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28 Mar 2006 : Column 207WH—continued

Housing (Overcrowding)

11 am

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Miss Begg.

Overcrowded housing is an important issue, both in my London constituency and nationally. I shall talk about the reasons for that and then consider some of the solutions that the Government could consider more firmly. As a Hackney and London MP, I view these matters from the perspective of a city that is rapidly growing. London's population is set to grow by the equivalent of a city the size of Leeds by 2016. Indeed, we are already in the middle of that growth and are seeing the pressures put on all services in London, particularly housing. London is also a young city. In Hackney, 22.1 per cent. of the population is under the age of 16. Children and families need homes to live in—and they need them now.

Overcrowding may be concentrated in London, but it is not just a London issue. London and the south-east are widely acknowledged as the powerhouse of the British economy, and we need to create housing stock for our workers. The cost of not tackling overcrowding is high.

I shall highlight some of the problems in my constituency. Hackney is the third most overcrowded borough in London, with one person in 10—8,000 families—living in overcrowded accommodation. The number of households in this one London borough who live in overcrowded conditions is greater than can be found in whole cities. Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Bradford also suffer from overcrowding, but each of those cities has fewer such households than Hackney. In Greater London, 174,200 households, including 261,000 children—one fifth of London's children—live in overcrowded conditions. That figure rises to 30 per cent. among those who live in social housing.

The debate about overcrowding often has to deal with technical definitions and financial models. However, as I know only too well as a constituency Member, there is a human side. It is the people who are suffering from living in overcrowded conditions—the children who miss out and the families who suffer stress.

According to a survey of English housing conducted by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 500,000 households nationally—900,000 children—live in overcrowded conditions. The problem has grown in London since 1991, and severe overcrowding has risen by almost 50 per cent. Black and minority ethnic families are six times more likely to live in overcrowded conditions than white British families, and overcrowding is particularly prevalent among Bangladeshi and African communities. That is why three east London boroughs top the unenviable overcrowding league.

The Mayor of London's involvement in housing has helped to sharpen the political focus on the issue, which is too big a problem for individual boroughs to deal with alone. Later, I shall touch on some of the funding problems of London boroughs. Nationally, the Minister of Communities and Local Government and his
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colleagues are debating the question of city regional government. I may not always see eye to eye with the Mayor of London—

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Hear, hear.

Meg Hillier : That may be a moment of agreement with the Opposition.

The creation of strategic London government was an important and helpful step towards seeing the wider picture on housing, including overcrowding. Under this Government, we have seen a welcome growth in the number of affordable homes, but the balance of the various types of home is not right. The pressure for unit numbers—whichever party is in government will always exert political pressure to increase quantity—is often at the cost of a greater balance that would allow people to move within their communities rather than having to move out of London. I have much anecdotal evidence showing that those of my constituents who have the wherewithal to move from inner London to outer London or even outside London are doing just that in order to find the housing that they need. Over-focusing on one and two-bedroom properties in private and social housing stock is either driving families out or condemning them to live in cramped and unhealthy conditions, and many of their neighbours are in the same position, which often creates near ghettos of overpopulated areas.

The problems of imbalanced communities and affordable housing are not unique to cities, but they are acute in London, which is why I shall focus on their impact on the city. We need a greater supply of larger affordable housing, but other mechanisms are also needed in order to adjust the playing field so that, for example, it can become more cost-effective to upgrade older, larger homes than selling them to pay for smaller units.

Another issue that impacts on housing supply in London is under-occupancy. According to the ODPM's survey of English housing, 9 per cent. of London's social rented sector is under-occupied. Freeing up those larger homes will not solve overcrowding, but it could help, and many councils are at the forefront of initiatives to encourage tenants with spare bedrooms to move to smaller properties. For example, Hackney is adjusting its lettings policy to give more priority to overcrowded families. It is also increasing financial support for under-occupying tenants to cover the cost of moving to smaller properties—a simple thing that is often the brake on people's desire to move. It is also encouraging under-occupying tenants to move by offering them not only what they need, but a second bedroom, so that relatives who visit can use the spare room. That is one reason why people do not want to move from larger properties. I am delighted that Shelter, the housing charity, has highlighted Hackney's approach as good practice.

Even if all tenants with spare rooms moved to smaller properties, however, it would not solve the problem. I want to move on to some bigger solutions and issues. The main solution is a greater supply of housing, and altering the financial incentives for housing associations that are developing new social housing would help provide the right size and mix of units. I shall highlight
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supply and size of housing and consider some definitions of overcrowding, as well as mentioning the effects of not acting. I am not a technical expert on housing matters, but I worked in the housing field for more than a decade. I hope that the Minister is listening hard, because the stark fact is that the current definition has been extant since 1935. It is rather out of date. I see him nodding; he may like to comment in his winding-up speech.

The Housing Act 2004 allows the Government to modernise housing standards—a provision that I welcome. However, the Housing Act 1985 contains two legal definitions of overcrowding. I shall not go into detail, but I want to highlight the room and space standards. The room standard allows a large kitchen to be counted as a sleeping room. It puts no limit on the number of same-sex cohabitants in such rooms, and it does not include children under the age of 10. Under that definition, children under 10 are wiped out.

Under the space standard, children under the age of one do not count at all. A room is counted if it is a bedroom or living room, as are kitchens and dining rooms. Families can live in severely overcrowded conditions without hitting the Government's radar. Applying those definitions to the reality shows that it is probably a great deal worse than was suggested by the figures that that I cited earlier. I remind the House—I hope that the Minister will hear what I have to say—that, in theory, four children under the age of 10 could share a living room as a bedroom without being technically severely overcrowded.

