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23 Apr 2008 : Column 461WH—continued

We really need to sort out this matter. Without making a decision on legally enforceable, consistent sets of measurement, we cannot determine a robust figure for levels of overcrowding and other housing need and give local authorities the tools to enable them to respond to the problem. I ask the Minister to meet me to discuss this matter, as I have asked previous Ministers to do. I want to ensure that officials work with the leading environmental health officer in Westminster. I will criticise Westminster when I have to—and that is frequently—but I will also give credit where it is due. I have to say that the environmental health services department in that
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local authority is without doubt the best in the country. It is outstanding in its ability to respond to the issues and in its understanding of how the system works and should work. To use that resource would be very helpful indeed.

The temporary accommodation target that I have discussed in relation to the overall issue of housing need has been successful across the country. It has, however, been less successful in London in bearing down on families in temporary accommodation. The numbers in temporary accommodation in London have dropped by only 8 per cent. compared with 2004, while they have fallen considerably elsewhere. However, meeting the target may lead to further perverse consequences, which will make life harder for families in such accommodation. That is partly to do with out-of- borough nominations to accommodation, and partly to do with the tough discharge of duty decisions. I have raised my concern with Ministers about how out-of-borough nominations to temporary accommodation break up the support networks on which families rely. I received confirmation in writing and in parliamentary questions that local authorities should take into account those important support networks.

Last Friday, a heavily pregnant 18-year-old girl attended my surgery. She has spent her entire life in Westminster. Her severely disabled mother, for whom she provides support, came with her to discuss her housing needs. That young woman was accepted as homeless and has been housed in Barking. She is two hours away from her family, her mother, for whom she cares, and her brother. That is despite the assurance that Ministers have given me about what should be done in respect of out-of-borough nominations.

Another woman, currently in a hotel in Hackney, wrote to me last week. She said:

for the last two years

The Department says that that kind of thing should not be happening. Westminster says that it is under no legal obligation to do anything else, so we continue to have this inconsistency and harshness.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I am looking at the problem from the perspective of one of the boroughs that receives people from central London. Often those people are abandoned in such boroughs for many years. They set up local connections, family and friends. When they are offered full-time permanent accommodation back in the borough it is too late for them, and they are left in limbo in the receiving authority.

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Ms Buck: That is absolutely right. Many families who have been housed in Barking, Dagenham and Walthamstow have to commute into Westminster because their children still go to school there. They do not have the slightest idea how long they are going to be in temporary accommodation and will do anything to avoid that constant disruption to their children’s education.

I have a few other issues that I want to raise, including the question of helping home owners. The Mayor’s housing plan spells out very clearly that London’s economy and society depend on access to affordable homes to buy, as well as to rent, and one can help the other. The 50 per cent. affordable target has helped to ensure that the Mayor has delivered record numbers of shared ownership homes. Yet the average income required for a London mortgage was £85,000 in 2006, while average incomes were only £24,000, and I suspect that the credit squeeze has made the situation worse. That reinforces the importance of subsidy and tough guidance on boroughs to maintain the flow of homes in this category. The Government could do more by supporting the 50:50 rent-free ownership proposal that the London councils have been lobbying for, and by developing a London-wide landlord saving scheme.

Having said that, Tory boroughs are showing what they think of the affordable housing priority and what life would be like in the event of a Tory Mayor. Last year, Wandsworth council delivered only 11 per cent. of affordable homes in the borough, Barnet 10 per cent., and Westminster 11 per cent., including only 16 shared ownership homes. Redbridge council chose to reduce its target for affordable house building to 25 per cent. The Conservative mayoral candidate’s housing policy is aimed at households with an income of £60,000, which is only one in five Londoners. We can see very clearly what needs to be done, and what many councils on the ground are doing to undermine it.

Low-cost home owners also include social leaseholders. My hon. Friend the Minister has promised to meet me and other MPs to discuss the plight of those families who may be suffering declining equity, but face bills of up to £60,000 for major works. That need is pressing for a small number of people. We do not want to return to the days of the 1980s and 1990s when low-income home owners were forced into homelessness and into abandoning their homes because they could not afford those major works bills.

London is also the only part of the country that has not met the original target to cut rough sleeping by two thirds. There has been success across the country as a whole and 19,000 rough sleepers have been taken off the streets of London. However, 3,000 people still slept rough last year, and real issues must be addressed regarding cross-boundary work, local connection rules and Home Office liaison over recourse to public funds if we are to bring London in line with the rest of the country.

