Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau Y Bumed Senedd
Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee - Fifth Senedd03/07/2019
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Caroline Jones AM|
|Dawn Bowden AM|
|Huw Irranca-Davies AM|
|John Griffiths AM||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Leanne Wood AM|
|Mark Isherwood AM|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Deb Smith||Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol Torfaen|
|Torfaen County Borough Council|
|Dewi Morgan||Cyngor Gwynedd|
|Gaynor Toft||Cyngor Sir Ceredigion|
|Ceredigion County Council|
|Hannah Blythyn AM||Y Dirprwy Weinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol|
|Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|Jo-Anne Daniels||Cyfarwyddwr, Cymunedau a Trechu Tlodi, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Director of Communities and Tackling Poverty, Welsh Government|
|Leighton Evans||Cyngor Sir Gâr|
|Carmarthen County Council|
|Linda Davis||Pennaeth Trechu Tlodi a Chysylltiadau'r Adran Gwaith a Phensiynau, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Head of Tackling Poverty and Department for Work and Pensions Relations, Welsh Government|
|Lisa Hayward||Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru|
|Welsh Local Government Association|
|Paula Livingstone||Cyngor Abertawe|
|Sion Wynne||Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol Wrecsam|
|Wrexham County Borough Council|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
|Stephen Davies||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Yan Thomas||Dirprwy Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:00.
The meeting began at 09:00.
[Inaudible.] Are there any declarations of interest? No.
Then we will move on to item 2, which is our evidence session 6 on our inquiry into benefits in Wales: options for better delivery. I'd very much like to welcome the Minister, Hannah Blythyn, who is the Minister for Housing and Local Government, and also her officials, Jo-Anne Daniels, director of communities and tackling poverty, and Linda Davis, head of tackling poverty and Department for Work and Pensions relations. Thank you very much for coming along to give evidence today. I wonder if I might begin with the first question, which is to ask you, really, Minister, what your overview is in terms of the devolution of benefits to Wales and how Welsh Government thinking has developed, where it is at the moment, and perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the work the Welsh Government has under way on these matters.
Thank you, Chair. Can I also start by thanking the committee for undertaking this work? I think it is an incredibly timely and important piece of work, and we're very much looking forward to the outcome of the committee's work in this inquiry and how it also can shape or feed into the work that the Welsh Government is undertaking at the moment.
Just to set out, really, where we are at this point, as a Government, we are committed to the concept of the social union, the collective responsibilities of redistribution of wealth, whether that be sharing of the fiscal risk and responsibility of the social union as it's constructed to support social security and welfare—. But I'm sure I'm not alone, certainly around this table and across communities, in terms of seeing the impact of the UK Government welfare reform on those who are least able to bear the burden being hit the hardest in terms of how that reform has taken effect and had an impact in the last few years. So, as a Government, we feel that this is a timely point to look at how we can take steps in terms of looking at the devolution of the administration of welfare and how we can perhaps approach this in a much more compassionate, citizen-centred approach.
So, what work is under way at the moment, then, Minister? We know that Welsh Government has commissioned some work on the administration of benefits in Wales and whether there might be devolution. Could you tell us a little bit about that work and what stage it's at?
Sure, absolutely. So, we have, as the First Minister set out in Plenary, commissioned the Wales Centre for Public Policy to undertake piece of work, looking to explore the potential options, potential barriers and the scope for us looking at the devolution of the administration of welfare in Wales. I've met with the Wales Centre for Public Policy. I know that they've also met with the clerk of the committee, and I believe with Leanne Wood, amongst others. They are talking with a range of experts across the field. Also, obviously, we'll be looking to what is happening in Scotland. I think it's a particularly timely opportunity for us to look at that and, actually, to learn from what has—we know there have been some successes in Scotland but also there have been some strains there, so I think it provides a useful opportunity for us to look at and learn from that as well. I don't know whether Jo-Anne wants to come in.
So, the WCPP are undertaking an initial scoping exercise to try to ensure that they can focus on the key questions. So, we hope that that initial scoping phase will be completed in the next few weeks, and then they'll set out the timetable for completing the work over the next few months.
The next few months. Okay. That's very useful, thanks. Minister, I wonder if you could, then, perhaps set out what you see as the potential benefits and opportunities that might arise from the devolution of the administration of benefits in Wales.
As I set out, the devolution of the administration of welfare in Wales would enable us to take a different approach to what we've seen on a UK basis in terms of what I see as one based on the principles of compassion and fairness. That starts from the point of view of when what I prefer to call 'social security' was there to provide that safety net for people and discover that from the point of compassion, not, perhaps, from a point of suspicion of somebody—we've seen the stigma around benefits and welfare—that somebody might be there to, almost a perception of cheating the system, where, actually, it's about having that security safety blanket for people, and actually to enable us to have a system that treats people with the respect and dignity that they deserve and should expect, but also by looking at how we can, perhaps, simplify the system and have more efficient administration.
Okay. In terms of Scotland, which you mentioned, what do you see as the Scottish experience to date? What's your view on how it's gone so far, as it were?
The first thing to say is that I think the committee has managed to get to Scotland before me to meet there, and just to set out that I am due to go during the summer recess to meet with both counterparts and officials within the Welsh Government [correction: Scottish Government] to talk through some of the things that they've been doing and perhaps look to see if they do something slightly differently how we can learn from that. But I know officials have been in ongoing, constant contact with their counterparts in Scotland to see what is happening there. And I'm sure Jo-Anne or Linda will come in in a moment.
I think one of the things we've been looking at is actually—. I think there's emerging evidence that there have been some successes and some strains, particularly looking at actually how they use the flexibilities in the system in terms of Scottish Choices and payment splitting for households when it comes to universal credit, which I believe is in the process of being developed at the moment. Clearly, as I said, there's plenty of opportunity here for us to listen and learn from Scotland, but actually to make sure whatever the route we go down works for Wales and meets those principles and objectives that we want to see in this country. Do you want to talk about your—?
We have very good links with colleagues in Scotland on a range of issues. For example, yesterday, we were hosting the four nations meeting on poverty, which involved Scottish colleagues as well as Northern Ireland and England. So, we have a number of means by which we stay in contact with them and find out about the progress that they're making.
Particular interests that we've discussed with them are around the take-up of the universal credit flexibilities that now operate in Scotland under the heading of Scottish Choices. We've talked to them about the mechanics, the logistics of setting up the social security agency, which they're in the process of doing, and obviously, part of the focus of our discussions as well is around the costs that they're facing, both in terms of administering the system and setting up the agency, but also the potential cost pressures that they're facing within the sort of demand for the benefits that they now have responsibility for. It's fair to say, though, that much of the process of transferring these benefits to Scotland is still in train. I think there are some benefits that Scotland won't be administering until—is it 2024? Something in that order. So, there's a lot that we can learn, but it's clearly still an evolving process in Scotland, and as the Minister has said, different opportunities, different strains on the system are emerging as they go along. So, Scotland's not a finished picture yet that we can evaluate fully, but it's important that we keep that conversation and that learning going.
Thanks for that. Just in terms of the Scottish experience—and as you say, you'll be visiting Scotland before long, Minister—will you be looking at the devolution of benefits themselves? Because we went up there and obviously we heard about the administration of UK benefits, but also the programme of devolving benefits themselves, some of the new benefits and some of the top-up schemes for existing UK benefits. Will you be looking at all of that in the round?
Certainly my approach, when I go and talk with colleagues in Scotland and look at this, I'm coming at this from—we are looking at it from a position of looking at the administration of the devolution of welfare reform, but looking actually at how we can bring in flexibilities within the regulations within the system. There's not been a preferred method or a preferred approach. It's actually, 'What can we learn? What can we do? How can we apply it within—?' We are in a different position from Scotland in terms of the powers we currently have, and whatever the outcome of this—our work, the committee's inquiry, the scoping exercise, and the work we're doing with the Wales Centre for Public Policy—clearly then we're going to have to get to a point where we negotiate over which powers we may need in order to go down the route that we may take a decision to do in the future.
So you're quite open-minded really about the rounded picture, as it were?
I think, like you said, I very much do—and I'm not just saying this—welcome the work of the committee in this area because it clearly is an issue where we know there are challenges for people. We're seeing the impact on people's lives and our communities across the country, and I think there is a responsibility on Government to look at what steps we can take to rectify that.
I was going to ask if you had a preference for either going down the road of the administration of benefits or more like the Scottish model, which is almost like a social security max position. But you've answered that, in a way. I'm guessing that this issue of demand is an issue in terms of following the Scottish approach. The more compassionate you are, the more benefits you hand out to people, the more they demand those benefits, and if there isn't any additional income to cover the costs of that, there's a gap in the budget. So is that your chief concern with going down the Scottish model, or expressing a preference for the Scottish model? Is that your chief concern, or are there other concerns?
Clearly, we've got to be mindful about the fiscal implications of going down this route, but one of the things I'm prepared to say too is that, yes, we've got to be mindful of the economic cost, but obviously there's a social cost as well in terms of what's already happening. But clearly whenever we get to a point in the future when we have the analysis of all that information, and look at what models and what we could do within Wales, we are going to have to take into account costs, because if there's going to be a significant increase in the cost of what we'd have to put in, the resources we have to put in there ourselves, then we're going to have to, you know, there'll be some choices about where that resource would have to come from.
The Wales Governance Centre, though—if you don't mind me moving on to that, Chair—has said that there could well be financial benefits from looking at the Scottish model. What are your views on the Wales Governance Centre's work on the fiscal implications?
