[Relevant Documents: The Eleventh Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2010-12, on Financing of new housing supply, HC 1652, and the Government response, Cm 8401.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2013, for expenditure by the Department for Communities and Local Government—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £464,869,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 894,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £1,212,893,000 as so set out, and
(3) the sums authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £339,615,000 as so set out.—(Mark Lancaster.)
It is with pleasure that I speak to the report produced by the Communities and Local Government Committee, “Financing of new housing supply”, which we published last May and to which the Government responded in July. Today provides an opportunity to consider the report’s recommendations and the Government’s response to them. I hope their response today will be more enthusiastic than the written response they gave in July. A new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), is now in place, so he might manage to achieve that. We can also consider certain things that have happened since the report was produced about 10 months ago, and see how they may have changed our recommendations or, indeed, strengthened their case.
If it is of assistance to the Chair of the Committee, I am prepared, in the light of developments over the past 12 months, to place an update of the Department’s response to its report in the Library of the House of Commons later today.
I thank the Minister for that and we look forward with anticipation to reading what he has to say. We will do so closely, and the Committee might give it further consideration.
The report, which was signed up to by all members of the Committee on a cross-party basis, tried to consider the issues in the longer term. I am pleased to see in the Chamber several members of the Committee, both past and present, whom I hope will be able to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker.
We started off from the basic position that we have not been building enough homes in this country for a long time. The basic requirement is about 250,000 homes a year, based on household formation, plus an increasing number to make up for the backlog of past under-investment. Since the report was published, we have had the figures for housing starts in 2012. There were 115,620 housing completions, up 1% on the previous year, and 98,280 housing starts, an 11% reduction. Therefore, if our recommendations were correct a year ago, they are probably just as correct now.
This is not a short-term problem. The report acknowledges that even at the height of building in the mid-2000s, we were building a maximum of only 170,000 homes a year, which was not sufficient, either. The private house-building industry has never managed to build more than 150,000 homes a year, so the likelihood of being able to rely on it to deliver the extra homes is probably very small indeed.
We also know that historically, the percentage of owner-occupied properties has been falling since about 2002. That represents a change. The number of private rented properties has been rising considerably and is now slightly greater than the number of social rented properties.
We can also see the consequences of the failures over a long period and of the immediate problems of 2008 and beyond, including young people in particular being unable to afford a mortgage and increasing waiting lists for social housing. People with heart-rending stories who ought to be given a house immediately visit our surgeries every week, but they cannot all have priority because there are not enough homes to go round. Rents in the private sector are also rising. I will not say too much about the private rented sector today, because we are in the middle of a further inquiry into it and what we should do. We look forward to having Ministers before us at the end of that inquiry.
While we were conducting the inquiry into new housing supply, the Government produced their housing strategy for England. It contained measures that everyone could support, such as the release of public sector land. It also included the NewBuy scheme, on which we were promised an update after 12 months. I am not sure how much there is to update us on, but the Minister may be able to give us a few figures.
The Committee concluded that we needed a long-term strategy. There is an issue with homes, but there is also the immediate issue of jobs and growth. The National Housing Federation gave us the interesting figures that every affordable home built in this country provides £108,000 in added value to the economy and creates 2.3 jobs. We should bear that in mind. We also concluded that we needed radical changes. Members of the Committee recognised that we needed to be brave and think outside the box in coming to our conclusions.
We made a number of proposals because we recognised that there was no silver bullet, magic solution or switch that could be flicked in Whitehall that would make everything okay the following day.
Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to the problem in the planning system of land banking, whereby many approved planning applications remain unactioned? Local authorities have put significant amounts of money into those sites, for example via supplementary planning documents, but they are now idle. Were they to be actioned, it would go some way towards ameliorating the housing shortage.
The hon. Gentleman helpfully anticipates my next point.
The Committee concentrated on funding issues because that was the remit of the report. However, we said in passing, as we did in our report on the national planning policy framework, that we did not believe there was evidence that planning was the obstacle to growth. We accepted the point, which the Local Government Association has made again recently, that there are 400,000 planning permissions for new homes that have not been activated. Getting at those is a major challenge that we should talk about. I do not believe that the measures in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will deal with that problem, although that did not form part of our report because it has been published since our inquiry. The LGA also says that 87% of all the planning applications made last year were given permission. Planning is therefore not the problem.
There is a potential long-term problem, which I have raised with Housing Ministers on a number of occasions, if local plans become the heart of the planning system, as they ought to be. Many local authorities ought to speed up the process of getting those plans in place, because they are a crucial part of the planning system. The problem is what we should do if the housing numbers in the local plans do not add up to a figure that meets the national housing requirements. I asked the previous Minister for Housing that question on a number of occasions and he never seemed to have an answer.
I congratulate the new planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who came to the Select Committee a couple of weeks ago with Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, who was reviewing the supplementary planning guidance. At the top of their list of issues that were not addressed properly in the supplementary planning guidance was the need for a consistent measure of housing need that could be incorporated into local plans on a consistent basis. That will be a helpful move. It will take time for it to be effective, but there is a recognition that the abolition of regional spatial strategies and the total reliance on local plans has created a disconnect with the national targets.
The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. Does he agree that when developers have made a value judgment to bank a portfolio of land because the market is failing, there is no fiscal incentive for them to develop that land? We know about housing need, but the Treasury and others are giving no incentives in terms of supply. Perhaps we should consider tax changes as a catalyst for development.
That is not something the Select Committee looked at. I will pass it over to the Treasury Committee, just as Ministers pass matters over Treasury Ministers.
There is, however, a worse problem in certain areas. I have been advised by Les Sturch, the director of planning at Sheffield council, but this is also happening in other councils. Because of market changes in housing, many developers are saying that although certain sites have—or could get—planning permission because the land is owned for housing in a local plan, they are not developable in economic terms. Local authorities therefore have to revisit their local plans and look for new housing sites in more favourable areas. That is a real problem and will put pressure on green open spaces because developers will say, “These sites are much more attractive to develop in the current climate.” Ministers must address that problem in the planning system, or else Members will be knocking on ministerial doors and saying, “Why do I have to provide lots more housing sites in my constituency when so many sites have not been built on, even though they have planning permission or could get it if developers applied?” That is a longer-term problem.
We recognised that public funding will, of course, be limited for the foreseeable future, so we looked at the private sector and markets to see what was available. There is a long-term problem. Everyone has said that such housing is an obvious form of investment, but sums have traditionally shown that investors believe they can get a 6% return, although they need 8%. There is therefore a gap, and evidence to the Committee suggested that that is why developments have tended not to happen.
However, there is increasing evidence that developments are beginning. The Greater Manchester Pension Fund is working with Greater Manchester council to provide homes, and Aviva pension fund and Derwent Homes are coming forward with schemes. Places for People gave evidence to the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the scheme in Greater Manchester, but does he agree that there is great scope for local authorities to take on more borrowing capacity and leverage pension funds in order to invest further in houses of different sorts?
Absolutely, and I was going to welcome the Government’s consultation on relaxing restrictions on local authority pension funds to provide more scope to invest in infrastructure, particularly housing projects. That helpful move forward should be welcomed.
The Committee also considered a bigger deal—a housing investment bank, for example, or an extension of the Green investment bank. Lots of good initiatives scattered around the country are beginning, but small projects often find it difficult to access institutional funds, and small pension funds do not want to get too heavily involved in lending to one particular scheme. A housing investment bank could link up investors who might want to invest—including smaller investors—with borrowers and smaller schemes, and the risk could be spread across those schemes, thereby making the investment more attractive.
On speaking to builders in my constituency, it is clear that small-scale construction is supported by individuals buying properties to let, rather than first-time buyers. It seems that considerable numbers of people who want to invest are currently using the buy-to-let market but might be interested in a new type of investment vehicle, provided there was a satisfactory return.
Yes, and as well as individuals, some potential larger housing providers, which are going to talk to the Committee as part of our private sector inquiry, are anxious to access institutional investment. They want to build properties and manage them in the long term, which is an interesting way forward for the private rented sector. A housing investment bank could provide a significant push in that area.
The Committee visited the Netherlands, which has a similar arrangement. Interestingly, their Government underwrite and guarantee funding that is raised and borrowed by their equivalent of housing associations, but it does not count as Government borrowing. The Government’s response to our proposal on some form of investment bank was that they would keep it under consideration. So, after a year, what has the Minister considered? I am sure that the answer will form an interesting part of his response.
Since then, the Future Homes Commission, which the Royal Institute of British Architects was instrumental in proposing, has had a similar idea: a £10 billion local housing development fund provided by 15 local authority pension funds. The Government told us in response that they would await the Montague report. Of course, Montague said that he did not believe that guarantees were appropriate because they distort the market. The Government have since introduced their £10 billion housing guarantee. They waited for Montague, heard what he said and promptly dismissed it. That is probably an unfair characterisation of the process.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the guarantee, but is not the most extraordinary thing that the guarantee was announced last summer as a key measure to get shovel-ready schemes going quickly, and here we are, nine months later, and not a single scheme has benefited from the guarantee? It is simply a fig leaf to cover the Government’s embarrassment.
I am sure that the Minister will have a response on when the guarantee will get the shovels digging. The idea of a guarantee is not a bad one if it works, but perhaps it should be linked to some wider proposal for an investment bank. Something that came out in our recommendations is that, if there is a limited amount of public money, it can sometimes work for the best by assisting to leverage in private funding and by providing some guarantee for that private funding. We can then make the most of the two sources of funding together.
Will the hon. Gentleman develop some thoughts on how the enormous social housing assets on the books of housing associations might be leveraged? Perhaps he will reflect for a moment on the potential difficulties of governance structures and on having hybrid public-private bodies that would guarantee the public role of housing associations but allow access to private capital.
On the second point, I can see the problems. I do not think that we went into that issue in detail. I have been involved in such bodies in the past, and the important thing is to recognise that, yes, there can be issues and to try to resolve them right at the beginning. I will say a little more about housing associations in a second if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.
We looked at real estate investment trusts, which are close to the Minister’s heart—or perhaps not quite so close. We wondered why, after years of having them, no one seemed to be using them, certainly not for housing purposes. We had some challenges about how the Treasury treats investment and trading profits for tax purposes and whether that could be changed. It appears that the Government have gone a bit cold on REITs and do not see them as a solution, but I am sure that we will hear more from the Minister.
On social housing, there was a recognition—we might have different views about its appropriateness—that the Government had cut social housing funding over the comprehensive spending review period by 60%. Effectively, the Government are relying on housing associations in particular to increase rents towards 80% of market values on new properties and perhaps on existing properties to help to fund their balance sheets. Rents are rising to take up the slack from the reduced social housing grant that is available.
The National Housing Federation and housing associations told us clearly that they were concerned that this model would not last much beyond 2015. They did not think that was workable in the long term. They asked for some certainty about what would happen, so that they could enter into borrowing arrangements. The Minister for Housing told us in his response that he accepted that point and that the Government would look at it closely. It would be helpful to know what the Government’s response is now, because it is clearly an issue.
