Social Housing

– in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington 12:50 pm, 13th June 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
recognises that there is a housing crisis with too few genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy;
further recognises that the number of new social rented homes built in recent years has been too low;
notes that the Government has set a target to build 300,000 homes a year, which is unlikely to be achieved without building more social homes;
further notes that Shelter’s recent report, A Vision for Social Housing, concluded that 3.1 million new social rented homes need to be built over the next 20 years;
and calls on the Government to adopt a target of building 155,000 social rented homes, including at least 100,000 council homes, each year from 2022.

It is an honour to rise to discuss one of the most critical issues facing us, and I thank the Backbench Committee for affording me the opportunity to do this today. Sadly, looking round the Chamber, I see surprisingly few people here to share the debate. I thank those who are here, but I am surprised at how few there are, given the very real and pressing crisis that we face in this country. It is the foremost of all the crises that we face.

The housing market is fundamentally broken, and it is the social housing sector that has been the casualty. As a result, homelessness is up 50% and rough sleeping has risen 160% since 2010. Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people are living in homes that are not fit for human habitation, yet this is the fifth wealthiest country on the planet. Despite that apparent national wealth, we are impoverished by crushing personal debt, large mortgages, high private sector rents, student loans, significant unsecured debt as great as it was in 2007 and stagnant wages that have failed to keep up with the cost of living. It is no wonder that the UN rapporteur has observed us as a country in crisis where the social fabric is not just frayed at the edges but badly torn.

This week marks the second anniversary of the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire, and we are reminded of how recent and current policy on social housing has failed and continues to fail our society, so how is it that the market and the policies that govern that market are not delivering the much-needed housing? The social housing report commissioned by Shelter in January estimates that the UK needs to build 155,000 social homes a year for the next couple of decades. That is the scale of the crisis. If good housing is fundamental to the quality of our lives, why is it not the basis for everything in our society? Lord Porter put it succinctly when he said that, with a housing problem,

“you haven’t just got a housing problem, you’ve got an education problem, you’ve got a health problem, anti-social behaviour problem, whatever.”

It is clear that we need to reset the market and restore the principle that a decent home is a right owed to all, not a privilege for the few.

Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Labour, Bristol North West

Does my hon. Friend agree that the market has failed in constituencies such as mine, where it is getting more and more expensive to either rent or buy, and that we therefore need to build council houses to provide security for people and their families, including accessible housing, given that more and more people with disabilities cannot find homes?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, and that is something I will come on to. I am particularly familiar with his constituency, and I know that many areas of our country have seen high house price inflation, which has priced out young people, a lot of whom would ordinarily want to stay in those communities. This is something that needs to be urgently addressed through social housing.

Twelve months ago, I was fortunate enough to meet a former soldier at one of my Saturday surgeries. He was back in his home town of Warwick, having been discharged from the Army after 10 years’ service. A veteran of several tours, soldier Y found himself searching desperately for a job and a home, and he was not in a good place. He was really struggling. He had he been diagnosed with, and was clearly suffering from, post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldier Y was sofa-surfing. Until relatively recently, it would have been possible for him to access one of the hostels provided by Warwickshire County Council, but the cuts since 2013 have resulted in a huge drop in capacity and places such as Beauchamp House in Warwick are no longer available. I have mentioned soldier Y, but I could have spoken about any of the dozens of people I have met since my election in 2017, all of them desperate for help to resolve their own housing situations.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

I would like to thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, along with my hon. Friend Dr Drew. I agree with him wholeheartedly about the need for a major council house building programme. The issue I would like to raise is the need for much greater funding for local authorities to build council houses. In my area of Reading, there has been an ambitious programme to build council houses within the limited scope of the funding that is available, but more funding is clearly needed. We have an excess of brownfield land in Reading, a former light industrial town. We have enough brownfield land to build all the houses that are needed until 2036, and I understand from colleagues that many other boroughs, towns and cities around the country face a similar situation in which former industrial land is available but there is no funding to enable the local authorities to build. Does my hon. Friend agree that that should be a priority for this Government?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington

My hon. Friend makes another important point. This is absolutely about the cost of providing housing and land and about how authorities are facilitated to do that. This is the most pressing issue of our time, as I have said, and Government policy should be to help our local authorities. Indeed, at one of the meetings of the parliamentary campaign for council housing, which I co-chair with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, Lord Porter made it clear that, in his view,

“all the bad things in our society stem from bad housing, and the best way to fix any of those problems is to make sure as a fundamental that everybody’s got safe, secure, decent housing.”

I could not agree with him more.

We only have to walk down streets such as the Parade in Leamington Spa—and, I am sure, any of the high streets across the country—to see some of the casualties of this crisis: rough sleepers curled up in our doorways or sitting at street corners crying out for help, asking for loose change, desperately trying to create personal order out of social disorder. Inevitably, there will be an ex-forces person among them, but no matter—they are all one community now. Surely civvy street was not meant to be this uncivilised or, for an ex-soldier, this ungrateful.

To understand how we got here and where we need to go, it is worth briefly considering the past and how times have changed. Had soldier Y been lucky enough to have been returning from the first world war rather than from Afghanistan 100 years on, he would have been greeted by the then Prime Minister’s promise of “homes fit for heroes”. Lloyd George recognised the importance of social provision and knew that because house building would be difficult, it was only through subsidies that local authorities would be able to afford to deliver them. His progressive social and local authority approach kick-started the sector and resulted not just in a growth of housing supply but in improved standards in all new homes. It was actually following world war two that the council house really arrived. Enlightened administrators strove to deliver them, and none more so than the Attlee Government, which, despite the ravages of war and the shortage of materials, managed to build more than 1 million new homes to replace many of those that had been destroyed.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Opposition Whip (Commons)

On that point, statistics show that the construction of social housing has fallen 90% since 2010? Under the right-to-buy scheme, houses are not replaced on a one-for-one basis, which has led to a drastic fall in provision. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at how we can tackle these issues?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We have seen an absolute crash in the supply of social homes, and I understand that only one is being built for every five we are losing. Those are the tragic numbers that underline this, and they explain why we are seeing so many social crises in our communities.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I should like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this really important debate. Although there are not many colleagues on the Conservative Benches this afternoon, there is huge support for social housing on this side of the House. He made a point about numbers. Cornwall is not led by a Conservative council, so I am not making a party political point here. When I came to the House in 2010, Cornwall was delivering around 700 social homes each year, but in this past year, according to the Library, the number was 1,437. That is a doubling of the number of social homes available to people in Cornwall, which has a very challenging housing market because it is such a popular place for people to have second homes. Where communities and local authorities work together and innovate, it is possible to use the Government’s policies to meet local housing need.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I hope that she will make a speech later. Her point is valid and I am sure there are huge pressures in her community and other parts of Cornwall. I have discussed this very issue with many of her colleagues on the Government Benches, and I know that Sir Oliver Letwin and other Members from Somerset reflect similar views. There is a lot of hardship in our rural communities related to access to and requirement for social housing. What is being done in her constituency is admirable, but it comes down to the ability to borrow and what can be done. She may be referring to provision by housing associations, but I am particularly keen that we should see a rapid ramp up in council housing provision if we are ever to achieve the 300,000-plus figures that everyone mentions.

As I was saying, the achievements of the post-war period were extraordinary, and under the Attlee Government an astonishing 80% of houses built were council houses. Materials were in short supply, but they achieved it. The boom continued under the incoming Conservative Government. In response to Churchill’s challenge, Macmillan who had been appointed Minister for Housing, delivered more than 750,000 council homes in just one year: things had never been so good.

The giddy heights of those years and new social housing developments ended abruptly at the end of the 1970s with the radical policy changes of the incoming Conservative Government, and one of their first moves was to cut public expenditure for housing. Giving council tenants the opportunity to buy the homes they were living in, at a generous discount, was one of the defining policies of the Thatcher era and more than 2 million council tenants took advantage of it.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that one of the first acts of the incoming Conservative Government was to shift housing subsidy away from bricks and mortar and into housing benefit? It was a conscious policy decision and the consequence was not a shortage of money, but the spending of £22 billion a year on personal subsidy instead. As lower-income people are increasingly trapped in the expensive private rented sector, that is set to explode still further. The collapse in social house building is an extremely false economy.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I thank my hon. Friend who is very learned on this topic, and I bow to her knowledge. She is right: what we have seen is a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector. A big chunk of that budget has gone into private pockets, as opposed to into public assets. Changing that is the ambition behind my motion.

That period was a watershed: it developed our unhealthy obsession with housing and a dependence on the fortunes of the private sector to satisfy it. Rising house prices were all the talk in the pub and they became the nation’s conversation, fuelled by the press and an insatiable media seeking feel-good stories and helped along by the Government of the day. House prices seemed an impossibly good driver of the economy. Those who had capital and a good wage could buy a place and, through the sell-off of council houses, those fortunate enough to have access to money could bag a bargain. What was not to like?

Perhaps most striking was the impact on young people who rapidly realised the possibility of ownership was drifting away from them: data shows that at the age of 27, those born in the late 1980s had a home ownership rate of 25%, compared with 33% for those born five years earlier in the decade and 43% for those born 10 years earlier in the late 1970s. With hindsight—perhaps for some of us at the time—the excesses of the heady 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, when access to finance was unlimited and we saw the mass sell-off of council housing, were akin to financial ecstasy, but it would only be a matter of time before the market would go cold turkey. Of course it did, with the credit crunch and the global financial crash of 2007-08. At the core of that financial disaster was over-leveraged debt and bad property debt. Lending had reached unsustainable levels.

We reach the present day, and housing has become simply too expensive—ridiculously so against relatively flat incomes. The average house price in my constituency is £285,000, 20% more than the average in England and Wales. Supply has been constrained for decades, but now the wrong housing is being built in the wrong places, and it is unsustainable. People are increasingly being driven out of the communities that they work in, such as in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, and that threatens the local economy. Though average salaries are greater than the average for England and Wales, they are only 10% higher, meaning an absolute differential of 10% against the average house price. Put another way, the ratio of house price to wage is 9.2; for England and Wales it is 8.0.

Despite all that, the council has built just eight social homes in the past four years. Soldier Y is not just an individual: he is the victim of a systemic problem in our housing provision—market is no longer the right word. That is why we need to re-set the sector. Yes, the Government have set an ambition of building 300,000 homes, but they are falling way short with just 223,300 built last year, even with the numbers being distorted by the permitted development of office blocks that are often wholly unsuitable to long-term or family accommodation. While 47,000 new affordable homes were delivered in 2017-18, 57% were homes for affordable rent, 23% for shared ownership and just 14% for social rent. For many people, affordable rents are no longer affordable, given that in reality they can be set at up to 80% of market rates.

Most concerning is that the Government have no target for social rented housing. As I said earlier, Shelter’s commission on social housing estimates that 3.1 million homes need to be built in the next 20 years if we are to arrest this crisis. That is an average of 155,000 a year, which would cost only £10.7 billion per year. Just 6,500 homes were built last year, and at that rate only 130,000 would get built over the next 20 years, or just 4%.

