Previous Section Index Home Page

If the Minister is in the mood to do something for people, he should note that almost all first-time buyers—nine out of 10—could be exempted from stamp duty. That is another policy that he is welcome to borrow from us. He may know—if he does not, he will get his head around it very quickly—that, in a past Budget, the present Prime Minister said that zero-carbon homes
9 Jun 2009 : Column 715
would be allowed zero stamp duty. We asked, out of interest, how often that had come to pass. There had been a fair amount of time for the arrangement to bed in, and one would have thought that there would be a fair amount of stamp duty exemption. The answer was that only 18 homes had benefited, and that £70,000 of stamp duty relief had been granted. In my view, this was no more than a headline-grabbing idea, and it is clearly having very little influence out there. What will the Minister do to extend the programme?

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain how the Government managed even that rebate, given that they have so far failed to define a zero-carbon home? That is why the housing industry is unable to prepare for the important changes that will come in 2016.

Grant Shapps: My right hon. Friend is spot on. After three and a half years of consultation on what zero carbon might mean, the Government have still not reached a decision. That is what is holding back the market. That is what is making it so difficult for housing developers to know which way to turn. I wonder whether the Minister will bring the three and a half year consultation to an end soon, or whether he is aware of a recent European Union decision—made, I believe, within the last fortnight—to exclude off-site renewables from the definition of zero carbon. I understand that that has been an issue of debate and confrontation between the Treasury and the DCLG, which have different versions of zero carbon. Will the Minister pledge today to end that debate, to end the three and a half year consultation, and to produce a definition of zero carbon so that people can get on with building homes?

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I have carefully examined the 11 lines of the Opposition motion, and I find no reference at all to affordable housing for rent, whether delivered by local housing associations or local authorities. Is that not evidence of the Conservative party’s continued hostility to local authorities in that regard, which was all too evident in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997?

Grant Shapps: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman attended, or has read the record of, the previous debate on affordable housing, which was called by the Opposition and held in our time. To answer his question directly, we have no opposition to anybody providing affordable housing; there is no great philosophical reason why people and organisations should not be able to provide the housing this country needs. If we are talking about the supply of affordable housing, it is well worth mentioning that this Labour Government, who supposedly were elected to help the people in greatest need, have in every single year of their tenure in office built less affordable housing for rent than either John Major or Margaret Thatcher. That is the reality of this Government’s housing record.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): My hon. Friend knows very well the difficulty in building more houses in the south-east, which highlights the Government’s monstrously bad record in this respect. Does he agree
9 Jun 2009 : Column 716
that it would make it easier for everyone if a commitment were given to put the infrastructure in place that could support these housing developments, instead of building houses in places that are completely unsuitable for the people who live there?

Grant Shapps: That is evidenced by the reality on the ground. Not only have fewer affordable homes been built, but this Government have on average built less housing overall in every year of their Administration. Something is going badly wrong, and what is not working is their regionalisation of housing policy. Planning and top-down targets are patently failing to deliver housing on the ground. The more it does not work, the more the Government think the way to make it work is to push harder and blame the people on the ground. They misunderstand the reasons why it is not working. People do not want building to be imposed on them; instead, they want to be part of the process of building their own communities.

That is a fundamental misunderstanding of how housing works which we will correct. We will end regional spatial strategies, get rid of regional assemblies—if the Government have not quite passed their legislation on that in time—and strip the regional development agencies of powers over planning, housing targets and numbers. We will return that to people on the ground, who can use those powers, together with incentives, to go ahead and build the housing that is really needed by local communities. In doing so, we will outperform this Government’s appalling record on house building over the past 12 years.

Bob Russell: The hon. Gentleman is right to remind the current Government that the Thatcher and Major Governments built considerably more council houses, and to highlight this Government’s abysmal failure in not building council houses over the past 12 years. May I ask him, however, if it is Conservative party policy to allow councils to build council houses?

Grant Shapps: As I have said, our policy is that under a Conservative Government anybody who wants to step up to the plate and build homes to house people in this country will be absolutely at liberty to do so.

There are good reasons why these policies are failing. We have talked about the failure of regional planning and the inability to understand that people on the ground best know what is required to house people in their local areas. The green paper that I have referenced addresses ideas to bring in local housing trusts, which would enable local people to decide how and where that housing goes, and also to deliver their own planning permission to go ahead and create those new communities. That would do a great deal to bring forward new housing in this country, and it would do so much more quickly than setting up massive bureaucracies that are unpopular and not democratically elected.

