I beg to move,
That this House has considered alms houses and their role in housing policy.
I acknowledge at the outset the assistance I received from Charlie Corlett, who interned in my office over the summer, in preparing my contribution to this important debate.
For the past four years, I have served on the housing and care committee of my city livery company, the Merchant Taylors; we take responsibility for the 130 or so almshouses that the livery company owns and manages in Lewisham and Lee in south-east London. At a time when public policy urgently demands greater housing availability, we should not forget one of the more traditional social housing classes. The almshouse sector thrives and should properly be regarded as having an important part to play in the ongoing housing ecosystem of the 21st century.
Almshouses are the oldest form of social housing. They collectively house some 35,000 of our fellow citizens in dwellings managed by roughly 1,650 charities. The tradition of almshouses began as far back as the 10th century, during the reign of King Athelstan; the oldest still in existence, the Hospital of St Cross in Winchester, was founded between 1133 and 1136. They were originally devised as places of residence for the poor and elderly, and some almshouse charities now provide care for other groups such as ex-armed forces personnel and those with limited financial means. In many rural areas in the UK, almshouses are the only source of housing for those in need and therefore play an important role in the social housing landscape.
With fewer new homes being built, house prices still increasing and an ever ageing population, the need for almshouses has never been greater. I also think that a number of philanthropists would regard an investment in almshouses as an appropriate way of making a contribution in the longer term, particularly in the light of the safeguards that I will come on to later in my speech. I hope that we can raise the profile of almshouses through the all-party group on almshouses, through debates such as this one and through sensitive Government policy, and I will come on to a couple of issues that I hope the Minister will address.
Let me give some background. Almshouses play an important role in providing not only dwellings for the vulnerable or elderly but an additional level of care that cannot be found in other forms of social housing. Most of the charities that run almshouses still provide wardens, who have been shown to be pivotal in the reduction of the social isolation that is all too prevalent among elderly people. It is also especially important that residents have someone to call if they are in need. That very personal relationship between trustees and residents is expressed strongly by the Almshouse Association, a support charity representing 95% of all almshouse charities in the UK. Prince Charles, a patron of the association, has observed that there is a “unique bond” between trustee and beneficiary, and that many trustees are willing to give something substantial back to their community because they grew up nearby. There are also communal areas in many schemes where the tenants can socialise.
With four fifths of almshouse charities in the UK running fewer than 20 dwellings, each charity can provide a higher standard of care for its residents. Almshouses, especially for the elderly, strike the right balance between the required level of care and the dignity and independence that could be ignored in an alternative form of accommodation. As the broadcaster David Dimbleby, who is vice-patron of the Almshouse Association, puts it:
“Almshouses are communities of people choosing to live together for their mutual comfort and support. Where old people’s homes can often have an air of despair, of the elderly being abandoned by their families, almshouses speak of optimism and confidence in old age.”
In general, almshouses have played an important role in creating a stable environment for people who need an intermediate option between common social housing and care homes.
The Almshouse Association does a significant amount of work on the preservation of its ancient buildings. My experience with the Merchant Taylors is of a mix of housing: we have some very modern new build on a particular site in Lewisham, but literally a stone’s throw away there is one of our most popular listed buildings, which goes back to the 1820s, and which the company had at a time when that part of what was then Kent, and is now a bustling inner-London borough, was made up of open country.
In an appeal made on the Almshouse Association’s 65th anniversary, its chairman Simon Pott condensed its motives into three simple points:
“supporting member charities in providing good quality housing for those in need, promoting the welfare and independence of residents and preserving the historic tradition of almshouses for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Almshouses also make a significant contribution to our national heritage: 35% of their buildings are listed. Simon Pott states that the almshouse movement today is “vibrant” and “progressive”, and I vouch for that. The durability of these institutions throughout the past millennium and the critical role they play today are reason enough to justify the support that they rightly receive.
I was delighted to launch the all-party group on almshouses last month with the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who apologises for not being able to come down from west Yorkshire today because of the important by-election in her neighbouring constituency of Batley and Spen tomorrow, but who is here in spirit. I know she supports, on a cross-party basis, much of what I am saying today. In setting up the all-party group, we wanted to draw attention to almshouses as a vital component of our housing sector, and to highlight some of the legislative challenges that they face in the 21st century, a number of which I shall draw to the Minister’s attention today.
