My Lords, I am very pleased to have secured this debate today on affordable housing. Like many noble Lords, I regard the lack of affordable housing to be a stain on our record as a civilised society, a serious drag on our economic competitiveness, but, most important, the scourge of many families and individuals across the country. Who could not have been moved by the Shelter report, The Human Cost, published in March this year?
I am grateful to all those noble Lords who are participating today, especially the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, and my noble friend Lord Touhig, whose maiden speeches we eagerly await. I am grateful also for the support of those noble Lords who could not attend. In particular, my noble friends Lady Dean and Lady Andrews wished me to convey to the House their regret at being unable to contribute today. I should also declare my interests as a director of Grainger plc, the largest listed landlord in the United Kingdom, and chair of the Olympic Park Legacy Company.
I am delighted to see the Minister in her place. I know that she has made strenuous efforts to change her diary to be here today and I thank her for that. She brings much wisdom and great practical experience from her distinguished career in local government, and I know that many Members of your Lordships’ House were delighted to see her appointed to this role. We expect great things of her and hope that today, among other things, she might shed some light on the revolution in housing promised by her colleague Grant Shapps when he addressed the Chartered Institute of Housing last month.
It is almost four years since we had the opportunity to debate this important subject. In that time, much has changed, and the lives of many individuals and families have improved. But intractable problems remain. Housing for many people in this country is their single greatest source of stress. That is perhaps because of homelessness, overcrowding, lack of decent facilities, or the inability to escape dysfunctional or abusive relationships perhaps because of the fear of repossession. It may simply be the dispiriting realisation, even on the part of a young nurse or a young teacher on a decent salary, that home ownership is beyond one’s means.
For many people trapped in such circumstances, affordable housing is the key to independence. By “affordable”, I mean not just social rented housing but also decent private rented housing, intermediate renting, shared-equity housing and low-cost home ownership—in other words, housing that average workers and families could readily access from within their means. That is easier said than done today in the United Kingdom.
It is not as if this is news to us. In your Lordships’ House, many of us can easily recall a time, not that long ago, when we were building 350,000 homes a year, when access to an affordable home was a realistic aspiration and when public policy recognised the need for long-term planning of new communities. If you look at the long-run trend of housing completions, you see that the private sector has, by and large, remained pretty static, delivering around 100,000 to 120,000 homes a year. It is public-sector housing, particularly the housing formerly built by local authorities, which has disappeared over the years. Housing associations have ably stepped into the breach, but have never had the funding nor achieved the scale to equal the output previously achieved by local authorities. Is it not time to acknowledge that councils have the local insight and know-how to commission public housing once again? Might the Government consider giving local authorities both the freedom and the means to build or commission new homes in their own areas? Since the election, the Housing Minister has repeatedly mentioned local housing trusts. Perhaps the Minister could explain to the House a little more about this concept—how these are to be created and how they might be funded.
We certainly did not get everything right in the immediate post-war period when production of housing was at the high that I mentioned previously, but we got quite a few things right. As well as enabling individual councils to build, we had the foresight to identify where new communities were needed, where we pre-invested in infrastructure and where we addressed economic development as much as housing. Fifty or 60 years ago we had a plan, we dedicated resources to it, and we created a lot of really excellent places to live and work. We called them the new towns, and we returned a great deal back to the Treasury. One of the great success stories of the way that the new towns were funded over the long term was the very real return over a long number of years to the taxpayer.
What has happened to that vision and foresight? I do not make this point in any party-political way as we have all struggled with this issue over the past 40 years. When the previous Government suggested creating eco-towns, the opposition was immense. Even with guarantees about infrastructure, roads, education, health and sustainability, the opposition across the country was staggering. At a local level, the noble Baroness probably knows far better than me that housing developments of even a small scale tend to attract enormous opposition in the planning system. But that is cold comfort to those people who desperately need a home now. Grant Shapps has said that we need a revolution. He is dead right; we do. But what sort of revolution do the Government have in mind? Will the noble Baroness reassure the House that the advances made over the past 10 years will be safe under her stewardship?
The advances that I mean include the increased delivery of affordable housing, from around 33,000 in 2000, rising steadily to almost 56,000 in 2009. The previous Government were committed to investing in all categories of affordable housing, and to their credit, kept faith with that commitment throughout the banking and consequently the house-building crisis. It is a remarkable testament to the Homes and Communities Agency that it was nimble enough to keep production going even when the housebuilders were struggling badly to bring any product to the market. Many of us welcomed the creation of the HCA in 2007 and were pleased that it had wide-ranging powers. But I imagine none of us had the foresight to see what an important role it would play and how those wide-ranging powers would be required only 12 months later.
So it was with dismay that we learnt of the intended cuts to be made to the HCA budget. Will the Minister say what reduction in expenditure has been asked of the HCA in the current year? What is her department's estimate of the impact of this in the number of affordable homes due to be completed in the current year and in the next?
For many years now, we have also had the benefit of private-sector contributions to affordable housing in the form of Section 106. Will the Minister say whether the reports of her Government’s intention to scrap this valuable tool in delivering affordability are accurate? Provision of social housing has come to depend on three separate but interconnected things: first, on land being made available through Section 106 contributions; secondly, on grants being made available from the Government; and thirdly, on housing associations being able to raise private finance through the banking or capital markets to make up the difference.
The housing associations have been arguably the best and best value-for-money example of private finance for nearly 40 years. They have raised significant sums over that period to supplement the resources made available by the Government—£60 billion and growing. Why have the banks and other financial institutions continued to lend long at up until recently very low rates of interest? Because the Tenant Services Authority and the Housing Corporation before it were excellent economic regulators. The reassurance that the regulator would step in was, and remains, of paramount importance to the finance industry. A housing association has never defaulted on a loan in almost 40 years of that regime. That is why it was troubling to hear that the Housing Minister was planning to scrap the TSA. Will the noble Baroness confirm reports in last Thursday's Financial Times that the Treasury has now intervened to stop this plan and has made plain the absolute necessity of economic regulation in this sector?
The interplay of housing policy and financial policy has become very close in relation to affordable housing, so I will say a word or two mortgages. They are important, not just because first-time buyers rely on a competitive mortgage market, but because it is the lifeblood of private housebuilders. If there are no mortgages, there is no confidence to build new developments. We have seen that graphically over the past two and a half years. No new development means, among other things, no Section 106 contribution, so no support for affordable housing from that sector. It is vital that the Government do all that they can to keep the mortgage market from seizing up again.
In that respect, I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the Financial Services Authority is developing—almost finalising—its new capital adequacy regime. Among other things, there will be new definitions of tier 1 capital. I urge the Minister to ensure that in framing its new regime for banks with riskier profiles, the FSA rules do not unintentionally damage the building societies and particularly the mutual building societies. I absolutely agree that banks with higher-risk profiles must set aside enough capital to offset those risks. But it seems perverse that mutuals, for example, which have significantly lower-risk profiles, and are simply not by law permitted to engage in these riskier transactions, must be treated the same. The result would inevitably be a shrinkage of their balance sheets, exactly at the time when we are looking to increase mortgage lending and have every penny available for first-time buyers and other good credit-worthy people who want to take on a mortgage. Will the Minister make sure that her department is consulted and involved in the finalisation of these discussions and that decisions reached do not unintentionally damage mortgage availability?
This is an important debate. I have always believed that along with parenting and education, the type of home that you live in and grow up in fundamentally affects who you are and what you might become. My earnest hope is that in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, the Minister will strongly resist a scorched earth policy on affordable housing. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Ford on securing this debate. I hope that it is just the first of many occasions on which this House returns to the fundamental issue of housing. I also declare my interest as a patron for the newly formed Foundation for Lifetime Homes and Neighbourhoods.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of our home in the lives of most people. It is normally the foundation for our personal well-being, and for people with impaired mobility, that is all the more true. It is where we often experience our closest relationships, where we ground ourselves and where we return when tired or hurt.
A house is far more than a collection of bricks and mortar to provide shelter from the weather. It is closely bound to who we are. To me this is fundamental. Yet, as my noble friend has outlined, we face a housing crisis of an unprecedented scale and urgency in the affordable housing sector and other sectors of the housing market. We need to keep reminding ourselves of the devastating impact that poor housing can have on people’s lives. Living in good-quality, affordable housing improves people’s life chances, means that they have better health, it removes the scourge of fuel poverty and it enhances children’s opportunities to learn, among many other benefits.
Surely it is deplorable that debate about the need to build more affordable housing did not feature higher in the general election debate and that the Housing Minister does not have a guaranteed place at the Cabinet Table. I am convinced that unless we put serious political weight behind tackling the housing crisis, which I would rank alongside the need to debate the future of social care with which it must be closely linked, the impact on our society and our development as a nation will be profound and hold us back for a generation. This is my first point: the need to accept that there is an acute shortage of housing compared with current real needs and future projections of demographic change. I will return to that later.
Secondly, there is a need to break the dependency of the supply of affordable housing on private-sector housing provision through Section 106 or other planning gain agreement. The need to ensure a steady supply of affordable housing must be met regardless of housing market fluctuations. Given the severe public financial pressures with which we are only too familiar, that must mean developing ways of attracting investment from long-term investors such as pension funds.
As the Town and Country Planning Association has noted in its recent report, we need to break down the assumption that housing development is automatically an environmental cost. As I understand it, we now have the technical capability to develop places which deliver environmental benefits through the application of zero-carbon standards and offer biodiversity and climate change adaptation benefits through more green space, trees, planting and water features. I am sorry that the debate about new housing provision outside urban areas is so often derailed by loud claims of concreting over the countryside from well housed nimbys. It is a simplistic and beguiling argument, which we need to rise above if we as a society are to ensure that everyone, not just the well off with capital to invest, has a decent home to live in within an attractive and accessible neighbourhood. However, ensuring that housing is developed to a high standard means that it needs to be well planned. Scrapping this year’s housing and planning delivery grant will have an extremely negative impact on planning delivery, a local authority service already under severe strain, which will take many years to restore. Do the Government have any plans to explore ways in which they can minimise the harm to planning which the loss of this grant will have?
