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2.13 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): The Government set themselves what I believe was an over-ambitious target of 2 million homes by 2016 and 3 million homes by 2020—a significant number of which I assume would be affordable homes for sale or rent. I dispute the Government figures, particularly when we have so many perfectly useful homes lying empty—a matter I shall touch on later.

In response to my inquiry about skills shortages, the Minister for Housing said that she was dealing with the matter. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is, like me, a member of the Select Committee,
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and I hope that he will reflect on some of the comments I am about to make about skills shortages, which I believe are further delaying the Government’s delivery of their particularly ambitious housing agenda.

What, then, are the main obstacles to the delivery of the Government’s proposed housing targets? They are skills shortages in planning. In July, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, on which I serve, published its report, “Planning Matters—labour shortages and skills gaps”, regarding the lack of skilled staff in planning. Anyone living in a high-price area such as St. Albans will testify to the fact that it is extremely difficult to get experienced planners into the system and then to retain those officers.

The Government published their response on 3 November 2008. To say that the Government have given a somewhat vague and lacklustre response to this report would be an understatement. If they are really serious about delivering their housing targets, however ambitious, and if they are really serious about cutting waiting lists for social rented housing and about speeding up build delivery, it would be logical to assume that they would be really serious about ironing out some of the obstacles or problems that appear to beset our planning delivery at a local level—obstacles and problems that have been pointed out to them by the Select Committee, most noticeably shortages of planning skills.

Our Committee concluded in its report:

That is a damning indictment of 10 years of the Government’s inability to tackle the problem. Although the Government acknowledged in their response that progress had been slow and that there was more to be done, they maintained that

Where, given the years of inactivity that I have alluded to, do they get that confidence from?

The Government’s response contains little or no detailed commitment to specific action. We cannot build houses if the planning system cannot deliver them. Instead, the Government showed an over-emphasis on the roles of others, rather than themselves, and simply restated existing or past initiatives without any new proposals to deal with those acknowledged problems. Do the Government really expect us to accept that the constant assertion that progress will be made will indeed mean that progress happens?

A key issue raised in the report was training for councillors in planning matters. Again, it was acknowledged that many councillors were expected to make complex decisions and that the turnover of councils sometimes means that there is little in the way of a training base for councillors. Again, we are led to believe that development is thwarted or held up through lack of informed decision making. Our recommendation 22 urged the Government specifically to address that problem, but in response to our request for councillor training, the Government simply agreed that it should not be compulsory and
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provided examples of where training was already given. One of their key examples, however—the Planning Advisory Service 1:1 support programme—has delivered training to only 36 councils, which is hardly a seismic shift in speeding up the planning upskilling that councillors need.

The Committee’s report concluded:

I am not sure that that is really a word, but it appeared in our report—

So, instead of the decisive action that we urged on the Government, who have set themselves hugely ambitious targets to deliver more and more houses, they have buried their heads in the sand. The Government’s response disagreed with, or failed to address, the key issues in the report’s recommendations.

Given the stated recognition by the Government that

and the acknowledgement that there are low numbers entering the profession, our report recommended annual assessment so that shortages could be addressed and more encouragement given to get more people into a profession that is so sadly lacking in critical numbers. However, the Government chose not to accept that recommendation; they simply gave a commitment to undertaking three-yearly audits of existing numbers of planners and of their skills base and needs. This three-yearly audit of trends implies a passive monitoring role on the Government’s part rather than proactive engagement in, and pursuit of, a solution to this serious professional shortfall, which will no doubt hobble the Government’s intention to build more houses. Why, if the Government want to speed up delivery, do they fail to accept the report’s findings? I would like the Minister to answer that.

In the case of planning skills shortages, the Committee was so concerned that it felt it had to point out to the Government:

What is the Government’s response? To do nothing. Perhaps the Minister will at least attempt to explain how even a reasonable percentage of those extra homes can be built when the Government have refused to address one of the biggest obstacles to delivering them—the lack of skilled planners.

The Government’s other glaring deficiency is their absolute failure to deliver their own legislation in the shape of empty dwelling management orders. As we have already heard several times today, the Empty Homes Agency has estimated that more than 1 million homes in the United Kingdom are empty. The vast majority—more than four out of five—are believed to be owned by private landlords. The Government have been intending to address the problem, but little has been done.

