Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation — Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 25th March 2013.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:47 pm, 25th March 2013

I am grateful to Richard Graham for agreeing that the Secretary of State is having problems with the delivery of housing. I have already indicated that we will support any measures that will help.

Councils will have to make proper assessments of their housing need. On the Prime Minister’s announcement today on council and social housing and migration, the Secretary of State knows that people cannot just get off a plane and get a council house. He will be familiar, of course, with section 160A of the Housing Act 1996, and he will know that councils already have the power to put in place allocation schemes, because the previous Labour Government issued guidance in 2009 and an increasing number of them are doing so. It would be helpful if we could get clarity about precisely what is being proposed, given that the housing lead of the Local Government Association, Councillor Mike Jones, who is a Conservative, has queried the need for the guidance, and given that this morning’s papers reported that the Government plan to impose an expectation on councils. How exactly is it possible to impose an expectation on councils? [Interruption.] I say to the planning Minister that I have a little bit more experience of Government than him—and it shows.

Ministers are looking to councils to identify housing need, but I say to them that the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will not assist councils in doing so, because clause 1 threatens to take away the power of local communities to decide whether housing is provided. The planning Minister, who is being very vocal, said that “vanishingly few” councils would be caught by that provision. However, to judge by the latest figures, as many as 21 local authorities could be stripped of their democratic accountability in taking decisions on housing planning applications if developers choose to go straight to the Planning Inspectorate.

How does the planning Minister think that will assist communities to take responsibility for housing provision? All of us have to face up to the need to provide more homes. That is the point that he has been making. However, is it better to let developers decide where houses should be built or to allow communities to take that responsibility for themselves?

I turn, finally, to one of the effects of what the Government are doing, which was not mentioned by the Chancellor in his speech on Wednesday. That is the effect that the decisions taken by the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will have on people on low incomes and their homes. So far in this debate, we have talked about the need to build homes so that people can move into them. I want to turn to the problem of people being forced out of their homes because of the Government’s bedroom tax and the Secretary of State’s poll tax.

One consequence of what the Government are doing is likely to be rising rent arrears. That is exactly what councils and housing associations up and down the country are anticipating. Last week, the evidence from the universal credit pilot showed rising rent arrears. That is creating a lot of uncertainty, not least for housing associations. A number of them have had credit rating downgrades recently. If lenders think that housing associations will have difficulty collecting rent, it could put up their borrowing costs, which could impact on their balance sheets and their ability to borrow. Ultimately, it will affect their ability to build the homes that the Secretary of State says he wants to see. All of that will create huge challenges for families, councils and housing associations, not least because of the debt that people will get into.

At the very time when the Chancellor has decided that the most important thing to do is to cut the top rate of tax, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has brought in his new poll tax and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has brought in the bedroom tax. What is so astonishing is that they are both singling out one group of people in our society. Whether they are working, seeking work or unable to work, the people who will be affected are those on the very lowest incomes, because that is why they get council tax benefit and housing benefit.

Given that the fundamental problem in the country is a lack of growth in the economy—the Chancellor’s crowning failure—have Ministers paused for a second to consider what impact those two taxes will have on the economy? All the evidence shows that when people who are on low incomes have money, they tend to spend it. In Leeds, £9.4 million—[Interruption.] I know that the planning Minister, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, does not want to hear this, but the people on the lowest incomes in Leeds are going to lose £9.4 million that they do not have because of rent increases and council tax rises.

Incredibly, last week the Secretary of State tried to blame local authorities for his policy, when he said that they

“seek to persecute and to tax the poor.”—[Hansard, 18 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 611.]

That is extraordinary. The only person who is to blame is the Secretary of State. It is his legislation. He is the reason why bills are landing on people’s doorsteps that many of them will find hard to pay. Ministers know that people will do their best to stay in their own home—indeed, the Government’s assessment expects that to happen—because they want to stay with their friends, family and community.