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I am aware that that approach might not be universally popular. However, we have an opportunity to consider options for accommodating additional housing growth as part of the review of the RSS. It is better to look at the issues at this stage in the process, before the examination, so that different views about the options can be properly tested and debated in public at examination.

I turn now to the consideration of infrastructure, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. I recognise that the delivery of housing growth must be supported by appropriate infrastructure and that transport, which he also mentioned, is a key component of that. We need to ensure that growth is focused on sustainable transport solutions and we are working with key regional partners to identify the impact of growth on the transport system. In fact, part of the review will involve detailed work on infrastructure, including transport.

In preparing the draft RSS, the regional assembly worked with partners to consider the implications of the infrastructure necessary to support the proposed growth options. That included provisions for transport in the regional transport strategy, which is an integrated part of the draft RSS. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that phasing is also important. Local authorities need to consider all these issues as RSSs emerge.

A key element of the further evidence to which I referred will be the consideration that is given to the implications of the options for higher housing numbers for transport, including local transport strategies and investment in infrastructure. That will be in addition to the issues identified and considered in the draft RSS.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned eco-towns, and I will try to do the issue some justice in the moments that remain. Eco-towns will contribute to meeting our national aim of delivering 240,000 homes a year by 2016. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing made an announcement on the 15 short-listed locations for eco-towns on 3 April, and two of those are in the west midlands. One, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is at Middle Quinton, where the proposed scheme sets out plans for
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at least 6,000 zero-carbon homes on previously developed land. There will be substantial employment opportunities, affordable housing and community infrastructure, accompanied by high-quality public transport links.

We have asked the consultants undertaking the study into housing options to consider the contribution that potential eco-towns and new growth points could make to delivering additional growth in the region. It is therefore likely that any additional numbers resulting from an eco-town will be incorporated into the figures in the emerging RSS. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.

We expect eco-towns to contribute significantly to meeting national aims for additional housing and we want to assure local authorities that include an eco-town in their future housing plans that it will count towards future housing targets, which, in most places, are likely to be more stretching. I hope that that is pretty transparent.

I can also assure hon. Members that the development of eco-towns does not mean that there will be new housing on the green belt. We are consulting on the shortlisted locations for eco-towns. This is only the first stage, and bidders who have cleared the first hurdle will face considerably tougher tests if they want to become eco-towns and will need to improve proposals still further.

It is not appropriate for me to comment on the merits of particular eco-towns, but I can reassure hon. Members that shortlisted locations will face further challenges, including public consultation and a detailed sustainability appraisal, which will assess the merits and challenges in each case. A decision on the final list of locations with the potential to be an eco-town, as well as a draft, and subsequently a final, eco-towns policy statement, will be published later this year.

I appreciate that we are running short of time. I was peppered with quite a lot of questions and I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him further information.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Housing (London)

2.30 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I appreciate enormously the opportunity to discuss housing need in London once again. The Minister and the Department for Communities and Local Government will be aware that this debate is another instalment in a long-running campaign about numerous housing needs issues. In recent years, that campaign has not gone wholly unrewarded as colleagues and I have pressed for more resources for affordable homes to buy and rent in London.

I am conscious of many issues relating to low-cost home ownership, and I shall make a few comments about them as I proceed, but for the moment I merely note that we are in a curious position in relation to home ownership. We are simultaneously anxious about falling house prices in the context of the wider economy and relieved that house prices, particularly for first-time buyers, will decrease a little—certainly across the country, and potentially in London—and grant the access that has, sadly, been constrained for decades.

I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised to know that I shall talk mostly about the supply of affordable housing to rent. I welcome the progress made in recent years by the Mayor of London, and the Government’s additional investment in the supply of affordable homes. The supply of affordable homes to rent has more than doubled in the past eight years—from 6,623 in 1999-2000 to 13,500 last year. Last year’s figures reflect the best performance on affordable housing in the capital for 30 years. With a Labour Mayor committed to driving that policy forward and backed by Government investment, and despite fierce opposition from many Conservative-controlled local authorities—I am sure that colleagues will make some points about that later—we are at last poised to make serious inroads into unmet housing need. Such progress would be seriously undermined by a prospective Conservative Mayor committed to scrapping the 50 per cent. affordable housing target and raising the threshold for low-cost home ownership. His housing manifesto does not even mention the 1.9 million Londoners who live in housing association and local authority homes for rent. The interests of a quarter of the population go completely unmentioned.

