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22 Oct 2002 : Column 166—continued

Bob Spink: Castle Point.

Mrs. Roche: I must get my Essex constituencies right. The hon. Gentleman raised that matter. We are committed to working with local authorities to end the scandal by March 2004.

We have strengthened the protection for vulnerable, homeless people through the Homelessness Act and the priority need order. Many charities and non-governmental organisations that work with homeless people have welcomed those measures.

It is right to discuss other challenges. So far, we have considered those in the stronger housing markets, but we must not forget the weakest. In parts of some towns and cities in the north and the midlands, the bottom has fallen out of the housing market. In those places, we need to promote demand for housing as part of our wider regeneration measures.

On 10 April, we announced that nine areas had been invited to work with the Government to establish pathfinder projects to tackle low demand where the problem was worst. The projects' aim is lasting solutions to turn around the worst-affected areas. Let me make it clear that tackling low demand and abandonment in parts of the north and the midlands does not simply mean knocking down homes. Although some properties need to be demolished because they are of a type that people simply do not want any more or in areas from

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which people have moved away, that is not the end of the story. Other physical works will be completed, such as repairing decaying homes and improving the nearby environment. That will be done as part of a unified agenda to improve the area through better job prospects, schools and health care.

As the Minister responsible for regeneration, I stress that one cannot deal with poor housing in isolation. The key to lasting change in the poorest neighbourhoods is, for example, reducing crime, improving access to good health care, attacking joblessness and improving educational achievements as well as dealing with poor housing. All those aspects must go together.

The Government have a big agenda. If I may say so, that also applies to the House. We recognise the scale of the challenge. We have a long-term strategy, which acknowledges that the neglect of the past can be overcome only by investing in the future. We are working to fulfil housing need where demand is highest and to promote demand where housing markets are weakest.

Our solutions will be tailored to fulfil the differing needs of our regions. However, overall, we must have a clear objective: more homes where people want to live, near where they want to work and at a price that they can afford. Housing is at the top of our agenda and we want a step change in our policies for building successful, thriving communities. In short, our aim is providing decent, affordable homes for people wherever they live.

5.49 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am pleased to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in such an important debate. I am grateful to Liberal Democrat Members for enabling the House to discuss the subject. The lack of affordable housing constitutes a major crisis that affects all parts of the country. The situation is urgent and serious, and is blighting the lives of millions of people.

While we welcome the Government's decision finally to do something to help to resolve the crisis, it is the Conservatives' contention that the Government are doing too little to solve the problem and that some of their proposals may well turn out to be counter-productive. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) may laugh, but I have some figures. She talks about the neglect of the Conservative years, but I have the figures. She knows perfectly well that 108,000 affordable housing units were built in 1980, compared with a miserly 22,000 last year. That causes many of her constituents misery because they cannot get a house.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Were not the large number of houses that the Conservative party now tries to claim as its own actually part of the previous Labour Government's long-term plan for the development of affordable housing? We simply have to look at what happened in London during the 18 years of Conservative misrule. When the Conservatives came to office in 1979, there were, on average, 17,000 properties

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being built by local authorities in London. When we came into office in 1997, there was precisely one such property built in the whole of London.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Lady may live in the past of 30 years ago, but I prefer to live in the present, and to consider what the present Government intend to do. Those waiting for houses will be listening to this debate carefully to see what the Government intend to do to improve their situation.

The lack of affordable housing hits the most vulnerable members of our society, and the number of priority homeless today stands at 102,650—up a staggering 11 per cent. in the last four years under the Labour Government. Crisis—it used to be called Crisis at Christmas—estimates that the number of hidden homeless could be as high as 400,000. The hon. Lady may not like that figure, but she had better listen to it carefully. If that is the correct figure, it is a scandal. It is the highest number of homeless people that this country has ever seen, and it is a disgrace that we should be in such a situation under a Labour Government.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): The hon. Gentleman referred to the organisation that used to be known as Crisis at Christmas. Did it not change its name during the Conservative years from Crisis at Christmas to Crisis all the year round?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I honestly do not think that that point is worth replying to.

Nearly 81,000 statutory homeless households live in temporary accommodation. We also have the scandal of the number of people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation having trebled over the last four years. Even worse, the number of homeless children has increased by 11 per cent. in that time. If anyone does not have sympathy with children who are homeless, they ought to think again.

The problem involves not only those who have lost their homes; the housing situation can also be very difficult for those who have a home. According to Shelter, 518,000 households are officially overcrowded, and more than 300,000 families with children live in overcrowded conditions. More than 3 million households live in poor housing. The Government must take serious steps to address the situation.

As well as having a devastating effect on people's lives, the lack of affordable housing can also have a crippling effect on the local economy. If the labour force cannot find suitable affordable housing, it is likely to have to commute long distances. The Housing Foundation suggests that, in West Sussex, for example, there are more than 100 job vacancies at county hall. The foundation states:

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate mentioned the situation in London. There, people in their late 20s on average earnings need a mortgage of eight and a half times their income to buy a home. That is why it is becoming very difficult for young people to buy a home in London, where the average house price is now estimated to be #205,000. London is undoubtedly suffering from a major shortage of new housing.

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The number of households in the capital increased by more than 6 per cent. over the past four years to 184,000. For the first time, the number of new houses has dipped below the number of households being formed, and the number of houses being built in London in the last year for which figures are available was just 58,000.

Chris Grayling: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I want to deal with rural housing, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.

It would be folly to suggest that the lack of affordable housing is an issue only in urban areas. If anything, the crisis is greater in rural areas. According to the Countryside Alliance, rural property prices are 15 per cent. above the national average. That means that local people on low wages cannot afford them. This is a real problem for young people who want to remain in our rural villages. Labour Members may well laugh. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) is laughing, but how would he like to be one of those young people who cannot afford to buy a house?

Andrew George: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No, I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) first, as I said I would.

Chris Grayling: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government are presiding over a system that actually makes it more difficult to construct new affordable housing in the south-east? The Housing Corporation formulae no longer recognise the possibility that land values could be at the level that they are. My local housing association in Epsom, Rosebery, therefore cannot purchase land on which to build affordable housing because the Housing Corporation will not let it pay the market value for the land. The formulae do not allow it. Is not that an example of the Government presiding over a system that works against, rather than with, some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I shall come to our proposals for the right to buy in a moment, and we shall need to look at the ratios in those proposals.

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