My Lords, the Government welcome the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's investigation and report, which was published last Tuesday. We share its desire to see a fairer, more stable housing market that does not shut out first-time buyers and where house prices rise more smoothly in line with earnings. The report concludes that there are no easy answers to address the underlying causes of market instability. However, we are working across government to assess the options that are available and will publish a housing supply strategy in the autumn.
I thank the Minister for that very positive and helpful reply. I am sure that this report will be helpful to Ministers, and indeed to everyone who wants to see a stable housing market, not boom and bust. Does the Minister agree that the level of mortgage repossessions, which are now running at 100 a day, might get a lot worse if interest rates and unemployment rise? If so, does she agree that the proposals in this new report for a mortgage protection payment insurance scheme to provide a safety net for homebuyers would be good not only in preventing their homelessness but in stabilising the housing market at a difficult time?
My Lords, we welcome any proposals that will enable us to work with the industry to try to find a way around the barriers faced by the insurance scheme at the moment. We currently welcome private insurance solutions and recognise that there are enormous challenges for first-time buyers. We are already running the mortgage rescue scheme, as I am sure the noble Lord knows. Some £200 million has been put into that scheme already, and we have already helped 38,000 households with that money as well as with advice and support. So it is not as though the Government are not doing anything-we are making substantial efforts-and if the economy were to stabilise and settle down, much of this problem would go away.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Midland Heart Housing Association. Are the Government not aware that a sustainable housing sector depends on its ability to borrow and on the willingness of the banks to lend? Can the Minister tell us what action Project Merlin can now take to stimulate the housing sector by assisting it in its borrowing needs?
My Lords, this goes back a little to my answer to the previous question. The economy, which is the first priority of this Government, needs to be effectively stabilised. After that, we hope that the banks will feel able to bring themselves more into the market to help particularly first-time buyers with mortgages. However, the first line of defence will have to be making sure that the economy is right.
My Lords, as the Joseph Rowntree report says, the main reason for the problem is the shortage of land. Would my noble friend comment on whether the Government will look at how to encourage the release of unused land, such as in land auctions or the taxation of unused land, to encourage the owners and developers of land to bring it into use even when its value might be lower than they expect?
My Lords, I am not aware at the moment of the Government having any intention of causing land auctions or doing what else the noble Lord describes. Under the Localism Bill, of course, we are preparing for neighbourhood plans, which will identify land that is available, and we will also look to the community right to challenge to identify and challenge land that is available for development. The Government are moving along the lines of trying to ensure that land is freed up and are also looking at public land to ensure that, if it is available, it can be used for housing.
When the noble Baroness looks at the strategy that she says will be published in the autumn, will she particularly look at the role that housing co-operatives, self-build and empty housing can play in this strategy? Does she agree that-especially as regards empty properties in northern towns and cities where far too many such properties often blight whole communities as they become tinder-boxes and breeding grounds for vermin-these properties need to be put back into use for people on housing waiting lists?
My Lords, I wholly agree with what the noble Lord has said. It is a sad fact that there are many empty properties which can or should be brought back into use. We have already allocated money to this and within the new homes money we will identify such empty properties. For that, £100 million is already available. It is not occurring just in the north but across the country. We are anxious too to make sure that homes are brought up a decent standard. In areas-particularly in the north, I guess-where traditionally a lot of houses have been left empty, it is perfectly right that those are brought back into use rather than just demolished or left.
Are the Government satisfied at the readiness of the banks to lend money for housing development?
My Lords, what the banks do is up to the banks. We will be very pleased when there is a release of money for mortgages to help.
Do the Government not agree that it is time we weaned people off the desire to buy houses and to have a good rental sector, so that people can rent safely, with good tenure, an affordable house?
My Lords, I would agree with that and I do not think that this Government are doing anything to stop renting in any way. We have encouraged the private rented sector, which is a very important part of housing in this country. As noble Lords know, we are introducing the affordable rent for housing, which will also assist people. We have already put £6.5 billion into the development of new affordable homes over the CSR review period. The Government are doing a lot to ensure that more housing will be made available and coming on stream.
With the growth in out-of-town retail developments and the empty shopping centres, are the Government giving any thought or guidance to the change of use of some retail premises in the rundown areas of our towns to change them into housing for general use?
My Lords, I think that this is being considered under planning legislation for the future. It is not far enough advanced for me to give the noble Lord any further information than that but I know that it is recognised as being a possible way out.