I welcome the Government’s acknowledgement of the issue of overcrowding, which has been dear to my heart for many years, in their recent discussion papers and the announcement in December of additional resources. However, the Minister will not be surprised to know that I shall concentrate my remarks on some of the questions that remain unanswered, some of which have even been complicated slightly by the recent announcements.

My first point is one that I have made many times over the years. Families in overcrowded accommodation in the capital are in crisis, and that crisis is getting worse. Overcrowding and the number of families on the waiting list continue to increase, particularly in London, partly as a result of the continuing shortage of supply, partly as a result of the pressure of the 50 per cent. target for reducing the number of households in temporary accommodation and partly because few councils and relatively few other key bodies, including the Housing
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Corporation, show any proper signs at a strategic level of recognising the scale of the problem that they must tackle.

Currently, 330,000 households are on housing waiting lists in London. The number has risen by 20 per cent. in four years. Most of them, of course, require family-sized accommodation. There are 200,000 overcrowded households in London—a figure that has grown by 12 per cent. in the past four years alone. We need the Mayor of London’s house-building programme, and we need a greater emphasis within it and across Government and agencies on family-sized accommodation. We need a willingness to invest in family homes in all parts of London, not just the east, if we are to avoid hollowing out the inner city and all the attendant social and economic problems that that would cause. We also need a greater strategic awareness of the issue from Government, the boroughs and the corporation.

In 2006-07, years after the need for family-sized accommodation became an imperative, only 2,500 socially rented homes with three bedrooms or more were built in the capital. That is only 25 per cent. of the total built. I ask the Minister to address this question: how on earth can the Housing Corporation’s target that 42 per cent. of all new build social homes be three-bedroomed or larger be achieved when we are trailing so badly?

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): In Newham, only 132 of 950 homes developed last year were for rented social housing. Only 6 per cent. of the homes developed in my borough, which is in east London, had three bedrooms or more. Given that we have 6,000 families in temporary accommodation and 30,000 families on the housing waiting list, that is not sustainable if we are to do anything to combat child poverty, to mention just one of our targets.

Ms Buck: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That has been acknowledged in recent years, yet the solution has not been delivered. The Mayor, who assumed greater housing responsibilities only this year, has committed himself to tackling the problem. I believe him because he has a track record of doing so, but I think that it is a departmental responsibility, and no co-ordinated demand has been placed on the corporation, social landlords or the boroughs to deliver. As a consequence, a problem is increasing that has massive implications for child well-being, educational achievement, health and poverty.

I spend a fair amount of time criticising my local authority, particularly Westminster city council, and I stand by those criticisms, but I am glad to say that this year, it has acceded to the pressure I have placed on it and made changes in its housing allocation process that recognise the reality of severe overcrowding. However—I have raised this issue with Ministers, and I believe it to be true—the council, like other local authorities, whether they are committed to doing something about overcrowding or simply forced to respond to the pressures, is handicapped by the pursuit of the 50 per cent. target for reducing the number of households in temporary accommodation. That is not because the target is in any way a bad thing. Quite the reverse; homelessness is an appalling experience for families who go through it.

Temporary accommodation is an unsettling, frequently deeply unsatisfactory experience. I have dealt with families, some of whom I have brought to the Department’s
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notice, who have had nine different temporary addresses in 10 years. I have brought to the Department cases of families living in such substandard temporary accommodation that, although we subsidise landlords by £400 and more a week, roofs fall in, boilers have not worked for years and paint is falling off the walls. Such properties are dangerous, let alone unsanitary and unpleasant.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a very valuable point. Does she share my concern that there sometimes seems to be an unhealthily close relationship between local housing authorities and the placing of homeless people in private rented accommodation, often on excessive rent, with very poor levels of inspection and advocacy available to the tenants, who, after all, are the victims of a system costing the public a vast amount of money?

Ms Buck: I agree totally. I would be perfectly content to devote all my time in this debate to the subject of temporary accommodation. Indeed, I have had such debates, because we have experienced many problems with it. A few weeks ago, the chief executive of a major London housing association told me that properties in his temporary accommodation portfolio are inspected every month. Given the condition of properties that I have visited—I have seen black fungus growing down the walls and holes in walls that I could put my hand through—I wonder what those inspectors were doing. Of course, in truth, such inspections never took place. A pressing need remains to improve standards.

Having said all that, if we could ensure, as we should be able to do, reasonable quality and stability for households in temporary accommodation, and if we could crack the long-standing problem of disincentives to work for families in temporary accommodation—an issue about which colleagues have expressed concerns—we could ensure that we balance the needs of homeless families with those of families in chronically overcrowded accommodation. But we do not do that. In the past, I have used the analogy of a table with three legs. We consider home ownership, the quality of housing delivered through the decent homes initiative, and homelessness; but we have consistently failed seriously to address overcrowded accommodation and tenant transfer. We do so at our peril.

