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Housing and Planning Bill

Volume 609: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2016

Consideration of Lords message

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 47E. I must also inform the House that the motion relating to Lords amendment 47E is certified as relating exclusively to England. If the House divides on the certified motion, a double majority will be required for the motion to be passed. I call the Minister to move to disagree with Lords amendment 47E.

Clause 72

Reduction of payment by agreement

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in their amendment 47E.

I should also like to inform the House that I am placing in the House Library today the Department’s analysis on the application of Standing Order 830 in respect of the Lords amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill. Yet again, we are here to defend our Bill and to make it clear that it delivers on our manifesto. I thank the other place for not continuing their opposition to starter homes, but this is the third time we have had to vote to confirm a key manifesto commitment, so I do not intend to detain the House for too long. I know that I do not have to remind the House of what we said in our manifesto, as I outlined those commitments last week and again earlier this week.

The Lords have scrutinised the Bill more than adequately, and I thank them for their efforts, but this is no longer scrutiny: this is a wrecking amendment. Enough is enough; it is time to stop. Mr Speaker, you have again certified that this amendment is financially privileged. As I set out earlier this week, it is contrary to convention for the House of Lords to send back an amendment in lieu that clearly invites the same response of financial privilege from this House. Yet on this issue it has chosen to do exactly that, not once but twice. A number of noble Lords rightly voiced their concern yesterday that the Lords were being invited to transgress constitutional proprieties, and I hope that this House will agree that this sort of behaviour risks calling into question the role of the second Chamber. The noble Lord Cormack eloquently said yesterday:

“The elected House…is the superior House when it comes to political power.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2016; Vol. 771, c. 1681.]

Lord Kerslake’s amendment has two levels of problems. It would impact on our ability to work with local authorities to deliver the best, most cost-effective, deals for replacement housing, and that could reduce the funding for our manifesto commitment to deliver right-to-buy discounts for housing association tenants. We received a clear mandate for that at the general election. This matter now moves beyond the question of policy and into constitutional issues. I ask the House to send a clear message that it is time for their lordships to respect the will of this elected House and to respect our right to get on with delivering the commitments we made in our manifesto, which the British public backed, so that we can deliver the homes that our country needs.

As we are all aware, the Government suffered a further defeat in the other place last night. As I said in our debate on Monday, after a string of defeats and concessions, some of the sharpest edges have been knocked off the Bill, but it remains an extraordinary and extreme piece of legislation, and a missed opportunity. Since 2010, homelessness and rough sleeping have more than doubled, house prices and private rents have risen dramatically and the housing benefit bill has ballooned, but the Bill does little to tackle those issues.

Lords amendments 47E seeks to put it beyond doubt that adequate funding would be available to local authorities to deliver at least one new affordable home for each higher-value property sold, and at least two in London. It gives local housing authorities the opportunity to demonstrate a need for social rented housing for the Secretary of State to consider. The Bill provides the statutory basis to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants paid for by a forced sale of council homes to the highest bidders, which could include buy-to-let landlords and overseas investors. Those homes have been paid for by our taxes and our parents’ taxes. They are public assets, but they will be sold to whoever has the money to buy them, and that could well be buy-to-let landlords and overseas investors.

Questions and concerns have repeatedly been raised about this, and the report from the Public Accounts Committee clearly identified the impact on local authorities and the risks of a policy so lacking in financial clarity. Lord Kerslake said in the House of Lords yesterday evening:

“It has been argued previously that this is unnecessary, since Ministers have given a commitment. If that is the case, it ought not to be controversial.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2016; Vol. 771, c. 1687.]

If the Government do not accept this like-for-like replacement, they need to explain why; otherwise, it will be clear that this is no more than another raid on local authorities’ finances, putting greater pressure on already-pressed local services. Shelter has calculated that, to deliver the estimated £4.5 billion of receipts identified by the Government, 23,500 vacant council properties a year will need to be sold. That is nearly a third of all vacant stock each year. Without a commitment in the Bill, there will be a huge loss of genuinely affordable homes as the Government sound the death knell for social housing. The Government have said that they are simply honouring their election manifesto, yet the relevant passage commits to a replacement, which is not in the Bill. The Bill and Government policy will make it near impossible for the delivery of new social rented and affordable rented housing as the new starter homes requirement will push social rented housing out of section 106 agreements.

