Localism Bill — Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:27 pm on 5th September 2011.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 3:27 pm, 5th September 2011

My Lords, I hope that I and my colleagues will keep to that.

In moving Amendment 1, I declare an interest as chair of a recently formed campaign group, Housing Voice. Amendment 1 is very similar to an amendment which was debated in Committee and it sets the provisions on social housing under the Bill in a wider context. This reconfigured amendment takes account of the response given by the Minister to that amendment. Like everyone else, I want to get on to the amendments that deal with the detailed issues which were not debated or replied to in Committee, so I shall not go over all the arguments again.

Simply, there are three reasons why we need an overarching commitment to the role of local authorities within housing as a whole. First, under localism, and as a result of other things, including the abolition of regional housing targets, local authorities have now become the major driver for achieving housing policy across the country. This follows more than two decades when the housing responsibilities of local authorities under both Governments have been somewhat reduced and their direct control as landlords has substantially reduced. This Bill and its consequences will put local authorities and a lot of the strategy relating to housing back on to local authority shoulders.

Secondly, I think we all recognise that housing is in crisis in terms of its provision, availability and affordability, and I shall just repeat one statistic. Household formation in this country is now running at twice the rate of the provision of new housing. Thirdly, that crisis affects all forms of tenure-owner occupation, the private rented sector and social housing-as well as mortgage markets. Therefore, it needs to be tackled holistically and there is a key role for local authorities in that. That should be put clearly at the beginning of this section on housing and the strategic responsibilities spelled out up front.

In reply to me in Committee, the Minister referred to other legislation where a strategic responsibility was already imposed on local authorities. As a result of her remarks, I have looked at those pieces of legislation and cross-referred to them in this new amendment. They are either rather specific or rather general. The Minister also referred to guidance in this area. Of course, the guidance is in the process of being changed to become somewhat more general, so the existing statutory references and the guidance are rather too vague. It is therefore in the context of localism and of the effective devolution of strategic responsibility to local authorities that we need a strategic responsibility in this House, rather than further ghettoising social housing, as there is a slight tendency to do in the Bill. The Bill would make significant changes to the way in which social housing operates without cross-reference to the effect of the changes on other forms of tenure, or indeed vice versa.

We will come to debate the provisions, on which there will be strongly differing views, but my central point is that almost none of them can be confined to social housing. They will have effects on the private rented market. That is referred to in part in the homelessness provisions but nowhere else. They will also have effects on the demand for affordable mortgages, on planning, on development, on homelessness and on how local authorities deal with empty properties. The consequences of some of the provisions will be that social housing is seen as a residual housing responsibility rather than part of this whole. Whatever one thinks of those policies and the parallel policies dealing with the benefit side in the Welfare Reform Bill that we will debate next week, one cannot deny that the present housing crisis means that the pressures on social housing by restrictions on access to tenancies, or by raising rents, will cause further pressures on the private rented sector and the mortgage market. Nor can one deny that the effects of moving relatively high income groups of current social tenants out of the social tenancy market will also have those effects.

This Bill will make radical changes on social housing. It removes security of tenure for future tenants, abolishes most rights of inheritance and abolishes the financial framework under the HRA. It makes the availability of social housing effectively means-tested and the Welfare Reform Bill caps housing benefit. One can query whether that is consistent with the Government's overall strategy to move people from benefit to work, but nevertheless it will have those effects. There are also changes, which we will debate shortly, to the obligation of local authorities on homelessness. It will therefore push working families into the private rented or affordable mortgage market and may well drive the working poor in many parts of the country out of social housing and to change their location from the inner cities, putting pressure on areas where perhaps it is not currently so great. Except in relation to homelessness, there is no cross reference to those pressures.

Pressures are likely to increase and we will see a spiral increase in demand. A low rate of new build is continuing and the level of rents and access to mortgages and deposits on mortgages are all still going up. The latest reports suggest no let-up in that tendency. We need a clause of this nature in the housing provisions of a Localism Bill. We also need local authorities to co-operate with each other, which will be discussed in the planning provisions of this Bill. Whatever we decide on the provision for social housing, and assuming that the rest of the Bill more or less stands-especially if it stands as it is-we need social housing measures now clearly devolved to local government level to be placed within this wider context. We therefore need a clause such as this.

The existing provisions are not adequate. I appreciate that the Government may not like the wording of this proposed new clause, so if they want to take it away and come up with a better version in time for Third Reading, I am not proud and would be very happy if they were to give that commitment. Such a provision is absolutely needed. I beg to move.