations and the WHQS includes energy efficiency factors.

The Assembly definitely should take the opportunity to have higher environmental standards for housing in Wales – the private sector will adapt – they are very good at adapting. Making the standards higher will need to be through regulations – voluntary codes do not have the necessary impact. There is an opportunity for Wales to lead the way here. The London Borough of Merton has gone out on its own and required higher standards in relation to reducing the environmental impact of new housing – the Assembly should do it for the whole of Wales. We need to get acceptance that we have to improve standards on energy efficiency – why shouldn’t the standards in social housing be as high as, if not higher than for the private sector?

There is lots of good practice out there – spreading it around and getting it adopted more widely is not always easy.

On regeneration, Leighton Andrews did have the housing remit, albeit for a short period of time – this gave him an understanding of some of the issues, in particular, the potential for achieving WHQS to deliver on regeneration. Making the most of WHQS investment will be crucial – to provide training and regeneration opportunities for the whole community.

There are clear links with health too and Edwina Hart has a very good understanding of housing.

Housing is a high priority within One Wales and working with other Ministers/Deputy Ministers who understand housing will be very useful in ensuring that agendas join up.

We are making the links in practical ways too. For example, funding renewal areas which look at all aspects of a local community. We are currently gathering information on the impact of renewal areas on a range of factors important to people’s lives – this information should be available in Spring 2008.


Q – Is enough money allocated to housing?

The One Wales document has housing as a priority and this is reflected in the budget round. However, no Minister would ever say that they are totally satisfied with the money that have for their portfolio. It is a step in the right direction – if we show that we can use the money wisely, then the Finance Minister may be persuaded to increase resources again.

We need to look to the planning system as well and improve our ability to negotiate with the private sector. Cardiff is a good example here, eg the Aquilla development in Cardiff Bay. But there are different ways of doing things, eg Powys supporting a Community Land Trust through gifting the proceeds of the sale of a piece of land at open market value. Local authorities need to explore the options that work best for them.

Having dedicated Section 106 officers would help to develop the skills and expertise within authorities. The Development Appraisal Toolkit has helped too and can be used to challenge developers. I believe that local authorities want to tackle the issues.

We are trying to do the best with the money we have available for both public and private sectors. Local authorities do have a range of powers in relation to the private sector stock and should have the right policies in place, eg use of loans instead of grants.

The review of regulation being undertaken by Sue Essex will look at smarter ways of using the resources that are available, including making better use of the assets within the housing association/RSL sector.

The extra money has got to go as far as it can.

If tenants vote no to stock transfer proposals locally, they have in effect voted no to improvements to their homes. These authorities will have to have further discussions and reconsider their options. There is an issue about information – tenants need to know the implications of voting no. There is no 4th option.


Q – What can be done to support effective delivery of the One Wales commitments?

Local authorities have to undertake needs assessments, identify a five-year land supply and have action plans for delivering new affordable housing – there isn’t much wriggle room here – so I’m not sure we need to look at any sanctions.

The way I want to work is to engage local authorities to come along on the journey.

On the strategic housing role, I think that for some authorities, not having housing stock will help them realise that the strategic roles exists and is important. Maybe they haven’t been focusing on it to date – and transfer will provide an opportunity to develop the role. We must remember though that authorities that are retaining their stock also have a strategic role.

I do think that that Wales has the capacity to effectively develop and implement its own agenda in relation to housing. I am a member of Plaid Cymru after all! We have our own sense of what communities are and what we would like them to be.

There is a lot of enthusiasm for the task at hand – we need to harness this and to spread good practice. Local government has come a long way. With the advent of Local Service Boards, we need to be careful that this does not stop authorities working across boundaries – this is something for the pilot LSBs to explore. Spatial planning is hard to get your head around – it is not just about planning.

Rural housing

Q – There is a lot of focus on rural housing issues in Wales at the moment – how would you like to see the Assembly tackle the lack of affordability of housing in rural areas?

I’ve already mentioned Rural Housing Enablers who are doing excellent work delivering in communities. We would like to have more of them, supported by a central unit. Enablers could work well with Community Land Trusts – we have allocated £100,000 for Community Land Trusts and three pilots are underway in Powys. A handbook is being produced – we should see tangible results in the Spring of 2008.

I think dedicated Section 106 officers would also be very useful in all areas.

Looking to the future

Q – What do you think will be the main changes in housing after 4 years of the current administration?

Well, I will be worn out! We will have met or exceeded our target for 6,500 new affordable homes. We will also be seeing the benefits of improved condition in the social housing stock. Right to Buy will be suspended where local authorities see this as an issue and the One Wales commitments will have become reality, if not in totality, well on the way to being so.

Q – Can you tell our readers something about yourself that they are unlikely to already know?

I became a local councillor in 1987 having met Aneurin Richards, a long-standing Plaid Cymru councillor in Islwyn, coming out of the post office. He asked me if I would stand for a local seat and I couldn’t think of a good enough excuse to say no. I didn’t expect to get elected, but I did.

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