The second part of the amendment seeks to give local authorities the opportunity to make a case, given local need, to replace a social rented home with another social rented home—if a local authority decides not to make such a case, that is fine, but if it wants to go for a different mix of affordable housing options, it can. The amendment would provide authorities with greater flexibility and expand opportunities for affordable housing. I had hoped that the Government would welcome that, but they insist on limiting new affordable homes to a restricted product aimed at one particular part of the housing crisis. If we are serious about fixing the housing crisis and if the Government are serious about encouraging people on to the housing ladder, they must consider all forms of tenure.

The Government were forced to make a string of concessions in the House of Lords and were defeated multiple times, showing the extent of the opposition to the Bill. It does nothing to fix the causes of the past six years of failure, sounds the death knell for social housing and will be a big let-down for people who are desperate for a home. While there are many things in the Bill with which we disagree, amendment 47E is an improvement and would put in the Bill the very thing that the Prime Minister confirmed is the Government’s intention to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) just an hour ago. I hope that the Government will reconsider and accept the amendment.

I rise simply to say that I do not understand the Government’s objections to the amendment. The press release that went out with the Conservative manifesto said:

“After funding replacement affordable housing on a one for one basis, the surplus proceeds will be used to fund the extension of right to buy”.

That is exactly what the amendment would achieve. I also fail to understand what the Minister meant when he said that the proposal

“would also significantly reduce the funding available for the voluntary right to buy, again preventing this Government from fulfilling their manifesto commitment.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2016; Vol. 609, c. 461.]

As I understand it, building costs are completely independent of the tenure, so I again fail to understand why the available money would be less than was previously the case. I hope that the Government will reconsider their decision at the eleventh hour and accept a perfectly sensible amendment from the House of Lords that does not contradict what the Conservatives put forward in their manifesto.

I wish I could say that it is a pleasure to be here once again to debate the many flaws in the Housing and Planning Bill, but I am grateful to the noble Lords for being so robust in their scrutiny and response. The Government have talked much about the obstructive nature of the Lords in relation to the Bill, but the Lords are not being remotely obstructive or difficult. They are simply not convinced that the Government have done their work or that the Bill will deliver on the Government’s manifesto commitment to one-for-one replacement. This is about a transparent and accountable legislative process that gives both Houses the confidence that there is any basis at all to believe that the Bill will deliver what the Government say it will.

Local authorities know their communities best. They undertake housing needs assessments and have statutory housing duties. They are democratically accountable to their local population. They know the mix of homes that is needed in their area. Nobody in the Opposition is saying that starter homes should not be a part of the mix; we want them to be part of a mix that is locally determined by councils that are democratically accountable to their local communities, and we want one-for-one replacement before the proceeds from forced sales are spent on anything else.

The Government are once again rejecting sensible, pragmatic advice from the House of Lords. They are ideologically committed to a Bill that will make the housing crisis worse than it already is. I urge the Government to listen to the House of Lords in its further assertion and to accept the amendment it proposed.

The Minister has complained about the behaviour of the noble Lords, but I am extremely grateful that they are standing up for people in housing need across the country. I only wish that the Government would listen to them and to the vast numbers of people, both in this House and outside the building, who are campaigning hard and loud for a decent housing settlement.

