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Housing Need (Treasury Assistance)

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2014

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sanders. I am delighted to have secured this opportunity to introduce a debate on assistance from Her Majesty’s Treasury for people in housing need, because without question the most pressing and chronic problem in areas such as mine is the lack of affordable homes for the thousands of local families who are inadequately housed or housed in properties with extortionate rental charges.

My area and others are characterised by a very significant mismatch between earnings levels and house prices. There is a large and growing market for second homes, investment homes and retirement homes. Of course, over the years there has not just been the 50% council tax discount for second home owners, which was introduced in the early 1990s; other incentives are available that encourage, that are a further stimulus for, the purchase of second homes especially and investment properties in areas such as mine. For example, people can take massive advantage of small business rate relief if they are letting their properties in the local holiday market, while also of course using them for their own use; and by shifting from council tax to business rates, they can end up paying absolutely nothing in terms of their contribution. That is a further and often hidden stimulus for the purchase of second homes.

I have undertaken surveys of estate agents across my constituency on three occasions, and we have found that over time it has become the case that somewhere between four and six times as many properties are sold to second home buyers as to first-time buyers. That is a very significant and quite shocking statistic. It shows what is going on in markets such as mine. I am not saying that that is happening in the rest of the country, but it is certainly happening in constituencies such as mine, which are very attractive for second home purchases.

There is a rather macho obsession with building homes as the sole, two-dimensional solution to our housing problems, but that does not work. Cornwall has been one of the fastest growing places in the United Kingdom in the past 40 to 50 years, so we have done exactly what successive Governments have encouraged us to do; we are certainly not nimbys. However, although the housing stock has significantly more than doubled in that period, the housing problems of local people have become significantly worse, so we know that simply building thousands of houses is not in itself the answer. We need to do something a little smarter to target those who are in particular housing need in areas such as mine.

I want to address myself to the need to find constructive solutions that would work in areas such as mine. First, I acknowledge and congratulate the Government on some of the things that they are doing. Since 2010, whether there has been new money or a replication of old money or a continuation of programmes that the previous Government had engaged in, we have seen various things happen. We have seen the affordable homes programme, the affordable homes guarantees programme, the trial of direct Government provision—a new delivery model—the affordable rent to buy scheme, which was introduced in 2013, and the new homes bonus, on which an announcement was made yesterday about the latest tranche of money going to local authorities. Of course, that is not just to build houses, but for other economic purposes. However, it certainly provides a stimulus to encourage planning permissions for developments. We have seen the growing places fund, the Get Britain Building fund, the builders finance fund, the estate regeneration fund, the single local growth fund and public land schemes, which have been announced over the years.

In terms of home ownership initiatives, the Government first tried, in 2011, the First Buy scheme, which was closed in March 2013. That was overtaken by the Help to Buy scheme, a very welcome initiative. It replaced the First Buy scheme and is widening the criteria for eligibility by increasing the maximum home value up to £600,000, so it is not just for first-time buyers, but for those looking to move up the ladder. There is the NewBuy Guarantee scheme and the Help to Buy: mortgage guarantee scheme. There is the right to buy and, in a moment, I will come on to shared ownership.

In the private rented sector, there is the Build to Rent fund and the private rented sector guarantee scheme. Then there are other schemes, such as real estate investment trust schemes and self-build and custom-build schemes; and two elements of the recent autumn statement were on the subject of shared ownership.

Obviously, all those schemes and all the things that will provide a stimulus and assistance, which might be targeted at the groups that I am talking about, are welcome, but whether they are sufficient and will help in areas such as mine, only time will tell. I will be making a suggestion today about what we need to do in areas such as mine. I am not saying that this needs to happen across the country, but it certainly needs to in areas with a significant mismatch between earnings levels and house prices and extortionate private rents, and that are characterised by a social rented sector that is significantly smaller than that in many urban areas. Less than 10% of the stock in my area is social rented accommodation.

We need to construct a new lower rung on the housing ladder. The lowest rung on the housing ladder is out of reach for the vast majority of people, who, in other circumstances—perhaps decades ago or in other parts of the country—would consider it reasonable for them to expect to be able to move into home ownership by the time they leave their parental home. I am talking about teachers and nurses—people in stable professions who simply cannot get into the housing market. It is those people whom I particularly want to help—those who have an expectation, a reasonable aspiration, of moving into home ownership, but who simply cannot and are then locked into the extortionate private rented market.

I apologise for missing the start of my hon. Friend’s speech. He mentions key workers. I represent a rural area, albeit in Wales. I suspect that it is out of the ambit of much of what he is saying, but one problem that we are having now is the difficulty of keeping key workers in west Wales—I am thinking of the health service and teachers—for exactly the reasons that he has identified. Does he agree? Is that a concern in west Cornwall, too?

That is absolutely right. As I said, this issue is not unique to west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The Isles of Scilly has a particular market that is different from that in other areas: it is more like a London market than a rural market. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend rightly says, this issue is so significant in many parts of the country. It is without question the most significant social challenge that we face. The Government can and should do more, and I hope to encourage them to do so.

