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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Plaid face two ways again

With January rapidly approaching, the two faced figure of the Roman God, Janus seems an appropriate place to start in discussing Plaid Cymru's latest faux pas.

On 20th December a Labour Councillor on Neath Port Talbot Council wrote to the South Wales Evening Post regarding that Council's plans to go to a ballot on a proposed housing stock transfer. He stated that the authority was forced into that situation by a Plaid housing minister who insists that they meet the Assembly housing standard by 2012. He pointed out that if the Council does not move to a ballot then they will be penalised financially.

Naturally, this has caused some consternation amongst Plaid Cymru members in Neath. After all their party is opposed to housing stock transfer. As a result a leading member of that party wrote to the Evening Post on 27th December with a remarkable claim:

May I use your letters page to correct an error of fact which you printed in the letter headlined: Plaid is the Guilty Party - Councillor Peter Rees of Cimla (Have Your Say, December 20).I must point out the Minister for Housing is Jane Davidson, a Labour minister, Plaid only having the privilege of holding the deputy housing minister position.

As Councillor Rees points out himself in the comments section of the newspaper's website,
it is Jocelyn Davies A.M. who has responsibility for the Housing portfolio in her position as deputy Housing minister. It was the Deputy Housing Minister, he says, who wrote to the NPTCBC insisting that they call a ballot on the Housing Transfer Policy. Within that letter was the threat of financial penalties if this was not carried out.

This is backed up by an old friend of this blog, Martyn Williams, who says:
While Jane Davidson has overall responsibility for the Department of Environment, Sustainability and Housing within the Welsh Assembly Government, Jocelyn Davies has specific day-to-day responsibility for all housing policy within that department. She answers all questions on housing policy at question time, for example. The full list of her responsibilities is available on the Welsh Assembly Government website. This is also the case with the other deputy ministers with their individual portfolios in social services (Gwenda Thomas), Regeneration (Leighton Andrews) and Skills (John Griffiths).

I have no bone to pick with Jocelyn Davies in this regard. In my view she has made a good start as Deputy Housing Minister and has shown that she is prepared to take tough and pragmatic decisions to try and move the agenda along, particularly with regards to the condition of Council owned housing. However, this has clearly caused a problem for some Plaid Cymru members who continue to believe that they can enjoy the benefits of government without taking responsibility for decisions they do not like.

As I have pointed out before any government operates on the basis of collective responsibility. If the One Wales Government takes a stance that is contrary to Plaid Cymru policy then that party cannot just wash their hands of it and blame Labour. I look forward to Plaid Cymru members supporting their Deputy Minister and campaigning for a 'yes' vote in the forthcoming ballot on stock transfer in Neath Port Talbot.

They are both as bad as each other. Peter Rees should realise that it was Edwina Hart who first decreed that all Welsh authorities had to reach the Welsh Housing Standard by 2012. Given the financial position of most Welsh Councils the only sensible policy in the light of the Labour Treasury's decision not to allow local authorities to borrow for housing improvement is stock transfer. The real problem at the moment is that in too many local authorities in Wales the political leadership is weak and politicians are more interesting in negative point scoring rather than providng positive solutions to the problems that face.
This is a coalition government for goodness sake. It is true that Jocelyn Davies is responsible for housing and as such her signature would therefore be on any letter regarding housing policy. But the letter would not have been sent out without the approval of Jane Davidson. The letter reflects the frustration felt by many in the Assembly at the slow progress being made by many authorities to reach the Welsh Housing Standard which has been known for years and which was established by a Labour minister. Voters in NPT should be asking why WAG felt it necessary to send the letter in the first place. The problem basically is that many Labour members do not support their own government's policy on social housing.
Latest from Linda Ware...

