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Social Housing Occupancy

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social housing occupancy levels.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I shall be speaking about an important issue that my constituents raise weekly—one that I have been campaigning on for many years as a Member of Parliament and a London council leader before that. It is about overcrowding in social housing, and indeed the housing crisis. I hesitate to use the term “crisis” because that would imply that the problem was sudden, unexpected and appeared out of nowhere, but no, the housing emergency intensified after the global financial crash of 2008-09 and in ensuing austerity years under consecutive Conservative Governments.

The generation born at the end of the second world war grew up in a world where people from a range of backgrounds had the opportunity, rightly, to live in an affordable and secure home. However, that completely changed after Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation, which created a property boom, and for the first time ever, homes became a barrier to social mobility. Over the years, the right-to-buy policy has led to the depletion of high-quality social homes. Nowadays, people are more likely to own a home if their parents own a home.

In England, there are now 1.2 million families waiting for social homes. In my own borough, 13,343 households are on the housing register. To date, over 2 million council homes across the UK have been sold off, with only 4% of them replaced. The Chartered Institute of Housing found that, as of 2021, 40% of the homes sold under right to buy were owned by private landlords who could charge as much rent as they wanted. Rather than subsidising rents through millions of pounds of housing benefit, surely it would be easier and cheaper to build council homes.

In my constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green, the average house price is £630,000, way above the national average of £285,000, according to a Library briefing from March 2023. Home ownership is an impossible dream and council homes are in short supply. Young people growing up in my constituency are forced to move away, or to live with their parents, or to spend up to 60% of their monthly income on expensive, insecure and often poor-quality privately rented housing.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Will she take the opportunity to congratulate the London Mayor on trying to tackle part of the problem by building homes? In my own borough of Southwark he has built 926 homes, including on the Manor and Rennie estates in Bermondsey, in Rotherhithe, and, in partnership with the Leathermarket Joint Management Board, off Long Lane.

My hon. Friend is right that this issue takes political will. If people cannot afford to save while privately renting, they are not able to save for a deposit, so it is a Catch-22 situation.

Since becoming a Member of Parliament in 2015, I have campaigned for the building of social and affordable homes. I am particularly concerned about the level of overcrowding and its long-term impact on children and young people.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate. It is not just an issue on the mainland; it is an issue for us back home as well. Although we have a smaller population of 1.9 million, there are still some 38,000 applicants on the social housing waiting list. There are around 127,400 social homes across Northern Ireland, only 18,000 of which are located in rural areas. Does she agree that although the figures are exceptional for the mainland, they are also exceptional for Northern Ireland, and that there is a need to build social housing not only in urban areas but in rural areas?

As ever, the hon. Member makes an extremely important point. I am aware from reading in the press that Northern Ireland also has a shortage of the correct sorts of homes. Perhaps the right number of bedrooms are available, but not in the right configuration.

In Haringey, 1,053 individuals are estimated to be living in overcrowded or severely overcrowded council homes, and 871 private sector tenants in the highest social housing priority band are overcrowded or severely overcrowded. We know that no local authority wants to place a household in unsuitable or overcrowded accommodation. However, the severe reduction in the number of homes available to let through social housing and the changes to the local housing allowance mean that councils are forced to use the dwindling private rented sector, bed and breakfasts, low-quality accommodation, and hotels.

Sadly, constituents get in touch with me all the time who are exhausted with living in overcrowded, damp and mouldy homes, waiting years or even decades for suitable social housing. Last summer, one constituent told me she lives in an emergency one-bedroom studio with her 16-year-old teenager and six-year-old severely autistic son. As well as the cramped conditions, she told me,

“the roof has collapsed, and our bulbs keep going out as there is some electrical fault here, the fridge doesn’t work, I keep feeling constantly ill because there’s no windows that work either”.

Of course, in London, we all live with the shadow of the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell fire. Another constituent told me that she lives with her elderly parents and two children aged 17 and two. She tells me she has been waiting for her own social home since 2012. She says:

“my parents are elderly, they love me and my children, but due to being overcrowded and being in each other’s space every day, it has caused a major communication breakdown and arguments. I am a single mother with 2 children trying to build a bright future for my children”.

Another constituent currently lives in two-bedroom temporary accommodation with his wife and two children. He has been bidding for a permanent three-bedroom property for eight years with no success—and the list goes on.

London’s housing catastrophe has been 14 years in the making. When London Mayor Sadiq Khan arrived at City Hall, the number of new genuinely affordable homes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) said, had fallen to the lowest levels since records began. The previous Mayor left the cupboard bare and changed the definition of affordable housing to make it even harder for working families. However, things are gradually changing. The Mayor of London is leading a renaissance in council housing development in London. Thanks to Labour, London has seen more new homes completed during Sadiq’s tenure than at any time since the 1930s.

