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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Spinning affordable housing

Waking up on Monday to news of an Assembly Government initiative on affordable housing was an encouraging experience. Some of us have been pushing for this for some time and it was pleasing to that at last see some of the ideas we have come up with are being adopted.

Measures such as updating planning guidance to ensure that the planning system plays its part in delivering more affordable housing across Wales have been suggested by my Liberal Democrat colleague Mick Bates for some time. Partnership working to produce local housing assessments, which will provide the joint evidence base for housing strategies and local development plans and which will include identifying the number of affordable and market homes required in an area are just commonsense. Whilst forcing local authorities to set an affordable housing target in their local development plans, and explain how they will achieve and monitor their target is an important innovation.

We also welcomed the provision that where the local housing assessment has identified an acute need for affordable housing, they may allocate sites solely for affordable homes in their local development plans. Equally, Mick Bates has also been advocating the greater use of an exception to the usual rules, whereby land, which would not otherwise be released for housing, can be used for affordable housing.

What was missing from this statement was anything difficult or which would cost money, despite the rather bizarre claim that an extra £37 million had been ploughed into this initiative. Well this was certainly how the media read it and nobody from the Labour Assembly Government sought to discourage them from this view.

Further scrutiny of this claim revealed that it was in fact a re-packaging of a budget increase in the Social Housing Grant approved by the Assembly last year. The Social Housing Grant is capital money used by Housing Associations to build new properties for rent. It is also the budget heading from which Homebuy is funded. This is a scheme that enables people to buy homes in partnership with a housing association, often saving up to 50% of the initial cost. It is an excellent way of helping families in high demand areas get on the housing ladder though generally it can only be applied by rural councils at the 50% rate.

It is a fact that last years £37 million uplift, welcome as it is, did not restore the Social Housing Grant budget in real terms to earlier levels. It is also a fact that despite the claims in the Government press release, not all of the extra money will go to affordable housing either. £4 million of it, for example, is committed to funding supported housing schemes for substance misusers and young offenders, whilst £20 million of that money is to be allocated for older person's housing. Furthermore, the proposals did not commit the Government to two very important reforms.

There was no commitment to separating out the Homebuy budget from the Social Housing Grant so as to prevent Councils having to choose between funding house purchase and building new homes to rent. Such a separation needs to involve the provision of fairly substantial additional resources for Homebuy. There was also no provision for a key workers scheme in urban areas to help low paid public sector workers such as nurses and teachers get on the housing ladder.

It would have been nice to draw these points out in Plenary or in the relevant Assembly Committees but the Government has chosen to prevent that from happening. So much for transparency and accountability. It seems that we have now entered the era of government by press release.
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