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My Lords, I refer to my local government interests and join others in congratulating my noble friend on her maiden speech. The housing problem is not just a question of numbers, although that looms large. It is also a question of what we build, especially in the private sector, where space and energy standards lag badly behind those in much of Europe. It is also a question of tenure. Of course it is right to promote owner-occupation, but there is something terribly wrong with a system in which councils are compelled to sell council houses to tenants at knockdown prices—40% of which end up in the hands of private landlords, who then charge significantly higher rents. Latterly, councils have been unable even to retain the proceeds of sale and use them to build new houses, while delivering £3.5 billion in discounts to tenants purchasing their homes.
Moreover, the Government’s interpretation of affordability in their promotion of new building is unrealistic, pitched at 80% of the values prevailing in a market inflated by the lack of new building. In addition, there is the problem of the bedroom tax, which forces up the rents payable by council tenants occupying properties larger than they are deemed to need. How many of us would wish to see elderly friends or relatives, or ourselves, induced in this way to move to smaller accommodation, possibly in a different area, or pay higher rents for the privilege of remaining in the home that one has occupied for many years, with all its accumulated memories? Three thousand and fifty-six Newcastle households were affected by this last year.
Homelessness is another product of the lack of a serious housing policy. It has increased nationally by 400% due to the loss of private rented tenancies since 2010, with rough sleeping up by 169%. Yet the National Audit Office reports a reduction of 21% in housing services and of 59% in Supporting People funding, while there has been a 60% increase in the number of households in temporary accommodation, with all the problems that causes, especially to children and the elderly. In Newcastle, these figures translate to the following facts: 40,000 residents affected by welfare reforms could risk homelessness, 18% of debt advice clients last year had unsustainable budgets and council house rent arrears last March stood at £3.6 million. The council helped 19,000 people last year to secure £30 million of unclaimed benefits and 6,500 received debt advice. Sadly, 254 people were found sleeping rough in Newcastle in 2017-18; 80% of them had drug addiction issues, 55% had mental health problems, 25% had learning disabilities and 25% had been in care.
This is not just a housing problem, although housing is clearly an issue. Like many others, the council has a goal of being a homelessness-free city. That requires support from central government, its agencies and the NHS. We need action and funding to achieve this goal in housing provision and other services.