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10 May 2006 : Column 92WH—continued

In addition to the effect on individual families and households of such circumstances, communities become unsustainable. Vital services suffer, with falls in school rolls and closures of post offices and shops.
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Voluntary bodies such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the coastguard and retained fire services find it hard to recruit in the areas that they serve, as the age profile changes, with a bias in favour of the capital-rich who can afford to live there.

That frustration is alienating people from the political process. Electors are losing faith in the Government’s ability to deliver solutions. We have already heard how that alienation has had another dangerous effect in urban areas. In the recent local elections, we saw a small but significant rise in support for far-right organisations and representatives. In some areas, people who have traditionally lived in strong communities have found themselves unable to do so as the housing shortage pushes them away. Such people are looking for someone who will listen or at least be seen to be listening. They hear a message from an organisation that says that it will work outside the political establishment, which has patently failed to deliver. That offers a scapegoat in other communities that suffer from inadequate housing, as we have heard. My father’s roots are in the east end of London and my grandfather worked in the docks for the whole of his working life, so I am familiar with the strong communities that exist in the east of London.

The lack of replacement housing has also been felt in the type of social housing that remains. The right to buy has taken away the larger homes, as well as homes in areas with better transport links and areas that were desirable for all sorts of reasons. The choice-based letting system has reduced the choice for tenants. It has also reduced the flexibility for local authorities to allow for transfers in the system, and for moves up and down the ladder of dwelling size.

The 2007 spending review must begin to address that problem in a more meaningful way. At the end of last year, the number of families waiting for a council house stood at more than 1.5 million, which is a 50 per cent. increase since Labour came to power in 1997. Figures provided by Shelter, in its excellent and shocking report “Building Hope”, show that 116,000 homeless children are trapped in temporary accommodation. The Government have set themselves the target of halving that figure by 2010, but the number of new social rented homes that will be delivered on current trends will not allow that to be achieved. Further research undertaken at the behest of Shelter by the Centre for Housing and Planning Research at Cambridge university says that we will need an extra 30,000 new social rented homes each year between 2008 and 2011 to meet that urgent need.

The lack of accommodation is forcing people to move into inadequate housing in the private sector that is often entirely inappropriate to need. Rents there are higher and housing benefit cannot cover the cost. That puts pressure on the Treasury, and the hon. Member for Banbury asked whether that was a sensible use of Treasury money.

Ms Keeble: Will the hon. Gentleman also reflect on the fact that private sector tenancies do not provide security? For a single parent with two children to be homeless after six months in one of those short tenancies is a real problem.

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Mr. Rogerson: Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a good point. There was a case in my constituency recently in which a young family who had just celebrated the birth of their first child were served with a notice to quit their shorthold tenancy. That was an incredibly stressful time for them. Despite the council’s best efforts to look after that family, they simply joined a list of so many people waiting for housing.

The lack of accommodation pushes people into poverty and can also keep them reliant on relatives for temporary accommodation. We have heard from Labour Members about such situations. Such accommodation is called temporary but is, in effect, semi-permanent. Overcrowding is worsened, and that is not helped by antiquated definitions that do not take account of the real needs of children and parents for privacy and space to work and play. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for her Adjournment debate earlier in the year, about which we have already heard some comments.

Future developments to increase the overall supply of housing may allow the capital-rich individuals and families to benefit further by taking advantage of new market housing or even moving into buy to let. Significant housing investment could have a dramatic effect on the lives of people and their communities. The letter from the Prime Minister to the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on her appointment says:

Obviously, it is good to hear the Government setting that out. Even if one is being generous to the Prime Minister and his comments—not many have been in recent days—that letter did not appear to say much about social rented housing; it discussed families getting a foot on the housing ladder. I would like the Minister to say more about the emphasis that will be placed on new housing.

The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, in her excellent opening speech, discussed creating a genuine mix of tenure to ensure the availability of social housing in all areas, urban and rural. She made some excellent points. Again, my party and I would agree that new investment must not be financed by rent hikes. The affordability of such properties is the key to their value in meeting the need. Several hon. Members have pointed out the difference between affordable housing and social rented housing, and I was glad to hear them do so because it is a key point.

In the 2007 comprehensive spending review, the Government have an opportunity to turn around years of underinvestment in affordable housing. The Treasury’s website states that the review involves

What could be a more important investment decision underpinning education, health, regeneration and the needs of the economy than setting forth an ambitious
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plan for new housing appropriate to the needs of the people? The Chancellor has spoken a great deal about renewal; this is his opportunity to act.

