Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Apr 2008 : Column 473WH—continued

23 Apr 2008 : Column 474WH

My first question to the Minister is, what mechanisms could be used to influence developers to build the right mix of housing? In parenthesis, I also point out that several developers feel that they have to build one and two-bedroomed homes—the cheaper homes—because the bottom rungs of the house ownership ladder have been kicked away due to spiralling inflation in house prices. Let us not pretend that any short readjustment in the house price market will be sustained for any length of time. The market always recovers if demand exceeds supply, as substantially as it does.

The issue of temporary accommodation has once again been raised. With some 56,000 households in temporary accommodation in London, it cannot be right to think that the strategy is in line with requirements. There has been an 8 per cent. reduction in the number of households in such accommodation, and that is welcome, but it is nowhere near enough.

The cost of temporary accommodation can be measured in pounds and pence and can be extremely high, for reasons that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and others highlighted, but the social cost has a practical financial value, as well as a less definable but very real cost in terms of misery. Diverting money to housing associations so that they can house families permanently seems like an attractive option.

My second question to the Minister is, what will his Government do to ensure that local authorities have the tools to break the vicious cycle of temporary accommodation that has been lucidly described by others and needs no repetition from me?

Increasing owner-occupation through shared ownership seems an absolutely sensible way to provide equity for the householder and the state. London has one of the lowest rates of owner-occupation in the UK, with only 57 per cent. owning their own home, compared with 70 per cent. nationally. Twenty per cent. of social housing tenants aged 34 to 44 could afford to buy their own home in 1997-98, but that proportion was down to 5 per cent. in 2004-05, entirely as a result of property prices rising. That leads to my third question to the Minister: to what extent will this Government actively drive owner-occupation and facilitate the use of that valuable and important tool in the interests of resolving these issues?

Jeremy Corbyn: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about promoting owner-occupation. In my borough, there is roughly 30 per cent. owner-occupation. He heard what I said about house prices. Is it really credible to promote owner-occupation in an area such as mine? Would it not be better to promote rented accommodation to solve the immediate housing problems?

Lembit Öpik: I do not have the arrogance to second-guess the hon. Gentleman’s information about his own constituency, but I know that there is great variation in the demographics across London, and that what would not work in his area could well work in others. From what he said today, I suspect that other solutions would be much more appropriate in his area than simply following an owner-occupation agenda.

I think that we are over-obsessed with house ownership in this country. We have created a social status that results in poor decision making by some people, who
23 Apr 2008 : Column 475WH
end up, in effect, being slaves to their mortgage. That does not help them in the long term and it increases the risk of repossession.

The action points seem fairly clear to me. First, compulsory purchase orders could be effective in bringing some of the empty homes back into public usage, or in acting as an incentive to let the property. At least that would be a mitigating measure to reduce the pressure on housing. The empty property strategy from 2003 to 2006 reduced the number of empty homes in Islington by 16 per cent., and I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) feels that that, at least, has been an effective methodology. However, we still have people in wrong-sized properties. With sensitive management, I wonder whether the Government could do something to make it easy and painless for people to be put in the right size of house.

I reiterate that, unlike the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats are committed to the principle that 50 per cent. of new housing developments should be affordable housing. I do not understand why the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), whom I regard as a personal friend, takes a contrary view, when it is absolutely clear that to remove that requirement would simply make matters worse. Perhaps the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who will speak for the official Opposition, will clarify that position.

Simon Hughes: Does my hon. Friend accept that in London, as colleagues have said, many people just do not have a home of their own? Their needs would be met by the provision of affordable housing. Much of the free-market housing would not be a first home and might not even be a second home, and is for people who are generally perfectly adequately housed—it is not a need in London at all and is absolutely not a priority.

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend makes a point that is self-explanatory. I agree. I hope that the Minister will respond to it if he has time.

As well as the 50 per cent. condition, and in addition to looking at compulsory purchase, I seek the Minister’s views on the 70,000 hectares of surplus land owned by Network Rail, Transport for London, the NHS and other Government bodies, which could be used to build tens of thousands of new houses. Surely that would be an easy win and would be fairly straightforward—especially through new community land trusts—under the legislation that the Minister himself shepherded through the House on new build, which passed through the House of Commons just a few weeks ago.

