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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I bumped into the Minister earlier this afternoon. He expressed the hope that I would not take him past 10 p.m. I am fortunate that that privilege will fall to another poor Member of this House, due to the rather late firing of the starting gun.
I welcome the Bill, although I want to talk about an issue that is not included in it. Anything that seeks to improve the general housing situation must be welcomed. Housing is what I would call another fence in the endless steeplechase of life. We are dealing with the problems of housing as the Government see them today, and providing solutions for today. With a great deal of hard work, I do not doubt that this will be a good Bill in the context of today. But we should face the reality that must be faced by all legislation: while we may solve many problems, we will create problems for others in the future. We should not presume that we are going to provide a Utopian solution here.
I am not quite as euphoric about Part 5 as the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I recall that when I bought my first flat in London, I was advised to have the property
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professionally surveyed. I did so, but some weeks laterand with a much lighter walletI received the wonderful document, which told me nothing that I could not see for myself when I took the care to take a thorough look at the property. So we should not assume that buyers' packs, to use the shorthand phrase, will necessarily be the perfect answer.
I want to talk about social housing in the context of Section 106 agreements. I declare an interest as an Essex landowner who has been involved in a major development where there was a heavy Section 106 agreement, which did produce a great deal of social housing. This is a significant issue.
During the proceedings on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Best, talked in considerable detail about the reasons why the Government should not take a formulaic approach for community gain on major developments. He was right, because the circumstances of each development are dramatically different.
If one considers that the Minister's right honourable friend in another place, the Deputy Prime Minister, wants to land the south-eastwhich is my particular part of the countrywith another 400,000 houses, and if one then considers that this will be major new development, some of it on brownfield sites but all resulting in immensely enhanced values, that development, negotiated properly through the Section 106 system, will produce 20 per cent, possibly 30 per cent, of social houses out of the total number of units provided. My Lords, 400,000 houses at 20 per cent is 80,000 social housing units; at 30 per cent, it is 120,000.
These things are achievable. This is a huge sum. If the Minister's right honourable friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has his way and we get from the Treasury the additional million houses that are being talked about, it would mean vast numbers of social housing units being constructed across the country.
The issue I want us to touch on, however, is how such properties are paid for. There is the idea that the developer pays for them. There is a sense in which he does, of course. He will almost certainly construct the properties and in that sense he will pay for them. The housing does not come from nowhere; it has to be paid for. It actually comes from the original landowners, who are party to this negotiation and want to see the benefits of the money that they are putting back in the community going into their communities and staying there.
There is a little fly in the ointment here. It is the right-to-buy scheme. The one thing that those landowners do not want to see is the social housing that they enable to be created subsequently going out of the social housing sphere, possibly within five years, at a discount. These are, if you like, their resources. It is their payment to their community. I would like to think that housing in that situation should at any rate have a 20-year exemption from the right to buy.
One could also argue that, where land is given up in small communities for social housingsmall plots of five or 10 acres to provide social housing in towns and villages across the countryby landowners who are prepared to
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accept a very low value for their property in order to provide the housing that is required by their community, it is again important that the right to buy does not come into play. I know that there are ways over this. It can be done by charitable housing associations; it can be done by such things as shared occupancy, and so on. It ought to be clearly understood from the start, however, that this is an issue where the right to buy should not apply, at any rate for a time.
This Bill gives an opportunity for a clause of that nature to be added, so that this matter can be taken care of. In my view, if this existed it would make it easier to negotiate Section 106 agreements. It is something which can be done in detail in Committee, and I do not need to take more of your Lordships' time.
Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I greatly welcome the introduction of this Housing Bill and the opportunity which it gives us to tackle some of the barriers which face disabled people in finding accessible and affordable homes. I declare an interest as a patron of HoDisthe National Disabled Persons Housing Serviceand as a member of the Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill.
