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23 Apr 2008 : Column 467WH—continued

As I said, there are 884 temporary tenants on these estates. The schemes housing them were first thought of eight or so years ago, when Labour ran the council. The idea was to put temporary people in because it was thought that the schemes would develop rapidly, that they would not be there long, and that there would not be a large number of them. However, as properties have become vacant on these estates, more temporary people have been moved in, and some have been in temporary accommodation for many years. They are given an absolute guarantee that they will not get one of the new homes on these estates and no guarantee about where they will be relocated to. They have no stake whatever in the community as it stands, or as it will develop under the new schemes, so it is vital that the issue is seriously addressed. To return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, people in temporary accommodation must have a future, but they see none in the way in which Barnet
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council is running its housing policies, although they could see one if the 50 per cent. rule was vigorously applied.

Another issue relating to regeneration estates is design, and there is growing concern that design will simply replicate the failures of the past. There is also the question of the impact on local services to existing communities and growth communities. Most people who look independently and objectively at the issue are concerned that the borough has not really got to grips with issues such as roads, utilities, the health service and education.

The other issue on which I want to touch briefly relates not so much to housing supply as to the quality of housing, and this is where I think that the decent homes initiative has been such a boon. In Barnet, the Government are investing £88.5 million in new kitchens, bathrooms and windows from Burnt Oak to Belle Vue estate and from Broadfields to Fosters estate in my constituency. That investment is vital, but few people know that the Government are making it. It is outrageous that the Conservative council is claiming the credit for that investment on big signs all over the place, because that does not reflect where the money has actually come from. The Government should do far more to brand the decent homes initiative so that people are aware that it is not the Conservative council that is putting its hand in its pocket—[Interruption.] Or the Liberals. Such a move by the Government would be a good start. They should make clear who is actually investing in decent homes in the borough.

I am concerned that regeneration estates have missed out. The issue has been left on the back burner because there is no point investing in these estates while they are coming down. The problem, however, is that as the years go by, the quality of the accommodation goes down because basic maintenance is not done. At Grahame Park, which I mentioned earlier, it will take 17 years from now for the regeneration scheme to be completed, assuming that all goes to plan, and we all know the risks in that respect. The scheme will take 25 years from start to finish, and no major works will have been done. People’s accommodation is getting worse, with leaking windows and roofs, and generally poor common parts.

I am pleased to say that Labour councillors and I have been able to persuade Tory Barnet at long last to invest in new windows on the West Hendon estate—some were so rotten that they were starting to fall out. The council has been able to do that because of the decent homes initiative money, and investment in other housing stock has meant that the council has had to spend rather less on routine maintenance, which has freed up the money that it needs for capital investment to do something about the West Hendon windows. Again, that is a product of the Government’s strong investment in improving the housing stock in the borough.

Next week, when they vote, Londoners, including Barnet and Hendon residents, will face a choice on housing policy. I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is not here to defend his housing policy, because it does not stand up to much scrutiny. For that matter, there is nobody from the Conservative party here to defend its housing policy, apart from its Front-Bench spokesman—

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): He has just left.

Mr. Dismore: Indeed. Interventions to allow us to point out the gross failings, inadequacies, bad arithmetic and internal contradictions in the Conservative party’s housing policy would have been very welcome.

The choice is between 50 per cent. enforced or 50 per cent. abandoned, and making the right choice is people in London’s best hope of getting a decent home. I hope that they vote accordingly next week.

3.17 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for securing the debate, for what she said and for all the fantastic work that she has done on housing policy in London over a very long time. That work has made an enormous difference and probably given the Minister a lot of grey hairs, although he has yet to show them. [Interruption.] I said that the Minister is yet to show his grey hairs; it was meant to be a compliment, but it was obviously a total failure. When I pay the Government compliments, they do not understand them.

We are debating the most serious issue that faces anyone in London. We could all say again and again everything that my hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have said. Growing up in overcrowded accommodation is sheer misery. Sharing a bedroom with three or four siblings and being unable to do anything at home, to bring friends home, to study or to socialise in any way becomes an embarrassment. If we talk to teenaged children in secondary schools, we hear that they immediately divide into those who have a nice home to go back to—one where friends can come and stay over for the weekend—and those who just feel embarrassed about where they live. Such children feel a sense of failure, including towards their parents, and their parents feel a sense of failure, too. The whole experience becomes utterly miserable. These ought to be the best years of a young person’s life, but they are often blighted by the horror of being ashamed of where they live and of the conditions there, as well as by a sense of failure. Of course, the parents are not failures; it is public policy that has failed them, and we must be able to do something about that.

I have been the MP for Islington, North since 1983. I was there in the early 1980s, when we had a very effective house building programme under a Labour council. It was a pleasure regularly to go to the opening of new council developments, but how many colleagues go to one of those now? Sometimes I was critical of the designs, and sometimes I was not, but at least things were happening. There was building, and things were going ahead. That was an interesting period.

