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6 Nov 2008 : Column 176WH—continued

We also need an examination into—I must choose my words carefully—the over-convenient relationship between local authority housing departments and local letting agencies. The local agencies may get in touch with the housing department and offer 50 flats. It is easy
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for the housing departments to say, “Okay, we’ll take your 50 flats,” and not bother to examine them too closely. It is the tenants who lose out. We need some changes.

Grant Shapps: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman shares my despair over the fact that, during the past 10 years, so much less affordable and social housing has been built than was built during the 18 years prior to that.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to move away from the main narrative of my speech. All I would say is that I was a councillor in the London borough of Haringey during the 1970s and early 1980s, and I was proud when we managed to complete 1,000 new dwellings in one year. We were taking people off the waiting lists and rehousing them. Then Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister; house building stopped, right to buy came in, and bed-and-breakfast and hostel accommodation returned. Let us not talk of the golden days of the Thatcher Government, because they were not golden for people in housing need. They may have been golden for those who wanted to make a fast buck at the expense of the public sector. That is all that I have to say, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is entirely satisfied by my response.

Emily Thornberry: Can we have some more?

Jeremy Corbyn: There is more if it is wanted, but I think that that is quite enough for the moment.

Paul Holmes: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said about the Conservatives’ bad track record, but surely he agrees that it is even sadder that the record is worse after 11 years of Labour than it was after the bad record of the Tories?

Jeremy Corbyn: What I am disappointed about, and what makes me angry and determined to see change, is the need to build many more houses for rent. I am sure that everyone agrees that the Government have done well with the decent homes standard. We have made our estates much better, and improved them a great deal, which is good. However, we have not done anything like enough in building for social rent. That is the thrust of the report, and it is the thrust of what every hon. Member has said today. On that we are agreed. The hon. Gentleman has heard what I have said, so he is well aware of my views.

I hope that the Minister will give us some good news on the Government’s attitude to council housing. I am a member of the all-party group on council housing along with the hon. Member for Chesterfield and others. We need to stop discriminating against local authorities and local authority tenants, who have freely chosen not to transfer to a housing association or to establish an ALMO. That is their right. It is unfair that local authorities such as Camden, Chesterfield and one or two others, where there has been no stock transfer, should end up losing grant and support, because they end up paying far more.

I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about reform of the housing revenue account. It is an arcane and difficult thing to understand, and most
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people switch off as soon as it is mentioned. However, through its method of operation, it is taking a great deal of money out of tenants’ pockets and giving it to central Government. It is like a Government levy.

In my former life as a councillor and as an MP I have never been particularly in favour of right to buy, because it ends up taking properties out of the social rented sector. However, it is important to emphasise to local authorities that they now have the power to buy back under the right to buy, if they want to. Very few of them seem to be aware of that, and even fewer of them seem to be doing it.

We must recognise that the right to buy creates a number of problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and I are inundated by problems in relation to leaseholders, who are often not wealthy by any manner of means. When those people bought their flats in the 1980s or early 1990s, either the situation was not explained to them or they were not aware or did not bother to read the fine print of what they were getting into, but they seem to be totally shocked every time a capital expenditure bill comes along for a new roof or other work being done. There are then enormous arguments and debates between tenants and local authorities about who will pay for the capital repairs.

Leaseholders often are not wealthy—indeed, some are very much up against it, particularly if they are older—and they are absolutely terrified when they get a bill for £5,000 or £10,000 for their proportion of the capital expenditure. We need to think very carefully about that issue and take a much more sensible approach. We also need a much more robust system to work out what the charging mechanisms are. One gets the impression that some local authorities are desperate to meet the decent homes standard—I have no complaints about that—and are not pushing the contractors hard enough on the price being paid. There are some big issues in that regard that have to be dealt with.

I want to discuss rent policies. I represent an area in which about 40 per cent. of the community lives in council and housing association property. Income levels are such that at least 80 per cent. of that population has no chance whatsoever of buying their own property. For them, the only way out of a housing crisis is through local authority-inspired renting—either through nomination to a housing association or, in our case, through Homes for Islington.

