Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, for initiating this important debate and applaud the maiden address from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Llanfaes. I assure her that the House will welcome now and into the future her spirited advocacy, not least for Wales.

I think the inadequacy of the UK’s housing provision, adversely affecting most in our society—the middle classes as well as the poor—is our most pressing national problem. It is a problem many decades in the making and I do not think that we will resolve any specific aspect of housing difficulty without addressing the totality of housing provision in the round, right across the United Kingdom.

Around 300,000 people—there are some slight differences in the figures that noble Lords have cited, but I am sure we all have good sources—including 200,000 children, are without a home and live in temporary accommodation, in shelters or with friends. One million households are on council waiting lists. According to the English Housing Survey, 4 million live in substandard homes, in the oldest housing stock in Europe. One-third of under-34s still live with their parents and struggle to buy a home. Home ownership overall is in decline. At the same time, our population is growing rapidly. In addition, more of us live longer and young people form single-person households and marry later. For these many reasons and others, overall demand for housing is increasing rapidly. Yet housing provision—as pretty much everybody has said—has manifestly not kept pace with growing demand.

As I think the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, was the first to remind us, just over 100 years ago, just after the First World War, the then Government began building “homes fit for heroes”. I do not think anybody has mentioned that in 1953, under a Conservative Government, social housing build peaked at 200,000 units per year. I think this is the most remarkable statistic. Today, there are 2 million fewer units of social housing than there were 40 years ago. You do not have to look very far to see at least one of the root causes of our housing malaise.

What are we doing to close that awesome deficit? Not much—local authority and housing association build in recent years has been around a modest 20,000 units per year. A huge increase in private renting, which has doubled over two decades, has taken the strain, often with poor quality, underinvested housing.

Many factors, most of which have been mentioned, stand in the way of increased homebuilding, including planning restraints, land hoarding and shortages of skilled labour. Estimates vary on the scale of the overall housing gap—the gap between demand and supply—but all are in the range of 1 million and 2 million homes. That is a measure of just how far behind we are from where we need to be. Despite the recent improvements in housebuilding, it is a very long journey to get anywhere near to filling that gap. The noble Lord, Lord Barwell, put the issue simply and bluntly, and I think everybody here would agree, when he said that building more of every level of housing is what is needed.

I echo what a number of others have said in this excellent debate so far. We need to take out a clean sheet of paper and build a new housing strategy from scratch. What we have been doing in recent decades has simply not been working. We need to create a plan developed from a national, not regional or local, perspective. This is not for housing in our precious green belt, of course, but near where people work. We need a strategy for housing close to services, which is well-insulated, with decarbonised heating, and of beauty—something which the UK has achieved brilliantly again and again in our history and must do again.

We will not solve our housing crisis overnight. It will take 10 to 15 years of systematic hard work to do that. However, we will not resolve it at all without, as others have said, speedily framing a comprehensive national plan that addresses and deals with the many causes of our most pernicious national problem.