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The EHA estimates that of the 762,000 empty residential properties in England, 650,000 are owned by private landlords, and almost half are thought to have been empty for more than six months. According to the charity’s own estimates, there are at least another 77,000 empty residential properties in Scotland and 50,000 in Wales and Northern Ireland. Surely, at a time when we are being pushed to “build, build, build”, if there are tools in our toolbox enabling us to return empty, serviceable homes to use so that families can live in them, that should be our first duty. I do not know why the Government have abandoned it.

The EHA’s chief executive, David Ireland, predicts that the total number of empty residential properties will pass 1 million, a prediction that we have heard again today. He has said:

The Housing Act 2004 made provision for local authorities to take over the management of certain residential premises, but, in October 2007, the Government reported that only six interim empty dwelling management orders had been approved since that provision came into force, and very few orders have been employed since then. In November, in reply to a question asked by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), the Minister for Housing revealed that only 15 had been issued—15, when 1 million homes stand empty! In St. Albans alone, an extremely highly priced area, there are 1,500 empty domestic dwellings. The Government’s council tax records show that, in 2007, there were 762,635 in England as a whole, so St. Albans is fairly typical.

The Government are now quietly shelving the EDMOs. Although levels of homelessness are expected to rise, we shall have 1 million empty built homes along with the sclerosis in the planning system that prevents us from building the homes that are desperately needed. I pay tribute to the charities in my constituency that pick up the pieces for those 1,500 people: Centre 33, Emmaus and Open Door. I visit all of them regularly, and all of them tell me that this is a growing problem affecting homelessness in St. Albans, and a growing problem for all local authorities that cannot deliver fit and decent homes for people speedily enough.

2.23 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab): Access to housing that is adequate in terms of both size and condition is by far the most serious problem for my constituents and, I suspect, those of many Members representing inner-London and other inner-city areas. The pressures related to schools and health care experienced by inner-London areas as a result of social deprivation and population mobility are exaggerated in comparison with those in other parts of the country, but the housing pressures that they experience are exaggerated to an even greater degree.

Although I am pleased that we are debating this issue, I am frankly appalled by the trivial and content-free stance that the Opposition have chosen to take. This is student politics. They have picked a Labour issue on
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which the Conservatives have an atrocious record over many decades to see how far they can get with it. In the time available to me, I shall give a London perspective. I hope to demonstrate not only that this is a complicated issue, but that where the Conservatives are in power—as they predominantly are in London, at both regional and local level—what they are doing, often through deliberate policy, is the opposite of what the motion suggests.

Housing waiting lists are a guide to housing need, although, interestingly, my local Conservative council says that they are irrelevant because anyone can sign up to them. The statistics on overcrowding or temporary accommodation are probably a better guide. They show that 75 per cent. of families in temporary accommodation are in London, as are 40 per cent. of overcrowded households.

I am pleased that the Government are now investing, but their priority was dealing with conditions that had to be dealt with. I wish that investment to deal with housing supply and the size of units had begun earlier, because we are now having to play catch-up. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), we should appreciate that the appalling conditions in which council housing had been left had to be addressed; however, because of the increase in housing need—largely due, in London, to the state of the property market over the past few years, which has not been redressed by the fall in prices—we need immediate investment to deal with the number and size of units.

The problem is that the delivery arm of that necessary investment—which, in terms of both policy and action, consists of registered social landlords, local authorities and the Mayor of London—is simply not reacting. The Mayor’s housing strategy involved two significant factors, one of which was the removal of targets. I have heard the rhetoric, and I see it again in the motion, but I have yet to hear anyone explain convincingly how the absence of targets would increase the number of affordable housing units built in London. In the financial year ending in March 2008, the first year in which the Conservatives were responsible for housing starts in Hammersmith and Fulham, fewer than 5 per cent. were affordable housing starts.

Grant Shapps: Five per cent. of what?

Mr. Slaughter: It would have to be 5 per cent. of a very large number to make any contribution, and it certainly was not that.

The other significant factor in the Mayor’s housing strategy was the raising of the affordable housing income threshold to £72,000. Recently, during a debate in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) asked the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to what extent he believed people earning significantly more than Members of Parliament were a priority for housing need in London. I think that the hon. Gentleman has yet to answer that question as well.

