Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').

Bridgend

The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

Laws

We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Senedd Watch - November 2013

  • The UK Government announced - as their response to the first part of the Silk Commission - that financial powers would be devolved to the National Assembly, including : stamp duty, non-domestic rates, landfill tax, the ability to create new taxes (with Westminster agreement) and limited borrowing powers. Subject to a referendum, income tax varying powers could be devolved in future. However, the First Minister said there shouldn't be a vote until a fair funding formula is in place, drawing criticism from opposition leaders.
  • The UK Government also announced the first NATO summit to be held in the UK since 1990 will be hosted at Newport's Celtic Manor resort from September 4-5 2014. The First Minister welcomed the announcement, saying he looked forward to receiving world leaders.
  • In the second of a two-part review into business finance on behalf of the Welsh Government, Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans recommended that the government's investment arm, Finance Wales, be replaced with a Development Bank of Wales due to concerns about excessive interest rates and charges.
  • Senior executives from Cardiff & Vale LHB warned the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee that, due to austerity, hospitals had become the only place to offer 24/7 care to the elderly. It was also said job losses were “inevitable” after concerns from AMs about a reported 400 job losses within the LHB.
  • Education Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) said it was “unrealistic” to expect PISA results to improve compared to 2010 when the latest figures are revealed in December, despite previous assurances from the First Minister that he himself expected “an improvement.” Opposition AMs questioned the contradictory positions, saying parents now had a right to ask questions about school standards.
  • A University of London study revealed 37% of Welsh people were overweight by age 42, and a further 26-27% obese, with men more likely that women to be so. Although overall overweight and obese rates were similar to England and Scotland, obesity levels in isolation were highest in Wales.
  • News UK director, Guto Harri, said at a Royal Television Society lecture in Cardiff that the UK press didn't give Wales a “rough deal”, and political differences were no reason for extra coverage in itself. Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) also outlined the Assembly's response to the “Democratic Deficit” in media coverage, proposing more support for trainee journalists and AMs, regional press days and more open and accessible data.
  • Despite cuts to EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding, both the Minister for Food & Natural Resources, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), and the Welsh Secretary believed the overall budget was “fair”, as cuts were shared equally across the UK, with an equal 1.6% cut in Pillar 1 funding.
  • The Assembly's Finance Committee believed the draft budget for 2014-15, which was originally said to “prioritise jobs and growth”, instead prioritised the NHS. This was a “disconnect with the Welsh Government's stated priorities” according to committee chair, Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East).
  • The First Minister announced a decision to relocate high-dependency neonatal services from north Wales will be part-reversed. Services will instead to be centralised on one site, with only very seriously ill babies transferred to Arrowe Park Hospital in The Wirral. The decision received a mixed response, with Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) saying all services should be retained in north Wales.
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats outlined a three-point plan for the revival of the rural economy, including : a community bank structure, overcoming barriers to low numbers of rural apprenticeships and making universal access to broadband an obligation to service providers.
  • Unemployment fell in Wales by 4,000 in the three months to September 2013 to stand at 7.8% (UK 7.6%). Employment rates were also said to have reached a “record high”. Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) said the figures are “very encouraging”, but there were still concerns about youth unemployment and unemployment amongst women.
  • A joint report from Natural Resources Wales, WLGA and National Parks Wales revealed up to £1billion was spent in Wales' three national parks - attracting 12 million visitors - with total value added to the Welsh economy of £577million. Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), described the parks as an “asset to Wales.”
  • The Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee report into Youth Entrepreneurship recommended : key business skills should be taught in primary school, one-stop-shops for entrepreneurs and ways be found to close the gap between those desiring to start a business and those who follow through with it.
  • The Welsh Conservatives launched a new housing policy, with the aims of “rejuvenating” the Right to Buy scheme - via a commitment to replace every social home sold on a one-for-one basis – planning deregulation and bringing more empty homes into use. Welsh Labour attacked the proposals, saying they were un-costed.
  • Faith leaders expressed concerns about local authority cutbacks to free school transport, saying faith schools should receive the same levels of statutory protection as Welsh-medium schools. Local authorities were urged not to be “short-sighted in the decisions they make now.”
  • A Western Mail investigation found 221 children had gone missing from local authority care over the last two years. Children's Commissioner, Keith Towler, said he was “alarmed” by the figures, while chair of the Assembly's Cross-Party Group on Human Trafficking, Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales), pressed for an Assembly debate on the issue.
  • PCC Christopher Salmon (Con, Dyfed-Powys) said policing powers had already been devolved to Wales as a result of the creation of Police & Crime Commissioners, and that devolution of policing to the National Assembly would cause confusion. Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor-Meironnydd) disagreed, saying he believed administration of justice would be devolved before 2020. Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) later rejected the idea of devolution of policing.
  • Education Minister Huw Lewis announced a two-year cross-party review into higher education funding, with the minister telling the Assembly he wanted an “enduring settlement”, timed to avoid the 2016 Welsh General Election. Plaid Cymru said they would participate, but would consider their own policies, while other opposition politicians described the timing as “cynical”.
  • In relation, former Education Minister, Leighton Andrews AM (Lab, Rhondda) defended current tuition fee policies, after a Wales Audit Office report revealed it was based on a £7,000p.a. Assumed maximum tuition fee in England, not the eventual £9,000p.a maximum fees, resulting in an extra £156million being spent.
  • Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), introduced the Housing Bill, which proposes a mandatory licence system for private landlords, improve homelessness provision, abolition of the Housing Revenue Account Subsidy and statutory reviews of gypsy and traveller site provision in local authorities.
  • The National Assembly passed the Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases Bill on November 20th by 38 votes to 10. The Act will enable the Welsh NHS to recover the costs of treating asbestos-related diseases (estimated to be ~£1million), and enable the employment of up to 20 cancer nurses. The member who introduced the Bill, Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd), said that the law  “can make a significant improvement to the quality of life” of those blighted by the diseases.
  • The National Assembly passed two sets Council Tax Reduction Scheme regulations, despite concerns from the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs committee they were “completely impenetrable” and could cause interpretation difficulties.
  • The Wales Ambulance Service Trust met its targets for the first time in 12 months, with 65.2% of life-threatening emergencies responded to within 8 minutes, compared to a national target of 65%.
  • Mandatory displays of food hygiene certificates as part of the Food Hygiene Rating Act 2013 came into force on November 28th, and will be phased in for all outlets serving food over the next 18 months. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said consumers could now make an “informed choice” about where they eat out.

Projects announced in November include : a new £30million round of the Economic Growth Fund, a £2.7million investment in cardiac services in Cardiff & Vale LHB, direct funding to prevent withdrawal of some bus services in Ceredigion, extra ferry services between Anglesey and the Republic of Ireland, the launch of a Procurement Academy at the University of South Wales, an extension of the latest round of Communities First funding into 2016, the announcement of the format of two city region boards, and the launch of the £170million Help to Buy Wales scheme for first-time buyers.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Who gets hit by Bridgend's school bus proposals?

