Social Housing Grant

Jan 022017
 

It’s difficult to know where to start with this rather complex story. Maybe we should go back to 2008 and the Welsh Housing Quality Standard, presented as an attempt to improve the standard of social housing. The WHQS was in fact nothing more than the Decent Homes Standard that operated in England. Another example of ‘Welsh’ legislation being just renamed and repackaged English legislation. Though in this instance, there was one very important difference, to be found in this National Assembly document, which says . . .

If the ‘Welsh’ Government can fund housing associations and also fund councils that retain their housing stock, then surely it can find the money for ALMOs? To argue otherwise doesn’t make sense. Limiting the choice to those options might make sense though to those in the social housing sector who saw WHQS as a weapon that could be used to get local authorities to hand over their housing stock. But do housing associations really exert such influence?

Well, consider this. The umbrella body for housing associations in Wales is Community Housing Cymru (CHC). From July 2006 until July 2014 the group chief executive of CHC was Nick Bennett. Prior to that he’d been a Spad for a few years until October 2002 and in between he’d been a director of Cwmni Cyfathrebu Bute Communications. Another director of this long-defunct company was Alun Davies, who had not long before switched his political allegiance from Plaid Cymru to Labour, and would be elected as a regional AM in 2007.

So Nick Bennett was in business with a rising star in the Labour Party – who’d already stood for the party in Ceredigion in the 2005 UK election – and this would have done him no harm when he applied for the post of group chief executive of Community Housing Cymru in 2006. Bennett’s strong links with ‘Welsh’ Labour also explain why he got the job of Public Service Ombudsman for Wales in July 2014.

In addition, many housing associations, particularly in the south, are stuffed with Labour Party members and supporters, and the party goes out of its way to help these associations. A recent example would be the takeover of Cantref by Wales and West. I’ve written about this disgraceful episode a few times, my posts can be traced back from Cantref: ‘Welsh’ Labour Takeover Challenged?

Cantref is a housing association based in Newcastle Emlyn, operating in a bilingual area with bilingual staff. It hit a rocky patch and a scavenger soon appeared in the form of Wales and West Housing, whose chief executive is Anne Hinchey, wife of Cardiff Labour councillor Graham Hinchey. Business is now conducted in English only and ‘Welsh’ Labour has an important beachhead in an area where it has very little electoral support.

The latest example of the influence housing associations exert over the Labour Party and its ‘Welsh’ Government comes with the news that, “In September (2016), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced housing associations should be considered part of the public, not private, sector. But the Welsh Government promised to take “whatever steps are necessary” to reverse the change, following concerns.”

The key to understanding what’s going on here is, firstly, that these “concerns” come from housing associations and their umbrella organisation Community Housing Cymru. I am not aware of anyone – other than CHC’s fifth column inside the ‘Welsh’ Government – who believes that housing associations becoming public bodies is a bad thing.

The reason given for opposing the ONS initiative is, “Community Housing Cymru (CHC) said it could affect their (housing associations) ability to borrow money and to build new homes.”

Let us look at the first of those claims that, if reclassified as public bodies, housing associations would find it more difficult to raise private funding. Which suggests that housing associations are now borrowing considerable sums from banks and other financial institutions. But are they? In my investigations into housing associations I have found little evidence that they rely on commercial loans. So where does housing associations’ income come from?

The largest and most obvious source of income is rents from their housing stock, most of which they inherited from local authorities. Yes, these properties have to be maintained and improved, up to Welsh Housing Quality Standard, but as we’ll see below, the ‘Welsh’ Government – i.e. you and me – pays for it all! And there are other funding streams, as I explained in Housing Associations – The Great Deception. (Nov 17, 2015.)

As I said back then, “One of the facts unearthed is something called Dowry Gap funding, paid to certain housing associations for them to use in upgrading the housing stock they’ve inherited from councils under voluntary transfer (i.e. through a vote by tenants). This funding is currently being paid to ten housing associations and in 2015 – 16 the total cost will be £43.8m. Tai Ceredigion Cyf’s ‘Dowry’ will be paid at the rate of £1.6m a year for 30 years. If this 30-year term applies to the other, larger housing associations, then the total cost will be £1.3bn.

This Dowry Gap funding seems to complement the Welsh Housing Quality Standard legislation, which demanded that all RSL properties be up to WHQS standard by 2012. This deadline – and its funding of £108m a year – has now been extended to 2020. Introduced in 2004 and running to 2020, £108m a year totals up to £1.7bn.

Adding the two we get a total figure of £3bn for ‘improvements’. Seeing as Wales has 143,790 RSL properties, this works out at almost £21,000 per property! (Is this right? Will somebody please check the figures.) That is a lot of moolah for windows and doors, especially when we accept that many of the dwellings inherited from local authorities were in good condition, certainly not needing ‘refurbishment’ to the tune of 21 grand per property.”

Another lucrative source of ‘Welsh’ Government funding for housing associations is the Social Housing Grant. The latest figures I have tell us that between 2008 and November 2015 £771,708,622.59 was paid in Social Housing Grant.

We are talking billions of pounds of public funding going into social housing. Perhaps four billion pounds by 2020.

The second part of housing associations’ objections to becoming public bodies is that they claim it could affect their ability “to build new homes”. Why? They’d still have the income from their rents, and they’d still receive public funding. This claim is just baseless scaremongering done to hide the real objections those running our housing associations have to them becoming public bodies.

As things stand, housing associations, or Registered Social Landlords as they’re also known, have the best of all possible worlds. They operate as private companies, but with massive advantages over what we would normally consider to be private companies.

To begin with, most of them inherited their housing stock for nothing when council tenants were given a vote (often after receiving misleading information). Then, as I’ve just explained, they receive staggering amounts of money from the public purse, despite, with their assets, being able to raise private funding just like other businesses. Being registered as Industrial and Provident Societies with the toothless Financial Conduct Authority means that they are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act – yes, despite all that public funding! Finally, oversight and monitoring by the ‘Welsh’ Government is non-existent.

This last fact explains how we can have a situation in which a publicly-funded RSL like Pembrokeshire Housing can set up and fund a subsidiary, Mill Bay Homes, for it to build and sell homes on the open market to retirees and investors (with of course Mill Bay Homes having an unfair advantage over independent house builders in the county).

When Pembrokeshire Housing will get back the millions of pounds it is has ‘loaned’ to Mill Bay Homes is anyone’s guess . . . but why should you worry when nobody in the ‘Welsh’ Government seems in the least concerned by this bizarre arrangement. I have written about Pembrokeshire Housing and Mill Bay Homes many times. Work back from Welsh Social Housing, A Broken System (Oct 23, 2016) to Mill Bay Homes and Pembrokeshire Housing 2 (June 14, 2016).

Those of you who enjoy a good read should settle down with this report into the workings of the Pembrokeshire Housing Group compiled by a concerned member of the public. (No, not me.) It has been circulated to interested parties, too many of whom seem to believe that if they whistle and look elsewhere the embarrassment will disappear.

