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The Bill establishes the Homes and Communities Agency, which will be an engine for the Labour Government to ensure that we build more affordable homes, thank
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goodness. We must make sure that our councils do the right thing. We must build more affordable homes, and we will build 3 million of them. That is such good news. Affordable housing in the Islington context is only social rented, so let us build. Let us build for the sake of Jackie. Let us build for the sake of Fatima. Let us build for their children. Let us build for the younger generation across the whole country, whose birthright was being sold cheap by those who are not on the Opposition Benches but who ought to be. This is a major social issue, but they have all gone off to the bars instead of listening to this incredibly important debate. There is—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is getting a little carried away. Let us remember that temperate language is the order of the day.

Emily Thornberry: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Opposition Members are not in the Chamber to listen to this important debate. There is a younger generation who rely on us to ensure that more homes are built so that they have somewhere to live. If we do not do that, we are selling short the future of a younger generation. Let us ignore the nimbys and get on with it. Let us just build.

We want not just more housing, but better run housing. I do not agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). I welcome the provisions of the Bill.

We need housing associations to be more accountable locally. In my experience housing associations can have an excellent national reputation and in some parts of my constituency may be running estates well, but in other parts the estates are a disgrace. Let me give the House an example. I did a survey recently of housing association tenants. One of the questions that I asked was whether they were satisfied with the level of service that they were receiving. Peabody appeared at the top of the league tables, but it also appeared at the bottom. In Farringdon lane, the tenants all said that the service was okay, good or excellent; yet on the Priory Green estate 64 per cent. residents rated Peabody as poor or very bad. When an estate is badly run, there seems to be nothing that tenants, councillors or the Member of Parliament can do about it.

I visited Priory Green with the chief executive, Steve Howlett, in early 2006. Priory Green was built by Lubetkin. It was one of the jewels in the crown of the old borough of Finsbury’s social housing. In 1998 it was transferred after a vote of tenants, who said that they wanted to go to Peabody. About £10 million of Government money was spent on the estate. Government and public money was spent on security works and on improving the structure. When I went to see it with Steve Howlett, the place was dire. We could just walk in, because the security gates did not shut. We climbed over piles of rubbish and through pools of fetid water. We chatted with residents about rats and mice and lack of hot water. We smiled sweetly at tenants climbing through a broken window, which seemed to be the quickest route to a working lift. A long list of improvements were promised.

Last week I had a coffee morning and four ladies from ground floor flats on that estate came to see me.
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Two years have gone by and they still have no reliable hot water or heating. There are rats nesting in the basement and coming into their flats. Another resident stopped my assistant in the street. That resident is 67 years old. He has no heating, little hot water and a pile of rubbish outside his door. “It’s not fit for dogs,” he said. I visited another lady on the top floor, the seventh floor, where she lives with her elderly mother and two small children. She has no hot water either. She has been told that the pipes do not work that high up. When the lifts do not work, she is stuck there all day. I asked my coffee-morning ladies whether they had complained. They told me in great detail that they had, but that they could never get through on the phone to the person they wanted to speak to and that their calls were never returned. The 67-year-old guy in the street said that he had waited in all day on a cold day in November for a plumber who did not turn up. Those people should be able to hold their landlords to account.

In my private Member’s Bill, the Housing Association (Rights and Representation of Residents) Bill, I proposed that tenants should be able to report their landlord, demand improvements, and, if no improvements occurred, swap their landlords for someone better. Hon. Members will therefore be able to imagine how delighted I was when I saw a similar proposal in the Bill. The Bill will allow the people of Priory Green to trigger an inspection if things do not improve on that Peabody Trust estate. I want the Bill to go as far as the suggestion in the Cave review, in which case if Priory Green were not to improve, the Peabody Trust would lose it and another housing association would take over.

I am pleased that the Bill does not include any attempt to remove security of tenure for tenants. I understand that that was never considered seriously, but I want to put on record my complete opposition to it, because it would penalise social tenants who work and exacerbate the poverty trap. I approve of incentives to help people move out, if they want to, but I am certainly against means-testing.

