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27 Nov 2007 : Column 227

I was talking about ex-council properties that are now in the private rented sector. In my constituency, there are two such houses next door to each other. One is owned by New Charter Housing, which took on all of Tameside council’s housing stock in 2000, and has had thousands of pounds spent on it. It has a new roof, a new kitchen, a new bathroom, insulation and new windows and doors. It is an absolutely beautiful property. The house next door is semi-derelict. It is damp and cold, with rotten windows and doors and a 1960s bathroom and kitchen, with the mould to go with them. It is a disgusting flea pit. The rent for that property was £20 a week more than the property in the social rented sector next door. Its tenant—who has now, thankfully, moved out—was in despair because he could not get hold of the landlord, who was totally uninterested in his plight.

A useful statistic that I have received from the National Energy Action charity highlights this very real problem. In my constituency, it is estimated that 16 per cent. of properties would not meet the thermal comfort target set out in the decent homes standard. Given the massive investment in the social rented sector, one can only assume that the vast majority of that 16 per cent. are in the owner-occupied sector or, more likely, the private rented sector. This issue needs to be addressed.

My hopes for the Bill are high. This is not just a north-south divide issue. For sure, some of the circumstances are different in different parts of the country—the spectre of housing market failure exists in parts of the north, as does the ongoing debate on renewal or clearance—but many of the issues are the same. They include identifying growth areas; ensuring that infrastructure is put in place at the same time as housing is built; land use pressures; and the debate over green belt land. For my constituents, the simple, basic fact is that we desperately need more houses in Greater Manchester, particularly in Tameside and Stockport, to meet the unmet demand that we all know exists.

David Wright: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that these estates should not be mono-tenure? They need to be mixed communities. When we walk down a street, we should not be able to tell whether a house is rented, owner-occupied or in shared ownership. In the trade, this is often known as taking a tenure-blind approach. Does he agree that that is the way we need to go?

Andrew Gwynne: I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I think that that is the way the general public want us to go. People do not want to be seen to be in some kind of stigmatised property. They do not care who owns the bricks and mortar; they want a decent home that would not look out of place on a private estate, and why shouldn’t they? It is the job of the planning authorities to ensure that we get good developments.

As part of meeting that unmet demand, we need more socially rented housing—yes, many thousands more properties. The two councils in my constituency and their partners need to go away and identify possible sites and ensure that they are brought forward for development as soon as possible. That in itself is going to be difficult. Both Stockport and Tameside are pretty high-density boroughs already, and most of the
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available space is now developed. There may be scope for some infill. I can think of areas such as the ex-Manchester overspill estate in Haughton Green and at Denton’s Yew Tree estate where the housing was laid out among some very generous open space provision. There are some significant brownfield sites dotted around both boroughs, which could be brought forward for housing rather than for other uses.

We also need to look at the problem across the Greater Manchester city region, not just within the constraints of those two boroughs. Yes, Tameside and Stockport must do their bit, but that has to be within the bigger Greater Manchester-wide picture, too. As part of that city region overview, I believe that we also need to be much more imaginative about housing types. I do not want to see a return to monolithic housing estates and the planning mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s, where certainly the numbers of housing units that we would like to see were constructed, but with little thought for human needs. Let us be clear that not everyone will want to rent, so we need to look into shared equity and, for many, we need to explore some new low mortgage options.

The Government may not be able to deal with all those points as part of the Bill, although I hope they can look at the scope for extending regulation in Committee. If not, I urge them to use whatever means they have at their disposal to ensure that all private landlords, not just those in areas experiencing housing market failure, are licensed and that the decent homes standard is made to apply to all housing for rent, whether it be in the social sector or, most important of all, in the private sector.

As I said at the start, I broadly welcome the Bill, which has many excellent provisions. The decision to create a Homes and Community Agency is, I think, right. It should ensure not just that the investment is in place to build new houses, but that sufficient land is identified and planning hurdles are easily overcome. The decision to create an Office for Tenants and Social Landlords is also a good move. It should strengthen the regulatory regime and empower tenants in the social rented sector. It should not just apply across the social sector—including ALMOs and councils—but should cover all tenants and all landlords for the reasons I have stated, including the many thousands of my constituents in the private rented sector.

I hope that these issues will be taken up in more detail by the Minister in Committee. This is a good Bill with good intentions. With a small amount of tweaking, it has the making of a great Bill with great intentions.

8.42 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I, too, believe that this Bill gives us cause for great optimism, notwithstanding the depression that often surrounds the debate because of the circumstances in which our constituents find themselves. I have to say that my optimism was tempered by depression when I heard the opening speech from the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) claimed that we had refused to learn the lessons of past mistakes. May I say that that is exactly what the Opposition have done? I fail to see how they cannot understand that tackling housing need, particularly
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that for affordable rented homes, helps to stabilise the housing market, which is good for the stability of the overall economy.

