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Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

17/07/2019

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
Committee Chair
Leanne Wood AM
Mark Isherwood AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Hannah Blythyn AM Y Dirprwy Weinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol
Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government
Ian Williams Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr Cartrefi a Lleoedd, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director for Homes and Places, Welsh Government
Vivienne Lewis Rheolwr Gorfodaeth a Benthyciadau Adfywio, Yr Is-adran Cartrefi a Lleoedd, Llywodraeth Cymru
Regeneration Enforcement and Loan Manager, Homes and Places Division, Welsh Government

Swyddogion Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru a oedd yn bresennol

National Assembly for Wales Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Jonathan Baxter Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Stephen Davies Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Yan Thomas Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

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 09:29.

The meeting began at 09:29.

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Bore da i bawb. 

Good morning to all. 

Welcome to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. The first item on our agenda today is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We haven't received any apologies. Are there any declarations of interest? No. Okay. 

09:30
2. Ymchwiliad i Eiddo Gwag: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 6
2. Inquiry into Empty Properties: Evidence Session 6

We move on, then, to item 2 on our agenda today, which is our last evidence-taking session regarding our inquiry into empty properties in Wales. I'm very pleased to welcome Hannah Blythyn, Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, Vivienne Lewis, regeneration enforcement and loan manager in the homes and places division of Welsh Government, and Ian Williams, deputy director of homes and places in the Welsh Government. Welcome to you all. Are you content, Minister, if we go straight into questions? 

Sure. 

Okay. Well, let me begin with a few general questions, then. Firstly, to what extent do the Welsh Government and local authorities have a co-ordinated strategic approach, would you say, in terms of bringing empty properties back into use?

I didn't expect to be back before the committee so soon, actually. It feels like I missed you so much last week, I came back this week. But jokes aside, this really is an important area of work because we know that empty properties is, as a target—. We know we've got housing crisis and it's a way to tackle that, but also that feeling and visibility generated by empty properties in our communities, in our town centres, really does generate that feeling of decline because it's very visible. So, it's an important issue, not just in terms of how we tackle empty properties, in terms of creating more homes, and more suitable homes, but actually how we regenerate our communities and town centres as well.

And I think, in terms of the approach that we've taken, we've obviously worked very closely with local authorities regarding the various empty homes and empty properties initiatives, and through our various regeneration funding streams. We know that local authorities are often—it's their intelligence that they give to us and they're best placed on the ground to identify empty properties that need to be targeted, that need perhaps Welsh Government support. But we recognise that there's perhaps more we could do in terms of a co-ordinated approach. And one of the things I'm really pleased to have been able to do since coming into post is to establish a new enforcement team within Welsh Government, which is able to provide that additional support and guidance for local authorities and for communities across the country. I don't know whether—. It will be headed up by Viv—is that right?

It would be interesting to find out a little in terms of what that unit will do. 

Well, our proposals are to really look at the co-ordination of bringing empty properties back into use—so, supporting local authorities and also then looking at making it a community issue rather than just solely a local authority problem. So, really bringing partners together. So, our role really is going to be looking at co-ordination, support for the local authorities then to make sure they have the skill set, the knowledge, the confidence, then, to be able to take forward really difficult empty properties. And then there's a support package behind that, then, whatever that's going to look like. But we are still in our infancy, so we are open to developing that. 

With empty properties, there is something around the carrot and the stick. Our preference is to help people out with loans, and we're doing okay, but to do great, I think you have to bring in this idea that to leave a house empty in the middle of the sheer amount of people needing homes in this country is probably unacceptable. And who knows whether those houses are insured? And certainly they provide a blight to the street. This is about empty properties as well as empty homes, of course—so, those buildings on the high street, as the Minister says. And so the stick part is important as well, and the enforcement just says, 'We're not going to allow you to sit on a property in the high street and be based in Hong Kong and just sit on it and let the asset value go up; we're going to do some enforcement, whether it's starts with a section 215, or a compulsory purchase order, but we're going to get there in the end'. And similarly, on homes, there are all sorts of sticks, for example, as you'll get to later, council tax premiums on empty homes, or enforcement, as we say. And that's what this team will attempt to do, and we're very grateful to the Minister for supporting us in setting it up because we've never had one before. 

No. So, is this, then, Minister, this new team, a restructuring within your department? Is it bringing fresh resource to this particular area of activity?

It's a bit of both, really. So, there's a restructure within the department, and actually placing more emphasis on this as a priority. We've already had sessions, which I spoke at the opening of, bringing together also—as Viv said, a more co-ordinated approach—bringing together those responsible for this area and regeneration teams within local authorities from across Wales. But we're also looking to procure some external expertise to help us take that forward as well. So, it's a combination.

09:35

Civil servants can get you so far, but when you're out there, you need the experts—the folks who have been doing this for 20 years. And we'll be procuring that expert advice. Because the sorts of sessions that these guys can run, if you run them at local authority level, it's no point just doing them with the housing professionals there—you have to get a cabinet member for housing, you have to have the legal team, planning team, the finance team. Because a lot of the problem with enforcement is that—. Well, you know, local government works the same as Government or any organisation everywhere—there are silos everywhere, in the private sector and in the public sector, and you have to bring them together to see that this is actually possible. And you need that expert resource that the Minister describes to help us make that possible.

So, would a part of the reason for the need for a more co-ordinated, strategic approach be variation within local authorities, so that even taking into account different circumstances in different local authority areas, and, I guess, their own right to set their own political priorities—? Notwithstanding those factors, what you would hope to do, then, is to get a more consistent approach right across Wales, which will be much more effective and bring these properties back into use. Is that it in a nutshell, would you say?

Yes, definitely, to have that more co-ordinated and consistent approach. But in terms of the priorities for each local authority, one of the initial pieces of work the team has done is send out a very straightforward survey to local authorities to get a gauge of the situation—what they feel the barriers are. And we had a 100 per cent response rate from that. And from the response to that, there are clearly barriers, but it's recognised by those chief execs who came back as saying, 'Actually, this is an important area for us and something that we do need to do more on'.

Is that something you might be able to share with the committee, do you think, Minister, that survey?

We can definitely share the results.

I know Huw wants to come in, but just before he does, just on the team, could you tell us when it was set up and how many officials are involved?

Well, I came back from maternity leave on 1 April, to come into this post. And at the moment, there is me—

And I offered her this opportunity. 

Yes. There is me and there is a team support. We have another member of staff then, for the next six months, and we're hoping then to procure the expert advice. So, in terms of the co-ordination role, as Ian said, civil servants are very good at that, but in terms of the expert guidance, we do need the professionals to come in and give us the guidance on that.

And our hope would be that, on 1 October, we have been able to go through procurement and have an expert advice team who can deliver those training sessions and deliver that focused—I won't use the word 'attack', but encouragement on those empty, blighted properties on our high streets. And even if we were only starting with three for every local authority, that's 66 symbolic buildings on the high street that we could be having a go at.

It will also demonstrate to local authorities what is possible with that support.

Yes. That expert advice, then—are you recruiting extra civil servants?

No. It will be a two to three-year contract.

It will be a company—there are a couple of companies out there that provide this resource. There's a few with Welsh people in them—and obviously, you can't prefer Welsh people, but it would nice if it was someone who understood the terrain, understood the people, understood the cultures, understood the towns.

Thank you, Chair. I think you've covered most of the questions I wanted to ask. But I'm just wondering what would be the measures of success of this new unit. Clearly, empty properties, but when do you expect, Minister, to be able to turn round and say, 'Well, we can see not only empty properties, but a real change in the operational management of empty properties within every local authority in Wales'?

I think it would be hard to put an exact time frame on it now, but, from my perspective, we're aware of how important it is to be able to demonstrate a change as soon as we can. So, as Ian said, we've got that procurement process in place. Once we've got through that, we want to hit the ground as soon as possible to get into those local authorities, like you said. And, actually, if we can get some examples where we can show what is possible, then share that best practice, to say, actually—. Because I think part of it—. If you've not done it that often, it can seem incredibly complex and it goes down to not just expertise, but the confidence to actually take that on, and if you've been able to see examples, which are very similar perhaps—a similar situation to yours—where it has been possible and it has reaped results and rewards and the risk has been worth it, then that's what we need to get and have those examples that we are then able to share out consistently across Wales.

