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10 May 2006 : Column 86WH—continued

It could be said that that situation was common for our parents’ generation, and that in fact the population
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density of inner London has decreased—although it is increasing again. However, there was always some hope in the past, as the market was far more flexible. Today, little hope can be offered to most of my constituents who live in crowded conditions.

The situation is highlighted against a background in which so many things are improving in housing. I cannot remember an election when I have had fewer complaints about housing repairs and conditions, or local authorities and their performance. All those things have improved markedly, and in large measure that is due not only to the local authorities but to the Government, particularly for their decent homes programme, which has transformed entire estates and individual properties and brought them up to a good modern standard after many years of neglect. Even though the programme is not complete, people can now be given a date on which they will have new kitchens and new bathrooms, or their homes will be made weather-tight and more efficient and cheaper to run.

It is also true that several factors that in the past contributed to a lack of social housing have been addressed. One rarely hears about voids; that is, the amount of time it takes to re-let properties. There are initiatives on empty homes, and better allocation policies. Local authorities and housing associations, although they are a mixed bag, have taken action, in so far as they can.

It is right to say that steps have been taken by the Government to introduce more innovative proposals, but not only the Government have been involved. The Mayor of London’s policy that 50 per cent. of new units must be affordable is greatly to be welcomed. Indeed, the only thing that I would say against it is that the figure is too low. The move away from building one and two-bedroomed homes to building three-bedroomed and larger homes is also welcome, but as my hon. Friend said, it has not gone far enough.

Proposals such as the relaxation of planning powers to allow extensions to be built on existing properties are often floated. They should be investigated further, as the solution to a problem is often as simple as providing an additional bedroom. I think of a family with an autistic child who lived in a good-quality pre-war council house with a garden. They loved the house and the area, and used the garden for the child’s benefit, but they desperately needed an additional bedroom. The solution was staring us in the face, but planning powers at that time simply did not allow an extension.

There are ways of approaching this issue laterally or obliquely, but in the end, as my hon. Friend says, we have to deal with it by supply. That is the only real solution. We know that 54 per cent. of overcrowded families and 60 per cent. of families in temporary accommodation are in London. I have raised that issue publicly and privately with the Minister and her colleagues, and when I ask questions about affordable social housing, I tend to get answers about affordable owner-occupation housing. That is an important issue for young couples who are forced to move out of London and for people who need some form of intermediate housing, but at the end of the day the human misery I see every day and every week in my constituency relates to the lack of supply of affordable
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rented housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said. [Interruption.] I am being prompted to sit down, and I shall do so shortly.

I shall conclude with something slightly more hopeful—and something less hopeful; let us not be too optimistic. One local authority that I know intimately because I was a councillor there for 20 years—until last week—is Hammersmith and Fulham. It has an extremely good record on this issue. It is a very small and congested inner London borough, but between 1998 and 2006, 2,000 units of affordable housing were constructed, which is 70 per cent. of all housing constructed in the borough, with another 1,000 units in the pipeline.

In that borough, 99.3 per cent. of capacity was addressed, compared with 2.8 per cent. in Hillingdon, 3.5 per cent. in Bromley and 3.8 per cent. in Redbridge. Many councils either do not have the skills or the will to do that. They need to have their arms twisted to do it far more, but in the end there are some councils—I am afraid this often does come down to party politics—that are not prepared to do it.

On behalf of my constituents who live in overcrowded conditions, I greatly regret that the control of Hammersmith and Fulham changed hands last Thursday. I looked back at the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) secured in this Room on 28 March on the subject of overcrowding, and a very intelligent speech was made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who was very supportive of many initiatives. He based that speech on a visit he had made to a housing development in Hammersmith and Fulham the day before, and said that it was welcomed by residents in the area and all political parties. Every single affordable housing development in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham was opposed by the Conservative party during the past 20 years. That does not bode well for what will happen there now. The reasons change, but every single development was opposed.

Planning powers and Government intervention are required, but we are talking about not only individual human misery but social engineering. We are talking about the poor and those who live in social housing effectively being told that they are not welcome in the inner city or in areas that are otherwise prosperous. The gulf between the private sector—owner-occupation, and even private rented accommodation—and social housing is so great, it is impossible, even for those on two or three times the average income, to bridge.