I welcome the report. It's a report that's actually come at it with a very different approach to perhaps other accounts we've had previously in terms of evidence. It looks at those financial risks associated with devolving to Wales a similar set of benefits to those that have been devolved to Scotland. It's a useful, helpful contribution in terms of how you look at the impact and how we go further.
I think, obviously, you're familiar with the report, and I don't want to repeat all of that about possible future trends and the potential future benefit recipient groups in Wales. I think, perhaps, as the report says in the conclusion about sensible trepidation, we know that the mechanism for the fiscal framework is very different for us in Wales than it is in Scotland, and the mechanism for managing devolved taxation in the Welsh Government's fiscal framework is different from those in the equivalent framework in Scotland. So the framework also already covers the funding for devolved benefits, and I think any arrangements that we would look at going forward, we would need to actually make sure how that worked for us in Wales. So I think we welcome the report, but actually fully in line with the justifiable trepidation that it says in its conclusions, my concern now perhaps would be, rather anecdotally, that now they've highlighted the potential benefits that we could have in terms of funding, would we then actually get that when we negotiate anything with the UK Government? Would we be in receipt of that?
All right. Huw.
Can I just return and ask, Minister, about defending the social union? And I'm in agreement with you here, because of the centralised redistributive element of a social union on a larger scale, which in fact most states even with federal systems abide by, by and large—they recognise the benefits that come from that. But could I just ask you to define what you mean by 'a social union'? What do we include in that? Is that the headline issues, such as pensions, significant welfare benefits? I just need to be clear on that, because I'm assuming that, once we're clear on that, everything else is within the Government's scoping of what may be, potentially, now or in the future, devolved.
When we're talking about the social union, we're talking about the glue that binds us together in—
What? Sorry. What specific areas? I get the glue that binds together, but which benefits? What part of social security is it that you want to defend?
I think it's difficult to set out the specifics of that, until we have the full evidence—
Well, I can give you a couple. There's definitely pensions, I would have thought. Which are the hard-line ones that form the social union, because that would help us as a committee to know what is definitely off the table?
I don't think we've looked at it in those terms. It's an interesting perspective on it, but the social union, if you like, is a set of principles by which we share and we pool risk, and we are able to redistribute across the UK according to need. So, in terms of the social union, you could include within that the taxation system, because it is intended to be redistributive, it enables us to pool resources—
So are these things that are, perhaps, funded through national insurance contributions? Because we already have a lot of welfare devolved already. You could argue that Flying Start, health, education are parts of the welfare support system. So I'm trying to get real clarity here. Minister, you talked about administrative devolution, and that seems to be quite a comfortable area, but there may be other areas as well. I'm just trying to get an idea from the social union, what is it that we're saying, for the moment, Welsh Government is saying, 'That's going off piste far too far'?
I don't think we'd want to necessarily pre-empt the work that the Wales Centre for Public Policy are doing, so in a sense, the question of which benefits might fall under the scope of devolution of administration is something that they'll be looking at. But, clearly, there are particular fiscal risks around those benefits that have, if you like, a sort of cyclical or unpredictable demand-led nature. So, unemployment benefit being the classic, where it's very difficult to predict. Many of these benefits—apologies, I'm getting slightly technical. So, most benefits sit within the AME budget—
I'm happy with technical.
—rather than the departmental expenditure limit budget. They sit within AME—annually managed expenditure—because they're difficult to predict. There are some that are less difficult to predict. The ones that have been devolved to Scotland, I think they hope that those are ones that are more predictable, less cyclical, but that will be interesting to see if that experience is borne out—
Okay. This is really helpful.
—in Scotland. So, I think there are questions about the social union, but I think there are also questions about the practicality and the risks, and the fiscal risks in particular—
Absolutely. Thank you.
—of which you would potentially seek to devolve.
Now that is much more helpful, I think, to me certainly, than a broad discussion around a social union. To actually know what the Government's thinking is as to why they define some things that are more risky, more subject to cyclical fluctuations, and so on, than others. But you've not actually, in your answer, ruled out beyond that anything at this moment. You're waiting to see what comes forward. So let me just move on to one area.
Some of the evidence that we've seen from other countries—Canada and Switzerland in particular—have suggested that where there is a more federal system, where there is more ambitious devolution, not just administrative, but some of the powers over welfare, it's been something of a laboratory, and a useful laboratory, that can then feed back upwards into the centralised model. We're actually—. In devolving down powers, interesting experiments have happened that the centralised body has then learned from and adopted. Would you accept that, and would you see devolution as the laboratory of experimentation—'This is an opportunity to do this in Wales as well'—Minister?
Clearly, looking at what's happened in other nations, not just in Scotland but across the world, and the relationship between regional and state-level Government and the national-level Government—that's something that we expect will be included in the work of the Wales Centre for Public Policy as well. I think there's international experience and the various different models that we need to get to grips with the detail of, the implications and how that works in practice, especially in terms of how social security is administered. It's something that we will be looking at as part of that, particularly looking at those that take a more compassionate approach in terms of how it's administered and how they assess and treat people as well.
So, would you like to see Wales—depending on what the outcomes of your deliberations are, the committee's report and so on—actually be that—? There's already a lot of welfare that's devolved; we're in a false argument here. But in some of the areas that we're now looking at, new areas, to be innovative above and beyond what other nations have done—. Because one of the worries with this is we're looking at what Scotland's done, we're looking at the powers that Northern Ireland has got, and we're just trying to catch up. Actually, in that compassionate, fair approach to welfare provision, particularly the human interface of it, are you seeking to find new ways of being innovative where the UK, Scotland, Ireland and others could learn from Wales? I'm testing your ambition, if you like, on this.
Clearly, if there are ways we can do things differently—. I've made it clear that we can learn from Scotland, we can learn from other countries but, actually, ultimately it has to be something that works for us in Wales. And if there are things we can tweak, do differently, be more innovative, then absolutely from my perspective, from the Government and from the work we're doing, we're entirely open to that as well.
And I think as you hinted at in some of your questions in terms of where we've already got some responsibilities over what you might call welfare and social security, obviously there's the council tax reduction scheme, which is—you know, that's ours. There's the way in which we administer the discretionary assistance fund. There is a similar scheme in Scotland, administered differently. In England, it's been devolved to local authorities, so it might exist, it might not, depending. So, we have shown in those instances that we can set our own path in terms of how we want to support our citizens.
And I think when we've done that, we've made sure we've done it in a way that is, actually, not just about—. We talk about being compassionate and being citizen centred, but also, actually, to make it much more accessible—. So, if you look at the discretionary assistance fund, it's one central point where people can go to, as opposed to if you're over the border in England—I've heard it for myself in terms of the problems people had of just knowing where to go to access that support. Clearly, there's always more that we can do to raise awareness of what is available out there, but I'd actually like to think that we do it in a way where we're putting the person at the centre of that and thinking about their needs.
Could I just flip this slightly further? Some of the witnesses we've had have suggested that the current benefits system is so damaging now to individuals and communities that it would be actually better to have it devolved than to leave it as it is, and that the risks are higher to individuals—that compassion, that fairness—than not to have it. Now, this really goes to the heart of that social union stuff here, but what's your take on this?
It doesn't surprise me that people have come in and witnesses have suggested that. I'd be surprised if there's anyone that doesn't accept that there are aspects of the current social security system that don't work, that there are problems with. From the perspective of why it was put there in the first place, it isn't doing what it should do to support people when they need that safety net. I think, to be clear, we're not looking at devolution for devolution's sake. This has to be actually something that we know that we can do that can make that difference—
So, when they say the risks are higher in not considering devolving benefits, you disagree.
I think there are risks from both perspectives, and that's why we have to do this in a very pragmatic, sensible way to look at that evidence, to make sure we do something that not just works for Wales, but works for the people in Wales as well.
I also think you have to ask the question about the benefits to whom and the risks to whom. So, while, theoretically, you could deliver a better benefits system, what would be the cost of that, and then the implications for the things that you couldn't do? So, there is always an opportunity cost. So, depending on, as I say, who you're defining as being the beneficiary and where the risks fall, I think you could produce some very different analysis.
Okay. Thanks, Huw. Mark.
Thank you. Although a lot of the evidence we've received and questioned witnesses about has received responses relating to views on current benefits, this is more broadly about whether there should be permanent structural devolution of some or many powers in this area, not just in 2019, but in perpetuity. Governments in Westminster, here and in Edinburgh are coming and going, and policies are changing between and within parties over time. So, what consideration have you given to evidence that the principle of devolution, irrespective of the policies that might emanate from that—now, in 10 years, in 20 years, or whatever—would deliver a better outcome for people in Wales, broadly? And related to that, when we visited Scotland, we heard from witnesses that, initially, they'd gone for the low-hanging fruit and the more complex issues were still to come. And whilst there were those—and you can guess who—who simply supported the principle of having power in Scotland rather than in London, there were others in their social security select committee who raised questions about the degree to which proper cost-benefit or invest-to-save analysis was being done, to identify the best way forward—not having the power, but how the power would be used in the future. I wonder what your views on that might be, were powers to be devolved here.
