The Housing and Planning Bill completes its passage into law today. [12 May 2016]
The Bill first emerged in October last year. Eight months, forty odd parliamentary sessions, sixteen million pieces of data, almost as many government defeats in the Lords, three sessions of ‘Ping Pong’, one use of the phrase ‘unelected panjandrams’ and a mini-constitutional crisis later, the Bill finally limps over the line to receive Royal Assent this afternoon.
As the dust settles, what is the story of the Bill and the bigger picture?
Despite its contentiousness, there were always many positive aspects of the Bill, especially those related to tackling rogue landlords and encouraging private housebuilding.
Unfortunately it’s on those areas on which government ambition was confined. The rest of the Bill, the heart of it, is instead dedicated not to growing the overall sum of affordable housing but to a rather unseemly redistribution of existing resource away from homes for working people on low incomes towards those on higher incomes.
And it’s these areas which caused such controversy. A cross-party, cross-sector coalition alarmed by these aspects of the Bill emerged.
This group ultimately came to be spearheaded fearlessly by the brilliant Lord Kerslake, a respected independent Crossbencher. In the latter stages, as Ministers kept losing the argument to him, they had nothing left to do but to try and personally traduce him.
But the truth is he spoke for many people; many more than Ministers should be comfortable with. That coalition of the concerned took in most other Crossbenchers, Bishops, the tireless Labour and Lib Dem benches, numerous Conservative Peers and dozens of hard working Conservative MPs who, while staying loyal in public, worked behind the scenes to get improvements for their constituents.
Shelter and our supporters were at the forefront of that debate throughout, shaping its direction – no organisation was as regularly cited.
So what was won and lost in the process?
There were real improvements. The government built on their existing good work on improving private rented sector conditions, as we worked alongside Lord Tope to ensure no one will live in a home that is an electrical death trap. Elsewhere, the hard work of Baroness Hayter secured important consumer protections for private renters from unscrupulous letting agents. And Baroness Grender led the charge to win safeguards to stop private tenants being wrongly evicted.
Elsewhere, thanks in large part to the efforts of Lord Kerslake and Lord Bassam, amendments increased the length of the government’s new fixed-term tenancies for council tenants from 2-5 years to 10 years. Families will get 2-19 years, with the peace of mind of knowing they can at least stay in their home for as long as their children are in school.
Crossbencher Lord Best also secured important changes to limit the rent rises on those hit by ‘Pay to Stay’ measures, keeping hundreds of pounds in the pockets of those on modest incomes.
Then there’s the mass auctioning off of council homes without like-for-like replacement – a policy so stupid it almost single headedly broke the British constitution, as exasperated Peers sent it back to the Commons with revisions three times, pretty unprecedented for a manifesto issue with so-called ‘financial privilege’ provisions attached. Even here, Lord Kerslake successfully fought to get on the face of the Bill a pledge that homes will at least be replaced by some kind of affordable housing. And hard working Conservative MPs in London, led by Zac Goldsmith, secured a similar 2-for-1 agreement for London.
There’s some debate over whether or how this will be funded but, politically, the government is now on the hook to make it happen.
However, the fact remains that the fundamentals of the Bill remain. Expensive Starter Homes will be delivered by cutting genuinely affordable homes for those on modest incomes. Desperately needed council homes will be lost to future generations. The sword of Damocles that hangs over Peers – the looming threat to reform their powers – eventually coerced many into backing down.
Ministers will no doubt be content with all this as they reflect this afternoon.
But the truth is the trouble for the Housing and Planning is just beginning.
Because it will not work as they think. Lord Kerslake and those amassed behind him will be vindicated.
Indeed by our reckoning, half of the people the government intend to help will over time be left with nowhere left to live but an increasingly unstable, expensive private rented sector, with increasing numbers holed up in temporary accommodation.
Round the corner from where I’m writing this is a large, beautifully maintained Peabody Estate, gleaming in the sun. Anybody that visits Shelter in London will walk or cycle past many similar in the heart of the capital. In a different era, it was these kind of homes that provided those on modest incomes with the dignity of a stable, affordable home; somewhere they could put down roots, bring up a family and save up for a deposit for a place of their own.
That order is now disappearing. If that is Minister’s intentions, that is fine. But something will have to replace it.
It’s incumbent on Shelter and others to come up with new, modern ideas to meet this challenge, and to win government over to them.
But it is for the government to rise to that challenge too.
Because whatever happens, those people – their struggles and aspirations – are not going away. ‘Be-spoke’ deals cannot be reached with them to buy them off; grandee Peers cannot be despatched to lecture them on their impropriety.
They will still be here and ultimately, as the recent elections in London – the epicentre of the crisis but by no means its sum- showed, if their aspirations are not met they will eventually turn up at the ballot box, where they will cost the government dear.