09:40

We've been looking at best practice, not in Wales in this case, but anywhere we can find it, and in Kent, what they found was that when you pick out symbolic buildings and you make a fuss about it when you do a compulsory purchase order—. There are many local authorities in Wales that haven't done a CPO for years, because they haven't had the resources and they haven't had the support or the help to help them get the confidence to do it, and that's political confidence and officials' confidence. It's an expensive process if you lose, and an individual—. If you're just doing one and you lose, that's a very dangerous place for officials to be; if you're doing 20 and you lose one, that's probably okay, because you'll get the added value from the uplift of getting the CPO. But in Kent, they found that there was something—pour encourager les autres, almost: you pick the symbolic ones, and you make a fuss about it and people realise you're serious. So, I think there are process successes.

It'll be good when we just get political leaders and officials from all parts of local authority in a room together in Bridgend or Swansea or whatever, and we take them through the coaching and the learning. There's a really good package that we can take them through, and suddenly you see lights going on whenever we run them. The Minister opened one recently, and people just come out of them going, 'I think I can do this.' So, that'll be a success, but, of course, that doesn't butter any parsnips, as they say—it doesn't get a single house back into not being empty. We believe that if you get the process right, you'll get the numbers afterwards.

So, on that point then, in terms of what the team will be doing with the local authorities, are there any priority areas, or will it be what the local authority would determine as a priority, so empty properties as opposed to empty homes? So, I'm thinking in my area, for instance, high street properties that have been empty for years that blight the high street, and the local authorities have been resistant because of the costs—

We understand that.

Yes. So, you would be working with the local authority to find ways of addressing that, including finance. I know you can't sit here and promise that they're going to have money, but there will be a process that you can go through with them to identify ways in which they can address what are basically blighted properties.

Yes, and then what kind of loan support would be available from Welsh Government as well.

And what support they could get, yes. And so, there's no particular priority from the team's point of view in terms of whether those are homes or whether those are properties—it would be the local authority's priority, I suppose.

Yes, and I think, going forward, what's really important is, as Viv said, about having—. We've worked on it with the local authorities, but actually how we perhaps better involve and engage with town and community councils too—because if we're talking about a town centre or a high street, they're probably on the front line in terms of the challenges there—and also the various business groups and community organisations as well. Because I think, sometimes, when you look particularly at a high street or town centre, our high streets have changed—the nature of how people shop has changed—so sometimes there's a little bit of uneasiness when you talk about turning an empty property into homes or having mixed use on a high street. So, actually, that's where you need to work together with the community to say, actually, you could tackle a housing shortage by bequeathing some new affordable or social housing and then—

—combine resources and it brings footfall onto the high street, but you have those conversations together, so you bring the whole community with you as well. 

Could I just ask you about the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, Minister, and whether local authorities are taking the provisions and the ethos of that Act into account when dealing with empty properties? Would you say there are any examples of that in Wales? It's obviously about taking a long-term preventative approach, isn't it—a joined-up approach, indeed?

Yes, I think I'd have to probably go and get some information for you in terms of actually how it would—if you want the direct correlation to the goals of the well-being of future generations Act. But if you look in terms of how we've approached it in terms of wider community regeneration as well, so looking at the whole community well-being and cohesive communities as well, in terms of actually how we've used a mixture of loans and grants to create shared space. So, taking perhaps some old iconic buildings and working with developers, working with local authorities in partnership, to create not just work space but homes and a combination. So, it's actually how we use that funding and that support creatively. But, like you said, to get the really direct correlation to the well-being of future generations Act, we'd probably need to get that information.

09:45

I think Mr Griffiths, the Chair, hit the nail on the head when he talked about preventative, in the same way as Dawn Bowden talked about the blight of empty properties. I don't want to get all 'broken windows' on you about this, but there is something about it that if you allow them to be there for a long time, people start to lose faith in their town centre. A town centre should be the heart of the community, should it not? Even if you don't live near there, we all sort of associate with a town that is our own, and if it's just faltering, and we're letting it falter, then also it's about the social behaviors that surround it and things start to get a little bit worse. So, for me, the area of working is preventative, that we are looking at town centres of the future, rather than where they are right now.

But maybe not many local authorities perhaps would have sort of explicitly made those links, would they, at the moment?

It's possible.

Just a final question from me—I know Mark wants to come in—on community regeneration: as you mentioned, that's an important part of this area of work and activity, isn't it? Last week, there were some examples of good community regeneration that was bottom-up and getting empty properties back into use, but then also meeting a lot of local needs and providing local benefits. One example, I think, was looked-after children moving into properties that had been empty and were brought back into use, which was then achieving a considerable financial saving for the local authority, but obviously more importantly providing good quality homes and hopefully a basis for those young people to move on in life. Is that the sort of approach that you've got in mind and will there be a real bottom-up community involvement?

Absolutely. Like I said previously, I think if you haven't got that community involvement and community buy-in, particularly with regeneration, because the community belongs to that community—. It's not for Government to tell a community what is best for them in terms of actually how it should be regenerated. So, I think it's really, really important that however we're bringing empty properties back into use, whether they be for homes or for other community purposes—. You see a lot of things like shared workspaces to give people that step up when they couldn't take that plunge and actually get a full-on business lease somewhere, but actually might be able to do something in a hub-type scenario. It's actually how we work with them to provide that step up, but actually have that mixed use as well.

It reminds me to think about the other scheme that we have, called the integrated care fund, which some of you may be aware of, and that tries to do something similar to what you describe, taking buildings that are quite often underutilised, if not empty, and putting in accommodation, but then also services around that, so social work services or health services around those accommodation-led solutions. I don't think we've explicitly made the link to empty homes, but I can assure you we will be doing that now, because actually those two things could go well together. That's not something we've done specifically in the past, but we will.

This issue has received attention in every Assembly. I've been personally involved in inquiries with predecessor committees in virtually every Assembly I've been in since 2003. Yet, the official figure for empty homes is now higher than when I first arrived here. You made reference to training. Of course, training is an event not a process, and unless you manage change, monitor outcomes, and then intervene positively, if the outcomes desired are not happening, then the training is just a plaque on the wall. How would you focus on that?

More broadly, you refer to good practice, and over the years we've had some excellent good practice. During the third Assembly, Denbighshire won UK and Wales awards for having the highest number of empty homes returned per head of population, because of the people-first approach they took and the detailed work their then empty dwelling management officer was taking. We also had in that Assembly and the beginning of the last Assembly the local housing trust approach, which was lastly implemented in Rhyl, with the Wales Co-operative Centre, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the housing association, the local authority and community involved in bringing empty homes back into use, and then ultimately putting those under the management of a local housing trust. So, there have been many indigenous projects over the years, and pockets of good practice that have then sort of disappeared back into the ether. So, rather than employing a three-year external consultant at significant cost, why don't we revisit some of the things that have actually worked and see how we can multiply those and then manage this better, so it becomes systemic rather than an event? 

09:50

I think that we can probably do both. I think that we can take best practice and what's worked and actually bring it together now with what we're trying to do in terms of having industry experts involved, to actually drive it forward at a greater pace and with greater consistency. You are absolutely right to highlight those pockets of best practice but, like you said, they are pockets, and so we want to roll that out in communities across the country. So, I think we've identified this as a way of actually stepping it up an extra gear to take it forward in a way that all of us in this room want to do. 

