Better Deal for Renters

Speech prepared to propose the Better Deal for Renters motion at the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ 2015 Autumn Conference.

Conference,

In his first conference speech as leader, Tim Farron said –

“We have had enough empty rhetoric on housing. We need action now.”

The Private Rented Sector must form a central part of our response to this issue. It is an important part of our housing market, but it’s also incredibly exploitative, where the number of tenants are increasing.

We are talking about a sector in which low wage earners are over-represented , where costs are inflated, where standards are poorer, where regulation and oversight is limited, and it’s assumed as a rite of passage to be charged fees for all sorts of things to line the pockets of businesses.

We need to re-address the power imbalance between businesses and tenants, and empower tenants to demand better protection and a better standard of living.

Report after report and campaign group manifesto after another – the evidence is overwhelming in its call for action to be taken. Tenants up and down the country are calling for real action to improve their lot, not empty rhetoric.

We’re all aware of the impact that poor housing has on health outcomes, and the impact of higher debt on people’s mental health – these do not create conditions for people to succeed.

We can’t leave it to market forces to change the situation that people find themselves in right now.

Despite efforts to address these failings, tenants are still being let down, and we can’t wait for governments to finally invest in house building to give people a real chance at decent, affordable housing.

New evidence uncovered by Citizen’s Advice reveals tenants are frequently ripped-off by fees hidden by letting agents – to the tune of £337 on average.

There is no evidence to suggest that banning these fees  would result in increased costs to tenants – following a ban on fees in Scotland in 2012 landlords in Scotland were no more likely to have increased rents than landlords elsewhere in the UK.

Let’s say that the Welsh Lib Dems are against this and end arbitrary fees for profit.

Countries across Europe have adopted second generation rent controls, and the housing charity Shelter have advocated for a Stable Rental Contract.

Our motion calls for us to support that Contact which would address the needs of landlords and tenants by introducing greater protection for tenants from eviction, only allowing rents to rise by inflation, contain break clauses so renters aren’t locked into contract and allow landlords to sell their properties if their circumstances change.

The evidence is extensive and demonstrates that things aren’t improving for tenants in the way that they should be or at the pace that they need to be.

We shouldn’t wait and hope that things get better through encouragement – it’s a failing market, open to exploitation, and needs intervention.

Let’s give renters some hope so please support our motion.

Letter of Opinion: Some Gwynedd Councillors have no idea.

Gwynedd Councillors don’t seem to understand the current student accommodation situation in Bangor at all, or the impact that further developments will have on prices for students.
There is foundation to the claims that there are student rooms empty, despite what Plaid Cymru Cllr Dyfrig Jones claims.There are currently 135 properties with at least 1 room empty, and there are over 300 empty rooms across Bangor. These are the properties of landlords who are registered with the University, and not those landlords that are only licensed by Gwynedd Council, of which there are many more. 

This is 60 rooms, in addition to the 200+ rooms to be built on Dean Street by 2015, an additional 21 rooms by on the High Street for September 2014, and the additional 400 rooms being built by the University, meaning less first year students moving into the private sector.

And these are in addition to the recent developments, and other planning applications in the pipeline.

Students do bring economic benefit to the area, but when there is a surplus of student accommodation in Bangor, this argument doesn’t hold water. Not only is this development unnecessary, it does not meet the potential for a site like Ty Glyn, but it also means that accommodation prices for students will rise, with some private providers already pricing rooms at £120+ per week.

Furthermore there is also a deep rooted problem with affordable housing in Bangor, meaning that people struggle to afford properties in Bangor, limiting the number of students who remain in the area which creates economic need and graduate-level jobs, the number of people coming to work and live in Bangor, and the number of families that can live in Bangor.
These issues are paramount in maintaining the character of the City of Bangor, and stimulating the local economy, something which Gwynedd seems to have forgotten.
Bangor Liberal Democrats are working with Gwynedd Council Officers to ensure that the new Joint Local Development Plan for Gwynedd includes stronger policies on student accommodation, to ensure fairness and quality of provision in Bangor and across Gwynedd.
This is another example of Councillors who are removed from issues faced in Bangor, making decisions on our behalf, and not acting in the best interests of the people of Bangor. It’s high time democracy returned to Gwynedd, where local people are empowered to make decisions which directly effect their communities and character of their communities.
Rhys Taylor
Liberal Democrat Councillor, Bangor

Private Student Accommodation, and how not to shoot yourself in the foot.