The Government’s refusal to accept the amendment has caused huge concern at local level. My constituency is facing a massive housing crisis, and another 10% rise in private sector rent is expected within a year. We desperately need more council homes, not fewer. It is vital that we get the replacement policy right in the Bill, or we risk seeing a reduction in genuinely affordable homes in the context of an already chronic social housing shortage. The Government have claimed that they are meeting their manifesto commitment to fund the replacement of council properties and to fund right to buy, but they are not. First, the money for replacement is not secure. Secondly, the offer of one-for-one replacement—two-for-one in London—is not the same as like-for-like replacement, which means the same tenure, the same affordable rent and the same area. The bottom line is that council housing assets should not be used to fund the right to buy for housing association tenants. In a housing crisis, we should not be adopting a top-down, blanket policy of forcing the sell-off of council assets.

The Chartered Institute of Housing concluded in its assessment of the policies that

“funds raised by high-value area sales will not fully cover the cost of local authority (LA) replacements and the cost of discounts under an extended right to buy”

and that funding the right to buy discounts

“could be achieved only at the cost of not building the replacement LA units”.

In other words, under the Government’s proposals, one can only be achieved at the expense of the other. The Government’s intention is that local authorities fully fund the right to buy, yet Ministers have not released any figures to demonstrate that additional funding would not be needed from central Government. That has been raised time and again, both in this House and in the other place, yet we still do not know how the numbers will add up.

Rightly, much has been made of the Public Accounts Committee report on this subject. The Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), rightly said that

“there are no costings or workings out. We are not talking about a ‘back of an envelope’ calculation—there is no envelope at all.”

The Government appear to be hedging their bets by not releasing an impact assessment and appear to have undertaken little or no consideration of how the proposal would be funded in practice. Lords amendment 47E has called them out. Ministers have estimated that they will get £4.5 billion of receipts from the forced sale of council homes. Shelter has calculated that 23,500 vacant council properties will need to be sold each year to deliver that figure. That equates to nearly a third of all vacant council stock and will leave those who rely on social housing with an even more minuscule chance of ever getting the secure council home they need. If Ministers were ever serious about replacing the council stock that they seek to flog off, it is surely only reasonable for the Government to take the precaution of ensuring, in legislation, that the funding will be there for local authorities to do so.

That prompts the question as to why the Government are digging their heels in. Why are they refusing to accept an amendment that simply seeks to secure their own manifesto commitment in the Bill? I fear the answer is that the proposal amounts to a tearing-down of the bricks and mortar of the welfare state: social housing. By objecting to amendment 47E, the Government are allowing council housing assets to be plundered to fund an ill-conceived attack on social housing, thereby pulling the rug from under those who need it most. That is why I hope that this House will continue to oppose the Government and will support the amendment from the other place.

It is most unfortunate that the Government are being so obstinate. They did the same over child refugees, but they gave way because of this House and the strength of feeling in the country as a whole, about which I am obviously pleased.

Interestingly, in all the years I have done this job, carrying out surgeries for nearly half a century, nobody has come to me to say that they wanted to be rehoused in the private sector, but plenty of private tenants have been dissatisfied with conditions and circumstances and have wanted to be rehoused by the local authority or the housing association, as the case is in my part of the world. If these people were in a position to buy, they would not be seeking social housing. The Government seem to forget, deliberately, the number of people in this country whose only hope of decent, adequate housing is if they can be rehoused by the local authority. Therefore, I regret all the more this obstinate attitude taken by the Government. I can assume only that it comes out of a bias towards the private sector, against social housing.

I have listened to what Labour colleagues who represent London constituencies have said. I do not, for one moment, suggest that the problem in Walsall is anywhere near the situation in these London boroughs, but enough people in my constituency have been waiting a considerable time to be rehoused. The reason for that is the acute shortage and long waiting list, and their only hope is to be rehoused, in due course, by the Walsall Housing Group. I hope that, even at this late hour, Ministers will understand the need for this Lords amendment to be accepted. As I said, it is regrettable that the Government have been so obstinate.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 47E.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Lords amendment 47E disagreed to.

Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 47E;

That Andrew Griffiths, Brandon Lewis, Seema Kennedy, Grahame M Morris, Teresa Pearce and Julian Smith be members of the Committee;

That Brandon Lewis be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee;

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Julian Smith.)

Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.