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Social Housing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:43 pm on 31st January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 1:43 pm, 31st January 2019

My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Whitty on securing the debate. I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Osamor on her excellent maiden speech; I look forward to hearing from her many more times. She brings a wealth of experience to our debates, as we heard today, and I am delighted to welcome her.

We all accept, I think, that we are in the middle of a housing crisis. Today’s debate is focused on the part of the housing crisis in which we see people in the most desperate need imaginable. You would have hoped that the Government would have focused their primary policy action there, but that is not the case and this failure is paid for by the taxpayer through increased housing benefit bills and other costs.

The Government understand that there is a problem. I accept entirely that successive Governments have not done as much as they should have. However, we have a crisis and despite all the evidence before them, the Government cannot bring themselves to take measures that would make a real difference to help those in the most desperate need and, at the same time, reduce costs and make housing more affordable for all, across all tenures. They are caught up in starter homes, pushing more right to buy with no programme for the replacement of the social homes lost, and the ridiculously named “affordable rent” model, which is totally unaffordable for many people. The result is a booming housing benefit bill and an increasing private rented sector with no real support for local authorities to deal with the rogues that operate at the bad end of the market; I am well aware that many excellent private landlords also want the rogues dealt with.

We need to hear more from the Government on a real commitment to building more social homes on proper social rents: a commitment that also involves housing associations being enabled to do the same and being encouraged to live up to and return to their founding principles—a commitment to make housing costs cheaper for everyone, whatever the tenure. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, raised the issue of community trusts and offsite-manufactured housing. I agree with her that such initiatives can make an important contribution to housing needs. I also think that the co-operative sector could play a much bigger role in an expanded sector, providing much-needed social homes where tenants have direct and real control over their homes.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for dropping—certainly quietly forgetting about—some of the worst provisions of the dreaded Housing and Planning Act, which must be a contender for one of the worst pieces of legislation. Written on the back of a cigarette packet, it was the biggest piece of ideological rubbish brought forward by the Government in recent years. We will all be better off for a commitment from the Government. I just do not understand why the Government are so reluctant to do more of what could make a real difference. To be fair, the Government have taken a positive step with the lifting of the borrowing cap to enable councils to build more homes. I congratulate them for that, but we need local authorities to be able to keep 100% of the receipts for council homes sold under right to buy. The Government should at least do that, if they are not going to suspend right to buy, as has happened in Scotland and Wales.

I want to see a rise in home ownership but not a decline in the council homes available for rent. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was right to point out that the intent behind the right to buy policy was probably to increase home ownership, but 40 years on many of those homes have found their way into the private rented sector and, in an act of madness, councils are having to rent back the homes they sold in the first place at vastly increased prices. It is a matter of regret for us all.

As I have told the House before, like my noble friends Lord Bassam and Lady Donaghy, I grew up in council properties; in my case, in the Borough of Southwark, on the Aylesbury and Pelier estates, which are very close to where the noble Lord, Lord Hayward—he is on his place on the Government Benches—now lives. The properties I lived in as a child were warm, safe and dry; they were good for our family and helped us to thrive, as the noble Lord, Lord Porter, made reference to in his speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Bird, was absolutely right when he described council housing in the 1960s and 1970s, and my own experience was very similar. We had teachers, office workers, young families, retired people and unemployed people all living together. That is not the situation now on many of our council estates. Moving forward to today, I and all my siblings are home owners and we recognise how lucky we were as children to have a decent home to live in. My noble friend Lord Sawyer was right to say that the story now is often one of pain, misery and suffering. I think that life is very tough for people with young families trying to make ends meet while paying the market rent for a private rented property or, as I have said, the unaffordable affordable rent model. The year before last, I actually wrote an article for the Fabian Society about how living in a council home had helped my family to thrive. At this point, I should mention that I serve on the executive committee of the society.

Looking at government statistics, we have new housing completions in 2017-18 reaching 163,000, a 16% increase on the previous year, but looking at the figures in detail, only 27,410 were built by housing associations and just 1,700 by local authorities. One must ask how many of those homes that were built in the social sector will be let at truly affordable rents. I fear not enough, even among the small number of homes being built.

The noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Corriegarth, made an interesting contribution, although I did not agree with very much of it. However, I agree with him that prevention is better than cure, but to deliver that we need to see more initiatives, policies and resources being targeted at prevention; otherwise, the taxpayer and society as a whole will pay many times over for this policy failure. We need to deal with the problem in the first place.

The removal of the borrowing cap is obviously welcome, but that on its own will produce around only an additional 9,000 homes each year, nowhere near the 100,000 social homes that I believe need to be built every year to deal with this problem. My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe made the point about the need for new social homes to be genuinely affordable. As I said earlier in my contribution, this is a really important point.

Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the Government will look at removing housing borrowing from contributing to public debt? What plans do they have for local authorities with no housing revenue account to enable them to access borrowing in order to build homes to meet local housing need? The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, also made a good point about looking at making more use of brownfield sites. We need to do much more of that.

One of the most shocking things we have seen in recent years is the rising number of people who are homeless. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford paid tribute to the work of churches and faith communities in supporting homeless people, and I join with him in paying my own tribute. Homelessness is of course in plain sight outside this Palace. My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe told the House about the homeless person who last year died literally feet away from this House. I think that that is absolutely tragic. Indeed, you cannot walk from a mainline station to get to the Palace without seeing homeless people sitting in doorways through these bitterly cold nights. It is a shocking and shameful scandal that has grown substantially since 2010. Despite the Homelessness Reduction Act, unless we provide realistic money to local authorities to pay for interventions and thus deliver on their new obligations, what is a well-intentioned piece of legislation will not have the impact it could have to help towards solving the tragedy of homelessness.

I also think that housing policy and good intentions are often frustrated by the work of other departments and a lack of joined-up thinking across government. This is a trap that all Governments can fall into. I think that the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions need to be looked at carefully to see the damage that they are inflicting on other government programmes and initiatives. Can the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, tell the House how the policy decisions and proposals are discussed across government in order to avoid these problems?

In conclusion, I thank my noble friend for bringing this Motion before us. It has been an excellent debate with great contributions from across the House. We all want to solve this problem and we want to support the Government in doing that.