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11 Nov 2008 : Column 212WH—continued

Like other hon. Members, I was very anxious about the ideas that were floated in The Times yesterday. We need to find new and innovative ways to deal with the
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lack of housing. We already have a situation in which a person has to have a severe physical and/or mental health problem—probably a drug problem—and probably also has to be a single mother to have any chance of social housing. It is hard to see how the situation can be improved if such people are threatened with eviction if they fail to look hard enough for a job, and also if they get a job and their circumstances change.

The Government must tackle the supply issue. I hope they will consider using the current downturn to take advantage of falling land prices to buy up land and properties, where appropriate. They will have to lift registered social landlords’ borrowing limits and extend that flexibility to local authorities. We have that opportunity, and we should not let it go by. We can deal not just with the current crisis, but with the long term.

The Government must be more flexible with their house-building targets. As the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) mentioned, we have to accept that funding schemes through sales programmes will cause problems at the moment. I hope the Government will bring forward that subsidy and allow RSLs to fund their own building programmes through a greater proportion of subsidy rather than relying on private sales, otherwise we will end up with no build at all, which will mean that the Government miss their housing targets.

We must have a coherent programme to tackle the issue of empty properties. A number of hon. Members mentioned partially built properties. Developments that are not completed often lie empty. I said that RSLs should be able to buy up some of those properties. However, as the hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned, that will not always be appropriate because such buildings will not necessarily be of suitable size to meet the long-term needs of social tenants.

The Government could make better use of their own scheme, the empty dwellings management orders, to ensure that such buildings are put back into use for private rent. Moreover, I hope they will consider more short-term rent options. Other options exist in other countries in which property is brought into use on a short-term basis. We must be innovative when we consider this issue. It is no good for town centres to have many properties lying empty and available for squatters to inhabit when we have tens of thousands of people in the same area waiting on the housing list for more property.

On repossessions, it is vital that we do whatever we can to keep people in their homes. It will be a disaster not just for those individuals who lose their homes but for local authorities, because they will have to deal with even more people who are desperate for housing at a time when the system is creaking at the seams.

I have concerns about the pre-action protocol that the Government have announced. There is considerable doubt that the courts will enforce much of what is in the protocol. Instead, I hope the Government will consider amending the Banking Bill, which is going through Parliament at present, to put some of those things into law.

Housing is a vital issue that affects all of us here today regardless of our party. The Government have made a number of announcements recently to tackle
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the problem. Unfortunately, when we go through the detail, we find that there is not a great deal of action. I hope that that will change and that the Government will accord greater priority to the matter.

10.39 am

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. His was a thoughtful speech. I do not agree with all of his analysis, but we have a good deal in common, which highlights how the issue affects all London Members of Parliament. All Members who have contributed to the debate have added aspects of their experience and perspective in dealing with it. It seems to me that everyone agrees that there is a serious problem. In tackling it, I hope that the Government will remember that what is important is what works, rather than what might seem rigidly or dogmatically attractive.

That is why I take a different view from some Government Members of the approach adopted by the current Mayor. I do not doubt the good intentions of the previous Mayor, with his 50 per cent. target, but the reality is that its rigid application did not work in practice. It delivered only about 34 per cent. affordable housing. That is why the current Mayor is right to adopt a more flexible approach. If we are to deliver more housing, as we all want to, it will certainly require the Mayor to use his housing powers vigorously—I do not dispute that for a second—but it will also require him to use those powers collaboratively with the London boroughs and the development industry.

I hope that the Government will be wary of responding to our current difficulties by falling into over-reliance on too rigid a form of intervention or regulation. Over-regulation in dealing with supply-side issues can sometimes have a perverse consequence, rather than helping. We must be flexible and pragmatic in our approach.

Mr. Slaughter: That is all very well, but if a local authority says as official policy that there are too many socially rented houses in the area, what should a mayor who says that he wants to build socially rented homes do about it?

Robert Neill: I suspect that a mayor might say that he will discuss it with that local authority in the same way that he would with the Labour mayor of the London borough of Newham, who has also argued strongly that significantly more privately owned housing is needed in his borough to create a more mixed community. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention highlights the danger of a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach. Newham in east London, like a number of inner-city boroughs, needs proportionately more privately owned accommodation to provide mixed communities; other boroughs have different needs.

Ms Buck rose—

Robert Neill: Time is short, so I will take just one further intervention.

Ms Buck: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Is that not exactly the point? The more deprived boroughs are seeking a social mix through more privately owned accommodation. It is therefore essential that places
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such as Hammersmith, Westminster, Barnet and Croydon take a larger proportion of social housing, or we will end up with nothing.

Robert Neill: The hon. Lady forgets that the rigid application of the Mayor’s 50 per cent. target led, in many well-documented instances, to sites being mothballed rather than brought on stream, and 50 per cent. of a mothballed site is nothing. Such measures do not achieve their objectives. I shall return to that point.