But there are so many other problems with housing associations.

The most recent stock transfer seems to have been in Gwynedd, in 2010, when the council transferred its housing stock to Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd (CCG). Among the first things CCG did was to hand over the maintenance contract for its properties to English company Lovell, which then brought in sub-contractors from north west England. I saw this first-hand in my village, and wrote about it in The Impoverishment of Wales (Aug 26, 2014).

Another issue I recently unearthed was that of housing associations leasing properties from shady offshore companies, the biggest of which is called Link holdings (Gibraltar) Ltd. I wrote about it in a piece entitled, unsurprisingly, Link Holdings (Gibraltar) Ltd (Oct 10, 2016). Equally unsurprising is that the ‘Welsh’ Government’s civil servants don’t want to talk about this scandal, ‘All a long time ago . . . leases taken out by previous incarnations . . . stop bothering us’. But nothing changes the fact that Welsh housing associations in 2017 are putting a lot of public money into companies hiding in tax havens. Should public money be used in this way?

A long-standing problem with housing associations, perhaps more visible in rural areas, is that in order to appear busy, to pretend there’s a demand in order to keep the funding coming, they will often bring into Wales misfits and petty criminals. This was certainly an issue with Cantref. Note the reference in the information below to “young tenants from the hostel”. I’m told that Cantref brings in from England young tearaways and within a very short time extended families of scruffs and roughs are wandering Aberteifi. Other housing associations do the same, because it pays well.

One of the worst cases in recent years was the gang of paedophiles and rapists housed in Kidwelly by Grwp Gwalia. I wonder how much Grwp Gwalia was paid to inflict these creatures on a small Welsh town? Were those responsible ever reprimanded or sacked? Did Grwp Gwalia compensate the victims?

It was in attempting to get information on this case that I realised housing associations are not bound by the Freedom of Information Act. Because when I asked for details a door was slammed in my face . . . a heavy and expensive door paid for with public money.

Finally, before leaving this section, let’s ask ourselves exactly who is complaining about the ONS proposal to make housing associations open and honest public bodies? Well we can be sure that the minions employed by our RSLs don’t have a direct line to Stuart Ropke, Nick Bennett’s successor as Group Chief Executive at Community Housing Cymru. The opposition is coming from much further up the food chain.

From people like the £150,000 a year chief executive of RCT Homes. After that bit of bad publicity RCT Homes rebranded itself as Trivallis. Most people in the Central Valleys are still trying to figure out what Trivallis means, and how much it cost to change everything. But, hey, it’s only public money, and there’s plenty more where that came from.

With social housing we have bodies operating in a Twilight Zone that allows them to pretend they’re private companies, free from bothersome FoI requests and any worthwhile official scrutiny, yet enjoying assets they did nothing to build up while having their finances constantly topped up by the public purse. With overpaid CEOs pretending they’re part of the business community.

Registered Social Landlords are part of the Third Sector, that monkey that we must shake from our backs if we are to build up a healthy economy and a prosperous country. Wales is over-dependent on hand-outs, but instead of using even that funding wisely, far too much of it is passed on in further hand-outs. This is trickle-down economics Welsh style.

The fundamental problem with the Third Sector in Wales is not that it exists – for there will always be shysters looking for some ’cause’ to exploit in their own interest – but that it is so interwoven with the ‘Labour movement’; which in itself might not be a problem were it not for the fact that ‘Welsh’ Labour is the recipient and distributor of the handouts.

We should be thankful to the Office for National Statistics for giving us this chance to clean up the expensive mess that is social housing in Wales. We should grasp this opportunity with both hands and make our housing associations public bodies, open to public scrutiny.

The worst possible outcome would be for the ‘Welsh’ Government to be swayed by individuals like Nick Bennett, Stuart Ropke, the £150,000 a year CEO of Trivallis, and too many others with a vested interest in maintaining the indefensible status quo.

To maintain that status quo would be to pander to a selfish, sectional interest against the national interest. Of which we have seen far too much since 1999.

♦ end ♦

P.S. Here is my submission to the Public Accounts Committee for its Inquiry into the Regulatory Oversight of Housing Associations.

Aug 072016
 

Cantref, or Tai Cantref, is a housing association based in Castell Newydd Emlyn (Newcastle Emlyn) on the border of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. It ran into trouble last year and is now in the process of being handed over to a Cardiff housing association run by a Labour Party member. This after an ‘independent’ investigation by an English management consultancy run by a Labour supporter.

Cantref Cym

Many of you will know that I’ve written about Cantref’s woes before, so listed below you’ll find the posts in which Cantref has figured. They will help you understand how we arrived at a situation where a housing association using the Welsh language in its day-to-day operations seems to have been handed over to an English housing association based in Cardiff with no concern for the Welsh language at all.

This handover was facilitated by a ‘Welsh’ Government ‘committed’ to the Welsh language that, only last week at the National Eisteddfod, expressed the ambition of having a million Welsh speakers by 2050.

Housing Associations, Time To End The Madness, 3 July 2014

To Those That Have Shall Be Given – Housing Benefit! 4 May 2015

Updates, etc: Cardigan Castle, Organ Harvesting, Overseas Aid Programme, Housing Associations, Labour Leadership Contest 26 July 2015

Boors & Crooks; Cowards, Spooks & Idiots 29 September 2015

Social Housing Back to Council Control? 11 April 2016

Tai Cantref: Favoured Suitor Named 21 April 2016

Housing Associations – All Change? 25 April 2016

Tai Cantref: Fate Decided by Labour Cronyism 29 April 2016

MELTDOWN

Let’s start by conceding that Cantref being up Shit Creek is in large part due to poor business decisions and less than inspiring management. Indicated in this comment to one of my earlier posts.

Cantref Insider comment

Even so, a change of management and the injection of a little moolah could have steadied the ship and saved it from being taken over by pirates. So what do we know of these ‘pirates’?

WALES AND WEST

Wales and West is no cuddly housing association but a ruthless and acquisitive business. ‘Association’ was dropped from the name in 2012, which should give you a clue as to how W&W likes to see itself and be perceived by others.

Something else I’ve previously remarked on is the ‘Englishness’ or non-Welshness of Wales and West, and I’m not just referring to language (when compared with Cantref), I’m talking about those who run it. Look through the Board of Management and the Directors’ Team. There seems to be minimal Welsh involvement at the top of this ‘Welsh’ housing group. (Maybe lower down as well.)

Nationality aside, the important figure to note is the chief executive, Labour Party member Anne Hinchey. She’s married to Cardiff councillor Graham Hinchey. Mrs Hinchey you may recall had her staff going around Cardiff during May’s Assembly election campaign making sure none of her tenants had the temerity to display non-Labour posters or placards, and removing any that were found.