A portion of almshouse charities are not registered social landlords—RSLs—and that can create specific challenges in relation to part 3 of the Housing Act 2004 and the national planning policy framework. The Act allows local authorities to designate geographical zones that feature particular types of deprivation, within which providers of residential accommodation can be required to hold a licence for each dwelling that they own or manage. Local authorities can charge a fee for such licences. The rationale for that policy is to identify rogue private landlords and clamp down on some of their worst practices.
Unfortunately, unless almshouse charities are RSLs, they can be inadvertently caught out by that legislation. It would be unfortunate for them to be regarded as being risky, as if they were rogue landlords. Consequently, such charities, many of which have only a handful of properties under their auspices, can be forced to pay tens of thousands of pounds for licences for the homes they provide, even though they manifestly do not exhibit the characteristics of rogue private landlords. They cannot pass on the costs of the licence to residents, since that would cause financial hardship and would probably be forbidden under charity law.
The Almshouse Association made a submission to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation on houses in multiple occupation in December 2015. It asked for a statutory instrument to exempt almshouses from the legislation, but I understand that to date there has been no progress on that. Can the Minister confirm that we will get that legislation in place as soon as possible?
Almshouses have been caused difficulties by some local authorities’ interpretation of what constitutes affordable housing under the national planning policy framework. In cases where almshouses are not formally registered as providers of social housing, a number of councils have required almshouse charities to meet section 106 obligations, when the charities themselves have been developing new almshouse dwellings. That approach is clearly paradoxical, since the dwellings fit the statutory definition of social housing in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. The Almshouse Association made a detailed submission to a DCLG consultation in February, but as I understand it, a formal and final response is still awaited.
On almshouse charities that are RSLs, there is concern about the impact of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, which obliges rent for tenants to be cut by 1% per year for four years. Under the Act, “tenant” was understandably defined in a way that included almshouse residents, but the definition of “rent” included the modest contribution that residents are asked to make to maintenance costs. In that instance, the Government were responsive to the concerns of the Almshouse Association and exempted RSL almshouses from the obligation for at least a year. The association is anxious to ensure that that correct exemption is made permanent.
The Minister will be aware of the proposal to cap housing benefit at local housing allowance rates for residents of registered social landlords. That will potentially have a significant—indeed, devastating—impact on the finances of some almshouse RSLs, as charity law prevents them from charging a weekly maintenance contribution, which would put residents in financial hardship. In recent years, many almshouse charities have built high-specification accommodation for pensioners under the affordable homes programme, which assumes that charities will be able to charge residents up to 80% of the local market rent. The charities committed to the affordable homes programme on the assumption that a weekly maintenance contribution at that level would be covered by housing benefit. When that concern was raised with the Government, a short-term exception was made once again, but understandably, almshouse RSLs would like to see the arrangement made permanent and explicit.
Given the historical roots of so many almshouses, it goes without saying that most almshouse charities were founded long before the Equality Act 2010 came to pass. However, a significant number of almshouses have constitutions that, alongside the basic criterion of need, restrict the beneficiary class, perhaps by age or gender, or sometimes by religious belief. In order to make such restrictions lawful, the charity must, of course, satisfy a plethora of Government bodies that the restriction is a proportionate means of satisfying an existing housing need—something that such bodies can understandably be a little jumpy about endorsing. The Almshouse Association recommends that the issue be overcome through an amendment to the 2010 Act effectively stating that, in the context of their charitable rules, almshouses are deemed to meet the test.
All that only goes to highlight a somewhat wider problem, whereby housing legislation and the associated regulation increasingly conflicts with charity law, making it difficult for trustees to be absolutely sure that they have achieved full compliance. That goes well beyond the issue of almshouses. New charitable legislation has come into being, but ever more legislation does not, of course, mean that the loopholes are being closed, and sometimes new problems arise.
