Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:53 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 5:53 pm, 2nd June 2015

I want to speak mainly about housing and, in so doing, I remind the House of my various declared interests and particularly that of being deputy leader of Pendle Council. I have been interested to hear all sorts of spokespeople claiming that the new Conservative Government have a massive mandate for pretty well every detail in their manifesto. I suggest that this is nonsense; they clearly won the election under the first-past-the-post system and have the right to form a Government, but they did so on 37% of the vote, which means that nearly two out of three people who voted voted against the present Government. Indeed, only 25% of eligible voters voted for them. So the idea that they have an overwhelming commitment by the people of this country to all the things in their manifesto is a slightly dodgy argument.

I was extremely interested in the extraordinarily good speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, on housing associations and social housing. We look forward to the housing Bill coming to this House, at least in a chronological sense, if not in the sense of its contents. I would advise the Government, if they ever listen to me, to look very carefully indeed at that speech, reprint it and get lots of advice on it. It referred to a huge number of the problems that the Bill will have, if reports are true, and the debates that will take place on it here, as well as the problems that the Government will have in persuading us that they are right on these matters.

I shall take a brief total overview of housing in this country. There is nothing original about what I am going to say, but it is worth putting it yet again on record. First, owner-occupation is for many people a good thing. It means that people own their own houses and put their efforts, money and resources into that property to keep it in good condition. Very often, people in owner-occupied houses live in those houses for longer than those who live in private rented accommodation, so it is good for creating communities. However, this was not always Conservative policy. In the 1930s and 1950s, the idea of ownership for all, as it was called, was promoted by the Liberal Party, particularly by that stalwart Yorkshire Liberal, Elliott Dodds. That received a lukewarm reception from the Conservatives until Harold Macmillan got a grip on it, and got a grip on the housebuilding programme in the 1950s.

For many people, however, owning their house is either not possible, or only marginally possible, or not convenient. We have to remember that and make proper provision for those people who cannot do so. Certainly, in the first half of the 20th century, the Conservatives were more interested in private landlords. It is worth looking at the statistics over the years. In 1918, only 23% of properties were owner-occupied, there was virtually no social housing as we know it, and the private rented sector was 77% of the total housing stock. By the middle of the 1950s, that was reversed and by 2005, which was the peak of owner-occupation, it was 69% of all housing. By 1990, the private rented sector had gone down to 9%. These are a mixture of English and UK figures, but they are very similar anyhow. Yet by 2013, the proportion of people owning their own houses had started to go down; in that year, it was only 63%, whereas it had been 69%. Social housing had filled the gap; originally it was council housing, which at one stage occupied most of the rented housing market. Yet council housing has been in decline and the rise in social housing has not filled the gap. In 1980, 31% of houses in the UK were owned by local authorities; that figure is now down to 7%. The change that has taken place is astonishing. Housing associations have come in with 10%, but the amount of social rented housing has gone down from 31% in 1980 to 18% in 2013. Of course, the private rented sector is filling the gap; having gone down from 77% in 1918 to 9% in 1990, it is now back up to 20%.

The deregulation of rents and the rights of tenants has had a huge effect—but another reason for this change is that if you go to council estates anywhere in the country you see “to let” boards up. Those are on houses owned by private landlords. Council estates are being sold cheap to tenants, and when the purchasers move on for very good reasons, they put them on the market and buy-to-let people move in. In January 2014, London Assembly Member Tom Copley—he is not in my party, but that does not matter—produced a report, From Right to Buy to Buy to Let. Although the statistics are difficult to pin down because the Government do not tend to keep them, he found that, by 2013, at least 36% of homes in London sold cheaply under right to buy had been sold on to private landlords. That figure will obviously now be higher. In three boroughs, it was around half. One of the fundamental questions is: why will it be different under right to buy from housing associations?

When this Bill comes, I shall tell the House all about the situation in Pendle, which is very different from London. It is a low-price housing area. Rents and house prices are low, but the impossibility of replacing existing stock as it is sold off is the same. There are different reasons, but it is just the same.

In her opening speech, which was admirably succinct and coherent, the Minister said that 90% of people aspire to owner-occupation. This strange word “aspiration” seems to be taking over political debate at the moment in all parties. I do not quite know what it means. We all aspire to all sorts of things. I might aspire to owing an express steam locomotive and being able to drive it up and down the main lines of this country, but I am never going to do it. I would love to do it. If someone says, “Would you like to do it?”, I will say, “Yeah, great idea—I’d love it”, but when it comes to politics, aspiration seems to be a nice word, a euphemism, that actually means ways of bribing voters with public money to vote for a political party. That seems fundamentally wrong. There is a severe housing crisis in this country. The Government are not tackling it—no Governments have adequately tackled it in my time—and the proposals for right to buy in social housing are seriously misconceived.