Wales and West header

Knowing how ‘Welsh’ Labour likes to conflate Plaid Cymru with the Welsh language, and hate both, the thought of this woman taking over Cantref should make anyone concerned for the Welsh language, political pluralism, or just fair play, shudder. But then, as I’ve been telling you for years, this is how ‘Welsh’ Labour operates – when presented with the opportunity it will always encourage nepotism and cronyism to further its political ends.

Mrs Hinchey attends the Vine Christian Centre in Bridgend. Knowing how the devout enjoy each other’s company I couldn’t help but wonder if any of those listed in the Board of Management or Directors’ Team at Wales and West share Mrs Hinchey’s faith? Just a thought.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Like all housing bodies Wales and West survives and prospers due to our generosity, in the form of funding from the ‘Welsh’ Government. The main funding comes from the Social Housing Grant. Between 2008 and November 2015 Wales and West was given £65m in SHG alone.

Part of this figure is broken down (I assume) in the Wales and West entry on the Transparent Wales website, which shows a total of almost £45m between 28.04.2011 and the end of the financial year on 31.03.2016. Though one thing puzzles me.

Payments made up to 28.11.2012 are listed as “Capital Grants to Private Sector”, and after that date as “Capital Grants to Voluntary Organisations”. Yet the changes implemented in 2012 by W&W were if anything in the opposite direction, from voluntary to private.

Perhaps even curiouser is why Wales and West should have received funding from the UK Government which is – given that social housing is devolved (so we are told) – in this context the English government. Yet that’s what happened in 2014. So why did the ‘English’ government give money to a Welsh housing association?

CANTREF LATEST

The latest communication I’ve received from within besieged Cantref paints a worrying picture of intimidation, but one that also offers some hope. Read it carefully and digest what it says.

Cantref Insider redacted

Clearly, Wales and West has absolutely no sympathy for the Welsh language. In other aspects, the information above ties up with what I’m told by another contact appeared in the Carmarthenshire Herald last week.

Cantref Ble ti'n myn i fyw

So it might be that things are not yet cut and dried. Because if Wales and West needs 75% approval from stakeholders, and this group includes bodies opposed to the Wales and West takeover, indeed, in the case of Carmarthenshire County Council, a body that itself wanted to take over Cantref, then there might still be hope.

Another of the leading players in this drama remains something of a mystery. I’m referring now to the interim chair at Cantref, Kevin Taylor. (There is currently no chief executive.) It is he presumably referred to above, in the note smuggled out of Cantref, as “Cantref’s english acting chairman”.

According to his Linkedin profile Taylor was employed by Forte Hotels 1977 – 1987 then, from 1987 to 2013, he worked in Bermuda. How did this complete stranger turn up at such a critical juncture in the history of Cantref, just in time to recommend the takeover by Wales and West? Or to put it another way, who parachuted him in?

CONCLUSION

Note the reference in the message I was sent to it “all being stitched up in a Labour meeting in Cardiff last year”, for it’s easy to see the advantages for Labour in this takeover.

The bulk of Cantref’s properties are in Ceredigion, where Labour got 9.7% of the vote in the 2015 UK general election and 6.5% in May’s Assembly election. And where there is just a single Labour member on the local authority (and he’s in a university town). Consequently, ‘Welsh’ Labour controlling Cantref would give the party influence in an area where it is consistently and comprehensively rejected at the ballot box.

The suggestion that opponents of the takeover are being refused access to shareholders is worrying, as is the allegation there is also a refusal to accept new shareholders. Unfitting behaviour I would have thought for the Christian CEO of Wales and West. But not surprising, for we’re dealing here with ‘Welsh’ Labour, and that’s how they operate.

(I’m also beginning to suspect that in the wider picture ‘shareholders’ might be a way for a clique or political party to maintain control of a housing association, by encouraging ‘their people’ to become shareholders, and then be eligible to join the board of management, while turning away those who are likely to disagree with them.)

The Wales and West takeover of Cantref is less a business deal and more a political manoeuvre, and an assault on the Welsh language. An agenda that would meet with the approval of most members of ‘Welsh’ Labour, despite the pie-in-the-sky promises from the party’s local leadership.

I therefore suggest that if Carwyn Jones wants to be believed when he talks of his party’s commitment to the Welsh language he should step in and call off the Wales and West takeover of Cantref. If he doesn’t, then it’s just further proof of what I’ve been saying for years about ‘Welsh’ Labour.

