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22 Oct 2002 : Column 191—continued

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): So that we can be clear about Liberal Democrat policy on the right to buy, will the hon. Gentleman explain whether they want to extend it, reduce it or keep it just the same?

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Yes.

Mr. Sanders: My hon. Friend gives a beautiful precis of my answer.

The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) spoke well and with passion—[Hon. Members: XAnswer the question."] The answer is yes, but it depends entirely on the housing market. We do not want to extend the right to buy council housing by increasing discounts. We want to respect the position of people who already have the right to buy, but where there are acute housing shortages we may need to restrict the discount and even to change the qualifying period—but we do not want to take away the right to buy.

Dr. Pugh: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Sanders: I will in a moment.

The hon. Member for Luton, South spoke well and with passion on behalf of those who have paid, and continue to pay, the price for the social housing stock that has never been replaced. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) argued for a level playing field for councils and other housing providers. That point was at the heart of the message of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath—we need a level playing field.

In response to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South agreed that we should not rule out any form of housing provision; there is a role for co-ops, for self-build and for community land trusts. The Government must tell us how they plan to encourage alternative forms of housing provision.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) talked about rural communities and the devastation caused in them by the non-replacement of social housing. That lies at the heart of the problem, which was summed up beautifully by the hon. Member for Totnes, namely, that there is a lack of affordable housing both for purchase and for rent. Unless we tackle that problem, house price rises will continue, the number of people in poor and inadequate accommodation will increase and the number of people in wholly inadequate bed-and-breakfast accommodation will also rise.Let us tackle affordable housing.

7.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): I welcome this debate. I have had to follow many hard acts during my short time as a Member, but the contribution of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was not one of them. There were many

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useful contributions to the debate. The most interesting speech from the official Opposition—not for the first time—was made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). His comments were well informed and well couched. I am grateful for them and shall read them with great interest. I may get back to him on a few points. The hon. Gentleman's speech was very different from the Cotswold hysteria or hurricane from the Opposition Front Bench, which did not say much at all.

The most substantive comments came from the Government Benches—not unusually. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) made some telling points about rural housing. He effectively highlighted the sham of the official Opposition's crocodile tears and their new-found love and affection for the countryside—not least housing in the countryside. He also made some pointed remarks about the urban version of Conservatism: what they did in Westminster, to their shame and disgrace, under the lamentable Shirley Porter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) made some interesting comments. I can tell her that we intend to introduce a new housing, health and safety regime when parliamentary time permits. The overcrowding standards to which she referred will indeed be considered in that context.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made some excellent points about land use. In London in particular, but also elsewhere, land is a factor in the provision of affordable housing. Yes, as the hon. Member for Totnes pointed out, section 106 is important, but land is a precious resource—certainly in our urban areas—and to see some local councils fritter sites away or sell them unnecessarily without getting full social use from them is regrettable. Furthermore, as I have discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, it is not appropriate for councils to land-bank sites and claim that, for the 20th year, this year might be the right year for industrial use even though the previous 19 years were not. That is why, as and when we get the chance to introduce planning legislation, there will be a sharp focus on local development frameworks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) made some excellent points on homelessness and the right to buy. She tried to tempt me down the resources road and to talk about the divvying up of the resources in the comprehensive spending review. I shall not do that. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will deal with that in due course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made some useful points, not least about the role of the co-operative and mutual sector in housing.

I shall refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) later. Most of the other comments seemed almost to have been made in a vacuum. Apart from the contribution of the hon. Member for Totnes, nothing of substance was offered or suggested from the official Opposition. Nothing was offered or suggested to show that currently we are doing anything wrong or that there is anything wrong with the policies that are unfolding. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South pointed out, there was certainly no apology for the 500,000 homes repossessed between 1990 and 1997.

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There was no apology for a regime in which interest rates shot up to 50 per cent. and inflation was more than 22 per cent. at various stages. Imagine if the current difficulties in affordable housing had occurred during the economic disaster of the Conservative Government. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we inherited #19 billion—

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNulty: I shall because Rayleigh, as opposed to most of these other characters, has been here all the time.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for giving way. On a factual point, will he tell us in which year under the Tory Government inflation stood at 22 per cent?

Mr. McNulty: You are a historian, you work it out—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must use correct parliamentary language.

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is a Conservative historian and he can work it out, rather than you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I was not offering that to you at all.

The only sensible thing that the hon. Member for Torbay said was that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) had said nothing. I waited with bated breath. We heard the usual rendition—the little family internecine dispute between the two Opposition parties. We heard the critique of the Liberals and waited with bated breath for the hon. Gentleman to explore Conservative policies, but we got nothing. Solutions were offered. I wrote them all down. We heard about pump priming of brownfield land. As the hon. Member for Torbay said, nothing was offered apart from a reworking and repetition of the words Xpump", Xpriming", Xbrown", Xfield" and Xland". There was no substance of any description and a complete absence of knowledge of what has happened post the derelict land grant, gap funding and the European regime. The hon. Member for Cotswold should have known about that because he was there when Winchester put up the PPG3 debate last July. That regime has been replaced. Empty homes—I think that he mentioned that problem three times—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If the hon. Gentleman is going to refer to Members of this House, he should do so correctly.

Mr. McNulty: I thought that I had, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I apologise if I did not.

The hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned empty homes three or four times and offered no suggestions, save for, XEncourage more private sector money." He continued lamely, XIt may well mean legislative changes and we might look at that but we might publish something; we might consult a bit later." That was it—the sole substance of the Opposition's—

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

Mr. McNulty: Of course.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Instead of going into his ungracious usual rant, will the hon. Gentleman now tell

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us what the Government will do to rectify the current situation? We have the largest number of homeless people in this country ever. When will we get back to building 33,000 affordable social housing units a year, as the Conservatives did in their last year in government, instead of the miserable 22,000 that are currently being built?

Mr. McNulty: All that the hon. Gentleman offered was an exposition of some sorts on the right to buy, which showed, rather like—[Interruption.] I think that I have another 10 minutes yet; you will have to wait and see. [Hon. Members: XYou."]

All that the hon. Gentleman offered us was another extended right to buy. That merely offered us a stark misunderstanding of the regime under which housing associations currently operate. He asked how on earth two could become one. It is possible to sell off two houses and rebuild one under the current criteria. He shows a profound lack of understanding of the current regime and charity law. How on earth will the banks and private financiers say, XThat is okay; you are selling off the assets against which the money that we are lending you, and have loaned you, is secured"? They certainly would not say that.

We are told by the shadow Deputy Prime Minister—I almost said shadow Leader of the Opposition—that more than 1 million people would be eligible for the new right-to-buy extension. The numbers simply do not stack up, to the extent that we cannot find 1 million people who would be eligible for such an extension; they simply do not exist. I repeat: housing associations raise private money. The level of their borrowing is based on their assets and rental incomes. If we disposed of their assets—sold their houses—they would no longer have that asset stream. If they were forced to sell at large discounts, it could put their existing loans and future borrowings in jeopardy. I should be very interested indeed to see, if the Opposition stick with this scheme, where in their next shadow Budget—should there ever be one—we shall see the #1 billion housing subsidy that even 20,000 homes will require. The scheme is, in short, stark raving bonkers and purely and utterly a device for the next Conservative party leadership contest. That is a matter of profound regret in the context of what should be an extremely serious public policy debate on housing—a problem about which every hon. Member on both sides of the House agrees something must be done. We are unfolding those proposals now.

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