Housing: Availability and Affordability - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:36 pm on 12th October 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat 1:36 pm, 12th October 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for this debate, although not necessarily for the timing. If I am slightly less coherent today, it will be because last night I slept out for the charity Depaul UK, along with my colleague, my noble friend Lady Suttie. Depaul helps young people across the country who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I got about two hours’ sleep on a pretty damp and cold paving slab, but as I left to get a bus and return in the morning to my warm home I passed plenty of people along the Strand for whom it is much more than one night. The Depaul Sleepout is a powerful event to change perceptions about people who experience or are at risk of homelessness. It is, as their CEO Mark McGreevy, says,

“a humbling, valuable and memorable experience”.

It has been a challenge to be here today, but it has given me a small insight and I am grateful only that I am addressing your Lordships and not handling heavy machinery right now. Unless we solve the issue in this worthwhile debate and dramatically improve the availability and affordability of housing, more people will end up at the very end of the food chain we have been describing, and too many will face homelessness.

Last March in this Chamber there was a jaw-dropping moment. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, set out with some eloquence the need for councils to build more homes and for capital to be released to do that. In the debate on the report entitled Building More Homes from the Economic Affairs Committee on 2 March he shared with us his ideological struggle to reach that conclusion. It was a startling moment for anyone who has campaigned on housing over a sustained period. Surely, if he can be persuaded, the day is won, the economic argument is won, and even the driest monetarist can see the value. Substantial building of council housing will start straightaway. My natural Lib Dem optimism was getting the better of me.

On the morning of the Prime Minister’s speech at her party conference, the headlines of a new era of Macmillan housebuilding gave me another burst of optimism. With Gavin Barwell in No. 10—a former Conservative Housing Minister who understood the bigger picture—council housebuilding in vast quantities was surely about to be realised. No, wrong—again my natural optimism got the better of me. Twenty-five thousand properties were promised over a five-year period—5,000 a year, nothing like the 300,000 council houses in one year alone that Macmillan built. Once more, we are condemning a generation to accept that affordable housing, whether for rent or ownership, is beyond their reach.

The announcement was, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, a welcome step, but as the Resolution Foundation said at the time:

“If Theresa May wants to lead the way on facing up to our housing challenge she will need to ensure building happens on a scale we haven’t seen for a generation, with councils backed all the way to do so”.

I ask the Minister to look again at the superb report from the Economic Affairs Committee, about which I have a central question for him today. Does he agree with the main argument that the committee made:

“Local authorities and housing associations must be incentivised and enabled to make a much greater contribution to the overall supply of new housing. Without this contribution it will not be possible to build the number of new homes required”?

In other words, if local authorities can borrow to build swimming pools but not to build houses, we will not find a long-term solution to this problem of affordability. In particular, I would like his view of the one central recommendation on that from the committee. How can we reach a point where local authorities are unfettered and allowed to borrow above the cap, as in Scotland? The committee saw this as the surest and simplest way to increase housing volume. I very much appreciate there is no solver bullet, but it seems to me that that is a good bullet to explore.

In the House of Commons on 14 September, Wera Hobhouse, our spokesperson for this area, asked Sajid Javid about this issue. He said:

“I have been clear that where local authorities believe that the borrowing cap is in the way of their ambitions to build more, they should come and talk to us because we want to do deals with them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/9/17; col. 1018.]

Could the Minister update us on that and tell us how many local authorities have approached the Government, how the Government have ensured that local authorities are aware of that option and whether the Government have assessed the impact in Scotland of the lack of restrictions and a cap? My understanding is that this has not had the significant or terrible impact that seems to be suggested down south.

I would also like to ask very quickly about replacements. Since 2015, this Conservative Government have overseen the sell-off of more than 25,000 council homes and replaced fewer than one in three of them. I remember a very significant period of negotiation when David Cameron wished to announce right to buy. We were in the coalition Government and said there had to be a commitment to one-for-one replacement. Does the Minister still believe it is possible to reinforce that one-for-one replacement and does he regret the failure so far to do it?

Where do we end up without sufficient building? Too many families on low income in the private rented sector and 80% of all public investment in housing spent on benefits rather than an asset for the future. The reality of that is 118,960 children in temporary accommodation. Only a dramatic change in government policy can turn this around. I hope we see one soon.