P. S. A Special General Meeting is to be held on Tuesday August 9th, presumably at the Cantref offices. Why not try to get details and go along there, make your feelings known?

~~~~~~~~~~ END ~~~~~~~~~~

Update 10.08.2016: The worst happened at the Special General Meeting last night, and Cantref is to be taken over by Labour-run Wales and West. Comments to this blog and information received by another route paint a worrying picture of how this was achieved.

First, Wales and West decided not to accept new shareholders – who would have had voting rights – after May 26. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it smacks of how Blairite Labour tried to stop any more Corbyn supporters joining. And Wales and West is run by ‘Welsh’ Labour which, above NCO level, tends to be Blairite.

Cantref Insider Aug 10 2016

The other comments made in the anonymous message I received to the ‘Contact Me’ box on my sidebar explain themselves. Plaid Cymru does not emerge from this saga with any credit. Penri James being a local Plaid luminary.

Note also the comment from ‘Simon’, another indictment of those left in charge of Cantref after the dismissals. I urge you to read ‘Simon’s comment carefully because it tells us what a shamble our housing associations are in.

Our old friend ‘Cneifiwr’, in another comment, tells us that those present last night, “were given assurances about local jobs and the use of Welsh”. Does anyone really believe that? I don’t. (Nor, I suspect, does ‘Cneifiwr’.)

Wynne Jones – who knows of these things – reminds us that a business case must be presented to the ‘Welsh’ Government by W&W and approved by the WG before the takeover can be completed. Those are the rules. But given that W&W and the WG are both Labour, I can’t see this being an obstacle.

‘Llyr’ questions Plaid Cymru’s role, wonders why they weren’t more active. They were – but on the side of the ‘enemy’!

Let me end by returning to ‘Anon’, who writes “Hillary jones sold us out to wales and west and the welsh government gave them the wink as they want only five or six rsls in wales”. Hilary Jones of the Bro Myrddin Housing Association was shipped in as Interim Strategic Director, and over a year ago rumours were circulating that she wanted Wales and West to take over Cantref but leave her in charge.

I have argued more than once that we need many fewer Registered Social Landlords. But if we are to have mergers then let them be local, with other housing associations that understand the realities of working in a bilingual rural area. Another consideration is that RSLs need a working relationship with their local authorities.

As a match, Cantref with Wales and West can be compared with Dianne Abbott shacking up with Nigel Farage. It’s so bizarre as to be unthinkable, and certainly unworkable. Or if we are to stick with matters connubial, then perhaps the best analogy is with an arranged marriage, with all that that conjures up.

Jan 032016
 

Last month, in Social Housing, Time to End This Lunacy, I looked at social housing provider Pembrokeshire Housing and, more specifically, its subsidiary Mill Bay Homes.

Mill Bay Homes justifies its existence by arguing that it builds and sells properties on the open market to raise funds that allow Pembrokeshire Housing to build more social housing. But we only have its word for that because being a ‘subsidiary’ organisation means that no one, certainly not those funding Pembrokeshire Housing – i.e. the ‘Welsh’ Government – will ever make enquiries into the activities of Mill Bay. A worrying phenomenon I have encountered many times before in investigating the Third Sector.

Mill Bay Help to Buy

Mill Bay Homes offers Help to Buy – Wales

Another curious feature of Mill Bay Homes mentioned in my earlier post is that it offers buyers assistance under the Help to Buy – Wales scheme while also encouraging the “Investment buyer“. Helping people buy their own home while simultaneously encouraging those who deny people their own home might be regarded as somewhat contradictory aims. And it raises the obvious question – is it the job of publicly-funded housing associations – even via ‘subsidiaries’ – to be encouraging ‘investors’ in rural areas where locals have such difficulty in finding homes?

One specific Mill Bay Homes development looked at was in Cilgerran, north Pembrokeshire. There, according to the planning application form available on the Pembrokeshire council website, Mill Bay wants to build 30 social rented housing units.

Mill Bay 1

‘BEFORE’ (Thanks to Wynne Jones)

Or at least, that’s what the planning application said when I published my original post on December 14th, but, remarkably – and here I am once again indebted to the indefatigable Wynne Jones – this planning application has since been changed. The original version can be found above, the amended version below. The latter now reads 29 open market houses and just one unit of social housing, a two-bedroom house. There is no indication of when or why the change was made. And it must be worth asking if it’s permissible to make such radical changes to a planning application already submitted?

Mill Bay 2

‘AFTER’ (Thanks to Wynne Jones)

What’s going on here? Was a genuine mistake made with the original application, and is this now being rectified? Or was the change in response to the piece I posted on December 14th? Presumably the change was made by an employee of Pembrokeshire council, but it must have been requested by someone acting for Mill Bay Homes or Pembrokeshire Housing. Again, is this allowed?

Perhaps the most disturbing possibility is that the original planning application, for 30 social housing units, was an attempt to deceive, done in the belief that planning permission would be more likely to be granted for social housing. (See Update below.)

Between April 2008 and November 2015 Pembrokeshire Housing received £27.4m of our money in Social Housing Grant (see table below). Prior to that the SHG seems to have been allocated to local authorities, and between 2000 and 2008 the county of Pembrokeshire received £31.6m. See these figures for yourself (in Excel format) here. You might also find it worthwhile reading Housing Associations – The Great Deception in which I explain that there are other methods of funding social housing.

SHG 2008 - (Nov) 2015

Feel free to use this table but please attribute source

Another curiosity unearthed by Wynne Jones is to be found in the guide to planning applications issued by Pembrokeshire council. Open the document at section 18, which reads: “Social rented – includes rented housing owned by local authorities and registered social landlords for which guideline target rents are determined through the national rent regime, set out in the ‘Guide to Social Rent Reforms’ published in March 2001. Also includes rented housing owned by other persons and provided under equivalent rental arrangements to the above, as agreed with the local authority or funded with grant from the Housing Corporation, as provided for in the Housing Act 2004.

The format of this guide seems to be dictated by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and appears to have been updated here and there with references to subsequent legislation applying only to Wales. Which makes it a bit of a dog’s dinner. Surely, after 17 years of devolution we should be using specifically Welsh forms? If only to avoid references such as that in section 18 to the Housing Corporation, an England-only body . . . abolished in 2008.

Mill Bay Investors

From Mill Bay Homes website

Perhaps of more significance for our enquiry is the section I’ve underlined, in which I interpret “other persons” to mean privately-owned properties used as social housing. So does this explain why Mill Bay Homes, a subsidiary of a Registered Social Landlord, is encouraging investors? Is Mill Bay offering the properties they build to investors with the guarantee that Pembrokeshire Housing will supply the tenants?

There are just so many questions to be answered about the operation of Pembrokeshire Housing and Mill Bay Homes, also other housing associations and their unaccountable subsidiaries, because they take such a huge chunk out of a total Welsh budget of only some £15bn per annum.

Another disturbing case unearthed by Wynne Jones is upstream of Cilgerran, at Cenarth. There, Tai Ceredigion put in a planning application for 15 social housing units at Maes Awmor. There was considerable opposition from those already living in an adjacent private estate on grounds of increased traffic and a belief that locals would be low on Tai Ceredigion’s allocation list.

Help to Buy

From ‘Welsh’ Government’s Help to Buy – Wales Buyers’ guide

This latter concern might be explained by looking at the plans and seeing how many of these properties are designed for those with special needs. (Click here and enlarge.) Is there really a demand for so many such properties from within this rural area? Or has Tai Ceredigion done a lucrative deal with an English local authority or some other agency that will pay well to move people to Wales? As I say, such a deal would be lucrative for Tai Ceredigion, but could only put further strain on the Welsh NHS. But maybe I’m being cynical, so let Tai Ceredigion convince us that there is a demand for these properties from within the local population.

