I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh for initiating this important debate, and I want to say something about the areas of greatest need, the Government’s potentially conflicting policies and the need for some cross-party work on this giant project, which will take longer than one or two Governments to achieve.
I turn, first, to homelessness, temporary housing and the impact on black families and older people. DCLG’s own figures reveal a 134% increase in rough sleeping between 2010 and 2016. The number of households in temporary accommodation increased by 60% in the same period. Whether this is because of a housing shortage, drastic reductions in local authority budgets, changes in housing benefit or a combination of all three, it is still the responsibility of the Government. What is happening to the weak and vulnerable is shameful. The drop in home ownership has seen black families affected the most. Less than one-third of black households are headed by owner-occupiers, compared with two-thirds of white families and 58% of Asian households. If we had more age-appropriate housing for older people, it would contribute to solving the wider housing crisis and might alleviate some social care and loneliness issues. The chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts, when he launched the committee’s inquiry into housing and older people, said:
“Many pensioners may be interested in downsizing, but … are restricted from doing so by a lack of suitable options”.
The Government’s target to build 1 million homes by 2020 is commendable and I do not want to sound churlish, but even that target will not solve the affordability problem. By the way, if we do nothing else, can we ban the use of the word “affordable” where it does not belong? I checked the Concise Oxford English Dictionary this morning; it says, “have the means”, or “be rich enough”. It does not say “receive minor subsidy on overinflated full-price option”. As Shelter has pointed out,
“Developers are allowed to use secret ‘financial viability assessments’ to show that they’re not going to make a ‘competitive’ profit”— my noble friend Lady Young has already covered this very ably—
“A whole industry now exists to provide such assessments, showing that affordable housing isn’t viable any more”.
Savills has forecasted that a further 100,000 homes are needed each year to have any effect on affordability—real affordability. The worrying contraction in the construction industry has not been felt so keenly in the housebuilding sector, although it has slowed down. Another concern is that we import a significant proportion of building materials and the costs have increased this year because of the weak pound.
The Prime Minister has promised to “make it my mission” to solve the housing problem. This is powerful and welcome. However, the extra funding that she announced for councils and housing associations—as the noble Lord, Lord Horam, has already said—will build 5,000 houses a year, bringing the projected total to 32,000 new council and housing association properties per year. This is good news, but a modest start. Mood music can be important, however, and perhaps council housebuilding will become so respectable that they will not have to be sold off afterwards.
I turn to Help to Buy, which presses all the political buttons for the Government. It accounts for a third of private sales of new homes. Like a flock of migratory birds, Help to Buy moves south to warmer climes, favouring areas that are not traditionally Labour heartlands. It is great that 135,000 families have benefited since the launch in 2013, but most of the beneficiaries of taxpayers’ money could have afforded to buy a home without such a scheme and 40% of the lucky households earn more than £50,000 a year. Experts as varied as Shelter and the Adam Smith Institute have said that Help to Buy will do nothing to meet real housing need and pushes up property prices.
I am all in favour of building companies reaping rewards for their work, but the five largest stock market listed builders made £3 billion worth of profit last year. The chief executive of Persimmon is likely to receive a £130 million payout, and half of Persimmon’s house sales are through the Help to Buy scheme. If we are to subsidise building companies—I am not fundamentally opposed to this—it should be done to build properties for people in greatest need. The Adam Smith Institute said of Help to Buy:
“This scheme is being used by investment bankers and doctors. They are certainly not the sort of people who the taxpayer should be subsidising”.
I pay tribute to John Healey, the shadow Housing Minister, for his hard work and clear message. He has built up a formidable knowledge of the housing crisis and what is needed to fix it over a period when six government housing Ministers came and went—if they had been tenants, no landlord would have wanted them. Labour has promised to create a government department for housing and will launch the biggest council housing programme for 30 years. It will make 4,000 new homes available to people with a history of rough sleeping. This would not mean borrowing from current spending but a return to the level of capital investment we had in the last year of the Labour Government. John Healey feels that the public loss of faith in the power of the state is due largely to the Government’s “small state” thinking, and that Governments have an important role in leading the way on housing. He calls for a cross-party consensus on public and private housebuilding, and I wholeheartedly agree with his views.