Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 6th September 2022.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 4:00 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 22 in this group. It links to and complements Amendment 2, just spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. The two together underscore the role of social housing regulation in securing accommodation for those who are homeless or are likely soon to be so.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I apologise on behalf of LNER for arriving too late to speak at Second Reading. I hope your Lordships will forgive me adding an introductory preface to my advocacy for the amendment.

I have spent well over 50 years supporting the social housing sector and have been both on the receiving end of social housing regulation and a participant in regulatory policy-making. From these perspectives, I recognise that poorly designed regulation can interfere with the independence, freedom, flexibility and diversity of approaches of social housing providers, but a bigger part of me recognises that a well-designed regulatory system is a positive. By ensuring adherence to good standards, regulation enhances the sector’s support from its residents, central and local government, investors, partners and the wider public. That is why I welcome the Bill. Indeed, an effective system of regulation is essential if the sector is to grow, as it must, to meet the desperate need for more decent and affordable homes.

This brings me to the first of the two amendments I am putting forward today. Amendment 22 takes us to the heart of why we have a social housing sector in the first place and to the role of regulation in ensuring these providers fulfil the most pressing of the roles which society expects of them. Amendment 2, put forward by the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Thornhill, makes addressing homelessness issues part of the objectives of the regulator. Amendment 22 enables the regulator to require social housing landlords to comply with standards it sets regarding homeless and potentially homeless households.

The amendment is being sought by a group of over 100 housing associations and other housing charities called Homes for Cathy, which is led by David Bogle of Hightown Housing Association. Many of your Lordships will hear the echoes of the famous documentary drama “Cathy Come Home”, which revealed the horrors of becoming homeless back in 1966. The programme inspired many of us to get involved in social housing. Several of the organisations in Homes for Cathy today were established at that time to rescue people from homelessness and prevent households suffering the horrors of homelessness. Sadly, as we all know so well, this problem is still with us.

The Government are committed to ending street homelessness by 2024 and great progress was made by local authorities and social housing bodies during the height of the pandemic. Today we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, via email about renewed efforts to end rough sleeping, which I greatly welcome. Meanwhile, the number of homeless and would-be homeless who have had to be placed in temporary accommodation has grown alarmingly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, has mentioned.

It may seem obvious that social housing landlords should be expected to ease the problems of homeless families. Doing so is surely a key reason for the taxpayer supporting the sector. No one believes that the private rented sector can supply the secure homes we need at rents within the means of those on the lowest incomes. Unlike housing associations, councils have legal duties and statutory responsibilities for supporting homeless people. But local authorities—which are strapped for cash and have a hugely diminished stock after right-to-buy sales and after transferring their council housing to registered providers—now rely on the housing associations to help shoulder this task.

It is regrettable that not all the housing associations are doing as much as they could. Critics accuse some of the registered providers of avoiding housing those in the greatest need. In the year before Covid, registered providers evicted 10,000 tenants—effectively creating homelessness problems. Even allowing for the severe financial pressures they face at this difficult time, surely it must remain a key responsibility of housing associations to be meeting the needs of homeless and potentially homeless people.

Amendment 22 gives the regulator the power—not the obligation—to set standards of behaviour for registered providers in relation to safeguarding and promoting the interests of those who are homeless or may become homeless. This does not compel the regulator to do so or prescribe the form its action might take. In Scotland, for example, the Scottish Housing Regulator has placed a duty on social housing providers to report to the regulator on their homelessness activities.

This light-touch addition to the standards, for which the regulator in England can require compliance, seems entirely compatible with the Government’s aims to reduce homelessness. It enables the regulator to hold all the housing associations to account in their fundamental role of addressing the housing problems which the market cannot solve. It responds to the criticism that some parts of the social housing sector have forgotten their social motivations. It recognises the wonderful work many in the sector are doing and it enables the regulator to press all housing associations to do so too.