In Haringey—a Labour authority—the council is on track to deliver 3,000 council homes by 2031 and will continue to improve the existing stock. Last year, council house building in London was higher than in the rest of the country, built almost entirely in Labour-run authority areas, where members are pragmatic and tend to agree planning applications where they fit best-practice recommendations, and get on with it over the four years of their term.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Southwark Council is the biggest landlord in London, but it also has the biggest council house building programme in the country. Does she agree that it is only with Labour working in partnership with the private and social housing sector that we will address these problems fully, and that we need a Labour Government to do that?

I completely agree. The combination of a Labour Government and Labour authorities at regional level would have a huge impact on house building. We know that it needs to be scaled up to a national level, and regional leaders need the power and backing to build more homes. Imagine the difference that a Labour Government could make.

The hon. Lady makes some really important points on an important debate that has impacted my constituency. The Conservative- led council in Darlington embarked on a 10-year programme to build more council housing and is delivering 1,000 council homes over 10 years, but that is still not enough. Social housing providers are also building homes. I want to return to one of the points she made on the cause being the right to buy. Is it her view that the right to buy should be ended?

No, it is not, but we do need to stick to a pledge—regardless of which political party is in government—to replace every single home that is sold off; otherwise, we are depriving people in future of opportunity. Social housing makes it possible for working families to save, opening up other opportunities. If they pay 60% of their income in rent, they cannot do very much, whereas if they pay a third—approximately the level of social housing rent—it gives them so much more opportunity to do all sorts of things with their lives. I was pleased to hear the examples from Darlington, an area that has deep pockets of disadvantage.

According to the National Housing Federation, as of December 2021, an estimated 8.4 million people live in unsuitable housing affected by overcrowding, unaffordability, disrepair, damp and mould. For 4.2 million of those people, social rented housing would be the most appropriate tenure to address that need. Most significant of all, overcrowding is the largest problem nationally, affecting nearly 3.7 million people. What is the impact of overcrowded conditions? I have spoken to many children and young people living in overcrowded homes who struggle to concentrate on homework and exam revision. Some are forced to work on the floor while sharing their room with young siblings; others try to study in libraries, but we know that some libraries are struggling to keep their doors open due to cuts in central Government funding. According to the National Housing Federation, almost 2 million children—one in six—live in overcrowded homes. What is more, 310,000 children in England share a bed with parents or siblings because of overcrowded homes. Children having to share a bed with their parents can have quite a negative impact on being ready to go to school and study in the morning. It is something we need to look at in detail and understand its long-term impacts.

One constituent recently wrote to me, saying:

“My family and I have been living in severely overcrowded conditions in a one-bedroom flat since 2016. Our children need their own space for learning and playing, but we cannot provide that for them. The severe overcrowding affects us and our children greatly, both socially and psychologically. The five of us are forced to share a bedroom just to separate our ‘living room’ from our ‘sleeping space’.”

We are making it very clear to children living in social homes that they do not deserve their own space: space to study, decompress and play—space to be children. According to Barnardo’s, more than a million children in the UK either sleep on the floor or share a bed with parents or siblings because their landlord has failed to replace broken frames and poor-quality homes have turned linen mouldy. I received recently a video of a mum holding up a garment—her toddler’s favourite purple jumper—that was covered in mould and had to be thrown away. The replacement cost of clothing and linen is high for people on low incomes. I have lost count of the number of parents who have contacted me to say they can no longer use the bedroom due to excessive mould on the ceiling, walls and bedding, so it becomes safer for children to sleep on a sofa with a sheet than in their own bedroom in a comfortable bed.

Last year, I visited Mind in Haringey, a mental health charity of which I am a patron. Staff told me about the different issues they were experiencing on the frontline, including speaking to more and more patients whose mental health difficulties were caused or made significantly worse by poor housing. I want to put on record my enormous gratitude to the Haringey Mind team, as well as the other fantastic organisations that support my constituents every day, including Shelter, Citizens Advice Haringey, St James’s Legal Advice Centre in Muswell Hill, Wilton Road and Wood Green, Haringey Law Centre, Haringey Connected Communities, and lastly London Councils for their continued advocacy for the people of London.

According to the Times Health Commission, poor-quality housing costs the national health service £1.4 billion a year—proof that health and housing are integrally linked. Often, when I am out in the constituency and ask a group of children, “Who here has an asthma pump, or has a friend in class who has an asthma pump?”, all the hands go up. We need to tackle poor-quality air not just outdoors, but indoors.

