Debate on Social Homes for Rent

6th December 2017

Alok Sharma responds to a debate on social homes for rent and outlines what the Government is doing to fix the broken housing market.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this important debate on social housing. I am extremely pleased that she did, because it is important to set out what the Government are doing to fix the broken housing market. She is also keen to talk about social housing.

Let me be clear that providing safe, secure and affordable homes for those who need them most is an absolute priority for the Government. The hon. Lady talked about some statistics; let me give her some more. Since 2010, more than 357,000 new affordable homes have been delivered, including around 128,000 homes for social rent. Our recent announcement of an extra £2 billion for the affordable homes programme takes the total budget to £9 billion over 2016-21. That will help to deliver a wide range of affordable housing, including social-rent homes.

I say gently to the hon. Lady that it is not fair to say that the Government somehow do not care about social housing or the people who live in it. I shall talk a bit more about that, but she should not take my word for it. Listen to what people in the social housing sector have been saying. David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, described the extra funding that has been announced as

“a watershed moment for the nation.”

In that case, I encourage the Minister to explain to local authorities and social housing associations in clear terms how this mechanism to deliver social homes in local authorities is going to work—and will he do it quickly, please?

I shall address those issues in my speech. We have a constant dialogue with housing associations and, of course, local councils.

Let me set out some of the recent announcements that will help to make sure that more affordable and social homes are built. Another announcement in recent weeks has been the one on rent certainty for social housing providers. From the conversations that I have had with the sector, including many people who run housing associations and, indeed, councils, I know that they are clear that it was an extremely welcome announcement. It will help to deliver more social homes, faster, while also providing funding to maintain the current stock of homes.

The Budget was the biggest for housing in decades, with an extra £15 billion of support. That means there will be at least £44 billion of support for housing over the next five years. That is going to provide a big boost for housing throughout the country. Of course, the Chancellor also announced the decision to increase the local authority housing revenue account borrowing caps by a total of £1 billion, targeted at areas of high affordability pressure. Collectively, these decisions herald a boost for the building of social homes. But, of course, we know there is more to do.

I must press the Minister on housing debt. In the previous financial year, the Highland Council’s housing debt was of the order £205 million. That means that 40p out of every pound that is received in rent goes to service that debt. Surely the Minister can understand that that is crippling attempts to build new houses. What discussions has he had with the Chancellor about trying to get rid of housing debt?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman represents a Scottish seat, and housing is a devolved matter. As we are talking about housing revenue accounts, I can inform Members that there is headroom, as at the end of 2016-17, of £3.5 billion across the country in housing revenue accounts. I know that councils are looking to build more homes. They are also working with housing associations, and this extra money will make a difference.

The hon. Lady talked about Grenfell Tower, which was an absolute tragedy for the country. Following that tragedy, the Prime Minister asked me to meet social housing tenants across the country to hear their views on social housing. I have now met more than 600 tenants from across the country and undertaken seven events, the latest being last week in Bridgwater, which is not too far from the hon. Lady’s constituency. By the end of January, I will have undertaken a further five such engagement events. The views of social housing tenants will inform the national approach that we will set out in the social housing Green Paper, which we aim to publish in spring next year.

I just want to record my grateful thanks to all the tenants I have met for sharing their experiences. This engagement tour has undoubtedly been one of the best things that I have ever done in my time as a Minister. It is very clear to me from these visits that, when it comes to fixing our broken housing market, it is not just about building more homes, but about improving the housing that we already have.

The Budget committed £400 million in loans for estate regeneration on top of the £322 million that has already been made available. The current programme is supporting more than 100 estates around the country. I am pleased to see that the Foxhill estate, which is in the hon. Lady’s constituency, is among them and has received £650,000 in capacity grant funding.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. What will he say to the 99 families who will not be housed in Bath and who will, basically, have to move outside the area because that is the only way that they can find a home to rent? That is what we call social cleansing. What will he say to those families?

Let me come on to talk about several issues around the Foxhill estate redevelopment. I want to be clear that the Government are committed to putting councils and communities in the driving seat when it comes to their housing needs. That was reinforced by the estate regeneration national strategy, published last year, which emphasised the need to engage residents and give council and housing association tenants the choice to return to their estate or other suitable housing options.

There are currently 414 affordable homes on the Foxhill estate. I understand that the proposed redevelopment, taken together with affordable homes proposed at the adjoining Mulberry Park development, will provide a total of 420 affordable homes. Bath and North East Somerset Council has said that the quantum of affordable homes proposed across the two sites will ensure that all existing residents of the Foxhill estate can be accommodated in the immediate area. I know that I will be meeting the hon. Lady before the recess, and I am sure that we can discuss social housing issues in more detail then as well.

These communities know their local area better than anyone and it therefore makes sense that planning decisions are made at a local level wherever possible. It was on that basis that the Secretary of State, after careful consideration, decided not to call in the application at the Foxhill estate. What is clear is that, ultimately, the only way of fixing the broken housing market is to build more homes, cross tenure, and to encourage a more diverse range of players into the market. That is why we are doing the following: backing small and medium-sized builders to grow, and there was more money for that in the Budget; supporting housing associations and local authorities to get building; encouraging more builders into the build-to-rent sector; and championing high standards in quality and design.

One of the biggest concerns for our constituents when it comes to new homes being built is that they will often feel that there is not accompanying infrastructure to support the new housing. That is why the Chancellor, in the Budget, committed a further £2.7 billion to the Housing Infrastructure Fund, taking the total to £5 billion. This will help local areas to unlock development through the provision of vital infrastructure. Of course, we want to see local authorities working together to champion new housing. It is therefore encouraging to hear that the four local planning authorities in the west of England, where the hon. Lady’s constituency is based, are working together to produce a joint plan to deliver the homes needed in the area. I hope that more authorities will take their lead and co-operate to meet their housing needs.

In conclusion, we are taking action on all fronts to get Britain building as never before, with a focus on social housing, action that has been welcomed by the sector and is delivering real results, more families in safe secure homes of their own, and more people who can put down roots and build stronger communities. I know that that is what the hon. Lady wants to see. It is also what I want to see, and I am pleased to say that we are on our way to delivering it.

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