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Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to ensure that housing associations continue to provide integrated developments with an even mix of rented accommodation and houses for private sale.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, which according to the Evening Standard is my second question in the last year, and according to the parliamentary records is my 19th.

My Lords, before I give the Answer I have before me I have to say that, from my experience as well, if the journalist suggested a lack of diligence on the part of the noble Baroness, it actually reveals a lack of diligence on the journalist’s part.

My Lords, I have checked, and I see that the noble Baroness has taken part in 72 debates over the past year. I have to say that her questions to us are always pertinent and quite often a discomfort, but I hope that the answers I can give her today will at least be of some comfort.

The Government’s planning policy statement 3 sets out the national planning policy framework for delivering the Government’s housing objectives, including for sustainable, inclusive mixed communities in all areas. We want housing associations to work closely with local planning authorities, which are responsible for ensuring that residential developments meet the needs of their communities through their planning policies, subject to viability testing.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord both for the first part of his response and for his reply on housing. Does he agree that the evidence shows that mixed housing settlements are much better for poorer groups because they raise employment, cut crime and are more successful than the old style mono-tenure estates? At present, housing associations have an estimated 10,000 properties that they are unable to sell, and they are being forced to turn them into rented homes. In order to retain mixed housing, would the Government consider encouraging the introduction by housing associations of rent-to-buy schemes to enable people to build up a deposit through their rent payments? When economic conditions improve, they could become the owners of their own homes, thus retaining the mixed estate.

My Lords, when the noble Baroness started her question, my heart sank as I thought that it would get me into a situation where I could not provide comfort, but her latter point provides the comfort for me that I shall be able to. Yes, we agree entirely that mixed housing developments boost the prospects for poorer groups, and yes, there are some 10,000 houses. However, that is of course a churn. A house purchase takes about three months, and over that period those houses are turning over. But she is right to identify the need to put new policies in place to assist in this difficult time, and the Government are doing that. I am pleased to report that they have a rent-to-buy scheme which allows tenants to rent a newly built property at a below-market rent—80 per cent—for up to five years, which allows them to save for the deposit, with them having the first option to buy the property either during or at the end of that five-year term.

My Lords, in a Question on housing last week I asked about the Government ensuring that finance was available to housing associations. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, answered that question in terms of public grant. What are the Government doing to ensure that private finance is available to housing associations and to individuals who wish to buy or part-buy from housing associations? I understand that the banks at the moment are taking every opportunity to renegotiate loans to housing associations on difficult terms, if at all.

My Lords, the Government have a number of policies in hand to meet the difficulties of the social housing market. We have brought forward £550 million of funding to ensure that new social rented housing comes on stream sooner rather than later. It is to be hoped that that will provide 7,500 houses. We have also made £400 million available for Homebuy Direct schemes, thus supporting the construction industry, which, it is to be hoped, will provide 18,000 people with first-time-buyers’ opportunities. We are, of course, monitoring closely the banking situation, about which we have heard in other circumstances, and talking with the banks to ensure that the policies for lending to housing associations continue to allow them to do the job that they have very effectively done so far.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that special needs housing, especially disability housing and wheelchair accessible housing, is protected in these difficult times? As the Minister knows, a number of housing associations are finding it difficult with the present housing corporation model, and these are the units most at risk.

My Lords, there is nothing that I can add to that question. I will take notice of it. It is the Government’s intention that housing for the groups of people named by the noble Baroness should be in no way diminished in these difficult times. I shall happily supply her with a written, detailed answer.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the root cause of homelessness is the cost of housing and that over the past 50 years the land value of a house has gone up from 25 per cent of the value of the plot to more than 50 per cent of it, caused by excessive land rationing? Will the Government continue to ease planning restrictions so that more land is released and supply and demand can come into a more natural balance?

My Lords, the housing needs of this country will outlive the current financial crisis that the world is seeing. Therefore we have to not allow what is happening currently to divert us from our intended plans in the long term. The noble Lord is right: when we move out of the current problems of housing, we need to ensure that land is available and that planning permissions are sufficiently flexible to ensure that we do not find ourselves with a dearth of land on which to build the housing we so desperately need.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that if you are a new resident of a housing association property and are eligible for help with your housing costs from the local authority, you would be on housing benefit rather than on local housing allowance?

My Lords, my expertise in this area is more limited than that of the noble Lord. I do not know the answer, but I will find out.