I also declare my interest as a wheelchair user. While there have been enormous changes in the opportunities available to disabled people in the 40 years since I became disabled, the housing sector is an area which has been left in the shadows. For physically impaired people the lay-out of our homes can either enable us to live full and independent lives or it can disable us completely, making us dependent on other people for the very basics of our existencewashing, eating, sleeping and going to the loo.
But it is not only about our lives in our own homes. The ability to go into other people's homes, to visit our friends and family, is regarded almost as a luxuryand yet that ability is essential if we are to be fully equal participants in society. I have come to accept that none of my family or non-disabled friends has a home that I can get into without help. This is not because they do not care or are unthinking but because accessible housing stock is not available. This means that I can only ever be on the receiving end of their good will. If they are sick, I cannot visit them or take them a meal; if they go away, I cannot feed the cat or water the garden; if I get my neighbours' post by mistake, I cannot take it to them. It is all that give and take of life that makes relationships equal.
I hope that I can convince your Lordships that equality of access to housing is an issue of basic human rights which provides the foundation for independent living and all manner of social and economic opportunities. However, for many disabled people it is a right denied. The evidence is shocking. One-quarter of wheelchair users are virtual prisoners in their own homes because of poor access and location; thousands of disabled children are living in homes which blight
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their life chances, restrict their social development and cause their parents acute stress, back injury and sometimes loss of employment.
Many, many barriers obstruct disabled people's access to appropriate housing and independence. I suggest that this Bill and the forthcoming Disability Discrimination Bill together offer a critical opportunity to remove many of these barriers and address the growing accessible homes crisis.
The Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill, of which I was a member along with my noble friend Lord Rix, received a large body of evidence asserting the need for a more proactive approach to meeting the housing needs of disabled people by local housing authorities, public housing associations and the providers they fund.
There has been widespread concernwhich the committee's report, published on 27 May, strongly echoesthat the draft Disability Discrimination Bill does not go far enough towards securing the right to a decent home for disabled people. We therefore recommended that the full Bill should include specific provisions preventing landlords and management committees unreasonably refusing consent to disabled people who need to make physical changes to their properties, including communal areas, in order to enjoy fundamental rights of access. Some 18,000 disabled tenants living in unsuitable accommodation report that they have been prevented making essential alterations or adaptations because their landlord has refused consent. I hope that the Government will feel able to accept the recommendation.
But the committee went further, endorsing calls from the National Housing Federation and the British Council of Organisations for Disabled People that premises which have been appropriately adapted to accommodate disabled tenants should be put on an accessible housing register as a way of systematising the supply of suitable accommodation to a suitable group of people who would be in need of it. This proposal is strongly supported by HoDis, which has pioneered the development of such registers, and by many other organisations. The Housing Bill offers the perfect opportunity to take this forward.
Despite the acknowledged shortage of housing built or adapted to various accessibility standards, when a property becomes available landlords frequently have difficulty in identifying someone who needs it. Social landlords are under some pressure to let empty properties quickly. Consequently, if someone whose needs match the equipment or adaptations in the vacant property is not identified within a couple of weeks, it will be let to someone who does not need the adaptations. Even worse, the adaptations, which could have cost several thousands of pounds, may be removed. This is a calamitous waste of resources.
A statutory duty on housing authorities to maintain databases of accessible or adaptable properties and of disabled people in housing need, and to use these to provide an information and matching service, would have a plethora of benefits. The number of empty properties would be reduced, along with admissions to hospital and
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residential care. Unnecessary spending on adaptations would be avoided and disabled people would be in a position to choose suitable accommodation much more quickly. Local authorities which operate such a service have achieved quite staggering savings and are in a position more accurately to map and plan for current and future levels of need.
Given the appalling lack of accessible housing, we must surely grasp this opportunity to make the best use of the resources that we have. The introduction of housing registers is one simple and effective solution, but given the competing demands placed on housing authorities, that will not happen without legislation. The Housing Bill could and should mark the beginning of a concerted campaign to remove some of the barriers to decent housing for disabled people. I trust that this opportunity will not be missed.
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