Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 6th September 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government) 3:20 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a councillor. I apologise to the House that, due to train delays, I was unable to speak at Second Reading, though I was here for most of that debate, bar for about three minutes.

This Bill is broadly accepted—certainly by those of us on our Benches—but there are some additions which we think would make it better. Back in July, when my noble friend Lady Thornhill and I tabled this amendment on energy efficiency, little did we know that the issue would be even more in the public eye and even more important to address in a strategic way. The amendment, which adds the words “energy efficient” to the fundamental objectives set out in Clause 1, must surely now be a priority for any Government.

Our country’s energy security is finally at the heart of government thinking. The cost of energy for tenants—many of whom will be among those with the lowest incomes—means that they will be completely unable to meet their basic needs. Improving energy efficiency is one of the key planks of a longer-term strategy to ensure energy at a cost that can be afforded. As this is undeniably the case, I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment.

Houses in Britain are some of the worst insulated in Europe—it is shameful to have to say that, but it is true. The Government aim to improve the energy efficiency of homes, but what appears to be lacking is a practical plan to achieve those absolutely essential improvements.

The properties in the social housing sector will, in the main, have been built post-1920, when cavity walls became the norm. One-third of heat loss is through walls. Prior to 1990, cavity wall insulation was not the norm, although it can be done relatively easily. Ensuring that loft insulation is 300 millimetres deep—the current new-build standard—will also help, as will double glazing, although the majority of properties will already have double glazing, albeit at the lower efficient level installed at the time. The Government have the stated intention of exchanging gas boilers for heat pumps, which are effective only with very well insulated homes. Therefore, achieving more energy-efficient social housing should be a priority, which is the purpose of the simple amendment that we have laid today.

Achieving better energy efficiency is not difficult if there is a will to do so. When I was leader of Kirklees Council, about 15 years ago we had what we called the warm zone scheme, which provided free loft and cavity wall insulation to all homes, regardless of tenure—not just social housing but all homes—and which was part- funded by a levy on energy companies. In total, nearly 100,000 homes benefited. If it was that easy to do—to be honest, it was not that difficult—it can be done now on a nationwide basis, and ought to be done. It is practical but will happen only if the sector is required to make it a priority; hence the purpose of the amendment.

This amendment is about the principle of energy efficiency, and Amendment 21, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is much more detailed in nature and provides specific targets for energy efficiency, which of course we will support wholeheartedly.

I also wish to speak to Amendment 4 to Clause 1, which is also in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Thornhill. The purpose of this amendment is to provide the regulator with a duty to report on the removal of unsafe cladding and the remediation of fire safety defects in social housing. Members of the Committee may be thinking that the issue of unsafe cladding and other fire safety defects has been resolved; the solution was the Building Safety Act. Unfortunately, there are many unresolved problems, and for the social housing sector the challenge is that of the lack of funding for dealing with essential remediations.

The National Housing Federation estimated earlier this year that remediation costs for its sector will be about £10 billion and for social housing owned by local authorities a further £8 billion. Social housing landlords do not have access to funding for non-ACM cladding removal—so there is no funding for the other fire safety defects. There is also no funding to cover costs for tenants in the same way as there is for leaseholders. One of the consequences is that tenants, through their rents, will be contributing to the cost of remediation.

Imposing the cost of remediation on social housing landlords obviously has knock-on effects on plans for other refurbishment, or could even stall plans for new homes. An excellent research paper from the House of Commons Library was published in June on this issue, from which I got some of that information.

The aim of the Bill is a good one: to ensure safe homes in the social housing sector. Fire safety cannot be ignored as being too expensive or too difficult. As we know, tragically, ignoring fire safety costs lives. I urge the Minister to accept this amendment to provide regular assurance that fire and building safety remediation work is being completed in the social housing sector. With that, I look forward to the rest of the debate on this group of amendments, which are fundamental to getting improvements to an otherwise sound Bill. I beg to move.