A Bridgend Council committee has recommended changes to the
proposed reforms of free school transport. But where precisely
is the impact going to be felt most?
(Pic : The Guardian)
Although I covered this in September, with Bridgend Council's Children & Young People's Committee recently reporting back (doc) on proposed changes to school transport in the county, it's worth returning to again.

Summary of BCBC's Proposals

Subject to public consultation, which I understand is due to be launched next month :
  • The boundary (statutory distance) to receive free home-school transport will move from 1.5miles to 2miles for primary schools and from 2miles to 3miles for secondary schools.
  • Transport for Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils will be rationalised.
  • Free transport would no longer be provided for sixth-formers, FE college students, and voluntary aided school pupils (except those who live beyond the boundary and for whom their choice of school is the "nearest available" school).
  • Free transport will still be provided for those whose route to school is considered "dangerous".
It's estimated that the total savings as a result of the proposals – if enacted in full – would be just over £1.2million.

The Children and Young People's Committee recommended to the cabinet that voluntary-aided provisions should remain the same as Welsh-medium provisions (explained later). They also recommend free transport for college students and sixth formers be maintained for those receiving Educational Maintenance Allowance.

If the proposals promote walking and cycling to school, then it could be beneficial. But some aspects of it could, for some pupils - especially those who live beyond a reasonable walking/cycling distance - just land their families with a sizable bill in order to attend the school of their choice.

The Impact on Bridgend's Faith Schools

Pupils attending Archbishop McGrath Catholic High School in Brackla
could be particularly hard-hit by the draft proposals.
(Pic : commercialpropertyphotography.com)

The two types of school going to be hardest hit by the proposals (as they are) are state English-medium secondaries and voluntary-aided (VA) faith schools.

There's been criticism that faith schools aren't protected to the same extent as Welsh-medium schools, with Wales' church leaders uniting to issue a statement earlier this month condemning changes to school transport policies by local authorities.

Similar policies have been pursued in neighbouring Neath Port Talbot, as well as Flintshire. I wouldn't be surprised if it spreads nationally as cuts start to bite, hence the urgency in the statement.

Faith schools in Bridgend County have subsequently set up a Save Our School Buses campaign site and Facebook page.

As to why faith schools aren't under the same umbrella as Welsh-medium schools, local authorities only have a statutory obligation to provide free home-school transport to pupils who attend county schools.

All Welsh-medium schools are county schools while most, if not all, faith schools are voluntary-aided. That means they're under the control of a diocese or charitable foundation. Local education authorities only part fund them and have little, if any, influence on school governance.

BCBC currently propose to only provide free home-school transport for VA pupils as long as they attend the "nearest available school" and live beyond the statutory distance.

The "nearest available" bit is important, because they don't mean "nearest available faith school", just "nearest available school" full stop. That means faith schools are going to be hit proportionally harder, to the point that some parents might choose to send their children to a closer non-faith school. That could put some faith schools at risk in the long-term.

Welsh-medium schools are protected because free transport provision has to be "responsive to parental preference" as set out in the Learner Travel Measure 2008. That means you can choose to send a child to a Welsh-medium school – regardless of whether it's the nearest available school or not – and still receive free transport as long as you live beyond the statutory distance.

Until now, BCBC have applied the same policy to faith schools, but they're not legally obliged to, hence proposing to axe it. As mentioned earlier, the Children & Young People's Committee want them to change their mind.

Faith leaders want transport provision that's "responsive to parental preference" for their own schools. The rights and wrongs of that is a debate in itself - and a can of worms I'd prefer not to open - so in the interests of objectivity I'm going to go along with it.

Where will the impact be felt?

We know the numbers. In total, this will affect around 1,800 learners. Using Google Earth, it's worth trying to determine precisely where in Bridgend county the impact will be most keenly felt. The files are quite large, and as a result and may take time to load.

Voluntary Aided Primaries

Click to enlarge

There are three Catholic primaries : St Mary's & St Patrick's (Maesteg), St Robert's (Aberkenfig) and St Mary's (Bridgend).

In addition, Archdeacon John Lewis (Brackla) is Bridgend's only voluntary-aided Church in Wales primary. Pen-y-fai Primary is also a Church in Wales school, but it's voluntary-controlled, meaning it's a state school in many aspects, so it's not affected by these proposals.

The green and yellow shaded area represents the current and proposed boundaries for free home-school transport – a crude radius to give you a rough idea, so it's not 100% accurate.

Blue dots represent state primaries (with a few obscured by labels). If a pupil lives beyond the boundary, but closer to a blue dot than their choice of voluntary-aided school (yellow dot), it's likely they'll no longer receive free home-school transport.

I think that illustrates quite dramatically how big a swathe of Bridgend county the proposals impact. It's hard to find any part of the county where a pupil lives beyond the statutory boundary, yet far enough away from a state school to remain eligible for free transport.

It's like a game of Minesweeper with state primaries acting as the mines, except they're everywhere.

Voluntary Aided Secondaries

Click to enlarge

The only VA secondary school is Archbishop McGrath Catholic High School (Brackla).

Again, the same principle applies.

Under the draft proposals, if a pupil lives beyond three miles, and closer to a blue dot (a state school) than Archbishop McGrath School, in most cases they'll no longer receive free home-school transport. So the policy - as it is – would effectively end most free home-school transport for Archbishop McGrath pupils, simply because of the spread of state secondaries around the county.

Welsh-Medium Schools

Click to enlarge

WM schools are affected by the proposals, with a bus being lost to Bro Ogwr and Cynwyd Sant schools as outlined in the original proposal (doc).

It's likely WM pupils living in the Nantyfyllon and Tondu areas will lose their free transport to Ysgol Gyfun Llangynwyd due to boundary changes. Although parts of the Garw Valley fall within the proposed 3 mile boundary, because there's no direct route between the two valleys, it's shouldn't result in any change.

However, as the map demonstrates, it's obvious why free transport to YG Llangynwyd will be maintained. It's a relatively distant location, away from the main population centres in the south. Free transport is protected regardless of whether or not there's a non-Welsh medium school nearby.

English-Medium State Secondaries

Click to enlarge
I realise that map's not much use, as I doubt there are any Porthcawl Comprehensive pupils living on Tusker Rock or in the Merthyr Mawr sand dunes.

It won't affect Bryntirion, Coleg Cymunedol y Dderwen, Pencoed and Porthcawl pupils too much. Bryntirion doesn't have any bus pupils, while the other schools only lose 1 bus each.

Porthcawl's catchment area is effectively confined to Porthcawl itself (walking/cycling distance) and a few hamlets on the outskirts like Tythegston and Kenfig.

Only Coety Primary is any real distance from Pencoed Comprehensive (and could be considered a "dangerous route"), while transport for any pupils from Dolau Primary in Llanharan and Brynna Primary is provided by Rhondda Cynon Taf Council.

Most Coleg y Dderwen pupils either live in the Pen-y-fai, Sarn and Tondu area (walking/cycling distance), or the Garw and Ogmore Valleys - which are comfortably beyond the 3 mile boundary. As I understand it, most pupils from Abercerdin Primary in Evanstown (an "enclave" of Bridgend County near Gilfach Goch) attend Tonyrefail Comprehensive.