We then went through the sale of council homes promoted by the Conservative Government, and the period of the Labour Government from 1997 onwards, to whom I pay tribute for really rapid, fantastic improvements in the quality of estates—new roofs, windows, bathrooms and kitchens, and things of that kind. All that made a difference to the lives of many people on estates, which are much better managed as a result of what was done and much better respected.

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The downside, however, is that we have been far too slow in getting around to the problem of the development of new properties—places for affordable rent. That is what I want to talk about, because the effect has been to push housing authorities into the only solution that they can find, which is to shove homeless people away from hostels and bed and breakfast into leased properties. A fantastic scam—that is the only way to describe it—is going on, by which letting agencies all over London have an over-close and over-cosy relationship with their housing authorities, which accept a dozen, two or three dozen, or 100 homeless families, and plonk them in flats in constituencies, such as Edmonton, that are usually near an outer London ring. Those places are often disgusting, and we, the public, pay for that through housing benefit. I have been to places where I would not be prepared to stay the night, let alone live, and for which the public pay £300 a week in rent—places that no one can be bothered to inspect or repair and that are infested with vermin. In 21st century London that is simply wrong.

My council in Islington is Liberal Democrat-controlled and is consulting on a housing strategy. In the past five years, on council figures, the proportion of owner-occupiers in Islington has decreased by 4 per cent; that of council tenants by 6 per cent., and that of housing association tenants by 1 per cent. The proportion of private renters has increased by 9 per cent. The lowest cost of a one-bedroomed property has increased from £160,000 to £228,000. The lowest rent for a one-bedroomed home in the private sector has increased from £700 a month to £900 a month, and the annual need for affordable housing has increased from 1,800 to 4,400 units. The proportion of households in Islington living in overcrowded conditions has increased from 6.7 per cent. to 6.9 per cent. In council housing that figure has increased from 9.8 per cent. to 11.5 per cent. Those statistics are very interesting. They show the reality for my borough—which has an image of expensive restaurants, chic metropolitan living and all that goes with that—as one in which a minority of the population live in owner-occupied accommodation. The largest sector is council/housing association homes and there is a rapidly increasing private rented sector. The problems are that we are not able to offer places to people in Islington who are in desperate housing need. That leads to community break-up and other problems.

Another downside to the private rented, uncertain-future accommodation is that people do not know how long they will be there. It might be a week, a month, a year or two years. They have no stake or interest in the local community and are frightened to get involved in a community association, school governing body or anything else because they do not know what their future will be. That has a debilitating effect on community life as a whole. We need permanent housing to be built, urgently.

I have a couple more quick points to make, but I will be very brief. The current crisis in the housing market over mortgages and the rest may well lead to a slight reduction in house prices, if not to a rapid fall in some parts of the country. I suspect that it will also have the result that some of the developers who are now building private sector developments, such as flats, will suddenly be unable to sell them. That is a crisis for them; I understand that. It is also an opportunity for councils and housing associations to move in quickly, buy the
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developments and help to solve the current housing problem. I should be very interested to know whether the Minister can give us any help on that issue. I have asked representatives of several of the larger housing associations that operate in my area, “If something came up, could you get it quickly; could you deal with it?” Most of them say that, provided they had the capital available, they could process that quickly.

My last point is about London as a whole. We have a housing crisis in London. We have a crisis of homelessness and of need; housing is in crisis in many ways. It will not be solved by letting a free market rip in London. It will be addressed only by investing in new council housing. I tell local authorities that are still selling off assets, Islington included, that it is a disgrace to be selling them now when they could be converted to social housing.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman and I have very similar views on this; does he agree that if, as I should wish, considerably more council housing were to be built in London, we should avoid letting it be susceptible to the right to buy, so that it would disappear after councils had invested in it? It should be possible to ring-fence it and keep it in local authority control, and hand it on so that it remained social housing.

Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely. I could not agree more. There are many ways to deal with that, such as forming co-operatives; we need to keep those places in the social sector. However, we need overall housing administration in London that requires at least half of all new developments to be housing for people in need, and at least a third, although I should prefer half, to be for affordable, controlled rent—social rented. We also need to end the scam, which I mentioned when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), of developers buying out their obligations by putting money and development somewhere else. We need mixed and balanced communities.

I am proud to represent my constituents and to do my best for them, but I am ashamed when I talk to people and I know that they will bid week after week and get nothing as a result. One can see the depression in the family and the potential for family break-up. Youngsters hang around the streets; there is nothing wrong in that, but it is wrong for it to be someone’s only option because they are frightened to be at home at night. I thank the Minister for what he has done in trying to improve conditions on estates, and for his understanding of the issue, but we need an urgent action programme to deal with the housing crisis in London.

3.27 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for leaving me a little time, and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for yet another housing debate. She must occasionally feel that she is banging her head against a brick wall, but nevertheless she keeps going and keeps raising the
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issues. Of course not many brick walls are being built in London, but that will change with the election of Ken Livingstone next week.

