My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh on securing this debate on one of the most pressing issues affecting this country. I wholeheartedly endorse both his analysis and his conclusions. I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body representing England’s housing associations.
I want to focus on the positive role of housing associations in increasing the availability and accessibility of housing. At times, unfortunately, that has been in spite of government policies. I hope that is changing. Last week, the Prime Minister announced £2 billion of additional funding for affordable homes, including those for social rent. After years of distrust and misunderstanding of the social housing sector, the Government have finally grasped the nettle of the housing crisis in this country. This could in itself be a watershed moment for housing.
It is not enough to talk about the aspiration for home ownership. As a nation, we have neglected housing for the most vulnerable. The debate slipped away from where need was greatest, at times forgetting the fundamental principle that every person deserves a quality home they can afford. No event has highlighted this more painfully than the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower. Whatever the outcome of the public inquiry, it is clear that the residents of Grenfell Tower were failed by the system that should have protected them. We must ask whether successive Governments have put in place sufficiently robust measures to protect residents.
In 2010, government disinvestment from social housing, combined with a sudden drop in funding for local government, meant far fewer homes were available and affordable. Research by the National Housing Federation shows that the nation's commitment to building homes fell from £11.4 billion in 2009 to £5.3 billion in 2015—from 0.7% to 0.2% of total GDP. This was at a time when more than a million families remained on the housing waiting list. Furthermore, the cumulative impact of welfare policies, including universal credit, has made many people less secure in their homes and put them at risk of rent arrears.
Policies such as right to buy may support people in their aspiration to reach that first rung of the housing ladder, but when this is not balanced by building truly affordable homes, the market cannot work. The cost and distribution of land is an additional barrier to the availability of affordable housing. I entirely agree with the points made about this by my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone and the noble Lord, Lord Best. Too often, in planning and viability assessments, economic value is prioritised over the social value development can offer, leading to unaffordability. Will the Government give public bodies the powers to dispose of land based on quality, tenure mix and speed of delivery?
Housing associations and local government have campaigned tirelessly for those left behind by the broken housing market. They have maintained delivery of affordable homes, despite Government and private developers looking elsewhere. Nearly 50,000 social-rented starts were made last year by housing associations, 74% of which were delivered outside the affordable homes programme. The housing association sector has a track record of finding innovative ways to continue to provide homes for those who need them the most, while also investing in communities as part of our enduring social purpose. This is not something the sector has been able to do on its own: it needs support from the Government but, importantly, it also needs a positive relationship with local authorities. I am heartened to see how housing associations and local authorities work together when united in a single purpose of increasing the supply of new homes.
I am glad that the Government are at last catching up. The newly announced money can go some way towards tackling the huge numbers of people on the waiting lists for housing. Even 5,000 homes a year will make an immeasurable difference to the lives of the families within them, and I for one unequivocally welcome this policy as a much-needed first step. I hope the positive outcomes that housing associations will generate from this additional investment will encourage the Government to invest further in social rent in the future. I also welcome the long-awaited certainty about the future of housing association rents. The rent cut imposed in 2016—this one policy—took £3.9 billion out of the sector’s business plans to build more homes. The Government need to do more long-term thinking and to consult with the sector and tenants to design a long-term approach to rents.
I want to make one final point about social housing. For older people, the homeless, those with mental and physical illness, and the victims of domestic violence, supported housing is their only way to access housing that will enable them to live independently. Some of the most vulnerable people have been hit by the Government’s proposed application of the local housing allowance to supported housing. Recently published data showed an 85% drop in the number of new supported-housing homes that are planned to be built. The Government have to sort this out. We can only say we have a fair housing market when these lifeline services are protected.
Both the Government and the Opposition recently committed to a comprehensive review of social housing policy and how it serves communities. We have a rare opportunity to make a real, meaningful change and to rebalance our housing market to help those left behind. This is an issue that now goes beyond party politics. It is the beginning of a journey to make housing available and affordable for all. I hope that all sides of the political debate are now united in delivering more homes for those most in need and, as my noble friend Lady Donaghy said, in ensuring that those homes are genuinely affordable and accessible.