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My main concern about the Bill is the balance between the HCA on the one hand and local authorities and housing associations on the other so far as delivery is concerned. I believe in devolving down, so the job of building houses or communities is for local government or housing associations—it is not a job for a new national quango. The Housing Corporation did
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not build homes directly. If one examines the powers being given to the HCA and the language used by Ministers, it appears that the HCA will displace existing delivery agents and centralise decisions that are currently taken locally. The Chartered Institute of Housing got it right when it said that it saw the HCA as “providing flexible tailored support”. The HCA should be an enabler—a sort of godfather. The notes on the Bill tell us that it will be able to establish new communities or work to regenerate or develop existing communities, buy land and provide employment and training opportunities. It even has powers to preserve trees, deal with antisocial behaviour and own houses. That poses the question: why are housing associations or local authorities not performing those functions? The Bill sits rather uneasily with what is stated in “Homes for the Future”:

Yet clauses 13 to 17 take those powers from local authorities and give them to someone else. If a new town is going to be built, then of course a new town corporation needs those powers, but rebuilding existing communities should be done by democratically elected and accountable local authorities working in partnership with housing associations that have their roots in those communities.

On Oftenant, I hope that we will get light-touch regulation leaving housing associations to get on with the job, not go back to the old days of prescriptive regulation and interference. The Bill suggests that the regulator’s functions go way beyond those relating to housing and intrude into other areas. Environmental and social and economic well-being functions also come under the regulator, whereas if they were carried out by anybody else, they would not. There is a risk of regulatory creep.

Clause 173 gives the regulator powers on rents. We need to think through how his powers on housing association rents will impact on local authority rents, because there is still a gap in many parts of the country.

On clause 54, I am surprised that we are still running down the new towns. I thought that I wound up the last of the new towns in the 1980s. It was argued then that we could not dump all the land in Milton Keynes on to the market. Yet here we are, 20 years later, still making provision for what the Commission for the New Towns owns.

I welcome the provision regarding members of the armed forces, who tend to miss out when it comes to the allocation of housing. Does the relevant clause cover wives in circumstances where the marriage breaks up and the husband leaves the Army, leaving the wife and family behind in married quarters?

There will be upheaval and turbulence, and there will be a cost, which risks diverting attention. I want a regime that decentralises, resources and empowers those in the front line, and guides and helps in delivering the new homes that the country needs; I do not want over-regulation, duplication or centralisation. The Government will have to be very careful if they are to get that balance right.

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5.38 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity to have another serious debate about housing needs. As one who represents an inner-city constituency that is very much up against it, I look forward to the possibility of conquering at least some of our housing problems.

It is worth putting it on record that during the past 10 years there has been a phenomenal amount of investment in the decent homes standard, which has delivered a great improvement, and in improving the common parts of estates. That is very welcome. Lectures from the Tories about social housing policy sit rather ill when those of us who were in this House throughout most of the Thatcher and Major years remember how local authorities were starved of funds to undertake basic repairs. In 1997, the incoming Labour Government inherited a massive backlog of repairs and disorder in estates and housing. Now is the time—perhaps it is well past the time—to move on to building housing for people in very desperate housing need; and they do not come more desperate than people living in inner-London constituencies.

Like all my colleagues, I hold regular advice bureaux and I am heartbroken every week by the stories of overcrowding, tensions in families, illness that spreads between children because they are unable to have separate bedrooms and of underachievement in school and over-participation in criminal activity because of factors relating largely to housing shortages and gross overcrowding. As a country, we have to do something about that and do it very quickly indeed.

It is not just in the council housing sector that people are living in poor quality, overcrowded housing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and others have pointed out, when homeless families present themselves to a local housing authority, the arm’s length management organisation, if there is one, or the council’s housing department, if it still has that form of management, increasingly cannot do anything for them, so they are then put into a private sector, privately rented place, through a rent deposit scheme.