A possible addition to the Bill is a provision on overcrowding. We have a Dickensian definition of overcrowding from 1935 that excludes babies who are less than 12 months old. When mothers come to see me, they say, “My baby does not count! Of course my baby counts.” The definition also includes kitchens and living rooms as rooms that people can sleep in. Nearly 500,000 households are overcrowded in Britain under the current definition, and 8,000 households in Islington are overcrowded. Shelter has done a lot of work on the effect of overcrowding on children’s health and life chances. We need a modern definition, and then we must work to end overcrowding.

We can mess around with measures such as making sure that voids are given over quickly to new tenants, but in the end there is one major solution: we must build more and ignore the nimbys. Housing is a grave social problem. We have the solution; we have the vision; let us get on with it.

7.52 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): In the north-west over the past decade the housing scene in our large cities and towns has changed from one of low demand, and even of abandonment in our older
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terraced streets, to one of affordability. Affordability is not only a matter for London, the south-east, York and Chester, because it hits all our areas today, including my town of Bolton.

Regeneration has been one of this Government’s successes—if hon. Members visit Manchester today, they will see all the cranes on the skyline—and it has extended to housing in our older urban areas. Whereas once we had street after street of decaying and deeply unpopular terraced housing stock from the factory eras blighting the lives of the people who lived there, today we have a new hope in most of those areas. I urge the Government not to take their foot off the accelerator of regeneration, especially in the pathfinder areas of the north-west.

Our region still faces the greatest incidence of low-quality private sector housing in the entire country. We need to invest both in providing new homes to meet increasing demand, which is partly driven by substantial demographic changes, and in valuing our existing stock, which needs the refurbishment that this Bill will hopefully provide.

As economic growth accompanies urban regeneration, people are—fortunately—being attracted back to live in our town centres. Town centre living has been positively encouraged in Bolton, where we have built on brownfield sites, such as the recent use of an old picture house, and converted old mills and churches into affordable accommodation for purchase. However, the speculators have moved in, too, and we have our fair share of buy-not-to-let properties in Bolton. Cities such as Leeds and Salford report that between 40 and 50 per cent. of new private sector flats in the city centre are empty, which is a scandal considering what we have heard this afternoon. The Government must try to tackle that. Are we building for sale far too many one and two-bedroom flats, rather than much-needed family accommodation?

Rising prices have restored confidence in recent years in the older end of the private sector market. Young people are now buying in areas that they would not have considered 10 years ago, and they are spending money on refurbishing homes at the cheaper end of the market.

I joined Bolton’s housing committee in 1977, and after that we rightly abandoned general improvement areas, which were vehicles for tarting up run-down areas. Instead, housing action areas were introduced under the Tory Government, which were a way of not only substantially improving older properties, but investing in the surrounding environment. Our first HAA was declared in the Castle street area in my constituency in 1977. We promised the residents a further 30 years of life for their properties, and it is ironic that we are having this debate 30 years later. Those properties in Castle street, and many thousands more throughout Bolton that were refurbished after that under the HAA, must last for many more years given the current rate of regeneration. My fear is that if we do not tackle that problem large clearance areas will reappear at some point.

I am in favour of limited clearance, but not on the scale at which we used to do it in Bolton in the ’60s and early ’70s, when 1,000 properties were cleared every year. We must slowly regenerate our towns by replacing some of the clapped-out houses, otherwise we will face the major clearance problem that I have mentioned.
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Although Bolton has supported the need for housing market renewal, which is clearly demonstrated by those areas chosen as pathfinders, it has meant a considerable slowing down of the regeneration of older properties in Bolton and throughout the north-west. The danger is that we will return to a point at which private sector housing falls into disrepair faster than we can improve it.

I welcome the formation of the Homes and Communities Agency under the Bill. Its focus will be on regeneration as well as the provision of more rented social housing. The Government have some tough challenges to face, but I hope that they will commit themselves to meeting those challenges.

In the north-west, house price rises far outstrip wage and salary growth, and there is an urgent need to develop a higher-wage economy in our region. In 2002, only four districts in the north-west were experiencing lower quartile house prices to lower quartile earnings affordability ratios of above five, but by 2006 only eight districts had a lower ratio, and a significant number had a ratio in excess of six. Those facts, along with the sub-prime crash in the United States, are having an increasingly serious effect on the British housing market as credit becomes harder to acquire, which is making buying a home much more difficult today.