The driving need is for an increase in social rented housing and a form of intermediate social housing. Unless that need is addressed, particularly in London, we are not only condemning another generation to live in appalling and inhuman conditions but changing the nature of London as we know it: a multi-racial, multi-class and vibrantly mixed community. That is my fear, and that is why housing will be such an important issue during the next 10 years. It is a big issue. The solution, as my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North said, may be simple, but it is difficult to achieve. I hope that the Government will now give it the attention it deserves.

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10.19 am

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing a debate on this important issue. I, along with other hon. Members, particularly from London, have raised this issue on a number of occasions, with questions to the Prime Minister and in Westminster Hall debates. We have tried to highlight the issue by consistently stating that it has been overlooked on the political agenda and in debates about what should be the Government’s priorities.

A number of people have made the point that the Government must be clear about what they mean by affordable housing. In the past, it has been interpreted as a need for schemes to assist people to purchase houses. However, for many people in London, even with the discounts available through various Government schemes, those homes are just not affordable. Often, they require a deposit that is out of the affordability range of most people in desperate housing need.

I am relieved that people such as the Chancellor want to see a case made for affordable housing. I am delighted that we are starting to get some response to the debate, but I appeal to the Government to take it on board from us that the clear but unstated hatred of and lack of trust in local authorities to deliver in this vital area must stop. They are the vehicle for change, and they can deliver the social housing that will change communities and provide the opportunities that families are currently being denied. We must remove the roadblocks in the way of local authorities’ delivery of that change.

My hon. Friend is right when she says that supply is the issue. I gave figures for my local authority whereby housing applications for 2004-05 were running at similar levels to those of 1999. The acceptance rate was more or less the same, but the figures for those waiting for housing were up by almost 60 per cent. Demand is not growing and outstripping supply—it is the supply that is wrong.

The figures in my area also mask the underlying problem of those who are trapped in their family homes. Every week, my surgery is full of examples of three generations of a family who live in a house that the Labour party built. The grandchildren and the parents of those grandchildren are trapped in that home, and they are unable to move into housing in the same way as their parents were before them. The grandparents are looking to the Labour party and saying, “We want you to build houses for our children, so that they can have the opportunities that we had to bring up our families.”

We have seen right to buy decimate the supply of social housing, but the sad fact is that at the other end, we have not seen any investment in the stock—to the point at which local authorities are building almost no properties at all.

There is also a problem with the way in which we construct the finance for building new social housing schemes, and I believe that we can release much of the equity in new-build for reinvestment in the public sector. Too often, when my local authority sells a parcel of its land to the private sector and then negotiates
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under section 106 a proportion of the development of that land for social housing, the developer walks away with a huge profit from the sale of the rest of the site. I have spoken to housing associations that say, “We can manage those schemes from beginning to end; we can sell the properties, bring the profits back into the public sector and reinvest them in further schemes in the local area.”

We are frittering away our resources through the way in which we set up the finances for the development of social housing. We must tell local authorities that we want them to be more innovative, with self-financing schemes in some respects. We could consider placing a proportion of the rents under a prudential scheme, so that they finance some of the interest that must be paid. We must consider those schemes urgently.

Regeneration of the Kidbrooke area in my constituency will result in 4,400 homes where there are currently just under 2,000, and about 2,000 of them will be affordable. Some will be part buy, part rent and others will be for rent through the social sector. However, it is still not too late to have a greater proportion of social housing in that development. Most of the land is in public ownership, and the financing package could be reviewed to provide more social housing for local people who desperately need it.

People in the eastern corridor of London see beautiful houses being built in the Thames gateway and are fed up that they and their children do not have access to those houses because they are priced out. They are frustrated, and demonstrated that frustration clearly in the recent local elections. That fuels the lies of extremists such as the British National party who want to exploit the situation and people’s feeling of desperation. They have done that successfully because we left the opportunity open to them and failed to address the problem of housing demand and the people who desperately need housing.

We must expand the housing stock and provide the opportunity for money to be invested in houses to accommodate larger families. In return, families may have to sign away their right to buy for a period or even in perpetuity so that investment in housing can be made with the confidence that it will not disappear from the public sector. We must look at such schemes.

Overcrowding is fuelling antisocial behaviour and is a block to improving standards in education. Young children who are at school will not sit and watch “EastEnders” with their parents if they live in an overcrowded house and sleep in a bedroom with their younger sister or brother. They will go out on the streets with their friends. They have nowhere to do their homework. We must cut the vicious circle. Only a Labour Government will deal with the problem and people need to receive that message loud and clear. The Government’s duty is to tell people that housing is a priority and that Labour will deliver for them once and for all.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that they have only until half-past 10.