I was delighted in 2003 when my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) promoted a private Member's Bill that recommended not counting living rooms or kitchens and giving every occupant of the household equal worth. A change is certainly needed, and I am pleased with the Government's recent announcement that they will consult on the statutory overcrowding standard. It is a step forward, but it is long overdue.

The Government have rightly highlighted the importance of education, on which debate is raging further down the Committee corridor today. Overcrowding has a big educational impact. A Shelter survey carried out at the end of last year showed that 80 per cent. of families felt that living in overcrowded conditions was damaging their children's educational prospects. That is self-evident. Overcrowding prevents children from having a quiet space to read, do their homework and study for exams. In my constituency, we have a number of homework clubs. Indeed, a local vicar in Haggerston in south Hackney, the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, has opened her home to local schoolchildren to provide them with space and peace to do their homework. I applaud her philanthropy, but the Government need to tackle the problem more systematically.

There are also international examples of the impact of overcrowding on education. Research entitled "The Urban Prospect", published in 2001 by New York's citizens housing and planning council, showed a link between overcrowding and lower levels of educational attainment. The study found that overcrowding reduces the probability of boys completing secondary school by almost 11 per cent., and that of girls by about 6 per cent. I do not doubt the Government's commitment to
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improving educational standards, but we need to do that across the piece. A home with the space to study must come high up the list.

The links between overcrowding and health are well documented. When I entered politics, the then director of public health stressed to me that the provision of better-quality housing for families living in poor, overcrowded homes would have one of the best impacts on local health. We have come on a bit during the past 12 years or so. However, I cite the Shelter survey again: 90 per cent. of families felt that overcrowding was damaging their children's health; asthma was the condition mentioned most often. It will not surprise hon. Members to hear that 86 per cent. of those surveyed felt that depression, anxiety and stress resulted from living in cramped quarters; every week, we see in our surgeries the impact of overcrowding.

Research also shows links between overcrowding and respiratory and infectious diseases. British Medical Association research shows that overcrowding in childhood significantly affects stature, rates of disease and rates of early mortality in adulthood. If we do not tackle overcrowding, we will condemn today's children to a life of health inequality. Tuberculosis is another problem that is particularly prevalent in London, and it is directly linked to overcrowding. I commend work done by the London assembly on the impacts and causes of TB, which is on the increase. In Hackney, TB rates are similar to those in China. In 2001, all but three of the 15 London boroughs with above-average overcrowding had an above-average incidence of TB. We know from research that overcrowding plays a larger role in the incidence of TB than do migration or ethnicity.

The critical argument is about the shortage of housing supply. The Government have done much good work to tackle the problem, but the concentration on one and two-bedroom properties has meant that the problems have not been entirely addressed. On 8 March, the Minister for Housing and Planning announced that in London the proportion of new housing built with three bedrooms or more would increase from 27 per cent. in 2004–06 to 35 per cent. from 2006–08. That was very welcome. In Hackney, the fruits of that policy are eagerly awaited, especially by the tenants of Haggerston West and Kingsland estate, who await a determination about their estate transfer, which has been discussed, in particular, because of the need to include larger family properties on the estate.

Supply is one part of overcrowding, but we need other ways of tackling the problem in the short term. I commend the 10-point plan drawn up by the Association of London Government, with the support of the National Housing Federation. The key points include a call for a national target to reduce overcrowding, which I support. People often mock nationally set targets, but all types of professionals on the ground tell me that Government targets have a beneficial impact because they focus local delivery, so a national target would be a good step forward. I also support the ALG's calls for the Government to have an overcrowding unit; perhaps it is time we had an overcrowding tsar. The Minister is smiling at the idea; perhaps he could have the job.

I should also like grant funding to be re-jigged to make the building of family-sized units easier and more affordable. Local housing associations in Hackney tell
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me that although we need more family-sized units locally, they do not provide the rent return that comes from building more one and two-bedroom properties. That is a perverse situation, which we need to change by considering the cost per person of building a home, rather than the cost per home. It is a typical clash between the Treasury and the delivery arm of the Government. The common-sense argument is there, but we need to make sure that it is translated. I am not sure whether the Minister can make pledges about what the Treasury can do, but perhaps he can comment on any discussions between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasury on this issue.

I turn to the need for one small but important measure in London. A number of housing associations have been selling their larger properties, particularly street properties and older properties. We need a brake on the sale of such properties, incentives to do them up and more support for tenants who want to move out of larger social homes and into other properties. Perhaps we could collate the existing funding mechanisms and provide extra support.

One of the bizarre aspects of current policy is that Housing Corporation funding rules reduce, pound for pound, the money that housing associations receive from local funding. I am a great believer in decentralisation and in local government having a role strategically, and in some cases in delivery terms, in tackling the detailed needs of an area. It seems an emasculation of local government, however, to say, "Fine, you can fund housing associations to provide more housing", but then to remove money from the national pot.

In the 2004 spending review, an extra 10,000 new socially rented homes were promised by 2007–08, and a total of 75,000 homes over three years. That has been very welcome and I do not underplay the step change the Government have made in focusing on housing. However, I am looking to the next comprehensive spending review, as no doubt the Minister is, although perhaps he cannot commit at this point. I should like the Government to commit to the recommendations of the Barker review and ensure that the resources are available to deliver on those pledges.

The Government have done a great deal and recent announcements give me great hope, but I urge the Minister to start acting now to ensure that the benefits accrue for this generation of our children, as well as the next.

11.16 am

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this debate on an issue that, as she rightly points out, affects Members of the House weekly at our surgeries and in our post bags, although it particularly affects those experiencing the effects of overcrowding. We have already heard that 500,000 households suffer from overcrowding. Each of those could tell us a story about how overcrowding has affected a group of people.

