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22 Oct 2002 : Column 180—continued

Mr. Flook: If the Liberal Democrats are so concerned about affordable housing, can the hon. Gentleman explain why Liberal Democrat-controlled Taunton Deane has reduced from 40 per cent. to 30 per cent. the element of affordable housing required of developers of new schemes in Taunton? Housing need in Taunton is as great as it no doubt is in Portsmouth.

Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman is better placed than I am to ask the Liberal Democrats in Taunton that question. I suggest that he set up a meeting as soon as possible to confront them on that very issue. I am sure that the House would be interested to hear their response. Whatever that response might be, I am sure that it is one that they could justify to the people they represent as the majority on that council.

Much has been said about the benefits of housing associations. As someone who was brought up in a council house in Portsmouth and who will be for ever grateful for the opportunity to live in a decent house after moving out of a bomb-damaged property just after the war, I will never listen to an argument that suggests that councils should not build and manage houses. Of course, some councils have got it wrong and it has been necessary to improve the way in which housing has been managed by local authorities, but it was a big mistake to suggest that housing associations were the only option.

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There is now a wide divergence between what is provided by local authorities and by housing associations. The Conservatives stopped funding for the Housing Corporation and suggested that housing associations should borrow their money in the future, but that has pushed up their rents. For example, the average weekly rent last year on a three-bedroom house on an estate managed by Portsmouth city council was #62. The nearest comparison for a housing association property was #78, and that figure is a year older than the council figure. In most cases, people need to be unemployed and on maximum benefit to rent such properties from housing associations.

Mr. Drew: I hope that we will not consider only local authorities and housing associations. Co-operative housing, co-housing and community land trusts all have a role to play, but they have not featured significantly in the debate. All those options should be central to the solution, not pushed to the margins.

Mr. Hancock: I agree entirely, and I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to put that on the record. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government are considering all the available options. The transfer of equity, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), also needs to be considered. If we are ever to tackle the problem properly, we must be fearless and willing to change things that have so far been set in stone. For example, if the Tories are really so keen on the right to buy, would they consider—if they ever, God forbid, got back into power—the right to buy for tenants of private accommodation? I think not. That is a challenge for the hon. Member for Cotswold. Will they grasp that opportunity? Perhaps it will be in the manifesto. Perhaps the hon. Member for Luton, South and I will offer that suggestion when we respond to the Tories' consultation paper. It is a policy that would be very attractive to people who have paid over the odds for private accommodation for many years and would love—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that the Chair takes a dim view of mobile phones in the Chamber.

Mr. Hancock: For the record, let me clarify that the mobile telephone in question was not mine. However, to save his embarrassment, I shall refrain from mentioning the hon. Gentleman involved.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman was extremely courteous during his speech, and I would normally give way to him gladly, but I am conscious that other hon. Members want to contribute and that there are barely 20 minutes before the wind-up speeches begin.

I hope that the Minister will accept that the debate will be welcomed by hon. Members of all parties. Labour Members have contributed significantly, but much more remains to be done. The Government must clearly acknowledge that they do not have all the solutions. They need to look at some of the other options that have been set out.

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Brownfield sites will not be brought back into use simply because someone says, without explaining how, that the process will be pump primed. Developers will not look keenly at affordable housing without a real incentive to do so. Local authorities will not be able to do more about empty houses unless the Government give them the power to do so.

We can talk endlessly about the obscenity that empty houses represent. I live in a city where the Tories' last-but-one privatisation gave a lot of Ministry of Defence properties to a company called Annington Homes. It is obscene that that company should be deliberately keeping blocks of former Ministry of Defence housing in desirable areas close to the sea front empty, with the aim of selling them off. The company does not want to rent the properties to Ministry personnel but, just a few hundred yards up the road, the Ministry of Defence is building new housing. What is that if not unjoined-up government? Is not it an obscenity for all those people desperately in need of homes?

This debate was urgently needed. My regret is that the Government did not allow a full day's debate in their own time on the issue, on a substantive motion.

6.42 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I should like to commend Liberal Democrat Members on having given up at least half of their Opposition day to this debate. Precious few have attended, however: if the party attached so much interest to the matter, I would have expected more of them to be here.