People who live in grossly overcrowded accommodation suffer in many ways. Children suffer because if one child gets the flu, they all do. If one person gets a cold, everyone gets it, because they are living in such overcrowded accommodation. That is bad for their health and for their children’s well-being. Having inadequate space to play is damaging to young children. Children from 11 upwards and young teenagers feel embarrassed when they live in overcrowded places. They cannot bring their friends home for tea or to stay over because there is no space for anyone to come in, and they hang around on the streets outside instead. There is nothing wrong with young people socialising, as that is part of growing up, but when their only option for doing so is to hang around in the streets, we end up with the levels of youth disorder and crime that we have at the moment. Those children then underachieve at school, are excluded and end up being over-represented in young offenders
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institutions. We are creating social disorder, crime, misery and poverty by not investing enough money in decent housing for everyone in our society and communities. I welcome the fact that the Select Committee report has looked at those issues.

On letting policies, I understand the need for priorities. However, when someone comes in to my advice bureau to talk about their housing problems, I find myself—as I am sure other hon. Members do—deftly asking, “Are you ill?” If they say, “Not really,” I ask, “Well, how not really not ill are you?” and I try to work out a hopeful way of getting them some medical points. That is wrong really, but everyone does it, because it is a way past a shortage. We go through all that, and get letters from schools, doctors, psychiatrists and social workers, and then it all ends up being rejected, and they get nothing because they are not ill or bad enough. Then they will come back two years later, psychiatrically ill because of the stress that they have been put through, and we end up re-housing them in the end.

We re-house on the basis of need, taking into account whether children or elderly people are involved and whether there is disability or illness. A large proportion of households within our society—indeed the fastest-increasing proportion of households—contain single people. They get absolutely nothing under housing policies anywhere in the country that I know of. There might be places in which they do, but I do not know of them. We must recognise that single people have rights, needs and demands, just like the rest of the community. They should not be discriminated against because they are single.

The Select Committee has said that we need to build 50,000 units a year, and the Government generally accept that figure. I have no idea where that figure came from, but we could be far more ambitious, because there is desperate need. If the credit crunch is to mean anything, surely it is that the money that the Government have set aside to allow local authorities and housing associations to purchase is important and that it must be spent on purchasing properties, where properties are of adequate value, and available land. We must use this time and this opportunity to build housing for people who are in desperate need. That would solve three problems: it would house people who are in desperate housing need; it would provide work for building workers and building companies; and it would help to regenerate the economy, as the knock-on effect of the building industry is considerable.

Dr. Starkey: Pages 25 and 26 of the report explain exactly where the 50,000 figure comes from. That was the target proposed by Shelter in its evidence to the Committee, and it was on the basis of that evidence that the Committee came up with the figure.

Jeremy Corbyn: I would not dream of arguing with Shelter. I am sure that it is absolutely right, but why cannot the figure be higher? However, I understand the point behind it.

Grant Shapps: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am like that; I was born generous.

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Grant Shapps: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the 50,000 figure. Is he aware that in 1992, during the last recession, 60,000 affordable homes were built in one year?

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, I am aware of the number that were built during that period, and I want us to build far more properties now. That is possible, and I hope that we can do it. The responsibility to do that rests on us all.

By underfunding housing associations and requiring local authorities to sell capital assets and land, we have got into a situation in which social housing, be it housing association or council-owned, has become an add-on to private sector developments and interests, rather than being a social good and a social objective in its own right. I absolutely agree with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury has made about the disposal of capital assets by local authorities. There was a time, up until 1980, when any public authority—be it a publicly owned industry, such as the railway, telephone and water companies, or a local authority or health authority—that was disposing of any public assets had to offer them to any other public authority first, giving them first refusal. That was a good way of getting hold of redundant railway, water authority or other land to develop social housing. The Conservative Government, of whom the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) is so proud, abolished that rule very quickly after winning the 1979 election.

It is time for us to go back to protecting public assets for public good, so that we can deal with the housing crisis. The financial crisis is terrible, but it presents an opportunity to deal with the pressing social need to ensure that everyone in the country has somewhere decent, secure and safe to live.

4.38 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, in such an important debate. I am very pleased that the Select Committee chose to conduct this inquiry and to provide us with a report, and that we have been given the opportunity to debate these issues. It is slightly depressing, however, that we have not moved forward hugely in the past few years. I have heard this debate several times in the few years that I have been here, and many of the issues that we are discussing today have been issues for some time. They are not newly emerging trends.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and her Committee on the report. She picked out a number of key findings, some of which I shall return to later. I hope that she will forgive me for not responding directly to her comments now, because I shall talk about the report later.