I was up in Denbighshire—I was in Rhyl, actually—working with the officials there, and I stand behind nobody in my admiration for what they do there; there's a very good team there. But, there are a lot of empty properties still there, even though they have had some fantastic initiatives in the past. I think that you are right: we have to learn from those as well, but the numbers of people working in this field have dwindled over the years, and the confidence to take on enforcement has dwindled, even in places with very good officials, such as Denbighshire. They were very, very welcoming of the set-up of this unit, and particularly welcoming of having some people in who really knew what they were doing and would be able to support them and help them. Now, whether or not we can help them financially, that will be a separate issue that we will work on over the summer. But, we'll certainly help them and work with them on the latest tricks and techniques about how to get these things fixed.

And how do you respond to the need for this to be a people-first approach? Bricks and mortar is the goal, but by taking a people-first approach, you're offering a carrot, offering a helping hand, as we heard from many witnesses where there were pockets of success, rather than just coming in—there's been a temptation, too often—with a big stick, 'Oh, that costs too much, so we'll just leave it.'

It has to be both.

Yes, we're definitely looking to drive the momentum on this. We have got a lot of people involved and enthusiastic about this agenda at this time, and that's definitely what we're looking to do then—use that enthusiasm and drive this forward. We've got a lot of products that we can put behind this once we have the co-ordinated approach, and I think that that's something that we are definitely looking at very closely, to make sure that we have got the support behind the training package that we are putting forward and the bespoke plan that we're putting together.  

A follow-up to training: yes, there will be support all the way. There will be support all the way through Welsh Government. My main job is to support local authorities. The expert will be coming in to deliver the industry training, but I'll be behind then to make sure that they have the support package that they need to deliver what we're asking them to.

Yes, only that the idea is that the team is available to local authorities on an ongoing basis. You are absolutely right. The training is an event. It is a very important event to bring together all of the disparate factions involved in this, but it is just an event. Afterwards is where the real work starts, but the experts have to be available to them, going forward. Some places do have experts. Cardiff has a fairly big team. But, many areas just don't have anyone.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. The committee has heard evidence and concerns from local authorities that the current performance monitoring is not robust enough, either in highlighting the scale of the problem or, indeed, the good work carried out by local authorities. So, do you, first of all, share these concerns? Secondly, how can the public accountability measures be improved?

I think, yes, we do share those concerns. One of the biggest limitations that we have in this area is the lack of accurate data, and that data capture needs to be improved. One of the ways that we would welcome that being improved is actually that properties that have been empty for more than 12 months, rather than six months, are included in that, because I think six months can often be quite ambiguous. If anybody's tried very unsuccessfully for a long time to sell a house or a property, I think 12 months would actually give us a bit more accurate data. But, also, one of the other challenges we've got is that way the valuation office does not—[Inaudible.]— based against, sorry, the council tax, but properties that have been marked as derelict aren't included as part of that, and clearly properties that are marked as derelict are empty properties and create potential challenges, but opportunities too, particularly perhaps in more rural areas. So, I think to have the data for that would be advantageous as well. 

09:55

Okay, thank you. So, what additional information do Welsh Government and local authorities need to identify the areas and the problems in those areas, which are more acute? 

I would say, first of all, again, understanding the full picture from the 12-month point, I think, just as the Minister says, is a far better data point. If you want to take a very professional approach to this, and we do, I think you have to understand the source of success as well as just the sheer number of success. Empty homes, after six months, may become non-empty because people might just sell their house. We haven't done anything to help that, and all our activity has no impact on that. So, I think I'd like to see some analysis that shows the genesis of any success, so that we can see what's working and where it's working. I don't think we do that well enough, yet, but I think we have to.

As Mr Isherwood said, we've had a lot of goes at this in different pockets of the country. If we're going to have a national go at it, then we have to have a nationally professional way of doing it, and I think that's why we've never had an enforcement team before. But when we talk about enforcement, it sounds nasty almost. It means that it's a team about empty properties and empty homes. Maybe we need to rebrand a bit, actually [Laughter.]

It's going to be marching in to somebody's—[Inaudible.

Thank you. Local authorities have mentioned to us the difficulties that they face in resourcing empty properties, along with the cost of enforcement and preparing the paperwork for EDMOs. So, what consideration has been given to providing additional resources to local authorities to carry out this work, and would you consider underwriting the cost of default empty properties and preparing enforcement action? . 

We're committed, as a Government, to providing additional support, as required by local authorities. It's important that we don't take a one-size-fits-all approach, that that support is a bespoke package that suits the particular needs of that local authority or that community, and whatever the barriers and support they need to overcome them. I think the work we've already mentioned, in terms of the team, and the expert advice and the support from that, will be the additional support that we're also going to put in. But I think, from a financial perspective, clearly we can also look at that and review that as well. But I think, importantly, it's making sure that the support is there, that local authorities know what is available to them and the guidance is there as well, but also then actually, when we work with them, it's working in a way that works for them, rather than actually saying, 'This is a uniform approach'. It has to be an approach that reflects the needs of that particular community and area.    

I think your point is a good one. My boss, the Minister, has asked me to look into that point specifically about guaranteeing and indemnifying some way that enforcement action, and we may be able to do that through some sort of financial transaction capital of some kind. We're looking at it. I just can't make any promises in here that we can deliver that, but that would be what the local authorities are crying out for, because the shock you have—I certainly had it, this is not an area I'm a professional in—but the shock you have when you do just the training was—. I was asking, 'Well, how many lawyers do I need to do a section 215?'. It's just a gentle form of enforcement, because it's two paragraphs on a page of A4. How many staff do you need to do that? None. You don't need extra staff to do that; you just need people to have the confidence to be able to do it. It's actually quite straightforward, but no-one thinks it is. 

They think CPOs are right, they think of CPOs as being the only thing, and that is difficult. And quite rightly, because there is a human rights element to CPOs—you're taking something off people. But that's the end of the road. There are so many things between there and the CPO that are quite straightforward, but people don't have the confidence to do it.

10:00

If you go to CPO, certainly, the cost is very high.

In terms of the financial package as well, we want to work with the local authority to make sure we get that right as well. We want to make sure that we've got the right support package, and that includes finances. So, we need to have the conversations with the local authorities first to see what that financial package will look like before we start.

And from a people-first perspective, we have pretty good schemes—they just don’t take everywhere. Some people just don’t feel financially confident enough to take on a loan to make it work. Many do, and that’s our preferred approach. In some places, we’re just going to need to try grants at some point—we just are. And I believe the Valleys taskforce—. We’re working with them, because they’re trying out a slightly different approach to try and see where the grants will work and get us a turbo charge in this. But, obviously, in the long term, a grant happens once, and loans would be, in the long term, our preferred approach. So, we need to try out different things in different areas.

Caroline, just before you go on—Mark, you wanted to come in at this stage?

Just on these subjects. A thought for the team— instead of 'empty homes', it should be 'filling homes' or 'people into homes', or something like that. [Laughter.]

Your cheque's in the post. [Laughter.]

We heard evidence regarding a couple of English authorities who, before enforcement, were using almost a rent-arrears approach. So, it was a staged friendly letter and then intervention scaled up, which, again, suggests the good practice and evidence available might be worth a look at. But we also heard of one authority that had managed to streamline the CPO process, significantly reduce the cost per case, and build up the critical mass effectively. So, again, we commend that to you.

That was Kent, wasn't it?

I can’t remember the names; we've got them in the Record from our own evidence. My question, predominantly, is about the funding aspects. We know that, in other contexts, the Welsh Government manages various recyclable loan funds in housing, going back to 1995, and more recently Help to Buy. In terms of EDMOs, for example, and I won’t go into EDMOs, but if a council goes down that road, it has to fund the initial capital cost, and then reimburse itself through the rental stream over a period of up to seven years, which is seen by many as too much of a risk or too much of a cost. Whereas, if there was a recyclable loan fund available, it might take those pressures out. And I wonder what thought you might give to that.

We do already use recyclable loans in terms of our town-centre loans funding as well. So, it’s certainly something we could look at, going forward. But, like we said, it depends on the circumstance, in terms of whether it's about supporting local authorities in terms of actually the approach to take and what is the correct wording for letters and things like that. I think that’s one of the things that the toolkit we're producing will actually help with and assist with, as well.