The bottom end of the housing market—social rented and shared ownership—is virtually sclerotic in central London now. There is at least a 25 per cent. population turnover in my constituency every year, but there is very little movement, except among the properties that have been sold and are now buy-to-let, on housing estates. Whole families grow up and children finally move out in appallingly crowded conditions, without any of the movement that used to take place even 20 years ago in that market. We know, historically, that that is for reasons of lack of supply as well as of depletion of stock through the right to buy and other means, and it results in figures such as those I quoted in my intervention earlier, which show that there is effectively no opportunity for families living in Hammersmith and Fulham or Ealing to be rehoused within the social rented market. There are appalling levels of overcrowding, and people have come to my surgeries who have five children in a one-bedroomed flat or six children in a two-bedroomed flat; those are not untypical examples.

The need for policy is clear, and the policy is clear, certainly as far as the Mayor is concerned: it is for 35 per cent. social rented housing, 15 per cent. shared ownership and 50 per cent. market target. The mayoral candidates attended a debate conducted by London Citizens the week before last, and they were introduced to the concept of the housing affordability standard. I think that that is a very good piece of research. It showed that someone on the minimum wage in London has £86 a week available for housing, and that someone on the London living wage, which the mayor has promoted, of £7.20 an hour, would have £135 a week. That, in reality, means living in registered social landlord or council rented accommodation—not even in shared ownership accommodation—and that is the essential reason for requiring not only the 50 per cent. target but the 35 per cent. target. That is why the intention of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) to abandon the target if elected is criminality, rather than folly.

In the brief time that I have, I want to focus on what is already happening with registered social landlords and Conservative and Liberal councils. Either they find meeting housing need too difficult or do not want to do so for political reasons, but they are not even seeking to meet such need. In fact, they are going the other way and reducing the amount of affordable housing available.

I give an example from my surgery last Friday. Hammersmith and Fulham council boasts about its direct letting scheme. If a mother with two children goes to the council, she will be put in touch with a private landlord—usually big private landlords who own many properties—who will house her somewhere. In this case, a family with two children—a two-year-old and a six-month-old—were put into a flat directly on the A40. It is in appalling condition. There is infestation, and the lifts do not work. The mother is undergoing treatment for a brain tumour. She is unable to get to the shops or to get a buggy downstairs, and she has no prospect of ever being rehoused by the council. She is in an infested block run by Ealing council, and has a private landlord who does not care.

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That is the new face of rehousing in London. It is almost impossible for my office or anybody else who wishes to assist people to untangle the network that has been created. Previously, such people would have been put in a hostel. Under the previous Labour council in Hammersmith, all the hostels were modernised and made self-contained. The current Conservative council is selling them off on the open market. They emptied them using the Government’s target to reduce temporary accommodation by 50 per cent. as a cynical excuse. Estates Gazette reported last month that a very desirable property in Waldemar avenue had been sold for £905,000. Formerly, it had been five flats for homeless families. It is now being converted with planning consent from the Conservative council into a single property for sale on the open market.

I believe that you wish me to conclude, Mr. Chope. I end simply with this point: unless there is a reversal of policy, and unless the Government are prepared to follow their money with implementation, the housing market in London will not change. I would like to hear the response of the Minister and the Opposition to that.

3.31 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I have become very engaged by this debate and by the fact that the bottom line is that everyone in this room agrees that the biggest single determinant of the quality of life of a family in the long term is the quality of their accommodation. I do not need to repeat that point, and I see that the Minister is agreeing. I am encouraged by the fact that we all agree that the fundamental requirement in a first-world country is to ensure that individuals have a quality of accommodation that is commensurate with the wealth of the nation as a whole.

The fact that the rate of ownership is lower in London than anywhere else in the UK is hardly surprising. There are historical and financial reasons for that. That in itself is not the issue. In other countries, there is generally a lower level of ownership. It is a quirk of British society that we equate property ownership with achievement.

Nevertheless, what really concerns me are the 91,000 empty homes and the 200,000 or so overcrowded houses, which have already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and others. It is also a matter of great concern to me—and, I am sure, to the Minister—that 330,000 households are on waiting lists. The number has risen by about one fifth in the past four years. We have also heard from various contributors today about the importance of building not just one and two-bedroomed houses, and that 60,000 households require homes with three or more bedrooms. It is ironic indeed that 60,000 three to four-bedroomed homes are under-occupied.

Part of the reason for that is the great profitability of building one to two-bedroomed homes. We know that that is why developers like them, and that it is how they maximise their profits. Of course, that could change if we end up with a glut of one and two-bedroomed homes and a shortage of larger homes. We have to recognise that developers are primarily under a financial obligation to deliver what they think will maximise their profits. Let us not be na├»ve and think that they will alter their strategies simply on the basis of what the Government require and what society needs—that will not happen.

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