Perhaps we should be flattered by how many agencies in England believe in the therapeutic and reforming qualities of Welsh country air. It seems that once relocated to Wales the elderly cease to wrinkle and the obese become obsessive joggers, ‘disaffected’ youngsters join the Boy Scouts and criminals transform into model citizens, drug addicts get their highs from watching Hinterland and former problem families can be seen every Sunday trooping to the Tabernacle of the Happy Clappy Outsourcing Agents for Local Authorities Ltd . . .

Then again, this belief in Welsh country air could be nothing more than cynically dumping your problems on your neighbour. But that would at least be understandable, what is neither understandable nor acceptable, is that there are those within Wales co-operating in this scam – and that they are able to use Welsh public funding to do it! 

Cenarth housing

Maes Awmor, Cenarth. The Tai Ceredigion development is planned for the land in the foreground

The latest news from Cenarth (December 14, 2015) is that six of the properties are now to be sold on the open market. But planning permission was granted for 15 social housing units. And Tai Ceredigion is a Registered Social Landlord, it cannot build houses for sale to the highest bidder. What the hell is going on?

Here are some questions for the ‘Welsh’ Government. These questions are not in any way rhetorical, I really would appreciate some answers. Because what’s been reported here, from Duffryn Teifi, is happening all over the country.

  • We can safely assume that money given to Pembrokeshire Housing to provide social rented accommodation has reached its subsidiary, Mill Bay Homes, so how does the ‘Welsh’ Government feel about public funding being used to build new properties for sale to ‘investors’?
  • Given that Mill Bay Homes on its website advertises the Help to Buy – Wales scheme and also encourages ‘investors’, what guarantees can the ‘Welsh’ Government give us that no ‘investors’ have secured Help to Buy funding? (To answer this will require a thorough, forensic and, most importantly, independent, investigation into the workings of Pembrokeshire Housing and Mill Bay Homes.)
  • With its use of terms such as “lifestyle” and “retirement” it would appear that Mill Bay Homes is targeting buyers from outside of Wales. Is the ‘Welsh’ Government comfortable with funding it has provided to Pembrokeshire Housing being used by Mill Bay Homes to further the colonisation and anglicisation of rural Wales?
  • Turning to the development at Cenarth, many of these properties have wheelchair access and are in other ways adapted for the disabled, adaptations that are expensive to design and construct. So will the ‘Welsh’ Government confirm that these properties are to meet a local demand rather than being the result of a deal or understanding struck between Tai Ceredigion and agencies outside of Wales?
  • If publicly-funded housing associations are allowed to build open market properties, placing them in direct competition with local companies not enjoying public funding, then, quite clearly, they have an unfair advantage over those local companies. Is this another example of the ‘Welsh’ Labour Party’s hostility to private business, and perhaps, more generally, the countryside?
  • Finally, how many tens of millions of pounds does the ‘Welsh’ Government estimate could be saved every year by a) reducing the number of housing associations, b) properly monitoring their spending, and c) implementing a three-year local residency rule to qualify for social housing?

UPDATE 7pm, 04.01.2016: Received the message below in a comment. I am now happy to accept that the original Cilgerran planning application was a simple slip of the pen or the cursor on the part of whoever filled in the form. Though if that is what happened, why didn’t the planning application change from 30 social housing units to 30 private dwellings, rather than to 29 private and one social? Something I did not mention in my original post is that Trevor Hopkins Associates is also involved with the Tai Ceredigion project at Cenarth.

Dear Sir,

I refer to the content posted on your web page/twitter account regarding the Planning Application we submitted on behalf of Mill Bay Homes for 30 dwellings on Land Adjacent Holly Lodge, Cilgerran. The reference to Social Housing on the Planning Form was an error on our part and this has now been corrected to open market dwellings. The modified forms are available to view on the Planning Portal.

I trust you will now update your social media/website accordingly.

Yours faithfully.

Trevor Hopkins Associates.

UPDATE 06.01.2016: Even though planning permission has not yet been granted for the Cilgerran development this sign was erected this morning. Making it look as if Pembrokeshire County Council has already agreed to grant planning permission and has also decided to disregard in advance the objections from local residents that will follow the granting of planning permission. So much for local democracy!

Mill Bay sign

Nov 172015
 

REMEMBERING BUDDY HOLLY

Back in January I posted a piece, Let’s Be Honest About Housing Associations, that began in nostalgic-humorous mood before going on to make more serious points about the provision of rented accommodation. The fundamental point I tried to make was that up until about a century ago rented accommodation was provided by the private sector, employers, charities and other bodies, not by local authorities or any other social housing provider. I asked, in view of changes taking place in the housing market, whether we could now be moving back towards that situation, how it might be done, and what benefits it might offer.

In my January piece I made a number of points about the changing nature of housing provision in Wales and, especially, how the proportion of people living in the private rented sector (PRS) was growing, almost unnoticed and, certainly in Wales, unplanned. I used the table below to show the dwelling stock percentages in the four categories: local authority, registered social landlord (RSL), owner-occupier and PRS.

Houses by tenure

I am now able to follow up that January piece thanks to a regular source who has drawn my attention to a recently published report examining the advantages of giving a greater role to the PRS in the provision of social and rented housing. The report is produced by the Public Policy Institute for Wales (PPIW) and is entitled The Potential Role of the Private Rented Sector in Wales. I advise you to open the report in another window or browser in order to follow the points I shall pick up on later in this article. But before that, let’s take a fresh look at the RSL sector, using information not previously available to me.

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WAY OUT WEST

For much of this new information I am indebted to another contact who has looked into the workings of the RSL sector in Ceredigion, an investigation that has unearthed a number of disturbing issues, prompting him to submit important questions to the ‘Welsh’ Government. Unsurprisingly, the civil servants acting as the ‘Welsh’ Government refuse to answer his questions, so he has now taken the matter to the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales.

Alas, the PSOW is Nick Bennett, former head of Community Housing Cymru, the umbrella body for housing associations, so I have warned my contact not to expect any help from that quarter. (Bennett’s appointment was a pre-Sophie Howe illustration of how incestuous and corrupt public life is in modern Wales.)

One of the facts unearthed is something called Dowry Gap funding, paid to certain housing associations for them to use in upgrading the housing stock they’ve inherited from councils under voluntary transfer (i.e. through a vote by tenants). This funding is currently being paid to ten housing associations and in 2015 – 16 the total cost will be £43.8m. Tai Ceredigion Cyf’s ‘Dowry’ will be paid at the rate of £1.6m a year for 30 years. If this 30-year term applies to the other, larger housing associations, then the total cost will be £1.3bn.

This Dowry Gap funding seems to complement the Welsh Housing Quality Standard legislation, which demanded that all RSL properties be up to WHQS standard by 2012. This deadline – and its funding of £108m a year – has now been extended to 2020. Introduced in 2004 and running to 2020, £108m a year totals up to £1.7bn.

Adding the two we get a total figure of £3bn for ‘improvements’. Seeing as Wales has 143,790 RSL properties, this works out at almost £21,000 per property! (Is this right? Will somebody please check the figures.) That is a lot of moolah for windows and doors, especially when we accept that many of the dwellings inherited from local authorities were in good condition, certainly not needing ‘refurbishment’ to the tune of 21 grand per property.

