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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:04 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 6:04 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, my contribution to this debate on the humble Address considers the forward direction for housing policy in the UK and is Brexit-free. I draw attention to my housing interests in the register. This Queen’s Speech was virtually silent on housing, yet the issue is often cited, particularly by those aged under 40, as their most pressing concern. As the Affordable Housing Commission, which I chair, has found, rents now often absorb well over 40% of a household’s income, leading to arrears, debt and personal problems. From the most affluent suburbs to the most modest council estates, so many young people in their 30s must stay in their childhood homes because the only alternative is a privately rented flat at a rent they cannot afford. Buying a home has become a distant dream, especially in the southern half of England. Rough sleeping is more visible on our streets and acute shortages mean families and children living in temporary accommodation, such as bed and breakfast hotels, on a scale unseen for many years. Housing costs and conditions so often lie behind the other social ills of poverty and ill health.

Your Lordships might expect me to be horrified that no announcements were forthcoming in the Queen’s Speech to address these pressing problems of housing scarcity and affordability, but if the absence of new measures means continuity in the pursuit of policies now in the pipeline—a continuation of a direction of travel set by Mrs May and her Housing Ministers—no news may well be good news. I have paid tribute in this Chamber to the way the previous Prime Minister sought to reshape housing policy during her tenure. In a seminal speech at the end of her period in office, to the September conference of the National Housing Federation, she talked of government becoming the victim of a single-minded drive for home ownership, when the most pressing need was for homes at modest rents.

On Mrs May’s watch, some of the highly unfortunate measures in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 were scrapped or abandoned: an end to the forced sale of the best council housing to pay for an extension of the right to buy; abandoning the horrid “pay to stay”, whereby council tenants would have to pay more if they made a success of their lives and increased their earnings; and scrapping the plan to end secure, lifetime tenancies in the social sector. More positively, the cap on borrowing to build council housing was abolished, which is now leading to an emerging new stream of affordable accommodation. Indeed, we even have a model for what council housing for the 21st century should look like, following the award of the coveted Stirling Prize for architecture to Norwich Council’s new street of 105 energy-efficient, secure, well-designed family homes in a real community setting. As one new tenant there remarked, “I feel like I don’t rent it, I own it”.

This direction of travel has also embraced reforms to private renting, including abolishing agents’ letting fees for tenants, a commitment to end no-fault evictions and the creation of a new ombudsman for private landlords and their tenants. Housing associations have been given access to new funds for social rent, which has started the return to building what is really needed rather than being pushed into letting at rents mistakenly termed affordable, but which are, in so many areas, beyond the reach of people in the lower half of the income range.

All these changes from Mrs May’s Administration —I pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Barwell and Lord Bourne, and Toby Lloyd, who advised her—represent steps in absolutely the right direction. They should lead, if undisturbed by any countermeasures, to government acceptance that what is needed is for at least a third of their target of 300,000 homes a year to comprise homes to rent within the means of those on average incomes and below. We all know that this has to mean a significant increase in the levels of grant to social housing landlords, but we also know that investment in affordable new homes pays for itself—unlike, for example, the £1.7 billion a year spent on temporary accommodation for homeless families. Paying grant up front saves far more further down the line, not least in finally reducing the housing benefit bill and in cutting social care and health costs. I add that, while waiting for the payback on capital investment in new homes, social security policy must keep up. Shockingly, benefit freezes and caps mean that increasing numbers of the poorest households are having to make up a shortfall on the payment of rent out of the benefits intended for their living costs.

My question to the Minister is simple: can we take the lack of mention of housing issues in the Queen’s Speech as a positive sign that there will be no turning back from the path chosen by Mrs May? Will the Government take forward her important consumer reforms for the private rented sector and continue to pursue energetically her programme of supporting a new era for council housing, and will the upcoming Budget herald significant extra investment in the development of truly affordable rented homes?