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I should also have liked to see a provision in the Bill to ensure that enough family homes with gardens are built, rather than the high-rise blocks that are increasingly becoming the trend throughout the country. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) also made that point in his speech. In my constituency surgery, I meet families who are being forced into
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accommodation that simply does not provide sufficient space for them to bring up their children in the way that they want to. I am concerned that my local authority is being forced to give permission for the building of more tower blocks when my constituents need more family homes. It would also have been useful to incorporate in more detail provisions to encourage the development of more community land trusts, which would give residents the ability to participate in purchasing their own homes at a reasonable price. Many people have an aspiration to own their own home for their family.

I have just returned from an interesting trip to visit our armed forces in Afghanistan, and I am pleased to see that the Bill contains provisions to help ex-armed forces personnel to find accommodation. That issue has caused particular concern in my constituency. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to some of the points that I have raised, which are important issues, not only in my constituency but throughout the south-east and the rest of the country, and are worthy of consideration.

6.4 pm

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I hope that no one with any experience and knowledge of the conditions in their constituencies would wish to oppose the promise of 3 million new dwellings. I hope that that goes without saying. I shall support the Second Reading, but I hope that a number of amendments will be made in Committee to improve its narrative. As I see it at the moment, its narrative is “Private good, public bad”, and that needs to be challenged and dealt with properly in detail in Committee.

It is right to remind ourselves that, immediately before the Conservative Government of 1979, about a quarter of families lived in local authority housing. About 5 million local authority dwellings formed part of the general housing stock of 20 million homes. The figure has now shrunk to about one seventh. That has coincided with the present crisis—I have to use that word—in housing. People might say that that is a spurious statistic, but I do not believe that it is. We can all find examples in our constituencies to support the idea that there is a strong, direct correlation between the loss of publicly rented housing that was subsidised for the public good—I shall mention the S-word again later—and our present problems.

I regret to say that, in my constituency, under a Labour Government, the waiting list for local authority—now ALMO—dwellings is longer than it was at any time under the Thatcher Government. I am almost ashamed to stand here and say that. I cannot help but draw the conclusion that that is directly related to the disastrous policy not of selling council houses but of giving them away. A situation was allowed to develop in which people bought their houses at rock-bottom prices, found that they could then move into the proper private ownership sector, and left their houses to be let by an agent. I shall come back to that issue in a moment as well; it is a very serious matter in my constituency.

I welcome the building of 3 million additional dwellings, but I say to the Government that it is important to know how we are going to do it, and what proportion will stay where. At the risk of being described as a
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militant I suggest that at least one third of those houses should be built, controlled and managed by our local authorities. That is essential. I also think that perhaps 1 or 2 per cent. should be developed and managed by housing associations, and I will tell the House why. The great Anthony Crosland, who knew about these things, recognised that local authorities had to have policies that could be seen to be consistent, fair and even-handed between one applicant and another. They therefore devised points schemes that recognised the different factors that affected someone’s need—or not, as the case may be—for a local authority dwelling.

Housing associations have had no such problem. They are usually organised by voluntary groups, often involving people known as do-gooders. Do-gooders are always better than do-badders, as far as I am concerned. The associations were able to meet the needs of those who fell outside the points scheme, however broadly defined it might have been. They have therefore played a vital role in allowing people that little bit of flexibility that the local authority, with the best will in the world, could not provide.

Two thirds of the rest of the homes were owned by the people who lived in them, and I would also advocate that strongly. The Labour party was never opposed to people owning their own homes; we just objected to the ownership of homes by private landlords. We had learned the lessons from 1903 or 1904, when more than 90 per cent. of all houses in this country were owned by private landlords. We all saw, read about, knew of and understood the conditions that prevailed for the vast majority of families and people throughout those years. Then, however, came the giants.

In 1945, we had a Government who understood that the very best contribution to improvement in public health was publicly owned, built and managed housing—better even than the national health service itself. On the shoulders of giants such as Bevan—and, indeed, Attlee for facilitating it—Stafford Cripps, Dalton and others and more recently the great Anthony Crosland, who preceded my hon. Friend the Minister who is in his place, we understood not only that people had a desire to own their houses but that a capitalist society, sub-divided and stratified as it is, needed a facility to look after its own and to be able to say with pride, “We have a stock of housing that is fit for purpose and occupation and shall be occupied by people who at any time require and need it.”

Yet, since those days, particularly under the Conservative Government, we have seen that very practical scheme taken apart. We saw the sale—not really a sale, but a giveaway—of council houses. What happened was based on the ideas of a person who used to represent one of the constituencies in my city of Wolverhampton—Enoch Powell, who said, “All these council estates should be broken up into small parts and sold off to private landlords.” Well, we have come close to that with the new industry of mortgages for buying to let. We are returning to the days at the turn of the 20th century when 90 per cent. of homes were owned by private landlords. How far down the road do we have to go before we understand the lessons that we should have learned?