I have already mentioned shared equity schemes. I should like the Minister to comment on the potential for new forms of housing purchase for people on low and moderate incomes that keep homes affordable, rather than allowing them to be sold on at a market rate. Obviously, we Liberal Democrats will review and expand our policies in line with the need in London but, fundamentally, I am looking for a commitment from the Minister, whom I hold in high regard, to work strategically with local authorities that are doing the best they can with the resources available, given the strictures placed upon them. Without that support, I
23 Apr 2008 : Column 476WH
fear that those local authorities will have to act expediently in the short term and continue to exacerbate the strategic problem in the long term.

3.41 pm

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate. I know that the subject is a passion of hers.

This is a timely debate for me, because I have today released a report called “Crumbling Foundations”, which looks specifically into affordable housing throughout the country and in London. A table on page 6—figure 3—amply demonstrates the point that the hon. Lady came here to raise today, which is that the number of people now on council waiting lists for housing is at an all-time record, including in London. Back in 1997, there were 181,080 on the council waiting lists; now there are 333,857 on the same lists. There is, by any extent, a crisis.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) mentioned his constituency in great detail. I knew it well before he spoke and I now feel that I know it even better, including many of the estates. He knows the estates inside out, and he took us on a tour around them and explained many of the crippling housing problems. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and other hon. Members clearly articulated the problem. In that regard, we are all in agreement; we all believe that there is a housing crisis.

Mr. Love: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, because I would have liked to have put this question to a Conservative Member for London, but since none are available, I shall put it to him. Will he join me in condemning Wandsworth, Westminster, Barnet and other local authorities that have delivered only 10 or 11 per cent. affordable accommodation in London to address the problems that he mentions? If, as he says, all hon. Members in the Chamber are in agreement, he will certainly endorse that sentiment.

Grant Shapps: Rather than picking on individual councils, I will do better than that and quote from my report, which makes clear why we have ended up with this horrendous problem. To speed things through, I shall jump to the relevant section of that report, for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit.

After 11 years of following roughly the same policy, we have built fewer houses in this country overall. We know the figures. Some 176,000 houses, on average, were built a year during the period of the last Government. That number has descended to a mere 145,000 over the past decade. I welcome interventions from Labour Members on that point. We also know the figures on the statistics for housing association and RSL homes. We know that, in the 11 years since 1997, we have never returned even to the 1997 figure of 28,000 RSL homes being built. In the past year the figure dropped to 26,000. However, the situation is worse still if we look at the supply of houses built by councils. Back in 1997, the figure was still more than 1,550, yet it had descended to a mere 268 last year. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong; I do not have a moment to look that figure up in my report.

If we are going to analyse the problem and have a serious, grown-up discussion about why we are in such a
23 Apr 2008 : Column 477WH
catastrophic mess when it comes to housing, it is not because Wandsworth has done this or Hammersmith and Fulham has done that, but because this nation has not built the houses that we have needed for well over a decade—particularly in the past decade—and that has left us in crisis.

Ms Buck: Is it not true that local authorities, as the planning authorities in respect of these decisions, are essential if we are going to deliver a national house building target? The hon. Gentleman is reading from his report, but would it be wrong to say, from reading his website, that he was also campaigning using the words, “Say no way to 10k”, and opposing house building in his constituency?

Grant Shapps: That was a cross-party campaign that I chaired in my constituency, and the hon. Lady’s colleagues from Welwyn Hatfield were sitting in as well. It is not that we mind building homes. In fact, we have already built 2,000 and are happy to build 6,000 of them. It is just that 10,000 pushes the resources when one considers that, at the same time, the local hospital is being closed down and resources are not being provided. That picture is repeated not just in my constituency, but across London, and I want to focus on that.

Mr. Iain Wright: Given the challenges and the need to improve and increase the supply of housing in the capital, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the consensus of our excellent debate that any moves to scrap a 50 per cent. affordable housing build would be absolutely foolish and should be criticised as being in Pottyland?

Grant Shapps: No, I disagree with the Minister and I will tell him why. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned, trying to build the homes that we need by pushing further with the prescriptions to try to solve the housing crisis that have failed during the Government’s tenure will replicate and ensure the continuation of the problems that we have experienced. I should have thought it fairly obvious to Labour Members, who feel passionately about this issue, that repeating the same mistakes is not the way to get out of the problem in which we find ourselves.

Mr. Dismore rose—

Grant Shapps: I am happy to carry on taking interventions, but I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to some of the points that have been made.

Mr. Dismore: On a point that I raised when I think that the hon. Gentleman was out of the Chamber, does he agree with Barnet planners, who tell me that as the 50 per cent. rule works through, sites bought many years ago at the then open market value before the 50 per cent. rule, or when it had just come in, will work their way through and the residual land values will then start to reflect the 50 per cent. rule, thus making it much more achievable?

