A real Huw and cry
Huw Lewis is the first Welsh housing minister with a cabinet seat. Rhiannon Bury finds out how he is planning to use his position to solve the country’s housing crisis.
Source: Ian Homer
Huw Lewis is a man with plenty on his plate. One year into his post as the inaugural Welsh housing cabinet minister, his department is responsible for Olympic events being held in Wales. So while other Welsh ministers have swanned off on recess he’s slogging it out in his fifth floor Cardiff office surrounded by harassed-looking staff.
Despite all this, he manages a weak smile as Inside Housing enters his office, which is decked out with old photos of miners in Aberfan, the south Wales village synonymous with the slag heap disaster in 1966, in which Mr Lewis grew up, and hand-print paintings by the youngest of his two sons.
Mr Lewis certainly has lots to worry about, on top of the Olympics. His budget for social housing was cut by 40 per cent for starters, from £97 million in 2011/12 to £60 million in 2012/13. Against this backdrop - and forthcoming welfare reforms - he has to produce a rabbit out of the hat with Wales’ first ever housing bill in 2013. The strain of the job is evident from the fatigue in his face. ‘You lie awake in the small hours of the morning worrying about the pace of change really apart from anything else,’ he says. It sounds unlikely that he will give up his cigarette habit any time soon.
‘There are all sorts of firsts here,’ he says, leaning over his desk in his office overlooking Cardiff Bay. ‘It’s the first time in Wales that housing has been a ministerial level cabinet responsibility, it’s the first time we’ve had primary legislative powers - so the first ever Welsh Housing Act will be something I need to steer through the assembly.’
According to charity Shelter Cymru, there are 73,000 households on housing waiting lists in Wales. So what can this former chemistry teacher offer Welsh people who are struggling to access affordable housing? And how is he asserting his authority in a post that is still in its infancy?
We were given a teaser of the housing bill earlier this year in the form of a white paper, which outlined a number of policies designed to revolutionise housing across Wales, including a pledge to end family homelessness by 2019 and greater regulation of the private rented sector. With a restricted budget, it sounds ambitious, but Mr Lewis says it can be done.
‘We had to take new approaches if we’re going to maintain investment in housing,’ the 48-year-old explains. ‘There’s no great magical solution to how you build a house - it’s a coming together of land and capital to get the house off the ground.’
Mr Lewis’ pragmatism is refreshing - and in trying to get his grip on a sector that is facing increasingly difficult financial circumstances each year, the Labour politician does not hesitate when it comes to pointing the finger of blame.
‘The biggest, most difficult challenge is the UK government and their policy of austerity,’ he says, relishing the chance to take a swing at Westminster. ‘If you take the Welsh Government’s overall annual budget it’s around £15 billion, and they’re taking £1.7 billion of that [in cuts made in the spending review]. My social housing grant will fall overall by 40 per cent.
‘Now we’re a government with a very different philosophy of how we should go about things. We see decent affordable housing for everyone as being good in itself and we see housing as an economic driver. We would like to boost house building and renovation as much as we possibly can and we’re having one hand tied behind our backs. The last thing you do at a time like this is throttle the economy, which is what they’re trying to do.’
Throughout the interview, Mr Lewis is keen to point out how different the Labour-led Welsh Government is from its counterpart in Westminster. And the situation is difficult - ministers in Cardiff have control over building plans, but not the money to build with. They can set their own homelessness legislation, but they are not responsible for welfare.
‘We’re not in the business of flogging off ever bigger bits of the social housing stock,’ he adds, taking a swipe at the coalition government’s policy to ‘reinvigorate’ right to buy sales by increasing discounts for council tenants in England who want to purchase their homes.
‘We have a shortage and we need to build a stock and we need to up the quality of the stock we already have and that’s the first priority - other things have to be secondary.’ Local authorities in Wales are allowed to suspend right to buy if their area has particular housing need.
On top of financial challenges, Wales has some of the most diverse housing markets in the UK, with Cardiff as a centre of economic power, juxtaposed with large swathes of rural farmland.
‘My constituency [Merthyr and Rhymney, where he has been the Labour AM since 1999] is a former heavy industry area, with a post-industrial economy and all the problems that go along with that,’ Mr Lewis explains. ‘It’s got a very depressed housing market now, with a high proportion of homeownership and a chronic shortage of affordable housing of all kinds and an enormous level of need.’ According to the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation, the majority of the area is more deprived than the Wales average.
