Wales needs a new political consensus between the parties in the Assembly to tackle a housing crisis that has gone on for too long, says David Melding AM
Writing in the Welsh Housing Quarterly - April 2019 Edition
Only a few months ago, Shelter released a report that began with a stark truth about the failures of policy making in Wales and the wider UK. That report chillingly states: 'we live in a country that is feeling the effects of 40 years of failure in housing policy’ – a loud wake up call for a legislature with so much to prove.
This year marks two decades since the formation of the National Assembly of Wales. Since 1999, major policy areas such as Housing, Health and Education have been the responsibility of the Welsh government, but has this democratic change been effective? There is no better area of policy with which to answer this question than housing.
For most of the 20th Century housing was seen as one of the most important areas of public policy, with the same emphasis and priority as healthcare. This was seen most clearly in the 1950’s, following the devastation of the Second World War and in response to the need to rehouse millions of people. Today we need to match the ambition of policy makers in the post-war decades, but while avoiding the mistakes that created substandard or unsustainable communities.
Like the rest of the UK, Wales is in the midst of a housing crisis, and for many experts this common challenge emphasises the fact that 20 years of devolution hasn’t necessarily delivered distinctive approaches. “All the signs are that, without effective action taken now, Wales is heading for a housing crisis equal to or possibly worse than in the rest of the UK…We are urging the Welsh Assembly that unless urgent action is taken, the country's housing crisis will have severe consequences on the future growth and prosperity of the country as a whole.” These words were spoken 15 years ago by the Chief Executive of the Home Builders Federation. We've had at least 15 years of warning -perhaps even longer according to other experts - yet here we are trying to combat a broken housing market which is now one of the greatest barriers to social well-being, and it's hurting ordinary working people the most.
We have tools at our disposal to mitigate this crisis, and to build a thriving housing industry that is responsive to the demands of a fast changing society. We have already started to make use of those instruments, and have several pieces of legislation to show for it: the Housing Act 2014 included some ground breaking Homelessness prevention measures; and the Renting Homes Act 2016, and the Tenant Fees legislation – currently passing through the Assembly – have provided equity for landlords and tenants in the growing private sector. But there is more that we can do, and should aspire to do, and this is the debate that the Welsh Conservatives Housing Strategy has tried to stimulate.
We need to start to rebuild some of the trust that the younger generation need to have in their political system, because, at the moment, housing policy is not serving them well. We need to build a new generation of social homes, and we must value social housing as essential to a thriving society. We need to make better use of Housing Associations, giving them the flexibility and power to build the diverse range of houses that our modern society demands. And we need to combat the complex issue of affordability, which has resulted in the average house price costing roughly seven times average earnings in Wales.
So here is the policy prescription the Welsh Conservatives are advancing. A new consensus must be forged between the political parties in the Assembly. Agreed policy goals for the long term are essential for a strategic approach. Housing policy above all demands this. Many more homes will need to be built in the 2020’s – in our estimation 100,000. This will begin to match the ambition of house building in the 1950’s and 60’s. Social housing requires a renaissance that will include its expansion to income groups that once would have been able to access the private market. Co-operative models may be key here as we give generation rent the long term security that defines good family housing. And finally a strategy to tackle homelessness that is based on a Housing First model where the right to a home is the first principle.
Housing is a basic human right. In meeting this human right we help build flourishing and efficient local economies that invest in skills and infrastructure. It is a challenge we should warmly embrace.