Moody’s has downgraded the credit ratings of 26 housing associations, and we are getting to the tricky issue of direct payments, which the Select Committee considered. The National Housing Federation certainly told us that it thought that a number of associations would end up paying more in borrowing costs because of the associated problem of rising arrears. We welcome the Government’s commitment to the pilots, which are going ahead, and we have had further information during our more recent inquiry into the impact of welfare reform on local authorities. We will reach some further conclusions about the direct payment issue. Clearly, the Government must be aware of the impact on housing associations.
Returning to the point the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) raised a few moments ago, the Committee recognised that there are a number of ways to get more leverage from housing association assets, and people gave evidence on what they were doing in that regard. It is interesting that only yesterday the G15, the 15 big housing associations in London, made an announcement about a common investment vehicle to raise money to enter the private sector housing market. That is one way in which the solidity of their balance sheets is helping them to raise money for a purpose that should, in the longer term, be self-funding. These are interesting ideas.
The Committee also looked at the housing grant. The so-called grant is sat on the books of housing associations and is counted as a debt. Changing that to a genuine grant or equity could release a lot of funds for investment, and is clearly supported by the housing association movement. We suggested that the Government look at that, because we recognised that there could be problems with overloading some associations in some circumstances with too much debt. Nevertheless, we thought that in principle it was an idea worth considering. We hope Ministers will look at it, because some of the stronger, more robust housing associations might want to pursue it. We have to be cautious, however. What might be right for associations such as the G15 in London, where the private market is buoyant and rents are appropriately high, will not be right in other parts of the country where there is not the same ability to leverage funds. We have to be careful and recognise that a one-size-fits-all solution is not necessarily available.
The Committee looked at the role of local authorities. They have not been great contributors to new house building in recent years, and we ought to change that. We welcome the housing revenue account reforms, because they give local authorities the opportunity to take investment decisions, but why, of all the investments made by local authorities, is housing the only form of investment that is controlled beyond prudential rules? Why is it different? It is a ring-fenced account. It should be in the other direction: it is a safer form of borrowing for authorities. It is not only the Local Government Association, but councils such as Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham that are saying, “Get rid of the artificial cap that has been put on housing revenue account borrowing. Why is it there? Why can we not rely on the prudential rules that are in place for all other forms of local authority borrowing?” Ministers always have fall-back powers under the Local Government Act 2003 if they need them. Why can that not be relaxed to allow more borrowing and building?
I would be more supportive of the 600,000 figure, but we probably cannot deliver that with the money available. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She anticipates the “Let’s Get Building” report produced by the National Federation of ALMOs, the LGA and the Chartered Institute of Housing, among others. It makes the point that if the cap was lifted the amount of borrowing local authorities could enter into would rise from £2.8 billion to £7 billion. That would allow the building of 60,000 homes and put a lot of people into work. It just seems to be a simple solution. It does not require the Treasury to go out and find any money to subsidise that borrowing, because it is a ring-fenced account, a trading account, and Ministers need to accept that.
The Committee’s report suggests that some authorities may not want to go ahead, because they do not have a housing need. Why can there not be a swapping or trading of borrowing amounts between local authorities? The Government allow and encourage sharing between local authorities on a whole range of areas, so why not on this too? We raised with them the possibility—we did not say they should definitely do it—of changing Government borrowing rules in respect of the general Government financial deficit. To return to our visit to the Netherlands, the Dutch Government guarantee housing borrowing for housing associations, yet it does not count as Government borrowing. It is a problem in this country that Treasury restrictions weigh heavily on local authority borrowing, particularly in this area.
We welcomed the proposed new models of governance for arm’s length management organisations, which, with more tenant involvement and more co-operative-type structures, could borrow in the private markets, as housing associations do. We also made recommendations concerning the right to buy—about trying to ensure one-for-one replacements and about how the Government could help facilitate that—and giving more freedom to local authorities in terms of discounts in areas of great housing stress and to housing associations that might want to enter the right to buy, where they think it right for their portfolios—that comes back to the point about using portfolios in a way that benefits housing associations. We face the great challenge of moving to a better situation in which we subsidise building, not benefits. That is a long-term problem going back to the 1980s—and even earlier—and the change from subsidising the building of homes to subsidising the high rents of people living in those homes. That is a major challenge for all of us.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is being very generous with his time. In a discussion on this subject last night, a structural problem in the market was raised: a lot of social housing is leveraged out of market housing, so in a time of much lower market housing production it is more difficult to build social housing. This point was not in his Committee’s report, but does he think that a change is required there?
There is a problem when market housing is not being built. It is because of the over-reliance on section 106 housing in the past. I know the Government have proposals to encourage, if not force, local authorities to renegotiate the terms of 106 agreements to make market housing more viable. I have reservations about that—it was not something the Select Committee considered in particular—although we recommended that any changes to 106 agreements be left to local discretion. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, however, about the comfort of relying on section 106 agreements to provide housing. There are two problems with that: first, when the market collapses, there is not the alternative balance of social housing to replace it in the construction industry, so that element falls at the same time, and secondly social houses are not necessarily needed in exactly the same places as market houses.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that for some time local authorities have had the power to renegotiate their section 106 agreements in order to move away from an arbitrary set figure for social housing. Perhaps the Government should be encouraging local authorities to do that, rather than dictating to them.
That is absolutely right. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As we know, many local authorities of all political persuasions are doing just that and being sensible about it.
The Committee made a recommendation about self-build—or rather self-contracting, which is what we probably saw at the massive site at in Almere. When I was told, “You’re going to see a self-build”, I expected to see the teacher, the bank manager and the postman in their wellies and overalls on a Sunday morning digging away and laying the bricks, but that was not what we saw. We saw a local authority site on which individuals had bought plots at a given price and with limited restrictions on what they could do—some areas were reserved for bungalows and others had a three-storey height limit, and obviously there was a boundary to the site. These individuals had either contracted a local builder or designed their own homes on the internet, as we saw at one place we visited. In effect, they had contracted their own homes. That seemed a brilliant way forward. I see no reason why we cannot build 50,000 self-build homes in this country, instead of the 10,000 we build at present. That could go a long way to meeting the gap. We found that people were satisfied because they had the homes they wanted with the money they had. They did not have to have something off the shelf that did not really meet their needs. Their homes were being built for only 75% of the cost of a similar home from a volume builder.
There are clearly challenges in getting the whole thing up and running. I welcome the Government’s £30 million of funding to try to encourage such activity. How far have we got? I have not yet been invited to the turning of the first sod on such a site, let alone the first home to be finally built and opened, so I suspect we have not made as much progress as we might have. I think all members of the Committee who went were enthused by self-build and thought it was a good way forward. It needs a push from the Government and local authorities to release land—it might need the Ministry of Defence to release some—but it seemed an excellent way forward. Self-build also helps small builders, who have been hit more by the recession of the last few years than the volume builders have, because they cannot get funding from the banks and face real difficulties. The challenge with self-contracting is to get the building societies and the banks to understand that they can lend money on a house that does not yet exist and—because people have to live in one home while the other is being built—to put bridging arrangements in place. In the end, however, people end up with something that costs only 75% of its market value, so we really ought to push on self-build.
Our report is not a complete solution to all our housing problems. It is not right in every respect, but it contains a number of proposals, and if the Government made a clear commitment to implementing them—not necessarily all of them, but a significant number—that would go a long way towards delivering the 250,000 new homes that this country so badly requires.
I have the unenviable task of following the eloquence of the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who spoke without notes and made extremely important points about the report. If he will excuse me, I will not be quite as rigorous or eloquent.
Housing is obviously an incredibly important issue for us all, not just for getting future generations somewhere decent to live, but for this country’s future economic prosperity. Without substantial improvement in our building rates and the production of new housing supply, our economy will struggle to grow, and we need it to grow. The Chartered Institute of Housing released a report just this month that said that home ownership was unachievable for many young people. The report suggested that since 1992 it is down 67% among those aged 25 to 34. That is a pretty stunning statistic. The average age of the first-time buyer is now approaching 40, at 37.5. It now takes 83 months to save the deposit required to buy a house, compared with the 30 months it took 10 years ago.
At present, investors, builders and the market seem reluctant to invest in new housing, despite large waiting lists. Locally, we have 3,000 people on the housing waiting list in Winchester, 2,900 in east Hampshire and 4,500 in Havant. These are prosperous areas of the country, where one might expect the lists to be rather shorter. The current economic cycle has led us to a situation in which lenders are reluctant to lend, builders find it difficult to build and buyers find it difficult to buy.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that a key issue is not that lenders do not wish to advance moneys, but that they do not have the appropriate flexible intermediate products to support intermediate housing across the country? Those unable to lay their hands on a 30% deposit, for instance, are therefore in a difficult position and are having to look at social rent or affordable rent, rather than an intermediate product.
That is indeed the case; my hon. Friend will forgive me if I come to that in a moment.
Several Government schemes are helping. They have been slow to start, but they are now moving forward. With the exception of areas such as London, uncertainty has also meant that potential buyers have been unwilling to take on what is frankly one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives. If we look rationally at the decision to buy a house at the moment, is this really the time to take on, say, £200,000 of debt? People might not be sure about their job or their future. Can it be an enormous surprise that an awful lot of people are very reluctant to take on such a commitment at this time? Frankly, I do not think so.
Despite low interest rates and a number of Government schemes—such as Firstbuy, NewBuy, “Buy now, build later”, intermediate rent and others—there is an acceptance that more still needs to be done. To date, nearly 3,000 homes have been sold through the NewBuy scheme, but, at a time when we are deleveraging our economy, the financing of new housing is undoubtedly going to continue to be a challenge.
Some reports suggest that up to 50% of new starts being contemplated by certain major house builders are down to NewBuy. The scheme seems to be taking effect, with 60 house builders now offering products through it. The figures for January 2013 show that new housing starts under NewBuy are 30% up on the same time last year. The progress is definitely slow, but there is some encouragement. Given the fact that taking on a debt is a serious commitment at this time, that is not bad going.
An article in the Financial Times today alludes to that point, and to some of the other measures that the coalition plans to introduce, and I shall quote from one or two parts of it:
“The prime minister and his deputy are set to make a joint appearance on the eve of the March 20 Budget to make several announcements, including shared equity schemes, social housing and support for first-time buyers…At the housing launch, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will flourish the promise of ‘garden towns’, more flats above shops and an expanded private rented sector. Ministers have discussed the radical option of extending an existing scheme, NewBuy, which allows people to buy homes with a deposit of 5 per cent, from new developments to older homes.”
I would just comment that a couple of those announcements do not seem to be that new, but I hope that when they are made in a couple of weeks’ time, they will be made with a little more commitment and determination than they were before.
The coalition has rightly taken a localised approach that incentivises housing policy, and good work is taking place on freeing up public land and opening up new opportunities to increase supply. Changes to the housing revenue account devolve real power and budgets to local councils to deliver housing, although, as the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, some freedom in relation to the caps on borrowing requirements would be welcome.
