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Perhaps the Minister can tell us why a further £1 billion has been allocated to the project. I would welcome an intervention.

A report from the PAC on the Thames Gateway is even more damning for the Department for Communities and Local Government. It concludes that the Department does not know how much the regeneration of the Thames Gateway will cost the taxpayer—after £673 million has already been spent.

Dr. Starkey: I assume that the hon. Gentleman has read the whole report. If so, he will have noticed that the Public Accounts Committee asked for the new Homes and Communities Agency to take over responsibility for Thames Gateway because the project is currently not delivering. Does he support that conclusion of the PAC as well as the one that he chose to cite?

Grant Shapps: I assume that the Homes and Communities Agency will take over running the project. It has been run by so many different people that it is hard to know what is supposed to happen. Perhaps the Minister will tell us. Again, I would welcome an intervention.

Yvette Cooper: We are happy to continue the investment in the Thames Gateway—indeed, to increase it and support the project’s progress—and also to increase investment in the housing market renewal programme, which, as the NAO made clear, is making a significant impact in that those areas where the interventions took place are doing better than similar areas with low demand problems. However, I stress to the hon. Gentleman that he should tell us whether he backs 240,000 more homes a year, as so many organisations throughout the country have done.

Grant Shapps: I apologise to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). I believed that we would get a clear answer to the question. The Bill constitutes a missed opportunity if it does not do what I imagined—give control to the Homes and Communities Agency for the development. I still have not heard whether that will happen—perhaps we will get clarification at some stage.

The Bill is a missed opportunity to reduce expensive regional quangos and return powers to democratically elected bodies. As some critics fear, it may be a house building delivery agent, but without tackling the problem of the provision of local infrastructure and jobs.

Since hon. Members of all parties agree about the importance of building homes, the Bill could have
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achieved something truly historic. However, whereas a progressive approach could deliver millions more homes by working with local communities, the Bill falls back on the tired old Government versus the people syndrome. By incentivising and trusting the people, we could create sustainable communities, higher environmental standards and more affordable housing.

Instead, the Government have again completely missed the point. They have failed to reach their existing house building targets, but they have not bothered to ask why. They have simply published a Bill that proposes a bigger stick, a bigger state and bigger targets, but we simply cannot live in targets.

We all recall that the Prime Minister would not trust the people when he bottled the election. At a time when the competency of the Government is under attack as never before, the Bill is a missed opportunity to trust local people to help solve the housing crisis. We trust local people, and that is why we cannot support the Second Reading tonight.

4.30 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I should like to remind the House of the report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, “Affordability and the Supply of Housing”, which was published before the summer recess and supported by all parties on the Committee. The Committee welcomed the Government’s then objective to raise the number of net additional homes by 200,000, but said that that was probably not enough, which has since proved to be the case. Indeed, I am not convinced that even the new target is sufficient to meet housing need.

I want to re-focus this debate on what my constituents would want it to be about. I am disappointed by the speech that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) made, because that sort of cheap debating style is exactly what puts ordinary people off this place. In particular, it puts women off big time. This debate is about two issues that are of enormous concern to my constituents and, I would have thought, to those of almost all hon. Members.

The first issue is the fact that young people are increasingly priced out of the housing market, as prices rise beyond their reach. I commend to hon. Members a series of booklets by the National Housing Federation called “Home Truths”, which show the level to which housing inaffordability has risen in every part of the country. For example, even in Milton Keynes, a growth area with lots of houses, people need a household income of more than £50,000—two and a half times the average income in Milton Keynes—to pay the average mortgage. In the rest of Buckinghamshire, where incomes and house prices are higher, people need a household income of £85,469 to pay the average mortgage, which is 3.8 times the average income.

Our constituents know that such statistics mean that young people who in former times might have reasonably expected to buy a house now have no hope at all of doing so unless their parents can give them substantial sums to help them into the housing market. That is a huge concern to me, and I would have thought that it would be to every other Member, but we did not get a flavour of that from the hon. Gentleman’s speech.

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Anne Main: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Starkey: No, I want to continue. The second issue is that at the other end of the market—

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Why will the hon. Lady not take interventions?

Dr. Starkey: I would simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as he knows, only two interventions can be taken, otherwise time is eroded, unlike with Front-Bench spokespersons, and I am barely into my speech.

The second group that should concern almost every Member comprises those constituents whose incomes are too low for them ever to conceive of buying a house or even entering shared ownership, who are wholly dependent on the social rented market and who have no hope whatever of being allocated a social rented house. In my constituency—I assume that the situation is the same in a great many others—the only people who can get into social rented housing who are not there already are individuals who are statutorily homeless and in extreme housing need, although even they will not necessarily get into social rented housing.

The local council in my area—I am not blaming the council, Liberal Democrat-controlled though it is—is now obliged to advise people who come to it as statutorily homeless that there are no social rented houses available. Those people are given advice on how they can be placed in the private rented sector or in temporary accommodation elsewhere, and be funded through housing benefit. That is a disgraceful situation, and the prime solution is to build more houses, including more affordable shared ownership and social rented houses. I was disappointed that the Conservatives gave no indication of the level of house building that they would propose.