"Mr Rees you stated in your original letter that the Housing Minister not the Deputy Housing Minister was responsible. Jocelyn Davies is not the Housing Minister which I am sure you understand. As for misinformation I am not renowned for it as I am not renowned for personally attacking people as are you. I welcome wholeheartedly a cessation of the public onslaught you and your cronies in the Labour Party have conducted.
Linda Ware, Cilfrew, Neath
I see that Ms Linda Ware is now a Plaid Cymru County Council Candidate in Neath Port Talbot. If she wins (if), then will she sign up to the Council's Code of Conduct which is clear over the issue that no Councillor should take part in any Planning Determination if that Councillor has predetermined it and spoken for or against it in her Ward activities. If Ms Ware is not aware of this, she will have the rude awakening of suspension by the Council's Standards Committee. To my knowledge she has already made it abundantly clear and publicly clear she does not accept this part of the Code of Conduct. Will she go back on her word or sign the Code? The electorate need to know this, and so does Plaid Cymru for that matter. Who wants to elect a Councillor who cannot be accepted for office by refusal to accept the Council's Code of Conduct, or who will be suspended quite soon after election?
While in coalition with Labour, what did the Lib Dems do about preventing stock transfer?
As you know Peter, Plaid is against stock transfer. But Labour's unattainable Welsh Housing Quality Standard limit of 2012 has seen many (most?) Welsh councils having to ballot on the matter. Not from choice.
Your own Lib Dem council in Swansea, I believe, went for such an option - rejected by the people - and the Lib Dems in Wrexham considered a second ballot (until it became clear that would be rejected even more comprehensively than the first).
Now who's talking out of their Janus?
The irony is that even Bridgend's V2C stock transfer isn't going to hit the 2012 deadline... I wonder if they'll get punished in the same way as the council's have been?
Although the Welsh Liberal Democrats would like to see another option being available to tenants we are not in fact opposed to stock transfer. There was therefore no need to oppose it when we were in government though we did exert huge amount of pressure on the UK Treasury to provide a fourth option, something that actually came in with prudential borrowing.

Our actions in Swansea and Wrexham are therefore perfectly consistent with our stance, unlike Plaid Cymru. There is no shame in giving tenants a choice even if that choice is limited by circumstances.

I believe that the key to the Assembly Government's actions is that Councils need to make the effort to hit the 2012 deadline with a viable business plan. In many cases stock transfer is the only way of doing that though some Councils can do it without.

Plaid's problem is that in government it is being forced to abandon its policy and act in a pragmatic manner. Its hypocrisy is in seeking to face both ways at once, trying to blame Labour for its own decisions. Plaid don't have the maturity as a party to be in government.
As the person responsible more than anyone for pushing stock transfer in Bridgend I find many of these comments interesting. The simple fact is that between 1974 and 1996 many councils in Wales including sadly those controlled by my own party neglected council housing. We inherited in Bridgend from Ogwr BC a backlog of £26m in housing repairs. Whilst neglecting housing Ogwr BC was spending £9m a year out of a budgetof just £17m on leisure. I was frankly appalled and ashamed when I saw the condition of some of the council houses in my own ward. I hav enever understood this fetish with councils directly controlling housing. I know that in the past some councillors used the power to obtain support by allocating housing and directing repairs to certain favourite supporters but they tended to neglect the general stock. In Bridgend I had to introduce a housing points system to stop the pressure from some councillors on oficers when it come to house allocation. To achieve this I was even forced to stop some councillors from going into the housing department. V2C has transformed the old council housing stock. It hasn't been perfect but it has made a start and achieved what the council could not do and that is to give people a decent home to live in. What is often ironic is that many of those who oppose stock transfer do not themselves live in rented accommodation. Yet they expect youngpeople to live in conditions which the would not expect their own children to tolerate. Some individuals should realise that the Treasury will not change the rule on borrowing. Even if they did many councils in Wales are in such financial difficulties becuse of the recent settlements that they probably could not finance the repayments without large rent increases. Sadly the only losers in the Swansea and Wrexham ballots were the tenants who still wait for their repairs as the opponents of stock transfer move on to the next negative campaign
Fascinating comments by Jeff Jones. It is always good to read a comment by an opponent who knows what he’s talking about, although on stock transfer I believe they are both pro - albeit possibly from slightly different perspectives.

Jeff is completely correct that the Treasury will not abandon the borrowing restrictions. It wouldn’t do it to permit a bond issue for the Tube, nor to help LA’s meet their (vast in several cases) equal pay liabilities. With English local authorities being expected to meet the Better Homes Standard (different, but in some ways tougher than the WHQS) by 2010 (not 2012) from existing resources, campaigning / lobbying for a dispensation for Welsh Authorities is not in itself a sufficient policy given the importance of the issue.

For many if not most Welsh local authorities stock transfer is the only show in town if they are to stand a chance of meeting WHQS by 2012 or shortly thereafter. The question is whether the improvement of Wales’ worst housing stock is worth the abandonment of the pursuit of municipal ownership as advocated for instance by Nye Bevan in his time as Minister for Housing.