Areas such as Denmead in my constituency have become pilots for the Government’s neighbourhood planning approach, and some are contemplating more housing than has been allocated to them in the local plan. That is to be welcomed. The new homes bonus has also been a welcome incentive to encourage extra housing. To date, Winchester city council has received £1.5 million under that scheme, East Hampshire has had £1.4 million and Havant has had just shy of £500,000. This financial boost, allowing councils to invest directly in new homes, has also benefited the two unitary authorities of Southampton and Portsmouth, which have received £2.5 million and £1.7 million respectively. Those are only a few examples from the package of measures included in the Government’s housing strategy, which is designed to help increase supply. It has to be admitted that the measures have had a slow start, but they are welcome. They are the right idea, and the Government are doing a great deal to try to push the market forward.
What more should the Government do? The report that we are examining today concluded that there is no panacea or silver bullet to solve the problem of our housing deficit. I have no doubt that the Committee’s 33 recommendations will have been looked at more carefully by now, and I look forward to the Minister clarifying which of them he is considering.
At the heart of the report lie two themes: encouraging institutional investment and promoting action from local authorities. The Select Committee’s report is clear on the first theme of encouraging institutional investment, and I shall quote from it at some length:
“Institutions and structures that have traditionally ignored housing should be encouraged to invest. Increased investment from large financial institutions and pension funds may not be a panacea, but could make a significant contribution to the building of new homes in both the private and social rented sectors. Public sector bodies and housing associations should take steps to encourage institutional investment. Vehicles such as Real Estate Investment Trusts should be revamped to encourage investment in housing. The Government should also consider whether the remit of the Green Investment Bank can be expanded to cover housing and, potentially, wider infrastructure projects.”
As we have heard, the local authorities in the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities area are working to leverage their pension funds into investing directly in housing. That is something that their pensioners should welcome. Pension funds need long-term, steady returns and if public moneys can be leveraged to produce more of that in such a creative way, we should all welcome it.
The Select Committee’s report also builds on the good work that organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have been doing. The Committee believes that we should be unlocking institutional investment and allowing for real delivery into the sector. It was noted, however, that progress in that area has been slow, and that institutional funds were somewhat difficult to access. The Government recently commissioned the Montague report, which focused in particular on the private rented sector. The report reinforces the concept of push and pull factors that can serve either to incentivise or to discourage investment.
Locally to Meon Valley, Winchester city council and Grainger, which I think is one of the more innovative suppliers in the private sector rented market, have been working on managing these factors while delivering the west of Waterlooville development right in my constituency. I was the chairman responsible for the delivery of the vehicle for this development while a city councillor in Winchester. The council has been looking at section 106 and community infrastructure levy obligations among many other factors to make sure that this development is a success. I know that planning and housing Ministers are looking into this difficult area of policy to try to free up the rules to ensure that the build-to-let market is freed up, allowing more accommodation to be built.
My hon. Friend is making a polished contribution, but does he agree that the big hole in the report is the issue of extra care? Given the demographic time bomb, the number of over-85s will double in the next 20-odd years. At the moment, housing associations shoulder the burden for producing appropriate accommodation for elderly people in extra care facilities without any particular tax incentives or assistance from any other agencies, including institutional investors.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I chaired a conference in Winchester only six months ago on exactly that issue, and I have made representations to the planning Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), saying that at the very least we need some incentives or recommendations in the national planning policy framework for local authorities to examine the need for provision for older people. It seems to me that in the long term that is the way to get the very best out of existing housing stock, let alone to provide good housing stock for older people in the longer term. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and believe this area needs to be looked at across government to make sure that we plan more carefully for the needs of older people.
The second theme is the importance of local authorities and how much more can be done by them and by housing associations. In Hampshire, we are starting to see local authorities make a real difference in housing provision. In February, Isle of Wight council introduced a scheme to help first-time buyers, while Southampton has an estate regeneration project that is making great strides. Real differences are emerging in housing starts and in some areas schemes are proving seriously successful—in fact, occasionally, too successful. I have not encountered this personally, but I have recently been told that Wigan council had to close its £1 million scheme to help first-time buyers after only a month because all its funding had been used up. Further afield, the Scottish Government are introducing a £20 million scheme to help people with shared ownership. This is another way of incentivising supply that should not be ignored. The Government need to get behind local authorities and create a repository of knowledge and good practice that can be shared right across the local government community. I have no doubt that the Local Government Association will be involved in work of that sort.
The Select Committee talks about two areas that could make a real difference. It makes suggestions on looking at increasing the borrowing limits for housing revenue accounts, as well as on promoting the right to buy. The Select Committee Chairman has covered the increase in borrowing limits reasonably thoroughly so I shall not go back there, but the latest figures show a slight increase in right-to-buy requests in Southampton, Portsmouth, Fareham and Winchester. Much remains to be done in this area, but we discussed at some length in the Select Committee the need for one-for-one replacement to be guaranteed in certain circumstances, particularly in small rural villages. If we do not replace a social house with another social house—and nowadays, frankly, it might be the only social house in a small village—there will be no social housing left at all, which is an important issue.
Another area of note is provision of housing for older people, but I have covered the issue and as I said it was mentioned in today’s Financial Times article.
Housing has a significant potential to help economic growth. In 2009, the Chartered Institute of Housing wrote a report suggesting that buy-to-let alone contributed £5.2 billion to the economy in just the south-east of England. The importance of housing in respect of the general economy cannot be underestimated. Realising the growth required in the housing supply market is tough, given the economic circumstances we face, but it is vital that we encourage housing associations and local authorities to take action to promote growth.
The Government are making real strides. Lots of schemes are beginning to work, and I welcome them all. The issue is not just about the need for more housing, however, as it is about the future of our economy as a whole. It has to remain absolutely at the heart of Government policy if we are to get our economy back on its feet and if growth is to be achieved. I hope that the announcements mentioned in the Financial Times prior to the Budget genuinely provide a kick-start to the industry. As far as I am concerned, it is very much needed for all of our futures.
Let me begin by drawing attention to my interest as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Let me also congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), on his excellent introduction to the debate, in which he highlighted a number of issues on which I think there is a large measure of consensus.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery). I did not agree with everything he said, but there was also a large measure of consensus between the views that he expressed and those that I shall express in my own speech. It is curiously frustrating that, at a time when there is such a large measure of consensus between those who have looked seriously at the issue of housing and what needs to be done, the housing position in the country is so lamentable.
Our output level is falling. According to the DCLG’s own statistics, in 2012 we started only 98,000 homes. That is not just massively below the 230,000 level that is generally recognised to be necessary, but 11% down on the inadequate levels achieved in 2011. An already bad situation is getting worse, not better. According to the latest figures from the National House Building Council—I received my copy only yesterday:
“NHBC data show private sector housing starts down 13% in the three months to the end of January, compared with the same period a year earlier.”
We must ask why that is happening. A number of contributory factors have already been identified, but I think that four are fundamentally important. The first, on which the hon. Member for Meon Valley focused, is a lack of confidence in the market. People are very cautious about investing at the moment, which is hardly surprising given the state of the economy and their nervousness about whether they will have a job, and also their nervousness about whether the house that they are thinking of buying will be worth as much in a year or two. Prices in many parts of the country—I do not include inner London, where the circumstances are probably rather exceptional—have been iffy. In some places they have declined and in others they have shown modest growth, but there is little ground for real confidence. I am not advocating a return to the hyper-inflation in house prices that we encountered during the booms of the 1970s, 1980s and the noughties, because they were unsustainable, but at a time when there is no confidence at all, it will be difficult to get the market going because people simply will not invest.
Secondly, when people are prepared to take the risk, they face real difficulties in obtaining mortgage finance. It is a classic instance of our reacting to over-generous lending during the boom years by allowing the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction, and to get stuck in a position where it becomes a serious obstacle. Anyone who has looked closely at the figures will have noted that many people who are currently struggling with high rents in the private sector could probably support the cost of a mortgage easily if they were able to get one, but the demands in terms of deposit requirements or the interest rates charged in the case of high loan-to-value mortgages make that impossible.
Yesterday the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and I attended the launch of that much-respected document “UK Housing Review”. Looking through the rather voluminous set of useful housing data, I spotted the latest figures relating to the current mortgage cost-to-income ratios for first-time buyers. They are at a very low level: 17.6%, one of the lowest levels in the last 30 years. The figure was 24.6% in 2007, at the end of a boom, and 26.9% in 1990, at the end of another boom. It is not that house buyers need a disproportionate level of income to pay a mortgage, if they can get one—as I have said, some are paying rather more in rent than it would cost them to service a mortgage—but that we have to find a means of helping people to obtain a mortgage if they are prevented from getting one.
Thirdly, there has been a drastic fall in public investment. The Chair of the Select Committee highlighted the Government’s decision, as part of the spending review announcement early in their lifetime, to cut spending on social and affordable housing by 60%. Output has, inevitably, plummeted, with housing association starts in the latest 12 months totalling just 19,500, which is 23% down on the equivalent period for 2010-11. Affordable housing is doing worse than the housing market overall, which is obviously a particular concern for all those people who depend on obtaining accommodation at a reasonable rate.
The fourth element in this overall package is the very uncertain planning environment, which is entirely of the Government’s creation. They decided to tear up the previous planning framework and to create a new planning system. Many of us warned before the last election that not only was that likely to cause uncertainty, which would be damaging to development and to confidence, but it would open the door to an awful lot of nimby instincts among people who have, for a variety of reasons, been opposed to new housing development. I am afraid that the evidence clearly shows that that is what has happened. Councils are planning 272,000 fewer homes than would previously have been expected, according to Tetlow King Planning, and the level of new planning consents going through remains massively below the level required to meet the country’s needs. So there is a problem with planning as well as with the other factors that I have identified.
I am wondering whether the right hon. Gentleman might reflect a little more on those remarks. The provisions of the national planning policy framework make it clear that if a local council does not have a five-year housing supply, a permission is almost certain to be granted, wherever it is. I have just spent three interesting weeks in Eastleigh, where an application was allowed in the middle of the campaign for exactly that reason. Does he suspect that one reason for the number of planning applications being down is that lots of developers know that they cannot actually build the houses so applying for those permissions is a little futile at the moment? When they do want them, the NPPF’s requirement on having a five-year housing supply is making sure that they happen.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, but I put it to him that confidence is the crucial element in planning. If developers are to do the very expensive work necessary to put a planning application together, they have to feel confident that they have a reasonable prospect of success. A very uncertain climate has been created by the abolition, or partial abolition, of the regional spatial strategies; the lengthy row about what the NPPF would say; and the subsequent chopping and changing that have taken place, including the ill-considered measures in the ill-named Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which, once again, tinker with the planning procedure only months after it was put in place. That inevitably creates uncertainty, to which we can add the uncertainty about whether councils have got their local plans together in time. There has rightly been a lot of pressure on them to get their plans in place, but some have been less good than others at doing that. There is also clear pressure coming from various sources; the hon. Gentleman will have noticed in the context of the Eastleigh by-election that some members of his party were clearly keen not to agree to the particular planning for the housing scheme to which he referred. In that situation, there will inevitably be less scope for securing planning consent—or less incentive to apply for planning consent—than would otherwise be the case.
