Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
When the Government introduced the hated bedroom tax, the headline in the Nottingham Postwas, “Nowhere to go”. It was spot on, of course. Thanks to the Government’s dismal record on affordable housing, thousands of people are being forced out of their homes or into poverty by the cruel and ill conceived bedroom tax, and millions of people cannot buy the homes they want, or find decent-quality affordable or social homes at all. I do not claim that the shortage of high-quality affordable housing started in 2010, but the Government’s policies have made the situation worse, not better.
Let me begin by setting out how the Government got it so wrong. Their first decision on taking office was to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%, leading to a collapse in affordable house building, and they consistently watered down affordable housing requirements on developers. The Prime Minister rushed out the latest proposals this week in a desperate bid to appeal to first-time buyers, but as Gavin Smart, interim chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said, the Tory plan
“smacks of building for one group of people at the expense of another.”
As usual with the Government, those on lower incomes are set to lose out, but that should not be a surprise. In London, where the housing crisis is at its most severe, the Mayor has, in his London plan, banned Labour councils from insisting on building genuine social homes through section 106 agreements, against the guidance of the planning inspector but with the approval of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Even developers have warned of the dangers of weakening the affordable homes requirements; the Westminster Property Association described the idea as “deeply flawed”.
My constituency was one of the first hit by the Government’s cuts, when a £200 million redevelopment of the Meadows, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, was scrapped. Nottingham city council had been working closely with local residents for three years to devise the plans to transform their estate by demolishing unsuitable and unpopular properties and replacing them with new homes to meet existing and future need, including extra care homes for elderly tenants. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), promised to visit the area to see for himself the issues left unaddressed, but that was just another broken promise.
If the Government are allowed to continue, we could sadly see the demise of genuinely affordable social housing. Their affordable rent model is anything but affordable to families on low incomes, and it is pushing
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up housing benefit bills in the long term. The number of affordable homes provided last year fell to its lowest level in nine years, and was 26% below the 2009-10 level. The number of homes built for social rent is at its lowest level for at least 20 years, and is falling.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is primarily driven not by finance but by ideology? Leaving social tenants in insecure properties, raising their rents, failing to invest in properties and failing to accommodate people on the basis of need—all that comes from policies, many of them dreamed up by the previous council in Hammersmith and Fulham. Is that not a deplorable way to treat people in housing need in the 21st century?
Lilian Greenwood: My hon. Friend is right. The Government seem to have no interest in the idea of social homes.
Crisis noted that in England last year, just 7,458 affordable and social rented homes were completed, compared with 9,026 in the previous year. Let us judge the Government by their own standards. In 2010, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, then Housing Minister, told the Communities and Local Government Committee that building more homes than Labour
“is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.”
Given that the Government have presided over the lowest levels of house building in peacetime since the 1920s, I suggest that they will be found wanting. House building in every year under this Government has been lower than in any year under Labour. There were 118,000 home completions last year; we are building fewer than half the homes needed to keep pace with demand.
Affordable housing is not just an issue for tenants, although I will return to the issues faced by those renting their home later. Many of my constituents want to own their own home, but if they think that the Tory party will help them to achieve their dreams, they will be sorely disappointed. Home ownership is at its lowest level for 30 years, and there are now 205,000 fewer home owners than there were at the previous election. To put it another way, in 2009-10, 67.4% of households owned their own home, compared with 63.3% now. For the first time, home ownership in the UK is below the European Union average for the pre-accession 15 countries. The number of people with a mortgage has declined, and is now lower, for the first time in more than 30 years, than the number of households living mortgage-free. Rising house prices and the requirement for larger deposits, in combination with low wages and insecure employment, is pushing home ownership out of the reach of many people. The National Housing Federation’s report, “Broken Market, Broken Dreams”, shows that with the average house price in England having risen to more than £250,000, the average first-time buyer needs to find a deposit of £30,000—almost 10 times as much as was needed by those buying a house in the early 1980s, or when I bought my first house in Nottingham 21 years ago.
Two thirds of first-time buyers rely on financial help from their parents, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. It is easy to see the disproportionate impact
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on those from poorer families. In the past, they may have been able to get on the housing ladder; now, they could be locked out of home ownership for ever. For the sake of the next generation, we need to tackle the housing crisis, and the Government’s plans are simply not up to the task. Their schemes have not helped anywhere near the number they claimed they would. The Prime Minister claimed that New Buy would help 100,000 on to the property ladder, but it has actually helped less than 6% of that target.