Maesteg Comprehensive pupils living in the Caerau and Llangynwyd areas are likely to lose free transport. Most Maesteg pupils will live within the current 2 mile boundary, let alone 3miles. Caerau now has a segregated cycle lane to the school too.

It's a similar situation for Cynffig and Brynteg pupils. Free transport will effectively end for most pupils at both schools due to the very tight catchment areas. In terms of Brynteg, it could affect those living in Litchard and the Coity end of Brackla in particular.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Assembly committee smacks minister's Arsenal

It's perhaps the biggest story of the week you haven't noticed, but could be a sign of an increasingly irritable relationship between the Assembly (as a legislature) and the Welsh Government.

The National Assembly's Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee have the unenviable task of sifting through the labyrinthine secondary legislation (order, regulations, rules etc.) introduced by the Welsh Government - which is how they run the country in practice.

Most secondary legislation is made up of fairly short documents and is relatively uncontroversial. The Committee's job is to – in shorthand – point out any details/errors that need to be flagged up for AMs and the Welsh Government.

The Welsh Government had trouble drafting and passing regulations relating to the replacement for Council Tax Benefit (Council Tax Reduction Scheme) last year, which resulted in a recall of the Assembly during the Christmas recess.

This year, Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) introduced two sets of regulations relating to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme:
  • Council Tax Reduction Schemes and Prescribed Requirements Regulations 2013 (pdf)
  • Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Default Scheme) Regulations 2013 (pdf)

Both have been introduced so that all Welsh local authorities continue to provide some sort of Council Tax relief from next April. That's because a "sunset clause" was inserted last year – with agreement from opposition parties - in order to get 2012's regulations passed.

The Committee were, however, somewhat annoyed with what was presented to them.

The documents themselves are lengthy tomes, with both sets coming in at over 550 pages combined.  As you can imagine it's not exactly bedtime reading, and those who digest such things as part of their job have my condolences.

The Committee flagged up 18 errors in the first (pdf) and 20 errors in the second (pdf). Most of them were simple drafting mistakes, but the following was picked out for special scrutiny in both sets of regulations, and I suspect wasn't the only "delight" :

“The capital of an applicant who is a pensioner, calculated in accordance with this Schedule, is to be treated as if it were a weekly income of—
(a) £1 for each £500 in excess of £10,000 but not exceeding £16,000; and
(b) £1 for any excess which is not a complete £500.”

That's Numberwang!


This apparently relates to the means test used to determine how big a council tax reduction a person's entitled to. The committee are said to have wanted means testing simplified into a separate 8-page order, but the minister rejected that as the rules - as they currently are - were too complicated and wide-ranging.

Apparently though, the 1999 equivalent of these regulations really were just 8 pages long. It shows you how much these things can snowball.

The committee described the regulations in less than flattering terms, such as :
"completely impenetrable....even to lawyers with a background in statutory interpretation"
"impossible to fathom the policy intentions"
"the user (reader of the regulations) is sent on a ridiculous hunt for a simple definition of 'quarter'"

The Pythonesque references to Montserrat :

"Quite what relevance a 'person in Great Britain who left the island of Montserrat after 1 November 1995 due to the volcanic eruption' has to council tax in Wales in 2013 in anyone's guess."

Then there's :
"The Welsh Government has, quite rightly, advocated accessible legislation. These Regulations show how not to achieve that."

In Assembly terms, that's quite a tongue-lashing. I don't think I've come across such strong rebukes in a committee report before.

More seriously, the committee said local authorities and organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) could find it difficult to determine if they're applying the rules correctly, and it'll be even harder for members of the public to determine if they're receiving the right council tax deduction.

Lesley Griffiths and her department shouldn't be criticised too much, and she has plenty of valid justifications for the "impenetrability" of the regulations.

Regulations relating to welfare and council tax generally are this complicated. That's down to decades of chopping and changing by different governments, as well as the micromanagement of deciding precisely who is entitled to what and on what terms - described as "accretions" by Committee chair, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) at the final meeting to approve the reports.

In the minister's formal response (pdf) she points out that the 2013 regulations are, in fact, a significantly simplified version!

In addition, she believes the likes of the CAB will have no difficulties in interpreting the regulations as they helped prepare them in the first place. Though she concedes that members of the public could have problems understanding it, it's likely members of the public will seek help from someone who does understand the regulations anyway.

The minister also said her department offered to give the committee's legal officers "technical briefings", which were refused. It's a fairly damning indictment of the regulations if technical briefings are required for trained and experienced lawyers to understand them.

I imagine such meetings would've resembled a game of Mornington Crescent.

AMs were effectively backed into a corner on this, and had no option but to approve the regulations as they are, otherwise it could've put the Council Tax Reduction Scheme at risk next year.

Coincidentally, Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) - who's a member of the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee - has written an important article on Click on Wales.

She raises concerns that Welsh Government are manipulating procedures relating to secondary legislation, effectively turning - on paper - sensible and uncontroversial laws into "enabling acts" in terms of policy, increasingly concentrating powers with the executive.

That sounds a bit....Carmarthenshire.

As I said, it's perhaps the biggest story of the week you haven't noticed.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Welsh tuition fee policy under scrutiny

The Welsh Government's tuition fee policy was recently revealed by
the Wales Audit Office to have cost more than expected.
But does that headline tell the whole story?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Last week, serious questions were raised about the Welsh Government's tuition fees policy, whereby they subsidise tuition fees for Welsh-domiciled students regardless of where in the UK they choose to study.

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) revealed the policy's cost – to date - ~£150million more than expected. That's because - in shorthand terms - the tuition fee cap was higher than the financial assumptions the Welsh Government used to base its final policy on.

In a related matter, Education Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) recently ordered a two year, cross-party review into higher education funding.

The opposition have welcomed the review, albeit with reservations. Plaid Cymru have agreed to participate but would prefer to draw up their own long-term plans. The Lib Dems and Conservatives questioned its timing, as it was confirmed the review won't report back until after the 2016 Assembly elections, which could impact individual party's ability to draft alternative policies. However, the policy is effectively locked in until 2017 anyway.

The Assembly's Finance Committee are currently undertaking their own inquiry into Higher Education Finance. So this is likely to be a key education issue through 2014.

It's worth looking into the WAO's report closely, because - as I read it - it's perhaps not quite as serious a situation as it's been made out to be.

The Key Findings of the WAO report

You can read the report yourself here (pdf).

1. Policy appraisal concerns.

At the time the policy was being drawn up, 51% of students studying at Welsh universities were Welsh-domiciled, while 47% were English-domiciled. Around a third (34%) of all Welsh-domiciled students study in England too, making cross-border movement more important in terms of planning to the (then Labour-Plaid) Welsh Government than elsewhere in the UK.

The WAO say the Welsh Government wanted to "respond quickly" to Westminster's decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year. As a result, WAO say there was "limited engagement" between the Welsh Government and funding body, HEFCW, in terms of formulating a response.

