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5 Feb 2008 : Column 171WH—continued

That is often the case because unemployment is higher on council estates. It is higher still on housing association estates. It is distressing that the article states that, referring to the “no one works here” syndrome,

In other words, the estates, it is now argued, are the breeding grounds of a shiftless unemployed population that does not want work. That is the implication. Council tenants and social housing tenants are being abused in that fashion because they are in that situation
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as a consequence of the Government policy of selling off council housing and social housing under the right to buy, using the estates as dumping grounds for the needy and allowing landlords to buy the properties that have been sold off and allowed to deteriorate.

Questions arise from the Minister’s statement. Does the view that if people want a council house they should find a job apply to council estates? That is not clear from the article. Does it apply only to council estates, or does it apply to registered social landlords and housing associations? Does it affect secure tenancies, which people on council estates have, and assured tenancies, which people in housing association estates have? The new commitment—[Interruption.] I apologise for that, Mr. Amess, I have an enormous fan club who clamour for me at the most inopportune times. I shall switch my phone off—perhaps the Minister for Housing is trying to call me to give me the proper interpretation of her remarks.

My point is that the threats are vague and unspecific. They will be received very badly on council and social housing estates all over the country. What are we about? We are the Labour party! We have been built up by support from people on council estates, and we treat them in such a fashion when they are at the end of a long period of financial deprivation, which has reduced them to their state. They are now being abused and told that they must go out and find a job. That is no way for a Labour Government to behave, or even to think.

Do the Minister’s remarks apply to housing estates only or to RSLs as well? Does the policy apply to new tenancies, or, as the Minister seemed to indicate, will it be extended to existing tenants? She certainly left the latter possibility open in her speech. Will the policy apply to new contracts for people in social housing, which would force them to look for work in addition to the other pressures that they face? People need to be encouraged and helped to look for work, but to be forced to do so as a condition of tenancy is another matter entirely.

What happens when people buy properties on estates, particularly from RSLs? The Government encourage people to buy a share in their own house, which is an unpredictable burden for tenants, because they cannot be sure what repairs will cost, and how much of that will fall on them and how much on housing associations. It will be a difficult burden to shoulder, particularly for people on those estates where 67 per cent. of the population are on benefits of some kind. It is difficult to see that such people will rush to buy shares in their own property, but if they do so, are they going to be treated in the fashion that I described along with everybody else?

All those questions need to be answered but, most of all, the Government need to raise their aspirations for new house building by councils, as well as by housing associations. Councils have the best overview of the housing needs in their area and they want to serve those needs. It is therefore unreasonable to push them out of housing when we are trying to encourage the building of more social housing. Will the necessary funding be provided to generate the improvement in the conditions of the estates and the tenants?

We are committed to reaching the decent homes standard by 2010. Frankly, I doubt that we will reach it, but if we are going to do so, funding such as the gap funding that is made available to housing associations
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must surely be made available to councils, to help them to undertake the repairs and regeneration that are necessary in their areas. Our commitment must be to improve conditions for existing tenants as well as to build the new housing that is necessary because people cannot get on the ladder. Why can we not undertake both commitments?

10.3 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this debate. I thank her for the harrowing story that she told today about the behaviour of one registered social landlord in Bradford. When I finish my remarks, I hope that the Under-Secretary will give us some hope about the future regulation, administration and democracy of registered social landlords. I shall return to that matter.

If they wished to do so, hon. Members could pick up from the Library an interesting document titled “Social Indicators”, which comes out every month or so. The section on housing is very interesting, because it shows that people buying their own homes are paying an ever higher proportion of their salaries on housing costs, so the need for socially provided housing through either an RSL or a local authority is increasing, especially if my own community is anything to go by. Roughly 80 per cent. of my population have no possibility whatever of buying their own place in the community, and therefore rely either on council housing or housing associations to provide one.

When we look at the completion of permanent dwellings by sector in the UK, we will see that in 1997 there were 160,000 private sector completions, 28,000 registered social landlord completions and 1,500 local authority completions. By 2005-06, there were 188,000 private sector completions, registered social landlord completions had gone down to 24,000 and local authority completions, at 326, had almost disappeared. That means that out of the 213,000 new properties that were completed in that year, fewer than 12 per cent. were for people who apply for social housing of some sort. In my constituency, which is pretty normal for inner-urban Britain and certainly for inner London, about 45 to 50 per cent. of the population live in properties owned by either the local authority or a registered social landlord. If we applied that figure to the rest of the country, we would begin to see that, by our failure to build, we are creating a bigger problem for ourselves.

On the following page of “Social Indicators”, the story begins to unfold. In 1997, 44,000 households were living in temporary accommodation arranged through local authorities. That figure increased to 101,000 in 2004. I am pleased that it has now come down slightly, yet there are still 87,000 households living in temporary accommodation.

