Amendment 241A

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 20 April 2023.

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Baroness Taylor of Stevenage:

Moved by Baroness Taylor of Stevenage

241A: After Clause 93, insert the following new Clause—“Meaning of “affordable housing”: affordable rent(1) In Annex 2 of the National Planning Policy Framework (glossary), in paragraph (a) of the definition of “affordable housing” (affordable housing for rent) omit “or Affordable Rent, or is at least 20% below local market rents (including service charges where applicable)”.(2) As soon as reasonably practicable and within two months of this Act being passed, the Secretary of State must publish a revised version of the National Planning Policy Framework, replacing the Affordable Housing for Rent definition with one based on incomes not market rates.”

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, in moving Amendment 241A, I shall speak also to my Amendment 500 and comment on other amendments in this group.

I should declare from the outset that social housing is a topic very close to my heart. As a new-town child, when I was growing up, more than 30,000 of the 38,000 homes in my town were built and managed by the development corporation and later taken over by the council. Almost everyone I knew lived in a council home. They had been built in self-contained neighbourhoods with large amounts of green space, schools, health facilities, shops and so on all within a 10-minute walk. They were mostly two, three and four-bedroom family houses with gardens. Sadly, as land values have increased, that type of development is all too scarce.

As noble Lords will be aware, the introduction of right to buy not only took a scythe to housing stocks but, particularly in the new towns, disrupted the community cohesion brought about by shared housing tenure. Those 30,000 homes that I mentioned earlier have reduced to just over 8,000 now. The figure for the UK is that there are around 1.5 million fewer council homes now than in 1980. Councillors’ inboxes are full—permanently—of housing cases. Surely the generations who benefited from right to buy cannot just pull up the ladder behind them. From the experience of my councillor surgeries, they had not anticipated the impact on their children and grandchildren, never mind all the other young people for whom private renting, let along buying homes, is fast disappearing over their financial horizon.

Just yesterday, we had a shocking report from the National Housing Federation, setting out the impact of overcrowding, particularly on the life opportunities of young people. The findings of its report say that more than 300,000 children in England have to share beds with other family members. Some 2 million children live in cramped conditions with little or no personal space. Ethnic minority households are three times more likely to be overcrowded than white households. More than one-quarter of the parents living in overcrowded homes who were questioned by researchers said that they regularly had to sleep in a living room, bathroom, hallway or kitchen.

The family featured in the National Housing Federation press release, Joanna and her daughter Deni, were forced to seek council help when private rented accommodation became too expensive. Joanna had never been able to afford a two-bedroom property but, with rents soaring, now struggles to afford a one-bedroom flat. Deni, a talented musical student who is on the Royal Opera House programme for promising singers, has shared a bed with her mother for the whole of her 10 years and spends school holidays sitting on that bed while her mother works from home.

My own casework contains hundreds of housing cases a year, around 70% of which relate to homelessness, overcrowding or affordability. Shelter, which does such magnificent work in this area, held an independent commission which pointed out that we have lost 1.5 million social homes since 1980 and recommended that government rediscover publicly built housing as a key pillar of our national infrastructure by building 3.1 million new social homes over the next 20 years. That is a very ambitious target, especially when we note that only 6,463 more social homes were built last year, and 500 of those were by my local authority. After the Second World War, local authorities built more than 126,000 social homes a year. The biggest barriers are land and funding. Shelter, IPPR, CPRE, National Housing Federation, Onward and Create Streets all call for reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961, so that landowners are paid a fair price for their land without hope value. We will discuss this when we come to future amendments. Local government has also argued for many years that we should retain 100% of our right-to-buy receipts. We welcome recent developments on that front but, had it happened decades ago, we would not have seen the catastrophic impact on housing stock levels.

The Resolution Foundation’s Housing Outlook report for the first quarter of 2023 stated that, although mortgagors had been affected by rising interest rates,

“private and social renters are much more likely to report falling behind or struggling with their housing costs”.

It also said that,

“worryingly high numbers of … renters report signs of material deprivation and are resorting to sometimes unsustainable strategies to manage their housing costs”.

They include borrowing money, using savings or not heating their homes. The ONS deems rental properties affordable if a household does not spend more than 30% of its income on rent. In this country, only the east Midlands and the north-west had rent prices affordable to those in the lower quartile of household income.

There are also key financial drivers to the provision of social rented homes. First, the rent paid by social renters is recirculated to improve stock, build new homes, develop specialist housing and so on. This is sometimes the case with good private landlords, but not always. Secondly, it makes no sense to subsidise higher private rents through the benefits systems. A rapid increase in social housing stock would generate savings, as there are stark contrasts in rent levels. The figures for my area are indeed stark, with social rent for a two-bedroom property at £110 a week and private rent at £235. The local housing allowance is just £195. The amount that councils spend on temporary accommodation has increased by 71% in the past five years and now costs more than £1 billion a year.

I hope that I have set out clearly the issues and the impact that housing supply is having on the affordability of housing. My Amendment 241A is included to remove from the NPPF the spurious term “affordable housing” from rented properties that are 20% below market rent. In many areas, that would be far from affordable. For many families on low incomes, the only affordable housing is social rented housing.