I said that we need to construct a new lower rung on the housing ladder. There are problems with shared ownership accommodation. First, there is not enough of it; there is not an effective market. There are only two lenders lending to those purchasing shared ownership accommodation—Nationwide and Halifax—and those lenders are extremely circumspect and apprehensive. They look at these schemes on a case-by-case basis and are extremely cautious, particularly at the point of resale, which is often a significant discouragement to the development of the shared ownership market—that new lower rung on the housing ladder.

Also, occupants tell me that they have to pay near market rents on the remainder, the share of the property that they do not own, and they feel that they are not rewarded for maintaining the property or for any improvements and investments. The cost and burden of maintaining or improving the capital value of the property is not shared with the housing association or registered social landlord that owns the other part of the property. The home owner’s share of the property is often less affordable by the time of sale, and the sale process is often over-long and legally complex.

I note that in the autumn statement the Chancellor announced that the Government would extend the stamp duty land tax multiple dwelling relief to include lease and lease-back arrangements with housing associations on shared ownership properties, with a view to increasing investment in shared ownership. The National Housing Federation has welcomed the measure as something that may be of assistance. Lowering the stamp duty land tax on multiple purchases of property from 4% to 1% may get institutional investors into the market. That can only be welcomed, and it must be kept under review. In addition, I note that the Government intend to work with housing associations, lenders and the regulator to identify and lift barriers to extending shared ownership, which will include consultation on options for streamlining the process for selling on shared ownership properties. I welcome that initiative to work with those associations and others to find a way forward.

I think I have described reasonably well some of the current problems with the development of the shared ownership market. However, the National Housing Federation welcomes the Government’s proposals. I hope that the dialogue will be constructive and that the Government will keep an open mind about the kinds of tools that could be brought into play to enable a significant scaling up of activity in the sector.

When it comes to solutions, my constructive proposal is to ask the Government to act not necessarily as a funder but as a guarantor. The Government—brilliantly, in my view—established the green investment bank. In the same way, I suggest that rather than spending money that they cannot recoup, they should establish an affordable homes fund or intermediate housing fund. Such funding could be revolved to provide the necessary liquidity and confidence among lenders to enable shared ownership schemes to get off the ground, and to facilitate the resale process for such properties. I strongly encourage the Government to look seriously at that proposal.

I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister in a moment, and I have sent her a proposal for the establishment of an intermediate housing fund, on which I have worked with the National Housing Federation. I am not precious about the details of that proposal, but I hope that this Government, the next Government or some other Government—I do not think that this is a party political issue; surely, people across all parties can see the logic and the common sense in this—will consider the concept of such a fund, which would not only benefit the kind of people whom I described earlier, but would be facilitated and enabled by registered social landlords and community land trusts.

Under my proposal, the intermediate housing fund would be administered by the Homes and Communities Agency, although it does not necessarily need to be. It could be an independent body similar to the green investment bank. It would encourage a lending environment that would enable the liquidity necessary to take schemes forward. I believe that it would be a real game changer in the sector and that it would enable progress to be made. I have asked housing associations why they do not engage and buy back properties when people find it really difficult to sell them on, and the housing associations have told me that to do so would count against their contingent liability and restrict their ability to develop new schemes. For various reasons, it would be far better to set up an intermediate housing fund to facilitate such a solution.

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that my question to her is a simple one. Taking into account all that I have described, including the problems and my congratulations to the Government on their work so far, I believe that my proposal is the most significant way of taking the matter forward. Therefore, will the Government look carefully at extending the tools available to develop and scale up shared ownership and other intermediate housing products as an essential solution in areas, such as my constituency, which have high house prices and low wages?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second debate this morning, Mr Sanders. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. He recognised the importance and significance of housing need and housing pressure, while acknowledging the work that the Government have done in the area. Hon. Members come up against many pressures and concerns in their constituencies regarding the affordability of home ownership. There is no doubt that that has been a challenge for the Government. We are addressing the need and introducing schemes through which we can do something about it, and we are engaging with and listening to communities around the country, and with hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman, on solutions.

The Government are absolutely committed to making the aspiration of home ownership a reality for as many households as possible. Across the country, there is a problem with demand for housing, which has consistently outstripped supply. It was interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman mention that, in his constituency, the demand for second homes is outstripping supply, which is changing the marketplace and having an impact on the ability of first-time home buyers to get on the housing ladder. It is our role as a Government to do what we can to help households that are struggling to get on the housing ladder.

The rate of home ownership in the United Kingdom has fallen from its 2003 peak of 70% to about 65%. We are committed to ensuring that future generations get to experience the benefits of owning their own home in the same way as their parents’ generation did, which is why we have taken clear steps to increase housing supply, build more affordable housing and help people to afford a home without relying on parents and other family members for financial support. The hon. Gentleman has spoken about the reform of planning laws to unlock more housing supply, and that is exactly what the Government are doing. The autumn statement package contained specific commitments to release land with a capacity of up to 150,000 homes, and to introduce new measures to support up to 133,000 new homes, including affordable homes. Affordable homes are the key to this debate. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) mentioned key workers in his intervention, and they are important. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that we address key workers’ need when it comes to affordable homes and changes to planning. Key workers support our front-line public services, and it is essential that we have the right kind of housing support for them.

