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Select Committee on Communities and Local Government

Volume 605: debated on Thursday 11 February 2016

Select Committee statement

We come now to two Select Committee statements. Mr Clive Betts will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and I will call Mr Clive Betts to respond to those in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front-Bench Members may take part in questioning. The same procedure will be followed for the second Select Committee statement. I call the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts.

I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to present our report on housing associations and the right to buy. I would also like to thank Craig Bowdery, our Committee specialist; Professor Christine Whitehead, our specialist adviser; and Professor Ian Cole and his research colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University for their help in producing the report.

There is clearly a housing crisis in this country, so the Committee wanted to look in greater detail at one of the Government’s key policies: extending the right to buy to tenants of housing associations. That was a Conservative manifesto commitment, so the Committee did not question whether it should be implemented. As is appropriate for Select Committees, however, we scrutinised how it was being implemented. We also looked at other Government policies, such as the 1% reduction in social rents, pay to stay and starter homes, which will all have an impact on the provision of social housing and on housing associations.

We had a large response to our request for evidence, with more than 175 written submissions, and we heard from a range of witnesses, including housing association chiefs from across England, Scotland and Wales, council leaders and representatives of tenants and mortgage lenders.

Throughout our investigations, we found a great deal of uncertainty—that was a key point—and a lack of detail. The robustness of the funding model for the right to buy is extremely questionable, and we call on the Government to cost the programmes fully as a matter of urgency.

Shortly after our investigations began, a deal to implement the extended right to buy voluntarily was reached between the Government and the National Housing Federation. We recognise that a voluntary deal is a way of delivering a key policy from the Government’s manifesto while maintaining the independence of housing associations, and that, in the circumstances, it is the best way forward for both. However, there remains much uncertainty in the wording of the agreement. A minority of associations voted against it, and some abstained, and we do not yet know how the right to buy will be imposed on them and how binding the terms of a voluntary agreement can be.

Another issue is exactly how much discretion each association will have to decline sales. Can they, for example, choose not sell any of their homes in a certain area, or will they sell them on a case-by-case basis? Similarly, what is the appeal process for tenants who are refused the right to buy?

The extended right to buy is designed to increase home ownership and housing supply. We support those aspirations and the principle of giving people the opportunity to own their own home, provided that the homes sold under the right to buy are replaced on a one-for-one basis and that housing continues to be delivered across all tenures to meet the country’s housing needs. We feel there are unresolved issues, and we remain concerned that the Government’s policies could have a detrimental effect on the provision of accessible and affordable housing across all tenures, particularly on affordable rented homes.

We looked particularly at houses in rural areas, where there is often high demand. Limited land availability means that it can be challenging to build new homes to replace those sold through the right to buy. For our rural communities to thrive, it is important that young people and those on lower incomes can afford to live in them. The terms of the voluntary agreement included the ability of housing associations to offer a portable discount in place of selling a home. Given that rural areas such as national parks can be large, it remains to be seen how that will work in practice.

We are concerned that the extended right to buy could hinder the provision of specialist and supported housing schemes. Homes in such schemes are expensive to build and can be harder to replace, but they provide essential services to those living in them. We also believe that to avoid confusion or possible legal challenges, restrictive covenants on specific sites and properties built using charitable funds should be explicitly exempt from the extended right to buy.

We found that large numbers of homes sold through the statutory right to buy to council tenants had become rental properties in the private sector in a relatively short time. That is a concern because the private rented sector is often more expensive than social housing, and the quality of homes can, in some cases, be lower. Selling much needed social assets at a discount, only for them to become more expensive in the private rented sector, is therefore a significant concern for the Committee.

Measures to restrict homes sold through the right to buy from ending up in the private rented sector need to be explored. We suggest that those might include a provision that any right-to-buy homes resold within 10 years should first be offered to local housing associations or the local council, which could choose to buy them at market price. They might also include a restrictive covenant requiring a minimum period of owner-occupation. Those are matters for exploration.

The Government propose to fund the extended right to buy with the proceeds from the sale of high-value council homes. The definition of “high value” has not yet been announced, and it is long overdue. The precise mechanism by which this policy will be funded contains too many unknowns and unclear definitions. However, we observe that public policies should usually be funded by the Government, rather than through a levy on local authorities. If only those councils that have retained some housing stock are required to make the payment to fund the right-to-buy discounts, the effect on communities, and the financial risk for local authorities, will be greater in some areas than in others. That is another reason for our belief that a national policy should be funded nationally.