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What we hear is the great mantra—I am afraid it is new Labour’s, too—of diversification, choice, choice and more choice. Let me tell the House that this choice does not come free of charge. To misquote my great hero, Harold Wilson, one man’s choice is another man’s redundancy, another man’s difficulty, another man’s inability to get a decent house. We need to understand that these diversities should remain on a very small scale in local communities where willing people come together to do something helpful. Our great thrust should be to recognise that the two thirds-one third split served us extremely well—notwithstanding the fact that some homes were poorly managed; the local electorate had an opportunity to do something about that. We must recognise that there are straight lines that people will understand, are explicable and will meet our needs: no gimmicks.

Let me deal with suggestions about regulation and Oftenant. I have already heard one or two tenants’ leaders describe it as “Bugger Off Tenant”. I think that there is a real danger of that becoming the case. Let me tell Members what it can do—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am sure that the hon. Member made an inadvertent remark. He may wish to reconsider that description.

Mr. Purchase: I never speak in order to offend, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was, in fact, quoting tenants’ leaders. I certainly do not approve of that statement myself. I could never subscribe to that— [Laughter.]

The time is slipping away, so let me make an important point about the duties of Oftenant. They extend to

and so it goes on. That is actually describing new means-testing—and my party does not approve of mass means-testing, so I say to my Ministers that that has to be addressed seriously. We cannot, we will not, and we must not tolerate a situation in which people’s tenancy of a local authority home—or, indeed, of an ALMO—depends on their income. I hold as an ideal mixed estates of people from different walks of life and I do not believe that it is within the Labour philosophy to exclude people from what may have been their home for 20 years on the basis that they have suddenly got a better job. That is an absolute outrage. In supporting the Bill tonight, I want to make clear the responsibility of Members in Committee to ensure that proper amendment is made in good time.

6.16 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Let me first declare an interest as a member of a local authority that is still, fortunately, a housing authority.

Let me take the House back to the beginning of the debate when I asked the Secretary of State about the
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change in the housing revenue account subsidy. Other Members suggested that it was in the Bill, but they cannot have read it. My city of Portsmouth, which was proud to build 31,000 council houses, now has fewer than 13,000. As others have said, that residue comprises houses that were not bought because they were in unsuitable locations and were undesirable. We have been left in an appalling situation. Whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, our local authority prided itself on honouring its commitment to tenants to keep well maintained properties and to keep rent at respectable levels, but it is now being punished. Unless there is a substantial change in how the housing revenue account subsidy works, we will have lost £7 million in council rents by the end of this year and £97 million if it continues to 2013. All that money will have been stolen from Portsmouth’s council tenants in order to subsidise authorities that have not done what they should have done—look after their properties properly.

The Secretary of State says that it is all about balance and that some did well. Of course some did well, as they had huge problems. The shame of my city is that there are more people on our housing waiting list today than there were in 1945, when half of the properties in the city were either demolished or so badly damaged by the Luftwaffe that they were uninhabitable. Yet today, we are writing to people saying, “Your wait on the housing list is going to be so long that it is pointless for you to be on the list. Please do not ask for housing.” What have things come to when a country such as ours cannot provide people with somewhere decent to live?

Members who believe that the housing subsidy problem will be resolved by the Bill should read the small print. They should read the Local Government and Housing Act 1989; they should look at where exceptions are made. It is a shame that the Secretary of State did not read it and tell us who would be the beneficiaries. It will certainly not be local authorities such as mine or many others represented by hon. Members present.

I enjoyed and greatly shared the sentiments of the speeches made by the hon. Members for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Both touched the nerve of what the debate should be about. It is about housing need and giving people a reasonable expectation that in a reasonable amount of time they can have the opportunity of living in a decent house. I was brought up in a council house—like other Members, I suspect—and I am proud of it. Parker Morris gave me things that kids who I went to school with envied, such as a bathroom that was a separate room—indeed, a bathroom that was inside the house. Many of my contemporaries who lived in privately rented properties did not have that luxury, and I shall always be grateful to Mr. Parker Morris for the council house standards that he introduced.

Richard Younger-Ross: Where have they gone?

Mr. Hancock: Sadly, the standards have dropped, and most of the houses have been sold.

We must examine the real issues in housing. We need a root-and-branch review of the way in which housing benefits are paid. At least two Members mentioned
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that. Many of the problems that we encounter in our constituencies relating to both price rises and the difficulty of renting property are caused by our failure to ensure that the price charged matches the quality of the property. The hon. Member for Islington, North was right to say that we should be more careful and more inquisitive about the standards of private rented property if we are paying public money. Is the £14 billion a year paid in housing benefit really good value for money? It is for those who are lucky enough to be in decent houses, but those who are not in decent houses would seriously question any claim that we do not need a review.

