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Politics

End of the line for Right to Buy?

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Carl Sargeant: Social housing ‘under considerable pressure’

NEW LEGISLATION which will abolish one of the most controversial policies of the 1980s was introduced in the National Assembly this week.

The Right to Buy legislation was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, though individual councils could sell properties to tenants prior to this.

While some credited the policy, which was one of the bedrocks of the Thatcher administrations, with raising money for public finances, and giving people their only opportunity to own a home, it was also criticised for creating a shortage of affordable rented property and artificially inflating the housing market. It led to the sale of 139,000 Local Authority-owned houses in Wales – around 45% of the available stock – since 1980.

In enacting this Bill, Wales will follow from Scotland, who banned Right to Buy in 2016.

The Bill will provide for the Right to Buy, the Preserved Right to Buy and the Right to Acquire for tenants of local authorities and registered social landlords to be abolished after a period of at least one year following Royal Assent.

In introducing the Bill, the Welsh Government aims to protect the Welsh stock of social housing from further reduction, ensuring it is available to provide safe, secure and affordable housing for people who are unable to take advantage of the housing market to buy or rent a home.

To encourage the development of new social housing, the Bill, if passed by the Assembly, will provide that the Right to Buy and Right to Acquire will end for new homes two months after Royal Assent. This will help encourage social landlords to build new homes in the knowledge that they will not be at risk of being sold after only a relatively short period.

The Bill complements other actions being taken by the Welsh Government to increase the supply of housing.

Ahead of the Bill’s introduction, Communities Secretary Carl Sargeant said: “Our social housing is a valuable resource, but it is under considerable pressure. The size of the stock has declined significantly since 1980 when the Right to Buy was introduced. The number of sales is equivalent to 45% of the social housing stock in 1981. This has resulted in people in housing need, many of whom are vulnerable, waiting longer to access a home they can afford.

“The Bill supports the Welsh Government’s wider aims of a more prosperous and fairer Wales, helping to tackle poverty by protecting our stock of social housing from further reduction.

“I recognise the proposal affects existing tenants and we will ensure tenants are made aware of the effect of the Bill in good time before abolition takes place. The Bill will require the Welsh Government to publish information, which social landlords in turn must provide to every affected tenant, within two months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent.

“We have set an ambitious target of creating 20,000 affordable homes in this term of government. Alongside social housing this will include schemes such as Help to Buy and Rent to Own to enable people on modest incomes to own their own homes. We are supporting low cost home ownership and we are expanding the social housing stock. Abolishing the Right to Buy will complement these other actions we are taking in order to support people in housing need.”

Councillor Dyfed Edwards, the Welsh Local Government Association spokesperson for Housing, said: “At a time of acute shortages of social rented homes, and with many thousands of people currently on housing waiting lists, the proposal from the Welsh Government to abolish right to buy is a welcome step in tackling a growing problem in Wales. It is essential that people’s access is improved to good quality social rented housing in order to enhance people’s lives, and also to revitalise local communities”

The plans were backed by Plaid Cymru. A party spokesperson said: “We welcome the proposed move to scrap it altogether and regret that the Labour Welsh Government has taken so long to abolish this most Thatcherite of policies.”

However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Welsh Conservatives were less enthusiastic about the proposal.

Party Housing Spokesman, David Melding AM , said: “The Welsh Government’s bid to end the right of social housing tenants to buy their homes begins its journey through the National Assembly for Wales today.

“Labour’s decision to revoke the Right to Buy in Wales will undermine social mobility, depriving thousands of families of an opportunity to get on the housing ladder for the first time.

“It’s easy for Welsh Government ministers to lecture, but this legislation will simply serve to deny hardworking families an opportunity to own their own homes.

“There is a severe shortage of affordable housing in Wales because Labour hasn’t built enough affordable homes, and not because council tenants have had a chance to buy theirs.

“The Right to Buy Scheme doesn’t deplete the housing stock, it empowers people to take a stake in the home in which they already live.”