We received much evidence on the proposed funding, and we are concerned that the sums do not add up. We cannot be sure that the proceeds from selling council homes will cover the costs of providing right-to-buy discounts, the costs of building replacement council homes and the brownfield regeneration fund. We urge the Government to publish their figures and to clarify the funding mechanism as soon as possible.

The success of the extended right to buy largely depends on the homes that are sold being replaced and on the housing supply being maintained. We appreciate the size of the challenge of building more homes to meet demand, but we seek more details from the Government on how they will meet their objective of achieving at least one-for-one replacement of the homes sold. They must take steps to ensure that the homes built to offset right-to-buy and council home sales meet the needs of local communities and have a tenure mix that reflects local circumstances.

Another policy that could impact on housing associations and the provision of rented housing is the new legal duty on councils to ensure the provision of 200,000 new starter homes across all reasonably sized sites. It is important that homes for affordable rent are also built where the need exists, particularly because starter homes now count towards satisfying the affordable housing allocation in section 106 agreements. Starter homes should not be built at the expense of other forms of tenure; it is vital that homes for affordable rent are built to reflect local needs. To put that in context, about 250,000 housing association rented homes have been built in the last 10 years through section 106 agreements.

Another policy change is that housing associations have been required to adapt to the fact that the Government are reducing social rents by 1% a year for four years. That reduction in housing association’s income is significant and could impact on the pastoral services provided. It could also impact on associations’ development capacity and the viability of supported housing schemes. It will affect different housing associations in different ways. We welcome the recent announcement that supported housing rents will be exempt from the 1% reduction for a year while the Government review the situation.

Before the 2016 autumn statement, the Government should provide some certainty over rent levels post-2020, to assist long-term business planning and increase investor confidence. We support their efforts to deregulate housing associations, and we argue that giving them the freedom to set their own rent levels is the next logical step.

It is clear that the housing association sector is undergoing a substantial change. We encourage the regulator to adopt a framework that is based on risk, rather than factors such as size, and that recognises the sector’s diversity. Regardless of how housing associations might change in future, it is vital that they remain mindful of their social mission and philanthropic purpose.

The Government have ambitious plans to address the severe housing shortage, and they are seeking to do so by prioritising affordable home ownership. None the less, rented housing at full market rents and sub-market rents will continue to be essential to meet the needs of many in our society and should exist alongside other forms of housing.

Finally, I thank all members of the Committee for working assiduously and collectively to produce this unanimously agreed report.

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his statement, and him and his Committee on its report? I was interested in conclusion 96, which says:

“It is important that housing associations which generate surpluses apply them to delivering new housing.”

In his report, the hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that the department has identified

“that the housing association sector had a surplus of £2.4 billion”,

which it could make use of. Does he share my concern that there is tremendous scope for more efficiencies in housing associations? Is he as concerned as I am that some chief executives of housing associations receive very large salaries indeed?

That was an issue the Committee was mindful of. That wording in the report is very clear. Where there are large surpluses, and there are housing shortages to be met, housing associations should look to make sure those surpluses are spent in a way that delivers more homes.

It is also important that housing association boards look at how their resources can be managed to the maximum efficiency. The public sector as a whole has had to have an eye on efficiency in the last few years. The housing associations are deliberately not in the public sector, and the Government have taken steps to deal with that issue. Nevertheless, they receive public funding, and they should make sure they spend that public money as efficiently as possible.

I welcome this unanimous cross-party report, which reinforces criticism and opposition already voiced by Conservative Members and by the Conservative-led Local Government Association about the huge loss of affordable homes in rural and urban areas alike as a result of the Housing and Planning Bill. The other place is set to examine the Bill’s provisions on housing associations’ right to buy and the forced sale of council homes on 3 March, so what steps will my hon. Friend take to make sure that peers know all about this important report before then?

