Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 6th September 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 4:15 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, I begin by welcoming members of the Grenfell community, some of whom are in the Gallery today, while many are watching online. I commend them for their continued engagement in this vital piece of legislation and assure them that they are never far from our thoughts and prayers.

First, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock, Lady Thornhill and Lady Hayman, the noble Lord, Lord Best, and others for this debate on these very important issues, which are becoming more important as energy becomes a bigger and bigger issue for the people of this country. These amendments seek to make changes to the Regulator of Social Housing’s statutory objectives and standard-setting powers and to the approach to energy efficiency in the social rented sector.

I begin with Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and Amendment 21 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. As I said, energy efficiency is an important topic, both to meet our net-zero commitments and to reduce residents’ energy bills over the long term, which we know is more important than ever at this time. Many registered providers of social housing are already striving to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. Indeed—I think this is an answer to the first question from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—two-thirds of the sector currently achieves an EPC rating of C or above, making it the best-performing housing sector we have.

The Government are committed to considering setting a new regulatory standard of EPC C in the social rented sector and to consulting the sector before that standard is set. I am sure this is something that incoming Ministers will want to look at once they are appointed. Also, the Government committed £800 million in the 2021 spending review to the social housing decarbonisation fund, bringing the total committed to just over £1 billion. The fund will support the ambitions set out in the Clean Growth Strategy that as many homes as possible are improved to energy performance certificate EPC band C by 2035, where practical, cost-effective and affordable, and for all fuel-poor homes to reach that target by 2030.

As well as achieving good standards on average, many providers are already including net-zero considerations in their long-term planning and recognise the importance of improving energy efficiency. In the Heat and Buildings Strategy, published in October 2021, we committed to consider setting a new standard on energy efficiency in the social rented sector and that we would consult the sector before doing so. This part of the process is vital. Setting targets such as those proposed in Amendment 21 would exert significant financial pressure on social landlords who must balance differing spending priorities. We need to know whether spending on net zero might come at the expense of being able to deliver much-needed new housing and, importantly, home repairs.

That is why we must ensure that plans to decarbonise social housing are properly scrutinised and that we understand the broader impacts of any proposed metrics and standards. A full consultation and impact assessment would be a key step to understanding the impact of new standards on social landlords and on residents—who will benefit most from improved energy efficiency.

I assure the noble Baroness that improving energy efficiency in the social rented sector is a priority. The regulator already requires providers to meet the decent homes standard, which requires efficient heating and insulation. Including energy efficiency in the regulator’s objectives would therefore be only a symbolic change. Changing the objectives to include an already existing duty would be, in my opinion, a duplication.

I agree with the comment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that much of the debate that we have had this afternoon should possibly be taken in the Energy Bill as well. It is important that it is not forgotten.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, brought up the issue of the planning system and pleaded for incentives for regeneration rather than demolition and rebuild. I have to say that I agree with those sentiments but I do not have the answer. I will write to the noble Lord and will put a copy in the Library.

On communal heat networks, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, the Government have confirmed—I think I mentioned this in an answer to a question today—that network customers who will not be reached by the Energy Bills Support Scheme will be supported with an equivalent scheme, which is very good news. We are also taking powers in the Energy Bill to rectify the situation and Ofgem will regulate this in the future.

I now move on to Amendment 4 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and the important issues of cladding remediation and fire safety. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, brought up the funding for replacement of usage of non-ACM cladding. The Government have committed to £400 million to replace unsafe ACM cladding, and a £4.5 billion fund to remediate unsafe non-ACM cladding on residential buildings over 18 metres or just below in all sectors. There is money there for non-ACM cladding.

Nothing is more important than keeping people safe in their homes. The Bill is just one of a number of reforms that the Government have delivered in response to the Grenfell Tower fire; this includes this year’s Building Safety Act and last year’s Fire Safety Act. The department continues to work closely with registered providers to look at ways to make sure that buildings with unsafe cladding are remediated quickly. However, we are not persuaded that this type of monitoring is appropriate for the Regulator of Social Housing to undertake. While the regulator collects data from registered providers to inform its regulation of the standards, it is not a specialist health and safety body. The regulator’s data collection powers enable it to collect only data relevant to its regulatory functions. Significantly, its regulatory remit does not extend to monitoring the progress of cladding remediation.

The department is currently examining options for monitoring and reporting remediation progress in future, including cladding remediation. We strongly believe that decisions in this area should be based on thorough analysis of available options; this will ensure that the function is undertaken by those with the correct skills, expertise and capacity. Consequently, it would be counterproductive to pre-empt the outcome of this work by adding this amendment. I am, however, keen to reassure the noble Baroness that ensuring that landlords provide safe, high-quality social housing remains a key part of the regulator’s role.

I now turn to Amendments 2 and 22 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, respectively, which relate to the regulator’s role regarding homelessness. The Government are committed to tackling homelessness before it occurs; this year we provided local authorities with £316 million in homelessness prevention grant funding. Since the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, over half a million—510,930—households have been supported into secure accommodation. We have made excellent progress on our manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping and will build on this progress through continued work with our range of partners. To deliver our vision, we have brought forward a bold new strategy to end rough sleeping and we have pledged £2 billion over three years to deliver on this ambition by supporting local authorities and partners to deliver on this strategy. It will continue to be the role of local authorities to consider how their allocation policies support those in need of social housing, including people who are homeless. It differs very much, depending on where that local authority is and its demography.

While we expect landlords to treat everyone with respect and deliver a high-quality service to all, the measures in the Bill are targeted specifically at existing social housing residents. This is to enable the regulator to monitor compliance with its standards, supporting improved services for residents.

The regulator’s existing tenancy standard already sets an expectation that providers take account of the housing needs and aspirations of tenants and potential tenants, and assist with local authorities’ strategic housing function. This includes homelessness duties. Providers are also required to provide services that will support tenants to maintain their tenancy and prevent unnecessary evictions. I also note that the regulator plays a vital role in ensuring that providers are financially viable and well managed, which protects tenants from situations that would put their housing at risk. Following the passage of the Bill, the regulator will review and consult on changes to the regulatory standards, including the tenancy standard.

At this point I want to bring up the issue of temporary accommodation, brought up by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Best. Time spent in temporary accommodation means people are getting help and ensures that no family is without a roof over its head. The Government are committed to reducing the need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness before it occurs. This year, local authorities have received £316 million through the homelessness prevention grant, giving them the funding they need to prevent homelessness and help more people sooner. The Homelessness Reduction Act is helping more people get help earlier, particularly single households who often in the past would not have received help and would have been at risk of sleeping on our streets.

The Government are also committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing. We are investing £12.2 billion in affordable housing over five years from 2021 to 2026. This represents the highest single funding commitment to affordable housing in a decade. The investment includes the new £11.5 billion affordable homes programme that will be delivered over five years, providing up to 180,000 new homes across the country, should economic conditions allow.

The regulator continues to develop the operating model for the proactive consumer regulation regime and will consider how best to seek assurances that providers meet the revised standards set. In view of these arguments and reassurances, I ask noble Lords to kindly not press their amendments.