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11 Nov 2008 : Column 200WH—continued

I appeal to the Government to recognise that the social housing crisis can be dealt with only by accepting that the building of council housing or housing association property is an end in itself. It is not an add-on to what the private sector does. After the war, in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, there was consensus between the two major
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parties that we had to build far more housing for people in desperate need. There was not a huge debate about that. The debate was more about numbers than about whether to build. Now, we are simply not building anything like enough properties.

I ask the Government to consider seriously the issue of repossessions. As I said at the beginning of my contribution, they should ensure that the banks operate a reasonable policy and do not repossess homes willy-nilly. They should take people into their confidence and go through the best way of keeping them in the property. When all else fails and a family are threatened with repossession, it makes a lot of sense if the local authority has the power and the resources to buy the property, so that it becomes part of the local authority’s estate and the residents become the local authority’s tenants. In that way, we avoid the trauma and cost of homelessness and increase the housing stock all at the same time. It makes a lot of sense to use the public sector as a way to protect people from what could be a disaster for them and to increase the potential for housing throughout London.

I hope that the Minister will talk to me about the stuff that I and, I am sure, many of my colleagues read in the papers yesterday. The suggestion was that some blue-skies thinking is going on in his Department and that we are about to end the idea of council tenancies for life. The suggestion was that some policy wonk is working away on the idea of an annual or five-yearly review of the means of council tenants and that, if they are thought to be doing okay, they can be moved out of council tenancy and told to go and fend for themselves. That would be complete anathema to many people, particularly in the Labour party, who believe in housing as a right. I hope that the Minister will assure me that some crazy policy wonk has just gone off message. Perhaps whoever that person is could go off job as well and find something else to do, rather than fiddling about like this. They should use their undoubted imaginative talents on increasing the size of the social rented sector, rather than reducing it, as they seem to be doing.

My last point concerns what we do in London as a whole. Every local authority faces a huge housing problem. There is now some degree of centralised government across London through the Greater London authority and the mayoralty. The previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, ordered that 50 per cent. of all major developments should be affordable properties, of which, roughly speaking, one third should be socially rented, the difference being those properties that are part-rent, part-purchase. He had a target right across London.

Unfortunately, the new Mayor, Boris Johnson, has abandoned the London-wide target and is telling everyone that he will deal with the matter by negotiating with each borough. It is an interesting idea that the Mayor will turn up and negotiate with each borough. I look forward to the video of the meeting between the Mayor and, for example, the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the city of Westminster, Barnet, Bromley or Richmond. I can just see him turning up and, in his hugely charismatic way, saying, “I think you should build a few more social houses.” They will say no, and he will say, “Well, look, we’d like you to.” “No.” “Would you think about it?” “No.” “Oh, okay then, shall we
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have some more coffee?” I just do not envisage a tough defence of the needs of the public sector and the poor coming from the current Mayor of London.

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman has made a caricature both of the city of Westminster, which I shall defend in a few moments, and of the Mayor, Boris Johnson, who is acutely aware that the targets of recent years under the previous incumbent of that post simply were not working. Let me give just one example that relates to the city of Westminster. The initial plan for the redevelopment around Victoria station involved, in effect, a section 106 agreement to allow £300 million of investment in Transport for London. Zero social housing would have been provided on that site, under the former Mayor. Because of the city of Westminster’s representations, the new proposals going through from Land Securities will ensure that there is some social housing on the site. Although I do not necessarily disagree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s concern about cosy deals having taken place between mayors of particular parties and others in the past, it is also fair to say that that is something of a caricature that is not borne out by all cases.

Jeremy Corbyn: This is work in progress, because we have not yet had the result, so far as I know, of any of the fabled borough-wide meetings. Indeed, I am waiting with bated breath to find out when the meeting with Islington will take place. It keeps being postponed and, I understand, not by the local authority but by the Mayor. He is obviously a very busy man, despite the fact that he lives in Islington. Never mind. I am not asking for special treatment; I am just asking him to understand that there is an issue.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has talked about the social housing developments around Victoria station. Good. How many are there? Where are they? How many more are there in other places? My point is that a London-wide target is essential. The Mayor does have a strategic role and strategic responsibility and should exercise that strategic role and strategic responsibility. Leaving it to negotiations with the boroughs will not achieve what he wants; it will achieve far fewer places.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I will interrupt the hon. Gentleman only briefly, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak, but perhaps he will help me on this point. If the previous Mayor’s rigid approach to the 50 per cent. figure was so desirable, why was it that, according to the figures that the hon. Gentleman cited at the beginning of his speech, he delivered only 34 per cent.?