If we look at the figures for families bidding under choice-based systems, we see exactly what that means: 200 to 300 families bidding for one home each week. Those families are devastated by a process that goes on for years. Every week, they build up their hopes and pray that the conditions in which they live will be relieved, but every week—for 52 weeks, followed by the next 52 weeks, and so on—those prayers are not answered. I cannot tell the Minister strongly enough how dangerous and corrosive that experience is. It is even worse because most of those households were probably—in fact, we kind of know—homeless themselves, so they have gone through all this twice.

In the mid-1990s, Westminster council deliberately placed families who had entered social housing through the homelessness route in properties that were too small for them, on the ground that they should be grateful for
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anything. That policy has come back to bite the council in the leg, as it were. I suspect that it was not alone in doing that, and anyway, I am not entirely sure that that gets us off the hook regarding where we are now.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend’s story is the same as mine. For my local authority, the given waiting times for the lower bands of the choice-based letting scheme, in which more than 90 per cent. of people are based, are 12 years for a four-bedroomed property and eight and a half years for a three-bedroomed property. As she will know, those are the properties most in demand. In reality, that might as well be 120 years and 85 years. There is no opportunity at all for those on the waiting list to get family-size accommodation in inner-London boroughs.

Ms Buck: I thank my hon. Friend for that illustration; he is absolutely right. We could all add to those figures. I shall repeat my tradition of quoting from some of the correspondents with whom I have been dealing recently. Obviously, I shall not give names, but I am always happy to pass on such cases:

Another one was from someone whom I shall call Marianne:

I have the letter in my file—

We need an urgent commitment to making progress on overcrowding. I do not believe that we will do so, despite the additional money that has been invested—welcome though that it is—and the Mayor’s commitment, if we do not reconsider the implications of the 50 per cent. target for reducing temporary accommodation. We cannot have a table with three legs. That commitment to housing need is absent from local area agreements and, therefore, from local authorities’ targets and most people’s consciousness, and yet that need is gripping almost 250,000 households in London.

In addition to driving forward the supply of family-sized accommodation and the broader supply question, we could consider those welcome but modest measures that the Government announced before Christmas. What is happening to the remainder of the £10 million allocated to dealing with overcrowding? Why did all London local authorities receive the same allocation of £100,000 when—to put it gently to colleagues from all parties—Bromley, as far as I am aware, does not have an overcrowding crisis, but Newham, Hackney, Westminster and Islington do? Given that all the evidence confirms that this is a highly concentrated problem, in 15 or 20
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boroughs, what is the logic of regarding all local authorities as being in the same situation? Why is there no specific capital funding from the housing pot to tackle overcrowding? It would be relatively easy to do that. Why are we not driving forward a substantial programme on extensions to and de-conversions of existing properties? Last year, that policy, which can be very helpful, delivered only 126 units, but it should be capable of delivering thousands.

The Department is very conscious of my concerns about definitions and measurements. Dry and technical though that sounds, it is absolutely clear that if we do not adopt a consistent approach to assessing housing need, we will not be able to define the scale of the problem or set our priorities properly. At the moment, we do not have that. I shall provide an example of what that means. Two weeks ago, a mum and dad and their three children came to see me. They were sharing a studio flat in the private rented sector. Environmental health services inspected that property and found that it constituted a category 1, band A hazard under the housing health and safety rating system—the most serious hazard that they can find. The family applied as homeless on the ground that the property was not suitable for occupation. The letter came back from the homelessness section of the council stating:

which legally must be taken into consideration—

A reasonable size! A studio flat for five people! That illustrates—we have many other illustrations—what happens within and between local authorities when they operate on an overlapping jigsaw of different standards.

The old overcrowding standard—statutory overcrowding —was the enforcement tool that was used by environmental health departments and, as my example shows, is used to help determine whether a family is homeless or homeless at home. Meanwhile, we also have a bedroom standard that has been used since 1993 to estimate the numbers in overcrowded accommodation, although the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said in 2004 that the bedroom standard was on the margins of acceptability. The Housing Act 2004 introduced three ways to prevent overcrowding, including the crowding and space standard of the housing health and safety rating system. Finally the 2006 and 2007 discussion papers on overcrowding accepted that statutory overcrowding was out of date, and proposed to move to the bedroom standard, but they did not even mention the use of the HHSRS. However, the bedroom standard is not an enforcement tool, as my standard illustrates.

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