Well thank you, Mark. And good morning everyone.
It’s a pleasure to be here albeit only virtually and I am sorry I wasn’t able to join you at last year’s conference and I very much hope that next year, we will be all in person meeting once again.
I’m pleased that the conference has been such a success and thank you to everybody who has helped to organise it.
I’ve heard a lot of positivity from the discussions that have happened over the last few days.
The task ahead for us in government is, as Mark has said, very significant as we begin to look at the world beyond the pandemic and try to build back better.
It’s important that we learn the lessons from the past and those who came before us – those who history remembers for not just improving housing in times of change, but actually for revolutionising it.
And, as I walk into my office every morning, I see some of their portraits on the wall…predecessors like Harold Macmillan who of course paved the way for vast amounts of new social housing to be built in this country in the post-war years.
And, 70 years later, the government I hope will move forward in the same spirit as we try to build back from a year that has tested us all like none other and ensure that homes are built but, also, communities, places, more neighbourly places where we to want to live to build our lives and to put down roots for all the reasons that Mark said.
Because, the pandemic has taught us, if we needed to be taught once again, the value of a good quality home of our own.
And I want to thank everybody involved in this Conference, and the National Housing Federation, for everything that you’ve done over the course of the last 12 months to support your residents and your communities through the pandemic.
Build back better
Like you, I want to look to the future with hope and optimism as a result of the vaccine roll out and to see what we can do to build a fairer, safer, more neighbourly country out of the pandemic and ensure that the millions of people living in social and affordable housing, and indeed everybody in society more generally, can benefit from good quality decent homes.
And I think the social housing sector has a very special role to play in this endeavour – inspired by your historic social mission as a force for public good.
And that mission starts with greater fairness – greater dignity and respect for people living in social housing.
Many live in homes that are decent and safe as part of close knit and thriving communities, with compassionate, caring and responsible landlords.
I see those all around me. I see them in my own constituency.
But some are not. Too many are not.
What happened at Grenfell Tower – now almost 4 years ago – was a tragedy like none other and served as a wake-up call on social housing as much as on building safety.
And one of my most profound experiences as Secretary of State has been meeting the bereaved and the survivors of that tragedy.
And they told me their harrowing and heart-breaking stories, but two themes emerged time and again from those discussions.
Firstly, that they didn’t always feel listened to when they raised concerns and complaints and could only wonder what might have been if they had been heard.
And secondly, there was a general pervasive sense of not being treated with the same dignity and respect that they deserved but also that they thought they would have been treated with if they were in the private rental sector.
And those affected understandably seek answers and justice and that’s what the ongoing independent public inquiry aims to provide as part of a comprehensive response to the fire.
The bereaved and survivors are also, rightly, determined to ensure that there can be no repeat of such an unparalleled disaster but also that the voices of residents in social housing nationally don’t go unheard again.
And our new Charter on Social Housing, proposed in the white paper, is an important step towards this.
I’m very pleased to see that its ambition to raise the bar, and deliver greater fairness for residents, has been welcomed across the sector.
I want to thank the many residents throughout the country who helped shape this charter, most especially those affected by the Grenfell tragedy, the residents of social housing in North Kensington, who have taken time to work with us on these important issues.
The Charter speaks to the things we know matter most to residents: simple things that many of us take for granted in our housing – safety, quality, action on crime and antisocial behaviour, greater opportunity, including to move from rent to ownership so that social housing is a safety net but also the first rung on a ladder.
And, the simple things that make life worth living including better access to public spaces so that you can enjoy the outdoors and bring up your family with access to playgrounds and safe spaces.
It draws on the very good work of the NHF and their ‘Together with Tenants’ initiative, strengthening the relationship between residents and housing association landlords.
And above all, it returns to those two words: dignity and respect – words that were not the invention of the government but actually were the defining words from the mouths of the residents that we spoke to; the view that no-one should be treated poorly simply because of where they have chosen to live.
I want housing associations and all social landlords to ensure that these are the foundations on which their relationships with residents are built.
The interests and perspective of residents needs to be given even greater prominence in the delivery of services, in the way in which you work with them, in the way in which we work with them, and the way in which our regulators operate.
When things go wrong, as they inevitably sometimes do, tenants should be able to seek redress in reasonable time without an uphill struggle and know that they will be heard.
Residents should also be able to see how their landlord is performing on the things that matter, such as keeping their home in good repair.