We could afford to build those homes. According to Shelter’s report and data provided by the New Economics Foundation, we currently spend £21 billion on housing benefit annually, money that more often than not is going to private landlords. Instead, what we have seen is a massive increase in the private rental sector, insecure tenancies, fees scandals, rogue landlords and too little agency involvement in enforcement among local authorities.

What needs to be done? I want to see a radical reconstruction of our communities. In Tuesday’s debate, the Minister suggested that it is a complicated landscape, but I am afraid I have to disagree. We have made it complicated by yielding to market interests and failing to regulate in the interests of our people and our communities. In my view, we need to urgently reform planning, adopting a model similar to that in Germany; resurrect a regional spatial strategy, including for new towns and villages; reform compulsory purchase; scrap the nonsense that is viability, which is a scam exploited by corporate house builders; and ensure a 50% minimum of social housing on all greenfield developments and 80% on all brownfield sites in towns and cities.

We can address the funding though redirecting housing benefit to investment in the assets that come from building new homes. We should stop the sell-off of 50,000 social rented homes a year, and I urge an end to the right to buy. There are so many things we could do. I have talked about funding, and there is also the possibility of using pension funds, whether local authority pension funds or new ones, to support building homes. Birmingham and Greater Manchester are leading the way. On land, we could do so much with the public estate rather than selling it off to the highest bidder.

I am conscious of time and I know that many Opposition Members wish to speak. As I have said, we face a crisis and, to paraphrase Macmillan, the housing market has never been so broken. Homelessness is now 277,000 and 1.1 million are on housing waiting lists, while rough sleeping has risen 165% since 2010. The Government could, and should, deliver 3.1 million social homes over the next 20 years. It is an explicit target of 155,000 social rented homes a year and it is critical that we focus minds on delivering it. That is what my motion seeks to do. Without it, the housing crisis will only get worse.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 1:09 pm, 13th June 2019

I congratulate Matt Western on securing this debate. I share his disappointment about the attendance, which I will come to in a moment. If I may flatter him, he has not been a Member for too long, but he has, at an early stage, realised that we cannot influence and change everything. He has decided to focus on housing, which I would have thought was the No. 1 issue for all Members, because we do not want any more people sleeping on the pavement.

I hope this does not upset colleagues, but when she visited No. 10 Downing Street, Mother Teresa asked Baroness Thatcher, “What are people doing on the pavement?”. This is not a new phenomenon. I know it seems like it, but I have reached a stage where I have heard many of these things before.

I can understand the excitement, certainly in my party, at the result that has just been declared upstairs, but Parliament is not working well and I am increasingly worried. If the country and Parliament are split, we have to accept it and get on with the work. I want to see Parliament functioning. My colleagues may have decided that no one is interested any more in speeches made here, but it should not be like that. This House should be at the centre of everything.

I applaud the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington for focusing on the No. 1 issue of housing. I am not at the start of my career, but I hope that my hon. Friends who are fairly new and starting their careers will come to realise that this is an important place and that speeches made here should count. I hope our wonderful Whip has taken note of that, and perhaps we might organise things a little better. Although I am delighted to have the company of one or two of my hon. Friends, I am somewhat embarrassed. The hon. Gentleman takes this issue seriously and made his presentation to the Backbench Business Committee, and I can only apologise for there not being more support for his debate.

I suppose the reason I was first elected 30 years ago is because of the sale of council and corporation houses, and I will come to that a little later. I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentioned Macmillan, because my party’s election manifesto in 1951 said:

“Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity.”

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should see social housing as a national investment.

I have not come here to bash my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. I have read the Green Paper and the Labour party’s paper on these matters, and they both contain some really good points. I suppose it is naff to say that perhaps we could have some cross-party working on this, but if we do not have an election this year and limp on to next year, something has to be done. We are all affected by housing, as we see at our surgeries and from our postbags.

Emma Dent Coad, who is here, has done a fantastic job of ensuring that Grenfell is not forgotten. I do not want to correct the shadow Leader of the House because she is a jolly nice lady, but she said that none of our 10 leadership candidates had mentioned Grenfell, which is not actually the case. I interviewed them rather grandly, and I mentioned Grenfell to each and every one of them, because we have to make sure it never happens again. I know that the hon. Member for Kensington and other members of the all-party fire safety rescue group will not shut up until we have real change.

The Government do not seem to have a national target, and the 300,000 figure that is so often mentioned is for new homes in general. I am glad that my hon. Friend James Duddridge has joined us, because I represent an urban area of the Thames estuary where every single plot of land is built on. We cannot build on our parks, and we have no brownfield sites to build on, but his constituency has some space for building and he is rather keen that there should be more housing above shops on the high street. He also wants more housing between Southend and Rochford, the two areas he represents, in addition to the excellent proposals to transform the Queensway estate. Although it is not my area, I am very happy about that.

There is a bit of a row in Essex about where the new building will take place, which is why I had an Adjournment debate on it three weeks ago. I understand there is some resistance in parts of Essex, but there is no resistance in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Chair, High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

My hon. Friend is entirely right in outlining my priority for building above the high street and in the area between Southend and Rochford, so long as we get the right infrastructure—the so-called outer relief road that would link Shoebury to the wonderful Southend airport and beyond. So long as we get our fair share of infrastructure funding, there is space north of Southend and on the high street, if Ministers listen on planning to facilitate that and get everything joined together.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

My hon. Friend makes a jolly good point, because all colleagues present agree that we have to make sure the infrastructure is there when we build— theschools, the transport and all those other matters. In my area there has been too much enthusiasm for building flats, and we have a parking nightmare.

With a new leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, hopefully Southend will become a city next year, and Leigh-on-Sea has been nominated the happiest place in the country to live, so we have all sorts of people wanting to live in our area, and we do not really have the infrastructure to support them.

So far as the Government are concerned, I am asking for a little more clarity on targets. The number of houses built for social rent has fallen from 40,000 in 1997 to just 6,000 in 2017. Shelter has given all colleagues a good briefing—one of my daughters works for Shelter, which is a very good organisation—and is calling for 3.1 million new social homes over the next 20 years, which, by my calculation, as the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington said, is 155,000 new properties every year. That is a little ambitious, but I would be very pleased if we could can get part of the way there.

If this Government and future Administrations are to get anywhere near that number, we must look at how we can re-energise and revitalise the construction industry to support that increase. There is much talk about Brexit, and some people say it is all terrible and that jobs are being lost in the construction industry because Poles and Bulgarians are coming over here, and all the rest of it. In that sense, we have ourselves to blame. We really need to make sure that we have the skilled workforce to build good-quality housing that does not lose heat—there are all sorts of issues to be considered.

As I have said, I was a beneficiary of the sale of council houses. When I was elected for Basildon, 40,000 properties were owned by the development corporation and the Commission for the New Towns. Of course, when Margaret decided that we should offer people the opportunity to buy, there were all sorts of restrictions on it; it depended on whether a person had lived in their property for 20 years or 30 years, and so on. I am not having a go at the Labour party, but the then Labour Members did not oppose the measure. [Interruption.] As Dr Drew says, they did not oppose it because it was popular.

The issue about which the House should be concerned is how those capital receipts were not used, and how we did not go on with a new programme to build social houses. There are arguments about whether some councils were not running the stock well, and then things moved over to housing associations. All these things have been tried, but the point at the core of this is that we want more housing. As the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington said, we now know that the real problem was that the construction boom of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s was not sustained. If social house building had been maintained since the 1980s, I do not think we would be having this debate today.

Basildon was a tremendous success as a new town. I have an argument with my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon about which was the better new town, Basildon or Harlow. I know it was Basildon. It was designed brilliantly, and we put in the organisation. The use of compulsory purchase orders was done very well, without destroying the lives of those who, for instance, did not want to lose their little bungalows.

I support the Government in going part-way towards restoring the old scheme, which gave young people and families the opportunity to have a place to call home without facing the risk, as they do now, of a private landlord evicting them at very little notice. It was not a problem for central and local government to work together to deliver the housing stock when it was needed, but now local authorities do not have the power or confidence to build, and developers are taking an ever more rigorous approach to development. As I have said, in Southend West there is far too much building of flats.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I absolutely agree that we need to build more social and genuinely affordable homes. What he is highlighting as working so well in urban areas could also work in rural areas. We can create new, green, sustainable villages or small towns to meet the unmet housing need that he is so well articulating. I agree that this is about communities coming together with the local authority and central Government to plan beautiful places where people want to live, with green infrastructure, schools, health services and places of work—places in which we would all be proud to live.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

However long the present Government last, I want them to deliver on my hon. Friend’s vision for the future, because we cannot all live in London and the south-east. Scotland has huge, beautiful areas. Perhaps we could get some more houses built there, or in the midlands or the north, and so on. These are all factors. She represents a very beautiful part of the country, but people also need jobs, which is the other conundrum we have to look at.

I congratulate the Government on the 2017 White Paper, in which they acknowledged the need to build the right homes in the right places. As well as recognising demand, that statement applied to the use of brownfield land. As roughly 95% of local planning authorities have published their surveys of available brownfield land, it should be easy to identify the areas that are ripe for development. We have to get on and do this; surely it must be easy to identify them. I know that the Government are looking to have planning permission in place in principle for 90% of sites by the end of next year. I would be very disappointed if there were any unnecessary encroachment on our precious greenbelt land. There we are: I am introducing a bit of nimbyism.

If we are to increase the number of social houses in this country, we need to look at how to boost house building in general. Of course, there is no one policy that will invigorate the industry, but perhaps the most important factor is having a skilled British workforce, as I have said. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy must work hand in hand with the Department for Education to produce those skills. My party can be proud of the number of young people attending university, but that should not be seen as devaluing the high-skilled, often manual jobs required to ensure the immediate increase in the number of social houses. Just because someone is posh and well educated, it does not make them any better as a human being than someone who works in care homes or elsewhere. It is important that we have a high-skilled workforce. [Interruption.] I will rapidly move on with my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We need to encourage local councils to get building by removing the borrowing cap for new build properties, which has existed for too long. A Local Government Association survey found that 94% of housing stock-owning councils would use a removal of the borrowing cap to accelerate or increase their house building programmes. By 2041, the population in the south-east will have increased by over 30%, while in the north-east that figure will be below 5%. That is another factor to consider.

I should remind Opposition Members that in 2001, at the height of the Labour Government, only 60 new homes were built. That is absolutely dreadful. I could go on and on about that. I have heard all these promises before and seen not much being delivered. We must achieve a significant increase in social housing and re-examine permitted development rights. Successive Governments of all persuasions, dating back to the 1990s, have failed to support the construction of social housing. We really must change that.

In conclusion, everyone’s home is their castle—of that there can be doubt—and there are an awful lot of castles in Scotland. Social housing benefits young people, families who have struggled to get on the property ladder, elderly couples in the private sector and homeless individuals. It is our duty in this House to support the construction industry and make sure that we build more social housing.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:26 pm, 13th June 2019

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and even more so to follow Sir David Amess. We might not agree on everything, but he always speaks with knowledge and passion about something that is close to him. Obviously we have a Southend theme in the Chamber, given that two of the four Government Back Benchers are from Southend.