I have visited far too many of the privately rented flats into which councils put people, and I can tell the House that they are appalling, disgusting, badly repaired, badly maintained, and they often have an absentee or distant landlord who does not care what is going on there. And for the most part, we are paying the bill for that through housing benefit. I have come across people whose rent of £300 per week or more is paid largely by housing benefit. As I explained to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions last week, I have no quarrel whatsoever with the principle of housing benefit being used to pay rent. I do, however, have a problem with paying rent for poor quality places and—I know this is not the subject of the debate, but I would like to draw the House’s attention to it—the increasing existence of a benefit trap created by high private sector rents.

If someone gets a job, they lose their jobseeker’s allowance or income support; they probably lose all or most of their housing benefit; and they can only get a maximum of £60-a—week in-work benefit for people returning to work. I welcome the principle of that
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benefit, but it goes nowhere near meeting housing costs for inner London or, I suspect, other parts of the country either. We are creating a perverse trap that I am sure no one intended to create, but our function is surely to try to do something about it.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): On that point, would my hon. Friend not agree that even some housing associations have rents so high that if a person gets a job, they have to move out and are lost altogether?

Jeremy Corbyn: I was going to come on to housing associations in a moment, but I accept my right hon. Friend’s point. Although the Bill does not go far in the direction of regulating rents in the private sector—if it does so at all—we have to consider that issue. The private sector rented market in many parts of this country is in effect a housing benefit rented market because such benefit is paid into it more than anything else. We have to consider such issues seriously. In London, where the shortage of all forms of housing is most acute, we have problems with people buying to rent. That money ought to be better invested in social housing rather than just being poured into the pockets of private landlords. I know that the Minister is aware of that, and is concerned about it. It is something we can and should do a great deal more about.

As I have pointed out, because of existing housing legislation there is a growing tendency for tenants to be forced into a choice of going into an ALMO or staying with the local authority. Hitherto, unfortunately, opting for an ALMO attracted subsidy, debt write-off and investment, while staying with the council did not. ALMOs exist in most parts of the country. In some cases, they work all right, and in some, they work very well indeed. However, I hope the Minister will be able to help me with a governance issue when he responds. Councillors in elected local authorities are responsible for what their authorities do. If something goes dramatically badly wrong in housing and the service is run directly by the local housing authority, a councillor has to answer for that. It is not the same under an ALMO. People might well be elected to the board of it, but they assume a corporate identity and corporate responsibility on election. It is not a responsive election process designed for the tenants or leaseholders who have elected the board, but for the perceived needs of that board. I would prefer a more robust democratic process.

The Bill deals with registered social landlords—housing associations. Although I acknowledge that they are now the major providers of new homes for social and secure rent throughout the country, they have had, increasingly, to borrow large sums of money. Under the Tories, the proportion that they borrowed increased a great deal and, because they borrowed so much, they have to balance their books and far too many RSLs now finance improvements to their properties to fulfil the decent homes standards by selling existing properties. In an area of high housing stress, such as my constituency and those of many of my hon. Friends, it makes no sense to sell housing association properties to do up the remaining such stock. I am sure that everybody recognises that every house sold means that somebody else is
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staying longer in private or hostel accommodation and not having their housing needs met. Surely we can do better than that.

I should like us, first, to stop RSLs developing into property companies that buy and sell land and deal increasingly in selling existing properties and, secondly, to examine seriously the governance issue that affects housing associations and introduce much more tenant participation and democracy into their running, instead of the direction in which they have unfortunately been going in the past few years.

I want to speak briefly about planning in London. London is growing fast and the Mayor has done his best to try to ensure that 50 per cent. of all major new developments provide what he calls affordable homes. I asked the Department for a definition of affordability and I got one, which I think I understand, but it was not the answer that I wanted. Affordability means that a person on an ordinary living wage in a community can afford a property. Eighty per cent. of my constituents—I suspect that those of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) are in the same boat—have no chance of buying on the open market in our constituencies. Even those on professional salaries have no chance. Many properties that are on sale for key workers or for part rent-part purchase are also way beyond the reach of anyone locally. We are not providing affordable homes, but simply calling something affordable. Developers are good at describing something as affordable to get planning permission but simultaneously claiming that they cannot meet communities’ social housing needs.

