Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 6th September 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Housing) 3:45 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 2 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Pinnock. I wish also to echo from these Benches the support for the amendment in the name of the inspirational—I agree with that—noble Lord, Lord Best, on the same topic. The fundamental difference between the two amendments is simply that our amendment to Clause 1 would make it a fundamental objective of the Bill, while the noble Lord’s amendment seeks to ensure that the regulator has the powers to require housing associations to safeguard and promote the interests of the homeless and potentially homeless. Therefore, I am pleased to say that they work very well together.

We are seeking this simple amendment as a fundamental objective because, without it, there is a real danger that, as the Government quite rightly and understandably tighten the regulation of social housing as outlined in the Bill, social housing providers themselves, many of whom are fairly cash-strapped, will prioritise that which is being measured for fear of being named, shamed and fined. So they should, you might say, but it will have consequences for the homeless and those in temporary accommodation. This is a phenomenon that has been experienced with former council inspections and with Ofsted.

The fact that several housing associations have formed themselves into their own group, known as Homes for Cathy, shows that many take their homelessness prevention work seriously and strive to house people away from the streets, sofas and the overcrowded conditions that they might currently live in. Quite simply, we believe that this work is significant, valuable and essential, and therefore should be monitored by the regulator as part of a provider’s performance improvement plan.

During the pandemic, heroic efforts were made by government, councils, voluntary groups and housing providers to significantly reduce the numbers sleeping rough, which according to the 2022 government figures stand at an eight-year low. This is to be commended and is indeed good news, but we have to set it against the same set of annual figures that show that the numbers in temporary housing have been rising steadily since 2011. There are over 96,000 households in such accommodation as of September last year. Extremely worryingly, that figure includes over 121,000 children. We are all aware of the negative impacts this leads to, not only on a child’s education but on their general health and well-being.

Regrettably, I know from personal experience that the quality of that accommodation has deteriorated due to several factors, not least the inexorable decline in the number of social homes being built to move families on to; that is a debate for another day but a relevant factor. I will never forget the day that my head of housing came to see me urgently. Knowing that I was proud of our record of never having to use bed and breakfasts for homeless families, she was not looking forward to telling the mayor that that day we were placing families into a hotel for the very first time. Such were the pressures mounting on our housing stock. Now it is commonplace for councils to use bed and breakfasts, hotels and hostels—albeit the time for that is now limited by statute—before a move to temporary accommodation, which is when other problems begin.

Temporary accommodation, sad to say, is often inadequate—a room in a shared house that is overcrowded and in need of repairs or in poor condition. Critically, it can even be in another town, miles away from your workplace or children’s schools. It is not unusual for families to be in temporary accommodation for years. Shelter and the LGA have evidence of some families being housed in this way for a decade or more. That has to be unacceptable. Getting people off the street and out of temporary accommodation are two sides of the same coin. That should be an important function of all providers; we need it to be.

The key reason for putting this homelessness provision in the Bill as a key objective is that the situation is only going to get worse. Analysis by Heriot-Watt University projects that the current number of those experiencing rough sleeping is set to increase, particularly as market rents continue to diverge from local housing allowance levels, which are not rising with inflation as they are currently frozen. We do not need to be experts to work out that the current cost of living crisis will make the situation worse as residents inevitably fall behind in their rent, deferring those payments as they prioritise food and heating as more immediate needs.

We want the amendment to evidence the Government’s —I like the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Bourne —heft and commitment to this. Without that, we believe that this will not get measured, and we will inevitably get only what is being measured. Society cannot afford any reduction in this work, so pressure must be maintained and support given. We cannot afford for social housing providers to start to play down this work.

Many providers already do this work and are proud of it, and need recognition that this work is valued and essential. The recent report on the Bill by the House of Commons Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee regrettably suggested that some providers are already moving away from their social objectives. Enshrining this amendment as an objective should ensure that housing associations maintain a reasonable focus on homelessness activities and monitor such information on lettings to homeless households, evictions and tenancy-sustainment work. We hope the Government will support the amendment, as I think it will give a real filter on the true housing crisis that we all know exists.