Bishop of Durham speaks about need for more social and affordable housing

The Bishop of Durham spoke in a debate on housing demand on 8th November 2022, emphasising the need to build more social housing and affordable homes:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I begin by commending the report and thank the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, for introducing this debate. I also commend the work of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Chelmsford, who, as the Church of England’s lead bishop for housing, has tirelessly engaged with this issue and the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill.

Last year, the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community published its Coming Home report, which set out a vision for housing to be sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying. It is through these values that strong and lasting communities can be built, enabling people to thrive and flourish. It was very interesting to note how warmly these five values were welcomed by the industry itself as a guide.

However, the reality is that a large proportion of housing in this country does not embody these values. It is widely stated that we face a housing crisis, including a shortage of social housing. Social housing is designed to help those whose needs are not served by the market, most commonly those on the lowest incomes. However, when Meeting Housing Demand was published, 1.9 million households were on local authority waiting lists for social housing in England. With rents and interest rates rapidly rising, more households are being pushed into poverty and this list is only growing longer.

This social housing shortage is forcing huge numbers of lower-income households into the private rental sector, while others are placed in temporary accommodation. I recognise that, for some, temporary housing is a valuable lifeline, but it cannot become the long-term solution. In 2021, 124,290 children were living in temporary accommodation. The Archbishops’ Commission revealed that some families had been living in temporary accommodation for over a decade, during which time they had been moved around multiple times. In London, 37% of those in temporary accommodation are placed outside the resident’s home borough and, in some cases, moved to other parts of the country. This means that they are moved away from family, friends, schools, jobs and communities. This is no way for a child to grow up and it is why we need much more social housing.

Furthermore, the crisis is being exacerbated by a lack of genuinely affordable housing. Affordable rents are set at about 80% of the market rate, but in many areas this is not affordable for those on low incomes, so it pushes more households into poor-quality private rented sector housing. Do the Government have any plans to change the percentage of the market price at which housing is deemed affordable, or instead to define affordability in relation to household incomes?

To mitigate this crisis in the long run, it is crucial that more social and affordable housing is provided. Over the past 40 years, there has been a halving of the social rental sector. The Government’s target is ambitious at 300,000 new homes per year and 1 million new homes by 2024, but they have not outlined what housing types and tenures these will be. What percentage of these targets will be genuinely affordable social housing? A more detailed plan is required, outlining targets for the proportion of these homes that will be affordable.

As the Meeting Housing Demand report reveals, many tenants who previously would have been in social housing are now privately renting expensive accommodation, with their rents subsidised through housing benefit. This is costing the Government £23.4 billion per year. Providing more social housing is a matter not only of helping some of the most vulnerable in our society but of financial common sense.

I highlight the work of the local authorities in my region of the north-east, as they strategise and begin to build new social housing. In particular, I highlight Sunderland City Council, which is collaborating with Sunderland College and the Ministry of Building Innovation and Education to develop a housing innovation and construction skills academy, which will educate, train, and upskill local people, who will then be able to build local homes. I commend these local authorities as they work to build new social housing and reduce the skills shortage at the same time, but there must be a more detailed commitment on a national level. I ask the Minister: how widely are the Government encouraging councils, colleges and industries to work collaboratively on upskilling people in the housing industry?

Here, in line with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, I ask about Section 106 money. The connection to local social provision has been hugely important for schooling and other community facilities. Can the Minister confirm that any proposed changes will not lose this connection to local provision?

I conclude by returning to highlight the work of the Church Commissioners, who have begun to use church land more specifically to build affordable housing that embodies the five core values of good housing, as previously stated. In the north-east, they are partnering with local councils and currently plan to build 3,952 new homes, between 510 and 930 of which—possibly more—will be affordable. I encourage local developers to follow their lead.

With the rising cost of living, it is vital that urgent action is taken. I reiterate my request to the Government to produce a clear commitment and strategy for good-quality, affordable social housing, built at net zero. Without it, this crisis will only worsen, severely impacting children, families and households across the country.