Grant Shapps: I could spend quite a while on that and I make some reference to it in my report. However, in the interests of allowing the Minister to speak, I shall
23 Apr 2008 : Column 478WH
carry on with my own points, but only because it is a complicated question, although the entire situation is complicated.

It is easy to say that we need to build all houses at 50 per cent. affordability. I should like to build all houses at 100 per cent. affordability and I have no doubt that the Minister—although I do not want to do his job for him—would like to as well. However, the reality is that to get those houses built, we must have developers who are prepared to develop, because—guess what, folks—the Government do not build houses. Actually, last year the Government built only 268 council houses directly, as has been mentioned. I should like them to build more. When we were in power, we did build more. I know how we can build more. Rather than having local authorities return 75 per cent. of income from a right-to-buy sale to central Government, with that money not being recycled to build more homes, why not allow that money to be ring-fenced locally for housing? That seems obvious and it is one of the many solutions that we need in respect of housing.

Mr. Slaughter rose—

Grant Shapps: There are more solutions, if I can get to them, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman knows that it is perfectly possible to achieve those targets. Some Labour councils, including Hammersmith, when it was under Labour control, achieved them. I shall not ask him about that again, but I would like him to answer another question. My Conservative council said last month:

When I suggested during proceedings on the Housing and Regeneration Bill that that was Conservative policy, the hon. Gentleman denied it, so will he now dissociate himself from that comment? Conservative policy seems to be to treat all council housing as temporary housing. Is that his solution to the housing problem?

Grant Shapps: I have just told the hon. Gentleman that we want more council house building. When we were in power, we built more council housing in every category than his Government have. To get to the central point, if we want to relieve the housing crisis in this country, we must build more homes, and if we want to do that, repeating the failing prescription of the past will not achieve what we require. I have told the Minister before—and I say again—that when the former Soviet Union told Ukraine how many tractors to build in the 10-year plan, it rarely, if ever, made that target.

The same mistake is being made here today with a new target: 3 million homes by 2020 from a Government who have no chance of building them. If I were in the Chamber with not a junior housing Minister, but a trade and industry Minister, they would think it insane for any of us to ask how many cars or tractors the Government hoped to build in the next 10 years. However, the Government apparently believe that that is a rational approach for housing, and that is why, 11 years on, it must be incredibly sad for Labour Back Benchers, who are passionate about this matter, to know that their Government have failed them and their constituents.

23 Apr 2008 : Column 479WH

We all have constituents in our surgeries every week telling us that they are unable to get homes simply because not enough are being built. We must tackle that by building more homes and incentivising local communities to create the necessary housing. That is done by not closing down the local hospital in an area where one wants to build 10,000 or 15,000 more homes and by relaxing the rules that section 106 money can be spent only in the exact vicinity of the new housing, rather than through incentivising the existing community to accept those houses. Until we do those things, we will never build the homes that this country requires.

Mr. Slaughter rose—

Grant Shapps: I am happy to take one last intervention, but the Minister—

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. I am going to intervene now to call the Minister to respond.

3.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I begin with a profound personal apology to your good self, Mr. Chope, for the fact that you have had to listen to me five times in two days. I do not know what you have done to displease Mr. Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on his engagement and wish him well.

This has been an excellent debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing it. It is recognised throughout the House that she has been a champion of housing in the capital. I hope that all hon. Members agree that a one-and-a-half-hour debate in Westminster Hall is inadequate for such a massive issue. We need a topical debate on the Floor of the House, or perhaps a three-hour debate here on a Thursday afternoon, because the matter is so important.

Many issues have been raised: overcrowding, temporary accommodation, problems associated with choice-based lettings, homelessness, rough sleeping and economic apartheid, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) mentioned. A common theme—I hope that we all agree on this—is that we need to build more homes, particularly affordable homes, with an emphasis on social homes.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said, the fact that the non-London hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who claims that he will be a strong voice for London, is not here to debate housing, which is one of London’s most pressing issues, is symptomatic of his campaign. He is running scared, hiding from scrutiny, and demonstrating an arrogant and disgraceful disdain for the electorate. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) did a sterling job of trying to defend his hon. Friend, but he knows the truth. It is disgraceful that someone who wants to represent London, the world’s best city, is not here to have his policies scrutinised.

Next Section Index Home Page