In full: Julie James on housing, homelessness, and safety

“We shouldn’t be in a situation where those homes are rationed out to those who are in the direst need. We would like to get back to having built enough houses for that to be the case.”

Julie James AM

How are you finding the role?

“It is really interesting, a bit of a challenge. It is great that we have got so many levers into one portfolio.

“The whole purpose of it is to see what we can do across all the different levers. I’ve got housing, local government, regeneration, planning and the idea is to see if we can use them all together to make some difference to housing supply and fulfilling housing need.”

 

How important is the cross-departmental approach of Welsh Government?

“The point of doing that is to get some of the prime levers in there but obviously the local government role alone you have to work across government because some of the big departments that spend with local government are not in the portfolio.”

 

Give us an overview of your experiences of housing before this role and why it is important?

“I didn’t have any direct experience of housing but have experience in local government. It is impossible to do that without picking up some housing related stuff. I also represent Swansea West as an Assembly Member and so I represent the bit of Swansea that has the most street homelessness.

“A lot of my casework is to do with housing supply and so on. It is a matter of some concern that in the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, that we have some people who can’t get a decent house.

“From that perspective, I have always been interested in it. So this is a real opportunity to bring all these things together.”

 

What is the government approach to rising numbers of rough sleepers?

“It is about trying to get an individualised approach for people because we know that housing is absolutely a human right but people’s ability to stay in a house and for it to become a home is a much different thing.

“The Housing First options for example, working with individuals to make sure that people have some choice in where they end up. I think just having an empathetic point of view, so understanding that anyone who is told to live somewhere they really don’t want to live, the chances of that being sustainable is pretty low.

“A combination of a series of things. Some routes will benefit some people, some routes will make people’s lives worse. It is about understanding that and having a personalised approach. There are far too many people who are hidden homeless, not just street homeless, but there are not so many that we couldn’t have a personalised approach.

“The other end of it of course is that we have housing supply that means people aren’t blocking places that could provide that support.

“So it is both ends of that and Swansea is a very good example of that. One of the big things I want to do in this portfolio is to talk with our local councils about starting again a programme of social house building that we haven’t done for some time.

“The time is right for us to do that and that fits well into the supply and then into the other end at the same time.”

 

Is it time for councils to take a major role in new supply and how would you incentivise?

“After the UK government finally seen sense on this and lifted the borrowing cap, we are working very hard with councils to make sure we reach an agreement with them to take that cap off where it still applies.

“We are then going to do the work with them and other public agencies in Wales to identify the public land necessary to start the social house build that we desperately need.

“To work with them, to identify what levers we have that can assist them to do that to use that borrowing to actually build the social housing we so desperately need.

“When you have got to the point where the Conservative government in England has finally realised that then you can see the time is right. We are already in good conversations with them about how to get that going as fast as possible.”

 

Housebuilding fell for Welsh housing associations last year; how will it get picked back up?

“We have had conversations with Welsh housing associations. They are telling us that it is a temporary blip and they are still on target and we are very keen to ensure that we do anything necessary to ensure that happens. That is one part of the piece.

“What I am looking to do is to make sure that affordable homes target is met but that we match it with housing for social rent which is not the same.

“I think that is one of the problems with housing, all of these various terms mean something slightly different to different people. We don’t call every other home unaffordable so what on earth does that mean?

“So yes, we would like to see that target hit but it is just one part of the mix. We would also like to see decent homes built for social rent and an enormous more people enabled to go into social rent than has previously been the case.

“We clearly need that or we are not going to get the housing supply sorted out.”

 

Do you have any targets for the number of socially rented homes you want to see?

“We want to see councils starting to build social housing again. Once we start to see that, then we can start looking at targets and so on. We want to attack from both ends.

“We want to understand where the level of need is and see what we can do to tailor building programmes both in the private sector and the public sector to match that need.”

 

Does that mean housing associations are going to be asked to build more social housing?

“We want to talk with both our councils and our housing associations about what can be done and in what space. We want to have a regional approach to that, one size fits all will not work in Wales.

“Depending on where you are and what the housing situation looks like in your bit of Wales, it will be a different approach. We are looking to engage all of our partners so that people have a decent home to live in.”

 

What is the importance of making tenants safe in their homes? What are you doing to ensure it happens?

“We have the Building Safety Expert Group and they worked to provide us with bespoke advice for Wales on building safety across the piece, not just tower blocks. We need to work with the sector to do whatever it takes.

“We are very fortunate we don’t have some of the problems that happened in England but we want to make sure we have covered all of them off in Wales.

“It is not only about the building components but about how tenants exercise their rights within that and how can you make sure the building is safe to live in.”

 

How do you think First Minister Mark Drakeford will affect housing policy?

“He has made it absolutely clear it is one of his top priorities to sort out housing in Wales. One of his manifesto promises in the leadership campaign was to make housing a cabinet level post and I am very privileged to be that person.

“We have a shared agenda to make sure housing is at the top of the priority list. He is very much in the same space as me as making sure it is a mixed development, affordable homes, self-build, Help to Buy etc but also mass build for social rent because we are never going to get to where we need to be without that piece included.

“Both he and I have a shared view of the need to have mixed developments for social rent across Wales. I grew up in a council estate outside Swansea.

“In those days lots of people lived in social housing. My parents were a miner and a nurse, we lived in a mixed development. That is how it ought to be. Those who don’t want to own a house and want to live in the community they grew up in should be able to rent a decent social house.

“We shouldn’t be in a situation where those homes are rationed out to those who are in the direst need.

“We would like to get back to having built enough houses for that to be the case.”

 

Finally, what is the one thing you would like to achieve in this role?

“It would be to get our councils and social landlords building houses for social rent.

“That is not to take away from the contribution of other sectors, but that sector has been neglected for far too long and we would really like that to be resurgent in Wales.”

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