Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Maddock said in her excellent speech that a housing Bill does not come along very often. Indeed, it does not; and it is perhaps with that in mind that I should like to share with the House and the Minister my extreme disappointment that this Housing Bill does nothing to address the issues of affordable housing in rural areas.

The problem of affordable housing has been highlighted year after year, particularly strongly in 2002 and 2003, by the Countryside Agency, which felt that it was the most severe unaddressed problem facing rural areas. So far as I could see, the Government's only reaction to that has been to abolish the Countryside Agency—or they are about to do so. However, the rural advocate, the last chairman of the agency, is shortly to join your Lordships' House, so I hope that his voice will be added to those calling for action in this area.

Last year, the agency underlined how serious the matter was. Since then, house prices in rural areas have gone on rising—particularly in my own area of the south-west, by some 20 per cent a year, which I believe is higher than in many areas of the country. The supply of new-build affordable homes is pathetically, shockingly small. I hope to ask the Minister for some reasons why the Government have not only felt unable to address that problem robustly but made some moves that have been unhelpful.

In almost any forum that one cares to go to—whether local authority meetings or strategic partner meetings—the issue of affordable housing comes up time and again. The Minister himself mentioned sustainable communities. Affordable housing is the bedrock that is needed for rural communities. Without those affordable homes, not only will the key workers be unable to live there but so will all those occupations that are not classified as key workers but which certainly are in a rural area—whether they are car mechanics, plumbers, care home workers or taxi drivers.

Without that sort of affordable housing, the community will fade. As young people cannot afford to buy in, there will be no babies, no children, no school,
 
7 Jun 2004 : Column 102
 
and consequently much less of a community focus. Eventually we will end up with a cluster of individual households, which are not only less supporting but much more of a call on the public purse in terms of social services. Generations cannot stay together; older people are not there to babysit and child-mind in the towns where there are young people, and the young people are not there to carry out errands for the elderly people left in the rural communities. It will simply not be a sustainable community. The Government cannot claim to support sustainable communities while ignoring a swathe of those in rural areas, which simply will not be able to remain sustainable.

The Bill addresses the issues of licensing houses in multiple occupation. That is good—indeed, it is essential. However, rural areas do not have many HMOs, although there is a need for HMOs and small flats in rural areas. It is not as though young people from rural areas suddenly go from being aged 18 to 28 with no intervening years; they go through the same process as young people in urban areas. They look to become more independent and to move out when they get a job—only there is nowhere to go, except to move away to a large town or city. It is with some regret that I observe that the HMO part of the Bill will not have much relevance to rural areas.

One of the least helpful moves that the Government made recently was, last year, to remove the local authority housing grant. It was removed almost overnight. The speed of the decision and the lack of warning made planning for its removal very difficult. I appreciate that it was not a large amount, but it was enough to allow local authorities to fund small village schemes, or part-fund with RSLs. Often that pump-priming response is what is needed to respond to the housing needs survey.

When the Minister comes to say why the grant was abolished, I suspect that he will say that it was because it discriminated in favour of richer authorities. But even richer authorities in rural areas have hidden pockets of deprivation and they have those in housing need, which the strategies identify. That grant really helped. The Minister may say that that grant has gone to the Housing Corporation but has the total amount of money that it has to allocate increased by the equivalent amount of money or has the Treasury simply allocated less funding to housing overall? Clause 190 allows some grant to be given to private developers but I believe that this will not make up for the fact that local authorities themselves, which are the democratically elected bodies tasked by the Government to respond to housing need, cannot do much about it.

In the mid–1990s, 2,500 homes per year were built in smaller villages with Housing Corporation funding and a further 2,000 with local authority grants. I believe that the figure last year was a total of some 1,750. I return to the fact that that is a pathetically small figure of the whole of England. I urge the Minister to give some thought to whether there should be something in the Housing Bill to give some cheer to rural areas. One area he might like to consider is exception sites: sites that would not normally get
 
7 Jun 2004 : Column 103
 
planning permission but which can do so in a rural area when it is for affordable housing. They were first recognised in 1989. Since then some 4,000 sites have been brought into use. The Minister may say that that is not an issue for the Bill but I understand that his colleagues in the ODPM are thinking of a rewrite of PPG3, which would put the exception site policy at risk. I believe that, in the face of any other way of addressing affordable housing in rural areas, that would an extremely retrograde step. If it were abolished, a massive grant programme to buy land in rural areas would be needed and that is not a good way to use public funds.

I would like to mention a couple of other issues. I am pleased that park homes are in the Bill. I could not agree more with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, when she says that houseboat owners too need similar protection. I look forward to debating that issue further in Committee where I would also like to address the issue of homes for owners of genuine smallholdings, which have come under more and more pressure as the countryside becomes very precious.