The definitions of overcrowding were set a long time ago, when ways of living and working were very different. Those definitions need to be reviewed and we
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need to change how overcrowding is handled in respect of the provision of new social housing. We have heard how overcrowding can damage not only physical but mental health; depression is becoming a bigger element of the burden on local GPs' surgeries. Overcrowded housing must be a significant factor among those that cause people such distress that they need to go to GPs' surgeries.

We have heard about the effects of overcrowding on young people's educational opportunities—the chance to study, read and do homework. It also affects their opportunity to play, however, which as we all know is an important part of a young person's life. Why should some young people not have the chance to play and enjoy life as their classmates can?

A family who live in a housing association property in my constituency came to see me recently. They do not have the resources to move on to the private sector, so they went to the housing association and said that they could put together the funding to add a little extension or conservatory to their house. That would have given their children, who had to share a bedroom, a place to play. That suggestion was constructive; the family had obviously explored all the avenues. The housing association considered the proposal and was supportive, but the plan did not stack up for the planning department and the family were unable to carry it out. People in such situations are thinking constructively and trying to work with the authorities to overcome their situations. At the end of the day, however, if the housing stock is not there, we shall find that such situations are ongoing.

We have heard a great deal about the situation in Hackney and across London, but the problem also exists in rural areas. Colleagues who represent urban areas would doubtless echo the comments made about the situation in Hackney, but village communities in North Cornwall face a significant problem because the number of second homes has reached an unsustainable level. Young families cannot afford to stay on in the area where their parents grew up and are being forced to look further afield for accommodation. They find that because they are all being driven into the towns, no accommodation is available in urban centres either.

In essence, the problem is caused by a lack of new social housing. The right to buy has meant that many council houses have passed out of the social rented sector. The comparison between the number of council houses that have been sold and the number of people who are on waiting lists for social rented accommodation shows quite a correlation. We need more action from the Government to replace housing stock that has moved out of the social rented sector.

We can also consider the problem of overcrowding not just in terms of small homes—one or two-bedroom properties. The problem of homelessness at home also exists. Some families who would otherwise have moved out of their parents' accommodation are unable to do so because there is no alternative accommodation for them. It is not just that the accommodation is not large enough, but that it does not exist.

Again, I can give an example from my constituency. A young single mother had to return to her parents' home, a one-bedroom council property, because of a relationship breakdown. She and her child were
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applying for council properties but stayed with her parents in that one-bedroom council property—there were three adults and one child—for a year until she was able to move out. That represents a year out of that child's life and education. That distressing problem for the whole family was caused not by the size of the property, but by the lack of affordable property for her to move on to, full stop.

We need larger homes to be available. I am interested as to whether the Minister will come forward with any proposals about how the Government plan to address that issue and to examine standards, to which the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch referred. She also mentioned that moving towards a target for tackling overcrowding might be helpful. That is worth examining, particularly if it is linked to powers for those in local areas to address the problem. We would hate a target to involve no extra funding or powers enabling local housing associations and local councils to act to meet it.

The hon. Lady was getting to the nub of the problem when she spoke about how housing associations can set their rent levels in terms of the number of people in the property. There is an incentive to build denser, newer developments of smaller properties, as opposed to larger properties that would meet the need that we are discussing today.

My party believes that the way to address some of the problems is, first, to free up councils and housing associations to take every opportunity to provide more housing and to give them more flexibility to consider its nature. Some councils are working hard to explore every opportunity to provide housing. South Shropshire district council has, in some village developments, sought to ensure that every new development of two houses or more must have an affordable home. That is a step forward. It has had to sell that proposal to the local communities involved, but the response has been good and it has been able to provide more affordable homes as a result.

We would also like mutual housing associations—associations that would give their tenants, as their shareholders, more say in future development. All parties support greater investment in shared equity, and mine is keen to promote a golden share option, to ensure that those properties remain locally available for renting in the longer term.

I also want a right to invest, so that people can build up equity in their council housing or housing association property in order to give them the opportunity to move on into the private sector. That would help them, and it would also help to release the properties for future generations. Moving on in terms of shared equity also needs careful consideration; there should be an option for people to move up in the scale of property where required and for them then to be given incentives to move down again. We have heard that that is happening in Hackney.

For those reasons, I hope that the Government will come forward with proposals over the coming months and years to increase investment in the provision of affordable housing and to ensure that some of the new ideas being piloted in councils around the country
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can be explored and perhaps pushed forward. Overcrowding is a serious problem for those in urban areas and a serious and growing problem for those in rural areas. We need more affordable housing, and we need to ensure that the affordable housing that is provided meets the needs of the communities that it is there to serve.

11.26 am

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Miss Begg.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this debate. I know that she has spent more than a decade taking an interest in housing issues, and her speech did her great credit. She reflected both on the problems in her constituency and on the broader issue that we face in tackling overcrowding in housing. Her speech was a model of clarity and exposition, and I congratulate her on it.

I believe that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) was making his Front-Bench debut, and I thank him for laying out the issues from a rural perspective with particular clarity and for contributing to what I hope will be a broad consensus on the need to tackle this issue. Westminster Hall is not usually an arena for vicious partisanship, and I hope that it will not be so today. In sharing a commitment to tackle the problem, I hope that we can establish a degree of consensus across the Front Benches.

I also want to thank Shelter, the campaigning housing charity, not only for its sustained campaigning effort for many years, but for its poster in Westminster station. Those of us who regularly use the Jubilee line will be familiar with that striking and effective poster. It shows a number of children in the House of Commons, crawling over the Dispatch Box and so on, and vividly and graphically brings home to parliamentarians and others what the reality of overcrowding might mean. The picture paints a thousand words—words that are conveyed more effectively than the thousand words of mine that the Hansard reporters are recording today.

