Houses in Public and Co-operative Ownership

1. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning – in the Senedd at on 12 June 2024.

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Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

3. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the number of houses in public and co-operative ownership being built in Wales? OQ61235

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 2:08, 12 June 2024

Thank you, Mabon. We remain committed to supporting the development of co-operative and community-led housing and to enabling people to take more control of their housing. For example, almost £900,000 has been awarded to Gŵyr Community Land Trust from the land and building development fund for the development of 14 carbon-zero affordable homes.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response. You and everyone here this afternoon has recognised and accepted that we have a housing crisis and, of course, the solution, possibly, to that is to build more homes under public ownership. 'Social housing' is the term commonly used for it. But there's a shortage of funds for this, and the funding that is allocated has to be shared between house building or retrofiting the current stock. Unfortunately, we don't see the budget increasing for building more homes either, under the current Government or the new Government that will be elected, so we do have to look at new ways of bringing funding into house building here in Wales.

The Welsh Government has the ability to borrow £150 million per annum for purposes of its choosing, but, so far, from what I see, the Government hasn't used those powers. So what discussions are you having, Cabinet Secretary, with the Cabinet Secretary for finance, in order to see what use could be made of those funds, and will you borrow money in order to build more social housing and publicly owned housing here in Wales?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 2:09, 12 June 2024

Diolch, Mabon. That's a very interesting idea. I think, actually, we very much hope that an incoming Labour Government will review the fiscal framework for Wales and actually put us onto a far better footing in terms of prudential borrowing than we are on at the moment. That would clearly make a lot of sense. There are a number of things that it would be sensible to borrow for, and the kind of infrastructure you're talking about is certainly one of them, so I'm certainly interested in that. We haven't done that for the moment because we have a number of other calls on the Welsh Government's budget, and of course once you've borrowed you've got to service the borrowing. In fact, we have asked on our behalf local authorities to borrow to do particular things, and we support them with revenue for that. In my budget there is a line that has revenue support to local authorities for borrowing. So, we have figured out a way around it, if you like.

In fact, whilst more money is always welcome—and I want to say that very loudly in case my Cabinet colleague for finance is listening—much of the issues we have with building social housing in Wales are not finance based, really. They're around a whole range of other things. So, we're working at a very granular level now with local authorities to make sure that, for every single piece of housing land in the local development plan, we understand where that is in the planning system: is planning coming forward for it? What are the houses on there? How many houses are those? Are they building the social houses first? Et cetera. In my previous role, I was chairing the water summits, and my colleague Huw is now doing it. We've managed to unlock several of the sites that had phosphate problems, but we have many more to go. We're working at an extremely detailed level on how to do that. One of the special advisers who was with us as part of the co-operation agreement was doing a sterling piece of work on that, and I've recently asked Jack Sargeant to pick up some of that for me.

We know we have enough in the planning system to be able to get to our target. What we don't know yet is whether we can build them fast enough. I want to make the Welsh Government's target for 20,000 social homes for rent, but I'm much more concerned with actually having enough in the pipeline, because we need more than that. What we want to do is make sure that the planning system has all the capability inside it to allocate those houses out and that we've got planning consents coming forward that are able to be built out that will produce the housing we want.

Just to be really clear, we're not looking at single-purpose estates here. I do not want a single-tenure estate to be built. As it happens, I was in a meeting this morning where I was ranting on about the housing development in St David's, which was built with the social housing grant, but before the current checks and balances. I don't know if you're familiar with it—the one behind the Premier Inn in St David's. I am very cross about that development, because they have put all the social housing on one side and all the private housing on the other and they don't look the same, and that is not what we want. So, just to be really clear, the current planning guidelines are that social housing built as part of a mixed-tenure development should be pepper-potted through that development and the houses should all be built to the same standard, and that's the social house standard. So, I just want to be really clear: we want the numbers, but we also want the right houses, and we want good-quality low-carbon houses that are built so that they don't require retrofitting in 10 years' time, and that they are houses for life, fit for the future.

And then, just to say, as part of that mixed-tenure piece, I am very keen indeed to have other tenures—so, shared equity tenures, co-operative housing tenures. I had a meeting with the Solva Community Land Trust—my days seamlessly blend into each other; I don't think it was this morning—yesterday, I think it was, and we talked about how we can accelerate the build for that. There's the Gŵyr community trust going on in my colleague Rebecca Evans's constituency, and we're working with Cwmpas very hard to make sure we bring forward co-operative and CLT housing. So, I hope that I am painting a picture of being very open to any kind of housing built to the right standard that comes forward that assists us to get people out of temporary accommodation and into their home for life.

Photo of Mark Isherwood Mark Isherwood Conservative 2:14, 12 June 2024

Wales has a housing crisis, and although the last UK Labour Government oversaw the lowest level of house building since the 1920s, it was the Welsh Government that by 2010 had by far the lowest proportional level of housing expenditure of any of the four UK nations. Subsequent successive independent reports found that Wales needs between 12,000 and 15,000 new homes a year, including 5,000 social homes, incorporating those in public and co-operative ownership. Even more modest forecasts for the Welsh Government identified a need for up to 8,300 new homes a year, but only 5,720 were delivered on average annually in Wales between 2010 and last December. Why, given that Welsh housing sector research shows a £2.30 public sector saving for every £1 spent on housing, were only 2,825 new homes for social rent completed in Wales in the first three years of this Senedd term to last December, against the Welsh Government's 20,000 target for the five-year term, and why do the latest National House Building Council figures show a 43 per cent drop in new homes registered in Wales, equal bottom out of 12 UK nations and regions?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 2:15, 12 June 2024

Well, Mark, I know you love a series of statistics, so let me give you some statistics as well, then. So, Lee Rowley made some remarks when he was housing Minister on a Radio 4 programme, and he was the sixteenth housing Minister since 2010, so it's always nice to see continuity in the sector. In England, during the tenure of the 16 housing Ministers, social housing has declined. So, a combination of selling off, demolition and very low build-out rates has meant that there are fewer houses for social rent at the end of a 14-year tenure of Conservative Government than there were in the first place. So, if you want to talk about what is disgraceful, that is disgraceful. Those statistics are easy to find and very transparent.

What the coalition Government did in 2010 was it changed the criteria and it introduced the so-called affordable rent category, and then it slashed the housing grant by 60 per cent, which meant that registered social landlords in England were forced either to build far fewer houses for social rent or very many more houses for affordable rent, and that has meant the decimation of the social rent sector.

Here in Wales we've taken a very different approach to that. We are building houses for social rent—that's rent between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of market rent, not 80 per cent of market rent—and we are on track to deliver our programme. It's not linear; we weren't expecting to build 4,000 in every year and it added to 20,000. As I said, you've got to do a whole series of things to start that programme up. You have to bear in mind as well, Mark, that up until really quite recently, local authorities with housing revenue accounts were not allowed to build social housing unless they repaid the whole of their debt package. I mean, after 40 years of nonsense from the Conservatives on that, you did finally change your mind, but, my gosh, it took a long time. The destruction of social rent by the Thatcher Government has reverberated through the years, so if you want to trade that kind of statistic, I’m very happy to do so.