My Lords, I remind the House of my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association. I have found it surprising that the gracious Speech says virtually nothing about housing, the financial problems of local government, the funding of adult social care, or the future of business rates and the Local Government Finance Bill. I hope that when the Minister replies he will be able to give some greater clarity on each of those matters.
It does not help to promote the case for more house building when housing is not seen by the Government as requiring a Minister of Cabinet rank—I think it does. Despite the very good work being done by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and other colleagues, it needs a Cabinet Minister in the lead. Despite the commitment of the Prime Minister to stand up for social tenants in the face of the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, there is no indication in the gracious Speech of what this amounts to. The Speech simply says:
“Proposals will be brought forward to … help ensure more homes are built”.
It does not say how many or what their tenure will be. Does the commitment of the last Minister for Housing to build a net 1 million new homes by 2020 still stand, or has the commitment altered to building 1.5 million by 2022, as outlined in the Conservative Party’s manifesto? I ask because consultation on the housing White Paper ended several weeks ago, but it would help to know when the Government will set out their plans as a consequence of that consultation. They know that there is broad support for getting more homes built, using every financial lever available, including permitting local authorities to borrow using the prudential code.
The housing crisis is getting worse. New house sales dropped 7% in 2016 in England and Wales. Government-funded homes built for social rent fell to just 1,102 in 2016-17. Shelter recently reported that 1 million households face their housing benefit not covering their rent. The problem is that we have been building around 100,000 new homes too few every year for at least 20 years. That failure to build more has resulted in high prices and high rents with 20% of households now dependent on the private rented sector. Most of them are in no position to buy, because an average home now costs eight times average annual earnings.
In our own manifesto, and elsewhere, we have made a number of suggestions. I will remind the Minister of something I have said previously in this Chamber. The Government need to change the balance of their housing investment. Only 16% of their planned housing investment will directly support the building of new affordable homes: it should be higher. The Government should take action to stop unnecessary land banking. They should permit much higher levels of taxation on properties that are bought to leave empty as investment properties. I hope they will take action to help leaseholders buy out spiralling ground rent contracts. Leasehold purchases represented 22% of all sales 20 years ago; today it is 43% and in London it is much higher. Will the Government increase funding for supported housing which, if provided, could pay for itself through reducing public spending overall? Do they have plans to abandon the policy of selling off high-value council housing? This is rumoured but not confirmed. Will the Government directly commission the building of homes on unwanted public land? All these proposals would help. Having said that, I welcome the draft tenant fees Bill to ban unfair tenant fees imposed by private landlords. I hope that it will include a cap on deposits.
I wish to say something further about the shocking tragedy of Grenfell Tower. The public inquiry is being set up, but it needs to report speedily on building regulations and safety checks. Immediate action is needed—probably as a consequence of an interim report by the public inquiry, but action needs to be taken very quickly. All councils will have to review the speed of their reaction in terms of their emergency plans. The Government should look at annual electricity safety checks. At present, these are not required; in my view, they should be. I hope that the Government will listen much more to tenants to ensure tenant participation works effectively.
I propose that the Government should adopt the following value—that someone in work on the living wage should be able to afford to live reasonably close to where they work. Might the Government share that aim?