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Social Tenancies: Home-working

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 13 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made to encourage social landlords to amend new and existing tenancies to make it easier to work from home under schemes such as the new enterprise allowance.

My Lords, this Government are helping entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises to start and to grow by ensuring that the business support provided is simpler, more joined-up and accessible. The department has also alerted social landlords to guidance issued by the Chartered Institute of Housing which advises them on how to support and encourage their tenants to work from home, including information on how to amend existing tenancies if necessary.

My Lords, I recently met a lady who is setting up her own business at home. However, because she is a council tenant she has to get permission. While the best councils and housing associations have already removed this restriction, many others have not. Does the Minister agree that this can be very constraining and is a bureaucratic and old-fashioned practice that should go? What can he do to urge all landlords to encourage rather than constrain their own tenants?

My Lords, as I have indicated, we have put out advice to all social landlords on the need to seriously consider allowing their tenants to set up businesses. There is a misconception among social tenants that they cannot run a business from a council flat. They can, but they need to apply for permission from the landlord. This process is necessary because the landlord needs to be able to accept sensible web-based businesses while not allowing industrial processes to be carried out from the flat.

My Lords, should a social landlord acknowledge a room as being available for home-working, would that preclude it being a spare bedroom for the purposes of the bedroom tax?

My Lords, the noble Lord has not disappointed me one little bit: I was certain that he would not be able to resist this opportunity. The spare room subsidy encourages people to make full use of their property and to consider running a small business—which I think is highly desirable.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that under planning law you are entitled to carry out any sort of business if it is your own property, provided that it is subsidiary to the residential use? I had a dental surgery in a house we lived in and that was permitted. Has the law changed, or is a restriction in the lease imposed by the landlord preventing tenants having this right?

My Lords, the matter we are discussing is a restriction in the lease which can appear to discourage tenants from carrying on their business. Some leases are drafted in a way that makes it clear that the landlord is likely to agree to sensible variations, while other leases appear not to be so helpful. A properly educated person will realise that there is a distinct possibility, whereas others could be discouraged. I think that that is one of the issues that my noble friend Lady Grender raised with me.

My Lords, further to the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, can the Minister advise the House whether it is now the case that planning regulations no longer constrain the scope for people to nurture fledgling businesses—and, indeed, more substantial businesses—in their own home, because that used not to be the case?

My Lords, that is a detailed question about the planning rules and I shall have to write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, in 2008, in the rural housing review that I conducted for the previous Government, I precisely recommended that no social landlord should require a tenant to seek permission to run a business from their home if doing so would cause no nuisance. I am glad to say, as chair of the National Housing Federation, that that is the recommendation that we make to all our housing association members and that most of them agree. However, does my noble friend agree that in order to access the opportunities that running your own business from home can provide, it is almost universally necessary these days that you have internet access, but that whereas 90% of those in the private sector have access to the internet, fully 30% of those in social housing do not? Is there anything that Ministers can do to help social tenants get access to the internet—and to do so as a matter of right in the modern world, not as a matter of whether they can afford it?

My Lords, we are acutely aware of the need for internet access. I am sure that my noble friend is right about the percentages, but I do not think that it is that difficult to secure an internet connection. He suggested that landlords should not have the right to restrict people from starting up businesses. It is right that landlords should be involved in such decisions on behalf of other tenants in order to make sure that undesirable businesses are not started up in residential accommodation.