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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Down and out in Swansea and Cardiff

No, the homeless crisis does not just affect the cities of Swansea and Cardiff, but judging by the attitude of some local Councils you would think that it did. The heading was in fact a feeble attempt at a literary allusion, especially for fans of George Orwell. The situation however is a great deal more serious than that.

As expected and as the Western mail reports today, "There has been a 50% increase in the number of households accepted as homeless in Wales in the last year. Almost half of these are families with children who have fallen victim to the surge in house prices across Wales. Many are now living in cramped one-room accommodation in unsuitable bed and breakfasts as local authorities struggle to find suitable homes for the 9,147 households who have found themselves unintentionally homeless." They blame the housing boom for the problem: "High mortgage and rent payments fuelled by the housing boom in Wales has forced thousands of families out of their homes and on to the streets."

I have produced a number of press releases in the last week or two on this subject, calling in particular for Councils to cease using bed and breakfast accommodation, especially when there are children involved. When I was Deputy Minister for Local Government and Housing I chaired a Homelessness Commission that made a number of key recommendations. Amongst those was that the Assembly Government should draw up a National Homelessness Strategy. This they have done and of course, the amount of money available for homelessness projects has increased eightfold since 1999. We also widened the categories of people entitled to priority rehousing so as to prevent groups falling through the safety net.

We were very clear in commenting on the problem of homelessness that local solutions need to be found to deal with local problems and that the role of the Welsh Assembly Government is to facilitate that process. That is why we were pleased that the UK Government brought in a legal requirement for all Councils to have a local homeless strategy. However, this duty does not seem to have made much difference.

Many of the Welsh local strategies fail to address the issues or grasp the nettle as to the real practical things that need to be done. There does not appear to be any external pressure on the Welsh Assembly Government to provide additional capital and revenue funding for temporary facilities such as those that might avert the use of bed and breakfast. Meanwhile the amount of capital monies available to build new social housing is not increasing sufficiently and continues to be underspent each year. The Assembly Government itself has failed to grasp the enormity of the crisis it now faces and in doing so, has not been firm enough in telling local Councils to get their act together nor has it taken a sufficently strong lead in trying to find solutions.

I have won the draw for the short debate on Wednesday 3 November. This is a half hour debate without a vote in which the proposer speaks for 15 minutes. A Government Minister then responds for another 15 minutes. I have chosen homelessness as my theme. We will see what comes out of that discussion.

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