I believe that one of the primary roles of government is to enable people to help themselves earn a secure and comfortable income to support their families. How are we doing in delivering this? For those that can work, education and employment are the foundation stones of a secure income and it is great that the number of people in work has increased by over 1.5 million since 2010. In Truro and Falmouth this May there were fewer people claiming JSA than there were in May 2005. Meanwhile Coalition Government reforms have lifted 5000 of the lowest paid people in Truro and Falmouth out of income tax altogether and reduced tax for 38,000 local people.
These are steps in the right direction, but not the end of the journey. To ensure a decent standard of living for people earning modest incomes we need to also reduce the amount they have to spend to live. On Tuesday I helped the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launch new research looking at how much people have to spend on the essentials of life. The findings show that the continued rise of housing costs over recent decades have hit those earning modest incomes very hard. Poorly insulated homes and rising energy costs are not helping.
If we are to reduce housing costs for average and low income families we have to reform the private rented sector, which provides homes for nearly 20% of the UK population. Rents have been rising for decades. I wrote some weeks ago about this and am pleased by a further £53 million of investment in new housing announced by the Government last week. As well as reforming the private rented sector it is crucial also to expand the socially rented sector, including what is popularly referred to as council housing.
Local authorities have now been set free to build more council houses. A measure I helped to introduce, self-financing, means that local authorities retain the rental income they receive from existing council house tenants and can top it up by borrowing to invest in existing and new homes. A £3.5 billion Affordable Homes Guarantee, which allows social housing providers to use a government guarantee to secure private investment in council housing, is further driving forward the delivery of new council homes. A new £23 billion affordable housing funding pot known as the Affordable Homes Programme 2015-18 will deliver more affordable homes. I am disappointed that Cornwall Council has to date been slow in applying for funding from the Programme and want the Council to utilise all the new tools now available to build many more genuinely affordable homes for local people, including new council houses.
Advances in technology means that council housing can help lower energy bills as well – in built cutting edge insulation and energy efficiency devices means that the newest council houses can cut energy costs for the people who move into them. When combined with increased earnings from work this could be the path to securing the income families need.