You raise some of the key arguments and some key points around this. I think, just to reiterate what I've already said at the outset of this, we're not doing it for devolution's sake, it's actually about—. I've highlighted how we've seen the impact of current changes to the UK system and the impact that's had on our most vulnerable. But actually, this is not about a sticking plaster, it's about actually looking at how we can apply those principles in Wales, and actually how we can not just fix what we perceive are the problems in the system now, but actually make them more sustainable for the future. And the principle of that is actually how we can look at something that works around perhaps our—just to put out another idea—how we could perhaps in a system going forward be aligned with a Welsh approach to things. So, it could be the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015—how we can actually make sure that anything we do is principle based and works for Wales. So I think it's not just to—. Like you say, we have different Governments across the UK, and they are always going to be subject to flux and change. But I think, just to come back, this is not about that we're going to follow Scotland, or we're going to follow anywhere else, but actually looking and learning, and actually taking a decision that makes sure that anything that we do go forward with actually works for us in Wales, in the long term.
But do you acknowledge that, in the future, potentially, you could have more inclusive, permissive or liberal policies in London, and you could have more restrictive policies in Wales, simply because, at that point in time, different governments had different views in reverse?
Unfortunately, I'm unable to predict the future—
Nobody is. But this is about permanent change.
—and I think that would be a very good asset for a politician, if you were able to do that. Look, I understand the argument that you're making, but hopefully I'm trying to be clear that, actually, what we're doing is about looking at a sustainable model for Wales. And we've already seen how we do things slightly differently in terms of what we would also call almost like a social wage and social benefits, in terms of in England you pay for prescriptions but here we have free prescriptions. So, we've seen, actually, with devolution, slight changes in terms of how we approach things anyway. So, I think it's not about actually responding to the flux of political change, but actually should we get a system in place that works for us in Wales.
But do you acknowledge that that's a comment on current policies—actual and perceived—between London and Cardiff? We're talking about a permanent structural change and why the principle of that is something we should be pursuing.
As the Minister has said, the task that's been set for us is to look at the feasibility around the devolution of administration. There are many links between the benefits system and other services—so, housing and homelessness, for example. So, there is an interesting question for us, I think, about the extent to which some of these services need to be better integrated across the devolved/non-devolved line, if you like. And so I think, irrespective of politics and policy, that question of how you ensure that services are delivered in a way that best meets the needs of the individual—that question stands. So, we try very hard to work really closely with DWP and with Jobcentre Plus. Obviously, we're responsible for skills provision in Wales—so, making sure that there's that ability to put people on the right training courses et cetera. So, we already do work across the devolved/non-devolved boundary, if you like, but it's a question of can we do that better in other areas.
Okay. And Dawn.
Thank you, Chair. Sorry I was late, by the way, Chair—apologies for that. I don't think you will have covered this, but you may have. In terms of the work you are doing now, are you looking at one of the areas around the potential for us to devolve assessments, even if we don't devolve all the benefits? Because certainly, the kind of people I see coming through my office and my surgeries—quite often, it's the way that they're treated, the way that the processing is handled, the delays and just the inhumanity of some of the processes that people have to face at the moment. We could do that differently if we were responsible, if not for the benefits themselves, but for how we assess people for their eligibility. That was certainly one of the things that I picked up very positively from Scotland—that their assessment process is very different to the UK assessment process, because they have involved people with their lived experiences in terms of developing a new system of assessment. So, is that something that you could be looking at without necessarily devolving all the benefits, but just looking at whether we could do the assessments and whether we could do that in a much more humane way than is currently being done?
Just on the back of that, I think it would be really useful if we could have as much clarity as possible as to what you mean by 'administration'—
—and exactly what that entails.
And can I just say on the back of that, Chair, if I may, that the other issue about administration and why that is so important is again—. One of the lessons, I think, we've picked up from Scotland was that the UK Government had given Scotland a chunk of money for the administration without anybody actually knowing how much it was going to cost. And what the Scottish Government were saying was that they have this pot of money and they're now administering social security, but it's costing them far more than they've had from the UK Government and they're having to meet that out of their block grant. Now, we couldn't possibly do that. Scotland fare far better out of the Barnett formula than we do. So, I think all of that is hugely important in terms of what we can practically do, as opposed to what we might like to do.
I think that's a really good point in terms of what we could practically do. And you highlight very well there the potential risks—financial risks—but it's that balance between the financial risk and the cost to people in the community as well, so all of that needs to be taken into consideration. Because we know that, for example, with things like Scottish choices, every time—. You know, people have a right to that, and it's a good thing, but every time, the Scottish Government has to make a payment on top of that for Scottish choices as well. So, I think the risk around the actual—almost like the additional hidden costs of taking on additional responsibilities is something that absolutely needs to be fully considered and taken into account.
In terms of how we could potentially take on assessment, I think there's a plethora of different benefits. I think perhaps we'd need to look at that on a benefit-by-benefit basis and how that could be applied and how that could work. We've already started to see specific cases in terms of Citizens Advice in terms of how they are supporting people in applying for universal credit now. Because I sat in an assessment, an initial—not an assessment, an initial appointment of a potential client in Bargoed and have seen, actually, the different training there and the approach that makes with people as well in terms of actually having a slight flexibility. They're able to support them whether the person comes to them, or they might be able to allow for home visits as well, so actually to break down some of those barriers and have a much more, like you say, humane, sympathetic and understanding approach. What we found in that too is a lot of people have potentially come to the system and started up as volunteers and begun then to support others through that process. So, this certainly will form part of the case, of the work, we're doing in looking at the devolution of administration of aspects of the benefits system and the work that's being done by the WCPP.
Your question about administration and assessment—I think there's a really important link between them. So, to give you one example, if we took on the assessment process for PIP and we took a more sympathetic approach to that assessment, which potentially meant fewer appeals and fewer people turned down, et cetera, that means an additional cost because there'd be a higher level of yeses in Wales than there might be in England. And so who bears the financial burden—excuse me for using that phrase, it's not necessarily a burden, but who bears the financial consequences of that more generous assessment process? So, although that might involve us having control over administration, the link between administration and then the actual costs of the system—it's very difficult to separate them.
Your broader question about what is administration—this is something that we're grappling with. This is something that I think is going to be a key feature of the WCPP report. You're probably very aware that an enormous amount of the way in which the welfare social security system operates is governed by legislation. Secondary legislation and regulations abound in this area. What one person might regard as administration another might regard as a policy choice. So, it's a clear policy choice on the part of DWP that universal credit, for example, should mirror the world of work, hence why it's paid every four weeks [correction: paid monthly], hence why it's paid to the recipient and not elements to the landlord, other than in exceptional circumstances.
So, I think and I suspect that there will be considerable debate and potentially differences of view between ourselves and Westminster about what constitutes administration and what constitutes policy.
Huw, on this point.
So, I don't think at this point we could tell you categorically where one begins and the other ends.
Again, that's really helpful. Very short, sweet question, then: if, following the evidence, you identify those types of areas where it would require regulatory or even primary legislative change in order to deliver real benefits and fair and compassionate delivery of benefits within Wales, will you be seeking those?
I think as and when the evidence emerges from the work we're doing—and that's a conversation we would have to have with our counterparts within—well, my counterpart within—the Westminster UK Government of actually what we could negotiate and what powers we would need to enable us to take the approach we want to take.
Okay, but if the evidence shows that there would be a positive impact of a change in policy that may require regulation or legislation in Wales, it would be perverse for the Welsh Government not to be seeking those changes in negotiation with the UK Government. So, I'm just seeking clarity that, if the evidence shows that there would be a benefit to making some regulatory or legislative changes, Welsh Government would want to seek those changes in negotiation with the UK Government.
Clearly, something like that would be part of the discussion that we would have with the UK Government, and, actually, you know—. If there was going to be— you know, we could see a foreseeable benefit and we'd weighed up the cost versus benefits, the risk, and actually that looked like the best route to go down, then clearly that is a conversation we're going to have, but I would not like to second guess any of that when we haven't actually got to that point yet.
Mark, briefly on this point.
Strictly on this point, you refer to the potential increased cost take-up with a more inclusive application process. That takes me back to my question about cost/benefits, because in Scotland we heard that that should be partially offset by a significant reduction in appeals and appeal processes and tribunals and the personnel and resource tied up in that, but that needs modelling. And, similarly, lived experience—. Dawn referred to lived experience. But it's not only, rightly, working with the recipient during their application process and subsequently, but it's also, in Scotland, designing the system with people with lived experience that has been core to their approach. How important do you consider that to be?
I would say this, wouldn't I? I think, across a range of policy areas, actually, that we strive, as is set out in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, always to involve and engage with those that are affected directly by the policy. Scotland have done some really interesting things around—apologies if I don't get the name of it right—the poverty commission. Is it the truth commission? I know Swansea has been looking at doing something really similar to that. So, it is that listening and experiencing and stepping in to somebody else's shoes to understand the needs as we design services. I think that runs core through our approach.
If we take some specific examples that are, if you like, more relevant to this area, we're continually making changes to the discretionary assistance fund process and the means by which people apply for that to make sure that we're reflecting the circumstances of the people who are phoning in and needing help—so, making changes to the eligibility process, making changes to the way people can apply using a partner agency to support their application. So, there's just a range of things that, obviously, we continue to look at.
Okay, and Leanne.
Thanks. We've talked a lot about cost and the potential implications on the Welsh block grant, and Dawn said we couldn't possibly do what they do in Scotland. But I would say it's a question of priorities, and there may be a need to accept that there will be some cost to do this and to do it properly, because the current system—. Say, for example, with homelessness, there is risk by not taking responsibility for benefits that allow people to become homeless. The risk to their lives, for example. We know that people die early when they're homeless. So, when you talk about risk, you've got to think about risk in those terms as well, I would say. Do you think that investing in a Welsh benefits system could prevent more serious problems like homelessness happening? And do you think it's useful to start from the problem? So, look at, say, the question of homelessness: what is it we need, what powers, what benefits do we need to prevent this person becoming homeless? And once you approach it from that perspective you get a different outcome, I think.