I ought to point out that I actually spoke against that particular application, although I have not done the same in respect of many applications in my own district. The point remains that Eastleigh borough council has not got an extant local plan; its last one expired and its new one has not yet been approved. It does not have an identified five-year land supply and the NPPF’s provision about having one came into effect immediately, so the council recognised that it had absolutely no option but to grant the permission. So the mechanisms are in place, and most councils will find it difficult to resist such applications now.
I will not prolong this exchange, because we have already discussed the matter at length and I wish to cover other issues. All I say to the hon. Gentleman is that we should watch what happens, but I am not confident that we will see a large upsurge in the number of planning applications and consents.
When the regional spatial strategies were in place, the housing output was substantially higher than we are seeing now. Government Members sometimes forget that from 2000 to 2007, before the impact of the recession, there was continuing year-on-year growth in the supply of housing. It reached 180,000 new starts in 2007, since when it fell—not because of planning but because of the recession—so that we are now seeing starts of fewer than 100,000. I would not say that the regional spatial strategies were entirely satisfactory, but the output of housing under them was substantially higher than it is today.
I have spent too long, I think, on those issues and I need to move on. Behind the statistics I have talked about are a huge number of human tragedies: all the young families unable to get a home within their means, all the people trapped in hopelessly overcrowded or squalid conditions, the huge numbers languishing on local authority housing waiting lists and the number of homeless households, which has been rising again after many years in the noughties during which the numbers came down.
Quite apart from the human consequences, there are economic consequences, too. As our economy is in difficulty— everyone who has spoken has acknowledged that housing has a critical role to play in helping to boost the economy—we must consider ways of helping to increase the output of housing. What should we do? First, we must ensure that the economic climate is one in which people can feel more confident about investing, in which people are willing to buy homes and in which house builders are willing to invest more in development. That is fundamental. Whatever else we do will make some difference, but it will not make an adequate difference if the economy is not strong. We need to turn around the economy first of all.
Secondly, we must ensure that housing is directly assisted by measures that can ensure that confidence returns and that houses are provided by developers and bought by people who want to get a mortgage. I have talked about the tight restrictions on mortgage availability and the fact that it seems to me that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction after the boom years when the restrictions were excessively loose. We must send a powerful message that the test should be whether people have the means and the capacity to repay the debt, rather than the loan-to-value percentage that is too often used in a mechanistic way by lenders to determine credit-worthiness. If we focused more on people’s ability to repay, we could relax some of the restrictions that prevent people without the adequate means for a deposit from getting into owner-occupation.
We also need to do a lot more to assist those people who cannot afford outright home ownership but would be happy to buy a share in a property. Over 30-odd years, various schemes for shared ownership, shared equity and low-cost home ownership have had some success, but they have tended to be marginal. Although NewBuy and Firstbuy are perfectly admirable schemes in their way, they are still relatively marginal. The Prime Minister talked about NewBuy helping 100,000 people when it was launched, so when we hear from the hon. Member for Meon Valley that some 3,000 homes have been delivered so far that puts it in context. It is important and significant, but it is relatively marginal.
We must also ensure that there are other options to help people who are not looking for a new home purchase. I am cautious about the idea of extending the NewBuy formula to existing homes. I think about—I am sorry, it is one of the problems of being old—a scheme known as DIYSO, do-it-yourself shared ownership. Those who have long memories of housing will recall it. It was very popular. People liked the idea of being able to go out and select their own home and get a shared-ownership mortgage on that home. It did, however, prove extremely expensive. It also had an element of risk because there was no guarantee that it would be a newly completed home that was subject to the various checks that apply to a new home. In some cases the properties that were being bought under the DIYSO scheme were not suitable. I can hear the attraction of the message. I read it, like the hon. Member for Meon Valley, in today’s Financial Times, but I caution against putting too many eggs in that basket. However, it is important that we renovate existing homes and make them available for people, possibly through shared-ownership/shared-equity means, as well as building new homes.
I shall talk briefly about energy efficiency and housing. This is an area where there has been a great deal of poor information, inadequate information and prejudice. I feel very nervous that the voices that are hostile to improving the energy efficiency of housing are getting in the ascendancy. Some rather pernicious views are being put forward that somehow this is putting an impossible burden on house builders. The example that I will take is a simple one. It is a scheme known as AIMC4, which has been put together with the participation of some of the largest house builders, including Barratt. The purpose was to demonstrate that they could build a code level 4 home under the code for sustainable homes for no more than the cost of a code level 3 home. That scheme has succeeded; they have demonstrated that it is possible.
That is the challenge we should adopt to ensure that our new homes are built to a high standard, that they achieve energy efficiency, that they contribute to our commitments to reducing global warming and that they do so in an economic and cost-effective way. We should not to try to ditch the whole commitment to the greening of our existing housing stock and improving the standard of our new housing. That is a very important message. Also, there is the economic message that this will help the economy, because green investment and the development of some of the industries that will support more energy-efficient housing will be helpful to the UK economy.
I agree very much with the hon. Member for Meon Valley about the importance of housing for older people and providing them with appropriate housing which, in turn, can release homes that are currently under-occupied. There is something rather unfortunate about a Government demonising many tenants in social housing who are occupying one bedroom more than they might need, on some pretty tight definitions of need, when two children of the same sex are expected to share a bedroom right up to the age of 16, and two children of different sexes under the age of 10 are expected to share a single bedroom, so no single bedrooms for children are allowed.
That definition is being used to justify some pretty punitive cuts in benefit while at the same time there is a huge level of under-occupation among older people, particularly in the owner-occupied sector but also in the rented sector, on which no action is being taken. That seems to me to be unfair and it is a policy that will not achieve the effect that it should.
I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. Can he tell me whether elderly people are exempt from those rules in the private rented sector? They are not. That is the point that I was making. If this was a serious policy to try to reduce under-occupation, it would apply more widely, as I said, and it would also apply to people over retirement age. The rules being implemented by the Government apply only to people below retirement age, even though the Government know that it is predominantly among older people that under-occupation is a problem. I will be quite open and say that the right policy would have been to consider a deduction, but only if two factors apply. First, there should be an option to move to smaller accommodation, but in many cases there simply is not that option and it is grossly unfair to cut people’s benefit where they have no chance of moving to smaller accommodation. Secondly, it should apply only where people have two bedrooms more than they require because of the tight space and occupancy standards that apply. That should apply to everyone, including those over retirement age. That would be a far more effective policy in achieving the objective of getting better use of our stock than the policy that the Government are pursuing. I make that point in addition to my general point about providing more suitable accommodation for older people in order to free up accommodation that is under-occupied.
I support what the Chair of the Select Committee said about removing the cap on council investment. That is nonsense. When councils have the scope to borrow more under the prudential borrowing regime, when there are safeguards in place through that regime, and when local government debt is at an historically low level, it is absurd to deny the option of creating the means to get further investment in new housing. There should certainly be more support for that and a removal of the cap. There should also be a willingness to engage with housing associations about what happens in the post-2015 world, because they are literally running out of time and running out of scope for continuing development. It will be an utter tragedy if one of the more successful organisations producing housing in this country in recent years simply grind to a halt in terms of their traditional product of social housing because of the absence of a Government programme. There are real needs in terms of the social housing sector as well as the owner-occupied sector.
I come now to the strange beast of the new homes bonus. This is a rather expensive element of Government policy. Already it has cost £1.3 billion. Some of that has been taken from Peter to pay Paul because some of it is recycled from local authorities to other local authorities, but about three quarters of a billion is additional Government money. That £1.3 billion will rise to £3.3 billion because the scheme involves payment over six years. That commitment to £3.3 billion is a lot of money and, at the present rate of growth, the scheme will involve more expenditure than the total Government investment on affordable homes over the lifetime of this Parliament, so it is worth examining how it is operating. I have already referred to the disastrous and declining level of new housing starts, so it is clear that the scheme is not affecting those. The total level of new planning consents last year was 115,000, and in the first three quarters of 2012, 95,000. It seems likely that it might reach a level of about 125,000 when we have the figures for 2012, but that compares with 212,000 in 2007 and 134,000 in 2010. The Government will have been presiding over a lower level of consents for residential planning than ever before, which is extraordinary when they are spending £3.3 billion in supposed incentives to encourage more planning consents.
The right hon. Gentleman and I had an exchange on this at the Chartered Institute of Housing event only yesterday. The fact that my local authority will benefit from the new homes bonus has greatly contributed to local people accepting the principle of a substantial new housing development in the community. That is not included in the right hon. Gentleman’s figures because the application has not yet come in, but it will benefit my community because the local authority will have the funds generated by the new homes bonus to put towards facilities for the community as a whole. That is one reason why it is taking a while; the applications have not yet come in. The right hon. Gentleman needs to be rather more patient than he has been so far.
As I said to the hon. Member for Meon Valley, let us look at that in a year’s time, when we will have more evidence. However, I must say that it is taking a very long time for something that is supposedly, to use the Government’s own phrase, a “powerful incentive” for authorities to give planning consent for new housing. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about his local authority, but I am afraid that the figures do not support his optimism. For the 17 authorities that have received the largest amount of new homes bonus—this is all based on an answer to a parliamentary question I asked the Housing Minister earlier this year—the level of major residential schemes getting planning consent in 2011-12 was 607, compared with 969 in 2005-06, a 37% reduction and 10% below the previous year, so there was no growth at all. It does not look convincing for a very large outlay of public money. The £3.3 billion, if it were applied to direct investment in new housing, would certainly be likely to achieve far better consequences.
I put it to the Government that if they are keen to stimulate house building and the economy, greater investment in housing will be necessary. What has been put forward by the Select Committee and argued for by Members on both sides of the House this afternoon is a way forward that could get us out of the mess we are in and ensure an increased level of house building. That will meet important social needs and help to revive our economy. The case for it is overwhelming. I sincerely hope that the Government will recognise that the current policy is not the right way forward. We need a change of policy and we need some of the policies we have been talking about today to be put into effect to secure that increase in house building.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), whom I know has spoken on housing in this Chamber for many years. It is also a pleasure to speak as a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee, whose report we are debating. I pay tribute to its Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who brought together Members from both sides of the House in the Committee to produce a report that we were all happy to put our names to. He referred earlier to the report’s key finding, which is that there is no “silver bullet” for removing the housing deficit our country faces. The report goes on to state:
“Many of the measures in the Government’s housing strategy will provide a welcome boost in the short to medium term”.
I hope to demonstrate that the pessimism exhibited by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is misplaced.
We know the serious problems we face. Many Members have referred to the need for some 230,000 new homes every year until 2033 just to cope with the increase in household formation. The other factor we must take into account in our deliberations is the state of the economy that the Government inherited. Of course, there will be many areas relating to the financing of new housing where the Government would wish to spend more to achieve more, but we must recognise that at present that is simply not possible. Housing is important not only for providing homes for our people, but for our economy. The previous Housing Minister reminded us that every 100,000 houses built adds 1% to GDP. We certainly need that growth in our economy. The National Housing Federation, which provided a briefing for the debate, tells us that every affordable home built generates an additional £108,000 in the economy and creates 2.3 jobs.
