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20 Feb 2007 : Column 33WH—continued

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has obtained this debate today. The timing is very appropriate because housing is an issue that is often swept under the carpet,
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and ignored by the press and media, except when there is a case such as that of the couple living in the car. We deal with such cases day in, day out, and we deal with the appalling distress that they bring to families and to individuals, but housing is not at the top of our public policy agenda. It should be, we need more homes with affordable rent, and I hope that the Minister can offer us more investment on top of the investment that this Labour Government have already made.

11.40 am

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton). My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth painted a panoramic picture of the housing need and the types of tenure that must be satisfied in Leeds and Wakefield, and in Yorkshire and Humberside in general. I shall follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East by concentrating on the importance of the social rented housing sector.

I declare something of an interest as a product of a council estate. Indeed, my mum and brother still live in the same council house that the family moved into 58 years ago. They are happy to be tenants; they want to continue to be tenants, and they have no aspirations to ownership.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth prevailed upon me to contribute to this important debate, I took the precaution of consulting my Leeds city council colleague, Councillor Richard Lewis, an excellent former Labour housing committee chairman and a councillor in Pudsey. He started off by extolling the virtues of the Government’s decent homes initiative. He told me that about £400 million will have gone into Leeds for that purpose in the decade to 2010.

My hon. Friend rightly said that such investment came on the back of an appalling inheritance from the previous Conservative Government, an inheritance in which investment in public housing was reduced by about 50 per cent. in real terms, and in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East said, right-to-buy receipts could be reinvested neither to provide more housing nor to bring the remaining stock up to a decent standard.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The hon. Gentleman talks about the record of the previous Conservative Government, comparing it with the record of the present Labour Government. Will he tell us a single year during this Labour Government’s period in power when they have managed to preside over a number of completions in the social rented sector higher than that of any year in which the Conservatives were in power?

Mr. Truswell: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised that question. We are used to the Tories locally and nationally trying to construct a specious amulet, because it conceals the point that the lack of investment led to the decay of the remaining stock, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth graphically described. I shall not debate the rights and wrongs of right to buy, but it left a residue of property that was in the worst state of repair, and which this Government rightly tried to address. I am afraid that the magic amulet does not
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dispel any criticisms that I and others will continue to have of the previous Conservative Government’s appalling housing record.

One comment that Councillor Lewis made sums up what I have just said. He said:

He is right. Thousands of homes have been transferred with remedial work such as no-fines system-built housing, new windows, kitchens and bathrooms, re-roofing and new heating and insulation—a range of measures that are crucial to improving the quality of people’s accommodation.

The important point that I make to my constituents is that such investment transforms not only the individual properties and the living conditions of tenants, but the surrounding community, whether it comprises rented or owner-occupied housing. My two hon. Friends have pointed out extremely well the problem that we do not have sufficient rented property in Leeds or beyond. That is why fellow Leeds MPs and I support the Leeds Tenants Federation’s right to rent campaign. I am grateful to the federation for providing me with some information to put to the Minister.

The campaign’s aims are to obtain acceptance of three principal views:

I referred to my own family earlier—

as it is so often seen and portrayed. The federation is pressing Leeds city council on two points: first, to

I must give credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth. Under his leadership, and that of his predecessors, the council entered into a productive arrangement with social housing organisations, the Leeds Homes Partnership, through which it made land available at less than market value to build housing for rent. He may correct me, but I think that it provided about 4,000 accommodation units.

Jon Trickett: It is true that under my stewardship in Leeds, we set up Leeds Partnership Homes, the objective of which was to create a land bank that would take surpluses from house building in north Leeds and use it to subsidise rented and social housing elsewhere. We actually built 5,000 houses under Thatcher and Major in Leeds alone.

Mr. Truswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his amplification of the point and for correcting the number of properties that the initiative generated.

The second element of the federation’s campaign is to have the city council

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As my hon. Friend remarked, Shelter recommends a minimum of about 20,000 properties for rent per year, which equates to just under 1,200 for Yorkshire and Humberside.

I shall provide a background to housing need in Leeds. I am grateful to the federation for providing me with the information. In 1981, there were more than 100,000 social rented homes in Leeds; by 2006 the number had fallen to just over 74,000. More than 36,000 council homes have been lost through right to buy or demolition and only 9,800 housing association homes have been built. The net loss has been almost 27,000 affordable rented homes. In recent years, housing association new build has slowed to a point at which fewer than 200 new homes are developed each year.