So, yes, and as the Minister says, we certainly use recyclable loans for building properties on high streets, but not so much for individual homes and filling homes. But we could certainly take a look at that, because, in a sense, the Houses into Homes and home improvement loans are recyclable loans given to an individual rather than from a local authority. I think, when you get to the idea of being able to do the capital purchase of a home effectively and then you have nomination rights on it, it’s very interesting and certainly something that we are desperate to pursue, quite frankly, because I think it's a great idea. EDMOs themselves are quite tricky.

I think we've got to be willing to, as you say, learn from the past, learn from other places, be professional about it and be co-ordinated about it, and not allow a flower of great promise to come up in Denbigh and then just go nowhere else.

Thank you. My next question is, actually, on the toolkit. You are developing this toolkit for empty properties. Can you tell us when that toolkit will be available, what exactly it is and how it will differ from the current approaches taken by local authorities?

10:05

First of all, we've got the procurement exercise we've already talked about in terms of getting the expert in the field in place. Subject to the outcome of that exercise, it's my hope, or my ambition, I should say, really, that the toolkit will be available within six months. As I said in an earlier question, that toolkit will involve things like template letters, information on grants, loan products, current delivery partners, and also, importantly, it's not just going to be made available to local authorities, but it would available to all interested parties in this area as well.

In terms of how it would differ, well, I think, because there's nothing like that in place at the moment—. I don't know whether Ian wants to expand on that.

I think what we would expect from having people who have been very successful in this field—because why shouldn't Wales be able to have the best people who are the most experienced, even if we only have them for a little while?—is that they don't just bring themselves. They bring all their intellectual property with them that they've developed, in both streamlined processes for CPOs or, as we say, even just a basic pack of the simple ways of getting all the way from a section 215 all the way up to—. I mean the CPO is really when negotiation fails. I much prefer the friendly letter, the helping hand, the loan that gets the house flipped in six months, and people walk away with some cash in their hand and the house is being used by family. That's by far the preferred approach, but anything that creates a complete pack and then support, because we all know of support packs that have lain dusty on shelves for many years once you hand them out from Government—. I think this has to be something where the support comes with it, at least for a couple of years, and maybe after that we can't afford to have an enforcement team any more, but let's hope we've set the ball rolling so it's got its own momentum.

And just in terms of how that toolkit will differ in the approach, as we said before, this toolkit won't just be available for local authorities; we'd also encourage town and community councils, community groups, housing associations, all interested community stakeholders like that, actually, to be part of the solution to the problem of empty properties. The ambition is to enable these groups to be able to take action and then, perhaps, if they can't resolve it, then the local authority steps in, but at the same time it frees up resources at the local authority level as well.

So, it's a toolkit that's easily accessible, basically, isn't it, for anyone to have, really, to look at and so on? My final question is: the committee has heard from local authorities that they sometimes struggle to get the in-house legal help that they need when taking enforcement action. So, what benefits do you think there would be from having a national or regional team to provide this legal support, and how do you think the Welsh Government could facilitate this?

On this, I think we would be happy to be led by local authorities and what their needs are and what support they need. We're well aware of the gaps in expertise and confidence and knowledge across local authorities, and there are ways in which the team we've got here could offer support. There are also ways we can look at perhaps how—. My colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government, is looking at, actually, better regional partnership working, and that could be a potential vehicle to deliver that additional legal support where it is perhaps not there, or where to pool that legal resource, as well.

It's certainly an option to look at.

Thanks very much, Chair. That's quite helpful, that last question, because that's not what you'll be doing within your role, Vivienne Lewis—that legal support. You'll have the advice, the support, the driving out best practice, but not the legal support.

But that is something that you would be interested in looking at, Minister, because that's certainly come strongly from the evidence that we've heard—a lack of confidence in using the powers, which takes me neatly on to: do you think local authorities have got all the powers that they need?

As we've already alluded to, here this morning, I think there are a number of barriers and challenges to local authorities in terms of how they potentially use those powers that they could use. We actually did—. We referred to the survey we've done, which we will share with you. The key message that came back, as I say, a similar message to what you had in your evidence in previous evidence sessions, is the lack of resources, knowledge, confidence—because if you've not done this before, not done it numerous times, there's that fear of failure and alongside that there's the risk and the financial risk as well. I think there are other issues around housing not being delegated, causing backlogs.

10:10

Yes. So, from the results of the survey, it isn't necessarily the amount of powers they have, it's who can deliver the powers on behalf of the local authority. So, sometimes you have a housing officer who's very aware of an empty property but isn't able to actually engage in the enforcement work because they don't have the delegated powers. So, in some respects, it may not be appropriate to have an empty homes or an empty properties officer, but just to make sure that the right people have the right powers to be able to deliver the enforcement action on behalf of the local authority.

Okay. That's really helpful because my question was actually, 'Do they have the powers they need?'

They do. I think the area Viv's answered there was that quite often you don't have the right people in the room to be able to get to the bottom of why they're not using the powers, and it may be sometimes as simple as someone saying, 'Well, I don't believe that I can', and then have someone else to say, 'Well, you can', and then it's kind of fixed. It sound banal, but sometimes just someone to facilitate conversations, honest conversations, with some skilled background, because—. We believe that the local authorities do have the necessary powers, it's just they're not all uniformly used in the right way. But having someone—whoever we're able to, any organisation we're able to, hire have to be qualified lawyers because this is a quasi—either fully legal or quasi-legal—

Could I ask you a curious question, then? It's from an Assembly Member's perspective and formerly 14 years as an MP similarly leading on similar things. Would you understand the frustration of local communities who say, 'Why can't this be dealt with? This property's been empty for seven, eight years', and they're being told by a local authority, anywhere in the country, 'Oh, we just haven't got the powers to do it; nothing we can do about it', and then I or any Assembly Member says, 'No, no, there's a raft of powers'. How does it come to the position—in England as well; it's a similar situation—where a local authority can say, 'We just can't do anything about it'. How does that happen? Because we've got really professional people sitting here in departments. What's going on?

I can absolutely—sorry, Minister—. I can absolutely feel their pain, because, quite often, I think this can be just about not knowing what you can do and not being aware of what you can do.

And your unit will help drive this so that there's consistency of understanding. It still surprises me, I have to say, that we have professionals saying, 'We don't know what powers we have', or—. I get your point about delegated powers and so on and so on, but, 'We don't know what raft of powers we have'—.

If you would ask them could they take you through section 215, 216 and 4, 6, and all those things, of course they could. What you tend to get to is the when-all-else-fails solution, which is CPO, and they will quite often say: 'Look, I'm a housing officer. I don't have the power to spend £200,000 going through two years' worth—or the time to be able to go through two years' worth—of pain and my whole life being around that one property'. That's kind of what they're really saying when they say, 'We can't do anything about it'. Well, this is an opportunity for us to help them do something about it.

Okay, that's brilliant. So, what will your new unit do that will be able to not only work with local authorities but then to enable local authorities to explain that to communities? Because you talked earlier on—and I think you're absolutely right—about reaching down to not just community councils and local elected members, but actually into communities, regeneration trusts and others, to say, 'You should also be aware that it's not the—you don't have to go to the nth degree, to the strongest powers available, to CPOs and EDMOs and so on, but, actually, there's a range of interventions before you get there'. Now, my point is, if local authorities are struggling to understand the scope of powers and interventions that are available, how do you get to the point with your unit that you ask local authorities to explain it to communities? I'm not being deliberately obstreperous here.

No, I know, I ask them the same questions.

The hope is that the toolkit and the support we'll put in place as part of that will perhaps help to take a little bit of the mystery out of it and actually set out the process and simplify it and make it more accessible. And, alongside the work that Viv will do with local authorities—as I said, this toolkit is not just for local authorities; it's for all interested parties. So, that information will be out there then about actually what you can do and how you can do it and what support is available.

