Opposition Day — [16th Allotted Day] — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 8th January 2014.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 3:33 pm, 8th January 2014

Absolutely, and that brought great delight to many tenants up and down the country.

The Government can pray in aid the fact that with the fallout from the banking crisis the private housing sector in this country suffered a decline in demand, but they compounded the problem by cutting the social housing budget by 60%. Sir Andrew Stunell was at that time a Minister in the Government who allowed that to happen, and he should stand up and apologise for it. The reality is that the cut was 60%. Government expenditure as a whole was cut by 20%, but social housing capital expenditure was singled out for the biggest cut of all major Government programmes, which has compounded the problem and made it worse.

I welcome the Labour leadership’s commitment to move towards building 200,000 homes in this country by 2020. That is a good commitment, but I want to see it go further in the longer term: we must get to 250,000 to get demand and supply back in sync. The reality is that the construction industry in this country is now in such a mess that it could not respond more quickly to a higher target: prices of bricks and labour are already going up in the industry, because it has got down to such a low level. It is therefore realistic to set that target.

The issue is that the private sector in this country, as has already been said, has never built consistently more than 150,000 homes. If we are to get up to a figure of 200,000, a large part of that must come from the social housing sector, from local authorities and housing associations. To enable that to happen, we will have to spend some public money. We must all recognise that: if this is a crisis that is a priority for us to deal with, some public expenditure will have to go in as well.

I hope that we can get to a general situation in which we recognise that to achieve the stabilisation of house prices and rents, as has happened in Germany, housing supply has to meet housing demand in the long term. How to achieve that will require the sort of cross-party agreement that we had in the 1960s and 1970s, when successive Governments of different political persuasions built the homes that the country needed. I hope that we can get back to such a situation.

I want to refer to my Select Committee’s 2012 report on “Financing of new housing supply”, in which we considered and proposed the idea of a housing bank, with guarantees for institutional investment to go into the social housing and private housing sectors. I recognise that the Government have gone a little way towards that, but not sufficiently. That has been done in the

Netherlands; why cannot we do it here? Instead of giving guarantees for mortgages, let us put them into building homes.

We could take the cap off local authority borrowing, and 60,000 homes could be built immediately. I think that that has cross-party support in the House, so why do the Government not do that? It would not cost any more taxpayers’ money, and it could be done instantly.

We could look at the housing grant paid to housing associations, which lies on their books as a debt. If it was released tomorrow and that grant was written off—again, there would be no cost to the Treasury, because it has already been paid out—we could free up housing associations’ ability to borrow and build more homes as well.

We could look at self-build, which is the hidden element in a potential housing renewal. The Government could go to see what has been done in the Netherlands, where there is not so much self-building as self-constructing, which involves getting local authorities to lay out sites and getting planners involved on a simple basis. They could go to see how people in the Netherlands, often with the involvement of small builders, are building their own homes—the homes they want, because they have designed them—at about 80% of the cost of a house bought from a private developer. That could be another element.

There is no one silver bullet, but the report includes several measures which, if the Government implemented them straight away, would help to remove the immediate problems of the housing crisis and set us in the right direction.