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6 Nov 2008 : Column 188WH—continued

To answer the intervention accurately, of course public money must go into it. I had a similar intervention from the hon. Member for Islington, North. When we were in power, we built 60,000 affordable homes in 1992, a year of recession. Even the Government’s targets mention only 45,000 or 50,000, variously; it is hard to know which. The reason why we built more was pointed out earlier. It is because we put more public subsidy into it, and because the system that delivered housing was not top-down but bottom-up. It did not rely on Ministers
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thinking that they knew best and directing regional assemblies to plonk down housing in localities; it worked with local communities to deliver housing. We know that there is a better way to do things; we have seen it in operation. I invite the Minister to share, as the Government have tended to do in the past year, in some of the Conservatives’ better ideas on housing. Perhaps we can work together to create the affordable housing and better rented sector that we need in this country.

I want to ensure that I give the Minister adequate time to answer this flurry of questions, so I will end by asking her just a couple of questions. Last year, the Conservative Homelessness Foundation produced a report showing that 130,000 children in this country are now homeless. That is twice as many as 10 years ago. Does she think that there is anything in the review of the rented housing sector that would be of help and comfort to those 130,000 homeless children? Is there a measure or some response that I have not picked out that would reassure them that the Government are on the problem?

Finally, as has been mentioned, there is dramatically less housing overall than in the period preceding this Government. Will the Minister do what neither of her predecessors seem prepared to do and admit once and for all that the problem with housing is that too little has been built in the past 10 years? With the admission of that problem comes the resolution to the problem of the private rented sector and much else besides.

5.12 pm

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): It has been a fascinating debate. I may as well say at the outset that the chances of me answering in 15 minutes the plethora of questions that have been aired are not high, although I will certainly do my best to deal with the main issues: the subject, the Select Committee’s excellent report—which, like everyone else who has spoken, I commend—and the general discussions that we have had and will have about the overall issue of housing supply. The Chair of the Select Committee, in giving her masterly summary of the report’s key points and picking out some of the issues that interested her, reminded us all forcefully of the key importance of the subject. As I said, I will say something about the key points of this debate rather than dealing with all the detail of the specific issues raised.

Hon. Members will be aware that we have already taken forward many of the recommendations made in the report. I will endeavour to update the Committee on that and on what progress has been made, but it is worth first making a point that I believe was made by the Committee Chair at the outset and was touched on but not dwelt on during our exchanges. It is not in dispute that in the public mind, and perhaps particularly in media commentary, renting a home is often seen in this country mainly as a stepping stone to home ownership. For many people, that is undoubtedly true and may remain so. However, I completely accept and have always held the view that rented housing also plays a much wider role in our society than that common assumption acknowledges.

A huge variety of people, from those starting out in their careers to retirees and wealthy professionals to those on housing benefit, all gain—in their different circumstances, and perhaps for different reasons—from
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the greater flexibility and choice that can be found in rented housing, including in the private rented sector. Social rented housing also plays an invaluable role for those who need greater security or stability than can be found in the private rented sector but who cannot sustain private home ownership. My hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) both made powerful points about that in the context of constituencies such as their own. Many people cannot sustain private home ownership and are unlikely to be able to do so for some considerable time to come, if ever.

Because of the many benefits and the wide variety of people that it supports, rented housing must not been seen as second best. The Committee report made that point and dwelt on it, which is welcome. It is good that it has come through clearly and that it is common ground in this debate that all who rent their homes, whether in the public or the private sector, ought to get the best possible quality and service. The Government and the Select Committee are in complete agreement.

The Committee’s wide range of recommendations fall broadly into three categories: that we should increase the supply of both private and publicly rented homes—most of today’s exchanges have dwelt on that—that we should improve the quality of homes in the private sector and that we should improve the quality and service available in social housing. I shall take each of those broad themes of the report in that order.

Last year, we committed to the biggest home-building programme for many years, perhaps for decades, whose ambition was 3 million new homes by 2020, with a particular focus on affordable and social housing. As has been said, over the next three years, we will invest more than £8 billion in the programme. I have not had any specific discussions with the new chair and CEO of the HCA, to whom the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) referred, not least because the HCA will not be set up until 1 December. I was interested to hear what he said. From the little that I have heard, I would be surprised if it were true. I do not know Sir Bob Kerslake very well, although I know that is not necessarily the case for other Members on the Committee, but from my relatively brief acquaintance with him, I do not get the impression that he is a man easily confused, especially by worries about the amount of money available to him and how to use it. I look forward to hearing from Sir Bob Kerslake whether that is indeed how he feels.

Grant Shapps: The organisation will spend £15.5 billion in public money and will be answerable to the Minister, or at least to the Secretary of State. I would be most grateful if she agreed to investigate the budgets and send a note.

Margaret Beckett: I am not sure whether we are not slightly at cross purposes. Yes, the agency will report to me, and of course I expect over time to have many discussions with the agency about what it can do, the scope, how it uses its resources and so on. What I thought that the hon. Gentleman was asking me, amid his plethora of questions, was whether in the three and a half weeks that I have been in this post I have been examining books of housing associations. I freely admit
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that that has not been my earliest priority. However, as someone who has in the course of a chequered career been shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, among other things, I take a keen interest in value for money and how public money is used, and I will always do so, not least in this sphere.

