Previous Section Index Home Page

14 Jan 2009 : Column 77WH—continued

14 Jan 2009 : Column 78WH

Arriving at a firm definition is quite difficult—it is an inherent difficulty. By the same token, too much discretion in the hands of local authorities would present difficulties. We all know that there is a sensible medium ground but, unfortunately, the strict and mandatory rules of central Government pre-1997—this is not a narrow party-political point—make things more difficult, as it is frustrating for councils, whether a Labour or Liberal-run Islington council, or Conservative-run Westminster council, to try to build a stable population in which people are willing to play an ongoing part in the community.

I appreciate that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. I recognise that the Government alone do not hold sway over the provision of social housing in Westminster or other local authority areas. With a budget of more than £5 billion, the Homes and Communities Agency, which is chaired by the Mayor of London, has an important role to play in addressing the capital’s housing needs. However, in his recently announced housing strategy, the Mayor has already shown a commitment to many of the aims that I have addressed in this speech, such as encouraging mixed communities, promoting a range of tenures, expanding the intermediate rental sector, boosting the number of family-sized homes, and nurturing partnerships between local authorities, housing associations and developers. It is now crucial that the Government show their true commitment—I am sure that they have one—to the provision of social housing in our capital, not simply by restating targets, but by giving serious and immediate thought to the proposals that I have set out.

Unless a fresh housing model is introduced swiftly to recognise the need for a new subsidy, the Government’s stated aims on social housing will, sadly, remain unachievable. Although the crisis facing the social housing sector is daunting, it should be seen as an opportunity to address some of the long-term problems that have plagued housing provision in the capital, such as the polarisation of communities, overcrowding, and the unaffordability of property. By working with housing associations rather than putting a break on their aspirations, the Government can use social housing to steer London’s home owners and tenants out of the darkness.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. A number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the fact that I want the winding-up speeches to begin at about 10.30 am.

9.57 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I shall be brief because we want everybody who wishes to contribute to have time to do so. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on his contribution and appreciate his obvious concern for his constituents’ needs.

Social housing is obviously important, but I wish we could find some other term, because “social housing” has connotations of unmunificent charity, not of people’s right to decent housing. I do not know what that alternative term is, but I wish we could find one. I am sure that the Department for Communities and Local Government will find one in time—it always does.

14 Jan 2009 : Column 79WH

I represent Islington, North, and the hon. Gentleman talked about the issues that affect his constituency, which are similar throughout central London. The growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in central London is quite appalling and, actually, economically damaging to London in the longer term. In Islington, North, even now, if a council house or housing association property becomes vacant through either death or somebody moving away from the area, it is nearly always let to a larger, poorer family, but if a private property becomes available for sale—a street property—it is nearly always sold to somebody much wealthier than the previous owners. That pattern is repeated across London, so the gap between the richest and the poorest in our capital city is increasing quickly. That is very much my experience.

There is enormous pressure on allocation and resources in my borough, just like all the others in London, and I find it sad that we end up having an endless debate about the science of allocation policy for housing for people in desperate housing need. We all have advice surgeries, so we probably all have far too much knowledge of the workings of the points allocation system. We all spend a great deal of time writing letters to local authorities to try to get somebody more points or greater allocation because of medical needs, or to deal with problems such as overcrowding, children of different sexes sharing bedrooms and so on. Those problems are important and it is part of our job to deal with them, but the issue, fundamentally, is the lack of supply of housing for people in desperate housing need. That must be addressed.

I was looking yesterday at the statistics for housing developments in my borough over the past 15 years. The number of units built each year for rent by housing associations varied between very few and a few hundred. The number built by the local authority for most years was zero, but happily it is now building a small number of homes.

The vast majority of development has been small infill development by private sector developers, typically creating between half a dozen and a dozen private flats, some of which are sold on the buy-to-rent market. My local authority chose to set the threshold for what it terms social housing too high, so most of those developments contained no social rented element whatever and were nearly all for sale. That threshold has been reduced a little, so the number of places available for rent by people on the housing list has gone up a little. However, we have to be tough about this: there are developments across London that will probably soon by mothballed or stopped, so this is a golden opportunity for local authorities to take them over and use them to house people in desperate need.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the purchasing of private properties by housing associations, but sadly many of them are simply inadequate and built to too low a standard. That alone is a condemnation of our system: the private sector building is of such low quality that local authorities and housing associations could not buy them even if they wanted to. I look to the Minister for much tougher building regulations on the private sector in addition to the welcome improvements in the public sector.

