Previous Section Index Home Page

11 Feb 2009 : Column 1389

In contrast, we are doing everything we can to help households avoid the trauma and upheaval of repossession. We have secured an agreement from lenders that repossession should always be a last resort, and they have agreed to wait a minimum of three months before seeking to repossess. We have also expanded and introduced schemes to help households in particular circumstances and to support advice services, including by providing additional court desks.

Martin Horwood: Will the Minister give way?

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not. I have almost concluded, and I gave way to him earlier.

We have advanced and expanded assistance for those who have lost employment, and we have introduced a mortgage rescue scheme intended to help vulnerable groups who would be eligible for support from their local council under homelessness legislation if their homes were repossessed, meaning that they would automatically be eligible for social housing. That could include the elderly, disabled people and those with children. The scheme will help eligible families to stay in their homes as part-owners or tenants, with the support of a housing association.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD) rose—

Margaret Beckett: I have not given way to the hon. Gentleman, so I shall take a final intervention.

Mr. Burstow: I am grateful to the Minister, who has been very generous in giving way in this important debate. May I ask her, on behalf of many of my constituents who are council tenants, to say a little more about the comprehensive review of the housing revenue account, and particularly about negative subsidy? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] This year, council tenants in my constituency anticipate having to pay more than £10 million to the Government in their rent. They also know that the Treasury will be a net beneficiary to the tune of £200 million from the balance of subsidy receipts and payments in the coming year. They want to know, at the very least, whether during the review that the Government are still conducting, they will accept that there should be no further changes to the amount of subsidy that councils are given or to the negative subsidy that tenants are asked to pay. Will the Government consider that? At the moment, my tenants are feeling rather hard-pressed—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. That intervention is verging on a speech.

Margaret Beckett: I will have to study the record, and I am not quite sure about the hon. Gentleman’s final point. I can certainly assure him that we are fundamentally examining all aspects of the housing revenue account. I cannot yet say what the balance of the decision will be.

The hon. Gentleman’s party has made less noise than some others about the Exchequer’s surplus in the account, and I heard a lot of “Hear, hear” from the Opposition Benches when he mentioned it. Much has been said
11 Feb 2009 : Column 1390
about that, as if it were a completely new phenomenon. The records go back only as far as 1994, but they show that the housing revenue account was in surplus under the Conservative Government and did not go into deficit until we instituted the decent homes repair programme, which I have mentioned. Such a surplus is not a new phenomenon at all. I accept that colleagues will have differing views about whether it is desirable for the housing revenue account to be in surplus, but there is nothing new about it. I am sure that Opposition Members will draw that to the attention of all the tenants’ groups to which their local authorities are making representations on the matter.

I can assure hon. Members that we are continuing work with lenders on a further scheme to help those who face potential repossession or suffer a sudden drop in household income, who were mentioned earlier, and we hope to bring it forward in the not-too-distant future.

I note that despite the concerns raised in the motion, it makes no mention of what is presumably supposed to be the Conservatives’ better offer if, as they hope, they win the next election. I know that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield mentioned that in his final remarks, although I am not entirely sure whether he left the House much clearer about it. Perhaps the motion does not mention it because the Leader of the Opposition’s budget proposals indicate that the budget for my Department would not be allowed to grow by more than 1 per cent. a year. In other words, if the hon. Gentleman were to become Housing Minister, he could expect to preside over a budget cut of, at best, about £800 million, or a potential cut of 10,000 new homes for social rent.

I welcome the concern for the most vulnerable people expressed in the motion, but a debate on housing should definitely be the occasion for more than a few home truths. The plain truth is that neither the Conservatives’ record in office nor their proposals for the future, insofar as they are clear, match up in any way to their rhetoric on what I agree is a vital issue for our country. That is yet another example of why it would not be safe in their hands.

1.36 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): When I saw today’s motion, I could not quite believe my eyes. The Conservatives knocking the Government for failing to tackle the social housing waiting list is a little like Jonathan Ross complaining about the lack of moral fibre in the BBC, or perhaps Jeremy Clarkson fronting a new campaign for Scottish pride. It is simply not credible. I wonder what we will see next from the Conservatives. Perhaps the next Opposition day will bring a motion condemning the sinking of the Belgrano, talking up the benefits of free milk for every child or expressing posthumous solidarity with the 1984 miners’ strike.

I have to admire the brazen, bare-faced cheek of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). However, he delivered his speech without any obvious sense of irony, which demonstrates either a breathtaking absence of self-awareness or a degree of self-delusion that puts to shame even the best of narcissism in this great place.

