Home, sweet home?

JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the Housing and Planning Bill, ahead of its first day in Lords Committee 

The Housing and Planning Bill, which today starts its Lords Committee stage, is the embodiment of the Conservatives long-term plan to downgrade social housing – especially council housing.

Huge damage will be inflicted by policies such as ‘pay to stay’, the sell-off of ‘high value’ homes, extended right to buy and, perhaps most shockingly, the curtailment of security of tenure for council tenants, and a weakened role in planning. Add also the diminished role of councils: not only in provision but also government imposed rent cuts for council housing that prevent investment in improving the housing stock. And well, the future looks grim.

In fairness, one area where some progress can be detected is regulation of the private rented sector, which now comprises 20% of overall housing – having sharply increased in recent years. (With 35% of council homes sold under right to buy ending up in the buy to let market.)

But while there are sensible proposals in the Bill for dealing with rogue private landlords, the government doesn’t go far enough. So, Labour will call for five yearly tests of electrical safety, and a mandatory register of all landlords and rented properties. We will be also press for measures to enhance councils’ role in accreditation and licensing; as well as an extension of the Housing Ombudsman’s powers to cover landlord-tenant disputes.

Amazingly, an amendment to extend the requirement for residential lettings to be fit for human habitation was voted down by Conservative MPs, while the Bill was still in the Commons. Plans meanwhile, to facilitate regaining possession of allegedly unoccupied properties needs to be refined to prevent genuine hardship arising. Private tenants deserve security of tenure – something that is effectively non-existent in too many areas of high need and demand.

Another concern is the growing use of Protective Guardians, where people are paid, or allowed to stay free of charge, in otherwise empty properties with no security of tenure, sometimes in very poor condition. There should be council oversight of such properties, and we will want assurances that the same will apply to the growing number of short term lets, whether the AirBnB model or houseboats. We will ask too for a review of the operation of the Tenancy Deposit Scheme, which has seen many complaints about the unjustifiable withholding of deposit money.

At a time when millions will be excluded from home ownership because they are unable to fund a deposit or a mortgage of several times their annual income, this Bill has nothing to promote the provision of genuinely affordable properties. It is all the more important therefore, that the private rented sector is well managed and genuinely affordable.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is a member of the Shadow Housing team in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham

Published 9th February 2016

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