10:15

That's going to be really interesting, how that's accessible to—

I don't think we'd originally envisaged that sort of advocate and evangelist role, but, actually, now you mention it, that should be part of it, because a toolkit in and of itself is just a recipe for resting on a dusty shelf again. It has to be about people communicating to other people about what they can do. I think, if we get the right people together, we can do it.

[Inaudible.] Because I was thinking, as an example, then, you've got a business improvement district in a place, so they could start sending out the initial letters and, if that fails, then it's referred to the local authority. We've had some examples where—it's like 80 per cent, then, of people will actually do something with their property if they just have a letter to say, 'You need to do something with your property.' So, instead of then it being bombarded at the local authority's desk, it's more of a community issue, and this toolkit, then, should be able to talk you through, step by step, as to at what point, then, you need to involve the local authority and then, if all else fails, what you need to do. So, that's my hope for the—well, that's my plan for the toolkit. As Ian said, it shouldn't be just a pack of papers that sit; it has to be something that people can use, take out in the community and actually deliver proper change.

I think that ambition is the right one, it's the laudable one, to demystify all of this and start from the basis of what we can do as opposed to what we can't do and, 'This is too hard and too complicated and too obscure for general lay people to understand.' It has to be turned on its head. Can I just ask a couple of specifics there? Empty dwelling management orders—why have so few been used? What does this say about EDMOs and the process? Do they need to be revisited, reviewed, reformed, scrapped? So many local authorities have made so little use of EDMOs.

I think there are clear challenges around empty dwelling management orders. I think they've been—. The feedback we've got is that they're notoriously problematic, they're difficult, along with compulsory purchase orders. One of the things that we've been doing across the department as part of the affordable housing supply review—we've agreed to review these processes in terms of how we enable authorities to make better use of these powers, because we recognise that they are notoriously problematic at the moment.

Yes. And we are working with partners as well—for instance, United Welsh. We've had some conversations with them because they're delivering—. Even though it's a voluntary EDMO as such, then, but they're delivering that quite successfully. So, we want to learn from how they've managed to get their scheme to deliver quite a lot, really, with very little, and we'd like to take some best practice from those kinds of schemes as well to see whether we can feed that into our evidence too.

So, you don't think it's redundant because it's been so little used.

Not necessarily redundant, but difficult, and what we would say is that it's at the top end of intervention. I can understand why people don't commit to it fully, because you've only got one life and you could spend the whole of it doing a single EDMO. Now, down the bottom end, the easy end that we were talking about earlier, the stuff that can be done in a quarter of an hour, it's—I'll use the jargon, but it's a section 215. That one has, in the example that we were using—95 per cent of people who receive one of those, especially if they receive a letter with it saying, 'Look, we want you to do something about it. We are taking this tiny little bit of enforcement, but we've got a grant or a loan we can give you to help you do it, and please talk to us because we will help you'; 95 per cent hit rate. That's excellent. You've still got the 5 per cent who are—I don't know where on earth they are, but they're somewhere else and they're not listening or they've got too much money. But I think you don't go straight to EDMO—[Inaudible.]

No. So, actually, what you're saying is, if, in future, we have very few of these EDMOs being used, that's not necessarily a failure.

Not necessarily, no.

Okay, okay. [Laughter.] Okay. Well, let's stick at the top end of intervention for a moment, top-end enforcement. Some of the evidence we've heard is about the Scottish approach that they're trialling, with compulsory sales orders. Now, this is quite interesting. As you know, it's still early days, but the idea is that, if a property has been vacant or derelict for a long period, then it's sold by public auction to the highest bidder. Now, that's quite different from the CPO process, a sort of short-circuited version of it. What are your views? Do you have an initial view as Welsh Government on this?

10:20

I think, you know—what I would say is that I know officials are working very closely with colleagues in Scotland to look at that and monitor the progress and what the potential positive impacts are of the new scheme, and I think, if it is successful, there's no reason why we couldn't, or wouldn't, consider something similar here.

Okay. So, you're looking at Scotland, seeing if it's effective, and maybe that'll be an additional tool that we'll see in the future.

Okay. Are you happy with that, Huw? Mark, you wanted to come in on this.

On this, very briefly, yes. Ever since the relevant measures under the Housing Act 2004 were implemented in Wales under secondary legislation, and we debated and voted on these, as I think at least John and Leanne will remember, there have been concerns expressed by local authorities about cost and complexity over EDMOs, over the housing health and safety rating system, and other matters. My comments earlier about recycle loan funds could apply to EDMOs—that capital cost upfront—but particularly about the housing health and safety rating system. In Scotland, they replaced that with an alternative system that has been tested and found successful in court; it's easily understood, it's endorsed by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, and I believe the Welsh Government might be including a review of that within its current broader review. But what are your views on, at last, moving beyond the HHSRS, which is damned by its own complexity to lack of use, with an alternative measure, perhaps along the lines of that used in Scotland?

I wouldn't be able to comment on that. We have our system with different categories. I couldn't—I wouldn't want to make a comment on—

But would—? It raises a political decision, I suppose. Would the Welsh Government, as predecessors of this committee have suggested, look at the system in Scotland, which is simpler and therefore far more widely used, has suffered the tests of case law successfully, and is adopted by the professional bodies?

It's something that—I wouldn't be able to say either way today, but I think this is something that perhaps my colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government could actually take a fuller look at in terms of the bigger picture.

It's the Scottish housing fitness standard. We should look at what works, at whatever housing fitness standard.

Yes. Without wanting to make any kind of firm commitment today, I'm happy to say we're open to look at things that are being used elsewhere and what works, and how we could—. We're always looking to improve and build on what we do in Wales. So, it's not a 'no', but I'm unable to commit to any specific changes today, but it's certainly something we will take on board.

Because HHSRS, it's just what was imposed on us by the London Government in 2004, which we happily voted through.

Yes, just a couple of questions—thank you, Chair—on working with owners of empty properties. In a previous evidence session, we had some concern raised with us about the Houses into Homes loan scheme, and in particular the issue of the property subject to the loan not being sufficient security for the loan itself. So, in other words, the example given was: you might have a little terraced house in the Valleys; it's in a very dilapidated state, it might only be worth £10,000, £15,000, in its current state, and that loan scheme will only allow you to borrow money against the value of that property. So, you might get a loan for £6,000 on a property that needs £30,000-worth of renovation. So, it was the inflexibility of the scheme that was raised with us in that case. I just wondered about your views on that and whether you think that local authorities maybe ought to have a little bit more flexibility around the way in which that scheme is applied in terms of repayment periods, but also whether the loan has to equate to the value of the property, whether that would be something that we could look at.

Okay. I think—we are looking at how we can actually better streamline both our loans and our grants, and I think, within that process, we will look at how we can make those loan credits more flexible to the needs of representative areas because it could vary from area to area as well, and I think, in terms of that, financial thresholds and repayment terms are something we look at as part of that because we are aware of the challenges in terms of the two-year period and things like that. It is challenging for some people in some areas.

And it's almost like that what you can borrow should almost be based on what the value of the property would be post-renovation rather than in its current state maybe.

10:25

I think the issue there is whether that's the right product for the person. And I think that we've committed to do some work on whether we can look at making our grants and our loans easier for people to understand, and easier for local authorities to access the right support for what people need, because if it needs £30,000-worth of work, but it's only worth £10,000, perhaps a loan isn't the right place for that. So, we've got some work to do in the background, then, on how we make sure that the right support is given to the right people. So, we are committed to doing that. 

We are now working with the Valleys taskforce, looking at specific areas that have low asset value, because—

There are. And so, in those cases, it may be that us selling the gospel of loans just doesn't work, and we may have to add a little bit of sugar in there, and add a bit of grant, so that the work can happen and these empty homes can be filled again. 