I will speak about each sector in turn: the Government’s initiative in the private sector, the importance of the private rented sector, and changes the Government are making to the social sector. I make no apology for starting with owner-occupation, because fulfilling people’s aspiration to own their own home is a key principle for Conservative Members. As the Prime Minister said in his party conference speech last year,
“We are the party of home ownership.”
Over the past few years home ownership, which currently stands at 65%, has been falling. Lots of statistics abound. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) said that the average age of a first-time buyer is now about 37. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the Government have brought forward schemes to stimulate owner-occupation, of which three are key: NewBuy, First Buy and Funding for Lending. The Select Committee report suggested that the Government should review NewBuy after its first year of operation. When I talk to house builders, I sense that a degree of momentum is building up behind the scheme. Forty builders and six lenders have signed up to it so far, and in November last year the Home Builders Federation estimated that 2,000 reservations had been made.
Statistics show that there were 6,780 sales in the first 13 months of the First Buy scheme. The Government are committed to increasing the funds available to it: the Chancellor announced in last year’s autumn statement that an additional £280 million will be available on top of the £900 million announced in the 2011 Budget. That should help 16,500 first-time buyers.
There has been evidence in the past couple of days that Funding for Lending is not finding its way into industry as fast as we might like, but it is starting to work its way through to mortgages. The Bank of England’s “Credit Conditions Survey”, published on 3 January, found that lenders were intending to increase their mortgage lending significantly in the first few months of 2013 thanks to the funds they can now borrow under Funding for Lending. On 22 January, the BBC ran a news item pointing out that house loans have risen to their highest level in five years—which suggests loans are easier to come by—quoting Halifax’s chief economist, Martin Ellis, as saying that this is due to the scheme. Mr Ellis says that the benefits of the scheme are now feeding through to the mortgage market. He states:
“I suspect Funding for Lending is having an effect…The scheme has only been in place since last summer, but it’s helping to support, and push up, the level of sales.”
In addition to Government schemes, there are local authority schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley referred to schemes in other parts of the country. I might add that my local authority, Rugby borough council, in conjunction with Lloyds bank, has introduced the Lend a Hand scheme, which lets people borrow with a 5% deposit and puts in a fund of £1 million that will enable 40 buyers to buy their first home.
Much of what people know about house building revolves around anecdotal evidence. Over the past couple of weeks I have picked up two bits of anecdotal evidence in my constituency. The first arose from a visit I made to a volume house builder who told me that since Christmas, inquiries and sales on the development he is marketing have been at their highest level for many years. The second is not so positive. A young man came to see me in my surgery. He has finished his apprenticeship and is on a very good salary of £38,000 working for one of Britain’s best companies. He is at an age and in a position where he is ready to buy his first home, but regrettably he has never borrowed. He bought his car and met all his expenditure out of savings. He is unable to get a mortgage because, not having borrowed, he is unable to demonstrate the ability to pay off a loan. He knows what he needs to do—to take out a loan and repay it on time. This has put back by six months to a year that young man’s aspiration to get started on the housing ladder.
In referring to people’s aspiration and desire to own their own home, it is important to talk about the right to buy. Recent statistics show that the reinvigoration of this Government’s scheme has doubled right-to-buy sales from 1,041 between July and September 2012 to 2,010 between October and December 2012. That means that 3,495 council-owned properties have been sold to tenants since the scheme was launched last April, which is a third more than the whole of the previous year and the highest number of sales since 2007. I know that some in this Chamber will think that that is not a good thing, but I think it is because it enables people to get started.
I doubt whether anybody in this Chamber thinks that the principle of someone being able to buy their own property is a bad thing, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is a bad thing is that a third of right-to-buy properties are now owned by private landlords?
The properties have been sold and that provides for a mix of tenure among that housing. I do not see any difficulty with that. It is a perfectly sensible right.
The hon. Gentleman moves us on to the private rented sector. The Committee’s report says that the Government should focus on helping small private landlords to
“expand their portfolios and invest in new build housing.”
The Chairman of the Committee reminded the House that we have just started our inquiry into the private rented sector, and I look forward to a similar debate on that report in the coming months and years.
It is important to note that the private rented sector should no longer be seen as the poor cousin to home ownership. For many people, renting privately has become a preferred choice, because they want the flexibility the sector can provide. In many instances, private renting is becoming a new norm. More than 8 million people in England now rent from a private landlord, an increase of more than 69% over the past 10 years, as the sector has moved from accounting for 9% of housing to 18%. Interestingly, the Chartered Institute of Housing has suggested in its presentations that that figure could rise to 25%. I accept that, in many instances, renters would prefer to be in other tenure—they would prefer to be an owner-occupier or in social rented accommodation—but private renting has its benefits, particularly for those who want flexibility and do not want the responsibility of maintaining the fabric of a building through owner-occupation.
The Committee looked at institutional investment in the private rented sector, and I am pleased that the Government commissioned the Montague report, which shows their commitment to dealing with housing issues. The report’s key recommendation—it was also a key recommendation of the Committee report—was the need to attract institutional investment into the system.
One of the issues we discovered when taking evidence is that institutions are not keen to invest directly in the residential sector because of the amount of management and administration that looking after residential property entails. It is striking that institutions invest in commercial buildings because of the lower management costs involved. They send out a rent demand once a quarter, for example, and are able to pass on repair obligations to occupiers. A tie-up between housing associations and institutional investors might be possible. Housing associations are very good and have demonstrated over many years a strong track record in managing social rented accommodation. I do not see why they cannot offer their services to institutional investors, whereby the investor owns a stock of private rented accommodation and tells the housing association, “You’ve got the skills and the experience to manage it.” That is a business opportunity for the housing association sector, if it wishes to take it up. I would be interested in hearing any thoughts the Minister may have on that issue.
The Select Committee talked about the need to make it easier for landlords to let homes, and about build-to-let developments built specifically for the private rented sector. Sir Adrian’s report highlighted the potential for investment and said the Government should consider providing incentives to encourage the development of build-to-let business models. I am pleased the Government have made a commitment to that sector. A press release from the Minister for Housing launched a £200 million fund to boost the construction of new homes specifically for private rent.
Any remarks on the social housing sector need to have regard to the changes to the Government’s welfare system, which were referred to by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. I will draw attention to some striking figures. There are currently 2 million households in England on housing waiting lists and 250,000 families living in overcrowded accommodation. Under the last Government, local authority housing waiting lists rose from 1 million in April 1997 to 1.8 million in April 2010. However, nearly a third of working-age social tenants on housing benefits are living in accommodation that is too big for their needs. That equates to nearly 1 million spare rooms that are being paid for by the taxpayer, denying many hundreds of thousands of people the chance to house their family adequately. I am sure we all agree that every family deserves the chance to be housed comfortably. Hard-working taxpayers, many of whom face tough choices of their own, will have a view about these properties.
I will leave it to the hon. Gentleman to resolve for himself the moral certainty with which he blames existing social tenants for the housing crisis. What percentage of the people who are subject to the bedroom tax does he think have been offered smaller accommodation? I will give him a clue: in Hammersmith, the figure is 5%.
I accept that that is a concern. Indeed, the issue arose in the Select Committee’s report on the effect of changes to the welfare system that the stock is not available for people to move to. That point clearly needs to be considered.
I had the opportunity to talk about many of the welfare reform issues when I visited sites in my constituency managed by Orbit, a social housing provider. I was taken around by Elaine Johnson. I congratulate Orbit on the high quality of the leaflet it has prepared on the effects of the changes.
It is not possible to talk about the supply and financing of housing without having regard to the planning system. As all speakers have said, we need to create more supply. The changes the Government made to the planning system in the national planning policy framework have been criticised in this debate. However, the presumption in favour of delay has gone and has been replaced by a presumption in favour of sustainable development. The Select Committee’s view on the final version of the NPPF was interesting.
I was pleased to see the planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) in his place earlier, but I am disappointed he is not here now, because I regret that the Government have recently been tinkering with the system after the implementation of the NPPF. That has not been particularly helpful. Changes bring a degree of uncertainty and it is important to allow the new planning system to bed in. Some of the Government’s proposals, such as changing the regulations on converting properties from office to residential use, and changing permitted development rights regarding the size of extensions and, more recently, the right to light, are not helpful. I understand what the Government are trying to do; the aim is clearly a further freeing up of the planning system, but I fear that some of the changes may be counter-productive and will not lead to the growth we need in the sector. In fact, they could lead to more uncertainty in planning.
One recent Government development, however, is most welcome. In the autumn statement the Chancellor announced a new £474 million local infrastructure fund to support investment in key local projects and crucial sites. That is of particular interest in my constituency, and I recently met the Housing Minister, the local authority and developers, to consider a site where the development of a new road will be a key part of building 6,200 new homes. Money from that fund will provide additional housing.
In conclusion, I welcome the report by the Communities and Local Government Committee and it is right to say that the problem of housing will not get sorted overnight. I believe, however, that we are already starting to see the benefits of Government policy through the First Buy and NewBuy schemes, funding for lending, and changes in the right to buy. I commend the Government on the measures they have introduced, which show that they view house building as one of the most important factors in getting our country growing again.
I will certainly do that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I apologise to the Minister if, given that we are going the distance, I have to leave before he speaks because I have a meeting before 7 pm.
I am sitting alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) and the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, and that is as near as I will come to pretending expertise in my comments. Instead, I will give a consumer’s view of this subject, based on my experience as a constituency MP. My constituency admittedly has some of the highest housing costs in the country and—not unrelated to that—some of the greatest housing stresses and needs, but it is not untypical of London and other high-value areas, particularly in the south of the country.
As someone who has spent 20 years trying to build housing that is affordable to local people, I know that even at the best of times that is not easy because of land prices; subsidy is always difficult, particularly at the moment. Nevertheless, there is currently a development boom in west London, and it is envisaged that in three opportunity area sites in my small borough, 22,000 new properties will be built over the next 10 years or so. Those are the major sites but there are many other similar sites.
Housing policy states that at both regional and local level, 40% of houses built should be affordable, which is right. A third of existing housing stock in my constituency is affordable social housing, owned by the local authority or a housing association. At the same time, however, 11,000 people are on the waiting list because of severe overcrowding, conditions in the private rented sector and homelessness—I said that 11,000 people are on the housing waiting list and they will be for another four weeks until it is abolished on 1 April. Some 1,500 people will then possibly be rehoused at the subjective discretion of the local authority, depending on their individual merits as assessed on things such as community contribution, previous employment and matters not specifically related specifically to need. Other aspects of the Localism Act 2011 are being introduced with alacrity on short-term tenancies, affordable rents and other matters that, for the first time in generations, put at risk the right to a secure, affordable home for many people.
In those circumstances, one would think that using existing resources would be a priority, but in fact the local policy in my constituency says that there should be no new social housing because too much is available. Therefore, when social housing properties become vacant for any reason, they are liable to be sold. Consequently, the stock is not increasing; it is diminishing. When those 10,000 or 11,000 people go from the waiting list, they will not disappear; they will still be there, often living in conditions of severe housing need.
