Grwp Cynefin

Jul 032014
 

It’s taken about eight months, but I finally got the information I requested on the Social Housing Grant (SHG). Though let me make it clear that I attach no blame to the Housing and Regeneration section of the ‘Welsh’ Government or the Housing Directorate (which, despite being in Wales is, I believe, an outpost of the UK / England Department for Communities and Local Government); for both have been very helpful. It seems that in the first instance I was asking for too much information, which exceeded the obligations placed on government departments by the Freedom of Information Act, with the delay extenuated by me seSocial Housing Grantnding e-mails to someone who’d left his job but whose e-mail account was still open and accepting incoming e-mails!

As you might have guessed, I’m talking about housing associations, and more especially, how much they receive from the ‘Welsh’ Government through the SHG (click on panel to enlarge). In other words, public funding, money that could – with different priorities – be spent on other things. Between 2008 and 2013 housing associations in Wales were given £692,541,022.51. (I can give you the figure to the exact penny because that’s how it was given to me.) However you look at it, 692 million is a lot of moolah. It could have built a few hospitals, 12 Newtown bypasses, covered most the M4 upgrading, re-opened the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth railway line, or funded a lot of other projects around the country. And remember, that’s just the money received from one funding scheme over six years. There is also the funding prior to 2008 to be considered, funding from other sources, plus the loans that housing associations are allowed to negotiate. Putting it all together makes it clear that social housing is big business, and accounts for a lot of money in a small country like Wales.

Before looking more closely at some of the individual recipients of the ‘Welsh’ Government’s largesse, maybe I should give some background and explain what kind of beast we are dealing with. Anyone over the age of forty-five will remember that social housing used to be the responsibility of the local council; in other words, council houses. Housing associations were usually small organisations supplementing the work of local councils in catering for specific groups, be they disabled ex-servicemen, Jewish widows or distressed gentlefolk. Then came the hammer-blow of Right to Buy legislation (Housing Act 1980) coupled with the inability of councils to use the funding raised to build replacement dwellings. Housing associations were then encouraged into a cannibalistic feeding frenzy that left us with fewer, but bigger organisations while – in Wales at least – they were also stopped from buying existing properties. This seemed to serve a number of purposes: keeping up the stock of social housing, providing work for private builders (as opposed to councils’ own workforces) and, in rural and coastal areas of Wales, ensuring that no cottages or houses that might prove attractive to English buyers became social housing. I believe that my suspicions about the purpose and activities of housing associations began around this time.

The housing associations we see today are either the result of one merger after another of the old units, or else shiny new organisations resulting from councils selling off their housing stocks. All tend to be ‘not for profit’ Industrial and Provident Societies registered with the Financial Conduct Authority, which makes it rather more difficult, and expensive, to get information on them than if they were registered with the Charity Commission or Companies House. (Though there are usually abbreviated accounts on their websites.) In addition, they are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, even though councils’ housing departments are! Odd, really, that it’s so difficult to get information on bodies receiving so much public funding.

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The breakdown, by housing association, can be found below (in PNG format, click to enlarge); or here in Spreadsheet format, with links to each HA website available by clicking on the HA name in the left-hand column. I would suggest opening either file in another window to better follow what I’m going to say. Or just use it to check up on your local housing association. (Right click on the panel, then click on ‘Open link in new window’ or however your browser words it.)

Social Housing full

A quick scan reveals that Wales & West Housing Association got the largest amount in the period covered by the table, no less than £63 million. I had cause to mention Wales and West not long ago, when I learnt that it will Wales & West Housingborrow up to £25m from the UK government, through the Affordable Housing Guarantees, “to build 251 homes in Wales”. (Left, click to enlarge.) Why is the UK government loaning money to a Welsh housing association to build homes in Wales? It doesn’t make sense. The other big gainers are all familiar to me, though some of the smaller ones are eyebrow-raisers, and I always get suspicious when I see ‘Wales’ in the name of any organisation, for it often means an English outfit with a Welsh presence that may be nothing more than a post-box.

Having mentioned mergers earlier, Cymdeithas Tai Clwyd and Cymdeithas Tai Eryri have recently merged to form Grŵp Cynefin which, by happy chance, I wrote about quite recently. The episode in Tywyn tells us quite a lot about how housing associations really operate. In my experience they are devious, if not dishonest; promoting themselves as the answer to society’s ills while operating as ruthless and almost secretive commercial entities. Not only is it difficult to get informaTai Cantreftion about housing associations but what they do put out is often misleading, sometimes deliberately so. Take this sentence, highlighted on page 12 of the 2013 – 14 annual report of Cymdeithas Tai Cantref, which operates out of Castell Newydd Emlyn and covers an area from Machynlleth to just south of Fishguard, and inland as far as Llandovery. Note the use of the deliberately misleading term ‘people living locally’ in the hope that anyone reading it will think it means locals. It does not.