Members of Parliament earn a good salary and usually have somewhere very nice to live, if not two or three nice places to live, according to the “Today” programme. They do not have a sense of insecurity. Imagine what it is like for people who are trying to bring up a couple of children when they are homeless. They will be placed by a local authority either in a bed and breakfast hotel, a hostel or temporary rented accommodation from a private landlord. They do not know how long they will be there. Their landlord is totally unresponsive to the
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need for repairs and so on. There is nowhere for their children to play. They have nowhere to get their own furniture, and there is no way for them to make their accommodation their home. After six months, they could be moved on, and their children might have to move school. That could happen again and again. Those people are desperately waiting for the dream of being offered a permanent tenancy in a decent flat where they know that they can put down roots and become part of the local community to come true.

Imagine the effect of that situation on children who grow up with such a sense of insecurity. When they go to school, they are too embarrassed to say to their mates, “Come home and have tea with me tonight.” They are embarrassed because they live in a hostel or in a temporary place, or because they would have to travel a long way. I constantly meet young parents whose children go to primary schools in my constituency but who are homeless, so the local authority has placed them in rented accommodation, sometimes as far away as Enfield. That might not sound so far to us, but we should imagine making a 90-minute journey each way to school by bus to maintain a link with a community—we should think about children spending three hours a day on a bus.

None of that is necessary. It has become the norm, because as a society and as a country we are not addressing the seriousness of the housing needs of an awful lot of people who are desperate to have somewhere permanent, safe and secure to live. I hope that we will begin to develop some sense of national endeavour, as this country managed to do after the second world war. The endeavour to solve the housing problem went on for nearly 20 years. None of the problems are necessary, and the damage that they are doing to people’s lives is very serious.

I welcome what the Government did in 1997 on decent home standards and in investing large amounts of money in improving estates. When I go around my constituency, I see new windows, new roofs and better common parts. All those things are very welcome. It is good news, and it has certainly improved the lives of many people. I hope that the Minister will take the decent homes standards a little further. First, much better energy efficiency standards are important for all new properties—not only local authority or RSL properties, but those in the private sector. Energy prices are likely to rise, so a lack of energy efficiency will mean higher costs for tenants.

Secondly, within the planning guidelines, will the Minister ensure that much better standards of open space, particularly play space, are made available in urban areas? We are building to high levels of density. I can understand the pressure for high-density living, but it is important to make provision for some open space, including children’s play areas. We also need something to be done about minimum room sizes and ceiling heights; again, that affects people’s quality of life.

Lastly—I say this with feeling—a large proportion of properties in my constituency are Victorian, and of themselves they are nice buildings and certainly attractive, but most of them have been converted into smaller apartments, and relatively few remain as family houses. The standards of conversion vary, but the standards of soundproofing are appalling. Many people come to my advice bureau, and to those of councillors and others, who are driven to distraction by noise from neighbours’
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flats. It is not necessarily that the neighbours are particularly noisy, but with such a low level of soundproofing on conversion, life can be intolerable. For instance, if a middle flat has three or four children running around all day, older people living in the ground floor flat would find their sympathy for the younger generation disappearing. All kinds of social tension result. Standards, open space and quality of housing are important matters.

Many of my constituents are in desperate housing need. As I have explained, some are in less desperate need, in the sense that they are not eligible for local authority assistance, but they cannot buy because they do not earn enough, so they rent on the private market. Rents in London and in most big cities are very high. People living in my constituency, usually young people, are paying £250 to £400 a week for a flat. That makes a big hole in their salary, and they have no permanent security of tenure. Normally, they are on six-month to one-year lease agreements, and the rents can go up again at the end of that time.

That has a number of effects. First, as a society we end up with a poorer sense of community, because people do not feel a sense of belonging or of security. Secondly, many people are making vast sums out of the buy-to-let market. Indeed, it is one of the biggest growth areas. Is it sensible to encourage that sort of investment without any rent regulation and with such vast profits being made? I ask the Minister to think seriously about what degree of regulation should be introduced into the private rented market.

In 1974, the Labour Government, led by Harold Wilson, was prepared to control rents. It was a popular measure, and it was effective. It also brought about much greater security of tenure in the private market. The Conservative Government, under Margaret Thatcher, did away with most of those protections and controls, and we are still paying the price.

I ask the Minister to look at the totality of expenditure. He is doubtless considering investment in housing—that is his job and what his budget is for—but I ask him to encourage the Government to look at the problem more holistically. I go back to the point that I started with: people are placed in privately rented, leased flats by local authorities because they are homeless. Some of those places are in appalling condition, and the rents are usually higher than on the open market. Many cost more than £400 a week—I do not joke, it is that high—but it is all paid through housing benefit.

