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Housing and Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:56 pm on 2nd November 2015.

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Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central 6:56 pm, 2nd November 2015

I am enormously grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The age of austerity has ended—in so many ways.

It is a great pleasure to follow Mrs Miller. At the end of her very interesting speech, she spoke about how owning a home is a British dream. In fact, it was a German immigrant, the Prussian attaché to the embassy in London, a man called Hermann Muthesius, who first identified English culture with the home. He wrote in 1904:

“There is nothing as unique in English architecture as the development of the house…no nation is more committed to its development, because no nation has identified itself more with the house.”

Muthesius thought England was

“the only advanced country in which the majority of the population still live in houses, a custom that has survived all the political, social and economic changes that European civilisation has undergone in the past hundred and fifty years.”

Muthesius did not bank on the terrible record of the coalition Government. Under the previous Labour Government, the number of homeowners rose by 1 million, while under the Tories it has fallen by 200,000. To that, we can add their rank failures on homeownership, private renting, affordable homes, and housing benefit. The profligacy of this Government is startling, with housing benefit now costing over £24 billion a year. I think that Members on both sides of the House would have liked to welcome the Bill as a way to kick-start homeownership and to clear up the coalition mess. Instead, however, we have an absolute dog’s dinner of a Bill. It will do little to solve the housing crisis, and I worry that it will potentially exacerbate community relations.

Let me start on the areas of agreement. I welcome policies that extend the opportunity for people to own their own homes. I welcome measures that restrict the operation of rogue landlords and letting agents. I welcome the register of brownfield land. I agree with Mr Bacon that the clauses on self-build and custom house building have much to recommend them. I hope that they will give a boost to an industry that too often loses market share to German competition.

I wish, however, to focus on the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants. As the House will know, the right to buy was originally a Labour party policy, which was debated in office by both Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, and finally enacted by Margaret Thatcher. If such a policy is fully funded and planned appropriately, it could be a powerful tool for social mobility and aspiration, which I welcome. However, under Conservative Governments it has always been mismanaged horribly. The replacement social homes have never materialised. Between 2012 and 2015, some 32,000 homes have been sold, but in their place only 3,500 social houses have been built. The Government have stripped out tens of thousands of homes, with no obligation that the money will be used to fund replacements, let alone in the same area.

Now we have a plan to force councils to sell their housing stock to fund the right-to-buy policy for housing associations—a policy that both the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association condemn. As ever with the Tories, the sums do not add up. Expecting an auction of expensive council homes to compensate housing associations, to fund a £1 billion brownfield regeneration fund and to build the two-for-one replacement homes is simply not credible.

Then there is the aggressive statism, with 32 new powers being handed to the Secretary of State. I thought that we were entering an era of localism and devolution. Instead, we have the iron fist of the Treasury dictating to councils what they can and cannot do, demanding up-front payments from councils on the expectation of receipts, and undermining the autonomy of housing associations.

Finally, I will touch on the potential impact on community relations. We live in an age of high migration. The Government promised to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands. Instead, we have net inward migration of 300,000 a year. Government statistics show that a significant and increasing number of tenancies for social homes are given to people from outside the United Kingdom. In Stoke-on-Trent, the figure stands at well over one in 10 for housing association homes.

Most of us think that properly managed migration is good for the country, but when public concern is at an all-time high, we cannot ignore the sensitivities. The Secretary of State said that foreign nationals would have to be here and pay tax for longer than three years to qualify for this policy. I do not see how that fits with EU law. There are concerns in my constituency that this policy will entail selling off council housing that was built for the workers of Stoke-on-Trent to fund a discount in social housing for those who, rightly or wrongly, are not seen as having made the same contribution to the community and our welfare system. That is not a recipe for strong community cohesion. With the approaching EU referendum intensifying the focus on such issues, the Government must be sensitive to the social effects of their policies.

As I set out at the beginning of my speech, it took a German migrant to explain to the English their love of home life. It would be a great shame if this policy allowed our proud history of cultural exchange and respect to be so unnecessarily undermined on the altar of ideology.