The bedroom tax has been proposed as though it could be an option to build new affordable housing, but, as I said in my earlier intervention, of 824 council households in my borough subject to the bedroom tax only 48 will be helped, according to the council’s figures, and other social landlords have another 1,840 such households. The people who are moving or who are likely to have moved are those who have been subject to the caps on local housing allowance—540 families so far—and those who are likely to be subject to the overall benefit cap when it is introduced, not now in April but later in the year, sometime between April and September. The date is yet to be revealed. Again, the local authority estimates that that will affect another 800 families.
Where will those people move to if they can no longer afford to live in west London? One answer is Peterborough. I saw a headline on the BBC News site two weeks ago: “Plan to move London homeless to Peterborough is ‘social cleansing’ says MP”. I was perhaps not surprised by that—I thought that perhaps the shadow Housing Minister had been using the media effectively, as he often does, or that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) or someone of that ilk had done so—but the article says:
“Plans to allow a London council to build homes in Peterborough for its tenants have been criticised by an MP as ‘social cleaning’. Peterborough MP”—
it names the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who was here earlier but is not in his place now—
“said he could see ‘no advantages for the city’. ‘This is about social cleansing in Kensington and Chelsea,’ he said.”
Those of us who have said for many years that this process of social cleansing has been under way in Conservative boroughs, particularly in west London, dating from the Porter era and subsequently, and who were partially vindicated by the Mayor of London’s former pronouncements now have it written in stone from the hon. Member for Peterborough that that is happening.
In other words, people who are in housing need who could be helped in whatever difficulty are becoming the victims of political ideology and the strategy to alter the social and economic make-up of the area in which they or their families have often lived for generations.
Many young professional people live in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. In fact, the first flat that I lived in when I started my working life in London was in Shepherd’s Bush. They will rent in the private sector and not be in receipt of housing benefit. If their circumstances change, they get no protection from market conditions. They have largely no redress on the state if they are still in work. Is he saying that they should be included in his socialised model?
The Conservative party is always levelling down, rather than levelling up. The introduction of a competitive, envious spirit to try to make people compete against someone one rung above or below them on the housing ladder is quite an invidious route to take. Of course, I support young families and young single people. They are working and paying taxes, but so are the majority of people in receipt of housing benefit. People on low incomes simply cannot afford astronomical private sector rents. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened when he did because I was just going on to that point.
If we know who the victims are, we unfortunately know who the beneficiaries are. I was quite shocked to read a feature article in the Daily Mirror this morning. It was about a joint investigation by the Daily Mirror and GMB trade union into private landlords who had bought up council properties. That is the source of the statistic, which I gave earlier, that a third of right-to-buy properties that had been quite properly bought by their former tenants are now in the hands of private landlords. What sort of private landlords? One example given in the article is Charles Gow, the multi-millionaire son of a former Tory Housing Minister who, as the report reveals, owns 40 flats in one south London estate alone. The profiteering of private landlords, who buy up former social flats on council estates and individual council properties at a relatively low cost, is now rife. What does that mean? It means that they are able to charge market rents to tenants placed in those properties by local authorities. Those tenants then have to claim housing benefit—not because they are unemployed, but because they cannot, even on a more than average wage, afford the astronomical rent.
The average rent in my constituency is £335 for a one-bedroom flat, £467 for a two-bedroom flat, £770 for a three-bedroom house, and £934 for a four-bedroom house—per week. Social rents are between 15% and 25% of those levels. There is the obscenity. A social tenant in a secure and assured tenancy pays the rent in full by earning a decent average wage, or even, possibly, a low wage. Living next door is a similar family who have been in temporary accommodation for three or four years, who are paying a rent that is four or five times more to a private landlord, and which is being subsidised by housing benefit. The Government’s answer is, “Let’s evict the family by placing a cap on the benefit.” The Government’s answer should be, “Why are we not providing affordable housing for working families”, as every previous generation did irrespective of which party was in control? That is what lies at the heart of today’s debate.
I cannot fault what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said on policy and in their critique of the Government’s housing policy, but I am afraid it comes down to what I spend every Monday morning doing: trying to console increasingly large numbers of people who have been living for years, sometimes many years, in severely overcrowded and unfit housing conditions. At the end of that long wait, they now face not getting what they would have got even 10 years ago—a secure tenancy at an affordable rent for them to bring up their families, something to which everybody aspires—but the prospect of eviction first into a disgusting and dangerous hostel, and then being moved hundreds of miles away from their family network, schools and jobs to somewhere completely alien. I say that with no disrespect to Peterborough; I am sure it is a lovely place to live. However, if someone’s school, job, home, family and community are near Shepherd’s Bush, why should they be forced to move?
Those are the human issues, as well as the financial issues, that the Government need to address. I hope the Minister has read the report in the Daily Mirror and has seen who is currently benefiting from the Government’s policies. I hope that when he replies he will be able to tell us that there will be some movement.
This has been a comprehensive debate, with great expertise from all parts of the House. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), on an excellent report, which is forward-looking and raises many interesting issues. It poses a number of questions to the Government, and we look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply. I will touch on just one or two aspects of the report.
Today’s debate has already dwelt on the Government’s reforms to the housing targets and the important shift away from the regional spatial strategies towards local plans. It is much better to have local authorities with their own clear plans advocating, rather than resisting, development in their areas. Under the regional spatial strategies, local authorities fought housing targets, used every opportunity to resist housing development and stood up to the last Government in doing so. It is much better to have a system under which local authorities are given incentives to allow development in their areas and, instead of fighting development, are forced to make the case for it. I appreciate that people have raised questions about that point and that several local authorities are still finalising their local plans and targets. The plan by my district council, Shepway, in Kent, which is still being finalised, has at its heart a housing figure greater than the previous target under the regional spatial strategy. It is taking a sensible look at the opportunities for community infrastructure that can arise from development. That is the right way to go.
The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who has responsibility for planning, was in his place earlier, and I make this point for his benefit—so I hope he will check Hansard—and the Minister’s. I ask them both to consider the impact of infrastructure development in communities and on the local economy and housing. I realise that DCLG is considering the planning application for the expansion of Lydd airport in my constituency, which was approved by the district council three years ago. Since then, there has been a public inquiry and we now await the Minister’s decision, which is eagerly anticipated by me, the district council and many in the Bromley Marsh area and Lydd. It would be an enormous boost to the local economy to allow the controlled expansion of the airport to go ahead. Other transport infrastructure around it could make the area considerably more attractive to inward investment, including in new housing, and help to create new jobs, all of which are needed by the community. I ask the Minister to consider the application carefully, make it a priority, which I know he has done, and give us a timely answer. People desperately need to know where the Government stand on the expansion of Lydd airport.
The other Government reform I wanted to touch on was the liberalisation of planning consent for spaces above shops in town centres. This recognises that our town centres are changing and becoming mixed-use spaces for leisure, retail, work and residence. This could breathe new life back into our town centres. We have a lot of empty office space in many of our town centres, particularly in towns such as Folkestone in my constituency, and I think this would be a good use of space. If we can simplify the planning process and get that empty commercial space being used by residents who need it for residential property, it would be a good thing for residents and town centres.
Some of the specifics in the Select Committee report pose an interesting question concerning social housing and those in the private rented sector who claim housing benefit. Why, despite having a market with no lack of demand and a lot of Government spending underpinning it, do we have an inadequate level of supply? Why do we not have a system where we work with that demand and use it to expand supply? The report hits on interesting ways of doing that. The Committee Chair raised the interesting issue of councils borrowing to fund housing expansion. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.
Obviously, that exists within the current economic climate, with the country having borrowed too much, so it is right that the Government are concerned and careful about allowing too much further borrowing to take place, but it would be interesting to know what other schemes are available, particularly involving institutions, to invest in housing models. The report made some interesting suggestions for how we could bring together housing associations to manage and build properties, institutional investors with ready funds to lock away in long-term investments and local authorities prepared to work with those two bodies as partners. The funds are probably available from institutional investors and pensions funds that could invest—over not just 30 years, but 60 years—in new housing programmes. Local authorities have no shortage of tenants to fill the spaces. Any private landlord or investor will know that what they want: high levels of occupancy. If the local authority can largely guarantee occupancy of such properties, that will make them an attractive investment. Housing associations can manage such schemes to bring those elements together, so that the institution does not have to put in place a management arm and the local authority gets accommodation.
I know that some models have been put forward. I believe that Barking and Dagenham council in London has looked at putting in place a model—some local authorities in Kent are now looking at this too—whereby the institutional investor effectively builds properties for the council, which supplies the tenants and then gets to keep the housing at the end. There is the question—this was raised in the Committee’s report—of what guaranteed rate of return the institutional investor has to be given. What rental increase does the local authority have to guarantee? Is it inflation or inflation plus a small percentage increase over a 50 or 60-year period? That has to be carefully considered, but given that in such models local authorities would control the housing stock at the end—either to sell to the tenants or manage for the foreseeable future—they may be able to manage the risk of being locked into guaranteeing a certain rate of rent against the value of assets.
These models are very interesting. Indeed, it would be interesting to hear Ministers’ views on such schemes. As they are new, local authorities might need encouragement and advice to enter into such partnerships, but they pass the common-sense test. There are large amounts of cash sitting in institutions, and we have a social housing sector with an enormous need for new capacity and an almost limitless number of tenants to fill the spaces. That suggests that these elements could successfully come together in a tantalising and interesting solution to many of the problems that the report looks at. The Committee’s report also touches on direct borrowing from the markets, through municipal bonds or local government bonds, as it were. That could be a different way, but if we can bring these elements of institutional finance together to meet the enormous need that is out there, that could be an attractive solution.
Finally, I want to touch on investment in the private rented sector. Throughout this debate hon. Members have referenced case work in their constituencies involving people in housing need who live in squalor and poor accommodation in the private rented sector and claim housing benefit to do so. We discussed this issue in a Westminster Hall debate last week. I feel strongly that it is wrong to pay out housing benefit to slum landlords—people who maintain their properties in a poor state. They know that their tenants cannot afford the cost of moving out or a deposit. I had a case in my constituency where the cost of simply moving from one two-bedroom flat in Folkestone to another—the cost of a deposit, added to the letting agent’s fees—could be over £1,000. People simply cannot find that money. Bad landlords know that and they know they can get away with not maintaining their properties to a sufficient standard.
Local authorities have the power to intervene under the Housing Act 2004, which was passed by the last Government, but there are understandably limits to their enforcement capabilities. The one thing we do control, however, is the money supply for the housing benefit paid either directly to tenants or to landlords. If we could turn off the tap to bad landlords who will not take action to improve their properties, we would have an opportunity to put pressure on the private rented sector and those landlords, to ensure that such properties are maintained at least to a standard whereby they do not fall foul of one of the category 1 or category 2 hazards under the 2004 Act—largely, that people are not living in severe damp and severe cold. There should be no excuse for that. Putting this right is probably relatively low-cost for landlords. If they were faced with losing two or three months’ rent, they would find the money to put such properties right pretty quickly. That would do an awful lot to improve their tenants’ quality of life.