I thank my hon. Friend Matt Western, who is a doughty champion of social housing, particularly council housing. It is a great honour to jointly chair the campaign with him and we have made some progress. We are pleased that the Minister is still in place, although he might have ambitions to move elsewhere. He does listen and he has acted. He has done some laudable things, in particular some of the changes to the viability assessment that are in train. I hope that he will listen to this debate and respond in due course—as he did to a number of us who spoke in Tuesday’s debate, of which this debate is part 2—on a specific aspect of the housing shortage, namely, the shortage of social housing.

I have limited time and will keep my remarks short, because other Members want to speak. I am indebted to my council in Stroud, in particular to Doina Cornell, the leader, and to Chas Townley, who chairs the housing committee, but also to the wisely named Pippa Stroud, the head of housing strategy, who deals with this problem day in, day out. I will say some things that are quite technical, and I make no apologies for that. I expect the Minister not necessarily to be able to answer them in this debate, but to take them away, to read them and then to talk to me privately or to reply in correspondence.

The biggest problem we face is that we want to build more social housing. We have a good record, for a small council. We have built 230 social units over recent years and have another 50 to 70 potentially in the planning process, some with the land already allocated. I do not want to go over the same ground as others, but as other hon. Members have said, land values are a significant problem and our biggest barrier in rural areas—I will be unapologetic in concentrating on semi-rural areas such as Stroud. The problem now is that the council has tended to max out the sites that it has available, either by reusing existing council housing that was unsuitable and therefore knocked down and replaced, or by using garage sites, which are terribly controversial. No one wants to use them for garages until someone wants to knock them down, when everyone then says that they are their most important asset. Some things become problematic when one tries to grapple with these issues.

No one has mentioned it yet, but I should advertise the Monbiot report, which Labour commissioned. People will take it to be a terribly political report, but I hope the Minister will look into it, because it contains some things that a Conservative Government could consider. We are in an era in which we are looking into how to value land properly and how to tax it and to encourage better use of it. We all have in our constituencies land that is used inappropriately that could be used for social housing.

Besides the lack of land, the biggest challenge or barrier we have is how difficult it is to bring brownfield land into use. All the subsidies have gone now, and the CPO process is so labyrinthine that most councils will avoid it or use it only as a last resort. We could do with powers to look into how to take land that is not being used appropriately into public use, not necessarily for social housing but certainly for affordable housing. Stroud is a classic case: we lose out badly where others outbid the council, and without the CPO powers we are unable to do something about that.

As I said, I wish to make some technical points about why we find it quite difficult to deliver more social housing, which I will include in the framework of affordable housing. We all know the difference between the two, but if we do not have more affordable housing, we will not get more social housing, because that is a key component. Pippa Stroud has told me of the issue of vacant building credit. When a redevelopment is taking place, a credit is given against the floor area of the vacant building, and that element is then applied against an affordable housing element. The problem is that the way the process operates means that the affordable housing is rarely built. A good site has just come forward, but no affordable housing has been realised. That is frustrating, to put it mildly, because it should have been. If the process does not deliver affordable housing, it does not deliver social housing.

The Minister knows only too well about the viability assessment, which links in with our problem. I was pleased when in the previous debate the Minister talked about the problem we have with the local housing allowance. The Government are reviewing that issue, and I will take that at face value. It is an important issue in Stroud because it is in the same local housing area as Gloucester. Because our rents are much higher, my constituents end up having to pay more top-up. Therefore, they are often driven out of Stroud into Gloucester, or even further field.

On major sites, the current problem is that there is some incoherence in the Government’s national planning policy. This is an important issue in rural areas. Although we would call many of our sites larger sites, to my colleagues in rural areas they would be seen as relatively small sites. Nevertheless, they are important. The danger with such sites is that they can yield high value to the developer, particularly if they can say they will deliver so many affordable or, dare I say it, social units, but it does not quite work out as it should. Where we have designated rural areas and there are cash contributions towards rural housing, but not on that site, we need to make sure that this is bottomed out so that the money is used appropriately. I hope the Minister will look into how we designate a site. Even in Stroud, which is a semi-rural area, there are sites that are deemed not to be rural even though we would say they are very rural. I had an argument many years ago about post offices, because what I thought were some of our most rural post offices were designated as urban, for reasons that I never understood. There are arguments about how designation works.

Penultimately, there is an issue with the rural exception site cross-subsidy, which is a way to cross-fund affordable housing using market housing on the available rural sites. The difficulty, particularly for social housing, is that once landowners are given the notion that they could possibly provide more higher-end housing, it raises their expectations and it is much more difficult to bring them back to the reality of affordable housing, let alone social housing. Will the Minister look into the rural exception site cross-subsidy, because it is important? It is not right at the moment. There is no magic formula, although I wish I could give the Minister one. His Department will need to do some research to see how it can be altered, because there are some—I will not say abuses, but some opportunities that could be realised are not being realised.

I shall finish on the right to buy, which I hope we will suspend in semi-rural areas because we have lost so much of our good housing stock. I do not know whether the Government are rethinking this issue, with housing associations. It is galling that in a matter of time the 200-odd units that we have built could be bought and go into the marketplace. The most frustrating thing of all is when they are then fed back into the private rented sector, and there are sometimes two people next-door to one another and one is paying twice as much rent as the other. If they find out what their neighbour is paying to the council, those are some of the most difficult conversations I have, trying to justify that differential in the rent. We have to look into that, because it cannot be acceptable.

A lot could be done, but we are pleased that the cap has been removed, although it has not gone completely because there are obviously borrowing restrictions. We are keen to deliver social housing. We have a huge backlog of people waiting to be housed in Stroud. We can do our bit, but the Government have to help us. Otherwise, we will find that we are at the margins when we should be at the centre, dealing with our housing problem. As the hon. Member for Southend West said, it is a perennial problem, but it is acute at the moment.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 1:36 pm, 13th June 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Western on his tireless work and campaigning on this incredibly important issue. I am sure that, as it is for me, 50% to 60% of the casework of every Member is on issues of social housing and the lack of it.

We can look back at Labour’s record and think that we could have and should have done more, but let us not take any criticism from those on the Government Benches. Under Labour, between 1997 and 2010, there were 2 million more homes, there were 1 million more homeowners and we saw the biggest investment in social housing in a generation. Fast forward to the present day and there are now 1.2 million people on housing waiting lists throughout the country. What was the Government’s response? Just 6,464 social homes in 2017-18—the second lowest total on record. At this rate, it will take 172 years to give everyone on the current waiting list a social rented home. That is simply a diabolical rate when compared with the 150,000 social homes that were delivered each year in the mid-1960s, or the 203,000 council homes delivered by the Government in 1953. The evidence is clear: it has been done before and it can be done again.

My constituency is in the London Borough of Merton —a borough that had just 255 lettings in the past year, including just 146 one-beds, 65 two-beds, 43 three-beds and, amazingly, just one four-bed. With figures like these, what hope do any of the 10,000 families on Merton’s waiting list have of ever finding a place to call home? I would be the first to criticise Merton for the level of importance it places on social housing—I do not believe the council concentrates on it enough or is innovative enough—but the Government cannot get away with just blaming Merton.

In 2010, George Osborne cut funding for social housing by more than 60%, leaving us reliant on private developers to provide social housing—the most expensive way to provide a social housing unit that could ever be dreamed up—or on housing associations developing on the basis of the new affordable rents. Surely we must all agree that it is a criminal act to the English language to use the word “affordable” in this context. I am not sure about other Members’ constituencies, but 80% of market rent is not affordable to the vast proportion of people in my constituency. This left housing associations with the dilemma: did they continue to endeavour to fulfil their historic mission to provide housing for people in need, placing themselves under the financial risk of having to charge those rents and to borrow so extensively on their assets; or did they simply give up the ghost? That was a really difficult choice to make and I criticise no housing association in that regard.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

My hon. Friend has made a very good point. Some housing associations behave well and some behave badly under those circumstances. This was not only about new build, but about the conversion of more than 110,000 existing social rented homes to affordable homes, taking them out. Was that not a deliberate policy by a succession of Conservative and coalition Governments not just to not replace social housing, but to diminish the quantity of social housing?

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I think that had many motives. One motive was to diminish social housing, but it had the consequence of putting housing associations at financial risk, leading to a terrible crisis and an expensive crisis. My hon. Friend Ms Buck informed us of the amount of money that we are currently spending on housing benefit. If we reduce grant rates, we increase the rent and simply place more demand on housing benefit.

Let me give as an example a London and Quadrant development on Western Road in Mitcham. I met my constituent, Tracey. She was desperate to move for many reasons. She had got to the top of the list. I said, “Tracey, bid for this lovely new place, which has been built by L&Q on Western Road.” She said, “I would love to, Siobhain, but the problem is that me and my partner work and the rent is £1,000 a month. We simply could not pay it.” The very people for whom these properties were intended cannot afford to rent them because they go to work.

It is people’s real experiences that motivate me to be interested in this topic. It is about the hundreds of my hard-working constituents who are living in overcrowded conditions at private sector rents that leave them with little to live on and some without even enough to eat. Those families cannot afford to get on the housing ladder. There are not enough social homes to go round. For those who do make it into the private rented sector, they are always just one step away from finding themselves without a home. Not a week goes by when I do not meet yet another hard-working family who have been evicted from their privately rented property and threatened with homelessness just because the landlord can collect more rent from somebody else.

Ms A, with her two young sons, lives in a privately rented property. She pays £1,200 a month, less than the market rent. The landlord could get £2,000 a month. Her young son found his dad dead in bed. The importance of their staying in that home is paramount: so the kids can get to school; she can get to work; and they can get the support from our local church, Saint Joseph’s. She cannot afford to lose that home. When she came to see me, she said, “Siobhain, it’s in a terrible state of repair, and the landlord just told me to think myself lucky. Will you get environmental health involved?” Over the weekend, I thought about it. I know what the consequences will be if I get environmental health involved: six months later, that lady will lose her home. My alternative is to go back to my church to see whether I can find people in that church who will do some of those repairs for her.

Another lady, Miss P, has been a tenant of her privately rented home for the past 14 years. She has never owed money. She has three children and her husband has learning difficulties and a number of health problems. She has received her section 21 notice. It has expired and she faces two years in temporary accommodation at the moment. In two years’ time, who knows how much longer she will be in temporary accommodation. She is desperate to find a property in the private rented sector, but nobody is going to rent to her and she finds it unimaginable that she is in this position.

At 7.30 last Friday, a lady and her 17-year-old son came to see me in a distressed state. They said they were a homeless family from Lewisham who had been housed in Morden for the past year. They had received a phone call that day from Lewisham to say that they must leave their property next Thursday and move miles away. So the eldest son cannot continue his A levels, the middle son cannot continue his GCSEs, and the third son is going to have to move away from his school. This is a vulnerable family who are in temporary accommodation as a result of domestic violence.

Thankfully, Lewisham has changed its mind and it is leaving the family there, but how many families are uprooted, with children having to leave their school? As other hon. Members have suggested, a housing problem is an education problem, is a mental health problem, is a family breakdown problem, is a crime problem.