There are certain rights and freedoms that distinguish a civilised society. They include the freedoms from fear, hunger and destitution, and the right to a home. I need no lessons from Conservative Members about the human consequences of inadequate housing. I saw them at first hand when I was a councillor in this very city during the 1980s and 1990s. The Conservatives took the right to buy one or two steps further, and I might add that they were unlawful steps. They sold off council flats as if they were going out of fashion—as indeed they were under the previous Conservative Government—and they cynically spurned opportunities to replenish the stock through the planning system.

The result was that the growing number of homeless people in the centre of London had no hope of finding housing. There were no transfers for growing families needing larger accommodation. Children's lives were blighted because they were never able to sit quietly and do their homework, or play, or simply grow up.

There were no transfers for sick and disabled people. I was a councillor for Millbank ward, just a stone's throw from the Palace of Westminster. I knew of people who needed oxygen tanks to allow them to breathe who were trapped on the sixth floor of their block of flats and did not leave their homes for six months. They could not move to empty flats on the ground floor because they were boarded up and for sale.

No one need tell me about the consequences of the Tories' policy or their record on affordable homes. The lives of individuals and families were blighted. Communities were broken up and dispersed. What made it worse was that that is what they set out to do in Westminster, the Tories' flagship authority. I have yet to hear a word of apology, regret or even acknowledgement from Tory Members.

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There is much to welcome in what the Government have done already. Last Saturday I attended an exhibition of the proposals for the East Ketley millennium village in my constituency to mark the opening of a public consultation by English Partnerships. Six months ago, I complained in Westminster Hall about the role of English Partnerships, whose aim seemed to be not to promote affordable housing but to deprive the local authority of the means of achieving it. That has changed, which is a credit to the Government. The role of English Partnerships has been transformed, and the East Ketley millennium village is an exemplary scheme.

The scheme is based on public consultation, which first assesses and then addresses what people say they need. That involves providing schools, facilities for community, leisure and recreation and shops. Of the 800 homes that are to be built, 200 will be affordable homes. That compares with the 92 affordable homes that English Partnerships offered in the two years between 1998 and 2000. That is a credit to the Government.

My constituency is semi-urban and so, by definition, semi-rural. I want to focus this evening on the rural dimension. Opposition Members speak of the decline of the rural as distinct from the urban way of life. Whatever the rural way of life is, its decline has little to do with foxes and much to do with the lack of affordable housing.

Why have shops and post offices in villages closed? Under the Conservative Government, 450 rural schools closed in 15 years. Why are rural pubs closing? The answer is that the people who used to use those facilities do not live in the villages any more. Twenty years of Tory housing policies sucked the lifeblood out of many rural communities.

In the countryside, 86 per cent. of people are homeowners, and just 14 per cent. pay rent. That compares with the respective averages in urban Britain of 77 per cent. and 23 per cent. In the early 1990s, the Rural Development Commission estimated that 25 per cent. of people in the countryside lived on the margins of poverty, and that 40 per cent. of them could not afford to own homes. Where are those people now? Some are living, neglected and isolated, in abject rural poverty, next door to the comfortable Conservatives in their country houses. The rest live in towns—the only places where they can find decent housing.

In the five years to 1990, 91,000 rural homes were sold off under the right to buy and were not replaced. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), spoke of a crisis of affordable housing in the countryside, but that crisis was created over 20 years by the Tory Government. Tory Members cannot defend their own record, much less feel pride in it.

In 1990, it was estimated that 80,000 affordable homes were needed in the subsequent six years, and 17,700 were built. Homes that communities needed to renew and sustain themselves were sold to commuters, retirees and people looking for second homes. That forced land and house prices up and the younger generation to move to the towns. It brought homelessness to rural communities.

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The Opposition's response is to oppose any attempt to develop affordable housing on green fields. The hon. Member for Cotswold said a great deal about providing housing where it was needed, but we have yet to hear whether that includes providing houses in villages where people already live and where they want their younger generation to remain.

The Opposition now want to make that hugely difficult problem infinitely worse with their second initiative, which is the proposal to extend the right to buy to housing associations. I do not know whether the question is unparliamentary, but what sort of idiot could produce that idea? The answer is that it is none other than the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who is also a challenger for the Opposition leadership.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden wrote a letter to The Times last week, in which he said:

The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to

I repeat my earlier point that, if a housing association sells property at a discount of up to 70 per cent. and then buys it back at market price, how will it be able to afford to build anything other than the garden path up which the Opposition want to lead us?

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