Almshouses are a vital contribution to the social housing landscape in the UK, providing care and decent living standards—really, they are rather better than decent; in large numbers of cases, they provide superior living standards—for vulnerable groups of people in all corners of our nation. I trust that the Minister will take up some of the issues that I have raised. I made sure he was aware in advance of what I wanted to say, so hopefully he will provide satisfaction on some of the points. On others, though, he may have to go back to his Department. I hope that, alongside the establishment of the new all-party group, my speech will mark a fresh chapter in Parliament’s understanding of the almshouse movement and, beyond that, ensure that it will thrive for many centuries to come.
Moreover, as I have said, I hope that more knowledge of almshouses will inspire a new generation of philanthropists to make their contribution, in this century, to alleviating the problems of housing shortage, especially, but not exclusively, for the less well-off in our communities. We have to recognise that the housing crisis—I shall use that term, for want of a better one, although I know that it is, to a certain extent, subject to political dispute—means that we have to use every tool in our toolbox. Our landscape will not be covered with almshouses tomorrow —we will not go from 35,000 to 350,000 overnight—but they are part and parcel of that effort.
Philanthropists should feel that, through almshouses, they can make a longer-term contribution to solving the genuine problem we have with housing shortage. They can last through many generations to come. It would be a wonderful development if modern almshouses were to sprout up in villages, towns and cities in the decades ahead. I hope that this debate will help to start the process of making sure that we, as opinion formers and policy makers, can make the almshouse movement strong for this century and beyond.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on setting out the case so clearly for us all. He made sure that the issues that are specific and perhaps peculiar to almshouses are on the record. I am not aware of any almshouse charities in Northern Ireland, but the issues the right hon. Gentleman discussed are important. It is also important to put on the record our need for such organisations to deliver throughout society, which they very clearly do and must continue to do. I thank those who prepared the background information on this debate. It is very detailed and helpful and will help with my contribution. I shall make only a brief speech, but it is important that we put on the record the importance of almshouses and of charity.
Over the years, people with compassion have stepped in with charity when Governments have perhaps been unable to help. There are around 160,000 general charities in the UK. According to the “UK Civil Society Almanac 2012”, charities have a combined income of some £37 billion. That is money raised from charitable giving, charity shops and fundraising events, and by volunteers actively trying to make people’s lives better. That is the core issue of this debate, as has been made clear. Charities provide for and help people when they are abandoned by others—such help has to be encouraged at this time.
Almshouses are charitable organisations, some of which are also registered social landlords, and mainly specialise in housing for the elderly. They specifically set out to help those who are vulnerable and in need of help and care that they cannot get or are not getting through the welfare system. There is a specific role for the work that almshouses and charitable organisations do for the people they target and on whom their help is focused.
Of the 1,700 almshouse charities throughout the country, more than 30% occupy listed buildings, and many have celebrated anniversaries of over 400 years. Such anniversaries are important to record and acknowledge. Another feature of their rich heritage is that many almshouses lie in the heart of towns and villages, which ensures that they remain closely integrated in the local community. It is important to recognise the added benefit of their location, which ensures that residents are close to shops and services. In other words, they are in the right places and have the right focus in local communities.
The majority of today’s almshouse residents will be of retirement age and of limited financial means, and will have lived in the vicinity of an almshouse charity. Residents pay a weekly maintenance contribution, which is similar to rent but different in law, and less than a commercial rate. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster on the specific circumstances of almshouse residents.
Almshouses make a real difference to the quality of the lives of their patrons. The House must recognise that and make the appropriate allowances. They help to fill a gap, which is why I support the representations made by the right hon. Gentleman and others on the Government’s intention to cap housing benefit entitlement for residents at local housing allowance rates and the requirement to reduce rent levels by 1% each year for four years from April 2016.
I am given to understand that, as a general rule, the rents charged for supported housing are higher than the rents charged on other social housing units. Thus the impact of capping housing benefit entitlement for residents of supported housing has caused particular concern, which is the reason for the debate. The whole point of these charities is to provide the additional care and support that is needed, and capping housing benefit in this way will make things even less affordable for those who need a little help to feel a little safer in their community, or even to stay in the community in the specific place where they are living.
