Motion to Take Note

Part of Housing – in the House of Lords at 12:20 pm on 19th January 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat 12:20 pm, 19th January 2012

My Lords, I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss housing given to us today by my noble friend. I must declare one or two interests: I am a vice-president of the fuel poverty group National Energy Action, vice-president of the National Home Improvement Council and president of the Micropower Council.

I often reflect on why an interest in decent homes has dominated my political career. It is probably due to a couple of early experiences in my life. First, I spent my teenage years moving from one rented property to another, barely staying in any of them for as much as 12 months. Secondly, in my early 20s, I lived in the most wonderful newly built flat in Stockholm, Sweden, that was very well appointed and properly designed. It was insulated to a level where my fuel bills were a whole lot cheaper than they had been in my box in England before I arrived, despite the fact that one winter I experienced temperatures of minus 27 degrees centigrade outside.

On my return, I lived in the city of Southampton. In large chunks of the area I was living in there were a lot of properties in disrepair and a lot of empty properties. Some of that was because in those days we had a stop-start on whether there was to be a by-pass around that particular area. That is where my first political campaigning came in, as we tried to do something about the empty properties and to improve run-down housing in my area-so much so that I can still remember the name of the first house that we succeeded in getting done: it was 23 Langhorn Road, Swaythling, Southampton. I think it is still there as a rented property.

Over the years, I have served as a city councillor in Southampton on the housing committee and I have been a spokesperson on housing for the Liberal Democrats across both Houses of Parliament. Over that time, I have seen all sorts of policies come and go. Recently, one-right-to-buy-has come and gone and may come back again in some way. What has saddened me over the years is, first, the inability of Governments to have comprehensive housing strategies. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has explained how difficult that is, and he has been through it in government and is looking at it from outside government now. Those strategies must actually connect across the sectors. The second thing that has saddened me is the inability of Governments to track the changes and trends and to develop policies and actions for the long term rather than the short term. They are always trying to fix the latest crisis.

If I look at some of the problems-and previous speakers have talked about them already ready this morning-many of them are the same problems that were there when I started in this area. We have vast quantities of older housing stock that is in disrepair. We have vast numbers of properties standing empty and we do not have enough affordable homes across all the sectors. That leads to homelessness, which goes up and down, as well as to repossessions and other factors that go up and down. We also have large numbers of homes that are incredibly difficult to keep warm, and many of the most vulnerable in our society are living in those homes and living in fuel poverty.

What is even more disconcerting is that we failed to address many of these problems even over the years when our economy was growing quite strongly. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to this, but I have to say that I was particularly disappointed that, when the Labour Government were in power, they had huge receipts from stamp duty as the price of houses went up but very little of that money was actually ploughed back into trying to do something about the problems that we face today.

I welcome the fact that the coalition has put forward this housing strategy. It is a difficult subject to cover and this strategy is only the beginning of what people would like to do. I strongly concur with my noble friend Lord Stoneham in his opening remarks about the challenges and where the strategy stands. However, as others have said, strategies are not enough; the challenge is to make them effective in practice. One of the things I welcome is that there is an action plan, with some timetables, in the back of the strategy, on which I will ask some questions as I go on. I hope that when the Minister winds up she will be able to reassure us that there will be plenty of mechanisms in place to monitor and evaluate the progress we are making, so that we do not end up with schemes that are announced to great fanfare but actually run into the sand and do not go anywhere. We have all seen that happen.

Given my opening remarks, it is not surprising that I want to concentrate on two particular policy areas: empty homes, and the energy efficiency of homes and those in disrepair. First, the figures for empty homes have not changed much in recent years, although they have gone up and down a bit. We have possibly up to 1 million long-term empty homes across the United Kingdom. Many of them are privately owned but there are large numbers of empty homes owned by the Government and local authorities. It is probably fair to say that we have made better progress with bringing local authority and government-owned homes back into use than we have managed in the private sector.

The part of the strategy devoted to empty homes is particularly strong. Over the years, I have been involved on and off with the Empty Homes Agency, which is particularly glowing in its words about this part of the report:

"In previous government housing strategies it has been hard to see any mention of the potential of empty homes to meet housing supply. This strategy however devotes one of it's seven chapters exclusively to the issue, and has for the first time directed specific funding at getting empty homes into use. Whatever you might think of the government's approach ( and we think more could still be done) it is clear that at a time when less public money is being invested in housing, more is being invested in empty homes. There is no escaping the conclusion that the government thinks this is a viable and cost effective source of housing, and has put their money where their mouth is. For that they should be congratulated".

