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14.01.16

Housing Bill passes Commons through ‘English votes’ procedure

The controversial Housing and Planning Bill has passed its third reading in the Commons as the first legislation considered under the government’s ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (Evel) procedure.

The procedure, designed to ban MPs from voting on laws that do not apply to them, was made law in October last year after a heated debate in the Commons. While Tories claimed it would make the system fairer and more balanced, it was fiercely opposed by Labour and the SNP, who claimed it would only “exacerbate the further alienation of Scotland” from the Westminster Parliament.

Evel has now been used for the first time in UK history, to pass the Housing and Planning Bill, now set to go through the Lords after it was passed with a 309 to 216 vote.

Opposition parties continued to attack the Bill’s proposals, which they claimed failed to “get to grips with the problems of modern life and the crisis of homeownership”.

During the long debate on Tuesday, shadow housing minister John Healey MP said  the government’s definition of starter homes meant they would remain “out of reach” in areas where people most need them.

“We have tried to stop the worst of the plans, but Tory ministers and backbenchers have opposed our proposals to give local areas the flexibility to promote not just starter homes but homes of all types, depending on local housing need; to make starter homes more affordable and protect and recycle taxpayers’ investment; to stop Ministers from mandating that pay-to-stay limits hit working households on modest incomes; to allow local areas to protect council and housing association homes with a proper replacement of each; to limit any automatic planning permission from Ministers for brownfield land; and to protect stable family homes for council tenants,” he said.

Healey claimed many of these problems were in fact caused by the government’s decision to “announce first and ask questions later”, with little consultation and time for scrutiny. Last week, for example, the Bill was debated in the Commons in a motion that started just before 9pm and ran until the early hours, despite more than 60 pages of new legislation having been tabled “at the last minute”.

Yet communities secretary Greg Clark MP argued that the Bill had in fact been the subject of “intensive scrutiny and debate, with more than 40 hours in the Committee and a further 15 on the Floor of the House”.

“Furthermore, it has been a debate in which words have had consequences. The government have listened and, as we should, we have acted on what we have heard,” he said.

“Significant and strengthening changes have been made as a direct result and thus, subject to today’s vote, the Bill goes to the other place in good shape, buttressed by a clear electoral mandate.”

‘Extraordinary and extreme Bill’

In response, Healey said the hours of scrutiny led the Bill from being a “bad Bill” to a “very bad Bill”, contrary to what is expected when legislation passes through the Commons.

“It was a bad Bill, now made much worse by amendments forced through at the last minute after the Committee’s line-by-line scrutiny—new clauses to define homes on sale for up to £450,000 as officially affordable,” the shadow minister said.

“The government are not building enough affordable homes, so they are simply branding more homes as affordable. Other late amendments included new clauses to stop councils offering anything longer than two to five-year tenancies, meaning the end of long-term rented housing, the end of a stable home for many children as they go through school, and the end of security for pensioners who move into bungalows or sheltered flats later in life.

“How has it come to this – that we on the Labour benches are having to defend the reforms and rights introduced by Margaret Thatcher? This is an extraordinary and extreme Bill.”

But Clark argued that the government has now shifted from focusing on recovery from the “worst housing crash since the Second World War” in the last Parliament to focusing on reform.

“Though wide-ranging in scope, the Bill does not represent the entirety of what needs to be done,” he added. “As the chancellor made clear in the Autumn Statement and as the prime minister said last week, the government are committed to a comprehensive and ongoing programme of reform, addressing the whole of the problem and not just part of it. This Bill is of central importance to the overall strategy.”

clarkCommunities secretary Greg Clark MP and local government minister Marcus Jones MP during the debate

Housing minister Brandon Lewis added that this is a “historic Bill in many ways”, putting homeownership “within the grasp of generations”.

“It will deliver a planning system that is the envy of the world. It will get Britain building again,” the minister continued.

“By being the first Bill to go through this procedure [Evel], it goes further. I am proud of the steps that this elected government are taking through this legislation to deliver our manifesto commitments.”

At the centre of the amendments made to the Bill recently is the power handed to developers to choose who will process their planning applications in lieu of local authorities.

The secretary of state would also hold a carte blanche to direct a council to dispose of its land, as well as “impose restrictions or conditions on the enforceability of planning obligations entered into with regard to the provision of affordable housing”.

Also on Tuesday, the government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, arguably just as divisive, passed its final stage at the Lords and is now in its way to receive Royal Assent at a date yet to be decided.

Comments

Rob B   14/01/2016 at 16:58

This is an extraordinary piece of legislation which seems set to destroy social housing and the very idea that we might have a 'right' to housing. As someone who grew up in a council house - as part of a family of six who previously lived in a privately-rented one bedroom flat with a shared toilet and no bathroom - I am appalled at the idea that tenancies will be limited to five years. I've also recently housed a 16 year-old for three months after her family was evicted from a property after their landlord defaulted on their mortgage and ran off with their rent and deposit. It took three months for her mother to find a one-bedroom flat, the most she can afford to rent for her family. It feels like the housing market has gone back 50 years while the legislation is going back over 100 years.

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