Three rows of terrace housing in Rhondda, Wales

Three rows of terrace housing in Rhondda, Wales

Right to adequate housing: how should Wales achieve a good home for all?

Published 02/10/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

The Welsh Government fully supports the general principle that everyone should have access to adequate housing. But how to achieve that goal is less easy to agree, particularly with the pressures of rising housebuilding costs and increasing numbers of people in temporary accommodation.

This Wednesday the Senedd will debate the report produced by the Local Government and Housing Committee following its inquiry into the right to adequate housing. The Committee agreed in principle that the right could play an important role in addressing housing needs and called for further work to understand the implications.

The Welsh Government accepted six of the Committee’s recommendations in full and accepted a further four in principle.

A ‘paradigm shift’

The right to adequate housing is enshrined in international law under Article 11(1) of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, a home can’t be adequate unless it meets a range of conditions including security of tenure, availability of services such as water and energy, affordability, accessibility, and cultural adequacy.

While the Covenant is already binding under international law, some countries have gone further and incorporated the right into domestic law, taking different approaches, with mixed results so far.

Finland is the most advanced country, linked to the country’s significant reduction in homelessness, while France’s and Spain’s efforts have been less effective.

Research commissioned by Tai Pawb, the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru and Shelter Cymru concludes that political commitment to housing, ‘particularly to encourage supply’, made a difference to countries’ likelihood of success.

In Wales the call to incorporate the right into law has been led by a coalition of housing organisations who have prepared draft legislation to that end, and work together under the banner of “Back the Bill”. Working with Alma Economics, the Back the Bill coalition has argued that realising the right to adequate housing would cost Wales £5 billion over a 30-year period and return economic benefits of £11.5 billion – the equivalent of £2.30 in benefits for every £1 spent.

The Welsh Government published a Green Paper call for evidence in March, to be followed later this Senedd term by a White Paper to meet the commitment in the Cooperation Agreement. The Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS, has signalled her intention to follow the White Paper with a Bill but said it is to be introduced this term.

Tai Pawb Chief Executive, Alicja Zalesinska, told the Committee:

we think that it’s a potentially transformative legal framework that we could adopt here in Wales. It not only provides a transformative vision of what housing means; that vision is underpinned by a legal framework, which would help us shift the paradigm of how we view housing and hardwire that into our legislation and policy developments in the future.

See you in court, or not

An important unresolved question is whether the right should be incorporated ‘directly’ or ‘indirectly’.

Direct incorporation means that individuals could rely on the right in court. Indirect incorporation would require public bodies to make progress towards realising the right, and report regularly, showing what progress they’ve made. But the right wouldn’t be available to individuals to rely on in court, apart from in very limited technical circumstances.

The question is: should the right be introduced while it remains unrealised for many people, as a way of securing progress? Human rights advocates call this approach ‘progressive realisation’. Or should the right be delayed until people can rely on it as a protective force in their own lives?

The Minister prefers direct incorporation. She said she wants to:

… implement an enforceable right to adequate housing – not a philosophical right, not a general right, but one that means you can rock up to your local authority and say, “Oi, where’s my adequate house?” That’s where I’d like to get to.

A further option is the two-stage approach: indirect first, with an end goal of direct incorporation and a legally enforceable right for all. This is the model favoured by the Back the Bill coalition.

The Committee recommended the two-stage option be explored further. The Welsh Government accepted this recommendation in principle and stated that ”consultation responses, as well as the Committee report and different approaches to incorporation will be considered and inform development of the forthcoming White Paper”.

Public attitudes

A 2020 poll by the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru found that 77 per cent of a sample of 1,000 people agreed that ‘everyone should have the right to an adequate home’. In February this year the grassroots group Siarter Cartrefi called for a bill to enshrine ‘in law the human right of the people of Wales to affordable, good quality and suitable homes’.

What has not yet been tested is whether the electorate would welcome an unenforceable general right.

The importance of political commitment

Multiple witnesses told the Committee the law wouldn’t succeed without political commitment, especially to increase housing supply. Given the ‘continued demand for affordable housing and the increasing number of people living in temporary accommodation’, the Committee raised concern as to whether the Government’s existing commitment to provide 20,000 low carbon homes for social rent this term will be enough.

The Government responded by describing what local authorities are doing to improve the join-up between housing need and supply. The Minister argued that despite the current ‘perfect economic storm’:

The long-term policy is in place, and now what we need to do is the various component parts of that policy to get us there. We're already delivering policy, programmes, legislative change, that moves us towards the right to adequate housing.

Further work to be done

The Committee concluded that Wales remains at a ‘very early stage’ of considering the proposals and there are ‘many issues which require further consideration’.

There’s a lack of Welsh data on housing need. There’s a need to understand unintended consequences. There are differences in academic opinion: for instance, Suzanne Fitzpatrick and Beth Watts-Cobbe of Heriot-Watt University have argued that a human rights approach to homelessness may not be effective in practice.

Ultimately, the right to adequate housing is ‘an inherently flexible concept’. Examining its potential and agreeing a way forward, amid the many housing-related pressures on the Welsh Government and local authorities, is likely to take time.

Tune in to SeneddTV to watch the debate.

Article by Jennie Bibbings, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament