Government accused of counting unaffordable homes within affordable homes target

(Title Image: © Copyright Penny Mayes and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence. BY-SA-2.0)

A summary of this afternoon’s questions to Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West).

Northern councils asked to prove they “face a bigger challenge” balancing budgets

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), said that earlier in January, the leaders of all six northern local authorities sent a letter to the Minister asking for a funding floor of a 4% budget increase, met from government reserves.

In the draft local government settlement, four of the bottom five councils are from the north and without such a funding floor, they faced a bigger challenge in terms of cuts and council tax increases. How would the Minister respond to their request?

The Minister told him that northern councils were asked for proof that they were facing hardships having seen the biggest local government settlement increase in years.

“….no council in Wales will have less than a 3% uplift (in their budget). Most of the councils that you’re talking about are somewhere in between 3-4%. And what we’re talking about is asking for a floor to bring them up to 4.7%, I think they said; it might be 6-8%….whilst I understand their argument that there’s an average – and that some should come down in order for others to go up – they’re not facing the kinds of service cuts that they were facing during the previous nine years of imposed austerity. So, it’s very difficult to understand quite what the reasoning for that is.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

Fiddling affordable housing figures with unaffordable homes

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) asked why the Welsh Government were still counting the 7,100 homes sold through the Help to Buy scheme as part of their 20,000 affordable homes by 2021 target.

“….a staggering 78% of homes, so that’s 5,564 that were sold through Help to Buy, were sold at a price of over £150,000. Over 1,000 homes that you count in the statistics as affordable were sold for over £250,000. I just can’t see how any reasonable person can count these homes as affordable. Is that not statistical manipulation on an industrial scale?”
– Delyth Jewell AM

If these homes were removed from the target, only 7,379 affordable homes will have been delivered to date, putting the Welsh Government well on course to fail to reach their target.

The Minister didn’t think this was manipulation as Help to Buy has assisted people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford a home purchase.

One point she agreed with is the relative flexibility of the term “affordable”, but the current definition of an “affordable home” is any home where the household has received government support to buy it.

Mismatches between population forecasts and housing plans

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) asked what the relationship is between population forecasts and local development plans (LDP)? Wrexham’s LDP was rejected in 2013 for not allocating enough housing land respective to population forecasts, but the population growth has been far lower than the forecasts. Despite this, Wrexham Council is still being challenged by the Planning Inspectorate.

Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) added that LDPs and population forecasts don’t give enough weight to the public service requirements – schools, hospitals, GPs – a given area needs.

The Minister accepted that local authorities face a balance between projections and reality, but population forecasts were just one piece of information councils use to develop their LDPs. There’s a goal that, in the future, developers and the public sector know what infrastructure will be expected when plans are put forward.

“….if you set out a flat plan of Wales, you ought to be able to say, ‘Well, here are the trunk roads, here are the hospitals, here are the existing schools, here is where the housing is, here’s where the new school should be’, and so on, and then when the council is negotiating with the housebuilder about their contribution to local infrastructure, there would be much better certainty about what that infrastructure should look like in advance so that when somebody’s planning to come forward with a piece of land, they know that they’re likely to have to contribute to the school or the hospital or whatever it is that’s nearby.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

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