Let me now turn to a single example in my constituency, where this Government say that between 10,000 and 15,000 homes need to be built. We are not worried about the building of new homes; I happen to represent a couple of new towns and we are very comfortable with the idea of house building. The problem is that it is not right to stuff in 10,000 or 15,000 homes while closing the local hospital at the same time. Those are
9 Jun 2009 : Column 717
incompatible policies that have got even the local Labour and Liberal Democrat parties campaigning and leafleting with us against the Government’s plans.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman is not keen on having any kind of centralised or national target, will he cast a thought towards Mayor Johnson’s approach in London of abolishing London-wide targets and saying everything has to be achieved through negotiations with the boroughs? The result of that is fewer homes for social rent, less housing for those who desperately need it, and a mayoralty and leadership that does not seem as desperately concerned about social housing as the previous Mayor was.

Grant Shapps: When it comes to building far fewer social housing units, this Government have the record to beat. Under them, the net change in social housing stock has been a loss of some 480,000 units, so they have very little to crow about. In the past five years, 122,000 houses have been added to the social housing stock, but for the same period before 1997 the figure was 257,000. There has therefore been a dramatic slow-down in the number of homes added. Moreover, one in six homes is judged by the Government’s own measure to be non-decent.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): If a local authority such as Westminster was therefore to make the decision that only 11 per cent. of all housing constructed in the borough year on year would be affordable, should it be allowed to do that even at the expense of spiralling homelessness and the second worst overcrowding rate in London?

Grant Shapps: It is key to fixing this housing crisis, for which the current Government more than any other have to take their share of responsibility, that we understand that the trick is to build more homes in total in order that everybody at every level of the housing market, right down to those people who are homeless, get the opportunity to live with a decent roof over their head. The obsession with targeting, numbers, sub-numbers and sub-targets is not solving the problem; in fact, it has made it much more acute. The people I meet when I visit homelessness shelters do not say to me that the problem is that the target for affordable home building is not great enough. They say that the problem is that not enough homes are built, and the people who run those organisations say the problem is that there is nowhere to move people. The root of the problem is that there are 480,000 fewer units of social housing under this Government. We cannot hide behind statistics such as the percentage of new-build; the problem is that this Government have built less affordable housing and less housing overall.

Ms Buck: If the percentages do not matter and only the numbers for the absolute provision of housing matter, why is it that a low percentage does not necessarily equate to better numbers, as we can see in the failure to meet housing need? Surely housing need should be going down when the numbers are going up, regardless of percentages, but that is not happening.

Grant Shapps: Since this Government came to power, the housing waiting lists have increased from 1 million to 1.8 million families. That means that there are probably
9 Jun 2009 : Column 718
between 4.5 million and 5.5 million people languishing on the social housing waiting lists. It is getting ridiculous to be constantly lectured on how policies involving targeting, top-down Government initiatives and headline-grabbing news could possibly be the solution when the Government have failed to solve any of the problems for more than a decade. We need a new approach and a fresh start, and we need to find ways to ensure that housing actually gets built in this country to an extent that is commensurate with what people require in local communities.

We also need to solve some of our long-term housing problems, such as the so-called tenant tax. That is the confusing housing revenue account—or, rather, negative housing revenue account. It is a system whereby 140 of the councils that have their own stock or arm’s length management organisations are paying into the pot and just 40 are getting something out of that pot. What happens to the rest of the money? It is sent to the Treasury, which keeps it. The sums involved are £200 million this year, projected to rise to £300 million next year. I know that many Labour Members who are interested in this subject recognise that that is a real problem. It is a tax on people who can least afford to pay it.

As the Conservative who represents the most council tenants, I can tell the House that they look very poorly on the fact that up to 50 per cent. of the rent they have to pay goes out of the area. The money does not fix the homes in my constituency or help to build new homes, but is instead sent to the Government centrally. That is not a sensible way of going about housing policy and it is not helping anyone; it is taxing the poorest people through a tenants’ tax. It is completely unfair and the Government admit that it is a problem. They have put it into one of their lengthy reviews. Can the Minister tell us when the review will finally report? It has been going on for about 14 to 16 months. When will the review into the negative housing subsidy finally reach some kind of decision and tell us what is going to be done about the tenants’ tax?