The principal culprits in relation to London’s housing strategy at the moment, however, are the Conservative boroughs. Let me run through some of the policies that
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are currently in force. I shall be happy to give way to Opposition Members who may wish to say whether they support them. It is true that there is a decline in the property market, but local authorities still have a fair amount of section 106 money. My Conservative authority has said that it does not wish to use for the purpose of building affordable housing money given to it specifically for that purpose. When units have already been built or planning consent has already been granted, it wishes to return those units to the developer so that they can be used for luxury housing. That happened to 250 units on the Imperial Wharf site in Fulham last year. Apparently, those units—50 shared-ownership and 200 social rented—were not needed by a local authority with 8,000 people on the waiting list and more than 1,100 families in temporary accommodation.

The Conservatives are quick to criticise the Government for not making Government land available, but Labour councils, when land was available to them—it is at a premium in inner London now; it really is quite precious—used to pass it to RSLs, at nil value, for the development of social housing. Obviously that meant that the land went further: with the social housing grant that was available, it was possible to build more and cheaper units. Those bits of council land that do become available are now auctioned off to private developers or RSLs, with the consequence that the predominance of housing on those sites is either market housing or what is called intermediate housing, which is very expensive. As a result, most RSLs in west London are now property developers. They are not building affordable housing at all; they are simply building market housing or what is called discount market sale housing.

The motion briefly mentions rough sleeping—I think it crept in as an afterthought. Policy on that is dealt with in my local area not by the councillors who are responsible for social care, but by the councillors who are responsible for antisocial behaviour and crime. As a consequence, when the BBC offered us a night shelter and all the funding for it, that was refused by the local authority on the grounds that it might encourage undesirable elements into the area. The one large day-centre for homeless people in Shepherd’s Bush—the Broadway project, which I sat on the board of for about 20 years—is an excellent project operating from a purpose-built building, but the authority is seeking to withdraw its grant and to close it, because it believes it lowers the tone of the area.

The key policies Conservative councils are pursuing are the disposal and demolition of social housing, and the failure to construct new units of social housing. In policy terms, we have moved from a situation in which 40 per cent. of all housing built in the borough was socially rented housing—that was under a Labour administration—to one where the target is 10 per cent. but the reality is zero; the real target is that zero units of new housing should be socially rented, on the basis that there is already too much socially rented housing in the borough. There is, in fact, 32 per cent. social housing in the borough, which is less than the inner London average, and, of course, any sensible person would say, “Well that creates a need for more social housing, as families grow and houses are sold through the right to buy and so forth.” In reality, however, the policy is that that is too much and we need less. Therefore, we now have situations such as that in White City, which is quite
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famous because the Mayor was caught out changing his mind: all the social housing was stripped out of a new development, contrary to what the tenants and residents of the area had been promised, simply to ensure that market housing was built on the site. That regularly happens across the borough.

Last week, I attended a public meeting called by the leader of the council for tenants and residents of 800 council leasehold and tenanted flats in west Kensington. Rather than give my own no doubt partial version of events, I shall read the account that was published on the front page of the local newspaper. The headline was, “Rich inherit the borough: residents seethe at council leader’s plan to bulldoze homes to make way for wealthy to regenerate economy”. The article reports:

[Interruption.] So 800 council rented and leasehold flats are to be demolished to build an international conference centre, and no— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If Members wish to intervene, it is much more helpful if they stand up and do it in the usual way. Is the hon. Gentleman willing to give way?

Mr. Slaughter: Yes.

Justine Greening: I actually wished to make a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The concern I wished to raise is that the hon. Gentleman is making a speech about a constituency that is not his own; he keeps on referring to Fulham, which is represented by another Member.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Members’ remarks are in no way confined to their own constituencies. They may talk about whatever they like to talk about.

Mr. Slaughter: Is that really the best the hon. Lady can do? She is a near neighbour of mine as she represents Putney. That is also an inner-London constituency. Despite Wandsworth council’s attempts over the years to move all the poor out of the borough, she must experience some of the same concerns as I do. I have invited Opposition Members to intervene on any of the examples I have given. I am speaking very slowly so that they can understand what Conservative housing policy means in practice in inner London. I have given about six examples so far; Conservative Members are yawning a bit and looking at their watches, and I am sorry if what I have to say is not more entertaining. I invite them by all means to challenge me and say whether or not they support their authorities’ policies, but for the hon. Lady to come up with a point of such triviality just confirms what I have been saying.

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