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We must consider not only the human misery of waiting lists and out-of-date definitions, but the open goal that is provided to racists. My constituency has few immigrants and almost no asylum seekers, and
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they almost all live in privately owned or privately rented properties. Even in such a constituency, people who complain about the lack of council housing regularly say, “It is all because they are taking our houses.” The situation is an open goal for racists and the British National party. It has been stoked up by 10 years of policy from this Government. They have denied the provision of council housing and have presided over a collapse in the provision of any alternative form of social rented housing. I welcome the Green Paper, including the parts of it that have found their way into this Bill, but it is 10 years too late.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will my hon. Friend comment on the problem that a number of people on benefits face? When they try to rent a property they find adverts in the papers saying, “No benefits.” Such people face great difficulty in finding somewhere that is not statutory social housing. Not only is that restriction used by individual landlords, but a survey that I undertook of mortgage companies found that one third of them have a clause in their buy-to-rent schemes that says that people cannot rent to those who are on benefits.

Paul Holmes: This is a major issue for people who are on benefits. Traditionally, of course, councils provided the housing for that part of the population, but they have been denied that for the past 10 years and little has been provided to replace it. It is often said that the press have power without responsibility. These days, councils have increasing responsibility without power.

The Bill contains one clause that rightly says that members of the armed forces should be able to establish a local link. Often when people come out of the armed forces they are simply rejected by every council to which they apply—even the one for their former home area—because by being in the armed forces and moving around they have lost the link. Again, a responsibility is being given to local authorities without the power to do anything about the situation. We need to reverse that ridiculous state of affairs.

The Green Paper and the Bill contain too little on sustainability, on affordability and on social housing to rent. On sustainability, we have heard the talk of 10 eco-towns. Some 40 local authorities said that they wanted to build an eco-town, but only 10 are to be allowed to do so. That is a symptom of the central control and diktat under which we operate. Even 40 such towns would only have scratched the surface. Government legislation wants all new houses to be built to eco-standards from 2016, but we feel that that could be done from 2011—Germany already does it. Whether it is done by 2016 or 2011, the provision ignores the question of the existing housing stock. By 2050, two thirds of our housing stock will be properties that are already built, most of which will be from the 20th( )and 19th centuries, and even earlier. The Government’s Warm Front scheme would take 120 years to get round that existing housing stock and would provide relatively low levels of insulation and upgrading. Much more is needed if we are to tackle sustainability issues.

On affordability, again too much is disappointing in what the Government propose. When “affordable houses” first go on sale they are not affordable at all—flats in London that cost £200,000 or £300,000 are not remotely
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affordable for most people. When such properties are sold on, they are certainly not affordable. We believe that 25 per cent. of the 3 million houses that the Government want to build over the next 13 years—we would like them to be built over the next 10 years—should be affordable. Affordability should be locked in from day one, and at every resale. We should consider schemes such as shared equity, which the Liberal Democrats in South Shropshire implemented, and community land trusts, which could certainly use the brownfield sites that Government have identified to release for housing. [ Interruption. ] They are not gimmicks: they have worked in pilot schemes in the UK, in many European countries—especially in Scandinavia—and in the United States. Indeed, the Army, which intends to relocate 6,000 families from the British Army of the Rhine to the west midlands, is lobbying the Ministry of Defence for an Army land trust for that purpose for Army personnel. It is not a gimmick, but a mainstream policy that could ensure that houses are affordable when first sold and every time they are resold, because the price of the land is not available as it is locked into the community for ever.

The Government’s proposals contain far too little on social housing to rent. Some 25 per cent. of the 3 million new houses should be social housing to rent. Crisis and Shelter would probably put the percentage even higher, at 30 or 35 per cent. The big difference that I have with the Government on the issue is the need for a level playing field for the 140 to 200 authorities—depending on whether one counts the ALMOs—in which tenants voted democratically against a stock transfer. Even when the tenants had a loaded financial shotgun to their heads—they were told, “Transfer and get your houses modernised or stay with the council and be starved of funds”—they voted to stay with the council, in some cases, such as Camden, by four to one. For the Government to tell those tenants that they have to rot in those houses, and that their council cannot build any new houses, is a moral outrage and a democratic disgrace.

Sarah Teather: I agree with my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the building of affordable housing for rent should include larger houses? I have many families in my constituency—especially Asian families, who tend to live in extended family groups, and Somali families—who struggle on the waiting list because the houses that are being built are two and three-bedroom properties, not four or five-bedroom.

Paul Holmes: I agree, and that is related to the points that I intend to make about the general thrust of Government housing policy and central diktat. Councils should be allowed much more flexibility to decide what is needed in their area. The Bill continues a process that began nearly 30 years ago with the last Conservative Government, who seized power from local authorities and imposed redevelopment corporations, garden cities and the rest on councils. New Labour has continued that with a vengeance, and the Bill takes it further. It would be better to reverse the process and let councils decide.