Amendment 242, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and Amendment 242ZA, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, attempt a comprehensive redefinition of the term “affordable home” to ensure that there is a link between median incomes and the definition of affordable homes, with that definition then enshrined in regulations. We support this proposal in principle and would want to work with the sector to ensure that there is a much more meaningful definition included in legislation and in the National Planning Policy Framework.

Amendment 262 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, highlights the specific issues of affordable housing in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The issues around these were clearly elucidated by my noble friend Lady Hayman yesterday—I am sorry, on Tuesday. The weeks go by with this Bill, I am afraid. She quoted the former chair of National Parks England, Carl Lis, who warned that young people and national park staff are being forced out of their communities, in part by the high prices driven by exclusive holiday homes. She also referred to a statement by the Secretary of State in the other place on 21 March in which he pledged planning changes to the Bill to ensure that restrictions would be put in place on conversions of homes to Airbnbs. Failure to act on this important issue will see the continued decimation of communities in our most precious landscapes, as increasing numbers of homes are bought for second homes and converted to Airbnb use. Local councils must be able to use the planning system in the best interests of their communities. I hope that this amendment and that submitted by my noble friend on Tuesday, or a version of them, will be accepted to achieve the Secretary of State’s aim.

Amendment 286 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, suggests bringing forward the requirements of the future homes standard to June 2023. In view of the protracted progress on the Bill through your Lordships’ House, this may prove a tad ambitious, although, of course, we hope that these can be implemented as quickly as possible. The second part of this amendment would grant powers to local authorities to determine for themselves what percentage of affordable homes is needed. We absolutely accept this in terms of devolution principles, but I just echo my noble friend Lady Hayman’s comments on Tuesday that, although we must be serious about meeting the affordable housing need, we also need to consider that communities need mixed tenures in housing.

We support Amendment 438 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Shipley. I remember the absolute horror with which the original announcement of this measure was greeted by my colleagues in local government in 2012. Some London boroughs rightly pointed out that every property in their housing stock would exceed the threshold. We welcome the fact that the Government have already committed that they will scrap this policy, so perhaps incorporating this amendment is a quick and easy way to do so.

Lastly, I turn to my Amendment 500. Mission 10 in the White Paper is the key mission relating to housing. While its ambition in terms of improving the quality of rented property is admirable, in other ways it looks at housing through the wrong end of the lens: it sees levelling up only through the point of view of property ownership. For millions of people on housing waiting lists, in temporary accommodation, sleeping on their friends’ sofas or, as in a case I dealt with yesterday, having to conduct access visits with their children in their car because they have nowhere to live, the prospect of a safe, sustainable home with a secure social housing tenancy would meet their immediate aspirations of levelling up. That is why we hope the Government will recognise the absolute importance and value of social housing and use the opportunity of the Bill to commit to building the numbers we need. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, I shall speak in support of Amendment 242 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I do so having consulted the Bishop of Chelmsford, who leads for the Church of England on housing but is unable to be here today. It is clear, I think, that we need to rethink what genuinely affordable housing is and how an adequate supply can be delivered. In London, the south-east and many other areas across the country, the current affordable housing for rent definition of 20% below market rates makes little difference to those on a median income, let alone those in most need. Without redefinition, we will continue to work under the illusion that homes classed as affordable are helping to solve the housing affordability crisis, when for the most part they are not.

Of course, we need a multifaceted approach to solve the lack of affordable homes. I was interested to learn from the Bishop of Chelmsford that Vicky Ford MP has been addressing this in relation to Chelmsford. During her 10-minute rule Bill debate on 22 February, she spoke to the shortage of affordable housing we face locally and nationally. Her Affordable Housing (Conversion of Commercial Property) Bill would apply affordable housing obligations to conversions of commercial property to residential occupancy. The Bill is due its Second Reading in the Commons on 26 May, and we certainly hope that it will make some progress.

Today, I urge the Government to look favourably on Amendment 242, which seeks a new definition of affordable homes based on the income of the purchaser or renter and not the open market price of the property. The amendment’s three-pronged approach is, in my view, an effective one. In linking a calculation of affordability to the local housing allowance for renters, it agrees that the Government’s own calculation in relation to housing benefit works for a particular local housing market and can play a part in bringing more affordable accommodation. On this point, I briefly urge the Government to unfreeze LHA from April 2020 levels to truly reflect the increase in rents over the past three years.

Likewise, it is welcome that the amendment seeks to ensure that

“annual mortgage costs … do not exceed 35% of the adult median income of employed people”.

This is a good proxy for ensuring affordability across England in a way that reduces exclusion. The amendment’s provisions on shared ownership flow from the same sound formulas already set out. It is clear that we need an immediate short, medium and long-term solution to the affordable housing crisis we face. Sticking plaster approaches of X number of homes built or not built in a year will not address this. This amendment would be a very helpful step in the right direction towards defining what truly affordable housing should look like.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 1:45, 20 April 2023

My Lords, I am very pleased that I chose to give way to the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Leeds, because he has done a superb job in introducing the amendment in my name, and I thank him very much for that. Perhaps I can just step back and look at the group that we are debating as a whole. There are five different approaches from the different amendments, which are all tackling the same problem. They approach it in different ways, but they are all aiming at a common destination. I will say to the Minister that it would be a mistake for her to simply play off the five different amendments and assume that there is no consensus and that this can simply be dismissed. They are all aimed at correcting the same fundamental policy mistake, which is to assume that the current formulation of the words “affordable homes” actually means affordable homes. It does not. It does not mean that, either in the private rented sector or the private ownership sector.

