Today’s Senedd roundup: Calls for expansion of co-operative housing

Dawn Bowden. Picture by Welsh Labour

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

This week’s short debate was led by Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) on the subject of co-operative housing schemes.

Housing is “a deeply political choice”

Acknowledging there’s growing consensus and lots of common ground developing on the need to creatively address the housing crisis, the implementation of the bedroom tax and local housing allowances has had a negative impact on young people and single-person households.

Co-operative housing provides another potential solution. Merthyr Valleys Homes is a mutual housing association which allows tenants and workers alike to become a member and own shares and leading to much-needed regeneration of otherwise overlooked housing options.

“….it is perhaps no surprise that Merthyr Valleys Homes also helped to nurture and help develop the Taf Fechan Housing Co-operative. For those who don’t know the area, the Taf Fechan flats (pictured above) had, in truth, become undesirable, hard-to-let units, physically run down, vandalised, and suffering anti-social behaviour. Thankfully, through the vision of Merthyr Valleys Homes, and with support through cheap finance from the local authority, the option of a housing co-operative was identified as part of a brighter future for the 12 flats that are now in the co-operative on the Gellideg estate.”
– Dawn Bowden AM

Residents in the flats have to be members of the co-operative and share responsibility running their homes, making communal decisions on rent levels, maintenance and managing tenancies.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) described himself as a long-time advocate for co-operative housing, citing similar schemes in Turkey, Canada, the Nordic countries, Austria and New York. In Turkey, some 25% of all housing is co-operative and in Sweden and Norway, it’s pushing 20%.

Social housing is the government’s “top priority”

Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) said the Welsh Government’s priority was still social housing, though community-led housing forms part of the solution and she accepted it wasn’t growing as fast as it could be in Wales.

“….there’s a sort of misapprehension about what (co-operative housing) means. But I’ve visited a west side apartment in New York that’s a co-operative, and it looked like a penthouse to me, is all I can say….What it also does is it allows us to drive different models and types of tenure into our housing across Wales, and that kind of mixed tenure is really important.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

The government has provided £1.9 million in capital funding to support three “pioneer schemes”, while other local authorities like Swansea have moved to adopt a co-operative housing policy.

Such a programme has to be led by communities themselves though and not “top-down”, while she’s ruled out community land trusts for the time being as she wasn’t convinced it would work – though the Minister was open-minded to considering viable proposals in the future.

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Minister: Homelessness can’t be addressed without reform to the local housing allowance

It seems there was a strong housing theme to Senedd’s debates this week, culminating in the Conservative-led debate on homelessness.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Recognises that current policies to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping are falling short of what is required, but commends the good practice that is to be found in the sector and welcomes the establishment of the Homelessness Action Group.
  • Notes that 25 homeless people died in Wales in 2018, 25,937 people experienced homelessness across Wales in 2017-18, between 2012 and 2017 the number of rough sleepers in Wales increased by 75% and the number sleeping in cars, tents and on public transport increased by 50%.
  • Further notes the Welsh Conservatives 10-point action plan to tackle homelessness.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to appoint a homelessness tsar, ideally someone who has lived experience of homelessness.

A basic human right

Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), said the motion was drafted to be as non-political as possible as he was sure there was a lot of consensuses that housing should be a basic human right despite different ideas on how to achieve a reduction in homelessness.

Citing good work undertaken by charities working with veterans and expressing support for repealing the much-criticised Vagrancy Act 1824, the main conclusion of the Conservative’s plan was a need for a cross-department approach to homelessness.

“….we need a more holistic approach and housing first is the best example at scale now of a holistic approach….It’s not good enough to say that housing is simply the answer to homelessness, because it’s a problem that spans across agencies, from health to education, housing to employment. So, we do need a holistic cross-agency approach, and that is why we chose as the title of our policy ‘More than a Refuge’. We reflected on the causes of homelessness, which are complex and overlapping, and I was impressed by the Auditor General’s analysis….He said it’s ‘much more than putting a roof over people’s heads.’”
– Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM

Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central) tabled several amendments and stood by a belief that property ownership was essential for wealth, criticising the ban on Right to Buy when some AMs own up to three properties yet deny working-class people a chance to own one.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) said this had to be put in a broader context of austerity and cuts to support for housing and the homeless – pointing to a recent report that 32,000 households in England and Wales have been abandoned by local authorities for supposedly losing contact. The time has come to stop talking and start doing.

