Localism Bill — Committee (10th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 20th July 2011.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 5:15 pm, 20th July 2011

My Lords, we now move on to the part of the Bill dealing with housing, social housing particularly, that probably has the most direct and immediate effect on millions of people around this country. Many of the issues we have been discussing so far are, of course, very important, but for most people they will seem somewhat esoteric. For the millions who are in social housing, wish they were in social housing or ought to be in social housing, the issues dealt with by the subsequent clauses in relation to changes in the provisions on tenure, the responsibilities on local authorities, changes in the obligations on local authorities in relation to homelessness and changes in housing revenue will all hit, in one way or another, positively or negatively, many of our fellow citizens. In addition to that, in the welfare Bill which we were supposed to discuss yesterday, there is a major change in the housing benefit provisions which will affect many of the same people.

This part of the Bill is very important for a lot of our fellow citizens. While I do not want to give the usual channels too hard a time, the fact that we are moving at this stage into this section of the Bill-and I suspect we are unlikely to allow all the amendments which are tabled in this section to be debated by 7 o'clock-is a matter of some regret to me. I hope there is still time for the usual channels to discuss that.

However, my attempt in this amendment is to set a background for the discussion on the social housing provisions. We did touch on this issue in part in discussions on planning under an amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross-who is not currently in her place--but I think it is more appropriate to discuss it here. If one just reads straight through this Bill, social housing is dealt with in isolation and in a very bureaucratic, contractual, legal and financial way. The reality is that social housing has to be seen against the background of the housing market as a whole, local authority by local authority.

I declare an interest. I have recently become chair, with a non-pecuniary interest, of a new organisation called Housing Voice, which deals with social housing. The provision of social housing is only one part of the issue. We need to look at the total supply and demand of housing, nationally and area by area, and to relate it to the demands and requirements of the population; the economic demands for employment within the area and travel to work from housing, and the effects of inward and outward migration, because our populations are changing dramatically. Every local authority, in its planning and social housing provisions, must recognise its responsibility to ensure that there is adequate housing for all those who need it, and that as far as possible, supply and demand are reasonably in balance. They must therefore provide housing, in whatever form of tenure, at a price or a rent which is affordable for most people. None of the housing market currently meets those propositions nationally, and in most parts of the country it does not do so locally either.

In the owner-occupied sector, successive Governments have had policies to increase the proportion of people in this type of housing, and some of that has been significantly successful. I do not wish to reverse that, but that fact is that nowadays, it is virtually impossible for young families to get into the owner-occupied market, both in our inner cities and in our rural areas. The latest information is that the average age for getting a first mortgage is 37, and in a few years' time it is likely to be well over 40. Those of us who were fortunate enough to get on to the homeowning ladder in our twenties do not recognise that picture. Unless one has some support from parents or elsewhere, one cannot get a mortgage if one is much younger than 40 these days. Even for those who do have this support, the deposit required rules it out for many people, and of course advances from building societies and banks in this area have largely reduced as a result of the housing crisis.

Housing for all our population, and particularly for young families, young couples and people who have to move away from their home area for work, is not now available. There are far too many people. The private rented sector is not much of an alternative: in our inner cities, particularly in London, the cost of private renting puts it out of reach for many people. Despite attempts by the previous Government to bring more housing into the private rented sector, particularly for key workers and so forth, the amount of private rented accommodation available, never mind its price, is also far too limited.

In the social housing area itself, we have a situation where there have been cutbacks in the amount provided and 4 million people in England alone are seeking to be included on housing lists. The provisions on social housing, which we shall come to later, need to take this into account. All this relates to the shortage of new housing coming on to the market, whether by new build, conversion or properties coming on to the market in other ways. Yet our society is moving in exactly the opposite direction. We have a degree of atomisation in the form of smaller households, as well as households forming and breaking up. People are living longer and moving around more to seek work or education. All this increases the demand for accommodation. The terrible truth is, though, that at the moment the rate of household formation is running at twice the rate of the provision of new housing. That is a completely unsustainable position nationally, and locally, as we know, conditions are even worse. There is massive overcrowding in many inner city areas, as well as homelessness since people cannot find accommodation. Moreover, in many rural and suburban areas the housing situation is extremely difficult for young people.

This is an issue not just of social housing, but of the housing market as a whole. The previous Government attempted to do something about it by setting regional targets. By and large that did not work completely, although there were some successes. The present Government have abandoned those targets. In the context of this Bill at least, although I might argue the point elsewhere, I have no objection to that because the amendment is designed to recognise the localism of the issue and to place the responsibility clearly on local authorities to work out their own ambitions and decide the appropriate housing provision for their own populations. This clause therefore attempts to make it clear that it is their responsibility. They need to look at the local population and what is happening in their areas both economically and demographically, and assess the quantity and quality of the available housing for the various different groups. That is localism.

Some may object to the clause because it allegedly imposes an additional duty on local authorities, but in fact this duty is absolutely central to the local authority's ability to provide for the well-being of their communities. In one sense it states the obvious, but it also puts into context the clauses that follow it. If it is to work, local authorities will need to go through the processes outlined in the amendment. They will need to assess need, economic trends and likely future provision. No doubt there are better ways of drafting this provision, and I am certainly open to that, but somewhere in this Bill it is necessary to have a provision which sets out what local authorities must undertake. It is not prescriptive in terms of the methodology they use or the numbers they put into their assessments for future plans and strategies, nor is it presumptive in terms of the balance between different forms of housing and of tenure. But it does require local authorities to recognise these wider obligations.

If we do not have a provision such as this, which gives the wider context, it could be interpreted that all we are concerned about in this Bill is, in effect, increasing flexibility in the social housing market and reducing the constraints on it by raising rents and eroding security of tenure, excluding from our richer areas people who are paying their rent with housing benefit and, effectively, trying to squeeze out of the existing stock a greater use of social housing. However, even if all that was to work-by and large I am against most of it-it would not solve the problem of the housing shortage across the board. We need to look at our housing supply and new build so as to offer quality and choice to our population. In the absence of a policy from the top down-although I do not dispute that-we need one that is built up local authority by local authority. That should be seen in this Bill and more widely as a central responsibility of the local authority in conjunction with its community. This clause would set the context in which that operates, so I hope that the Government will give at least some consideration, if not to accepting the precise wording of the amendment, to accepting the intention behind it. I beg to move.