Jeremy Corbyn: The 50 per cent. target was very desirable and I supported it, as I imagine many Members did. It was not achieved, because it relied far too much on large-site development, rather than small-site development, and there was a degree of opposition to it among developers, who claimed that they could not financially stack up particular developments. In my borough, for example, we have a system whereby anything above 10 units has to include a social proportion. That is fine. The problem is that most of the developments are very small. The number that come in at eight or nine
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units to avoid the social requirement is miraculous. Alternatively, sites are broken up to avoid that social responsibility.

We need a Mayor who is tough, who will intervene and who will deliver social housing for the people of London; but on the evidence so far, I am not confident that Boris Johnson has that as his highest priority. He has also fiddled around with the division between rented and part-rent, part-purchase properties. In the inner-city areas, the part-rent, part-purchase, so-called affordable properties are not affordable to the majority of people who live locally. They are not affordable to the majority of people in housing stress. There are only one or two boroughs where that is not the case.

London faces a housing crisis—a crisis for people in rented accommodation, those in council accommodation, those who rent privately and those who are owner-occupiers and pay very high mortgages. We need Government intervention to ensure that we conquer that housing crisis and provide homes for rent, with security of tenure, for those who need them. We need intervention to do that. Leaving it to the market will make the situation worse and increase homelessness, poverty and the social disorder that comes from that. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government will invest in homes and young people, to prevent people from ending up with poor-quality lives, because of the poor-quality property that they are expected to live in.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I should like the wind-ups to begin at half-past 10. That leaves just under six minutes per person to allow all five colleagues who are standing to speak.

10.1 am

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. In my speech, I shall tackle some general issues and then one specific issue.

Let me say first that we are in a crisis, which will get worse because of the problem of repossessions. In my advice bureau in Ilford, North, I have seen people who, 12 or 18 months ago, would never have expected to need to come to me for help with housing. Secondly, it is not necessarily helpful to try to blame anyone. I do not come at this subject from the angle of saying whether the last Mayor did well, or what the next Mayor is doing, because that is not relevant. My constituents are worried about what affects them today, here and now.

I believe that the banks have a role to play. In the past few weeks, constituents have told me that the banks’ attitude toward people who can no longer meet their mortgage costs has been less than sympathetic. The Government have announced that they intend to do more to ensure that banks are more caring than they have been in the past. That is a vital step toward solving some of the crises that we might find ourselves in.

I am not sure what “affordable homes” mean in London. Incomes are declining—in the past few weeks, I have met constituents who have been asked to take a 25 or 30 per cent. drop in salary to maintain their job. They are doing that to stay in employment and I understand the reasoning behind it, but none the less, what was affordable a few months ago, is not affordable now. We
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need quality homes that people aspire to and are able to live in, whether that is achieved through the private sector or the public sector, through purchasing or renting.

The group I want to focus on comprises those families who are some of the most vulnerable in our community—families with children who have special needs. In the past few weeks, I have seen a rise in the number of families who have come to me because the husband, wife or partner is now out of work and they can no longer afford the mortgage. I have seen break-ups in marriages and, I am sorry to say, some attempted suicides. The effects on those vulnerable children are drastic, so I want particular emphasis to be given to helping some of those needy families.

The problem affects all sections of our community. It is not limited to those on low incomes: nowadays, everybody is affected. I will cite two cases—obviously without names—that have been brought to my attention during the last few weeks. One is the case of a husband and wife with two children; one child is high up on the autistic spectrum, and the other also has special needs requirements. The parents have been notified by one of our leading banks, which said that it would be sympathetic, that the family need to vacate their property and that a court case would be brought against them if they did not do so. The parents have missed three months’ mortgage payments—that is all—and they asked for a mortgage holiday while they sought employment. That request was declined.

I am fairly confident that, if the case reaches court, the home will not be repossessed—certainly, what I heard in yesterday’s statement from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government leads me to believe that that will not happen. However, it is wholly wrong to put the family in that position and to cause them that worry and stress when they are trying to look after their children. It is simply wrong. I am not convinced that the banks are listening.

The second case is more disturbing. I was contacted by a constituent who can no longer afford their home. That has been the case for nine to 10 months. That person contacted me and told me that they were so depressed that they wished to end their life. Fortunately, I was able to contact their general practitioner, who visited them and we were able to stop that person from doing anything silly. We were able to take an account of their problems. The situation was caused purely because they no longer had enough money. Their fuel and food bills have gone up—I know that we are seeing some fuel and food prices coming down, but they are still at almost record levels. It is unacceptable in 2008 that people feel they no longer wish to live because of the situation that they are in.

