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10 May 2006 : Column 75WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 10 May 2006

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Social Housing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

9.30 am

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): May I say how much I welcome the opportunity to debate social housing? The subject is highly topical, although not for reasons that we would support, but we none the less need to take advantage of that topicality.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is still in place, as she has been extremely supportive and courteous in working with me on the problems of overcrowding, which I shall refer to later. She has visited my constituency and met a number of families who live in wholly unacceptable conditions, which is the thrust of the debate.

Social housing gets a bad press that is not shared by any other public service—so negative is its image that “Little Britain” and Catherine Tate have created an industry out of it. Although it has been mocked and ignored, and more recently treated as if it were in some way a cause of poverty and social exclusion rather than a central line of defence against them, nothing less than a catastrophe has been allowed to unfold.

It is necessary briefly to say that none of those factors can be used in defence of the housing disasters of the past—the great but badly designed monolithic estates, the paternalistic and sometimes poor-quality housing management, and the concentration of families with complex needs in single-tenure neighbourhoods. Serious mistakes have been made over the years, and they have given cover to those who were allowed to dismantle so much that was good over the past quarter century.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I am listening to my hon. Friend closely and must say that there is always the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water. We have three big regeneration schemes in my constituency—West Hendon; Spur Road, Edgware; and Grahame Park, Colindale. The net consequence of significantly increasing density, which will have a great impact on local services and communities, is a net loss of affordable homes. The London borough of Barnet, which is responsible for those schemes, is missing a trick. We have to do something about the chronic shortage of housing and the overcrowding in our area, but those schemes do nothing to ease the problems.

Ms Buck: I totally endorse what my hon. Friend says. I fear that Barnet is doing no favours to its own people, and it is also failing to make a wider contribution.

I am saying to the Government that the opportunity afforded by the Chancellor’s stated interest in the case for social housing to be included in next year’s
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spending review is almost a last chance to put right the failures of the past. It was comforting to hear the new Secretary of State in this Department emphasise the importance of social housing. I hope that people’s ears are open to the case that needs to be made.

Many good things have been done by the Government on housing since 1997, of which the decent homes initiative is the most important. Thousands of my constituents have benefited from the major improvements and renovations that have taken place under that programme, which are much to be welcomed. However, the overall failure to address the problem of housing supply, most especially but not entirely in London and the south-east, has not only caused untold misery for those families rendered homeless or trapped in chronically overcrowded accommodation, but been a false economy to the public purse. It has shifted much of the cost, such as for temporary accommodation, on to housing benefit; contributed to the destabilising of communities; and, sadly—this is why the debate is so relevant—stoked the racism that is a consequence of the competition for scarce resources in an ethically mixed and fast-changing city.

As the director of Shelter rightly said yesterday, the shortage of affordable homes has led to a “blame culture” in which people turn on each other in their frustration and despair. Although the consequences might have been seen most graphically in Barking and Dagenham, we should be under no illusion that such sentiments are confined to one area.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Of those Labour Members present today, several represent metropolitan constituencies and one is a distinguished former council leader; I am a provincial among them. The pressures in London are obviously particularly great. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government, despite their pretty sound record generally, must avoid what the National Housing Federation has called a “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” policy in responding to those problems? They must balance quantity and quality in responding to people’s needs and aspirations as regards the environment and new housing.

Ms Buck: Again, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall set those points out from my own perspective.

Ironically, the choice-based lettings system, which is increasingly used to supply housing, and which I wholly support in principle, is making the intensity of the competition that I have described toxically transparent. For example, a rare three-bed property in my constituency was advertised through the choice-based lettings system two weeks ago and it attracted 244 bidders from the already heavily filtered top-priority category A list alone. Given that only six three-bedroom properties have been advertised in the current financial year, most desperate people, even on that list, face an almost endless round of unsuccessful bidding, which is an injection of pure poison into already deprived neighbourhoods.