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Politics

Councils’ budgets ‘war of attrition’

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The cost of cuts: Councils will lose 4.5% net

THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT settlement announced by Welsh Government continues an eight-year run of real term reductions to local government funding.

That’s according to the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) in response to Tuesday’s (Oct 10) announcement of the provisional budget for local government by Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford.

The Welsh Government claims the Budget will ‘protect key services’, as they continue to squeeze councils into devoting an ever-larger slice of an ever-diminishing budget to its core priorities.

‘COUNCILS PROTECTED FROM WORST OF CUTS’

While the Welsh Government claims that no council will have to cut more than 1% off its budget next year and 1.5% off the budget for 2019/20, when other costs are factored in all councils will be faced with a further significant cut above and beyond the headline claims. And taking Welsh government grants out of the final settlement suggests that cuts will be deeper still.

Announcing the provisional settlement, Mark Drakeford said: “Last year I told local authorities to prepare for the tougher times and harder choices that lay ahead as the flawed and failed policy of austerity continues to hit Wales hard.

“My priority, using a formula we have agreed with local government, is to try and protect councils from the worst of the cuts.

“Next year’s settlement might be difficult. We have done all we can to make it manageable. Councils must now use this time to plan ahead and ensure that funding goes to the services and people who need it the most.”

‘SERVICES HAVE BEEN PUMMELLED’

Professor Drakeford’s words got a stony welcome from the WLGA.

A statement from the body said: “In the context of ongoing and prolonged austerity, councils will view this as a very difficult and challenging settlement for supporting vital services that contribute to the education, health and well- being of our communities.

“Leaders across Wales have pushed for parity of funding and particularly sought new investment in a range of services, such as economic development, environmental health and transport, which have been pummelled by cuts.

“The headline reduction of 0.5% fails to recognise the full story; with service pressures that amount to £212m in 2018-19 alone, the sector will have to look for savings of nearly 4.5% of net budgets in the next financial year. This comes on top of cuts of over £1bn that have been made to date and 25,000 job losses across the sector. While the reduction is within the range predicted by the WLGA, local government is still bearing the heaviest burden of austerity.”

‘POSITION IS UNSUSTAINABLE’

Commenting on the draft settlement, Councillor Debbie Wilcox (Newport), WLGA Leader said: “The problem for local government is that we are now in a ‘war of attrition’. Services are wearing down to the point of collapse and the public are rightly growing frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed.

“The whole position is unsustainable. Local authorities cannot go on to be expected to make the harshest of cuts whilst continuing to provide the same breadth and level of service; in short, something has got to give. “

‘WORKFORCE DESERVES A PAY RISE’

Councillor Emlyn Dole (Carmarthenshire), WLGA Plaid Cymru Group Leader said: “Welsh councils will still face severe financial pressures estimated to be over £200m for the next financial year alone due to demographic factors and workforce related pressures.

“I would urge the UK Government to use its Budget announcement in November to fully fund any relaxation of the pay cap. Every 1% increase in pay costs the public sector around £100m, and £35m of that is attributable to councils.

“Our workforce deserves a pay rise. In this context, local government funding must be more flexible and the transfer of nearly £100m of grants into the settlement is a positive step. I would urge Ministers to think about the other funding flexibilities for the other £700m in grants which put an additional administrative burden on the public services.”

UNDERFUNDED AND UNSUSTAINABLE

Councillor Hugh Evans OBE (Denbighshire), WLGA Independent Group Leader said: “The funding formula delivers a range of increases and decreases across the 22 local authorities. We need to make sure that the system takes account of the additional needs of providing services in communities with diverse needs and especially the additional costs of providing services in rural communities which are dramatically underfunded.”

Councillor Peter Fox OBE (Monmouthshire), WLGA Conservative Group Leader said: “Social services and education should be funded on equal terms with health, which means providing the £160m that both services need to stand still next year. There are also a range of preventative services within councils that will not survive unless the Welsh Government has a long hard look at the way it allocates money across the totality of public services. Ring-fencing small sums in the settlement for those services is like robbing Peter to pay Paul, as other services suffer.”