As has been said, the Government’s aim is to deliver 45,000 social homes a year by 2010-11. I am not sure how the confusion arose in the hon. Gentleman’s mind, but the figure of 70,000 homes that he mentioned, which is in the Government’s response, is the overall number of affordable homes, including those for purchase. The figure of 45,000 relates specifically to social housing for rent. Almost 25,000 social homes were delivered during 2006-07, and I understand that the expectation for 2007-08—we do not have final figures yet—suggests that we are on a reasonable trajectory to meet our target. Of course, that was before the global economic crisis, and we will all have to reassess that trajectory.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) asked me a series of questions. Actually, he did not ask questions, he made a series of sweeping assertions about the Government’s complete failure, as he sees it, to act at all on the provision of social housing. He asserted, for example, that councils are prevented from building, which is certainly not my understanding. Indeed, other hon. Members have referred to building that has taken place in their local authority areas, so it would appear that that prohibition applies in Chesterfield but nowhere else. He rather ignored our target of 45,000 and the figure of 50,000 to which the Select Committee urged us to aspire. We do indeed aspire to that, and we will consider how we can deliver it. Both those targets clearly show that although I would like the Government to do more, to assert that nothing has been done is too sweeping.

Both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury mentioned larger homes, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is sadly no longer in his place, mentioned rural housing. On each of those matters, the Government have targets. We have provided for rural homes, particularly in smaller settlements, and for larger homes. The Housing Corporation was set a target for the completion of larger homes in its current programme, including in London. None of that should be taken as suggesting that I am happy with current provision. The Select Committee is not either, and no one can be. However, it is going too far to say, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield appeared to—I hope that I misunderstood him—that nothing has been done.

Paul Holmes: Page 25 of the report shows that a target of building 50,000 homes—it is only a target—would, according to Shelter and the Barker report, only accommodate extra annual demand. It would not clear the backlog of 1.7 million people on the waiting list. A target does not excuse the Government the fact that in the past 11 years, they have failed to build more than an average of 22,000 homes for social housing. That has allowed the waiting list almost to double, which is a clear Government failure. If councils could build only 260-odd houses last year, that does not exactly show that the Government are encouraging the building of council houses.

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Margaret Beckett: I think that the hon. Gentleman is perhaps resiling slightly from his rather more sweeping assertions. He is now saying that the targets were not high enough, and that not enough was provided. I share that point of view, which is not the same as saying that nothing has been done and that it has all been an utter failure. I remind him that one of the features of the investment that has been made in housing under this Government has been the enormous scale of the decent homes programme, to which a number of hon. Members have referred.

We have been responding positively to the recent economic turbulence and looking for new ways to ensure that delivery remains on track. For example, we will be spending £200 million on buying unsold stock from house builders and making it available for affordable housing programmes. Already £72 million has been allocated under that programme, buying more than 2,000 properties. We have also brought forward £400 million of planned spending so that we can deliver up to 5,500 new social homes in the next 18 months. I know that the Committee has recognised that the house building programme will be more challenging in light of the current economic climate. There is no question but that the turmoil in the financial markets has seen mortgage lending plummet, and that that has had severe consequences for the house building industry. No portion of the housing sector can be shielded totally from those consequences.

I welcome the thrust and the tenor of this afternoon’s discussion, because our longer lives and changing lifestyles and the tremendous mismatch between supply and demand mean that continuing to increase the supply of housing must remain the first priority for the Government, as I know it is for the Committee. The context of delivery might be changing, but the underlying need is not. The decent homes programme was important, and I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) says about the need for it to be maintained. I absolutely agree with the Committee’s members, almost all of whom have said that supply is key to each and every one of the housing problems that arise.

The report also mentioned the private rented sector and the quality, as well as the quantity, of social housing. Hon. Members have referred to the independent review of the private rented sector conducted by Julie Rugg, which reported recently. It recognised the important role that private rented housing plays in meeting housing need, and many of the recommendations chime with those made by the Select Committee. The report showed that although the vast majority of people are satisfied with their experience, there is still much more to do not only to protect the most vulnerable from the minority of unscrupulous landlords but to professionalise the sector more generally to raise the standard of service.

I accept entirely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, and acknowledge the scale and importance of the problems that can sometimes arise. We are urgently considering the report’s recommendations, including whether a light-touch licensing system for landlords and mandatory regulation for letting agencies would better help protect the interests of consumers and of good landlords. I recognise that that was the thrust of the Committee’s remarks.

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The quality of social housing was another theme of the report. Again, I recognise the concern that was raised in the debate. The Government accept, and will seek to deal with, some of the issues involved.

We touched, although perhaps no more than that, on the housing benefit system. The report noted some of the unintended outcomes of how the system currently operates and the widely felt concern that it can be a disincentive to work. We are working on a comprehensive review of housing benefit with the Department for Work and Pensions. I am not sure that anyone said that it might be finished by next month, because it needs to be truly comprehensive, but we are certainly keen for that work to take place. I have always been a strong believer in evidence-based policy making, and evidence is undoubtedly required for it to become a reality.

The Committee welcomed moves on greater tenant empowerment, and we have continued with that. I look forward to the new Tenant Services Authority championing tenants’ interests as well as being responsible for regulation,
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as I am sure the Committee does. We accept the Committee’s view that there ought to be one regulator for all types of housing, and we are committed to achieving that as soon as possible as well as setting up the national tenant voice.

The Select Committee raised many of the issues that emerged from the Hills review. Its members know about, and have recognised in the debate, the many initiatives to at least begin to address some of the concerns that that study threw up. The main point that has run through the debate, and through the Committee’s report and the Government’s response, is the overwhelming importance of housing supply. There are a number of matters on which we need to examine the current systems, so that we can try to address some of the problems ably raised by members of the Committee, but supply is key.

The sitting having continued for three hours, it was adjourned without Question put.

Adjourned at half-past Five o’clock.

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