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House of Commons Hansard
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24 October 2018
Volume 648

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to housing; to make provision about housing space and thermal performance standards; to place a duty on the Secretary of state to require the provision of serviced plots of land; and for connected purposes.

I am pleased to introduce the Housing Reform Bill, which will improve space standards, increase the minimum thermal performance of new homes and require the Secretary of State to provide serviced plots of land at scale to offer real choice to anyone who wishes to get their own place to live, whether through a housing association, a housing co-operative, a council house—to that end, the Minister may have noticed the article by Lord Porter in The Guardian the other day—or for private purchase. I declare my interest as an ambassador for the Right to Build Task Force, which is supported by the Nationwide Foundation, the charitable arm of the Nationwide building society.

The Prime Minister has said that housing is the Government’s top priority domestically. True, there have been four Housing Ministers in the past year or so, which does not make it sound like the Government’s top domestic priority, but after all there have been eight Housing Ministers in the past eight years and 17 Housing Ministers in the past 17 years. No recent Government have really taken housing seriously enough, although there are encouraging signs with the new Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse). I will come on to him later; I am delighted to see him in his place.

The planning system should be about making great places to live that are well designed and well built; well connected; well served with schools, health, community and sports facilities; environmentally sensitive, where green is normal; part of a thriving economy with local jobs; and active, inclusive and safe—that is to say, fair for everyone. In other words, we should separate the business of place making from the business of home building, which, so long as it is done to the required standards, can be built by anyone, including—increasingly, and often to higher standards—in an off-site factory.

Instead of that, we have a system that is broken. According to the National Audit Office, 74% of the Government’s housing budget goes on housing benefit, which is 3% of all public expenditure. Some 86% of people would like to own their own home but, despite this, home ownership is falling. There has been a surge in the number of people privately renting, particularly families with young children, not because they want to, but because they have no choice.

Dr Julie Rugg of the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy, who has done excellent research in this area, points out that in most cases the private rented sector is now a proxy either for people who wish to buy but cannot afford to do so, or for people who need to be in social housing. We have scarcely considered the long-term consequences for pension provision and affordability of people not owning their own homes, if more people are paying rent until they die. Meanwhile, we have two nations developing: one nation of those people who are invited to landlord evenings by estate agents and who in some cases already own several buy-to-let properties; and another entirely separate nation of those who cannot afford somewhere to live at all, either to rent or to buy. Home ownership among young adults has collapsed, falling to just 27% in 2016 from 65% 20 years ago.

We have a system that maximises opposition. I have yet to meet the grandmother whose daughter has just had a second baby who does not want her daughter’s family to have a good home. However, the reason there is so much opposition to new housing is that most people feel they have no real say over what gets built; where it gets built; how it performs—its thermal performance; what it looks like; crucially, who has the first chance to live there; and what the benefits of the new housing will be for the existing community. If we change all of that, we change the conversation.

We need a system where there is not a prolonged argument that prevents houses from being built quickly. At present, a very small number of very large companies build houses when, and only when, it is sufficiently profitable to do so. I do not blame them for that—they are doing their duty by their shareholders—but there are no real alternatives at scale for consumers who wish to buy something else. We have to tackle the root causes of the lack of supply. Some 67% of people are unlikely to, or would prefer not to, buy the product of volume house builders. That figure is based on research by the trade body for volume house builders, the Home Builders Federation.

The normal essentials for any vaguely competitive market to operate properly—first, real variety and choice for consumers; and, secondly, low barriers to entry for new suppliers—are wholly absent. My Bill will fix this by doing three things. First, it will improve minimum space standards. The large volume house builders are making houses that are ever more like shoe boxes, and they need to be stopped. When the 1961 report by Sir Parker Morris, “Homes for today & tomorrow”, was published, it ushered in a brief period when a decent amount of space was considered normal. The 1970s are blamed for many lapses of taste, but at least one thing that went well—so well that it is now regarded almost as a halcyon period in this respect—was that houses started to get bigger. Now they are getting smaller again.

