My Lords, the Government welcome the work of the 2020 Group, in particular its support for our long-term commitment to increasing the supply of affordable housing. We are considering the report's specific recommendations carefully. We look forward to the opportunity to discuss them in detail with members of the group, including the noble Lord.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that typically helpful and positive response. I declare my interest as chair of the Hanover Housing Association and as a member of the 2020 Group, which brings together Shelter, the house builders' federation, the Local Government Association and others. Will the Minister use her considerable influence, alongside ministerial colleagues from another place, to impress on the Chancellor the double benefits of supporting a boost in output of rented homes? Will she stress that this brings the benefits of addressing the ailing construction industry's woes—LGA research shows some 447,000 jobs may go between 2008 and 2010—while simultaneously assisting the housing of homeless people and alleviating overcrowding and all the miseries that go with acute shortages of rented housing?
My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, anything we do to ensure the supply of social rented homes in the present grave situation will help the construction industry. The need to build many more homes for social renting certainly does not change; nor does the demography. We have to maintain our ambitions. I am glad that many of the report's recommendations accord with what we are doing already to keep our programme on track in exceptional circumstances. In particular, we are bringing forward early £550 million to provide 7,500 social rented homes 18 months earlier. We have invested £198 million of £200 million to buy 5,700 new-build homes from the open market from house builders for affordable housing. All that and more will help the construction industry.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the benefits of a major house-building initiative extend well beyond providing new homes to tackle homelessness and overcrowding? Does she agree that it would also extend to providing economic well-being and positive health and educational outcomes for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable families and would therefore translate into real savings for government in the longer term? I declare an interest as the chair of Circle 33 Housing Association and a trustee of Shelter.
Absolutely, my Lords: good housing is the foundation and at the front line of preventive action on health, well-being, education and much else. That is why our ambitions for social housing are higher than they have been in previous years, and we were well on track before the economic downturn to meet our ambitions for 45,000 social rented homes from 2010. Everything we do will be designed to make sure that we do our very best with the new Homes and Communities Agency in place to promote and build the houses we need and to secure more activity from the local authorities, for example.
My Lords, these are ambitious plans. To put them into context, could the noble Baroness tell the House how many social houses were built in the past three years, as opposed to the number intended to be built in the next three years?
My Lords, my advice is that we built 75,000 social homes in the past three years.
My Lords, I know that the Minister will agree that it is important to support the construction industry not just for the present but for the long term, so that skills are not lost when we reach an upturn. What support are the Government giving to smaller housing associations which are struggling because lending is not available to them?
My Lords, we rely so much on housing associations to provide social rented homes and it is extremely important that we are as positive, supportive and flexible as possible. We are allowing the HCA limited flexibility to increase levels of grant to housing associations to compensate for the difficulties of negotiating Section 106 agreements, for example. So we are doing something immediate and positive there, which will be linked to an agreed programme of future activity. We are also giving ourselves complete flexibility to switch unsold shared ownership stock to rent and HomeBuy. Those are two very positive actions that will help the RSLs step up to the plate.
My Lords, I think that it is the turn of the Cross Benches.
My Lords, what proportion of the housing to be built will be wheelchair-accessible? As the Minister knows, the number of disabled people is increasing. We also have the welfare-to-work provisions. For those who are in wheelchairs, it will be much easier to do all these things if they have good accommodation.
As I recall, my Lords, about 10 per cent of our housing needs to be wheelchair accessible. We are nowhere near reaching that standard but we have made a significant start by committing ourselves to meeting the lifetime home standards by 2013. With these flexibilities such as wider doorways in place, we will be in a much better position to support wheelchair-accessible housing. We are working with disability organisations to ensure that house builders know that these are important progressions to make.
My Lords, it is the turn of the Conservative Benches.
My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister about progress on the HomeBuy scheme, which was aimed at moving social tenants into private home ownership. When it was launched in 2005, the target was that 120,000 people would take advantage of the scheme by 2010. With only one year to go, the progress is that 44,000 have taken advantage of it—a shortfall of 76,000. Will the Minister take this opportunity to restate the target for 2010?
My Lords, it is a very important and radical scheme and we are pleased with the progress. As the noble Lord will know, one of the things we are dealing with in the present situation is how to ensure that people can access affordable homes. We have a new HomeBuy Direct scheme that developers have been very responsive to: 130 developers are working with us to enable about 18,000 new homebuyers to access homes. I will write to the noble Lord with more detail on the original scheme.