We must consider what the need really is. Over the past two or three years, the concentration in south Hampshire has been on small properties—one-bedroom flats, some of them high-rise, and properties with a maximum of two bedrooms. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) pointed out, people with children need decent homes. If the home is a flat, it should have facilities nearby so that the children can play, but it should really be a house with a garden so that the family can develop in the harmony that we all want.

As others have said, the larger four and five-bedroom properties have vanished from the face of housing association builds. I doubt whether any Member could name a large estate on which more than 1 or 2 per cent. of properties are four-bedroom houses, but every local authority in the country needs properties of that kind. Why are they not being built? Why can we not understand that families who need decent homes need that type of property? We need to break down that barrier to development.

I support the view that if we are to have 3 million new houses, 1 million of them should be council houses. I do not see anything wrong with calling them what they are. What do terms such as “social housing” and “affordable housing” mean to people? The Minister could not even give the hon. Member for Islington, North a suitable and understandable definition of affordable housing. People understood what council housing was, and we should be proud of the fact that local authorities in this country built those houses. Tory, Labour and Liberal authorities did it and should be proud of it, and we as a Parliament should trust them enough to give them the chance to do it again.

Like the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, I have some doubts about the role of Oftenant. I am curious to know who will start the ball rolling. Who will set the initial guidelines?

Mr. Purchase: It is a job for the boys.

Mr. Hancock: Yes, or the girls for that matter. I am also curious to know who will set the punishments that will be afforded to those who offend against Oftenant’s regulations.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) raised two fundamental points that have been generally ignored. One concerned the need for a national mobility scheme to enable tenants to move between authorities. I have seen very good results when people have been given that opportunity. Nowadays a person must be on a witness protection programme to move from, particularly, a London authority.

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The right hon. Gentleman was also right to question the commitment to our armed forces. How easy it is for a service marriage to break down. The serviceman leaves the married quarters, and within days—hours in some cases—a notice to quit is put through the door, telling his wife and children that they are no longer eligible for service accommodation. Where do they go? Do they go to the local authority where the married quarters are, or do they return to the part of the country from which they came, with no help whatever from the military? If the Bill is really to cater for the needs of service families, the Government should understand one of the biggest issues facing conurbations such as mine in south Hampshire—and, for that matter, in north Hampshire and Colchester—where large service units are sited. Fifty per cent. of all naval accommodation is in the greater Portsmouth area, and marriage break-ups in the area cause much suffering among people in that position.

We have not heard much about regeneration. It will work only if local authorities, housing associations and the private sector and their tenants are brought together in an equally sided triangle. It cannot be forced down people’s throats, and it cannot be generated simply by the willingness of a private developer to say, “I will put money into this area, provided that you do what I want you to do.” That will immediately alienate the tenants, and probably the local authority as well. The issue needs to be thought through seriously.

While I agree with many of those who have said that there is much to be welcomed in the Bill, I think that the Minister should consider a sunset clause for comes to the Homes and Community Agency. It ought to be conditional on whether Labour stays in power. I should be very reluctant to see a Tory Minister with the power that such an agency would deliver. Like Labour Members who have spoken, I was in local government when the Conservatives were in power, and I know how difficult it was. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is commenting from not a sedentary but a horizontal position. If he cares to interrupt and put me right, I shall be only too pleased to hear from him.

I remember from my days in a local authority the way in which local authorities that wanted to develop council housing were punished by the Conservatives, and I should be extremely reluctant to give them the power that goes hand in glove with the establishment of a Homes and Community Agency. I should be extremely nervous if an election ever went the other way.

Emily Thornberry: If the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure that Labour remains in power, he is welcome to help with my canvassing session on Saturday. We are inviting Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Hancock: It is for the hon. Lady to work that one out. I merely want to see the right thing done for people who want to be rehoused. I think there is a great deal in the Bill that will offer people the chance of a decent home, provided that Ministers heed much of what has been said this evening and, I suspect, will be said in Committee.

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It is important that we get this right. With the possible exception of immigration, I do not think that any issue with which I deal in my advice centre does not relate at least partly to housing. Whatever the issue—crime, education or health—it can be traced to the same fundamental flaw. For a long time—the best part of a decade or in some cases more, probably 20 years—we have been unable to give people decent homes. A decent home is something to which every Member in the House aspires, and we should do all we can to ensure that the rest of the community has the same chance.

I hope that Ministers will listen. I was bitterly disappointed with the Conservatives’ performance this afternoon. I hoped that they would give us a straight answer to a straight question and tell us how many houses they believed were needed, and what proportion would be for social housing. More important, I expected them to be a bit more constructive about a Bill that would offer people at least an opportunity to fulfil that aspiration to a decent home.

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