I also want briefly to mention the private rented sector. My constituency has an owner occupation rate of only about 30 per cent., which is well below the
14 Jan 2009 : Column 80WH
national average, and indeed well below the London average. That level is declining fast, in part because people have difficulty selling in the current climate and prefer to rent and hang on to the capital value of the property. The local authority stock was declining fast due to right to buy, although that has now declined a great deal, so the stock is more or less static.

The only stock that is fundamentally increasing is that of housing associations, but it is in the private rented sector that the biggest problems emerge in that the local authority has limited resources and huge demands are placed upon it: there are roughly 13,000 families on either the waiting list or the transfer list in my borough council area, and I suspect that there are similar figures across central London.

Therefore, the local authority can allocate housing only by guiding people into the private sector to rent a property, and because most of those who apply for housing are on benefits, housing benefit pays the rent. That costs the public sector a great deal of money, but it comes not from the local authority, but from central Government, who are paying astronomical rents of £200 or £300 a week for wholly inadequate properties.

That issue has been raised many times by successive Ministers and with the Department for Work and Pensions, and I was pleased that the Secretary of State agreed to meet a delegation of London MPs to discuss housing benefit costs in the private sector, because it is an enormous waste of money. We are paying a great deal of public money to keep people living in misery.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): In boroughs such as the hon. Gentleman’s, as is probably the case for us all, that is also unfair because rich parts of the borough with high prices can contribute to the average taken across the borough. The housing benefit that someone can get might not reach anywhere near the cost of the place available because it is based on the average for an area with low-cost and high-cost housing, so it is even worse for many people.

Jeremy Corbyn: That is a fair point, and a real issue. Due to how the housing benefit system operates, we can end up with a kind of social cleansing of certain areas because housing benefit costs often do not meet the rent costs. We all have cases of someone coming to see us because their housing benefit covers perhaps 80 per cent. of their private sector rent and they have to pay the rest out of income support, so they end up on an incredibly low take-home income. That has to be looked at.

Clearly, the housing crisis in London can and must be resolved by rapid investment in new build and much tougher planning regulations on the level of building within private sector developments. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out that the number of rented units available through housing associations is declining because most of their developments are predicated by sales policy, or indeed by commercial lets policy.

We must ask ourselves what housing associations are for. They were established to provide housing for people in housing need, roughly equivalent to the local authority. Indeed, the allocations for affordable rented property come entirely from the local housing authority anyway, but since they now have much less than half their
14 Jan 2009 : Column 81WH
capital costs provided by central Government through the homes agency, or indeed any other source, they have to borrow the rest, so they are encouraged to build for sale and to go to some extent into commercial renting. We must then ask ourselves why on earth we have housing associations if they are not providing the kind of social rented housing that we need.

We must look carefully at what some housing associations are doing and whether they are behaving more like property companies than agencies for renting to people in desperate housing need. I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort in that regard.

I also want to mention local authority building. For a long time, local authorities were the main source of provision of new housing for people in housing need. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the level of council house building was enormous, and I think that 100,000 houses were completed in 1979. The number declined rapidly after that to almost zero, although it has now increased a little.

Local authority housing has provided good-quality homes for a large number of people, and surely that ought to be the solution to the current crisis. Investment in council housing is a means of regeneration, conquering unemployment and keeping the building industry going. Above all, it is a way to provide for people living in appalling overcrowded conditions and to help to prevent underachievement in school, high levels of crime and all the other problems that result from bad housing and overcrowding. Those can be improved by this strategy.

I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort that it will be possible for the money allocated for housing development during the current crisis and the money given to the homes agency to be used for that purpose.

My final remark returns to the point I started with, which was about allocations policy. There is obviously a huge science around all that, but frankly, I just wish that we could provide housing as of right so that we would not have to have these arcane debates.

I am concerned that the number of households in London that are populated by single people is increasing. Indeed, that is predicted to be the fastest-growing area of social living in London over the next 20 years. In most housing association and local authority allocations, it is hard to get housing for single people. They have to be either vulnerable or elderly or suffering from some serious medical condition.

Increasingly in London, many single people—quite often people in work—must sofa-hop from one friend’s home to another, sometimes ending up sleeping in cars and all the rest of it, because they cannot afford private rent at the rate of £200 or £300 a week and cannot be allocated a council or housing association property because they do not figure as a priority. I hope that we can become slightly more balanced and ensure that their needs are met as well as others’.