I have been worried for some time that if the economy slows, stagnates or crashes—I hope that that does not happen—there will be nowhere to house those people who lose their owner-occupied houses. In my opinion, we have concentrated too much on home ownership, which is currently far too high at over 70 per cent. I ask Ministers how much further we can go beyond 70 per cent. Of course, it is most people’s ambition to own their own home, but the problem is that many of those who have been persuaded or even cajoled into buying their own home can no longer afford to maintain it. Today, for example, I visited a refurbished council estate, where it was easy to pick out the houses that had been bought in previous years, because they desperately need refurbishment.

There is a desperate need for more affordable rented accommodation in the private and the public sectors: both have a role to play. The problem is that one third of our former council homes have been sold off through the right-to-buy policy. There is not much point in building more affordable rented homes if the right to buy will be applicable to them. Shelter shares my concern about that. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to find a way of protecting such homes from sale in the future.

We need to replace those lost affordable rented homes as quickly as possible, as the housing market again changes rapidly. It is noticeable that the turnover of council properties has slowed down significantly and that, as a result, waiting lists have risen—in Bolton, from about 5,000 in 1997 to more than 18,000 today. That figure is very up to date, because we have just cleared out the dead wood in the waiting list by writing to everybody. It is a joint waiting list held between the council and all the housing associations in the town. Like Shelter and many Members who have spoken, I am completely opposed to the application of a means test for social rented housing. Social housing
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should not become residual housing only for the very poor. In 1997, the new Labour Government faced a backlog of £19 billion-worth of repairs of the council-owned stock caused by 18 years of gross neglect of that stock by the Tory Government. In the 10 years when I was chairman of housing in Bolton, from 1986 to 1996, I lost 70 per cent. of housing investment in our town. Is it any wonder that we face this crisis today?

The decent homes standard will be met in Bolton by 2010, and Bolton Homesforyou, the arm’s length management organisation that manages the stock, has gone well beyond the standards laid down by the Government. I am pleased to announce to the Minister that the SAP—standard assessment procedure—ratings on Bolton’s refurbished ALMO-managed properties averages 72 per cent., which is exceptional.

Today, 27 November, is Lancashire day, when, in 1295, the first elected representatives from Lancashire were summoned to Westminster by King Edward I to attend what became known as the Model Parliament. It has been a particular pleasure for me to take part in this debate, because although I live in Bolton I regard myself as a Lancastrian.

8.2 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Housing is of such fundamental importance to my constituents that I am absolutely delighted to be speaking here today. I should like to make three main points. First, I want to welcome the Bill and to illustrate the desperate need for appropriate affordable housing in West Ham. Secondly, I want to outline how the buy-to-let market has caused difficulties for my constituents and to seek some comfort from the Minister. Finally, I want to offer some thoughts on the proposed merger of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation.

Newham has almost 6,000 families in temporary accommodation, often on short-term leases. Families in those circumstances have to move regularly and are unable to settle or to put down roots. They are often not on doctors’ waiting lists or accessing preventive health care. They do not know where the library is, or the youth clubs or leisure centres. Children have to change schools several times or face long journeys to school each time they move during the 12-year-plus wait for local authority housing. That is very disruptive to a child’s education and development.

Emily Thornberry: Is the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituents similar to that of people in Islington, whereby those who go into temporary accommodation do not even remain in the borough but are sent many miles away?

Lyn Brown: It is not similar, in the main. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her speech, because it put a human face on many of the difficulties that my constituents experience.

In Newham, 30,000 people are on the housing waiting list. To give some perspective, that number is roughly equivalent to the population of Pontefract, which is of course represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. Tenants living in the private rented sector, waiting for a council home, pay in excess of £1,000 per calendar month for often cramped two-bedroomed flats
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sitting over parades of shops. Even after the introduction of the minimum wage and support to families through tax credits, the vast majority of Members will recognise just how difficult it must be for families with high rents of that nature who wish to keep a roof over their heads and to work. My constituents also have to contend with the evils bedevilling overcrowded households. According to the 2001 census, more than a quarter of households in Newham were classified as overcrowded under the current definition, which, as we have heard, is not generous. Newham also has the highest proportion in the UK of households with five or more residents. This intense pressure on housing in Newham is exacerbated by the fact that the supply of new properties is not meeting local demand. During the summer of 2006, only 6 per cent. of the homes being developed in the borough were three-bedroom properties, whereas 65 per cent. were two-bedroom. Smaller properties are clearly a much more attractive option for investors, but they will not ease the immense pressure upon homes appropriate for families. The draft London housing strategy proposes that 42 per cent. of new social rented homes entering the programme should have three or more bedrooms. Does the Bill give the Minister the power to intervene if, once these targets are set, they are not being met?