When Nye Bevan, as Health Minister, founded the NHS in 1948, he also had a vision for council housing. He wanted to create a housing service similar to the national health service, because he knew that good-quality, affordable homes were crucial to people’s physical and mental health. We know that those living in overcrowded homes are more likely to face problems such as damp, vermin and lack of outdoor space. According to the 2022 Marmot review for the Greater London Authority, overcrowding is associated with higher rates of tuberculosis transmission, stress and depression. Scurvy is coming back into GP clinics. All this puts more pressure on our NHS, and means that people are sicker for longer.

A house is not just a roof over one’s head, but a home that we decorate and personalise. It is a place to go after a hard day’s work to laugh, cry and make memories for life; it is somewhere we feel safe and warm. The rights to security in our home, to make our home our own and, most of all, to live in a home fit for human habitation are non-negotiable. Housing should not necessarily just be a market, but a fundamental human right.

More recently, commercial properties, such as vacant shops, restaurants, gyms and offices are being converted into houses. Those buildings, which were never designed for human habitation, are being used up and down the country as emergency accommodation while residents wait years for their social home.

The Government shamefully voted through a planning loophole, known as permitted development rights, that allows changes to be made to an existing building without planning permission. It has resulted in thousands of buildings being converted without proper checks on quality, minimum space standards, fire safety, ventilation and energy efficiency, and of course it gets around the requirement for an element of that particular planning application to be social homes. The Government will do almost anything but put shovels in the ground and build more homes. The extension of permitted development rights is not just damaging but a missed opportunity to tackle Britain’s housing crisis and produce high-quality homes. It is clear that we must prioritise council housing, council housing and council housing.

This Government can no longer be trusted to build council homes, or any homes at this rate. Fourteen years in power and they have nothing to show for it. Only a Labour Government will bring about the biggest boost in affordable homes for a generation. With social and council housing at the core of our plan, we will also ensure that developers honour their commitments in full to provide new social and affordable homes, which is something that the Government have turned a blind eye to. Last week’s spring Budget was a missed opportunity to help people on to the housing ladder. Whether they have the money to have a mortgage or not, there was nothing for them. Whether it was to tackle growing private rents and their unaffordable nature, or the long queues for social housing, the Chancellor missed a trick.

As I have outlined, social housing provides long-term stability that enables people to get on with life. Whatever a person’s situation—whether they are studying, working, have a young family or are living alone—social housing can help them to put down roots and can create community. I am proud that it was the Labour party under Clement Attlee that undertook the most ambitious housebuilding programme ever, and what is so different now from 1945? Is it that different, given all we have been through with the covid pandemic, with the war and with the energy crisis in Europe? Is that that different from the 1940s? Now is the moment and the Labour party plans on restoring social housing and ensuring that no one is left behind.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for bringing forward this debate. She has already spoken very eloquently and in detail about the issue of overcrowding in social housing and its impact on health, life expectancy and education. Although her constituency is in London and mine is in the north of England, we face identical issues and this is a national crisis. Indeed, I would say that the shortage of housing is one of the single biggest domestic issues that we face in our country.

In Bolton, the 2021 census showed that 7,000 homes were judged to be overcrowded, and of those 3,840 were households with dependent children—that is thousands of families with children forced to share beds with other family members and forced into cramped conditions without personal space. That is caused by a chronic housing shortage, which is forcing people into the private sector where the rents are unaffordable.

The Minister will tell us that homes will be built in the future. Let me remind him that when his Government came into power in 2010, they cut funding for affordable housing by 63%: the biggest cut to any capital budget. They also cut funding for new homes and social rents, thus causing rapid decline in the building of social homes. The Government have just not built enough homes, especially three and four-bedroom homes.

I have many constituents living in small houses with ill family members who need a room to themselves but they cannot have it. That of course causes a lot of disturbance and problems within the family, especially for children going to school. In fact, I was talking to a constituent yesterday who lives in a tiny two-bedroom home with three children and she is severely ill herself. She is desperate to move into a bigger home, but knows that she will have many years of waiting. That kind of thing has a lot of impact. In fact, covid impacted my constituency massively because as a result of overcrowding there was no space for the families to go and quarantine. Overcrowding affects children’s education and health. It harms family relationships and causes distress and anxiety.

The Government have had 14 years to build many, many social houses, but have chosen not to do so because they have an ideological objection to social housing. If they did not, they would have built them by now and many of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and other Members across the country would not have to face these issues.

It is a pleasure, Sir Gary, to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate. She has worked tirelessly over the years to promote the interests of people and families living in social housing. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for her invaluable contribution to this debate.

Like both hon. Members, I believe that everyone has the right to a decent, safe and warm home that meets their needs. This is a subject close to my heart: I was born and raised in Middlesbrough, where I saw from an early age the vital importance of decent homes for a good start in life, providing hard-working people with the solid foundation on which good, productive lives can be built and as the bedrock of strong local communities.

