Statement by the Minister for Housing and Regeneration: Low Cost Home Ownership
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Thanks to the Minister for today’s statement. I’m sure that we’d all acknowledge that there is a major problem facing today’s younger generation who are seeking to get onto the housing ladder, and that is that, for many people, houses are simply not affordable. A major issue is that wage increases are not keeping pace with house price increases, which does create a challenging environment if we are trying to improve home ownership rates.
Your statement today focused quite a lot on shared ownership schemes. I think, to some extent, it’s good to try and be innovative in helping people to raise the finance to get onto the housing ladder, and I appreciate there are different kinds of schemes—two in particular that you talked of today—but, unfortunately, shared ownership is not always a viable solution. A lot of the time, even shared ownership schemes are out of reach for many workers. Many people in jobs paying well above the minimum wage still can’t get approved for mortgages in shared ownership schemes. An unfortunate consequence of this is that the same people then often end up spending even more money than the mortgage payments would have been on their monthly rent.
There is a potential danger in making it easier for people to get approved for mortgages, because the schemes have to be sustainable for those people; it’s not just about the down payment, as I’m sure you’d appreciate. What we don’t want is people managing an initial down payment then struggling to keep up their monthly payments, and ultimately defaulting on their mortgages. So, there are a lot of issues relating to shared ownership. There is a fair bit of evidence that shared ownership does not automatically convert easily into full ownership. So, do you recognise that there is a big difficulty in meeting this challenge and achieving your targets? Are low-cost housing schemes providing value for money to the public purse, do you think? And are the eligibility and affordability checks robust enough?
Another problem is the changing labour market. If home owners become unemployed they can face difficulties, as they’re not automatically eligible for housing benefit. This isn’t a devolved area—I understand that—but we do have a workplace now in which very few people are going to have a job for life. People even with good CVs can face periods of, hopefully temporary, unemployment. If they have taken out a mortgage, not everyone has taken out insurance. Some people are not even aware of this issue when they take out a mortgage in the first place. So, I suppose this is another case for financial education to be included in the school curriculum. Flowing from that, Minister, another question is: are you liaising to good effect with the education Minister on this issue of providing school students with this kind of financial education?
I was encouraged to hear you mention self-build homes in today’s statement. There have been surveys that suggest that many people in the UK, including in Wales, would consider building their own home given the opportunity. There was recently on one of the UK’s leading plot-finding websites ‘currently wanted’ adverts for self-build homes in Wales. We do have a much lower rate of self-building in the UK generally than many other European countries. On the important issue of finance, lenders tend generally to perceive self-build loans as a higher risk, and I don’t believe there’s currently any Welsh Government grant available to people who want to do self-build. I appreciate that you say you’re looking at this now, so this is something you are peering into. Also, I know that the Welsh Government did relax some planning requirements to enable the development of Lammas, which was a rural eco-village in north Pembrokeshire, so there has been some flexibility displayed in this field in the past. I wonder if you have any more information today on any proposals for Welsh Government self-build schemes. Thank you.
Rebecca Evans AM
Title: Minister for Social Services and Public Health Party: Welsh Labour
Thank you very much for those questions. I’d begin by reflecting on your comments about wage increases and how difficult some people find it in order to get on the housing ladder. Our schemes today do make that easier, but I agree it’s not for everybody. So, there will be an important focus from Welsh Government on ensuring that, actually, we have a healthy housing sector right across the piece, and I would start by saying that this involves work with the private rented sector particularly. You’ll be aware that we already have Rent Smart Wales up and running, and that’s providing assurance that those people who are renting homes to people are sufficiently licensed and have the information that they need in order to be good landlords.
I’ve also committed to very shortly be introducing legislation in order to ban fees charged to tenants by letting agents and also committed to working with the sector in order to continue to drive up standards. You’ll be aware, also, that we’ve recently finished consulting on our homes-fit-for-human-habitation standards. So, I’m quite pleased that we are working in a really constructive way with the private rented sector in order to increase and improve the offer that they’re able to give, partly because I think the sector is going to become even more important in future for all of the reasons that people have described about how difficult it is for many people to get on the housing ladder—and, actually, not everybody will want to, because they’ll have different priorities and different lifestyles that might not mean that they want to be settled down in one particular place.
So, I think a healthy housing sector across the piece is important. But I would just provide reassurance that we take eligibility and affordability really seriously in terms of the products that we offer. We don’t want to set people up to fail in any way. So, we’re very keen that people obviously take all of the absolutely important and vital advice that they need. One way in which we are enabling some of that to happen is of course through the accredited conveyancing scheme, which I introduced as part of the package on leasehold reform. That will ensure that people are getting the adequate information they need, not only about leasehold, but are getting the kind of quality advice that they need in order to make that decision as to whether homeownership is right for them.
I completely agree on the importance of financial education, and that is certainly something that we are progressing in schools, particularly through the curriculum reform, but we’re not waiting for that. There’s also good work already happening as part of our financial inclusion delivery plan, which seeks to ensure that people do leave school with a strong understanding of the important information that they will need simply just to run a home, because, actually, it’s a lot more complicated than people often imagine.
On the issue of self-build, I appreciate the comments that you’ve made today and I’ll bear them in mind as we look to develop some further proposals in this area, which I would hope to share with the Chamber in due course.