I shall further enlarge on the issue which for me is the most compelling—the demographic need for increasing housing provision, particularly in the affordable housing sector. Latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of households in England will grow to 27.8 million by 2031, which is a quarter of a million new households every year. The increase is spread across the country, north and south, with net inward migration and people living longer as the main drivers. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland face similar pressures.
People living longer are not just people living into old age; more people are surviving a traumatic birth, chronic illness or accident which previously would have killed them to live into adulthood. This is to be celebrated as an outstanding achievement of modern society. Yet, in surviving, people are too often faced with ongoing living requirements that are not met by the average house today. Too often, this is a result of poor design and space standards. The link between poor space standards leading to overcrowding with poor health and education outcomes has been well documented by Shelter and others. As a matter of urgency, we need to adopt nationwide the same approach as in London, where all housing needs to be built to Lifetime Home standards with 10 per cent adaptable to the higher wheelchair standard. I welcome the revised and updated set of Lifetime Home standards, which were published this week following a wide consultation with industry, professional bodies, disability organisations and individual people. Housebuilders should no longer be able to dismiss them as unaffordable, as these revised Lifetime Homes criteria are designed to meet their concerns.
In connection to this, I now press the Minister on a few points. Mayor Boris Johnson has recently reiterated his support for Lifetime Home standards, as he wants houses in London suitable for all, including people with mobility impairment. Will the national Government please adopt the same approach? Have the Government conducted a full cost-benefit analysis for adopting Lifetime Home standards? By this I mean looking at the range of social, health, welfare and economic savings, not simply the direct housing build costs. If they have not done so, will they do so? In developing their social care policy, will the Government include the benefits of the universal adoption of the Lifetime Home standards as an efficient way to support care delivery in the home?
The coalition Government are searching for every conceivable cut to unnecessary spending, but what of the cost of keeping people in hospital who no longer need medical care but are forced to remain in hospital because of the shortage in accessible housing? This has been highlighted by individual stories of disabled service personnel struggling to obtain appropriate housing. This shortage creates wholly unnecessary financial pressures on the social care and NHS budgets and adds delays of weeks and months to the discharge of patients from spinal injury and other medical care settings just because there is nowhere suitable to go. Research also tells us that because minimum space standards apply only to affordable housing, people seeking extra space due to their disability and who cannot afford to pay a premium in the private market for a larger house are forced to live in social housing, adding to the already huge pressure on that sector. Ten years ago the old Housing Corporation found that 42 per cent of social housing households contained a person with a disability or long-term illness. I am not aware of more recent research, but I would expect that that figure will have increased.
Applying minimum space standards to affordable housing alone denies disabled people the choice of where they can live and can lead to social marginalisation. It also denies disabled people the ability to move to take advantage of education, employment or other opportunity. Being restricted to one sector means that the low levels of affordable housebuilding in recent years has hit disabled people particularly hard and forced many, particularly younger disabled people, to stay at home with their parents, denying them any hope of independent living.
To conclude, I believe that there needs to be a cross-party consensus not just at a national level but importantly at county and district levels that there is a housing crisis and that all areas, rich and poor alike, need to contribute to a solution to it. Let us please learn from past mistakes and not force future generations to pay for not providing affordable homes large enough for us to live in.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for initiating this debate. The issue of affordable housing, especially for the young, is of course a nationwide problem, but I see it particularly acutely in the county of Gloucestershire, where I live and work, and more especially in the Cotswolds. If I may, I shall share something of what I see.
The average Gloucestershire house price, at £197,000, is approximately eight times the estimated annual median gross household income of £23,000 and approximately six times the estimated average income for households containing at least one employed person. The affordability gap between local incomes and house prices is such that many households with housing need are unable to purchase a property on the open market without assistance, which has an impact on the demand for affordable, social, rented housing. That is reflected in the housing needs assessment, which estimates that the shortfall in affordable housing supply is 3,699 dwellings per annum across the county of Gloucestershire.
I give one example of how the need is being met in my own county, because it is a good story. Sixteen new affordable homes in the little town of Stonehouse were completed earlier this year, replacing eight old-fashioned hard-to-heat concrete council homes. Much of the building work for these innovative green homes took place offsite, allowing them to be built 60 per cent faster than traditional building techniques allow and incorporating solar hot water heating and rainwater recycling to ensure that they remain affordable for tenants to run. The Stonehouse development has now been shortlisted for the sustainable housing awards.
The lack of affordable housing is a difficulty and a good deal more than a difficulty, as we have heard, for individuals and families, especially for those looking for their own housing for the first time. There are personal and social consequences for those who cannot find a house that they can afford to buy, rent or even to maintain, but my concern is as great for the effect on whole communities, especially village communities, of the level of house prices that is making such communities places where only the affluent may live. On the whole, that excludes young families and forces those young families away from the village, not only to the village’s detriment but to the detriment of the families themselves, removed from the support of the wider family and the community where they have had their own sense of value and worth.
In the setting of the Cotswolds, to the need for affluence is added the problem that many of the affluent arrive in the village only at the weekend from their London homes—there might even be one or two in that category among the membership of your Lordships’ House. We end up dealing with ghost villages and the collapse of natural community to a worrying degree. This imbalance towards the older age range makes these villages potentially unsustainable in the medium and long term.
Rural housing enablers who work through community councils or local authorities have a significant track record of facilitating the provision of affordable housing in rural communities, using community-led planning. However, the funding of rural housing enablers is not always secure in either the short or longer term. There must be a much more creative approach in partnership working to deliver affordable housing.
One such approach is represented by a resource called Faith in Affordable Housing. It explores mechanisms for the release of church land and property for affordable housing, both urban and rural. Published in February this year, it is a fully downloadable resource that provides practical information and technical detail for housing professionals, planners and property specialists. It covers the rules and requirements of almost all the main Christian denominations in England and Wales, and contains case studies on how to maximise the provision of housing and facilities through the creative use of property.
Faith in Affordable Housing has been developed by a partnership including Housing Justice, the University of Gloucestershire—of which I am pro-chancellor—and the Church of England. As part of this project, we were able to obtain confirmation from the Charity Commission that land and property could be released at below full market value because the provision of affordable housing would count as part of “charitable objectives” for a Christian church. It is important for the Government to acknowledge that churches have an important role in the partnerships needed to deliver affordable housing, particularly in rural areas, and to help to facilitate these partnerships by ensuring that funding is sustained, even in these hard-pressed times, for rural housing enablers.
Social cohesion becomes all the more important in times of economic hardship. Affordable housing is crucial for that cohesion and the flourishing of community. I urge the Government not to allow financial stringency to make a critical situation worse.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for securing this debate. I should perhaps declare an interest as the deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance. Affordable housing, and rural affordable housing in particular, is of great interest to me both professionally as a key component of the Countryside Alliance’s rural manifesto and personally as the local farmer who facilitated a rural housing scheme in the village of Kimble.
Your Lordships’ House is a unique place. It has been a bastion of common sense and has done much to promote and protect our liberties. I am very conscious of the great privilege, honour and responsibility of being in this House, and it is not a little daunting.
While pulling ragwort last weekend—for it is that time of year—I reflected on the exceptional kindness and great courtesy that so clearly emanate from all who work in your Lordships’ House. As one of the young entry, I cannot thank everyone enough for their advice, encouragement and welcome. Little did I realise that there were also unforeseen circumstances and consequences. Young friends have already given my wife the nickname “Lady Gaga”. Your Lordships may understand my amusement even more when I say that I saw a photograph of said lady singer with a telephone firmly placed on her head by way of a hat.
The availability of rural housing is vital for all communities. A lack of affordable housing, both to buy and to rent, threatens the future of many rural communities. The resulting loss of young people who have to move to find housing in the towns clearly has a negative impact on rural school rolls, services and shops. This can well lead to the erosion of families and local communities and an increasingly elderly and isolated population. Of course, it also places further demand on housing in urban areas.
It has been estimated that 11,000 new affordable homes per year are needed over the next five years in settlements of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. Given that across England there are 16,000 small towns, villages and hamlets, this does not seem an intrusive number as we balance the need for more housing with our desire to protect the environment and to enable the countryside to provide food for the nation.
The Taylor review of the rural economy and affordable housing is entitled Living Working Countryside. That is surely what we all seek. Our most precious natural asset must not become a museum or a theme park. We need a living countryside to produce food and fuel as well as providing water capture, carbon sinks and recreation. These are all reasons why the countryside is so important to us all. Yet many people who work in the countryside increasingly cannot afford to live there. This must have a detrimental impact on enterprise, and we must find solutions to enable communities to grow and flourish.
My own involvement in a local project was positive. The parish council undertook a village survey, housing need was identified and a well attended village meeting was held where everyone could air their views. The community at large bought into the subsequent proposals from the housing association. A small-scale development of eight dwellings—four houses for families and four bungalows for the more elderly—was agreed and constructed on part of a field next to the village. This development was agreed because it enabled young families with a local connection to stay in the village, and was in sympathy with, and sensitive to, the local character of the village.
The role of the parish council was highly beneficial and pioneered the way. Officials at Hastoe Housing Association, which now has responsibility for the Kimble houses, inform me that the general need for rural affordable housing is “enormous”. There are continuing challenges. The dilemma, of course, is that rural developments by their very nature are often small and therefore more expensive as they lack critical mass. A rural housing alliance has now been formed of more than 40 housing associations. It is to be hoped that it can find a way forward to create economies of scale. These small developments across the villages of all parts of the kingdom make the difference between the survival or loss of the local school, post office, shop, church or pub—all attributes of a vibrant community.
