Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:50 pm on 5th May 2004.

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health) 2:50 pm, 5th May 2004

It is interesting for me as a Welshman to hear some of the difficulties that we have struggled with in rural Wales for a long time being discussed on a far broader stage. The housing crisis in Wales and in the regions of England is as acute as that in the south-east. I refer hon. Members to early-day motion 1107. Housing in Wales is not immune to market effects from England, as we have seen over the past three or four years, with the Welsh tail being very much wagged by the English dog.

Markets in Wales are very local, however. The Halifax reports today that UK house price inflation last year was 19 per cent, but the figure in my part of the UK, in Gwynedd, was 57 per cent. I hardly need say that wage levels scarcely rose anything like 57 per cent, so affordability spiralled downwards. The rise in Gwynedd was the highest in the UK, but in West Glamorgan there was a rise of 56 per cent, and in the north-east of England and in Scotland the figure was 40 per cent, which means that ordinary houses are being put way beyond the reach of ordinary families on average earnings. My local authority surveyed houses for sale on the Lleyn peninsula earlier this year, and found that no one on an average income, with the usual multiplier applied by the building society, could buy any of the houses on the market. Those 26,000 people are effectively locked out of the housing market.

A terraced house in the Roath area of Cardiff that is on the market for £164,950 was going at £65,000 two and a half years ago. Roath is a pleasant area, but it is not exceptional. That house is clearly out of the reach of ordinary people living in the area. Housing is getting out of the reach of local people in Wales in general, and the stock that we have is not of a fit standard. It is estimated that 50,000 children in Wales live in unfit housing.

In the Ely ward of Cardiff—in the constituency, incidentally, of Wales's First Minister, Rhodri Morgan—36 per cent. of the households are in unfit housing. It is hardly surprising that there is a great deal of unhappiness in the ward. In the Riverside ward, there is a 7.1 per cent. shortfall in new affordable housing: 428 houses are needed. Houses in Riverside are the most likely in Cardiff to be unsuitable, and households there are the least likely to be able to afford to move. It is hardly any wonder that a popular and diligent councillor, Neil McEvoy, has taken the obvious step of coming over from new Labour to Plaid Cymru.

Wales has the oldest housing stock in western Europe; a third of its houses are pre-1919, and many of them are in very poor condition. House building rates are so low that today's new houses would have to last for 2,000 years before their turn came for replacement. We are not building the houses that we require. In fact, 4 per cent. too few houses are being built each year to fulfil our unmet need—we are short of 32,000 houses.

In Wales, 8.5 per cent. of the housing stock is unfit, and the repair bill would be £1 billion. At the other extreme, we have some very good housing. In parts of my constituency, houses are priced at £300,000, £400,000 or even £500,000, but unfortunately they tend to be holiday homes. There are communities in the constituency where more than half the housing is in the holiday homes sector, and local people, usually on low wages, have no hope whatever of partaking in the housing market—essentially, they are locked out. Many are emigrating. The more economically active and energetic young people tend to leave. The average age of first-time buyers in Wales is the highest in the UK, at 36.

There are many problems, and it has been demonstrated in many of the speeches today that there is no easy answer to the housing crisis. We need many solutions. My party set up a rural taskforce in 2001 to look into possible answers, and I commend our document to hon. Members, and especially those from rural areas, such as Matthew Green. It contains many positive suggestions. The taskforce considered the many difficulties that people experience in the simple task of getting a decent roof over their heads.

The report makes many recommendations, not least new build where that is appropriate, but as housing provision and markets are essentially local, new housing must be very carefully targeted. Unfortunately, in the past few years in Wales we have had policies that led, for example, to a minimum build of 50 houses in very small villages. Public money was not available for smaller developments, which would have been more appropriate.

The rural taskforce also considered part-ownership schemes. The hon. Member for Ludlow made some interesting points about that. My local authority is considering similar schemes under section 106. A crucial aspect of that is a proper assessment of local need. It is all very well saying that we will provide housing for local people, but we need an objective measure of what they need. That is a matter of equity for anyone who is trying to get in on the local housing market. People must know what they face. Gwynedd is currently constructing an instrument to measure local need on a highly localised basis. I hope that the measure will prove useful to other local authorities. We need proper research in rural areas, based on an appreciation of their particular needs. I am glad that my local authority is taking that on.

The needs of people in my area, in rural Wales, throughout Wales, and in rural areas of England and in the north-east are similar to those in the south-east of England. I ask the Government, and the Government in Cardiff, to apply themselves with equal vigour to the housing problems of those other areas.