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5 Feb 2008 : Column 177WH—continued

The second criterion, a sustainable economic approach to the housing market, is very relevant; we have already heard from other speakers about how important it is to ensure that the housing market is affordable, both in terms of the cost of buying housing and the cost of renting, which is perhaps even more salient today. We have heard a horror story from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), describing a situation where there is a very low standard of housing at a very
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high price, which is the worst of both worlds. All of us need to think about how we can effectively ensure that housing is affordable for those at the lower end of the income scale.

Thirdly, it is also obvious to me that the quality of a community is closely connected to the quality of housing and how that housing is structured. We have already heard from the hon. Member for Keighley and particularly from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) about how vital it is that we do not ghettoise people on low incomes.

The Minister for Housing is claimed to have said, “If you want a council house, find a job”—that is the headline in The Guardian today. I do not think that that is what she ought to be saying, in terms of the messages that she is sending out to those who are depending on and looking for social housing. Having said that, I would like to issue a health warning: I know from my own experience that it is very easy for the media to misrepresent what politicians and Ministers say. She is also probably the only person in Parliament who has held her housing portfolio for a shorter time than I have, so it is possible that she was not necessarily thinking about the nuances that could be represented, or even misrepresented, by the media. So I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt here, and I would like to hear from her directly, at first hand, what she really thinks, rather than depend on what is often now, sadly, an unbelievably unreliable written press to be judge and jury of what she has said.

Nevertheless, I think that we would all agree that, if people are excluded from the social housing sector, the only option for them is to go into the private rented sector, where rents are almost always higher. Housing benefit does not always cover that additional amount, which puts a further pressure on households that already have a relatively low income. That pressure can lead to default and eviction, and those households will therefore contribute to the homelessness figures, so it is very important to recognise the vicious spiral that can occur if we depend on the private rented sector to make up the difference between what households require and what is available in the regulated social housing sector.

As the Minister here today knows, I am disappointed that the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which we will return to on Report, will not regulate the private rented sector in the same way that it will regulate the registered social housing sector. The Minister might want to say something about that today. What is obvious is that, if the private rented sector is going to end up as the collecting point for all those vulnerable households that do not have jobs and so forth, the landlords in that sector will be disinclined to play ball. They will say, “Well, we don’t want to have these vulnerable tenants, because they could default,” so the vicious spiral gets ever worse.

If the Minister wants to comment on what his colleague, the Minister for Housing, said about council houses, I will understand. Otherwise, I hope that the Minister for Housing will clarify to the House where she stands on this issue. I am perfectly willing to accept that the fault was presentational rather than intentional.

I would like to turn now to what the other speakers in the debate have said. The hon. Member for Keighley highlighted something that I have seen myself, namely that the quality of a community housing trust is very
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often dependent on the individuals running that trust. I do not know the particular circumstances that she mentioned, but I have seen good trusts perform effectively simply because the individuals within the management structure do a good job. As a result, the standard of housing remains high, repairs are done quickly, and the tenants have a very high regard for those bodies. At the same time, once in a while I have seen managers who are not so effective. As a result, the corporate culture of the association declines and that directly impacts on the standard of housing for the tenants.

I wonder whether the Minister has any views about how we can ensure that the variability of the quality of management is in some ways dampened, in terms of its consequences for the tenants. It could be that the Minister feels that the Housing and Regeneration Bill will be the right mechanism to achieve that. I suspect that we cannot completely eliminate that variability, but if he has a view on that issue I would be very pleased to hear it.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made some very important observations. I have given my view on what the Minister for Housing said. I would simply add, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that we have a responsibility as legislators and politicians to ensure that individuals and households who need the support of the Government to obtain adequate accommodation, both for the adults and for the children who are being raised, receive that support.

Those words are easy to say, but it is much harder to take action. Does the Minister really think that we will achieve the goals set by the Government by 2010? That is only 22 months away, or if we give him the whole of 2010, 34 months away, which is still not very long. The Government’s ambitious target will be expensive to achieve. If he reassures us that he believes that that target is still attainable, I would ask him to outline briefly the Government’s strategy to make that colossal investment in less than three years. I want to see the target met, but I think that perhaps not enough has happened so far, since it was set, to ensure that it is achieved.

The hon. Member for Islington, North highlighted one of the most serious and worrying statistics in this debate: the 87,000 households in temporary accommodation. That is not really a quality of life that we should tolerate in a country with the wealth that the United Kingdom has. What can we do to ensure that that figure is halved? It was half that figure previously, when I would have said that there was less wealth in the UK than there is now.

