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11 Nov 2008 : Column 206WH—continued


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Although the debate highlights the crisis that we all feel and see, it is slightly reassuring to hear that it affects boroughs other than our own. Week after week, we sit in our constituency surgeries hearing the tragic cases of people who cannot find housing. There is a great deal of frustration, which I am sure other hon. Members here today share. People come to us, seemingly as a last resort, but there is very little that we can do except speak to the housing authority and see whether anything further can be done.

The fact of the matter in most cases, as we have heard, is that no housing stock is available. As I have tried to explain to some of my constituents, it is not the borough’s deliberate policy to stop people having a house. It simply does not have the stock. It is incredibly difficult to explain that, and I can understand why people’s frustration often boils over. I would hate to work in a housing department—indeed, I pay tribute to those who do. We listen to such problems in our surgeries, but those working in housing departments listen daily—hourly—to people who are desperate to get a home.

The hon. Member for Islington, North rightly pointed out the problems for families. I know of similar cases; I am sure that we all do. The idea of the old-fashioned nuclear family—the married couple with two kids—has changed. We now see people marrying for the second time who have to bring up kids from a first marriage. I am dealing with a case at the moment of a family with teenage children who are unrelated and of different sexes, but who are expected to share the same room. I am sure that that is not allowed, but it has to happen or the family will have nowhere to live. That is unacceptable.

The London borough of Hillingdon, which covers my constituency, has another housing problem—again, one that will be found in other areas. Brunel university is located in the borough, so student housing has taken up a lot of the private rented sector. It has also pushed up prices. I spent some time at London university living in private rented housing, so I am not blameless, but it is something that must be considered.

The frustration of local people is that they want to see their kids getting a place of their own and making a start, but it is not possible. Another effect is completely overstated, but it has to be said. When people come to my surgeries—again, I am sure that similar things happen elsewhere—one of the first things they say is, “Yes, but we live near Heathrow.” We know what that means: they think that asylum seekers will be pouring into the country and taking local homes. The facts do not back that up—it may be a small factor, but that is all. Unfortunately, in times of housing shortage, it is exactly such things that increase tension. It is something of which we must be aware.

We have not discussed this, because of the lack of time, but I think of older people, who often find themselves without suitable accommodation. We need more suitable accommodation for older people. I accept that some may not want to leave their present home, but if new homes are adapted and if they seem nice, they might be willing to move, thus freeing up accommodation for others.

We shall hear more about housing problems as a result of the current crisis. Things will become more and more difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) spoke of a well known bank. What worries me is that many of the most vulnerable
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people go to mortgage lenders who not only charge incredible rates, but are ruthless when customers default. Such cases are difficult to deal with. We as MPs can talk to the banks and we might normally get a favourable response, but some of these mortgage companies are like the car clampers of the banking world: they take no interest in human misery.

Later today, we will be debating Heathrow. Given that the London borough of Hillingdon has an acute shortage of housing, it is incredible that the Government should be on the verge of giving the go-ahead to a scheme that would knock down 3,000 or 4,000 homes. No one knows exactly how many homes will go, but people who have lived in villages and communities for generations will be expected to find somewhere else to live. At present, there is nowhere else for them to go. I find that incredible. If only for that reason, we should not have the runway expansion at Heathrow.

This afternoon, if I am lucky enough to speak, I shall elaborate on my other reasons for taking that view, but we are talking this morning about housing provision. If we knock down 3,000 or 4,000 homes, it will make finding housing in west London even more impossible than it is now.

10.19 am

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and other speakers have said, there is a housing crisis in London—a crisis of temporary accommodation, of overcrowding and, above all, of affordability, which has not yet been resolved by the fall in house prices. An organisation with which many London Members will be familiar, London Citizens, conducted research on the housing affordability standard. It showed that for those on the London living wage, which is currently just below £8 an hour, the only type of affordable housing in London is social rented housing provided by council housing associations. That is the case for many of my constituents whether renting or buying in the private sector. Even many types of shared ownership housing are simply not affordable in London, which might not be the case for the rest of the country.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government’s response to the London housing crisis will be. London Labour MPs are preoccupied with the Mayor’s response and the steps that he and his advisers are taking, which are worsening the situation. We have heard about the abandoning of the 50 per cent. target. There is a myth that that target is difficult to achieve, but in its last three years of a Labour administration, Hammersmith and Fulham local authority achieved an 80 per cent. affordable housing target, split roughly 50:50 between intermediate and rented property, so although it might not be easy to achieve, it is possible.