I’m probably one of very few people who believe that Bangor’s student accommodation issue is a result of local representatives failure to develop a constructive strategy, or message, on private student accommodation. A recent article in the Bangor Mail regarding the Jewsons development demonstrates the lack of clarity on student accommodation, and a distinct void in policy on the future of student accommodation in Bangor. As a local Councillor and a Sabbatical Officer I see the issue from both sides, and I am becoming increasingly worried about the standard of accommodation for students, the reduction in the number of ‘family homes’ in Bangor, and the growing animosity between the old Town and Gown.

Many proposed developments would have been damaging to the local area, not due to the nature of student accommodation, but due to the loss of sites for business development to create jobs and boost the local economy. The old Tax Offices, for example, whilst planning permission has been requested for student accommodation (now with planning for a hotel), student accommodation would, in this case, detract from business and investment opportunities.

However we cannot realistically continue to oppose the development of purpose built student accommodation in Bangor, whilst highlighting the negative impact of converting ‘family’ homes into Houses in Multiple Occupation.

The number of affordable homes in some areas are rapidly diminishing, and not only does this have an effect on the ability of people to come and work and live in Bangor, the environmental impact on changing 4 bedroom family houses into 6 bedroom student houses negatively impacts upon the perception of Bangor as a vibrant, welcoming, and attractive place to live and work.

For example, Albert Street/Field Street/Hill Street in Upper Bangor, small back gardens, and relatively small properties. Landlords are converting 3 bedroom houses into 5 (and more) and are extending into the back garden for more living space. Refuse is undeniably an issue – at least 3 blue boxes, a green wheelie bin, and a brown food bin, with no room to store them. Residents use plastic bags to dispose of waste and, for whatever reason, they are torn and rubbish spills across the road. This is an issue for private student housing, not complex developments such as Neuadd Wilis on Deiniol Road. Additionally, we have to keep in mind that all households create rubbish and waste. Parking is an issue, but families have cars, and few students bring cars to University.

We must change our approach to students and accommodating students (a body of people who bring business, trade and vibrancy to Bangor) within the City. Complaints of noise, litter and anti-social behavior as legitimate reasons to oppose student developments are wholly unfounded. All groups of society create litter, noise, play music, and can behave anti-socially; these are not societal problems that are characteristic of the student population.

We need a fair deal for students, and a fair deal for the community. Many student houses are in appalling conditions, in which many people wouldn’t expect others to live, however students tolerate this and society thinks that it is fair and acceptable. As the number of homes diminishes, so does the revenue from Bangor, which could impact upon those services that we do receive in the City. Neither situation appeals to either group of the community.

The permanent residential community feel as though the community feeling is diminishing, due to the regular flow of students in and out of student housing, therefore maintaining a higher number of ‘family homes’ would go some way to retaining that community feel. However, we should also be striving to ensure that students are seen as members of the community, as citizens of Bangor, and developing a diverse and vibrant community in Bangor.

We should be calling for a strategy to be developed that includes all local stakeholders, to develop a strategy that takes into account the needs of the community and the views of the community, whilst being able to suitably accommodate students in Bangor. We should be placing conditions on planning applications for student accommodation in Bangor to ensure that local representatives and representative structures deal with an ever-growing situation properly, ensuring an equitable treatment of all citizens in Bangor.

Without developing such a strategy, developments will be approved despite local objection, the number of residential (non student) homes will diminish, and students will continue to live in sub-standard accommodation where some landlords exploit students and the community, and it needed developing a long time ago.