The scale of the problem was outlined with particular authority by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. She reminded us that about 500,000 households in Britain today experience overcrowding. As we know, that means that almost 1 million children are growing up in circumstances that are an affront to social justice. She reminded us of the particular problems that she encounters in her constituency. Across London, 175,000 households experience overcrowding, which means that about 261,000 children are growing up in circumstances that they should not have to face. The Minister represents a seat that covers the London boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets—the two local authorities in London that have the most severe overcrowding problem—so he will know the scale of the problem from his constituency postbag.

As both speakers have spelled out, the consequences of the problem are particularly severe for children. The consequences in health terms have been graphically spelled out. As the hon. Lady pointed out, respiratory problems, particularly tuberculosis, are on the increase, and overcrowding is a crucial factor. The hon. Member
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for North Cornwall said that when it comes to mental health and well-being, overcrowding contributes to stress and anxiety, and in the worst cases to depression.

There are compelling reasons for dealing with overcrowding in terms of both public health and educational outcomes. As both speakers pointed out, it is increasingly difficult for children and teenagers living in overcrowded housing to get the space that they need to devote themselves to the study that will allow themselves to make the most of their lives and their potential.

Nearly a century ago, Virginia Woolf wrote a book entitled "A Room of One's Own". Part of the burden of that book was the difficulty that women had faced in the past, overwhelmed as they were by crippling domestic duties, in managing to clear both the time and the space for creative endeavour. Her plea then—an explicitly feminist plea—is one that should be made on behalf of our children and teenagers today. They need a room of their own—their own space in which they can not only grow and develop psychologically, but study and make the most of their homework. Such a space would help young people's schooling and ensure that they become all that they can be.

We recognise that this problem has a direct effect on health and educational outcomes for our young people and that we need to address it, and I suspect that there is a consensus throughout the House on that. How should we go about addressing it? As the hon. Lady pointed out, her colleague the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) tried to introduce a private Member's Bill to modernise the definition of statutory overcrowding. The last time we had a statutory definition was in 1935, when there was a national Government and Ramsay MacDonald was the Prime Minister; some of us, I suspect, are nostalgic for those days, while others perhaps are not. In 1935, the definition was accepted simply as a working definition; it was seen not as the ideal, but simply as a means to an end—a staging post on the road to improvement.

I suspect that there is broad consensus at present that the time is long overdue for revisiting the definition of statutory overcrowding. Indeed, that has certainly been hinted at by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. As the hon. Lady also pointed out, both the room standard and the space standard in that definition are outdated. We cannot have a situation in our country in which living rooms are counted as bedrooms in working out whether individuals are suffering from overcrowding, and in which four children sleeping in one room does not count as overcrowding. That offends against common sense.

Legislation on its own is not enough, however. We can legislate to deal with this problem, but that is not a magic wand. It is helpful in setting a benchmark and in governing our direction of travel, but it will not in itself resolve the problem. What can we do? As both hon. Members who have spoken have pointed out, we need to address the issue of supply and to ensure that, as we increase and free up supply, we have the right mix of houses.

When we examine supply, we discover that there have been melancholy trends in the statistics since the early 1990s. Again, I make my comments in a spirit of bipartisanship, and although some of my remarks may
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be construed as critical of the Government—and, indeed, they are—some of them are also critical of the Conservatives towards the end of our time in government, when our contribution to and investment in social housing started to fall. There has been a fall in housing supply since the very early 1990s. According to the ODPM's own figures, that reduction meant that over the period broadly from 1991 to the beginning of the 21st century we had an excess in the growth of households over the amount of new homes of about 500,000. Therefore, 500,000 households did not get the houses they deserved.

Since the beginning of the current century there has been a welcome increase in housing supply, but it is still the case that household growth outstrips the supply of new housing, and the most recent ODPM figures on household growth emphasise that households are growing at an even faster rate than we envisaged. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to do everything we can to free up supply further.

The point has been made, not least by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, that the constrictions in housing supply have been particularly acute in the social housing sector. Even though there has been a welcome increase in the amount of new development in the private sector, there is still not enough of it and there has not been a matching increase in the supply of social housing.

Meg Hillier : What is the current policy of the hon. Gentleman's party on right-to-buy sales, which in London in particular have caused a significant loss of social housing—and especially of housing units of the size that we have been talking about?

Michael Gove : I thank the hon. Lady for mentioning the right to buy, because I believe that it was a hugely successful policy in its time and that it still has some relevance. I think that most people now agree that when the right to buy was introduced, the proportion of people living in social housing was too large to allow true pluralism in housing supply and mix of tenure. There was an unmet need for ownership, which the right to buy succeeded in meeting.

Inevitably, however, as more individuals who want to own have moved towards ownership the demand for the right to buy has dropped. We have certain concerns about the way in which that demand for ownership among people in social housing has been constricted by some of the restrictions on the right-to-buy policy that this Government have introduced, but I do not want to labour that point at present. None the less, the amount that people are offered as a discount has fallen, and as a result, fewer people than might have wanted to take up that right have done so.

One of the key points about the right to buy is that it contributes to a net increase in housing supply. When individuals buy, the money that the local authority or housing association—or other registered social landlords—get from the sale can contribute to new capital investment. I acknowledge that there is a net reduction in social housing as a result of the right to buy, but there is a net increase in housing supply overall, and that is my party's aim.

Part of that increase has to be an increase in the supply of social housing. As the hon. Lady pointed out, we can help local authorities that are encouraging more
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efficient use of their own housing stock and tackling the issue of houses where individuals have surplus bedrooms by encouraging them to move and providing the right incentives for them to do so. I applaud local authorities of all parties that have tried to do that.