The Government claim that their aim is a living, working countryside. At the moment, it is a joke. One can work in the countryside but live in town or work in town and live in the countryside, if you are young, but it is very difficult to do both. I hope that the Bill will do something to address that situation.

Lord Best: My Lords, I welcome the Bill, which contains a number of important changes for housing in the UK. I declare my interests as the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust and I have long-standing links with many other housing organisations.

Last week, I spent time with Jacky Peacock and her colleagues from the well respected Brent Private Tenants Rights Group. I listened in on the week's caseload of private sector tenants in need of advice and support. There were cases of accidents in unsafe properties, cases of harassment by unscrupulous landlords waiting to gain possession of properties and many cases of landlords illegally withholding the deposits that they had collected from tenants. For example, an incredulous Australian returning home after working here in the health service was astonished to discover that his landlord systematically withheld tenants' deposits of between £500 and £1,000. Such landlords know that tenants from overseas cannot wait for cases to be organised and heard in the small claims court some months later. Tenants who need to use their deposits to secure their next rented homes here can find themselves homeless, simply because landlords refuse to return their money. The recent addition to the Bill of new measures on tenants' deposits to protect against exploitation of this kind is very welcome indeed.

I also visited a number of houses in multiple occupation last week, some of which will be subject to the new licensing arrangements. I have to tell
 
7 Jun 2004 : Column 104
 
noble Lords, and the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, in particular, that the evil slums of yesteryear are still very much with us. There was the woman occupying a single room at £85 a week in the back addition of a house in Harlesden where the rain came through in three places. There was the hospital porter's miserable hovel above a shop in Wembley with cockroaches and plumbing that did not work. There was the couple in the house in Brent which had been shoddily converted into multiple "apartments" infested with mice and suffering from disrepair, condensation and mould growth. Harassment and intimidation of tenants who complain is only too common in this seedy end of the housing market.

The landlords of these properties are a disgrace to the majority of respectable and sensible operators. It is good news that the Bill will introduce regulations to improve the position. But we know that exploitation is always likely when there are acute shortages. And we know from Kate Barker's excellent review for the Treasury that the shortages of homes at rents affordable to those on low incomes are set to grow worse if we cannot increase supply, not least in rural areas, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, explained.

The private sector has much to offer to the middle market of those on the move or not yet ready or able to settle into owner occupation. But this sector cannot provide the answer for those who need decent homes at low rents, on a secure, permanent basis. Nor are those landlords who are investing in renting—and £40 billion has gone into the buy-to-let schemes in recent years—currently building any extra housing. They are simply buying existing property, and that can add to inflationary pressures on house prices. That is why successive governments have funded the direct provision of extra social housing at present provided through housing associations.

That brings me to the proposals in the Bill mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for paying social housing grant to house builders and developers—grants which hitherto have been available only to regulated housing associations. In place of the current and very welcome trend to partnerships between house builders and housing associations, this approach sets the two groups into competition with each other. The idea is that increased competition will mean efficiency gains and secure more subsidised homes for the same amount of public money. As always, the Treasury is hoping for more for less.

I should be grateful for reassurances from the Minister on three points. The first is that there will be a level playing field between house builders and housing associations in the regulations on rents, security of tenure, tenant participation, redress through the housing ombudsman and so on.

The second is that the increase in the value of properties that have been grant-aided will be locked into providing continuing social benefits in the future. The housing associations of today use the gains they have obtained from the rising property values of homes produced in the past to borrow cheaply, to withstand losses on rents in the early years of new
 
7 Jun 2004 : Column 105
 
schemes and to upgrade properties and provide important services to tenants. It would be a tragedy if the new arrangements for giving grants to house builders and developers meant that the benefits of rising property values were lost to social purposes and went instead to commercial interests and private shareholders.

Thirdly, reassurance from the Minister would be greatly appreciated on safeguards against house builders winning bids for social housing grant by building more cheaply, as they do for comparable properties for outright sale. It is possible to use less robust components in houses for sale, because homeowners are prepared to do their own maintenance and DIY, and because they under-occupy the premises, usually having a spare room, which means less wear and tear. However, in rented housing, lower quality means higher costs in the future. My fear is that if, on day one, house builders and developers appear to offer more for less, tempting the Housing Corporation to pass over public money to them, the gains may prove illusory in the longer term.

The Bill contains an array of important improvements for the UK's housing. In particular, I hope that it will help those worst affected by the bad practices of a minority of private landlords, and will in no way undermine the provision of additional, badly needed affordable homes through housing associations. I look forward to discussion of the details of the Bill over the weeks ahead.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page