Motion to Take Note
My Lords, in introducing this debate on private renting, I declare an interest as a vice-president of Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity. The renting of one’s home, the place in which one spends most of one’s time, is a big and in many ways dismal subject. The private rented sector in England has grown by almost 1.5 million households in the last decade. High demand has pushed rents up by 66%, while wages have increased by only 35%. In some parts of London, agents report annual increases of 16%. This is at a time when home ownership and social housing have been in steady decline, for the United Kingdom can no longer be called, as it was 30 years ago, a property-owning democracy.
The public—no longer so much the man on the omnibus as the couple in the Prius—generally think of private tenants as young professionals or students, yet of the almost 3.5 million households now renting privately, more than 1 million are families with children. Many of these people are now in the direst straits, a condition that looks likely to get worse. There are 4 million people on council housing waiting lists, many with no option but to rent, possibly for the rest of their lives.
Ideally, private renting could be a beneficial system for both landlord and tenant, but with people planning to augment their incomes by buying or building property specifically to let, and a rising generation locked out of home ownership by rocketing house prices and crippling deposits on house purchase, the situation is far from that. Unless things change, an extra 1.5 million 18 to 30 year-olds will be forced into renting in eight years’ time and a further 500,000 will be forced to stay with their parents into their 30s. Going back to live with one’s parents, once looked on as to be avoided from the moment one leaves to take up further education or an independent existence, is becoming some young people’s only option.
Those back in the parental home are the lucky ones, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in that while finding their solution to the housing problem, they can put money aside for a deposit on a future home of their own. Currently, 24% of people between 20 and 45 have moved back to the parental home due to the state of the housing market. But what of young people who are homeless due to a breakdown in their relationships with family? They face grave difficulties in securing and living in affordable decent housing. Even if they are fortunate enough to be in work, they may well receive only the minimum wage and be forced to live in transient accommodation with no real place to call home, or no home at all.
If properties to rent were well maintained and offered at reasonable rents, matters would look very different. As it is, the scale of problems in the private rented sector raises serious questions about the suitability of private renting in general. This is particularly so for families who have few other options open to them or none. The students and young professionals I mentioned earlier can, if unwillingly, move to find different accommodation. This is often not a choice that is open to a couple or a single parent with, say, three children. Shelter is concerned about the state of the private rented sector. The sector is blighted by a large number of amateur landlords failing to offer good standards to their tenants and a small number of rogue landlords who deliberately prey on the vulnerable.
While local authorities are aware of some 1,477 serial rogue landlords, in the past year only 270 were prosecuted, so many bad landlords are not receiving a clear message that bad practice will be prosecuted. A fairly recent development has been the conversion of sheds in back gardens to house one, two or more tenants. Converted sheds and garages, as well as breezeblock constructions to let, have become an increasingly mainstream, if illegal, part of the London property market. They are becoming known as sheds with beds.
Forty per cent of private rented homes are classified as non-decent. Shelter has found that 12% of private rented households experienced housing problems last year, including harassment by landlords, unsafe conditions and landlords failing to carry out repairs. No formal licence or training is required of private landlords in England, but the Housing Act 2004 allows councils to take action where they consider housing conditions are dangerous to health and safety. For instance, landlords must arrange an annual gas safety check by an authorised gas safety engineer and protect tenants’ deposits from being unfairly withheld at the end of a tenancy, while the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 make harassment and illegal eviction criminal offences.
However, some tenants fear negative reactions from landlords, including retaliatory eviction, where a landlord will evict a tenant in response to a request for repairs. The fear of losing their home presents a major barrier for tenants bringing complaints about conditions or practice. Many private tenants have little power to change the practice of their landlord. While landlords value reliable tenants who pay their rent—that is, after all, what their business is about—tenants face significant financial and social costs in moving, particularly in a tight market with rising rents. They may not easily be able to find another home in the area, which is a particular concern for the numerous households with children attending a local school. It is easy to see why tenants put up with poor conditions if the fear of eviction is real.
A case study is that of Sam and his partner, who rented a house that turned out to be riddled with damp. Their small son, who had been free of asthma, had the illness return soon after they moved in and their daughter also suffered from illnesses related to the damp. A huge gas bill resulted from attempts to keep the property warm. Sam asked for repairs to be made but the consequence was that the family was asked to leave, a week before Christmas, while the agent kept more than £100 that Sam had prepaid on the electricity meter. The family is now living in temporary accommodation, having been accepted as homeless by the council.
Another example is that of Lisa, a working mother from Brighton with a 12 year-old son. Lisa has moved five times in five years due to landlords selling up and rent increases. Her current home, a flat costing £750 a month, has had problems with cockroaches, rats and gas leaks. Each time the landlord is served a notice, he does a quick job and the problem comes back. A couple, also in Brighton, have three children aged from three to 11 and pay more than £1,500 a month for their three-bedroom home, which is in a poor state of repair. Their household income is £2,000 a month, so after rent and bills life is a struggle. Shelter regularly comes across cases where tenants have promptly received an eviction notice after making a complaint to their landlord about conditions or the need for repairs. Tenants often do not risk complaining because they are anxious about bad reactions from landlords.
However, complaints about the most serious health and safety hazards have increased by 25% in the past two years. Local authority officers believe that the complaints stem from amateur landlords not understanding their responsibilities and that a small minority of rogue landlords are exploiting their tenants without fear of punishment. Widespread problems with amateur landlords and exploitation by a small minority of rogues are a major concern for professional landlords, whose good reputation is undermined by this poor practice. Local councillors and officials should also be concerned about the volume of problems they face and the financial consequences of not addressing them.
Another fallacious belief, commonly held, is that everyone living in rented property is doing so on housing benefit and is therefore out of work. On the contrary, as the Smith Institute discovered, 95% of the £1 billion rise in housing benefit is paid to people in work. Just one in eight of the people drawing the benefit are unemployed. A relatively new fear will come to tenants when the housing benefit cap may make the difference between being able to pay a rental of £700 and being forced to move out to a less expensive area. A £50 reduction in benefit may not seem much, but to many it can be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Once the benefit cap is introduced in 2013, a migration of poor tenants is expected by Westminster City Council to poorer areas, which are becoming known as benefit ghettos. As a result of these changes, a reduction of 20% is expected in the number of school pupils across the borough. However, it is difficult to see what action can be taken over this, especially if these people are professional landlords complying with their responsibilities and offering good quality homes and management services.
Amateur landlords—and, even more, rogue landlords—are a different story. Around two-thirds of local authorities now offer landlord accreditation as a way of educating well intentioned landlords, helping them to improve their business and giving them a market advantage and access to incentives. Rogue landlords are those who show no willingness to improve their approach to letting and who knowingly let dangerous, poor quality accommodation or carry out illegal management practice. Local authorities should make it clear that they will get tough on those who breach their responsibilities and offer substandard accommodation. Shelter wants to see local authorities taking tough action against rogue landlords immediately, but many of the problems that local authorities face come from tenants who may not come to them complaining about standards or their landlords’ practice. Local authorities dealt with more than 86,000 complaints from private tenants in 2010-11, yet wider research finds that over 350,000 experienced housing problems in the same year.
It was good to see that the Government have recently promised to take firmer action on rogue landlords, the Housing Minister Grant Shapps pledging to set up a dedicated rogue landlord task force, invest £1.8 million to deal with sheds with beds, remove limits to the fines imposed on rogue landlords and send out guidance on rogue landlord enforcement to all local authorities in England. This is a step in the right direction, but more remains to be done. Shelter has stressed that one of the biggest challenges is getting senior local politicians and officials to see enforcement on rogue landlords as a priority. The Government will have to think hard about how they effectively communicate their proposals to local leaders.