I am tired of the endless reports, the countless debates, the fruitless words and the lack of action. The Government have a house building target of 300,000 new homes per year, and they cannot simply keep willing the end of more homes without finding the means to provide them. So what will it be? Will we back here at the next debate offering the same ideas and hearing even worse statistics, or will this Government finally open their eyes and see the devastating reality of Britain’s 21st century housing crisis?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour) 1:46 pm, 13th June 2019

First, let me congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Western on securing this debate and on his excellent introduction. He is right that social housing is absolutely central to what we, as politicians, are here to do. It is damning to see the empty Benches opposite—it really does send out a very poor message to the rest of the country about where our priorities are at the moment.

As most Members have already said, week in, week out, housing problems are a No.1 issue in my constituency surgeries—whether it is to do with a lack of affordable housing, poor living conditions, homelessness, or landlords simply not rectifying problems in properties. We can talk about house numbers in the hundreds of thousands, but we should not forget that at the heart of this matter are real people facing real difficulties because we have had nine years of failure. Sadly, it is no exaggeration to say that this Government have failed across the board when it comes to housing. They have failed buyers and renters alike. They have allowed the leasehold scandal to emerge, and they have failed to tackle the root cause of the problems that the sector is facing.

I am pleased that today’s debate is focusing on social housing. It is no coincidence that the steep decline that we have seen in social house building has coincided with an increase in homelessness and soaring private rents. Since this Government came to power, rents have become increasingly unaffordable, with private renters spending, on average, 41% of their household income on rent. In those circumstances, it is no wonder that more than half of private renters say that they struggle to meet their housing costs. Worse still, Shelter reports that a third of low-income renters are struggling to the extent that they have to borrow money just to keep a roof over their head. That means that putting money aside to save for a deposit so that they can eventually own their own home is completely unrealistic. A lack of social housing has put enormous pressure on the private sector, which means that a quarter of private renters, equating to more than 1 million households, rely on some element of housing benefit or universal credit to keep a roof over their head.

We have already discussed the Supreme Court judgment yesterday on the local housing allowance, which demonstrates the current injustices in the system. I know that in Neston, in my constituency, rental costs for a property are at least £150 a month more than the local housing allowance provides for. That is a totally indefensible and unsustainable situation, but what choice do people have? The decline in social housing stock has left more than 1.1 million people trapped waiting for social housing, with many of those families facing greater instability with rising rents in the private sector. At the same time, the number of homeless families living in temporary accommodation has increased to 74% since 2010. Let us just think about that. These are young people who may be forced to move out of area, potentially affecting their schools, their family connections and their jobs. Temporary accommodation really does strike at the heart of what we are trying to build with families in this country.

Welfare reforms have made private sector landlords increasingly reluctant to let to tenants who rely on housing benefit. As we know, many landlords simply refuse to accept any tenants who are in receipt of benefits. This is a discriminatory practice, and pay tribute to Shelter for its campaign on that. Sadly, though, it is a fact that someone who is facing homelessness is not going to look to bring a court case for discrimination; they will simply look elsewhere—if there is anywhere else to look. The reality is that landlords’ behaviour will carry on in this way, while local authorities, in an ineffective attempt to discharge their statutory duties, will continue to hand out lists of private sector landlords to those facing homelessness, but those landlords will never actually rent their properties to those people because they are in receipt of benefits.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Both of my parents came to Britain from Ireland at the end of the 1940s, when there were postcards in the windows that said, “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. Does my hon. Friend agree that if there were such postcards today, they would just say, “No benefits”?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Yes, we were familiar with the sign, “No DSS”—the one that used to apply. Letting agents, lenders and landlords all need to get the message that they are operating a potentially discriminatory policy. This really does go to the root of the difficulties we have when people are making homelessness applications. If they get a section 21 notice, that does not seem to have much effect on priority. It is almost as though there is a waiting game. Court costs, eviction notices, stress and uncertainty all have to come before any real priority is applied to people who are facing homelessness. The system is not working; it is under tremendous pressure and supply is nowhere near meeting demand.

Why do we still have the bedroom tax? Six years on, the same injustices carry on. I regularly see constituents who are still paying it and have been paying it for six years now. It is absolutely causing havoc with their finances. They are getting into debt and struggling to pay their day-to-day costs—and for what? To pay this unfair tax with money they do not have. If we have a new Prime Minister who genuinely wants to show that they are different from what has gone before, the first thing they should do is abolish the bedroom tax.

Of course, it is no coincidence that at the same time as we are facing this crisis in social housing, home ownership is also declining. Just a quarter of people born in the late 1980s own their own home by the age of 27, compared with 33% of those who were born five years earlier, and 43% of those born earlier than that, in the late 1970s. There is a clear trend here. There is a danger that an entire generation will be locked out of home ownership, because there is no sign of the situation improving. A major part of the reason for this collapse is that house prices have grown far faster than incomes, leaving young people struggling to meet the affordability tests set by lenders. Even if they are able to save the tens of thousands of pounds needed for a deposit in the first place, it is still a struggle, because the average home in England now costs eight times more to buy than the average pay packet. There are 900,000 fewer homeowners under the age of 45 than there were in 2010. The trend is going backwards, and that is why there is so much need for more social housing.

We must build new social homes and affordable homes, both to rent and to buy, for all those who need them—yes, for the most vulnerable, but also for those in work and on ordinary incomes, for young people, for families locked out of home ownership, and for older people reaching retirement who are facing old age in insecure, unaffordable, unsuitable properties. All those people are being failed by current housing policy. We are facing a situation where, for the first time, children can expect to earn less than their parents. After decades of the number of houses being built failing to keep up with demand, we are at a crunch point where home ownership looks out of reach to an entire generation.

I am pleased to say that my local authority is taking the lead on this. Cheshire West and Chester Council has now built in Ellesmere Port the first council housing we have seen in 40 years, as part of a mixed development. I was absolutely delighted to welcome the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend John Healey, to this new development only last month. I am very proud that after 40 years, we are starting that development, but due to the huge increase in right-to-buy applications, we are not even standing still. Of course I support people’s aspiration to own their own home, but the right-to-buy policy is incredibly short-sighted, because the reality is that far from there being one-for-one replacement, there is probably about one property being replaced for every four sold. I agree with the Local Government Association that this situation is completely unsustainable. The loss of social rented housing pushes more families into the private rented sector, further pushing up rents and exacerbating the housing crisis. In addition, as we have heard, some of these houses end up in the private rented sector, which again pushes up rents.

It is a gargantuan task to replenish this country’s depleted housing stock. I am pleased that after many years of stagnation, we are seeing quite a lot of house building going on in my constituency, particularly on brownfield sites, but very few of these developments have any affordable housing. That is because the permissions were all granted some time ago, and the developers used rules brought in under the coalition Government to plead poverty and tell us that they could not build affordable houses because they could not maintain their 20% profit margins. As a result, all these new houses are being built, but on just about every private development in our constituencies, hardly any affordable housing is being built. Most developers sought release from those obligations four or five years ago but have only started building in the past couple of years. It is therefore quite clear that the affordable housing was not the problem; it was about what they wanted to do to maximise their profits—it was greed. If we are going to build ourselves out of this housing crisis, we cannot continue to rely on the same avaricious developers who have got us into this mess in the first place. A cursory look at the leasehold scandal tells us everything we need to know about the priorities of some developers.

There is a massive job ahead of us, and things need to change. Enough is enough. My Front-Bench colleagues have set out a very ambitious plan about how we can achieve this. Yes, we need to build 1 million more genuinely affordable homes; yes, we need to target Help to Buy on first-time buyers on ordinary incomes; and yes, we need to give councils the freedom to build and retain council homes for local people. But we need to get on with it now. This Parliament is broken. We look around and absolutely nothing is happening. The Government are incapable of making decisions. Every day they spend arguing among themselves is another day further away from tackling this urgent and very real crisis. This country deserves so much better.

Photo of Emma Dent Coad Emma Dent Coad Labour, Kensington 1:56 pm, 13th June 2019

I thank my hon. Friend Matt Western for bringing forward this debate, which has provoked really good comments across the House.

In my constituency, the council has, at last, initiated a programme of building homes for social rent. This depends on the Mayor of London’s funding pot of £33 million, for which we are very grateful, to provide 330 new homes. That will go some way towards replacing the 120 homes lost in the Grenfell Tower fire and housing 135 homeless households, as of yesterday, still waiting for permanent accommodation—those from the tower itself, those from Grenfell Walk, and those from the neighbouring walkways who cannot bear to continue to live there.

However, this is not just about numbers. Our council, I am afraid, has a poor record in providing new social rented homes. It entered into a devil’s deal with a developer partner whereby a number of homes for social rent, some intermediate and some for private rental, were built. Sadly, some were very poorly constructed. Construction standards in many were appalling. In one new development, the drains constantly backed up into the kitchen sinks. The homes had to be evacuated while the floors were drilled out and new drains fitted. In another, dodgy drains brought rats up into the building’s first floor, where they could run unhindered as the supposed fire doors had such large gaps underneath them. This was a building that some Grenfell survivors had been moved into. The roof leaked. A ceiling collapsed. The lift broke, and a traumatised resident was stuck in it for hours. Radiators were found not actually to be attached to the central heating system. These problems continue.

In some of our new housing association mixed developments, the story is the same. In brand new buildings, roofs have leaked, ceilings have collapsed, loos and hand basins have fallen off the walls, and even a floor has collapsed. Membranes were not fitted into the external walls, so damp came straight through, causing black mould. Balconies were not fitted with drainage, so they flooded. Badly fitted cladding and window surrounds allowed rain to come in. Some basement flats flooded as door jambs were set too low. These properties, which are just three years old, are just a few examples of a common problem.

Throughout all this, the council is powerless to act. We have spoken to environmental health, building control and health and safety, and they do not have the powers of enforcement they need to make a difference. These issues are endemic across the country. We have a generation of, frankly, grotty new buildings. Many may not last 50 years, as did their predecessors that were demolished to make way for them.

The drop in construction standards is due to the total lack of strategic forward thinking. We have relied on skilled workers from abroad for so long that we forgot to train our own. Now that tens of thousands have returned —many to eastern Europe—due to Brexit anxiety, we have huge gaps in our skills, and no one is planning to invest in training for employment in the construction industry. The other issue, of course, is developer greed. They specify the cheapest possible materials to make a larger profit. I do not need to list the horrors that that can produce.

If we are to build 1 million homes, we need not only changes to the housing finance system and Government funding, but a generation of skilled workers, as Sir David Amess said, and the building materials to create good-quality, well-built homes. Apprenticeships should be the answer, but many of them are poor quality. Some provide little training, apart from how to wield a glue gun; that is an actual case. The apprenticeship levy was a good idea but is poorly implemented. I believe that the pot has reached £1 billion, but contributing and receiving companies tell me that they do not have time to push through the complex bureaucracy, nor do many of them have the capacity to give good training, with all the best intentions. We must train our young people.

A specific Kensington-based problem is that of luxury developments left empty, which forces up the cost of everything, including social housing, and makes it even more difficult to build the homes we need for everybody. Many luxury homes, we suspect, are bought to launder illegally gained money. We hope that this matter will begin to be tackled next year, when the Registration of Overseas Entities Bill becomes law. I was pleased to sit on the Joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill. It will force beneficial owners to register their names and, we hope, will disincentivise the drug lords, people traffickers and other vermin who want to dump their dirty money in my constituency.