There is nothing wrong with private sector landlords offering accommodation to people on social rent or those renting with housing benefit, but they have the right to expect such properties to be maintained properly. I think all Members are far too aware of social housing tenants who are trapped in the system, living in poor quality accommodation. Months if not years can go by before anything is done to put it right. In controlling the money supply, we have the opportunity to do that and, in doing so, to correct some of the market failures in the system—empowering tenants to move around it more freely by making moving costs more affordable—and give them a better standard and decency of accommodation in the first place.
The Committee’s report has thrown up a number of interesting questions. I will certainly be interested to hear whether the Minister will produce an updated Government response to it, which I am sure we would all read with interest.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). I did not agree with everything he said, but I certainly agree with his last point that it is just plain wrong that, in the 21st century, we are paying money through housing benefit to slum landlords. I will probably pick up on that theme later.
I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), on opening the debate. I was a member of the Committee when we conducted the inquiry and the report was written up, and I think it should provide the Government with a lot of food for thought. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in his updated response.
This Friday, I will do my advice surgery in my constituency, and I can guarantee that I will speak to at least five people who have come to talk to me about problems with housing. There could be up to 10 such people on Friday, but I know that during the course of a year, I speak to hundreds of people about their housing circumstances. More often than not, I speak to mums who come with their children and who are living in desperately overcrowded accommodation. I sometimes see whole families who are living in just one room. These people are often working, sometimes with part-time jobs, but they are living in completely unacceptable housing conditions and I believe that Members of this House, and the Government, have a duty to address the appalling conditions that many of my constituents live in.
In the three years that I have been doing my advice surgeries as a Member of Parliament, not once has anyone come to see me about a housing problem who could afford to buy a house in Lewisham. The average cost of a property there is £260,000, but the average salary is in the region of £29,000. Furthermore, the vast majority of people who come to see me at my advice surgeries cannot afford to buy through the part-buy, part-rent arrangements either. Many of the shared ownership schemes that housing associations run in London are completely out of the reach of many of my constituents, because the salary required in order to access the schemes is many times the amount that many of my constituents earn; and yet we have a situation in which people are paying out huge amounts of money in the private rented sector, often to live in very poor conditions.
I want to focus on the need to build social rented housing in London. The reality of what has happened under this Government is that the number of affordable homes being built has collapsed. Nationally, 34,000 fewer affordable homes were started in 2011-12 than in the previous year. That represents a 68% drop. We should not be surprised about that, because one of this Government’s first actions when they came to power was to cut the national affordable house building programme by 60%. They signalled their intentions for the supply of new affordable housing when they made that decision.
Of course, that money also enables other housing to be built. What I mean by that is that some of the grant that goes into developments to deliver social or affordable housing enables a mixed-use scheme with mixed tenures to be created. Last year, when the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government launched their NewBuy scheme, they chose to come to Lewisham. They stood in a development there that had been constructed only because of a £25 million grant from the Homes and Communities Agency. The scheme, which is providing nearly 800 new homes—about 200 of which are affordable—was coming out of the ground only because of the capital grant from that agency.
I cannot overstate the need to build social rented homes in London, yet in the period between April and September 2011, only 56 new homes for rent were started by councils or housing associations. That was 56 in a six-month period in a city of 7 million people. That is not acceptable.
My own local authority, Labour-run Lewisham council, is due to build 250 new homes, but that is a drop in the ocean compared with the number of families on the housing register there. We have talked about ways of getting more finance into building affordable homes, and I support the comments made on the need to lift the borrowing cap placed on local authorities.
I ask the Minister to consider what more the Government could do about the number of overseas buyers purchasing property in London. Roughly 60% of new-build homes in London are being bought by foreign investors, which is ramping up the London housing market, pushing prices even further away from my constituents. If London is seen to be a safe haven for foreign investors in the London property market, we must surely be able to find a way to capture some of that investment in our great capital city to plough back into the delivery of affordable homes.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the scale of the buy-to-let market in ex-social housing in particular? Does she share my shock that there can be two next-door properties, of which one will be in the social rented sector at a rent of, say, £100 a week, while the other will be in the buy-to-let market in social housing with a rent of £500, £600 or in some cases even £700 a week? In what way does that provide any kind of value for money?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and our hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) made a similar point. We are lining the pockets of private landlords on an industrial scale. There are no two ways about it.
Another suggestion I would put to the Minister relates to public land. The Government often talk about releasing public land to deliver new homes. There is a lot of rhetoric about this, and we do not see a huge amount of progress. In my constituency, we are experiencing the possibility of Lewisham hospital having two thirds of its land and buildings sold off. There are many hospitals in London for which significant land disposals are going to take place. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department of Health? If these disposals are going to happen—let me be clear that I am very much against it for Lewisham—can we secure requirements for 50% of the land to be used for affordable housing, as these are considerable sites of public land?
I would like feedback from the Minister on what he is doing with other public sector bodies to parcel up land to make it available to small and medium-sized builders. When this country was building the amount of housing it needed to meet the demand many decades ago, we saw small and medium-sized builders providing a far greater proportion of the homes built. At the moment, 75% of new homes come from seven of the largest house builders. If we could find a way of parcelling up the public sector land, enabling small and medium-sized builders to get hold of it for building purposes, that could be a win-win situation.
I am listening with interest to what the hon. Lady says about finding new ways to parcel up land. Is she aware that local authorities have an obligation—I add that quite a few of them are not aware of it—to measure demand for self-build in their areas, and then to say what they are going to do about it? If we look at the experience of other countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and France, we find that a much higher proportion of total building is done not by large house builders, but by people for themselves, in some cases with the help of local authorities.
The Select Committee’s report was produced on an all-party basis, under the admirable chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), and we welcome much of it. As for the Government’s response thus far, it is not all bad and not everything has failed to work, but when it comes to rising to the challenge outlined in the report, the facts speak for themselves.
House building fell by 11% in 2012, the number of housing completions has fallen in both years since the general election, and homelessness is up by a third. We have a mortgage market in which people struggle to obtain mortgages, and a rapidly growing private rented sector in which there are many good landlords but also big problems relating to affordability, security and quality. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), that has serious implications, including for the members of “Generation Rent” and their ability to save to realise their dreams of buying a home.
I am the first to acknowledge that the biggest housing crisis in a generation does not date back to May 2010, but, having said that, I should point out that in 2010 we warned what the consequences of the crisis would be. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) was absolutely right: the £4 billion cut in affordable housing investment resulted in a 68% collapse in affordable house building and a 97% collapse in council house building, at the worst possible time. That serious mistake, combined with the economic mismanagement of the economy more generally, has created a real problem of public confidence. People must decide whether or not to risk taking out a mortgage, and those who are prepared to do so struggle to obtain one.
As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), the impact of those cuts in public investment has been extremely serious. The number of housing association starts has fallen by 23% to 19,500 in the last year, and the uncertainty created by changes in the planning system has not helped. The planning system was in need of reform, but it is clear that it was never as big a problem as some have pretended. Indeed, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) made the very good point that, although there is land with existing planning permission capable of sustaining 470,000 homes, those homes are simply not being built.
We understand that, after a succession of initiatives, which I shall say more about shortly, a further Get Britain Building launch may be imminent. We are told that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister may well don their wellies and high-visibility jackets to visit a building site. Thus far, however, the facts speak for themselves. Overwhelmingly, the Government’s approach has not worked: it lacks ambition, and it has been ludicrously spun. If we had a house for every press statement issued by the last housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), we would not have a housing crisis. It is downright cheeky, for example, to claim that the proposal to provide 170,000 affordable homes was realised as a consequence of this Government’s actions, when the National Audit Office has made the very good point that 70,000 of those homes were commissioned and paid for by a Labour Government.
Not all the Government’s measures are bad. On the contrary, Firstbuy has been a modest success, and, in principle, the guaranteeing of balance sheets for institutional investment in the private rented sector is a welcome step in the right direction. Although I felt that my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich was right to inject a note of realism into the debate by pointing out that there had been painfully little progress so far, we support the measure on a cross-party basis, and believe that it should proceed to its subsequent stages. However, we need to look at what has been trumpeted. When NewBuy was launched it was said that 100,000 homes would be provided, but according to the latest figure just 1,500 have been provided. Had we had the same rate of progress as we saw in the first tranche of figures, it would have taken 200 years to realise that 100,000 homes objective.
My right hon. Friend, in his typically forensic fashion, dissected the original claim about the new homes bonus, which was that
“there will be at least 400,000 additional homes as a direct result of the bonus.”—[Official Report, 4 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 12.]
Based on the figures thus far, it is not possible to detect a growth in the number of planning permissions or total approvals, the output of new homes or the starts. Indeed, the new homes bonus has other problems: it is both unfair, in terms of transferring public moneys from north to south, and inefficient, in terms of the amount of money that actually gets spent on building homes.
In a difficult situation—I stress again that the facts speak for themselves—there is a real risk that some of the Government’s next stage reforms will make things worse. Let me give two examples of such reforms, the first lot of which are the changes to the planning system. The Select Committee is right to say that the issue of whether or not to vary the requirement in terms of social or affordable house building is best left to the local level, but instead, rejecting localism in favour of Leninism, clause 5 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill introduces review mechanisms that might rob local authorities of the sensible ability to renegotiate where appropriate. The point was put to me in Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol last week that there is the additional danger of delay, as some developers wait for the new arrangements to kick in.
My second example is the total impact of welfare reform, which I saw in Plymouth in some detail last week. Let us consider the bedroom tax. Not only does it have a human impact—one family whose son has been serving in three tours in Afghanistan, going backwards and forwards, will be hit by the bedroom tax, as will the disabled and the carers—but it will have perverse outcomes. If people are pushed into the private rented sector, there is the potential for rents to be higher, which increases the housing benefit bill and the potential for greater homelessness. In Plymouth alone, the totality of the changes will take £30 million out of the local economy. There is growing and disturbing evidence of the potential of this now to have an impact on new builds—on supply—because of write-offs of bad debt and the burden of cost being imposed on housing associations and local authorities.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), in one of the many thoughtful contributions that have been made by hon. Members from across the Chamber, rightly made the point about the importance of house building to the economy. History tells us that from the depression, through war and the building of modern Britain in the ’50s and ’60s, to the recovery from recession in 2008, a major programme of house building has always been at the heart of economic recovery in our country—public and private—and that it is not possible to have a sustainable economic recovery without a major programme of house building. The CBI rightly makes the point that the 100,000 affordable homes will see 1% added to GDP.
Let me deal with some of the Select Committee’s recommendations. It rightly makes a number of intelligent points about how we finance a major uplift in supply. It is right to argue strongly in favour of post-2015 certainty, including both rent models, making a crucial point about the need to commit grant and investment. It is right to say that we need progressively to shift from what we have at the moment—plenty of public investment in housing but 95p in every pound going on housing benefit—to bricks and mortar. It is right to recognise that, over and above what we commit to by way of grant and investment, we need innovatory forms of funding housing supply and therefore the potential, for example, for institutional funding. I have been involved in some interesting examples in that regard. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned Barking and Dagenham, to which I would add what Manchester is doing and what I just heard about in Enfield, where local government pension scheme moneys are being used to build 200-plus council homes.
