Peter Black AM’s speech to Welsh Lib Dem Conference: Ambition and fairness at heart of Lib Dem housing plans

On Sunday, Peter Black, AM for South Wales West, a man with almost as many portfolios as there are days of Christmas, gave his keynote speech to Welsh Conference. He called on both Wales’ Labour Government and the UK’s Conservative Government to do more to help the Tata steel workers set to lose their jobs. He also unveiled the Welsh Lib Dems’ plan to tackle the housing crisis by building 20,000 more houses and implementing a rent to buy scheme. He also touched on political reform, devolution of power, the arts, broadcasting and sport. That’s quite something in just 15 minutes. Here is his speech in full:

Chair, I have been privileged to have served as a Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Member for nearly 17 years, representing my adoptive City of Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot and Bridgend.

There are some key issues for me as a local representative, which also go to the heart of Liberal Democrats policy. These include the future of the Tata steel plant in Port Talbot, where job losses will have a devastating impact on the local community and on the economy of South Wales.

I have been pushing the Welsh Government to set up an urban regeneration company for the area, to work within the proposed enterprise zone, and also to cut the business rate burden for the plant.

But we also need the UK Government to step up to the plate and to reduce energy costs, and to take action within the European Community to prevent the dumping of cheap steel from China and Russia.

The UK Government also need to step up to the plate on the Tidal Lagoon planned for Swansea Bay. I believe that the company has now made an acceptable offer to the Treasury on the subsidy they will apply to this development and I urge Ministers to make an early announcement that this scheme can go ahead.

The tidal lagoon ticks all the boxes in our manifesto. It will produce clean, alternative energy, it is an investment in infrastructure that will bring employment to the area and it will also feature as a major tourist attraction.

As my friend, Denis Campbell would say, giving the go-ahead to this scheme is a slam dunk and it is time UK ministers recognised this.

In the time I have been in the Assembly I have worked hard to ensure that liberal values and policies are central to the governance of Wales. It has to be said, with mixed success.

What I am clear about though is the impact that we have had in that Assembly as the smallest party. Throughout the four terms of the Assembly we have hit above our weight.

I have been involved in negotiations that have secured an additional £283.5 million for Welsh schools since 2012 in the form of support for the poorest pupils through the Pupil Deprivation Grant.

The latest two year deal, secured an increase in the Pupil Deprivation Grant for next year so that from April each school will receive £1,150 for every pupil eligible to receive free schools.

We have secured an extension of the Pupil Deprivation Grant to include under 5s, worth £300 per pupil on free school meals.

We got the Welsh Government to implement a policy brought to this conference by IR Cymru, namely a Young Persons’ Bus Pass for 16-18 year olds worth nearly £15 million.

We secured funding for around 5,000 new apprenticeships, £95m worth of capital investment in infrastructure, which will provide a strong boost to jobs and the economy, and an agreement that no construction of the M4 relief road will start before the next Assembly elections alongside a detailed Environmental Impact Study.

In addition we got an agreement for extra childcare investment for further education students in Wales who are parents, investing in a pilot scheme promoted by the National Union of Students.

Those budget agreements are not just about implementing Welsh Liberal Democrats principles and policies, but they are also about refocusing the Welsh Government, trying to make devolution work for the people of Wales, and going back to basics to restore this devolution project to its original vision of an accountable, transparent government delivering made in Wales policies tailored to Welsh needs.

And there is no doubt in my mind that Welsh Labour have lost their way.

Labour has dominated the governance of Wales since we first walked into the converted computer room that served as our chamber in 1999.

Despite that they have failed to deliver on the promises and dreams of those of us who campaigned for a yes vote in the original referendum.

The Welsh Labour Government has been as unaccountable and as opaque as the Welsh UK Ministers they replaced.

Despite the hard work and professionalism of teachers, nurses, doctors and other public sector workers Wales is trailing behind the rest of the UK in educational attainment, key targets are being missed in the health service and our economy is falling further behind.

Nowhere can a government’s level of ambition be measured more so than in housing

Professor Holmans’ report into Housing stated that if future demand for housing in Wales is to be met, there needs to be “a return to rates of house building not seen for almost 20 years”

“Not seen for 20 years”

17 of those years have been under the Labour Government

There is no other way to look at it: that 17 years has left Wales with a housing crisis

As is often the case in politics, we see the two main parties fighting it out over ideological dogma

The Tories want to extend the Right to Buy

Labour wants to end it

Neither party says anything more than that

That is simply not good enough

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are the only party in Wales willing to talk about housing

And why?  Because it meets two of our key objectives: fairness and ambition.

According to the Homes for Wales campaign, house prices have risen by 16 per cent since 2008, more than six times the average person’s income.

Because of this, 27 per cent of young people still live at home with their parents, struggling to get on the housing ladder.

Over 5,000 households were accepted as homeless last year, and an estimated 90,000 households are on social housing waiting lists.