We also need to tackle the other perverse situations that have arisen due to the planning system. The London borough of Barnet, for example, has identified Colindale as an area where it would very much like to introduce housing regeneration, but a number of outer London boroughs suffer from the local government finance system: perversely, because they are on the floor, they get no benefit from any enhanced tax base gained through new housing development. Very often, the formula works to their detriment in such a way that they do not get the funding that they require for services for the extra population. The issue must be tackled at source.

We need to recognise that housing policy in the long term must address aspiration. Back in 2000, the London assembly produced a cross-party report demonstrating that 77 per cent. of key public sector workers in London aspired to buy. They will struggle to do so on current wages, but we certainly ought to help them achieve that aspiration, rather than blocking it. That is why the development of a healthy intermediate sector in London is all the more important.

A number of my hon. Friends, particularly the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), referred to the key issue of those who are working, economically active and key to our city’s well-being, but who will never qualify for social rented accommodation. I hope that the Mayor’s housing strategy, which I gather is due to be published later this month for consultation, will address that need. London probably needs a greater percentage of intermediate, more flexible and more imaginative schemes to meet its housing need, and the Mayor seems willing to address that.

When we consider the disincentives, we also need to consider how planning rules have tended to work in the past. There is an issue about affordable family homes in both the intermediate and the social rented sectors. One problem is how density is calculated. It is often calculated on the basis of units rather than habitable rooms per hectare, so it is easy to meet the requirement by building a large number of flatted units rather than family homes. The new Mayor is alert to that perverse incentive, which needs to be dealt with.

The Mayor has set an overall objective of building some 50,000 affordable homes, which seems eminently deliverable. It is calculated consistently with the basis for the local area agreements, and the Government are therefore more likely to buy in. I think that the Mayor, as chairman of the London board of the Homes and Communities Agency, will use his £5 billion housing budget imaginatively.

Finally—I know that the Minister will want to respond—I hope that we can tackle the issue of repossession. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) referred to instances of it in his constituency; I have had the same experience in mine, in outer London. I recently visited Bromley county court,
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which is the third busiest in London. The judges there made it clear to me that they do their level best not to make possession orders but to suspend where the person is making an effort to pay, but the problem that they have found is that people often do not come to court or take advice early enough in the process and are sucked too far into debt by the time that they come before the court. That is why it is hugely important that changes in the legal aid scheme do not have the perverse consequence of reducing the amount of affordable legal advice available in high street solicitors’ firms and citizens advice bureaux. It is important to recognise that. There is good will on the part of the judiciary, but we need to help people prevent the problem from arising in the first place.

I hope that the partnerships with the boroughs will develop things such as aspiration under the first steps programme and by using some of the interesting models developed by organisations such as the Notting Hill Housing Trust, which has shown much more imagination in getting people into the intermediate market. We also need to make much more use of existing stock. I understand that the Mayor expects that a significant percentage of new housing will come through non-new build—making better use of existing stock—and that he will set a target that only 1 per cent. of London’s housing should be empty. That is a brave and challenging target, and it gives the lie to the idea that the Mayor is not willing to step up to the issue.

When the Mayor came into office, he discovered that Transport for London owned houses near the north circular, 87 per cent. of which were empty. That is not much of a record for the previous mayoral regime. The current Mayor has been unfairly criticised. The reality is that we will only tackle the problem if the Mayor and London boroughs of all parties work together to deliver products appropriate for London’s particular housing needs, which involve unique pressures and problems. I hope that the Government will continue to give London the flexibility to tackle those problems in a way that meets its specific needs.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I think that I am the only non-London Member here. It is always a pleasure to discuss housing issues here because of the high quality of debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. He tackled the issue extraordinarily well in his usual articulate, eloquent and passionate style. One thing that he reinforced for me was that housing is not just about housing: it is about life chances. It is about giving children somewhere to do their homework, so that they can increase their educational qualifications. It is about having a well-ventilated and heated home, to reduce the risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases. It is about ensuring that people have a place to play in decent recreational and sporting facilities in their community. Good housing increases and improves life chances. Conversely, bad housing increases people’s stress levels and reduces aspiration and ambition.

Before I go on, I just want to congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) on her new post; I also hope that she feels better soon. I think that
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this is the first time that I have discussed housing matters with her. She may be interested to hear that the reason why I came in panting and out of breath was that I had just had a meeting with the Brent private tenants’ rights group about preventing homelessness among private rented sector tenants. It was an extremely important meeting about what we can do to improve quality in the private rented sector, alongside the Julie Rugg review. I am very keen to move forward and address some of the suggestions that emerged from the meeting.

We last examined housing back in April, when my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) secured a debate on housing needs in the capital. Since April, things have moved on enormously. We have seen a new London Mayor elected and also an international economic downturn, the likes of which, as the Prime Minister has said in the House, we have not seen since the first world war. I have also had the opportunity to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to see some of the issues that she has to tackle as part of her constituency case load, particularly with regard to overcrowding and the need to secure family accommodation. I was very grateful for the opportunity to make that visit, because it opened my eyes about what is needed in the capital.