As someone who has been in this area for a number of years, I am very pleased.

The Government are proposing a new £100 million empty homes grants programme, which will pay out towards the capital costs of getting homes into use. Although the grants cannot be used on housing association and local authority homes, as I said, the private sector is the area that we have found most difficult. As part of this, there is also a community grants scheme, whereby community groups, charities and housing co-operatives will be able to apply for funding. I know that the Government are trying to make the bureaucracy of dealing with these issues as simple as possible. We were told to expect the community grants programme before the end of the year but it has not opened yet. Can the Minister give us an update on where we are on that? In addition, there is a new grant fund of £50 million, funded separately and aimed at areas where there has been housing market renewal collapse. The story of how those things have been dealt with has not been a happy one.

There is also something called the new homes bonus, which was not originally intended for empty homes but the Government have seen the sense of including empty homes in this. Councils will be rewarded for increasing housing supply, and if new homes are brought back into use, they will get a bonus, whether they dealt with it or not. Looking at the various figures, it could be up to £10,000 per property in some areas. The Government have looked at empty dwelling management orders-something the last Government brought in-and they have looked at some of the experience and changed those a little. I do not know whether they have any other plans on that, but maybe the Minister can talk to us about it.

The other thing that the Government are doing, which is quite contentious and has been over the years, is to consult on changes to council tax exemptions and discounts to see how we might influence people with empty properties. It is a bit of a tricky one, because if you do not give them a discount at all people will not come and tell you that their properties are empty and it is rather harder to collect the figures. I am also disappointed that over the years, although we have changed it, councils have been unable to use any money that they have made out of changes to the rules. The Government are consulting on that, so I wonder whether the Minister has a timetable for that and how well it is going.

As I say, the Government are putting a lot of work into providing guidance and help to local authorities to help to take up these proposals. Will the Minister tell us what else they are thinking about? Over the years there was a scheme called "Flats over shops", which tried in town centres to bring back empty properties over shops. I wonder whether they are looking seriously at this again. Also, what about redundant offices, and so on? That was not part of the programme. Could the Minister tell me whether the Government are considering that further?

Secondly, I want to move on to disrepair and energy efficiency in homes. I am a bit disappointed that there is not more on that area in the strategy. I recognise that sustainability and energy efficiency are being tackled in some other areas, but there is a lot of consultation on sustainability in new build, whereas a large proportion of our housing stock was built before the First World War and we have been very slow to bring it up to a decent standard. Over that time, even our new houses are still doing catch-up when we look at the standard of housing that we see in our neighbours in northern Europe and Scandinavia, particularly with energy efficiency.

Progress was made during the years of the last Labour Government, but people who want to spend money to make their homes better and more energy efficient still find it quite difficult to know where to go and what grants they can get. It is a challenge to us even now in government as to how you can help policies to be joined up and do not have too many little bits of things happening all over the place. So I hope that the coalition can do better with this.

There are very ambitious plans for the Green Deal, although it will be a serious challenge to make it work, for reasons that I have just explained. In that respect, I am pleased that the Government recognised the role of local authorities in helping to co-ordinate a joined-up approach to improvements. Over the years, when I was a Member of the House of Commons, I helped to steer a Bill through that was about energy efficiency in homes. That was at the end of the Major Government. Unfortunately, Labour let it wither on the vine a bit and when our Government came in I am afraid that they thought they wanted to get rid of it as well. I am very pleased that, as the Energy Bill was going through Parliament, they realised that there was something there that would be of use, although it has now been repealed. I believe that those measures will enable more joined-up thinking locally among all the people who will be involved in the Green Deal.

One other area that I am pleased the Government have committed to, although we will see how it works out, is that of properties that are not in very good condition-the really poor end of the private rented sector. We had big discussions about this when the Green Deal was going through, and I am very pleased that the Government have committed themselves to ensuring that some of the very worst properties that are rated F and G will not be allowed to be left out in future years. However, if we are really to help with the refurbishment and improvement, we need to look at the question of VAT. New build is zero-rated, whereas refurbishment and repair is taxed at 20 per cent, except for some defined categories where the rate is reduced to 5 per cent. But it is so complicated that many people do not know where they can get the reductions, and when they try to get them it is even more complicated-many little builders still do not understand it. I know that a response on VAT is probably not in the Minister's winding-up notes today, but I hope that she can take the matter back to her government colleagues and make the point that this is an important issue that affects how we see the housing market develop and how we are going to deal with disrepair.

In conclusion, I think that we have made a good start, but it depends on what happens in future and whether we monitor it properly and react at the right time.