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18 July 2007 : Column 106WH—continued

I think that all Labour Members recognise also—I am sure that we shall hear more about this, Mr. Cummings, if my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who chairs the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, catches your eye—that there has been a rise in demand, which is driven by several factors. Those include, certainly, household change and the growth of single person households, the
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impact of the buy-to-let market and second home ownership, which have also had a significant impact on housing provision, and, indeed, to a certain extent, migration.

I, certainly, have no difficulty with discussing the impact of migration on housing, but, of course, this is not a debate on migration, and it is important that we try to focus only on the implications for housing. However, let us be very clear about who these people are, and why, in certain cases, we have a housing obligation to them. Primary immigration to this country has not occurred for decades. People arriving in this country are doing so through a number of routes, and some of them are entitled to housing, particularly social housing, but many, of course, are not.

In my constituency, I have seen the impact of immigration through the refugee and asylum routes. I invite the hon. Gentleman, and anyone else who doubts the legitimacy of the housing claims of people in that situation, to come and meet some of those individuals, and to tell me that they do not have a reasonable claim to social housing. Under this blanket description of migration and its impact on housing, we are in grave danger of forgetting human beings: who they are, what their circumstances are and the fact that, in many cases, they have come from the worst places and circumstances in the world. We have an absolute obligation to ensure that their needs are met.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend has just made an excellent point, but would she agree that those who have fled persecution and made their homes in this country are making a fantastic economic and social contribution to our society? Without the levels of migration that we have had, London would simply stop.

Ms Buck: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One need only look at London’s public services, and hospitality and retail industries to see that that is the case. The statistics, of course, bear that out.

Setting aside asylum seekers who, of course, do not qualify for social housing, as well as those who have had a claim for asylum accepted, and become refugees and British citizens, many migrants simply do not have a claim to social housing. That is often forgotten given this blanket acceptance that migrants can arrive off the boat or through the channel tunnel and immediately be given priority on the housing waiting list; and I am afraid that quite often that mythology is consciously stirred up, which causes enormous damage to community cohesion.

The truth is that competition for social rented housing has come about because the number of people—there has been a relatively modest increase—seeking social housing are being squashed into an ever reducing number of social rented tenancies. If, through the additional investment that we are looking forward to in the comprehensive spending review and proposals in the housing Green Paper, we can redress some of that shortfall, not only will we meet the desperate housing needs of the homeless and those living in seriously over-crowded housing, but we will do something very important for community cohesion.

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Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the hon. Lady not think that after 10 years of a Labour Government, something should have been done already? In those 10 years, the situation has got much worse, rather than better. Is that not a sad indictment of this Labour Government?

Ms Buck: The number of times that I have said in this place that I am personally disappointed that the building of social housing has not been a higher priority for the Government would probably run into three figures. I think that it should have been a priority, but unfortunately that has not been the case, although in fairness to the Government they have been dealing with a decades-long backlog of housing in poor condition, because it was neglected by the previous Administration, and billions have been spent on the decent homes initiative, which has improved the quality of life for tens of thousands in my constituency. Not everything can be a priority at the same time, but I would have liked to have seen more house building.

We are now seeing, however, an extension of house building in London. I welcome very much the fact that the Mayor of London has given housing such a high priority; his housing strategy is driving forward additional housing construction. However, I ask my hon. Friend, the Minister, to keep his eye on the ball, because some local councils, particularly Conservative ones, are saying, on the one hand, “We want more house building,” but, on the other hand, when it comes to house building in their local areas, they are saying, “No, we are putting up the signs. We are full here and we do not want any more homes.” Sadly, that has been exacerbated since a number of councils became Conservative-controlled last year following the London elections. We have seen an immediate reduction in the number of properties coming on stream and being made available.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): My hon. Friend has made exactly my point, and I hope that the Minister will address it in his closing remarks. If the onus again is to be put on councils to build houses—we welcome that commitment—what do the Government intend to do about Conservative councils such as Wandsworth borough council, which is building about 12 per cent. affordable housing, and Hammersmith and Fulham council, which is halving the targets for affordable housing in its borough? Fuelled by the sort of inflammatory remarks that we hear from Opposition Members, there is a willingness to decrease the amount of social housing, rather than to increase it.

Ms Buck: I believe that the last period for which we have figures showed that my council in Westminster achieved only 21 per cent. of housing building at the affordable end of the spectrum, against a target of 50 per cent. We need not just more house building, but more that is not at the luxury end of the market. Luxury house building was one of the reasons that even properties being built were not providing homes for first-time buyers and those who do not have hundreds of thousands of pounds to spend on their own homes.

Supply is the key to resolving many of these problems, and we need a grown-up contribution from politicians of all parties and councils. We cannot build houses in the abstract; they have to be built in communities. Local
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councils and politicians need to show some leadership, step up to the plate, demand sustainability and ensure that facilities are in place to support those communities. They must also take on the leadership role to ensure more homes.

