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Interview with the Minister

Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, Huw Lewis, took time out to provide WHQ readers with an insight into his role and how he is looking to develop his portfolio.

Q – Can you tell WHQ readers why you got involved in politics?

A – I grew up in Aberfan so it was difficult to avoid politics. My father and grandfather were both political and politics was always part of our family conversation. But it was the miners strike that sealed it for me. I was in my second year at university and joined Labour Students; we raised funds for the miners. During the strike, I was struck by the extent to which Government can change communities, at that point in time, for the worse. From 1984 onwards, politics has been my main focus. I worked briefly as a research assistant for an MP and taught for a number of years before I became Assistant General Secretary of the Welsh Labour Party.

The early-mid 1980s was a heated time and there were some hard learnt political lessons – what Government does really matters to people. My view is that the current Government at Westminster is every bit as determined as the Thatcher Government to change things; they are a radical Government of the right.

Q – What opportunities do the mix within your portfolio of housing, regeneration and heritage present?

A – I like to think that the opportunities are huge. It is a novel portfolio and represents a fantastic opportunity for me personally as it reflects my own enthusiasms.

We will work to integrate the actions of Government around the three elements of the portfolio; there shouldn’t be regeneration without consideration of both housing and heritage. The portfolio provides an opportunity to improve people’s sense of place and the quality of life of people across Wales.

Government needs to intervene in communities for good reasons. We need to link up to other portfolios and look at communities much more holistically than we have done so thus far. We also need to reflect the fact that we are working within a very constrained budget. So we will move to a position where the Welsh Government does more intensive work with communities but there will be fewer projects under way at any one time. An example of the more intensive approach is housing renewal strategies that are linked to regeneration of all aspects of a named community.

With constrained budgets, we can box clever or we can hang our heads and say that Government will do less and hope that the private sector fills the gap. i2i is a good example of boxing clever, with its work supporting organisations to ensure procurement delivers for local communities. It is a great model that could be applied to all ministerial portfolios.

Q – What do you think will be the most challenging aspects of your portfolio and how will you/colleagues go about responding to them?

A – The budgetary constraints are the biggest challenge we face.

Also, we have to get through to all partners the level of commitment to co-working that is required to make things work effectively in delivering for communities. It can be difficult to construct partnerships. Some organisations have historically been very successful on their own terms, are proud of this and may not warm to new ways of working. Developing and refining partnerships takes time.

Part of my role is to make sure people get the opportunity to work together, to broker discussions and ensure that everyone shows respect for each other so that we can learn from each other. We have made Wales a complicated place given that it is a small country; we have a lot of organisations, a lot of structures and a lot of initiatives.

Joining up the elements of my portfolio will present challenges. However, there are some great examples of where regeneration, housing and heritage have come together which we can build on. Caernarfon is one example that comes to mind, with the development of a fantastic arts centre which has been a catalyst for a range of other activity. Other examples are Hay (with the literature festival), Abergavenny (with the food festival) and Blaenavon (with its focus on heritage). All communities need a critical mass of skilled people who are able to foster and develop their skills locally. Different communities will have different routes to ‘recovery’; the catalyst for regeneration can come from any sector. The Welsh Government can foster this way of working; in doing so, we will need to make sure that our interventions make sense and that our programmes have coherence.

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

A – There isn’t a handbook available about how to join things up. But it starts with a political statement of will which is sincerely shared across Government (both ministers and civil servants). It also needs constant attention and chivvying, particularly from ministers, but also from anyone in a position of managerial responsibility.

A shared understanding is crucial so there is a job of communication to be done to clarify what we are setting out to do.

Every day, the level and type of intervention I need to make is different. One day, I might be having a strategic high level discussion but I need to be aware of the practicalities of how messages can get distorted. I believe that the most eloquent communication is actually showing people a truly holistic regeneration project in a real community.

In the coming months, I will be talking in specific terms about where things are going to be happening. WHQ readers will appreciate that there is quite a bit of politics to be worked through before major announcements can be made.

Collectively, we are going to have to change what we do if we are going to carry out more intensive, more holistic regeneration projects. However, it is important to say that existing commitments will be honoured.

In relation to housing, it is not sufficient to only focus on social housing; given the state of the housing market, people who are owners and who are renting in the private sector are going to have huge affordability problems. I am keen to explore co-operative models of home ownership which will be an answer for some people. In relation to home improvement, we are looking for innovative financial models including new ways of borrowing capital. I think that we have undervalued some partners in the past in terms of what they can bring to the table, building societies being an example.

I want to address affordability, build quality and supply. These three issues need tackling, rather than looking at the different tenures separately. We need to ensure that we co-ordinate things well to do the best by communities.

Q – Lots of people are starting to think about Wales’ first Housing Bill. How would you like to see the content of the Bill being developed?

A – We are looking at the possibility of rebuilding housing law in Wales. There is a huge forest of England and Wales legislation and very few people understand it all.

It is an opportunity to take a blank canvas approach rather than just making minor changes to what we’ve already got. In doing this, it would be foolish not to learn from our own experience and that from elsewhere, e.g. in Scotland where there have been a number of housing bills since devolution. We can tackle everything except the consumer legislation surrounding buying and selling homes.

I am minded to think of the Bill as a big Bill, rather than the first of a number of smaller ones; one which has the aim of making all housing sectors a fairer place to be for everyone.

In terms of the detail, we could look at what homelessness means and redefine it and look at tenure and define new forms. And we musn’t forget the private rented sector; a really well run private sector that can grow and prosper is vital and we won’t simply leave this sector to the laws of the market.

Q – What do you think will be the main changes in housing and regeneration that we will see by the end of the current Welsh Government administration?

A – On housing, I would like to see measurable progress in relation to housing supply across all sectors, a measurable difference in the build quality we are achieving, in particular in relation to energy efficiency and the private rented sector raising its game as a sector. I would also like to see fewer people pushed into the corner of not being able to afford a home, (whether they are owners or renters), than is experienced in other parts of the UK.

On regeneration, I would like to see our holistic approach delivering improved quality of life for people in many areas of Wales.

And across Welsh Government, we should be able to demonstrate that we can do things very differently in Wales.

Q – And lastly, can you tell our readers something about yourself that they are unlikely to already know?

A – I love to cook a roast dinner on a Sunday. I enjoy cooking, but being able to cook a Sunday dinner also means that I’ve got a clear Sunday to prepare food and eat with my family.

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