A Welsh Approach to housing

This is an article for the IWA Click on Wales website

The Welsh Government's housing bill is a substantive document that actually amounts to just one part of their planned legislation in this field. The intention to modernise the licensing system for residential mobile home sites has already been dealt with through my government-backed private members Act, whilst a further bill on tenure reform is due in the next 12 months or so.

The current bill, which comes to 85 pages, 8 parts, 128 clauses and three schedules is a weighty document which seeks to revolutionise the way we manage the private rented sector in Wales. It aims to transform our approach to homelessness, provide statutory fixes for improving the standard of public sector housing and reform the housing revenue subsidy system, so as to release £30 million each year across eleven council areas to invest in their housing stock. It also aims to make proper provision for gypsies and travellers, encourage co-operative housing and reduce the number of empty homes in Wales.

By far the most contentious sections are the first two dealing with the private rented sector and homelessness. In the first instance the proposal is to require all private sector landlords to register with a central agency hosted by Cardiff Council. This registration will involve compulsory training courses aimed at raising the standard of management of their properties.

There will also be a code of conduct which will set out management standards and, we understand basic qualitative standards for the properties. In addition to registering themselves the landlords will also be required to license each of their properties. They will have to pass a fit and proper person test, which will be largely focussed on whether they have any criminal or housing related prosecutions.

The Minister argues that this system will ensure that for the first time we will know how many privately rented properties there are in Wales, estimates vary between 70,000 and 130,000. However, the argument that registration will drive up the standard of these properties is difficult to sustain when one considers that they will not be inspected as part of the licensing process. Instead we are to rely on tenants to report defects and problems.

There is also the question as to how we can ensure that we manage to register and license them all. Six years or so after we first enacted compulsory licensing of all houses in multiple occupation in Wales, there are still thousands that have not been caught by the system because council officers do not have the resources to chase them down.

Enforcement of non-licensed properties under the new legislation will be equally problematic especially as recent case law prevents councils using the fees from compliant landlords to chase after those who have refused to cooperate. The finances of this scheme still have to be clarified. That is something that we are still trying to pin down, whilst local government will also want answers given the scale of cuts they are currently introducing.

Landlords themselves are naturally not happy with this registration and licensing scheme either, preferring a voluntary model. However, the minister has made a good case as to why we need to apply a compulsory scheme, not least that it is needed if we are to standardise leasing and renting arrangements in the next housing bill.

The proposal to allow local councils to discharge their homelessness duty into private accommodation is a welcome flexibility, but the removal of a statutory duty to rehouse ex-prisoners is a serious misstep in my view.

That proposal is being made despite the evidence in the government's own research, published in 2008, that concluded that housing issues are a major factor in the decision of 75% of ex-prisoners to re-offend. That report suggested that more joined up thinking is needed to prevent re-offending.

As Shelter Cymru point out If, as the government's own research states, housing is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to prevent reoffending, then surely the solution is not to destabilise the 'necessary' condition but rather to ensure support is more effective and timely.

They argue that change would be more effective if it were underpinned by priority status to guarantee a right to temporary accommodation while prevention work is being carried out. They say that without a right to temporary accommodation, it will be virtually impossible for local authorities to work with homeless prison leavers effectively. That is especially so when a prisoner is housed outside of Wales as all female prisoners are for example.

If these individuals end up street homeless on release, it is highly likely that they will fall out of touch with prevention services and back into a cycle of reoffending. This has consequences for community safety, healthcare, social services and, eventually, for homelessness as well.

My concern is similar, that without a statutory duty to rehouse prisoners underpinning rehabilitation work, councils will just not bother to do the work and reoffending rates, which are already higher than those in England will rise even further.

There is also controversy about the definition of vulnerability in the bill, which currently omits mental health. In the case of ex-prisoners case law suggests that even though the vast majority of them will have mental health or substance misuse issues, local authorities will be able to avoid any duty to house them by taking a robust interpretation of what vulnerable actually is.

Consistency of treatment has always been a problem in Wales with regards to homelessness, the loopholes in the clauses relating to ex-prisoners seems to guarantee that this will continue.

Despite these issues the bill is generally moving in the right direction The emphasis on preventing homelessness rather than managing it is long overdue. The charging of additional council tax on long-term empty properties is a useful tool available to councils to force owners to the table to discuss how they can be brought back into use. And putting the Welsh Housing Quality Standard on a statutory basis will help Ministers drive up the quality of public sector housing.

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