When the economy is at a low ebb, it is the poor and vulnerable that suffer. Most independent commentators would not dispute that the UK ’˜s economy has been in the doldrums since the misdemeanour of the bankers destabilised the financial world and it in turn had a knock on effect on the real economy.
In Wales one of the consequences of the economic down turn has been the increase in those that are homeless and the number of families in bed and breakfast accommodation. Welsh Councils saw 6,255 households seek their help last year as opposed to 5,565 the year before. This staggering increase of 12 per cent between the two years in question should be a cause for real concern.
These figures have not gone unnoticed by our First Minister. In responding to the figures Carwyn Jones blamed Whitehall. Why? Because of the Coalition government’s welfare reform plans and their ‘spending cuts on vital public services.’
He acknowledges the role of the economic crisis on homelessness but said that ‘I believe the UK Government’s regressive economic and welfare reform policies are making the situation worse.’
Without doubt some of the proposals on housing benefit will result in many more falling into arrears and eventually being evicted. See blog http://ogarethhughes.blogspot.com/2010/10/benefits-who.html
But if the First Minister has ‘a responsibility to defend the interests of all the people of Wales, especially the most vulnerable, whose voice is often the quietest.’ Then what’s he to do?
Well, as Nick Bennett, Community Housing Cymru boss says when commenting on the homeless figures ‘These figures are distressing and frustrating. Homelessness has been falling over the previous period as we saw investment increase and better regulation from the Welsh Government increase housing associations’ ability to do more- that ’˜s how we met the 6500 One Wales target. We need to do even more during more austere times when grant funding is being cut. We have made the offer to the new Minister ’“ that Housing Associations are ready to invest £250m, and to build at least 1500 units with no grant- in return for continued good regulation, a sustainable rents policy and a renewed partnership approach to innovation, including possible bond finance and special purpose vehicles.’
But the social housing sector is still awaiting a response from the MInister. The situation is urgent and requires a swift response, so that the increased tide of homelessness can be halted and reversed. Prevarication should not be a policy option.
Housing supply has to be increased. In the One Wales coalition government a target for housing was set and exceeded, no new target has been set by this government.
Carwyn Jones has rightly pointed out that changes to housing benefit are causing serious problems, but he can insist that his Housing Minister take action to lower rents in the social housing sector by increasing the capital subsidy going into each new house built or renovated.
For years the Welsh Office budget has been able to get away with a high rent policy in the social sector, because it meant that another Whitehall department would might the costs through benefits. Now is the time to reverse this and make rents cheaper.
An increase supply of new houses built that are at a high rent will do nothing to help the vulnerable or decrease the levels of child poverty. Both high on this Government’s agenda.
As Carwyn Jones said in a recent conference ‘Decent housing is fundamental to life in Wales. Everyone in Wales should have a roof over their head, warmth, food and security. This, surely, is the minimum aspiration for a developed and civilised country.’ And who can disagree with him. But it is up to him to make it happen, not Whitehall.