Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, this afternoon's debate has been about housing. Many television programmes, which millions of people enjoy, talk about property. However, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Ford and Lady Wilkins, reminded us, we are talking about people's homes-the places that should form the secure base from which we all lead our lives, and most of us are lucky enough to do that. In many cases, however, that fails. It is not just that we do not have enough houses; too many houses are in the wrong place at the wrong price and in the wrong condition, and the results are stark. Shelter estimates that more than 1.5 million children live in overcrowded, temporary or run-down accommodation. The effects on their health and educational attainment are profound. We know that their life chances are adversely affected through no fault of their own. Any Government who want to create a genuinely fair society must address that.
There is no doubt that the move to a property-owning society has had profound consequences on all of us. It is interesting how falling house prices are greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth by the three-quarters of us who currently own our own properties. It ought perhaps to be a glimmer of hope for those who aspire to own property. Recently, however, house price falls have been accompanied by a lending squeeze; so the reality of home ownership is now as far away for many as it ever has been, a point which was well made by my noble friend Lord Teverson. Recent RICS figures show that loan approvals for house purchases are continuing to fall. My first question, therefore, is whether the Government will continue to press the banks over which they have control to free up mortgage lending where that is appropriate.
Over the years that I have been in your Lordships' House, I do not think that I have ever heard any Government put a figure on how far they think property ownership can extend-or, indeed, any kind of recognition that home ownership is simply not the right option for a proportion of people. That has resulted in a lack of genuine planning in terms of the variety and quantities of housing tenure that ought to be available in this country. The lack of viable alternatives has forced some people into home ownership even when that is not the best option for them. The result, particularly now, is that many live in constant fear of default.
The private rented sector has to an extent stepped into that breach and is on the rise. However, it is in urgent need of reform. Most of our private rented sector is in the hands of individual private landlords who own just a few properties and 45 per cent of those properties fail to meet the decent home standards. Do the Government have any plans to boost the provision of rented accommodation through the formation of larger companies which could provide not only a useful investment vehicle but-the point which the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, made in his excellent maiden speech-a more professional and more easily regulated private sector?
Rents in the private sector are very high, and in some places this is being driven by the housing benefit system. It is therefore time that we had a review. However, I urge the Government to consider the fact that this review should be driven not solely by the need to cut costs. There is a question of value to the taxpayer. Apart from the human misery concerned, simply driving people into homelessness or creating other problems which actually cost more to put right would be extremely short-sighted. We must be very careful about an arbitrary cap on housing benefit that does not take into account the local costs of housing, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Best. Whatever happens in government, the one piece of legislation that never changes is the law of unintended consequences. The Government must think carefully before they leap into this. Other noble Lords have asked about the levels of funding for housing associations and local authorities. I look forward to the Minister's answer.
On other forms of housing, can the Minister tell us anything about the future of low-cost home ownership schemes such as HomeBuy Direct? Do the Government intend to simplify some of these options, or even to continue them?
The affordability of housing is no doubt governed largely by housing availability. That is driven in turn by the planning system. I welcome the abolition of regional spatial strategies and all that comes with them. I am pleased that local councils will have more control over housing in their areas. However, there are caveats and things that must be watched.
I am worried by the extent to which housing that is driven from the bottom up, welcome as that may be, will not fully take into account other strategic issues such as transport, hospital provision and education. I come from a rural area. Until three years ago, we had an effective sub-regional planning tier known as a county council. It was extremely good. I wonder whether the Government have any plans to give some of the planning powers back to county councils so that they can play a strategic role alongside the districts.
I turn to the question of empty properties. I am very grateful to the Empty Homes Agency for its useful briefing. There are, it tells me, currently 652,000 empty homes in England alone. These are clearly an affront to any society. The coalition agreement said:
"We will explore a range of measures to bring empty homes into use".
Those words are welcome but not as welcome as action would be. When I raised the matter this morning at Question Time, the noble Baroness said that the use of empty homes is a "matter for local authorities". That is true to an extent, but I would be interested to know whether the Government plan to incentivise local authorities to get empty houses back into use. Can the Government encourage the Homes and Communities Agency to change the grant rules for housing associations so that local authorities have a real incentive to buy and refurbish empty homes? Picking up a point made by the right reverend Prelate, could the HCA work up a scheme which would allow homelessness charities, churches and local community groups to buy empty properties in their areas, refurbish them and provide affordable housing? Finally, would the local housing trusts proposed by the Government also be allowed to refurbish empty properties? All of these things could make a very useful contribution to the provision of housing and are very much in line with the themes of big society and localism.
I finish by thanking the noble Baroness for securing this important debate today. I had not appreciated that it had been four years since the last; it does not seem like it. It has also given us the opportunity to hear two extremely good maiden speeches from two noble Lords from whom we look forward to hearing more.