Will the Minister agree that the Government need to set up a fund to support local authorities who take enforcement action against rogue landlords, such as criminal prosecution? ARLA, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, has produced a five-point action plan to support the private rented sector. It advises the introduction of government regulation of letting and sales agents. It suggests that investment in the private rented sector should be encouraged by treating rented property as an entrepreneurial business activity for capital gains purposes and reintroducing rollover relief for landlords looking to reinvest in the private rented sector. It recommends building more homes to increase the supply of properties for rent and stresses the need for the removal of VAT on purchases of material and labour for capital expenditure. It recommends the introduction of capital allowances for improvement to property and an increase in the scope of the landlord’s energy saving allowance to include the installation of central heating systems and extending the scheme past 2015.
Estate and letting agents are currently unregulated, meaning that anyone can set up an agency without the appropriate qualifications or knowledge. ARLA believes that full mandatory government regulation of sales and letting agents is the quickest and most effective method to eliminate unprofessional, unqualified and unethical agents from the rental market.
Will the Minister consider the need for the Government to develop a comprehensive regulatory regime to ensure that consumers are protected across the United Kingdom? With government figures estimating that approximately 750,000 homes in the private rented sector are below standard, which roughly equates to 25% of properties in the sector, it is clear that this situation must not be allowed to continue.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for securing today’s debate. Her commitment to this issue and to Shelter in particular is well known. Her passion, conviction and knowledge have been much in evidence this afternoon.
I will focus on questions of how the private rented sector is provided for, financed and regulated. First, I ask the Minister a few questions about the overall supply of housing. For some years, it has become apparent that the supply of housing is not keeping up with the growth of formation of households. While arguments about whether housing should be for owner-occupation or social or private rent are valid, unless we increase the size of the cake we end up creating new problems elsewhere. Can she say something about overall housing numbers and particularly how government are planning housing growth now that top-down targets have been removed?
What progress is being made to deal with the issue of empty homes, estimated last year at 720,000 across the country? What is the Government’s policy towards conversion and change of use back to residential? High streets are shrinking,and this is not just a short-term problem caused by the recession. There is an underlying issue caused by the huge growth of online shopping. Areas where many shops are boarded up would probably benefit from a change of use.
When I was first elected on to Mid Suffolk District Council more than 20 years ago, my children were still quite young. Neither as a mum nor as a councillor did I come across many families who lived in private rented accommodation. At that time, it seemed to be the preserve of young people, or of people in some temporary situation. On the whole, families seemed to be living in either owner-occupied properties or social rented housing. I wondered whether this was some false rosy memory on my part, but in researching for today’s debate I found the Treasury figures that showed that 1991 was the lowest point for the private rented sector.
The English Housing Survey, published last week, has shown that the private rented sector has just reached parity with social rented housing. Each has a 17% share. There are now 1.1 million families living in the private rented sector and, according to a Cambridge University study, the number of families with children in the sector has risen by 86% in the past five years. The Rugg review, although carried out only in 2008, is already vastly out of date. It simply did not envisage this rise, and it needs to be re-evaluated.
Does that matter? In one sense, it does not. What really matters is having secure, affordable and decent-quality homes for families, but the trouble is that we know that you are much less likely to have that if you are living in private rented accommodation. For many families, for all those reasons, it is not an option they would choose, but they take it because they have been priced out of owner-occupation and cannot get social rented accommodation.
Affordability is a key issue. Tenants have to find a deposit, a month’s rent in advance and fees for letting agents. It is bad enough if you are trying to do that every five years or so, but in a volatile market people are often having to do it every year. Rents are high relative to the incomes of people in the private rented sector. The English Housing Survey estimates that the cost of housing accounts for 19% of the weekly income of owner-occupiers and 43% of the income of those in the private rented sector. Those figures need to come with a little warning, because the figure for owner-occupation is averaged out and includes those who have small mortgages because they have owned for a long time. Nevertheless, the figures are stark.
In its 2010 report, the Treasury referred to rents being 24% to 40% cheaper than a mortgage on an equivalent property and concluded that renting is a more affordable option. I think that the Treasury is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. It must look at affordability relative to income, not the cost of buying a similar property.
Tenant satisfaction in the private rented sector is much lower, and we all know the horror stories about poor quality accommodation, failure to deal with even serious and life-threatening problems and rogue landlords in general. On top of this, the high turnover rate means that families have little sense of permanence,with all that that means for the education of their children and their general well-being. Concentrations in certain areas mean that there are localities where a significant proportion of residents have no real stake in their area.
We make a big mistake if we think that the growth of the private rented sector is a blip caused by a temporary lack of social housing and the unavailability of mortgages. These problems are here to stay, and so is a more mobile population in an increasingly flexible job market. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published a study about housing and young people which showed that by 2020, 1.5 million more young people will be going into the private rented sector, most with their own tenancy and the rest living with their parents, as we have heard. These young people will very soon become parents, so the number of families in private rented accommodation will also increase.
We cannot continue to think about the private rented sector in the rather piecemeal way that we have in the past. I recognise that organising a sector dominated by individual landlords is difficult. Seventy-four per cent of properties in the sector are in the hands of individuals, and two-thirds of them own fewer than five properties. Nevertheless, local authorities, in their planning and social roles, need to think about how they can engage with the sector. The Treasury needs to think about smarter incentives. Changes to stamp duty have been welcomed, but measures are needed to encourage new building in the sector. It can and should be made conditional. There are schemes in France and Germany which offer tax breaks, but only in exchange for longer, more stable tenancies. Chris Norris from the National Landlords Association recently wrote that a third of his members would be happy to employ tenancies longer than 12 months. Will the Government look at how that might be encouraged and, in particular, work with mortgage lenders, who often will not permit people to let for more than a year?
I know that there is a perception that rents are being driven ever upward by greedy landlords, and having seen what people are asking for accommodation during the Olympics, I am sure that they exist, but I am not convinced that it is such a golden goose because if it were, there would not be such a shortage. I think the truth is rather more complex. Landlords have relied on a combination of capital gain and rental income to give good returns, and that model has broken down. A recent article in the Investors Chronicle suggested that returns on buy to let are currently about 3% to 4%, which is too low to justify people investing when you think about all the work and risk involved.
The idea of rent control is very popular with tenants and the public, which is not surprising, but evidence from around the world suggests that it simply drives down quality and is being removed. Other forms of regulation appear more successful. LSE research points out that most European countries have regulation without limiting the amount of accommodation available. In Germany, the private rented sector accounts for more than 50% of all housing. There is growing support for the notion of accredited landlords, so perhaps the Government could look at that on a more systematic basis.
I have long thought that the obscenity about housing benefit is not its amount but that taxpayers’ money is used to pay bad landlords for poor accommodation. Institutional investment in the UK housing market is low because investors tend to get better returns on commercial property. The current returns in the residential sector of about 3.5% fall well short of the 6% to 7% that investors require. Real estate investment trusts were launched with a fanfare in 2007 to provide a tax-efficient investment vehicle for large-scale housing for private rent, but they failed to meet expectations. Companies such as Aviva have dipped a toe in the water, and there is a view that property unit trusts might be a better vehicle. Sir Adrian Montague is currently reporting on this aspect of private rented accommodation. When can we expect his report?
Other barriers to institutional investment have been identified. They include difficulty in finding sufficiently large investments—about 200 properties are needed. This is where working with planning officers and authorities might also come in. In addition, the sector lacks the housing management skills needed to run such schemes. Is there a role here for housing associations to offer a commercial service, managing the properties and generating profit that they can then reinvest in their social housing?
The private rented sector has now become far too important to be left to chance, as successive Governments have done. I look forward to hearing from the Minister today but also to some action in future.