There are 8,596 families who have been on the housing waiting list since before the last election, with a further 2,000 waiting since the election before that.

And to meet current demand, 12,000 new homes are needed each year.

Wales needs a government that will invest in a house building programme so everyone can have a roof over their heads.

I assure you that social housing will be a priority for the Welsh Liberal Democrats so that there is quality, affordable housing for those who need it

We will double the current Social Housing Grant budget of £35million per year to £70million per year and set a target of 20,000 new affordable homes over the same period. This would be double the Labour Government’s target.

Housing is important to the Welsh Liberal Democrats because we believe in supporting people’s ambition

Why work hard, why innovate, why contribute to our economy if all of this doesn’t lead to the simple business of owning your own home, rather than paying a fortune in rent your whole life

Again, Labour almost have a sneering attitude to the idea of home ownership – as if this is some sort of crass wish list

In contrast, we the only party in Wales offering real solutions and ideas so people can access their own home.

The 16 per cent in house prices since 2008 has resulted in an increasing proportion of young people still living at home with their parents for longer and longer, because they are struggling to get on the housing ladder.

The average age of a first-time buyer in Wales may be younger than elsewhere in the UK, but this figure hides the more worrying fact that home ownership has plummeted for the under-35s.

Just 36 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds now own their own home, down from 59 per cent ten years ago. It is an extraordinary decline.

Prices have simply got too far out of reach for too many young families, with some first-time buyers saving for 15 years to get onto the housing ladder at all.

Under the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ ‘Rent to Buy’ policy, young people in Wales would be able to buy their own home without a deposit

We would help young people onto the housing ladder by allowing them to build up a share in their home through monthly payments equivalent to rent – this will work just like a mortgage in the way that they will eventually own the house outright

This policy is not a replacement for affordable rented properties or social housing, which we would also seek to expand, but we would aim to deliver at least 2,500 newly built specific-to-the-purpose, rent-to-own homes over an Assembly term, through the social housing grant mechanism.

This is about ambition and fairness.

Under our proposals, it doesn’t matter what your background or family circumstance is, if you can afford your rent then we will help you own your home – something nearly everyone dreams of.

For too long Wales hasn’t been seen as a place for young people where they can fulfil their dreams and ambitions: We want to change that

Wales can reach its potential.  We want to make the best of Wales’ strengths: our culture, our resources and most of all, our people

And for that to happen, we must convince people to be part of it – especially our young people

We will support people’s ambitions so that people know that if you live in Wales, were born in Wales, have moved to Wales, work in Wales – then you are part of our project to revitalise Wales.

While the supply of housing is vital, we must also ensure that we do more to support those who are renting by protecting tenants from unfair practices and improving the quality and safety of poor private rented sector homes.

There have been big improvements over the last Assembly term. The Housing (Wales) Act 2014, the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 and the introduction of the Rent Smart Wales scheme will help raise standards in the private rented sector.

However, standards are still not good enough.

Over the last decade, the private rented sector has expanded rapidly and currently houses as many people as the social rented sector.

Shelter Cymru highlights that nearly one in ten private tenants with dependent children said that their children’s health had been affected in the last year due to the landlord not dealing with repairs and poor conditions.

That means up to 10,000 children a year may be suffering worse health because of poor conditions in privately rented housing.

Furthermore, too many tenants are still being ripped off by excessive letting agency fees.

According to Shelter, one in four of those who’ve used a letting agency have been charged excessive fees, and more than one in three have been charged over £200 in administration fees at the start of their tenancy.

The legislation that we’ve passed in this Assembly has helped, and has made progress, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and scope for further legislation in the next Assembly.

In Government in Westminster, we forced letting agents to be up-front and transparent about the fees they charge.

We believe that letting agency fees on tenants should be prohibited and replaced with a schedule of set charges for specified services to ensure cost transparency.

Evidence by Shelter Scotland demonstrates that after abolishing letting agency fees for tenants, landlords in Scotland were no more likely to have increased rents since 2012 than landlords elsewhere in the UK.

Tenants should not have to suffer poor standards, poor maintenance and weaker rights than home owners.

We have the residential property tribunal in Wales, but we need to make it more effective to help resolve housing disputes and offer a more balanced forum where tenants are able to stand up for their rights.

We would empower this tribunal to act as a housing court dealing with challenges to rent increases.

It would adjudicate and mediate in disputes on fitness for human habitation, succession rights, failure to supply contracts and discrimination.

We would work with landlords to ensure energy rating targets are met to improve the standard and efficiency of homes, and work with student unions and tenant groups to ensure tenants know their rights.

We would also expand the remit of the Welsh Tenants Federation to include representation from private rented sector tenants so as to strengthen the representation of those renting privately.

These are all practical measures to help protect tenants from unfair practices and improve the quality and safety of poor private rented sector homes.