I had one of those time-warp moments when I was taken back to the real world in which I used to exist before coming into this place. I was chief executive of a small housing association, as we were then called, and I well remember how over-regulated we were. I had to keep filling in five or six of the same forms, giving the same information when I wanted and needed to be out doing deals with private finance institutions to enable me to develop more homes for those in housing need.

I am pleased to say that this Bill introduces more streamlining of regulation for registered social landlords, which means better value for the housing market, better value for RSLs and, more important, better value for those who need housing, which we should be able to support. I thought that Opposition Members welcomed more streamlined regulation and the added value that it can bring, but we hear one argument today and another tomorrow.

I find myself in a time warp, back in the days when I was chair of my housing committee and, latterly, leader of Lewisham council. I well remember the then Tory Government’s ideological opposition to the building of any affordable housing for rent, be it local authority or housing association accommodation. I remember the limbo dancing that we had to perform, and the funny-money deals in which we had to engage to secure foreign investment that would enable us to build or renovate housing in Lewisham. I remember, when I led on housing in the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, discussing these issues with Opposition Members—many of whom, sadly, have now left the Chamber—and pleading with them to allow local authorities to invest in not only the provision of desperately needed new homes, but the renovation of properties that remained empty because of their state of disrepair.

We saw record levels of homelessness. We saw Conservative Ministers walk over the homeless on their way to the opera, and we saw a record number of repossessions because of high interest rates. My constituency of Luton became known as the mortgage misery capital of the country. When I moved to the constituency, I saw house after house that I could not bring myself to buy because the families had fled leaving all their possessions, including the children’s toys, and had thrown the keys back through the letter box because of the legacy of the Conservative Government. There was also a huge backlog of council stock repairs, in which, to their credit, this Government have invested massively as part of the decent homes strategy.

Let us be under no illusion: we are still experiencing the legacy of the Conservative Government. It is not possible to switch housing construction on and off like a tap. The skills and the materials must be there, and all the pieces must be in place. Sadly, Opposition Members do not seem to realise that, but I am pleased to be part of a Government who do. [Interruption.] Rather than heckling from the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) would do well to listen and learn. We must be able to put all the mechanisms in place before we can deliver our programme of social and rented affordable housing.

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Alistair Burt: I am stunned by just how long the lead-in period has to be for a Government to deal with the succession of housing problems about which we have heard from the hon. Lady and her colleagues. How about 10 years? Does the hon. Lady not think that her party could have got somewhere in the past 10 years without waiting until now?

Margaret Moran: I am pleased to say that this Government have got somewhere in the past 10 years. They have addressed the legacy of disrepair in the council housing stock; they have virtually eliminated street homelessness; they have done magnificent things in reducing the number of people in temporary and bed-and-breakfast accommodation; and, as most registered social landlords will confirm, they have done a great deal to increase the level of investment enabling RSLs to provide affordable housing. This Bill represents the next step forward.

Opposition Members are clearly in denial about the reality of the legacy for people in my constituency. Like others who have spoken, I regularly see families of six or even eight living in two-bedroom accommodation, and the tragedy of children who have nowhere to live but the streets. Is it any wonder that young men and women—teenagers—are out on our streets, with all the consequences that that brings, when they simply do not have room in their homes in which to live and when families in our constituencies have responsibility for disabled and elderly people as well as young children for whom they simply do not have room? I have a young constituency; it has a high number of families who have very young children. The legacy for them is that they have no hope in the immediate future of a decent home. Their only hope is afforded by the Bill.

Luton is a densely populated area and it is green girdled—it does not have room to expand. To the credit of my newly elected Labour council, as opposed to the former Liberal Democrat council, which did absolutely zip about any of these issues, it is examining all those infill, brownfield sites, but that simply is not enough. Others have made this point, but when I see in my constituency, day after day, week after week, a trail of people for whom I can give no hope, I have to be able to say that our Government are putting the pieces in place to give such people—if not immediately, at least in the medium term—some hope of a home. They do not have that at the moment, because they will languish on the housing list for ever in the current circumstances, even if they fall in the most urgent priority group.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I empathise with the concern that my hon. Friend has raised, as many hon. Members would because of the people who come to see us in our surgeries with such sad tales. Does she share my concern that even the Government’s target of building 45,000 social homes in three years’ time is completely inadequate? A comparison should be made with the period when John Major was Prime Minister, because in one of those years 52,000 homes were built. We are still not reaching the level of social housing building that was taking place then.

Margaret Moran: I am sure that our aspiration for all our constituents is more affordable rented housing, but we must start from where we are. A target of 3 million new homes by 2020 is an honourable aspiration, and we will all press for more beyond that.

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The only hope for my constituents is the fact that we are part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. We desperately need the enabling activities outlined in the Bill and the new body being proposed via the merger of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships. We do not have a growth area delivery vehicle; we have a collection of local authorities, most of which are Tory-led and most of which spend most, if not all, their time arguing against the building of any new homes. Although my constituents in Luton languish in overcrowded housing, they have the luxury of arguing, as they have managed to do for a long period—

Andrew Gwynne: Is that not precisely why it is crucial that we have in place the new Homes and Communities Agency, so that we can cut through some of the bureaucracy that stands in the way of necessary housing developments taking place in communities such as my hon. Friend’s and mine?