Go down to page 16 and you will read this: “To build new homes, Cantref need (sic) to generate more income and rely less on Social Housing Grant. A successful new initiative to Cantref this year was the introduction of our new student accommodation. We were successful with the submission of 65 units to be part of the Welsh Government’s Revenue Grant programme”. An interesting passage in a number of ways. For it identifies yet another income stream from the ‘Welsh’ Government, given as funding for what is clearly not social housing. Or to put it another way, the almost inevitable coming together of two ways in which Welsh public funding is used for the benefit of England, social housing and higher education.

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Soon after starting on this post I bought the latest issue of our weekly rag, the Cambrian News, where I came across this story, involving an outfit to which I just introduced you, Grŵp Cynefin. This time the project is in Harlech, a place close to my heart from having spent a couple of years there, in good company, in good pubs, Cambrian News, Harlech homeswearing flares and hair over my shoulders . . . I even made it to the Coleg once or twice. (I also met the missus there, but we don’t want to spoil a happy memory, do we.) Anyway, click to enlarge and read it for yourself.

Warms the cockles of your heart, no? What callous brute could possibly object to sheltered housing for adults with learning difficulties? Well, me, for one, if there is no local demand for such housing. Because when I read that story I reminded myself that certain agencies in England would pay handsomely to relocate their clients to Wales. If that’s what will happen in Harlech then it will make this development little more than a housing association irresponsibly increasing the load on the Welsh NHS.

The problem here is obvious, it extends across the social housing sector. There is too much knee-jerk reaction on the part of politicos at all levels to requests for funding – with no thought to the bigger picture and the wider implications – when those making the requests exert emotional blackmail by pressing certain buttons. The biggest ‘button’ is social housing itself, beneath which can be found an array of secondary controls that include ‘sheltered housing for adults with learning difficulties’, ‘victims of domestic violence’, alien abductees, etc. (Go on, make up your own, I guarantee nobody will challenge it! It’s money for old rope.) All such requests for funding or planning should be answered by a simple question from our politicians: ‘Is there a demand from within the established local community for these properties?’ If no such demand exists, then funding, planning permission, and all other help should be refused.

Had this rule been followed, in tandem with a locals-only allocation policy, it would have saved lives and avoided many other tragedies, such as that which unfolded in Kidwelly not long ago, in properties owned by the Gwalia Group (£30 million raked in in the period covered). Gwalia housed Colin Batley and his paedophile gang; an appalling episode that reminds us of a darker side to social housing that the touchy-feely, politically correct, social conscience burdened hypocrites running our housing associations would rather not discuss; namely, providing accommodation for known criminals and undesirables from over the border, inflicting them on Welsh communities. Where does this leave the sanctimonious piffle about ‘being committed to serving our communities’? Yet more bollocks from housing associations.

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The social housing sector is an unsustainable drain on the Welsh public purse. It soaks up vast amounts of money, providing more dwellings than are needed in many (usually rural) areas and often not enough in other (usually urban) areas. It is made up of semi-secret organisations that are – despite the public funding – private companies in all but name. Too often contracts are given to firms from outside the area of the contract or even from outside Wales, which results a) in a loss of income and jobs to local economies, b) projects taking longer than needed to complete, due to workers having to travel long distances, c) lives put at risk as workers pile into vans for the mad rush home around the time children are leaving school. And all this being done while operating an allocations system that prioritises those who have never set foot in Wales over native-born Welsh. A monster encouraged for 15 years by a political party that is ideologically and emotionally hostile to commercial enterprise and initiative, instead funding its cronies to run housing associations and other third sector chimerae in the hope that the faffings of these charlatans might be mistaken for an economy at work. The truth is, a well-regulated private sector could meet most of Wales’ indigenous social housing Wales needs at a fraction of the cost of housing associations. Housing associations are a drain on the Welsh economy for no discernible return – get rid of them!

May 082014
 

Regular followers of this blog may recall that back in 2012 (on the old Google blog, now, sadly, demised) I was able to give out some good news. Which was . . . that for properties to be built by Cymdeithas Tai Clwyd on a new development in Tywyn, “Prospective tenants must have lived and worked Tai Clwydin the area for at least five years”. I learnt this, first, from a piece in our local edition of the Cambrian News, in July (left, click to enlarge), and then it was confirmed in an e-mail I received from Tai Clwyd in September (below, ditto). These two pieces of information can only be read as saying, ‘these properties are reserved for local people’. Or, to be more specific – as Tai Clwyd was in its e-mail – a Section 106, local occupancy, restriction. (Though S106 can deal with other issues.)

Fast forward to 2014 and the word on the mean streets of Tywyn is that these properties are now to be allocated to “people from away” and “people on benefits”. In other words – welcome to Wales’ social housing allocation system: social housing either built in excess of local demand or, where there is local demand – as in Tywyn – locals being passed over in favour of people who have never been to Wales in their lives. A system I have explained more than once, and I shall do so again later in this piece.

In order to find out what has happened between the good news of 2012 and the sobering realities of colonial Wales in 2014 I decided to contact Cymdeithas Tai Clwyd . . . only to learn that it had recently merged with Cymdeithas Tai Eryri to form Grŵp Cynefin, which is “the only housing association to operate across all six north Wales counties plus north Powys”. My initial enquiries with Grŵp Cynefin (GC) drew a blank because it was denied there ever had been a S106 applying to Pendre Gardens, and therefore no guarantee could be given that locals would be offered any of the properties there. After e-mailing GC a copy of the September e-mail my query has now been passed to the Housing Manager.

