Peer review – part 1

Originally published on January 27 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The House of Lords gave a second reading to the Housing and Planning Bill on Tuesday. What struck me reading through the debate was not just the scale and breadth of the opposition to key parts of the Bill, not just the 34 new powers for the secretary of state to override local decisions, but the sheer number of provisions that either do not stack up or are not yet spelled out.

This two-part blog looks first at the debate on the overall principles of the Bill and then at the more detailed criticism and the prospects for amendments to its individual elements.

The fundamental flaws at the heart of the legislation were best summed up by two crossbench peers who will be familiar names to everyone.

Lord Best supported the government of building an extra million homes over the life of the parliament and of enabling more people to own their own home but:

‘The problem is that they exclude support for hundreds of thousands of households, with 70,000 out of a total of 240,000 new households formed each year not being able to take advantage of the new opportunities to buy. Lots of people, particularly in London and the south-east, many with good jobs, simply cannot afford to buy, even at 80% of market value. These will be the losers from a Bill that makes the home-ownership option effectively the only game in town.

‘Worse, the Bill not only does so little to enable new housebuilding for those on below-average incomes, it actually reduces the existing stock available to those who cannot buy. To a large extent, it is these less affluent households that will pay the price for measures that help people who are better off than them to buy a home. The Bill robs Peter to pay Paul, even though Peter starts off in a worse position. The biggest winners are those who were going to buy anyway and now get substantial financial benefits—for nothing.’

Lord Kerslake argued that:

‘The most significant impact of the Bill is to promote one form of tenure, home ownership, at the expense of another, social rented housing. Taken with other measures being proposed by the Government, the only reasonable conclusion is that social housing is being written out of the script. This effectively ends the post-war consensus on housing and the extremely successful partnership with housing associations begun in the 1980s. To deliver this change, the Government are taking centralising powers that entirely cut across their localist philosophy. But perhaps most concerning of all, I have real doubts about whether they will actually deliver the new homes of all types that this country so badly needs. As one major and very respected housebuilder said to me recently, where is the additionality in all this?’

Support for the government’s position was in short supply. Lord O’Shaugnessy, director of policy for David Cameron from 2007 to 2011, stressed that the Conservatives had won an election on a manifesto pledge that ‘everyone who works hard should be able to own a home of their own’. As the man responsible for drafting the 2010 Conservative manifesto, it seems strange that he did not mention the pledge then to ‘respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants’.

Former Cabinet minister Lord Lansley said the Bill was all about delivering more homes. He highlighted prolonged delays in the new town at Northstowe, where 6,000 homes were promised by 2016 but none have yet been built. He is surely right to argue that ‘we do not need more initiatives; we need more homes’ but has he mentioned this to the initiative-addicted David Cameron and George Osborne?

Other contributions from Conservative peers were not so helpful to the government. Former minister Lord Horam said a big increase in provision would not come from a private sector producing housing for profit:

‘We need much more council housing, not only because of the need to bridge the gap in quantity but because historically it has been the main source of housing for social rents.’

Opening the debate, communities minister Baroness Williams argued that the debate on housing kept returning to one question: ‘are the Government doing all that they can?’. She said the Bill tackled the collapse in housebulding after 2008 and frustrated aspirations to home ownership and implemented the Conservatives’ manifesto commitments.

She argued that ‘this Bill will mean that social housing works for the social good of the nation’ and paid tribute to the National Housing Federation. However, when she went a step further and claimed that ‘social housing will remain for the continued social good of the nation’ it felt appropriate that the debate directly followed one on the Psychoactive Substances Bill.

That’s a flavour of the general debate. The House of Lords has limited powers to amend government legislation, especially on issues spelt out in the government’s manifesto, but it can still (hopefully) make improvements. Detailed amendments will not be debated until the committee stage and later but peers from all sides of the house left little doubt that they will come.

Part 2 of this blog, focussing on the individual elements of the Bill, follows here.

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