Yes, I think you've absolutely hit the nail on the head there, that, you know, to start, look at what the issues are, what can we potentially do to solve those issues, or to—you know, what is in our gift, what can we—? What additional powers, what do we need to do to be able to—? It goes back to not asking for these powers for devolution's sake, actually, because we know exactly the work you're doing from this committee into our work with the Wales Centre for Public Policy and looking at what we can learn from other countries is actually—. It's for a purpose—you know, this is what we want to do with it.
But homelessness is increasing massively, isn't it? So, it's a pertinent issue.
Clearly, if we had a welfare benefits policy that was more generous, offered fewer restrictions on the types of housing people could fund, it would increase the ability of welfare benefit to support that. There are clearly things we can look at along those lines. I think you're right to say to start from the problem and look at actually what could we do, what could help that, what could alleviate those pressures as well.
And do you accept that there might be a cost to that, then?
Clearly, we accept there's going to be a cost. But, like I said at the outset too, you said to talk about risk, and I said we've got to talk about the social cost as well and about priorities. So, there is going to have to be a point when we look at priorities, because there will be a decision, if there is a cost—you know, if we are going to go down that route, and we prioritise that, where do we take it from?
Okay, and Caroline.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Looking at options for devolution, can I ask what your reaction would be to the suggestion that the Welsh Government should have more powers over the housing element of universal credit to enable them to make decisions about eligible rents and many other areas?
Thanks. It doesn’t come as a surprise that this is one of the areas that other witnesses have raised and suggested as a potential route we could go down. I think, if we were to look at taking on the housing cost element of universal credit, that’s going to mean creating, for want of a better phrase at this point, a Welsh housing benefit, and that would logically require the inclusion of all aspects of housing benefit not included in universal credit. So, all of these things maybe appear simple, but can have broader complexities. But I recognise that perhaps one of the key issues behind the suggestions is the way that local housing allowances impact on the level of benefit that the person can receive as well.
Yes. And looking at—. With regard to having further powers to create new benefits—for example, we look at the Scottish young carer grant or the top-up of reserved benefits—have you looked at these options to tackle the uniqueness in Wales that is not being addressed by the UK Government? This is, of course, without the fiscal risks of the devolution of the entire benefits system.
Basically, at the moment, the Welsh Government doesn't have the powers to top-up reserved benefits. I’ve alluded to, previously, how we, in other ways, support the social wage approach—so, cash-equivalent services that have the effect and can, potentially, leave more money in the pocket of Welsh citizens, whether that be transport, free prescriptions and so on. The potential for a so-called top-up approach of benefits is something that I anticipate is going to be part of, or will be part of, the work that’s being looked at by the Wales Centre for Public Policy.
And what about creating new benefits? For example, I think the Scottish young carer grant is an excellent example, because we had people come to the Senedd last week about the amount of young carers that are actually caring for their parents, and some are as young as seven. So, what do you think about having more of an input into looking at new benefits being created?
As the Minister said, at the moment we don’t have the powers to be able to do that, so it’s not necessarily something that we would have looked at in great detail, as I say, because it’s outside of our competency. My understanding is there have been—. The other thing we have to be mindful of is the interplay between any benefits that we provide and the UK benefits system. And so what I understand can happen—and I believe this was an experience that they’ve encountered in Scotland—is that, in introducing a new benefit that’s unique to Scotland, it’s affected their eligibility for other benefits. So, the overall impact on the individual, financially, may not necessarily be that they're significantly better off. So, we have to be quite careful about the interplay of anything that we do with the UK system, because it would be unfortunate, wouldn’t it, if we tried to make people better off by giving them a certain amount of money, and then their universal credit or another benefit was then simply deducted by the equivalent amount, and so there’s no net gain.
But do you think, because of the uniqueness of Wales, that it makes more sense for benefits, the benefits system, to be devolved to Wales? That's what I'm basically asking. And then having the powers to create new benefits, really, because—.
So, the work we’re doing is looking at the devolution of the administration of welfare to Wales, and, as Jo-Anne said, all these things are within the scope of what we’re going to look at, but making sure that we look at potential unintended consequences—that we may take action here and it has an impact on something that we don’t want it to have. All things have to be considered as part of this work.
So, regarding a benefit claimant then having more choices over their income, many witnesses have cited universal credit as needing to be more flexible to give people these choices—an example is Scottish choices, really. So, have flexibilities in this area been discussed at Welsh Government level?
It would be very useful to know where you've got to with those discussions and whether you think there's a possibility of further development on that front?
So, it's safe to say to committee members that there have been frequent and ongoing conversations and representations of different length and tone with counterparts in the UK Government in terms of introducing alternative payment arrangements, whether that be, actually, how we look at the five-week wait, paying directly to landlords—. There are some flexibilities within that system that we're part of, but that’s at the discretion of the work coach rather than, in Scotland, with Scottish choices, when people have an automatic right to that.
In terms of where we are now, I think with the current Secretary of State—they seem to be much more amenable to this. But one of the things we’ve recently raised is the point that we're at now, when the managed migration has been paused, and that would be an opportune moment to consider any changes or flexibilities to the system. That is something that we are still raising on an ongoing basis and I know that officials are in ongoing contact with officials at UK Government level.
So, we meet with DWP colleagues based here in Wales very frequently, and those meetings have been used to explore what flexibilities could be offered here in Wales. While colleagues are always positive and constructive when they come to those meetings, nevertheless, they are bound by the policy of the UK Government and the fact that much of the administration of universal credit is set out in regulations, and those regulations cover both England and Wales, and it’s not possible, we’re told, for them to operate the system differently in Wales to England without legislative changes, which they are not, at the moment, prepared to consider.
So, as the Minister has said, all the flexibilities that they have in Scotland currently exist within the universal credit system, but the major difference is that, in Scotland, they are there as a choice and they are something that people are entitled to if they wish. In Wales, as in England, those flexibilities are only available if the work coach deems that it is appropriate for the individual to have those flexibilities. And so, while we haven’t seen the data, because there seem to be some challenges with providing data on the take-up of those flexibilities, we believe that the flexibilities are taken up to a much greater extent in Scotland than they are in England and Wales. We have constant difficulties, battles and discussions because we are struggling to get Wales-specific data to know what the level of take-up is for those flexibilities: how many people are asking for them, how many people are granted them et cetera, et cetera. At the moment, it’s a bit of a blank in terms of what DWP are able to tell us.
That's very useful. Huw, this will have to be extremely brief because we've got about three minutes left, I'm afraid.
Really quick: just in case the Secretary of State up in Whitehall is listening, or the head of DWP in Wales, would it be reasonable for any citizen of Wales to ask why we do not have the same flexibilities granted to us as Northern Ireland or Scotland at this moment?
Okay. That was admirably brief from both. [Laughter.] Dawn.
Thank you, Chair. Given that we don't have those flexibilities at the moment, we do have issues still, actually with or without the flexibilities, I think, of the waiting period for coming onto universal credit. I'm just wondering whether you've given any thought to whether the discretionary assistance fund could be utilised for those claimants that are in that five-week waiting period? This is probably the single biggest issue that we end up having to deal with from constituents when they've made the application—they have this period of time, these weeks without any access to—. So, could we look at doing something with the discretionary assistance fund to help in those circumstances?
Well, I think it's important to make clear that people can already access the discretionary assistance fund in those circumstances. I was at the centre in Wrexham a few months ago listening in on calls to see the nature of the calls and listened to the absolute skill of the people working there in terms of how they deal with these callers very compassionately.
I think we've seen an incredible increase in terms of the budget allocated to the discretionary assistance fund: in 2018-19 it was £8.4 million, but at the end of the year it had reached £10.5 million, and an extra £2 million has been made available. From the conversations I had with those administrating the fund, they would probably put a lot down to that increase in calls to universal credit as well. And I think it's important to say in terms of the discretionary assistance fund and the development of it that we are continually working with them—and that's why there's the capability to listen in on calls as well—to actually how we develop that fund to best support people as we can in Wales as well.
I asked you a question earlier about whether we should devolve assessments and so on, but you'll probably be aware of the work that Oxfam Cymru have been doing with the DWP here and they talk to us about how dealing with DWP staff directly has started to shift some of the cultural change to the way in which they approach the work and which they approach the assessments and so on. What are your views on that as a process, the Oxfam work, and do you see developing that as the potential alternative to the devolution of assessments and various other aspects of administration if we could get that more, kind of, humane approach in terms of DWP staff themselves delivering it?
Definitely. I absolutely welcome the work of Oxfam Cymru with the DWP and to actually have that, kind of, more humane, compassionate approach, which, actually, we should expect. I think it's certainly something that we'd be happy to look at further in what we can do within Wales. And like I said earlier, there is the work that's already been happening in terms of Citizens Advice and the different approach that's come in there in terms of actually how they work with people and are able to go into somebody's home to visit them, rather than expect somebody to come in, where appropriate. So, there are things happening, but, like you said, actually, part of this work will be looking at all the good work that is happening and how we can then better support that to roll out on a larger scale.