I have one or two other quick points: although supply is the key, the Government need to do a lot more on the demand side of the equation. I am not with the hon. Member for Shipley and some of his proposals, but we must ensure that we have a home swap system that actually works. Many people want to exchange their own homes, but we have not had in place for a long time, I am afraid, an effective mechanism that allows people choice and flexibility in moving between homes.

We need also proper investment in measures that allow those under-occupying to trade properties for ones that they want. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in homes too large, strictly speaking, for their household size. Those are their homes and nobody should force them to move, but many of them would move if an option were available that met their needs and they were given an incentive. A financial incentive of a meaningful size would be a considerably cheaper strategy than house building. I am afraid that it beggars belief that we have not managed to crack that particular nut.

I, and many of my colleagues, were very relieved when the recent John Hills inquiry into social housing rejected the siren calls for an end to the security of tenancies for people in social housing. However, it was alarming once again to see a report launched this morning by the Smith Institute, which flags up the possibility of ending the security of tenure. That report opened with the words:

And so say all of us. It made other good points:

to housing pressures—

So there is much to commend.

However, the report went on to say, alarmingly, that a

would ensure that those who remained eligible for social rented accommodation would remain in that accommodation. Presumably, if they were not eligible, they would be out on their ear. That must be resisted. It would be a disaster of epic proportions for those people who are often the most vulnerable in society, many of whom have been down the homelessness route, if they thought that they had a home for life and the rug was pulled out from under them. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to say that that proposal is unacceptable and would damage only those people who need most assistance.

The current measure has been a long time coming, but we need more measures than simply the expansion of social housing and house building generally—which the Government have announced—including measures to tackle demand. Let us get on with that task and ensure that local councils are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Above all, let us not scapegoat
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individuals, be they homeless families, people in housing need or immigrants, as the sole cause of what is actually a very complex problem.

John Cummings (in the Chair): Contributions of no more than five minutes in length will allow another three hon. Members to speak before the winding-up speeches.

3.41 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I will abide by your suggestion, Mr. Cummings. I welcome the debate and the fact that a Green Paper comes out next week. I hope that that Green Paper will at last enable the corner to be turned on the housing crisis in this country. I also hope that it will at last level the playing field for tenants of council estates or any other council tenant, so that the fourth option will be accepted and it will be legitimate for tenants to vote for an arm’s length management organisation, for a private finance initiative, for a stock transfer or to remain as council tenants and receive exactly the same investment and treatment that is so necessary for them.

I pay tribute to the Government for the amount of money that has been put into improving existing stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) is correct to say that that has been a major priority and it has meant a real change in the lives of many people who now have new kitchens, new roofs, new windows and new heating systems. There has been fundamentally a great improvement. That issue was sadly neglected by the Conservative Government in all those 18 years. There has been a major improvement and a major step forward.

The area that I represent, like that of my hon. Friend, is inner-city London, where the housing crisis is most acute. I hope that the Green Paper will recognise that unless a substantial number of council properties are built in the areas of highest housing stress, we will all pay a price. More than 900,000 children in this country live in grossly overcrowded accommodation. The effect on their lives is dramatic. They underachieve at school, they over-attend at doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, and they overachieve in crime and social disorder. Teenage children growing up in overcrowded flats on estates or anywhere else simply cannot socialise at home. Therefore they go out, and all the other problems emanate from that.

If we want to improve social cohesion in our society, the best way to do that is through huge investment in the housing needs of the very poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. The current crisis means that local authorities cannot house people in normal council housing or with registered social landlords or housing associations, because there is nowhere for them to go. Instead, they are put in private rented accommodation, most of which is paid for through housing benefit.

I shall give an example. This morning, I visited a family living in a one-bedroomed flat—two teenage children, one small child and the parents were all sharing one tiny bedroom. The flat was damp, mice-infested and leaked, and the extraction equipment of the restaurant down below pumped straight into the bedroom windows. That is a private rented flat. The rent is £780 a month, all of which is paid through housing benefit. In other
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words, the public sector is paying £780 a month for a family to live in absolute misery. The only beneficiaries from that are the private sector landlords. It is simply an insane form of investment. How much better would it be to put money into bricks and mortar and build new places, rather than subsidising slum landlords, who exist all over London at present? I hope that when the housing Green Paper comes out, we will understand the absolute priority that should be attached to doing that.

I hope that the Green Paper, in recognising housing needs, will also recognise that many people living in the private rented sector, who do not necessarily depend on benefits to stay there but who are paying a very high rent, look to have some form of control and security—some form of secure future. In my constituency, there has been a very big increase in buy to rent. That means that many people are living unstable and insecure lives. Some form of security is needed for people living in that situation.

As I have only five minutes in which to speak, my last point will be on registered social landlords and housing associations. I recognise that RSLs have built quite a lot of places, although unfortunately nowhere near enough, as councils have not built anything over the past few years. There are questions about the management of housing associations, the efficiency of that management and the accountability of those who manage housing associations. I hope that the Green Paper will look towards a degree of accountability in that respect, because many of my constituents have real problems with housing associations, and housing associations themselves have financial problems that too often they solve by selling off vacant flats that are desperately needed for the social sector.