Looking ahead, what are the next steps? As I said, we should return to the issue of economically sustainable housing. We should retrospectively consider implementing certain standards to the housing stock if we are to make the United Kingdom a zero-carbon economy in the not-too-distant future. We must also recognise that the only real way to have sustainable housing and a sustainable housing market is to increase the availability of housing stock.

There are some creative solutions around, not all of which we need to discuss today. However, the Minister may not be aware that there are about 1 million potential properties over shops and other retail outlets, which, for
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administrative reasons, it is hard to convert into housing. Would he like to hear more about that from me and from institutions that have been looking at the issue? Those 1 million properties would make a big difference to easing the back pressure on purchased and rented accommodation, as long as their standard could be secured.

On sustainable communities, we can also do a great deal to ensure that we design good community life into good housing. We all have noble intentions on this issue, and although the cost of doing something is high, the cost of doing nothing is even higher. Somebody made the insightful point to me that there is only one letter’s difference between homelessness and hopelessness, and that is very true. People who drop out of society often feel that it has not offered them much, and those who end up living rough or living on the good will of their friends will eventually begin to display a degree of social disconnection.

If the Minister says that we can solve all these problems by the end of 2010, I shall be delighted to hear it. If he does intend to pursue these issues, how will he do so and what can we do collectively—on a cross-party basis—to ensure that housing is treated not as a political football but as a social responsibility that we must all take on in a sombre and serious way?

10.32 am

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing a debate on this important subject, which will concern hon. Members of all parties. As Members of Parliament representing our constituents, we should have good access to those who run the social and affordable housing in our areas. If we are to act on behalf of constituents, we need lobbying and information, and such things should not be withheld from us.

The hon. Lady eloquently highlighted the situation in her area, where the local ALMO—I assume it was the ALMO—failed to provide adequate information and responses. It is deeply regrettable and sad that that body feels that it is outside the right and proper democratic process and that it is beyond the requirement to respond. It is difficult to envisage that in the case of a local council, which will feel more politically responsible.

I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance and that he might even be able to act on the issue by sending a letter to all the organisations involved in providing housing, including ALMOs and RSLs. I hope that he will remind them that they are still part of the process of providing social housing, which means that they are responsible to Parliament and to their Members of Parliament in a way that cannot be ignored. That is quite proper, and it is only right for the hon. Lady to expect an adequate response when she has had cause to write to the ALMO in question.

My assertion is not that ALMOs are bad; indeed, there are excellent ALMOs out there, just as there are excellent RSLs and good councils managing stock. Whoever is in charge of social and affordable housing in the public sector, however, has a responsibility to answer hon. Members. As I say, I hope that the Minister can say something about that and provide some reassurance.

In my borough, we have about 11,000 council houses, and the residents have thus far resisted the opportunity to move to an ALMO, because they feel that the local
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council does a good job of managing the estate properties. That goes to show that good social housing can take many different forms, and that someone who attempts to be prescriptive by saying that all housing should be supplied in one particular way will almost certainly have arrived at the wrong interpretation of the problem and the wrong solution.

The hon. Lady has done a great service in raising this issue, because it raises fundamental questions about the quality of our housing stock. The Minister and I have spent the past month in Committee together, and I have mentioned several times in passing that the decent homes standard—laudable though its objectives are—has not achieved the desired results and will, by the Government’s own admission, miss their targets. I would be interested to hear what he has to say about that.

The Minister may or may not know that I recently asked him a parliamentary question about the issue. I was told that there were 8.7 million non-decent homes in 1997, although the hon. Lady will be interested to hear that that figure had declined to 6 million by 2005. Over those five years, therefore, there was a 14.5 per cent. reduction in the number of non-decent homes. Clearly, therefore, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, the Government’s programme is very unlikely to be concluded by the 2010 deadline, given that we would need a dramatic 27 per cent. drop in the number of homes outside the decent homes standard in just a couple of years. Indeed, the Government have already admitted that they will miss their targets.

I suspect that the reasons for that are manifold. The targets in many of our constituencies may have been found to be too specific and too centrally driven, with the Government seeking to create houses that may or may not provide a good standard of living for the people in them. In my area, the council has been encouraged to improve aspects of housing that, on any objective measure, do not require improvement. If the local housing provider had had a bit more flexibility to decide what was included in other areas, that might have resulted in a more sensible approach to this agenda.

Although I recognise that the number of houses of non-decent standard has fallen, the real tragedy of the past 10 years, which was alluded to by the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is just leaving, and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), is that the number of houses available in the social area—I was going to call it the market—has been lower in every one of the past 10 years than it was in 18 years under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Those on the socially conscious left of the Labour party must be wondering how on earth that could have happened.