I was interested to see in The Guardian that Mr. George Monbiot—who, 30 years ago, used to live extremely close to me in the area that I represented as a councillor—has suddenly discovered that there are people who live in appalling social and private rented accommodation. He could have found that out 30 years ago in his own street if he had only asked me.

I am pleased that the Government are now increasing the funding for housing in general, and for social housing in particular, and that they are putting in place mechanisms to provide additional funding from developers for infrastructure. The Milton Keynes tariff has been an extremely useful model for that. I am also pleased that they are setting higher targets, although I think that it will be incredibly difficult for them to deliver on them.

I remain extremely upset that the Conservatives are apparently opposing the Bill, despite the fact that it is broadly supported by Shelter, the Local Government Association—which is Tory controlled—the National Housing Federation, the National Federation of ALMOs, Help the Aged and even the Tories’ favourite organisation, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. All those bodies broadly welcome the Bill. That reinforces my view that Tory support for more housing is based on the model of St. Augustine. They say, “Yes, but not now” or perhaps “Yes, but not in my constituency.”

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The Homes and Communities Agency will bring together the regeneration expertise of English Partnerships with the housing expertise of the Housing Corporation. I commend the Housing Corporation in particular for its recent good track record on increasing the proportion of family homes in social housing developments in London and the south-east. The Select Committee has stressed that that issue is not simply about numbers; it is also about the range of housing available. There is a desire for considerably more family housing in most, though not all, areas, and I am pleased that the Housing Corporation has taken that on board and been delivering such housing in London and the south-east.

Amalgamating the expertise and the powers of the two bodies should result in a saving of resources and a sharing of expertise between an organisation that has concentrated on regeneration and one that has concentrated on housing. I have already remarked on the fact that it is odd that the Conservatives are opposed to the establishment of the agency, when the Public Accounts Committee report on the Thames Gateway said that the agency, rather than all the fragmented local bodies, should take responsibility in that area.

Sir Paul Beresford: Will the hon. Lady pause for a moment and consider how her local voters will feel when they vote for their local councillors on their local planning authority, which is then bulldozed by the new quango?

Dr. Starkey: The Milton Keynes partnership—a joint committee comprising the local authority and English Partnerships—is delivering on house building in our area, where such delivery was not occurring before. Most people in my area want more housing. Of course there are arguments about individual estates and individual development frameworks, but the council remains the overall planning authority. The partnership is delivering housing in our area within the development framework set by the council. The council often attempts to hide behind the partnership, or the Government, so that it will not be held responsible for the decisions that it has taken—on the grid roads in Milton Keynes, for example—but the reality is that it is the council, as the planning authority, that takes those decisions. The decisions are implemented in parts of Milton Keynes by the council, and in other parts by the Milton Keynes partnership and English Partnerships.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a specific question about my constituency, and I enter a plea for the headquarters of the new agency to be in Milton Keynes. It is the obvious place for it to be, and such a move would save having to build new offices. I am grateful to him for allowing me to make that point on behalf of my constituency.

There is an issue about the relationship of the new agency to local authorities. I suggest that the Minister look closely at whether there should be a duty on the new agency to co-operate with them, as it may not be enough for the HCA simply to be a named partner in local area agreements.

I welcome the establishment of a regulator—Oftenant—and I am pleased that it is separate from the HCA’s provider role. The regulator will give tenants much greater rights and allow them to challenge poorly
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performing housing associations, but I urge the Minister to consider extending Oftenant to council tenants and arm’s length management organisations as soon as possible, which the Local Government Association and the National Federation of ALMOs support. I also urge her to take up Shelter’s suggestion that there should be enabling powers for a national tenants’ voice.

On sustainability certificates, the code for sustainable homes is absolutely essential in signposting for builders and developers the direction in which building regulations standards will be improved and made more stringent. It should give the builders and developers the certainty that they need to deliver the higher standards that we are all asking for and to achieve the zero carbon target by 2016. I ask the Minister seriously to consider making the code for sustainable homes mandatory on new homes, and also urge the Government to find ways of extending the code to existing homes. Existing homes comprise about 99 per cent. of the housing stock and they are much less energy efficient than new houses, so we need seriously to improve the energy efficiency of existing stock. The Minister might consider, for example, setting dates—reasonably far in the distance—by which every home must be made compliant with at least the bottom two levels in the code for sustainable homes.

I am hugely doubtful about what exactly the Conservatives are suggesting in respect of sustainability. Although they mention it in their amendment, as a kind of ritual obeisance, we have absolutely no indication of what those words mean.

John Bercow: I have regularly and publicly supported Aylesbury Vale district council when it has given the go-ahead to sometimes unpopular, but undoubtedly necessary, developments in my constituency. Does the hon. Lady, who I know is a keen supporter of East West Rail, concede that early progress on that project is a highly relevant consideration when we are trying to decide what sort of scale of expansion in the south-west sector of Milton Keynes—it will impact on my constituency as well—would prove to be sustainable?