I would have thought that making this statement today was a start to that process and give the report some publicity. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be sending messages to his colleagues in the other place where he wants to draw particular aspects to their attention. A key issue is how the right-to-buy scheme should be funded. I think it would be very helpful for their lordships if the Government were to produce the calculations on how the sale of high-value council assets in relation to right-to-buy discounts, the replacement of the sold-off council homes, and the brownfield regeneration fund—which I think we can all support as a very good principle—can all be funded. We need to see the Government’s figures given that we had evidence from the Chartered Institute of Housing that the maximum amount raised from the levy would be about £2.2 billion a year, which would not cover the three costs that need to be covered to meet the Government’s intentions.

I welcome the statement from the Chair of the Select Committee, on which I am pleased to serve. I can confirm that this report was, helpfully, agreed on a cross-party basis. I commend him for his diligent work in ensuring that we did come to such an agreement even though it was quite difficult at times. Does he agree that it is important to increase not only the supply but the mixture of tenure? One of the key concerns that the Government have addressed, thanks to an amendment to the Bill, is that social rented homes sold will be replaced on a two-for-one basis. I think that is warmly welcomed. We also need to make sure that the homes that are sold are for owner-occupation and do not end up in the private rented sector market, because that denies people the right to own their own home.

When a home is bought under the right to buy and the Government then continue with their policy of selling a council home to pay for it, if both those homes could be replaced with properties that meet the needs of those communities, I think everyone would feel a lot more comfortable about the direction of travel. As I understand it, the two-for-one replacement is a London-only commitment at this stage, and it is not precisely clear what the tenure of the two-homes replacement would be. That is one of the unanswered questions. Another is that we do not yet know how the levy raised on councils would be distributed around the country. Presumably the specific requirement for London means that some sort of regional ring-fencing will be in place, but we do not know precisely what that will be until the Government say so.

Yes, there is a concern about homes being bought under the right to buy and then becoming homes in the private rented sector. We can all see why that is. When people have bought their council homes, we see the front doors and front windows appearing in those newly bought homes, and a few years later we go back and probably see the roofs that have not been repaired, indicating that those homes have been passed on to the private rented sector. That is a challenge the Committee identified, and I hope that the Government will work with the National Housing Federation to explore how it might be dealt with.

I, too, thank the Chair of the Select Committee for bringing forward this report. I have always supported the right to buy. This is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, but I still want to ask a question. In Northern Ireland, we have changed the tenancy arrangements such that a tenant has to stay for an extra five years before they can have a right to purchase. Another change is that tenants have no right to buy a bungalow or adapted disabled accommodation because of constituents’ insatiable demand for such housing. Has the Chair given any consideration to those two conditions in Northern Ireland? Did any discussions take place with the Northern Ireland Assembly or with other devolved regional Administrations to gauge their opinion on what they do? That would perhaps allow us to have a uniform set of rules or criteria across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

We had witnesses from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so we did look across the board. We did not look specifically at extending the qualifying period for the right to buy, but we did look in some detail at supported housing. We thought that the discount should not be eligible in relation to the right to buy. The problem is that in some cases where a property cannot be sold, a portable discount can be given to another property, but if a person needs supported housing, then saying to them, “You can’t buy that house but you can have a portable discount to another supported housing unit somewhere else” does not really add up. We need clarification on that because we were very concerned about the prospect of losing supported housing in this way.

First, I apologise to the Chairman and members of the Select Committee for not being here earlier; I have been serving on a Bill Committee. I hope they will appreciate that I whizzed down as soon as we finished the sitting.

I thank the Chairman and the entire team who worked on this report, and everybody who gave evidence, for their time and effort. It is a deep report that we will look at with interest. I am sure that members of the Committee and the Chairman himself will appreciate that there may be things that we do not entirely agree with; we have that debate from time to time. Through the voluntary agreement, our policies in the Housing and Planning Bill and our housing policies in general, we have been very clear that we support, and will continue to do all we can to support, the aspiration of home ownership, and the right to buy plays an important part in that. I welcome the time and effort that the Committee put into the report, and look forward to the debates on these issues in the period ahead.

I would probably be disappointed if the Minister did agree with everything in the report. The Committee members were absolutely at one on this. We support the aspiration of home ownership—how could we not when we are homeowners ourselves? People would look at us askance if we came to a different view. We did not say that we were against the right to buy; rather, we raised a number of fundamental questions about how it could be funded. We would like the Minister to provide in response the information, the evidence and the facts and figures to back up the Government’s policy so that we can have a better view as to how it will work in practice.