Officials drew up six scenarios, each of them – except one – based on £9,000 tuition fees in Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

The Welsh Government only expected "elite" universities to charge the maximum £9,000; or universities to charge £9,000 for high-cost courses (like sciences), and £6,000 for low-cost courses (like liberal arts).

Officials decided a financial model based on a £7,000 average fee would, therefore, be appropriate. The Welsh Government's chief economist agreed, albeit with some concerns about the strength of the evidence.

However, HEFCW weren't given the opportunity to challenge the figures, and believed the £7,000 assumption was "too optimistic". They were proven right.

So there was a mismatch between the financial models originally drawn up (based on a £9,000 fee) and the £7,000 average fee assumption the Welsh Government decided its final policy with. Subsequently, the WAO claim the "appraisal (of the six options on the table) failed to conform to best practice."

The Welsh Government have since updated their models, meaning the policy will cost £809million between 2012-13 and 2016-17 - £156million more than originally forecast.

2. Issues with tuition fee policy implementation

WAO say both the Welsh Government and HEFCW have implemented the tuition fee policy "effectively", but they have concerns about :
  • Changes to part-time tuition fees – These haven't progressed "as the Welsh Government intended", but there was wide support to put decisions on hold. WAO say there needs to be longer-term certainty as part-time tuition fees are currently unregulated.
  • Processing student finance applications – Welsh Government plans to centralise student finance through the Student Loans Company (currently on hold due to problems in England) need to address weaknesses in the system. It was investigated as part of the Higher Education (Governance and Information) Bill (due to pass next week), and there are concerns about possible fraud depending on how "ordinarily resident in Wales" will be defined and enforced.
  • The role of HEFCW – WAO say HEFCW handled the tuition fee policy well, but some of their work – like keeping a limit on non-Welsh UK and EU-domiciled students, and cuts to postgraduate course funding – has led to criticism from universities.

3. Financial health of Welsh universities


I think it's worth pointing out that the main headline finding from the WAO report seems to have flown over people's heads : the finances of Welsh universities are said to be "in good health" and "generally sound". That's the most important thing, and is perhaps good news for the Welsh Government. Good news is hard to sell though.

Income at Welsh universities is up year-on-year, mostly as a result of higher tuition fees. Although surpluses are said to be falling - which could put Welsh universities at a competitive disadvantage in the medium-term – Welsh universities are set to continue to have strong cash resources and reserves.

The Key Issues

Because the higher than expected costs have been absorbed by the Welsh Government - seemingly without any major problems - then this perhaps isn't as serious as it could've been.  It's fairly normal for government departments to run up unexpected cost overruns, even with the best plans and estimates in place.

As the - then - Education Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), said himself (and it's there in the WAO report) officials knew about the financial impact a £9,000 cap would have and planned for it. Though they rushed the process, you can see why they wanted to work with averages if time was running out to come up with a response.

Perhaps the most important issue - which doesn't seem to have been mentioned elsewhere - is the absence of key input from HEFCW, who were clearly concerned about the "optimistic" use of an average £7,000 tuition fee when finalising the policy. HEFCW are effectively in charge of distributing HE finance, so brushing them off seems a poor decision.

Another issue surrounds whether the whole cabinet knew of the potential financial risks of a £9,000 cap when the policy was decided, though the report says Leighton Andrews and other "certain cabinet members" knew. According to Toby Mason, that includes former Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn-Jones. It should've been made available to the whole cabinet though in order to them to make a properly informed decision.

Sticking with the policy as it was seems both commendably stubborn (Leighton Andrews trying to do good by Welsh students) yet regrettably short-sighted - to the tune of £156million.

So the heart was there, the head was not. It was clearly rushed policy, but not without some thought behind it. This isn't an AWEMA or a RIFW, though it's no doubt very embarrassing for Cathays Park.

The principle of the tuition fee policy is fine (if controversial), and in some respects quite commendable. However, in straightened time, such policies should perhaps only apply to Welsh-domiciled students studying at Welsh universities; though a reduced subsidy for Welsh domiciled students studying elsewhere might be appropriate (or a full subsidy applying to certain key courses, like medicine and nursing).

It's for the forthcoming review and Finance Committee inquiries to ultimately decide, I suppose.
UPDATE : 26/11/13 : BBC Wales report that the First Minister has published the cabinet papers and minutes from the day the tuition fee policy was decided in November 2010. It appears the final decision was based on a £7,000 average fee assumption, with passive references to the prospect of higher fees being set immediately.

That pretty much corroborates what Leighton Andrews has said and it doesn't really change anything. But you still have to ask whether the cabinet were able to make a fully informed decision based on the information that was presented to them?

Saturday, 23 November 2013

AM set to become first person on Neptune

An artist's impression of Popty Ping I making its final descent into Neptune.

A charitable cause is like catnip to your typical, fully-housetrained AM.

Nobody can forget Sillius Soddus AM's (Con, Aberchddll Left No Right A Bit) ten days of rigorous, slightly arthritic pelvic thrusting on the Senedd steps to raise awareness of Saturday Night Fever; Proctalgia Fugax AM (Lib Dem, Ŷ) bobbing for apples in lit petrol to raise money towards the euthanasia of cute and fearful animals; or Carwyn the Question (Lab, Bridgend) replacing Derek the Weather on BBC Wales weather forecasts.

Jubilant masses gathered at the Senedd to usher in the end of Derek Brockway's 16-minute tyranny, which resulted in the deaths of 27,000 people in what became known as the Shwmae Day Massacre.

The First Minister suddenly announced to the shocked audience that, to coincide with the forthcoming arrival of an astronomy roadshow and Wales being shortlisted for a space tourism base, a backbench AM would become the first human on Neptune.
"We choose to go to Neptune this decade and do other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard," he says. Silence.

The blood drained from the face of every AM present, their hair standing on end to the extent they resembled a line-up at a Robert Smith lookalike contest. They couldn't decide whether it was Carwyn's stint controlling the weather that had gone to his head, or an aneurysm.

A panicked crush builds near the exits as the invited guests desperately try to escape the building. Carwyn tries to whip up some enthusiasm. "Come on, mun!" He waves his arms, "Let's be 'aving you!"....It's for charity!"

With that, everyone scrambles to return to their seat, never wanting to be seen to turn their back on a good cause.


"We know some people climb up mountains and stuff for charity, or go for a run dressed as a post box,"
Carwyn says. "That's getting boring now. So I thought we'd really push the boat out."


The charity – The Foundation for Romanticist Pseudoscience – was founded by a drippy hippy from Islington, who moved to Gwynedd to escape the pink elephants and find herself (massive pots of WEFO cash). This follows a scandal where every child who attended her Free Schools in England were taught that shoes were sacrilegious.

"It is my wish," she says, "that once the brave star baby we choose from amongst you has completed the estimated four day journey, they make peace with the God-like creatures that reside beneath Neptune's bountiful, pure, deep blue seas. We will then strap a helpless child to that Magic Roundabout ride in front of the Pierhead Building to appease them.