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10.27 am

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Time is short so I shall be brief. Irefer hon. Members to my Adjournment debate on28 March for comments about Hackney, where overcrowding contributes to a population churn of more than 40 per cent. in some areas, which has a disastrous effect on public services.

I want to focus on some key points that I would like the Minister to address. Why is there no explicit measure of efficiency for the Housing Corporation based on the cost of people living in a home rather than the cost per house? That defies common sense and has an impact on all the issues that hon. Members have raised. Will she give a commitment that bid support in future will reflect the number of people living in a home rather than the cost per property?

There is also a lack of targeting for large-bedroomed houses in the current London housing strategy and I should be grateful if the Minister commented on that also. Will she look at Housing Corporation funding rules, because we have the crazy situation locally where for every pound that a local authority provides to a housing association the Housing Corporation removes a pound? That defies common sense and needs to be tackled.

I must mention the test case in my constituency concerning the Haggerston West and Kingsland estate. We are hoping to receive good news about providing more three and four-bedroomed properties after a long campaign of more than 10 years by residents, myself and local councillors, particularly Councillor Jamie Carswell, who have fought to ensure that residents receive the housing they need rather than the one and two-bedroomed properties that Treasury rules seem to impose on them.

10.29 am

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Although my contribution will last only a minute so that the Minister can speak, everything that has been said applies to the rest of England. I stress that a massive housing shortage is building up in other parts of England. We must not assume that problems of low pay, special needs, inflation in the private sector and the inadequacies of that sector do not also apply to the rest of England; they do.

I have three pleas for the Minister. One is that she should deal properly with overcrowding, and bring forward consultation on standards, because we cannot let the shortage of housing continue to force people to live in such unacceptable conditions of overcrowding; also, perhaps she could ensure that proper consultation takes place about special needs and the impact of that issue on housing standards.

My second plea is that the Minister should again examine the preventing homelessness agenda. I believe that it is leading to a real problem of hidden homelessness. People are being diverted into private sector renting, and although they should be diverted after their needs have been assessed, they are being diverted as soon as they apply, so that they never appear on the figures. I am very concerned about that. I am also concerned about standards of training among some of the staff who do the work.

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My third plea is that the Minister should attend to what is happening in growth areas such as mine. Lots of new housing is being built in Northampton, but it is all private sector housing and developers are subject to a requirement to provide percentages of affordable, not social, housing. As part of the growth agenda we need to ensure that there are, built in, adequate supplies of social housing to rent, not just shared equity properties, about which something has already been said. It should be understood that there is an economic factor. We need a good housing mix in the new communities that are being built.

I hope that the brevity of my remarks will not be taken to reflect my view of the severity of the problems.

10.31 am

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I shall try to keep my remarks short to allow the Minister as much time as possible to respond; I am aware that Labour Members may want to raise additional points during her response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate. I know that she has long had an interest in the issues, and has been raising them for some time. I also congratulate the Minister on keeping her post during the recent turbulent period for the Government. I am delighted that she is still speaking on these issues.

Decent housing should be a right, particularly for children but also for all citizens of the country. Poor housing leads to poor health and decreased opportunities in education and employment. In the past century the supply of social housing meant that people who were unable to enter the private renting or home ownership sectors had a realistic chance of being housed. In a time of prosperity such as we are now enjoying, why are so many more people in the UK suffering from inadequate housing, or, indeed, homelessness?

The fact is that successive Governments have sold off the vital resource of social housing for rent, without replacing it. Capital has been moved from housing as capital receipts have disappeared into the Treasury; of £5.5 billion realised from sales of council housing only £3.3 billion was granted through the Housing Corporation in the 2004-06 grant round.

The effects in human terms of housing shortages can be seen every day, and hon. Members have referred to individual cases from their constituencies. In rural areas such as my constituency of North Cornwall there is little prospect for most families of staying in their home village or small town. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who is no longer in his place, and from the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), about instances in their areas. Despite excellent work by housing associations, local authorities and charities to raise the issues and to squeeze the maximum amount of affordable housing and social rented housing from new developments, the shortage of properties to rent is still keenly felt.

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