My Lords, the current Reith lectures rightly emphasise the need for a healthy society to promote the intermediate institutions between the individual and the state. Healthy participation in civic society itself depends on the stability and place of families and family life in society, in whatever form family life might take. That in turn depends on the proper availability and provision of housing. People generally relate better to others and to society as a whole when they feel secure in themselves and in their home life. That is why this debate is so important. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on securing it and on introducing it so powerfully. I shall follow the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, in a slightly different way but very much in the same spirit.
There is little doubt that the UK has a housing crisis and that it is likely to get worse. However, there is also a housing benefit crisis, with 5 million claimants, half of whom are in work. As was said, those who are added to the list are mostly in work. There is a very large annual bill. As I understand the figures, the number of people in work who are forced to claim housing benefit has doubled in the past three years, mainly due to the increasing cost of rent. Around a third of households in the private rented sector receive housing benefit. The problem facing households in the rented sector, especially the private rented sector, is rising rents due to a lack of housing supply and the capital cost of new-build housing. The situation is acknowledged in government documents. In Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England, launched last November, the Prime Minister acknowledged in the foreword that,
“for decades in Britain we have under-built”,
and that the,
“economic and social consequences of this failure have affected millions”.
The housing strategy’s emphasis is on unblocking the housing market, which will help to address the housing crisis, boost economic activity and create jobs. However, as I read it, it is primarily focused on improving the supply of owner-occupied housing. I acknowledge the efforts that are being made to simplify and free up the planning process and to assist first-time buyers in particular to get on to the housing ladder. However, I very much doubt that the problems we face can be solved by promoting a return to greater levels of home ownership. The rented sector will also have a vital role to play, but how, and where will the capital finance come from? The fundamental problem is the lack of supply of new houses for rent because of the lack of finance to provide them.
The number of houses constructed for rental over the years provides a telling story. The post-war construction of houses by local authorities peaked in 1953 at 198,000. This is a poignant figure for me as I moved into one of the new council houses that were constructed in 1953, when I was three years old and it remained my home for 15 years. Of course, that house has now been sold off and would probably be unaffordable to the equivalent of my parents with a young family.
Local authority construction declined to a low point of 50—just 50—in 1999 and remained very low until last year, when 2,300 units were built by local authorities. To some extent, of course, local authority construction was replaced by housing association new-build units, but that never exceeded 31,000 units and last year was under 25,000 units. Housing associations just do not have access to the necessary capital; I assume that that must be the underlying and main reason.
Private enterprise construction of houses in England has only twice exceeded 200,000 units a year, in the 1960s, and in 2011 it had fallen to 82,000 units. I invite the Minister to comment on these figures, which I have taken from the DCLG website. I believe that the private sector and housing associations alone are unlikely to be able to respond to the housing needs as set out over the next 10 or 20 years.
I am all for market-based solutions if they work. However, sometimes they need augmentation or stimulus by government investment, especially where long-term strategies are needed, and housing is a classic example where a five-year horizon just is not enough; we have to have horizons that go beyond a particular Government. Given that such investment would produce real assets in the form of houses and flats, which in the future, when circumstances have changed, could indeed be sold off and turned into other forms of resource, as many council houses were, is there not a strong economic case for investment by the Government alongside their other schemes and the private sector in general? Is this not reinforced by the argument that the best way to address the burgeoning problem of housing benefit is to increase the supply of rented houses and thereby reverse the remorseless rise in the level of rents? I say that independently of the view one might take of the Government’s policy of introducing a benefit cap.
I speak as a fool, no doubt, but could not some of the money created by quantitative easing be invested in real assets, rather than just being shunted on to the balance sheets of banks and then apparently not being lent? Perhaps we should compare the benefits of investment in social housing with, for example, the £32 billion planned to be spent on the new High Speed 2 railway. The recent housing strategy reveals that, for a government investment of £1.8 billion, some 80,000 new homes will be delivered under the affordable homes programme. When I do my sums, that suggests that a government investment of £32 billion would equate to nearly 1.5 million new homes. These things have to be compared, but what would the benefit of 1.5 million new affordable homes be compared with high-speed rail? At least it stimulates the imagination. No doubt I can be accused of the economic equivalent of heresy. If so, I look forward to a tutorial on economics from the Minister when she replies.
I should acknowledge at this point that the Church of England, through the Church Commissioners in particular, used to provide capital for social housing, especially here in London. I very much regret that we are no longer in a position to do this, although there is a growing number of examples of small-scale, local church projects across the denominations to build affordable housing, echoing many schemes in the past that produced local almshouses and so forth. Whatever the source of capital finance for new-build housing might be, the key issue, I think, is the price of land for development. The difference in value between agricultural or social use and development use is quite staggering; it is of the order of 20 or 30 times more, which, it seems to me, cannot be right. There must be something wrong if the value of land for development is that much more than the value of land for other uses.
Perhaps we will not see the construction of affordable housing on the scale that we need, either for purchase or rent, until the price of development land comes down. Reading through the Government’s housing strategy document of last November, I saw no reference to the problem of the price of land.
Perhaps easing planning controls will lead to the necessary readjustments. For my part, I have long been convinced that our planning policies have been far too restrictive. I accept that there are particular issues in a rather overcrowded south-east of England, but in the north-west of England and Cheshire, the area that I know well, communities would generally speaking benefit from a much more open approach to development, subject to the proper planning process and controls on quality, and so forth. There is now a presumption in terms of sustainable development in the planning process. Most of the communities that I know would best be sustained by having some development and a greater range of housing, especially with affordable housing being introduced.
I end, appropriately for the noble Baroness, on a philological or linguistic note. The Greek word “oikos” meant house, household or home; it gave us the root of two important words—economy and ecology, as well as ecumenical. Homes are vital to how we live and the health of society as a whole. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I come to this debate with an interest to declare. I chair the board of Midland Heart housing association. I add my name to those congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on securing this timely and important debate.
The debate is timely because it provides for your Lordships’ House the opportunity to consider the collective failure to address equitably the challenges faced by families in the rented housing sector. To inform the debate, we have the benefit of the English Housing Survey, published a few days ago by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The report states that social housing and privately rented accommodation are currently on a par, each supplying some 17% of the housing market, with 66% owner occupied. It is likely that since 2010 private rental has overtaken the social housing sector; in fact, the size of the social housing sector has fallen by more than 1 million homes in England over the past 30 years due to a combination of investment cuts, demolition and right to buy. A recent Joseph Rowntree report suggested that 1.5 million young people between the ages of 18 and 20 will be locked out of access to social housing and forced into private renting. It is also estimated that more than 3 million young people cannot afford to leave the parental home.
One consequence of those changes is the growth of a largely unregulated sector to meet the increased demands created by the decline in social housing and the inability of individuals to access affordable home ownership. This fosters an environment of poorer housing stock and a market where rogue landlords are likely to flourish—and many landlords in the private sector are less than keen to consider people who are on benefits for renting.
Traditionally, housing associations prioritise those with greatest need; people who are vulnerable, disadvantaged and out of work tend to be concentrated in this sector. Unsurprisingly, homelessness is reported to be on the rise, and I am told that in Birmingham the waiting list consists of more than 30,000, and the waiting time is approximately five and a half years.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has acknowledged the risk of families becoming homeless, and figures released recently show that children are increasingly at risk in those situations. The Government’s proposal to discharge their homelessness duty to the private rental sector potentially diverts more families from access to social housing and a less secure form of tenure. The problems for those in social housing are increasing.
As we recently debated in your Lordships’ House, the Government’s proposed bedroom tax will affect working-age social tenants who are in receipt of housing benefit by an average of £14 per week. If there happens to be more than one spare room, it goes up to approximately £25 per week. Speaking for my organisation, Midland Heart, I am told that this will affect about 3,000 of our tenants.