Our policies are bearing fruit. Planning approvals and housing starts are at the highest level for six years. Construction activity, as we see across the country, is really gathering pace and has expanded at the fastest rate for 10 years. We have the national infrastructure plan, which is incredibly important to support housing demand. That contains further measures this year for specific new developments to transform communities through housing in Bicester, Ebbsfleet and Northstowe in Cambridgeshire. Alongside that, billions of pounds of public money—some £4.5 billion during this spending review and more than £5 billion to 2020—is being invested in providing new affordable homes. Almost 217,000 new homes have been delivered by the Government since April 2010, and a further 275,000 will be provided in the five years from April 2015 to 2020. Again, it is about delivering affordable homes in this and the next Parliament.

Under the previous Government, there was a net reduction in social rented homes from 1997 to 2010. That is why, as the hon. Member for St Ives rightly highlighted, we are helping housing associations to access funding. In the 2012 housing package, we introduced a £10 billion housing debt guarantee, which enabled private organisations to access cheaper debt funding to deliver homes for private and affordable rent. We also announced up to £3.5 billion for affordable housing. Our delivery partner, Affordable Housing Finance, issued its first bond to raise funding under the new scheme in May, which was priced at 3.76%—the lowest-priced bond in the history of the affordable housing sector. More than £1 billion of debt has now been guaranteed.

Last week, the Government announced that we have awarded the licence for the private rented sector housing guarantee scheme, which will help create a new market for institutional investment in the private rented sector. All those things help support the Government’s aim of expanding the provision of rented housing, which will help the wider economy by delivering an economic boost and increasing choice. It will also improve housing quality for tenants. Although I do not have time to speak about improving housing stock, it is a key issue for tenants in affordable homes.

We remain committed to establishing shared ownership as a route to home ownership and making it more attractive to households and investors. We will consult on streamlining the process for selling on shared ownership properties. In the autumn statement, we announced that we will extend the scope of stamp duty, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Stamp duty is incredibly important, as it affects first-time buyers’ ability to get on the housing ladder. Our scheme is a vital means of supporting home ownership, and it will also cut the cost of property purchasing for up to 98% of buyers.

Building more homes is a priority. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Help to Buy scheme, which has helped more than 66,000 households to complete mortgages—more than 30,000 have been helped by the mortgage guarantee scheme and 36,000 have been helped by the equity loan scheme. The vast majority of those people—81%—are first-time buyers, which is to be supported and commended. Importantly, more than 94% of all completions are outside London. We are doing everything we can to support the market outside London in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s and rural constituencies, where access to home ownership and new homes has been challenging.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying. Having mentioned shared ownership, Help to Buy and other related schemes, she is coming to the nub of the issue. We must extend the logic of those schemes to the intermediate housing sector. There is still a large cohort of aspiring professional people and others who simply do not have the opportunity to get into the housing market without Government help.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. He is absolutely right.

On Monday, the Prime Minister launched a new scheme that will offer 100,000 first-time buyers new homes at a 20% discount. That enabling factor is a crucial part of our major push to help people get on the housing ladder. The Government have a role to play in enabling ownership.

In addition to our changes to the planning system, we are freeing up underused or unviable brownfield land. There are many aspects of the housing debate that we could discuss, including planning and turning around land that is not being used in a viable way. We must free up underused and unviable brownfield land from planning costs and levies in return for below market value sale prices for the homes that are built on those sites.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point, I have said that shared ownership is an integral part of the affordable homes programme. His private Member’s Bill seeks to expand the provision of intermediate housing. I assure him that the Government are committed to intermediate housing, and we are always looking at what more we can do to assist, enable and support people.

An earlier draft of my Affordable Homes Bill, which I have shared with the Minister, included a proposal to establish an intermediate housing fund, although I had to remove it because I could not get sufficient political support for it. In my conversations with the National Housing Federation, it estimated that the kind of fund that would be sufficient to facilitate that sector is in the region of half a billion pounds. However, that would be an investment fund, not funding that is lost.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful points in this debate.

Housing is a challenging issue, as we have discussed in the short time available. The Government are working assiduously to do many things. I have spoken about the many measures that the Government have undertaken to help the housing market. We are seeing great trends, positive improvements and growth in access to affordable housing. We are providing assistance to aspiring home owners and giving them the opportunity to get on the housing ladder.

This is my final intervention before the Minister concludes. I had discussions with the National Housing Federation, community land trusts and others when I was developing my proposal. As the Government are consulting on how to develop the shared ownership model, will the Minister or one of her colleagues meet me and representatives from the National Housing Federation and community land trusts to see whether we can take these ideas forward?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to respond to that point. The Government are putting in place many reforms and measures. Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to this debate. Either I or one of my colleagues will discuss this matter further with him to see what else we can do.

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government are committed to supporting aspiring home owners—we are doing a great deal in that area— and helping home ownership. We take a continued and significant interest in this area, and we will continue to take a wide range of action.

Sitting suspended.