In a follow-up phone call to GC I was told that it must be the fault of Cyngor Gwynedd that there was no S106. So I next checked the planning consent given by the council (because of course Tywyn is outside the Snowdonia National Park) and could find no mention of a S106. This full planning consent is dated July 23, 2012. So why did the Cambrian News run that piece telling everyone that these new dwellings were for locals only? And why was I told the same thing in September 2012 by Tai Clwyd, two months after that body had been granted the – S106-less – planning permission?

Grŵp Cynefin also referred me to Gwynedd’s Housing Options Team (GHOT), which seems to act as a link for the various social housing providers in the county while also serving as first contact for would-be tenants. The man I spoke with there was courteous and helpful, but could only point me in certain direTai Clwyd replyctions and suggest that an S106 would need to have been agreed between the council and the housing provider.

In another attempt to get answers I phoned the council’s planning department, where it took me a while to explain – or make the woman answering my call understand – that I wanted to know why something was not in an approval granted by the council. Having had my request accepted it could now be 15 days before I receive a response.

I suppose I could have waited until I got answers before writing this post, but my worry is that I’m not going to get the answers I’m after. If I had to bet on it, I’d say I’m in for a game of blame ping-pong. So I’m writing this post half-hoping it might get a better result than yet more phone calls and e-mails. Even so, the questions I would ask are these:

  1. Was it ever proposed to have a Section 106 local – 5-year residency – qualification attaching to the Pendre Gardens development?
  2. If it was, why was the proposal dropped, or the decision changed?
  3. Who authorised the change?
  4. For what reason(s) was the change made?
  5. If there was never any intention of attaching a S106 to Pendre Gardens why was everyone misled (if not lied to); why did no one from the council step in and give the correct information?

The main reason we’re in this mess is that to all intents and purposes Wales and England now operate a single, integrated social housing system. Just like one vast council, or housing association. Which means in practice that if there is a vacant property in Wales, and someone in England – anywhere in England! – has more ‘points’ than local applicants, then the English applicant could be allocated the property. Local connections count for very little. So if you are a law-abiding local, in regular employment, and have any kind of roof over your head, your chances of being allocated social housing are slim. My advice to you is start taking drugs, causing trouble and, best of all, make yourself homeless.

Of course, there will be those who argue that this is a two-way street, for Welsh people can move to England. Yeees . . . but given that England has 53 million people against our 3 million, it’s a two-way street with a bicycle travelling west to east and a 40-tonne juggernaut hurtling east to west. And I’m not just talking quantity, I’m also talking quality. For many of those being moved to Wales will be people that no self-respecting country would allow in. Here’s a selection. But bear in mind that this post I refer you to only deals with those who have made the news. The problem families, the pit bull fanciers, the casual criminals, the anti-social, the wife-beaters, the congenitally irresponsiblePendre Gardens sign, the ‘Ten-pints-and-I’m-Mike-Tyson, me’ types, the ‘breeders-for-benefit’ with their stupid, uncontrollable kids, the all-night party-holders, the fat, ugly women who think smoking ciggies keeps their weight down, these and others go unreported.

So I just cannot understand how this system that is so damaging to Wales and Welsh people has been accepted without resistance. I can only assume that housing associations are doing well out of it financially, and don’t really give a toss about the communities or the country in which they operate. Which might make sense; for Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd (after taking over Gwynedd council’s housing stock) gave the maintenance contract for its properties to an English company that in turn employs sub-contractors from over the border who can only spend a short time actually working because of the distances involved travelling to and from work!

It cannot be right that someone who has never heard of Tywyn, or Tredegar, or Treaddur can qualify for social housing in these communities ahead of people who have lived there maybe all their lives. It cannot be right that Wales is used to help solve England’s housing problems. For as Gwynedd’s Common Housing Allocation Policy makes clear, “The scheme also complies with requirements of the legislation by providing priority or additional priority to: transferring tenants who will release accommodation in short supply . . . “ So if, say, Stoke-on-Trent council, or housing associations in that city, are experiencing pressure on their housing stock, then they can ask – maybe demand – that Welsh local authorities and housing associations give priority to those the Potteries would like to get rid of ‘transfer’ in order to make housing available. Some system, eh!

Change is needed. Social housing providers in Wales can no longer use the ‘Nuremburg Defence’ to implement an iniquitous system that so obviously works against Welsh interests. Social housing provision in Wales must be disentangled from that in England. A five-year residency qualification must be introduced for all social housing in Wales, with the only exceptions being genuine refugees and those who will be of benefit to Wales. Finally, those clowns down Cardiff docks need to realise that calling themselves the ‘Welsh Government’ must mean more than obeying civil servants and nodding through essentially English legislation with ‘(Wales)’ stuck in the title . . . like the Housing (Wales) Bill, and the Planning (Wales) Bill.