As the hon. Lady hinted, however, we should explore new and innovative ways of supporting RSLs and private developers in supplying an increased level of social housing. I learned last week from Inside Housing magazine that the ODPM is looking afresh at the extent of the involvement of private developers in the supply of social and affordable housing. If that is indeed the direction of travel in which the Minister and his team wish to move, we would like to encourage them.

The hon. Lady also pointed out that the current way in which housing associations receive their funding does not encourage exactly the right mix of housing stock. Specifically, it encourages using houses or flats that are too small for current needs. This is an area in which the Treasury is perhaps not on the side of the angels; if so, this is not the first occasion on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been a roadblock to reform. However, I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in the ODPM will bring their considerable weight to bear in encouraging him to move out of the way on this issue.

Meg Hillier : I would be interested if the hon. Gentleman could outline his party's policy on funding larger social units.

Michael Gove : I am attracted by what the hon. Lady has said about the need to change the funding mechanism in order to help create larger social housing units, because what we need to do overall is ensure that we move away from the constricted spaces that we are offering people both in the social housing sector and in private sector developments. I will address shortly the question of constricted space and what we need to do to encourage the right sort of development.

In talking about housing supply overall, however, I want to touch briefly on the contribution that the private rented sector can make. Although there will always be a valuable role for RSLs to play—in my view, it will be an increasingly important role over the coming few years—we also need to recognise that private landlords can play a significant part in meeting housing need. My only specific comment on this issue will be to ask a question of the Minister: has the ODPM fully considered the consequences of the level of regulation, following on from the Housing Act 2004, that has been placed on private landlords? Some of that regulation was welcome in that it increased the standards of private rented accommodation, but Conservative Members have received representations from private landlords that some aspects of that regulation might create a constriction of supply. I would be interested to hear his views about the likely future supply of private rented housing.

One way in which we can increase housing supply overall is by encouraging private development. I was fortunate enough yesterday to spend some time with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) in Hammersmith and Fulham, looking
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at a new housing development there, which has been welcomed by many residents in that area. It is striking that that development has been welcomed, because one of the things my right hon. Friend pointed out in a recent article in The Independent on Sunday is that in order to deal with the pressing need to increase the supply of housing in this country, we have to tackle the resistance to development that is a feature of life in Britain today.

We are all familiar with the "not in my backyard" culture. We all know that there is resistance to development, but rather than simply deprecating it, we should try to understand it. Rather than condemning a little more, we should try to understand a little more. If we try to understand why there is resistance to development, we find that local people often feel that they are not consulted properly about the nature of development. They feel that distant planning decisions are taken at the level of the ODPM, which often overrides local authorities' opinions. New development is often not of an aesthetic standard that they would welcome. Also, new development often comes without the infrastructure for which local people feel a need, so greater strain will inevitably be placed on existing infrastructure as a result of individuals coming into an area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney made another point: in an increasingly environmentally conscious age, it may be appropriate to ensure that any new developments make their contribution to the battle against climate change. Many people would be more inclined to welcome development if they saw that developers took that into consideration when supplying new housing.

If we are to tackle resistance to development, we must ensure that local people are given a greater say; work with developers and perhaps use urban design codes to ensure that new housing is of the right aesthetic standards; and ensure that local authorities are properly funded in terms of the infrastructure that they need, and so can welcome development. At the Invermead development, which we visited yesterday, all three considerations were taken into account. People in Hammersmith and Fulham were consulted before the development proceeded. The building is of a high aesthetic standard and is, as far as possible, in keeping with the existing architectural standards. Also, infrastructure has been respected. The development is on the site of the old Queen Charlotte's maternity hospital, but it includes a brand new community health centre. That way, an emotional and practical link with the original site is maintained, and people can see that a key additional infrastructure benefit comes along with the housing. We believe that if we tackle all three concerns, we can build consensus across the country in favour of the development that is needed in order to meet demand for new housing.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall made an interesting point about the situation in south Shropshire, where the local district council, which I think is Liberal Democrat at the moment, has a particularly tight target for affordable housing when it comes to new developments. An interesting proposition put forward by a number of Members from all parties is that under current regulations that govern when new developers have to build affordable housing into a
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development, the level is set too high. The trigger point of 15 homes for new housing developments may need revisiting for two reasons: first, we may not be getting the supply of affordable and social housing that we need; secondly, that target encourages dense, flatted developments of 10 to 12 flats on sites of existing family homes, rather than the imaginative sort of developments that we might wish for.

If local authorities could set their own target, as South Shropshire district council has sought to do, they could decide that a development of five new private houses would trigger the need to provide affordable housing. That would have a double benefit: it would potentially increase the supply of affordable housing, while reducing the transformation of multi-bedroom family homes into flatted developments.

Meg Hillier : The hon. Gentleman may find that he agrees on that point with the Mayor of London, who has sought to introduce a lower threshold in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Michael Gove : It is a rare moment when I find myself in agreement with the Mayor of London, but I am not sure that I actually do in this case. I believe in the devolution of power, as the Mayor does, and I believe that it is worth exploring whether local authorities should have that power, but the Mayor has sought to introduce mechanisms that we fear have constrained developers in some respects. However, I shall not devote my remaining time to criticising the Mayor of London; I will leave that to other members of the hon. Lady's party, who can do it with greater authority.

The hon. Lady congratulated the Minister for Housing and Planning on her commitment to increasing the size of new social housing in London. Having talked about the need to free up supply overall, I want to touch on the type of homes that we want, because the Minister for Housing and Planning makes an important point. Unfortunately, only 6 per cent. of new social housing in London has four or more bedrooms. That is part of a broader pattern in this country. In 1990, only one eighth of new homes were flats. By 2004, just under 50 per cent. were flats. We need to address the reasons why we are producing dwellings that are smaller than we need.

