The Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru, Tai Pawb and Shelter Cymru are the Back the Bill coalition in Wales. It has been campaigning to incorporate the right to adequate housing (RTAH) in Wales since 2019. This June, following a Programme for Government commitment between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru a Green Paper on securing a path to adequate housing, including fair rents and affordability, has been published. The leaders of the three organisations fronting the campaign, Matt Dicks, Ruth Power, and Alicja Zalesinska, look at why introducing the right to adequate housing should be a key response to the housing crisis in Wales.
“If not now, then when?” is a question we often ask ourselves as campaign partners. When there are almost 90,000 people on social housing waiting lists and 10,221 in Temporary Accommodation, the housing crisis in Wales is inescapable. Too many lives are blighted by inadequate homes. As well as ruining people’s lives, poor housing costs the NHS in Wales £95 million per year. It is widely recognised that Wales is the birthplace of the NHS solving a 20th Century endemic issue of poor (public) health. Our predecessors did not wait for enough hospitals doctors and nurses to form the NHS – they recognised legislation would drive it and got on with it. That’s the approach we should take now and incorporate a right to adequate housing in Wales.
In Wales, Many of us Agree Housing is a Human Right
We’re fortunate in Wales that we have governments with a history of looking at the bigger picture, whether it’s through the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, becoming an anti-racist nation or incorporating the rights of the child. In housing too, our 2014 Housing Act has been praised for its focus on prevention and replicated elsewhere in the UK. So, the positive starting point is that Welsh Government recognises the challenge of the housing crisis and the importance of the right to adequate housing. Indeed, earlier this month, the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James, told the Local Government and Housing Committee, “…it’s a fundamental human right that you are adequately housed, and that is the mark of a civilised society that we can adequately house our citizens.”
Human Rights Must be Placed at the Centre of Housing Reform
Perhaps given this standpoint, it is surprising that the recently published Green Paper is a bit underwhelming, missing the transformative potential of incorporation and the benefits of progressive realisation in delivering it – essentially introducing the right over time alongside additional resource and increasing housing supply. While the Programme for Government references ‘a right to adequate housing,’ there is an absence in the Green Paper of a strong discourse on human rights. And this matters. If adequate housing is a human right and the mark of a civilised society, it stands to question how it hasn’t been achieved by now.
This Matters Because…
It’s not just enough to talk about human rights, but important to embed, protect and nurture them. Rather than talk about housing as a human right – a statement nearly all of us will agree with – it’s necessary to incorporate these rights to drive through change. This is how we secure a long-term, joined up and sustainable solution to the housing crisis. Unfortunately, this is not recognised in the Green Paper, which is almost silent on incorporation, and importantly, the value of incorporation. Instead, there is a focus on what adequate looks like – which while welcome fails to understand the full benefits of incorporation including tackling inequality and participation for communities in housing.
While the Green Paper sets out a number of well-informed proposals to implement progressive policies, these are in effect reduced to discretionary priorities which are vulnerable, as policy always is, to changing priorities. There is no solid legal foundation that future generations could use as a basis to argue for progressive housing policies in Wales.
The Green Paper stage is all about evidence and concepts – for the right to adequate housing, the most fundamental concept is that of progressive realisation, where the full right is introduced over time. We feel the Green Paper also misunderstands the role of progressive realisation in securing incorporation. Rather than seeing incorporation as the driver of change, the individual changes required are presented as barriers to incorporation with a right to adequate housing presented as the culmination of change; completely missing the point of incorporation.
For housing in Wales, ambition is critical. However, as we stand now, the housing crisis is deepening. Tinkering around the edges with individual reforms hasn’t worked to date, so there can be no reason to expect it will in the future. We feel a right to adequate housing is the foundation of ambition, driving the long-term, joined-up and wholesale change required. Incorporation can drive the changes required to ensure everyone has a safe, suitable home they can afford.
We’d be naïve to not recognise legitimate concerns to our alternative vision but hear us out – none of these are insurmountable.
Of course, the right to adequate housing will cost money – but independent cost-benefit analysis has shown that it will deliver savings of £11.5 billion for the Welsh public purse against a cost of £5billion over a 30-year period.
It will mean change for housing and support providers, including local authorities – but this change means doing existing things better and leveraging in additional resources. All local authorities want good homes for their citizens and taxpayers without having to use inappropriate, expensive and unsuitable hotels as Temporary Accommodation.
We also recognise the fear around increased litigation. However, progressive realisation means the right to adequate housing is realised over time – not overnight. And with the maximum available resource committed, there will be no immediate increase in litigation, nor is there any international evidence to suggest it. Indeed, the outcome is greater supply and better standards across the board. Fear and risk of immediate litigation could also be mitigated through a ‘sunrise clause’ in any future Act, giving the government and public bodies time to progress their policies before the right is justiciable and fully recognised.
For us, it is clear that the time to act and bring about positive, long-lasting change is now. We believe that legislation to incorporate the right to adequate housing into Welsh law is the starting point that provides the paradigm shift in the way we view housing and the investment and prominence it is given in the wider public policy debate in Wales to deliver the long-lasting change that we, as housing professionals, all aspire to delivering.
Matt Dicks is Director of CIH Cymru; Alicja Zalesinska is Chief Executive of Tai Pawb; Ruth Power is Chief Executive of Shelter Cymru. Together, the three organisations represent the ‘Back the Bill’ campaign.