On the shortfall in supply, targets for tackling rough sleeping and for cutting the number of households in temporary accommodation, both of which are entirely
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admirable by their own lights, simply squeeze the balloon that is housing need—reducing need in one place, only to see it to pop up elsewhere in the system.

Before I summarise the priorities for action, let me sketch out some challenges. I shall make specific reference to London. The number of social housing lettings has been falling for a decade, and the number of vacancies has fallen because fewer people can afford to buy. In London, the ratio of lower-quartile house prices to lower-quartile earnings has more than doubled, compared with a 50 per cent. increase in the country as a whole. The right to buy is having a continuing impact, reducing the pool of lettings by about 12,500 a year, while the number of completions is substantially down across the country, although I recognise that it is up in London by about 2,000.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is she aware that the problems for inner-city areas that she is describing also affect rural areas such as Montgomeryshire? For example, house prices in my constituency have increased by 157 per cent. in just six years, while the average household earns just £23,000 a year. Does she agree that the problems and the solutions, which I hope she will outline, are very much the same for rural areas? Such areas need to close the gap between the housing that families require and the housing they can afford.

Ms Buck: I certainly take the point that rural areas face a serious challenge on housing need. Although London is at the sharp end of the problem, the pressure is distributed across the country, which is illustrated by the fact that, since 1997, the number of people seeking social housing has increased by about half across the country, but by 77 per cent. in London.

The 2004 spending review was projected to deliver an extra 10,000 new social homes annually by next year, but that was substantially below what the Kate Barker report recommended, and it is less than half of what we need. Despite the Mayor of London’s welcome commitment to meet housing need, there will be a continuing shortfall in the years to come. The Greater London authority housing requirement study estimated that 10,700 larger affordable homes—those are at the heart of the problem in my area—were needed every year, but the supply is unbelievably low, at 500.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with my hon. Friend about the commitment to reach the target of 10,000 new homes a year, but in London, as she has outlined, we will not reach anything like our target at current rates, given the need for larger accommodation and the level of construction inflation.

Ms Buck: Sadly, I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I welcome this chance to make the case in relation to the next spending review. The need is urgent, and provision is lagging well behind need.

The Housing Corporation recently made a welcome contribution to recognising the need for family
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accommodation by upping its share of the social housing allocation for family homes from 27 to 34 per cent., but that is still way below what is needed to meet new demand in the system and to make inroads into the backlog.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important to consider what the Housing Corporation says, because it provides social housing? For many families, affordable housing is no longer affordable, and there is a real need not only for affordable housing, but for social housing for many of those families.

Ms Buck: I agree. Social housing is at the heart of my case, although affordable housing to buy is also priced out of the reach of families who in other circumstances might be able to afford to go into the private market.

As a consequence of the devastating shortfall in supply, particularly of family-sized accommodation, severe overcrowding rose by almost half in London between the 1991 and 2001 censuses. More than half of all severely overcrowded households in the country are in London, and the social sector has for the first time overtaken private rented as the most severely affected. The fact that 500,000 London children live in severely overcrowded homes makes me ashamed.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being generous in giving way. Does she agree that there is a real problem in that figures from the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister clearly show that overcrowding is greatest in areas where there are large numbers of black and minority ethnic communities, especially Asian communities? That is particularly the case in Newham.

Ms Buck: That is right. In fact, my next point is that, despite the pernicious lies of the British National party and the perhaps more understandable willingness of desperate, badly housed families to believe its propaganda, it is black, ethnic minority and Muslim families who are over-represented in the severe overcrowding and homelessness figures, and indeed across the board in terms of housing need, so in a way we have the worst of all possible worlds.

I have made the point about overall supply and, in particular, the supply of family-sized accommodation, but it is also important to say that the supply must be balanced out across London as a whole. That is my area of concern; others will make the case for the country as a whole. The geographical distribution, even of the increased provision in London, does not meet all needs. In fact, there is a danger that it is about to make the situation worse. Despite the fact that Westminster city council—Westminster is one of my two boroughs—has to deal with what is, unbelievably, the third highest overcrowding level in the local authority rented sector, we are unable to obtain adequate direct investment or to access properties through sub-regional allocations.