The figures for 2011 show that worklessness affects some 56% of social housing tenants, with the numbers of households in which no adult has ever worked rising by more than 5% in a year to some 370,000. In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified a wide range of workless people including those with poor basic skills, physical and mental health problems, substance usage, homelessness, childcare needs and a history of offending. In addition, there is a worrying skill deficit, with 11.6% of the working population in the UK holding no formal qualification whatever. The figures also show that social housing tenants of working age are three times more likely to be economically inactive than those in other sectors. Approximately 80% of new housing association tenants under 25 are workless and the number of people considered as NEETS—not in employment, education or training—has exceeded 1 million.
According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, disposable income generally fell by 3.1% over the period 2010-11, the biggest fall since 1981. As a result, the cocktail of recession, benefit reduction and price rises means more and more families are having to make the painful choice between paying the rent, securing the fuel bills or, indeed, buying food. There are frequent reports in the media of growing evidence of family poverty where children are going without food and families are becoming reliant on food banks which are now struggling to cope with the increasing demands. Up and down the country, food banks are reporting that they are supporting more and more families who are struck by the problems of unemployment and benefit stoppage. Working families on low incomes are at the receiving end of all that.
The Guardian reports that responses from teachers to its survey show that the number of children arriving at school with empty stomachs has increased during the past year or two. Head teachers and senior doctors are so concerned at the extent of child malnutrition and hunger that they are calling for children who receive school meals also to be given a free breakfast each morning. Charities, including Action for Children, the NSPCC and the Children’s Society, predict that children in vulnerable families are set to top the 2 million mark by 2015. Meanwhile, what is the Government’s response? They are seeking to redefine child poverty. In this House, and in another place as well as in the media, we hear much about the importance of neighbourhoods and communities. Taken together, however, policies such as the bedroom tax, benefit cap, affordable rent and mixed tenancies will do nothing to sustain strong and stable communities.
Following the riots of last year, the Church of England’s report sounded a clear warning about the social consequences of austerity. Looking at the economy all over the country, the fact of the matter is that the austerity programme is like playing golf with just one club. The response by my organisation, Midland Heart, to the riots in Birmingham was its development of a modest programme called Back on Track. The project was aimed at early intervention and diversion for young people and their families into more productive pursuits. The interventions went beyond merely addressing poverty, and recognised that there were many interlinking factors such as lack of skills and education, social exclusion, poor community cohesion, peer pressure and, of course, poor housing. The Back on Track project has engaged just 24 young people in apprenticeships and business start-ups and has offered mentoring and support to families, including a family jobs club, as well as a family intervention project for troubled families. I am proud to say that a number of our young people have been fortunate in winning major contracts from the authorities to supply more than 50,000 cup cakes to athletes in the Olympics.
Many voluntary organisations have supported projects for families, and many will continue to do so. At the very heart of the need for good citizenship and making a contribution stands the need for good housing. Ironically, funding for all these much-needed projects is subject to the austerity cuts.
In this debate, we have heard much about the problems faced by families in the rented housing sector, yet I sense that the issues that have emerged are, in reality, so far only the tip of the iceberg. We await the full force of the deprivation that is being created. While we wait, I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for leading this timely and important debate.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, and I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for sponsoring this debate.
I want to talk, rather more narrowly, about the particular problems in the part of the world where I live, but I associate myself generally and, in most cases, specifically with the remarks of my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market who provided a more general overview.
We are talking about problems faced by families in the rented housing sector. I want to talk about that sector in the area I know best, which is east—or Pennine—Lancashire, the borough of Pendle, the town of Colne, and the ward of Waterside, which leads me on to declaring my interest as a councillor for that ward. I specifically want to talk about that part of Colne and similar parts of Nelson, such as Southfield, which are typical of many areas throughout the north of England and other parts of the country.
We are talking about areas of cheap terraced housing—houses in my ward that are now selling for, depending on location and condition, anything between £30,000 and £65,000, and which at the height of the housing boom might have cost between £50,000 and £75,000. Ten years ago they were selling for between £20,000 and £50,000, and in 1970 you could pick up quite a decent two up, two down, well looked-after modernised terraced house for £1,000. This is cheap housing, and it is no wonder that it has been attractive to buy-to-let landlords in more recent times. The rents in such areas now might be around £400 a month—£80 a week, or of that order—which local people think is outrageous, and everyone else thinks is quite cheap.
These are traditional areas of owner-occupied terraced housing. They were built perhaps 100 to 140 years ago for the people who worked in the mills. They were bought through a form of rental purchase, through deductions from people’s weekly wages. When you had paid enough through rental purchase, you got the deeds, so there is a tradition of working class owner-occupation in those areas.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was a massive programme of improvement of those houses. In 1970, in the ward I was elected for then, which was a bit smaller than the present ward, 70% of the houses had outside lavatories, and most of those were the famous tippler toilets, or long drops, or waste water closets. I have explained to noble Lords in the past exactly how they worked, and I will not do so today, but WCs they were not. The houses had no bathrooms, and some of the worst had one cold water tap, and perhaps a little plastic geyser to heat water. That was all.
Since then there has been a huge programme of improvement, through a programme of standard and improvement grants in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, which were provided by local authorities but for which up to 90% of the subsidy was provided by central government. A huge amount of public investment went into those privately owned houses, together with area improvement schemes such as general improvement areas and housing action areas, and the associated environmental improvements. It is not an exaggeration to say that large numbers of those areas were rescued from the bulldozer by such schemes. More recently we had the Labour Government’s housing market renewal scheme, which again provided investment, although in a different way, into some of those areas.
Forty years ago, the private rented sector in these areas was limited, but it existed. They were mainly slum landlords. I say that without any qualification. You could get a house 40 years ago for a rent of 50 pence a week, but what you got was not very nice. The improvement schemes I have talked about by and large drove out those private landlords. Some of their houses were the worst in the area and were knocked down and cleared. Large numbers were purchased by the local authority, either voluntarily or by compulsory purchase schemes, and were often either improved by housing associations or have been subsequently transferred to housing associations, and are now providing perfectly decent accommodation.
Since the end of the 1980s, the private rented sector has made a reappearance. One noble Lord said that 1991 was the low point of private rented accommodation in this country. In the whole of Waterside ward, which I represent, in the census 10 years ago there were 17.6% privately rented, and in the ward in Nelson that I am talking about, Southfield, there were 16.9%. It is significantly more than that now. I suspect it is about 25% in both of those areas. In critical areas, where it is causing real problems, it is now up to 30%, 40% or 50%.
The causes are well known: the deregulation of rent, for instance. My noble friend said that rent control had, in the past, resulted in poor conditions. There is no doubt that that was the case, and it was one reason why rent controls were abolished. However, the deregulation of rent has allowed people to move in on a market basis. The second factor is the relaxation of security of tenure.
The third is the large amount of finance available for buy-to-let schemes. Let us not think that buy-to-let purchases are no longer taking place. People who do not live in areas such as Pendle look at these prices and think that the houses are incredibly cheap. They work out how much rent they can get and still make quite a substantial profit from a buy-to-let purchase. Many are absentee landlords. I have to laugh at some of them. From time to time, I get an absentee landlord from, typically, London or the south coast ringing me up. They say, “We’re ringing you because we understand you are our councillor”. I say, “No, I’m not. You live in London”. They say, “Yes, but I own a house in a particular street in your ward. I had these tenants who weren’t nice people and they wrecked the house. Then they just moved out and I’m left with a real problem. I can’t let the house because of the condition it’s in. What are you going to do about it?”. My answer is, “If you will donate your house to the local authority, I will do something about it. Apart from that, it’s your responsibility. You bought the house and you know what the street is like”. They reply, “Oh no. I’ve never been there”. They probably bought it at an auction without seeing it. They “manage it” through a local letting agency and that is the extent of their personal involvement with it. I say to them, “I consider that you are an anti-social person and you deserve an ASBO”. They do not like that and they put the phone down.
