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Bishops criticise 'disingenuous' Housing Bill plans

06 November 2015


Building protest: a campaigner against the NEO Bankside luxury investment development, a nominee for the 2015 Stirling Prize, outside the Royal Institute of British Architects, in London, last month 

Building protest: a campaigner against the NEO Bankside luxury investment development, a nominee for the 2015 Stirling Prize, outside the Royal ...

CHURCH of England bishops, Christian charities, and cross-party peers have criticised the latest Housing and Planning Bill for neglecting rural areas, and London, where affordable homes are scarce.

In the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Commons, on Tuesday, MPs said that plans to extend the right-to-buy scheme to housing association tenants — which would allow tenants to buy their own home at a reduced rate — would increase affordable housing, and help people “realise the dream” of owning a home.

The Government also agreed to reimburse the sales discount, offered to tenants, to housing associations, on the condition that the receipt was retained and the money reinvested in new homes.

Speaking before the reading, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said that the “disingenuous” proposal had caused many to accept right-to-buy because they “felt they’d got a gun to their heads and with a gun to their head the best thing to do was to try to strike a deal rather than simply to resist”.

The Government announced the proposals — which, some say, will have the effect of pushing housing associations into the private sector — during the Conservative General Election campaign in May. They were confirmed on Friday of last week.

The chief executive of the Christian campaign group Housing Justice, Alison Gelder, said that the move “begs so many questions” for vulnerable workers.

“The Government is more worried about the addition of £60 billion to the deficit than thinking through what is best for housing policy,” she said. “There has been no serious consideration to the impact that these changes will have on tenants.”

Raising the issue in the House of Lords during its first reading, last month, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said that there was a “serious lack” of affordable housing, and that the average home cost “eight times the average salary” in country areas (News, 23 October). He also questioned whether housing in rural areas sold under right-to-buy would be put back into the community, or shipped out to urban areas.

The Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, said that the plans would give housing associations “flexibility” on selling homes in areas where housing would be “hard to replace”, including in rural communities. Introducing the Second Reading, on Tuesday, Mr Clark said that denying the link between increased housing stock and home ownership was a “lazy assumption”.

The Conservative MP for Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith, tabled an amendment asking the Government for a “binding guarantee” that the Bill would result in an overall increase in affordable housing in London. “London council homes are far more valuable than elsewhere and, without a change, we are going to see a disproportionate flow of resources out of London,” he said.

The Bill is also to give local authorities the power to sanction “rogue” landlords in the private sector, ensure that tenants with high incomes pay the market value, and reform property planning over the redevelopment of brownfield sites — derelict areas in towns and cities.

It is also the first to be considered under new legislation “English votes for English laws”, and therefore will not be put forward in Scotland, where right-to-buy is being banned. The Speaker, John Bercow, confirmed that part of the Bill will “apply exclusively” to England and Wales, after its First Reading, last month.

If the Second Reading is approved, English and Welsh MPs will be asked to give their consent, and any amendments subsequently made by the House of Lords will be subject to approval by a “double majority” — that is, by all MPs, and by English, or English and Welsh MPs.

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