10.41 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on raising this topic. Every time I come to debates on housing, Members crowd in, trying to make a contribution. It strikes me that the subject ought to be debated on the Floor of the House, perhaps in a full-day debate. I know that the Whip is not in his place, but I hope that the Minister takes the message back that housing is a live issue. When Members of Parliament discuss housing, one can see that to them the subject is not just statistics; they talk about families sitting in front of Members in their surgeries. Nothing is more frustrating for us than to hear about the continuing need of families who want housing. We know that we will write letters, phone people up and follow up cases, but there is probably little hope of such people accessing the housing that they need. One of the worrying effects of the frustration that people feel was seen in the local elections—people voting for the British National party and so on.

One of the least expected consequences of the 1997 election was that the building of social housing declined substantially. As a Conservative Member, I did not expect that to happen. Although the number of social housing completions is now picking up, the scale of the problem makes that a drop in the ocean. We know that there is a major problem. Owner-occupation, higher house prices and the world of equity withdrawal is one side of a coin that leaves many people who cannot afford to get into that world with difficulties in accessing housing. The homelessness figures and the fact that more than 100,000 families are in temporary accommodation show that there is a real problem. The number of first-time buyers has collapsed from a normal yearly average of about 500,000 to about 320,000 last year, and those who cannot afford to become owner-occupiers become those on the list for social housing.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) joined the debate to provide the shire counties angle. There is no Member of this House who does not have housing problems in their constituency. One or two Members mentioned the economics of housing, but I am not sure that there are any; it simply seems to be a complicated and complex area. My hon. Friend’s suggestion that we examine the whole issue in relation to the way in which housing benefit works is eminently sensible.

Council housing has been little mentioned in today’s debate. I remember a debate in Westminster Hall on council housing and the fourth way. Sometimes the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was a little more concerned about stock transfer than about dealing with council housing. One of the interesting things that I drew from the Library brief is that the demand for council housing has picked up substantially, by more than 50 per cent. In the south-east of England the relevant figure is 77 per cent. and in London it is 71 per cent. Despite that, there are 700,000 voids. Although a perfect system is not
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possible, if 1.5 million people are waiting for housing and there are 700,000 empty properties, it should be a great priority of public policy to fill the voids where possible.

Clive Efford: Will the hon. Gentleman also support a move to allow local authorities to purchase private sector properties that are left vacant for a long time? In my constituency, a number of properties have been left vacant for too long and have become derelict, but the local authority could bring them back into use.

Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the problem that many empty homes are not accessed by the local community. I am in the fortunate position of being a spokesman for a party with no policies—apart from on the environment—but we are undertaking a detailed policy review. We are also a very broad-based party, so if the hon. Gentleman has interesting ideas on housing that he wants to feed into that review, they will no doubt be taken into account. Given the pressures that we face, particularly in London, it is difficult for communities to be unable to access the many empty homes that they see. There are many initiatives to deal with the problem, including ones to bring flats over shops and elsewhere back into use.

A lot more can be done on many of the estates that have been criticised. There could be more mixed tenure on some of them, and Castle Vale in Birmingham is an example of what can be done. If we manage estates and put a bit of tender care and investment into them, we can make them more attractive places for people to live. Design was also mentioned, and we cannot talk about housing without focusing on design and what can be done to improve some of the existing housing stock.

There is a major problem, which needs substantially more debate. There are no easy answers, however, and public policy must include a range of measures to deal with the issue. None the less, all hon. Members are very much aware of the pressures faced by many families in our constituencies.

10.46 am

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate and on her tireless work on housing issues over many years. I certainly welcome the expertise and help that she has given me over the past year or so while I have been working on housing issues. I know that she will continue to campaign on them in the House and in her constituency.

As hon. Members will know, the Chancellor said that social housing will be a priority in the coming spending review, so the debate is timely. They will also know that we have made it clear that we need to build more homes for the next generation. That means more social housing, more shared equity housing and more private housing. Although I shall talk mainly about social housing and the issues that hon. Members have raised, I should make it clear at the beginning that the need for more social housing to be built should not be
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met at the expense of the need for more shared equity housing and more private housing to be built. We need all three.

We must be clear that the long-term, underlying problem—whether we are talking about social housing in London, affordability in Northamptonshire, or the issues that have been raised in respect of Banbury and other parts of the country—is the gap between housing demand and housing supply. In the past 30 years, we have seen a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households and a 50 per cent. drop in the level of new house building. That is unsustainable. Current projections show that about 200,000 new households will be formed each year as a result of an ageing, growing population and, primarily, as a result of more people living alone, but we build about 150,000 to 160,000 new homes every year. That gap is simply unsustainable, and if it persists, the proportion of 30-year-old couples who can afford their own home will decline from more than 50 per cent. today to nearer 30 per cent. in 20 years. If we think that there are pressures on social housing now, imagine what they will be like in 20 years if we do not build the additional homes that we need.