And that might account for what Shelter were telling us, that, actually, it's not used as widely in some areas as you would have expected it to be. So, that may be part of that particular problem. The other thing I wanted to ask you about was data protection legislation. Now, again, evidence that we'd heard was that, in the past, local authorities would quite often approach potential developers to say, 'We've got x number of empty properties; would you be interested in having the owner's details to see if you can work with them to do something about bringing this property back into use?' Data protection legislation, as we now have it, they're telling us prevents them from doing that. So, that's the kind of avenue, which was a good avenue previously, that's now being blocked. Is that something that you're aware and conscious of, and if so, is there any way that you can think of that we could get around that to reintroduce that sort of process, really?

I think, clearly, it's important that any information sharing is in line with GDPR, and we keep people's data safe above all else. But we are reviewing, actually, what scope there is to share information on empty properties without infringing on the rights of those we represent, or of an individual's data. So, there are options that Viv is looking at on that. 

Yes, definitely. We are aware, and that's our problem; it isn't the people whose data, then, may be an issue. So, it's whether we give a list of developers to the local authorities and the local authorities go in, if they've got the data there. So, we're very conscious that there is work around this and we will come up with it. 

Okay, great. Thank you. [Laughter.] That's what I like to hear. 

Thank you, Chair. Can you tell us what assessment the Welsh Government has made of schemes that are intended to bring empty homes back into use for affordable housing? Has partnership working between local authorities, housing associations and the private sector been successful, and what can be done to encourage more schemes like the one that's run by United Welsh?

I think, in terms of—. To take the first point, in terms of the schemes intended to bring empty properties into affordable housing, we've taken the view that local authorities are best placed to set the priorities for their area and we haven't been overly prescriptive in our approach previously. We know that all local authorities are operating a housing loan scheme. However, they're not limited to affordable or social housing, although they'll have an element included. I think there are many examples of partnership working, but I think we probably need to look at how we can make that process a little bit more accessible and simpler for people to navigate, because, clearly, the way forward is to encourage more productive partnerships in this area to make sure we achieve not just our objectives in terms of tackling the blight of empty properties, but, actually, create more social housing for people and communities across the country. And I think part of that is looking, actually, at how we review our grant and loan offer, and how we better streamline that and make that clearer and more accessible to people.

There are good examples where partnership working is working, but it's like you said, we need to roll that out at a greater scale across the country. You look at things, in terms of, particularly partnerships between local authorities, housing associations, and the private sector—I know Ian was going to correct me if I used the wrong example there. [Laughter.] But I know, in the Vale of Glamorgan, there is some good stuff going on there in terms of a developer, who I actually met this week as well, to talk it through, and who's very committed to this partnership approach, and, actually, the community, place-based approach too. So, it's not just creating opportunities in terms of work space, for people to have that step up to get on the work ladder and to have a space to take their ambitions forward, but also a space connected near where a local housing association is providing new housing accommodation, adding space to that, where there is—I think he uses the phrase 'live, work and play'. So, you can work, you can live, and there are things like cafes and things, but also there's a local ethical supply chain as well as part of that.

I think it is about how we encourage more schemes, like those ones by United Welsh. We've been working with United Welsh, and other housing associations, to see how we can better support their aim to roll out similar schemes. And there are some other good examples across Wales. One I went to not long ago was in Pontypool, and that was in what was the old Free Press building. So, a pretty iconic building, been closed for a number of years; I think a former MP was the former editor, I believe, of it as well. Bron Afon have worked with the local authority on that, to create social housing as part of that, and brought that iconic building, which had been left empty, repurpose it, brought it back into use, provided this housing, but also at the same time has actually tackled some of the regeneration of the town centre as well.

10:30

Notwithstanding the example you've just given from Pontypool, would you say it's easier to do this in areas where there's greater affluence, where the house prices are a little bit higher than, say, in some communities in the Valleys, where it might not be so profitable to be able to do something like this? And also, does it make a difference in terms of how well the partnership working takes place—is it determined by how much of a priority the local authority puts on, first of all, social housing, but also empty homes? And a further question to that: many local authorities have stock-transferred their council housing—does that have an impact, in terms of how much of a priority local authorities place on trying to convert these empty homes into social housing, or are they just thinking, 'Housing associations are responsible for that now'?

I think you're hitting on all the right areas. Yes, of course, it's easier to flip an empty home in an affluent area, because there's that financial incentive to do it—you do a little bit of work on it, and you're suddenly able to have the whole value uplift. But just earlier on you were talking about effectively using empty homes and turning them into social housing. And I think that's the sweet spot. It costs us a lot of money to build a social home, because of—[Inaudible.]—you're talking £75,000, £85,000. It would be an awful lot cheaper if you were taking the blight of empty homes—and I really think this is an area—. Gwynedd and Ynys Môn, as you may know, are having a go at this now, in quite a big way, and we're quite excited—but they're still small numbers. There is, for some reason, a reluctance of tenants to rent if—. For some reason, there's still stigma, which we all need to get rid of, around—they don't want to have social housing tenants in there. And I think we somehow have to separate who the eventual tenant is. If we can make Government the tenant, and say, 'Look, guys, we'll take this property off you, we'll help you do it up for x amount of grant, and then we'll have nomination rights for the next five or 10 years, effectively turning it into social housing, and we'll bring it back to you in the same condition. You don't have to worry about who's coming in there—we'll do that for you.' I think that's the answer.

I'm attracted to that idea, because I think, potentially, if Government was running this, then you'd overcome that problem as well, of only being able to invest in wealthier areas. Where the market fails, in those communities where it's really difficult to make a profit out of a house, then the Government could potentially have a role in intervening where the market fails as well, if you had that system.

I think you're onto something really good. Well, I know my boss pushes us to do more in this area all the time. It's slow, and we're not getting the coverage across the whole country yet. But, surely, it's right, isn't it? It seems self-evident, but maybe it's not self-evident because we're not being as successful as we should be in that area.

You've mentioned Ynys Môn and Gwynedd, and the initiatives that they've got going on there, generally in rural areas. We understand that there are specific challenges to bringing empty homes back in, but that they can have more of an impact in terms of the community as well. So, what has the Welsh Government done to support work on empty properties in rural areas?

10:35

You’re absolutely right—there are specific barriers affecting properties in rural areas. I think there’s something you’ve already hit on in terms of less affluent areas. Enforcement action can be more difficult in rural areas. There can be larger financial requirements to renovate buildings. I think we recognise that more work does need to be done by Welsh Government to support rural areas. I think one thing we’re doing is working closely with local authorities to actually take their lead on what works best for the population there in terms of assessing support to tackle the—. As we’re saying, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, because that’s not going to work, because as you hit the nail on the head earlier, there are different challenges in different areas. It’s actually about creating that bespoke support to support and help rural areas and actually tackle those challenges and also how we use rural housing enablers as well.

Yes, we’ve got about—I can’t remember now—eight or nine rural housing enablers across the country, whose job it is to find derelict, or opportunities to be able to build in rural areas because it’s hard. You won’t find a volume house builder going anywhere near rural areas—not very often anyway. So, our small and medium-sized developer population has fallen off a cliff since 2008 and needs supporting. So, the rural housing enabler is trying to form that role of finding sites and finding places and bringing together all the partnerships—

I think, as individuals, they work enormously hard and, I think, every house that they’ve been able to put up wouldn’t have got done without them. It’s hard miles, I’m afraid—

So, is there a plan to expand the number of enablers or could you at least give us guarantees that the funding that’s available for them now will continue into the longer term?

We currently to fund, I think, five rural housing enabler projects across the seven local authorities. We’ve committed to funding our HEs for the duration of this Assembly term.

Yes, I was going to start on that rural housing enabler point, if I may. I remember the days, when they were first, or were a new introduction and going out to meet an enabler in Gwynedd, for example, and saw how they were not only working with Tai Eryri, but through them with local developers and others. I also worked with the enabler who was briefly in Flintshire and she was excellent, but she was constantly being blocked, particularly at town and community level. I don't think that the local authority really had buy-in either, because, eventually, she was head-hunted by an English authority to fulfil the same job there. But I remember her despairing because when she was carrying out her local affordable housing needs assessment surveys, she was finding that Nimbyism, including for community councillors, was leading to petitions against bringing 'all those people in here' rather than recognising 'this is about the people who live here'—perhaps 30-year-olds still living with mum and dad and so on. So, how can we turn that process around so that it's owned by the communities and not seen as a threat by those communities? 

