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Social Housing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 31st January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee 11:51 am, 31st January 2019

My Lords, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Addison Act of 1919, which first gave general powers for local authorities to build and manage council housing. For decades, council housing was the ambition of millions of families in all walks of life, and for many it still is.

For my main text I have taken the recent report from Shelter’s Social Housing Commission. It starkly sets out how we got here, what are the consequences, and makes proposals for drastic and strategic action to restore the central role of council housing in our housing provision.

I am of course grateful that such a large number of speakers wish to speak in this debate, but I am particularly pleased to see a member of that Shelter commission: my noble friend Lady Lawrence. I look forward to her speech, as well as to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Osamor.

It is still the ambition for millions of people in the often exploitative and squalid private sector to obtain social housing provided by local authorities and housing associations. That is why 1.1 million households in England—about 4 million people—are on council waiting lists and desperate for a council house. In London, the ratio of those households on the lists to available property is over 20:1, and in central London it is even higher. Lest this is seen as a purely urban issue, the CPRE estimates that at the present rate it will take 133 years to clear the current waiting lists in rural counties of England.

In the last few decades, from the 1980s onwards, social housing—council housing in particular—has been first disparaged by Governments and media, then curtailed, and then directly attacked. Successive Governments share some of the blame, but the inheritance of the 1980s has done the greatest damage.

Building of social housing has fallen from an average of 126,000 per annum to a few thousand a year—fewer than 7,000 last year. Originally, the Thatcher Government’s right to buy saw 3 million council homes lost, without the proceeds being used to provide for their replacement. Stock transfers and allocation of management to ALMOs has also often removed councils from their housing management role, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Successive Governments have championed the growth of home ownership, and I do too, but that growth has reached saturation point and gone backwards. It has fallen from 70% to 63% in recent years. In the private rented sector, renting privately often means unaffordable housing costs. Indeed, even within the social housing sector, the insistence on “affordable rent”—which in practice works out at up to 80% of rapidly rising local private rents—has meant that housing costs have been too great for many families. In the private sector, it has meant multiple tenants in overcrowded rooms or even, in some cases, in sheds and outhouses. At the end of this line, it means the tragically burgeoning number of homeless on our streets, which has doubled over the past few years and, as we have seen in the figures today, has gone up again. Those figures are regarded by almost everybody as an underestimate.

Meanwhile, from the Government’s point of view, over the past three decades, state support for housing has not diminished but has shifted dramatically from subsidies for building, improving and managing homes to providing welfare benefits for tenants. Instead of the Exchequer investing in building for the future, state spending goes on an escalating benefit bill, a large proportion of which is now going to private landlords, increasing housing shortages in town and countryside alike.

I often feel angry about this, and the last time I intervened in a housing debate, I just had a rant because I had only four minutes. Colleagues today have only three minutes, so I expect some more of those as well. I was blaming successive Governments, but also the overconcentration of housebuilding and developers, so that their ability to evade any social housing targets has grown. The difficulty that arises for local authorities and housing associations when dealing with private developers is that developers are in a position of strength to argue for a diminution in social housing.

Many simply blame the right to buy; I do not completely. In principle, the right to buy gave the possibility of home ownership to a lot of people who would not otherwise have had it, but local authorities need the right to suspend it and, as noble Lords will know, in Scotland and Wales it has been abolished. The main opposition to right to buy as it has been practised has been because of the failure to use the proceeds to develop new social housing. If we had ploughed all that money back, we would have thriving mixed tenure communities, instead of which we have monolithic areas and misery in the private rented sector.

We often talk about social housing in terms of individual tenants and families, but homes also form communities. I am in favour of mixed tenure communities, but I am not in favour of new developments and regenerations drastically reducing the provision of social housing. For three decades, provision of housing overall in all forms of tenure has been inadequate; the Government acknowledge this, as do all political parties. We have created homes at only about half the rate of the creation of new households, but the social housing sector has suffered most, particularly council housing. Of course, other forms of housing provision ought, in a progressive policy, to play a significant part. Housing associations have a key role to play, as do the various schemes for shared ownership, and there is some scope for bringing back empty homes into use and conversion. But unless we have a strong and clear commitment to a long-term programme of building and converting for new social dwellings at social rent, we can solve neither the housing crisis, nor the social crisis, nor the problem of escalating housing benefit, nor ultimately the problem of homelessness on our streets and of hidden homelessness in many families up and down the country.

The recent Shelter report sets this problem out squarely and comes up with some proposals. In recent months and years, the Government have shown some recognition of the need to build more council homes, particularly in their recent document with a foreword by the Prime Minister herself, but the reality is that the number of homes being brought into being by councils has continued to diminish. The Shelter report calls for a major long-term programme; it envisages 3.1 million social homes being built, mainly by councils, over the next 20 years. That requires a drastic shift to capital and management investment in council housing, away from the growth in housing benefit now caught up, regrettably, in the difficulties surrounding universal credit.

That target is ambitious but it is shared by almost every housing commentator. I was slightly surprised to find, for example, the Centre for Social Justice—normally seen as a right-wing organisation—coming out with not quite the same but rather similar targets and propositions on land reform. Most experts in this field realise that we cannot reverse the current problems in the housing market without councils playing a major role in the building programme. Since the 1920s, they have not: council building has fallen drastically and is now close to zero. The problem has got worse and other solutions, such as the growth of home ownership, are now grinding to a halt.

The situation has been aggravated by two other aspects. The Government have started to address one: the absurd restriction on local authorities building and investing in social housing. That was partly reduced in the recent Budget but it will take some time for that to have any effect. The other dreadful consequence of austerity has been local authorities losing a lot of expertise in their housing, architecture and planning departments, meaning that they are less able than they were in the past to commission new builds and improve their existing estates. That also needs to be reversed; the Government need to see that the money provided to local authorities is there to do just that.

This issue requires a long-term strategy, as Shelter and others have recognised, but the Government and everyone involved in the building industry and housing provision must ensure that the strategy starts now so that we build enough homes for the next generation—homes that families can afford and in which they can be safe and create effective and functioning communities. I will give other speakers an extra four minutes because my voice is going but I hope that they will support the provisions of the Shelter report and my speech. I beg to move.