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Friday, April 02, 2010

Stalemate on housing powers

With the prorogation of Parliament next week almost inevitable it is looking increasingly likely that the Welsh Assembly's bid for law-making powers over affordable housing will bite the dust for the second time of asking.

As the Western Mail points out that is because Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in a game of parliamentary chicken over the fate of the Housing Legislative Competence Order, which has been working its way through Parliament for nearly two years.

The LCO will become part of the parliamentary “wash-up” process, where the Government and opposition decide which pieces of legislation can be nodded through before Parliament is dissolved. Without Tory support the housing plans, which have already had to be re-drafted after a House of Lords committee suggested they may be illegal, could be rejected.

The Conservatives are objecting to a clause in the order which would allow the Welsh Government to suspend the right to buy for council houses in areas of high demand, in order to address localised housing shortages. The party also says it is unhappy with devolving powers relating to gypsy and traveller sites.

This is despite Conservatives voting in the Assembly in favour of a referendum and indicating that they would vote 'yes' to full law making powers, an act that would give the Assembly these housing powers anyway. In the circumstances the only possible conclusion to draw is that the Tories are grandstanding on this issue and that principle has been cast out of the window in favour of making a political point.

That does not mean that Labour are completely blameless in this though. If they were fully committed to giving these powers to the Assembly they could have found the time necessary to have a vote on them in the Houses of Parliament, thus avoiding the wash-up process altogether. It suits their agenda to portray the Tories as blocking these powers but in doing so they betray their own lack of commitment to affordabe housing.

They also show their ignorance of the issues too in the remarks of the Secretary of State for Wales to the Western Mail. Peter Hain suggests that “The right-to-buy section is a minute part of a comprehensive piece of legislation which will only be applied – if at all – in highly restricted circumstances, confined, in all probability, to Gwynedd and Pembrokeshire, where there are particular housing shortages and young people, farm workers and others need to get on the housing ladder."

How does he know? In actual fact there is a bigger crisis in terms of affordable housing at present in cities such as Swansea and Cardiff than in rural areas, though they have their problems too. As I understand it the intention is to allow a temporary suspension of the right to buy in areas of high demand, where a proper housing needs survey and the local housing strategy supports such an intervention. The intention is to allow some stability in the affordable housing stock whilst it is replenished.

However, as I have argued it might be possible to use these powers to prevent newly built social housing being sold for the first 20 years or so of its existence so as to encourage local councils and housing associations to invest in new homes.

And that is the point. It is not for MPs to determine how we might use these powers, it is for the Assembly itself and the Welsh Government to use them in the best interests of Wales. That is a point which has been lost in this stand-off. Wales deserves better than this testosterone-fuelled pettyness.
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