I am told that housing opportunities in cheaper partner boroughs to my expensive inner-London ones will help to soak up the slack, yet even though I have
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just put forward two desperately needy families who want to move to Barnet, where they have family ties—Barnet is a borough in the sub-regional partnership—I am told by Westminster that no three-bedroom properties will be available in the sub-regional partner boroughs of Barnet and Enfield this year. Overall, Westminster and its sub-regional partners can expect only 90 properties to be made available to meet the needs of more than 3,000 people on the waiting list alone.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Barnet, which is my borough. The problem is that Peter is trying to rob Paul. In my constituency, there is a desperate shortage of the housing that we are discussing, so frankly I am not surprised that Westminster received the response that it did, because there is no housing for our own people. Such properties simply do not exist in Barnet.

One of my main concerns is that, although there is housing investment in parts of London, other parts of London—where there is a chronic housing shortage, where people want to live, where jobs are available, where there are transport links and where, as a consequence, land prices are slightly higher—are being starved of investment. That is a completely false economic argument. We must invest where the jobs and transport links are and where people want to live, not where those things do not exist.

Ms Buck: That is right. I can understand the logic of saying that we will not invest substantially in building social housing in the middle of Knightsbridge—that would be wholly sub-optimal in development terms—but it is critical that we provide social and affordable housing opportunities across London and that they are not concentrated purely in poorer areas. That is because, among other things, we are trying to get away from lower-income households being concentrated in lower-income neighbourhoods. Let me give two illustrations from my area, and I shall conclude by running through some of my priorities for action.

Mrs. M sent me a letter:

The father and husband of a second family wrote:

that is, 12 years during which six people share two small bedrooms.

Remember, that family are not even in category A. The transfer list for that social landlord in my borough says that the longest category A priority wait for a two-bedroomed flat is nine years; the longest category B wait is 16 years. Those are not my worst cases, which
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involve families of five in a single bedroom. However, at least those cases are defined as statutory overcrowding.

I come to my final example. Mrs. A and her husband are sharing a small two-bed with their three teenage children. Mrs. A’s landlord, the Peabody Trust, told me last summer:

the whole borough. The Peabody Trust continued:

Of course, the Peabody Trust is hugely engaged in selling property. Sales are also made by Genesis and a number of other registered social landlords in my constituency.

What is the solution? I do not often echo Ronald Reagan, but I shall in this instance: the solution is not easy, but it is simple. The issue is supply, supply, supply. We have to increase the supply of socially rented homes, especially those suitable for families, although genuinely affordable shared ownership options and greater availability of smaller units can also relieve pressures on families by offering opportunities to adult children. In the 2007 comprehensive spending review, we need to commit to meeting the Barker target as a minimum.

The 2007 comprehensive spending review might give us more money to build, but we can also buy on the open market. That is my preferred emergency response to the crisis. We can support investment in conversions and extensions, such as loft conversions, of existing properties. One reason why that is hard to do is that many London boroughs, including my own, have taken a relative reduction in housing revenue accounts. On current trends, Westminster’s housing revenue account will go into deficit in 2010. We need more assistance to enable such programmes to be carried out by the local authorities, the arm’s length management organisations and us.

We have to stop the sale of housing association properties, especially the desirable street properties, on the open market. We have to ensure that we do not promote home ownership at the expense of those in desperate need of affordable rented accommodation. Too much extra investment in recent years has gone on promoting ownership rather than on tackling need.

We must not only make the concept of mixed communities a reality, but ensure that, as we rightly mix tenure in what are currently concentrations of social housing, we simultaneously mix social housing into areas that are overwhelmingly owner-occupied. To echo the points made by a number of my hon. Friends, we need social housing growth everywhere.

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