I hope landlords will welcome the views of their tenants, alongside regular inspections of the largest landlords’ service performance, as a route to better management.
We’re talking about a significant cultural shift here and one that I hope will leave tenants feeling protected and empowered by a regulatory regime and a culture that values transparency, accountability, decency and service befitting the best intentions and traditions of social housing in this country.
The voice of residents is also the driving force behind our work to build back safer.
This is as much of a priority for me as I know for certain that it is for you.
One great example of how you can work further with your residents to tackle safety issues has been seen in the Final Report by the Social Sector (Building Safety) Engagement Group – published just last week.
The Group has brought together social landlords and residents from across the country.
It places residents at the heart of engagement on fire and building safety matters; and the report identifies a series of practical ways to improve communication.
We have all clearly been very moved by the stories of those living in high-rise buildings who, through absolutely no fault of their own, have been placed in difficult and sometimes impossible situations.
I share the anger and appreciate the depths of their frustration as well as the heavy toll this is taking on many people’s physical and mental health.
They have rightly demanded a clear plan to remove unsafe cladding, to provide fairness and certainty for leaseholders, to make the industry pay and act to rectify the faults of the past and to create a building safety regime that is proportionate and sensible but safety-led and inject confidence and certainty back into this part of the housing market for everyone’s benefit.
I believe the unprecedented intervention that the Chancellor and I announced last month begins to deliver this.
It was the largest-ever government investment in building safety, ensuring that no leaseholder will have to pay for the removal of unsafe cladding in high rise buildings where this issue began following the Grenfell tragedy.
It also means that no leaseholder in medium and lower rise buildings will ever pay more than £50 a month towards the remediation of unsafe cladding.
It’s right that we continue to take a safety-led approach. That was always the way that my predecessors saw this issue following the Grenfell tragedy. We’ve prioritised high-rise buildings which, according to the independent expert panel that we have and most independent advisors that I have seen and heard from, believe consistently, are those buildings at greatest risk.
It is this approach which has ensured – despite the challenges of the pandemic – that almost 95% of all high-rise buildings with the most unsafe form of cladding – ACM cladding – identified at the beginning of last year have been remediated or have workers on site today doing the job.
And that rises to 100% in the social housing sector – which I think is a testament to the commitment of housing associations and local authorities to make sure that residents are safe in their homes.
So, thank you to everybody who has achieved that and who kept that work going despite the pandemic and despite at times the calls from some quarters for that work to cease – for perfectly sensible and well-intentioned reasons but, nonetheless, that would have set back very important work and I’m pleased that it continued.
Nevertheless, I am not at all blind or deaf to the impact on leaseholders. I am very alive to it.
The problem is not one of their making, and it is heart-breaking to switch on the news night after night and to hear stories of the difficult and horrible situations that some of them find themselves in.
But it can’t be right that the costs of addressing these issues fall solely on the broader taxpayer – including people living in social housing – many of whom are not homeowners at all and can never achieve that dream.
I have always expected the industry to contribute towards these costs.
Some are and we continue to hear welcoming stories of developers stepping up now, like Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey recently, but far more needs to be done so, we are introducing a new gateway 2 developer levy and a new tax for the UK residential property development sector which will be in place in 2022 at the earliest opportunity once we have consulted and legislated on it in the usual way.
This will begin to ensure that developers pay their fair share.
In addition, our work with lenders and with surveyors, including with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, is ensuring that more sensible and pragmatic advice is provided.
And their most recent publication ensures that half a million leaseholders in blocks over 11 metres won’t now need a separate EWS1 assessment to get a mortgage and to begin to move forward with their lives. And I strongly welcome that.
In all of this – our approach to creating a world-class building safety regime will be delivered through the Building Safety Bill, and through the new building safety regulator which is up and running in shadow form.
In fact, I met yesterday with our new building safety regulator, the chief inspector of buildings, who will be taking this work forward.
We want to have a proportionate way forward.
The risk to life thankfully, remains low. And with the tragic exception of 2017, the number of people mercifully dying in house fires in purpose-built flats continues to decline year on year.
We will be guided by expert advice and will seek that sensible route forwards, but we must ensure a safer building safety regime than the one that came before.
That is the best way of ensuring that no community ever has to go through what happened at Grenfell again.
So, we want to build back safer and fairer, strengthening the safety net that social housing has always represented.
But we’re also looking to extend the ladder of opportunity that has always been there.
That means buildings must be of higher quality and we must ensure that more affordable and social housing gets built.
