The devolution dynamic in housing policy

Originally published on May 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Devolution to Scotland and Wales is 20 years old this week and amid the celebrations it’s worth taking a moment to consider its significance for housing.

Since May 1999, when the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly met for the first time, devolution has evolved at a different pace in each country and the Barnett formula has given Holyrood more resources than Cardiff Bay.

Politically, the Scottish Parliament was run by Labour with Lib Dem support for its first eight years before the SNP won power in 2007 and then an overall majority in 2011 and the No vote in the independence referendum. The Welsh Assembly has been run by Labour for the last 20 years, though it has needed the support of either the Lib Dems or Plaid Cymru along the way.

However, it was the election of a Conservative-led coalition government at Westminster in 2010 that led to a new phase for the devolved administrations.

For a while, all they had to do to be progressive on housing was nothing – refusing to follow the English swing away from social rent and towards the market created a clear divide.

Both have still had to cope with the impacts of austerity and benefit cuts largely imposed from London, although Scotland has used its extra resources to mitigate the bedroom tax and has been able to make some tweaks to universal credit.

In the areas that they can control, the devolved administrations have tended to devise policy in partnership with the sector, as exemplified by the ambitious target for affordable and social homes in Scotland and the independent review of affordable housing supply published in Wales last week.

But it is in legislation that a really distinctive approach to housing has emerged and it is one that I’d argue has created a new dynamic in housing policy across the wider UK too.

Scotland had legislative powers from the start whereas Wales only gained them in stages after 2011 but both have used them to good effect.

On homelessness, Scotland abolished priority need in 2012 and Wales is now considering doing the same. Wales introduced a new system of homelessness prevention in 2015 that became the model for the English Homelessness Reduction Act.

On the private rented sector, Scotland and Wales have both introduced registration and licensing, with Wales drawing directly on reforms recommended for England before 2010 that the coalition refused to implement.

Scotland abolished no-fault evictions and introduced open-ended tenancies in 2017, Wales has pledged to do the same and now England is consulting on a proposal to end Section 21 that would previously have been unthinkable for the Conservatives and that did not even feature in the 2017 Labour manifesto.

The policy transfer dynamic that seems to have developed involves reforms that are successfully adopted in one UK country spreading to the others and undermining previous political and sectoral opposition to them.

In social housing, there seems no prospect yet of England following Scotland (in July 2016) and Wales (in January 1919) by abolishing the Right to Buy but arguably Labour has hardened its position as a result.

England has of course also had some devolution of its own since 1999, with the creation of the London Assembly and mayor in 2000 followed by mayors with more power and combined authorities in other metropolitan areas.

In London, the mayor has steadily gained more power over housing first via planning policy and then with direct control over investment that has enabled it to follow very different policies than those set by Whitehall.

Examples from other cities include Andy Burnham’s focus on homelessness as mayor of Manchester and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s partnership with  housing associations and Marvin Rees’s focus on housing as mayor of Bristol.

However, for all that and for all the focus on housing under City Deals, devolution in England remains a haphazard affair with advances in some cities matched by nothing happening in others. And what local influence over housing there is out there hardly seems enough to compensate for the centralisation and huge decline in the role of local authorities since 1979.

Northern Ireland offers another cautionary tale on devolution. The province had its own parliament at Stormont until 1972 and the imposition of direct rule at the height of the Troubles. Discrimination against Catholics by Unionist local councils in housing allocations was rife and a centralised Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) had been established a year earlier.

The Good Friday agreement led to devolution to the Northern Ireland Assembly in December 1999. The housing upside was that Northern Ireland’s distinctive devolution settlement gave it extra autonomy over benefits and allowed it, for example, to delay the introduction of the bedroom tax.

However, the downside has been the failure of the political parties to agree, leaving the Assembly to operate only intermittently and Northern Ireland without a government for the last 841 days (as of May 7, though new power sharing talks are planned).

That political paralysis has had severe consequences, with a lack of clarity over the renewal of bedroom tax mitigation and uncertainty over the future of the NIHE and the reclassification of housing associations.

So the 20th anniversary of devolution deserves to be celebrated for its positive and growing influence over housing policy around the UK. What works, the mantra of the Labour government back in 1999, appears to have become what has already worked.

However, Northern Ireland offers a clear example of what can happen when politics stops government from happening. In a Westminster in which Brexit has sucked the life out of everything else the consequences of that are already making themselves felt.

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