I will give an example of a luxury development with empty flats. On Kensington Road, almost opposite Kensington Palace, there was a 700-bed Victorian hotel, of Italianate design, in a perfectly good state. It was quite an interesting building. It was bought up by Candy and Candy, which flattened the site and was given permission by our fabulous council to build a luxury development of 97 flats. I pass that building regularly, and only four of the lights are ever on. Imagining that the flats had all been bought and left empty, I spoke to the staff, who said that some of them had not even been sold after four years but were being kept off the market to keep the price up. I find that absolutely obscene.

As we begin commemorations tonight on the second anniversary of the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower fire in my neighbourhood, it cannot be clearer that we need to create a new generation of social rented homes, with stable tenancies, of good quality, where families can fulfil their dreams, increase productivity and reach their full potential in security and safety.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 2:03 pm, 13th June 2019

I would like to thank and congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Western on securing this crucial debate. Housing is possibly the second most important issue facing this country at the moment after climate change, and it is one that affects the majority of the population—some of them very badly indeed.

In Ipswich, we had 175 people accepted as unintentionally homeless and in priority need last year. We also had 42 accepted as intentionally homeless. I despise the idea that anybody should be categorised as intentionally homeless. They may have made bad decisions in their lives that led to them becoming homeless, but the vast majority had no intention of being homeless, and they do not want to sleep on the streets or on friends’ floors. They are not intentionally homeless, and I would like to see that category abolished altogether. We also had 12 people categorised as homeless but not in priority. That just goes to show the size of the problem involved, when people who are recognised as being homeless are not considered priority cases simply because there are so many cases that are of a higher priority.

The number of homeless acceptances in Ipswich is significantly higher than the national average and, indeed, the regional average. That is partly because people intentionally move into Ipswich because they are more likely to be housed. Any Member who represents a rural constituency and is honest with themselves will know that someone who is homeless in a rural constituency is more likely to be housed if they move into an urban constituency.

I am very proud of Ipswich Borough Council’s efforts to deal with this problem. Seventeen new council houses are receiving their topping out tomorrow morning in my constituency. We have 60 new council homes under construction on another site, and we have 16 new council homes about to be started on a third site. We have a 45-person temporary housing unit nearing completion, which will be taking homeless families directly out of so-called bed and breakfasts from next month.

I have been round one of these so-called bed-and-breakfast hostels where homeless people have to be placed. I was told to leave—I was ordered out of the premises by a member of staff after I had been there for about an hour, because I had been smuggled in by one of my constituents. My constituent told me, “You won’t be allowed to visit; we’re not allowed to have any visitors.” I said, “Well, I am the Member of Parliament,” and they said, “That doesn’t make any difference. The owners of this place will keep anybody out—councillors, Members of Parliament or whoever.” It is a place to live, but my goodness, it is not somewhere we would want anybody that we knew to live. We need to ensure that when people are homeless, there is somewhere for them to go straightaway, and so-called bed and breakfasts are not the answer.

Since we took back control of the council in 2011, 269 social rented homes have been built in Ipswich, and about half of them have been built by the council. I was proud to take my right hon. Friend John Healey around the largest of those estates two years ago. I note that my predecessor took Sir Oliver Letwin around the same estate, despite the fact that it was built by a Labour council, and despite the vituperative opposition from Conservative councillors at the time and the opposition of that self-same predecessor to the development.

In that case, we were able to build the council estate, I am glad to say, and it was entirely for social rent, but my predecessor’s opposition was not always ineffective. A development of 94 new council homes at the 1,300-home Ravenswood estate was blocked. It had gone through planning application and appeal, but my predecessor went to the Conservative Secretary of State and persuaded him to block the building of the 94 council homes, on the grounds that 20 of them should be shared ownership. Some £300,000 of council money was wasted on the abortive preparation work, and £1.5 million of Homes and Communities Agency funding was lost to my constituency as a result of my predecessor’s direct intervention.

There have been not just historical blocks on the building of council housing; there was an attempt to block the 60-home estate that we have under construction on the grounds that it was all going to be social housing. The only way to ensure that we could continue with that development and be allowed to build the social rented housing was to set up an arm’s length company to offer some of the exact same homes at higher, so-called affordable rents. The local Conservatives even tried to block the homeless families unit that we are finishing next month.

Yes, we need far more financial resources, we need a more skilled workforce and we need more freedoms for local authorities to build those council houses, but we also need the Government to dismantle the intentional hurdles that are still there. Yes, I am very pleased that the cap has been removed, but the Government need to drop their ideological opposition to council housing—not just here in Parliament, but among their councillors. It is not good enough just to have the right words; we also need to see deeds.

This is not about planning permissions. The private sector has hundreds of outstanding planning permissions for flats and houses in Ipswich, but it prefers to build detached, executive homes on greenfield sites in rural areas because it can make more profit that way. Only council housing will reduce homelessness and reduce rates in the private sector by reducing the massive additional demand over and above supply. It will increase the stock of housing for sale by reducing the incentive for buy to let. It will provide the houses that people need, and the people who need them the most will be the most likely to have them provided as local authority housing.

The private sector has not built the homes we need. The experiment to bring an end to local authority housing and to put everything into the private sector, started by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, has failed. It is time to accept that, and it is time to do what we know works.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:11 pm, 13th June 2019

May I add my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), and for Stroud (Dr Drew)—the real midlands engine behind this debate? The fact that we have had speeches from Members from around the country shows that this is a national crisis. The problems are different, but housing supply goes to the heart of them.

In high-value land areas such as my constituency, the problem is particularly intense. House prices are more than 20 times earnings, and the average rent of all properties is more than £2,000 a month. The lowest quartile of house prices, which are the properties we would perhaps expect people on low incomes to be able to afford, reaches well over £500,000. Indeed, the only type of accommodation that is affordable to anybody on the London living wage, let alone the minimum wage, is social rented housing. That is why I am very pleased we are having a debate specifically on this issue. Yes, we need a greater supply of many different types of housing, including in the private rented sector, of good quality and at affordable rents, and we obviously need owner occupation, but the real crisis that has developed over the last 30 or 40 years is in the supply of affordable housing.

I do not want to talk too much about statistics, but there are two or three that I find particularly pregnant. One is the 165% increase in rough sleeping since 2010. There is no good reason for that to have happened, other than Government policy and neglect. Another is the number of social rented homes being built. I think the number was about 6,500 in the year for which figures are most recently available, compared with 40,000 in the last year of the previous Labour Government, but in the decades after the war, the figure was regularly 120,000 a year, year after year. Those disparities show exactly why it is no surprise that we have a crisis.

I would add another statistic. It is slightly more esoteric, but it is an indication of how Government policy has gone off the rails. The London Assembly member Tom Copley did a very good report recently on permitted development—in other words, the conversion, without the requirement for planning consents, of office blocks to residential accommodation, or the slums of the future, as they are now being called. I suppose a silver lining to that cloud is that none of those will actually be social housing slums, because not one of those properties is likely to be a social home. Of the 300 converted in Hammersmith since the policy changed five or six years ago, not one will be a social rented home.

That is one method by which the Government ensure that social housing is always the poor relation, and is never delivered. It is why, rather than talk about the statistics, I will talk in the few minutes I have about the politics. Unless we confront the political differences between the two parties, we will not deliver on social housing. There are obviously big differences on other areas of public policy—the NHS, education and so forth—but there is deeply ingrained in the post-Thatcher era Conservative party an antipathy to and a manipulation of social housing, which has ensured that it has declined over those 40 years.

It is interesting that we now hear Conservative politicians—I do not know whether these are the beginnings of an apology—talking about the stigma of social housing. I have never felt that there was any stigma attached to social housing. That may be because it accounts for a third of my constituency, so it is prevalent. It may also be because it is absolutely in demand, because of its affordability. There has not been such a thing as a hard-to-let property in Hammersmith since the 1970s, and there are long waiting lists for any particular type of home. That is also because, as in the case of many London boroughs—I do not know about the situation outside London—a large proportion of our stock is what are called acquired properties. These are on-street properties that are now very valuable—Victorian and Edwardian houses that were bought up when they were cheap in the 1970s and 1980s—and they are giving life to the mixed communities that we enjoy in London, and which have been imperilled, as I say, by Conservative Government policies.

We heard Sir David Amess refer to the policies of the Thatcher Government and the right-to-buy policy. However, if that had been just about home ownership—about enabling people to buy their home, which is a popular and perfectly justifiable policy—we would have had the replacement of those homes. The demand for social housing did not suddenly go away overnight in 1980s; it continued. However, that replacement has never happened, and it does not happen now. Even now, despite a lot of attention being drawn to the issue, only two social homes are replaced for every five that are sold off.

The policy was actually about politics and social engineering. It was about trying to outwit the Labour party through what was perceived to be a part of its own electorate, by saying to people, “We will give you a very valuable asset for way below the value of it”, and that is perhaps why in Basildon it became popular on all sides. The policy was about something else as well. It was about saying—going back to the point about stigma—“You can do better than that,” and, by implication, “If you don’t buy your own home, but stay in a council house or housing association property, there must be something wrong with you.” The policy was taken up and developed in a more and more aggressive way, particularly in London, by Conservative politicians in the 1980s and 1990s.

I am thinking of the era of Shirley Porter—that was about straight political advantage as well, but it was not just about that—and about what Wandsworth Council did, as well as what was later done with my own council houses and those in Fulham. These cases are prime exponents of how to manipulate what should be the most important asset in people’s lives for political, social and, in some cases, moral purposes. People were told that council housing created a dependency culture, and that people should be paying market rents. As my hon. Friend Ms Buck said in an intervention, we saw that extraordinary and damaging shift from subsidising land and building to subsidising private landlords, primarily through the extraordinary increase in housing benefit, with billions of pounds every year being wasted in that way.

There is a document that I often refer to, and will go on referring to until it is better known. It was written about 10 years ago by the then Conservative leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, and it had wide currency and gained a lot of favour with the coalition Government. In effect, it proposed the end of council housing based on four principles. The first was that we should have near-market rents, and not have below-market rents. The second was that we should have no subsidy to allow the building of social housing. The third was that there should be no security—no more lifetime tenancies, only fixed-term tenancies that were renewable. Finally, there should be no legal duty on local authorities to rehouse people, as there is under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 for those who fall into vulnerable categories.

The explicit aim was to reduce over time the volume of social housing to about 5% to 10% of what it currently is. That may sound like fantasy, but three and a half of those four principles were quickly adopted by the coalition Government, and we have seen the effect of that in the 10 years since then. There are now affordable rents that are 80% of market rents, and short-term tenancies that mean that families grow up in insecurity, not with a home, but with temporary accommodation for that period.

The cut in subsidies that my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh referred to cut away at a stroke the ability of councils to build new homes, and led to the massive decline that has been mentioned. We did not quite get no duty towards homeless people, but we got a duty that could be discharged in the private rented sector. The effect of benefit cuts and other measures introduced by the coalition Government was that people were placed in temporary accommodation or in the private rented sector and were often—because of the cost of renting in high-value areas—sent a long way from home. Those policies may have been dreamed up in policy forums in west London, but they got the ear of the then Minister of State for Housing and Planning, now Chairman of the Conservative party, and quickly became policy, and that has led to the parlous situation that we are in.

