[Martin Caton in the Chair] — Social Housing (England)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:59 am on 28th June 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 9:59 am, 28th June 2011

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is worth looking at, but the problem is that the council house does not then become free for the people who need it most. That is an interesting idea, however, and I am sure that the Government will look at that.

I hope and believe that the Minister’s actions will help to tackle the waiting lists. I want to look at some potential solutions to asset inequality and to the housing crisis that we face. During the previous Parliament, the report “Breakthrough Britain”, by the Centre for Social Justice, suggested that social tenants who work, or who make a genuine effort to find work, should be rewarded with increasingly larger equity stakes in their home. The Conservative party adopted that policy in its manifesto, saying that social tenants with a good record should be rewarded with a 10% free equity share in their property, and that that could be cashed in when those tenants left the social rented sector. That could help in many ways; for example, as a small nest-egg for retirement, or as a deposit for their first house. I passionately believe in that policy: it is social justice in action, and rewards people who do the right thing. That is important because an Englishman’s home is not just his castle; it is his pension and an emergency source of funding for care in old age. People who never own equity in a house are shut out from that security, and have to live hand-to-mouth right into retirement.

When the economy improves, I hope that we will have the finance to implement that policy. There are other policies, however, that can have a similar effect. For example, the previous Government cut the right-to-buy scheme, which was so successful in the 1980s and 1990s. For many years, the Labour Government capped the maximum discount at £16,000, raised the minimum sale price and cut back the eligibility criteria. On top of that, Labour allowed the scheme to be eroded by inflation. In 1997, the typical discount was worth half a home’s normal value, but that fell to just a third in recent years.

Why not dramatically restore the right-to-buy scheme, with proper discounts? I should also mention Harlow council again at this point. Why is it that, despite our councils paying to maintain homes and owning them outright, 75% of the sale price gets funnelled back to the Treasury—a point alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford—rather than kept in the local area? I accept that that is the system we have inherited, but it is against the spirit of localism, and is an issue that could be earmarked for future reform.

Finally, I urge the Minister to look at the possibility—I emphasise the word possibility—of housing vouchers, funded by the sale of social housing as they become empty when existing tenants leave. Housing vouchers would create competition. That would drive more homes up to the decent homes standard and give people real choice. That would be a radical transformation of our society, and benefit new tenants as they enter the social market. Instead of the state owning or running social homes, it would simply pay the cheque to help families access accommodation. Linking the voucher to national insurance numbers would make it easier to administer. To adopt a famous phrase from Chairman Mao that is very apt at present, we could let a thousand flowers bloom and, instead of huge social landlords and corporations running the show, give smaller, nimbler businesses and charities a chance to run social housing.

In conclusion, the Government are delivering Harlow housing, and Harlow housing money, for Harlow people. The Localism Bill represents a huge shift of power to communities—something we have not had for a long time. We must also help families to take that step and take their rightful place in a property-owning democracy by getting a foot on the housing ladder. That is why I support giving free equity to social tenants when the economy allows it, restoring the right to buy, and looking at major innovations such as housing vouchers.