One measure introduced by Mr Lewis since he took up office as Welsh housing minister in May 2011 is the introduction of a housing target - the first of this assembly term. Mr Lewis calls the 7,500 new homes he’s promised across Wales by 2016 ‘pretty stretching’ and with just 60 per cent of the money that was available to the previous administration, it’s certainly going to be no mean feat.
‘I don’t know what [housing minister Grant Shapps’] target is but he’s not going to meet it because there’s no political drive behind fulfilling that need,’ he says. ‘If it is met I think it will be despite the UK government’s policy platform and not because of it.’ For those who don’t know, Mr Shapps has promised 170,000 affordable homes by 2015, available to rent at up to 80 per cent of market rates.
What is striking is Mr Lewis’ personal enthusiasm for housing. He seems to avoid many of the political clichés - speaking in a quiet, level tone about what he believes housing can do for the economy, and for people’s lives, with relentless optimism.
‘If you take a constituency like mine, and there are lots of constituencies like that in Wales, in terms of capital flow within the community that gives you a job spin-off and a training and skills spin-off, then I think I’d be quite right in saying that the biggest game in town is housing,’ he says.
Previously deputy minister for children, and a Labour Party election organiser, Mr Lewis is undeterred by his lack of a housing background.
‘That’s the joy of being a minister really,’ he quips. ‘They’re seldom qualified for the job. But I don’t think there’s an exam I can sit that qualifies you for a job like this.’
When asked whether the job has produced any personal challenges, Mr Lewis is uncharacteristically staid in his answers. He is reluctant to talk about his family until the tape has stopped rolling and the notebook has been put away when he chats about his two young sons.
‘It sounds like [I’ve done] quite a lot in a year, but no politician can take for granted the window of time that you have beyond the next election,’ he says.
The reality of his limited timescale is never more apparent than in his work to tackle the challenges his constituents are facing. The Welsh Government has no powers to influence any changes to UK benefits. This, he implies, means the Welsh people are at the mercy of the Welfare Reform Act, with implementation of policies like universal credit looming large.
‘Stability for people, in terms of being able to keep a roof over their head is going to come to the fore as the issue of the next few years,’
Mr Lewis warns. ‘Some of the housing benefits changes are already starting to bite, but when they really start to take hold next spring we could see hundreds of thousands of households in Wales pushed over the edge into a precarious situation where holding on to their home really becomes a doubtful thing.’
Worried about welfare
Cuts Watch Cymru, which represents charities across Wales, estimates one in four Welsh people will be affected by changes to benefits, such as the introduction of penalties for people who have a spare room. This represents a significant challenge in terms of preventing homelessness and destitution.
‘We’re moving as fast as we can on the supply side of things and making sure we have a new level of partnership with the private rented sector because a lot of the slack will need to be taken up by them,’ Mr Lewis says.
‘We’re also getting ready to completely revamp housing advisory services in Wales, and what I’ve proposed is that we have national housing advisory service which is quality controlled and delivered from the centre, but is delivered in every community.’
This, he hopes, will allow people to access help before things get really bad, ‘before eviction proceedings start and before the bailiffs call’, as Mr Lewis puts it.
‘We don’t have control of those macro-economic levers, we don’t control housing benefit, we don’t control the consumer law around the buying and selling of homes. We’re doing what we can while our hands are tied and we’re being beaten by a large stick wielded by David Cameron.’
He catches himself as he describes the situation - keen to put a positive spin on things before the interview ends and leave an impression that he has the problems in hand. The move seems to sum up Mr Lewis’ attitude neatly: he is damned if he is going to let Westminster spoil his party.
‘That’s not a counsel of despair, there’s an enormous amount we can do with our own resources, and we’re going to do it,’ he adds. But you can’t help thinking he’s got a battle on his hands.
What the industry thinks
Steve Clarke, director of the Welsh Tenants Federation
‘We’ve been offered the chance to shape policy in central government so we’re really pleased with that. Mr Lewis has got the right balance between encouraging professional development while dealing with rogue landlords and people who don’t deliver good services.’
Paul Diggory, chief executive of North Wales Housing
‘Mr Lewis clearly has an understanding of the part housing can play in terms of the economy and an understanding that we have a housing crisis and we need to be providing more homes for people. He’s also shown himself to be quite grounded and focused on communities and grass roots.’
Keith Edwards, director, Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru
‘I think Mr Lewis has made a very impressive start. He came into the role without a great deal of experience of housing but he’s been very focused on his ambitions for the sector and the white paper showed that quite clearly.’