Let me be a little more specific and concrete by describing what happened in my area when there was a change of political control. We had eight years of the Conservatives running Hammersmith. Social housing was not only a low priority, but was sold off as it became vacant. More than 300 council homes, which tended to be the larger, more expensive three and four-bedroom street properties, were sold off, so that they were no longer available to rehouse people. In most cases, there was no requirement on developers to provide any social housing. There was a policy not to build any more, and to reduce the quantity of social housing in an area that had more than 10,000 people on the housing waiting list—a problem that was resolved by abolishing the housing waiting list.

Let me contrast that with the current situation in Hammersmith under a Labour council whose first and clearest priority is to resolve those problems, and whose second priority is to provide decent-quality, affordable social housing for a new generation. In partnership, it is building 440 new affordable homes, with the possibility of another 300 on top of that. Through development deals, and as a result of the council pushing developers hard to ensure that a large proportion of new housing is affordable, there could be another nearly 2,400 homes. Over the current four-year planning period, we expect more than 3,000 new affordable homes to be built in a borough that has some of the highest land prices in the country. At least a quarter of those will be new social homes—the first to be constructed for many years in the borough.

That development will make a profound difference to the lives of my constituents. The difference between living in insanitary, overcrowded and insecure housing, and having a proper, secure, assured tenancy of a property that is well constructed and maintained, cannot be overestimated. That should be a priority for this Government, but it simply has not been a priority for Conservative—and indeed Liberal Democrat—Governments over the past few years.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman’s point about safe, decent housing goes to the heart of the concerns of my constituents in Deans South in my constituency. Decades ago, they were sold substandard housing by West Lothian Council, and many of them have had to live there for many years. They include a constituent who has bronchial issues, as does her son. We are close to a resolution, but it will take the will of the council, the developer, social housing, and local politicians. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when there is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, we should work across the political divide and do everything we can to do that?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I agree, and it is good to hear that message coming from different parties, regions and countries. I hope that we will also hear it from Conservative Members. Hon. Members might have gathered that I am not entirely persuaded of the bona fides of the Conservative and Unionist party on this matter, but if it genuinely wishes to change its spots, there is now an opportunity to do that. That must, however, involve a large-scale building programme of social housing in this country. Frankly, I do not see that aim among the current incumbents responsible for the job, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

Even in the past few years, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 attempted to allow the sale of housing association homes; I am glad that attempt has been abandoned. The prospect of means-testing for council tenants created more insecurity and led to the treatment of social housing as second-class housing. That idea has also been abandoned. We have seen a change in recent years, in that the Government are less willing to take up extreme right-wing and radical policies, but we have not seen any alternative. I am sure that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will have statistics prepared by his civil servants, but such statistics never persuade anybody. We will believe there is a commitment to social housing when the Government start to build it, enabling and motivating local authorities and housing associations to build houses at an affordable rent. Without that, everything else is rhetoric.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:27 pm, 13th June 2019

I thank the hon. Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) for securing this debate. We can perhaps take it for granted that other things are currently occupying hon. Members and we would otherwise have a better turnout of people wishing to contribute to the debate. We have to be fair to everyone, wherever they are.

For me, there are two facets to this issue: homes to buy and rent, and social housing provision. Although Northern Ireland has a different set up for the allocation of social housing, the difficulties are the same. I wish to bring a Northern Ireland perspective to this debate, even if the Minister has no responsibility whatsoever for social housing in Northern Ireland—if only he did, we might be able to do some things.

Housing is a major issue in my constituency. Benefits might be pushing it at this moment in time, but housing continues to be the No. 1 priority. The Minister has been generous with his time, and in making himself available for meetings and discussions that we have asked for. I know he has a deep interest in his ministerial responsibility and takes it seriously. He is committed to addressing the problems and, like everyone else, we look to him for a satisfactory, positive and capable response.

When a young couple decide to marry and move in together that is a time for celebration, but such celebrations are short lived when we realise that the choices for first-time buyers and even renters are severely limited. As soon as a couple without children declare that they both work, there goes any chance of a social housing allocation—that has happened in many cases that I have been involved with—because there are simply not enough social housing projects in the works to meet the need. In my own borough council area of Ards and North Down, on 20 March 2018, there were 36,198 applicants on the social housing waiting list. Of those, 24,148 were in housing stress, which means that they needed housing quickly. In 2017-18, 11,877 households were accepted as statutorily homeless. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive does not build houses in Northern Ireland, although it did in the past. Housing associations now build them and we have had a number of social housing build projects in my constituency, which have certainly helped, but the fact of the matter is that we need to encourage more.

People will often say, “Well, you can rent privately.” Again, these figures will probably not correspond with those in other Members’ constituencies, because the rental system is different, but the median weekly rent for social housing is £77 a week for Housing Executive houses. The median weekly private rent is £98 a week. For those not working, the Government no longer make up the difference. For those who are working and are not in receipt of housing benefit, an extra £100 a month is hard to come by when statistics show that the Northern Ireland average disposable income is a fifth less than the UK average.

The issues for those seeking housing in Northern Ireland are critical. The fact is that we are not building enough homes to affordably rent and, due to price hikes, not many developers can afford to lower prices to social housing prices either. I believe we need to do more. I say that conscious of the fact that in Northern Ireland we need to do more, too. We need to build more to meet the need that is out there.

In Westminster Hall yesterday, I spoke on domestic violence and homelessness. Some people remain in abusive relationships because they fear that they have nowhere to go. If there was housing stock to go into, that fear would not hold people back from coming out of the cycle of abuse. The problem illustrated in yesterday’s debate is clear: if you are in a cycle of domestic abuse, getting other accommodation is extremely difficult.

The Crisis briefing provided for this debate highlighted the case in England. I believe the underlying issues are replicated in Northern Ireland. In 2017-18, fewer than 7,000 new homes were provided for social rent. Although that is a slight improvement on the post-war low of 5,900 social homes built, it is far lower than the recent peak of 40,000 in 2011 and the previous peak of 57,000 houses in 1992-93. In the three decades following the second world war, councils routinely built more than 100,000 homes a year for social rent. If we had those days back, I think the issue of those who need to rent would be addressed. We need to allocate more funding to build affordable homes to buy or rent. That would mean they could scrape together a deposit for a home. With the average income not allowing people to rent and save at the same time, we are seeing people stuck in a renting cycle, paying someone else’s mortgage and improving their home.

I recently worked on a private rent case, which is an example of the story I am trying to tell. The landlord put the house up for sale after his rental tenant of seven years had put in a new kitchen at her own cost. That is disgraceful, but it does happen. This single mother saved for years to fit the kitchen, yet she will never get the benefit of it. It is shocking that that should happen. It is little wonder that The Irish News reports:

“Over a third of 20-34-year-olds in Northern Ireland have yet to permanently move out, compared with around a quarter in GB...Over 36 per cent of people acquiring their home through Co-Ownership have children. According to the recent report from the Intergenerational Commission, millennials are half as likely to own their own home by the age of 30 as the baby boomer generation were at the same age.”

My second son Ian and his wife—they were married just over a year ago—bought a co-ownership home in Newtonards. Co-ownership homes provide a great opportunity for those who want to own a home but cannot pay the whole mortgage. It is 50% buy and 50% rental, but it does get them on the housing register. It gives them that opportunity, so I commend co-ownership.

To return to the quote from The Irish News relating to 20 to 34-year-olds in Northern Ireland, this is not from a lack of work or saving ethic, or a flamboyant lifestyle; this is to do with the fact that in early 2018 average pay was still £15 a week lower in real terms compared with 2008. It is harder for people and we are not making it easier for them by allowing them to do what so many in my generation did and get a wee council house that they then buy at a reduced price when they are able to afford it.

I am very fond of my colleagues on the Labour Benches and they know it. We get on well on many, many issues, but I support the right to buy. I always have supported it in my constituency, because I can see the benefits of it. I understand that things are different for some other constituencies, but I support the right to buy scheme. In Northern Ireland, we have restrictions—not all properties are available to buy. For instance, you cannot buy bungalows, because there is a dearth of bungalows. You can buy flats and houses, but you cannot buy bungalows.

We have a generation who are now expected to do it all. They pay for broadband at £40 a month, which is not a luxury but a necessity when banks and shops are closing their high street presence in favour of the low-cost web. They either pay astronomical car insurance and petrol or pay up to £60 a week for the train and bus to work. They might allow themselves a social trip to the cinema, which in my day—I am not sure if you are in the same age bracket as me, Madam Deputy Speaker; I think you are probably not—cost £3 for two tickets. That is a long time ago: the tickets now cost over £15! How do we expect them to have a quality of life which is taken for granted by so many of us in here and still have the ability to have a home?

We must make housing stock a priority across the UK. I think the Minister is committed to that; that is my feeling from my discussions with him. I say that honestly. I believe he has the opportunity to prove himself. That is what he has said he will do. It must be affordable to rent or buy, and to do that we need a more effective strategy than the one we currently have. That is why I have no difficulty in supporting the motion tabled by my colleagues on the Opposition Benches.

From the beginning, when I first became an elected representative many, many years ago, originally on Ards and North Down Borough Council and then in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the biggest issue has always been housing. It continues to be a big issue. Generations of hard-working people are crying out for the right to be safe and secure in a home. We need to do more to provide that for the so-called lower and middle-class people who are the backbone of this country.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy) 2:37 pm, 13th June 2019

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for helping to secure it and I congratulate Matt Western on leading it. He made an excellent opening speech, which covered all the key issues in the motion. I agree with his comments, and those of other Members, that it would have been nice if there had been more Members in the Chamber, but it has probably led to better contributions because people have not had a time limit imposed on them. In one way, it has allowed the matter to be explored in greater detail.

I liked the way the hon. Gentleman illustrated the post-war housing policies versus the modern Tory housing policies. I agree with the sentiment about the cry for investment, clear targets, brownfield development and ending right to buy. These are matters I intend to return to.

We have heard some excellent speeches from the Back Benches. The themes seem to be homelessness, quality of existing stock, affordability, the critical matter of the lack of existing stock, and waiting lists.

For too long, since the Housing Act 1980 which allowed the right to buy, social and council housing has been the poor relation of housing aspirations. Andy Slaughter mentioned a stigma that is sometimes attached to social housing. Clearly, people owning homes is not a bad thing, but the rules for the original right to buy have led to the current crisis in social housing, with homes being sold at a discount, the receipts bypassing councils and going to Westminster, and councils not being allowed to fund or build new council housing stock. It did not take a genius to see that it would lead to a housing crisis.

Since the original sell-offs, 40% of flats sold in England under right to buy have entered the buy-to-let market, pushing up private rents, increasing the housing benefit bill and costing the taxpayer. To balance that extra cost to the taxpayer, local housing allowances have been frozen, as we have heard today, which has put pressure on social housing stock and resulted in homelessness as people cannot afford to live in the private rented sector.