I want us to be tougher on planning law and tougher with the developers. We should tell them, “If you want to develop in inner London or any other part of the country with high housing stress, we want at least half the housing to be affordable rented accommodation.” That means controlled, fixed-rent accommodation. Far too much development is unaffordable and not proper social housing. Although few social homes—for want of a better term—have been built in my borough in the past few years, far too many of those that have been built are one or two-bedroom flats when family housing is desperately needed. There is nothing more depressing than a large family in a small flat or house, who know that there is no chance for several years, until the kids have grown up, of getting anywhere decent to live. Imagine how miserable that is for the kids and imagine the tension that that creates. We all pay the price through failure in education and many other areas of society because we do not house people properly.

We are beginning to turn the corner on housing policy. I wish that we did not have such an obsession with owner-occupation when we should be obsessed with decent homes for all. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) asked the Minister many questions. I hope that, in answer to some of them, social renting and people in housing need are not defined in such a way that someone who is unemployed or on benefits and is allocated a council or housing association flat has it taken away from them because they get on fairly well and find a reasonable job in a profession. Surely, as the Government often tell us, strength lies in mixed communities. A council estate or a housing association block is a mixed community—
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long may it stay that way. I want a clear answer from the Minister at the end of this debate saying that that can be achieved.

My absolutely final point is about family policy and housing policy. Our society is changing and will continue to do so. The Minister for Housing acknowledged that in her opening remarks and others have said it too. We have far more single households and far more people living in extended families, and all kinds of other complicated relationships. It is time that housing allocation policy caught up with that. If a divorce happens and a family breaks up, that is obviously sad, but these things happen and we have to try to provide the children with the best opportunity that we can to have good contact with the parents. If the parent who does not have full residence with the children is offered no social housing whatever and ends up in a bedsit, that is damaging to that parent’s relationship with the children—it is usually the father—and to the children themselves.

I know that it is expensive, complicated and difficult, but surely we are here as a Parliament to try to do something about those with desperate housing needs. That includes children and everybody else. The Bill will give us an opportunity, I hope, to invest in housing need and start to transform the lives that have been blighted by the free market, private landlord system, which too many people have to live under at the present time.

5.51 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I am pleased to take part in this debate, because housing is probably one of the most important issues in my constituency. I should like to focus my remarks on the powers and responsibilities of the new Homes and Communities Agency, in part 1 of the Bill, and how they might be better looked at.

I should like to start with the role of the HCA and its ability to take planning power from local authorities. We in this Chamber represent a wide diversity of constituencies shaped by local history, local economies and, importantly, our locally elected representatives. The Bill paves the way for a potential dislocation of planning the future of our communities from the people who live in them. I am concerned that provisions in the Bill will mean that the HCA may have the opportunity to take local control from towns identified as centres for growth. Basingstoke has been identified by the South East England Development Agency as a diamond for growth. We are proud of that, but equally we feel that we need to keep control over how that develops within our community. I look to the Minister who will be winding up this debate to reassure me that that will be the case, because constituencies such as mine are the lifeblood of the country. They provide jobs and wealth, and it is important that they should continue to be as successful as they are now.

I should also like to mention the ability of the HCA to acquire land under schedule 3 and, with the Secretary of State’s consent, to acquire land compulsorily that it could then use for planning and development, which is a far-reaching power. I suppose that I am particularly interested in that provision, because in my constituency
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we have already felt the Secretary of State’s hand and her ability to intervene in local planning decisions, in the decision on the German road development in Bramley. Despite two planning reports, including one from the Government’s own planning inspectorate, which said that developing 400 houses on a narrow plot of land in the village was unsustainable, the Secretary of State felt that the Government knew better and could come in and mandate that the development should go ahead.