The highly desirable provision of affordable homes is supposed to be delivered through the planning obligations placed on developers when planning permission is granted. The calculation of that affordability is currently based on 80% of the market sale price of that property on that site or, alternatively, 80% of the market rent which is applicable in that general locality. Now the reality is that in many parts of England, especially but not only in London, taking 20% off either the market price or the rental price, while it does make it cheaper, does not make it affordable to those in the most local housing need.

My noble friend Lord Foster provided me with a typical case that illustrates this rather dramatically. It relates to Southwold in east Suffolk, where there are significant housing problems—for instance, last month, 31 homeless families applied to occupy one vacant rental property. So, there is absolutely no shortage of demand; it is a rural area 100 miles away from London. There is a terrible shortage of supply, despite the availability of so-called “affordable homes” achieved as a result of a planning agreement. One such so-called affordable shared ownership property in Southwold has been on the market for two years, during which time there have been no eligible local people able to afford to take it on. Local incomes are simply not high enough. That unaffordable home is on a redeveloped former hospital site where more than £1 million of public money has been contributed to “prioritise housing for local people”. Now, because there has been no eligible buyer, that home is going on the open market. That is a tragic lost opportunity to provide a home to meet local need; and, of course, it is a pitiful waste of public money.

In most London boroughs, affordable homes are not in reach unless you have two professional incomes at the household’s disposal. If Ministers doubt that, I suggest that they might like to ask the civil servants sitting in the Box behind them about their housing circumstances. Young professionals in London are squeezed out of the purchasing market and in grave difficulty even in the renting market. Those two London professionals who put their incomes together will perhaps be able to buy a house at a discounted price. That is good, but it is not a solution to London’s housing crisis. In Southwold and many other areas of the country, neither professional employment nor the bank of mum and dad can bridge the gap between real life and the policy intentions of “affordable homes”.

The five amendments in this group on this topic all start from the premise that affordability has real meaning only if it is based on income levels and not on the market or capital value of the home. Amendment 242 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Thornhill was the first to appear on the Order Paper, but I concede that it is not necessarily the best option for the Minister, because it sets out a simple way of calculating affordability and might perhaps be best described as a statutory instrument rather than an approach to go in a Bill. But what we have is a formula that is based on existing databases for homes for sale, rent and shared ownership. That calculation is focused on local housing allowance figures for renters and for purchasers of median household income. We do not need a royal commission to consider these matters, nor indeed does the ONS need to devise a new way of measuring things. Everything is there, so the Minister could just get on with it.

I very much welcome the support of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, with whom I had discussions beforehand, and now of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, for my Amendment 242, but I recognise that such a specific amendment might in itself be controversial. Therefore, my noble friend Lady Pinnock and I also tabled Amendment 242ZA, which puts the same proposition in the court of the Minister or the Secretary of State to write the regulations rather than us doing it for him. I do not need to spend too much time advocating for either of these or commenting on the other options in the group. All are aimed at a complete reset of the affordability policy as it stands in the NPPF, so that homes set aside under that policy in future are affordable for those in housing need.

However, I need to spend a short time underlining that there are at least two parallel affordability bottlenecks. The first, which my Southwold example highlights, is the bottleneck—almost the deceit—caused by the assumption that a home sold at 80% of its market price is likely to be affordable to those in most housing need. It is true that such homes bring a new slice of first-time buyers into the market, but in many places they will be people with substantial incomes, a long way above those referred to by the right reverend Prelate and so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage.

Providing them through the planning system as affordable homes misleadingly implies—sometimes it is explicitly said—that it is a significant move towards tackling and reducing housing need for those in most hardship. That is simply not true. The recalibration we seek in my two amendments is to put that right and bring all such homes within reach of any household at or above the median income for that area. My noble friend Lord Foster tells me that, in Southwold, the affordability ratio is currently 17:1. That is outrageous. What happens to the affordability ratio if you take 20% off the price? It becomes 13:1. That does not make it affordable. Affordability defined like that is simply a poor joke.

The second bottleneck is the provision of an affordable home for households whose income is below the median and for whom a house purchase is completely out of sight. Such a household will by default be in the formal or, increasingly, the informal rented sector, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, powerfully illustrated. There is sloppy talk about affordable homes being provided for rent within schemes of development which are far removed from the reality of people’s lives and their ability to pay. As a side note, half of the council homes sold are now back in the private rented sector—it is officially known that half of all the sold social homes have been transferred to the private rented sector, where the average rent is approximately double what it would be. You have terraces with a mixture of former council homes and those that remain social homes where the rent paid can be different by a factor of two, depending on whether it is a sold home or not.