In addition to the failed right to buy legacy, we had further disastrous policy decisions by the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government and the 2015 Tory Government. The bedroom tax—not only unjust but proven to be illegal in some of its applications—has led to increased personal debt and rent arrears, the cost of which has been borne in the social sector by other rent payers and local tax payers. It just shifts a central Government cut on to local tax payers. Furthermore, the local housing allowance cap was to apply to refuge accommodation, which would have caused that vital support sector to collapse, had it not been for the belated but welcome U-turn.

Universal credit has caused issues wherever it has been rolled out—the five-week delay, massive rent arrears—and this has had an impact on social and council housing stock in terms of the ability to maintain properties and build new ones. Meanwhile, in England and Wales, the 1% year-on-year rent discount in the social rented sector, which the Tory Government have forced through, is applying downwards pressure on the revenue available to look after the stock. And now we have the ongoing voluntary right to buy pilot for social homes. If this is fully rolled out, the sales projected will result in a £10 billion discount in the sell-off of stock, which means £10 billion effectively going to subsidise people to buy houses and being taken out of the investment revenue available.

Another negative policy has been the disastrous reinvigorated right to buy scheme introduced in 2012. Since then, approximately 76,000 houses have been sold, but there have been only 20,000 new starts or acquisitions. Not only are the UK Government miles from meeting their one-for-one replacement target over three years, but the gap is widening every year to the tune of about 7,000 houses. Worse, the replacement figures are based on new starts or acquisitions; we do not monitor completions or when houses become available for people to move into. It is almost a wheeze. I am pretty sure that someone could get a JCB, dig a hole in the ground for a 20-house development and show they had started 20 new houses. On paper, they would have met the new start criteria, but the important thing is: when will these houses be available for people to move into?

Under the one-for-one replacement target, the new houses need not be of the same type or built in the same location. This is clearly another failing policy putting further pressure on the social housing sector. It does not matter what the Minister says; it demonstrates that housing policies are still flawed. It also shows that replacement is not just a numbers game; there is much more to it. The motion mentions the number of houses that need to be constructed, but we need houses of the right type, in the right location and with access to local services and public transport, and to do that a mass of planning is required. Indeed, several hon. Members have mentioned the importance of planning.

Prior to entering the House, I served as a local councillor and was lucky enough to have housing as part of my cabinet portfolio. I was glad to instigate plans to convert low-demand flats into family houses for which there was a much greater need and much greater demand. In conjunction with the SNP Government, East Ayrshire Council implemented a council housing build programme to build new houses, including houses that were suitable for the elderly or adapted for wheelchair use. People are often trapped in houses not suitable for them, so building new suitable housing can change people’s lives and free up larger properties for families who need them. If thought out properly, that is a clever way of refreshing the housing stock, and there is a spin-off as well: it reduces delayed discharges from hospitals, which is another important aspect.

Moreover, in East Ayrshire, as elsewhere in Scotland, part of the new council and social housing build policy is aimed at brownfield developments. The council is building new houses, creating new assets, freeing up properties for families and building proper houses while actually regenerating areas, which brings further drive and growth in the area.

All that shows that the picture can be different from the issues we have heard about today. There are ways forward and this can be solved, as the examples from East Ayrshire show. There it has been done in conjunction with the Scottish Government. Not only are they building new houses—this relates to some of the asks of hon. Members today—but they have ended the right to buy policy and so retained an additional 15,000 houses in stock. They also started a council house build programme in April 2009. It was the first council house build programme in a generation. Between 2007 and 2018, the supply of affordable homes in Scotland was 35% higher than in England and, in the last four years, that rate has been 50% higher.

In the same four-year period, the Scottish Government have delivered five times more social housing per head than England. We have built more council houses in Scotland than have been built in the entirety of England over the period of the SNP Government. That has been based on centrally funded money from the SNP, along with some local housing revenue money, not on the sell-off of existing council house stock. In Scotland, we are doing this despite Tory austerity and despite having to offset the bedroom tax, the council tax relief and LHA reductions, which obviously has put further pressure on the Scottish Government’s budget and local budgets. In Scotland, we also have stronger legislation to protect homeless people and give them the right to housing.

We have heard some excellent contributions from across the Chamber today. I hope that some of the examples I have given show that going forward with drive and ambition we can build more houses, make them fit for purpose and regenerate areas. In that area, the Scottish Government have been leading the way.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 2:47 pm, 13th June 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Western on securing this debate on the housing crisis. I also congratulate him and my hon. Friend Dr Drew on the council housing campaign they have led together. We have had some glorious contributions from the usual suspects today—we need a better term for the usual suspects, don’t we? We need to brand them better, but the expertise and knowledge in the House has been well worth hearing.

As has been said across the House, the focus is not in this Chamber. The focus of the media is outside, where the latest Conservative party vanity project is playing out and sucking the life out of this place. We are all on hold. We have no meaningful legislation to debate, no progress on Brexit and no substantial action on all the big issues facing people across the country. Even the Minister reportedly admitted that the Government were not focused on housing—after Brexit, he said, the Government would turn to housing. How long will that take? And in the meantime, what do we have? A lot of consultations and a lack of action.

It is two years tomorrow since 72 people—the vast majority were social housing tenants—died in the Grenfell Tower fire. We know that the fire was avoidable, but Inside Housing has today exposed, to my horror, the multiple times that members of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue, some of whom are present, pressed, pressed and pressed again for Ministers to strengthen fire safety regulations in the wake of the multiple fatalities at the Lakanal House fire.

In 2014, the APPG wrote to previous Minister, Stephen Williams. Following more letters, the Minister said that he was

“not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters be brought forward”.

In November 2015, the next Housing Minister, James Wharton, promised that he would make an announcement shortly. By September 2016, a year later, there was still no announcement, so the APPG wrote again to the next Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell. It wrote again to chase that letter in October and November 2016, following a parliamentary question in which the Minister had said that

“we have publicly committed ourselves to reviewing part B following the Lakanal House fire.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2016;
Vol. 616, c. 16.]

That Minister refused a meeting with the APPG and claimed that other letters had gone awry.

In November 2016 the APPG wrote again, raising a tower block fire earlier that year in which a pregnant woman had died. In February 2017, it wrote again, having not received a reply, pressing for a date for the promised review. In April 2017, the Minister replied, suggesting again that correspondence had been lost. The APPG wrote again, pointing out that it was 11 years since part B of the building regulations was last reviewed and that it had been promised action by three successive Ministers since 2010. In May 2017, the Government replied, brushing off concerns about the fire in which the pregnant woman had died. Finally, on 19 May 2017, the APPG sent another letter pressing for action. That letter was sent only a month before the Grenfell Tower fire.

In all, the APPG wrote to Ministers 21 times. It is hard to know what to say. The changes that the APPG was calling for have still not been implemented. The Secretary of State said last week that the legislation to implement wholesale reform of our system of fire safety and building control would not be brought forward until the next parliamentary Session. The culture of indifference stopped action before Grenfell, and two years on, we see the same pattern.

My direct plea to the Minister today is to speed up the action. I know that he has consulted on approved document B and launched a consultation on Hackitt, and that the Government have said that they will pay for the removal of flammable cladding, but two years on from the fire, the fundamentals of the system remain unchanged. Flammable cladding remains on blocks, approved document B remains unchanged and the accountabilities in the system have also not changed. That is simply not good enough.

Turning to the wider crisis in our affordable housing supply, we have heard so eloquently today about the scale of the housing crisis, which spans beyond the issue of social housing, although that is without doubt the vital building block in creating a housing market that works for everyone, not just the few. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington set out the context of the housing crisis and the history of council house building, with the big boost to building that we saw after the second world war. My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh told us very powerful stories about what that means for people in today’s situation, where we do not have the house building that we once saw.

Over the last nine years, not only have the Government failed to tackle the gap between social housing supply and demand, but their policies are turning the gap into a gulf. Research from the National Housing Federation and the homelessness charity Crisis shows that England needs to build 145,000 affordable homes a year for the next 12 years. As we have heard, Shelter has put the figure at 3.1 million social rent homes over 20 years, but the last two years have seen the lowest level of social rent homes built since world war two. Only 6,500 were built last year, which is a fall of over 80% since the last year of the last Labour Government. The number of new homes built for affordable home ownership has almost halved since the time of the last Labour Government to less than 13,000 homes last year.

It is not hard to see why house building numbers have plummeted under this Government. Real-terms Government funding for new affordable homes has been cut by around 90%—it was less than £500 million last year compared with over £4 billion in the last year of the last Labour Government. The funding is nowhere near enough to deliver the scale of homes that we need, particularly because while the Government have failed at building, they have proved successful at selling off our existing social housing stock.

As we have heard, the Government promised a one-for-one replacement of homes sold under right to buy, but in reality, we are seeing one home built for every four sold. Over the past five years, under the scheme, councils have lost enough homes to house the population of Oxford. Councils do not even get to keep the profits from the sales; two-thirds of the receipts are sent to central Government. Meanwhile, as hon. Members have so eloquently said, the term “affordable” has been tested to the limit and beyond, including homes that are at 80% of market rents. Since 2012, over 111,000 genuinely affordable homes for social rent have been converted to those not so affordable “affordable” homes.

As Jim Shannon said, we simply do not have enough social housing. As a result, over 1 million households are on the council waiting list, and if house building carried on at the current rate, it would take 172 years to get those people the homes that they need. Last year, 18,000 fewer social lets were made to homeless households than a decade before. Rough sleeping has doubled. There are 120,000 children in temporary accommodation—my hon. Friend Sandy Martin told us about the quality of that accommodation. There are more families pushed into more expensive, less secure, worse-quality private rented homes; a million more households paying private rents, which have skyrocketed by an average of getting on for £2,000 a year since 2010; and thousands still paying the bedroom tax, as my hon. Friend Justin Madders pointed out.

The impact of all this is not just felt by individuals, because Government finances are being hit, too. The housing benefit bill, going straight into landlords’ pockets, has more than doubled since the early 2000s. Spending on temporary accommodation increased by 39% between 2011 and 2016—my hon. Friend Ms Buck pointed that out so well. It is an utterly false economy of spending—£22 billion a year on housing benefit rather than investment in the bricks and mortar that would keep an asset in the ownership of the state, to be enjoyed by everybody at a lower cost. Of the children living in poverty, 1.3 million live in private rented accommodation. We could lift a lot of those children out of poverty if they were in council housing. We have our priorities completely the wrong way round and it is a waste of Government funding.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, Labour’s record, although not always perfect, was clear: 2 million more homes, a million more home owners, and the biggest investment in social housing in a generation.

The next Labour Government’s plans for social housing are more ambitious. We want to build a million genuinely affordable homes over 10 years, including the biggest council house building programme of nearly 40 years. Crucially, we will stop the haemorrhaging of our stock by suspending the right to buy. Labour long called for the lifting of the cap, and we are glad that the Government have finally listened, but that alone will not work, especially for the 205 councils that no longer own any housing stock—they will be unable to use their new borrowing powers.

Labour will back councils to set up new housing revenue accounts. We will make long-term funding available so that councils have the certainty to properly invest in social housing. Along with the money, councils and housing associations will have new powers and flexibilities to build again at scale. We would end the Conservatives’ so-called “affordable rent”, redefining “affordable” to be linked to local incomes. We will transform how land is available and how much it costs. We would scrap permitted development, which Members have talked eloquently of already, and we would invest in making sure that all council and housing association homes are warm, safe and dry. The money we save in housing benefits will be recycled into helping tackle the causes of the housing crisis, and our new homes would meet green standards.

