Housing — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:46 pm on 8th July 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour 2:46 pm, 8th July 2010

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Ford on securing this debate. I hope that it is just the first of many occasions on which this House returns to the fundamental issue of housing. I also declare my interest as a patron for the newly formed Foundation for Lifetime Homes and Neighbourhoods.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of our home in the lives of most people. It is normally the foundation for our personal well-being, and for people with impaired mobility, that is all the more true. It is where we often experience our closest relationships, where we ground ourselves and where we return when tired or hurt.

A house is far more than a collection of bricks and mortar to provide shelter from the weather. It is closely bound to who we are. To me this is fundamental. Yet, as my noble friend has outlined, we face a housing crisis of an unprecedented scale and urgency in the affordable housing sector and other sectors of the housing market. We need to keep reminding ourselves of the devastating impact that poor housing can have on people's lives. Living in good-quality, affordable housing improves people's life chances, means that they have better health, it removes the scourge of fuel poverty and it enhances children's opportunities to learn, among many other benefits.

Surely it is deplorable that debate about the need to build more affordable housing did not feature higher in the general election debate and that the Housing Minister does not have a guaranteed place at the Cabinet Table. I am convinced that unless we put serious political weight behind tackling the housing crisis, which I would rank alongside the need to debate the future of social care with which it must be closely linked, the impact on our society and our development as a nation will be profound and hold us back for a generation. This is my first point: the need to accept that there is an acute shortage of housing compared with current real needs and future projections of demographic change. I will return to that later.

Secondly, there is a need to break the dependency of the supply of affordable housing on private-sector housing provision through Section 106 or other planning gain agreement. The need to ensure a steady supply of affordable housing must be met regardless of housing market fluctuations. Given the severe public financial pressures with which we are only too familiar, that must mean developing ways of attracting investment from long-term investors such as pension funds.

As the Town and Country Planning Association has noted in its recent report, we need to break down the assumption that housing development is automatically an environmental cost. As I understand it, we now have the technical capability to develop places which deliver environmental benefits through the application of zero-carbon standards and offer biodiversity and climate change adaptation benefits through more green space, trees, planting and water features. I am sorry that the debate about new housing provision outside urban areas is so often derailed by loud claims of concreting over the countryside from well housed nimbys. It is a simplistic and beguiling argument, which we need to rise above if we as a society are to ensure that everyone, not just the well off with capital to invest, has a decent home to live in within an attractive and accessible neighbourhood. However, ensuring that housing is developed to a high standard means that it needs to be well planned. Scrapping this year's housing and planning delivery grant will have an extremely negative impact on planning delivery, a local authority service already under severe strain, which will take many years to restore. Do the Government have any plans to explore ways in which they can minimise the harm to planning which the loss of this grant will have?

I shall further enlarge on the issue which for me is the most compelling-the demographic need for increasing housing provision, particularly in the affordable housing sector. Latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of households in England will grow to 27.8 million by 2031, which is a quarter of a million new households every year. The increase is spread across the country, north and south, with net inward migration and people living longer as the main drivers. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland face similar pressures.

People living longer are not just people living into old age; more people are surviving a traumatic birth, chronic illness or accident which previously would have killed them to live into adulthood. This is to be celebrated as an outstanding achievement of modern society. Yet, in surviving, people are too often faced with ongoing living requirements that are not met by the average house today. Too often, this is a result of poor design and space standards. The link between poor space standards leading to overcrowding with poor health and education outcomes has been well documented by Shelter and others. As a matter of urgency, we need to adopt nationwide the same approach as in London, where all housing needs to be built to Lifetime Home standards with 10 per cent adaptable to the higher wheelchair standard. I welcome the revised and updated set of Lifetime Home standards, which were published this week following a wide consultation with industry, professional bodies, disability organisations and individual people. Housebuilders should no longer be able to dismiss them as unaffordable, as these revised Lifetime Homes criteria are designed to meet their concerns.

In connection to this, I now press the Minister on a few points. Mayor Boris Johnson has recently reiterated his support for Lifetime Home standards, as he wants houses in London suitable for all, including people with mobility impairment. Will the national Government please adopt the same approach? Have the Government conducted a full cost-benefit analysis for adopting Lifetime Home standards? By this I mean looking at the range of social, health, welfare and economic savings, not simply the direct housing build costs. If they have not done so, will they do so? In developing their social care policy, will the Government include the benefits of the universal adoption of the Lifetime Home standards as an efficient way to support care delivery in the home?

The coalition Government are searching for every conceivable cut to unnecessary spending, but what of the cost of keeping people in hospital who no longer need medical care but are forced to remain in hospital because of the shortage in accessible housing? This has been highlighted by individual stories of disabled service personnel struggling to obtain appropriate housing. This shortage creates wholly unnecessary financial pressures on the social care and NHS budgets and adds delays of weeks and months to the discharge of patients from spinal injury and other medical care settings just because there is nowhere suitable to go. Research also tells us that because minimum space standards apply only to affordable housing, people seeking extra space due to their disability and who cannot afford to pay a premium in the private market for a larger house are forced to live in social housing, adding to the already huge pressure on that sector. Ten years ago the old Housing Corporation found that 42 per cent of social housing households contained a person with a disability or long-term illness. I am not aware of more recent research, but I would expect that that figure will have increased.

Applying minimum space standards to affordable housing alone denies disabled people the choice of where they can live and can lead to social marginalisation. It also denies disabled people the ability to move to take advantage of education, employment or other opportunity. Being restricted to one sector means that the low levels of affordable housebuilding in recent years has hit disabled people particularly hard and forced many, particularly younger disabled people, to stay at home with their parents, denying them any hope of independent living.

To conclude, I believe that here needs to be a cross-party consensus not just at a national level but importantly at county and district levels that there is a housing crisis and that all areas, rich and poor alike, need to contribute to a solution to it. Let us please learn from past mistakes and not force future generations to pay for not providing affordable homes large enough for us to live in.