Co-operation at the local level is the key to ensuring success. Dialogue between parish councils, planning authorities and local communities is essential to the success of any development. We need to be flexible about the designation of exception sites and a mix of private development, community land trusts and rural housing association developments, all of which can contribute to solving the problem. The Housing Minister in the other place has already referred to the decentralisation and localism Bill coming before Parliament in the autumn. The role and contribution that communities must play in resolving local housing issues should not be underestimated. The provision of affordable housing gains much stronger support if it meets local need and is attractive, well designed and affordable for local people in perpetuity. The more proactive and flexible local planning authorities engage with local communities, the more likely we are to achieve the objectives that we all share.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for her much appreciated and particularly kind message before the debate, and your Lordships for your patience as I speak to your House for the first time.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, on his first speech. One of the great things about maiden speeches is that we old lags or people who have perhaps been here too long—not me, of course—can learn some of the important principles. We should talk about something of which we have authoritative knowledge; we should show that we practise what we preach; we should be concise and clear; and we should not tempt the Front Bench to stand up and remind us of the time. It was a very clear and excellent speech. It also shows why it is important that the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, is here. His experience from being deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance will mean that rural affairs are strongly advocated here, which is extremely important.
I come from Cornwall myself and, too often, such areas are forgotten. The Teverson family comes from Suffolk, so we know that area as well. I know the noble Lord also has great political experience, maybe not from the green or red Benches, but from having been adviser to, or worked closely with, several Members of this House, including the noble Lords, Lord Fowler, Lord Baker and Lord Patten of Barnes. He has great experience and we very much look forward to his future speeches and contributions.
I was also pleased that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester mentioned Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. I once lived there. Stonehouse was the first ward in which I ever stood for public election. I was well and duly truly defeated. It put me off so much that it was another 25 years before I was elected to a local authority, although I served in the European Parliament on the way. Gloucestershire is a great county and, like so much of the south-west, faces a big issue in rural housing. That is why this debate that the noble Baroness has brought forward today is so important.
If the House will indulge me, I will deal with a very small area of this subject. I declare an interest as a member of a housing authority, namely Cornwall unitary authority. I will not talk about Cornwall in particular, although it has problems as great as those of any other rural area. The area that I want to talk about is one that I have not had a problem with. I am very lucky. I have a beautiful house in a rural area of Cornwall. More importantly, perhaps, I have a mortgage on it. This is the burden of the middle classes but it is something that it is very difficult for many people to get hold of these days. That is true of young people and the general population who are trying to buy ordinary houses, but purchasing affordable houses is almost impossible at present.
There are two factors. One is the credit crunch, which makes the availability of finance difficult. One of the outcomes of that in a market system—a good system, generally—is that mortgages are given to the people and properties that it is easiest to give them to. Those properties definitely do not have Section 106 agreements or other restrictions. Mortgages are given to families who can prove that they have good incomes and can put down a large deposit on the relevant property. However, the same does not apply to affordable housing. Very few building societies or banks are keen to lend money to people to buy affordable houses. Certainly in Cornwall there is often a protracted negotiation about the detail of the Section 106 agreement attached to an affordable home. That means more time is required and someone has to pay for changing the Section 106 agreement. It acts as a great barrier. But even if people have the necessary deposit, if a house has a covenant which restricts its resale if the worst should happen and the mortgage is defaulted on, they will pay a higher interest rate and a larger deposit. The people who are asked to pay that are the less well off and those least able to pay.
I first encountered the chains of a mortgage back in 1975, when we bought our first house for about £11,300, if I remember correctly. However, at that time a range of sources of finance were available. One of them was local authority mortgages. I looked up this species of loan on Google—I am sure that other noble Lords never do their research on Google, but I am afraid that I do—to see what had happened to it. Following its demise in the 1980s, I was pleased to see that it had had a slight revival. I pay tribute to the previous Government for starting to ease some of the interest rates that could be charged on these instruments, thus making them a little more affordable and commercial within the market if local authorities could afford to offer them.
I am certainly not advocating that we should go back to the old local authority mortgages which could be used for any type of housing. However, I would be very interested to hear about the coalition Government’s policy in this area, if there is one. There is no reason why there should be one yet, but surely there is a strong case for local authorities again to provide finance for affordable housing—not ordinary housing—whether that is through loan guarantees or the provision of the money itself off-balance sheet. They could provide administration and guarantees or allow standard financial institutions to do that. That would be a tremendous step forward. At the end of the day, the finance is at the end of the supply chain. Even ordinary private developers building affordable housing as part of a broader scheme will not build it if they cannot move the bricks and the mortar of the affordable housing area. They will be put off the whole scheme if that is the outcome. Noble Lords have raised other important issues but I think that there is a role for local authorities in enabling finance to happen so that families—particularly those in rural areas—who need housing and cannot afford it, as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, mentioned, can move forward, cross that barrier and obtain a house for their families, as most of us have done throughout our lives.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for securing this important debate. As she said, this is an issue to which we shall no doubt be required to return on more than one occasion during this Parliament. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, on his maiden speech. I am sure that we shall hear much more from him as he becomes accustomed to our ways and means.
The thing that has galvanised my attention in the debate was the opening bars of the contribution of my noble friend Lady Wilkins, in which she referred to the public and political will that is needed to do something about housing. We can have all the policies and remedies in the world for solving the problem but if we do not have the will to implement them we will not solve it. Despite all the problems surrounding housing—there are many, of which we shall hear more—the most important thing is for the Government to stand back and encourage all of us, irrespective of the nature of our involvement in housing, to think with a fresh mind about how we might provide different solutions to the problem of affordable housing. Any incoming Government have a golden moment to have a fresh look at how to resolve this problem. The goal of affordable homes for people has proved elusive to successive Governments over 100 years and probably more. It has never been achieved. We all travel around the same paradigms, with the same people making the same arguments, offering similar or related solutions to the problem, yet the need for more decent, affordable homes continues to grow as we try to find solutions.
The main four things that people want are jobs, health, education and homes. Governments, particularly in general elections, put forward manifesto plans for jobs, education and health, but homes always fall off the agenda and become the political Cinderella. This is partly because we act together on the other things: we come together to work, we provide education collectively in our schools and colleges, and in our National Health Service we act together to provide health; but when it comes to homes we tend to build our own nests and pass by on the other side. That mindset has to change. We have to think about homes like we think about education. It involves all of us. I may have a nice flat in a nice place, but I cannot continue to walk by on the other side from those who are less fortunate.
William Morris, who was a great favourite of mine—not the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, who is also a great favourite of mine, but the older and if I may say so more famous William Morris, who would never have been a noble Lord—wrote a pamphlet called How We Live and How We Might Live. That made me think that I would like a debate in this country about how we build homes and how we might build homes. I would like the Government to initiate the debate. I do not want the Government to do it, but I would like them to stand up and say, “Let's have a big think about this and engage people in a way that we only have a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to do”.
My Government made a brave attempt to tackle this problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Ford, made a small defence of that policy in the time allowed her. However, even people who were involved would probably agree that it was not enough. Part of the problem was that we kept changing our Housing Ministers, with different persons coming along all the time. We did not get continuity, and because of that we did not get continuity of policy. One thing that the Government might think about, as they are in favour of fixed-term things, is a fixed-term Housing Minister—the noble Baroness would be fine—who would follow ideas through, get the initiatives going and see them through to conclusion, rather than being overtaken by a new Minister with a new set of ideas. That would be really helpful and a great service.
I will move on from my passion for the opportunity to think afresh. No matter what people think or who is involved in the thinking, we will always come back to the issue of land availability: it is impossible not to. The Home Builders Federation says that the main constraint on the building of homes is the undersupply of building land. I know others will contest that, but 0.3 per cent of the population own 60 per cent of the land, so we know where to make a start. We should have a chat with the 0.3 per cent of the population, many of whom are probably in your Lordships' House. We can start the dialogue here. However, it is more complicated than that. We need to keep our green belt and increase our open spaces. Thinking about how we might be housed in this small island will require consideration of the kind of urban development, including high-rise living, that my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside has often argued for in this House. That should be emphasised and recognised.
There is also the issue of public land. The Government should have a good look at this. At a time of shortage of public funds, we should look a lot more carefully at the management of the assets that we have. If we carry out mergers or downsize departments, let us use the land from those estates to meet not commercial needs but housing needs, and particularly public housing needs. There is land in public ownership from all the departments of state, including the Ministry of Defence, as well as transport bodies and even local authorities. I am sure that people know more about that than I do, but we could certainly require those public bodies to bring forward public land for the development of affordable homes. If the land were used for that purpose, it could be a kind of shared-equity product to help first-time buyers, which would take account of other points that have been made in the debate. The public purse could then benefit from the value of the sites once the first-time buyers had sold up and moved on.
One initiative that fits well with the question of how we might be housed is the eco-town approach. I do not know what the Government are going to do about eco-towns, but I know that some Conservative-controlled councils like the idea of continuing with them. I hope that that initiative will not be sidelined but will continue to be properly considered.
In the minute left to me, I should like to talk about people creating their own housing. In this country we have never talked much about self-build homes. It is a very popular concept in other European countries, particularly in Scandinavia, and I think that the Government would get some credit for helping us to think about that idea. It would sit nicely in a society where localism is thought to be important, and it would fit naturally with people’s engagement with the television housing programme “Grand Designs”. Why do we not have grand designs not just for the few people who take part in the television programme but for all people? Why do we not initiate a big movement to help people to build their own homes?
Those are just a few thoughts that I have had. This is a massively important issue, which ranks alongside jobs, health and education. Although we can be partisan and divisive at times, if there is one single issue on which I wish we could find a consensus and pull together, it is the provision of homes, because they are fundamental to our lives. Sitting on these Benches, I would be expected to argue with the Government and take them on, but I wish them success with housing for the people who really need it.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for initiating this debate. Practically no one in the country is better equipped to lead the charge on this subject than her. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, on his excellent maiden speech. It is absolutely delightful to find another champion for rural housing in our midst, and I am delighted to have him with us.