My two amendments offer a solution by setting out clearly what is to be regarded as affordable rent when evaluating developments that purport to provide such accommodation. If adopted, the claims by some developers about their provision of “affordable” units would be weeded out and more genuinely affordable homes for rent would enter the market. For the third category of shared ownership, we recognise that a hybrid calculation of affordability will be required, and we have outlined how it might be done.

However, this is not about the minutiae of particular schemes; it is about recognising and then doing something about turning the hollow words of affordability calculated on house prices into a meaningful policy based on households’ ability to pay. If Ministers accept that basic principle and reshape the existing schemes to make affordable homes affordable, based on income, I am sure that all noble Lords with amendments down would be only too ready to work with them to get the small print right and dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s. Pending that important step, I will keep my Amendment 242.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop 2:00, 20 April 2023

My Lords, before the noble Lord takes his seat, may I apologise for jumping the gun? Before he had been able to speak to his own amendment, there was a silence and, like nature, I abhorred a vacuum, but I do apologise.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

I think the spirit moved. It is good the right reverend Prelate spoke first in this case.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, I rise to speak particularly to my Amendment 438, but I will preface my remarks by saying how much I have appreciated this debate and the contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds. We have explored this issue in a comprehensive and useful way, and I greatly appreciate that.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to the Affordable Housing Commission report, which came out in the middle of Covid and was therefore buried and forgotten by everybody. The AHC report, which noble Lords can find via Google or their favourite search engine, was a pretty big effort, thankfully funded fully by the Nationwide Foundation—the Nationwide Building Society’s foundation—with a secretariat from the Smith Institute; I had the honour of chairing this. The report is a pretty meaty document and worth those who are interested in this subject following through, but that was a great debate on those amendments, and I support the essence of all of them.

My amendment 438, to which the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has kindly added his name, seeks to remove from the statute book an obnoxious, offensive legislative measure which has hung over local authorities since the passing of the Housing and Planning Act 2016. I reiterate my declaration of interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Back in 2016, I was the LGA president and along with allies from all parts of the House, including the noble Lord, Lord Porter, with his local government expertise, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, we fought—unsuccessfully—to remove these awful sections from the 2016 Act.

What does this part of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 say, and why is it so troublesome? The key section imposes obligations on local authorities to sell their most valuable council housing when tenants move out, rather than reletting the property. It does so by requiring local authorities to pay a levy to the Secretary of State equivalent to the market value of the best council housing when it becomes vacant, multiplied by the estimated number of vacancies for the next year. To raise the money to pay this levy, local authorities would obviously have no option but to sell their most valuable homes. Most of the proceeds from these compulsory sales go straight to the Secretary of State, who, in a convoluted twist, would use the money to compensate housing associations for selling properties at large discounts to their tenants under an extension of the right to buy.

The effect of this extraordinary measure, had it ever been implemented, would have been highly damaging both for local authorities trying to meet the acute need for social housing in their areas and for the families desperately waiting for a home. Council housing would be further stigmatised and labelled as only for those with no hope of anything better, and with fewer re-lets, pressure on the remaining council stock would be even more intense than it already is.

Buyers of the housing which councils would be forced to sell would very often be private landlords who would let to similar occupiers but would charge market rents, thereby imposing twice the burden on the Exchequer for tenants in receipt of benefits. I was glad to catch up with the latest statistic from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell: that 50% of properties sold under the right to buy have been moved into the hands of private landlords and, obviously, let at rents that are twice as much, if not more.

To add insult to injury, the 2016 Act also empowered the Secretary of State to top up this raid on council resources by requiring local authorities to raise the rents to market levels for any tenant foolish enough to increase their income above a fixed level. The extra rent would not go towards management and maintenance of council housing but instead would be remitted to the Secretary of State as a windfall for the Government.

I moved an amendment opposing the measure and it was carried by a huge majority in this House. I even featured on the BBC documentary on the work of the House of Lords. Although it remains in law, it is another ingredient in the 2016 Act that thankfully has not seen the light of day.

Returning to the compulsory sales of higher-value council housing, as is addressed by the amendment, we can now see what a disaster this would have been—but the offending measure remains on the statute book. In reality, this sword of Damocles hanging over councils is no longer a major threat since Government Ministers have made it clear that they have no intention of using these draconian asset-stripping powers. Indeed, I am confident that Ministers understand the imperative for more, not less, social housing provision.

It was, no doubt, the work of an enthusiastic but naive special adviser coming up with a cunning wheeze to extract the cost from local authorities of securing new right-to-buy sales by housing associations. Today there would be little appetite for such shenanigans which would reduce the stock of available social housing, following the right to buy’s removal of 2.8 million council homes and the subsequent higher costs of using the private rented sector instead. Indeed, the right to buy has now been abolished in Scotland, and Wales is following suit.

Councils have welcomed the Government’s recent move enabling them to retain 100% of right-to-buy receipts for 2022-23 and 2023-24. With long waiting lists for social housing and the private sector becoming more and more unfeasible for many households, that announcement should support councils trying to replace the homes sold through right to buy. It would be helpful if the Government completed this change and made it permanent rather than just for two years. On this theme, I hope that the Government will finally agree to councils having the ability to set right-to-buy discounts locally as part of the Bill’s emphasis on devolution.