Bangor Liberal Democrats working hard on HMOs.

Liberal Democrat Councillors in Bangor are working hard to ensure that HMOs in the area are properly managed and allow sufficient room for families, couples, the elderly, and workers to live in the Bangor community, as the number of family homes continue to decline in areas such as Upper Bangor.

When Bangor City Council set the council tax precept for 2013/14 it was noted that there were considerably fewer number of council-tax paying properties in Bangor year on year, an issue of concern for many as council services are stretched further and demand increases – particularly where the decline in council-tax paying properties is due to the increase in HMOs.

As part of the current consultation Bangor Liberal Democrats submitted a response to the consultation on the matter of the proliferation and management of HMOs in Bangor. Bangor Lib Dems believe that the current policy does not go far enough to protect the traditional community of Bangor, whilst also ensuring that standards of HMOs are maintained. Gwynedd’s current policy reads as follows;

“The accumulative effect or over provision of this type of accommodation (HMOs) can affect the social character of an area and lower its environmental quality. This situation can further worsen as families move out in order to seek a better living environment.”

Arfon Liberal Democrats support Bangor Councillors’ commitment to ensuring that whist there is adequate provision for students, we must safeguard the needs of the community that remain in Bangor for 365 days a year in supporting our local businesses, economy, schools, and also provide a vibrant community.

There is also ongoing work with various Officers in Gwynedd Council on tackling the result of the proliferation of HMOs including waste, noise pollution, and a rapidly reducing number of dwelling homes in areas such as Upper Bangor and Garth.

Below is the consultation submission made by Bangor Liberal Democrat Councillors;

Anglesey and Gwynedd Joint Local Development Plan.

Submission on Houses in Multiple Occupation

Councillor June Marshall,

Menai Ward, Bangor.

 

  1. 1.     Background

 

1.1  The City of Bangor is very proud to be the home of Bangor University and we are very conscious of the many benefits which have accrued to the City due to its presence.  The University has contributed immeasurably to Bangor’s economy, culture and amenities.  We welcome the students who come from all over the world to live and study in this beautiful part of Wales. They bring vibrancy to the city and give us the opportunity to learn more about other lives, languages and beliefs.  But there is also a potential downside to the influx of large numbers of students.  Over the last forty years the University has grown from 3000 students to c.12000. This nearly doubles the population of Bangor in term time and has led to a massive provision of student accommodation, primarily by turning family houses into student Houses of Multiple Occupation.

 

1.2   It is not easy to give an exact number of HMOs in Gwynedd.  Many do not have planning permission and not all are licensed.  But the impact is clear.  There are whole streets and roads in Bangor with just one or two family houses and some streets have no family houses at all.  Unless there is a change of approach to prevent more dwelling houses from being converted into HMOs, the situation will deteriorate still further.

 

1.3   The problems caused by the present situation are immense:

 

  • Increase in noise and disorder
  • Increase in rubbish
  • Lack of maintenance
  • Loss of affordable houses for residents
  • Families are driven out of student areas, leading to further HMOs and an unbalanced population.
  • Loss of revenue for both Gwynedd and Bangor City Councils
  • A large floating population which does not engage with the local community
  1. 2.     Is there a need to provide more Houses of Multiple Occupation in Bangor?

 

2.1   The main need for HMOs in Bangor is to accommodate students.   The need undoubtedly increased over the past 40 years but there is compelling evidence that the need is now fully met and will not increase in the near future. In fact it is likely that student numbers will decline:

                Evidence on Student numbers:

 

  • The latest figures available (2012-13) show that the number of students attending Bangor University fell by 200.
  • This is in line with national trends, which show that most Universities are showing a decline in admissions.
  • This trend is unlikely to improve while University fees of £9,000 per annum continue to be charged.