I am therefore cautious about the intervention of the Government in such matters. Perhaps the Minister could reassure me on when the new quango may intervene in such circumstances. I am thinking in particular of an area to the west of my constituency called Manydown locally. The area has been earmarked for major development, with perhaps 100,000 houses to be built over the years, and is currently owned by the local district authority and the local county council. It has been decided, again as a result of a local planning inquiry, that developing that land at this point is inappropriate. Would the new HCA simply be able to intervene, acquire the land compulsorily and go ahead with planning, despite the views of local residents and locally elected representatives at both the county and borough levels? Perhaps the Minister will turn his remarks to that when he sums up.

It is also interesting to read the wide-ranging powers that the new body would have under the Bill with regard to open spaces, such as commons and allotments. In my constituency and, I am sure, those of other hon. Members present, local residents set great store by the ability to have open space in their communities. In my constituency, allotments are an important source of enjoyment and quality of life for many residents, who use them to great effect. Are we to believe that local authorities such as mine that try to protect those areas of land from development could be penalised?

Emily Thornberry: Will the hon. Lady please enlighten us as to how many new homes she thinks Basingstoke needs and how many the country needs?

Mrs. Miller: I thank the hon. Lady for such a useful intervention. I can tell her exactly how many new homes Basingstoke needs, because as I said at the beginning, housing is an issue that we take seriously. I have been told by local officials that we need around 600 houses a year in Basingstoke, but Government targets have dictated that we are currently building 1,000 units a year. We are happy to shoulder some of the burden imposed by the deficit of housing in the area, but in my area we are fortunate to have an unemployment rate of only 1 per cent. The hon. Lady will probably know where I am going with this one, but that low unemployment rate means that we are dragging more people in my area—it is a great place to live and I am proud to represent such a great part of north Hampshire—who then have to go outside Basingstoke to seek jobs.

We are obviously concerned about the importance of protecting the green spaces in our communities. Indeed, some of those green spaces have become an integral part of our drainage system, for example. As some hon. Members may be aware, in the 1960s the London overspill was built into the heart of our community and is now an important part of what makes Basingstoke a thriving
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place. The construction of those estates relied on quite large amounts of open space surrounding them, to ensure that flooding did not occur. Are we to imagine that under the Bill those estates will lose those open spaces, which are so integral to their design, or will we see investment for further improvements in our drainage systems, after the tremendous amount of flooding in the recent summer storms?

There are other elements of concern in the Bill, which I am sure will be considered in more detail by those who are fortunate to serve on the Committee. I refer in particular to the ability of the new HCA to acquire burial grounds and other religious sites for development. I am sure that that would only ever be done in a sensitive manner, but the way it is described in the Bill perhaps needs a little more detail, to ensure that it does not cause any concern or possible uncertainty in communities such as mine.

I should like to turn to the responsibilities of the new quango for infrastructure. Infrastructure improvement is not currently going hand in hand with the house building targets that the Government are foisting on the south-east of England. I was somewhat concerned by some of the language in the Bill relating to the responsibility of the HCA to provide infrastructure. It states, for example, that the agency “may” provide infrastructure. The terms used are vague and lack specificity. In particular, the Bill lacks a commitment to ensure that any house building targets will be matched by improvements in local services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) expressed the view very succinctly in his opening speech that infrastructure needs to be guaranteed, and I should like to reiterate that on behalf of my constituents, who are suffering from a lack of investment in infrastructure locally. That is now starting to cause significant problems of traffic congestion on our roads, and on main arterial highways such as the M3. I am running a strong local campaign, with the support of about 1,000 residents, to get remedial measures put in place at junction 6 of the M3 to deal with the congestion problems there. The Minister might be interested to learn that those problems have resulted in two fatalities in the past two years.

The Government also need to explain how the HCA is to be held to account. If there is to be no obligation to ensure that a sufficiency of local services goes hand in hand with any house building programme, how are we to ensure that the agency can be held to account?

I should like to highlight a couple of measures that I would have liked to see in the Bill. First, and perhaps most importantly for my constituents, there are no measures to tackle the barriers that still exist to prevent first-time buyers from getting into the market. It is all well and good to talk about housing targets and building more houses—we are building 1,000 new houses a year in my constituency—when all that we have seen over the past decade are house price rises that have outstripped any increase in wage inflation.

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