The time has surely come to be rid of this 2016 misguided measure to strip local authorities of their best housing assets. The LGA and others have been waiting for a legislative opportunity for the Government to enact their clear intention to have nothing to do with this defunct legislative device. The Bill provides that opportunity, and I think everyone in local government and in the world of social housing will breathe a sigh of relief to see this expunged from the statute book. I commend this amendment.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I wish to intervene briefly to put this debate in an important context. Before I do so, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Best, on eventually achieving the victory which he sought when the 2016 Act was going through; it was not the best piece of legislation on housing that Parliament has seen. I agree with what the right reverend Prelate said—that we should unfreeze the local housing allowance or, if we cannot, increase the discretionary housing grant, to enable those who find that they cannot meet the rent to have more support.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that “affordable” is a misnomer, but there is a fundamental choice that we have to make, which is: the higher the rents, the more social houses you can build; and the lower the rents, the fewer social houses you can build. That is simply because of the way that social landlords are funded. A Government decide to have a capital fund available for new builds. A Government of a different persuasion may have a higher figure than the current one but, whatever that figure, the number of houses that can be built is dependent on the rent levels which the social landlords can charge.

A Housing Minister has a choice: you can have lower rents, social rents or genuinely affordable rents, but you will get less output. When I had responsibility and was faced with this spectrum, I went for slightly more output but slightly higher rents, to meet the demand for new houses and to build more houses that would last 60 years. I recognise that others may choose to go the other way on the spectrum, but you cannot get away from the fact that this is the choice. If you want to have affordable rents reduced to social rents, the consequence is that you will have fewer houses. I make this intervention at the end of this debate just to put it in a slightly broader context.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I have two amendments in my name that I wish to speak to briefly. However, prior to that, I say that my noble friend Lord Stunell made an important point about how all the amendments here are trying to resolve the issue of what is affordable. So-called affordable homes are those built by the commercial sector as part of a development—a planning obligation—yet the challenge for us all is to provide homes at a social rent, which is roughly estimated as 50% of the market rent.

It is a tragedy for this country that successive Governments seem to have abandoned provision of homes for social rent in any large numbers. Local authorities have been severely constrained in building their own social housing, and the provision of homes for social rent has largely been left to housing associations. We then come to the conundrum which the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, just rightly pointed to—that the capital that housing associations receive from government depends on their flow of rental income. Therefore, do you have more or less? Either way, everybody agrees that there are insufficient homes for social rent.

About 30 years ago, my authority had 42,000 council houses at social rent—it now has 21,000. That is the scale of what has happened. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Stunell is absolutely right that about half of them are now back in the market as private rented properties at a higher rent for folk but without any of the support packages provided for homes for social housing rent within either a local authority or a housing association. That is a huge challenge that this country needs to tackle. One of the key factors in levelling up is a decent home—it is in the levelling-up missions. Millions of people in our country do not live in an adequate, safe home appropriate for their family, and we need to address that scandal.

On affordability, my noble friend Lord Stunell expertly laid out the issues, and I do not wish to say anything, except that obviously I totally support him. I wish to raise one issue about affordability that is a bit of a side issue. It seems that any property built as part of a commercial development which is deemed affordable should be affordable in perpetuity. My own council adopted that policy—I have to say as a result of pressure from my own party there—so that, when the house is bought, the 80% factor remains. The least the Government could do is to include that as part of a definition of affordability.

I just point to the two amendments in my name, the first being Amendment 286, about the future homes standard. I am an optimist. June 2023 is in the amendment to adopt it, but I doubt whether this Bill will have reached anything like the end of its route by then. The idea is that, if you can incorporate the future homes standard, which is about changing building regulations so that new homes are built to a much higher standard of insulation and improved heating and hot water systems, it would mean that developers would have to start recognising it, and not try to get away with it. Unless we adopt it now, it will be at least five or seven years before those properties are built. That was the purpose of that amendment—and to define affordability in a local context. Where I live in West Yorkshire, you can still buy a house for £150,000. You probably could not buy a garden shed for that in London. There is a wide range of house pricing and housing rents, and local authorities ought to be able, as part of their understanding of their local area, to define that.

Lastly, I reference Amendment 262, about national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, raised them, and I agree with what she said. If we are to retain the landscape value, which is the purpose of these definitions, we must enable local people to have homes that they can afford—hence the amendment in my name. With that, I look forward to what the Minister has to say on this very important debate.

Photo of Lord Thurlow Lord Thurlow Crossbench 2:15, 20 April 2023

My Lords, before we conclude this group, I start by saying that I do not know how any Government with a social conscience could listen to our debate for the last couple of hours without feeling an urgent desire to scrap the right to buy.

I support Amendment 438 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, concerning the sale of higher-value council residential properties. We must not forget that a lot of them are very old, they may have a lot of bedrooms, and they may be under-occupied, as we understand it, and very expensive to maintain—all good reasons for selling them. But we have a chronic shortage of housing. We all know that; we have heard it repeatedly today. If you geometrically increase that to the chronic shortage of social housing, or affordable housing, it is a crisis. The proceeds of all council residential property sales should be reinvested into social housing and affordable housing. They are not, as we have heard again and again. The failure to replace the units lost by the right to buy—the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, referred to it very eloquently—is a disgrace.