 

2.2   At the same time, the supply of purpose built students accommodation has increased:

 

  • Neuadd Willis I and Neuadd Willis II on Bangor High Street now provide high quality purpose built student accommodation for a considerable number of students.
  • Student accommodation has also been built on the site of the former N and F shop on Bangor High Street.
  • Planning permission has been granted for 30 student rooms at Plas Llwyd, behind the High Street.
  • The University intends providing 600 rooms on the St Mary’s site and 120 at Neuadd Garth.
  • There is planning permission for student accommodation on the corner of Dean Street.
  • The former Jewson’s Yard remains undeveloped.  While the previous planning application for student accommodation was refused on appeal, it is probable that the developers will revise their plans and produce an acceptable scheme.

 

2.3  There are signs of over-provision of Houses of Multiple Occupation.

 

  • Student houses remain without tenants for 2013-14, even at this very late stage in the academic year.   (Evidence:  an unprecedented number of advertising signs still showing rooms to let, numerous newspaper adverts still offering student houses to let.)
  • Some student houses remained empty during the last academic year.

 

 

3      Gwynedd Council Policy

 3.1  Policy CH14 refers to Houses in Multiple Occupation in the Gwynedd Unitary Development Plan.

 

“Policy CH14 – conversion of dwellings into flats, bed-sits or multiple occupancy dwellings.

Proposals to change the use of dwellings or other residential buildings into flats, bed-sits or multiple occupancy units will be approved provided they conform to the following criterion:

the development will not result in the overprovision of this type of accommodation in a specific street or area where the accumulative effect has, or is likely to have, a negative impact on the social or environmental  character of the street or area.”

 

3.2. Unfortunately this policy has not been sufficiently strong to prevent many more family houses being turned into HMOs.  It is extremely difficult to prove that one house becoming an HMO will result in overprovision of HMOs or will be likely to have an adverse impact on a street or area, when there are already a number of HMOs in place.  Consequently, the number of family houses has been, and continues to be, chipped away.  The only hope of preventing the situation from deteriorating further is to have a very strict policy which would not permit any change of use to an HMO once the percentage of HMOs in a street exceeded a fixed amount.  This would have to be agreed, but should be – I would propose – a meaningful figure such as 10%. Furthermore, it should only be possible to convert a building, of any sort, into an HMO if the applicant could show that no harm would ensue.

 

3.3.The work of Planning Officers and Planning Committees in Wales in controlling the proliferation of HMOs would be much helped if the Welsh Assembly Government were to introduce a similar planning regulation as exists in England whereby HMOs are placed in a separate class use (C4).

 

3.4.Of course, it is essential that any policy on HMOs has to be enforceable.  The current situation allows landlords to by-pass the planning system very easily, by claiming for example, that all the tenants share a rent book and live as a family.  The system needs to be tightened up, provided this can be done within current legislation.

 

  1. What are the risks if no change is made to Gwynedd’s policy?

 

  • Further proliferation of HMOs.
  • Further loss of family houses.
  • Further adverse impact on the residents and environment of Bangor.
  • Empty properties leading to vandalism and disrepair.
  • Investment landlords will seek alternative tenants for their HMOs, with the very real danger of leading to further problems as has happened in Rhyl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cap or no cap?

Labour voted against capping benefits in April for three financial years up to 2015-16, now they want to cap social security spending if they enter Government in 2015.

An article in The Independent notes that the Labour Party have said that they would not borrow in order to finance reinstating the link between benefits and inflation. Rather they would reintroduce a top rate of tax of 50p, five pence more than the Coalition, 10p more than all but the last months of 13 years of Labour Government.

They’re welcome to re-evaluate their position as a ‘working-people’s party’ giving tax cuts for millionaires, but the Labour Party should be careful not to say too much.

They have completely opposed a cap, but now say that they want a cap, but it’s not really a cap, and can’t tell anyone anything that makes it a credible policy. Milliband admitted that the last Labour Government was to blame for out of control spending on welfare and Britain’s low wage economy, but he refused to admit the UK’s budget deficit was caused by Labour overspending.

