My Lords, I want to address the role of higher education in the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I also want to mention housing issues raised in the Queen’s Speech, and I hope the Minister will be willing to pass on the points I make to her ministerial colleagues.
There is a university in every part of the country, and they are well placed to play a hugely important role in the levelling-up agenda. The role of these institutions in their local communities is often overlooked. In fact, universities are central to the local, regional and national growth effort. They are vital partners to local authorities and have huge networks including schools, big business, SMEs, charities and community groups. Quite rightly, the Government want universities to do ever more, recognising the role they could have in the levelling-up and the skills agendas, but they need adequate funding to do all this. Tuition fees are now frozen until 2024-25; they have reduced in value each year and are now worth in cash terms only two-thirds what they were 10 years ago. It is reasonable for the Government to expect efficiencies from universities, but they are reaching a point where they will have to consider reducing many of these very activities rather than enhancing them, or, where they have the choice, potentially recruiting more international and fewer domestic students, which seems a perverse outcome for bodies that could contribute so much to our national renaissance. I hope the Minister can reassure me that the Government will recognise the need to support the social and economic benefits that universities provide to the country. As the levelling-up directors are appointed, will she confirm that the Government will encourage them to speak to their local higher education institutions and utilise the expertise they will find there?
I now turn to housing. I declare an interest as the chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body for England’s housing associations, and as the chair of the Property Ombudsman for the private rented sector. I welcome the introduction of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill last week. It is crucial that, through this important legislation, the Government ensure that affordable homes are available throughout the country for those who need them.
The Levelling Up White Paper rightly emphasised the central role that housing must play in closing the stark gaps in regional equality. For many, social housing would be the only suitable and affordable type of home for their families. That is why it is also vital that any changes to the planning system introduced through the Bill are designed to increase the number of homes for social rent in communities up and down the country. Can the Minister give me assurances on this matter?
I also warmly welcome the Government’s aim to improve the quality and regulation of social housing and strengthen tenants’ rights through the social housing regulation Bill. Since 2017, the National Housing Federation has been working with social housing residents on the Together with Tenants initiative to establish a new set of standards for housing associations, including a four-point plan for change and a new charter that sets out what residents can and should expect from their landlord. This work has already begun to deliver the new paths of accountability and influence for residents mapped out in the Social Housing White Paper.
The energy Bill should enable us to deliver the manifold benefits of decarbonising Britain’s homes. It will enable us to tackle fuel poverty and the climate emergency together, boost the economy and create jobs, as well as creating healthier, warmer homes and healthier, cleaner air. It is vital that we insulate and retrofit homes throughout the UK. I welcome the Government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, to which housing associations can directly apply for funding, but if we are to be truly transformational in our approach to tackling the climate crisis, we need a longer view. I ask the Minister whether the Government have plans to provide funding for making social homes more energy efficient beyond 2025.
Currently, Ofgem energy price caps apply only to individuals and not organisations. Many housing associations manage energy bills for housing schemes through heat networks. Residents who receive their energy this way will be the hardest hit by rising costs. I urge the Government to take action to ensure that emergency support is put in place for customers on heat networks.
Finally, I welcome the commitment to introduce a renters reform Bill and the establishment of a landlord ombudsman to allow tenants to seek redress and resolve disputes against their landlords. As chair of the Property Ombudsman, I know that our inquiries team takes time to talk to tenants on a daily basis, providing advice, guidance and signposting where we are unable to investigate a complaint. While there are many forms of dispute resolution, this is a service that only ombudsmen provide. Will the Minister confirm that the intention is for the landlord ombudsman not only to deal with complaints that fall within its remit but to provide an accessible advice, guidance and signposting service to help both tenants and landlords understand better their rights and responsibilities?