11 Feb 2009 : Column 1391

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): I think that it was Disraeli who described the Conservative party as “an organised hypocrisy”. Was not today’s speech by the Conservative spokesman a perfect example of the fact that hypocrisy is still alive and well in the Conservative party?

Sarah Teather: Something like that—I am not sure whether I would dare to use such a term, as it might be deemed unparliamentary, but I agree entirely with the sentiment.

The Minister said that the Conservative motion entirely lacked policy proposals. The only one that I could find in it was to cut red tape, which seems to be the Conservatives’ sticking-plaster option for all their policy gaps at the moment. But it takes bricks, concrete and builders to build houses—solid, expensive and tangible things. The Conservatives’ approach to house building is a little like one of those Etch-a-Sketch toys I had when I was a child. Everything is in outline, but the drawing dissipates as soon as anyone shakes it. The Conservatives are the party that invented the right to buy and prevented councils from reinvesting the full receipts in new homes, that slashed the Housing Corporation’s budget and whose legacy was a catalogue of disrepair.

Since 1980, about 2.5 million council properties have been purchased under the right to buy from a council stock that then stood at more than 5 million. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield tried to make a point about the replacement of those houses, but I am afraid that the successive policies of both Conservative and Labour Governments have prevented councils from reinvesting the money from the right-to-buy scheme locally. That is why we have seen such a shortfall in social housing. Worse, the Conservative party would impose the same policy on housing associations—an idea that experts in the sector have universally condemned. Housing associations already face financial difficulty because of the climate of lending and the extent of their debt. However, the Conservatives want to remove their rental income and dwindle their asset base. The Conservatives are right about the problem—the Government have failed to tackle the housing waiting list—but they have offered us no solution today.

There is no solution for my constituent Mr. Ahmed, a single man approaching his 60s. He is disabled, unable to work and struggling to care for himself now that his children have moved away. By any measure, he is profoundly vulnerable, yet he has been on the housing waiting list since 1984. After four Prime Ministers—two from each main party—people such as Mr. Ahmed have little or no chance of finding a home.

In my constituency, if we continue building at the same rate but lose properties through the right to buy, it will take more than 200 years to house the 20,000 families who are waiting for new homes—and that assumes that no families are added to the list.

Ms Buck: On that point, and the impact of the right to buy and a possible extension of the policy to housing associations, does the hon. Lady have the same experience as I do? In my constituency, approximately half the properties sold on several estates are now in the hands of property companies and multiple landlords. The argument that the right to buy automatically translates into home ownership for individuals and does not influence the total stock of affordable housing is therefore wrong.

11 Feb 2009 : Column 1392

Sarah Teather: I agree. There are elements of our constituencies that are very similar. However, I also know from colleagues in the south-west that some properties sold under the right to buy are now second homes for people who live in London and come down to holiday in them during the summer. The hon. Lady is right to say that the right to buy has not meant that those properties are left for people in the community.

Simon Hughes: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an alternative—a way to allow the occupant to get possession, while retaining the local authority’s right to take the property back when the possession ends? The most progressive authorities in the country—South Shropshire comes to mind—have done that. It means that the properties stay with the community for local residents to take up tenancies after the initial occupation.

Sarah Teather: My hon. Friend is right. Last week, we debated proposals for community land trusts, which Liberal Democrat Members have championed for some time. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is saying that the Government championed it, too, and the Conservatives are joining in—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): We championed it first.

Sarah Teather: I am not going to get into that sort of competition, but I am pleased that there is all-party agreement on the matter. However, it does not detract from the point that the right to buy, without giving the money to local authorities to invest, has caused much damage and created housing need in local communities.

One in 10 of my constituents lives in temporary accommodation. That is typical of many areas in London—the figure is even higher in some parts of the city. Most of them are in a poverty trap, with high rents and housing benefit meaning that they cannot afford to work. I have many constituents whose parents were in temporary accommodation when they were born, and they experienced all the regular moves and disruption to school work that that entails. Some of them are now having families of their own, still in temporary accommodation. A whole generation has been condemned to uncertainty and poverty. The misery and helplessness of those waiting for housing eats away at their existence. The Government’s failure to tackle the problem is a betrayal of the people who elected them.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am trying to follow the hon. Lady’s argument because, a minute ago, in reply to the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), she mentioned her concern about the right to buy, yet the Liberal Democrat amendment would in many ways strengthen the policy by allowing local authorities to keep receipts. Is it the Liberal Democrat position that right to buy is good or bad?