Jeremy Corbyn: Those of us who were in the House during the years of the Thatcher premiership and who represented areas such as mine were in despair about housing. The right to buy was destroying our estates, and we are now paying the price for that, because many houses have left the public sector. The refusal to allow local authorities to invest sufficiently in repairs also meant that there was a massive £1 billion backlog of repairs by 1997, which the current Government had to pick up. I do regret the lack of social housing being built, but I have no good memories whatever of the Tory years.


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Grant Shapps: It is a really interesting point. The hon. Gentleman will recognise the bare facts, which are that, by hook or by crook, this Government have produced less—

Chris Ruane: Crook.

Grant Shapps: Yes, it may be crook. However, the Government have produced not only less social housing every year, but less housing overall. The average during our time in office was 176,000 houses a year, but the average over the past 10 years has been 145,000. Both the social housing stock and the overall housing provision have declined.

The hon. Member for Islington, North and I could argue about the rights and wrongs of right to buy, but it was before my time in the House, and for his information I am prepared to accept that there are better ways of doing it—for example, by allowing the money to be invested in new council housing. I would like councils to build new houses. On this matter, the left and right might have formed an—I was going to say unholy alliance, but perhaps it is a holy alliance. I do not see why councils could not start building houses again—either through right to buy, or by keeping receipts or allowing councils and RSLs to build houses that benefit the population.

Lembit Öpik: I shall resist entering into a theological debate about the benefits of buying and the moral obligation to buy that some people feel. However, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that other countries, such as Germany, resolve the problem by making it perfectly normal for wealthy households to rent accommodation. That is one way in which we could overcome the ghettoisation of those in rented accommodation and diminish the price pressures that we are seeing in this country.

Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentleman is correct and his desires might be coming true, because home ownership is falling for the first time since the 1980s, although inadvertently, I suspect, as far as the Government are concerned.

I shall turn to the announcement by the Minister for Housing this morning. I agree with the hon. Members for Great Grimsby, for Islington, North and for Montgomeryshire that it was misplaced, that it misfired and that it does nothing to help to understand the fundamentals at the heart of social housing. In fact, I think that it is a mistaken policy announcement along the same lines as dragging youths to cash points or saying that we should have British jobs for British workers. It was a meaningless announcement. Let us think it through: not only are there the implications described by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire—if we kick a family out of social housing they will have to enter rented accommodation, which in many cases might be impossible—but, worse still, where children are involved, the council has a statutory duty to house those kicked out and, therefore, will end up picking up the tab for kicking them out. It is pure headline-grabbing nonsense.

A growing number of people in social housing are unemployed. The response to that should be a much more systematic appraisal of the problem, and solutions more in line with the welfare to work proposals that we described the other week. The solution is certainly not for the Government to claim that they have a silver
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bullet involving kicking people out of their homes, because obviously the Government will simply have to rehouse those with families. Could the Minister not have advised his new boss quietly and on the side before she made such an ill-thought-out announcement? Could he not have suggested that she think about reality and how the announcement might work in practice before making a proposal that will not stand the test of time—by which I mean about 15 minutes after being written up in the newspapers? It is quite clear from a couple of hours’ thought that it cannot resolve the many deep and serious housing problems in this country. I am rather saddened that her first major speech as Minister for Housing has fired off in the most ludicrous headline-grabbing manner. I would have expected more from her.

In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley on securing this debate. Her concerns are real and genuine, and I would be surprised if there were any hon. Members who do not share them. I call on the Minister to act, perhaps by writing to all RSLs and other providers of social housing, be they ALMOs or councils, to remind them of their responsibility to respond to those democratically elected to represent constituents and their housing needs.

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Amess, and to serve under your chairmanship. This has been a good debate on a matter of enormous importance, not only to Bradford, Grimsby and Islington, but across the country. The idea of housing standards and of ensuring that everybody has a choice of housing of an excellent standard is fundamental. Every Government should deal with that.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who in her usual manner highlighted her concerns about housing standards in her constituency with the utmost eloquence, wit and style—if only every hon. Member were as committed as she is. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who also do a fantastic job. Sometimes I disagree with them on housing, but their commitment to it and to raising housing standards is important.

I also welcome back to the reunion—not as good as Led Zeppelin’s I would suggest, but it is not far off—the hon. Members for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). As has been said, we have spent the last month on the Housing and Regeneration Bill Committee, which I thought was very good. It was challenging and scrutinised the Bill to ensure that housing policy is fit for the 21st century.

Lembit Öpik: Although Led Zeppelin’s might have been a more formidable reunion, is it not us, in housing terms, who are seeking collectively to build a stairway to heaven?

Mr. Wright: That is absolutely dreadful. I apologise to the Chamber for allowing such an intervention. That was absolutely disgraceful. I demand a full apology from the hon. Gentleman.


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