Dr. Starkey: I am happy to support the hon. Gentleman, who—unlike some of his Conservative colleagues—does not try to get the infrastructure without the housing. I know that Aylesbury Vale’s commitment to housing is exactly what is required for the Milton Keynes partnership to have the confidence to help through the infrastructure tariff in ensuring that the East West Rail link can reopen in advance of developer funding coming through—if that is not too convoluted. I am happy to support the hon. Gentleman on that, but I am less happy to support Aylesbury Vale council’s agreeing that although more houses are needed, they are all needed in the Milton Keynes area and not in the Aylesbury Vale area. That highlights one of the key problems of what I take to be the Opposition’s policy of leaving local authorities to decide. It is far too easy for a local authority to decide that it is in favour of more houses—not in its own area, but in the one next door.

Reform of the housing revenue account is absolutely essential if councils are to be able to build additional
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housing. I welcome the proposed pilots and urge the Government to extend them as soon as possible so that all councils as well as housing associations can build.

I note another Tory obsession, which is also in their reasoned amendment: the right to buy. It brings enormous benefits to the individuals who are able to exercise that right, but it does not create a single extra home. It is a one-off benefit to those individuals and it bleeds out of the social rented sector the most desirable—or the least undesirable—homes. That is one of the reasons why council housing stock in many areas now includes very few family homes. It consists almost entirely of flats, which is why so many families are in danger of overcrowding. I urge the Minister to accept Shelter’s call for a new definition of overcrowding.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Lady referred approvingly to our Select Committee report. Does she agree with the following statement, which appears in it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Perhaps that was an ill-judged concession on the hon. Lady’s part.

4.45 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The general intent of both the July Green Paper and the Bill, which seeks to make part of the Green Paper reality, is welcome. Both recognise that there is a huge housing crisis. It is, however, something of a shame that that recognition comes 10 years late. It would have been much better if the Government had published the Green Paper back in 1997, rather than waiting 10 years for the crisis to become worse and worse.

There is the crisis of the 71 per cent. of the population who are home owners, and the people who would like to join that total. This country has the third highest percentage of home owners in western Europe, and in the two countries with higher percentages house prices are much, much lower. In this country they are nine or 10 times the average salary, while in areas such as London they are up to 19 times the average salary. That has caused huge problems, not the least being that in 70 per cent. of our urban areas—not just London, but urban areas across the country—key workers such as policemen, nurses and teachers cannot afford to get on to the housing ladder. If key workers in steady, responsible jobs earning reasonable wages cannot afford it, obviously a huge chunk of the population have not a hope in hell.

An even greater crisis involves social housing for rent, which in the old-fashioned way used to be called council housing. For 50 years after world war two, councils built an average of 120,000 properties per annum while the private sector built an average of 150,000 per annum. In the last 10 to 12 years—certainly in the last 10—councils have built only 4,000 council houses, and last year they built just 400. Housing associations, the Government’s preferred alternative for the provision of social housing, have managed an average of only 22,000 properties a year
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over those 10 years. Those figures are hopelessly inadequate, and it is not possible even to stand still given the number of properties being lost as a result of the right to buy. Over the last 20 years a third of council housing has ceased to be available, and there has been very little to replace it.

Nationally, waiting lists for council housing have risen by 63 per cent. The number of applications has increased from 1 million to 1.63 million—1.63 million families, or 4 million people. In many parts of the country, the position is much worse. In my Chesterfield constituency and in Sheffield, where I grew up in a council flat, waiting lists have trebled in the 10 years since Labour came to office, and in Bolton the figure has quadrupled.

Emily Thornberry: Will the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning my local Liberal Democrat council? There are 13,000 people on the waiting list for housing, and in the last seven years only one seventh of new build has been social rented housing.

Paul Holmes: Many councils around the country have enormous problems with affordable housing, not least when council properties are sold to private speculators who take them out of circulation and let them to students.

The dramatic increase in council house waiting lists has caused two problems. The first is the human misery that I see in my surgery every Friday afternoon, including last Friday. People who are desperate for suitable housing have little hope of being able to move into an old folks’ bungalow, which would free up a family council house, or to move into a family house when they are sleeping on sofas, in their in-laws’ living rooms or in friends’ houses.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a desperate and urgent need to update the overcrowding criteria? Young children who are trying to do their homework cannot possibly be expected to use a living room as an extra bedroom. I know of families with an autistic child who are still expected to rotate bedrooms. Surely there is a need to ensure that such families are statutorily treated as living in overcrowded conditions.

Paul Holmes: I agree that there is a huge problem. One of the reasons is that the regulations that decide what constitutes overcrowding date back to 1935 and the depression. They date not only from 70 years ago, but from an entirely different world, where people’s living conditions were far inferior and overcrowding was accepted as normal. I hope that we will be able to table amendments in Committee to see whether we can get the Government to move in the direction of redefining overcrowding in modern terms. One of the reasons they will be reluctant to do so is that 1.63 million are on the waiting list, and if we redefined overcrowding to meet modern standards, far more people would be deemed to be in unsuitable housing and, therefore, in priority need of rehousing.

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