Volume house builders routinely construct what are little more than shoe boxes, even commissioning extra-small furniture for show homes to create an optical illusion, whereby rooms in a house seem larger than they actually are, to deceive their customers. We need nationally enforced minimum standards, rather than the set of rather ad hoc arrangements we have at present. There is clear evidence that people in larger spaces are healthier, which reduces the burden on the NHS.

We also need better lifetime adaptability not as an add-on by the rare more thoughtful developers, but as standard, so that houses can easily be made suitable for young families, older people or individuals with a temporary or permanent physical impairment. In this context, I am looking forward to the launch later today by the all-party group on healthy homes and buildings of its report, “Laying the Foundations for Healthy Homes and Buildings”. The chairman of the group, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is one of the sponsors of my Bill.

Secondly, my Bill will raise the minimum thermal performance standard that new-build residential property must achieve. We have known for decades how to build a house that costs nothing to heat, but the main house builders just do not do it. The main capital cost may be slightly higher in the short term, although even that is not necessarily true, but the long-term higher costs of poor-quality housing and higher heating bills are borne the most by those who can least afford to do so, and there is also the excessive and wholly unnecessary extra burden on our planet.

It is possible to produce homes that cost a few pounds per month for heat and hot water. I recently saw one at Graven Hill in Oxfordshire, and I know that the Minister, although he has not been in office for very long, has already visited Graven Hill, which is the site of the biggest self-build and custom house building development in the UK, where eventually 1,900 serviced plots will have been built on. I saw a house where, with mechanical ventilation and heat recovery, someone can have heat and hot water for £125 a year.

Thirdly, my Bill will require the Secretary of State to provide or to ensure the provision of serviced plots of land at scale—that is to say, plots of land where the difficult parts, such as the connections for water, gas, electricity and broadband, are already done. On the continent it is quite normal to go to one’s local authority and buy a serviced plot of land. One can be produced for £12,000 to £15,000, plus the land cost. The Right to Build Task Force is working with willing local authorities across the country to make it more normal here, but we could go much further.

Recently, the city of The Hague in the Netherlands has provided serviced plots that can be purchased for €40,000, and a house can then be built for about €120,000 or £105,000. If somebody cannot afford to buy the plot, they can rent it and buy it later. Another innovative scheme in the Netherlands, known as “Ik bouw betaalbaar”—“I build affordable”—takes people on limited incomes who are on the housing register and helps them to bring forward their own affordable scheme to their own design. Lord Porter referred to that in the article in The Guardian the other day. I propose a system where such plots could be obtained by anyone from a housing association or a local council to a private individual or a housing co-operative. Simple rules would prevent volume house builders or other developers from buying large numbers of plots and would also prevent flipping.

We have sites with service plots, but not enough of them. It should become a normal choice. In the past 20 years, the ratio of average house prices to average incomes has doubled from three-and-a-half times average income to 7.7 times average income. In the 1980s and until the late ‘90s, the average 30-year-old could afford a deposit for a home if he or she saved for three or four years; now, they would have to save for nearly 20 years. The system is broken. We need a radical change of approach, and to succeed we must engage the energy of our people.

I know that there are people who say that this cannot be done, or, if it can be done, that it can be done only on a small scale in certain limited sites. It is certainly true that it works for small sites, but those people who do not believe that it can be done on a large scale are wrong, and the reason why I know they are wrong is that I have seen it being done; it is just not being done here in the United Kingdom. We will not succeed without muscular help from Government and without engaging the energy of our own people. To those people who think that the energy of our own people is insufficient, I simply join Rod Hackney, the architect, in saying that it is a dangerous thing to underestimate human potential and the energy that can be generated when people are given the opportunity to help themselves. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Richard Bacon, George Freeman, Jeremy Lefroy, Hilary Benn, Siobhain McDonagh, Mr Simon Clarke, Sir Vince Cable, Eddie Hughes, Mr Clive Betts, Jim Shannon, Sir Robert Syms and Sir Graham Brady present the Bill

Mr Richard Bacon accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 277).