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17 Oct 2006 : Column 221WH—continued

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I will, of necessity, be brief, and I think that I can be because I simply want to make one slightly extended point as a trailer to my own debate on the Floor of the House on Friday. Obviously, that debate will be well attended, as most Friday Adjournment debates are, but I shall try to whip up a little more enthusiasm for it. Its subject is the provision
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of affordable housing in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, about which there are some toe-curling and eye-opening things to be said.

Today, however, I start with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) about the provision of genuinely affordable social housing, which primarily means social housing, certainly in London. Of course, there are many other issues around the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), and I pay tribute to her not only for securing the debate, but for the part that she is playing in getting the issues of affordable housing and homelessness higher up the agenda. That is happening thanks not only to the Minister for Housing and Planning and the departmental team, but to a groundswell of support, certainly on the Labour Back Benches.

As I said, there are many issues around homelessness, but in the end, the provision of genuine affordable housing must be the key issue, and the case for it is being made. The Select Committee has made the case, as have Shelter and other organisations. Shelter’s campaign for an extra 20,000 units of affordable housing should be supported. In London, that would mean that than 15,000 new units of affordable housing were built each year, rather than 9,000, although the Greater London authority says that the figure should be 20,000 units, and that might be right.

The Government deserve all credit for taking away the worst excesses of homelessness since 1997. With the effective ending of bed-and-breakfast provision and street homelessness, the worst excesses have gone, but long-term, affordable, permanent housing has been on the decline for many years because of the right to buy and other measures. The problem for the Government is that a lot of affordable housing is not affordable, and they must not be caught out by that trick. Intermediate housing at £300,000 and £400,000 is not intermediate housing. I fully support intermediate housing where it provides starter homes and takes people out of the rented sector, but I do not support the sort of intermediate housing that is cynically being built under the guise of affordable housing. That is being done primarily by Tory councils, but also by Liberal councils, certainly in London. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) looks sceptical, so he must attend my debate on Friday if he wants to find out more about the subject. He defends his case very well and very smoothly, but I tell my hon. Friend the Minister that if the Government are not careful, they will be taken for a ride on this issue; a smooth ride perhaps, but a ride nevertheless.

If we want to tackle the problems of homelessness in London in the long term and to build stable communities, as we did after the first and second world wars, there must be substantial investment in genuinely affordable housing.

11.59 am

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this valuable debate. I know that she has spent a great deal of time on this issue. She raised important issues, beginning, as she said, with a full-frontal assault on the Conservative
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party’s record on this subject. She is right to point out that the current social housing crisis was started under the right-to-buy scheme when there was not adequate replacement to ensure that we had the necessary housing stock. The current Government have failed to address that since they have been in office. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister on how they are planning to address it.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North spoke about the problem of people still being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation, and the effects that that has on them, not just in terms of their immediate surroundings and the pressures and strains that it places on families, but in terms of location.

Intentionality is a key issue. When one talks to local authority officers, one finds that they feel under pressure to be as rigorous as possible in the definition of “intentionality”. I am being generous to them and to the environment in which they are working.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Something has not come out in the debate so far. As we have concentrated on families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, we have missed the growing crisis in this country concerning hidden homelessness. Crisis estimates that there are at least 380,000 single homeless people. Will the Minister address not only those people who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation but also those who are in squats and on sofas in the homes of friends and family, as many of our constituents are? There is a growing problem because we have an overly rigid system that is failing to deal with homelessness.

Mr. Rogerson: My hon. Friend makes a very valid point, to which I shall return. When we are considering how local authorities assess homelessness we want a consistent approach: one that consistently reflects the situations that people are experiencing rather than the strictures within which the local authority is working.

I agree with the hon. Member for Northampton, North that there is pressure to go into the private rented sector, which undoubtedly has a contribution to make. However, I echo other hon. Members’ comments: the approach is not necessarily the one that my party would support. Greater investment in social housing offers far better provision for people’s housing needs. She also discussed the single room rent. I hope that the Government will return to that issue. Things have moved on considerably since its introduction, and her party and mine opposed it at that time.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) referred to the situation in our own region of Cornwall, particularly in respect of second homes. I hope that the Minister will update us on the response to the Affordable Rural Housing Commission’s proposal, in line with that of my party, to examine planning use categories and to give local authorities in areas where that matter is a problem the chance to deal with it. I hope that there is a contrast with the approach taken by her colleague, the Minister for Housing and Planning, when she was interviewed in the Financial Times not long after the report came out. She basically said that this was not an issue that the Government were interested in tackling. I hope that the approach has moved on a little.

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The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred to the lack of a thorough system of tracking, to be sure of how many people are involved and what the need is. He is right that that could be improved. He also referred to sustainability in housing. When there is investment in new social housing, the fact that sustainable housing in terms of energy efficiency would make such housing more affordable on an ongoing basis for the people who live in it should be reflected. I was glad that he raised that point. He also focused on some vulnerable groups, and that is useful.