And I think that was partly the thing that the Bevan Foundation said to us when they came because the means-tested benefits that are already the responsibility of the Welsh Government—they were saying we needed a much more integrated approach to how we deliver those particular benefits. Would you agree with that assessment? Do you think we, perhaps, need to look at that and see how that can be more effectively delivered before we start thinking about devolving more benefits?
I think we're always going to be open to the work of things like the Bevan Foundation about actually how we can take a more integrated approach where possible. I understand that work is ongoing by the Bevan Foundation and it's certainly something that we'd be happy to look at in terms of actually how that could help us better integrate what we're doing now. So, you know, like I said, with the discretionary assistance fund, again, there's work coming together about how we can develop that further. So, it's not a static process, it's a constantly evolving process to actually make sure whatever we can do or are doing really does meet the needs of the people that obviously deserve—.
Are you involving benefit claimants in those processes? When you're looking at adjusting and amending the way in which we do it, are you actually involving people in those discussions?
I think the question and the challenge that's being posed by the Bevan Foundation is a really important one. So, we've mentioned the DAF. Obviously, we have things like the pupil development grant access fund, and other things—the council tax reduction scheme—and, at the moment, all of these are administered differently, with different eligibility criteria. In many cases, that will be appropriately so, because they serve different purposes, but I think it's a good question to pose as we look at our approach to the social wage, as we look at our approach to how we try to put more money into the pockets of people in Wales—that we ask the question, actually: could we improve the administration? Could we improve the accessibility and the take-up of these? So, we’ll look forward to seeing and talking further with the Bevan Foundation and thinking about what those options might look like.
Dawn, if I could just bring Leanne briefly in with the last question.
All of those means-tested benefits that Dawn just talked about could fall under the umbrella of anti-poverty policies. Do you think an anti-poverty strategy would help you?
The Welsh Government is committed to tackling poverty in all its forms. I think it's actually currently ongoing that my colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government is leading a review looking at, actually, all the different approaches we take and the levers we use to make sure that they're used to best effect. So, that work is already ongoing within Welsh Government.
Okay. Thank you very much for coming in today to give evidence, Minister, and your officials. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Thank you very much indeed. Diolch yn fawr.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitemau 4, 8 a 9 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the meeting for items 4, 8 and 9 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Item 3 is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from this meeting for items 4, 8 and 9. Are you content so to do? Thank you very much. We will move into private session.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:01.
The public part of the meeting ended at 10:01.
Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 10:16.
The committee reconvened in public at 10:16.
[Inaudible.] I'm very pleased to welcome Leighton Evans, from Carmarthenshire County Council; Paula Livingstone, from Swansea Council; Sion Wynne, from Wrexham County Borough Council; and, as I said, Gaynor Toft, from Ceredigion County Council. Welcome to you all. Thanks for coming in today. Perhaps I might start, then, with a first quite general question. What are the main reasons, would you say, why properties become and remain empty, and is there a variation generally between rural and urban Wales? Who would like to begin? Gaynor.
Perhaps if I kick off, then. Diolch yn fawr. Thank you for the opportunity to come here today. There are many reasons why properties become empty and remain empty as well. One of the main reasons is that, possibly, the owner has deceased and the property is in probate, and the property will have been passed on to siblings, members of the family, and they are in the process of deciding what to do with it—whether to sell it, whether to rent it out. So, that is quite a common reason. Often, these properties can be in poor condition, and that's one of the reasons why they've fallen empty—because of the prohibitive cost of actually renovating them to make them habitable. It could be, again, for sentimental reasons—that they're a family home and, again, if siblings have inherited it, it's not something that they want to pass on in terms of selling it on or renting it out. Quite often, also, the elderly person who's the owner is in care, so, obviously, for that reason, the property is empty whilst they're in care. It could be that the owner has moved away and has just left it. We've got examples in Ceredigion where somebody might have bought it for use in Aberystwyth as part of the university, they've moved away to work and then just left the property to become empty and not bothered to either rent it out or sell it on. We quite often have properties over commercial premises that are empty, so it could have been that they were previously used for storage or that the access into the flat or flats above the commercial premises is quite difficult, so they're empty for that reason, because it could be that it's shared access between the commercial and up to the residential above. It could be that it's in a low housing need and demand area as well. It's fallen into disrepair and it's in a rural location or even in an urban area, where the attractiveness of the properties isn't as great and, hence, it's much easier just to leave it to fall into disrepair and to be empty.
I think that shows you the breadth of the reasons why properties are empty and, often, because of disrepair or some probate issue, they do remain empty for quite some time.
Okay. Perhaps I could bring Huw in at this stage.
Yes. Thank you very much for that. Would you accept that, because of those very reasons, there is a disproportionately high level of empty properties within areas that suffer socioeconomic deprivation, more disadvantaged areas? It could be student community areas, it could be upper Valleys areas, it could be remote rural areas, but because of those very factors of land value, et cetera, there are more empty properties. Do we know whether there are more empty properties in areas of disadvantage and deprivation?
We don't have those figures, I don't think, before us to actually confirm that across Wales. Probably, in Swansea, as an example, we've got a mixture, and it would be, yes, in some of the more socially deprived areas that there will be empties, but conversely then, you'd have areas where property values, perhaps, are quite high and then are outside people's reach, so you've got almost the opposite example of that—where the thing has been turned on its head.
Would there be any way of getting hold of that data?
Yes. What we could do is map—because we can map where our empty properties are, and we could overlay that mapping with socioeconomic data. So it's very practical to do that. And I think, from a rural perspective, for Ceredigion, as an example, we find there is no pattern as such in terms of our empty properties—they're pretty much scattered across the county. Quite often, in a rural area, it's because of the rurality and the prohibitive cost of renovating a detached, old property, as you do have in rural areas. That's more of the reason, more than the socioeconomic impact of it then, really. It's the affordability and then the value of that property in terms of affordability to both renovate and affordability for people to actually live in it subsequently as well.
If there were a way of doing that, Chair, that you could help us with that on an authority-by-authority basis to see the granularity of that down to the disadvantaged areas, it would be interesting to see whether it is anecdotal and experiential or whether there is something hard behind this idea that more disadvantaged areas tend to have a disproportionately high level of empty properties. So, that would be great if you could do that.
In the Carmarthenshire area, we've actually mapped the empty properties in our county. They seem to be located around the townships of the county and particularly down the Aman/Gwendraeth valleys, which were the old mining valley areas. So, those areas will be lower property value, lower income, and so forth. But, conversely, the Llanelli and Carmarthen town property values, rental values, are significantly different between those two, although we do see a collection of empty properties in both areas.
Okay. Huw, thanks for that. What would you say about the impact of empty properties on communities—the significance of the impact, the scale of the impact, the nature of the impact?
Thank you for the opportunity to speak. The most common issue, really, is the blight on the communities, in terms of a visual blight, the deterioration of a property, whether that's through the garden becoming overgrown and unruly or the property itself just going into a state of disrepair. Unfortunately as well, empty properties do become a magnet for anti-social behaviour, particularly in the more urban areas where they're easily spotted and the footfall going past them is greater, so they're not hidden, if you like. They do have an impact on property prices. If someone owns a house next door to a property that is in a particularly bad state of repair, it is going to have an impact when it comes to renting or selling that house. It does act as a barrier to regeneration if we're looking on a wider scale in terms of investment into the area, be it commercial investment or residential investment. If there are properties in a poor state of repair, it does act as a sort of, 'Is that an area we want to go into?' So, they do also provide opportunities in that respect as well, obviously. The cost of the buildings, as Gaynor alluded to earlier, with the rural properties in particular, if you're dealing with stone properties, larger detached properties, there are greater costs involved in that. So, that has a cost that escalates further down the line, if you like, onto the neighbours who maybe have to maintain the boundaries slightly differently and all that kind of stuff. So, yes, it is a blight issue, it is an impact on the immediate neighbourhood, and also there may be low confidence within the area, as a housing need perspective in maybe the rural areas, where people feel, 'Nothing's happening here; they forget about us.' It's that sort of sense of being ignored, if you like. So, there's often more to it than that, but the perception is that areas are forgotten about, and the empty property is a reflection of that.
I see. Okay. Anything any of you would add to that, or does that encapsulate it, really?
I think so, yes.
Okay. Could I ask, then, given the problems and the impacts, to what extent are local authorities making this a strategic priority, to deal with empty properties? Is there a strategic approach, or is it very reactive in terms of complaints being made and then possible action being taken?
I think most local authorities would aim to have a strategic approach to dealing with empties as part of their overall housing strategy. It can be a difficult situation. Obviously, each local authority will have its local priorities of how the local members will see the issue, depending perhaps on numbers or the profile. It can be that there would be a very vocal complainant who would raise things up the political agenda as well, if they had the ear of a particular—I've seen a smile—local member. I'm sure that you would appreciate how that could be, but I think that most local authorities certainly do try to take a strategic approach.
It is a balance between long-term, strategic type of work and approach as well as dealing with the ad hoc, reactive issues that are maybe more short term or that are quite pertinent at a given point in time—if a property’s been broken into or there’s something like a dangerous structure element to it that needs resolving straight away. But I think the overall approach would be that local authorities would try to look at them strategically as far as their local priorities and their resources allow as well.
On the strategic approach, figures we've been provided from Infobase Cymru for 2017-18 state that the percentage of properties brought back into use in Swansea was 3.8 per cent; in Carmarthenshire, 6.9 per cent; Ceredigion, 1.9 per cent; Wrexham, 5.4 per cent, but Flintshire, 33.3 per cent. Can you explain the dichotomy? Is it because things have been counted differently, or is this good practice that can be looked to?