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am so pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that very important point. Council tenants in Kettering borough pay £12 million a year in housing rent, £3 million of which disappears out of the borough and into the Exchequer’s coffers. If Kettering borough council was able to keep that £3 million, it could do a lot to improve local housing conditions.

Grant Shapps: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. My local council pays over about £16 million and it is not as if there is not a big housing need. I have said that the Government want us to build 10,000 to 15,000 homes in the area. There is a logical way to get some of those homes built, but taking the money back to the centre is certainly not helping to tackle that problem.

Several hon. Members rose

Grant Shapps: I am aware of the time and I wish to allow others the opportunity to speak, particularly the Front Benchers. As they will get a chance to speak anyway, it might make sense if I were to make a bit of progress.

9 Jun 2009 : Column 719

The Prime Minister came into office two years ago saying that housing would be this Government’s No. 1 priority. He said that it was so important that whoever took the post of Minister for Housing would have to sit in the Cabinet and attend its meetings, yet, as we have seen, there have since been not three but four such Ministers. That is hardly the mark of a Government who are taking the subject seriously. Many of the Government’s flagship policies have floundered and then sunk entirely. We have seen the collapse of the eco-town project. There were to be 10 eco-towns designed to deliver sustainable living around the country, but that good idea has been completely messed up by this Government’s implementation and, as far as anybody can tell, there is no likelihood of the eco-towns ever seeing the light of day. We have seen derision about home information packs, and no progress has been made on the zero-carbon homes initiative or on the negative housing revenue account—

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has made a remark that I hope he will withdraw because it is clearly completely wrong. He said that no progress had been made on reducing carbon. Does he recognise that over the past few years a remarkable change has taken place in the approach of house builders, registered social landlords and other housing providers, who have responded positively to the initiative taken by the Government to try to drive up energy efficiency standards? Code level 3 is now being delivered and code level 4 is being delivered by many RSLs. There has been a complete change in attitude towards reducing carbon, so will he please give the Government credit for that?

Grant Shapps: I certainly respect the right hon. Gentleman’s considerable experience in the housing world and on the topic of housing, but I am fairly sure that Hansard will show that I was talking about zero-carbon homes, as in the stamp duty relief to which I made reference earlier. As I described, no progress has been made in defining what zero-carbon will mean. I went to some lengths to describe precisely how the Government have spent three and a half years considering the issue but have reached absolutely no conclusion.

This Government have failed this country on housing: they have failed with their top-down targets; they have failed to give young people the opportunity to own their own home; and they have failed to protect those who are in their own homes but are desperate for some kind of help. Such people have been misled by the promise of real help now—that has never materialised. The Government have grabbed the headlines, but the required home building has simply not happened. They have gone for the column inches, but we face a terrible legacy of Labour’s failed housing policies. It is now time to end the headline-grabbing housing announcements and get on with building some homes.

7.34 pm

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

I welcome this debate, and the remarks made by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) at the start of his contribution. This is particularly the case on this, my second day in the job. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), is in his first day in his new post, although he has been a councillor and a housing officer in the past. This is my fifth job in government, and normally, Conservative Members have been kind enough to drop me a note of congratulation. This is the first time that I have encountered a motion of criticism tabled instead, but I welcome this chance for an early debate.

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I am following some very good Labour Housing Ministers, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), who is one of the most distinguished, accomplished and loyal Labour Ministers I have had the privilege to serve alongside. I am proud to have been asked to do this job, because our home matters more to each and every one of us, and to our families, than almost anything else. It is hard to have a settled life without a decent secure home in which to live. If someone’s home is at risk their life is in turmoil, and everything is insecure. I am proud to be in a party that has been serious about helping to improve and promote housing in this country, and to protect people in their homes.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): Council housing remains a very important part of the housing stock. The Minister will know the importance of reviewing negative subsidy on the housing revenue account. Can he give us some indication of when the review will report and we will know what the situation is? Poole has an arm’s length management organisation that is very concerned about what its future will be unless the funding situation is changed.

John Healey: The short answer is soon. The slightly longer answer is that the detailed work, which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, who spoke from the Front Bench, will appreciate is complicated, has been largely completed. I am aware that this issue is one of the big concerns; it is one of the big jobs for me to nail, and I intend to do that soon.

Next Section Index Home Page