That is the difficulty that we have. We have had people living in Johannesburg, Jerusalem and all over the world—it is quite astonishing—but, in particular, they live in London or on the south coast for some reason, and they have been causing real problems with these houses.
The laws and rules that govern private rented accommodation, as with so much else in this country, have been designed for London, the south-east and the big cities. They have not been designed for areas such as ours, where the problems and consequences are quite different, and they have been a disaster. Of course we have good local landlords who own a house in the same street or who let out a house where elderly relatives have moved on or whatever, and we have lots of good tenants. However, the situation with private landlord accommodation in areas of cheap terraced housing where the market is not buoyant, where it is difficult to sell houses and the vacancy rate is high, is entirely different from the situation in London, in particular, where the main problem is a shortage of housing.
What are the consequences? Despite what I have been saying, people buying to let have kept prices higher than they would otherwise have been. Noble Lords may think that the prices I have quoted are ridiculously low for housing but they are higher than they would have been. Ours is a low-wage area and, like many others, it is struggling to keep going in the present economic circumstances. That, together with other factors, such as the impossibility of getting a mortgage, has pushed down the potential for young couples to buy these houses.
I have talked about absentee landlords letting through agents and having no personal, hands-on involvement in the management of the houses. A lot of these properties have a high turnover of tenants. People move in, live there for a year and move on to the next town or to another part of the town to a similar property. This has huge consequences for the area and for local schools, for example, where pupils do not stay for very long and move away, often missing schooling in between. This results in some problem tenants.
I do not suggest that all people living in private rented accommodation cause problems. Clearly, they do not. My daughter lived in a house in my ward last year. It was a very nice little house and she is a very nice tenant. However, you need only one problem family to cause real problems in a street. While they are being moved on, persuaded to move on or whatever, those problems are there. It results in other people in the street saying that they have had enough and moving out, whether they are owner-occupiers or tenants, and in the deterioration of some properties. If you then get two or three of them together, and particularly if the empty properties get vandalised, the problems in those streets are huge and the only way they can be solved is by the active intervention of the local authority. That costs a lot of money and a lot of resources—and there is not a lot of that around at the moment. Councillors, the council, other agencies, residents and, indeed, the residents’ groups that exist in many of these areas are waging a defensive battle. It is damage limitation against what is, in these areas, a lose-lose situation.
There have been lots of initiatives over the years. Housing market renewal came and provided hope on the horizon, but that has all gone away. We now have an empty homes initiative from the present Government, although we do not know whether it will work. Local authorities grasp whatever is offered to them, but one problem is that there is no consistency. I keep saying that local authorities are presented with one lot of schemes and solutions, which then goes away and they have to grasp the next one. It is about always running to keep up.
A few years ago, the Housing Act 2004, I think, introduced the concept of selective licensing of private sector landlords. We looked very hard at this, in both the areas I am talking about, but in the end the council felt it could not go ahead with it. That was partly because it did not stack up financially and the council would have had to substantially subsidise it and partly because it was no way to tackle the problem of empty houses. Poor landlords could simply opt out of the scheme by leaving properties empty, which was obviously a lot worse than having tenants in.
Following the Rugg report, the previous Government talked about a national landlord registration scheme. It is interesting that the Welsh Government have—only last week I think—issued a consultation paper suggesting one in Wales. That would go some way towards tackling the problem, because it would at least provide people with facts and information and provide councils with a way of relating directly to landlords. Voluntary accreditation schemes do not work because the people who join them are the good landlords. They are worth while for them but do not tackle the ones we really want to tackle.
I do not know what all the answers are. I am absolutely certain that solutions developed for areas such as London where the housing market is grossly overheated have very little relevance to us. We need the flexibility to tackle things in different ways in different parts of the country according to the circumstances of the housing market in those areas.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for introducing this debate and the manner in which he did so. This is an important issue for all of us. I speak as a Londoner, from where the problem of housing families is particularly acute. In my area of Camden, the local council has exceptional difficulty and priority is given to housing families with children. That priority is often criticised, although not by me—we cannot have children homeless and on the streets.
When I first moved into the area in which I live, over 40 years ago, West Hampstead was not regarded as particularly posh. It is adjacent to Kilburn, which was long recognised as a working-class area. However, there has been an enormous change. The large houses have all been transformed into flats, with many let at very high prices—£500 a week is quite normal for a one-bedroom flat. Ordinary working families simply cannot afford rents at this level. If the family is on housing benefit, the cost to the taxpayer is quite substantial, although that is not the fault of the family, as the money just goes straight to the greedy landlord. There are now new rules about benefits and strictures about underoccupancy have been issued by the Minister. Extra rooms are restricted, except for a carer who actually lives in, and the number of bedrooms is limited in line with what is felt to be appropriate for the family size. This has all made families feel very unsettled, particularly if the benefit is related to the market rent for the accommodation. They may think that they have no alternative but to move to somewhere cheaper. In fact, that attitude is encouraged by some councils.
People often do not want to move to a different area, particularly if it would no longer be possible for children to attend their school. People with a disability may have problems about moving as well. Often they will need support facilities where they currently live and it may not be easy to move to an entirely different area. Poorer people moving out of areas and then leaving them to be accommodated purely by the better-off has social consequences that we should be careful of. The well informed charity Shelter does not think that underoccupancy is a problem. It is more concerned that, in many poorer homes, the families are too crowded and often children have difficulty doing homework and other work in such situations.
All these problems arise because there has been too little social housing built over the past 30 or 40 years. It is true that this is now recognised belatedly. The Mayor of London recently announced a programme of social housing for London, but how long will all that take and how much will it all cost? In the mean time many families are worried and distressed, and contemplating possibly moving or trying to get by on much lower benefits. Just after the last war, there was of course a terrible problem of housing shortage because of the bombing. Rents, however, were set by a local tribunal. The then Government took a very bold step and introduced a system of rent control. If tenants thought that the rent was too high they could get a ruling from the tribunal. Had this set-up not existed, most of the population would have been forced to sleep on the street. As it was, poorer people managed to get by because the rents had some relationship to the wages that they were then earning. There is a case for something rather similar to be done now. Indeed my noble friend, in introducing the debate, hinted as much and outlined a system.
There are really two problems for which the taxpayer is paying: rents are too high; and wages are too low. Something could be done about the first. On the second, as a former trade union official, it is a matter of regret to me that trade unionism in the private sector has declined. I would like to see that reversed and people in London paid at least a living wage, which most of them do not get. Benefits, incidentally, are mostly paid to people in employment but who are badly paid, so the taxpayer subsidises low-paying employers. That could be improved by introducing the living wage and inspectors to ensure that it is enforced. In my view something should be done and I am grateful to my noble friend and others who have spoken in the debate this afternoon. We have all agreed that something has to be done and that there are things that we could do immediately, which I hope the Minister will take seriously.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for initiating the debate. We all know her lifelong commitment to the problem of housing, particularly her work with Shelter. It is very important that we give our time and energy to debating this important issue.
I have an interest to declare. I am not the chairman of anything or a councillor, but I am a member of the angry brigade. I feel quite angry about this, as do lots of people of our generation, although it is hard to be angry in your Lordships’ House at quarter past four on a Thursday afternoon when it is not very heavily populated. Some of the speeches, to which I have listened very carefully, have reinforced my disposition. Although they might not be described as angry speeches, they have been passionate about a commitment to doing something about the hugely serious problem that we have with young people in almost every sense of the word.
When I was a young trade unionist, which was nearly 50 years ago, we used to march with our banners, which had two things on them: homes and jobs. Those were the two things that we had least and wanted most. We were never able to get them. I thought about that this week when I noticed the Shard building that has shot up near London Bridge and read that there will be £50 million flats available for people to rent. I do not suppose that many people in your Lordships’ House will be putting their name on that list. Looking down from the £50 million flat to the kind of problems that we have in London—and beyond, as apparently you can see beyond from the Shard—it occurred to me that nothing has really changed. For a lot of young people things are much worse than they were when I was young myself.