Milliband said that some of the £24bn-a-year bill for housing benefit would be used for housebuilding to allow councils to negotiate lower rents for tenants of private landlords. Labour believes the savings could allow local authorities to build 200,000 homes over four years.

Cutting  housing benefit to ensure lower rents for tenants is, in my view, a risky way of supporting people on housing benefit. There can be no guarantee that rents will be lowered at the same rate that benefits are capped, which is likely to lead to a reduction in household budgets having to pay for the shortfall, or tightened budgets for Councils who have to make up the shortfall in housing benefit for tenants whose rent will not be lowered at the same level as the benefit cap.

Ed Balls also hinted towards regional housing benefits. Ed Balls MP said that Labour wants a system that takes account of housing costs in different parts of the country – with an independent body, like the Low Pay Commission, advising on whether the cap should be higher in high-cost housing areas like London, but potentially lower in other parts of the country“.

The Welsh Labour Government has remained, typically silent.

Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central commented saying;

“The Welsh Labour Government is happy to protest against every single decision taken by the Coalition Government, yet Welsh Ministers remain silent when they disagree with their own party. Labour’s plan for regional benefits would victimise people looking for work in Wales merely because of where they live.

“Week in, and week out, Huw Lewis stands up in the Assembly pontificating and scaremongering about welfare changes. Yet, was Huw Lewis brave enough to raise this issue with Ed Balls when he visited Cardiff less than two weeks ago? I imagine he didn’t even bother. As the fiasco of council tax benefit recently showed, Welsh Labour Ministers are more interested in sitting back and having a spat with the UK Government than they are in actually trying to support the people of Wales.

“Liberal Democrats are fighting for a stronger economy in a fairer society. After the mess Labour left the country in, we have had to make tough decisions to balance the books. While welfare reform is necessary, it mustn’t be done in a heavy handed way that would punish people just because they live in Wales.

“Welsh Liberal Democrats fought and won our campaign to halt George Osborne’s plans for regional pay, will Welsh Labour now do likewise on regional benefits?”

 

Labour Government lets down first time buyers in Wales.

As part of the budget deal negotiated by the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the 2011 budget the Welsh Labour Government agreed to a scheme to help first time buyers enter the property market. NewBuy would have enabled buyers to have high loan-to-value mortgages and supported the building of 3,000 homes.

Carl Sargeant had previously said:  “We are all aware of the difficulties that people are having in either buying their first home or moving up the housing ladder. NewBuy Cymru will provide a helping hand in the shape of a mortgage guarantee to people that have been saving hard to put down a deposit for a new home.

“By helping to kick-start the housing sector it’s hoped that NewBuy Cymru will help tackle poverty and provide a welcome short in the arm to our economy.

“I would urge people to sign up to this great scheme and look forward to officially launching it in June.”

There have been concerns over the time frame of the scheme for some time with more than a year passing with various different launch dates proposed by the Government, however Minister Carl Sargeant had agreed that the scheme would be ready to launch on June 3rd this year.

The Welsh Government is claiming that due to their lack of knowledge over similar schemes – to begin in 2014 – the plans to support first time buyers in a difficult economy have had to be scrapped. The scheme by the UK government will provide a loan of up to 20% of the equity, repayable once a home is sold.

Admittedly the housing sector in Wales has withdrawn support in favour of the scheme that will be launched in England, simply because the Welsh Government has been dragging its heels over a policy which would give a boost to people across Wales and to the Welsh economy.

Carl Sargeant told AMs: “The NewBuy Cymru scheme was one of the first things I brought to the chamber in terms of the announcement. What we didn’t quite seek was, the day after, the Treasury announcement in terms of their scheme, Help To Buy.

The Government has had ample time to launch the scheme, yet first time buyers will now have to wait more than 12 months for the UK Government to yet again pick up Labour’s pieces.

This news comes  just two days after the Welsh Government announced it had scrapped the failing £36m back-to-work Genesis Cymru Wales 2 scheme after it failed to meet government targets.