Other hon. Members highlighted the situation in the capital. It was useful to hear that there will be further opportunity for that to be discussed later in the week. We must be clear that homelessness is much more than rooflessness; my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) made reference to rough sleeping. While my party welcomes the efforts that the Government have made in dealing with that, it is clear that there are disputes about the official statistics on people who are currently sleeping rough. As he was saying, we must also focus on the fact that many people live in temporary and inadequate accommodation. There are now twice as many families living in temporary accommodation as there were when the Government came to power. Council house waiting lists have risen by 50 per cent., and 100,000 are officially homeless. Shelter’s powerful briefing on this issue said that the real figure is more like 500,000.

We must address homelessness as the biggest blight on the quality of life of the citizens of this country. It is difficult to address health if people are living in inadequate housing. People cannot take educational opportunities that are presented to them if they have to live in intolerable conditions.

Families who are placed in temporary accommodation have the constant worry that they will be moved on somewhere else. That insecurity is found in the private rented sector, where people may be on housing benefit and do not have settled accommodation as they have shorthold tenancies of perhaps six months to a year. They do not have the security that allows them to plan further forward and to feel settled in a community. They feel that they are at risk in future of once again finding themselves homeless and having to return to the local authority for assistance. That means that children are unable to establish themselves in schools or to cement friendships, and that can adversely affect their education and wider social well-being.

Current Government guidelines state that councils should avoid using bed-and-breakfast accommodation wherever possible, especially for families with children. However, they state that private landlords can be a source of high-quality, self-contained temporary accommodation. I hope that the Minister will deal with how we can get away from short-term accommodation in tackling this problem.

Earlier this year, I tabled a question on Newham’s local space initiative, Ealing’s safe haven partnership and London and Quadrant housing trust’s homeless initiative leasing scheme, all of which are initiatives aimed at bringing temporary accommodation into use as permanent homes and examining new ways of tackling the need for temporary accommodation. I did not get a comprehensive answer, and would welcome
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further information from the Minister on how many families have been provided with settled homes through those programmes.

Single people make up the majority of those living on friends’ floors. They are the hidden homeless to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West referred, and they tend to be low down on councils’ vulnerability criteria. We need to address, as a country, what these criteria are and come up with a better standard, so that councils have slightly less scope to come up with their own criteria on vulnerability.

One would think that creating new social housing stock would be the obvious thing for the Government to do to tackle this problem, but only 170,000 new social homes have been built since 1997. Meanwhile, the social housing stock has been reduced by a net 500,000 homes and local authority waiting lists have also risen by that figure. We must invest more in social housing and we need to build it as quickly as possible. Some local authorities, such as Liberal Democrat-led South Shropshire district council, to which I have referred in previous debates, have used existing possibilities in respect of section 106 agreements to increase the amount of social housing that can be provided as a result of private development. I hope that other local authorities will take the chance to do that.

We must also tackle the issue of bringing empty property back into use, which several local authorities have been examining recently. I welcome the Government’s initiatives on empty dwelling management orders, which give greater tools to local authorities to address that. The solutions are varied, but we must target resources more in the direction to which other hon. Members referred by providing social, rented accommodation which would offer a permanent, settled solution for people who find themselves homeless and would prevent them from having to return to the lack of security in the private rented sector.

12.10 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this debate. In her speech she showed a passionate and moving commitment to the plight of homeless people. I know from her contributions in the House that the homelessness crisis has been one of her top political priorities and she has helped to force the issue up the agenda. Her eloquence today reminded us of how effective an advocate she is for the vulnerable and those in need.

I entirely endorse the hon. Lady’s comments about temporary accommodation. As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said, the quality of temporary accommodation in which some homeless people find themselves has improved over the years, but it is still almost always not good enough and not what a civilised society wants.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned that, to his surprise, the number of people in temporary accommodation in the east of England is now 171 per cent. of what it had been in 1997. I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman because the situation in
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the east of England is slightly better than in the country as a whole where the number of people in temporary accommodation has doubled. It is 200 per cent. more than it was in 1997. I know that the Government have made a commitment to halve that but if they do so they will only restore the figure to what it was in 1997.

I pay tribute to the Government’s commitment, which is part of their overall worthy and admirable commitment to help to reduce poverty, particularly child poverty. However, we must put the statistics into perspective because the hon. Member for Northampton, North, for understandable reasons as a loyal member of her party, thought it was appropriate to cast aspersions on the Conservative record. I am the first to acknowledge that between 1979 and 1997 Conservative Governments made mistakes, but we should bear in mind two matters. The original steps to tackle the acute crisis of homelessness occurred under a Conservative leadership with Michael Howard’s championing of the rough sleepers initiative. In addition, during the early 1990s and particularly the 1980s, Conservative Governments were committed to increasing the supply of social housing. As the hon. Lady almost acknowledged, the record for supplying social housing under Conservative Governments was much more successful than the Government’s record since 1997.

Dr. Gibson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the right to buy decimated the housing stock in this country? That was a Conservative highlight.