I declare the interests that are set out in the register of interests. There are quite a lot relating to the field of housing, but what is not included is the fact that I currently chair a joint Department for Communities and Local Government and Local Government Association housing commission, looking at the role of local authorities in producing the new homes that are needed in every area of the country. We will be reporting to the Minister for Housing, Grant Shapps, and to the chair of the Local Government Association, the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, in September. I cannot yet reveal the conclusions of that study. Suffice it to say that we will be underlining the fact that localism is vital when it comes to housing—doing things differently in every part of the country is essential. Local authorities already play a very entrepreneurial role in bringing together the private and public sectors and housing associations in ways that will be badly needed at this time of shortages in public money.
I shall confine my remarks this afternoon to the issues surrounding housing benefit and local housing allowances. This is an area of housing that few people understand and it may not get the attention that it deserves. However, we need to notice that in the Budget on 22 June there was a series of cutbacks to the arrangements for the personal subsidies that allow people to occupy housing on an affordable basis—both council housing and housing association homes, for which they receive housing benefit, and in the private rented sector, for which they get the local housing allowance.
It is worrying that the bill for housing benefits has increased. It is now somewhere around £20 billion a year, and it is not surprising that the Government want that figure reduced. The increases are because rents and unemployment have increased and the private rented sector has grown. Certainly the housing benefit system demands overhaul. It is much too complicated and savings are possible, but one has to consider whether the measures that were set out in the Budget will help or hinder the reform to the benefits system. Will they have an impact on the availability of rented homes for poorer households? Will they have an impact on the incomes of poorer households? Will they lead to more or less homelessness and overcrowding? My answers to these questions are all in the negative, I fear, and I am anxious about the way in which these cuts will impact on the whole housing sector.
We need the private rented sector to provide homes not just for better-off households, but for poorer households as well. The PRS accommodates some 50 per cent of the people whose homelessness is prevented by good advice from councils. It houses more than 1 million people who receive local housing allowances and it is an essential ingredient now that the amount of social housing we can build is severely restricted and so few people can buy their own homes because of the mortgage situation and the price of property.
We definitely need a strong private rented sector but I see dangers, which I will describe, that the new benefit and local housing allowance arrangements will deter landlords from letting to poorer households. They will confine their properties to those who do not require, or are unlikely in the future to require, any help with housing costs. I also fear that the outcome may be an increase in the number of people who have to move out of their existing accommodation because they get into rent arrears and difficulties with their rent, which leads to increased homelessness. That is very expensive for other services. Those who remain and struggle on with lower housing benefit and local housing allowances will find that the income they are left with to live on will leave them extremely poor, having taken out from their income support or other benefits an ingredient to cover the shortfall in their rents.
What are these cuts? The first is a cap on the highest rents, which will mean that in parts of inner London several thousand households will find themselves with local housing allowance that is substantially less than the rents that they are currently paying. They will have to move away from those areas because it is highly unlikely that landlords will reduce rents sufficiently to allow them to stay where they are. Eighty-five per cent of privately rented properties in Westminster will be above the cap and will be no-go properties for those on the local housing allowance. What kind of help will people get in relocating to other neighbourhoods? What help will they get with fares to discover what properties are available within their price range? Have we really thought through how this exodus from inner London will be carried out? It will be a large movement of population from the no-go areas where rents are above the level of benefits.
The second kind of cap will affect the whole country. Currently the maximum rent covered by the local housing allowance is that charged for a property in the middle of the price range—the fiftieth percentile. In future the limit will be the rent of the property at the thirtieth percentile in the bottom 30 per cent of the price range. Maybe it is good to keep rents down, but again there are many thousands out of the 1 million households that receive local housing allowance whose current rent is higher than the new cap. If landlords do not reduce rents as soon as these measures take effect, those tenants will be in serious trouble.
The effects will come in on the anniversary of the local housing allowance, which was set the year before. That will happen the day after the new measures take effect. People will suddenly find that their rents are a good deal higher than the local housing allowance that they receive. Will they sit tight and wait to be evicted—which is a very expensive process, costly for the landlord and local authorities—or will they try to find somewhere where they can overcrowd with another family; or will they move elsewhere?
The third cut is very significant, but more of a slow burn. Again, it has the worthy aim of keeping rents down. It results from the local housing allowance increases being limited to the rise in the consumer price index, rather than, as now, to the rise in actual rents in the market place. As for about 150 years, rents have gone up roughly in line with earnings, and the consumer price index lags behind earnings, gradually, local housing allowances will fall behind rents. Those shortfalls will once again hit the pockets of the poorest.
Other cuts increase the deduction from the local housing allowance if there are any non-dependants, usually grown-up children living at home. Rather than encouraging young people not to move out and put more strains on the housing market, that deduction, which will rise from about £45 per week to about £69 per week, which is knocked off your local housing allowance, may push people out or encourage parents to ask their offspring to leave home. Further cuts face those who receive housing benefit or local housing allowance and are in receipt of jobseeker's allowance.
Believe it or not, there are two more cuts to the local housing allowance, which I do not have time to rehearse today. I ask the Minister to prevail on her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to make the case on the side of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and even the Department of Health, that considerable expense can be expected if the cuts go ahead. We need a longer transition period and more help for people in the interim as we try to bring down rents in this way.
My Lords, little did I think when I rose to speak for the first time in the other place—it was the annual St David's Day debate—that I would have to go through a second parliamentary initiation and make another maiden speech, this time in your Lordships' House. I have much appreciated the warmth of the welcome and the help and advice that I have received from noble Lords on all sides of the House—not least from my supporters, my noble friends Lady Ramsay and Lord Jones. More than that, the advice, courtesy, assistance and above all patience shown to me by all the staff I have encountered since I took my seat here a week ago have been exemplary.
I have come here from the other place having spent 15 years representing the people of Islwyn, and I owe the people of my former constituency a great debt for placing their confidence in me to represent them in Parliament over that period. Like many noble Lords, I owe a great debt to my family for their support and encouragement over 35 years of public life—not least to my long-suffering wife. It is often said that behind every successful man is a good woman. I lay no claim to any success of any kind, but if the term were to be applied to me I am sure that it would be, “Behind this successful man was a very surprised mother-in-law”.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Ford for securing this debate; we are considering an important matter. The Conservative-Lib Dem Government will face many challenges in the coming months, especially over the level of public spending. Many people will, rightly, make special cases to protect their various budget heads from cuts. I hope that when the Government work out the fine detail, they will not lose sight of the fact that a very basic need of every citizen is a home—a roof over their head, and an affordable one at that.
When I was asked about the territorial title I wished to take, I of course chose Islwyn, my former parliamentary constituency, but I also chose Glansychan, which is a dozen houses in the village of Abersychan. Abersychan has produced five Members of Parliament and is where I was born. If your Lordships will indulge me in giving this potted history of the place of my birth, I will show that it has relevance to this debate. My parents rented No. 7 Glansychan in the 1930s for seven shillings and sixpence a week. That was an affordable rent even for a couple living on a collier’s wage in the south Wales mining valleys. But while my parents’ affordable home was quite common in the 1930s, affordable homes are far less common today.
A recent survey by Shelter Cymru showed that 50 per cent of adults in Wales struggle to pay their mortgage or rent at some time. In Wales, 91,000 people are looking for a home, yet we have 26,000 empty properties. Why? Almost one in four of the 1,100 people surveyed said that the cost of housing was a severe source of family anxiety. More than half those surveyed said that their adult children could not afford a decent home of their own. I note that the Halifax building society has said that the average age of a first-time buyer today is 34. When my wife and I bought our first house, we were both 20. I am not suggesting that this is the only factor causing people to make their decisions in that way. There are many reasons why people are not setting up their homes until they are perhaps in their mid-30s, but affordability is a major factor.
The Shelter Cymru survey shows that about one in four have had to reduce what they spend on food in order to keep a roof over the heads of themselves and their family. Shelter England commissioned a YouGov survey, which revealed that 2.8 million people aged between 18 and 44 admitted that they are delaying starting a family because of the lack of affordable housing. Some 2.9 million people aged between 18 and 34 live with their parents. Of this cohort, almost 60 per cent say that that situation makes it difficult to develop and maintain other relationships.
In these difficult times when people are looking for work and have perhaps been urged to move elsewhere to look for work, the Shelter survey tells us that 5.6 million people say that housing costs affect their ability to move to find alternative work. Of those renting a property, 50 per cent did not believe that they would ever be able to afford to buy a property in their local area. If we look closely at the private rented sector, we see some of the worst housing conditions of all, and that needs to change.
I am always wary of calling for more regulation, but I believe that a case has been made for greater regulation of the private rented sector. We also perhaps need regulation of the private lettings sector. At the weekend, I came across a case of a young student who had paid £240 to a lettings agency that had not introduced him to any landlords or told him about any rented property. He now does not know what he will get for his £240.
The incident causes me some reflection. Some years ago I was involved in a campaign that supported miners in getting compensation for illnesses that they had as a result of working underground, and I pay tribute to the former Labour Government for all that they did in that respect. However, the scheme was blighted by claims farmers who persuaded often elderly and vulnerable miners or their widows to sign up, hand over a non-refundable registration fee and agree to pay the claims farmers a part of any compensation that they received to offset medical and legal costs. The Government met all legal and medical costs in those cases. The claims farmers were operating a scam. Frankly, they were parasites feeding on the most vulnerable in our society. I am not suggesting that a similar situation exists in the letting agency sector, but will the Minister indicate in her response the Government’s view on regulation? If she cannot do that, perhaps she will write to me and put a copy in the Library.