‘SERIOUS CASH INJECTION REQUIRED’

UNISON has also criticised the Welsh government’s budget for local authority spending as wholly inadequate. The trade union has warned thousands of jobs will be lost and local public services will be reduced or disappear completely because councils are under severe financial pressure.

UNISON also blasted Welsh Government’s failure to fund the implement of the Foundation Living Wage to lift thousands of council workers out of in-work poverty, something it says could have been achieved with a relatively modest injection of cash.

Dominic MacAskill, UNISON head of local government said: “Today’s news is grim indeed. People can’t understand why their library opening hours will have to be reduced or their youth club shut down in the name of austerity. Communities need quality local services otherwise they cease to be healthy and liveable places but councils are struggling to provide these and more – parks and leisure services, food hygiene and environment health services, on the meagre budgets Welsh Government has today granted.

“Savage spending cuts might be directed by Westminster Conservatives but the Welsh Government must see the lack of new money for local authorities in the announcement today will mean thousands more council jobs are lost and services at smaller councils might collapse altogether. Our warning couldn’t be starker: without a serious injection of cash, some councils will become unsustainable.”

Mr MacAskill added: “Public service workers will be incredibly frustrated their concerns are not being listened to. Welsh government has missed an opportunity to lift thousands of hard working council staff out of in-work poverty by failing to fund the Foundation Living Wage for all local government employees. They agreed this was necessary in the NHS and the Civil Service, why can’t they do it for all public service workers?”

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Carwyn slaps down Conservative race claim

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Conservative​s​ can't tell Wales and Scotland apart: Carwyn Jones

A CONSERVATIVE claim that the Welsh Government had refused to take part in a ‘race audit’ with the UK Government was given brutally short shrift by the First Minister at questions in the Senedd.

On Tuesday​ (Oct 10)​, the mainstream broadcast media were full of the UK Government’s announcement of the result of its ‘Race Disparity Audit’ and comment on its outcome.

The analysis helps to understand and assess differences between ethnic groups, and to identify those public services where disparities are diminishing and those where work is needed to develop effective strategies to reduce disparities between ethnic groups.

And what the audit revealed was a predictable disparity between White and Black and Minority Ethnic​ (BAME)​ experience of services such as housing, education, and health. It also revealed a far less anticipated huge variation between BAME experiences depending on region and significant regional variations within individual ethnic groups.

The Audit shows a complex picture and Damian Green, First Secretary of State, commented: ​”Although there are many areas where the gaps between groups have narrowed significantly, there is still a way to go before we have a country that works for everyone regardless of their ethnicity. [The report] also challenges us all to show leadership, take accountability and identify where we need to do things differently​.”

The Conservative Party in Wales, however, went on to the attack.

A press release from the Conservatives claimed the Welsh Government had refused to take part in the Audit and that refusal was ‘yet another example of the Labour Party putting party politics ahead of the good of hardworking families across Wales’.

The same release went on to provide a statement from Mohammed Ashgar, the Conservative regional AM for South East Wales.

Mr Ashgar was reported to have remarked: “People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge. However, this audit will bring significant issues into the open and means that there is nowhere for the government or our public services to hide.

“The United Kingdom is one of the most tolerant countries in the world but this audit will undoubtedly shine a light into areas as a nation where we can improve – building on Theresa May’s pledge to build a country that works for everyone, regardless of their background.

“I would implore the Welsh Government to either conduct its own audit or reconsider its refusal to take part in the UK Government’s report – it’s the least people and communities across Wales deserve.”

At First Minister’s Questions, a question on the subject was posed by Angela Burns, who repeated the line adopted in the Conservative press release about the Welsh Government’s purported refusal to take part in the Audit.

Mrs Burns then went one step further, asking the First Minister: “Is your reluctance in releasing the data because you haven’t got it, or is it simply that you won’t get it?”

Continuing to observe: “And the reason why this is so important is because that data would help us to identify areas of poverty in black and minority ethnic communities, where we might actually be able to take some action and make some differences to those people’s lives.”

