Emergency pandemic laws brought in to prevent evictions and rescue people off the streets proves issues around housing availability in Wales can – and must – be solved permanently, according to experts at Cardiff University.

Bob Smith and Peter Mackie, from the university’s School of Geography and Planning, believe coronavirus has presented Wales with a unique opportunity to secure and boost the nation’s social housing stock and enshrine in law the right to a safe, secure home.

Wales has done a better job than England of housing the people most in-need, the pair believe, but the party which wins the upcoming Senedd election must take further strides to prevent homelessness and treat housing as important to society as healthcare.

They also argue the next Welsh Government must toughen up the rules for housebuilders, guaranteeing they build social homes when they plan new developments; as well as working to bring the nation’s existing social housing stock up to standard and energy-efficient.

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The pair spoke to The National this week, coinciding with the publication of their new report for CaCHE (the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence), in which they set out a dozen key priorities for the incoming Welsh Government.

The National Wales: Dr Peter Mackie from Cardiff University's School of Geography and Planning. Picture: Cardiff UniversityDr Peter Mackie from Cardiff University's School of Geography and Planning. Picture: Cardiff University

The pandemic is “an opportunity for a reset of housing,” said Dr Smith. “I think it’s highlighted some of the severe inequalities and some of the issues around poor housing, poverty, and the links between poor housing and health.”

Dr Mackie said traditional views of housing as a public health issue had been “siloed” over the years and viewed as “the wobbly pillar of our social welfare state”.

He added: “All of a sudden with Covid-19, people started to realise the importance of housing – because you were stuck in it, or you didn’t have it, or you were kicked out of it – and it really led to significant changes in the way it was seen.”

Government moved quickly to block evictions in the private rental sector and to get rough-sleepers into accommodation, working together with councils and third-sector groups.

Dr Mackie praised the “progressive agenda” in Wales, where he said initial investment in the crisis response dwarfed what was being spent in England, but “why it took a pandemic all of a sudden to get everybody in [to housing] is incredible”.

He said the next Welsh Government should build on what was achieved during the pandemic so far, committing to “rapid rehousing” of people who are in temporary accommodation, such as shelters, and pledging to make social housing more equitable by ending the policy of “priority need”.

Beyond that, he and Dr Smith believe the nation’s social housing stock must be increased, with a shortfall leading to increased competition for homes and pushing up costs in the private sector.

Schemes such as right-to-buy have opened the door to home ownership for many people, but government has failed previously to ensure one-for-one replacements for any social housing that has become privatised in this way.

“The lack of affordable, secure suitable housing is a key driver of exclusion in the housing system,” the pair argue in their report, with greater housing pressures being felt by younger people, people on lower incomes, and people from minority-ethnic communities.

Dr Smith said the current Welsh Government and its housing minister had been “very committed” to social housing, and Wales had outperformed England, proportionally-speaking, in terms of the number of social homes built last year.

Nevertheless, he urged the next administration to “step up the supply” of homes for people “with the greatest housing need”.

The National Wales: Dr Bob Smith from Cardiff University's School of Geography and Planning. Picture: Cardiff UniversityDr Bob Smith from Cardiff University's School of Geography and Planning. Picture: Cardiff University

Where new housing developments are proposed and planned, Dr Smith said councils must be tougher when deciding how many social homes a private-sector firm is obliged to build.

Currently, planning authorities can insist that a new development includes a certain proportion of affordable or social homes.

But too often this is seen as something negotiable, rather than obligatory, Dr Mackie said.

Where, then, can these social homes be built? Dr Smith points to successful and “innovative” projects in Newport city centre, where housing association Pobl transformed an old pub site into a block of modern apartments for the over-55s.

“Certainly in the light of the pandemic I think we are seeing changes in the patterns of residential living,” Dr Smith said. “I would expect there to be more emphasis on town-centre and city-centre housing.”

But the general opportunities to convert commercial buildings into residential properties should not be seen as a “quick fix” to the housing shortfall, he added, citing the need for proper consideration of building safety standards.

Further lessons from the pandemic, for social housing and beyond, highlighted disparities in people's stay-at-home experiences. Spending months in lockdown was a very different prospect for people with gardens and adequate space, compared with someone in a small, upper-floor flat, for example.

Housebuilders must take these factors into account, said Dr Mackie.

"We get the importance of having access to green space, and what that does for our mental wellbeing [and] our physical wellbeing, because those who didn’t have it in the pandemic have suffered," he said. "The whole change in the way we saw housing – if we could just hang onto that, and not forget that, then I think we’ll see massive changes in the way we design homes. We’ll design them to have workspaces, with decent access to wifi."

Building more social homes, with all these factors in mind, will have enormous "spillover" benefits for society, Dr Mackie said – creating jobs in the construction industry and associated sectors, building community ties and attracting facilities to residential areas.

"There are so many spillovers of getting it right and investing, that it should be a priority area and seen as more than just a housing issue," he said.

But the next Welsh Government must also look beyond the immediate housing situation, the pair warn. Future generations must be considered, and Wales could learn from Scotland, where the devolved government has set in place a 20-year plan for building low-cost homes.

And there remains a question, too, over devolution. While housing is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, other "significant influences" such as the benefits system are decided by Westminster.

Again, Dr Smith and Dr Mackie believe the emergency changes announced during the pandemic – an uplift in Universal Credit payments, and a change in the way Local Housing Allowance rates were calculated – prove the UK government can also make permanent improvements for people on low incomes, should it choose to.

Coronavirus has brought the nation to a fork in the road when it comes to the future of housing, and Dr Mackie said it was "both an opportunity and problematic" for Wales to decide on a new government while recovering from the pandemic.

"Those two could coalesce wonderfully and you could end up with a really ambitious new agenda, making the most of the reset opportunity," he said. "We’re waiting to see."