About 17% of older people are in contact with their family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact with them less than once a month. These figures underline the need for consideration —perhaps special consideration—of almshouses. Two fifths of older people say that television is their main company; for some older people, it is their only company. When there are so few community hubs, it affects the quality of life of almshouse residents, so almshouses should be protected.
It is a well-known fact that residential care is an expensive business. It is my belief that this cap will be a false economy, as it may leave some people feeling that they have no other option than to go into a home. For those who do not have a large pension, which will include those who benefit from almshouses, the cost of their going into a home will be met by the taxpayer.
With respect, I do not see any great saving in this change. I am sure that the Minister, when he responds to the debate, will say that that is not the case, but in my 31 years of representing the general public in an elected capacity, I have seen too many cases where the refusal to put a care package in place has led to people being put in residential care, at a much greater cost and causing much greater difficulty for those people physically, emotionally and financially. That must be taken into consideration.
I conclude by saying that our elderly people need help and consideration, and I feel that these proposals to cap housing benefit are not necessary or useful in any way, shape or form at this time. Therefore, I fully support my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, if I can call him that, in bringing forward this matter for consideration in this House, and I look to the Minister for a positive response. We have a duty in this House to help those who need help, and legislatively we can help them. Let us hope we can do that as a result of this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Gillan.
I start by thanking the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) for securing this interesting and informed debate. While I have always taken an interest in housing issues in general throughout my political career—I started as a councillor in West Lothian many years ago—and in supported accommodation in particular, I must admit that prior to this debate being announced I was unaware of almshouses. I suspect that that will not be uncommon among the general public and indeed among other MPs.
My research shows that there appear to be only two almshouses charities in Scotland: the John Menzies (Southern) Limited Employees’ Benevolent Fund, which is based in Edinburgh; and the Ellen Carter Almshouses charity, which is based in Hawick. Both of them are outwith my area, but I will do more research to find out about them after this debate.
As was shown by the examples given by other right hon. and hon. Members during the debate, almshouses clearly play a valuable role. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, they give us compassion and charity, which are two key aspects that should not be outwith the housing market at all; indeed, they are the basis for providing homes for people.
The Scottish National party is pleased that the UK Government have abandoned plans to reduce the housing benefit for vulnerable people who stay in supported accommodation, which would obviously include almshouses and women’s aid refuges, which is another form of accommodation that is particularly important to me.
Local housing allowance rates do not consider the additional cost to refuge providers or other providers of supported accommodation of leasing accommodation from social landlords, nor the associated service charge costs. If they had not received the existing level of housing benefit to cover their costs, refuges may have been forced to close.
It is estimated that 62% of housing association tenants in Scotland rely on housing benefit to help them to pay their rent, which highlights just how significant housing benefit is. I am delighted that the cuts from the application of LHA rates to supported accommodation over the 2016-17 to 2019-20 period will not be made. I congratulate the Government on taking that stance. Instead, we are told by the UK Government that from 2019-20 onwards they will introduce in relation to England
“a new funding model which will ensure that the sector continues to be funded at current levels”.
I welcome that because obviously it will result in additional funding being given to the Scottish Government to support the supported accommodation sector.
In the last Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government exceeded their target of building 30,000 affordable homes by completing 33,490 affordable homes, with 22,523 of those completions being of social rented homes. Building more homes has been made a national infrastructure priority by the SNP Government. Over the course of the next Scottish Parliament, the SNP Government will build 50,000 new affordable homes, 35,000 of which we have pledged to make social rented homes. Ensuring that everyone in Scotland has access to good-quality housing is a vital part of the Scottish Government’s drive to ensure economic growth, promote social justice, strengthen communities and tackle inequality.
The Scottish Government have a number of innovative schemes for funding and building more of these homes. So far, we are the only UK Administration to invest in charitable bonds—more than £40 million has been invested in charitable bonds, providing the development finance for 581 affordable homes and generating more than £9 million for charities. I wonder whether that is an example of an approach to housing funding that could perhaps benefit almshouses throughout the wider UK and indeed throughout Scotland, because, as I have said, we have only two almshouses charities at the moment.