I have said enough about the problem, so I turn to the solution. We have to build more homes, of course, especially more homes for rent. The Town and Country Planning Association says that we need perhaps 280,000 new homes a year, but such a building programme will need to be funded, and in these difficult financial times we need to think outside the box and look for new and innovative solutions. I therefore commend to the Government the new foundation model proposed by the Co-operative Party—and here I declare an interest as a member of that party. The new foundation model provides an ethical, low-risk investment for investors; it gives access to and control of housing to the citizen; and for our society it offers easy to build, environmentally friendly housing that remains affordable. This model separates the cost of land from the purchase price by placing the land in a community land trust. Unlike individual home owners, residents accumulate equity shares in a mutual home ownership scheme. If they move on, they can sell their shares, and that money may then help them to put down the deposit on a house in the open market. I commend the idea to the Minister. I am sure that she is not the sort of Minister who will dismiss it simply because the Government did not think of it first.
The great socialist James Maxton once said that poverty is manmade and therefore open to change. The lack of affordable housing is a manmade problem and is open to change if we have the will to do something about it.
My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I am an old lag, and it is my privilege to welcome my noble friend Lord Touhig and to congratulate him on his maiden speech. He certainly knows a lot about housing, and probably he learnt it as a conscientious constituency MP. After a career in journalism, he was in local government. In 1995, he replaced Neil Kinnock as the MP for Islwyn. Two years later, he joined the Government. Contrary to what he said, from then on he actually had a very distinguished record of appointments, including at the Ministry of Defence where he gained the admiration of Members on all sides of the House. He was also deeply involved in Welsh devolution. In his book, Paul Flynn describes him as the,
“seamstress-in-chief of stitch-ups”.
That is the kind of politician I rather like, so I am sure that we all look forward to hearing from him in the future.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who obviously knows an awful lot about rural housing. Someone else who knows a lot about housing is my noble friend Lady Ford, and I congratulate her on her authoritative review of the housing market and her pertinent points. My noble friend Lady Wilkins spoke movingly of why we need affordable housing. Let me say why I think we need it. Let me start at the Secretary of State’s—and my—favourite source of social research: the longitudinal cohort studies carried out by the Institute of Education since 1946. The ability to track the situation of individual people from birth and through the different stages of their lives is a much more powerful resource for social research than is possible with snapshot surveys. Sure enough, in 2007 a group of researchers published a paper using these longitudinal data, analysing the relationship between housing and life chances. It is called The Public Value of Social Housing. I think I can remember seeing the Secretary of State at its launch.
The researchers used four cohort studies, starting from 1946. They concluded that living in the social housing sector has become increasingly associated with poorer life chances—not that social housing was the cause of this; it is because of poorer households being increasingly concentrated in social housing, and social housing becoming more concentrated in deprived areas. They point out that if you want to eliminate poverty and enhance life chances, housing policy should not be distinct from other elements of government policy. My noble friend Lord Sawyer made this point. Indeed, he mentioned some of them; education, health, social services, tax and benefits are all elements of deprivation experienced by social housing tenants.
The longitudinal study so clearly demonstrates that affordable housing is a part of the investment and support needed to break the intergenerational relationship between social exclusion, child poverty and inequality of health and education. It is like Sure Start; the earlier you break the intergenerational link, the more you improve people’s life chances.
As other noble Lords have said, convinced of this need, successive Governments have strongly encouraged housing associations to develop affordable housing. A key element in this development has been mixed public and private finance. My noble friend Lady Ford spoke of this. This mixed funding rests on three vital pillars. The first is the existence of housing benefit, to which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred and which underpins the cash flow of housing associations. Housing benefit makes up 65 per cent of housing association rental income. Cutting housing benefit will affect the very people identified in the longitudinal study who need assisted housing to improve their life chances. This particularly affects London, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, explained. The second is the assumption that house prices will continue to rise. The third is the existence of a properly resourced regulator.
By ensuring that the risks of poor governance and financial failure are minimised, private finance has been introduced at levels that would otherwise have been impossible and at rates well below those available to many commercial developers. Indeed, recent figures indicate that private finance has overhauled public money as the primary source of accumulated finance. However, two recent events have occurred to upset this mixed financing arrangement. First, the banking crisis has led to large falls in lending. The second event is political. Before 2007, the regulation and management of the funds was in the hands of the Housing Corporation. In 2007 it was decided, quite rightly, that the private sector would have more confidence in the regulation if the two were split. An effective regulatory regime has been a key element in enabling the housing associations to lever-in private finance at rates well below those prevailing for the private sector.
The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 established the new regulatory authority, the Tenant Services Authority. While in opposition, the Conservatives announced that in their view the TSA should be abolished. Indeed, shortly after he was appointed, the Housing Minister told the press that the TSA was “toast”. Obviously the coalition has not yet got the hang of joined-up government because, two days earlier, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that such a decision would be “precipitate”. Without arm’s length independent and thorough regulation it will be the funding from the private sector that will be toast, especially in these difficult times.
Obviously the coalition Government are not a listening Government. If they were, the Housing Minister would have heard the policy director of the Chartered Institute of Housing say that lenders, landlords and tenants all believe that the TSA is doing a good job. Perhaps in contrast to my noble friend Lord Sawyer and the noble Lord, Lord Best, I think that continuity is important for the private sector. The need for regulation does not necessarily change from one Government to another. Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify the future of the TSA? I ask him please not to say, “You’ll have to wait for the autumn spending review”, because business does not stop and wait for Ministers. The funding will either go elsewhere or the uncertainty will serve to increase lending rates and reduce the willingness to support present rates of leverage.
The coalition agreement says that the Government,
“will maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020”.
The longitudinal studies show that child poverty and poor life chances are passed on from generation to generation. An essential part in breaking that link is affordable housing. Ministers say that they recognise that, but these are fine words; it is actions that matter. What exactly will the Government do to ensure that there is sufficient affordable housing to achieve their objective of eradicating child poverty by 2020?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Gardiner and Lord Touhig, and congratulate them on two excellent maiden speeches. I have known the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for many years and I was delighted when he was introduced into the House. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for calling this debate at such an opportune time. Housing is a major problem but, as was said earlier in the debate, it was not given the prominence that it should have been at the last general election. Before I come to my speech, I draw attention to my interests in the register, including my personal interests and the fact that my law firm acts for a number of building companies and developers.
Increasingly, the country is aware of the massive debts owed by the state. The headline figure of the accrued national debt is about £800 billion, which, according to the previous Government’s Budget, should rise to about £1.4 trillion in three years’ time. Private finance initiative debt is estimated at about £200 billion. Two years ago, the figure for unfunded state pensions was estimated to be £700 billion, although according to a recent report it is now rather more than that. Therefore, there will be little government cash for new work on infrastructure and little government cash for affordable housing.
However, the need has never been greater. Local authority housing waiting lists are high. The number of new houses needed is now 250,000 a year, which accounts for the critical problems of homelessness and lack of housing. The number of housing starts in the past two or three years has been about 120,000. That includes private sector housing, housing provided by registered social landlords and a small amount of council housing. Two or three years ago, before the recession, there was a compound shortfall, but that has been greatly exacerbated. The lack of housing—in particular, the lack of affordable housing—has led to a crisis for many people. Young people cannot find residential property at reasonable rents. Couples are living with their parents for years. Many families and individuals are living in unsuitable accommodation and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, said, many people are trapped in abusive relationships.
The sooner local authorities and others in the housing sector are told which infrastructure projects will qualify for state grants in their areas, the sooner they can plan and adjust their planning policies. The Government should give urgent consideration to this. Local authorities are not yet aware of exactly how much money will be spent on new roads and other infrastructure. I hope that local authorities will be flexible enough to renegotiate existing planning consents, and I hope that they will be flexible in their approach to the planning system.
However, it will be the private sector that funds affordable housing in the future, and I hope that local authorities will be realistic in their demands of it. Anything that the Government can do to simplify and expedite the planning system will be welcome. The existing planning system, which demands a plethora of reports, surveys, studies and experts, is hugely expensive, bureaucratic and time-consuming and immensely unpredictable. Unrealistic targets for the percentage of affordable housing required as part of any housing scheme have contributed to problems of viability and delay in the delivery of many housing schemes. It is notable that councils that have a high percentage requirement for affordable housing are those with the lowest rates of delivery of both affordable and private housing, which in turn drives up prices.
Why has the planning system failed to deliver? Mainly because it is glacially slow. It takes five to 10 years to prepare, draft, consult, examine and adopt a local plan. It takes at least two years to get detailed planning consents and then a year or two to start delivering the finished houses. We must find ways of speeding the process up. The recent announcement of the revocation of the regional strategies will unfortunately lead to delay—I hope only in the short term—and confusion. The process must not be allowed to stagnate or continue. We cannot afford delay. We must guard against local authorities doing nothing, divesting themselves of any responsibility and therefore continuing with the current planning-by-appeal system, which is the inevitable consequence of the protracted delays and the absence of adopted local development plans. We cannot spend a further year or more tackling and tinkering with the system. Radical change is needed to speed up the planning system. Decentralisation of decisions on the location and number of homes and so forth is fine, but strict timeframes for the production of development plans are required urgently.
We need the jobs. The construction sector should be a major employer. Construction should be about 8 per cent of our GDP. Banks should be more flexible and lend on sensible criteria, but they should be free to lend fast and sensibly. These factors are holding up the production of housing and employment and ruining people’s lives in the process. The Government must act on housing and they must act now.
My Lords, during Oral Questions today I asked the Minister a question and omitted to declare my interest as chair of the Midland Heart Housing Association. By my omission, I meant no discourtesy to the House or the Minister. I record here my unreserved apology.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for securing this timely and important debate. Social housing has now become a growing concern. I pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Gardiner and Lord Touhig, who made authoritative and knowledgeable maiden speeches today. They made a significant contribution to this debate.
