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Social Housing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:33 pm on 31st January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 1:33 pm, 31st January 2019

My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. First, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Osamor, on her excellent maiden speech, which was rooted in a strong sense of public service and community. It is a delight to see her take her place in your Lordships’ House. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for enabling us to have this debate. As my noble friend Lord Greaves said, there was nothing to disagree with in what he said. He drew attention to the excellent report from Shelter and he called for drastic and strategic action in his detailed analysis of the reasons why we need many more homes for social rent over the long term—two very important words.

As my noble friend Lady Grender said, all parties have failed over the past 30 years and we must start to work together. I entirely agreed when she said that the Treasury needs to be held to account in the spending review for investing in revenue subsidy through housing benefit at the cost of investing in social housing as part of our capital infrastructure.

The evidence given in support of the Motion has been there for all to hear in today’s debate. Despite a stream of government announcements over the past two to three years that they would act to solve the housing crisis, in practice, very little has been done to achieve it. The long-awaited Green Paper on social housing remains just a Green Paper.

The result is that today we have 320,000 people sleeping rough or living in temporary accommodation, which is a rise of 13,000 on the previous year. Local councils have to meet a bill of just under £1 billion to pay each year for temporary accommodation, and the social housing waiting list amounts to more than 1 million households. We have a private rented sector which now accommodates one household in five across the United Kingdom, up 50% in the past 10 years. As we have heard, we have a housing benefit bill that has risen to £21 billion today and, as I said, about which the Treasury seems to show little concern, when it could turn that current expenditure into capital infrastructure spending. Crucially, three times as many social homes have been sold in recent years as have been built.

In October, I led a debate in this House on affordable housing—that is, housing that is genuinely affordable. As I said then, the cost of home ownership can never be met by very large numbers of people. Average home prices are eight times annual workplace earnings; 20 years ago, the figure was just three and a half times. Private renters are now on average spending 41% of their income on housing, so saving becomes very difficult for them. Those figures come from the latest English Housing Survey.

The Government’s White Paper published in February 2017, called Fixing Our Broken Housing Market, stated:

“The starting point is to build more homes”.

Perhaps the Minister will note those words: it is about building more homes, not simply converting other dwellings outside the usual planning system, without the appropriate number of affordable homes being included, let alone social homes.

My noble friend Lady Thornhill pointed out the imbalance between government subsidy for owner occupation and for rent. As she said, the removal of the housing cap will help, but we cannot just leave it to local authorities. They need considerable subsidy and a real plan of action. They need the right to limit the right to buy, including the right to keep 100% of receipts from sales. There must be a debate about that issue because, as has been said, there is a real danger that local councils are simply being set up to fail.

The Chartered Institute of Housing, in a report in November 2018, said that £8 billion of government support is going into the private housing sector up to 2021, with half going into private owner occupation over that period, when social housing support is less than £2 billion a year. Two billion pounds is the sum of money that London-listed housebuilders declared as dividends in 2018. It is broadly the same sum as was spent by the Government to support social homes. I hope that noble Lords on all sides of the House will find themselves very concerned by those figures.

Help to Buy has finally been changed to assist only first-time buyers. As reports have shown, Help to Buy has encouraged higher house prices. A 2017 report from JP Morgan showed that it has led to higher profits, higher share prices, higher dividends and higher bonuses for builders. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Corriegarth, asked who would pay for this. I think that the answer lies in the debate we need to have about the balance between government subsidy of private housing and owner occupation and the cost of public housing and social housing. We should recognise that, in recent years, public money has been spent on subsidising owner occupation at the expense of building social homes for rent. Surely the time has come to redress that balance.

My noble friend Lord Greaves reminded us that council housing is one of the great success stories of the past century: locally provided for local people. He also reminded us of the originations of housing associations, which were similarly local. I agree with him: we must go back to greater local accountability in the provision of affordable housing. Mention has been made in the debate of the uplift in land value caused by planning permissions. Across all parties, there is huge concern about this matter; I hope that the Minister will be in a position to say something further on that. I am convinced that the Land Compensation Act 1961 must be amended, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, reminded us.

Now that the Shelter report is out, many other reports are out, all saying the same thing. We need a debate about the kind of social housing we want to build. It needs to be accessible. We need lifetime homes and decent space standards. We need to know where the social housing will go because different numbers are required in different parts of the country. Above all, we need an action plan for delivering solutions to the problem that has been identified so clearly. We need to think about key workers. We need to work out ways to reduce the high housing costs faced by so many people. We need a means to get young people on to the housing ladder. In saying that, I believe that we need a new generation of homes for social rent for those who need help with housing, such as key workers and those on low incomes, and for those for whom renting is a step on the ladder and who aspire to own their own home. I was very struck by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who said that this should be about not just social housing but sociable housing. I concur.

In October, I said that our current housing crisis represents the biggest failure of public policy in the past 20 years. Today’s debate has shown that to be true. We have built more than 2 million too few homes across the UK, resulting in high prices, high rents, fewer social homes and serious difficulties for younger people wanting to buy their own home. One in five households is now in the private rented sector, where conditions can be very poor and tenure insecure. We have an imbalance and a major problem to solve. It is the duty of any Government to solve that problem.