It is a melancholy fact that Britain has not only some of the oldest, but some of the pokiest, housing stock in Europe. In particular, we are bottom of the European league for the size of new houses. We have not only the smallest new houses in Europe, but the smallest rooms in the smallest houses in Europe. Why? Well, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch touched on one reason: Government funding and the way in which it affects our housing associations and other registered social landlords who supply social housing. However, there is another reason, too—one on which there is a divide between the Front Benchers—and that is the way in which the Government operate planning policy.

Under planning policy guidance note 3, or planning policy statement 3, the Government have encouraged density. Increasingly, they have made our urban areas the site of dense, flatted development. Family homes have been replaced with new dwellings under the "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap" principle. We need to recognise
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that the current definition of gardens as brownfield land is wrong; gardens are green lungs in our cities, sources of biodiversity and—for families that are growing up—valuable space in which children can have the freedom to develop and, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall pointed out, play and grow. We believe that we should look more broadly into how communities can grow organically, so that the need for more family homes can be addressed and so that the relative oversupply of flats, as compared with houses, can be corrected. Most people in this country want to live in family homes with or near green space, and we should go with the grain of that aspiration.

Meg Hillier : I fear that the hon. Gentleman, in his erudite and typically well researched speech, is confusing density with types of property; there can be dense housing with gardens, and high-rise blocks are not necessarily any denser than street properties. I would like him to outline his party's policy on where the 1 million extra people in London will go if we do not develop homes in the inner city.

Michael Gove : The hon. Lady sets two challenges. The first is that density need not mean constriction or high-rise developments. That is certainly true. We know from Edinburgh, Bath and indeed Islington that housing can be both dense and attractive. Unfortunately, the melancholy trend at the moment is towards densification through the replacement of family houses that have green spaces with flatted developments in which the green space is built over, and with smaller dwellings.

Unfortunately, as I pointed out earlier, not only are our new homes smaller than those in other European countries, but the rooms in them are smaller. That contributes to the broad problem of overcrowding and the lack of supply of the types of houses that we need. The hon. Lady and I agree about the scale of housing need in London. As I have pointed out, there are a number of things that we can do to encourage the right sort of development in London, but we also need to recognise that communities across the country need to grow.

One of our differences with the ODPM is that its approach to allowing communities to grow under the sustainable communities plan means that some are perhaps growing at too fast a rate, in the way set out under central plans. We would like local communities to be given a greater say in how development occurs, and we would like organic growth. I do not believe that there is a hamlet in this country that cannot afford a few extra houses, a village that cannot afford significantly more than that, or a town that cannot afford, and would not welcome, significantly more again. I would like a spread of housing development across the country, with local people persuaded and encouraged to accept development—provided, that is, that their voice was respected, that the aesthetic standard of those new houses was high, and that infrastructure proceeded hand in hand with the new housing development.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for arriving late for this important debate, Miss Begg. It was the attractions of Bill Clinton that kept me away for so long.
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I want to press the hon. Gentleman on the phenomenon of the expected increase in the number of households containing single people or childless couples. Although I accept his argument that there is a need for family accommodation in social housing, I point out that we will need more small-scale accommodation to house the rapidly increasing numbers of childless couples and single people.

Michael Gove : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, and I entirely understand why he was absent. Bill Clinton is a bigger attraction than any of us. At the beginning of my speech, I said that the Opposition recognise that the scale of future household growth requires significant additional housing. Like the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, I paid tribute to the hon. Gentleman's private Member's Bill and his crusade to deal with the definition of statutory overcrowding. I am delighted to see him in the Chamber.

This country has become more prosperous during the past 30 years. One key thing about countries that become more prosperous is that people generally like to live in more spacious homes with access to green space. It is an entirely worthy aspiration. I do not think that just because individuals no longer live in large or extended families, we should automatically say, "You're condemned to live in this type of housing." Flatted developments and sheltered housing will be appropriate for certain people towards the end of their lives, when they want to live in a smaller space because larger space becomes unmanageable. As the hon. Lady said, enlightened local authorities are providing incentives for people to move out of social housing that may be too big for them. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation made this discovery:

Only 28 per cent. of people say that their preferred form of living is high-density city-centre living. There is clear evidence that the popular demand is for more space in greener cities and greener communities. That is the direction of travel in which housing should go.

Finally, because I have taken up far too much time, I have just a few questions for the Minister. First, we should all like to know where we are on progress towards a new statutory definition of overcrowding. Secondly, what new initiatives might we see from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to increase the supply of social housing and to ensure that it is of the right kind? Thirdly, as a general indication, has he considered the effect of regulation on the private rented supply?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, what will be done in the next few years to encourage development and to free up supply? In particular, does the Minister accept that when it comes to tackling the resistance to development in our country, it is not enough to belabour those who resist it? We must take them with us by understanding their concerns, so that we can address the pressing need, which I think everyone agrees we have, to deal with the problem of overcrowding, the health and education challenges that it poses us, and in particular, the challenge it poses us to ensure that our society is socially just and inclusive.
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11.53 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : Miss Begg, it is a pleasure to see you in the chair presiding over this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this important debate. As a fellow east London MP, she knows that I share the type of casework that she receives. I have close, first-hand knowledge of the serious problems that she raises, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) acknowledged. I also associate myself with his generous tribute to my hon. Friend, as well as the welcome that he extended to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson).