Then there seem to be two funding streams for capital projects, i.e. new-build housing, the Social Housing Grant and the Housing Finance Grant. I knew about the first, and I submitted an FoI last year to the ‘Welsh’ Government asking how much had been dished out under the SHG. I used the answers to compile the table below (click to enlarge). It shows that the figure for the six years 2008 – 2013 is £692.5m. (The explanation for the declining amount paid out in SHG can be found below in other, newer funding streams.)

Social Housing Grant 1

But at that stage I knew little about the Housing Finance Grant. Now I know a little more.

Even though I’m a regular and consistent critic of housing associations one feature of their operations that I have always regarded as commendable is that they raise funding from banks and other commercial lenders. Which means they are not entirely reliant on the public purse. Well, that’s what I thought; the reality is very different, as I learnt from my enquiries into the Housing Finance Grant.

The system works thus: Yes, housing associations find commercial lenders prepared to give them large loans – but then the ‘Welsh’ Government – i.e. you and me! – repay those loans over 30 years to the lenders, M&G Investments and Affordable Housing Finance, the latter being funding guaranteed by the UK Department for Communities and Local Government.

(And as the DCLG website puts it, “Borrowers will need to be Registered Providers (or equivalent in the devolved administrations) and classified to the private sector”. Which suggests that housing associations are not public bodies. Or maybe they are, in which case why is a Conservative government putting so much money into public bodies in order for them to build up valuable assets . . . unless they are being fattened up for full privatisation?)

Housing Finance Grant clip

The system of repaying lenders also applies to the ‘Dowry Gap’; housing associations take out loans, paid in lump sums, and the ‘Welsh’ Government repays those loans over 30 years. This explains why Tai Ceredigion has now completed its programme of upgrading its properties but will continue to receive the ‘Dowry Gap’ funding every year. The money is repaying Tai Ceredigion’s loan, which seems to be itemised in the latest financial statement at £23m.

It is even suggested that ‘Dowry Gap’ and WHQS funding is being used – improperly – for capital projects, but financial oversight of housing associations by the ‘Welsh’ Government is so lax that there’s no way of proving or disproving this claim.

All of which means that housing associations, despite the flim-flam about ‘new ways of doing things’ are old-fashioned Statist creations, entirely dependent on the public purse, which explains why they are favourites of the anti-business parties, Labour and Plaid Cymru.

Their only assets, their only other source of income, is of course their housing stock – either inherited from local authorities or built with public funding. So, again, at no cost to them. It’s a ‘new way of doing things’ only in the sense that it’s more opaque than straightforward dollops of public funding.

Seeing as housing associations are entirely dependent on the public purse it’s worth asking, again, why they are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act? Maybe the duplicitous and very expensive way they’re funded provides the answer.

Another point, one that I have raised before – dealt with in my January post, and also here – is the scandalous amount of this public funding that our ‘Welsh’ housing associations spend over the border. In the case of Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd it was the insanity of giving its total maintenance contract to English firm Lovell which, from its Cheshire base, recruited its sub-contractors exclusively from north west England.

I’m sure Tai Ceredigion uses local firms to do its work, but I still question why a firm operating on Cardigan Bay should have external auditors based in Birmingham (Mazars LLP) and internal auditors in Hampshire (TIAA Ltd). Both may have offices in Cardiff, but neither is a Welsh company. There are genuine Welsh companies closer to and even in Ceredigion that could and should be doing this work that is paid for with Welsh public funding.

Tai Ceredigion auditors

‘Welsh’ Government funding should carry the stipulation that as much as possible of that funding remains in Wales. This can only be achieved if the funding reaches genuinely Welsh firms, not outside firms with an office in Wales funnelling profits back to HQ, or those seeking to capitalise on the public funding bonanza with a hastily set up ‘Welsh branch’ that is little more than a post-box and a telephone number.

Of course, it would be easy to argue that none of this really matters because all the funding comes, in one form or another, from London. But only part of the Housing Finance Grant comes directly from London, the rest is raised commercially, and the other funding streams – Social Housing Grant, Welsh Housing Quality Standard and ‘Dowry Gap’ funding – seem to be ‘Welsh’ Government initiatives.

Which is worrying, because it gives us a situation in many parts of Wales, perhaps especially in rural areas, where housing associations are on a treadmill of growth and expansion fuelled by this funding – yet there is often little or no local demand for more social housing.

Housing associations are perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the Third Sector, the shadow world that those buffoons down Cardiff docks want us to believe is an economy, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, all underpinned by public funding. And all unnecessary. As I shall now explain by delving a little more into the Public Policy Institute for Wales report I mentioned earlier.

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‘THE POTENTIAL OF THE PRIVATE RENTED SECTOR IN WALES’

Before diving into the report it might be worth just pausing to see what kind of an organisation the Institute is. It was formed in January last year to “provide the Welsh Government with authoritative independent analysis and advice.” If you look through the names to be found in ‘The Team’, ‘The Board of Governors’, and the ‘Executive Group’, you get the impression that the PPIW is very much a cross-border outfit, containing – on the Board of Governors – people who know Wales such as Gerry Holtham, along with people, such as Will Hutton, who may be very clever and a Newsnight regular but know little about our country. ‘The Team‘, presumably those running the PPIW day-to-day, is disappointingly top-heavy, to the point of capsizing, with apparatchiks and people from the Third Sector.

The Executive Group “is made up of representatives from the organisations that formed part of the consortium that collaborated in the development of the PPIW”. These are ‘our’ universities (including Liverpool but not Glyndŵr!) and Victoria Winkler of ‘Welsh’ Labour’s very own think-tank, the Bevan Foundation.

The report set out to answer three questions, found below.

PPIW report aims

Some Report Findings

The PPIW report confirms that the PRS is growing in every single local authority area, though predictably, Cardiff, with its vast student population and other young singles, outstrips all other areas. In fact, the report tells us that in Cardiff, “owner occupation has actually fallen compared to renting in both absolute and proportional terms”. Table 6 shows that 22.1% of Cardiff’s dwellings are privately rented. The next highest local authority area is Ceredigion with 17.5%, and then in third place comes Denbighshire with 16.5%.

PRS changes

The figures for both Cardiff and Ceredigion are influenced by the student presence while the ‘Rhyl factor’ explains the Denbighshire figure, correlated in Table 1, which tells us that Sir Dinbych lost 870 private households between 2001 and 2011 while the same period saw an increase of 1,468 in the PRS. Other areas saw a decline in the number of private households but nowhere was the fall as dramatic as in Denbighshire.

Staying with Table 6, in percentage and absolute terms Carmarthenshire saw the highest increase in private households due mainly to the saturation housing strategy devised by the Planning Inspectorate and eagerly implemented by those running the council. The same designed-to-attract-English-buyers process can also be observed at work in Powys. (N.B. A ‘household’ can be a person living alone or a family of 10.)

Table 9 tells us that rents in the PRS are always higher than the RSL sector though this varies from area to area. In Blaenau Gwent the average social rent is £61.68 per week, or 89% of the PRS, whereas in Wrecsam, Swansea and Cardiff the percentage drops to 67%, though the average PRS rent in Wrecsam is lower than the two southern cities.

Poor PRS

Of course there is a downside to this unplanned and largely unchecked growth in the PRS, especially in decaying coastal towns like Rhyl, and areas of our cities taken over by students. That downside is the breakdown of community life and an increase in various forms of criminality and anti-social behaviour.

It could even be argued that there is a case to be made for paying compensation to long-term residents of such neighbourhoods. Compensation to be paid by the ‘Welsh’ Government or the local authority, whoever was responsible for not guarding against such decline or refusing to implement the legislation that could have prevented it.