As an expert panel, we have done a lot of work in looking at the performance indicator that we do have nationally. I think, as with all performance indicators, we do provide guidance in relation to how each local authority should be measuring it then, really. So, we've looked a lot at the PI. I don't know whether, Leighton, you want to bring in how the actual denominator is looked at and then how we measure the numbers and the percentages brought back into use as a result of it. But as an expert panel, what we're trying to do is look at consistency across the local authorities in terms of how each local authority does measure their numbers and their percentages brought back into use.
Before you come in, can I just confirm from that that you're indicating that some local authorities have approached this differently to others previously?
No, I couldn't evidence that, but it's a case of, we do issue guidance in relation to—. And that's part of the local government data unit work, to provide guidance in relation to how local authorities should be looking at the measurement.
Can I just confirm as well—did you quote 2017-18 in those figures?
During that period, there was a wholesale review by the local authorities, directed by the panel, and for 2018-19 the guidance that was issued was beefed up and was confirmed a lot more, not prescriptively, but was tried to be tightened up. So, perhaps in the figures for 2018-19 there might be a slight difference in the differences.
Do you know when they might be published?
Well, certainly, we've all fed that information back.
Certainly, local authorities are making a massive effort to increase the number of empty properties brought back into use, but I think it’s worth noting the information behind the denominator. The PI is based on a percentage. As Gaynor mentioned there, the denominator figures across Wales vary massively. The higher end of the range, taken from last year, is 3,554 down to 244. There’s a massive disparity there. There are different geographical areas with different populations and different county sizes and we understand that, but by placing the PI as a percentage, we're actually looking at some local authorities that have got a higher number of empty properties in their county returning more properties back into use than those at the top of the league table, so to speak. We're also looking at the overall number of empty properties—the denominator figure. Looking at Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, for example, 50 per cent of that denominator is empty for less than two years. They're not necessarily problematic properties, but they're perceived—'Wow, there are 2,615 empty properties in Carmarthenshire this year.' Fifty-five per cent of those are empty for less than two years, likely in very good condition, in a stagnant property market, possibly, maybe stuck in a probate case. It does paint a bit of a negative picture in terms of what's actually happening.
Conversely to that, there are properties that are taking up the local authority's time significantly that don't exist in the denominator figure, because they are not on the council tax register, because they've been removed from council tax listings based on their condition. We would have files this big from working on them, and when those come back into use, that does not form part of the PI, but we would have a property that might well have been empty for seven months, where we've assisted Mrs Jones to find a builder and give her a little list of works in order to bring that property up to use. We get a tick in the box for that property.
Mark, I'll just bring Huw in. Huw.
I'm just wondering, pursuant to Mark's question and your answer there, whether or not there is that granularity of data that you can provide to the committee. What do we not have the data on in front of this committee on properties that do not even appear on that? Where would you identify the cut-off point between ones that are real problem ones sometimes and what is a natural flux within it? Is there some way that you already break that down that you could provide for the committee in that depth of information?
Personally from my perspective and my experience through working with empty properties, we tend to find that those properties empty for less than two years tend to be what we call transitional empty properties. So, they're just going through the process of being on the market for sale, with somebody who may well have passed away, going through the probate, the family having to deal with the affairs then putting it on the market—not necessarily a bad property. The PI looks at properties vacant for six months or more. We tend to find that the problematic properties are those that are been empty for over two years.
Yes, but in your answer to Mark earlier, you were suggesting that probably some of the data we have in front of us does not reflect those gaping tooths in streets that have been empty for years and years and off the council tax register. Can we have that data?
[Inaudible.]—there is this dichotomy between the Labour counties [Inaudible.] Are you aware of the different approach?
I supposed resources are one side to things. From what I do know of what's gone on in in the neighbouring authority, there were specific projects going on there around the redevelopment of flat accommodation and stuff like that. So, that might have been a factor. I wouldn't want to go into more depth than that, in case I'm talking on behalf of them, but it's—
There were some significant developments in Flint Heights, for example—a high-rise involving lots of units in one building—
So, it may be that those have contributed towards that overall figure. But, certainly, in terms of, obviously, the work, all the local authorities work closely together in terms of our loans and all those kinds of products. They reflect each other, so what we offer in Wrexham largely reflects what's offered in Flintshire and what's offered in Ceredigion. But then there'll be other local priorities, which will be slightly different as well. A long answer to a short question—there are similarities in what we do, there are differences in what we do, and I'd imagine some local factors contributed towards that.
Sorry, can I just pick up, maybe, on the question or my understanding of the question as well? The denominator that we use and that is reported in the PI is based on the council tax database. We know that you've got colleagues coming in from some of the finance departments later on this morning. Obviously, we're very much reliant upon them for that data, and, for properties that are removed from the council tax register, they may be able to help with some of that angle to that question.
That's very useful, thanks. Could I just ask a further question in terms of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, because we've had a consultation process as a committee in the lead-up to taking evidence today, and several of the responses mentioned the well-being of future generations Act and its significance, really, in terms of taking a long-term view and a preventative view? So, to what extent would you say that local authorities' strategies on empty properties take account of that legislation and its principles?
I think Paula alluded to our local housing strategies, with a mention of empty properties as being priorities within local housing strategies. And it's then that golden thread in relation to how your local housing strategy accounts to your corporate strategy, and so on and so forth.
In terms of empty properties as an agenda, as a strategic priority, obviously, in terms of maintaining sustainable communities, we would say that bringing empties back into use is very much a contributor and a key deliverer as far as the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is concerned. Yes, it is a major contributor, but that's not to say that more couldn't be done. I think we do struggle with competing resources within local authorities. If we have a complaint about somebody living in very poor living conditions above an empty property, or against one that is empty-property related, then as a priority from a service perspective, I would say to my staff to deal with the issue about somebody living within poor housing conditions or dangerous housing conditions as a priority. And unfortunately, that is the conflicting priorities that we do face operationally as local authorities from an operational perspective. And then, obviously, from a strategic perspective, it does depend on the local authority, then, where an empty property sits within the strategic priorities of that local authority against competing resources as regards social care, education, regeneration—that's a key deliverer—but that's where we do sit, realistically.
Okay. Thanks very much for that. Caroline, I think we've probably adequately dealt with the public accountability measure aspect, haven't we? But if you'd like to continue beyond that.
Okay. Thank you. Do all local authorities have an empty property officer? And, if so, what impact does this officer have and what is the remit of that officer?
All authorities won't have a bespoke empty property officer, going by that job title, if you like. They'll have officers who will have as their sole responsibility dealing with the wide breadth of empty property work, whether that's from loan all the way through to enforcement action, or they'll have officers, or maybe a team of officers, who will deal with empty properties as part of their remit. I can only speak from my personal perspective. I deal with a wide range of empty property work, but I also deal with other loan schemes for occupied housing as well, whereas empty properties—. When empty properties come to me, I then rely on the expertise of my colleagues elsewhere in the authority in terms of legislation and stuff like that.
There are other elements to the work and, I have to say, most authorities have that situation where empty property officers—. There are officers who deal with that and have an expertise in that, but they may also have other responsibilities.
So, when you say they have an expertise in that, can you say exactly what their remit is and what their expertise is?
They'll vary. A lot of the empty property officers are trained and qualified as environment health officers and so have a high level of knowledge and expertise in that field. Others, myself included, come from a regeneration background, so we look at it from a slightly different perspective. That's not to say that every officer doing the job around Wales has the same level of knowledge; we rely on a different pool of resources in different ways. But our expertise, I suppose, has developed from experience of dealing with the properties and knowing what kind of schemes do work, what kind of schemes don't work, and how to try and find solutions for the issues.
So, when the officers have done their work, then, to what extent does having specialist legal support and advice delay or prevent enforcement action being taken?
Just to elaborate on the original question, I'm the empty property officer for Carmarthenshire, and it is a very focused role. We're very fortunate to have a dedicated role in Carmarthenshire and we work behind an empty property action plan, which originated from a strategy. We've had a task-and-finish review from community scrutiny. We've thrown everything but the kitchen sink at empty properties in order to progress on that. My role has developed quite significantly over the years, where we are actually providing some detailed advice, guidance and support to owners. We offer and administer financial assistance. We have an enforcement role. So, we enforce anything from housing Act basic or statutory nuisances right the way through to housing Act notices, to empty dwelling management orders. We also assist people with finding building contractors and agents to project manage these larger projects. We have VAT concession letters to save empty property owners' funding because, if a property has been empty for more than two years, they can actually benefit from a 15 per cent tax discount. So, it's not just an enforcement role that we have; it is very much hand-holding and pointing people in the right direction. Empty property work is also—. The responsibility lies across many departments: we've got building control responsibilities, planning, council tax; we've got public health services, housing. And part of my role is to take a co-ordinating role and co-ordinate the activity of the local authority across those departments to ensure that we have a unified approach to these empty properties.
So, sometimes, due to the sensitivity and individuality of each case, would you say that the role is quite bespoke in some ways?
