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Housing: Long-Term Plan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:34 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 6:34 pm, 9th February 2016

First, I thank everyone who has contributed to this good-natured debate, leaving aside the unfortunate references to the size of the Liberal Democrat party. We can live with that for the next four and a half years, and we look forward to 2020 and seeing the Conservative Benches severely depleted.

We have heard contributions from a number of Members, and I hope to make a brief reference to each. My hon. Friend Tim Farron set out why lives are blighted, insecure and unfulfilled without housing. He rightly dwelt on the coalition Government’s record, which was in some aspects very positive, particularly on empty homes—all Members have campaigned on that, because it is such a waste of resource—and on scrapping the planning guidance. In a meeting with planning officers a few days ago, they described how the guidance had shrunk, and that is clearly welcome. My hon. Friend also focused on the negative impact a lack of housing has on rural communities.

I thank the Minister for his thanks for what the Liberal Democrats contributed in the coalition Government. I intervened on him to ask whether he would confirm how many social homes had been built during the time the debates he mentioned had taken place, but he did not give me that answer—I suspect it was probably not many more than the number of those debates. He focused on Eastleigh and it is worth pointing out, just in case any Members were of the opinion that nothing was happening on the local plan in Eastleigh, that it is being consulted on it at this very moment.

Teresa Pearce spoke for the official Opposition and referred to the fact that starter homes should be additional, and I agree with her. There is nothing wrong with a starter homes initiative if it is part of a package and provides additionality. She referred to the skills shortages and helpfully referred to what the Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate, Caroline Pidgeon, is planning.

Stuart Andrew is no longer in his place, but he said that everyone has the right to a decent home, and I completely concur with him on that. That of course applies whether they can afford to buy their own home or whether they cannot and need to rent an affordable home. He touched on the issue of the sustainability of housing, and I am sure that is key in his area. There is no point in building housing that is not sustainable, particularly in areas where flooding is prevalent.

Alison Thewliss is no longer in her place, but she presented a glowing picture of the housing situation in Scotland under the Scottish National party. She did not, however, refer to figures from June 2015—it may be that things have moved on since then—when there were 150,000 families on the waiting list for a decent place to live in Scotland, and there were 1 million people suffering fuel poverty and 60,000 overcrowded homes. The picture is not quite as glowing as the one presented earlier.

Mr Bacon complained that, although our motion contained a reference to self-build, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale did not refer to the issue. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that that was because my hon. Friend knew that the hon. Gentleman was going to concentrate exclusively on the subject of self-build in his speech and in a series of interventions, so he should be grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing him to focus on that in the way he did.

My hon. Friend Mr Williams focused on rural communities and rural services, and the impact that seasonal tourism can have on a range of services and the social fabric in areas where it means many homes are unoccupied at other times of the year. Andrew Bridgen rightly focused initially on Labour’s poor track record over a 13-year period in its level of contribution to housing stock. He also focused on the importance of good design. That is particularly true, as I suspect that many of the developments we are going to see in future years will be at a higher density and therefore the design will need to be of even better quality.

My hon. Friend Greg Mulholland talked about prioritising brownfield sites. Well, I have been a Member of Parliament for 18 years, and for each of those 18 years there has been a call for brownfield sites to be prioritised. It seems as though we have never quite got to the point where it has happened. He also pointed out that councils can take advantage of their borrowing powers—certainly my local council has done this—to invest in council housing. Like him, I regret the fact that his local authority has not done so. He also referred to his excellent National Planning Policy Framework (Community Involvement) Bill, which he would like all Members to support for the good ideas that are contained therein.

Julian Knight, who is in his place, praised Help to Buy, which was an excellent coalition policy that continued into this Government. The scheme clearly has made a contribution at a difficult economic time, where the market was dead, the skills associated with house building were being lost and something needed to be done, and the Government acted on that.

Rachael Maskell mentioned the impact on businesses when employees cannot afford to live in the city in which they work. That is not just an issue for York. At the first meeting organised around the mayoral hustings for London, we heard about a large firm of accountants—a household name—that was having to find accommodation for their young employees, as those employees could not find anywhere in which they could afford to live, so affordable housing is a big issue for employers in London. As she pointed out, it is regrettable that, when there are sites that could provide a substantial level of affordable housing, very little, if any of it, ends up being used for social housing. In London, for example, New Scotland Yard has been bought up by a developer from Abu Dhabi for £370 million. The starting price for a flat is just below £1 million. I do not know whether there will be any affordable homes in that development. Clearly, that is a huge missed opportunity.

Mims Davies had a number of pops at her Liberal Democrat councillors. I simply point out to her that the local plan in Eastleigh is under consultation, and I hope that she is encouraging her constituents to take part, either by email or in writing.

James Cartlidge talked about the importance of regenerating estates, which is essential, and can work effectively. In the London borough of Sutton, we have a good example in the Roundshaw estate, which was completely regenerated under Labour’s single regeneration budget, and it works very well. The residents of the old estate—it is the concrete monstrosity with 1960s tower blocks and aerial walkways that features in “The Bill”—wanted to stay on the estate, and were able to do so. The scheme was a total success. We need to regenerate, but, at the same time, maintain our communities.

In my last couple of minutes, I should like to comment on a couple of things that have not been mentioned in as much detail as I would like. The first is supported housing, to which I and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead referred. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to this, because it is an issue to which the Government need to respond. In my constituency, I had a meeting with Transform Housing and Support and Langley House Trust that provide supported housing. They are very concerned about what will happen from April 2018 onwards when they will only receive the housing revenue account figure for that particular area. They say that they will not be able to provide supported housing. One housing association predicts that it will lose 300 units. I hope Ministers will listen to that concern and look carefully at the position. We do not want to see ex-offenders turfed out on to the streets because their housing providers cannot continue to meet their housing needs. That will not help the Prime Minister’s drive to cut reoffending rates.

On environmental standards, to which we heard reference, the Liberal Democrats pushed hard on that in coalition and made it a priority. It did not last very long once the Tories came to power. It is clear that the Prime Minister’s beloved huskies have been taken out and quietly shot. As the Wildfowl and Westland Trust requests, we should not neglect the quality of new housing from the perspective of resilience and environmental sustainability. When building new homes, we should have regard to natural resilience, such as sustainable drainage, which is vital for flood mitigation. We also need to have regard to carbon emissions and energy costs. What is the point of cutting the cost of new build by a fraction, thereby guaranteeing extra energy costs associated with heating that home for the next 50 or 60 years? That is what the Government have done by scrapping the zero carbon homes initiative.

I do not want to say that everything is bleak and there are no good opportunities out there. There are, and my local authority has taken advantage of them. It took up the ability to borrow and is building an extra 140 council homes as a result. It has set up a company, Sutton Living Ltd, which will build homes across all tenures—homes for sale, which will subsidise homes for affordable rent. That will provide hundreds of new homes.

In conclusion, I do not always agree with the Institute of Economic Affairs, but I share its view that unless we address the supply problem, we will not bring down prices or ensure wider home ownership. The Government’s plans do nothing to address the scale of the supply problem for would-be homeowners on lower or middle incomes, and their ideological opposition to social housing will ensure that the supply of affordable homes is cut. We often hear from the Government Benches the refrain “the long-term economic plan”. What families in overcrowded homes and young people still living at the hotel of mum and dad want to hear echoing round this Chamber is a long-term plan for housing. That is what we offer in our motion and what the Government have failed to provide. I commend the motion to the House.