I was going to discuss stock transfer in a moment. Again, that is a matter on which each local authority must decide. The question of whether tenants would be better off with stock transfer under existing centralised rules depends on the level of debt, which can differ greatly from authority to authority. Ultimately, tenants have to vote according to the circumstances in their area. I do not approach the matter from an ideological position; I am interested in what works best for tenants in a given area.
As the quality of life in some of our inner cities and urban areas declines, more and more people aspire to living outside, particularly in rural areas. Consequently, they push up prices and price out local people, who then increase the demand for social housing in the very areas with the least of it. In addition, the demand for second homes or weekend retreats inflates house prices still further and sometimes undermines the viability of local schools, shops and bus services. In some west country villages, a majority of homes are occupied only when their owners grace the area with their presence. They do not use local services, which struggle to survive with fewer permanent customers.
Not only do second homes inflate local housing prices and undermine businesses and public services, but their owners are also given a tax break. Abolishing the 50 per cent. council tax rebate on second homes will make the system more equitable, but the extra revenue raised must be given back to the local authorities concerned to allow them to subsidise threatened services or to contribute to new social housing stock.
If the Government will not free up local government, perhaps they could at least make the system fairer by introducing a level playing field for social housing providers. Why not allow councils to borrow to build, repair or renovate on the same terms as non-statutory housing providers? Are the Government frightened that such competition might give tenants a real choice between stock transfer and remaining with their local authority? If all types of housing providers could compete to meet local housing needs, would we not see a reduction in waiting lists and more choice for those in need of such housing?
The Government's priority must be to provide more homes, which means increasing investment. An investment in housing is an investment in communities, areas and neighbourhoods, not just in bricks and mortar. However, the homes must be affordable, which means changing the housing benefit system. Affordable rents are a key component in any plan to tackle poverty. If left to the market alone, housing costs would exacerbate poverty. Affordable rents can be achieved in only two ways, or through a mix of both. The first is to regulate rent levels, although the risk is that the private sector will pull out as market suppliers. The second is to provide public grant or subsidy through cash payments to landlord or tenant, thereby funding the difference between a market rent and an affordable one. Whatever the reform, housing support should not be restricted by housing tenure. Assistance should also be available to those who wish to buy or part-buy housing.
Society pays dearly for poor housing. Decent, affordable housing brings more than economic benefits. Social housing providers make a long-term investment in the areas in which they operate, and are well placed to support neighbourhood renewal. The Government are not serious about tackling the housing crisis—they merely tinker at the edges of the problem—and the Conservative Opposition seem obsessed with the number, rather than the type, of homes that need to be built. A radical rethink on where decisions are taken and a commitment to invest in social housing are long overdue.