The Local Affordable Rented Housing Trust is another scheme. It is helping to provide 1,000 affordable homes across Scotland. Launched in October last year, it was set up to provide long-term, mid-market rented housing across the country. Overall funding for the LAR will be more than £100 million, with a loan of £55 million from the Scottish Government being matched by private investors. We also have the National Housing Trust initiative, which was launched in 2010. It was the first Government guarantee-backed housing programme in the UK.
As well as building more homes, which is absolutely fundamental, the right to buy was abolished for all social housing tenants in Scotland by the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014. That will preserve housing stock for the future and means that social landlords will receive a steady rental income. It also allows landlords to issue short secure Scottish tenancies to address antisocial behaviour and help homeowners in genuine need.
In conclusion, while almshouses clearly have a significant role within the housing policy model, in the Scottish context they are currently relatively minor. However, there is definitely more that can be done. More knowledge of almshouses would be useful—I would certainly be interested in joining the all-party group on almshouses—because it is an interesting approach. The comment was made that we can have more modern almshouses. That could fit in with different funding models and provide a valuable social context.
I thank the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster for securing this debate and I am delighted to have been able to take part.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Gillan, in my first debate on the Front Bench.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on securing this debate and thank him for the courtesy of sharing with me in advance what he was going to cover. This is not the first time that he and I have spoken about housing issues in London in this Chamber, even in the short time I have been in Parliament. I also thank the Almshouses Association for its briefing for this debate and welcome the formation of the all-party group on almshouses, under the co-chairmanship of the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch).
As the right hon. Gentleman described so eloquently, almshouses have been around for centuries—long before the advent of council and housing association housing—and, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) clearly described, they continue to play a valuable role in the provision of housing in this country. They particularly benefit people such as pensioners and people with disabilities, those on low incomes, and occasionally members of other specific groups, such as ex-services personnel. In my constituency we have several almshouses. The Isleworth and Hounslow Charity manages 80 units, spread over six sites, for couples and single people. It is an amalgamation of a number of small almshouses and distributive charities. The oldest, Ingrams, was endowed in 1664; the newest, Tolson House, which is part-funded by the Homes and Communities Agency, was opened in 2012.
One of the strengths of almshouses is their local connection. They often have local trustees and many provide on-site staff, a social focus and a support element. In addition to the human side of providing homes, the older almshouse charities preserve an important part of our nation’s built heritage. So while almshouses may be historic, they are very much alive and vibrant and play an important role in the mixed housing economy in our communities, particularly for those who cannot afford to buy their own homes.
Before I address the specific points raised by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, I want to set the place of almshouses within the wider context of all supported and social rent housing. We have seen six years of failure, leading to the greatest housing crisis this country has seen for many decades. Housebuilding is at the lowest level under any Prime Minister since 1923. Rough sleeping has doubled. Private rents have risen faster than incomes. The number of new Government-funded social rented homes has fallen by an astonishing 98% since 2010, and housing benefit has risen by more than £4 billion a year in cash terms despite a series of punitive cuts. The pressures on all providers of supported and social rent housing could not be more difficult, and almshouses have not been spared.
Having set the scene, I would now like to turn to each of the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. First, on the issue of licensing, he seeks a statutory instrument to exempt almshouses from the relevant legislation. Local authorities have discretion over fees and the licensing regime, which is there to catch rogue private landlords. I am sure that almshouses are able to work with their local authority to ensure that the licensing regime does not bring them into the ambit of something meant for a completely different purpose. However, I understand that there are some set categories for exemptions that almshouses have to follow and that presumably do not include non-registered almshouses. That is the reason for the concern that the right hon. Gentleman expressed. If he is suggesting that local authorities should have more discretion than at present to amend who is covered by the licensing regime, we would have some sympathy with that.
