Housing: Availability and Affordability - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 12th October 2017.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Leigh Lord Smith of Leigh Labour 11:51 am, 12th October 2017

My Lords, this is a timely debate for this House and I am grateful for the number of noble Lords who have expressed an interest in participating. I am sure that we will have a lively and interesting debate, and I see that we have a Minister who has considerable experience of housing in the past. I need to start by declaring my personal interests: I am leader of Wigan Council and also a vice-president of the LGA.

Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities, speaking at the Conservative conference last week, told us that the housing market is broken—we can all agree with that statement, I think. But there are many views on the way forward to fix it. The Government are really just tinkering around with the problem, not looking at the fundamental issues that will lead us to improving that market. Whatever way we want to look at housing, the market is in crisis. This country is failing to deliver the number of houses we require by a substantial margin. It is suggested that we need a minimum of 250,000 houses a year—300,000 is probably nearer the mark and was the number in the Conservative manifesto for the last election, so let us see what comes from that. The latest figures show that we are well over 100,000 short of that figure. The contribution of council houses was a mere 1,600—and there are 1.2 million people on council house waiting lists.

We can see the impact of the shortfall on both houses prices and rents in the private sector. In 2000, house prices were about four times average income; they are now about eight times average income. One in seven of those renting is spending more than half their income on rent. This increase in housing costs has the biggest effect on those who are trying to get into the housing market in their 20s and 30s and on those who have the lowest incomes. Too many families are trapped in poor-quality housing. It affects their health, their children’s education and their whole life experience. We are failing to give these families their right to decent housing.

In advance of the Prime Minister’s contribution to the Conservative conference, it was trailed that we would see a return to the era of Harold Macmillan. When he was a rather reluctant—I understand—housing minister in the Churchill Government of 1951, he managed to achieve an amazing 300,000 houses a year, of which 250,000 were council houses—an amazing proportion. The Prime Minister’s statement promised a figure that seemed generous but when it was unspun meant the delivery of an additional 5,000 properties for social rent per annum. That is nowhere near the figures that Macmillan achieved and obviously not the figure we need.

However, I welcome the Government’s recognition of the role of council houses. It is about time that we recognised that local authorities have a role in providing them, but we do not need these little initiatives which will not stimulate the sector. The Government need to change fundamentally the restrictions on council housing to ensure that local authorities have the freedom to borrow for housing. Why can they not do this? They borrow for other things: why not housing? It is incredible.

The right to buy is controversial, but why should local authorities not keep all the moneys from the right to buy as that would enable them to build more new properties and give them greater flexibility to use the assets of housing as security against borrowing? Councils need not more money but freedom and flexibility to enable them to get on with the task of building more properties.

Local authorities clearly also have a role through housing planning. The Government seem to think that in the last few years a blockage has arisen in the planning system and that local authorities are not approving houses in sufficient numbers, so they have reduced the ability of local authorities to refuse planning permission. However, at the end of the day over 90% of applications to local authorities have been approved. The problem was that not all those approvals led to real building. Sometimes developers held onto land, hoping that its value would rise even more before they would commit to building.

The Government have previously stated that they prefer development on brownfield sites, which is a principle that I think we can all share. However, although the principle is fine, the practice is not quite what it seems, because Defra has reduced the subsidy for remediation of brownfield sites. In many areas such as my own, former industrial sites need to be cleaned up before new developments can be built on them. The Government reduced the grant for that and now it has gone away totally. That affects the balance of costs between building on greenfield sites and building on brownfield sites. The balance is moving more towards building on green-belt, undeveloped land.

The Prime Minister said in Parliament in February that the Government were very clear that the green belt must be protected. However, that commitment is not what it appears, given the pressure to meet housing targets. The Prime Minister ought to have been aware of that as her area, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, has a housing plan which includes putting 6,000 additional properties on green-belt land. I am not saying that is the wrong strategy for the royal borough, but it adds to the pressure on green-belt land.

In my own authority a proposal to build an estate on green-belt land was submitted in an area which already had quite a lot of housing. The proposal was vigorously opposed by the local community and the local council. After we turned it down, the developer appealed, so it went to the government-appointed planning inspector. The government appointee chose to overturn the local authority’s view, permitting development on a green-belt site. The justification was that although we were expected to have a target of around 1,000 new properties a year and the council had given planning permission for them, because the developers had not actually built those houses there was a shortfall of housing and this justified development on the green-belt site. That is my example, but it is not the only one I could give because I know that neighbouring authorities have had similar experiences. So what is the real strategy for green-belt sites? Are the Government being flexible or have they changed their policy? If they have not, why do they tell their inspectors to carry out what is actually government policy instead of doing their own thing?

The most extreme example of the failure of the housing market is obviously homelessness. In big cities and in smaller communities, we can see with our own eyes that the number of people who are rough sleeping has increased dramatically over the past few years. It is a disgrace for us as a society to see that happening. However, people who are rough sleeping are just the tip of the iceberg. I have some figures from Manchester City Council, which has a number of people to accommodate, and it says that it probably has to deal with 75 to 100 rough sleepers. That is bad enough, but on the back of that are 500 families living in temporary accommodation and 500 single people in inappropriate accommodation—but it has housed them—along with a further 900 people in supported accommodation. In other words, the number of people who do not have homes is much greater than the number of people who are sleeping on the streets.

In Manchester the biggest cause of people becoming homeless is eviction by private landlords; the second is domestic violence. Eviction by private landlords is not normally associated with not paying rent; it is simply to do with changes in the strategy of the landlord and moving on and so on. I think we all recognise that. However, we need to admit that the causes of people becoming homeless are many and varied. If we are going to reduce homelessness properly, we need to provide not only appropriate additional accommodation but a range of supporting services to help those who for various reasons have chaotic lifestyles. They often do not have access to health services, particularly mental health services. Many in the north are ex-servicemen who come out of the Army and cannot adjust back into society. They have played their part but they are not given the support they need. As I say, it is not just a problem of getting more accommodation; it is a question of providing support for these people.

I understand that the Prime Minister is visiting Greater Manchester today and will be making announcements on both housing and homelessness. I am not claiming any credit for the fact that the Prime Minister is going to my home patch and making these announcements, but it is likely that your Lordships will recognise that our debates may have an influence on national affairs. I do not want to seem to be ungrateful. If the Prime Minister is giving some more money to Manchester, I will accept and thank her for it, but for me it is just an example of more tinkering at the edges and not looking at the fundamental causes of the housing crisis in this country. If the Government could only develop a strategic plan to get more houses built nationwide, that would provide support not only for Greater Manchester but for the whole country. This House would be behind such a strategy.

The housing crisis of course is not just about bricks and mortar; more importantly, it is about people whose lives are being blighted because of its impact. Housebuilding should be regarded as an investment in both the physical and social fabric of our nation. Let us commit ourselves to that investment, and I am sure that in the long term we will reap the benefits.