The private developers, who build large numbers of residential units for private sale are under an obligation to provide an allocation under the Section 106 agreements for affordable housing, but this is abused by developers—everyone in the industry knows that. The affordable housing obligation is subject to something called a financial viability appraisal. The bigger developers are frequently huge, multi-million-pound public companies; they have the resources, expertise and firepower to employ legal advisers at the highest and most expensive level to provide the financial viability assessment that suits their purposes. There is no possibility of local authorities being able to take on this challenge, partly because they would have to do it so frequently, and partly because they are short of funds in the first place and hardly able to challenge planning applications even on a private level from time to time. I am afraid that there is very little likelihood of the numbers of social or affordable housing being increased in the short-term. I conclude that—

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Does he agree that a compounding factor is that the calculations of viability studies are kept secret and that, if they were more transparently available, some of the abuse that he quite rightly refers to would be reduced?

Photo of Lord Thurlow Lord Thurlow Crossbench

I thank the noble Lord for his comment. I agree entirely with what he says. Without being able to challenge line-by-line a financial viability appraisal, it becomes an impossible task. A lot of the elements of financial appraisals are subjective, and value is therefore very much in the eye of the beholder. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord’s comment. However, until developers are required to provide sufficient social housing, together with the contribution from government sources, I unconditionally support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham for his explanation of the difficult decisions that social landlords must navigate through with the competing requirements on their rental amounts. That is really important; it is not just about building other properties—there are many other pressures that we continue to put upon them.

Amendment 241A, and Amendments 242 and 242ZA, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, relate to the definition of affordable housing. It is right to raise the importance of ensuring that affordable housing meets the needs of those who require it. Before addressing the amendments specifically, I assure noble Lords that the Government recognise the need to increase the supply of the most affordable type of affordable housing—that is to say, let at social rent. That is reflected in our commitment in the levelling-up White Paper to increasing the amount of social housing available over time to provide the most affordable housing for those who need it. A large number of new houses to be delivered through our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will be for social rent.

The consultation that we published before Christmas on the NPPF also recognised the need for more social rent homes. Subject to the outcome of that consultation, we are proposing to make changes to the NPPF to make it clear that local planning authorities should give greater importance in planning to social rent homes when addressing their overall housing requirements in their development plans and making planning decisions. However, we also recognise that local authorities need flexibility to deliver exactly what is needed in their area, and this may vary depending on local circumstances. We want to ensure that, when there is innovation in models for the delivery of much-needed housing to meet the needs of those who require it, we can flex the system to incorporate such innovation.

So, we are aiming for a “Goldilocks zone”. If we define affordable housing too strictly either within the Bill or the NPPF, we risk stripping local authorities of their flexibility to decide what is appropriate in their area. But, if we leave the definition of affordable housing entirely to local authorities, we risk losing the levers to drive important government ambitions, including those relating to the increased delivery of social rent. That is why we are keen to maintain the existing approach, in which the Government set the direction through policy and regulation, while also allowing space for local authorities to shape this approach to best meet local need.

It is for that reason that I am concerned that Amendments 241A, 242 and 242ZA, which are all concerned with linking the definition of affordable housing to a specific measure of income, would be too restrictive. In the National Planning Policy Framework, affordable housing is described as housing for sale or rent to those whose needs are not met by the market and which complies with one or more specific definitions. Those specific definitions encompass several different types of accommodation, to meet the housing needs of a range of people in different circumstances and housing markets.

This includes affordable rent as well as social rent homes. Affordable rent was introduced in 2011 to make it possible to deliver a larger number of affordable homes for a given amount of public investment. This has helped to support the delivery of over 632,600 affordable homes since 2010. Of that total, more than 440,000 were homes for rent and, of these, more than 162,000 were for social rent.

The definition in the National Planning Policy Framework, to be read alongside relevant Written Ministerial Statements and guidance, also encompasses a range of options, including shared ownership and First Homes, that offer routes into home ownership for households whose needs are not met by the market. These options are typically available at a price below market value. Eligibility can also be assessed in relation to overall household income, or in reference to local incomes and house prices.

In relation to shared ownership specifically, the Government understand the need to maximise the scheme’s affordability both at the initial point of purchase and over the longer term. That is why shared ownership is specifically designed to enable prospective buyers to purchase the right percentage share of their home for them, based on an affordability assessment conducted by an independent financial adviser. By linking shared ownership status as a form of affordable housing to a specific measure of income, we would be removing this much-needed flexibility to tailor the scheme to the individual circumstances of prospective buyers.

In relation to compulsory purchase orders and the community infrastructure levy—and its replacement, the infrastructure levy—the definition of affordable housing is linked to the definition of social housing in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. This definition encompasses both “low-cost rental accommodation” and “low-cost home ownership accommodation”. There is flexibility to add other descriptions of housing via regulations.

This ensures that regulations can then be amended so that definitions for the purposes of the community infrastructure fund can also be updated. This approach has been maintained in the Bill for those areas which touch on developer contributions: the infrastructure levy, street votes and community land auctions.

