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Housing and Homes

Part of Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 15th May 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 6:40 pm, 15th May 2018

I thank everybody who has participated in the debate. We have heard some incredibly thoughtful, welcome and, in some cases, unexpectedly radical contributions. That drives home just how important an issue housing is up and down the country.

However, we have a Government who have failed to do anything over the past eight years to help those who are suffering in this housing crisis. Speeches by Members on both sides of the House have given a glimpse of how across the board the Government are failing. Whether it is statutory homelessness, social house building, rough sleeping, home ownership or the proliferation of temporary accommodation, there is not a sector that has not suffered as a result of eight years of austerity.

To give one example, rough sleeping has increased by 169% since 2010. Crisis predicts that, without substantial changes in Government policy, it will increase by a further 76% in the next 10 years. I cannot be alone in being alarmed by the fact, as Gillian Keegan said, that children in temporary accommodation lose out on 55 days of school on average. I think that we should all have a great sense of urgency about tackling this issue, rather than waiting for 2022 or 2027 to get to the heart of tackling it.

The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Mrs Wheeler, who has responsibility for housing and homelessness, has said that she does not know why rough sleeping is going up. Perhaps she should listen to the 70% of councils that said that they had difficulty finding social housing for the homeless. Even worse, almost 90% of councils have said that they have struggled to find private rented accommodation.

I welcome the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which was driven through by Bob Blackman. It has huge promise, but we know that the resources that will be delivered to local authorities, which are expected to deliver on every element of the Act, will not match those demands. Schemes such as Housing First are a drop in the ocean compared with the losses of the supported people funding, which the Conservative Government decided to cut.

All of that is no surprise. We know that social house building is hitting historic lows under this Government. In the last year, during the now Home Secretary’s time at the MHCLG, £817 million was handed back to the Treasury that was meant to be used to build affordable homes and support local authorities. That is simply unacceptable. Where private house builders are building, the Government have been slow to close regulatory loopholes that harm consumers.

We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) about the issues in their constituencies. Sixty-nine per cent. of new build properties in the north-west are being sold as leasehold, and that figure is higher than anywhere else in the country. I am sure the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood in Gateacre Park and Cressington Heath will be delighted to hear that their MP is so active on their issues. The fact is that 999-year leases are being given out and maintenance charges continue in that period. That will be incredibly prohibitive. There are charges up to 20 times the ground rent to purchase the leasehold. People have been misled and exploited, and there are clearly issues with covenants in transfer documents. The House must give its attention to those issues when leaseholds are discussed, as I hope they will be later in the summer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was absolutely right to call these “fleeceholds.” He said that his constituents were unable to move up the ladder because the leaseholds were far too restrictive. I have seen the same in my own constituency. Constituents in Cambridge Park and Limber Court are in retirement villages, on fixed incomes, and they cannot sell their properties. We also have to think about what we can do retrospectively to try to deal with legacy issues when it comes to people selling leaseholds to freeholders who simply want to make as much money as possible out of people. The Government are taking action on the issue, which I welcome, but we have to make sure that we tackle the issues that have been brought to the House this afternoon. To be laid back in any way about this matter would not be acceptable to any of our constituents.

If the Government turned around tomorrow with the money and regulation changes required to seriously start to challenge the housing crisis, that still would not be enough. House building itself faces a crisis, with skills in the building industry in seriously short supply. The Federation of Master Builders warned earlier this year that small and medium-sized house builders are facing the worst skills shortage on record. Demand for carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians and plasterers is outstripping supply. Two thirds of construction SMEs are struggling to recruit bricklayers. Who will build the 300,000 houses the Government say they want to build?

Then there is the £250 million that has been put into a flagship Government scheme to boost starter home constructions: it has not led to a single property being built. What a betrayal of young Britons who are struggling to buy that all important first home! I commend my hon. Friend Matt Rodda for his work standing up for young people in his constituency. He says that the wrong kind of housing for local people is being built. It is too expensive. He urges the proper use of brownfield sites, and I hope the Minister has listened. That is a snapshot of the situation across the country.

I turn briefly to the speech made by my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick. It is telling that there are 25,000 people on the council waiting list in his constituency. The number of social homes being built has collapsed. The idea that affordable rents should be 80% of market rents means that in reality they are anything but affordable for his constituents. He was absolutely right to raise that issue. The private rented sector is therefore often the only option available. Perversely, one of the leading causes of homelessness is the end of an assured shorthold tenancy—the numbers have quadrupled since the Government came to power.

Rents are rising faster than incomes and there are 900,000 fewer homeowners among the under-45s. Renters are spending £9.6 billion a year on houses that the Government class as non-decent. My hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) discussed really important points about the quality of private rented accommodation. Hopefully, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill, which my hon. Friend Ms Buck is promoting, will make its way through the House rapidly so that we can start to tackle properties that are simply not suitable for anyone to live in, impacting not only on people’s physical health but on their mental health.

There are also the issues around tenant fees and the expenses of people in rented accommodation, who may not ever have the opportunity to be anything but renters. What can we do for those people? In Oxford East, someone has to earn 16 times the average salary to be able to own their own property. That is an extraordinary figure. It cannot be a city for ordinary people—all those who are “just about managing”, who the Government have spoken so regularly about. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central was clear that the provision of homes in her city was inadequate and that property there was too expensive. Only 5% of homes are affordable there—surely far beneath what the Government would expect.

We know that building affordable homes is a good investment. The Government currently spend 95% of their housing budget on benefits to support people in their homes. In the 1970s, over 80% of Government spending funded homes, with just a fifth spent on housing-related benefits.

I would just like to mention very quickly the contribution by my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who was absolutely right as well as very brave to mention the classification of the green belt. Too often the assumption is that the green belt is a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty and not, as she described, a tyre replacement plant.

Labour has a plan; the Government have empty words and eight years of failure. On every graph to measure housing failure, one can pinpoint clearly where Labour left office and when the Conservative party took charge.