"With the decadence of humankind left behind - all the war, and the misogyny of technological progress - we go to Neptune to find the God that is nature, peace and love!

"Behold,"
she points across the Bay, "our space pram!"

The first launch vehicle of the Welsh Star Empire is a cut-n-shut - Vauxhall Corsa up front, Saturn V behind - christened Popty Ping I.

"What's the aim of your charity?" asks one AM.

"Aside from giving me something to do that's irrelevant to anything at your expense....uh....raising awareness, I suppose," says the founder. "Is there any deed nobler than proving you're aware of something more than someone else?"

Sillius Soddus suggested that in addition raising awareness of raising awareness, the mission could be used to cover one side of Neptune with a giant poppy to shame the universe into acknowledging the Commonwealth's war dead.

"Fannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn-tastic!" Carwyn says. "That's the kind of thinking that can buy someone a trip to Neptune! And a photo in the local paper!"

Surf's up, Aberchddll! the headline blazed, as Sillius posed in his wetsuit. He'll take a surfboard with him too, as he's been told to expect world-class watersport facilities. "Of course I've seen 'Event Horizon'," he added in his interview (he hadn't really). "I'm down with the kids."

Space aboard the craft was limited. Only the best creative works humanity had to offer could be taken as entertainment. Following the drafting of a shortlist, and exclusive Wales Online vote, he was presented with The Complete Works of Phil Collins, Fred : The Movie and a service revolver with one bullet.

At the final briefing, a scientist was dragged reluctantly from some mind-numbingly tedious and underfunded work to give a health and safety talk.

"I find your expectations for this mission childlike in both ignorance and innocence, and treat it with nothing but the utmost contempt,"
she says, as AMs nod along and applaud politely.

"It's no four day journey, more like four thousand days - slightly shorter than your typical orthopaedic waiting list. It's also not so much being the first person on Neptune, more like the first person in Neptune.

"If he's lucky enough not to die the instant your 'space pram' leaves orbit, with 'Easy Lover' stuck on loop, Sillius - or rather his corpse - will eventually become part of Neptune's atmosphere, torn to pieces by 1000mph winds.

"His face, ripped from his body, will be carried around like a plastic bag caught in a maelstrom of toxic gas, making what's likely to be a terrified screaming expression at the horror of it all,
in the sort of monstrous conditions in which you're unable to tell up from down.

"It'll be like that time they served 'Randy Magma's Howlin' Bowel Chili' in the Senedd cafe when they ran out of cake.


"There'll be nothing to bury or mourn. Fragments of Sillius will be trapped for eternity, damned to never leave dark, icy grave billions of miles from home - a freezing hell that's beyond description. The horrors will continue after death for poor Sillius, as the Assembly will inevitably note his glorious sacrifice in a lengthy plenary debate.


"You have the mistaken impression peace and love exists. But the laws of man and nature are harsh. Sillius will have no peace. No love. He won't even make a dent in the universe.

"All Sillius will find out there is a right good f**king."


The silence as she left was only broken by a few nervous coughs.

"It's....it's for a good cause,"
Sillius says, shrugging.

On the day of the launch, Sillius and invited guests were raised to the driver's side door of Popty Ping I on a cherry picker.

The first cymronaut was increasingly unsure about his mission, suspecting his wetsuit and snorkel wouldn't do much to protect him from the rigours of interplanetary travel, while half a Corsa sitting atop thousands of tonnes of rocket fuel probably breaches fire regulations. Fire regulations his party would usually oppose.

"Can't....Can't I just do a few laps of the Bay dressed as a lightbulb?" he asks Carwyn.

"Don't be such a spoilsport!" Carwyn says, "Look at all these people who've turned out for you!"

He points to the ground, where Leanne Wood waves, shouting back "Hashtag ymlaen!" Andrew RT Davies shouts, "I COULD'VE GOT YOU A GOOD DEAL ON AN ASTRA! CHUCKING OUR MONEY AWAY AGAIN!"

"Where's the food?" Sillius asks. Carwyn points to a box of Space Raiders and a bottle of Tizer strapped into the passenger seat. "How will I breathe?"

"You saw the training video!" Carwyn shouts, rolling his eyes as he demonstrates how the electric windows worked.

"It wasn't a training video. It was 'Spaceballs'. Where's the toilet?"

"I just showed you 'ow the windows worked!"

As Sillius strapped himself in with his seat belt - his trousers going to brown alert - he decided to get his 12-year non-stop Phil Collins marathon started with 'In The Air Tonight'.

"Yoo hooooo!" Lynne Neagle marches towards the launch site waving several sheets of paper.

"Go away! I'm busy," Carwyn shouts over his shoulder.

"Oh!" Huw Lewis says, frowning, "Show some respect, butt!" He shouts down, "What is it, my little Rosa Luxemburg?"

"I've got a petition yur,"
Lynne shouts back. "You need to stop all this, now. Official."

The linguistically sensitive people of Torfaen had taken exception to the Welsh translation of the mission documents, demanding that they keep the original, proper English name 'Uranus', as people might make fun of the Welsh name – 'Urbumhôl'.

Mission aborted.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Housing Bill introduced to the National Assembly

The Welsh Government's Housing Bill is a wide-ranging law that aims
to tackle "rogue landlords", address homelessness, improve social housing
standards and reduce the number of empty homes.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Continuing the housing theme, the Welsh Government's Housing Bill was introduced to the National Assembly on Tuesday by Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside).

It's fair to describe it as "flagship" legislation, and it's also a whopper, coming in at 85 pages.The Bill's available here (pdf) and the explanatory memorandum here (pdf).

It's been recently said elsewhere....apparently....that the Welsh blogosphere often "lacks thought and detail", is too safe and sanitised and has failed to "facilitate democratic engagement and scrutiny".

I'll admit it. I've let you, the Assembly, our AMs and the whole of Welsh society down.

It's a burden I carry every night, as I lie awake, wondering whether to cover gosspy, banal stories like the ongoing collapse of local democracy in Carmarthenshire, the impact of High Speed 2 on the Welsh economy or getting my chompers around the annual report of the Chief Dental Officer.

The blogosphere continuously fails to demand answers to the big questions. What does the Taxpayers' Alliance think about politicians eating and breathing at public expense? What does some chippy anonymous source think about press officers writing press releases at their place of work?

The blogosphere was supposed to open a window, casting light and transparency on Welsh democracy and those who claim to uphold it. Clearly, all opening that window ever did was let in a field's worth of beefy cow farts. It's a dereliction of duty. We need to return to fighting for what is right and cover the controversial.

I'll spend more time hanging around the Senedd, Eli Jenkins pub and Tŷ Hywel looking for receipts in bins. I'll use my extensive network of Assembly spies and media connections - because everyone outside the Bay Bubble establishment has them - more effectively; telling you if Assembly staff are using all those flatscreen TVs to watch Bargain Hunt, or what AMs really think of Peter Black's ties. The people have a right to know.