Michael Gove: The right to buy certainly ensured that more people had the opportunity of owning their homes, and that policy has now been embraced by both major parties because home ownership is a way of spreading assets more equitably throughout society.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) said, one of the flaws in the right-to-buy legislation was that local government and other social landlords could not use capital receipts effectively to reinvest in housing. We propose that future attempts to encourage low-cost home ownership should allow local authorities and housing associations to use the receipts from those sales to fund an overall expansion in the supply of housing. That is an appropriate way both of meeting people’s aspirations to own and of ensuring that we have more social housing for those who are genuinely in need.

I want to return briefly to what the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said. He rightly drew attention to the fact that some housing that is designated affordable, not least in the capital, is affordable only to those who are earning strikingly high salaries. In the strictures that he applied to Conservative local authorities he perhaps forgot that the building of Imperial Wharf in the south of Hammersmith and Fulham occurred with the encouragement of the Deputy Prime Minister and the support of Hammersmith and Fulham council. It is unfair to single out particular local authorities because of their political colour for the part they play in the situation that he so accurately described. That undermined the validity of his important point that when we talk about affordable housing we must ask, “Affordable for whom?”

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The comments of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) were useful in helping to clarify the debate. He invited us to consider whether homeless is a consequence of fractured lives or of a broken housing market. He preferred to concentrate on the failures in the housing market. There are failures, but my analysis differs from his. We must not overlook the way in which some of the most acute homelessness problems result from fractured lives.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was, unbelievably, attacked by Ministers for a speech that he made earlier this year and which became known as the hug-a-hoodie speech. In that speech my right hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that when dealing with crime we must look at social exclusion, social breakdown and the causes of crime. Unfortunately, I am afraid that in their raucous populism the Government sought to undermine what he was saying. What he said about the causes of crime and the importance of social exclusion applies also to homelessness. Factors applying to homelessness include problems of social fracture: family breakdown and the placing of children in care, which is often not the best solution for those who are in desperate need; the way in which we deal with prisoners and the failure adequately to educate prisoners for a life outside when they complete their sentences; the problems of drug abuse and alcohol addiction; our failure adequately to provide services for those who face those challenges and problems; our failure over generations to deal with the transition of servicemen from service life to civvy street; and, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North eloquently said, particularly the problems of those with mental health challenges. Will the Minister give a commitment today that the supporting people programme will be not only protected but enhanced to ensure independent living for those with mental health challenges and learning difficulties who want and deserve independence, dignity and a home of their own?

Housing charities and pressure groups have said that we must address those issues when dealing with homelessness. I pay particular tribute to The Big Issue and its campaign for a Rolls-Royce service for the homeless. It pointed out that the cost of accommodation if people are kept permanently in a state of not having dignity and independence is a long-term drain on the Exchequer. In the long term, early intervention to deal with the problems of social fracture not only helps to rebuild lives but makes sense for the economy.

I particularly commend the work of some of our social enterprises, such as the Notting Hill housing trust, which works to ensure that people in accommodation are given skills and the opportunity to save through its schemes, and Thames Reach Bondway, a social enterprise that I had the opportunity of visiting and whose “Moving In, Moving On” programme helps to equip people with the skills required to ensure that when they have a roof over their head they acquire independence.

When mentioning social breakdown and the way in which it contributes to the most acute need, we cannot escape the fact that we need more homes in this country. I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney spelled out at the Conservative party conference the vital need to increase housing supply. We have heard today an interesting and often
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moving analysis of the difficulties of local authorities and others in allocating housing to those in need. Every hon. Member who is familiar with economics recognises that the different ways of solving the problem all come back to the allocation of a scarce resource. Housing in this country—not just social housing but all housing—is scarce, which is why we have house price inflation ahead of the rate of inflation elsewhere in the economy and why local authorities are often forced to make difficult decisions when allocating scarce stock.

Some hon. Members mentioned “Cathy Come Home”. There was a powerful article in The Observer last Sunday by Nick Cohen who pointed out that the problems identified 40 years ago exist today because we are simply not building enough homes to deal with the successor generation of homeless people and successor generation of those who want to get on the property ladder.

Mr. Love: The hon. Gentleman is making a pertinent case, but if we are to deal with house price inflation and homelessness we must build more houses. One of the biggest impediments to that is the nimby tendency in many constituencies, including, I suspect, that of the hon. Gentleman. What will the Opposition do to persuade local authorities throughout the country of the necessity of building more houses?

Michael Gove: I do not like the term “nimby”, but I also do not like the attitude to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which is a belief that we should attempt to restrict the increase in housing supply that this country needs. The political leadership shown by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney is part of that process, but the Government have a part to play, too.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned my constituency. In my constituency I have been campaigning to ensure that the special protection area status and the habitats directive, which English Nature has enforced, producing a moratorium on house building, are lifted. I am a Conservative MP, campaigning for more homes in my constituency, who is being frustrated by the way in which Government rules apply.

I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s proposals for changing local government finance and the planning system to ensure that we increase supply. We should not wait until the pre-Budget report. I should like to hear now the changes that she plans to implement to ensure that housing supply increases.

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