It is right to preserve this flexibility, alongside our proposal that national planning policy should place much greater value on homes for social rent. I therefore hope that the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, will not press their amendments.

I turn next to Amendments 262 and 500 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Taylor of Stevenage. These amendments seek to enable local authorities to mandate that new housing under their jurisdiction be affordable; to define “affordable” for that purpose; and to enable Ministers to set legally binding targets for the construction of social housing.

While I entirely understand the sentiment behind these amendments, the proposed approach would be counterproductive. Local authorities are already empowered to set policies in their local plan that require developers to deliver a defined amount of affordable housing on market housing sites unless exceptions apply. These policies are able to take into account local circumstances in setting the appropriate minimum amount of affordable housing, which will vary across the country.

Under the infrastructure levy, we will introduce a new right to require through regulations, in which local authorities can require that a certain proportion of the levy be delivered as on-site affordable housing. For rural areas, policies are already in place such as our rural exception sites policy, which helps to bring forward much-needed affordable housing in such areas. We went further in 2020 by publishing planning practice guidance, which should help bring forward more of these sites in future.

The revenue from market housing is vital for delivering affordable housing and other vital infrastructure, with 26,000 affordable homes delivered through developer contributions in 2021-22. In addition, our new infrastructure levy will be able to deliver as much on-site affordable housing as at present, if not more. A top-down legislative requirement would fail to allow for the nuances of local circumstances to be taken into consideration and would, in any case, not be an appropriate way to incentivise the construction of affordable housing.

Finally, the approach suggested in Amendment 262 could undermine the autonomy that national parks rightfully possess as local planning authorities. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, I would say at this point that the issues of Airbnb and second homes were brought up by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, earlier this week and I am getting a response on that.

On Amendment 286, also in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I will take subsections (1) and (2) of the proposed new clause first. The 2025 timeline delivers on our net-zero commitments while making sure that the construction sector has sufficient time to deliver the skills and supply chains for a significant change in the way we build houses. We have already accelerated our work on a full technical consultation for the future homes standard. We will consult in spring 2023 and legislate in 2024, ahead of the standard coming into force in 2025. We are not, however, waiting until then to take action. We introduced an uplift in standards, which came into force in June 2022. The uplift delivers a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions as a stepping stone to the future homes standard. Regarding the role of local authorities, all levels of government have a role to play in meeting our net-zero targets. Plan makers already have the power to set energy efficiency standards at local level which go beyond the national standards if they wish.

Turning to subsections (3) and (4) of the proposed new clause, taken together this part of the amendment would enable local authorities to mandate that new housing under their jurisdiction be affordable and defines “affordable” for that purpose. While again I entirely understand the sentiment behind the amendment, the proposed approach would be counterproductive. As I said, local authorities are already empowered to set policies in their local plans that require developers to deliver a defined amount of affordable housing on market housing sites unless exceptions apply. These policies are able to take into account local circumstances in setting the appropriate minimum amount of affordable housing, which will vary across the country. Under the infrastructure levy, as I said, we will introduce the new right to require through regulation, in which local authorities can require that a certain proportion of the levy be delivered as on-site affordable housing.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 2:30, 20 April 2023

The Minister is being extremely thorough. She has emphasised very much that she does not want to constrain local authorities exercising their decisions as is appropriate for their area. Can she give us some assurance that when the NDMPs and the revised NPPF are published that we will not find that they are being constrained via a different route?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I cannot give that assurance because we have not yet published them, but from everything I know of where the Bill is going with planning, we are encouraging local authorities to make those local decisions within the national framework, and I do not expect any further constraints on local authorities in that regard.

This is probably the right time to also bring up the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, raised about transparency and viability. We agree with many of the criticisms of the misuse of viability assessments. That is why we are introducing the infrastructure levy, which removes the need for viability assessments as part of the planning permission process. If we take it out of the process, I hope we will not have this argument in the beginning. I have had many arguments over viability in the past. If we take it out of the system, I hope that will stop in future.

Moving to Amendment 438, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, I understand why he has put forward his amendments. While I appreciate totally the sentiment behind them, we do not believe this would be the correct legislative vehicle for this policy. The Government have provided public assurances that they will not require local authorities to make a payment in respect of their vacant higher value council homes in the social housing Green Paper and stand by that commitment. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill does not address the topic of social housing, and the Government do not wish further to complicate such a complex set of legislative measures. However, the Government remain committed to legislating on this issue at an appropriate time in the future. I can provide assurances at the Dispatch Box to the noble Lord that the provisions laid out in Chapter 2 of Part 4 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 have not been brought into effect and this Government have no intention of doing so. The provisions lack a regulatory framework to underpin the policy, and therefore there is no risk of local authorities being subject to them before we are able to legislate in the future. I hope this reassures the noble Lord that the Government remain committed to the decisions set out in the social housing Green Paper and that provisions will be made in future for this revocation to be issued. I hope the noble Lord will feel able not to move the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I am grateful to noble Lords for such an interesting debate on a crucial topic central to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. As a result of the discussions we have had, the National Housing Federation’s figure for people in need of social housing is now 3.8 million—that is 1.6 million households. That is around 500,000 more households than the 1.16 million that are on official waiting lists. We all know the reasons for that: not everybody who is in need of housing will necessarily want to spend the next 20 years on a housing waiting list. In so many areas it is impossible to see people ever being housed as a result of those housing lists.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for his important comments, particularly about us needing to understand what genuinely affordable housing means. It certainly does not mean the definition that is used in planning at the moment. I agree with his comment that we are under an illusion that housing built under the “affordable homes” category will resolve the housing crisis—it will not. I totally support his comments about unfreezing local housing allowance levels, which would be an important step. Over many decades, we have seen sticking-plaster approaches to tackling the housing situation in this country, which consequently continues to deteriorate.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, rightly said that all of the amendments in this group are aimed at the same destination. Neither in renting nor in homes for sale does “affordability” mean what it says on the tin. We are all trying to make sure that we do what we can in the Bill to change that to some extent.

