Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 28th March 2011.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:32 pm, 28th March 2011

People throughout the country benefited from the decent homes programme and other housing initiatives that helped them to get on to the property ladder and to ensure that they had choices. In the first six months of 2010, before the election, the number of new homes built went up by more than 20%, but in the last six months of 2010, after the election, the number of new homes started fell by nearly 20%. If the Secretary of State wants that debate, I am always happy to have it with him—or with any of his colleagues.

The country wants to know what the Secretary of State and his Government will do to help to build the homes for which communities up and down the country are crying out. Whatever he pretends, the reality is that the Budget brings very little good news. It promises help for first-time buyers. The Opposition welcome the Government’s U-turn—their decision to bring back Labour’s homebuy scheme, which they insist on calling “Firstbuy”—but less than a year ago, the Minister for Housing and Local Government described that policy as an “expensive flop”. That was not what thousands of first-time buyers thought about it or what the housing industry made of it. The Home Builders Federation said that it

“was judged a major success by the industry”.

Only a matter of months later, with his customary humility, the Minister has been forced to admit that he called it wrong. We have wasted 10 months in which we could have ensured that people had a better opportunity to own their own homes. He has done too little, too late, and the measure does not go far enough, because while more than 3 million hopeful first-time buyers try to get a foot on the property ladder, the measure helps only 10,000 of them.

No one is convinced that the new homes bonus is the panacea to the housing crisis that the Government believe it to be, least of all the 21 Tory council leaders from the south-east who wrote to them earlier this year warning that they were not convinced that the plan provides enough of an incentive to communities for them to welcome development. The Budget was crying out for measures to support housing, but they did not happen. All it comes up with is the idea of allowing commercial properties to be turned into homes without requiring planning permission. When the Government get around to establishing exactly which sort of commercial properties will be allowed to turn into residential properties and under what conditions, we will look at their proposals carefully, but if the Secretary of State really believes that the answer to the country’s housing crisis is turning some empty offices into luxury penthouses, or asking people to live in disused out-of-town business parks or derelict industrial estates, he had better think again.

The biggest disappointment is the failure to address the deeper problems of housing supply and the lack of available mortgages. In their submission on the Budget, the Home Builders Federation is absolutely clear that mortgage availability

“is the biggest immediate constraint on demand and house building.”

Figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders published as recently as 18 March show that mortgage lending has stalled. It says that lending is

“weaker than a year ago” and that the housing market is “stuck in a rut”, but on that, the Budget is silent.

Before we move on from housing, let us remind ourselves of another matter on which the Government have not lived up to their promises. Just a few weeks ago, the Minister for Housing and Local Government told the Zero Carbon Hub annual conference:

“The commitment to Zero Carbon remains in place—there’s no ambiguity about that”,

but when reading the small print of the Budget, we discover that that is just another broken promise, because from 2016, new homes will no longer have to source all their energy from carbon-neutral sources, which goes back on a commitment that the Conservatives made in opposition and repeated in government. Those standards were about not only protecting our environment, but driving innovation and creating new jobs in the green economy. The Government’s failure on that undermines not only their green credentials, but the ability of our economy to compete for new jobs, new investment and new industries.

Let me deal with the underlying economic nonsense at the heart of Government policy. They hope that the UK economy will be saved by an export-led recovery, which I call Osborne’s see-saw, because the Chancellor views the public and private sectors as opposite ends of a see-saw. He thinks that the harder, deeper and faster he cuts the public sector, the sooner the private sector grows to fill the space and suck up the unemployment. One does not have to be an economist to know that there is no reason why cutting home helps, police officers and council cleaners will lead to the UK selling more electrical equipment, cars or IT services abroad. However, I do know that if we cut public investment in roads, regeneration and house building, and shred the school building programme, the private sector takes a huge hit. The construction industry nose-dives and hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and those who manufacture and supply to them lose their jobs.