One example is the size of houses. Different areas have different issues. In some areas, councils need old folks’ bungalows far more than they need flats for
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young single people. Another area may have more young couples who need to be housed or large families who need houses with more than three or four bedrooms. Demand varies from urban to rural areas, from north to south and even from one bit of London to the next. We should allow councils to decide, not impose the decision from the centre of London.

Dr. Starkey: I understood that the Liberal Democrats had a national target for affordable housing provision. How does that square with the hon. Gentleman’s comments that the decision should be entirely up to local councils? One cannot both have a national target and allow councils to decide what to do.

Paul Holmes: It is clear enough to me that one can make an estimate of housing needs and of what the construction industry could actually build in a certain period. In June, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) made a speech on housing to the Rowntree Trust, which Shelter has publicly and frequently credited with pushing the Government into some of the proposals made in the Green Paper a month later. He said that we needed not the 2 million houses that would be built in the next 10 years in the normal course of things, but 3 million, and that estimate was based on all the reports of housing need for various family formations and an ageing population that will include more single elderly people. The delivery of that target is a different matter, and I do not see the contradiction in saying how many houses the nation needs, according to all the professional estimates, and leaving delivery to the local authorities who know their patches far better than someone sitting in Eland house, Victoria street. We should leave the matter for local authorities to decide, as I shall show.

On Saturday morning, I spent three hours in the Derbyshire High Peak area—where I was a teacher for 17 years—with staff of the Johnnie Johnson housing association. We visited all sorts of urban communities scattered around the district, looking for places where development could be carried out. We considered plots suitable for two bungalows, or 50, or more, depending on size.

One plot, classified as a green belt site, was a scrubby piece of land like a long triangle, sandwiched between a railway embankment and some houses. The local authority responsible for that land should be able to allow houses to be built there, as there was nothing “green belt” about it. If local authorities were free to make such decisions, they would be much more likely to identify where housing could be provided.

In addition, a lot of greenfield and brownfield land is available for housing. The Government in London say that local authorities are not willing to release land, but Chesterfield and Yeovil offer good examples of the sort of problems that councils face. Chesterfield is urban, with lots of brownfield sites available on former mining facilities and engineering works that were closed down by the Conservatives, while Yeovil is totally different, with lots of greenfield land that could be used for housing. Both areas face the same problem, however, in that the regional spatial strategy does not allow them to release those parcels of land for the purposes of house building.

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Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I listened to the answer that hon. Gentleman gave to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), but what does he say to his colleagues in the Stockport local authority who are preventing new houses from being built in Reddish and in other parts of a borough that is crying out for extra housing? In effect, the authority’s housing policy and unitary development plan HP1.2 effectively restricts all new infill developments to a handful of brownfield sites in the town centre.

Paul Holmes: The local authority in Stockport is trying to operate under controls put in place by the Government, and for that reason we should not rush to judgment. Like Chesterfield and Yeovil, Stockport has already hit the limits of its regional spatial strategy rationing. The central controls should be removed, and local authorities should be allowed to decide these matters.

Yvette Cooper: May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that planning policy statement 3 came into force in April? It changed the arrangements, and allowed local authorities to go further. They should not accept the ceilings proposed in outdated regional spatial strategies: instead, they should use the new planning rules to identify and bring forward land on which houses can be built.

Paul Holmes: It is very good that the Government are inching forward on such matters, but they are taking other powers back at the same time. The UK is the most centrally controlled state in Europe, and we need that to change completely. Local authorities should be given back the power to raise funds and to borrow prudently, but the Bill does not do that.

Some clauses in the Bill offer a slight redefinition of the right to buy, but why are local authorities not allowed to decide? Some authorities with housing surpluses and people whom they want to move around are happy with the present arrangements, but others—especially, but not only, those in rural areas—believe that the right to buy is anathema because it has destroyed their ability to provide family houses. We should allow local authorities to take decisions about housing on behalf of the local communities that democratically elect them.

The detail of the Bill shows that that will not happen. Sops were given in the Green Paper and over the summer to Labour activists who were getting edgy as the conference season approached. For three Labour conferences in a row, those activists had voted for the fourth option on council housing—that is, for power to be restored to the 200 local authorities whose tenants had said that they would not do what the Government wanted them to do. In response, conference rules were changed so that there could not be any more votes on the matter. Moreover—and in advance of the election that never was—a lot of the activists were bought off with promises that councils would be allowed to start building again, using money out of the housing revenue account.

We can explore the details in the Public Bill Committee, but the Government’s notes that accompany the Bill estimate that about 2,500 houses will be built as a result
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of letting councils make their own decisions about building. That compares with the 400 houses that were built last year. That will not make a big difference to a waiting list of 1.63 million. It is a tightly controlled and limited experiment. Ten, or possibly 14, hand-picked local authorities will be allowed to set up private vehicles to experiment with building—only 10 or 14 from the 140 that directly manage their stock and the 60 ALMOs. That is only a small percentage and the exercise will not restore freedom or power to democratically elected local authorities.

