Delyth Jewell, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Housing
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inequalities within our communities, and the effects they have on both mental and physical health.
Those living in poorer standards, shared, or insecure housing have been more vulnerable to the virus, and those without access to adequate outdoor spaces certainly will have felt a psychological strain from being confined indoors.
The past few months have highlighted just how important it is to have a comfortable home to live in, not just four walls and a roof, but somewhere safe, somewhere comfortable, a home. Not a place, but a refuge.
Poor housing, poverty and living in cramped conditions can also make people more vulnerable to picking up infections and diseases, reflected in the disproportionate effects of coronavirus on the most deprived communities – it is a public health issue.
The spread of coronavirus in such communities is evidence of this. It was made easier because of the concentration of low paid key workers who couldn’t isolate, and their wider families into estates where poor housing had already created more people with ‘underlying’ health conditions.
The importance and implications of the proper provision of housing shouldn’t be overlooked, but sadly in Wales this seems to be the case.
People in Wales should have a right to housing, it should be enshrined in law, and if the current Labour Welsh Government is unwilling to act on this then Plaid Cymru will prioritise legislating such a right when in government.
Proper reform is needed to ensure that gaps in equality can come to be bridged, and that all people in Wales have access to that crucial and basic human need – a home.
For this reform, first and foremost of course, we need to build more houses. As Adam Price, the Leader of Plaid Cymru announced in October last year, Plaid Cymru is pledging to build 10,000 homes a year; 50,000 during our first five-year term – 30,000 social homes, 15,000 affordable purchase homes and 5,000 affordable rental homes.
Crucially, however, these houses will be genuinely affordable, high-quality and to the highest environmental standards, and will be part of a bigger picture of community and network, rather than just an estate in itself. If covid teaches us anything, it teaches us that cramming lots of cheaply built houses in places unsupported by public services is a recipe for disaster.
Greater percentages of social housing are needed to ensure that all have access to homes – as reflected in the numbers we have pledged, new housing estates in Wales should have at least 50% social housing. ‘Affordable housing’ as deemed by the current Labour Welsh Government is hardly affordable, something that they have all but admitted, so social housing must be used as a mechanism to prevent our most vulnerable from ending up the unstable, unsafe housing, or even on the streets.
All housing should have access to green and blue spaces (i.e. rivers and other bodies of water) too, considering the significant mental health benefits such spaces bring – another realisation that the pandemic has emphasised.
This means that the planning system must be reformed too to support the development of successful and thriving communities. Developers, housing associations, and Local Authorities (with input from community councils) should be working collaboratively on new developments, with suitable locations and the services required to make communities work identified.
This partnership approach would see developments financed through a combination of the developer and a housing association (borrowing the money) working collaboratively with a local authority to deliver a community, not just a number of units.
These widespread changes need to be reflected in reform within local government too. Local governments that are more diverse will be better equipped at ensuring housing developments can become something beyond just that – that they can become communities. The status quo won’t cut it. It’s only when we see more diversity amongst the people making these decisions that we will see real change, and ensure that all of our communities are provided for.
These changes are ambitious, but the past few months should have taught us all that we must fight for the radical changes necessary to fix the most broken elements of our society. And the most fundamental of these changes must start with housing.