We have it in our hands to do something about this crisis. If we do not, the result will be sheer misery for those living in grossly overcrowded accommodation, and a more divided social structure in central London, which is in nobody’s interests.

14 Jan 2009 : Column 82WH
10.10 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who speak frequently and knowledgeably on London issues. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was right to point out that housing is one of the most intractable problems that we face as Members of Parliament, whether we represent central or outer London.

The hon. Member for Islington, North asked what the purpose of housing associations was. At the point when a lot of responsibility was shifted from local authorities to housing associations, one of their purposes was to be more representative, accountable and accessible than councils. However, in my experience—it may be his as well—local authorities nowadays are all too often more responsive, in many ways, than housing associations. In terms of democratic accountability, from the housing perspective, it is much easier to put pressure on someone in the local authority than in a housing association. I am afraid that the original intention has been lost in recent years.

I had expected to make only an intervention in this debate. Indeed, before the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster turned up a minute or two before the debate, I thought that I would end up making the only Back-Bench contribution, so my remarks this morning are perhaps an extended intervention, containing a couple of key questions for the Minister.

Clearly, this is a critical time for the economy. It is already having a significant knock-on effect on home owners, and it will have a significant effect on people in social housing as well. Job losses will undoubtedly lead to home repossessions and people falling behind with their rent. How many homes does the Minister expect to be repossessed in London this year, and what impact does he expect that to have on the demand for social housing?

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly highlighted the impact of the situation on funding, particularly for projects where the local authority or a housing association is working in partnership to provide a mixture of affordable housing and housing for sale. Is it still the Government’s preference to have mixed-tenure development? In the current economic circumstances, that will be more and more challenging.

From a London perspective, the Mayor has a significant responsibility for housing. It is regrettable that the 50 per cent. target for affordable housing to which he signed up during the mayoral campaign has been jettisoned. I welcome his target of building 50,000 new homes, as well as the fact that he places great emphasis on the need for boroughs to be at the centre of what is happening in housing. They have the tough job of balancing strong demand all over London for affordable housing with equally strong demand in many parts of London, particularly outer London, for the preservation of back gardens. Back gardens preserve a green lung and are in many cases the only habitat for wildlife in suburbia. They are often the reason why people choose to live in suburban London; people feel that gardens are an important part of the character of those areas.

I hope that the Minister, as well as the Mayor, will adopt the proposal advocated by Mike Tuffrey, a member of the London assembly, to provide real-time information
14 Jan 2009 : Column 83WH
about the number of homes being built. The Minister might want to put a diode display outside the front of his Ministry to show how many completions there have been each week. We could then see whether the Mayor’s targets and the Government’s were being met, and if they clearly were not, suitable action could be taken to address the situation.

In a London and national context, in relation to empty homes, it would be remiss of me not to mention something that the Liberal Democrats have banged on about endlessly: equalisation. VAT on new build should be the same as on renovations, to bring back into use the empty homes scattered across London, typically above shops on our high streets.

My local authority is still en route to becoming a two-star arm’s length management organisation. Will the Minister reassure us that, notwithstanding the current economic circumstances, the money will be available for authorities that achieve two-star status? My authority has significant housing issues. The housing stock is not of a standard that I feel is appropriate. One of the explanations for that involves my final point.

We have been running a local campaign called “A Fair Deal for Sutton’s Tenants”, which brought a couple of busloads of tenants up to London to deliver a petition to No. 10 last year. Sutton’s tenants, who suffer from housing that is not of an appropriate standard in some cases, make an average contribution of £1,473 each from their rent to the central pot. In effect, £10 million is being taken out of Sutton to subsidise and improve social housing in other parts of the country that we, not having two-star status in our borough, need to invest in improving our own property.

The Government have the issue under review, but I hope that the review will be tough. Local authorities of all political parties will be winners or losers if the Government address the situation. However, this is a fundamental issue of fairness. When tenants in a borough pay their rent, they expect that rent to be spent locally on doing up their own properties. They do not expect £10 million a year to be exported to do up council properties in other parts of the country.

I hope that the Minister will respond to those two or three critical questions, and I hope that the Government, working with the Mayor, will address the provision of social housing in central and outer London. It remains the single biggest intractable issue that we, as Members of Parliament representing London constituencies, must address daily.

10.17 am

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate. I enjoyed his contribution and agreed with almost all his analysis and some of his recommendations. I was a bit worried that I would agree with everything; he started to say some nice things about Westminster city council and its long-term concerns about people in overcrowded housing, and I just managed to get to the point of disagreement in the end.

Next Section Index Home Page