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Social Housing

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2020


Asked by

My Lords, we will publish the social housing White Paper later this year. It will set out further measures to empower tenants and support the continued supply of social homes. This will include greater redress, better regulation and improving the quality of social housing.

My Lords, last Sunday marked the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which highlighted the great need to address social housing. Meanwhile, coronavirus has shown the importance of having a home that is a decent, safe and secure. For many, this will mean social housing. Will my noble friend the Minister come forward with a clearer timeline than the end of the year as to when the White Paper will be published?

I cannot add to the timeline that I have already provided. However, I will say that we are a matter of weeks away from publication of the new building safety Bill, which will transform the safety of many of those who are currently living at risk of similar events to Grenfell. That will form a new regulatory oversight for all tenants, including those in social housing.

My Lords, these Benches welcome the upcoming White Paper, but we are still losing tens of thousands of social housing units annually, with a net loss of 17,000 in 2019 alone. Can the Minister confirm to your Lordships’ House that increasing social housing will be addressed in the White Paper, and is he able to give us some indication as to the steps that Her Majesty’s Government will implement to address this worrying decline?

It is fair to say that the record of this Government is quite impressive when compared with the previous decade under Labour. Some 450,000 affordable homes is considerably more than the 399,000 built during the years 2000 to 2010. Of course, the Chancellor has already set out a considerable sum of money—an unprecedented sum of £12 billion—for the affordable homes programme and, by lifting the housing revenue account borrowing cap, many local authorities are now building council homes again. Although we are waiting on the social housing White Paper, a lot has been done to ensure the continued supply of affordable housing and social rented housing.

With more and more demand for accessible homes for the elderly and the disabled—a need that has been highlighted by Covid—has the Minister seen Habinteg’s analysis of local plans? It shows that, of the 2.4 million homes already planned for by 2030, only 20% are expected to meet the Part M4(2) accessible and adaptable standards and that a mere 2% will meet the needs of wheelchair users in Part M4(3). What steps will my noble friend the Minister be taking to remedy this, either in the White Paper or perhaps more broadly?

My noble friend makes an important point about the accessibility of social housing, and I will write to her about the specific measures we will be taking. I can say that, as well as accessibility, it is of course important that we continue to build supported housing for the elderly, and the supply of that should feature as a very important part of local plans.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report published by the Affordable Housing Commission which says that 13% of adults surveyed claimed that their mental health was being adversely affected by their housing situation? Does the Minister accept that behind the stress, and despite the significant strides which have been made, there is still a shortage of more than 1 million homes and places to live? We need to do more to target people in low-income groups, people who are poor and people who are young and still living in their family homes.

There is no doubt that we need to see more homes of all types and tenures to house vulnerable groups, in particular those who have been mentioned by the noble Lord. It is important to recognise, however, that the amount of money which has been set aside for affordable housing—£12 billion—is an unprecedented sum, with which we seek to build 250,000 affordable homes, including those for social rent which the noble Lord has pointed out are so needed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the National Housing Federation. It has been three years since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, and we owe it to the families and friends of the victims to ensure that this never happens again. The tragedy revealed the urgent need to rebuild trust between landlords and residents. Housing associations have been working, through the “Together with Tenants” initiative, to strengthen those relationships, and it is vital that the Government should support such initiatives to protect the rights and interests of residents. The earlier Green Paper emphasised the need to renew our commitment to social housing and to tackle stigma. Coronavirus has reaffirmed the value of having a safe place to call home. Will the Minister commit to using the White Paper to restate the value of social housing to our society and to invest in it?

My Lords, it is important to recognise the points outlined by the noble Baroness about the stigma around social housing and that we do what we can to ensure that so-called “poor doors” are a thing of the past. In addition, we should continue to invest money in building affordable housing, including social rented housing, so that we have mixed and balanced communities. One of the points that is always raised is the need to ensure that there is no concentration of deprivation, and having a mixture of types and tenures of housing is critical for all communities.

Does the Minister agree with the Conservative-majority housing Select Committee, which only last week stated that the building safety fund is an inadequate response to the current “cladding nightmare” and has too many restrictions, including against social housing providers? This White Paper was promised by Boris Johnson before the last election—originally, it was to be an urgent response to the Grenfell tragedy. Three years on, does the Minister accept that this is a promise which has not been met?

Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with that analysis. The sum of £1 billion to the building safety fund is to ensure that more high-rise buildings are remediated, and in particular to provide a recourse for those who cannot use any other means than public money. The provision of £1 billion is an unprecedented sum to discharge that, and of course we are delighted that so many people had already registered with the fund within several weeks of its opening.

My Lords, I welcome the £12 billion expenditure announced for social housing, but can I ask my noble friend whether there are any plans to encourage the use of pension fund assets, including local authority funds, to fund extensive social housing investment, which could ease the pressures on public expenditure?

My noble friend has made a very good point, which is that we could use the returns from housing in order to increase investment. I shall have to write to her on the specifics of her point, but it should be noted that the removal of the caps on the housing revenue account was done precisely to enable more money to flow into the building of affordable housing.

My Lords, a core characteristic of social housing is that its rents are genuinely affordable to those on modest incomes, but defining “affordable” is not easy. Will the White Paper cover this, and does the Minister agree with the Affordable Housing Commission—which I have the honour to chair—that a sensible yardstick is for social housing rents to absorb no more than a third of the take-home pay of those for whom social housing is intended?

My Lords, the definition of “affordable” is certainly not an easy one. While the Government have not set a specific percentage of the incomes that people in social housing should be spending on rent, as suggested, the formula is such that it is typically around 50% to 60% of market rents.

My Lords, I declare my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The cost of rent in the social housing sector has more than trebled over the past 40 years. This has pushed up the cost of living and made family finances harder. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has previously discovered a strong link between the cost of rents in the housing sector and levels of poverty. What assessment have the Government made of the actual affordability of the limited social housing which remains and levels of poverty?

It is fair to say that the differential between social and private rents has narrowed over a considerable number of decades. The policy of rent restructuring was started under the previous Labour Administration. However, as I said in response to a previous question, social rents continue to be at or around 50% to 60% of market rents. We are seeing a rise in rents overall, whether in the private or social sector. At this stage, we can say that being at around half the private sector level is a considerable discount in rent, although rents have risen dramatically overall.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. Before calling the next Question, I will take a few moments to allow the Front-Bench teams to change place.