I also saw the consequences for people and families when homes were inadequate, poor quality and overcrowded, particularly for the poorest in our society, as the hon. Member for Bolton South East mentioned. That is why I am proud to support the Secretary of State and my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as we work to reduce overcrowding by delivering not just more homes, but better homes in the right places across the country, including thousands of affordable homes and homes for social rent—good new homes that are at the heart of our long-term plan for housing and are the driving force behind our work to level up, boost economic growth and strengthen a sense of pride and belonging nationwide. We are making good progress.

Since 2010 the Government have delivered nearly 700,000 affordable homes, including 172,000 for social rent. In my constituency alone during that period, over 1,800 affordable homes have been built, hundreds of which are socially rented. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green in the London borough of Haringey, more than 3,400 affordable homes have been delivered, including nearly 800 socially rented properties.

Looking to the future, our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver thousands more properties for rent and to buy over the coming years. We are investing in improving the supply of good quality housing in some of our poorest communities through our £1 billion brownfield and infrastructure investment fund, which will unlock around 65,000 new homes across the country. I saw that funding in action during my recent visit to Blackpool, where we are spending £90 million to bring housing in the town centre up to scratch, helping to improve the lives of hundreds of local people.

We recognise, however, that social housing is a finite resource. Councils are responsible for allocating their housing stock through local schemes and are best placed to manage demand. That is governed by a framework set by central Government, which ensures that reasonable preference is given to those living in overcrowded homes. We want to see local authorities making full use of all these measures to deliver more good quality social and affordable housing for the communities they serve.

We encourage housing authorities to consider innovative ways in which to make the best use of their stock, such as by supporting individuals living in larger homes to transfer to smaller properties to help reduce overcrowding. Many councils are already doing so.

Will the Minister tell us whether the number of people in overcrowded social housing is going up?

I do not have that figure to hand, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman. I should say that I am not the Social Housing Minister; I am responding on behalf of Baroness Scott in this debate. But I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets an answer to his question.

We are also working to improve the quality of social housing nationwide, taking action through the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023, which will deliver transformative change across the sector, rebalancing the relationships between landlords and tenants, and ensuring landlords are held to account for their performance. The Act is one of a wide range of measures we are taking to drive up standards across the sector, which include supporting a new regulatory regime to improve the quality and regulation of social housing; introducing new standards on competence and conduct for staff involved in the provision of housing management services; and the introduction of Awaab’s law.

I know the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green is particularly concerned about households that struggle with damp and mould. Awaab’s law, following the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale in 2020, will now require landlords to address hazards, such as damp and mould, in social homes, within a fixed period. Collectively, those measures support our ambition to halve the number of non-decent rented homes by 2030, as set out in the levelling-up White Paper.

In the light of the specific case he just referenced, does the Minister regret the Lib Dem-Tory coalition decision to slash the Homes and Communities Agency’s funding by 83%, which prevented some of those home improvements happening for at least the five years of that Government?

I would say that we are acting, through legislation, in the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023. We introduced Awaab’s law as an amendment to that Act, to ensure that such issues are tackled in a timely manner, to prevent more tragic deaths such as Awaab Ishak’s.

Turning to local housing allowance, the Government recognise the cost of living pressures that tenants face, and that paying rent is likely to be a tenant’s biggest monthly expense, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said. From April 2024, we are investing £1.2 billion, restoring local housing allowance rates to the thirtieth percentile of local market rents. That significant investment will mean 1.6 million low-income households will gain, on average, nearly £800 per year in additional help towards their rental costs in 2024-25.

Decisive action has been taken across the UK to support households through cost of living challenges, meaning that more than 8 million of the most vulnerable households will continue to be supported through winter by additional cost of living payments. Discretionary housing payments are also available to help meet shortfalls in housing costs. Cost of living payments are also available this year to households on means-tested benefits, those on disability benefits and pensioners, with the household support fund now extended by a further six months, to help cover the cost of essentials.

As this debate has shown, we all recognise that social housing is a precious resource, which is why it must be used wisely and fairly. The British public want to know that decent, hard-working people, who have contributed to this country and played by the rules, can secure a home in their local community. That is why we are taking action to ensure that those who abuse the housing system should not benefit at the expense of those who play by the rules, and that local housing authorities do not disproportionately allocate housing to those newly arrived in the country or local area, while local families are left on waiting lists.

In conclusion, we will ensure that all applicants and tenants of social housing can benefit from a system that rewards responsible behaviour and protects local households, while supporting the most vulnerable and those most in need. That system would provide good homes as the building blocks for strong communities to be proud of, and the launchpad for people and families to get on in life.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.