But, more broadly, when I was on the board of a housing association back in the 1990s, there was a big push in England and Wales for the social housing grant to be used for regeneration and a big push for housing associations then to buy empty properties, often in a city and in a town, but also elsewhere, and bring them back to habitable standard and then become responsible for wider sustainable community regeneration in those areas. So, I don't know what your thoughts are on going back to the future in that context.

And finally, in the context of, I think, one of Leanne's comments, I think it's 11 council housing stock tenancies voted to transfer, and when I went out to visit—for example, I had meetings with Conwy, Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire and Monmouthshire—the local authorities, of course, retained the strategic housing role and they found that quite liberating because it enabled them to focus far more on the big picture rather than manage being a landlord and having to manage rents and arrears, and it's about how we can reignite that strategic mission, incorporating this in partnership with the transfer association.

Well, Nimbyism, I don't think we're going to fix today. But, this idea that affordable housing being developed in communities is for those communities—actually, it's not for 'the other'; it's for themselves. There are things that we'd like to be trying out, such as community land trusts, which could help in that because they tend then to have the ability to be able to allocate to local people. Those are ideas to be able to try, I think. Housing is a key part of regeneration. It's one of the tools in the regeneration toolkit, where you can—. It's one of the best ways of getting value uplift that possibly exist. I think the housing associations that I deal with every single day are a key partner and are keen to be so and are keen to work with us. I think that we pretty much do have an excellent relationship with them.

10:40

And I think that, in terms of what you were saying, actually, the challenge is—. With the example that you give of being up against people saying—potentially town and community councils saying—that they don't want that development, with empty properties there's definitely that consciousness of the blight it causes for a community or a landscape. I think that goes back to what we were saying earlier, in terms of, actually, the way forward, really, is to get that community involvement. It's not just dealing with town and community councils, and not just local authorities, but actually community groups and organisations across the piece, to begin that journey, so people are involved from an early stage. They realise that it's their objective, it's a shared objective, and it's for the benefit of that community and the people that are living in it as well. 

And you mentioned the way that we used to use our housing in regeneration in the past. We often, in the search for the shiny and new, disparage what everyone did in the past as being a bit rubbish, but of course it wasn't. It was full of smart people who did some good things, and we've just forgotten about it. Certainly, I'll look into the idea that you were suggesting about housing as a key source of regenerative powers for town centres when we get out.

Yes. It's related to this issue of blight. One of the things I still haven't got my head clear on is whether there is an accepted norm—a percentage, a scale, a range—at which the number of empty properties becomes a blight. Now, I know—

A tipping point, you mean.

—it will vary from area to area. If you discuss something like unemployment benefit—sorry; levels of unemployment, or economic incapacity—there is an acceptance academically that there is a—

Structural level—

Yes, it's always there, that transitional—. The reason I ask this is that you've talked—and I quite understand why—and we've heard a lot of evidence about case by case, property by property, so on and so forth. But, I'm just curious about what the overall vision is, on a street-by-street community. Is there a level at which we should be saying, the Welsh Government should be saying and local government should be saying that it is unacceptable to go beyond a certain level of empty properties?

We haven't got that at the moment, but that would be a good thing to have in the future. I know you said about case by case and things like that but, actually, you know, the level would vary by the size of that community. The information is not there for us to be able to perhaps set a bar for that right now, but it is certainly something, if we had better information and better data, we could do. Actually, it would perhaps—. We talk about the visibility of empty properties, but also that would provide visibility in a different way: 'This is what we need to do and this is'—

I'm really interested in this. Because Leanne mentioned this issue of communities that have higher levels of disadvantage. I'll say this anecdotally, but it's also probably related to property values and rental values as well: there is more of a propensity to rapidly develop a property that is empty within a more affluent area. Not always—not always. But, they don't stay empty for too long. So, if we had—if Welsh Government, local government had—an idea of what was, within a community of 5,000 homes, the range that's acceptable, and that it should not go beyond that, and they have to find interventions—. I'm just interested if Welsh Government—. Because what you have been talking about a lot is—with the toolkit, the interventions, the right use of powers and so on—finding these properties. You mentioned it before, Ian, this idea of saying, 'Well, if we can find five or six within a community, it sends that ripple going.' I appreciate that, but it sounds a little bit to me like trickle-down economics. I'm more interested in normative standards. I appreciate you might not be able to give me a clear answer at the moment.

10:45

I'm an economist as well, so on normative standards, I quite like the idea that there is—. There always will be transition and churn, so there always will be—. We made the analogy to structural unemployment; there will be 'structural empties' as people do churn and they leave their houses and they're trying to sell them, or whatever. So, there will be a bottom end to your range. I don't know of any academic analysis on where the tipping point happens that suddenly a town or an area starts to feel run down because it's got that many—. We know it when we see it, but as you say, you want the normative analysis. I think we could fairly quickly do a few surveys just to get a sense of it. We have never done it. So, that's my very long-winded way of saying we've never done it and we're going to.

Sorry, Chair—would the Welsh Government ever be interested in saying, 'Here is a level that we should not ever go beyond', within a community of 200, 300 or 5,000?

Isn't there a danger that that would drive demolition? That might be appropriate, but—.

Yes, we're aware of unintended consequences, and some of it is quite subjective too, isn't it, in a way? Because, if you live within a community, one empty property causing a blight on that community and creating that feeling of the community in decline is one too many. But, you know, it's something, certainly, we can look at in terms of actually—

Seeing whether it's standard across the country. It's just something that we've never done.

But we don't want to—. Like you say, we don't want to drive it in the wrong direction, then, as a consequence.

Okay. Well, we have to move on. We've got 14 minutes—13 minutes—to deal with council tax premium. Mark.

We can do that in 14 minutes easily. We've heard how the approach to using discretionary council tax premiums on long-term empty homes varies across different parts of Wales. We've also heard that the Welsh Government's guidance in 2016 encouraged local authorities to use additional revenue generated to help meet housing need. What requirements has the Welsh Government placed on local authorities to monitor the impact of charging an empty homes council tax premium and report on how the additional revenue is utilised?

There currently are very limited requirements placed on local authorities in regard to the impact of charging the premium. However, the additional revenue is required to be spent on addressing local housing need. I'm saying this with hesitation now, because I realise I'm straying into somebody else's policy area, but I recognise that it has an impact on potential leverages within this area as well. Within Welsh Government, I think we'd like to look at options in terms of how we can ring-fence part, or potentially all, of council tax premiums, so they can be kept by empty property teams, perhaps, to support the work in terms of actually bringing empty properties back into use.

We've been encouraging local authorities to charge a premium for empty properties, as a signal that empty properties aren't an acceptable part of society when we have so many people needing homes. It's up to them to do it or not. We don't want to force them to do it. Some do and some don't. Some places are going up to even 100 per cent now. We would like to think that they would utilise that premium, hypothecate that premium, and use it for their empty homes team and action within those teams. Again, I don't know to what extent we can enforce that, to be honest with you.

Yes. It was just to what extent the council tax premiums are used more by local authorities in areas where house prices are higher, and are they not using them, or even giving a discount, in some cases, in those areas where property prices are lower. Are you aware of a correlation?

Yes, we know all of them and where they are. Interestingly, Flintshire and Wrexham have gone big. Anglesey have just gone to 100 per cent. Gwynedd, I'm trying to remember—. Pembrokeshire have gone from a discount at least to no discount, no premium. I think they're thinking of a premium. It's a mixed story. RCT have just changed their story, I believe, and they're going into a premium. I think the direction of travel is right, and it's what they're doing with the money afterwards that I'm very interested in. This is an opportunity not just to send a signal, but also to utilise that money, and in a way, it makes it more acceptable, I think, to charge a premium if you're saying, 'We're going to use that premium'.