The reason for abandoning that target has far more to do with London politics and the fact that the Mayor has surrounded himself with advisers from the right wing of the Conservative party, many of whom are from the old Porter regime or a younger generation of the same ilk. [Interruption.]It has its amusing side, but I am afraid that it is a serious matter for constituents.

The housing policy in my local authority area is to reduce the percentage of social housing—that is what the authority says it intends to do—despite the fact that
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that percentage is already below the inner-London average. To that end, it has three policies: the first is to build no new affordable homes; the second is to sell off existing affordable homes, and the third is to demolish existing estates.

I do not have time to discuss all the case studies that have been carried out, but I shall deal with one, because it is a good example of people being caught with their fingers in the till. A development in White City—the most deprived part of my constituency and the area with greatest housing need—was intended to provide 150 new homes, half of which would have been affordable, but when the Conservatives took over the administration of the council two years ago, they put that development on hold. They waited until the change of mayoralty, so that there would be no block imposed, and at that stage removed all rented affordable homes from the scheme. Effectively, the authority removed all the affordable homes, given that income levels of £30,000, £40,000 or £60,000 a year are needed to afford even the very few shared-ownership units on that development. The £12 million that the Housing Corporation provided to subsidise the affordable homes was sent back as not wanted.

Ironically, the Greater London authority’s own officers objected and said that

The Conservative-controlled committee ignored that and said that it would speak directly to the Mayor, which it did. Lo and behold, a week later the decision was reversed, meaning that there will be no affordable rented homes on that or any other sites developed in the borough. Other Conservative councils in London are seeking to follow that precedent.

In Fulham is the Imperial Wharf development, where permission for 241 affordable homes, including 191 affordable rented homes, was withdrawn from the developer, because they were not wanted. Very nearby is the Watermeadow Court development, which is to be demolished with the loss of 80 affordable homes. Obviously, the tenants will have to be rehoused; the opportunity cost of that is that doing so may use accommodation that would otherwise have gone to people in overcrowded accommodation or on the housing waiting list.

In addition, 60 good-quality units intended for homeless families have been sold off at market rates to produce capital receipts. Those families will either jump the housing queue or enter private rented accommodation, which will result in an extremely large bill for the taxpayer. Furthermore, plans are on the table to demolish up to seven, or part of seven, estates in the borough.

This problem will be cured only by Government intervention, which appears to be more fashionable these days than it has been in recent times. The implications of the policies in London that I have outlined are appalling for my constituents.

Ms Buck: Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the response to some of these problems has been to expect those boroughs not in the heart of London or in the greatest housing to take the strain by providing more housing through sub-regional partnerships and by enabling
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people to apply for housing outside their own area? Does he also agree that that system has not worked, because many outer-London boroughs, such as Barnet and Croydon, have not provided housing or participated in the sub-regional partnerships? They have failed to take the strain off some of those inner-London authorities.

Mr. Slaughter: As always, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. There are two points there: first, people have a right—a human right, I believe—to continue to live where their families grew up, whether in central London or elsewhere. We have a duty to provide affordable housing in those areas. Secondly, clearly there is no willingness to do that. Families are being told to move out of the borough, and the council is actually boasting about the length of time that people will be on the waiting list—12 years before people will even be considered for a property. Homeless families turning up to the town hall are made to wait outside in the cold for several hours before being seen. However, as she said, when they are palmed off to outer London, there is clearly no willingness to accommodate there. This crisis bas been caused not just by the economic circumstances, but by political intervention. Only Government intervention will resolve that.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): It is only reasonable to give you six minutes, Mr. Field, but you will try our patience if you go on any longer.

10.26 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Thank you very much for your guidance, Mr. Bayley.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this very important debate and on sharing with us his heartfelt thoughts. Twenty years ago last month, I moved to his constituency. As is my wont, I recently walked around that area—Birnam road, just off Tollington park—and judging by the new development on the Durham road estate, things have been spruced up. However, that is not to take away from what he was saying. I am sure that there are some major problems within those estates.

Housing has been an issue close to the heart of London Members since the Great Reform Act. I am reading a quite fantastic book, which all Londoners should read: Jerry White’s “London in the Nineteenth Century”, which deals with housing crises back when London did not extend much beyond the boundaries of my constituency, and perhaps that of the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). It discusses the problems of the rookeries and the slum clearances. Back then, housing was a major issue. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that, in the aftermath of the second world war, and in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a united front politically in providing more housing in the capital. Although there are some disagreements—I am sorry about the tone of the comments of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), who is not in favour of the work of the Conservative-run Hammersmith and Fulham council—there is much broad agreement on some of the concerns that we all share.