The average age in your Lordships’ House is, I think, 69. It is important that we, as the older generation, work hard to understand and sympathise with what it is like to be young—and there has been a really strong display of this in the House this afternoon—and do everything that we can in whatever way we can to help young people with both jobs and housing, because that help is welcome and very much needed. It is one of those days—they occur to me sometimes—when I wish we could get young people on these Benches debating the issues; let us hear what they have to say. If this happened, the House would probably be fuller than it is today. I might be joined by some other members of the angry brigade if we were able to do that. We recognise the very tough time that young people are having.
The old deal that we were all used to was this: work hard at school, get a job, save a deposit for a mortgage, pay your pension and, at the end, you will probably be okay and, if not, there will be a welfare state that will support you. I am afraid that this paradigm has gone. The new deal is this: work even harder at school and borrow a lot of money—£30,000 to go to university, which you pay back when you get a job, if you get a job, which many cannot do. Pensions are even more elusive, as are mortgages without a wealthy or generous parent, which is probably not available to the majority of people. This is a very different paradigm to the one that we experienced.
What happens at the end of this? What will it be like for these young people in 30 years, with no mortgages, not-so-good jobs and no pensions? Where will they get £100,000 to pay for their care? What will they have to sell? They will not have any equity or pensions. It will be a huge burden on the state. This is obviously not a subject for today; it is for another debate but it is very important. Fast-forward the problems that we are talking about today 30 years and what sort of consequences will we see?
This is what our generation of young people are faced with. I do not think that any of us have a strategy to deal with it. We have piecemeal initiatives and schemes, which have often failed. As people have said this afternoon, sometimes they are flawed but the model itself of actually helping young people either to buy or to rent is broken. It cannot deliver the kind of decent homes for future generations that we need. I have looked carefully at the Department for Communities and Local Government housing strategy to find a big picture. Is there a five-year strategy, as the right reverend Prelate indicated would be very helpful in these circumstances? My conclusion was that there was not. It was cloaked in the language of choice, flexibility and community. A lot of initiatives do not add up to what we want. I do not say that they are not worthy or not worth trying, but they are not adequate to meet the situation and the problems that we face.
The basic problem is that young people between 20 and 35 cannot any longer afford to buy a home in lots of parts of this country. Why is that? It is because there are not enough homes being built for people to live in. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, has made this point very eloquently. Will the prices, therefore, of renting existing limited supply be higher or lower? It will be higher because it will mean high rents in some places, particularly London, where the amount of money that young people have to pay to live is disgustingly high. If we were to build more homes and bring down prices, the savings that young people had would make adequate deposits. However, with the present price of private homes, most young people have no chance of ever climbing the housing ladder. They have no choice: they have to go to the private rented sector.
There has been an eloquent debate today about what that sector is like. It is a mixed bag. It is unregulated, by and large. Although councils have a role there, it is not regulated successfully. As to individual landlords, I know decent people who have buy- to-let properties. I do not agree with it but it is a matter for them. Decent people buy to let and we need people to provide rented accommodation. However, there are also the worse kind of rogue landlords, about whom we have heard today. Whether they are decent people or rogues, they are all there for a reason: they are all making very good returns in one of the few growth areas of the British economy.
How are rental levels determined? They are determined by the market, which in a country which fails to build anything like the number of homes needed to house its population is going to be fairly buoyant. It will be a good market for sellers of accommodation but not such a good market for buyers. Landlords can charge what the market will take. Tenancies are normally short term, six to 12 months being the average.
Rent levels next to earnings are cripplingly high. In London, a small two-bedroom flat in zone 1 and 2 can cost £15,000 to £18,000 a year, not in the high-quality areas but in the poorer areas. Outside London, in major cities you would be lucky to find a two-bedroom flat under £5,000 a year. That is a lot of money for people working in the kind of jobs that are very important to us. How does a nurse, a postman or a teacher on a salary of between £15,000 and £30,000 afford this kind of rent? It is impossible to do so. We have to wake up to that fact and do something about it.
In London, in the main, unless young people share or live in one room, as many do, they move back to the suburbs and join those families affected by housing benefit. They pack their bags and they have got to go. What does that mean for the nurses that I was talking to when I was a patient recently in Guy’s Hospital? It means that they have unaffordable travel costs and it is difficult for them to go to work and meet the shift patterns. The nurses come crashing in, worn out by the travel before they even start to look after their patients. That is an anecdote, of course, but it is part of the reality of why we have not got nurses living in London: they cannot afford to rent accommodation.
All these problems arise before we examine the space and quality of accommodation, for which we have no standards. We know that standards are certainly very poor at the bottom end of the market. Some landlords seriously overcrowd their properties and only a few good local councils have the money or the political initiative to do anything about it. The quality of the space in which you live is as important as the street in which you live, and I get angry about young people being shuffled into small, inadequate accommodation without proper facilities and having to grow up in that kind of environment. It never happened to me and I do not see why it should happen to this generation.
Rightmove has said that in a double-dip economy there is a rent rise bubble as landlords push through even higher rents, God forbid. One in three tenants now spends more than a half of their take-home pay on rent. Can you believe that? Rightmove, which wrote the survey, says that there is,
“unique evidence of a rental squeeze that may be leaving some tenants with little or no headroom”.
Few are renting because they want to. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, put forward different figures, although we can all look at different reports. However, according to the Rightmove report, 56% of people are trapped as renters and forced to pay landlords because they cannot access a mortgage. It is really serious if that is the case. If 40% or 50% of tenants do not want to be in rented accommodation but want their own home, should we not tackle that situation as a society?
It is now said that housing benefit may be removed from the under-25s. If that happens, it will hit about 300,000 young people, remove a vital safety net and push more young people into the ranks of the homeless.
What will happen to this problem? It will get worse, I am sad to say. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation forecasts that the number of new home owners will fall from 2.4 million to 1.3 million in eight years. This will mean a need for 1 million more private landlords because the public sector is not going to house people, and 1 million more young people looking for private rents, which will probably be unaffordable.
What are we to do? With respect, it is probably too late for this Government—I am not saying that the previous Government were brilliant, either—to have a major housebuilding plan of the kind called for by the right reverend Prelate. I am confident that a new Labour Government would at least have a chance of putting tenants in private rented accommodation which would include longer-term leases, registration of landlords and decent space and accommodation standards, among other things. I address my remarks to my noble friend on the Front Bench, with whom I am glad to say that I have been friends for many years, almost since I was marching with my banners—not quite but not far off. We really need to accept that the present model does not work. In opposition, it is time to think about the bigger picture and to ask the questions.
What would we need to do to provide a home for all those who wanted to own one? What would we need to do to give those who did not want to own a home a choice of high-quality options at affordable rents? Those are two really simple but very important questions. I hope that the Labour Party in opposition will work on this and that we will not go round the same paradigm, doing the same things and trying to patch things up when, in reality, nothing much really changes and for many people things get worse. I honestly believe that this debate is more important than bank reform. It is more important than the Leveson inquiry. It is even more important than House of Lords reform.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of one flat that is rented but also as the mother of three members of the very angry brigade. I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Rendell for initiating our debate today with her customary passion and insight. The debate is important for individuals and families but also for our urban and rural communities, and our society as a whole. My noble friend raised fundamentally disturbing issues affecting thousands of people up and down the country. A house or flat is not just a matter of bricks and mortar; it is a home. It provides shelter, sanctuary and safety, and has a profound effect on physical and mental well-being. It is a place that should give an individual and families security, and a nest from which to thrive.