As part of the developments planned for my area, including the Olympics and Stratford city, thousands of new homes are being developed; obviously, I welcome that. The intention is to ensure that all developments are mixed communities, with properties built for the social and private housing sectors. I genuinely believe that mixed communities are absolutely the right policy. However, building for the private sector is not a guarantee of mixed communities or a guarantee that it will provide for owner-occupation.

That is the crux of the problem. Forty-five per cent. of new homes in London are bought to let. A far greater proportion are bought to let in areas where property is cheaper; and, in comparison with many parts of London, Newham is cheaper. Official London borough of Newham statistics state that of the 950 new homes completed in 2005-06, only 132 were for social rented accommodation. Because of difficulties in data collection, Newham was unable to say how many of the private homes were for buy-to-let and how many for owner-occupation. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that much of this new private accommodation will have been bought for the letting market, bringing even more accommodation into the unaffordable private lettings sector in my borough. Given that we have nearly 6,000 families in temporary accommodation and 30,000 families on the waiting list, I wonder whether it is possible to consider how we might regulate the housing market to limit the numbers of buy-to-lets in any given locality, according to circumstance.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In the light of the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes, is she concerned or alarmed that the Bill envisages social housing grant, which is after all public money, being given to profit-making companies with almost no protection for tenants or taxpayers, when the same resources are being denied to good local authorities and their existing stock is being coerced away from them through pressured tenants’ ballots? That is rather an odd mix, is it not?

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Lyn Brown: I agree with my hon. Friend. I want more affordable housing in the public sector that owner-occupiers in Newham can afford to access.

Without regulation of the private letting market, I fear that new build in the private sector will only exacerbate an already difficult situation, resulting in the continued accumulation of unaffordable homes. Such regulation is not completely unprecedented. Planning permission in the Lake District national park determines the number and growth of holiday-let businesses in the area, with certain homes being designated for local occupancy only. I do not wish to draw an exact parallel, or say that this legislation can be easily brought to bear elsewhere in the country, but I ask the Secretary of State to give some thought to how homes built under our house-building programme can be targeted at those whom the scheme is meant to target and benefit—those with an aspiration to own and live in their own home, and those with public sector housing needs.

I do not ask that for social or ideological reasons alone, but for sound financial reasons, too. Housing benefit spending in my borough is £245 million per year. A third of that—£67 million—is spent on paying private landlords. The average amount of housing benefit paid to council tenants in Newham is £70 a week. The average payment for housing benefit in temporary accommodation is £350 a week—five times the housing benefit paid to council tenants. I seek additional regulation of the private rented sector, and I wonder whether the miscellaneous provisions of the Bill could be amended to accommodate that.

I am situated in the borough with the largest building site in Europe. If it is not, I cannot imagine anywhere else with more building going on. We have a population of migrant workers who almost uniformly find accommodation in the private rented sector, which in Newham consists largely of small terraced properties. Overcrowding in those homes is almost de rigueur. Landlords can and do make a killing, packing those homes with temporary residents. As the homes are too small to accommodate the number of people, many facets of living often overflow into the street and garden, which can lead to significant health problems. Such exceptionally high levels of occupancy are causing real stress in local communities and the local council does not have the powers to do anything about it.

I have discussed that issue with many of my constituents, who tell me that they will sell and move if the situation does not improve. That would be bad enough, but their homes are more likely than not to be bought to let, thus exacerbating an already difficult situation. That owner-occupier flight, if it continues at the present rate, could seriously jeopardise our efforts to create and sustain mixed, sustainable and cohesive communities in Newham. There are currently no real powers to deal with this problem. Under the Housing Act 2004, there is a mandatory licensing scheme for larger houses in multiple occupation.

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