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Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab): I am grateful to be called to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker—especially so late in the debate, as it may help me revive my skill at précis, which I fear had become a lost art for me. It seems a long time since my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning spoke, but one cannot help but be carried along by the enthusiasm with which he puts the Government's case and sets out their many achievements. Indeed, by the end of his speech, I thought that he was talking not so much about building low-cost houses as about building the new Jerusalem. That may remain a little bit further down the road, I suppose.

I have been somewhat perplexed by the argument mounted by some Opposition Members that the problem does not come down merely to a question of supply and demand. I always thought that the Conservative party—at least in its more modern phase—was very much the party of supply and demand and the free market economy. The views of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) may hark back to a more ancient Toryism, but the free market has been the hon. Gentleman's party's dominant philosophy in modern times. All of a sudden, the Opposition appear to believe that the free market or supply and demand do not affect house prices and people's ability to be housed. Of course that is not the sole factor. A large element is the interest rate, but it would take a brave Government, and an even braver Opposition, to say that they would raise interest rates to dampen supply and demand. In any case that would not solve the problem, which will be solved only when there are more properties for people to occupy.

The problem needs a more delicate approach than has sometimes been brought to it. There is no point in allocating a percentage target for each region of the country uniformly, because the pressure is greater in the south-east. Pressure is also felt in certain rural areas, to which people would like to retire. The only way to solve the problem is—dare I say it—a degree of state intervention. Some Opposition Members talked about
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state intervention in the sense of moving people around the country. Can we really say to people, "Well, your family has lived here for generations, but the houses are too expensive down here. Why don't you move a couple of hundred miles to where the houses are cheap?"? I do not always know what is meant by the phrase "sustainable communities", but "community" means living and working in an area where one is known and, in many cases, where one's family has lived for a long time. It is therefore important to have sizeable schemes to provide houses for rent and to buy that straightforward working people can afford. That was always what was done in the past.

When we had state intervention in the form of large council house building programmes, we did not have the wild price fluctuations that we have had since the 1970s. The rate of increase was fairly steady from 1920 until about 1970, because we had state provision of housing for those who could not compete in the open market.

I commend the Government for the steps that they are taking and the money that they are putting in. I ask them not to be afraid of looking back on our recent history—which did not begin in 1979, but a long time before—and consider some of the solutions used in those days, such as when Mr. Attlee built 1 million houses in five years. We might reflect on how that was done. We might also consider the scheme put forward by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) that operates in Shropshire and other places. We must be innovative and we must not be afraid to use the power of Government to ensure that poorer people have decent housing, just as it was offered to their parents and grandparents in the years after the second world war.

3.31 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): This has been a good debate, with many useful contributions from both sides of the Chamber. It began with an important speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), which set out our profound concerns about the Government's performance on this issue and signalled the direction in which our party will be heading, to which I shall return later.

It is interesting to note that this debate is an Opposition debate. The only chance that the House has had to debate housing post-Barker is at the behest of the Opposition, today and in the debate in Westminster Hall obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). He spoke persuasively then, as he did today. It is sad, but perhaps unsurprising, that the Government seem unwilling to defend their record, and reluctant to debate the future. In 1997—I carry a copy of the 1997 Labour manifesto at all times to remind me of the calumnies that it contains—the Labour party took a more optimistic view. They declared with shock that homelessness had more than doubled under the Conservatives. The manifesto said:

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Seven years later, 95,060 statutorily homeless households live in temporary accommodation—the highest figure ever recorded.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper) indicated dissent.

Mr. Hayes: Well, the Minister will know that Shelter has said that it is a profound disappointment that the Government have failed to deal with those fundamental issues of homelessness. They tell me that more than 100,000 children become homeless in England every year. Some 500,000 households are officially overcrowded, including 300,000 families with children. Only 31,000 new affordable homes were built in 2003, compared with more than 60,000 when we were in government in 1993–94. More than 3 million households live in poor housing.

I welcome the Government's success in meeting their target on bed-and- breakfast accommodation. It is good that 4,000 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation have been moved into more appropriate accommodation, but at least 9,000 families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation are not covered by the target. We heard about some of them in the debate today. We heard about those families who are referred to temporary accommodation through social services. We heard about some of the asylum seeker families with children who are not included in the figures. We heard about many families who are housed in unsuitable, inappropriate accommodation, in hostels and elsewhere. Yes, a small target has been hit and a pledge has been met, but there are bigger targets and many more significant matters. There are many greater indictments of the Government, not merely from the Opposition but from all those who share our concern for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The Government are failing on homelessness. They are also failing on house building. Much has been made of house building in the debate and I acknowledge that there is a housing crisis, but the real crisis is housing mix; it is about the match between the availability of particular types of houses and the need for them. For example, there is a real problem in social housing, where the number of houses built has halved under the Government. There is a real problem in relation to accommodation for single-person households because much of the building in the market sector has been three or four-bedroomed houses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells pointed out. Indeed, according to figures produced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that trend is likely to continue unabated. The real problem is about the marriage between provision and need, and the Government show no signs of dealing with it.

Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman has pointed out that the wrong sort of housing is being built, and I very much share that view, but given open market conditions, how does he propose, through the planning
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system, to build the right sort of houses? Does he want centrally imposed Government targets to tell local councils how many one-bedroomed houses to build?

Mr. Hayes: What is clear is that those predict and provide targets have produced the wrong housing mix. We have had predict and provide for years, yet we have ended up with a situation in which affordability is as bad as it has ever been and where the houses being built do not meet demand from single-parent households, first-time buyers and others. It is clear that the best way to deal with those problems is to trust local communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said in her opening remarks. It is entirely appropriate that the people closest to local communities, with their interests at heart, should make decisions about how those communities should develop.

The Minister described that idea as an intellectual construct to defend nimbyism. If nimbyism is believing that local people should have a key role in deciding how their neighbourhood changes and develops; if it is believing that for the most part, incremental development is always preferable to large-scale inappropriate development; if it is believing that houses should be built in character with the landscape and houses around them, most of Britain and most Members of this place would be guilty of nimbyism. If the sort of threats I have described were planned for the constituencies of the Under-Secretary and the Minister, I suspect that they would find it hard not to become nimbies themselves. That is the truth of the matter.

People's natural concern for their environment and their community is written off by Labour Members as nimbyism, but we stand four-square behind those people in Bedfordshire and elsewhere, so well defended by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous), who stands up for the interests of his constituents at every opportunity—as the Minister himself has previously acknowledged. We stand up for people in Ashford in Kent and for people in Northamptonshire and elsewhere who face the onslaught of the concreting over of their green and pleasant land. Those people are not against all development; they simply want appropriate development on a human scale.

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