Margaret Moran: My hon. Friend has most articulately demonstrated my point: we cannot afford to have Tory-run councils deciding that they will allow people in my constituency to languish in poor and overcrowded housing for eternity. This Bill gives us the opportunity to deal not only with bricks and mortar and the numbers of new homes that are needed, but with the associated infrastructure that is needed.

I shall make a small plea about a local issue. May we please have junction 11A of the M1 widened soon? That would enable us not only to develop the growth area rapidly, but to facilitate the relocation of my football club and, by so doing, free up a seriously important piece of land in the centre of town, which would be designated for social housing. The Minister would earn so many brownie points if he were to work with Ministers in other Departments, such as the Department for Transport, to enable that to happen.

Other issues in the Bill require closer examination. I welcome the new powers for Oftenant—what a dreadful name. As a former insider—as a chief executive of an RSL—I know that too many RSLs are unresponsive to tenants’ needs, despite dire conditions on some estates. My constituents in Brook street, including large Bangladeshi families and women on their own, faced conditions including no lighting, no security, and dumped and burned-out cars, but there was no response from the RSL. I had to drag the chief executive of a national RSL to my constituency to get any response. Areas such as Tinsley close have several different RSLs managing property on a small estate, none of which will take responsibility. I welcome the measures in the Bill that will help to address that.

We need more imaginative solutions than just the bricks and mortar. I welcome the emphasis in the Bill on the need for social and economic regeneration, because that has to underpin our plans. We need to consider community land trusts, which will enable us to retain houses in perpetuity. The community gateway model is about to be implemented on the Downham estate in Lewisham, where I used to live, and it will empower tenants to manage and run their own areas. We have to be open to such innovations if we are to make a substantial difference.

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We also need to ensure that we embrace the regulation of the private rented sector, as well as the public rented sector, to ensure decent standards. In my constituency, the poorest in the community live in the poorest accommodation in the private rented sector. We also need to prevent sales by RSLs, otherwise we will develop properties only to lose them. Finally, I agree with those who propose that we examine the buy-to-leave—not the buy-to-let—that is happening in many areas.

8.57 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I welcome the Bill. The Chair of the Select Committee—it seems a long time ago now—noted the breadth of support for it, ranging from the Tory-controlled Local Government Association, the National Housing Federation and Shelter to even the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which is more used to suing the Government than complimenting them at the moment. That makes one wonder who are the enemies of an increased housing supply and, in particular, social and affordable housing. We have had the answer today from the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), and Back Benchers, not to mention in recent times the Tory mayoral candidate, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), and some Tory local authorities.

The schoolboy trivia of the opening speech by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield and his refusal, six times, to answer the questions about the Conservatives’ policy on the construction of new social housing units said it all. But we were then treated to the unedifying spectacle of the only three Tory Members who turned up suggesting that sorting out voids and speeding up re-letting were the answers. Those matters need to be taken in hand, but it is ludicrous to suggest that they constitute a housing policy. The nadir was reached with a speech about how the Bill would put allotments and village commons at risk. If that is what we can expect in Committee, we have a rather unedifying few weeks ahead of us.

Margaret Moran: The headline in the august journal Inside Housing is “Homelessness High on Tories’ Housing Agenda”. Does my hon. Friend agree that that might have given us a spark of optimism if the article itself made any mention of new homes or targets? It is not good enough for the Opposition to will the ends but not the means when it comes to tackling homelessness.

Mr. Slaughter: My hon. Friend is right that the Opposition have offered only the most trivial spin imaginable. They never follow through on what they say so exuberantly to housing charities and the media.

Part 1 of the Bill deals with the Homes and Communities Agency. I hope that the agency takes a robust line, and that the Government do not underestimate the scale of the task facing it. Various hon. Members have spoken eloquently about the problems in their constituencies, but I want to make a special plea for London—something that I know always goes down well with my friends in the north.

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This country has 93,000 households in temporary accommodation, but two thirds of them are in London. We have heard that the average price for a property in some parts of the country is £140,000, but the average in my constituency is something over £400,000. There are some 24,000 people on the housing waiting lists in the two boroughs that my constituency covers, and about 4,000 people live in temporary accommodation.

The figures are worse than they sound. In Hammersmith and Fulham borough, there are more than 8,000 families on the housing waiting list, but the very deceptive banding systems that are used mean that only the 5 or 10 per cent. of people in the top two bands have any hope or prospect of being rehoused. In addition, overcrowding is a huge problem in the private rented sector but also, and especially, in social housing. That was never the case before, and Shelter estimates that black and minority ethnic families are seven times more likely to suffer overcrowding than white families.

Those are some of the bare facts, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of them. How are Conservative local authorities responding? Hammersmith and Fulham council in my constituency has reduced the target percentage for affordable housing from 65 to 40 per cent. It has tried to reduce the amount of social housing in the borough, and the leader of the Tory council has said that

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