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The hon. Lady and I have played a minor part in an important document produced for the Westminster housing commission to try to acquire a vision for the next 20 or 30 years on housing-related issues, many of which depend on some discretion at local level. I fully appreciate why a cold chill comes into her heart at the thought of discretion being in the hands of Westminster city council,but looking to the future and bearing in mind the past
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10 years, there has been great success in much of the work that has been undertaken. I hope that that will continue in the years ahead.

Above all, this debate hinges on the notion of stable communities. The issues that the hon. Lady raised in some constituency cases are replicated in my postbag. It is tragic that long-standing residents—perhaps going back several generations—of a city centre are forced to move or that their children must move. The Government must be more flexible and ensure that we are not forced to put homeless people or asylum seekers into our scarce social housing.

I was glad that the hon. Lady made the important point that a key worker in the context of a city centre is not simply someone working in the public sector. They could be working in the private sector. Postmen, people who work in local supermarkets and stores, and so on are the glue of our communities and ensure that they are maintained.

Ms Buck: For the record, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that asylum seekers are not allocated local authority housing?

Mr. Field: I am entirely happy to do so. My point was simply that if people do not have a long-standing connection with an area, there is a breakdown in an important aspect of a community. That obviously arises with housing association properties, if not local authority housing.

The hon. Lady will be aware that a trend in recent years has been that many people who bought their leasehold flats from Westminster city council and, I suspect, many other London councils and local authorities throughout the United Kingdom, have proceeded to sell them to housing associations, which then turn to local authorities for people to put into those properties. Those people have little direct connection with the area and may not be there for long, so do not play a full part in ensuring that the community that makes up any estate is maintained.

Leaseholders own a share of their property and benefit in part from the investment, but the problems that have been raised today hinge on the Government’s failure to recognise the disproportionate effect that the decent homes programme has had on leaseholders, including right-to-buy leaseholders, many of whom are, as the hon. Lady said, elderly pensioners who are simply not in a position to make any great capital outlay.

I support the underlying aims of the decent homes programme—no one would disagree with what it is trying to achieve—but there is often a problem with unintended consequences. I regret that some of the proposals have been so prescriptive. There seems to be little flexibility to respond to local priorities expressed by residents—for example, lift access and security. As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, in city centres with many high-rise blocks lift access is much more important for decent homes than in many other parts of the country.

Nowhere in the Government’s original proposals for the decent homes programme do the documents mention the effect on leaseholders specifically. Tenants may have updated kitchens and bathrooms, but for leaseholders it represents a headache of bills running into many tens of thousands of pounds.

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In London alone, leaseholders make up a significant proportion of residents in local authority housing.In the city of Westminster, which is partly in my constituency and partly in that of the hon. Lady, there are more than 9,000 leaseholders representing some42 per cent. of the council’s residential stock.

Although leaseholders have always been aware that they are liable to be charged under the terms of their leases for works to improve and maintain their homes, the cost of such works is a major issue because the pace of the Government’s decent homes programme continues to increase. In Westminster, the council has invested more than £200 million in housing stock as part of the programme, with the vast majority of the funds coming from its own resources. To meet the Government’s determination to drive the programme forward, the offer of significant borrowing facilities has been used to incentivise the council to achieve the decent homes target by the end of the year. Again, we support much of that, but Government pressure to achieve the target conflicts directly with the interests of leaseholders, who understandably try to limit the charges. That is particularly true for purpose-built blocks, which are a common feature in London, because the cost of major works is generally higher, and that is the case, for example, in Churchill gardens in Pimlico, in my constituency.

As has been said, the bills run into many tens of thousands of pounds and have the potential to cause significant hardship for those who are unable to pay them. Often, it is the original right-to-buy leaseholders who are unable to pay, and many of them are now elderly and have nothing other than a fixed income.

Ms Buck: The hon. Gentleman claims that much of the upgrade work is being paid for from the council’s own resources, although I do not believe that. If it is indeed the case, however, why is so much of the work needed to catch up on maintenance that was neglected for two decades? If work is paid for from the council’s own resources, why was it not scheduled throughout the 1980s and 1990s? The reason why many of the bills are now so high is that they are for works that have not been done for decades.