This ‘fetish’ which Jeff has never understood is indeed difficult to justify in light of the evidence of the failure of LA’s to discharge their responsibilities effectively. The ‘fetishist’s’ main argument is based on the principle of democratic public control by accountable (because directly elected) councils of such a key social welfare function and scaring tenants with the threat of future rent rises if they vote in favour (in practice of course the consequences to their rents of a vote against will soon become all too apparent to council tenants in Swansea and Wrexham – without all the benefits that were promised under transfer). Jeff is also right to note the tendency of politicians, whilst advocating for new windows or similar in their own wards, to prioritise investment whose impact could be apparent within the confines of electoral cycles over stable and sustained programmes for basic maintenance. It is of course possible to point to housing associations and other forms of RSL which have also failed their tenants, but that is not the same thing as making a convincing case for the superiority of the municipal model.

In an imperfect world therefore the challenge is to decide just how committed we are to improving Wales’ worst housing stock (we need to have some radical thinking about more actively managing the private rented sector too)? Sub-standard housing is a blight on our children’s lives. It is the indicator most directly correlated to severe child poverty (and to youth offending). Tackling it is also vital to effective emissions/energy conservation and public health policy. Jane Davidson and Jocelyn Davies need to get to grips with this in both parties. They need to begin laying down the law by making clear the penalties that will be used on councils that show little evidence that they are likely to meet the WHQS. They also need to decide what to do with those authorities where stock transfer is rejected by the tenants (I am not against transfer ballots per se, just scaremongering and frightening tenants – often carried out as Jeff notes by people not directly affected by the result). This may ultimately have to involve the threat to divest recalcitrant authorities of their social housing function altogether.

Any chance of starting your own blog Jeff?
An excellent contribution Mike. I would however take issue with you on one matter. The Treasury, of course, have relaxed the borrowing rules with the introduction of prudential borrowing. Provided that a Council can demonstrate an income stream sufficient to fund the borrowing then they can go ahead with it. In most cases that is still not possible as Jeff has highlighted.

The main financial difference between a stock transfer company and a local authority, that enables them to afford work the Council cannot, is twofold.

Firstly, if a Council transfers its stock then the Treasury pays off the debt thus releasing as much as 40-50% of the income stream in some cases for further borrowing.

Secondly, whereas Councils cross-subsidise housing benefit payments from their ring-fenced housing revenue account, Registered Social Landlords do not. This can release several millions of pounds of revenue to fund borrowing for improvement work.

In Swansea's case we calculated that these two factors would enable the stock transfer company to fund an additional £170m worth of work over ten years over and above what the Council can afford now.

The other point you make about rents for Swansea and Wrexham tenants is not strictly true either. The way that housing subsidy works means that it is not in the interest of Councils to increase rents above the recommended Treasury level, as any extra income they get will be largely clawed back.

The way that the financial rules work mean that most Councils really are left with no option but stock transfer if they are to have any chance of meeting the Welsh Housing Quality Standard.
Thanks for the comments Mike. I will not be starting my own blog for obvoius reasons. I really haven't got the time and in any case it would be too truthful and therefore too controversial. I'm afraid that people will have to wait until I retire for the book I'm often asked by some to write. It will be amusing in parts because local government has been full of chaaracters during the 25 years I served as a councillor. It will also contain some of my views on the way forward for local government in Wales. The Beecham approach was too timid and didn't take into account the potentialin my opinion of local communities such as my own in Maesteg to find local solutions to local problems. Beecham didn't understand Wales and should not have dropped from the report the comment that the Welsh seem to be prepared to put up with second rate public services. What I find depressing at the moment is the negativity of much of the early campaigning in the run up to May's local elections.Reading the local papers it is all too clear that too many existing councillors and potential councillors do not realise the task they face in running local government in the next few years. Sadly the days are gone when newly elected councillors can learn on the job. The situation isn't helped by the standard of training or lack of it provided for both candidates and newly elected councillors. Although elected with the best intentions in too many authorities too many councillors have failed to face up to the difficult decisions that have to be taken. Given the difficult financial position many face in the next few years this is a situation that cannot continue. In my own authority a great deal of money could be freed up,for example, if only a decision was taken on school transport. We can then have a debate amongst the parties of how best to spend this extra £2m a year. I would give it to school budgets which would transform education in Bridgend. Those of a different politcal persausion might want to use to lower the council tax by about 5%. Even a compromise in the middle would see increased education funding and a lower council tax despite a difficult settlement. Unfortunately as it stands fear means that we will not have this debate. Instead we have the negative attacks on either the Assembly or the present administration without any practical solutions.
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