I receive a huge postbag of letters from constituents on many subjects. After immigration and the antics of parking regulators in Westminster city council, housing
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is the third most commonly raised subject. Many poor working families in Westminster have lived there for generations, but are regarded as not being poor enough to qualify for council or other social housing. The waiting lists in inner London—I am sure that this applies equally to Islington, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham—are mind-boggling. The area has become over-polarised. One must be unfeasibly rich or unfeasibly poor to live in so much of central London. That has been a perennial problem in the centre, but it is now extending to much of the capital.

I do not want to say too much about The Times article yesterday. I have some sympathy perhaps with what the Government are trying to do. The notion of a secure tenancy for life that can be passed on down generations seems very much at odds with London mobility and diversity—the idea that those in the public sector would have security, but those in the private sector would not. However, that will be further explored in times to come.

Last month, I met representatives of the G15—a group of London’s largest housing associations, which house one in 10 Londoners, or some 700,000 people, and manage more than 400,000 homes. The group develops most of London’s new affordable housing each year, and aims to create balanced and sustainable communities. It offers a range of homes to ensure that estates do not concentrate poverty, but contain a vibrant mix of people and incomes.

The lack of capital liquidity to fund new housing schemes, the collapse in the financial viability of house builders and an acute lack of mortgage finance for those buying new homes are starting to cause real problems for London’s housing providers. Although affordable housing production is progressing, it centres only on schemes that were either in progress when the crunch arrived or could not be stopped. That will mean a reasonable number of completions this year, but a collapse in the programme next year and, conceivably, no programme at all in 2010-11 unless there is an engineered flow of mortgages for first-time buyers.

I will not say very much more. I hope that the Minister will tell us what will be done about the gap that I mentioned. There is a risk of us being complacent today because work is going on, but the effect of the credit crunch will have a major impact in three or four years’ time unless action is taken now to put some of the work in train. It is fair to say that many housing associations are building homes for all sections of the housing market, from social rented and shared-ownership homes to the intermediate market rent and market sales. As all hon. Members will agree, we need to maintain that broad mix in London’s communities. As well as offering homes for the poorest in society, we also need to provide better options for the people who are too rich to be able to rent socially, but too poor to buy in the market. That middle group has become ever larger in the communities that we represent. We want to have cohesive communities in which people do not feel the need, or desire, to move away from places in which they have lived and worked for some decades.

I have overstepped my time, but thank you, Mr. Bayley, for allowing me to make my contribution. I know that it is a very important subject to which all of us will return before too long.


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10.32 am

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I apologise for the state of my voice. I have a very bad cold, so I hope that you can hear me, Mr. Bayley.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) described housing supply and lack of housing provision as an issue that is dear to the heart of every London MP. That is very true. As a fellow London MP, it is certainly an issue that is dear to my heart. Lack of housing, poor, overcrowded, unaffordable and unsuitable housing have all been mentioned today, and they are among the key issues brought to my own office every week. Like the hon. Member for Islington, North I hear the same stories week after week. We hear similar stories about how poor housing causes misery, breaks marriages, ruins health, destroys education and, most importantly, extinguishes hope for many families in London.

Up to 50,000 children are stuck in temporary accommodation in London. In my constituency, that represents one in 10 of Brent’s children. The continual moves and the unsuitable housing affects their ability to thrive at school. Just as they settle in one school, they are moved on somewhere else. If that temporary accommodation is also overcrowded, there is no way that they can do their homework. That point has been made by many hon. Members today.

More than 300,000 people are stuck on waiting lists for social housing in London, and 20,000 of those are in Brent, many of them in my constituency. That is an issue of both lack of supply and extreme demand. Falling house prices will not necessarily help the matter. As mortgages become less affordable, we expect a knock-on effect on the affordability of renting as well.

Many hon. Members mentioned cases from their own constituencies. I want to mention a couple from mine. Mr. H. has been on the housing list since 1984. He is in band C, so he is classed as someone in housing need. He is disabled and unable to work. He is single, but he has children who do not live with him. He cannot get a property because he is a single man, which means he cannot get proper access to his children. Mr. H. has been left on the housing list under four different Prime Ministers and still has little chance of finding a home.

Miss G. was registered for re-housing 11 years ago. She was in band C but, after representations from our office, she was upgraded to band B two years ago. She is in a two-bedroom property with four children, all of whom share a bedroom. Her son suffers from autism and learning difficulties. He has to share with his sisters, which has affected all of them.

The hon. Member for Islington, North described other such heart-rending stories. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) spoke about how often such stories tip over into racial tension. Housing is one of the few issues in my constituency—an area of probably unqualified tolerance—that will bring tension about immigration to the fore, which is why I hope the Government will now accord greater priority to the matter.


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