As we have heard, exorbitant house prices and a scarcity of good-quality social housing have forced many families to rely on the private rented sector, where many fall prey to unscrupulous landlords and are compelled to reside in abysmal living conditions that fail to meet even the Government’s decent home standard—based on the statutory minimum standard for housing. The fact that this basic standard is all too often not met is a national disgrace. Shelter warns that even satisfactory-quality homes are too expensive for many, particularly now in the era of the double-dip recession. I recently met a family with two children living in an ex-council flat in Paddington for which the private landlord charged £2,100 a month. That cannot be a fair rent. They relied on the help of housing benefit but of course it was the landlord who derived the greatest benefit. Just over two in five homes in the private rented sector in England, or 44%, fail to meet even the decent home standard. This represents a major housing issue, which is undoubtedly contributing to the deterioration of quality of life for many families and individuals in this country.
Poor living conditions create a plethora of social problems that affect all members of society and strike at the cohesiveness of the family unit. Substandard accommodation leads to an increased risk of ill-health and chronic health conditions, and can lead to poor school performance, particularly for those struggling on the lowest incomes. These are the people least able to escape from poor living conditions as they have fewer, and in most cases absolutely no alternative, housing options. Earlier this year, I met a woman who had been moved into privately rented rooms which she had to hoover three times a day because of the cockroaches that covered the floors and other surfaces.
It is reported that the private rented sector is home to approximately 1 million families with children—twice the number of a decade ago. Save the Children warns us that almost 2 million children in the UK are growing up in cold, damp, temporary or overcrowded housing. That is the latest official estimate from the DCLG. Bad housing has potentially irreversible effects on children’s health, well-being and educational achievement, restricting their life chances indefinitely. A child’s future health and life prospects are built upon the foundations of the quality of care it receives as a young child and the quality of the housing in which it lives. The problems faced by families will undoubtedly increase because of rising levels of families and individuals forced to rent in the private rented sector and declining owner- occupation. Of particular concern is the fact that the private rented sector remains subject to inadequate regulation.
In order to strengthen the rights of tenants, Shelter has called on the Government to make a number of crucial changes to housing policy, including working more closely with local authorities to prioritise the prosecution of rogue landlords, and strengthening the law to permit the banning of people from being landlords if they have unspent convictions relating to previous landlord offences. Indeed, should not unscrupulous landlords who force families to live in squalid conditions be permanently banned? Save the Children reminds us of the 2008 Rugg review by the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York, which proposed PRS regulation, including a national register of landlords, mandatory licensing for letting agents and written tenancy agreements.
It is imperative that the quality of private rented sector housing is better regulated, particularly as the significance of the sector continues to rise. Home ownership levels fell from approximately 70% of households in 2001 to 65.2% by 2010, while private renting grew from 10.1% to 17.4%, and social renting decreased from 20% to 17.5%. The exponential rise of the private rented sector, combined with the poor regulation of landlords and the substandard condition of many properties, has created abysmal living conditions for many families and individuals.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to what I regard as very good practice in the Labour council of Newham, led by the excellent Sir Robin Wales. On the basis of a successful pilot of a neighbourhood improvement zone, Newham is now expanding a licensing scheme to include all private landlords in the borough. This is the first ever borough-wide licensing scheme and will give an unprecedented ability to drive up standards across the borough. The licence carries conditions which the landlord or managing agent must abide by, mostly around the management of the property. The system is financially fair to landlords. A scaled fee structure is being introduced so that compliant—that is to say, good—landlords do not have to carry the costs of licensing “rogue” landlords. The licensing scheme will allow the council to identify and engage the non co-operative landlords, which simply is not possible with voluntary schemes. It will enforce on a “worse first” basis, focusing activity on non-compliant landlords. Landlords who abide by the conditions of the licence will be able to get on with their business without intervention.
That is exactly the sort of scheme that, as a Labour Government, I hope we would introduce across the whole of this country. We would all agree that the need for security of housing tenure is pivotal to a stable home environment. Private tenants are typically provided with negligible security, due in part to the prevalent assured shorthold tenancy, which is widely used by landlords. Many examples have been given this afternoon of families having to move on many occasions because of the whims or greed of private landlords, who refuse to make the appropriate repairs to their properties. Such instability is a nightmare for families and can contribute to both insecurity and chaotic lifestyles. How can children thrive academically who have to move four or five times within a couple of years? How can they thrive in a stable condition in schools if they have to move time after time?
The Localism Act opened up the prospect of reducing security of tenure for social housing, yet security of tenure in the private rented sector is very weak; it is essentially six months. Dreading eviction, families often do not feel that they are able to report instances of disrepair or problems with damp, for example. In the event that they do complain, these requests are frequently ignored, and there is very little recourse for these families.
Recent changes to the housing benefit system—now setting the limit at the 30th percentile—is causing those reliant on benefit to be restricted to the cheaper end of the market. These are the very properties that typically do not meet even the minimum decent homes standard. The underoccupation rules for social housing will force some families out of existing accommodation and into the private rented sector, adding yet greater pressure. Research by Shelter and other housing organisations indicates that a large proportion of private rented properties bar housing benefit claimants from private tenancies. That is especially a problem in London.
The policy mooted by the Prime Minister, that housing benefit should be denied to young people under 25, shows a profound lack of understanding of the lives of real people. Many young people who receive housing benefit are on low wages. They are working and trying to contribute to the economy, but they simply do not have enough money to pay the rent. My noble friend referred to food banks; sometimes it is precisely these young people who now have to resort to food banks. Just last week, I heard of a food bank in Salisbury that focuses on people who are in work but receive such low wages that they cannot afford to buy the food that is necessary to provide for their families.
We hear whispers that a government-commissioned review of the private rented sector by Sir Adrian Montague is likely to recommend sweeping changes to planning and funding rules. It will favour the private rented sector over building new affordable homes, which will further exacerbate the limited opportunities for home ownership. It is also suggested that this may extend to recommendations to the Government to offer loans, in place of grants, to support large-scale new build private rented sector schemes. This could have devastating consequences for the nurturing and development of the affordable housing sector. I would be grateful if the Minister could give me an assurance that the Government are not abandoning an affordable housing strategy, nor seeking to replace social housing with wide-scale private rented housing, and a promise that they will not be distorting housing policy towards private rented housing at the expense of the protection of social housing.
The degree of housing need in our country, driven by longer life expectancy and an increasing tendency for people to live in single households, must be addressed. At least 240,000 new homes need to be delivered per year to meet the formation of new households. In 2008, a National Housing and Planning Advice Unit assessment showed that a minimum of 240,000 homes would be needed annually to keep pace with demand. Just 102,730 new homes were built in 2010, which represents more than 15,000 fewer homes than the previous year. It is certainly fewer than were built in the last year of the Labour Government. Government initiatives are simply not delivering.
Labour made some significant progress when it was in government; our decent homes programme made a significant difference to the quality of council housing. We also planned to improve regulation of the private rented sector, but these plans have since been abandoned by the coalition. However, I readily admit that in government we did not do enough to provide housing for people. Housing must and will be a priority for the next Labour Government, and I assure my noble friend Lord Sawyer that we are indeed working on that issue now.
The quality of living standards for families and individuals must be addressed, as must the plight of those living in substandard accommodation. Poor housing and living conditions create a plethora of social problems that will touch and be detrimental to all parts of society. Sadly, poor housing and anti-social behaviour are often linked. This affects individuals and families, but also the wider community. The growing housing crisis will not abate without action. Steps need to be taken now to address that crisis, including the dismal and sometimes desperate problems suffered by those who live in expensive—and too often substandard—private rented accommodation. It could be said that all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon belong to the ageing angry brigade, and we look forward to the response from the Minister.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, very much for having initiated this debate. I am sure that she did not sound like somebody from the angry brigade, but she spoke very forcefully and with her usual cogence. I thank her for that and I thank other noble Lords who have taken part. As one might have expected with this debate, it has wandered widely around the subject of housing but, as noble Lords have said, you cannot really think about a house without people or about those people without their conditions. It is perfectly understandable that that is how it should have developed.