10:50

Can I just clarify—? Because the Deputy Minister used the term 'required' and you used the term 'encouraged'. Am I correct in saying it is 'encourage' and that you cannot require presently? 

I don't believe you can require them to charge a premium, but—

I'm afraid I just don't know. Viv, do you know?

The information we have is that they're required to use it for local housing supply, but as the Minister has said—

It doesn't necessarily mean empty properties. It's housing need, not necessarily—

That was me not being clear. We're aware that they're required to use it for housing need, but what we'd like to see them using it for is for reinvesting into empty homes specifically, because it is a premium on empty homes.

Right. Because your guidance only uses the word 'encouraged'. 

Yes—2016 Welsh Government guidance to local authorities on the empty homes premium.

We can clarify that.

Thank you. Great. And then specifically in terms of monitoring, do you receive data from the local authorities? Is that ad hoc or is it a purely voluntary action for them?

We get data from the data unit, which is the WLGA's data agglomeration unit, on how they're doing. I think what I said earlier on about trying to work out the actions that we're having and the outcomes that are happening on the ground, I think that link isn't being made well enough by us at the moment, because if you get just the total number of houses coming back into use, it could just be because people have sold their houses. 

So, would you agree we need to be monitoring the impact more acutely? 

I believe so.

Yes, we definitely recognise the limitations we've got in terms of data, and one of the aspects that we'll be looking at is where's the funding is being used and is it being used to the most appropriate—. 

So, enforcement colleagues are working with colleagues in council tax policy on this issue to see how we can change that.

Yes, absolutely.

Great. And as we heard from some of the witnesses, would that include or should that include looking at unintended consequences—considerations we heard from some local authorities they're having to make them themselves on the ground?

Unintended consequences like—?

Well, they might simplistically choose to apply a 100 per cent premium, for example, but what would be the broader consequences of that? Does it require flexibility, for example, in terms of probate and bereavment? Will it, perhaps, lead to—we'll touch on this later—people trying to reclassify their properties in ways that they pay less or otherwise? So, there are unintended consequences to consider.

We have fears of reclassification, more on the second homes than empty homes, usually, to be honest with you, because the issue around second homes is that you can reclassify and effectively get non-domestic rates and small business rate relief, but for empty homes the reclassification isn't as easy because you're not really reclassifying your empty home as a tourist attraction in the same way as you can for a second home, I guess. I'm thinking hypothetically, because the evidence isn't great on the second homes part. So, unintended consequences—. There has to be transition, there has to be time allowed before you start adding a premium. I don't know quite what that is, Viv, but there must be an element of time before you start—and I don't use the word easily—punishing people for having an empty home.

It's six months, is it? And special cases would always have to be at the local authority's discretion. Six months is usually enough to start thinking about getting through probate—but maybe it isn't. 

Well, from personal experience currently, I can tell you it can take a lot longer than that, and does.

Okay. Well, I think we have to be sensitive to those things—yes, of course.

Some of the evidence received said that they were, but sometimes behind apparently a bad story is actually a good story to be considered. In terms of—. You referred to reclassification of second homes sometimes as self-catering holiday homes or even as homes occupied by a single occupier. That may occur, for example, because somebody's trying to get around the system. It may occur because somebody is legitimately living there, or it may occur because somebody has chosen to let their property out for at least the minimum required by Welsh Government to qualify for the 70 days per annum and so on because they can't afford otherwise to keep their own holiday home. But what data or evidence is the Welsh Government gathering or intending to gather on whether this anecdotal evidence regarding people transferring is accurate and what the reasons behind that are?

10:55

We don't believe it's happening for empty homes, as I said earlier on—

For holiday homes. A few officials met with, I think it was Siân Gwenllian and Llyr Huws Gruffydd, recently to discuss this, because there are a couple of areas that are hotspots for this, where they believe this practice is happening. There's not a fantastic amount of evidence showing that it is happening for any kind of tax avoidance yet, but it feels like it is. I think there's a sense that that's happening, but no evidence that shows that.

And I think, importantly, at this stage, it's probably about us making sure that local authorities have the support and access to legal advice to manage the situation to the best of their ability as well.

Do you recognise that I actually know personally some people who've done this? Some of this is where they have legitimately opened this up as a—

Sure, and then it's a tourist attraction and tourism is important to many areas, well, right across this country.

Why do you think some local authorities still allow council tax discounts on long-term empty homes?

Our ambition as the Welsh Government is to work with local authorities to make charging premiums easier for them. From some of the feedback we've had from local authorities, I think there are concerns from local authorities in terms of high defaults on council tax, perhaps, potential avoidance tactics. The discount is currently available at the authority's discretion, but my understanding is that it is under review with council tax policy colleagues.

There are ways around the arrears. You can charge arrears to the property rather than to the person and so it builds up against the property. We think that this is one of the symbols that empty homes are unacceptable, so we believe that they should be utilising their power. Why they don't—it's up to the local authority to do it or not to do it.

And you think that should remain the case. Or should we be looking at a national approach of requiring local authorities to—

I think it's important we work with our local authority colleagues and partners on the issue to come up with what would be the best solution. But, at the same time, you know, further down the line, we're open to considering a different approach, if that's deemed to be—

It sort of comes back to the point Mr Irranca-Davies made earlier on about engaging with the communities themselves and helping them to understand why getting either enforcement action or fixing the blight of empty homes is a good thing for the whole community to do together. We have a number of tricks in our toolkit that we can use, one of them being a premium, but people don't engage with a new tax usually very happily with open arms. So, you can understand why it's not something that you necessarily rush to do, but if the communities understand why they're doing it, that might be part of the journey to getting rid of the blight of empty homes.

Given that you indicate the importance of local discretionary powers, recognising, perhaps, local knowledge, local understanding—and it is interesting, as you indicate, that those areas in the west, like Gwynedd and Môn, recognise, knowing the local market very well, that there may be unintended consequences and take a pragmatic approach, whereas those in the east perhaps look at more of the bottom line and think of it as a revenue generator, but I couldn't possibly comment. [Laughter.] But should that discretionary power allow charges of over 100 per cent extra?

Well, at the same time as we're reviewing what we do here at the moment, we are aware of England's example, which I believe provides local authorities across England the opportunity to increase to 300 per cent, I think.

11:00

No, that's if the property's been empty more than 10 years, I think.

There's some increment. 

I think nobody's gone over 100 per cent, and we're not hearing any clamour from any local authorities to go above that just yet. So, I mean, I think—

I think we need to work with local authorities to get the right balance between the ones offering discounts and, actually, why they're not using 100 per cent premiums now to actually get to more of a kind of consistent approach across the country.

And finally, going back to an earlier point about people perhaps reclassifying an empty home as a home—claiming someone's resident in it or it's a holiday home— if they do so, what is your understanding of the monitoring to establish whether they're telling the truth, whether there is somebody living in that property, or whether it is being let for 70 days a year or what have you?

That's 70 days and available for 140 days or something like that. I'm stretching into someone else's department now, but I'm afraid I don't know.

Okay. That's fine. I think that brings us to the end of this evidence session, so thank you very much, Minister, and thanks very much to your officials for coming in to give evidence to committee today. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr.

3. Papurau i’w Nodi
3. Papers to Note

Okay, then, we will move on to item 3 on our agenda today, which is papers to note. There are two papers: one is correspondence from Jane Hutt, which is part of a regular update from her regarding implementation of the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. We've asked for those regular updates, and this is one of them. And then, the second paper is correspondence from us to the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government following up from her evidence session on benefits, raising some additional points for response. Are you happy to note both those papers?

4. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod
4. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Remainder of the Meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

The next item, item 4, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of this meeting. Are you content? Okay. Thank you very much. We'll move into private session.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 11:02.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 11:02.

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