The private sector has a responsibility too

“I think the private rented sector can and should contribute to relieving homelessness. We may need 40,000 new social sector homes, but that would take 10 years, even under a Conservative Welsh Government, so I think the private sector should also be an active agent of providing good-quality housing as well as being good partners. In Swansea, the Wallich and Dawsons estate agents have helped clients who had experienced homelessness find sustainable accommodation by offering guarantees instead of cash bonds to landlords, together with support through benefit delays and rent arrears, for example.”
– Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West)

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) once again called for a ramping-up in council house building, while Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) warned that some people might not be included in homelessness statistics. He added that there had to be an ambitious house-building programme, but Labour has slashed social housing grants by 71% in the three terms since 1999.

Many AMs expressed shame that people were still living rough in one of the world’s largest economies, but there was one AM who had a more direct experience:

“I stand here today….as someone who was homeless for a short time as a young 15-year-old person. Due to a really bad home life, I needed somewhere to stay, so I lived in a caravan with friends in return for odd jobs with a travelling fair. Six weeks later, when I was assaulted and almost raped, I had no choice but to return home to further assaults from my stepmother. That went on and on. I was going round in circles for years. I didn’t know where to turn, so I think I was what we call today a ‘sofa surfer’.”
– Mandy Jones AM (BXP, North Wales)

Welfare reform “driving homelessness”

Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), was heartened by the consensus on the need for urgent action, but didn’t understand the lack of comprehension at the root cause:

“The local housing allowance has been zero-rated since 2016. So, the result of that is that if you’re in the private rented sector, and you’re on universal credit, you are paying the difference between the local housing allowance and the rent in that sector. That is driving homelessness. That is a direct Conservative Party policy. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, but if you have any influence on that, please try to bring it to bear.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

While the Welsh Government were doing what they could with the levers at their disposal – spending £20 million alone this year increasing housing supply – the single biggest thing that would make a difference is reform of local housing allowance element of universal credit.

The motion was defeated by 35 votes to 11.

Photo by Jasmin Sessler from PixabaySenedd reflects on increased anti-LGBT hate crimes

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Calls on the Welsh Government to provide a progress report on its work to tackle LGBT hate crime in Wales.
  • Calls for the devolution of justice to ensure an integrated approach to tackling LGBT hate crime.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to outline how the creation of a devolved Welsh justice system could promote the safety and wellbeing of LGBT people.

Hate crimes “on the increase”

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) was inspired to look into the issue due to a homophobic attack against members attending a GIDSA (charity) club for young LGBT people in her area. Some now no longer want to attend the club.

“Over the past year, almost 4,000 hate crimes were recorded in Wales, the highest number yet for hate crimes in this country and almost double the figure recorded in 2013. It’s disappointing to see the levels increasing again across all the protected characteristics: race, religion, disability, and crimes against the LGBT community. Hate crimes against this community specifically have increased 12%, from 670 to 751 recorded cases over the last year, and the number of hate crimes against the trans community have increased from 64 to 120.”
– Sian Gwenllian AM

Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said these were deeply worrying statistics and if you dig deeper down it becomes even more worrying – particularly increases in transphobic abuse, which has quadrupled in five years. He didn’t think this could be addressed without focusing on educating young people.

“Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people are hit by double discrimination. According to Stonewall, half of black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people have experienced discrimination or poor treatment because of their ethnicity from others in their local LGBT community, and this number rises to three in five black LGBT people. And a third of lesbian, gay and bi people of faith aren’t open with anyone in their faith community about their sexual orientation.”
– Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda)

Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) didn’t think the solutions liked in the criminal justice system alone but in wider society – nonetheless, victims of hate crimes should be encouraged to report them.

Focusing on the positives

“I just thought that it might be an opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, because certainly those of my generation and anyone brought up in school in the late 1950s and early 1960s will know that, in school, racism, homophobia and antisemitism were part of the culture of schools. The actual changes that have taken place through the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s to today are quite phenomenal and I think it’s important to recognise them because in recognising those, we’re also able to identify what the current challenges still are.”
– Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd)

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) focused on efforts to address homophobia and transphobia in sport, citing several successful initiatives including the Just a Ball Game? initiative – which has had support from Neville Southall and Gareth Thomas – as well as Cardiff Dragons, Wales’ first LGBT football team.

Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) said that historical levels of anti-LGBT hate crimes have fallen despite a blindspot to transphobic abuse which has only been recorded properly in the last few years:

“….in 2007 to 2009, grossed up from the survey number to total population, suggested 69,000 hate crimes related to sexual orientation across the UK. And then, in 2010-12, that fell from 69,000 to 42,000 on the British crime survey, and then in 2013-15 fell again to 29,000. There is a small uptick in 2016-18 from 29,000 to 30,000, but not statistically significant on the basis of the numbers in the survey.”
– Mark Reckless AM

Anti-LGBT “should be an aggravating offence”

Chief Whip and Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), has asked the UK Home Secretary to consider making anti-LGBT motivations and aggravating factor in crimes in line with race and religion.

