My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-president of the Local Government Association and of National Energy Action. As has been said, this is a wide-ranging Bill, in which the housing elements should be seen in the context of the Housing and Planning Bill that we shall shortly be considering. I shall concentrate tonight on issues relating to the future of social housing for rent, the particular difficulties the Bill presents for supported housing and its potential negative impact on delivering welfare-to-work programmes.
I am becoming very concerned about what seems to be clear government policy not to prioritise the social housing sector, nor to support new build-for-rent adequately. In a recent report, the estate agency Savills found that the Government’s focus on boosting home ownership is set to exclude 70,000 more households each year from either buying or renting at a cost people can afford. I am unclear why the Government are so set on promoting owner-occupation, to the exclusion of social renting, and seek to deliver three-quarters of their promise to promote affordable housing through starter homes for sale with a 20% discount. In terms of providing homes to rent, this is not enough as a policy. It will not meet demand and it will not help those who cannot afford to buy.
In terms of supported housing, social housing providers play a critical role in keeping costs down, particularly for the National Health Service, but also for public spending generally. The case of homelessness is an example. In 2012, the Department for Communities and Local Government concluded that an individual being homeless cost the Government between £24,000 and £30,000 a year. It is much cheaper to prevent homelessness arising in the first place and supported housing is part of the means of doing that. The cost of placement in extra-care housing is much cheaper than alternative placements or care packages. There is, therefore, a strong case for the Government to exempt housing for vulnerable people from the 1% cut in rents each year for the next four years proposed in the Bill. Without that exemption, the reduction in rent income could result in fewer refuges, fewer homelessness hostels, fewer homes for veterans and fewer homes for people with disabilities, with the additional public spending that would entail.
The Bill was amended in the other place to allow for the possibility of organisational waivers. Given that the Government have accepted, in their own impact assessment, published at the end of September, that,
“the rent reduction measures may disproportionately impact on supported housing and may cause a reduction in service provision”,
the case for housing for vulnerable people being exempt from the rent decrease provisions in the Bill is very strong.
I move on to local authority housing. There is a difference between the impact of the Bill on housing associations and on local councils. Typically, the rents are higher in housing association properties and housing associations generally carry more reserves. The level of annual surplus for some housing associations is very high—in some cases well into the tens of millions of pounds. This may well be one of the factors in the Government’s wish to reduce rents. However, council housing revenue accounts are different, with little or no annual surplus contributions to general funds. The view from this sector seems to be that it will have to consolidate and concentrate on core business with the extra services it provides, which in some instances can be very important, facing withdrawal. There will, therefore, be a slowdown in new building across the sector, which is most certainly not in the public interest. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, alluded to this. Have the Government assessed the impact on new build, since councils need to be confident about their ability to borrow? Constant changes in rent income levels do not help them and, if they are not helped to build, more prospective tenants will be forced into the private rented sector with its higher rents and an adverse impact, as a consequence, on the housing benefit bill.
A further impact of the Bill relates to social housing provider schemes to develop employability for tenants. It may not continue in the way that it has, yet the outputs for the level of spend are impressive. An example is Your Homes Newcastle, which is where I live. In 2014-15, 64 people were employed through either the Your Homes Your Jobs programme or an apprenticeship programme, with 83% moving into permanent employment. Some 42 tenants were supported to create their own businesses and in excess of 200 tenants received employment support through training programmes provided by Your Homes Newcastle. All this could be in danger of being lost. There are many similar examples that could be provided and of which I hope the
Minister is aware. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will explain whether the Government have plans to enable social housing providers to maintain and, indeed, enhance their welfare-to-work programmes, given the critical role they play in addressing low skills and barriers to employment and reducing social exclusion. These bodies deliver welfare to work, in line with government policy, for large numbers of people and I suggest to the Minister that it would be highly retrograde if this were to be lost.