Statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government

TITLE Coronavirus (COVID-19)
DATE 29th April 2020
BY Julie James AM Minister for Housing and Local Government

 

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting all our lives.   An enormous amount of work has taken place across the Welsh Government and within our public services, in a very short space of time, to respond to the pandemic.

My aim this afternoon is to provide Members with an account of the most recent and significant developments in the housing and local government portfolio.

Firstly, I would like to express my thanks to the Welsh Local Government Association and to local authorities across Wales who have worked so hard and been so responsive in mobilising to address the situation.

Local government leaders raised with me at the outset the need to support local authorities’ cash-flow so there would be no delay to urgent decisions and spending.

I am pleased that we were able to bring forward the May and June settlement payments into April to support them – this provided an advance of £526 million across local government.

I am also considering work carried out by the WLGA quantifying both the additional costs and the loss of income they will experience as a result of the pandemic.

We provided funding to local authorities so they can apply the rates relief and issue the business support grants that were announced at the end of March.

They have worked extremely hard to distribute these so efficiently – a huge thank you to them for that.

A single emergency funding stream for local authorities has been established to help meet the pressures arising from COVID-19.  Welsh Government made £30 million available for this in the first instance.

This included the provision of up to £7 million to urgently provide financial assistance to families of pupils who rely on free school meals, but are unable to receive them due to school closures.

It also included £10 million to ensure that, with their third sector partners, local authorities can put in place urgent and necessary arrangements to protect rough sleepers.

This has since been enhanced to provide a further £40 million to support social care delivery and a further £33 million to extend free school meal provision.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a considerable challenge to recycling, waste collection and processing in Wales. I am very proud that during this difficult time our local authorities have continued to operate their waste and recycling services with the vast majority only making minor temporary changes.

This is a reflection of our work over the last 20 years to develop high quality resilient collection regimes.

We have a goal for a resilient Wales and we have an opportunity to learn lessons here and work to support greater resilience in the future.

One of our key priorities in government has always been working to prevent and end homelessness in all its forms. The vulnerability of those sleeping rough, has rightly needed to be a focus for action during this emergency.

I want to extend my thanks to local authorities’ housing and homelessness teams, together with Community Housing Cymru, Cymorth Cymru, registered social landlords and other third sector partners who have been focusing on helping people into accommodation.

This means they are able to self-isolate, have access to handwashing and hygiene facilities, and adhere to social distancing rules.

I have been heartened by the collaborative and innovative practice that is going on despite the challenging environment people are working in.

I was clear from the outset that this wasn’t simply about placing people in accommodation and leaving them to fend for themselves. Accommodation has to come with the wrap-around support to enable people to sustain it.

We introduced clear guidance on the approach that local authorities should take and provided an additional £10 million to enable them to enact it.

In the last few weeks 500 people have been supported into accommodation and rough sleeper numbers are in single digits in each local authority in Wales.

Local authorities and their partners continue to support those few people who are still sleeping rough. We are also working to see how our Housing First projects may be able to assist these individuals.

No one should be left without accommodation and support during this emergency. This includes those with no resource to public funds and those leaving institutions, such as prisons.

We are working very closely with HMPPS, local authorities and health colleagues to ensure both the potential early release prisoners and standard release prisoners are supported into accommodation.

My officials have been working directly with a number of local authorities to help secure more accommodation.

We are also working closely with local authorities and wider stakeholders to consider the exit strategy from this current emergency.

The work recently done by the Homelessness Action Group provides us with a blueprint on how to end homelessness in Wales and this will be vital in informing the approach to our exit strategy.

Let me be clear, we cannot go back. We have an opportunity to engage with individuals who have never been in services before.  The assistance being offered now can provide the foundation to rebuild lives once this crisis ends.

While there has rightly been a focused effort in these areas, my officials are heavily engaged across a range of issues.

For example, we have already taken action to ensure that tenants experiencing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 cannot be evicted.

I would like to extend my thanks to all landlords and letting agents for taking a pragmatic and supportive approach to helping tenants through this crisis.

We recognise that there is still much to do to prevent an increase in evictions and welcome the ongoing collaborative work across the social and private sector to ensure that evictions really are the last resort.

We have also worked with our construction partners and the association representing building supply merchants to establish what outlets are open, what they can supply and to whom.

This is critical in terms of allowing agencies such as Care and Repair to continue their invaluable work.

We have acted quickly to make changes to our planning and building control systems so that local authorities and the NHS can provide additional healthcare capacity.

This has allowed the construction of Nightingale hospitals across Wales at great speed.

I would also like to extend my thanks to the fire and rescue services, who have proved to be remarkably resilient during this pandemic.  Absence levels due to COVID-19 are now no more than 4% and the Service has maintained full operational capability across Wales.

The Deputy Minister wrote to all Fire and Rescue Service staff urging them to lend support to the NHS where possible.  The response has been overwhelming.

Over 450 staff have volunteered to drive ambulances and are available for deployment as necessary.  Others have assisted in setting up temporary mortuaries and delivering vital supplies.

We have also set up five of the Service’s mass decontamination units at hospitals across Wales, where they serve as temporary triage facilities for suspected COVID-19 patients.

It is, though, very disappointing to see widespread outbreaks of deliberately-set grass fires.  Even in a normal year, this is highly irresponsible: it devastates the environment and puts communities in genuine fear.

This year it is doubly so.  Our firefighters and police officers have far better things to do during the outbreak than responding to grass fires.

The smoke such fires cause is also a serious health hazard for many of those in the shielded group – and for COVID-19 sufferers themselves.

I am sure all members would join me in strongly condemning this senseless behaviour.

 Finally, the cross-government group on vulnerable people has been focusing on practical support for those extremely vulnerable people, who have been asked to undertake ‘shielding’ for 12 weeks.

This includes food and medical supplies, transport, and emotional or social support such as advice lines, telephone befriending, and technology.

Data on those who have been advised to shield has now been shared with all supermarkets in Wales, and a pilot scheme to provide additional capacity for delivery of medicines from community pharmacies was launched last week.

The steps that we are taking to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic will save lives.  However, sadly, as has already been seen, people will lose loved ones as a result of this disease.

The death of a family member or friend is a very distressing event and we have amended our regulations to clarify the arrangements for funerals and crematoriums.

These are very difficult times, requiring rapid and flexible responses from everyone in government and in our public services. Welsh Government will continue to provide leadership and support as we deal with this crisis and thank all our partners for working with us.

I am clear that when normality begins to return that these collaborations will provide clear lessons and a deal of good practice that we can and should adopt going forward.

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