Secondly, on the national planning policy framework and planning obligations, the right hon. Gentleman says that some local authorities have interpreted non-registered almshouses as essentially being private developers that are therefore required to carry out section 106 obligations to provide affordable housing when that is essentially what their core business is anyway. It could and indeed should be a matter for local negotiation. Section 106 agreements are locally negotiated and agreed. Having spent some years as the chair of my local authority’s planning committee and many years as a planning committee member, I am well acquainted with the powers of the planning system and the ability to have local discretion according to local circumstances and need. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that some clarity and guidance on this area from the Department would perhaps be helpful to almshouses and planning authorities. We need to deliver much needed affordable housing more urgently. We share the belief of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) in the importance of delivering many more good quality, truly affordable homes, and soon.
Thirdly, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster raised concerns from almshouses that the rent cut for social rent housing might impact on almshouses once the first-year exemption is over. Opposition Members regret that the arbitrary rent cut has potentially compromised the building of new affordable homes and damaged the relationship between providers and the Government. It has led to plans for the development of new affordable housing being scaled back at a time when there have been devastating cuts in social housing investment since 2010.
Finally, the shadow Secretary of State for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), has led opposition to the cuts to the local housing allowance for supported housing since last December. It is dangerous and damaging to cap housing support for some of the most vulnerable people and to uprate it by a measure of inflation—the consumer prices index—that explicitly excludes housing costs. The National Almshouses Association is not alone in expressing concern about the Government’s plans to introduce a cap on the amount of rent that housing benefit will cover. It will mean that housing benefit for social sector tenants cannot be higher than the local housing allowance rate for private rent tenants.
The measure was due to apply to tenancies signed after 1 April 2016 and to come into force from 1 April 2018 onwards for everyone else. However, in March, following pressure from the shadow Front-Bench team, the Government announced a one-year exemption for tenants of supported housing. In July, my shadow Front-Bench colleagues secured an Opposition day debate in which they called on the Government to fully exempt supported housing from their cuts to housing benefit and to consult with supported housing providers to identify ways in which all vulnerable people who need supported housing can access it.
In September, immediately before the conference recess, the Government announced through a written statement that they would be deferring the application of LHA rates to social rents for supported housing further, until 2019-20. However, the Government will be going ahead with the cut to supported housing providers from next April. The written statement raised more questions than it answered. The policy is delayed, but the cuts will go ahead. There is no figure on the new funding pledged, yet the Budget scored the so-called savings at £990 million. Furthermore, Government announcements on the LHA cut have stalled the development of many new supported housing schemes.
I am concerned that the Government decision to delay detailing their cuts to supported housing will leave tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people without the certainty they need to live their lives. The written statement lacked important details on the top-up funding that will be devolved to local authorities and on the new funding arrangements. The continuous delays in outlining a complete package of support for almshouses and, indeed, the whole supported housing sector are unacceptable. It is vital that supported housing is fully exempt from these cuts. Otherwise, as the hon. Member for Strangford has so clearly explained, we risk pushing more pensioners into the far more costly care system.
In conclusion, almshouses, along with all providers of social and affordable housing, deserve to be treated by this Government with the same degree of respect as they afford their residents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I welcome the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) to the Opposition Front Bench. I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on securing this important debate on almshouses. He has a great passion for housing issues, particularly in relation to London. I welcome the opportunity to highlight the important role that almshouses have played for many years and, as we have heard, centuries. They continue to play that role in providing affordable housing for communities across the country.
The creation of the new all-party group on almshouses rightly reflects the importance of these organisations, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role as co-chair of the all-party group. I understand it had its inaugural meeting on 14 September. The group has a remit to promote the issues affecting almshouse charities and their continuance, development and strengthening throughout the UK. This debate is an excellent start to the all-party group’s work, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend and commend him on his efforts on behalf of the wider almshouse movement.
The tremendous dedication and work of the trustees and other volunteers who run and maintain these important organisations are fine examples of community spirit and localism that directly impacts the lives of residents. As a former leader of Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, I am aware and proud of the huge contribution that the Nicholas Chamberlaine Trusts’ almshouses have made to Bedworth in the neighbouring constituency of North Warwickshire since 1840. The almshouses were designed by the notable Victorian architect Thomas Larkins Walker to house the poor of the town. The charity was established in 1715 as part of a bequest by Nicholas Chamberlaine, who was the rector of Bedworth for 51 years. With 28 homes still housing those in need, it is clear that this almshouse trust and others across the country continue to play a most valuable role in supporting vulnerable residents, particularly in many rural areas, as my right hon. Friend detailed. As he noted, almshouses also make a critical contribution to our national heritage by maintaining many listed, important and fine buildings that might otherwise be neglected.
