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  • Whiterock Wales

Turning a problem into a crisis

If 2017 turns out to be anything like the year just gone then we can expect plenty of challenges to go around.

On that front, you’ll get no apologies from me for returning to a pet subject of how Wales can ever develop a decent capability towards meeting a need for more affordable homes.

Help to Buy, the government scheme which assists mortgage opportunities for first time house buyers comes to an end in England this month. No announcement has been made about Wales so far.

This is understandable given that the Welsh Government has promised to provide 20,000 new properties over the course of its current assembly term.

This commitment has been welcomed by Community Housing Cymru (CHC), the umbrella body for housing associations who are slated to deliver 13,500 homes within the proposed target.

Most everyone in the house-building industry accepts that this still leaves a substantial gap between demand and supply but the approach has been nonetheless praised for its ambition.

What could cause difficulties however is that necessary finance may dry up unless a rather silly bureaucratic impasse is resolved.

Last September saw the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announce that housing associations should be considered part of the public sector – instead of private sector where they presently reside.

Housing associations currently borrow finance for new developments from the open market. Repayment comes from rents along with allocated grants. Land is usually made available by local authorities in exchange for the opportunity to nominate tenants.

The ONS decision presents a possibility of associations facing the same Treasury borrowing restrictions placed on other public bodies.

This would see most affordable house building gradually fall to a trickle, according to Community Housing Cymru (CHC) which represents housing associations in Wales.

The Newport-based ONS says it reclassified housing associations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland "purely for the purpose of economic statistics".

They insist the impact is minimal and that it is for devolved governments to sort things out.

The last part is correct at least. A similar decision by the ONS in England last year prompted the UK to introduce legislation that ‘deregulated’ housing associations although critics say the new arrangement is costly and cumbersome.

Housing practitioners like Linda Whittaker, chief executive of NPT Homes, are keeping a keen eye on how the Welsh Government makes good on its promise to take "whatever steps are necessary" to keep things on track.

As she points out, it’s not just the ability of Registered Social Landlords to finance building and improvements, the negative effect on the house-building industry of even a brief hiatus would be economically damaging.

According to StatsWales, the Welsh government website, some 7,000 new homes were built in Wales last year. Some 20% of those are designated as Registered Social Landlord new build.

In many cases, you will see local authorities place a condition on developers to include a proportion of affordable homes into larger schemes. This practice can only continue if the industry is supported – and that requires people to get the priorities right.

Still following the money

This week saw a reminder that financial advisers who assist with tax evasion will face tougher penalties.

New levels of fines will accompany a government ability to publicly name those who enable tax evasion or help move money offshore.

These new powers, which have already been dismissed by critics as overly modest in nature, were announced as part of the 2015 Budget.

At home, ministers reckon that action to root out tax avoidance has brought in extra income tax receipts of £400m this year, according to latest figures.

The news comes as HMRC says it has clawed back millions in tax relief formerly given to celebrities via a scheme to start economic growth in deprived areas.

Unfortunately, recent analysis by the government’s own Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) has also revealed that the promised crack down on tax avoidance has fallen short of its forecast by £2.6bn.

Clearly, it’s still a game of winners and losers.

May’s muddled message

I've never rated Theresa May. She struck me as a lightweight Home Secretary with a propensity to throw officials under the bus whenever confronted by evidence of her own failed initiatives.

It’s disappointing – but not surprising - to see the same traits emerge as she settles down in in her Downing Street tenure.

All that said, the PM’s New Year’s message showed a remarkable candour in that it not only acknowledged the divisions caused by the EU referendum but the underlying social malaise that brought it about.

These divisions begin within May’s own factionalised party and will get worse as paranoia grows about the nature of Brexit and each step is examined for signs of potential backtracking or traces of unrestricted free-market mania.

I’m sure she would like to believe her own assertion that the Leave-Remain debate is over. In that respect however, she is as much out of touch as her ill-fated predecessor.

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