As I said earlier, I chair the Midland Heart Housing Association. It is one of the largest social housing providers in the country and has responsibility for some 32,000 properties in east and West Midlands. Housing associations such as Midland Heart are now the country’s main provider of affordable housing, providing some 2.5 million houses for some 5 million people.
It is my long held view that building and maintaining good-quality homes is crucial to creating vibrant and stable communities, which define people’s life chances. At Midland Heart, we say that we are not merely providing or building houses but seeking to offer and deliver housing solutions. We seek to ensure that independent living can be accommodated in a community support environment. Homes and skills are provided for our young customers, on the basis that with the accommodation goes training. That is an acceptable criterion.
Sadly, this debate about affordable housing comes against a backdrop of economic recession, budget cuts, house repossessions and decreasing availability. Policies announced so far have sent the housing sector into something of a tailspin. Social housing is caught in the double bind of demand going up and supply coming down. It is safe to say, on the basis of what is known about the Government’s attitude to social housing so far, that the sector is heading for a crisis.
Official figures show that, during the past 10 years, social housing has delivered some 200,000 affordable homes, but the sector is now set to experience a dramatic decline, driven by severe government cuts—across benefits as well as building. There is now a growing problem of capital funding. The Department for Communities and Local Government recently announced that, as part of its bid to make savings of more than £790 million, it would cut £100 million from the Homes and Communities Agency’s national affordable housing programme. That means that the target of some 59,000 new homes for 2010-11 will not now be met. In addition, some £50 million was removed from the Government’s Kickstart scheme, which was intended to get stalled building schemes up and running again. Approximately 150 social housing projects are under threat.
The National Housing Federation has predicted that the number of social homes to be built this year could be as little as 20,000. The consequence is not just loss of homes for those who need them; it is also loss of employment opportunities. The national federation has warned that up to 200,000 jobs could be lost in the building and construction sector. The Government’s housing policy is seen as one of slash and retreat, the results of which can already be seen in the collapse of the market and an approximate 30 per cent drop in sales. A growing waiting list for social housing is untenable in any circumstances, but exacerbating it by scrapping planning structures and regional houseuilding targets creates even greater uncertainty.
As we speak, the Tenant Services Agency, which is supposed to give protection and support to tenants, is under threat. The hammer blow to the sector is the recently announced possible increase in VAT. That will do absolutely nothing for the shortage of housing that many are experiencing. Everyone is aware that the deficit must be addressed and tough choices have to be made, but we must ensure that what is needed to build recovery is protected.
It is not only vandals who can wreck people’s hopes: governments can too. Governments can wreck homes, lives and dreams but none so fast as this coalition Government have achieved.
My Lords, I rise like every other speaker to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, on the opportunity that she has given those of us with a common interest and experience in housing. I am sure that the Minister noted carefully that the noble Baroness’s speech was not a political one where political points were sought to be made. It was a pleading speech to the Minister and her colleague, Mr Grant Shapps. That is the attitude that I wish to take. The past is the past. There is a problem. There is a deficit that has to be tackled.
My claim to speak in this debate is that I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in a place called Scotswood Road. My memory of housing from the 1920s and 1930s when I was a boy is that in the main it was slum clearance and the building of council housing estates around the edge of Newcastle upon Tyne. That is how it was. Then I remember when Harold Macmillan electrified the Tory party conference in the early 1950s by accepting or making a pledge to build 300,000 houses, which he did. That was a great inspiration.
I also rest my case on the fact that when I was leader of Enfield Council in the early 1960s we had a visit from Bob Mellish. He was the Housing Minister for London at the time and he came to Enfield with Evelyn Dennington from the GLC—a lady well known in this place. They galvanised Enfield Council, which had a good record. It had a direct labour organisation. We accepted a challenge that we would build 1,000 homes in a year. We achieved that in 1970. The only problem was that we lost control in 1968. That should teach us a lesson, but that is local politics for you.
What I want to say about those three instances is that they all gave me inspiration. They showed dedication and passion. What is missing now is something that I accepted when I became a councillor in 1960. Because of what was going on around me with social deprivation, housing was the single most important element of my interest. Yes, I was interested in education, the environment and other things, but housing was the most important.
I recall twice in my time as a Member of Parliament leaving my surgery having listened to some depressing tales and sitting in my car crying, because I could not do anything to help the people. That is just my experience, but it is shared by every other person with a heart who has been a councillor. You are moved by the fact that the enormity of the problem is so great and the resources that you can command as an individual are so small that you need a breakthrough. I hope that the Minister in her reply can recognise that. We all accept the fact that economically and financially, the Government have inherited a very difficult situation. I am not making a plea for priorities, but I believe we need inspiration.
I hesitate when I hear that the drive of the Government is to make sure that the people at the bottom can do things that I believe ought to be done at the top. What is required is Leadership with a capital L. I want to see this Minister make a name for herself in this field as she has in many others, not just as a champion, but as someone who has the guts to speak out, not against her party or the common situation, but to take the opportunity of the role that she has to be ultra sharp in putting forward the need for social housing.
I want to spend much of my speech on an aspect of housing of which I have some experience—that is, mobile homes. I am the secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Welfare of Park Home Owners. Mobile homes are attractive; they are an alternative to bricks and mortar, but they have a number of problems. I thought that the House would be interested if I read from a letter sent to the assistant head of housing, strategy and policy in Cornwall Council by Tony Turner, Allan Hampshire, Justine Wadge and Mark Luxton. I have confirmed that they are happy that I should quote from the letter, which says:
“The park home sector is a growing one. It has been deliberately driven by the industry to attract the bricks and mortar property owning retirement market and for this reason has the potential to provide much needed housing for an aging but often financially independent population who have released equity and can usefully contribute to local economies. It can also offer relief to Statutory housing pressures for the elderly. In this context the sector is worth encouragement but only under effective supervision which will drive out those whose only objectives are financial exploitation and who deliberately operate without any consideration of social responsibility. This particular operator simply regards the payment of fines and damages as an operational overhead. He does not appear in Court and often will not even seek to defend his position. Evidence across other Counties within which he operates establishes that he simply pays fines and costs and carries on as before in the knowledge that these will be easily covered by the next dubious transaction. He has persistently proven that he simply regards laws as a minor inconvenience and if these circumstances are not addressed in this County, any proliferation of his activities here will not only carry heavy social costs, but also represent increasing financial costs to yourselves as a Unitary Authority”.
If people are driven out of their home by harassment and other means and need housing, where are they going to get it from? It will be the local authority. So there is not much sense in the Government or anybody else providing more affordable housing if it has been siphoned off in that way. The letter goes on to say:
“Ideally, of course, the operating licence of this owner should, subject to available delegated powers, be removed. There already exists more than significant evidence that he is unfit to control a business that incurs social responsibilities and since setting up this Association I am now frequently contacted by residents on other of his parks in this and other counties to learn, in the light of such evidence, there to be rising anger born from frustration that this appears not to have previously been given serious consideration”.
The case that I am making is that there is more than one affordable housing market. I know that this Minister is well experienced. I am not competent to go into the technical details of finance and planning; I have listened with great interest to what has been said. But I plead with the Minister and her colleague, Mr Grant Shapps, who I know takes a deep interest in these matters, and whom the all-party group has invited to come along and speak to us about the problems, to look on the mobile homes industry as something that can contribute to the overall solution. There are some villains in control, but there are very many good landlords and owners as well. We are all waiting with a clean sheet to hear from the Minister what he is prepared to do. As for us, we are prepared to go out of our way to be helpful.
My Lords, this afternoon’s debate has been about housing. Many television programmes, which millions of people enjoy, talk about property. However, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Ford and Lady Wilkins, reminded us, we are talking about people’s homes—the places that should form the secure base from which we all lead our lives, and most of us are lucky enough to do that. In many cases, however, that fails. It is not just that we do not have enough houses; too many houses are in the wrong place at the wrong price and in the wrong condition, and the results are stark. Shelter estimates that more than 1.5 million children live in overcrowded, temporary or run-down accommodation. The effects on their health and educational attainment are profound. We know that their life chances are adversely affected through no fault of their own. Any Government who want to create a genuinely fair society must address that.
There is no doubt that the move to a property-owning society has had profound consequences on all of us. It is interesting how falling house prices are greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth by the three-quarters of us who currently own our own properties. It ought perhaps to be a glimmer of hope for those who aspire to own property. Recently, however, house price falls have been accompanied by a lending squeeze; so the reality of home ownership is now as far away for many as it ever has been, a point which was well made by my noble friend Lord Teverson. Recent RICS figures show that loan approvals for house purchases are continuing to fall. My first question, therefore, is whether the Government will continue to press the banks over which they have control to free up mortgage lending where that is appropriate.
Over the years that I have been in your Lordships’ House, I do not think that I have ever heard any Government put a figure on how far they think property ownership can extend—or, indeed, any kind of recognition that home ownership is simply not the right option for a proportion of people. That has resulted in a lack of genuine planning in terms of the variety and quantities of housing tenure that ought to be available in this country. The lack of viable alternatives has forced some people into home ownership even when that is not the best option for them. The result, particularly now, is that many live in constant fear of default.
The private rented sector has to an extent stepped into that breach and is on the rise. However, it is in urgent need of reform. Most of our private rented sector is in the hands of individual private landlords who own just a few properties and 45 per cent of those properties fail to meet the decent home standards. Do the Government have any plans to boost the provision of rented accommodation through the formation of larger companies which could provide not only a useful investment vehicle but—the point which the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, made in his excellent maiden speech—a more professional and more easily regulated private sector?
Rents in the private sector are very high, and in some places this is being driven by the housing benefit system. It is therefore time that we had a review. However, I urge the Government to consider the fact that this review should be driven not solely by the need to cut costs. There is a question of value to the taxpayer. Apart from the human misery concerned, simply driving people into homelessness or creating other problems which actually cost more to put right would be extremely short-sighted. We must be very careful about an arbitrary cap on housing benefit that does not take into account the local costs of housing, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Best. Whatever happens in government, the one piece of legislation that never changes is the law of unintended consequences. The Government must think carefully before they leap into this. Other noble Lords have asked about the levels of funding for housing associations and local authorities. I look forward to the Minister’s answer.