This election will rightly focus on key policies around the economy, education, housing and health. Like all of you I will be on doorsteps telling people about our unique offering in these areas.

However, my responsibilities as a party spokesperson cover many more areas. In some ways I have got the subjects nobody else wanted.

In addition to Housing, Communities, Social Justice, and Finance I also speak on equalities, on broadcasting, sport, culture and local government.

Many of these areas speak to our identity as Welsh citizens, as members of our local community and as individuals.

The importance of local culture to local communities, and developments such as the Bay Studios in Swansea and the S4C development in Carmarthen to the local economies, cannot be understated.

Our culture, our history and our heritage all act as powerful attractions for tourists from the rest of the UK and around the world. At least 100,000 people are employed in the industry in Wales. That is around 9% of the workforce. When you add jobs in retail and the purchasing power of tourism-based business in Wales, the impact is absolutely huge.

Some of the proposals we will put before the electorate in this area in May include reinstating the Culture Ministry with responsibility for Culture, Tourism, Heritage and Broadcasting, and creating a cross-cutting cabinet sub-committee to raise Wales’ international profile.

We will give Councils a statutory duty of care for the cultural infrastructure and organisations, sport, leisure provision and youth provision.

And we will continue our campaign to reduce VAT on Visitor Accommodation and Attractions from 20% to 5%.

We will establish a Cultural Enterprise Agency with economic development funding to give grants, advice and mentoring to those with small enterprises in arts, publishing, media and cultural retailing.

And we will protect the Welsh Arts Council grant.

We will push for the Welsh Government to be responsible for appointing Welsh members of the BBC and Ofcom and ask for the devolution of community radio licencing to the Assembly.

The u-turn by the UK Government on funding for S4C this week is very welcome but there is a need to secure longer term funding for that station so as to guarantee its future, enable it to invest in HD and other new technologies and allow it to develop a quality programme of productions which builds on the success of Hinterland.

As a season ticket holder at Wales only premier league football club I am keen to see what can be done to advance soccer as well as many other sports.

Specifically though we will work with the Sports Ground Safety Authority to prepare guidance under which domestic football clubs may introduce safe standing areas, to create a better atmosphere.

And we will work with major sporting bodies and local councils to maximise investment in grass roots sports facilities as well as in elite sports men and women.

I have been a member of Swansea Council now for nearly 32 years.

I would get a lesser sentence for murder.

But what that lifetime of work has taught me has been invaluable as an Assembly Member.

In particular, it has taught me the value of local democracy, of communities taking responsibility for themselves and determining their own future.

It has also taught me that process and structures do not improve service delivery, that Ministers based in Cardiff have no idea what local communities need and want and should keep their nose out and that local accountability improves transparency and gives us better services.

That is why we have fundamental problems with the Williams Commission report on local government and specifically the proposal by Labour to institute a top-down reorganisation of local government that will produce eight over-large councils, remote from the people they serve and with no clear community identity.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats believe in devolving power from Cardiff Bay into our communities, giving councils the tools to be able to properly deliver services for local people.

Wales does have too many Councils, many of which are too small and are underperforming.  However, if councils are going to be larger, then it is essential that they reflect the way that people voted.

Without introducing a fair voting system and without the devolution of powers to local communities, any reorganisation process is pointless.

The boundaries of new Councils should not be drawn by politicians. That is a job for the independent Boundary Commission.

They should be tasked with coming up with proposals that balance the interests of effective strategic management and service delivery with local accountability, that reflect community identities and which have demonstrable public consent.

We do not agree that major cities should be merged with large rural hinterlands, as neither community will find their needs met.

We do not agree that the return of Dyfed or Gwent meets any recognisable definition of local.

Nor can we sign up to Plaid Cymru’s super-structures, keeping 22 councils but imposing a further seven bodies on top with responsibility for health as well as education and social services.

I do not want Swansea’s hospitals run from Cardiff, as Plaid Cymru propose and I am sure that my colleagues in Ceredigion and North Wales feel the same with regards to their health services.

Instead of playing with lines on maps the Welsh Government should be empowering councils to do the job they are elected for.

Giving them more responsibilities.

Responsibility for public health;

A strategic role in transport provision:

Devolving budgets for community regeneration and tackling poverty to people who understand how best to spend it in their own area.

That is a liberal agenda for local democracy.

Conference, the opportunity for introducing Liberal Democrat policies and principles into the next Welsh Government is in front of us.

We can campaign with our heads held high that we have improved the lives of many people over the last five years through our interventions and our successes out of all proportion to our size.

But we know that if devolution is to succeed then the Welsh Government needs to better connect with people and start to deliver the key services that we rely on day-in day-out.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are best equipped to succeed in that endeavour, both in terms of what we have already achieved and in the policies we are putting in front of voters on May 5th.

Now is our time.

Now is the time for Wales to move forward and realise its potential as a self-governing country.

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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