Many people who are waiting for social housing would prefer to be able to buy their own home or a share of their own home, but they will not be able to afford to do so if long-term house prices keep rising beyond their reach. The wider issue, therefore, is that we need to build new homes for the next generation. That has been controversial in many parts of the country and with other political parties, but we must recognise the country’s long-term needs and the huge and serious consequences in terms of the demand for social housing if we do not address them. There will be problems with overcrowding, affordability and constraints on people’s aspirations for the next generation and the future if we do not address that long-term need.

Clearly, we need to proceed in a sensible way. We must ensure that we fund the necessary infrastructure and increase environmental standards as we do so, but I say to local authorities across the country, including the London boroughs, that they need to recognise their critical role in the planning and housing systems and in supporting the new homes that we need for the future. That is why the Mayor wants to increase the number of new homes in London, and why the Thames Gateway development and other growth areas are so important.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is the Minister’s Department prepared to intervene in major developments in London or elsewhere if there is insufficient housing for affordable rent included in the scheme, and to insist that there should be such housing? Is she prepared to ensure that major applications are called in for that purpose?

Yvette Cooper: We have a call-in process, and on occasion we call in developments on that basis if there are concerns about the level of affordability not meeting the requirements of the local plan and national planning guidance. Although we have those powers, however, we think that responsibility for that
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lies primarily with local authorities. It is important to recognise that there is considerable flexibility within the planning system that many local authorities do not use. They should use their planning powers to support and promote development and good design, and to ensure that there is a proper mix of affordable housing, including social housing.

I shall talk about social housing in particular, because that has been the main focus of the debate. As part of our preparation for the spending review we are conducting extensive analysis of the future need for social housing and considering not only overall supply and the level of need, but aspects such as mixed communities, the location of social housing, work incentives and the problems of high levels of worklessness in large social housing estates. Some work has been on that done by Kate Barker, and some by Cambridge academics and Shelter. We are also looking at the backlog of need for social housing and people in temporary accommodation and the need to ensure that they can have settled and secure accommodation.

Hon. Members will be aware that we have increased investment and the number of new social homes by50 per cent. over a three-year period, and we have said that we need to go further. We must recognise that there have been major calls on housing capital investment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said. In 1997 we inherited a £19 million backlog of repairs and maintenance and there was a need for a massive programme of investment in our social and council housing across the country. Had we not introduced the decent homes programme, we would be here today debating hon. Members’ constituency cases of people living in homes without central heating and with no prospect of getting it, or in homes in a shocking state of repair with the windows falling down and leaks in the roof, and no prospect of getting them repaired. We are not having those debates because we have invested so much in decent housing.

Mr. Love: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way and for her comments so far. We talk about building 10,000 homes this year, but everyone knows that that will not be achieved; Barker suggested building 17,000 homes a year, and the Cambridge study suggested an additional 10,000. Can the Minister reassure Labour Members that the Department recognises that there is a substantial gap there? Until that issue is addressed, problem cases will continue to come to our surgeries, and, perhaps more important, housing will become a much larger political issue, and we may well face the consequences of that in the next general election.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We have said that we need to increase social housing. We are already increasing the level of new build of social housing, but we have made it clear that we need to go further and that that will be a priority for the spending review. We have taken Kate Barker’s recommendations extremely seriously, but we are doing further work on the issue to assess what levels of investment will be needed in future. That is why I said the debate is timely: it can feed into the work not only in the Department but across the Government.

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Ms Keeble: On the point about central heating, there need to be clear specifications as to what is acceptable heating. I deal with many cases in which if people have storage heaters or if a previous tenant, perhaps an old person, said that they did not want central heating, the house is ring-fenced and does not get the improvements that it needs. There are still questions about what qualifies for some of the specifications, and the problems remain.

Yvette Cooper: We have set straightforward, decent homes standards, but I am happy to talk further to my hon. Friend about the detail.

We must recognise that construction costs and, in particular, land costs have increased. Part of the reason why land costs have increased is that there is a rising housing market at a time when we are simply not making available enough land and building enough homes. The land costs feed into social housing costs, creating pressure on the social housing budget. That is why all these issues must be seen as part of a wider issue about making available land for new homes and tackling the pressures in the housing market.

We recognise that we are left with significant challenges. We need to increase supply and consider social housing as well as shared equity and private housing. That requires investment, which creates serious challenges for Opposition parties, given their position on the third fiscal rule. Investment in infrastructure is also required, which is why the consultation on matters such as the planning gain supplement is such an important underpinning. Again, that is a challenge for Opposition parties.

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