Housing: Rented Sector — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:26 pm on 12th July 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:26 pm, 12th July 2012

My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of one flat that is rented but also as the mother of three members of the very angry brigade. I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Rendell for initiating our debate today with her customary passion and insight. The debate is important for individuals and families but also for our urban and rural communities, and our society as a whole. My noble friend raised fundamentally disturbing issues affecting thousands of people up and down the country. A house or flat is not just a matter of bricks and mortar; it is a home. It provides shelter, sanctuary and safety, and has a profound effect on physical and mental well-being. It is a place that should give an individual and families security, and a nest from which to thrive.

As we have heard, exorbitant house prices and a scarcity of good quality social housing have forced many families to rely on the private rented sector, where many fall prey to unscrupulous landlords and are compelled to reside in abysmal living conditions that fail to meet even the Government's decent home standard-based on the statutory minimum standard for housing. The fact that this basic standard is all too often not met is a national disgrace. Shelter warns that even satisfactory quality homes are too expensive for many, particularly now in the era of the double-dip recession. I recently met a family with two children living in an ex-council flat in Paddington for which the private landlord charged £2,100 a month. That cannot be a fair rent. They relied on the help of housing benefit but of course it was the landlord who derived the greatest benefit. Just over two in five homes in the private rented sector in England, or 44%, fail to meet even the decent home standard. This represents a major housing issue, which is undoubtedly contributing to the deterioration of quality of life for many families and individuals in this country.

Poor living conditions create a plethora of social problems that affect all members of society and strike at the cohesiveness of the family unit. Substandard accommodation leads to an increased risk of ill health and chronic health conditions, and can lead to poor school performance, particularly for those struggling on the lowest incomes. These are the people least able to escape from poor living conditions as they have fewer, and in most cases absolutely no alternative, housing options. Earlier this year, I met a woman who had been moved into privately rented rooms which she had to hoover three times a day because of the cockroaches that covered the floors and other surfaces.

It is reported that the private rented sector is home to approximately 1 million families with children-twice the number of a decade ago. Save the Children warns us that almost 2 million children in the UK are growing up in cold, damp, temporary or overcrowded housing. That is the latest official estimate from the DCLG. Bad housing has potentially irreversible effects on children's health, well-being and educational achievement, restricting their life chances indefinitely. A child's future health and life prospects are built upon the foundations of the quality of care it receives as a young child and the quality of the housing in which it lives. The problems faced by families will undoubtedly increase because of rising levels of families and individuals forced to rent in the private rented sector and declining owner occupation. Of particular concern is the fact that the private rented sector remains subject to inadequate regulation.

In order to strengthen the rights of tenants, Shelter has called on the Government to make a number of crucial changes to housing policy, including working more closely with local authorities to prioritise the prosecution of rogue landlords, and strengthening the law to permit the banning of people from being landlords if they have unspent convictions relating to previous landlord offences. Indeed, should not unscrupulous landlords who force families to live in squalid conditions be permanently banned? Save the Children reminds us of the 2008 Rugg review by the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York, which proposed PRS regulation, including a national register of landlords, mandatory licensing for letting agents and written tenancy agreements.

It is imperative that the quality of private rented sector housing is better regulated, particularly as the significance of the sector continues to rise. Home ownership levels fell from approximately 70% of households in 2001 to 65.2% by 2010, while private renting grew from 10.1% to 17.4%, and social renting decreased from 20% to 17.5%. The exponential rise of the private rented sector, combined with the poor regulation of landlords and the substandard condition of many properties, has created abysmal living conditions for many families and individuals.

I draw noble Lords' attention to what I regard as very good practice in the Labour council of Newham, led by the excellent Sir Robin Wales. On the basis of a successful pilot of a neighbourhood improvement zone, Newham is now expanding a licensing scheme to include all private landlords in the borough. This is the first ever borough-wide licensing scheme and will give an unprecedented ability to drive up standards across the borough. The licence carries conditions which the landlord or managing agent must abide by, mostly around the management of the property. The system is financially fair to landlords. A scaled fee structure is being introduced so that compliant-that is to say, good-landlords do not have to carry the costs of licensing "rogue" landlords. The licensing scheme will allow the council to identify and engage the non co-operative landlords, which simply is not possible with voluntary schemes. It will enforce on a "worse first" basis, focusing activity on non-compliant landlords. Landlords who abide by the conditions of the licence will be able to get on with their business without intervention.

