My Lords, my clear views on the vital importance of housing have been shaped by my personal experience, first as a child who grew up in a rented terraced house in a pit village and was happily able to get on to the ladder of home ownership at quite an early age; secondly, as a sofa salesman for more than half a century, who witnessed many thousands of times the sheer joy that people experience on buying new furniture as they anticipate the move into their first real home; and, thirdly, as chair of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and deputy patron of the Outward Bound Trust, often working with disadvantaged young people and seeing the importance of a secure and stable home to their mental and physical health, attitudes and prospects.
I do not pretend to be an expert on housebuilding or home-owner finance or to have any pat solutions to offer, but I implore the Government to listen carefully to the best expert advice available, which we are getting in this Chamber today, and take whatever action is needed—action, not more plans—to increase the supply of decent, affordable and secure housing in this country. In my judgment nothing, including Brexit, matters more to our prospects of being a society that offers genuine equality of opportunity across the generations and is fundamentally content and at ease with itself. That is because housing is about so much more than the provision of shelter by putting a roof over someone’s head. For a young individual or family, moving into a first home is on a par with getting married, entering any long-term relationship or having a first child. It is a source of excitement and pride and of security and status. Becoming a householder, whether the property is owned or securely rented, effectively confers membership of society. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the one thing that truly gives any of us a stake in the country. For young people, it is the great life event that genuinely allows them to take responsibility for themselves and their dependants, if they have any, to put down roots and to become an engaged member of the community. The knock-on benefits of housing the young and the not so young have to be huge by any measure, not just in the direct savings to social services but to the NHS too, particularly by mitigating stress and anxiety and generally improving mental health.
We in the Conservative Party have traditionally been the party of home ownership and I truly believe that that remains the gold standard to which we should all aspire, although if tenure is secure, you do not need to own your home, desirable as that might be. Nevertheless I naturally warmly welcome the extension of the Help to Buy scheme to 2021, with the promise that this will help around 130,000 would-be homebuyers, but above all we must secure a more than matching increase in the supply of new homes, so that this additional money does not simply drive property prices up still further. Just look at the yawning gulf that already exists between average wages and house prices in many parts of the country, particularly London and the south-east. I was married at 20 and had a daughter at 21 and for a short time my family was housed in the front room of my parents’ rented house, which had neither a bathroom nor an indoor toilet. Noble Lords can imagine the sheer delight, pride and relief we experienced on moving into the first home of our own, and in the mid-1960s that was a realistic prospect on a furniture salesman’s wages. It would not be possible now, and ultimately that is an issue of supply and demand.
If we continue to fail to increase the supply of housing to meet growing demand, we are going to create a problem for ourselves of monstrous proportions that will ultimately threaten the very stability of the country. Growing numbers of already disillusioned young people are likely to become increasingly angry and ultimately desperate because they cannot find a secure and affordable place to live, which is of course the key to achieving any and every other dream that they may hold for their future. So when the Government commit themselves to deliver 1 million new homes by the end of 2020 and half a million more by 2022, they must actually deliver. My experience of the City as chairman of a plc taught me that the way to investors’ hearts is always to underpromise and overdeliver, and I am sure that is the way to voters’ hearts too. My experience also taught me that the only way of actually delivering is to set out all your plans to overdeliver and then wait for “events, dear boy” to do the rest.
I fully recognise the magnitude of the challenge and I cannot offer any easy answers. I merely wish the Government to acknowledge that this is a vital and pressing issue of national welfare and security. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, used the word “crisis” at the outset of the debate, and I believe it is. I urge the Government to leave no stone unturned in resolving it boldly and with the urgency that it deserves. There is really no place like home, so let us build some.