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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on securing a debate on such a significant issue. For too long, in all political parties, social housing has been the poorer cousin of affordable housing—which, as we know, is no such thing, being 80% of market rate. Having spent over 30 years plundering stocks of social housing—with the high peaks of sales in 1981, 1989 and 2003—all political parties have failed abjectly to replace those stocks. Every political party has been guilty of inaction when in power and has failed to properly acknowledge that. The change in policy in 2012 to replace properties sold with affordable housing was in effect sticking a broken finger in a dam long since washed away. From the JRF to the IFS, calls for yet greater numbers of social housing properties to solve this are matched only by the Treasury’s increasing deafness.
Gordon Brown’s golden rule was but one example of the negligence the Treasury has shown for over a quarter of a century. The IFS suggests that this has suppressed social housing build over a long period. In 1996 I met with Gordon Brown and lobbied him on this issue. He was on the eve of an historic win, with an eye-watering majority and money to spend. The lack of commitment to turn this issue around, in spite of progress in other areas such as homelessness, was tragic. Today we have a housing benefit cost of £21 billion, down from £25 billion because of harsher criteria. Any normal business would look at these swingeing levels of ongoing current expenditure and ask: why is there no capital expenditure to turn this around?
So what of the future? First, all parties must accept that we have failed over a long period on this crucial policy. Secondly, all parties must work together with a real target for social housing instead of the usual arguments over the least lamentable record. It often sounds like a dispute about the size of the head of a pin rather than the sledgehammer required. Only yesterday we saw this in a speech from James Brokenshire promising £500 million—money that is not new and certainly not enough. Thirdly, the Treasury must be held to account and use the forthcoming spending review to make substantial change. Fourthly, no plans by any political party will deal with the immediate and urgent shortfall. The private sector must therefore be supported to be fit for purpose. Given that the main cause of homelessness is the end of an assured shorthold tenancy, this requires urgent attention and I look forward to hearing the results of the Government’s current review.
The long-awaited ban on fees for tenants is a great first step, but more needs to be done. Failure to act urgently on this, on a huge scale, means another Christmas with 130,000 children in Britain in temporary accommodation—a number that shames us all.