The government's ideological housing bill will only deepen the housing crisis

"Putting aside the fact that it seems an entirely ideological policy, it's also not very well thought out"
"Putting aside the fact that it seems an entirely ideological policy, it's also not very well thought out"
Natalie Bloomer By

There was a very telling moment during yesterday's PMQs when David Cameron was quizzed about the government's housing bill. Labour MP Keir Starmer asked the prime minister to explain how the proposals would help the many people who can't afford either to rent privately or buy a property. His answer revealed everything that is wrong with the legislation.

"There is a series of things that I believe will help them," Cameron said. "First of all, making sure the right to buy is there for housing association tenants as well as council tenants, with the full discounts, [that] makes a difference.

"Added to that, because you've got help to buy, people need a smaller amount of equity to buy their house - that helps too," he continued. "Further to that, starter homes will make a difference because they will be more affordable. Added to that, shared accommodation homes means that where you previously needed a deposit of £30,000 to buy a house, you may be able to buy a house now for just a few thousand pounds deposit."

The one thing all these proposals have in common is ownership. None of them will do anything to tackle the massive shortage of council houses, indeed some may well make it worse, and none will address the rising cost of private rent. What the government fails to understand is that, for many people, home ownership will never be an option. For those on the lowest incomes, it can be difficult enough just to be approved for an overdraft, let alone a mortgage.

Whether it's shared-ownership, right-to-buy, or a starter home, there are very few banks, if any, that are going to lend tens of thousands of pounds to a single mum on benefits or a young guy on the minimum wage who struggles just to pay the bills and buy food. Even if some obscure high-interest mortgage was available, once you factor in the cost of solicitors fees and a deposit it makes owning a property almost impossible for these people. The prime minister may think that needing to find "just a few thousand pounds" for a deposit is achievable but for a cleaner or nursery school worker it could take a lifetime to save that kind of money.

The Conservative manifesto pledge to allow housing association tenants the right to buy their homes at a discount proved popular among many. And why wouldn't it? If you are one of the lucky ones who are able to obtain a mortgage, the chance to buy a house at a price far lower than the market rate is going to be hard to resist. But in order to pay for the policy, councils will be forced to sell off high-value properties as soon as they become vacant. The funds made from the sales will then be handed to the Treasury. The government insists local authorities will be expected to replace the properties they sell off but they've made no provisions within the bill to ensure there are the funds available to do that. So, not only are housing association properties lost but so is even more council stock. The plan is short-sighted in the extreme, unless of course the very intention of it is to kill off social housing altogether.

Putting aside the fact that it seems an entirely ideological policy, it's also not very well thought out. Rarely is a piece of legislation so bad that it gets bounced back and forth between the Commons and the Lords quite as much as this one has. Over recent weeks, the bill has repeatedly "ping-ponged" between the two houses as peers continuously defied ministers. During one debate, the Labour peer Baroness Hollis described it as the "worst bill", in process terms, she'd seen in 25 years.

The government has already been forced to water down several key measures, including its pay to stay proposal and the length of fixed term tenancies. On Tuesday the Lords backed an amendment by the cross-bench peer Lord Kerslake which would have allowed councils to use funds from the forced sale of high-value properties to replace them with similar homes.

"There are few parts of this bill that have caused such concern at local level and, indeed, where the impacts are so serious," Kerslake said during the debate. "Even today, I have received an open letter from tenants setting out their serious concerns. Even at this very late stage, we still do not have the vital detail needed to properly assess the impact. This point is made very strongly in the recent Public Accounts Committee report."

In an unusual move, the Public Accounts Committee heard evidence on the policy prior to implementation. The group of cross-party MPs found that the government had "presented Parliament with little information on the potential impacts of the legislation required" and that it was not clear how the policy would be "funded in practice, or what its financial impacts might be". The committee also raised concerns that the commitment to replace homes sold under the policy on at least a one-for-one basis will not actually "ensure that these will be like-for-like replacements".

Kerslake's amendment was one last ditch attempt to save social housing and the Tories were furious.

"An unelected peer supported by Labour has again tried to effectively block 1.3m having access to home ownership," the minister for housing Brandon Lewis tweeted. He was later quoted in The Sun as saying "Not only is Lord Kerslake unelected, he is the owner of his own home who is trying to stop others from owning theirs."

Several Conservative peers warned Kerslake that he was being "unconstitutional" by pressing for further amendments. It could be argued that Kerslake, who is chair of the Peabody housing association and president of the Local Government Association, has a vested interest in the bill. Equally, it could be argued that he just knows what he is talking about. Regardless, MPs yesterday rejected his amendment and the bill has now passed.

Like the welfare reform bill before it, the Housing and Planning bill appears to be based more on ideology than on actually seeking to tackle the country's social and economic problems.

Of course, it's perfectly reasonable for the government to help those who want and are able to get on the housing ladder. But without a real commitment to build more council houses, the housing crisis and the challenges facing the poorest people in society are only going to get worse.

Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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