The hon. Lady was keen to point out at the start that we are now operating in a slightly different context to when the report was written. As many hon. Members have pointed out, that has huge implications on how housing development will be provided, on the response of the private sector and on how the requirements for rented accommodation will be affected, should even a small number of people now become able or choose to get into the housing market.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) has done a huge amount of work as a Front-Bench spokesman, as a member of the all-party group on council housing and as a constituency MP with a huge interest in those matters. He rightly pointed out the human cost of inadequate housing, and the loss of potential, productivity, educational opportunities and social and community benefits for all those whose lives are affected. That point was echoed by other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) who spoke about the potential for inadequate housing to send young people in particular down a path that we would love to guide them away from.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield talked about the size of the task that faces us, and he had strong words to say about housing associations. I agree with him, and the Liberal Democrat party has supported the option of councils being able to build again in recent years. Although they can vary, some housing associations do fantastic work and have made great moves to increase tenant involvement and participation, and to find other ways in which they can support their tenants, be that financial support or something else. I had the pleasure of speaking at an event not far from this House, and of launching a report on housing in the south-west by the National Housing Federation. Much good work is done by housing associations.

Paul Holmes: To clarify, as I have said, many housing associations do a good job. As my hon. Friend has said, many of them are starting to help tenants train for skills for work and to give them financial advice. It just strikes me as an irony that that is what councils used to do before their budgets were cut so much that they could no longer afford to do so.

Dan Rogerson: I have given my hon. Friend the opportunity to emphasise his earlier point. Through the policies of the previous Government, and those of the present one, we have put all our eggs in one basket. We have not allowed a broad spectrum of ways in which to tackle this issue, such as allowing local authorities to become more directly engaged.

My hon. Friend spoke about the right to buy, and the potential benefits of giving people who wish to have it access to home ownership. My parents had a council house when I was born; they went on to buy a first small property and later to buy plots of land and build. Historically, there was more movement in and out of council houses. As the Hills report states, council tenants used to include a broader spectrum of incomes and levels of engagement with the community. It has always struck me that as a country, we got out of the housing market just before a huge increase in property prices. As an investment, that was a bad decision, and perhaps we are now perhaps suffering from that.

The Government’s decisions in other Departments have created problems. In my constituency, there is housing that was owned by the Ministry of Defence. Under the Conservative Government, it was passed over to Annington Homes. I have corresponded with Annington Homes. It is acting to deliver on what it has been asked to do, but there are now empty homes because the MOD has not released them for disposal. That is in the context of huge housing need in towns such as Newquay.

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The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) talked about the stark divide in wealth and the overcrowding in her constituency. She also referred to choice-based letting, which is crucial. It would be wonderful for choice-based letting to become the reality, because people would be empowered to choose between properties. The reality is that people are allocated a property through the system. There is very little choice because of banding systems and people can apply only for certain properties.

In my constituency, a council has just taken someone off the list—it has a policy of doing that if someone has not applied for all the properties for which they could have applied. That is a move away from choice-based letting. I understand why the council might choose to do that if the allocated temporary housing is in a particular location and is very high cost, but that system is a problem. It means that choice-based letting does not function in the way in which it was intended to do.

The hon. Lady also made a good point about the need to prioritise family housing. In this period, there has been a big move towards single-person households. However, the fact that more single-person households are being created—people are living longer and so on—does not mean that all single people will go and live in the one-bedroomed flats that are being built. In many such cases, people are in the private sector and stay in larger accommodation. There are families with nowhere to go.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) talked about the right to buy and size and location. He also mentioned section 106 agreements and the interaction with the community infrastructure levy. He and I both served in Committee on the Planning Bill as it went through the Commons, and it still remains to be seen what that interaction will be. He is right to say that that could become an issue, especially if we have a slow down in private development. There are scarce resources that people are fighting over for investment.

The hon. Gentleman talked about local decision making on policy, which the Liberal Democrats support. Under the previous and current Governments, there has been a centralising tendency. We must restore the capacity and ability for local authorities to take more strategic decisions in their own areas.

The hon. Member for Islington, North talked about the push to get people into home ownership that, rather perversely, has taken place in this country. The last Housing Minister but one still argued strongly that we should take that approach, that people aspired to own their own home and that public policy should be about helping them to achieve that. I think that a lot of people have been pushed into that route as it was the only one available for them get anywhere near the sort of housing that is appropriate to their needs. We have 100 per cent. mortgages, and I am sure that all hon. Members—as well as the citizens advice bureaux—are getting calls from people who now have negative equity and cannot afford to pay those mortgages. A huge crisis is just around the corner, and we need to deal with it.

The hon. Gentleman pointed to the issue of leaseholders who, following the right to buy now have problems due to the investment that is necessary on their properties. I remember that being a problem when I was a councillor for an area that had a lot of social and ex-social housing.

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