A Better Way

Happily, the report also makes clear that there are alternatives to endlessly pumping public money into secretive, unaccountable and amateurishly run housing associations, or otherwise allowing the growth of ghettoes of cross-border criminals and misfits housed by slum landlords. To avoid these outcomes the report draws our attention to institutional investment such as pension funds to provide rented and other property, coupled with more imaginative and varied housing options.

In the Appendix the report’s authors look at three examples in the south where the ‘Welsh’ Government is in partnership with the Principality Building Society in a venture called Tai Tirion (or Tirion Group Ltd, Co. No. 08891823) to build over a thousand new homes on brownfield sites in Cardiff, Newport and the Rhondda. Though that said, there is not a lot of progress being made. Not really surprising, seeing as the ‘Welsh’ Government is involved . . .

I say that not out of malice, it’s just the way things are. Institutional investors such as pension funds are viewed with suspicion by Statist ‘Welsh’ Labour. As the report puts it – refer to ‘three questions’ panel above – “the Minister confirmed that the emphasis of the project should be concentrated mainly on (i) and (ii)”.

PRS minister response

To remind you . . . Question iii reads, ‘If the PRS is to be a long term tenure of choice, whether it is likely to be possible to interest institutional money and professional management in the market (i.e. what are the barriers to large scale investment?).’

On reading that you can almost imagine a ‘Welsh’ Labour politician or apparatchik having an involuntary evacuation of the bowels . . . “‘institutional money’! . . . ‘professional management’! . . . people who might understand business! . . . what about our friends in the Third Sector, how are they to sustain their muesli-weaving, skinny latte lifestyles? . . . oh, no, we can’t have that!

So the ‘Welsh’ Government prefers to let the private rental sector grow in a reckless and uncontrolled manner through the activities of Buy to Let ‘investors’ and people who buy dilapidated hotels in Colwyn Bay to house Scouse junkies.

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CONCLUSION

It is surely obvious that if housing associations are the answer, then the question must have been, ‘What is the most expensive (to the public purse) and least efficient way of delivering rented social housing?’ In the hope of disguising this monumental error we are now encumbered with secretive, unaccountable money pits.

Which would be bad enough if they were at least spending the money on housing Welsh people, but due to the Englandandwales allocation system into which our housing associations are locked a Welsh family is all too likely to discover that the Family from Hell has been given the house next door . . . ‘Hell’ in this case will be Birmingham, or Stoke-on-Trent, or Sheffield, or . . .

Consequently, there is no justification for pouring any more money into housing associations. Especially given that the Conservative government in London is almost certainly planning to do away with them. Or does the ‘Welsh’ Government think this is a devolved matter? Maybe it is, but that won’t count for anything if Westminster forces change through by cutting the block grant. And further undermines the sector with selected benefit cuts.

So my advice to the ‘Welsh’ Government is this: realise that housing associations are an expensive failure. Then, get ahead of the curve by taking control of the social rented sector nationally and looking for the kind of investors mentioned in the Public Policy Institute for Wales report, pension funds and others looking for the kinds of large-scale investments that individual housing associations and single sites cannot provide.

To take advantage of this private funding, and to save the public purse a hell of a lot of money, you, the self-styled ‘Welsh Government’, need to put aside your congenital hostility to business and real money and, for a change, prioritise the best interests of the Welsh people. It’s what you were elected to do – remember?

END

Jul 072014
 

My previous post drew a number of comments and provided some interesting feedback via other media. It also inspired Councillor Neil McEvoy of Cardiff to make enquiries with housing associations in the south east. (Click panel to enlarge.) One who answered to the rattling cage was Hefina Rendle, Communications and Neil McEvoyPublic Relations Manager at Tai Calon. (Some will remember that before joining Tai Calon in January 2012 Ms Rendle was a broadcast journalist with the BBC.)

I hadn’t previously heard of Tai Calon, it doesn’t appear among the housing associations I dealt with in my previous post, those listed as being in receipt of the Social Housing Grant (see table from previous post). Tai Calon was formed in July 2010 from Blaenau Gwent’s council housing stock, and cheerfully admits to receiving £19.67 million from the ‘Welsh’ Government, with more promised – until 2041!  But if this money is not coming via the SHG, which funding stream is coughing up? Or perhaps the question should be – just how many funding streams are there for housing associations (and not just from the ‘Welsh’ Government)?

What I assume to be Tai Calon’s mission statement reads: “We have about 300 members of staff … from building trades to administrators and neighbourhood managers.  We are committed to creating as many job and work opportunities as possible.  We also aim to recruit locally as possibly.  We try to use firms and suppliers from the area, keeping as much of the income we generate within Blaenau Gwent for the benefit of everyone who lives and works in the county”. “We aim to recruit locally as possibly”! Apart from the obvious error, Blaenau Gwent is the poorest area in the poorest country in Europe, it should be mandatory to recruit locals.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now, so let me return to the McEvoy – Rendle dialogue. A few tweets passed between them, I chipped in, drew a Christmas cracker aporhism from Ms Rendle, and we didn’t really get anywhere. But seeing as Neil McEvoy had asked about the CEO’s salary, I made a bee-line for the ‘Meet the Executive Team‘ page on the Tai Calon website.

The Chief ExecutiveTai Calon Exec Team is Jen Barfoot, who is of course English (this being the Third Sector in Wales). In fact, of the four listed on the Executive Board (click to enlarge), three are English . . . so much for the promise of local recruitment. It often seems that the Third Sector in Wales exists for no better reason than to provide sinecures for thousands of English people who can’t cut it in the world of real business. Because wherever you look, from housing associations to health boards, from higher education to Tony Payne, the custodian of Caerffili Castle – who so clearly identifies with those who built the castle rather than with the horrid and inferior “Welshmen” beyond its walls – all you find are English third-raters clinging to the pendulous mammaries of Welsh public funding.

Tai Calon’s Board is rather more representative of the community of Blaenau Gwent, but scrolling down past Fred Davies, and Shirley, who lives in the house in which she was born in Nantyglo, we come to yet more teat tuggers. First, Debbie Green, Group Chief Executive at the Coastal Housing Group in Swansea, who “obtained a history degree from Cambridge and moved to Cardiff in 1988 to start her accountancy training with Deloittes and subsequently PWC. Since qualifying as a Chartered Accountant she has worked in finance roles connected with Lottery grant Steve Porterfunding in the Arts Council of Wales, before moving to Chwarae Teg in 2001 as Director of Finance and Resources”. There, laid out for you, is the perfect Third Sector career path. But of more interest is the man we find at the bottom of the column, Steve Porter, co-opted onto the Board. Steve tells us he “enjoys living locally with his family in the South valleys”. Condescending crap that could only be written by another English immigrant with free Welsh milk all over his face.

The reason I find Steve Porter interesting is that he works for that behemoth in the world of Welsh social housing, the Wales and West Housing Association Ltd which, curiously, also receives funding from the English government. Between 2008 and 2013 Wales and West received a whopping £63 million in Social Housing Grant alone from the ‘Welsh’ Government. Alarming though that is, the real reason I homed in on smiling Steve is that his Tai Calon bio credits him with setting up ‘Cambria Maintenance Services Ltd’, described as a “subsidiary building company”. Subsidiary, that is, to Wales and West.

Nothing wrong with that if Cambria had been set up to maintain Wales and West’s housing stock, that’s no more than a local authority would have done. But if that was the case, why not just call it the Maintenance Department of Wales and West? Why does Cambria need to be a fully commercial operation, registered with Companies House (Company Number 07389484)?