That is exactly the sort of scheme that, as a Labour Government, I hope we would introduce across the whole of this country. We would all agree that the need for security of housing tenure is pivotal to a stable home environment. Private tenants are typically provided with negligible security, due in part to the prevalent assured shorthold tenancy, which is widely used by landlords. Many examples have been given this afternoon of families having to move on many occasions because of the whims or greed of private landlords, who refuse to make the appropriate repairs to their properties. Such instability is a nightmare for families and can contribute to both insecurity and chaotic lifestyles. How can children thrive academically who have to move four or five times within a couple of years? How can they thrive in a stable condition in schools if they have to move time after time?

The Localism Act opened up the prospect of reducing security of tenure for social housing, yet security of tenure in the private rented sector is very weak; it is essentially six months. Dreading eviction, families often do not feel that they are able to report instances of disrepair or problems with damp, for example. In the event that they do complain, these requests are frequently ignored, and there is very little recourse for these families.

Recent changes to the housing benefit system-now setting the limit at the 30th percentile-is causing those reliant on benefit to be restricted to the cheaper end of the market. These are the very properties that typically do not meet even the minimum decent homes standard. The underoccupation rules for social housing will force some families out of existing accommodation and into the private rented sector, adding yet greater pressure. Research by Shelter and other housing organisations indicates that a large proportion of private rented properties bar housing benefit claimants from private tenancies. That is especially a problem in London.

The policy mooted by the Prime Minister that housing benefit should be denied to young people under 25 shows a profound lack of understanding of the lives of real people. Many young people who receive housing benefit are on low wages. They are working and trying to contribute to the economy, but they simply do not have enough money that is needed to pay the rent. My noble friend referred to food banks; sometimes it is precisely these young people who now have to resort to food banks. Just last week, I heard of a food bank in Salisbury that focuses on people who are in work but receive such low wages that they cannot afford to buy the food that is necessary to provide for their families.

We hear whispers that a government-commissioned review of the private rented sector by Sir Adrian Montague is likely to recommend sweeping changes to planning and funding rules. It will favour the private rented sector over building new affordable homes, which will further exacerbate the limited opportunities for home ownership. It is also suggested that this may extend to recommendations to the Government to offer loans, in place of grants, to support large-scale new build private rented sector schemes. This could have devastating consequences for the nurturing and development of the affordable housing sector. I would be grateful if the Minister can give me an assurance that the Government are not abandoning an affordable housing strategy, nor seeking to replace social housing with wide-scale private rented housing, and a promise that they will not be distorting housing policy towards private rented housing at the expense of the protection of social housing.

The degree of housing need in our country, driven by longer life expectancy and an increasing tendency for single households, must be addressed. At least 240,000 new homes need to be delivered per year to meet the formation of new households. In 2008, a National Housing and Planning Advice Unit assessment showed that a minimum of 240,000 homes would be needed annually to keep pace with demand. Just 102,730 new homes were built in 2010, which represents more than 15,000 fewer homes than the previous year. It is certainly fewer than were built in the last year of the Labour Government. Government initiatives are simply not delivering.

Labour made some significant progress when it was in government; our decent homes programme made a significant difference to the quality of council housing. We also planned to improve regulation of the private rented sector, but these plans have since been abandoned by the coalition. However, I readily admit that in government we did not do enough to provide housing for people. Housing must and will be a priority for the next Labour Government, and I assure my noble friend Lord Sawyer that we are indeed working on that issue now.

The quality of living standards for families and individuals must be addressed, as must the plight of those living in substandard accommodation. Poor housing and living conditions create a plethora of social problems that will touch and be detrimental to all parts of society. Sadly, poor housing and anti-social behaviour are often linked. This affects individuals and families, but also the wider community. The growing housing crisis will not abate without action. Steps need to be taken now to address that crisis, including the dismal and sometimes desperate problems suffered by those who live in expensive-and too often substandard-private rented accommodation. It could be said that all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon belong to the ageing angry brigade, and we look forward to the response from the Minister.