It is questionable whether a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate. Local housing market conditions and local demographics are important factors, and there is huge variation between and within regions. In Nottingham, average house price are well below the national median, although so are wages, and we do not suffer the problems found in London and the south-east, where there are large numbers of buy-to-let, or buy-to-leave-empty, investors.
Help to Buy has not been taken up in large numbers because those on middle incomes have alternatives, so it is those on lower incomes who are still missing out. In contrast, right to buy has increased significantly since the higher discounts were introduced in April 2012. It benefits those who are able to participate, but makes life even more difficult for those struggling to find somewhere to live. Ministers promised at the time that the additional homes sold would be replaced one for one, but that simply has not happened.
Across the country, more than 26,000 social homes have been sold in the past three years, but according to the Department’s own figures, only 2,298 homes were started by councils between April 2012 and September 2014. This month’s Inside Housing reveals that the Department’s original claim of 4,795 had to be revised down after it was challenged by the Chartered Institute of Housing. Even the most recent figures from December take the number of starts only to a total of 2,712. A further 3,285 homes were sold between October and December, up 15% on the previous quarter. The problem is getting worse, not better.
With their route to home ownership blocked, more and more people are living with their parents into their 20s and 30s, and only 36% of 25 to 34-year-olds now own their own home. With the social housing stock being depleted, it is no surprise that the proportion of young people renting in the private sector has risen to 48%. Overall, a record 11 million people—one in five of the population—are now living in the private rented sector. That is an increase of 2.5 million since 2010, and it includes 1.5 million families with children.
Rents rose across England by an average of 8% last year, according to the English housing survey. That has not only had an impact on household incomes, although rising rents are undoubtedly contributing to the cost of living crisis for many families. It goes to the heart of the Government’s failure to reduce the housing benefit bill, as more people—particularly working people—are forced to rely on state support to rent in the private sector.
Although rents in Nottingham have not risen as rapidly as in other parts of the country, there has nevertheless been a dramatic increase in the cost of subsidising private sector rents. In 2009-10, local housing allowance payments totalled £22.5 million. By 2013-14,
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that figure had risen to £41.6 million—a staggering 85% rise. More people are using the private rented sector, and they need financial help to do so.
Of course, for many people in our city, the private rented sector is not a positive choice. With more than 10,000 households on the waiting list for social housing, the private rented sector is simply the only option available. Nottingham still has a larger-than-average social housing stock, and possibly as a consequence, a larger proportion of the population want to live in a council or housing association home. However, demand outstrips supply. The problem is particularly acute in some parts of the city, such as Clifton, where there is a high demand for social housing and a large number of social homes have been lost as a result of tenants exercising their right to buy.
For families with children, the lack of long-term certainty about their housing is a particular worry. For working parents who have settled their children into local schools, built up support networks and got child care arrangements in place, six-month tenancies and the possibility of significant rent rises do not offer the stability and certainty that they need.
The difficulties have been exacerbated by the bedroom tax, which affects more than 3,000 households living in Nottingham’s council-owned social housing and hundreds more in housing association homes. The policy penalises poorer households, who are forced to cut back on essential items to pay their rent, go into debt or build up arrears that put the future of their tenancy at risk. Some, who genuinely have rooms to spare, would be prepared to downsize to escape this iniquitous measure, but there simply are not the homes to move into, with an acute shortage of smaller properties in some areas, particularly two-bedroom houses.
As the Post predicted, some people are left with nowhere to go. According to “The homelessness monitor”—independent research commissioned by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation—the combination of a lack of affordable homes, the recession and cuts to social security has led to substantial rises in homelessness in recent years. Department for Communities and Local Government statistics show that in 2014, over 111,000 people in England made an application to their council to state that they were homeless—an increase of 26% in four years—and “The homelessness monitor” found that the true figure was even higher than the statutory figures indicate. Rough sleeping has become noticeably worse, rising 55% in the last four years and by 79% in London.
Once people are homeless, the lack of affordable homes is keeping them trapped. It is increasingly difficult to access hostel accommodation, because there is a lack of affordable rented properties for current occupants to move into. Even for those tenants who choose to live in private rented housing—for many students in Nottingham, that is the case—there are real concerns about quality and suitability. Student unions at the university of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent university and New College Nottingham recently published their “Notts Student Manifesto 2015”. In it, they identified student housing among their top-four priorities,
“with rogue landlords and poor conditions a threat to wellbeing.”
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Problems highlighted range from a failure to meet basic safety standards to poor maintenance and issues relating to personal safety and security. International students reported particular concerns.