We have had some particularly moving examples of bad practice and things going wrong. I do not think any of us would sit here and pretend that everything in the private rented sector was glorious. It is not possible to believe that. I have read the recent report by Shelter with great interest. The key points in it are about the difficulties that some families have in managing within the private rented sector—the insecurity of short tenancies and a general feeling of difficulty over the renewals of rent—have been touched on by noble Lords today.
For a number of reasons that have been raised, many more people are now accessing the private rented sector. There is increased pressure on affordable housing. There are those who could possibly afford a mortgage, but who cannot raise enough for a deposit on a house. That slows down home ownership. Those people enter the private rented market as well and are increasing the need for it.
Many people can not only afford private renting but find it a useful short-term or long-term way of living because of its flexibility. I recognise that those are probably not the people we are talking about this afternoon. We are talking about those on low or medium incomes, many of whom access housing through assured shorthold tenancies. These give initial terms of six months and in general these terms are renewable after the six months expire. At the outset, tenants and landlords can offer initial fixed periods. Shorthold tenancies play an important role in the housing market. There is sufficient flexibility in them, but I would not say that everything was perfect.
The constraints of renting are understood and some of them have been mentioned. However, only 8.2% of tenancies are stopped by tenants by mutual agreement. While it is true that families with children are having to rent, this has not in most cases meant constant upheaval and disruption. However, I accept that there are times when it does, and the 8.2% refers to the people who are giving up tenancies.
We have not heard a lot about the English Housing Survey report today, though the noble Lord, Lord Morris, did mention it. We can all extrapolate and take out the little bits which interest us most, but that is what surveys are about and is one of the advantages of having them. The report shows that most tenants are reasonably satisfied with their accommodation. Where they are not there are regulatory ways by which problems can be dealt with. I will briefly go through some of these.
For example, where there are concerns about the level of rent, people have access even in affordable short-term tenancies to rent assessment committees. People should not therefore feel pressured about increases in rent as there is a perfectly reasonable route to have the rent reassessed. Once it is fixed by the committee, that is the legal maximum that people can be charged. A number of noble Lords referred to the standard of property. If a tenant feels that the landlord is not maintaining it and is failing to carry out repairs, the local authority has powers to deal with that. It can deal with it not only under its own enforcement powers but under the health and safety rating system which could result in the landlord being required to carry out repairs if he will not do them voluntarily.
We have heard quite a bit today about rogue landlords. We recognise that in some places they are a significant problem. Rogue landlords include those who are doing the beds-in-sheds renting that we believe to be completely unacceptable. The Government have been working with local authorities, Shelter and other organisations to deal with the problem, which we recognise. As I think was mentioned, we are shortly going to publish guidance for all local authorities to provide them with advice on how to take action against these rogue landlords, including prosecuting them. Local authorities can deal with rogue landlords, and we have to be really clear about that. They have legal powers to do so, and that will be in the guidance. My department has provided more than £1 million to nine local authorities where beds in sheds is a particular problem to help increase their enforcement activities. Action can therefore be taken.
The private rented sector is a major source of housing and will continue to be so and to have an essential role in the housing market as this Government continue to work to increase the supply of affordable housing, which I confirm we are doing, and to find ways of making land available for development of all kinds. Making land available includes getting every government department to identify its surplus land and make it available for the housing initiatives that are coming up and are in the housing strategy to ensure that there is extra housing. We will not take lessons from the previous Government about the amount of housing that has been provided. One of the reasons why we have less housing than we should have is because there was not quite enough built previously. Of course, houses finished in 2010 were started previously. We are working very hard indeed on increasing the amount of property, and at the moment there is provision for more than 170,000 homes between now and 2015.
I shall develop what the Government are doing at the moment because it has been suggested that we are not doing very much. There is the new homes bonus, which will encourage and help pay for affordable housing and more private housing. We are also marketing new build-to-rent pilot sites through the Homes and Communities Agency. There are the First Buy and NewBuy policies to help with mortgages, and there are mortgage incentives with the banks to help with deposits. We are also putting in place an independent review of barriers to investment in private homes to rent. There is a lot going on. The housing strategy that was published last year goes into much more detail than I can, but if noble Lords go through it, they will realise that the Government expect that with either the public sector, the New Homes Bonus, the private sector or with institutions, we will provide or start to provide the housing that is necessary.
We are working with the industry to build up standards and, as I have already said, we are encouraging local authorities to make full use of the robust powers they already have to tackle dangerous and poorly maintained homes. I was asked about the decent homes standard. We continue to support it to ensure that those properties that fall outside the decent homes bracket are brought up to standard.
It was also mentioned that we have commissioned a report by Sir Adrian Montague on encouraging institutional investment. It is due to be published very shortly and either will or will not include the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. However, it will be an influential report that will help us to get institutional investment into housing.
With the limited availability of mortgage finance, there must be an important role for new homes that are built to rent. More homes mean better conditions and less pressure on people to have to live in unsatisfactory and overpriced housing. The point was made today that one of the reasons we have high rents and inadequate housing is the shortage of housing in terms of the size of the population. There are several reasons why demand for housing is increasing, not least of which is the larger number of single-occupant homes while the population is increasing. We also need better homes for older people. There is a lot of demand on housing supply but, along with everybody else here, I accept that that housing supply must be of a decent standard.
I am very sympathetic to the issues that have been raised today. A number of points were made. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, mentioned tenants’ deposits and of course they are protected. There is now a requirement for all landlords to ensure that deposits are put into two schemes and that they are returned at the end of a tenancy.
Those on housing benefit account for around 30% of rented housing. While I understand the concern about the cap having come down, housing benefit will be available to most of that 30%. It is mostly in London, if at all, that that has to be reassessed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester raised the point that most people on housing benefit are in work. I cannot dispute that but, again, housing benefit is available up to the cap.
I thank the right reverend Prelate for acknowledging that the housing strategy is in place. I should add that the housing associations that he mentioned access money and have their own ways of doing so. However, we are also trying to open up institutional investment again to try to increase the number of properties.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the difficulties of young people, particularly those aged 18 to 20. Yes, I absolutely accept that many young people now have to live with their parents for a lot longer than they might like to have done. I had my children living with me for quite a long time, and I am glad to say that they have now moved on. In most families, children do not now find it easy to move out. I hope that I have covered most of the points that have been raised.
May I make one comment? I am sure that the noble Baroness is delighted that her children have now flown the nest but I am equally sure that, when her children lived at home, they had a bedroom each. The problem for so many families is that those of their children who have to live with them are probably sofa-surfing because they have their other children living in the house. The tensions that are placed on these families can be immense. That is why we on this side of the House are extremely concerned about the proposals to cap housing benefit for those aged under 25. The tensions that could be exacerbated in those families could break them.
I thank the noble Baroness for that contribution. Before I finish, I want to state that the Government are investing £4.5 billion in funding new affordable homes over the next spending review period—not an insignificant sum—and that the private sector funding contributed by providers to deliver these properties is some £15 billion. So there is huge monetary investment in housing, which I am sure noble Lords will recognise.
Again, I thank the noble Baroness for her debate and I thank all those who have taken part. If there are any points that I have not answered satisfactorily, I will write to noble Lords.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response, which shows an intention to build more houses so that there are more homes by 2015 and to improve existing homes and bring them to a decent standard. I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate, giving thoughtful and well researched speeches. My noble friends Lord Morris of Handsworth and Lord Sawyer showed justified anger at instances of injustice and unfairness, and my noble friend Lady Turner spoke from her personal experience of her own area of London.
Again, I thank all noble Lords who took part in this debate.