I would say 100 per cent, yes—100 per cent. Going back to your question on the legal side, my experience of legal services, certainly within our county—. Legal services are great, they're very knowledgeable, but they have a breadth of knowledge across the entire council services. When it comes to specific, bespoke legislation in terms of housing or empty properties in general, they will know a little bit; they won't know a massive amount. There's certainly a lack of confidence about making decisions, especially when the local authority have to invest capital funding into projects. And there is certainly a stand-offish approach, where recommendations are made to seek external guidance. A lot of legal services, in my experience, take the advice from us, as empty property officers, because we deal with this legislation on a daily, weekly basis. To have a bespoke legal service, or perhaps a national bespoke legal service, where local authorities can tap into this and get that specialist advice, I think would be something of a benefit.
Yes. Thank you for that. So, how is best practice on empty property currently rolled out across the different authorities?
I think we've got an arrangement, really—as you said, we've got the all-Wales housing expert panel, and then, following out from that, we've got, I think, perhaps three regional empty property working groups, which are looking at actual practical examples and approaches, scenarios, assisting each other in how best practice might be delivered. Then, we also have groups that are looking particularly at renewal and the loans element of how that is also worked in with empties. So, they will all report back into the panel meetings. As a panel, we meet quarterly. There's always an agenda item relating to empties, and so we try to feed that through ourselves. It's been built up over the years, but I think there's quite a good network, certainly in the regional areas, of people being able to contact each other so that, if it was that a local authority did a lot of work, perhaps with enforced sale, developed a protocol or a method of working, that is shared across the local authorities. We've held training sessions amongst ourselves in the past.
So, by the communication channels that you've obviously engaged with other places, would you say, then, that that gives consistency throughout Wales?
It certainly tries to do, I think, yes. As I say, if somebody has been able to progress—. The situation that Leighton has described is very particular to Carmarthen. It's obviously been funded very well. We've had examples that have been shared with colleagues that way, yes.
Leighton gave us the importance of sensitivity in his role, so do you think that there's consistency in that role throughout Wales as well?
I think that varies with each local authority's resources and the ability that they have, the funding that is there in times of austerity—everybody's been pressurised, obviously, with how many resources are there. I think we really do need to stress to you the amount of time that it takes when dealing with some of these properties; it can go on and on and on for years and years. Enforcement is not always the best option at all, and the hand-holding, the trying to coerce, even the identification of who owns the property in the first instance. Sometimes, if they've been empty for an awful long time, they're not registered with the Land Registry, so you're starting from a very difficult situation to begin with.
So, enforcement is very much a last resort.
Just to add on to that, the issues we get with empty properties, the complaints, are reactive in that respect. You'll often try and build a relationship with the owners, as Paula mentioned there, to try and bring them on board. That's the sensitive side of the work. They'll maybe be distrusting of the council and what our agenda is in terms of the wider agenda. They may be embarrassed of the property. There'll be all sorts of factors going on with it, and it's trying to break the issues up. So, okay, our end goal is to bring the empty property back into use—that is without a doubt—but, actually, if the initial complaint is about the state of the garden, if we can get that issue dealt with, in terms of our performance indicators and stuff it's still empty, but actually you've built a bit of a relationship with the owner, you've built a bit of goodwill with the neighbours and then you can build on that. So, it might be five, six years before the property's back in use again. If there's a huge issue going on—it might be that the family own it and one part of the family doesn't agree with the other part of the family what to do with the property—there are all sorts of weird and wonderful factors involved in it. But it is very much a nurturing exercise in that respect.
Thank you very much.
Okay. Just before we go on, just picking up really on what Leighton said about the possibility of having a national service in terms of legal advice and support, I guess it could be national, it could be regional. What would you say about how it might work in practice? Is there anything you could say to the committee on that?
It is a specialist area at the end of the day. When we've wanted to take enforced sales, for example, because there is limited specialist knowledge on that legislation within our corporate legal services, to have that specialist knowledge of the range of legislation that is within our toolbox, really, at the end of the day, because there are various pieces of legislation that we can use to apply to empty properties, depending on what the issue is. So, to have that even at a regional level, and I think it could work on a national basis as well, to have that specialist solicitor, almost, to draw on would be very beneficial.
Certainly, from the local authority's perspective, to instill confidence, because when local authorities take strong enforcement action it usually is followed up by investment, capital and costs, and sometimes—. I've administered enforcement action, some to about £40,000. That's a massive risk to the local authority and I need to be very sure that the action that I'm taking is appropriate, that it's correct, that it's accurate. A simple thing like a mistyped date on a notice could invalidate that £40,000.
Okay. On this, Leanne.
I was just going to ask about resources, because it's all very well having some legal person telling you, 'This is the course of action that you can take on this particular property', but if you haven't got the resources to spend on that or if you can't contact the owner to spend that resource, then the chances of it happening are probably quite slim. So, would you say, in addition to some sort of central legal advice service, that there should be some sort of fund as well that local authorities could apply for, for those perhaps just extreme or expensive cases? What would you say about that?
It is a case of almost underwriting the action of the local authority, because it's almost an invest to save because, yes, you need that outlay of funding to actually bring that property back into use, but when you sell it on, that is recouped.
So, you could do a loan system, then.
Yes, or if you're a stock-retaining authority, so that you bring that property into the housing stock of the local authority, as a landlord, then that is the option that you're adding to your housing stock. But for those authorities who aren't landlords, it's a case of whether we can then work with the registered social landlords to actually bring back that property, or if it's a private developer. But you will ultimately see that funding coming back, although it's underwriting the risk, the outlay that's needed to bring that property back into use, and then see it as an investment pool.
Just to extend on that slightly, when Houses into Homes, the loan scheme, came into being, there was discretion placed by Welsh Government that local authorities could, if they needed to, access that pond of funding to undertake works in default, up to a maximum of £25,000, as long as that money was then recycled within a two-year period. That can be quite beneficial to access that funding, but, again, you do need the confidence to be able to say, 'Okay, I am going to be able to recover this money.'
A number of years ago, there were bespoke empty homes officers in a number of local authorities across Wales. Denbighshire won a series of national awards for bringing properties back into use. I met their officer several times and she explained it was an entirely proactive model. Yes, there was the reactive work, but it was detailed, down-at-the-ground-level work to identify the landlords and to intervene with help, support, and far more carrot than stick. And that's how they won those awards. Eventually, I think she was embedded within a housing association, so it was a partnership with the local authority, and I think some local authorities also combined all of that with the rural housing enabler roles. But could we be developing a regional model, whereby partnership between local authorities and the RSLs, with an embedded host and perhaps combining the rural housing enabler model, could help fill some of these gaps?
As a former rural housing enabler, former RSL member of staff, and a former Denbighshire member of staff I can try and answer this one.
I remember. [Laughter.]
I think partnership work is always to be welcomed. I think there's certainly great scope in linking our work more to the works of RSLs. I think, from almost a neutrality point of view, working within a local authority is very useful because you can bring in the RSLs as they are deemed fit. You can bring in the private developers if they're the ones who are most appropriate to do that. You can bring in expertise like the rural housing enablers, where they still operate. You can co-ordinate a lot more. I suppose the nature is, if you're embedded with a particular housing association, it may be that the other housing associations don't see it as much of a priority for them. I think, where you can work in partnership and co-ordinate many stakeholders to have a role in it, it's to be welcomed. In terms of where that leads to more commonality, if you like, across the regions and across the authorities in Wales, it could do, but there will always be local factors that will also dictate a particular direction. It could be that rural empties are a particular issue in an area, compared to maybe student towns, where that's a particular issue. There will always be local factors that drive it. But I think partnership working will always be welcome, grateful, and will always be a good thing to see. We've had good success recently with an RSL and a very problematic empty property in our county borough, but there are other opportunities we could explore, which aren't through lack of resources and lack of opportunity, I suppose.
Just to concur with Sion, really, it's the local authority that has got the back-up of the enforcement tools in terms of the delegated authority to take enforcement action if needed. And we do work with RSLs to bring them in when it's appropriate, but it's within the local authority that you've got the expertise. What we are lacking is the capacity, really, in terms of, you know, with empty property work, if you were to take it to a regional level, yes, it's good for sharing good practice and expertise, but where it actually makes a difference is at an operational, local level. And it's the capacity to do that, that is where you see the variations between local authorities. That's where you're going to see the benefit is by having the foot soldiers, really, in terms of getting the work done, doing the engagement with property owners, if you can find them. It's that constant drip-drip effect in terms of the local tendrils out there in the communities, making that impact. And I think that's where we are struggling to make the real big difference.
Just picking up on both of those points and coming back to your question earlier about the PI, and the differences there and what counts and what doesn't count in the PI, I think, obviously, nationally and quite rightly, there's a focus on long-term problematic empty properties. In local communities, sometimes, the fact that a property is empty is not the issue for the local community; it's the fact that somebody then dumps their rubbish in the garden of that property or, as Sion has mentioned a few times, the garden is overgrown.
So, whilst we all accept that we've still got a housing need and that there is a bigger issue than that, sometimes the lower level work achieves good success with public satisfaction of what they want to see. Now, none of that work—. And that will be perhaps through enforcement of something at a low level. It may well be that we can't find an owner and we take enforcement action to have rubbish removed. We do it, the local authority does it through work in default and we try to recover that money—£150 maybe—but the neighbours are assured that we've taken some notice of them, that we've done something and that the house is secure and that's fine. So, we have got two big differences in the scale of the work that we're involved in as well, and that's done, as I say, at a very local, practical level.
Okay, I think that's very useful. Thank you very much. Huw.