Mr. Field: The hon. Lady makes her point, and I cannot judge the situation in her constituency, although she will have a view about the state of some of the estates there. Inevitably there have been mistakes, and relatively little work has been done over the years, although the same will apply in many other parts of the country. I understand why it is in the hon. Lady’s interests to make a slightly partisan political point, but I think that all of us now want to look to the future, and the decent homes programme is obviously an integral part of that. However, it needs to be utilised as flexibly as possible.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman surprised to learn that the experience of estate dwellers in the Islington area was also that their estates were allowed to rot for 18 years as a result of a lack of investment and interest on the part of the previous Conservative Government?
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Mr. Field: Funnily enough, as the hon. Lady knows, I used to be an Islington resident, albeit in the Islington, North constituency, which is so ably looked after by her political soul mate there. I am sure that there is a battle over the issue that she describes and that one reason why she takes an interest in it is that a Liberal Democrat council has emerged in recent years, although it might well be argued that there was a Labour council for much of the time that she is talking about. Again, however, I do not want to make a narrow partisan point. There are issues about redevelopment, particularly on many of the estates that were built in the 1960s and 1970s, which are in urgent need of work. One could argue that there has perhaps not been a consistent maintenance programme over the past 20 or 30 years and that we have therefore reached the Waterloo point at which significant spending must be carried out.

Local authorities have been doing everything that they can to support leaseholders, but the Government’s prescriptive framework for delivery—I understand that it needs to be prescriptive to ensure that works are done—means that many authorities feel that leaseholders are losing out most on many programmes. In that respect, I have been in touch with several of my local tenants’ and leaseholders’ associations, and Richard Beville of the Churchill Gardens Lessees Association kindly prepared some brief notes for me, which I want to put on the record.

Mr. Beville notes that the position of council lessees has not really improved in the past decade, despite many promises from the Government,

of the most recent Act. He continues:

to an extent. He feels that the leasehold valuation tribunals have not allowed straightforward

As a result, the freeholder frequently employs expensive Queen’s counsel and then appeals

Mr. Beville notes, therefore, that the real purpose of the LVTs—to provide a level playing field—has not been properly achieved, and the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North noted that many leaseholders feel that they are up against it because of the professionalism and sheer spending power of the bodies that they face in many of the tribunals.

Mr. Beville goes on to say that leaseholders have faced

Like the hon. Lady, he notes that the lessees on the Warwick estate in her part of Westminster are currently paying bills to the tune of £58,000 each. In the same way, all the lessees in Churchill gardens, in Pimlico, are expecting bills of around £20,000. I was at their annual general meeting only last week, and it was heart-wrenching to hear the personal stories about genuine concerns from people who live there. It is expected that those bills will need to be paid over the next five years and that the programme of works will amount to£20 million. For many of the people living there, those
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costs are simply unaffordable and need to be reduced. The hon. Lady’s innovative thoughts about staircasing up and down are all very important, but the immediate worry for many of the folk who live in such places is the prospect of bills of tens of thousands of pounds.

Inevitably, prices in many bits of central London have reached almost absurd levels. If one goes to any estate agent and looks at former council properties with a couple of bedrooms on estates, one sees that they cost literally £500,000 or more. To that extent, it is perhaps easy to put a charge on a property, particularly for elderly folk who are looking to pass it on to their children or loved ones when they die. At that point, a relatively small charge could be made on the overall value of the property, but that is not really an option for many, and there is a day-to-day worry in people’s minds.

Previously, when large amounts of Government funding were made available to councils through housing action trusts and estate action bids, lessee costs for the work were capped at a maximum of £10,000 as a condition of the funding. Some capping still takes place when PFI funding is used, but there is currently no cap for lessees when the funding is channelled through arm’s length management organisations—hence the understandable demonstrations on the part of many lessees.

There are also one or two serious problems with the Government’s preferred equity release and loan scheme, which has involved just one small building society, the Dudley building society. Despite Government marketing and publicity, the take-up among leaseholders has been low for several reasons. Often, the scheme is geared towards private sector home owners, who want to make home improvements rather than pay decent homes bills. Often the scheme is too complex, and the administration costs have been so high—about £1,200 per applicant—that many households have failed to complete when the true cost of the scheme is revealed.

I am acutely aware that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall try to keep my remaining comments to a minimum. However, we will obviously be addressing this issue extensively in the many years ahead, because housing is a very important issue in central London. At one level, one can be slightly glib about the issue as a Member of Parliament and say that it is a matter for local authorities and hard-working local councillors, and hon. Members on both sides of the political divide will agree that high-calibre, committed local councillors are involved. We must, however, look at many of the important decisions that have been made in the past. In that respect, some of the blame—this will warm the heart of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—must go to the previous Conservative Government, who made so many of the rules on local housing so prescriptive. Many of the problems that we are identifying go back to the early 1980s, when many decisions became centralised, perhaps understandably, in an effort to keep local government expenditure to a minimum for general economic reasons. That has been a very unhealthy development, which I fear that the current Government have maintained.

