Doing things differently

Originally posted on December 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

In a country not very far away they are doing things differently. Funding for Supporting People (remember that, England?) is protected. Social Housing Grant (remember that?) is increased.

Wales cannot escape the constraints of Westminster-imposed austerity completely – there is also disappointment over a cut in Homelessness Prevention Grant and an announcement on rents policy is still awaited – but the Draft Budget for 2016/16 shows that it continues to go its own way on housing.

Where Supporting People has been savaged in England following the removal of the ringfence, in Wales research has recently demonstrated the positive impact of the programme on the NHS and social services. And a ‘Let’s Carry on Supporting People’ campaign led by Cymorth Cymru and Community Housing Cymru has been successful. The budget for next year will remain at £124.4m.

Where funding for new social housing has been all but abandoned in England, Wales continues to believe in it. Funding will be increased by £5m in 2016/17 to £68.8m.

Scotland, meanwhile, is set to use its more generous devolution settlement to embark on an even more ambitious programme. After convincing evidence of the need for more affordable homes was laid out in research last year, the SNP Government has pledged 50,000 in the lifetime of the next parliament if it is re-elected in May 2016. And 35,000 of those will be for social rent.

Contrast that with England, where funding is being diverted to home ownership, the Right to Buy extended, council homes forcibly sold and now there is confirmation in an amendment to the Housing Bill of the end of security of tenure and the introduction of compulsory fixed-term tenancies with no automatic renewal.

While Wales and Scotland will accept their share of the extension of Help to Buy, this contrast demonstrates is just how much these are conscious political choices rather than pragmatic ones to make less funding go further.

The rest of the UK is of course still affected by UK-driven austerity and will have to cope with the latest cuts in housing benefit. In Northern Ireland as elsewhere there is particular concern about the impact of the shared accommodation rate on single tenants without children under 35.

The Welsh Draft Budget also appeared to include a cut funding for homelessness prevention and Shelter Cymru warns that this will make it harder to implement the Housing (Wales) Act. This first piece of independent Welsh housing legislation has been widely praised for the way it puts homelessness prevention at the heart of its approach.

Even Scotland, which is using its extra powers to abolish the bedroom tax, will struggle to mitigate the impact of the big cuts in universal credit to come.

And even though housing is a devolved matter, Westminster is still attempting to impose the 1% a year rent cut on Wales and Scotland. Because it will deliver savings in the (UK) housing benefit budget, the Treasury says the devolved administrations must do the same or find the savings elsewhere. Social rents are already much lower than in England so landlords are concerned that the impact of the cut could be even more serious on their finances. An announcement on the rental settlement in Wales is promised soon.

The more you think about this, the more outrageous this back-door attempt to subvert devolution becomes. A Westminster government that has increased social rents and made them ‘affordable’, reduced the social housing stock and sent more families on housing benefit into the private rented sector is attempting to have its cake and eat it too.

[Update: Welsh Government confirmed on December 15 that the current CPI +1.5% formula for social rents will continue for 2016/17. Based on September’s CPI of 0.1% that means rents will rise by 1.4% next year.]

In reality it is England that is far, far away and doing things differently.


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