I'm trying to bundle together some of the questions around enforcement powers rather than that softer end there, and to get to the point of whether the powers that you have are satisfactory or whether they could be improved or reviewed. I'm going to bundle some of these together. So, first of all, with the empty dwelling management orders, very few have been used. Does this suggest that they aren't simple to use, aren't easy to use, and that the risks outweigh it? So, should they be scrapped and something new brought along or should we just look at improving what we've got?
We've also heard some—I'll bundle these together and feel free to answer—. We've also had some evidence suggesting that enforced sale is a lot more straightforward than EDMOs or compulsory purchase orders. So what's your view on that?
And then, just finally, the Scottish Government approach on this: several of our responses to the consultation have suggested that the Scottish Government approach is to introduce a compulsory sales order, so that where it's been vacant or derelict for an undue period, it could be sold by public auction to the highest bidder—very simple, lower thresholds. Would this be something that you'd want to see introduced? Sorry, I've bundled them together so that you can range free.
Everyone's looking at me. [Laughter.] We'll start with the empty dwelling management orders then. Yes, it is a very complicated, protracted mechanism for dealing with empty properties. Whilst that is the case, I think there is certainly a place for it not to be scrapped at all. There are better mechanisms out there. We've discussed quite a lot now the proactive work—the hand-holding and so forth—and sometimes that achieves so much more. Eighty per cent of empty properties brought back into Carmarthenshire last year were done through an advisory, guidance, supportive way. Enforcement is responsible for a very small part of that.
I've personally been responsible for and been involved in two empty dwelling management orders—the most recent was last year. We look at empty dwelling management orders as a halfway house between a leasing scheme and a compulsory purchase, almost. It's very risky from the local authority's perspective because the build-up to an interim empty dwelling management order—the interim empty dwelling management order is the first point at which we make an application to the residential property tribunal for permission. All the work that the local authority does up until that point, we can't claim any costs back on it—it's completely at risk.
The local authority undertaking an empty dwelling management order also has to find capital funds in order to improve a property. That capital cost is then at massive risk because the legislation at the moment only allows us to fix that as a local charge and not as a land registry financial charge. So, we work our way around that by actually putting cautions, restrictions, on the land registry, and the restriction is quite simple: it is to prevent somebody from forming a leasehold on the property, but it acts like a trigger to allow other people to know, 'Look, there's something going on here, the local authority has an interest in the property.' Before we even get to the empty dwelling management order, we have to exhaust all other avenues of assistance. We have to hand-hold, we have to offer all the advice, guidance and support that's available to every owner of an empty property, including financial assistance. At that point then, the local authority has to serve an interim management order, for which we have to have permission from the Residential Property Tribunal. The application that I prepared was 481 pages long. The time frame that it took from us to start enforcement action to the property being tenanted was three years—a massive amount of my time went. So, looking on the flip side of that, I think there is a place for them because it does enable local authorities to offer solutions to empty property owners without taking their properties away from them. It does demonstrate the local authority using enforcement action in a positive way and it increases the availability of housing in that area.
So, what would you like to see improved within that?
Looking at the enforced sale procedure, certainly a lot, lot, lot less work. But, the enforced sale, just to be clear, is an enforcement toolkit that isn't an empty property tool. It is a debt recovery mechanism only. So, the local authority has to have a debt against that property before that can be used. Usually, that may happen if there's a statutory nuisance where a property may well be allowing water to enter an adjoining property. The local authority will take enforcement action, step in, carry out the works and affix a financial charge against the property. A demand will be issued to the owner. Failure to pay that demand and they're in debt to the local authority, and by using the law of property Act we can actually enforce the sale of the property to cover that debt.
What's important to note again is it's very quick in terms of getting to that stage, but you do have still an empty property that needs improvement at the end of the process. So, as local authorities, it is encouraged to look at the longer term solution as well. Yes, we're going to be selling this property at a public auction, it's going to be going for market value rate, and you're hoping that the person who is buying that property has the full intention to improve that property, going in eyes wide open—it's not always the case. But they, again, have the access and availability to all the support, guidance, advice that the local authority has, including financial assistance.
What's encouraged is that we utilise the housing Act notices in tandem with enforced sales, where we put a suspension on a full renovation of the property and a notice asking somebody to renovate the property fully, and that suspension is lifted at the point of change of ownership. Therefore, the local authority assumes some control. When the property is sold, the new owner is purchasing the property fully committing that once they own that property they have 12 months to improve that property.
Do you have the Scottish system of grants?
Looking at the Scottish system, I'm not on board 100 per cent with it. I haven't had much dealings with it at all. From what I understand, the compulsory sale order is very similar to the enforced sale but without having to generate the debt. So, again, similar processes. Having read that, the build-up to a local authority making the decision that that is the appropriate action is very similar to the build-up before a local authority serves an empty dwelling management order. You have to offer all these owners all the advice, guidance and support. All these avenues of assistance have to be exhausted before that can be considered. And again, at the point of sale, you still have an empty property that needs improvement and cannot be lived in immediately. So, that engagement by the local authority is still required at the tail end when there is a new owner and that property still needs that investment.
I wonder whether, Chair, rather than prolong the time now, if as an expert panel you have clear ideas now on how you would like to improve the current system of powers that you have, or whether you'd like powers extended, you could write to us in some detail.
Is that okay? Okay. That's very useful. Okay. And Dawn.
Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to explore a little bit further with you how you work with owners of empty properties. You've just talked about the top end of that process, once you get into enforcement and so on, but certainly discussions I've had with the local authorities in my area—they say one of the biggest challenges actually is identifying the owners. So, two things really. One is: can you tell me what process you go through in terms of identifying who the owners of empty proprieties are? And then once you do, what is the kind of approach that you take with the owner? Sion, you talked earlier on about some of the softly-softly approaches, dealing with some of the—. But I'd like to get a better picture of how you engage with the owners once you've identified them.
I can start off. In terms of our intelligence gathering, if you like—to make it sound posh—on empty properties, we get it from several strands. Council tax is the most definitive one we can get. It's not the be-all and end-all, but you'll usually get a name of an interested party. Sometimes you'll have a forwarding address as well, and, obviously, we can use that information. We try and make contact with them. So, we've got that. Often, the neighbours will say, 'That's owned by Mrs Jones, and she went to live in so-and-so place.' Local intelligence networks all kick into play. Elected members will often know enough about the back story of the property. So, you'll start to build up a picture. Land Registry will give you some information. Often, though, the Land Registry information will be, 'This is owned by Mr and Mrs Jones of this address'. There won't be a forwarding address unless it was bought as an investment. But you start to weave information together to create a sort of picture of it.
That's on the sort of easy level, if you like. There are properties out there that are owned by companies. I dealt with a property in my area that was owned by an offshore company in the Channel Islands. That was more of a difficult process, and involved external legal advice from the Channel Islands to try and get to the bottom of that mess. There are properties out there that are owned in all sorts of weird, different ways, but we try and weave some sort of story together.
Sometimes you will write to people several times and get no response because, again, as I mentioned earlier, they might be thinking, 'The council's coming in here with a particular agenda, and I don't want to consider whatever that agenda is', so they'll shut the door. Eventually, maybe the property's getting more of an issue—'Right, I'm going to have to speak to the council.' So. you'll start to sort of get them on board slowly. And, like I said before, you try and deal with the softly-softly issues and escalate it slowly with them—so, not at an enforcement level, but say, 'Right, okay, we've dealt with that issue. You've gone to the expense yourself, maybe, to deal with that issue, now what are we going to do next to deal with it?' And it's sort of holding their hand through the whole process.
But, like I say, council tax is the main way, but we'll have lots of other bits that will link up to it. And sometimes, properties are held in a certain way that it's difficult, let's say—where they're unregistered with the Land Registry, you sort of know, anecdotally, who ownes it, but they deny ownership, and that's where it goes into a legal issue then.
Okay. But what—? Sorry.
On that particular point, Leanne.
I'm just thinking now, I'm aware of properties where I live that are owned by people who live abroad. It sounds pretty difficult to tackle under those circumstances. So, are there any measures that you could think of—any legislation that we could enact—to be able to more swiftly take over those properties where the owner can be proven to be out of the country?
I suppose the issue is that it has to be with the property—. The issue is with the property itself, not necessarily with the ownership of a property. Sometimes—
Say it was rat infested. That's a common one, isn't it?
In that situation, there is legislation in place to deal with that rat infestation. So, you would go into it that way. You try and make contact with the owner. If it was that, and some sort of enforcement action was appropriate through enforced sale or whatever, and the owner wasn't engaging with you, whether they're living in the neighbouring village or they're living in Japan—it's irrelevant in that sense. There's nothing there that says you can't have an empty property—there's no law that says you must not leave your house empty. So, in the absence of that, we try and weave other pieces of legislation retrospectively to suit it, if you like.
Looking at it from the perspective of enforcement in general, there's what we call reasonable enquiry. And a local authority has to go through the exercise of reasonable enquiry prior to undertaking enforcement action. The reasonable enquiry is your evidence to suggest that you have exhausted all avenues to try and identify that owner. And once you've gone through that, you can actually take enforcement action as a local authority in the absence of an owner. But your example there about a rat infestation, or Sion, as he says, about overgrown gardens—the local authority will put resources to tackle those issues, but those issues will not bring that property back into use. And that's the thing; that the activity of the local authority on a daily basis won't get recognised in terms of empty properties to its full extent because the performance indicator only looks at how many have been brought back into use. That property might be in a relatively good condition but empty. Is it a priority for the local authority to focus on that one, or do we look at the next rat infestation that's down the road or the overgrown garden that's in the next village?