Dismissing the Conservative claim as ‘wholly untrue’, he continued: “Scotland has refused to co-operate; we have not.”

The First Minister proceeded to provide a blow-by-blow account of the Welsh Government’s extensive engagement with the UK Government’s Race Disparity Audit Unit (RDAU), which he explained came to a head when The UK Government team asked the Welsh Government to fund and resource data analysis of information it had requested for its own purposes.

With the deadline for the audit fast approaching, Carwyn Jones mordantly observed: “RDAU acknowledged the lateness of that request.

“We made it clear that we didn’t have the resources to support that work at that time, and expressed concern about being asked to undertake such a large exercise before the launch date in July. At that point, we were informed that the Scottish Government had decided not to engage with the project.

“On May 26, RDAU responded to a letter from us with a provisional list of data that would be on the website. On June 2, again we agreed to continue working with the unit, by providing advice on the Welsh data sources, and providing data sets for the RDAU to analyse.

On October 4, a third meeting between officials and RDAU took place. They gave us a glimpse of the content of the website, but did not provide us with a copy of the 45-page report.”

Rounding on the claims of a refusal to participate, Carwyn Jones concluded by remarking: “Perhaps it shows the shambles at the heart of the UK Government that they cannot tell Wales and Scotland apart.”

It is also arguable that the exchange demonstrates the danger of relying on partisan briefings before asking questions of a well-prepared Carwyn Jones.

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Politics

Four to tender for rail franchise

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Wales and Borders franchise: New ideas being explored

WALES’ Economy Secretary Ken Skates has confirmed final tenders have been invited for the next Wales and Borders Rail Service, the Welsh Government’s first.

The new rail service will deliver a step-change in the quality of rail travel in Wales. Since January 2017, officials and bidders have been discussing a range of innovative solutions to find those which best meet the needs of people in Wales and the border regions.

Rather than follow the traditional model for procuring a rail service, with the issue of a set specification that companies bid for, this approach has allowed new ideas to be explored and collaborative working relationships to be developed – setting the tone for the new service.

Proposals for the South Wales Metro are being developed alongside the Wales and Borders service to aid development of an integrated transport system in the region. The deadline to submit final tender is December 21.

Economy Secretary, Ken Skates said: “I’m delighted to confirm that Abellio Rail Cymru, Arriva Rail Wales, KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation (Cymru) Ltd have all been invited to submit final tenders for the next Wales and Borders Rail Service. From rolling stock to frequency of services, Metros to profit thresholds, this final tender will provide the blueprint for what these four giants of the rail industry are bidding to provide Wales.

“Detailed discussions with all four of the shortlisted potential operators have only served to reinforce our optimism that the next service will see big improvements. I look forward to seeing how the detailed tenders tackle our ambitious requirements for the next 15 years before making a decision on the successful operator in early 2018.

“We intend to create a rail service that benefits the whole of Wales, communities along the border and in England. One with passengers at its heart and today’s announcement is another important step towards that.”

In inviting final tender for the franchise, the Economy Secretary provided an update on progress with UK Government on fair funding. He said: “There is will on both sides to ensure that the settlement works for Wales and the Border and, following positive talks, a resolution is near. It’s great news for rail users across Wales that this ensures the services modern Wales expects and have been promised, will be fully delivered.”

Conservative Transport spokesperson, Russell George AM, said: “The Welsh public rightly expects a truly 21st century rail service that puts the passenger first. Commuters should be seeing the new rail service provide access to free Wi-Fi, built to serve the needs of local communities, and achieve high standards in relation to environmental sustainability.

“The experience of the previous franchise was an acute demonstration that it is absolutely vital to ‘get things right’ during the procurement of a major rail operating agreement, particularly to ensure that it delivers for passengers and taxpayers alike over the course of the entire franchise period.

“Welsh Conservatives are adamant the priorities of Welsh passengers should be at the very heart of the new Wales and Borders Rail franchise namely; an agreement that takes into account the commercial realities of expanding passenger numbers over time, and trains that are reliable, cost effective and contain enough seats to accommodate the travelling public.”

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