Instead of my typically concise, pithy blogs, I'm going to do something different today and go into a bit more detail than usual. There's nothing more worthy of democratic engagement and scrutiny than a new law; which could directly and indirectly affect tens of millions in public and private spending as well as thousands of households. The sort of thing I'd usually just gloss over.


Few of you are masochistic enough to delve through it yourselves, so I guess I'm going to have to try to cram more than 250 pages of text to as close to 2,000 words as possible. In my own time. By myself. For free.

What people think of that and whether people take time to acknowledge it is another matter.



Why does Wales need a Housing Bill?

It's claimed 14,000 new homes are required in Wales each year – up to 9,200 private new builds, and 5,100 from other providers like private landlords, housing associations and local authorities. They're all going to be of varying quality and owned/operated by many different companies and individuals.

One of the key aims is to create a mandatory licensing system for landlords and letting agents, as until now such schemes have been voluntary, with some landlords being bad news for both tenants and communities.

The Welsh Government say there are 22,000 empty properties, many of which can be brought up to a decent standard. Existing homes, especially older housing, also need upgrades. That's being carried out to social housing via the Wales Quality Housing Standard (WHQS), but not enough is being done in the private rented sector.

Homelessness is on an upward trend – some 5,800 households were accepted as homeless in 2012-13 - as housebuilding slows, social houses aren't built at a fast enough rate to keep up with demand, and welfare reforms impact households, like the infamous "bedroom tax".

In addition to that there's the perennial local campaign favourite of new gypsy and traveller sites, while the Bill could also lead to reforms in social housing standards and charges, and make an expansion of co-operative home ownership easier and more attractive to prospective tenants.

What does the Housing Bill propose?

The Bill itself is divided into 8 parts and 3 schedules. I'm clumping them together into broad themes instead.

Regulation of the Private Renting Sector

The Bill:
  • Makes it a legal requirement for private landlords and/or letting agents to register and be licenced with any local authority in which they let property.
  • Places statutory duties on local authorities to maintain a publicly accessible register of licenced landlords and agents.
  • Places a duty on licenced landlords or agents to notify local authorities of any change of circumstances within 28 days of the change occurring.
  • Disqualifies people from receiving a licence if they :
    • fail a "fit and proper persons test" – including committing fraud, acts of discrimination or harassment, firearms offences, sexual offences or failing to comply with other housing/landlord laws.
    • haven't been trained in managing rental properties to the local authority's satisfaction.
    • don't agree to abide by a Welsh Government Code of Practice.
  • Mandates that licences will be valid for 5 years from the date of issue and will allow licences to be renewed 3 months before they expire.
  • Grants local authorities the power to :
    • revoke licences if a landlord or agent breaches any rules (with a right to appeal).
    • issue "rent stopping orders" - where no rent is payable – if a landlord fails to comply with licencing requirements.
    • turn down a licence renewal (with a right to appeal).
  • Creates new offences, like :
    • failing to produce/display a licence - up to £1,000 fine.
    • advertising, letting or managing a rental property without a licence - up to £1,000 fine, barring a "reasonable excuse".
    • failing to provide documents to local authorities when required - up to £2,500 fine.
    • providing false information to the local authority - up to £2,500 fine.

Homelessness

The Housing Bill aims to prevent people becoming homeless in the
first place by placing duties on housing authorities to intervene early.
(Pic :BBC)
The Bill:
  • Places a statutory duty on local authorities to carry out a homelessness review and publish a homelessness strategy every four years starting in 2018, which includes monitoring current and expected levels of homelessness, homelessness prevention activities and resources available to combat homelessness.
  • Defines a "homeless person" as someone who :
    • has no accommodation they can occupy legally.
    • cannot occupy a home in the UK they would otherwise be entitled to occupy.
    • cannot secure entry into a home they otherwise live in.
    • lives in a movable home with no permitted place to put it.
  • Defines someone as "threatened with homelessness" if they would become homeless (as defined above) within 56 days.
  • Outlines that when dealing with homelessness applications, local authorities must :
    • determine whether emergency accommodation is "suitable" for a person.
    • provide information and advice to someone who's homeless or threatened with homelessness.
    • prevent homelessness applicants from becoming homeless in the first place.
    • guarantee accommodation for "priority need applicants".
    • try and find accommodation within their area whenever they can. Though the Bill sets out the arrangements whereby they notify, in writing, any other local authority they intend house someone in.
  • Sets out guidelines for appeals, reviews, and protection of a homeless applicant's property (where applicable).
  • Makes it an offence to provide false, or knowingly withhold, information when making a homelessness application, punishable by a fine of up to £2,500.
  • Gives local authorities the power to refer homeless applicants to another local authority in Wales or England if they don't have a local connection - unless they're at risk of domestic abuse.
  • Defines "local connection" as a person who :
    • was normally resident in the local authority they've made a homelessness application in.
    • is employed in the local authority.
    • has family associations in the local authority.

Eligibility for Homelessness Assistance
  • "Priority need applicants" include :
    • pregnant women (and a person they would normally reside with).
    • people with dependant children, with disabilities, are elderly, have a serious illness or are subject to domestic abuse.
    • people affected by a natural or man-made disaster.
    • 16-21 year olds who've left care, fostering or are at risk of sexual or financial exploitation.
    • former military personnel who are homeless upon leaving the Armed Forces.
    • "vulnerable" released prisoners (or someone who's been held on remand) but only those with a "local connection" (as defined above).
  • People ineligible for help under this law are :
    • persons from abroad who are otherwise ineligible, including non-EU nationals.
    • subject to immigration controls or are excluded from benefit entitlements under the Asylum & Immigration Acts 1996 & 1999
  • Statutory homelessness duties on local authorities will end for people who:
    • turn down emergency accommodation that the local authority has deemed suitable.
    • become "intentionally homeless" (i.e. evicted due to anti-social behaviour) – though the Welsh Government will have the power to draw up who counts as "intentionally homeless".
    • accepts either an offer of a private sector tenancy that lasts at least 6 months or a social housing tenancy.


Gypsies & Travellers

The Housing Bill could lead to an increase in the number
of legal traveller sites in Wales.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Bill :
  • Defines a "gypsy or traveller" as
    • a person of a "nomadic lifestyle" regardless of race.
    • people who used to live a nomadic lifestyle but no longer do (i.e. health reasons).
    • travelling circuses and show people.
    • anyone who lives in a mobile home for cultural reasons.
  • Places a statutory duty on local authorities to :
    • carry out an assessment of, and publish a report into, gypsy and traveller site requirements every five years from the publication of their first report.
    • use their powers under the Mobile Homes Act 2013 to provide sites for travellers where there's an assessed need.
  • Gives Welsh Ministers the power to :
    • approve, amend or reject any gypsy and traveller needs assessment, and issue guidance to local authorities.
    • force local authorities to meet certain duties with regard gypsy and traveller sites as stipulated in the Mobile Homes Act 2013.