Sales and clearance is predicted to reduce further the total number of council homes in Leeds to about 50,000 by 2016. The federation calculates the scale of the problem to be such that at current levels of building, it will take 83 years to return to the level of social housing available in 1995. Even with a new build programme of 1,200 new social homes a year, which is six times the current rate, by 2010 we would still be back only to the numbers of affordable rented homes available in 2003.

The number of empty council homes has reduced from 2,500 in 1995 to its lowest point of 1,190 today, for which we pay tribute to Leeds city council. The number of social rented homes available to let has also nose-dived from 9,700 in 1995 to 7,600 today. The dwindling supply of social rented homes is increasing competition and frustration about rationing decisions—it is rationing, and both my hon. Friends have referred to it.

Some 31,000 people are looking for social rented housing through the Leeds homes register, and again, to amplify a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East made, on average, between 50 and 142 bids are made for each home that becomes available under choice-based lettings. In fact, there was a great deal of publicity just a few weeks ago when 462 people bid for the same three-bedroomed property in Kirkstall. That gives some indication of just how desperate people are.

To amplify a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth, private rents are comparable to the level of mortgages in this fast growing sector. A three-bedroomed private rented house will cost about £120 a week, compared with £50 to £70 for a comparable home in the social rented sector. Home ownership is out of reach for most households on low incomes. It is estimated that a single income of £44,700 would be needed to afford the average house price in Leeds, which at the moment costs about £156,000 and is rising steeply.

I am familiar with back-to-back properties, as I am sure the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) is, because I used to represent an area that largely comprised terraced accommodation and many back-to-backs. To buy the cheapest of those properties in Leeds, a couple have to be on a dual income of over £22,000, whereas the average dual income for the bottom 10 per cent. of wage earners in Leeds is only £19,000 a year. The projections for the Leeds economy show that the main growth will be in the low-paid,
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private sector—exactly the sort of people requiring growth in the provision of accommodation.

I shall just quote another example that Richard Lewis cited in my conversation with him. He tells me that people on average incomes can only afford to buy in something like four out of 102 postcode areas in Leeds. That is a dreadful state of affairs. Organisations such as the Leeds Tenants Federation and Shelter understand, as do the Government, the aspiration for home ownership and that there is a sustained need for an increase in the supply of housing for sale on the open market, which my hon. Friend touched upon. However, it is clear that, although the supply in market housing has remained relatively constant during the past 30 years, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of social and rented homes being built for the very reasons that we have rehearsed today.

In contrast with the progress that has been made in tackling the most acute cases of homelessness—although I accept that those continue to be a source of concern—very little progress has been made in easing overcrowding, and I shall give a few examples of that in my constituency. They are not headline-grabbing. In many respects, they are quite mundane and unexceptional, except for the many hundreds, if not thousands, of families living in such circumstances. These examples demonstrate the common, daily grind that many people face in coping with temporary and usually overcrowded accommodation. They are all anonymised because I did not feel it appropriate to use names.

A young family is living on the upper floor of a two-storey block, with no access to a garden, and experiencing the obvious difficulties struggling up and down stairs with prams and young children. They live above an elderly couple who, despite their patience, find the natural movements of young children—as we might call them—extremely distressing and disturbing.

There is a family with a baby, and a teenage son and daughter, living in a two-bedroomed flat, with no privacy for the daughter and no space for her brother to study for his GCSEs. Lack of privacy is particularly hard on teenage girls who are forced to share bedrooms with their brothers. Overcrowding makes it difficult to find a quiet space to read, to do homework or to study for exams, and sleep is often disrupted by other members as they arrive home and move around in the limited confines of the sort of property that we are talking about.

We all have numerous families in our constituencies living with relatives, especially parents, where overcrowding and tensions cause great stress, and in some cases, severe stress-related illness. Such people are essentially homeless, but not recognised as such. The only way in which they can really amplify their priority is by working the system and getting their relatives to write a letter saying, “Right, you’re out. We don’t want you any more.” That causes increasing tension within families.