If I look at my own constituency, as the hon. Member for Islington, North said earlier, I see building projects that included affordable homes, which were started as long as a year ago, but on which no further work is being done. Workers have been pulled off because the developers, whoever they are, can no longer afford to pay the staff. They are concerned about selling the houses that they were planning to sell, and because of that, the building work has stopped. I urge the Government to try all possible ways to get that work recommenced, because if those houses go into the market, people will be able to rent them and get out of the problems that they are in.

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I will finish my contribution—you gave us six minutes, Mr. Bayley, and I am just coming up to that—by saying that it is vital that we try to allow people to stay in their own homes. However, we should not encourage the suggestion made in some radio advertisements, which state, “We can take your home off your hands in 24 hours, and you can rent it back from us and buy it back in years to come.” The rents charged are exorbitant, verging on criminal, unacceptable, and must be stopped.

10.7 am

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. No doubt some of the points that he made will be reinforced to a degree.

I have four key points to make. First, to state the obvious, the model of affordable house building and delivery, which has in recent years increased the supply of affordable housing—particularly in London under the former Mayor, but across the rest of the country as well—is broken. We must accept that and respond to it. It is broken as a consequence of the crisis that was imported from the American sub-prime market into our economy and because our affordable house delivery programme has been so heavily predicated on section 106 deals and the sales programme of shared-ownership properties.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that in London alone, according to the G15 group of major housing associations, there are £1 billion-worth of unsold shared-ownership properties. Because those properties stand empty and unsold, a cash-flow crisis is created for social housing providers and registered social landlords, which makes it impossible for them to proceed with delivery beyond the current financial year.

We need a radical Government rethink, in both the very short term and the longer term, about how to get back on target for the affordable housing delivery programme. In my view, that should include the ability to buy on the open market. We also need a rethink of subsidy arrangements for the longer term. We cannot afford to allow the consequences of this financially led crisis to impact on those who are in most desperate need of satisfactory housing, whether the people on medium to low incomes who want to buy and are unable to, or the many hundreds of thousands of people who are trapped in desperate housing need. There is particular pressure on family-sized accommodation. Under the section 106 sales-led delivery programme, such accommodation has not been delivered for a great many years. That, of course, has impacted upon housing need.

Although we have seen welcome measures—I am sure that there will more—to inject liquidity into the home ownership market and to assist the restarting of first-time buying, the risk is that the needs of those in housing need will be overlooked. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for coming to my constituency to meet homeless families in temporary accommodation and families in severely overcrowded accommodation. He has seen for himself the conditions they live in. The threat of the current situation—it was difficult enough
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before—is that there will be an even greater pincer movement on the availability of social housing, which will make their situation worse. Already, one London household in 10 is on the social housing waiting list. Overcrowding is rising in the United Kingdom, and 750,000 Londoners live in overcrowded accommodation.

Although the Government made a move this time last year to introduce new guidance on overcrowding and to put some money into research, it is important that momentum is stepped up on that front. The guidance needs to be issued, because we have two conflicting and incompatible systems of measurement for overcrowding. We need to drive ahead on the information and on measures to tackle overcrowding. That could include deconversions and extensions, which could go a considerable way to helping, as well as cash incentives.

We also need to recognise the needs of homeless households. I say again to my hon. Friend the Minister—I have a meeting with him soon, for which I am grateful—that it is absolutely unacceptable to treat homeless households as we do, shipping them out of areas where they have strong local connections. I have sent my hon. Friend information on two such households in my constituency this week. In one, a young mother with post-natal depression whose family has lived for 80 years in the Church street area, was sent to Barking and Dagenham. In the other, a young man who has lived for 27 years on the Lisson Green estate and who has three children in local schools, is commuting every day, as many families do.

I wish to make a couple of quick points. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, the abolition of the borough delivery target threatens progress on affordable house delivery, which was just becoming significant. Westminster city council achieved 11 per cent. of its affordable housing delivery target over the last two years, which is completely unacceptable. However, I very much welcome the £36 million that the Housing Corporation has invested in delivery. The target became legally binding only recently, so it was too early to see its fruits. It is dangerous that it is being torn up.

Finally, my hon. Friend touched upon the article on short-term tenancies on the front page of The Times yesterday. I believe that the subject was investigated thoroughly in the Hills review. John Hills was specifically charged with considering that subject, and came up with no evidence to support such a proposal. Indeed, he stated that there were strong arguments against a system of review based on coercion, and that

He said that that was so for a number of good reasons, including perverse incentives. I rely utterly on the wisdom and thoughtfulness of the new Housing Minister and of my hon. Friend the Minister here today to ensure that this ridiculous and fashionable dogma that has suddenly reared its head again is crushed, as it deserves to be.

10.14 am

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who has initiated similar debates previously.

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