Extracts from the speeches that followed

Lord Grocott (Lab): We also know that in terms of monthly expenditure—this is astonishing, but it is familiar to all of us—it is cheaper to be an owner-occupier on a mortgage than to be a private renter. The figures in our report are for 2020 and clearly will have changed since then with all that has happened. At the time, they showed that the average monthly cost for owner-occupiers in the north-west, for example, was £576 compared with the average monthly cost of private rent, which was £723. In nutshell, of the three main forms of housing tenure, the fastest growing is the least secure and the most expensive.

That almost defies economic logic, so here are the obvious questions to the Minister. What plans, if any, do the Government have to address the acute shortage of social housing? What are the Government’s targets for the provision of new social, local authority housing? I agreed with every word my noble friend Lord Davies said and particularly with the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—in fact, when he finished, I very nearly said amen. What plans, if any, do the Government have to enable those people on very high rents in private accommodation to move towards home ownership, which, as we have seen, is cheaper and for which there is clearly a huge demand?

It is taken as read, throughout our report as well as by the Government, that we need more homes. Most of this demand will have to be met by new builds. However, there is another potential source of supply among existing housing networks. Sadly, we do not have much to say on this in the report; we could say only so much. In paragraph 55, we report that, in England alone, there are around 500,000 empty properties—we were given the figure of 479,000. Regrettably, as I said, our committee did not take specific evidence on this, although we know that a number of different local authorities are trying to tackle the problem in a variety of ways. Empty homes that are neglected for long periods can blight not just their streets but the wider neighbourhood. While empty and neglected homes are clearly a problem, it is also the case that 500,000 unused properties could be part of the solution to housing demand. I ask the Minister: what is the Government’s estimate of the number of empty properties and is there any best-practice advice for local authorities about how to deal with the issue? Surely, if the aim is to provide 300,000 more homes a year, reducing the number of empty properties could be a very helpful part of the solution.

Lord Stunell (LD): Ministers have to decide, if they want homes that are beyond the capacity of the private market to absorb, how much they want to pay to get those extra homes. They will certainly get the most homes for their bucks if they put the money into local council housebuilding. I am making the economic argument—a financial, Treasury argument—that if you want those homes, social housing is the way to get them at the lowest cost per house. They will also get those homes with fewer delays and fewer broken bones if they let local communities take control of their planning and stop imposing Whitehall master plans.

However, market failure is not the only barrier to more and better homes built more quickly. There is a major capacity and skills deficit in the industry. I was delighted to hear what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham had to say about what is happening in Sunderland to try to address part of that. That problem is an accelerating and deepening one, made worse by some of the actions of the biggest housebuilders.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State – Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities): Turning to housing types and tenures, our commitment is that there should be enough social homes and fewer families housed in temporary accommodation in this country. That is important to us. We do not have targets because we just make sure that we have enough social homes, particularly family homes, so that families are not in temporary accommodation—this needs repeating. Since 2010, we have delivered over 598,900 new affordable homes, of which over 157,200 are for social rent. The Government are also committed to reducing the need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness before it occurs. To this end, we are investing £2 billion in tackling homelessness and rough sleeping over the next three years. These are all issues rightly brought up by the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Grocott, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.

The report outlined the importance of home ownership. Since its publication, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme has ended, on 31 October 2022. From the scheme’s launch in 2013, it has supported over 361,000 households to buy a new home and boosted housing supply: 37% of all homes sold using the scheme would not otherwise have been built.

We have also expanded the first-time buyers’ relief by increasing the level at which first-time buyers start paying stamp duty from £300,000 to £425,000. First-time buyers will be able to access this relief on property purchases up to £625,000, compared with £500,000 previously. Our shared ownership and right-to-buy schemes also continue to help people into home ownership and out of the rented sector.

(…) Many noble Lords brought up the skills issue. The committee’s report covered the importance of skills in meeting housing demand, and we are working to address skills shortages across the construction industry. The Government are increasing funding for apprenticeships to £2.7 billion in 2024-25. This will continue to support apprenticeships in non-levy employers, often SMEs, for which government will continue to meet 95% of apprenticeship training costs. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for giving us the example of Sunderland, where local colleges are taking this up and realise how important this sector is in increasing the skills base.

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