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Volume 806: debated on Thursday 22 October 2020


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role of alms houses in the provision of housing for the elderly.

On behalf of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Government welcome the important role that almshouses play in helping to meet the housing need of older people, providing them with homes in a safe and secure environment. They enable residents to retain their independence in the locality of their choice and within easy reach of their relatives and friends.

Does the Minister agree that the modern and progressive almshouse movement for the 21st century has much to offer older people in communities by providing much-needed housing, but that it needs support to address the challenges of updating their constitutions and developing modern governance models? My noble friend Lord Kennedy is a trustee of United St Saviour’s, a charity that is building a new almshouse in Southwark Park Road. When conditions allow, my noble friend would be delighted if the Minister would visit that site with him.

My Lords, I am very happy to accept the kind invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to visit the almshouse. I recognise the important contribution made by almshouses in providing that kind of housing. I believe that they provide 36,000 homes for elderly people who otherwise would not have accommodation of that sort.

My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register. The Church of England continues to provide excellent almshouses provision as a support to older people through its charities. There are over 30,000 almshouses in the UK and more than 1,000 new ones have been built in the last decade. Another 750 are in the pipeline, providing places of flourishing and support for the elderly. However, the complexities of the buildings themselves prohibit modern building standards being achieved. Will the Minister comment on whether Her Majesty’s Government will provide grants for local almshouse charities to upgrade their facilities within the complex planning frameworks associated with these buildings?

My Lords, I thank the Church of England for the contribution it has made to the almshouse movement, particularly in London. I remember the Lygon Almshouses in my local authority. This is a problem for all forms of sheltered and secure accommodation; much of it needs to be upgraded. I will take away the right reverend Prelate’s point and write to her, if I may.

My Lords, I am a vice-patron of the almshouses. Is there a place for this excellent organisation in the Government’s awaited policy for social care?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for raising the issue of the support that goes with the bricks and mortar in terms of social care for the elderly and frail. These are very complex questions to address, but I would point out that the Government have committed £1 billion of extra funding every year for more social care staff and better infrastructure, technology and facilities.

My Lords, I declare my interest as in the register. Many almshouses are provided by housing associations with low-cost housing, often in rural areas, helping to tackle the problem of isolation experienced by so many older people. One of the biggest, which I know well, is Durham Aged Mineworkers, and only this morning I was talking to the marvellous care provider Brunelcare in Bristol. Care homes right across the country desperately need support, particularly in these difficult times, and the long-awaited reform of social care funding is an opportunity to look at housing need right across the country. Can the Minister confirm when the Government will bring this forward?

My Lords, I point out that the Government have seen 140,000 affordable homes delivered by local authorities in rural England since April 2010, and I will write to the noble Baroness on that matter.

Does the Minister agree that almshouses are welcome but do not fill the gap identified by the Housing Learning and Improvement Network, which projected a shortfall of 400,000 units of specialist housing for older people in the next 15 years? Can he therefore tell us how many new social—not affordable—housing units are to be created specifically for older people to avoid the unsuitable alternative, which is inevitably the private rented sector?

My Lords, I have pointed out that there are 36,000 almshouses. However, there are 700,000 specialist supported and secure accommodation homes for people in this country. In addition, the affordable homes programme includes 10% towards specialist housing—but I will write further if I can provide any assistance on that point.

My Lords, will the current review of the planning system consider exempting almshouses from the infrastructure levy, which is raised at differential levels throughout the country, thereby freeing up the finances of these charitable institutions to continue to deliver homes to those in need?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an incredibly important point: we want them to continue their endeavours without being burdened by the community infrastructure levy. We are currently consulting on the proposals for reform set out in the planning White Paper. We will listen carefully to all representations made, including those from almshouses.

My Lords, if the Government gave some money to these almshouses, it would not only provide safe and secure accommodation for more older people but would free up larger accommodation for families with young children. I do not think the Minister answered the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London: will they seriously consider giving financial assistance to the almshouses to enable them to look after more older people?

My Lords, respectfully, I feel that the almshouse movement is an extension of philanthropy which sits outside the state social housing system. There are some that elect to be registered providers. It is important to recognise that the Government are providing a great deal of support towards the new build of affordable housing, both intermediate and social. Of course we want to see almshouses continue to thrive, and I point out that in recent years we have seen the greatest growth in modern times—since the Victorian era—so something is going right with regard to new build.

My Lords, almshouses are important providers of homes for older people, but the annual programme of housebuilding for this age group by all private and social providers has fallen dramatically from over 28,000 homes 30 years ago to only around 7,000 today. Does the Minister agree that government, Homes England, the GLA and local planning authorities should once again give greater priority to homes specifically for our ageing population?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Best, is an expert on this, and I remember his Housing our Ageing Population panel and discussing with him the benefits of extra care and supported housing for the elderly when I was leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council. The noble Lord is quite right that we need to provide housing of all types, for all needs, and specifically for our elderly, but that has to be private as well as social care. This is very much part of the Government’s thinking in the planning White Paper in relation to housing of all types and tenures.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that it is time to rethink urban planning and how multigenerational households can live together, and to slow down the constant building of flats in cities, which outprices and overlooks the benefits of community living for both younger and older people? Would my noble friend be willing to meet with a brilliant Leicestershire businessman who is looking at doing this there?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that invitation. I am always looking to get out and about, particularly in these difficult times, so I would very much welcome doing that as soon as it can be organised. I point out that we need housing of all types and tenures. It is not just about volume; we need enough family-sized accommodation and the right accommodation for our elderly, and it is about getting that balance. It is not just a drive for numbers; housing of all types and tenures has to be the name of the game.

My Lords, the regulations for VAT that govern charities which own buildings—and therefore have to maintain, repair and enhance them—are extremely complex to administer. Will the Minister consider talking to his Treasury colleagues to see how these may be simplified? It seems perverse to direct charitable giving to the Treasury.

My Lords, as a humble entrepreneur and businessman, I say that we all want to see things thrive, and being weighed down by bureaucracy is not a good thing, so I am happy to make those representations on the noble Baroness’s behalf to colleagues in HMT.