Social Housing Standards

The Bill :
  • Gives Welsh Ministers the power to set and revise standards for social housing, including :
    • rent levels and service charges (which will be charged separately).
    • rules relating to rent levels and service charges.
    • the quality of social housing itself.
  • Gives Welsh Ministers (or someone working on their behalf) the power to issue warnings, intervene, and the power of entry, if they believe housing authorities aren't complying with standards.
  • Removes a requirement in the Housing Act 1985 for housing authorities - when setting "reasonable rents" - to keep social rents broadly in line with private sector rents. Instead, they'll need to comply with any new guidance/limits Welsh Ministers introduce.

Finance, Tenancies and Council Tax on Empty Properties

Long-term empty and abandoned homes will be liable
to a 150% council tax rate.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Bill :
  • Abolishes the Housing Revenue Accounts Subsidy (HRAS), and gives Welsh Ministers the power to set a "settlement payment" for the eleven Welsh local authorities forced to leave the scheme as a result.
  • Amends the Housing Act 1988 to enable mutuals and co-operatives to provide assured tenancies, enabling co-operative/mutual tenants to benefit from the same legal protections as assured tenancies offered elsewhere.
  • Via amendments to the Local Government Finance Act 1992, gives local authorities the option to set an additional 50% rate of council tax (150%) on "long-term empty properties" (unoccupied and unfurnished for at least a year). It also gives Welsh Ministers the power to decided what properties this would apply to.
Costs

Now things start to get complicated.

Creating a mandatory landlord and agent register will cost £500,000, but would be self-financing because of fee income. Start-up costs for local authorities are estimated to be £250,000. Most of the burden falls on landlords and agents - upwards of £8million (between 2015-2017) - with costs falling to £265,000 per year once landlords/agents are registered and properly accredited as outlined in the Bill.

With regard the homelessness measures, the explanatory memorandum estimates ~32,100 applications for homelessness assistance will be made in 2015-16. The total cost, under existing laws, is estimated to be ~£21.3million. Under the preferred option in the new law, additional costs are estimated to be £5.9million, based on increases in homelessness assistance applications - an extra 3,200 - as a result of the Bill's provisions (for example, increasing the limit of "threatened with homelessness" from 28 to 56 days).

The total cost of the homelessness provisions is estimated to be in the region of £27.2-32.4million, based on expected homelessness figures, which themselves are dependant on multiple factors, including welfare reform and the state of the economy.

The gypsy and traveller measures will cost ~£1.6million per year until 2019-20, with most of that being the existing £1.5million grant to fund new traveller sites.

The preferred option for social housing standards sees a £15,000 per year cost fall on the Welsh Government, and £7,000 per year falling on social housing providers to collect and submit data. The preferred option for rent and service charge changes would initially cost £1.7million to set up – the vast bulk falling on local authorities – and £397,000 per year afterwards.

Abolishing HRAS has apparently been agreed with the Treasury, estimated to cost ~£990,000. However, an estimated £33million of rent income from Welsh local authority housing would then remain in Wales instead of being paid to Westminster.

The costs of the co-operative housing tenancy provisions will be around £130-140,000, mostly taking the form of continued funding to the Wales Co-operative Centre.

Additional council tax rate on empty homes would initially cost £359,000 to local authorities and Welsh Government to set up. From 2016-17, when the provisions come into force, it'll cost £527,000 per year in increased enforcement and tribunal costs. However, it's estimated a 150% council tax rate would raise somewhere between £11-14.4million for local authorities from the just over 24,200 homes left empty for more than a year.

What does this Bill mean?

Expect to see more of this.
This Bill is....wait for it....potentially quite controversial, and there
are more talking points than the media have let on.
(Pic : Wales Online)
There are many significant provisions in this Bill, notably the creation of a mandatory licensing system for private landlords, which should professionalise the industry further, helping to drive "slumlords" out – I'm thinking along the north Wales coast in particular.

Alongside that, other provisions – like those relating to mutual and co-operative housing and a fairer system of rents and charges for social housing tenants – seem sensible, even populist in some circumstances. It's for AMs to decide if that's truly the case though.


The extra council tax rate on empty properties might cause problems, especially if many are old holiday homes that haven't been used in a long time, though it's unrelated to the proposed general 200% rate on second homes.
It would also encourage owners either to sell, renovate or rent their properties, increasing housing supply.

The abolition of HRAS – one of the few ways Wales has subsidised England to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds, perhaps more, for decades – will lead to rent being retained in Wales, and money that could be reinvested in social housing by housing authorities. If the Bill passes and HRAS is abolished, then the Bevan Foundation and Plaid Cymru can probably chalk up its abolition as a success for them as much as the Welsh Government.

The gypsy and traveller provisions could cause problems as many people have an "issue" with traveller sites. The prospect of more of them being required by law could lead to difficulties in some communities, and perhaps for individual AMs too. No AM will be able to campaign against extra traveller sites honestly if they back the provisions in the Bill as outlined.


Entrenched opposition to sites might be less if local residents knew travellers living on legal sites were paying their way (they pay council tax when living on local authority and private sites, and most - if not all - work), had a strict code of conduct, and had full access to local authority services like rubbish collection.

There needs to be a bit of common sense when deciding where they should go. They shouldn't be sited out in the sticks on busy main roads, but there's no point in siting them in built up areas either. I'm not sure if that's best left to any Welsh Government guidance/regulations to come from the Bill, or if it should be included as clauses within the Bill itself.

The homelessness provisions are extensive – perhaps to the point it should've been a stand alone Homelessness Bill. They could cause controversy, mainly due to the impact on recently-released prisoners and (as I understand it) the powers for Welsh local authorities to transfer any homeless applicants who don't have a local connection elsewhere - including back over the border where applicable. The only exceptions, it seems, would be those fleeing domestic violence.

The Bill maintains released prisoners as a priority homelessness group if they have a proven local connection. However, homelessness is often cited as a cause of re-offending. Like gypsies and travellers, sheltered accommodation for homeless and vulnerable young adults is often sited in unsuitable places and attracts local opposition.

It's a reasonable compromise, as is the general requirement for a "local connection" when receiving homelessness assistance. It's best people receive help where they have strong connections and are perhaps known to the authorities, instead of becoming vagrants. The same requirements should apply to social homes too.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Welsh Tory Housing Policies - Do they add up?


It's obvious we need more housing, but are recent Welsh Conservative proposals the
right way forward? Or at an even more basic level, do their numbers add up?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Welsh Government's long awaited for Housing Bill was formally introduced to the National Assembly today (it's separate from the proposed Renting Homes Bill), and I'll take a closer look at that later this week.

Though last week, the Welsh Conservatives - via Shadow Housing Minister, Mark Isherwood (Con, North Wales) - launched their own outline policy proposals, entitled A Vision for Welsh Housing (pdf).

The Three Main Proposals

1. – Increase House Building


It's said every £1 spent on construction boosts the economy by £1.70.
The Welsh Conservatives want to increase the current ~4,900 homes built per year to 14,000 per year, based on (often controversial) local authority housing need assessments.