On the points made by my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members about the legislation affecting almshouses, the Government have listened carefully to the concerns raised by almshouses that are registered providers of social housing about the potential impact of requiring them to implement the 1% per annum social rent reduction set out in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. This important measure reduces housing benefit costs in the social rented sector in England, which had increased by 25% over the previous decade. However, we recognised that there were particular circumstances that could make it more challenging for almshouses to absorb this reduction. We therefore announced last month that the one-year exemption that had previously been granted would be extended for the full four years of the social rent reduction. I can reassure my right hon. Friend that regulations to that effect will be in place shortly.
We also recognised that the application of the local housing allowance rate might have a bigger impact on almshouses and other specific types of housing. We announced last month that we will extend the deferral until 2019-20 while we consider whether any additional arrangements will be necessary for this group, alongside the new funding model for supported housing that will then be introduced. These decisions have been warmly welcomed by the Almshouse Association.
On the LHA rates, I can reassure the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who may have seen our statement that was laid before the House, that our solution for supported housing includes a commitment to provide the same quantum of funding as at present, which is an extremely important point.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster also raised the issue of selective licensing. Licensing is intended to apply to most private landlords operating in a particular area, including registered charities. It is intended to raise standards in the private sector and provide a level playing field between landlords. Around 20% of almshouses are registered providers of social housing and, as my right hon. Friend said, are therefore exempt from licensing since they are subject to other regulatory controls. The remainder, although almost exclusively registered charities, are private landlords. The Government are not convinced that there is a compelling case for those providers to be treated differently from other private landlords operating in areas that are subject to selective licensing.
I am grateful for the Almshouse Association’s response to our consultation paper on extending the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, in which they raised particular concerns about licence fees payable under selective licensing schemes. We published our response to the consultation yesterday. Local housing authorities can charge fees to cover their costs in administering a selective licensing scheme. The Government do not regulate the fees that are charged. However, it is important to recognise that the fees must be reasonable and transparent, and, in particular, should cover only the cost of running the scheme; they should not raise additional revenue above and beyond that.
My concern is that those fees are a pretty strong disincentive for new or existing almshouse providers to expand in areas—often the most vulnerable areas—where there is a more acute need for social housing. Everyone wants to ensure that rogue landlords are properly brought to book, but the licensing fees are substantial. The sorts of almshouse charities that we are talking about may have only a dozen or so properties under their auspices. Given that it is meant to be a small number of areas that have licensing arrangements, almshouse charities might think twice about continuing to undertake their work in areas of acute social need. That would be a regrettable and unintended consequence of what is being proposed.
My right hon. Friend is probably aware of a Government White Paper on housing, which I will talk about in more detail in a moment, that will be published shortly. I am sure that he will feed his further concerns into the work that the Government are conducting.
Exempting almshouses from fees and offering substantial discounts is within local authorities’ discretionary powers. As the legislation stands, providers can speak to their local authorities about licensing fees and whether the local authority is willing to give an exemption or a discount. Before a local authority introduces a licensing scheme, the legislation requires them to take reasonable steps to consult organisations that are likely to be affected by the designation, and they must consider any representations made in accordance with the consultation. I would encourage almshouses and other private landlords to put their case to local authorities at that stage.
All of us would like local authorities to have as much discretion as possible, but we have to be realistic when it comes to the charging of fees. Given the financial constraints that all local authorities are under, it is unlikely that a local authority will exercise much discretion when faced with the prospect of losing substantial fees. I am afraid the Minister has not provided as much comfort as I would like, but I take on board his point that we can make full representations as part and parcel of the White Paper process. Almshouses do not have a special status, but they are recognised as an important part of the broader ecosystem, and some of the understandable protections required for tenants and local authorities alike should not necessarily apply, given the historic importance of almshouses, in contrast to the rogue landlords that much of the legislation is designed to try to deal with.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster has made several points, and he can feed those into the housing White Paper process.
