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Round the houses

Betsan Powys | 12:01 UK time, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Yesterday Nick Bourne pointed a finger at the Liberal Democrats who had become, he said, "a national joke" for the way they'd turned their back on an opportunity to go into coalition government in Wales back in 2007. A chance to share power was offered on a plate to a party who think power should be shared fairly and they turned their backs on it.

Today the finger is pointed the other way.

It is "ridiculous" and "bonkers", says Mike German, the man who led the Lib Dems when in 2007, that Conservative AMs will vote against an Assembly Government bid to transfer further powers over housing to the Assembly in the chamber this afternoon.

The Housing Legislative Competence Order - oh come on, I've laid off LCOs for weeks now - would transfer extensive powers to the Assembly over social housing, housing for vulnerable people, regulation of social landlords and that key Thatcherite policy, the right to buy council homes.

In fact with the electoral clock ticking there's a bit of an LCO rush on.

Assembly Members are being asked to vote on this Order this afternoon in a bid to get it through Westminster before the General Election. Labour and Plaid have enough votes with Lib Dem support to pass the legislation in Cardiff Bay but Tory opposition here means Tory opposition in Westminster and therefore, an increasingly slim chance of getting the matter sorted before MPs head out to campaign for their political lives.

"They're bonkers" said Mike German. "I think its ridiculous to vote for a referendum to seek further powers then refuse to accept them when they're offered on a plate."

The Conservatives feign surprise at the fierce attacks coming their way.

"The Assembly Government" said a spokesman "have known since the beginning of this process that we are opposed to the transfer of 'right to buy' powers and we will oppose this order on that basis."

How come them, ask supporters of the Order - having spotted a chance to keep up the narrative of Welsh Conservatives as secret enemies of further devolution - that the cross party committee who considered this particular Order concluded that "we support the general principles of the proposed Order."

How come the same committee, of which Conservative AM Brynle Williams was a member, seemed content with the scope of the LCO on Right to Buy, adding a recommendation that consideration be given to extending legislative competence to include Community Right to Buy in relation to social housing?

How come Conservative AM Darran Millar spoke in the debate on laying the LCO and said that "we have an issue as a party on the right to buy, but, given the UK Government's proposals to review the housing revenue account regime, we must put dogma aside in this respect and focus on maximising the numbers of households that are housed rather than scrapping the right to buy for simply political reasons."

So what do you see here - realpolitik at work or inconsistency?

The Conservatives don't want the right to buy to be scrapped so they vote against anything that makes it more likely. Problem is their leader is a committed supporter of devolving more powers to the Assembly, the sort of powers he will try to block this afternoon.

Neutral voices are a rarity in Wales. The chief executive of Community Housing Cymru is not one of them, as Nick Bennett makes clear in his statement. All the same, in a debate where the language is getting stronger by the minute, here's his take on the Welsh Conservatives' position:

"This is the second housing LCO that CHC has given evidence to in the past two years and I would be flabbergasted if it fails. This comprehensive LCO is not just about the right to buy. If it falls then it endangers the chance to form progressive legislation to prevent homelessness, increase tenants rights and also improve regulation- which is essential for securing additional private lending into the housing sector in the future.

"Ironically the right to buy was effectively suspended last year by the credit crunch rather than government. As a former member of the All Wales Convention I have to say that I am perplexed by the opposition to drawing down legislative powers in the field of social housing when only two weeks ago there was a unanimous vote on holding a referendum across all devolved areas! It's a little like saying you want to go to war but not into battle."

Plaid Cymru's Dai Lloyd keeps it shorter. "Facile" is one word I can repeat.

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