On other forms of housing, can the Minister tell us anything about the future of low-cost home ownership schemes such as HomeBuy Direct? Do the Government intend to simplify some of these options, or even to continue them?
The affordability of housing is no doubt governed largely by housing availability. That is driven in turn by the planning system. I welcome the abolition of regional spatial strategies and all that comes with them. I am pleased that local councils will have more control over housing in their areas. However, there are caveats and things that must be watched.
I am worried by the extent to which housing that is driven from the bottom up, welcome as that may be, will not fully take into account other strategic issues such as transport, hospital provision and education. I come from a rural area. Until three years ago, we had an effective sub-regional planning tier known as a county council. It was extremely good. I wonder whether the Government have any plans to give some of the planning powers back to county councils so that they can play a strategic role alongside the districts.
I turn to the question of empty properties. I am very grateful to the Empty Homes Agency for its useful briefing. There are, it tells me, currently 652,000 empty homes in England alone. These are clearly an affront to any society. The coalition agreement said:
“We will explore a range of measures to bring empty homes into use”.
Those words are welcome but not as welcome as action would be. When I raised the matter this morning at Question Time, the noble Baroness said that the use of empty homes is a “matter for local authorities”. That is true to an extent, but I would be interested to know whether the Government plan to incentivise local authorities to get empty houses back into use. Can the Government encourage the Homes and Communities Agency to change the grant rules for housing associations so that local authorities have a real incentive to buy and refurbish empty homes? Picking up a point made by the right reverend Prelate, could the HCA work up a scheme which would allow homelessness charities, churches and local community groups to buy empty properties in their areas, refurbish them and provide affordable housing? Finally, would the local housing trusts proposed by the Government also be allowed to refurbish empty properties? All of these things could make a very useful contribution to the provision of housing and are very much in line with the themes of big society and localism.
I finish by thanking the noble Baroness for securing this important debate today. I had not appreciated that it had been four years since the last; it does not seem like it. It has also given us the opportunity to hear two extremely good maiden speeches from two noble Lords from whom we look forward to hearing more.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Ford on securing this important and timely debate. She has brought a wealth of experience but, most of all, an abundance of passion to this subject. Several noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Sawyer and Lady Wilkins, have said that this agenda does not have the prominence that it should. I hope we can put that right in the future. My noble friend has prompted a knowledgeable debate, typical of your Lordships’ House. I add my congratulations on the excellent maiden speeches of my noble friend Lord Touhig and the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble. They have brought perhaps a differing knowledge but a shared passion to our deliberations—a passion which my noble friend Lord Graham presses on the Minister.
My noble friend Lady Ford set out the vision for housing and why it—or the lack of it—plays such a prominent part in the lives of our fellow citizens; why the provision of decent housing is central to tackling disadvantage in our country; and an acknowledgement that areas of deprivation are inevitably characterised by a perverse collection of worklessness, educational underachievement, poor housing, health inequalities and being victims of crime. The availability of housing, especially affordable housing, is not just about having somewhere decent to live. It is integral to tackling poverty and promoting well-being, in the words of my noble friend Lady Wilkins, or life chances in the words of my noble friend Lord Haskel. Where and how it is provided influences the shape, cohesion and sustainability of our communities—a point we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, particularly in relation to rural areas, and my noble friend Lord Morris.
As my noble friend Lady Wilkins pointed out, the projections show that, largely because of population growth, increasing longevity and the development of more single households, there will be an additional 6 million households in the UK by 2030. This implies the need for some 250,000 affordable and market-based new homes to be built per year. This represents a considerable challenge in funding, land availability, infrastructure and the capacity of the construction sector. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, reminded us that this is not just about new housing, but the state of the existing stock. Before being hit by the global recession, housebuilding in 2007 reached 207,500 new homes—a 30-year high.
During the recession we did keep faith. We increased public investment in housing by an extra £1.5 billion to help offset some of the contraction in private housebuilding. Planned investment of £7.5 billion over the two years would have built 112,000 affordable homes for low-cost rent or first-time buyers. As private housebuilding was declining by a half, public sector activity was to increase by about 20 per cent. This was intended not only to provide more affordable homes but to safeguard some 160,000 jobs in the housebuilding industry. This underlines the importance of the public sector and the fragility of the mortgage market, to which a number of noble Lords referred, including the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. For the first of these years, we now know that the Homes and Communities Agency exceeded its targets for both completions and starts for houses for social rent and for low-cost ownership. However, the HCA is now faced with cuts in the current year, with who knows what to follow. In addition to the £230 million cut already announced, we learnt on Monday that a further £220 million is to be cut this year from the HCA’s funding. Like my noble friend, I ask the Minister to tell us what this half a billion pounds cut means in terms of reduced provision of affordable housing.
As my noble friend Lady Ford made clear, affordable housing for rent is not only about RSLs and local authorities. There are 8 million private renters in the UK, so the challenge is also about providing decent private rented housing. This is a growing phenomenon exacerbated by the affordability gap—an issue raised by a number of noble Lords. However, measures announced by the coalition Government in the past few weeks will significantly roll back the steps that we were taking to protect private tenants. The national register of landlords would have allowed tenants to make basic checks on landlords and would have made enforcement of letting rules simpler. Regulation of letting and managing agents was designed to tackle rogue landlords. The requirement for compulsory written tenancy agreements was intended to ensure that tenants and landlords were clear about their rights and responsibilities. However, each of these is to be swept away, together—so we understand—with the Tenant Services Authority, thus rebalancing the scene in favour of landlords and away from tenants; not the direction advised by my noble friend Lord Touhig.
As several noble Lords have commented, the issue of affordable housing cannot be divorced from the nature and levels of financial support given to tenants. Like others, I find it difficult to conjure words strong enough to express how much we deplore the proposed changes to housing benefit. I very much support the contribution of the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Haskel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, on this issue. The proposals amount to a planned cut of some £1.7 billion a year by 2014-15—a cut to be borne, by definition, by some of the least well off in our society. As Shelter pointed out, the vast majority are pensioners, those with disabilities, people with caring responsibilities and hard-working people on low incomes. These cuts will mean that the majority of tenants will get less in support than they pay in rent, forcing many to move or even end up homeless. They will create ghettos of the poor in swathes of our towns and cities. It is wholly wrong to justify these awful measures by portraying a small minority of cases as typical of the vast majority of housing benefit claimants. What is the rationale for restricting local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile rather than the median? What will this mean in terms of increased demand for social rented accommodation? Why on earth should anyone lose 10 per cent of their benefit just because they are unemployed for a year?
Alongside new social rented homes provided by RSLs and new affordable homes for first-time buyers, local councils are key providers of affordable homes. Thankfully, when we were in government, we saw the re-emergence of a programme when we launched the largest council housebuilding programme for almost two decades—I know that that gratified my noble friend Lord Graham—and announced plans in our manifesto for a new generation of council housebuilding alongside reforming council house finance to replace the housing revenue account; and this at a time when considerable investment of billions of pounds was being put into the decent homes programmes, transforming hundreds of thousands of council properties. Will the Minister tell us about the proposed review of the housing revenue account? What is its remit? Given the Government's determination to devolve powers and freedoms to local government, will these include the freedom to operate a robust programme of council house building? So far as concerns rents, the Minister will be aware of the convergence between council and RSL rents. Do the coalition Government have in mind any changes to this? Are they giving any consideration to convergence between social rents and private sector market rents?
Much of our discussion has been not only about the quantum of housing, but about its quality and sustainability. We do not need just more homes, but more quality homes that are built to a high standard and respond to the challenge of an ageing population, built to Lifetime Homes standards to facilitate, as my noble friend Lord Morris said, independent living.
We would welcome hearing more from the Government about how their changes to the planning system will improve opportunities for affordable housing. True to form, the Secretary of State has blundered into changes by originally announcing the scrapping of regional spatial strategies without any explanation of the consequences and without legal authority for the decision. A subsequent letter has thrown some light on the residual situation, but not before a good deal of confusion was created among planning authorities, with decisions being held in abeyance and schemes being deferred. This has done great damage, as well as a disservice, to the construction sector as it begins its recovery. The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, made a point about the confusion out there. I say to him that it is his Government who are scrapping the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which is all about expediting approvals for major investment.
We are told that the regional spatial strategies will be replaced by local spatial plans. There will be no central targets, but supposedly powerful incentives so that people will see the benefits of building. We have to await the details in the consultation later this year and reserve judgment, but our concern must be to ensure that the sum total of local planning reflects national as well as local needs, that affordable housing and mixed communities are not marginalised and that the system is fair to disadvantaged groups such as the Traveller community. With no national targets, it is difficult to see how the system would work without a penalty component, as some local authorities will just opt out. There are already signs that some councils, left to their own devices, simply will not support affordable housing in their area.
Section 106 agreements have provided a vital source of funding for affordable housing and infrastructure, and have helped ensure the growth of mixed rather than segregated communities. However, arrangements have not always worked well or consistently, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, particularly in times when land values are not increasing. We proposed some scaling down of Section 106, but alongside the introduction of the Community Infrastructure Levy, which the Government are now to scrap. What can the Minister tell us about the future of Section 106 and local incentives, and how this component of funding for affordable housing is to be secured for the future? Will the noble Baroness confirm that Section 106 arrangements are to endure; or, as my noble friend Lady Ford intimated, are they to be scrapped? Can we know more precisely what tax incentives are proposed for local authorities?
Despite the progress made in recent years, the prospect of a decent home is still a dream for too many people. In these difficult economic times, when judgments have to be made and priorities set, we need to protect and promote affordable housing. As my noble friend Lord Sawyer said, it is a matter of political will. This debate has been a valuable contribution to this endeavour, but we will have much to scrutinise in the coming months.