I do not object to people receiving housing benefit—quite the reverse; I support it—but it means that the community is paying out sums that would cover a pretty large mortgage, and that money is being spent on flats of an appalling standard, with insecurity of tenure, which are bad places to bring up children, and all the rest of it. And who is making money out of this but fly-by-night slum landlords, who are being subsidised by the public sector? It is immoral and wrong. The solution is to be tough on standards. The long-term solution is building far more places for rent for those in desperate housing need.

The last point that I want to make is about democracy in housing. In my area, as in others, an ever larger number of people are living in properties owned by registered social landlords, and most development is
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undertaken by them—very little is done by the local authority. Islington local authority is at last developing a hundred-and-something new council houses. It is the first time for many years that we have seen new development.

I welcome such developments, but unfortunately they are often paid for by the sale of a large number existing council properties—either businesses premises, or places that the council could not afford to do up, with street properties sold at auction on the open market. Those properties were not sold to people in desperate housing need; most were sold to property companies. I ask myself, who is helping whom? If we sell some properties in order to improve the remaining properties for development, we will end up with fewer places to rent, not more—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell).

When the Minister next considers the details of the legislation before the House, I hope that he will look seriously at the question of the democracy and administration of housing associations. I have a large number of housing associations in my constituency. I meet them all from time to time. I have a great deal of correspondence with them. Some of them are extremely responsive and helpful, and I have no particular complaints about them—they respond to my requests and those of my constituents, and that is fair enough—but some are much less responsive, some do not respond at all, and some are so large that they hardly know where their properties are to be found.

We come down to the question of accountability and democracy. Is it really such a good idea continually to encourage housing associations to merge and grow endlessly? Circle Anglia has become an enormous housing association, with properties from London to Lincolnshire. It has executive offices and super-executive offices and super-duper-executive offices, with lots of executives running all over the place—and somewhere, somebody sometimes ends up doing some of the repairs. The management structure covers a diffuse selection of properties—probably expensive ones.

We need much greater rationalisation. We need the zoning of housing associations, so that they are restricted to one city, county or area. I hope that when the Mayor of London takes over the London Housing Board in April, and it becomes the main motor for investment in London properties, he will be given the power to encourage, if not force, housing associations to restrict themselves to one part of the country.

We should also introduce a sense of democracy in housing associations. There was a time when they were small and local, and often democratic. Many operated on semi-co-operative principles. Indeed, in my constituency we still have a number of housing co-operatives. I do not see why we cannot return to that state. RSL tenants hardly know who their landlord is; their landlords are remote, and non-responsive. We need a return of a sense of democracy.

This debate is about housing standards. For some people, the standard is high, but for far too many, standards are poor, and it makes life very difficult. We need a sense of priority. Too many families break up; too many young people fail; too many youngsters end up in the criminal justice system; too many people have utterly miserable lives. Simply put, that is because
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we as a community are not prepared to invest sufficiently or sensibly enough to conquer the housing problems that so many in our society now face.

10.19 am

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): First, may I say what a delight it is to work again with these two hon. Gentlemen, the Minister and the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), as we did on the Housing and Regeneration Bill for more than a month recently? Indeed, I think that it would be true to say, without fear of exaggeration, that we are the most effective political trio since the first triumvirate in Rome 2,000 years ago. Of course, in this analogy, the hon. Member for Ceilidh—

Mrs. Cryer: Keighley.

Lembit Öpik: Sorry; I was thinking of the dance, rather than the constituency.

Jeremy Corbyn: You must have flown over it.

Lembit Öpik: On a number of occasions. As I was saying, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) would be the character of Cleopatra, who has come here to romance Mark Antony, the Minister, for housing favours, and I hope she gets what she is looking for. May I also congratulate her on having secured this debate? It is an important debate, and she has highlighted, with her local example, an issue that affects many people across the country.

I think we would all agree that politicians have a moral obligation to ensure that, in this first-world country, we have first-world housing for its citizens. I think that we would also probably all agree about the outcomes that we would like to see in terms of the quality of housing, so I will not dwell on that issue. However, I would suggest that, to achieve those outcomes, there are three criteria that we need to fulfil, and the Minister and the Government will hear me develop these three themes in the months ahead. The three criteria to achieve a high standard of housing are a sustainable environmental approach towards housing, a sustainable economic approach to the housing market and a sustainable social approach to communities.

All three of those criteria are intimately connected with the standard of housing that we create. In an environmental context, it seems obvious to me that all new housing should be zero carbon. However, given that in 2050 most people will be living in housing that has already been built now, we must find a way to raise the standard of environmental performance of existing housing stock. Having said that, as we are primarily talking about the social elements of housing today, it would be inappropriate for me to pursue that idea in great detail.

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