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 Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:00 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, this is an important Bill and it has our support. This is also an important debate, highlighting issues around energy costs and homelessness. Our position is that this is a good and important Bill, but there are areas in which it could be improved. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully to our debates, and I am sure that everyone here hopes to support the Government in making the Bill as good as it can be.

I will speak in support of the amendments on energy efficiency, which, in the light of rising and predicted costs, is clearly critical at the moment. I will first address Amendment 21, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and of course Amendment 1, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, which covers the same ground. The noble Baronesses spoke of the importance of tackling issues around energy efficiency. As we heard, the proposed new clause of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, requires the Secretary of State to publish a “Social Housing Energy Demand Reduction Strategy”. She went into some detail about how that could be achieved and what it needed to contain in order to help reduce energy consumption, fuel poverty and the emission of greenhouse gases.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, mentioned the Government’s clean growth strategy and their announcement five years ago, in 2017, about setting a target to get all housing up to energy performance certificate band C by 2030. Although many social housing providers have made strides to improve efficiency, we have heard in this debate that more needs to be done quicker. If we are to reach our net-zero targets by 2050, we must decarbonise our buildings, including the 2.7 million housing association homes in England. Housing association homes are, on average, more efficient than any other home but, as we heard, there is still much to do. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said that we have some catching up to do in this area, and he is absolutely right.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, talked about insulation. We believe that social housing providers should be required to properly insulate properties to a high standard. Social housing tenants were not eligible for assistance under the new Green Deal, and some housing associations have in fact refused to insulate properties that are extremely cold and energy consuming in winter, simply because they do not have to do so. Insulating existing social housing properties would significantly reduce greenhouse emissions in the United Kingdom, help us to meet our legally binding CO2 reduction targets and potentially save the lives of many vulnerable people in the process. With people saying that they may have to choose between heating and eating this winter, this is even more critical.

This is not just about bringing existing properties up to energy band C; we also need to consider new build and our legislation around expected standards. According to Inside Housing, housing associations have built only a tiny number of homes that have the highest energy performance certificate rating of band A. The biggest 157 associations in the UK completed just under 50,000 homes in the 2021-22 financial year, but only 607 of those—1.2%—achieved a band A rating. In fact, the number of energy-efficient homes being completed by associations has actually fallen since last year, when they built 651 band A-rated properties. This data also shows that social landlords are falling behind the wider building sector. Two per cent of all new builds in England and Wales were EPC band A, according to the latest data. Although that rate is low, it is still more than 40% higher than the proportion built by housing associations.

Protecting people living in social housing from high energy bills is clearly important, because a high proportion of social tenants are on low incomes. We know that the energy crisis and the cost of living increases are causing severe financial difficulties for many housing association residents and are driving up costs for the housing associations themselves, as other noble Lords have mentioned during this debate.

While we know that many housing associations are doing all they can to help mitigate the impact of energy price rises on tenants and residents, the National Housing Federation has raised concerns that the price cap introduced by the Government to protect consumers does not help to lessen the cost for those on communal heat networks, which affects 153,000 housing association residents. Many of these residents are older, vulnerable and on very low incomes, so we must also protect these people from the rising energy costs. Will the Government look at communal heat networks and provide them with the same protections as other residents?

Alongside immediate help and support, a long-term strategy is needed from the Government on reducing energy demand. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that publishing a social housing energy demand reduction strategy will support the Government in achieving their net-zero targets, while at the same time helping to drive down fuel poverty. I hope the Minister has listened to the clear concerns raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Pinnock, in their introductions to their amendments.

I will now briefly comment on the two amendments in this group on safeguarding and supporting people who have become homeless, because this is an extremely important area that we need to tackle. The noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned the Government’s recently announced rough sleeping strategy to tackle homelessness, but this Bill provides a welcome opportunity not only to ensure that the provision of housing and support for homeless people and homeless households is recognised as an important consumer regulation objective, but to allow the regulator to have a role in monitoring registered providers in working with local government and other stakeholders to alleviate homelessness. Both the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, made excellent introductions to their amendments, and I am sure they have given the Minister much to think about on improving strategy development to tackle this issue.

As drafted the Bill will ensure that registered providers provide safe, well-managed and quality homes, and that tenants have the opportunity to be involved in the management of those homes and can hold landlords to account. However, these important landlord responsibilities must continue to go hand in hand with duties to accommodate and support homeless people and households, and not to be seen by social landlords as an opportunity to cut back on this vital work or, potentially worse still, to house only compliant tenants who will give them a “good” landlord rating to show the regulator. So we strongly support these amendments.

Finally, I offer our support for Amendment 4, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, which includes the regulator’s objective to look at the requirement to report to the Government on cladding and the remediation of other fire safety work. This is an important area left over from the Building Safety Bill, and we really need to tie up some of these loose ends. My noble friend Lord Whitty talked about the importance of the regulator, how it is set up and its priorities, responsibilities and objectives; this is clearly an important area that we need finally to cover off.

This has been an important debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.