Tomorrow’s anniversary, marking two years since the Grenfell Tower fire, is a terrible reminder of the tragic consequences of not giving social housing tenants a voice. The tower block fire in Barking on Sunday, where more than a third of the properties were social housing, was a stark reminder that too little has changed. Highly flammable material on the side of a tall building, and residents’ complaints ignored—these lessons were not learned after the Lakanal fire a decade ago, and they have not been learned following the Grenfell Tower fire. We must do better.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:58 pm, 13th June 2019

I commend Matt Western for securing this important debate. I agree with him that above all else, it should be the collective mission of the House to build the homes that the next generation needs. I agree with other Members that the attendance across the House for the debate has been disappointing. I am sure none of us will take any pleasure from the fact that there was not a single Liberal Democrat in the Chamber to talk about this very important issue. It is indeed important, because since taking up this role last year, boosting the supply of housing of all types has been my night-and-day obsession as Housing Minister, so a largely useful and constructive debate such as today’s certainly helps.

For the most part, I am grateful that Members have come forward with constructive suggestions, and indeed questions, which we will try to answer—in written form if I cannot answer them today. I want to pick out one or two.

I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington’s basic assertion that bad housing leads to lots of other bad things and that good housing sits at the base of a fruitful and happy life. A secure home is something to which we should aspire for all the people whom we serve, and it is certainly a central part of our mission. I was very affected by his specific point about a veteran whom he called soldier Y. I hope that he is engaging with the Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire armed forces covenant partnership, which I understand does a fair amount of work in his region in connection with the covenant and the housing rights that come with it.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving such a balanced view of the last three or four decades of house building and the part that Governments of all types have played in producing an under-supply. Both my hon. Friend Sir David Amess, who has sadly had to go and do his duty in Westminster Hall, and Dr Drew referred to the complexity of the issue and suggested that there should be a cross-party effort to reach some kind of general solution.

Let me now issue a gentle reminder to Members. I understand that, in these circumstances, it is the role of the Front Bencher to point to a utopian future in which everything will be easy and simple and it will just be a matter of writing cheques and handing out shovels and houses will appear. However, this is a problem and a crisis that has been decades in the making, and I think we all have a duty to share some sense of responsibility.

Back in the days when I was a Westminster councillor, we were induced out of council house building and owning by the then Labour Government, who would only give us our decent homes money if we got rid of our council housing stock. A number of Members, not least Andy Slaughter, tried to dredge up ancient history and point to some kind of ideological opposition to social housing among Government Members. In fact, more council houses were built in the last year of Margaret Thatcher’s 10 years as Prime Minister than were built in the 13 years of the new Labour Government.

The shadow Secretary of State, John Healey, has often nodded in agreement about the lack of council house building during the years when he was part of the Government. I think that only about 2,500 council houses were built during those 13 years. Much has been said about the right to buy, but during all those years not a single finger was lifted against it. The policy persisted throughout the entire period, and is still popular with those who can benefit from it.

Jim Shannon rightly raised the issue of supply. The Government are committed to increasing the supply of all tenures of affordable housing, helping to meet the housing needs of a wide range of people including those who are on a pathway to home ownership. I am pleased to say that we are already delivering on our commitments: since 2010, we have delivered more than 407,000 new affordable homes, including more than 293,000 for rent. In fact, more affordable homes have been delivered in the past eight years than in the last eight years of Labour government. More than 481,000 households have been helped into home ownership through schemes such as Help to Buy and right to buy.

We are not complacent, however, and we are certainly not slowing down; far from it. Housing remains our top priority, and we are championing the delivery of more affordable homes. We want to see local authorities deliver a new generation of council homes across the country. That is why we scrapped the housing revenue account borrowing caps last October, freeing up councils to double their delivery and, we hope, to exceed that level. Removing the borrowing caps will also help to diversify the house building market, with councils more able to take on projects and sites that private developers would consider too small.

The abolition of the caps means that stock-owning councils such as Warwick now have the financial flexibility that enables them to borrow to increase council house building. Even councils that do not own housing can get on with building homes. They have the flexibility to borrow to build up to 200 without opening a housing revenue account, subject to obtaining a direction from the Secretary of State. I am keen for all councils to seize the opportunities available and quickly start ramping up delivery to meet local housing need. I am considering what assistance we can give councils that do not have HRAs, either by providing advice and expertise or by pairing them with councils that do have HRAs to help them to act quickly.

We support councils and housing associations with grant funding for the construction of new affordable homes. We have made over £9 billon available through the affordable homes programme, which will deliver 250,000 additional affordable homes by March 2022. We listen constantly to the affordable housing sector and work to create a stable investment environment to support the delivery of more affordable homes across the country. We have introduced strategic partnerships to offer housing associations greater flexibility, ensuring funding can be allocated where it is needed across multiple projects while still meeting overall delivery targets.

This funding certainty also makes it more viable for larger housing associations to take risks and invest in more ambitious projects, with greater delivery flexibilities and funding guaranteed over a longer period. And we have gone further, providing the sector with longer-term certainty of funding. In September last year, the Prime Minister announced a £2 billion long-term funding pilot starting in 2022, which will boost affordable housing by giving housing associations long-term certainty and moving away from the stop-start delivery that characterised previous approaches to funding. For the first time in their history, housing associations can now bid for funding up to a decade long.

This unprecedented approach will deliver more affordable homes and stimulate the sector’s wider building ambitions. Strategic partnerships and our 10-year funding commitment marks the first time any Government have offered housing associations such certainty. It will also allow them to explore the use of greater technology in house building. I visited a factory in Walsall in the west midlands recently where Accord Housing will be producing 1,000 homes for affordable and social rent out of the factory, and so good are the environmental standards of these new homes that there are lower arrears because people can afford to heat and light them more cheaply. There are huge opportunities coming out of this programme that I hope associations will take. We have also set a long-term rent deal, announcing that increases to social housing rents will be limited to the consumer price index plus 1% for five years from 2020. Through all these measures, we are creating an investment environment that supports both councils and housing associations to build more.

As set out in our housing White Paper, we are determined to support households who are locked out of the market, and therefore we are also funding affordable home ownership. I am pleased to say that through our affordable homes programme we have already delivered 60,000 shared-ownership homes since 2010. We believe that shared ownership has an important role to play as part of a diverse and thriving housing market in helping those who aspire to home ownership but may be otherwise be unable to afford it.

This Government pledged to address overall housing supply in our 2017 housing White Paper and our ambition to deliver 300,000 homes per year on average by the mid-2020s was set out in the autumn Budget of 2017. The Government agree that affordable housing will play a vital role in reaching this target, which is why we have created stable investment for the sector; now it is time for housing associations and councils to step forward and build more.

We recognise the need for more social rent homes, which is why also in 2017 we announced an additional £2 billion of funding for the affordable homes programme to deliver social rent homes in areas of high affordability pressure. This funding should deliver at least 12,500 social rent homes in high-cost areas, in a move to support families struggling to pay their rent. This represents a real change in how we focus the Government’s grant funding, targeting our most affordable homes to the areas where they are most needed. I want to stress that a mix of different tenures is vital to meet the needs of a wide range of people and allow the sector to build the right homes in the right places.

Alongside affordable home ownership to help those struggling to purchase their first home, our expanded programme offers two rental products. Affordable rent enables us to maximise the number of homes built with any Government investment, while social rent will meet the needs of struggling families and those most at risk of homelessness in areas of the country where affordability is most pressured. We will continue to provide opportunities for more people to afford their own home and seek to build on the progress made in building new social homes as we approach this year’s spending review.

This Government are committed to delivering more affordable housing, as I have outlined. We want to support the delivery of the right homes, whether for rent or ownership, in the right places. We have listened to the sector and introduced a number of measures to create a more stable environment. We have increased the size of the affordable homes programme, reintroduced social rent, removed the housing revenue account borrowing caps for local authorities, announced £2 billion of long-term funding for housing associations through strategic partnerships right through a decade, and we are setting out a long-term rent deal for councils and housing associations in England from 2020.

Sarah Jones raised the issue of Grenfell—as did Emma Dent Coad—and she will know that much of my time has been focused on building safety. While we are committed to increasing supply across the country of all types of housing, not least for social rent, the hon. Member for Croydon Central is right to continue to challenge us on the work we still need to do to make sure those buildings are delivered and built in a safe environment. I am pleased that we managed to get our response to the Hackitt inquiry out last week. We have accepted all the recommendations and, indeed, gone further on them, but there is definitely more work to do. The House has my commitment that, however long I am in this job, and I am now coming up on 12 months—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. The House has my commitment that this will be one of my primary focuses. Many of us will attend memorial events tomorrow to commemorate the second anniversary of that appalling tragedy, and while it is a point at which we will remember the 72 lives that were lost, it is also a reminder to us all in this House that the system that was built up over a number of decades that resulted in that awful tragedy has to change.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Labour, Warwick and Leamington 3:10 pm, 13th June 2019

May I start by thanking everyone across the House for their incredibly valuable contributions to what I would agree with the Minister was a constructive and illuminating debate. I particularly thank Sir David Amess and my hon. Friend Dr Drew for supporting and sponsoring this debate today.

As we have heard, it is generally understood that housing is particularly important, but that social housing is even more so. We have heard from across the country just how expensive housing can be in so many of our towns and cities. We have heard about multiples of 20 against average income, such is the expense of property—certainly in Cambridge, London and elsewhere.

We have also heard just how popular social housing and council housing can be and about the massive loss of stock we have suffered in recent decades. My hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) gave good examples of what can be done when local authorities have the foresight and the ambition to deliver good-quality social housing. We also heard illustrations from my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who described the reality for her constituents and the hardship that they face.

Elsewhere, my hon. Friend Justin Madders talked about the struggles that people still face incurring the bedroom tax and asked why that tax still had not been cancelled. Jim Shannon highlighted very well the reality for young people in particular and explained what a struggle it is for millennials to get on the housing ladder. I also thank Alan Brown, who highlighted the very positive reality north of the border and described what it had been possible to achieve in delivering housing as a result of being liberated from some of the constraints we have here. He also talked about the challenges and the threats from universal credit and of Help to Buy.

I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Sarah Jones, for her excellent summary of the debate. I will not attempt to repeat that, but she rightly highlighted the reality of what has happened, as we find ourselves still reflecting on Grenfell two years on. She talked about all the mistakes that were made with Lakanal and described how people were indifferent and not listening. That case and those arguments have also been well set out in the campaign led by my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad. I thank the Minister for his summary and for his warm words, and I look forward to working with him in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
recognises that there is a housing crisis with too few genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy;
further recognises that the number of new social rented homes built in recent years has been too low;
notes that the Government has set a target to build 300,000 homes a year, which is unlikely to be achieved without building more social homes;
further notes that Shelter’s recent report, A Vision for Social Housing, concluded that 3.1 million new social rented homes need to be built over the next 20 years;
and calls on the Government to adopt a target of building 155,000 social rented homes, including at least 100,000 council homes, each year from 2022.