The Select Committee is also right to advance a debate that we badly need to have about the potential for what local authorities can achieve if we set them free and if we have a true localism approach. Earlier, reference was made to the potential for 60,000 homes to be built as a consequence.
The Committee is also right to argue in favour of a debate that we now need to have about a housing investment bank. In the summer of last year, the leader of my party proposed a British investment bank with a focus on manufacturing and housing. The Committee discusses the potential for a housing investment bank, pointing out some of the international experience that shows why that can help.
The Committee is also right when it talks about innovation by housing associations, such as retail bonds, greater leverage of assets and equity sharing with local authorities, as well as when it makes the point that it is important that we have the admirable G15—the big—while realising the potential of the small. I see that in my constituency through the admirable Castle Vale community housing association. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East was also right about the important and neglected role of small and medium-sized builders in providing the capacity to ensure the uplift in supply we need to see.
On land, the Committee is right to advance the argument that we must reduce the up-front costs of building. The notion of build now, pay later therefore has a great deal to recommend it. The Committee is right to refer to Government land, which thus far has been something of a holy grail. Things have not happened quite as has been suggested time and time again, but no doubt the Minister will convince the House that he is determined to put that right.
On innovative forms of supply, the Committee is right to advance the potential of self-build, the interesting experience in Holland and the role of small and medium-sized builders in that process.
The Committee’s next inquiry will be into the private rented sector, a subject that was also referred to in this inquiry. That fact is very welcome given the clear problems of affordability, security and quality in the sector and, as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, the clear problems associated with too many rogue landlords and too many rogue letting agents. That is important both in its own right and in the context of a more stable sector enjoying greater security and more affordable rents because of the impact on supply. Let me quote briefly from a startling Scottish Widows report, which is out today:
“The property market is becoming out of reach for many renters. Our latest research found that at people’s current savings rate, a first time buyer will take almost 13 years to save the £27,984 required for the average deposit.
With property ownership seeming like a distant dream, our research suggests that many renters may have given up on property ownership with just 29% actively saving to put a deposit on a home.”
I refer to those figures because I think that the Committee is wise to move on to the issue of a very different model for the private rented sector for the future—the sector undoubtedly has a role to play in meeting housing need, but it must change if it is to do so.
In conclusion, let me return to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and many others. All people should have a decent home at a price they can afford to rent or buy, at all tenures, but the crucial point is how we locate it in the context of economic recovery in our country. Sustainable economic recovery will not happen unless we have a major programme of public and private house building.
There are other outcomes in areas such as health and well-being and educational attainment, and an interesting debate took place about housing options for older people, but all roads lead back to housing. We have the biggest housing crisis in a generation and an economy that is bumping along the bottom. The Government badly need to come forward with a serious strategy for getting Britain building, and not yet another false dawn.
It is a great pleasure, as ever, to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). I always enjoy hearing his housing speech. Indeed, I heard it only on Friday, when we were together in Bristol. As ever, he makes some interesting and useful points, as did a number of those on the Opposition Benches. If I do not have an opportunity to respond to all the points that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised, I will write to them.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) made some very helpful remarks about the need to look at the bundling of land together. I will of course look into the discussions that we have or have not had with the Department of Health in relation to the land to which she refers. Although from time to time I am critical of much of what the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) says, I was delighted to hear him make a robust argument for the great value of further improvements in the energy efficiency of our buildings. Although the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), who is no longer in his place, was very critical of right to buy, he raised a number of points that the Government would do well to attend to.
Above all, I pay tribute to the excellent Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who opened the debate with what my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) described as an eloquent contribution. Indeed it was. It was eloquent in giving just praise to the report that the Select Committee produced more than a year ago. As I said to the hon. Gentleman in an intervention, in the light of the fact that a year has passed since that report, I have made available in the Library an updated response from the Government, which I hope he and members of the Committee will consider and, if necessary, quiz us on further.
As the hon. Member for Sheffield South East said, it is important that we acknowledge, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington did, that the Government have done a number of things that are supported in all parts of the House. Reference was made, for example, to the reform of the housing revenue account and to the greater flexibility given to the many excellent arm’s length management organisations. The Chairman of the Select Committee even praised the Planning Minister for his willingness to accept the need for an agreed methodology for determining housing need. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is being addressed by Lord Taylor in his report, which we hope will be available in the summer.
The Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out that the Montague report said that guarantees distort the market. May I tactfully suggest that the Montague report was referring in that instance to rent guarantees? If he reads the report thoroughly, as I am sure he has, he will know that it strongly supports the guarantees to reduce the cost of borrowing, which is part of the Government’s package.
On that point, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich asked what has happened to the £10 billion loan guarantee and where it is. He will be well aware that it takes time to work through the details and to put an offer to the market. We have done all that and I am delighted to tell him that we will make a detailed announcement next month about the appointment of people to run it, so progress is being made. He also challenges us about shovel-ready projects, which he is clearly concerned about. As he knows, because he looks at these matters in great detail, the Get Britain Building fund of £570 million has already signed contracts with 120 projects that will provide us with no fewer than 8,600 homes, and more are on the way. Under this coalition Government, shovels are in the ground. We are delighted that more is still to come.
Like all Members who spoke in the debate, we believe strongly in the importance of building more houses, both to meet the housing need and because of the real economic benefit that that can bring. We agree with so many speakers on all sides who said that there is no single silver bullet to tackle the long-standing under-supply of housing. The Government cannot do it alone and we need to work with others.
The report recognised that a basket of measures is needed, covering all tenures of housing, and we are taking action to deliver that basket of measures: the spending review, the Localism Act 2011, the 2011 housing strategy, the housing and growth package and the autumn statement. But as so many hon. Members have said, a new Budget and a new spending round is due shortly, when I have no doubt that further announcements on housing will be made. I was not meant to say more than that, but my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley helped to further the leaks that have appeared in newspapers today on what might be covered. We will just have to wait and see what is around the corner. As the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington and others on both sides of the House have said, it is important to recognise that more still needs to be done to take a comprehensive approach, making best use of existing stock, unlocking stalled sites and stimulating new housing supply across all tenures.
I remind my hon. Friends the Members for Meon Valley and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who raised the issue of ensuring that within all forms of tenure we take account of older people, that we now have the care and support specialist housing fund of £300 million specifically to develop specialised housing for older and disabled adults.
All Members who have spoken agree that we need more housing, but agree that the politics at the local level can often be difficult. That is why I said that the first thing that we have to do is ensure that we make the best use of the built environment that we already have. That means, for example, tackling empty homes, providing for the change of use from commercial to residential referred to by a number of my hon. Friends, and, as has been debated a number of times in the Chamber, tackling under-occupancy and affordable housing. The new homes bonus gives local authorities not only reward for new homes, but also for bringing empty properties back into use. It is a powerful incentive that is really working. From next month, local authorities will have further flexibility to remove or reduce council tax discounts on empty homes, and in some cases where they have been empty for more than two years, to charge even higher rates.
We have £235 million of direct funding to help local groups to tackle some of the most problematic empty homes that would not otherwise come back into use. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who spoke about the need specifically to address properties above shops in our high streets, and he will be aware that we are seeking to do that. There will always be a number of homes that are unoccupied for a short period, and we obviously need that for the market to operate, but the House will be pleased to know that the latest data show that only 260,000 have been empty for longer than six months. That is still far too many, but the figure is now 20,000 fewer than last year, so we are making progress.
We are also taking action to free up land. It was rightly said that Governments of all shapes and sizes have long argued for the need to free public sector land. We are determined to take action on that. We hope to release sufficient land for 100,000 homes, and wherever possible we will use the bill now, pay later deferred payment scheme to help get that under way, but a further announcement may or may not be made in a few weeks’ time. I was grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee who said, in relation to those issues, that local authorities do in some cases need to be quicker with their planning applications, and he will be aware that we are dealing with that in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. We are also consulting on a package of measures that I think will be welcomed on both sides of the House to make the planning appeals process swifter and more transparent to reduce wasted time and expense and, I hope, lead to quicker development.
The Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which was referred to only briefly in the debate, is very important because it will allow developers to review with their local authorities the viability of the affordable housing contribution on proposed sites. As the House will know, we are committed to a further £225 million, and to the loan guarantee scheme, to ensure that we can meet any reduction in the number of affordable houses that might result from those renegotiations. In addition, we have the £475 million local infrastructure fund—we published its prospectus only a few days ago—which will help local areas to deliver much larger-scale developments to meet need. We want to go still further. The House will be aware that there has not been a single new development of more than 13,500 homes in this country since the 1970s, so we intend to promote and support larger scale garden cities where there is clear local support and private sector appetite. We are currently working through the details on that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) rightly said, we must support home ownership, and we are doing that with a number of measures. Reference has been made to the Firstbuy scheme. Over 10,000 reservations have now been made towards our target of helping 27,000 first-time buyers into shared equity. Reference has also been made to the NewBuy scheme, which gives prospective buyers the chance to buy a home with a fraction of the deposit normally required. As we have heard, there are already 3,000 reservations and the figure is rising rapidly. As he also said, the Bank of England is crediting our £50 billion funding for lending scheme for increasing mortgage availability and driving down the cost of loans for home owners.
However, I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich about the need to look at additions to the offers that are made, either developments of existing ones or additions to the products available, and that is what we are doing. We are also looking at the issues that many Members have raised in relation to the right to buy, but it is pleasing to note that sales between October and December topped 2,000, helping to fund the one-for-one replacement of the homes that have been sold.
I will be brief, because the Minister need give only a one-word answer. Is he prepared to look again at the cap on borrowing to fund housing at local authority level? Why is housing the only form of borrowing that local authorities cannot enter into simply because of the prudential rules?
The hon. Gentleman knows part of the answer, because that is the same problem his Government faced, and it is to do with difficulties with the Treasury. Having said that, we are looking at the issues and are willing to look at the possibility of having flexibility in the cap and other ways of moving forward. As he rightly said, the consultation we are conducting on the potential use of local authority pension funds to help with investment is also part of the package we are considering. We are looking at all those measures.
We are doing a number of things to help make land available, to provide the resources for houses to be built, to bring empty properties back into use, to ensure that we can move forward and to develop the economic benefits to this country that new housing will bring, but also to ensure that we can provide the much-needed houses for people in this country, not least more affordable housing, because all Members are aware that under the previous Labour Government the number of affordable homes fell by a staggering 420,000. We must do something to make more affordable homes available. That is why we are committed to having 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015. It is why we have put in additional funds and loan guarantees to help secure that.
We want a housing programme that works for the people of this country and for its economy. We have made real progress. Further progress is still to come and further announcements will be made later this month. I am sure that the House will look forward to what those announcements contain.
Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (Standing Order No. 54).