It is misleading to say that the Help to Buy schemes, which the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, mentioned, will tackle the issue for those most in need of housing. Taking a little risk, I will mention a conversation I had with a former Conservative Minister, who said, “I don’t know why you keep banging on about social housing, Sharon. Everyone can afford to buy a house under our Help to Buy scheme”. That is clearly not the case. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, quoted his noble friend who said that, in Southwold, the affordability ratio is 17:1, and 13:1 after a 20% discount. That is the case in quite a lot of the country, although not everywhere.

More than 50% of social homes have been transferred into the private rented sector, which is a great grievance to those of us who deal with the impact of that. Where that rent is paid by universal credit or other benefits, instead of DWP paying—I shall use the figures I quoted earlier—£110 a week rent for those properties, the public purse now pays £235 a week for them. That does not make any sense at all, so we need to do all we can to address this situation.

As ever, I was pleased to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Best, about his amendment. I thank him for reminding us about the Affordable Housing Commission report, which is very good and we all need to take account of it. I am afraid I found the Minister’s comments on the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Best, a bit disappointing. None of us, including the Government, want this measure. The noble Lord, Lord Best, called it an “obnoxious” and “offensive” legislative provision, which it is. He pointed out that it has hung over local government since 2016. We could use this legislation to get rid of it. Why do we not do that? Under that legislation, local authorities were expected to raise the rent to market levels where tenants improved their financial situation. When that happened, it greatly concerned me that this would not benefit local communities or our housing stock but would tip into the bottomless bucket in the Treasury. It is time that that provision was scrapped. I absolutely support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Best, about local decisions being taken on right-to-buy discounts. That measure is way past time, and we should absolutely have it.

The noble Lord, Lord Young, spoke about unfreezing local housing allowance, which I agree with. He also mentioned discretionary housing payments. In many local authorities, the allocated amount of discretionary housing payment runs out in Quarter 1, and then various bodies, including government advisory bodies and Citizens Advice, often send tenants to their councils to request discretionary housing payment, when in fact it has run out in the first three months of the year. That is simply because of the cost of living crisis and the level of rents that are putting so much pressure on those discretionary housing payments.

The noble Lord, Lord Young, also rightly raised the issue that we are often faced with the difficult choice of low rents or increasing rents and having enough funding to provide new builds. I support that, but there are other ways of doing this. The Government have provided some funding for new housing, but local authorities and other public sector bodies can also 3be creative about the way they use their land and property to deliver social housing and use their assets to contribute to resolving the housing crisis. For example, there can be mixed developments where the authority uses the surplus from private sales to fund the social housing on those developments. In my own borough, we had closed-down pubs and we did a land swap with a doctors’ surgery, so the doctors got a new surgery and we got a housing site. We also used a low-demand garage block to build specialised housing for street homeless people. There are solutions, but he is right that we have to get round this point that you either have high rents or you do not have any new build. That requires government intervention, and we need to think about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said that he did not know how anyone could listen to this debate without wanting to scrap right to buy. I have to approach this cautiously, but I am very sympathetic to that point. He also spoke about affordable housing being abused by developers on the often spurious grounds of viability. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, mentioned that these calculations are still allowed to be kept secret and they absolutely should not be. Communities should know why developers are saying that they cannot put affordable housing in their developments.

As ever, I was grateful to the Minister for her very detailed response on the debate. However, to defend the status quo, which is how her comments could be interpreted, is very difficult in the circumstances of the housing situation that many people in our communities face. I think there is an increasing burden on the rental income stream and the Minister is correct to say that. The regulatory burden is not helping. I completely understand why the Government are increasing the regulatory burden, but this puts additional pressure, which is not covered, as I understand it, by new-burdens regulations.

It has been a very good discussion on all these housing points. I will withdraw the amendment for now, but I hope the Minister recognises the strength of feeling in your Lordships’ House on some of these issues. This means we will want to come back to this on Report. I think we may want to push for Report stage not to be held until we have the benefit of detail. We keep being told that these things are going to be in the NPPF and the NDMPs, so it may be that we want to consider whether Report stage should be before we have sight of those documents. But, for the moment, I withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 241A withdrawn.

Clause 94 agreed.

Amendments 242 and 242ZA not moved.

Schedule 8: Minor and consequential amendments in connection with Chapter 2 of Part 3