Given the lasting challenges the pandemic has created, I know this is easier said than done.
But we’re determined to do all we can to support you – social landlords who make an important contribution to housing delivery – to keep up the momentum on supply. To ensure that homes are completed and that new properties are started.
I think we can all agree that what has happened over the past year has made this an even more urgent, even more important mission for the country.
The measure of our commitment to you and to this issue, can be seen through our £12 billion investment in affordable housing over the next 5 years – this is the highest single funding commitment to affordable housing since 2010.
Now, we all know the economic outlook is uncertain and that the pandemic has caused huge disruption to your development plans, as it has more broadly, albeit less so than many of us would have predicted a year ago.
Mindful of these challenges, the Programme aims to deliver up to 180,000 affordable homes over five years from 2021 to 2026 – the first from next year – and these will be built across the country; in fact with a greater weighting beyond London than we have seen in previous years reflecting our commitment to levelling-up and ensuring quality, affordable homes are being built in every part of the country.
32,000 of them at least will be for social rent; that’s more than double the number in the previous programme – I know that’s been strongly welcomed by the NHF and the wider sector.
And 10% of the new homes delivered through the programme will also be for supported housing – helping those with physical or mental health challenges.
As part of this approach, we’re making home ownership a greater possibility for those on modest incomes, with the vast majority of the homes available through a more accessible and flexible new model of Shared Ownership, ironing out some of the undoubted difficulties that we’ve seen with the previous Shared Ownership Model.
I don’t think that model was sufficiently consumer-focused and I hope that we’ve begun to address some of the principal criticisms together.
We’ve significantly lowered the initial required stake and the minimum staircasing requirements.
There are some that say you have to choose between social housing and home ownership.
Our programme shows that we can champion both – recognising the aspirations of the two thirds of social housing tenants who want to own their home when their circumstances allow…
Paving the way for much-needed changes that bridge the gap between renting and home ownership, and building on the introduction of the Right to Shared Ownership, our new scheme will give many housing association tenants the opportunity, in time, to buy a stake in their home using the new model for Shared Ownership – part of our broader ambition to the government’s Generation Buy campaign.
There is therefore an opportunity here for housing associations to get Britain building the homes we need, whether for rent, whether for shared ownership or indeed for outright ownership as well – and not just in urban areas.
From 2015 to 2019, just over 10% of new affordable homes have been built in villages accommodating around 3,000 people.
I’d like to go much further than that in the years ahead.
Even this relatively small-scale development has great benefits for communities – providing work for SME builders and businesses at a critical time for our economy.
And, as we come out of the pandemic there may well be reasons why more people want to live in smaller towns and villages; and may well be able to have fulfilling careers doing so working from home all or part of the time. So, the need to support these communities and make sure that they are viable in the truest sense of the word is all the more important.
I would encourage you to work with our delivery partners to unlock this untapped potential, especially on sites that could be suitable for the Affordable Homes Programme.
I recognise the increased demands being placed on many housing associations at the moment – balancing building safety work with protecting vulnerable residents through and after the pandemic, including on housing supply and meeting our net zero targets.
A number of things are coming together.
A number of hugely challenging things are coming together.
An ageing society.
Ensuring that we protect the most vulnerable through a period of great change and uncertainty.
And our commitment to Net Zero by 2050.
This places a lot of pressure on the sector and forces you to make hard choices that you wouldn’t ordinarily want to have to make.
I am keen to work in partnership with you every step of the way to overcome these challenges, utilising my department’s very strong and productive relationship with Kate Henderson and the National Housing Federation.
And I am very grateful to Kate for the constant and constructive dialogue that we have together. She has been a great partner over the course of the last year and I very much hope that we continue to build that in the years ahead.
More than anything, our mission to build back better – fairer, and safer and with opportunity for all – is a mission to level up all parts of the country and our society as our recovery finally gets underway.
I have no doubt that this recovery will, in no small part, be powered by the provision of more affordable housing.
Every economic recovery in my lifetime has been led by housing and construction. And every recovery from a period of great change and economic disruption has needed new housing.
So, your sector, which has played such an important role in transforming the country over the course of the last century, is now more important than ever.
I hope that we can work together in a spirit of partnership, pragmatism, collective purpose over the course of the months ahead to build more homes, to build better and safer and more beautiful homes, to meet our climate ambitions and to build a fairer society where everybody has access to a good quality home of their own.
Thank you very much.