We have addressed a range of issues today, but overall the debate reinforces the message that increasing housing supply is vital. It will not be a magic wand or some sort of panacea that will solve every housing problem. However, by increasing the supply of housing in the capital, we can tackle some of the acute problems that we face.

We need to increase the supply of housing because, despite the short-term financial turbulence, London remains a growing and successful world city—arguably the best city in the world. The London plan estimates that London’s population could grow to 8 million or more by 2016, with between 27,000 and 36,000 additional households a year before then. Indeed, London’s population could be as high as 8.7 million people by 2026. So we need to think about the needs of all Londoners—a point made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field)—and to maintain a good supply of homes for rent and sale, both affordable and market homes, to meet the wide-ranging and diverse demands of our city.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North was very articulate about the fact that we are changing how we live. Families do not have the 2.2 children in a house that there used to be in previous generations, and people are living longer and their ambitions and aspirations are increasing. Housing tenure and housing stock must reflect those changing social and demographic factors.

I was really struck by the point that my hon. Friend made in his opening address that average house prices in London, despite short-term falls in the last few months, are 14 times the average salary of Londoners. That is the statistic that will stay with me from the debate, and it represents a problem that we need to tackle by improving and increasing the supply of housing and its affordability.

The average house price in London remains £340,000, so buying a house remains a problem even for those households on reasonable salaries. Despite recent progress,
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there are still almost 54,000 households in temporary accommodation in the capital—70 per cent. of the national total.

I said that we need to increase the supply of homes in the capital, and we have been building more homes in London in recent years. In 2006-07, more than 31,000 homes were built. However, the Greater London authority estimates that London will require an additional 353,000 new homes in the next 10 years to meet the backlog that hon. Members have mentioned today and to address future demand.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the strategic housing role of the Mayor of London. I do not want to make party political points; I think that housing is far too important an issue for that. Given London’s housing needs and its world-class position, it is important that the Mayor has a strong, strategic housing role. That is why, as well as preparing the strategic development strategy for the capital, we gave the Mayor responsibility for producing a statutory housing strategy and for advising Ministers on the allocation of housing investment in London from the regional housing pot, which will amount to about £4 billion in the next few years.

Since the Mayor was elected in May, however, I must say that it has not been clear how he intends to fulfil that role and help to meet the housing needs of Londoners. As I say, I do not want to make petty party political points, but politics is about priorities. I want the Mayor to do well and to address the housing delivery problem in London, but it does not seem to be a priority for him whatsoever. His housing policy seems blurred and confused, and well down his list of priorities. I have no clear idea about how he intends to meet the commitment on housing delivery.

The Mayor’s direction of travel document on the London plan, which is entitled “Planning for a better London”, says that he will work with boroughs—something that was requested by hon. Members this morning—to identify ways to improve the supply of housing and to ensure a supportive planning policy framework for delivery. Although I appreciate that changing the London plan is a matter for the Mayor, it would be incredibly helpful for all concerned—whether central Government or local boroughs—to have clarity on the process of alteration and review as soon as possible. Without a clear steer, both boroughs and developers are unsure about what housing requirements they should meet, and the resulting delays will not help the families that the hon. Members here today represent so well.

I must also say that the Mayor is sending out some very confused messages on affordable housing. It has been said many times this morning that he intends to remove the strategic target in the current London plan to deliver 50 per cent. affordable housing. That would also require an amendment to the London plan. At the same time, he says that he intends to work with London boroughs to deliver 50,000 additional homes by 2011, thus continuing a commitment made by the previous Mayor.

I understand that the new Mayor has already begun the process of negotiating annual affordable housing targets with each borough for the next three years, up to 2011. However, that approach is time-consuming, cumbersome and, in the end, results in delays that families in London can ill afford. It is very important that all London boroughs step up to the plate and do
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their best to achieve those targets, to help to meet the needs of all Londoners. However, it is very clear from my perspective that the boroughs are bemused and confused about the planning targets for affordable housing. So I await with interest the Mayor’s proposals on how he intends to set those targets for the whole of the 20-year London plan period.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said that the Mayor intends to consult the London assembly later this month on his draft housing strategy. I very much look forward to seeing that important document and the detail about how the Mayor proposes to address London’s housing needs for the longer term.

A great number of important issues were mentioned in today’s debate. Unfortunately, I will not have the time to discuss all of them. However, one of the clear themes that emerged is the concern that hon. Members from all parts of the House have about the rise in repossessions in recent weeks and months. As has been articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and others, current housing market difficulties mean that some householders are struggling to meet their housing costs.

Although the number of households affected by repossession is thankfully still very low, for those people whose homes are being repossessed, it is a major life trauma that creates real stress. We are determined to help people who face those very disturbing circumstances. We are committed to working with lenders and advice agencies to help people to face repossession so that, wherever possible, they can remain in their homes.

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