Sarah Teather: I am amazed that the hon. Lady cannot grasp the point. I must have made it about four times in the debate, including in interventions on Labour and Conservative Front Benchers. Councils should be allowed to keep receipts from the right to buy and invest them locally. However, we do not want the policy to be
11 Feb 2009 : Column 1393
extended to housing associations because it would disrupt their asset base. For those that are charitable organisations, it is even against their charter. I thought I had made that point clearly.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that far too few new buildings for council or housing association rent have been developed in the past 10 years or more? One problem is that, in local authority planning, the threshold is too high, so that most small developments, which are the norm in central and inner London, simply have no social element. For several years in my borough, less than 5 per cent. of all new buildings were for social rent.

Sarah Teather: The problem is that such properties are not being built under section 106 anyway.

Lynne Jones: I am prepared to say that the right to buy has been an unmitigated disaster. I will not go into detail, but if we are to encourage councils to build more homes—I sincerely hope that we will—how will we prevent their asset base from being destroyed if the right to buy continues unabated?

Sarah Teather: Sometimes it depends on the subsidy offered under the right to buy. There are many variations to ensure that, especially in areas where there is a lack of stock, it is not degraded further. However, I accept the hon. Lady’s point.

The most important thing that the Government could do for families in my constituency and in constituencies across the country is to tackle the policy problems that prevent councils from building new homes. They should give councils back the receipts from the right to buy, as I have said many times—perhaps I had better say it again to ensure that Conservative Front Benchers understand me—and they should give them certainty about their rental income so that they can plan. [Interruption.]

Maintaining social homes in Brent and many other parts of London costs more than can be raised through Brent’s council tenant rents. [Interruption.] There is so much hilarity that I shall repeat my point. When it comes to subsidy and housing revenue account, in places such as Brent and other constituencies in inner London it costs more to maintain those homes than can be raised by Brent’s social tenants. Why should the responsibility for paying for the shortfall lie with council tenants in Cambridge, Chesterfield or Solihull? Why have the Government imposed an additional tax on council tenants—individuals and families who already live on low incomes? Any subsidy should come from general taxation, paid for by people on a higher income, not the poorest people in council housing. The system of pooling council tenants’ rent nationally amounts to a tax on tenants.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Is the housing revenue account not made even worse by the Treasury’s retaining some of the funds, so that the poorest people not only pay for improvements in other areas but pay a tax directly to the Treasury?

11 Feb 2009 : Column 1394

Sarah Teather: I agree. The point was made earlier to the Minister, who tried to say that the problem was not new. Yes, it is an old problem, and it is time that the Government fixed it. I know they are consulting about it, and they say that they will conduct a review. Unfortunately, their current proposals suggest, as usual, that they have taken the title but not written the prose. I want the Government to reform the housing revenue account radically and introduce proposals as soon as possible.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): The hon. Lady makes a good point about the negative subsidy. It is a big disincentive to local authorities to maintain council housing and a big incentive to opt out or have stock transfer. In the long term, it will lead to poorer standards of council housing unless it is reversed.

Sarah Teather: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It means that councils have no certainty about their income, thus making it impossible, when they are also losing receipts from the right to buy and do not know what their rental income will be from one year to the next, to plan.

The plight of families waiting for housing will get worse with the recession. However, the ability of housing associations and councils to match the problem is getting weaker under existing policy. Housing associations say that building has ground to a halt as they are hampered by banks renegotiating existing loans and raising the stakes on new ones. Worse, they can no longer cross-subsidise developments through private sales and shared equity homes. As I said to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), councils that relied on section 106 agreements to get social housing built find that everything stops as private development stops.

We must accept that, in the short term, a higher subsidy is required in many areas to keep homes being built. The Homes and Communities Agency has said that it is willing to be flexible. However, that needs to filter through to housing associations urgently. I think it will require the intervention of the Minister to ensure that that happens.

We must keep building. If we stop building in this recession, when banks start lending again there will be a real danger of hyper-inflation in the housing market—need does not go away because people cannot get mortgages, and people do not stop needing social housing because there is not enough available. If we stop building, we will lose the construction workers who build the homes that we need, and if we lose their skills it may take a generation to replace them.

But the recession is also an opportunity. Land is cheaper. Homes are cheaper. However, the Government have invested just £200 million in the national clearing house scheme to allow housing associations to buy up unsold property. The Government say that they want to build to create jobs, yet they have brought forward just £400 million to build 5,000 new homes. That will barely dent the list of need in this country.

Next Section Index Home Page