I welcome the characteristically thoughtful, well crafted and constructive contribution of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. I hope to continue the debate in that spirit. However, the consensus seemed to break down towards the end, particularly when the hon. Gentleman was tested by some of my hon. Friend's questions about his party's financial commitment to the house-build programme that I shall outline. I believe from the Sunday newspapers that his leader is about to make a pronouncement about the new-build programme, so perhaps that was the reason why the hon. Gentleman was unable to supply as much information as might have been helpful. None the less, I am conscious that both Opposition parties have made a constructive contribution to the debate, and I welcome it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch said, the statutory overcrowding standards have been with us for a considerable time—indeed, they have remained unchanged since 1935. Back in 1935, those provisions were considered very much reforming measures. The key motivation was to promote better health. Given the other social advances since 1935, overcrowding is now much less likely to indicate grossly insanitary conditions or a high risk of the spread of life-threatening diseases, notwithstanding the qualification of tuberculosis, as my hon. Friend mentioned. However, I recognise that overcrowding can still raise health concerns, bringing on stress, making the spread of infection easier, and increasing the risk of accidents in the home.

The Government do not defend the current overcrowding standards. They are very out of date. They discount sleeping in rooms other than bedrooms and they tolerate unacceptable degrees of sharing by children who, by any modern standard, are old enough to need their own space. That is why we took powers in the Housing Act 2004 to amend the standards, and undertook to consult on how the powers might be used. Some hon. Members feel that we have taken rather too long to consult, but we needed to consider the statutory standards in the context of our housing policies, and I shall explain how we are doing that.

Information on overcrowding under the 1935 standards is not collected systematically, but we believe that about 20,000 households are statutorily overcrowded. That is roughly 0.1 per cent. of households. The other measure is the bedroom standard, a long-standing statistical measure that is used in the English housing condition survey and represents the main source of data on
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overcrowding. We know that 2.5 per cent. of households—just over 500,000 households—are overcrowded by that measure.

Both of those percentages are small, but I do not underestimate the impact on overcrowding upon those families, nor do I seek to diminish the wide variations that the figures conceal. For instance, overcrowding is more of a problem in London, where 150,000 households are overcrowded, of which 29,000 are severely overcrowded in the social rented sector. Overcrowding throughout the whole of London is 6.3 per cent. by the bedroom standard. Specifically in the social sector in London, it is calculated at 11.8 per cent.

Ethnicity, as mentioned by hon. Members, is also a significant issue. Within London's social rented sector, for instance, the rate of overcrowding is 7.8 per cent. for white households, but 17.8 per cent. for black and minority ethnic households. The highest rate of overcrowding by ethnic group in London's social rented sector is 29 per cent. among Bangladeshi households. They account for just 3 per cent. of all households but 10 per cent. of all overcrowded households in London's social rented sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch raised the question of the Association of Local Government's 10-point plan on overcrowding, which has been welcomed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Love : Before my hon. Friend reels off the estimates about overcrowding, may I inform the Chamber that according to the English house condition survey, more than 900,000 children are affected by overcrowding—about 260,000 of them in Greater London? Does he accept that if the Government are to achieve their ambition of halving child poverty by 2010 and eliminating it by 2020, action has to be taken on overcrowding?

Jim Fitzpatrick : I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The whole House knows the work that he has undertaken on this subject over many years. He brings a great deal of expertise to bear on our proceedings. I fully accept his point about children and child poverty. The tone of this morning's debate and the constructive comments from all Members who have contributed reflect the all-party support for dealing with the matter as seriously, positively and constructively as possible.

I was talking about the ALG's 10-point plan. We understand that the ALG will finalise the report and publish its action plan in June. Obviously, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will consider it carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch referred to relations between the ODPM and the Treasury. She will know that we have doubled investment in social housing since 1997. Substantial progress has been made on cutting rough sleeping, getting families out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, dealing with the repairs backlog that we inherited in 1997 and tackling the 2 million homes below the decency threshold. In addition, the numbers of new homeless are falling. Given all that, our priorities are to help people out of temporary accommodation and to deal with overcrowding, especially in London.
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Over the next two years, the Government are investing nearly £4 billion in the Housing Corporation's national affordable housing programme to deliver 84,000 new homes—21,000 more than in the past two years. Of those, 49,000 will be new build social rented homes. That constitutes a significant increase in the annual supply of new social housing to help those who cannot afford to rent privately.

I heard what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said and I shall return in a moment to the issue of the private rented sector. In particular, I heard what he said about people who oppose the rate of house building and our plans and about the need to take people with us. There is support for many of the Barker proposals, but there is also a lot of resistance in a variety of areas. The hon. Gentleman may have to accept ultimately that some people simply will not want to see development in their area. Obviously, a balance needs to be struck. We hope that we can take people with us because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch said, the number of extra homes that we will need, not only in London but throughout the country, is considerable—it is estimated at 4 million. Given the lack of new build in the past 30 years, we are having to catch up in a very short time.

Mr. Love : I join my hon. Friend the Minister in welcoming the new approach taken by Her Majesty's Opposition in recognising the difficulties that we face in delivering the housing required and in meeting the strict environmental standards that people want to be applied in their communities.

I want to press the Minister a little on the Barker proposals. As he outlined, the Government are increasing the supply of affordable rented accommodation, which is very welcome. According to the official statistics, about 10,000 additional units will be completed, yet the targets in the Barker report were for 17,000 to 23,000 additional units of affordable accommodation. I recognise that, under the current spending review, that will not be achieved, but I hope that the Minister will take back to the Department the fact that Parliament would like those Barker proposals to be implemented, as the Government have already indicated, under the next spending review.

Jim Fitzpatrick : I think, Miss Begg—I apologise, Mr. Hood; I did not see your arrival. May I, on behalf of all colleagues present, welcome you to the Chair?