Of course, positive initiatives in the sector have been put in place since 1997; I particularly highlight action to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. Statutory homelessness fell by 70% under Labour, from 135,000 in 2003-04 to 40,000 in 2009-10. We also took action to improve housing standards. Having inherited a £19 billion repairs backlog, we brought 1.5 million social homes up to a decent standard through the decent homes programme, including by fitting over 700,000 new kitchens, 525,000 new bathrooms and over 1 million new central heating systems at a cost of £33 billion.
Locally, Nottingham’s arm’s length management organisation, Nottingham City Homes, is celebrating its 10th year, and I am proud that tenants are more satisfied than ever with the quality of their home, value for money and the repairs and maintenance service. Over the last decade, the proportion of non-decent council homes in Nottingham has fallen from 44% to around 2.6%, and with work still being carried out to improve the stock—more than 26,000 homes—that figure could be close to zero within weeks.
I have spoken before in the House about the difference that the decent homes work has made to the lives of the people I represent, and I pay particular tribute to the tenants and leaseholders who, in 2010, took their campaign to the front door of Downing street to secure continued funding for that vital work, which has improved the health and well-being of thousands of families in our city.
Nottingham City Homes and Nottingham city council have also led the way in improving the energy efficiency of homes in our city. Again, I have spoken many times about the greener housing scheme; despite the Government’s energy policy changes, which threaten to wreck our plans, that scheme has already delivered solid-wall insulation to thousands of families in Nottingham across all tenures, cutting fuel bills, providing warm and comfortable homes for residents and improving the appearance of our estates.
I am delighted that Nottingham city council and Nottingham City Homes are building new homes and replacing some of the less popular and difficult-to-maintain stock, as the shadow Minister has seen for herself. Some 166 homes have already been completed, and there are plans for a further 327. Small disused sites, such as derelict garages, have provided opportunities for redevelopment, and some of these homes, including five on Eddleston drive in Clifton, were built using NCH’s own labour force, boosting local employment and providing apprenticeships. Housing associations, including Nottingham Community Housing Association, asra Housing Group and Derwent Living, have also built new houses, mainly on sites provided by the council, but we could do so much more if we had a Labour Government with a real plan to tackle the housing crisis. That is the choice that voters can make in 64 days’ time.
Labour has endorsed the comprehensive plan set out by Sir Michael Lyons’ housing review, the first of its kind in a generation. It sets out how we will meet our
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commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, and sets a course for doubling the number of first-time buyers by 2025.
We will give local authorities the powers and resources to build the homes that their communities need, ensuring that all councils produce a plan for home building in their area and allocate sufficient land for development to meet the needs of local people. We will provide powers for groups of local authorities to collaborate and form Olympic-style new homes corporations to build on designated land at pace. We will implement measures to drive competition in the house building industry, increase capacity and expand the number of small firms. We will introduce a help-to-build scheme to underwrite loans to small builders to get them building again and fast-track planning on small sites. We will set out Treasury guarantees and financial incentives to unlock sustainable garden city development, and we will give local areas real powers to deliver garden cities through garden city development corporations, based on updated new towns legislation.
Labour councils are already building twice as many affordable homes as Tory-run authorities. A Labour Government will make housing a bigger priority for capital investment in the next Parliament.
Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware, through her connection with Nottinghamshire, that the Conservative-controlled Newark and Sherwood district council has built a number of properties in Ollerton and Edwinstowe. In fact, on Friday, I will cut the ribbon in Bilsthorpe on some new properties that have been developed through Newark and Sherwood Homes.
Lilian Greenwood: I welcome any new developments of that sort, but things could be so much better. We will make better use of existing resources through a move to single-pot funding, and by refocusing public expenditure on house building over time, going from benefits to bricks. We will make fuller use of provision for Government guarantees, including for social housing, and encourage more innovative use of public land. We will also introduce a stronger definition of affordable housing in the planning system and tougher rules for assessing the viability on housing developments. We will reverse the Government’s changes, which have watered down affordable homes obligations.
We will also introduce a fairer deal for private renters. We will give tenants in the private rented sector security and peace of mind by legislating for three-year tenancies, giving them a stable home and landlords the confidence to invest. We will end excessive rent increases and ban rip-off letting agent fees for tenants. We will drive up standards by introducing a national register of landlords, and make it easier for local authorities to introduce licensing schemes. We will bring an end to cold homes by setting a new target to upgrade the energy efficiency of properties in the private rented sector, and, of course, we will scrap the hated bedroom tax. With just 64 days to go, those vital changes to our broken housing market cannot come soon enough.