I hope that the Government will recognise that yes, we have had great achievements in improving existing council stock, but we must provide new homes for social rent. I say that because 75 or 80 per cent. of people in my constituency have no chance whatever of buying anywhere. The only route out of misery and poverty for them is through the provision of good-quality social housing through the local authorities. I hope that the Green Paper will recognise that and that we will turn the corner and end the misery being experienced by so many people living in inner-city Britain at the present time.

3.46 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I shall use my constituency as an example of the way in which economic growth, a thriving economy, migration and housing are interlinked—not in the negative way that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) described, but in an extremely positive way.

Milton Keynes, as everyone knows, is a new city; it is 40 years old this year, but is still relatively new. It has been an immensely successful place, largely, I have to say, because of where it is, which is absolutely the right place to attract industry without any public subsidy at all. As a result, over the past decade 35,500 jobs have been created in Milton Keynes, and obviously that has required the creation of housing for the individuals working in Milton Keynes, but even so we have net
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inward migration daily, according to the 2001 census, of 16,000 people. I am sure that the figure is much bigger now, but I do not actually have a hard figure. We still have considerably more jobs than houses. Nevertheless, over the past year Milton Keynes topped the league in the south-east for the number of houses that were built. Last year, it was 1,857 houses—nearly twice the number for the second-placed town, which is Basingstoke—and 777 of those were for housing associations. The majority would have been for shared ownership, but a significant number would have been social rented housing.

We are creating jobs and building new houses. On the whole, Milton Keynes is a huge success. It is a place that people like living in. It has many lovely green spaces. I never tire of reminding the House that it is built on greenfield land—what was low-grade agricultural land—and that the biodiversity level in Milton Keynes, as evidenced by surveys of animals, insects and plants, is hugely greater now than it was when it was the monoculture that pervades across most of the rest of that bit of Buckinghamshire.

Milton Keynes is green, it is a nice place to live, and people choose to go there because they like it. It is also a city that is built on migration. There are, obviously, people living there who were born there, but the vast majority of people in Milton Keynes, including me, have come from somewhere else. They have come either from somewhere else in the UK—many are from London—or from outside it. That has added to the vitality and innovative nature of Milton Keynes and is a huge asset to the whole community of Milton Keynes. It is not a deficit; it is an asset. We as a country should regard migration in that way—as an asset.

Apart from the fact that we get new skills and new people, we are also redressing the rather bizarre demographic balance of our population, which, because we are living longer, is very overburdened—if I may use that phrase, as an elderly person myself nearly—with people who are moving into retirement and therefore need people of working age to pay taxes to keep them in the manner to which we have all become accustomed. That is partly what the migrant population is doing. It is redressing our demographic imbalance and ensuring that we have a thriving economy so that those of us who are moving into retirement or are retired have some hope of having a decent retirement because there will be a decent working population paying taxes.

Notwithstanding the success that is Milton Keynes, there is still a huge demand for market housing, shared housing and particularly for social rented housing. The effect of that on families can be extremely detrimental. I was mildly amused by the hon. Gentleman’s comment that we should do something about family breakdown as that would reduce the need for housing. If we do not build more housing, there will be more family breakdown, because nothing is more conducive to family breakdown than families living in the sorts of situations that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) described, of which we are all aware from our constituencies—certainly we Labour Members are, anyway. There are families living in wholly unsuitable accommodation, usually in the private sector although there is sometimes overcrowding in the social sector, and paying enormous housing costs on top of that, so they are living in poor conditions and are under severe financial stress.

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I seem to have overrun, but I want to throw another point into the pot about infrastructure. The next stage of development in Milton Keynes is a wonderful example of how the private and public sectors can work together to come up with a solution to deal with the infrastructure problem—the Milton Keynes infrastructure tariff, which is sometimes called a roof tax. We have been able to do that because we have a forward plan for the next 10 years and we know what infrastructure will be required with schools and so on. There is a list, which we can cost and then divvy up between the number of houses that are going to be built, which comes out at £18,500 per house. All the developers are happy to pay their share through section 106 because they know what it is being spent on and that the developers at the front-end will pay the same as those at the end. They know that, between them all, they will get the infrastructure that is required, thanks to the Treasury front-loading it as well, so that our schools are built before the houses are built. That model benefits everyone, and could be followed. Other local authorities should consider proper ways of using section 106.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con) rose—

Dr. Starkey: I shall not give way to the hon. Lady, who has only just come in, as we are very tight on time.

Other councils should consider proper uses of section 106, particularly the Tory councils that argue that there should not be planning gain supplement. They must come up with more effective ways of using the gain that landowners and private developers get out of planning permission to pay for the infrastructure that facilitates their profits.

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