Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:32 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 9:32 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, my contribution to this debate considers the issue of housing in the context of health, welfare and several other aspects of the gracious Speech. My theme, to quote a Canadian saying, is that housing is the home of all issues. I declare my interest as president of the Local Government Association, chair of the Hanover Housing Association, chair of the council of the Property Ombudsman and, since I will touch on related matters in the context of the forthcoming Care Bill, a member of the advisory board of the Equity Release Council.

The fundamental housing requirement, which is of equal concern to all the main political parties, is to secure the building of far more homes to reduce the acute housing shortages that are the underlying cause of homelessness, overcrowding, high rents and low standards of accommodation. However, the benefits of a boost to housebuilding go much wider. It is the construction industry that can act as the engine of growth, as it always has done in previous recessions. Within that industry it is housebuilding that delivers the biggest bang in terms of jobs, not least in maintaining, modernising and upgrading the energy efficiency of existing homes. I hope that the Government can strengthen the connection between youth unemployment, now at 20% and carrying the terrible danger of a lifetime of worthlessness if skills are not acquired, and the opportunities for training and jobs presented by investment in new homes.

We have all admired the contribution of migrant building workers, particularly from Poland, but there is much to be said for investment in apprenticeships and training in the building industry for our own young people. To capitalise on this chance of tackling two huge social issues simultaneously, youth unemployment and acute housing shortages, the Chartered Institute of Building and the Construction Industry Training Board, with the Youth Build Trust, have asked Nick Raynsford MP in the other place and me jointly to chair an inquiry by parliamentarians on this theme. I feel sure that the Government will want to support this initiative.

On other occasions I have commended the determination of the Minister for Planning to overcome barriers to much-needed housebuilding, including the obstacle of the seemingly universal local opposition to virtually any development. Recently, the Government have come forward with bold plans for help-to-buy mortgage guarantees and equity loans. There is always the danger that stimulating demand, rather than directly boosting supply, will simply push up prices. But as part of the mix, these financial measures could give the housebuilders confidence to get more homes built and on to the market. However, the private sector housebuilders will construct only around half the number of new homes needed to match the number of new households formed each year. We also need subsidised housing for those who cannot afford to purchase or to pay full market rents. Housing associations could double their output with the requisite funding through the Homes and Communities Agency and the Greater London Authority. This investment really should be a high priority for the Government’s forthcoming spending review. Now is the time to harness the lending capacity of councils, which used to match the output of the private sector and build half the country’s new housing, by removing the unnecessary cap on their prudential borrowing for housing purposes, as the LGA is advocating. This would enable local authorities to finance the building of some 60,000 extra homes, mostly on land that they already own, without the need for subsidy.

Some will argue that one area of housing on which there should have been an announcement in the Queen’s Speech is the regulation of the private rented sector. However, I was delighted that the efforts of your Lordships in support of the noble Baroness, Lady

Hayter, led the Government to bring forward an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill that will give the consumer greater protection by requiring all lettings and managing agents, who look after about 60% of the private rented sector, to be part of an independent ombudsman dispute resolution scheme.

Sadly, the Government did not listen to your Lordships on another housing issue on which they suffered successive defeats in this House—the issue of welfare reform, which has targeted support with housing costs for those on the lowest incomes. The caps, ceilings and limits on housing benefit and local housing allowances, which are more likely to deter private landlords from letting to poor people than to persuade landlords to reduce rents to help them, have been accompanied by the levy on housing association and council tenants deemed to have a spare room. I have been much criticised for naming this the bedroom tax, but I suspect that Ministers now regret introducing this controversial measure. This levy penalises those in work as well as those who must find the money from their other benefits by cutting back on basic essentials. It is not too late for the Government to moderate its impact through a major increase in the totally inadequate level of discretionary housing payments, which local authorities need to deploy in the many cases of hardship, and where tenants cannot be offered a suitable smaller property.

It should be noted that the housing associations whose tenants are hit by the welfare reform cuts are anticipating major problems of rent arrears. This not only means they must cut back on spending on new housing investment just when the Government need them to do more, but they will be less able to undertake the brilliant community work that so many of them have been doing to provide for those with special needs, to tackle anti-social behaviour—again, something that the gracious Speech makes clear is a government priority—or to support young people into training and jobs.

Finally, I want to note the immensely important link between housing and the Government’s plans for funding social care, which we will be debating when the Care Bill reaches us. The Government’s proposals, in seeking to assist those who encounter high social care costs, are welcome, but the help provided for those in residential care may not go as far as many have hoped. A large proportion of the fees will be excluded because they cover the board and lodging or hotel costs, while the care costs will be met only at low levels, probably well below the average in each area. By my calculations, in a typical case the individual would probably not be assisted until they had spent some £144,000. If their fees reached £300,000, they could expect only some £50,000 in support.

This is where housing issues come in. If an older person’s own home is manageable, warm, accessible, affordable and safe and secure, independent living can remain a sensible option for their lifetime, with care delivered to the home when needed. They can return home from hospital, perhaps after a short stay in a residential setting, and the emotional traumas and heavy cost of moving permanently into institutional care can be avoided. If their housing is right, the Dilnot inquiry’s key recommendation for limiting care costs can work well and vital savings can be made to the NHS and social care budgets. This argues for priority within the hoped for boost to housebuilding to go to developing really high-quality older people’s housing. This has the enormous added benefit of freeing up for the next generation some of the 4.2 million houses occupied by pensioners that have more than two spare bedrooms.

The interrelationship between housing and care also argues for more and better opportunities for safe and sensible equity release schemes. These can enable home owners to recycle some of the wealth tied up in their home to do the improvements that will cut their fuel bills, make the adaptations such as replacing a bath with a walk-in shower, and generally ensure that it is not their home that forces them into residential care. Giving priority to the nation’s housing can not only change the lives of young and old but can support the Government’s wider ambitions for reviving the economy, tackling youth unemployment, reducing social care and health costs and so much more. I hope that the Government are listening.