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) makes a pitch for the Barker proposals. I hope to return to some of the Government's commitments later in my speech. If I do not cover the figures, I will write to my hon. Friend, but I think that they are included in my speech. As he suggests, the Barker report is fundamental to the Government's direction of travel. There is a commitment. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch raised the relationship between the ODPM and the Treasury. That relationship clearly involves dynamism. We are clear that we have to address the question that has been raised, and I will provide some reassurance shortly in respect of numbers and the immediate future.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning recently announced a new programme of work to deal with overcrowding and its impact on children.
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We are increasing the proportion of new social housing with three or more bedrooms to be built in London from 27 to 34 per cent. in the 2006–08 affordable housing programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch welcomed that in her opening speech. We are building on the preventive measures that have been successful in reducing the number of new homeless families in London by 25 per cent. in the past year. We are encouraging London boroughs to make better use of cash incentive schemes and tailored support to help single people wanting to move out of larger accommodation and to help families to move to other areas where they can find larger homes. Against that background of specific measures, we shall consult in the next few months on the statutory definition of overcrowding.

As my hon. Friend said, there are examples of good practice. Hackney and Tower Hamlets are two of the local authorities that are hardest pressed in respect of overcrowding and they are seeking innovative solutions to assist their communities to have better housing conditions. I recognise that overcrowding is seen as a neglected problem, but it would be wrong to think that authorities have not been considering the issue or not reporting the contribution that overcrowding makes to the totality of housing need in their areas. All local authorities have carried out housing needs surveys, which included assessments of overcrowding. Those surveys, along with other data on housing needs, inform the assessment of the need for new affordable housing set out in authorities' housing strategies.

Part 7 of the Local Government Act 2003 puts the strategies on a statutory footing for the first time, because the Government believe that a robust strategy is essential to the delivery of local authorities' housing functions. Our guidance stresses the importance of addressing all relevant issues in housing strategies. One element of the strategy in respect of which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath requested information was private landlords' role and regulation in that regard. The Government agree that private landlords have a vital role. There are many good landlords, but there is also a lot of poor stock and bad management, as hon. Members know. The package of measures in the Housing Act 2004 addresses that. Responsible landlords and their associations recognise the need to raise standards.

The provisions may look like over-regulation, but we need to protect tenants as well as encouraging existing and new landlords. We think that our policies strike that balance, but we are always open to representations from any associations that believe that more can be done. I would also welcome anything that the hon. Gentleman for Surrey Heath might wish to contribute to the discussion and the solution or partial solution.

I return to overcrowding as a health and safety issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch may want to bear in mind that the new housing health and safety rating system, which will come into operation on 6 April, will enable local authorities to assess overcrowding as a potential health and safety hazard. The principle of the system is that authorities will consider what action to take to deal with health and safety hazards in dwellings on the basis of
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statutory powers and duties, supported by regulations and guidance. Authorities will have a number of options to deal with the hazards identified under the new system. Those options will range from mere notification of minor remote hazards up to prohibition or closure where justified.

That does not mean that overcrowding will disappear. It will not always be possible to establish serious health and safety risks from overcrowding, and the system will not deal with gender separation. None the less, it will bring crowding and space into the mainstream of health and safety issues relating to housing. Where overcrowding aggravates other hazards such as fire risk, strong action will be possible. In addition, the provisions in the 2004 Act for the licensing of higher-risk houses in multiple occupation, which will also come into operation on 6 April, will play an important part in ensuring safe conditions and adequate amenities in properties that, by definition, contain more than one household.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall raised the issue of the right to buy. I know of the suggestions that right-to-buy sales are eroding the stock of local authority homes, and the argument that the Government should reduce the maximum right-to-buy discounts available to tenants to reduce sales. The Government support the principle of the right to buy. It has helped many thousands of families to realise their aspiration to own their own home and it has helped to create many stable mixed-tenure communities. However, we were concerned about its impact on the availability of affordable housing in some areas and about exploitation of the rules. We therefore lowered maximum right-to-buy discounts in 41 areas under housing market pressure. We also changed the rules in the Housing Act 2004 to restore the scheme's focus on long-term home ownership and the building of sustainable communities, and to tackle exploitation.

We are keeping right-to-buy discounts under review and do not rule out further changes, but they must be targeted and proportionate.

Mr. Love : I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way during his speech.

The critical issue about continuing right-to-buy sales is that capital receipts should be reinvested in local housing to provide further accommodation. Will the Minister consider that and ensure that we continue to reinvest those receipts to provide more housing?

Jim Fitzpatrick : As a regular attender at ODPM questions in the Chamber, my hon. Friend knows that that matter has arisen a number of times during parliamentary questions and that a number of debates have been based on it. The assurance from the ODPM is that a number of initiatives are under review on how best to stimulate the housing market, including the new social homebuy and shared equity schemes, in addition to the new money that the Government are putting in and the building programme. The matter is very much to the forefront of the Government's consideration and I am sure that it will feature strongly in the 2007 comprehensive spending review.

On the educational impact, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch referred specifically to the impact of overcrowding on
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educational attainment. The ODPM commissioned a review of the evidence and literature on the impact of overcrowding on education and health in 2004. That review, which was carried out by De Montfort university, identified only a few previous studies of the relationship between overcrowding and educational attainment and was thus unable to draw conclusions. However, the review concluded that such a relationship existed for both health and education and drew attention to a study carried out in Paris in 2003 which pointed to a strong relationship with education. It is worth noting that no single definition of overcrowding was used in the studies, but the review tells us clearly that the need to safeguard children's educational attainment should be in the front of our mind as we tackle overcrowding.

In conclusion, I do not believe for a second that I have satisfactorily responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch or to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath in that I do not have a magic wand to provide a solution to the problem that we all agree is clearly desperate for many thousands of families. However, I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that the Government are determined to bring overcrowding to the front of our mind in taking our housing policies forward.

12.12 pm

Sitting suspended.

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