In conclusion, we have seen impressive achievements in recent years thanks to the Mayor’s strategy and Government support. Nevertheless, London’s needs remain unmet. In some cases, such as overcrowding, it is a deteriorating situation. We need to review the strategy and to take a fresh look at the temporary accommodation target, priority for overcrowding and transfers—including by the Housing Corporation and housing associations—sorting out the overcrowding measurement, and helping
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existing tenants and other first-time buyers into affordable home ownership that meets their needs and reflects their incomes. What we do not want is a housing policy that ignores 2 million tenants, tears up affordable housing targets and targets help on the better off.

2.59 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing this timely debate.

In Barnet, as of the end of March, we had 13,803 families in need on the waiting list. That figure is the fourth highest in London, and it includes 2,492 families in temporary accommodation, of whom 884 are on our regeneration estates, to which I shall refer later, and 177 have been placed outside the borough. We also have 2,562 families awaiting transfers, primarily because of overcrowding. I am pleased that the London Mayor has pledged to halve the number of people in temporary accommodation during his next term in office, if he is re-elected. I do not propose to discuss in detail the plight of people in temporary accommodation, as my hon. Friend has done that more than adequately. However, we must reflect on the appalling conditions in which some people have been placed.

My hon. Friend made the important point that housing investment should be spread throughout London, not just concentrated in the east end. We must invest in housing where the jobs and transport links are and where people want to live—places such as my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. My concerns about the platform that has been advanced by the Conservative mayoral candidate is that his policies—removing the 50 per cent. rule, and his rather barmy first steps scheme, which requires an enormous income—will lead to economic apartheid in our capital city, with less well-off people being concentrated in the east end and excluded, for economic reasons, from the north and west of London. That is no recipe for a successful city, as we have seen in some cities in the north.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that ghettoisation is happening anyway? I agree with his concerns, but how do we de-ghettoise the city, given that Britain as a whole has accepted a culture that stratifies population according to wealth?

Mr. Dismore: That is an important point, and the 50 per cent. rule is part of the answer. I shall give some examples from developments in my constituency regarding the consequences of having and not having the 50 per cent. rule.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that when developers are told that they have to provide either a proportion of social housing or a section 106 payment, they often opt for the payment to evade their social responsibility, thus exporting social housing to some other place? As a result, we end up with more serious ghettoisation. Does he think that that practice should be stopped?

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I agree with his comments.

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Lyn Brown: I am concerned about sustainable communities and ensuring that people from all strata of society are able to live together. That is illustrated by the dilemma that exists in Newham. The east end of London is a desirable place to live and has fantastic neighbours—I should not like anyone to make suggestions to the contrary or decry that point—but it is cheaper to buy there than in the rest of London, and there is a problem in that that is attracting a buy-to-let market. Even with the houses being built in my constituency, more than 50 per cent. of private homes go to not private home owners, but the poorest in our society who are paying private rents to private landlords in the buy-to-let market. Some of those people are paying more than £1,000 a calendar month for properties over shops that are in awful condition.

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. I shall have to call a halt there, because a lot of people want to speak and that was a long intervention.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes two points, the second being an important one about buy-to-let properties. The current situation not only creates the difficulties that she mentions, but leads to a lack of community cohesion, because those properties are inevitably let on short tenancies and people move around all the time. That does not create a sense of community or cohesion.

My hon. Friend’s first point was a plug for living in the east end. People will live where they want to live. I am happy with my place in my constituency, and I am sure that she is very happy with hers. The bald point that I want to make is that people should be able to live where they want to live—where the transport links and jobs are—but we will not achieve that if we are not careful about investment.

Jeremy Corbyn: That means you are not moving to Newham.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to become one of her electors in the near future.

According to the figures, there were 666 new homes in Barnet last year. Despite the 50 per cent. rule, however, only eight were for intermediate sale and only 58 were for rent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North said, that amounts to 10 per cent. of the total, which is the worst record in the whole of the capital, apart from in the City, which is, of course, a special case. Even Westminster managed 11 per cent. If we were to include properties that have been brought back into use, such as hostels and student accommodation, the total would be 1,010, of which only 8 per cent. were affordable. Again, even Westminster managed 12 per cent. New developments have been mainly below the threshold of 10 properties, and we have seen street corners being turned into flats. There has not been insistence on the 50 per cent. rule and a serious problem has developed. The difficulty is that in-fill sites and smaller-scale developments are outside the Mayor’s powers, but they have a huge impact on the community.