An additional £360,000 has been made available over the next two years to the national hate crime report and support centre run by Victim Support Cymru and £350,000 has been made available to address hate crimes in schools.

The motion was unanimously approved.

Children at school. Picture by Lucélia Ribeiro (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Warning sounded over school funding

School funding has become one of the hot issues in the Senedd over the last couple of months and yesterday afternoon AMs debated the Children & Young People Committee’s report on that very subject – summarised here.

No simple solutions

In an age of unprecedented change to education in Wales, the Chair of the Committee, Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) said there was one conclusion from the inquiry above all others which was the most disturbing: not enough money is going to schools.

“We saw this first-hand during our school visits. As we’ve outlined in the report, this is a simple conclusion that, unfortunately, does not have a simple solution. The system for funding schools is hugely complex, multilayered and dependent on many factors, not least the amount of money available to the Welsh Government from Westminster. It must also be recognised that responsibility for providing adequate funding for our schools cuts across ministerial portfolios. Given the complexity of the funding formulas, Ministers across Welsh Government must work together to ensure that schools receive the funding they need.”
– Committee Chair, Lynne Neagle AM

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), said the Welsh Government needn’t have been surprised by the report’s conclusions. The Conservatives approached the inquiry accepting possible issues with UK Government funding and part of the problem has to lie there, but extra money has been made available – up to £355 million resulting from budget changes in England.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) though there was a real risk an opportunity will be lost during curriculum reforms to address this. The National Association of Headteachers say that during 2019-20 there were just under 1,300 more pupils, but 278 fewer teachers and 533 fewer support staff.

“The evidence we have received shows a lack of understanding of the roles of local government and regional consortia. I cannot criticise the confusion as even you are still working on providing clarity. And, Minister, I do recall during my scrutiny of you during one of your ministerial presentations to us at committee, you said, ‘Janet, even I cannot follow the money from the Government to the schools’, so there is a concern that if you can’t follow it, how are our headteachers and, indeed, our parents able to follow it?”
– Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy)

There was plenty of finger-pointing too.

“It’s your fault, it is!”

Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) and Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) clashed over whether this was a result of UK Government austerity or Welsh Government spending decisions and/or inequities in local government finances.

David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) made an argument for direct funding for schools instead of allowing local governments to top-slice it, but Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) countered that the biggest school-related spending area decided purely by councils was school transport.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) fired a warning shot to the Welsh Government, suggesting that Labour backbenchers might not support the forthcoming Welsh Budget if it doesn’t put education and schools at its heart. He called for the complexity of the funding system to be addressed – suggesting budgets should be spent regionally or via the education consortia.

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), said there was ongoing budget uncertainty caused by the UK Government:

“….whilst the UK Government’s spending round indicates some loosening of the purse strings, it does not provide the sustainable long-term basis on which to plan that our public services desperately need….I have to say to Suzy Davies, with the greatest of respect, she quoted a figure of three years’ funding that has been made available to the Department of Education. I would have loved to have been in the same position. The reality is that this Government does not know its spending allocation for more than one year. It is all very well to give that security to colleagues in England and then not provide that security to us here in Wales, and people out there need to know that.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

The Minister suggested the often-quoted £600-per-pupil spending gap with England was out of date (from 2011) and the gap has been “virtually eliminated”.

Institute for Fiscal Studies educational economist, Luke Sibieta, has been appointed to undertake work to understand why there were big differences in school spending between different local authorities. The Minister hoped this would be finished by summer 2020.

Converting diesel buses to electric might be more cost-effective than buying new

Life skills needed in school curriculum to avoid producing “A* robots”

The Welsh Youth Parliament published a report calling for life skills to be embedded within the new national curriculum (link).

The report concluded there were large gaps in teaching life skills, including matters such as mortgages, credit, political education and dealing with major life events such as the death of a friend or family member.

The Education Minister is due to discuss the new curriculum with the Youth Parliament at its next plenary session on 25th October 2019.

Miscarriages “should be treated as an emergency”

Women who’ve experienced multiple miscarriages have called for better standards of care within the Welsh NHS. A report by charity Tommy’s recommended the establishment of two specialist miscarriage clinics and for miscarriages to be treated similarly to a medical emergency.

The Senedd backed a motion calling for better support for families who’ve experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth in 2018. The Welsh Government said individual health boards were working to improve standards of care.

Language apps helping boost the number of Welsh learners

Language learning apps such as Duolinguo have experienced a surge in users learning Welsh, with a 34% increase in 2019 compared to 2018. Say Something in Welsh was also said to have 60,000 regular users.

Welsh Language Commissioner, Aled Edwards, said: “The most important thing is offering opportunities for people to learn the language”.

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KC Gordon

Nation.Cymru needs to start identifying the difference between Labour and Labour&Co-operative Assembly members.