On the national planning policy framework, which was mentioned, there was a consultation last December on changes to the framework, with a view to increasing the supply of housing. Any changes that will be made in the framework will be undertaken through the White Paper process. Again, I encourage my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members to feed into that. The impact and implementation of section 106 agreements will again be looked at in the forthcoming housing White Paper, and I encourage my right hon. Friend to look into that.
I was a little disappointed by some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth in the wider context of housing, because her party presided over the lowest ever level of house building in 2009. House building has picked up significantly since then. From 1997 to 2010, the stock of affordable homes in this country fell by 420,000. Since 2010, the coalition Government and the current Government have created 293,000 affordable homes. In this Parliament, we are continuing that, with a programme for another 100,000 affordable homes to rent. During the 13 years that they were in power, the Labour Government built fewer council houses than this Government have in the last six and a half years.
Perhaps the Minister could explain something relating to the net gain or loss of social rented housing since 2010. In my area, the right-to-buy discount is so high that council houses have been sold through right to buy at a faster rate than new social rented housing, both council and housing association, has been built by our local authority. On his comment about the number of council houses built under the last Labour Government, it is true that council house building was low, but housing association new builds were very high. We also delivered the better homes programme, in which a high proportion of council homes were brought up to the decent homes standard—they had been neglected for many years before that.
It is quite obvious that the number of affordable homes declined steeply during the period of the last Labour Government. We are trying to address that, as well as the legacy of the biggest financial crash in living memory, which has caused significant challenges in bringing forward new homes. We are now on the right trajectory.
It is clear that in this Chamber we all share the same appreciation, respect and admiration for the almshouse movement and its volunteers. I look forward to continuing to work with that movement and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, and his colleagues on the APPG. We recognise the value of almshouses, and the support that they provide, and the crucial work that they do, in many of our communities, and are keen to see that continue.
As the most senior Member in the Chamber at the moment—other than yourself, Mrs Gillan—I apologise if I have led colleagues astray with the bad habit of extremely long interventions. I have made speeches that are shorter than some of the interventions that we have been able to make today. I would not wish the lack of attendance in this debate to give rise to the sense that there is any apathy or dissent about this issue. There is a lot of consensus, which has been seen in most of the contributions.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution about the view from the other side of the Irish sea. On Scotland, I am sorry that there are relatively few almshouses in Scotland. Mischievously, I might wonder whether there was no great tradition of philanthropy in Scotland; more to the point, it may be that, with a different legal system, housing tenure developed in a different way north of the border. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) rightly pointed out, there are some almshouses in Scotland.
I know this is not exactly my party’s policy, but I agree with the SNP view that we need to ensure that increasing amounts of social housing—this would certainly apply to almshouses—should not be subject to right to buy. One way that we will encourage people—philanthropists, as I have said—to put money into the sector and get into it in a big way is if they are assured that the properties will not be subject to right to buy and that those charitable measures will be maintained in perpetuity.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on her debut. I think she will find that this particular debate was rather more consensual than some of the more fractious outings she will get in future in her role. There is some merit in making sure that all parties are aware of speeches in advance, and I would always advise colleagues to do it, particularly in these sorts of Westminster Hall debates, because it enables us to address the issues. I am sure the hon. Lady recognises, as another central London MP, going down Sutton Lane and other parts of her constituency where there are almshouses, that they are very much sought after and remain an important part of her community.
Finally, I thank the Minister. It was very useful to be able to put my speech forward in advance. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for doing her dutiful work as the Parliamentary Private Secretary and making sure the papers got passed on. I have found comfort in much of what the Minister said. There are one or two issues that we will have to look at again, but I hope the work of the APPG and the association will play an important part in ensuring that almshouses are not a forgotten, Cinderella area in the housing White Paper, but are in the mind of the Ministry going forward.
Mrs Gillan, thank you so much for allowing us to speak at length, albeit not at as much length as we thought we were going to. That gives you a quick half hour for coffee as well, which is a perfect solution for a Wednesday morning.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered alms houses and their role in housing policy.