Research undertaken by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, when it still existed, showed the link between overcrowding and ill health, particularly respiratory and other infectious diseases. The stress of sharing bedrooms and inadequate cooking, washing and toilet facilities is well documented as a cause of tension between family members, leaving many parents suffering from anxiety and depression. A fairly recent
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survey by Shelter showed that 90 per cent. of overcrowded families felt that overcrowding was damaging their children’s health and 80 per cent. felt that that living in overcrowded conditions was damaging their children’s educational prospects.

There is the case of the family forced to leave insecure and unaffordable private rented accommodation, who were temporarily rehoused by the council on the far side of the city from where they previously lived—away from supportive family networks and requiring a two-hour round trip to maintain the continuity of their children’s education. It is anyone’s guess when a property will become available in the area in which they are seeking to re-establish themselves. There are young people unable to find accommodation in the area where their families have lived for generations because of soaring house prices, high private rents and a dearth of social rented housing.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest a few bullet points outlining the issues that need to be addressed to tackle the sort of need that my hon. Friends are trying to impress upon the Minister. Planning policy statement 3 is welcome in my area because we have seen numerous developments based on profiteering and not on meeting the housing needs of families, older people or those with special housing needs. We hope that councils like Leeds will grasp that measure with both hands and use it to prevent high-density and totally over-intensive and unnecessary profiteering developments. As was said earlier, we need to respond to the moderate challenge of Shelter—it is not over the top—that was backed by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. Shelter stated that 20,000 more social homes need to be built a year.

We need a better balance between the focus on low-cost home ownership schemes and investment in social rented homes. We do not want one to be shutting out the other, which happens in practice to some extent. We need to examine and learn the lessons of changes to the right-to-buy discount, which have had some good effects on the housing market. We need to consider the concerns expressed about negative subsidy. I know that we could have, and have had, whole debates on that issue. We must be more inventive and innovative in the promotion of self-build schemes and in looking at council properties, and perhaps, as we have seen in my constituency, the turning of unwanted bedsits into family accommodation.

We need to ensure that the planning gain through section 106 agreements secures more social housing and that the planning gain supplement does not interfere with that aim. In my area—I am sure that this is also true of others—developers become very good at explaining why it is not financially feasible to include the required proportion of affordable housing. One of their favourite reasons is that the land is contaminated so that the cost of redevelopment is excessive. We need to build on the regulation of houses in multiple occupation introduced through the very welcome Housing Act 2004. I urge the Minister and her colleagues to extend its operation to smaller HMOs and impose better standards on private rented accommodation.

Finally, one very clear message emerges from the whole debate, particularly those parts relating to the need for more social rented housing. No housing
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strategy for this nation, or any part of it, is complete without recognition of the importance of the social rented sector or the action to boost it to the levels necessary to meet the needs that my colleagues and I have described in our constituencies, our region and throughout the UK.

11.59 am

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) on securing the debate. It covers a very important and topical subject for all of us who represent Yorkshire, and indeed for us all nationally. I have visited his constituency, but only to watch rugby league, yet we would all agree that he painted a powerful picture of some of the specific and general issues that his constituents face.

There is no question but that social cohesion is important and that it is most certainly related to housing, as we would all agree. It comes from income, occupation, ethnic background, life chances, aspirations and having balanced and sustainable communities in every part of Yorkshire and nationally. We would all hope that housing policy was geared towards achieving that. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the average house price in Yorkshire and the Humber is £139,965, which is clearly out of the reach of many people. To echo many of the comments that have been made, particularly those of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), social housing is essential if we are to have socially cohesive communities. I agree that social housing must no longer be seen as second best to owner occupancy.

We face a social housing crisis in Yorkshire and nationally. My constituency neighbour on the other side, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton), discussed some of the cases in his constituency. Few MPs in Yorkshire or nationally, including rural as well as urban MPs, will not have been contacted by large numbers of constituents about similar housing cases. I have been contacted by people living on friends’ floors, mothers with two or more children living in a single room, and families with teenage children who have been forced to share rooms with teenage siblings of the opposite sex and, often, also their parents. I have also had some extraordinary cases that echo the hon. Gentleman’s experience, including one involving a family living in a caravan on a friend’s drive and another involving a family living in a tent in a back garden—hard to imagine in one of the fastest-growing cities and regions in the country.

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