Reference has been made to the housing revenue pilots. Cambridge was one of the authorities that carried out a paper exercise and has done the number-crunching. As I have told the Minister in previous meetings, the current proposal is a complete non-starter. The money that authorities would have to borrow from the private market to buy out their outstanding debt and pay off the Government—a debt the Government would write off if a housing association were taking over—would eat up all the money from right to buy and rents that they were allowed to keep. They would not be a penny better off; they would be no more able to repair houses or build the new ones that local populations are desperately crying out for. That is central control, lock, stock and barrel, with sops to buy people off. As we have not had an election, there will be a couple of years for Labour activists to find out they were duped and they will get very restless.

One part of the Bill covers the regulation of social housing and the introduction of Oftenant, which was recommended in the Cave review. Most people would describe it as a good move forward. The provisions have a hollow ring, however. The Bill talks about putting tenants at the centre of the process and empowering them, yet when half the tenants in the country—more than 2 million—voted not to be transferred to registered social landlords, the Government said, “Tough, you’re just going to sink. You’ll have no money to do up your houses and we won’t build new houses in your area.” They told those tenants that they would be ignored and punished because they had the wrong views—their views did not fit with the Government’s. Saying that tenants will be at the centre of things is rather hollow; they certainly will not be the council tenants—more than 2 million families.

The measure will plug a gaping hole for RSLs. At present, when council stock is transferred to an RSL, tenants have no influence at all over their new landlord. The introduction of Oftenant will give them some power to have a say. It may be limited— [ Interruption. ] It may be effective; we shall have to see, but it will at least give the tenants of RSLs the opportunity to have a say in the management of their houses. They will not be able to change their manager, or landlord, as they can if it is the council because they can elect someone else, and they will not be able to opt back into being council tenants because they were forced down a one-way street, but the regulator is a step in the right direction.

The Audit Commission has put in a bid to provide the regulatory body, so when the system is extended to councils—as we are told will probably happen in a year or two—they will find that instead of a simpler process they will be subject to two inspection regimes. The
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functions of Oftenant could have been wrapped up with the work of the Audit Commission.

Will there be a level playing field? When Oftenant is inspecting a council, will it say, “You’re not doing a very good job at meeting your tenants’ needs, not like that nice housing association down the road”? Of course, the nice housing association down the road keeps all the rent to spend on its houses. In Chesterfield, the Government already take £3.2 million away from us and over the next few years, as they increase rents by inflation-plus to try to reach market rents, every extra penny will go not to council housing in Chesterfield, but to the Government. They will be taking £5 million from council tenants in Chesterfield, and the same process applies to 70 per cent. of the councils that run housing; their tenants’ rents are taken away to be spent by the Government somewhere else—not on local housing need. That is a moral outrage and a democratic disgrace. Oftenant may judge that councils are not doing as well as housing associations, but that is because councils are not allowed to keep the rents to spend on their houses.

Clause 68 refers to the definition of social housing. I have talked to the Minister about that point and we shall certainly be pursuing it in Committee. The clause notes that social housing is accommodation “made available for rent”, that

and, crucially, that

That provision has rung alarm bells in a huge number of organisations. Of course, that could fit in with Smith Institute proposals of a couple of years ago, with proposals that were trailed prior to the publication of the Hills review, although they certainly were not in that review, and with proposals from a Conservative think-tank published this summer: that as soon as the circumstances of someone in social housing for rent improve—their wages increase, for example, or they get a job—they should be moved on. It has been proposed that people in such circumstances should be shifted out of social housing, as that should be the housing of last resort for the people who really cannot afford it; it then becomes a stigmatised source of housing, which is what it has very much become in the past 10 or 20 years. We shall certainly probe the Government on that in Committee.

Finally, let me explain why we will not vote for the Conservatives’ amendment. They argue that the Bill

It does not. It adds a little finishing touch to what the Conservative Government of the 1980s started and new Labour has developed over the past 10 years, but it certainly does not introduce the earth-shattering process that is described. The amendment also criticises the Bill for allowing the Homes and Communities Agency

government, but the briefing of the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association does not share that Conservative Front-Bench view. The LGA supports the broad aims of the Bill, on balance thinks
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that the creation of a single regulator is a positive step, and supports the creation of Oftenant—so there is not an awful lot of evidence that people in local government share this apocalyptic view of what is involved here.

Another reason why we will not support the Conservative amendment is that it twice focuses on shifting the right to buy to tenants of RSLs. Have the Conservatives thought about how that would destabilise RSLs’ finances and ability to maintain borrowing from the private sector, just as it did with councils? We should, perhaps, be looking at removing some of the right-to-buy provisions. Should we not let councils remove the right to buy where there is huge local need and it does not fit with local circumstances, instead of imposing it willy-nilly on RSLs, whose whole financial structure is based on secure rents to secure their private-sector borrowing in order to provide the social housing that this Government have so abysmally failed to provide over the past 10 years?

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