When we were considering the unitary development plan, Conservative-controlled Barnet did not want to adopt the 50 per cent. rule, but was required to accept it
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by both the London Mayor and the Planning Inspectorate. Of that 50 per cent., 70 per cent. of the properties should be for rent and 30 per cent. for sale. There is also, of course, a requirement for 42 per cent. family-sized properties with three-plus bedrooms. The council was also forced, against its wishes, to accept the 10-unit threshold. It wanted the threshold to be much higher to enable more rich people to move to the borough, rather than meeting the genuine housing needs of the nearly 14,000 families in the borough.

The planning department tells me that part of the difficulty is that the new planning rules and the 50 per cent. rule have not filtered through into planning applications because some sites were bought years ago, at then market prices, before the rule was introduced. To make a profit, developers have had to squeeze the schemes as much as they can. It says that the 50 per cent. rule is important because it will start to filter back into residual land values, and that 50 per cent. schemes will increasingly become more affordable for developers than they have been in recent years.

Mr. Love: What would be the implication of doing away with the 50 per cent. rule for affordable housing in Barnet?

Mr. Dismore: If my hon. Friend is a little patient, he will find out, because I shall give clear examples of what I think would happen. However, first, let me make another point about the economics of this issue. As the 50 per cent. rule filters through into land sales, it will become a much more practical proposition. The problems that arise out of the 10-unit threshold will be addressed. The threshold has had one beneficial effect: reducing the number of shoebox studio conversions whereby big family houses are turned into a dozen studios. However, it has led to a lot of nine-unit applications. There have been fewer middle market—10 to 50—applications, but there has been much more of a trend for large developments in the 50 to 100 scale. Those large developments tend to involve buying several family-sized houses in a row, often with the developers winkling out the people who do not want to sell with threats and promises, and then knocking down half a street and developing those blocks. It is vital that the 50 per cent. rule is maintained to keep some control over that practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) asked what the impact on Barnet would be of getting rid of the 50 per cent. rule. We have some major development schemes in my constituency and we are seen as a growth borough. Those schemes are private, but the 50 per cent. rule is essential. In Mill Hill East, a draft area action plan has been approved to build 2,660 properties on an old Ministry of Defence site. The plan is for a split of 40 per cent. houses and 60 per cent. flats, with 50 per cent. of the properties be affordable, along the 70:30 split that I have mentioned.

The Colindale area action plan, which is out to consultation, also covers my constituency. That is an opportunity area of the London plan, and we have been told that there is the capacity to deliver 10,000 new homes between 2001 and 2016. The Beaufort Park development is well on the way and will have 2,990 properties, and a planning application for 7,500 new properties at Brent Cross Cricklewood has just been submitted. If we were to add all those properties up and
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apply the 50 per cent. rule properly and vigorously, it would pretty well ensure that the 14,000 families on the waiting list in Barnet would have a real chance of finding somewhere to live and having a decent home at last. If the rule is abandoned, however, they will have no prospect whatever of doing so.

I have no doubt that Tory Barnet will not enforce the 50 per cent. rule if it is not required to do so; it will ensure that more and more wealthy people move in, so we will have more and more buy-to-let and far fewer properties for those in desperate housing need. The drive for family-sized homes is also vital, so I am pleased that London councils have confirmed in their briefing for today’s debate that there is a desperate need for large homes in the capital, including in my constituency and borough.

I mentioned the other major schemes in my constituency—the regeneration estates. At Spur Road and Stonegrove, 937 properties will replace 603 properties. There will be 417 affordable properties—the proposal is with the Mayor for approval— but they will only replace existing affordable accommodation. At West Hendon, 2,171 properties will replace 530 properties for rent and 150 that are owned—there are 680 properties there now. Of those to be built, 1,491 will be for private open-market sale, 132 will be for part-shared ownership, 548 will be for rent, and only a tiny additional number will be affordable homes. At Grahame Park, 2,977 properties will replace the 1,314 that are there now. Of those, 835 will be for tenants and 165 will be for sale or affordable. That means that there will be 1,000 affordable homes, which is even fewer than we have on the estate as it stands.

That is the reality of what Tory Barnet is trying to do in my constituency. It is important that regeneration on these three estates is done effectively, because it will provide new homes for people who are generally living in pretty appalling conditions, but the council is missing the opportunity of a generation to do something about housing need in my borough. The Government need to see what can be done using all the levers available to them to ensure that more money is put into these schemes, or that more pressure is put on those involved to increase the amount of affordable accommodation.

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