My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in what I knew would be a challenging debate. This House has a great deal of experience in housing that has been well demonstrated today. It is also clear that we have two new recruits to the housing field. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and my noble friend Lord Gardiner on their excellent maiden speeches. It is always good when new people who are interested in local government and housing join the troops, and we all look forward to hearing more contributions from them both as time goes by.
I am simply not going to be able to deal with every single point that has been raised today. As expected, the debate has covered a wide range of subjects, well beyond the issue of affordable housing, and has touched on the whole housing area. I do not think that one of us here—either those who have been in or those who have just come into government—will be satisfied that we have licked, or are licking, the housing problem. It is a vast issue, and trying to ensure that houses are built in considerable number will not be helped by the current significant economic crisis.
I want to confirm immediately—this was made clear in the coalition agreement—that the Government support affordable housing and intend to make sure that there is housing for those in need. However, we have heard the figures quoted today. Indeed, I remember a housing debate that took place some six, seven or eight years ago when we bemoaned the same issues. We said how many affordable, low-cost houses needed to be built for people to buy and rent. The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, is in his seat and I remember having some difficulty with his Minister over the fact that he was going to build 2 million houses within a fairly short space of time. They were grand plans. We debated them at the time but they were not realistic. The number of houses was realistic but actually getting them built was not. We are still faced with the problem of there not being enough housing, and the Government are committed to continuing the programme of affordable housing as the economy allows.
I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, about demography as well as disability. We cannot just provide homes with two or three bedrooms for the normal family; we have to take into account the fact that people have, at different times of their lives, different needs and requirements. Therefore, the Lifetime Homes standard remains an aspiration that should be met, even if not for every single home.
A lot of figures relating to the number of properties that are being built have been bandied around, and I have mentioned some of them. I think that one can trip over numbers wherever one goes, but there is no dispute that the number of affordable houses built over the past few years by the previous Government was very much lower than I expect they anticipated or wanted. It certainly did not increase during their watch. However, we must carry on and do what we can to improve the situation—albeit, as I said, in a difficult financial climate.
I was asked many, many questions. I shall touch on some of them briefly, and I assure noble Lords that those that I do not answer will receive full and proper replies, because these are important issues.
I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, for the very measured way in which she opened the debate. I also thank her for welcoming me to these Benches as a Minister. As noble Lords will know, I have dealt with housing over a great number of years, and I bear many scars, even at a local authority level. I am sure that those scars will be added to now at a government level.
The noble Baroness touched on many aspects of housing, such as overcrowding and homelessness, which we know exist, the reasons why people have to leave and the issue of children not having access to housing. We can all diagnose the problems but we have to try to resolve them. Within the policies that have already been discussed there are some straws in the wind. The Government have been in power for only 60 days, as I keep being reminded, and have done quite a lot of work in that time. But we must look towards things such as local housing trusts which I hope will become part of housing in future. I confirm that we still support co-operative housing which is an extremely useful way of providing housing.
Rural housing has an appalling record. I recognise that second homes in villages have often taken up housing that might have been available for younger people who live there. If villages are decimated and people leave, the heart goes out of the community. I can see that. There are proposals on the development and release of land to try to encourage small developments and the local housing trusts will affect that. A small development where we can restrict who the houses go to is probably a good way of going ahead.
Much has been said about localism but one aspect of the Government’s policies that will help is to have decision-making at the lowest level and as rational as it should be. I referred to this earlier. In rural housing this is one area where it should work because local people know much more than even those in government about where housing is needed and where small plots of land can perhaps be released for housing, with a bit of encouragement. They know where small developments can take place and be made available for young people who live in the community. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester made a stirring speech about rural housing, as did my noble friend Lord Gardiner. This is a very important aspect and I can assure noble Lords that we will be taking it up.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, made a clear speech on Lifetime Homes standards. Local authorities which consent to and support the construction of new homes will receive direct and substantial benefits from their actions. That is the incentive but we would not want to lose sight of Lifetime Homes even if not every home is built to a lifetime standard. Lifetime and decent home standards are extremely important and we recognise that.
I shall return briefly to my noble friend Lord Gardiner as I am trying to pick up some of the questions that were asked. The home on the farm policy to bring disused farm buildings back is another aspect of rural housing. There was a question on eco towns. We will not impose them on anybody but if planning permission is given I do not think anyone will stand in their way. Clearly, they are a new and interesting development in times of climate change and the impact that can be made from doing things in other ways. I do not think that there will be any difficulty unless such eco towns are opposed by local people and do not get planning permission.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, talked about the Co-operative society developing affordable homes. I think I made it clear that we support the Co-operative, which has done a very good job. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and others, asked about the Tenant Services Authority. Yes, it is under review, but, having said that, we recognise the importance of the regulation of that sector. Whatever the review reveals, we will not jeopardise that vital function. There will be further information about that in due course. Once the review has been undertaken, I will be able to report back to the House.
My Lords, I think that it is understood that, as with all of these reviews, it is much better done in the short-term rather than the long-term. I will take that view back to my honourable friend, Grant Shapps, and ensure that it is understood.
One of my first debates from the Front Bench was on mobile homes. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, may remember it. I knew nothing about mobile homes before that, and I was impressed at the provision they made and the enormous loyalty and affection that there was for them. The noble Lord has been a sterling supporter of mobile homes through all those years. I take the point that they are an aspect of affordable housing which we do not want to overlook. I will certainly make sure that that important aspect is understood. I know that there have been terrible problems in places.
I never quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Best, because he knows more about housing than practically anyone here; I say that advisedly and I do not think that anyone would disagree with it. He took up the point about housing benefit. The review of housing benefit has been based on the economic situation—like all the other issues, such as the HCA. All those highly resourced funds have had to be looked at. Housing benefit has played an enormous part in ensuring that people can go into the private sector, if they cannot get a home in the public sector, and that people in social housing have access to money.
However, as the noble Lord said, the costs have gone up from about £14 billion to £21 billion. That is an enormous sum of money. Although it may not be the largest part of it, there have been and are well publicised examples of people who are receiving housing benefit at an enormous rate a week. I see the noble Lord shutting his eyes and shaking his head, but I said quite clearly that there may not be many, but there have been examples. There have been examples of high housing benefit, perhaps having had to be paid to get people into social housing, but that cannot go on. That is why the decision has been made to cap the level at which it can be paid.
Yes, there will be casualties from that; there is no doubt about that. It will be up to local authorities to deal with that as sensitively and carefully as they can if—it is not always necessary—people have to leave their home. It is inevitable that that the housing benefit package had to be looked at, but I again hear what has been said about its importance. Although housing benefit has been held, the private rented sector is an extraordinarily valuable part of the housing sector. One has to recognise, and we do, the contribution that low-level and high-level private-sector housing makes to affordable housing as well as to everything else. The co-operatives, the private rented sector and affordable housing from housing associations should all be recognised.
These days, most affordable housing is provided by housing associations and we could not have managed without it. I started in housing at a time when people were beginning to say that there should be a better way than for councils to provide housing. Housing associations became a real aspect of housing and they have delivered housing probably more sensitively and more carefully than that being delivered even by local authorities.
I am not aware of any sense of providing or giving authority to local authorities to provide a huge amount of money to support council houses and mortgages or for building council houses. There is always a role for authorities to play. Certainly, their job will be to ensure that their plans and the amount of housing required are recognised and come in under their development plans.
Finally, I know that I have not done justice to all the questions that have been asked, but I should like to touch on regional spatial strategies, which have been raised, as has Section 106. The regional spatial strategies were top-down targets, which again we are trying to reduce. Of necessity, local authorities, or probably a combination of local authorities, will need to set up their own strategies to make sure that they get what they need. The development plan regime, which was introduced by the previous Government, has been a disaster. It has taken so long to get through. I think that about four authorities have had a development plan accepted. Most are still struggling to get it through after five or six years. Down at a local level one would expect this to happen much more quickly and that, based on local needs and local requirements, decisions could be made much more quickly.
Section 106 and CIL are under discussion, but I am not aware that there is any intention, where Section 106 has been negotiated, not to allow part of that to go to affordable housing. If I am wrong on that, I will make that clear. But I am fairly certain that there is no expectation of change in what Section 106 can do at the moment, part of which is to deliver affordable housing.
I hope that I have touched on at least some of the things raised by noble Lords. I will make sure that questions are answered in writing if I have not managed to do that. I thank everyone for their contributions today.
My Lords, in finishing, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate today, and the Minister for her response. A lot of detailed questions have been asked and we look forward to her responses in writing in due course. It was an absolute delight to hear the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, say in his maiden speech that he was the deputy chair of the Countryside Alliance. I was not sure that we would have a huge amount in common, but then I found that I agreed with 95 per cent of what he said. I look forward to him joining in these debates. I thank also my noble friend Lord Touhig for his tour de force. Now that I realise that he is the,
“seamstress-in-chief of stitch-ups”,
in the future I shall be sitting alongside him rather than in front him in case I fall foul of that.
I was delighted and honoured to secure this debate, and I was surprised because it is the first time that I have been successful in securing a balloted debate. When I put the topic down some three weeks ago today, I was astounded to be told on the following Monday that I had a date for this debate, and I was delighted. This is a really important topic, and all noble Lords who have spoken have shown a great appreciation of the complexity of the subject, as well as how tough this particular nut is to crack.
The coalition Government should be aware that if they come forward with pragmatic and sensible solutions that build on the very decent record of the last Government—an increase in affordable housing between 2000 and 2009 from 33,000 to 56,000 is a good achievement; it shows the steady progress made year on year—they will have unreserved support and encouragement across the House. If they cannot, the noble Baroness knows that we will harry her and hold her to account for it.
It simply remains for me to thank all noble Lords once again for contributing to the debate, and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.