My concerns about Cambria Maintenance Services Ltd are encapsulated in this passage from the JobsinWales.com website (my underlining): “The company, with divisions in Cardiff and Holywell, Flintshire, has established an excellent reputation for its quality of workmanship and service to its customers. Cambria is an independent company run Cambria Maintenanceon a commercial basis and being part of the WWH Group provides it with considerable security as it doesn’t need to repeatedly tender for works and risk losing contracts”. How can Cambria be both “independent” and “part of the WWH group”.

It suggests to me that Cambria is an “independent company” that has its ‘bread and butter’ work guaranteed by publicly funded social housing; but, as a private company, it’s also free to chase the ‘jam’ of outside commercial work. Which gives Cambria the best of both worlds and an unfair advantage over competitors that must survive, without featherbedding, in the normal business environment. Is this how housing associations are supposed to operate? And it may not be confined to Cambria. For in among Wales and West’s ‘Services and Initiatives’ there’s Castell Catering, and Connect 24 Alarms.

Which raises the question of why Steve Porter was co-opted on to the Board of Tai Calon. My guess would be that if Cambria isn’t already working in Blaenau Gwent then it very soon will be. As might Wales and West, and Steve Porter himself. For in the dog-eat-dog world of housing associations Tai Calon is a chihuahua, Wales and West a pit bull. You read it here first, folks.

Cambria Maintenance Services is another example of Wales’ shadowy, almost Soviet-style ‘economy’, which promotes the illusion of a system based on competition and profitability, but at no real risk for many of those participating because they are underwritten by the State.

The social housing sector – and the Third Sector generally – is a monster sucking up funding and damaging our wider economic prospects. It is yet another example of the Labour Party pandering to the effects of poverty rather than tackling its causes. For if Wales had a stronger economy there would be more people buying their own homes and we wouldn’t need to pour such obscene sums into housing associations and their offshoots.

With such easy money to be made, so few questions asked, and with their documented experience in ‘housing’, I’m surprised that Nathan Gill and his brothers-in-law haven’t got involved in the housing association racket. It can only be a matter of time . . .

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.

                                                 *

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!

Apr 292014
 
Population density 2010

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Using the population density map to the right you’ll see that what I choose to call ‘rural Wales’ is those areas with fewer than one hundred persons per square kilometre, though I would make two adjustments. If the coastal strip – Rhyl, etc – is removed then the rest of Denbighshire qualifies as rural, and although Carmarthenshire falls into the <100 category it makes sense to link Llanelli – in the south east corner – with the Swansea Bay conurbation. This leaves us with some eighty per cent of Wales’ landmass, roughly a quarter of the population, no towns bigger than Bangor, Aberystwyth or Carmarthen, and of course, what remains of the Welsh language’s heartland, Y Fro Gymraeg.

There are three main players in rural Wales whose roles I want to examine in relation to the oft-bewailed ‘rural housing crisis’.

First, we have the local big-shots; landowners, businessmen and the like, for whom personal gain takes precedence over all other considerations. A good example would be Dai Lloyd Evans and his confreres who controlled Ceredigion council, buying up land before planning strategies were made public, and then selling it to developers or building on it themselves. Arguing that without these three- and four-bedroom houses local newly-weds would have nowhere to enjoy their connubial bliss . . . even though the youngsters for whom the gang feigned concern couldn’t afford these houses!

Also involved were estate agents and others looking for a profit. Such as local builders, most of whom were honest enough to admit that the houses they were building were, in the main, for English in-comers. But one builder, who received considerable coverage in the Wasting Mule, went over the top by arguing that if he wasn’t allowed to build houses for English colonists then there’d be no work for his Welsh-speaking workers; consequently, the language would die. An intriguing argument, asking us to believe that the Welsh language in Ceredigion depends for its survival on English colonisation!

Second, we have the equally unconvincing arguments forwarded by the Planning Inspectorate to justify yet more housing such as the Bodelwyddan New Town in Denbighshire. Namely, because Denbighshire has an ageing population – with the bulk of its elderly from England – a younger influx must be encouraged to balance things out. In other words, ‘You have a problem with English colonisation – so we advocate more of it’!

Elsewhere, the Planning Inspectorate promotes housebuilding as a self-justifying, stand-alone economic activity, rather than as something that would, in any normal society, be consequential upon economic prosperity and population growth. Explained as an ‘economic boost’ for rural Wales this is the policy I outlined in my post If You Build Them, They Will Come.

Finally, we are told that ‘Wales needs more houses’ to meet an indigenous demand, and to cater for ‘natural’ growth.

Third, we have social housing providers. Ostensibly meeting the needs of those who cannot afford to buy a home, yet we all know that far too many housing association properties are being allocated to ‘the vulnerable’ and ‘the needy’ from over the border; simpering euphemisms for substance abusers, ex-cons, paedophiles, problem families and the others who make up England’s white underclass.

Y Bwthyn, Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant

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Another problem is that since social housing passed from councils to housing associations jobs have been lost in areas that can ill afford to lose any. In Gwynedd the council’s housing stock went to Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd, which then gave the contract for maintaining its properties to an English company, Lovell, which in turn sub-contracted the work to other English companies. My disabled next-door-neighbour waited weeks for his bathroom to be tiled by a firm that either didn’t turn up at all or else turned up around 11am and was gone by 3pm – because they came from Wigan, 120 miles from Tywyn!

There are serious questions to be asked about why the ‘Welsh’ Government is funding – via the Social Housing Grant and other means – what are to all intents and purposes private companies. Private companies that are a) importing undesirables and b) losing Wales contracts and jobs. Organisations about which it is almost impossible to get information due to the fact they are exempt from Freedom of Information legislation, and are not registered with Companies House due to being Industrial and Provident Societies. Conversely, if they are not private companies, but are what they claim to be, which is ‘not-for-profit’ organisations in receipt of public funding, then why are they not subject to FoI requests? Are we not entitled to know how our money is being spent?

I propose returning to the intriguing matter – and anomalous status – of housing associations later, with a full post. (Any information received will be treated with the usual sagacious discretion. Send to: editor@jacothenorth.net.)

Social Housing Grant

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What we see in the three examples I have used above is how deliberate lies become the terms of debate, the very vocabluary, when dealing with rural housing in Wales. It’s like some parallel universe where black is white and right is wrong. That said, there is one unavoidable truth upon which everyone agrees . . . before corrupting that truth to serve the same selfish or anti-Welsh interests. As you will read below.

Rural Wales has an oversupply of housing . . . by which I mean, more housing than will be needed by the indigenous population for at least a generation.

The true problem is that the indigenous Welsh are excluded from much of this housing. Either because they are unable to afford the prices asked for open market housing or else because social housing providers too often find ‘clients’ over the border who take precedence over locals.

But then something very clever happens. The inability of Welsh people to buy private dwellings, or access social housing, is used as the excuse to build yet more housing – from which the unchanged system still excludes them!

To remedy this institutionalised con trick we need to a) provide meaningful financial aid for Welsh (especially first-time) buyers and b) move towards a split market, where a percentage of properties in all areas is reserved for local buyers; while in the social housing sector ensure that no one qualifies for social housing unless they have been resident in Wales for at least five years.