Local councils set quotas for affordable housing within each development, and the Welsh Conservatives believe these quotas hinder the viability of large developments. So, they propose viability assessments from house builders themselves should be the overriding consideration, with the number of affordable homes per development based on commercial viability, not a "catch-all target".

In addition, they propose the creation of a Welsh Housing Commission to develop "evidence-based ideas", with membership that includes private house builders, private landlords and housing associations. They also want to nurture more construction talent in schools and colleges for obvious reasons.

2. – "Right to Buy" reforms

The headline policy is to ring-fence funds raised from "Right to Buy" sales in order to build a replacement social home for every home sold – termed "one for one". They point to England, where £367million was raised from just under 6,000 sales in 2012-13.

The Welsh Conservatives also want to prevent "Right to Buy" homes being sold quickly or turned into buy-to-lets. They'll do that by forcing a repayment of some of the "Right to Buy" discount a seller receives depending on how long they lived in the property.

3. – Bring empty homes back into use

Any home left unoccupied for more than 6 months is legally classified as "empty".

It's long been Welsh Government policy to bring abandoned properties – estimates suggest between 22,000-33,500 of them in Wales – back into use. The Welsh Government currently aim to being 5,000 back into use by 2016 via their Houses into Homes scheme, which offers interest-free loans to renovate empty properties.

The Conservatives propose something similar to a UK Government scheme in England, where a proportion of empty homes funding is paid directly to social landlords and community housing groups.

Also, the Welsh Government currently intend to levy higher council tax rates on second and empty homes left vacant for up to one year (which is part of the Housing Bill) – the Welsh Conservatives would increase that to two years to give owners more breathing room.

The Reaction

It's fair to say the reaction to the proposals has been lukewarm.

On the positive side, it was partially welcomed by Community Housing Cymru (CHC), with BBC Wales reporting CHC agreed with a lot of the content, and the ambition to increase housing supply, but noted that UK Government policies (such as the "Bedroom Tax") have reduced rental income for housing associations and seen an increase in empty properties. It looks like house builders have also broadly welcomed the proposals too.

Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government haven't honoured it with a formal response yet (unless, in the case of the latter, you consider the Housing Bill itself a response), though the policy proposals are due to be debated in the Assembly tomorrow.

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) described it as, "Big on ambition, short on detail and full of holes." Meanwhile, Welsh Labour's backbench spokesperson for Everything, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), is quoted as saying there were "not enough details in these proposal to take them seriously".

I'm inclined to agree with them.

Does it add up?

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with policies that encourage home-ownership and increase housing supply (both private and social), and I agree with it perhaps for the same reasons as the Welsh Conservatives - it promotes personal responsibility, is often a decent investment and facilitates an all around sense of prosperity and well-being.

Meanwhile, the creation of a Welsh Housing Commission is a step up from, or complement to, the existing construction sector panel.

However, policy approaches are beginning to sound like a stuck record, led by supply-side thinking (house builders, developers and landlords) while neglecting the demand-side (tenants, communities and buyers). Things like shared equity and mortgage guarantees, for example, seem a way to prop house prices up - a form of renting with a large down-payment - rather than a serious attempt to make homes more affordable.

Here's an idea. Why don't we start building cheaper homes, full stop? Here's some examples. Here's some more.

14,000 homes built per year seems a laughable number considering even – by the Welsh Conservatives' own figures (Annex A)– at peak strength the construction industry built 10-11,000 homes per year.

8,000-9,000 per year might be a more realistic target, which would still be double the current housebuilding rate, though largely dependant on a significant Welsh economic recovery.

Please tell me the Welsh Conservatives don't believe property should drive economic growth? Haven't they learned anything from the last ten years?

Most demand will be for affordable housing (from first time buyers, people moving from the rental sector, and those priced out in rural Wales) and one and two bedroom homes for purchase and rent (for the increase in numbers of single people, people in social housing affected by the "Bedroom Tax" and down-sizing pensioners).

An affordable home is generally defined as being priced at three to four times household income. In Wales (average salary given as £24,076 p9), that would be around £72-96,000 for a single person, and £144-193,000 for a couple - presuming both earned the average salary or more.


Take a look at any planning application for a big housing development.
House builders seem keen to build three and four bedroom executive homes that sell for £180-200,000+ – even in the valleys.

There's a market mismatch. People who need a one or two bedroom home don't have any option but to buy a more expensive three or four bedroom one. And of course house builders will say, "We don't want a 40% affordable housing quota,"because it reduces space for the money-makers.Regulatory cuts will see more estates of stupidly-overpriced cuckoo clock houses built in places like Tonyrefail because it's cheaper to build there than Cardiff.

House builders know poorer local authorities will bend over backwards to get more higher-rate council taxpayers living within their borders. It's awful policy. It could cause an Irish-style housing bubble if house price optimism keeps trumping common sense, and that's before mentioning wider planning and "sustainability" issues like transport and overbuilding in unsuitable areas.

The Welsh Tory proposals - in the absence of a detailed assessment - hint at two
social houses needing to be sold under "Right to Buy"  to pay for one replacement.
(Pic : Gwalia Housing)
On the specifics of their "Right to Buy" proposals (or "Right to Acquire" for non-local authority social housing tenants), firstly, if there were a rush of "Right to Buy" sales, it would cause a reduction in social housing until replacements are built. So there would need to be significant numbers of social homes built before any "Right to Buy" reforms can come into effect to prevent making short-term housing shortages even worse.

On costings, the numbers given in this Welsh Government statement (£3.8million for 35 social houses), imply each "Right to Buy" home would need to raise between £100-110,000 to enable a one-for-one replacement. That presumably includes associated costs like land, access, S106 agreements and utilities (and we're talking one and two bedroom homes, larger homes would cost more).

Based on the English "Right to Buy" figures the Welsh Conservatives provided (£367million from 5,944 dwelling sales - p24), "Right to Buy" raised £61,742 per home - but remember discounts are larger and house prices are generally higher in England. And only 844 replacements have been bought or are under construction so far - "One for Seven".

Any funding gap would either need to be filled from the Welsh Government's housing budget (which I'd imagine wouldn't be ring-fenced or boosted by any Conservative government), from housing associations' own capital funds or borrowing.



Next, the maximum "Right to Buy" discount in Wales is up to £16,000.


The Welsh Conservatives would probably have to keep that £16,000 cap. They'll be unable to raise the discount to English levels (up to £75,000 in many areas outside London) otherwise sale income would be even less, and there would be even less money to build a one-for-one replacement.

So it's likely that at least two social homes would need to be sold to build one replacement. "One for Two" doesn't sound like a good deal. If the Welsh Tories have better figures to back up their policy, they need to produce them – as early as tomorrow's debate, I'd say - because the ship's sinking beneath the waves.


And what is it with Welsh parties not publishing details when announcing policies?

UPDATE : 22/11/2013 - During the debate, Mark Isherwood did provide general figures, but it appears nothing relating to the one-for-one policy. The only "concrete" figures came from Peter Black and Carl Sargeant, and they both concur that the sums for a one-for-one replacement of social homes simply don't add up. "Basic maths" in Carl's own words.