Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:55 pm on 27th June 2022.

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Photo of The Bishop of Chelmsford The Bishop of Chelmsford Bishop 3:55 pm, 27th June 2022

My Lords, I also begin by congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, on his excellent maiden speech. Clearly, he has a whole set of skills and experiences that will ensure that his contributions in this House will be highly valuable, as was apparent in his incisive and to the point speech, much of which I agree with and endorse.

Before I go any further, I declare my specific interest as the Church of England’s lead bishop for housing. Noble Lords will know that the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community has been actively working to envision how the Church, government and the nation might tackle the current housing crisis. Last year, the commission released its Coming Home report, which sets out in detail a reimagining of housing policy and practice centred on five core values, which are that housing should be

“sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.”

Recently, the Church announced its intention to create a whole new national housing association, which will enable it to become a major provider of social housing. We are committed to doing our part to tackle the social housing shortage, and likewise to working with others to bring about this vision of truly good-quality housing across the nation.

Therefore, I welcome the Government’s introduction of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. Many of its measures begin to address issues of transparency and accountability. The removal of the serious detriment test is much needed. As things stand, it is a major barrier to ensuring proactive engagement with tenants’ concerns. It is right to remove it in order to ensure that good living standards are upheld and maintained. The setting up of an advisory panel to amplify tenants’ voices is also very welcome. Too often the concerns of social housing tenants have been ignored or silenced. This must end.

The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrates the urgent need for safety to be a central objective. We must all do everything we can to ensure this dreadful tragedy is not repeated. As the Bishop of Kensington, the right reverend Dr Graham Tomlin, said at the recent five-year memorial service,

“what happened at Grenfell was wrong. It was not an unfortunate accident—it was the result of careless decisions taken, regulations ignored, an industry that seemed at times more interested in making profits and selling products than in the precious value of human life and keeping people safe in their own homes.”

I am sure noble Lords will join me in strong praise of the work done by the Bishop of Kensington and the incredible Grenfell community to bring about a safer future for social housing in their community and across the nation.

Therefore, it is only right and appropriate that the Government have now made safety one of the regulator’s fundamental objectives in the Bill. I urge the Government to also consider adding as fundamental objectives the other core values of sustainability, stability, sociability and satisfaction. These can work in complementarity to ensure truly good housing for all.

What plans do the Government have to increase the amount of good-quality social housing stock in the nation that meets these objectives? Recent decades have seen a drastic drop in available social housing. According to Shelter, since 1991 there has been an average annual net loss of 21,000 social homes and more than 1.2 million households are currently waiting for social homes. Millions have been pushed into the private rented sector, often resulting in unstable and unacceptable circumstances of overcrowding or temporary accommodation. We must work together to address this shortage of supply. In doing so, it is essential that we ensure that this is truly affordable housing. Current definitions of affordability fall short. What is classed as affordable should reflect residents’ ability to pay rather than local market rates. Simply building more homes without consideration of their affordability will not solve the housing crisis.

I understand the impetus to fine social housing landlords, but I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify how this will work effectively, given that such fines are likely to take resources from the housing association, thereby potentially reducing its ability to provide services, improvements, tenancy and neighbourhood support, a point touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox.

Finally, in addressing the housing crisis, I urge the Government to consider one more essential element set out in the Coming Home report: sacrifice. At present, the cost of the housing crisis falls largely on those who are financially poorest and resident in unaffordable or substandard housing. This is starkly evident at the moment as the cost of living crisis bites as well. The housing crisis will not be solved unless there is a willingness among others in the housing market to share this burden: that means landlords, developers, landowners, homeowners and government. These sacrifices will help ensure a lasting housing legacy that works for us all. A long-term, cross-party housing strategy that brings those at every level of government, together with landowners, developers, landlords, homeowners and faith organisations, is the only way that sustainable and meaningful transformation will happen.