Those involved need to use some imagination, particularly in our parts of central London, where we want a much more mixed community. Of course, the
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reality of living in central London is that we now have a totally polarised community. One has either to be so well off—effectively, that means working in financial services or an industry that is dependent on them—that one can afford to buy a property, or so poorly off that one qualifies for social housing. That group in the middle is increasingly being squeezed.

There are no easy answers. I suspect that a problem that has been known to us in central London in the past 15 to 20 years, and which has now accelerated, is now growing fast in many other parts of suburban London too. I often worry that there are too many unintended consequences of any Government action, which can make such problems somewhat worse. However, this debate is important. I know that the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North will want the Minister to answer some specific questions in good time; but equally I am sure that we shall return to the debate, and I thank the hon. Lady for most of her comments this morning.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. Before I bring other hon. Members in, I should like to explain that I am not demoting the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, but we have a problem with the microphones on their side, so they have kindly agreed to demote themselves to their Back Benches.

10.10 am

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on managing to secure this debate on an important subject, and I thank her for her kind words, although I feel that they were undeserved. For many new Members, it is of enormous assistance when we first come here and find Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friend, into whose slipstream we can fall. Her comments are of course richly applicable the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for her work in fighting for leaseholders. It is very important that the poor should be represented strongly by inner-London Members of Parliament, and it is fantastic to be able to fall in with such a strong team.

I have had a large number of letters and e-mails from leaseholders about today’s debate. They feel that no matter how strongly they try to explain their difficulties their case is not represented strongly enough, and that nothing is happening. There is enormous frustration. Perhaps I may begin by painting a picture of Islington; I apologise for having to do that, but people tend to make an assumption about Islington that is only partly true. They know it as leafy lanes, Georgian squares, coffee shops and the media, but that is because people who work in the media live in those leafy lanes and Georgian squares, and spend their time in the coffee shops. They do not spend a great deal of time on the other side of the road, on Islington’s estates.

Nearly half the people who live in my constituency live in council estates or former council estates. The average income of people living in council properties is £5,000 a year, according to the housing needs survey. That of people living in housing association estates is £6,000 a year, and that of people with homes in streets is £40,000 a year or more. Unfortunately, in my constituency,
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when a poor person moves out of social housing in Islington, an even poorer and more desperate person moves in; properties are increasingly in demand, and to get one people need to be so desperate as to get sufficient points to enable them to be rehoused. Equally, when a rich person moves out of one of the streets in Islington an even richer person moves in, because now housing prices are such that a small flat in Islington costs £300,000. That is 10 times the average income of a Londoner. I hate to think what will happen to my constituency in the years to come, because we do not have the people in the middle. Leaseholders often represent that group, and they are a very important part of my constituency. I strongly believe in mixed communities. We need to be able to work and live together. I am proud that my constituency is as mixed as it is, but economically we are becoming increasingly divided.

The picture that I want to give of my constituency is not only one of the rich tending to live in streets and the poor on estates—a result of what happened in the 1980s. While one famous and indefatigable national political leader was selling off council properties, another famous, strong-minded and indefatigable leader—of Islington council—was buying up street properties on the council’s behalf. The Minister for Industry and the Regions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), was at that time buying street properties on the open market and turning them into social housing. Thus we have a mixture: some people live in social housing in streets, and a number of leaseholders live on estates. I have lived for 14 years in a street in Islington, where nearly half the properties were owned by the council as social housing; but they have all been sold, and the street is now private housing. There is movement.

I want now to explain the core of the matter, and the fundamental injustice felt by leaseholders in Islington about the way that they are charged. I believe that when the Conservatives were in charge of this country they left estates in Islington and elsewhere to rot. They did not invest in them as they should have, and the estates were in a disgraceful condition. The state of the lifts and stairwells was disgusting. People were not treated with sufficient respect, and the level of investment that was needed was not something that a Labour council could deal with alone. Such investment must be made with the assistance of a Government, and at the time we did not have a Government who were interested.

We now have a generous and hyperactive Labour Government who want to make sure that social housing properties in places such as Islington are brought up to the decent homes standard. When we were elected in 1997 only 25 per cent. of the social housing in Islington was at that standard. We are now investing £157 million in doing up the social housing in Islington, so that we can be proud of it and people can be proud of living there. It is a good thing for us to be doing. The difficulty is that those who are caught in the fire are leaseholders who have bought their social housing, because they thought that that was the right thing to do, and who are now being hammered by huge bills.

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