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The Government have shownthis is why I am proud to be a Labour Housing Minister in a Labour Governmenta determination to try to improve the homes that people live in, to build the homes that people need to live in, and to help them to stay in their homes during this recession when they are at risk of not being able to do so. We have shown that during the 12 months of this economic downturn, and during our 12 years in government. We ended the long-term use of bed and breakfast for families with children five years ago. The number of families in temporary accommodation has fallen quarter on quarter for more than three years. More than 1 million people who are disabled or elderly, or who have other special needs, are able to live in their own homes because of the Supporting People programme, and more than 1 million families now live in decent homes because of our programme of repair and refurbishment, and because we dealt with the backlog left in 1997.
Jeremy Corbyn: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He must be aware that in London, particularly inner London, local authorities tend to place people in private rented accommodation rather than in council or housing association accommodation; that is because of the shortage. Huge rents are paid, usually by housing benefitand therein lies a benefit trap for people who are in such properties. Can he offer us some hope that not only will there be a substantial building programme to end that practice, but some progress will be made on rent control so that the public no longer, in effect, subsidise the excessive rents charged by private landlords?
John Healey: If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall come to tenants rights. That issue has been on my desk, and what I was doing on day one of my job was trying to find ways to increase building in order to meet the needs, particularly during this downturn, of people in his constituency, in other parts of London and in the rest of the country.
In the boom phase of their boom-and-bust approach to housing, when prices were going up, Ministers told us that they were going up because not enough houses were being built. Why are prices now going down, and what is the remedy to falling house prices?
John Healey: Before we hit this downturn, we had the highest level of house building for 30 years, with more than 207,000 new homes completed. During this recession, the answer has to be a Government prepared to do moreprecisely the contrary to what we see from the Conservatives. They do not believe that the Government have a role to play, and they are not prepared to make the investment that is necessary. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that without the measures that we are trying to put in place, there would be more people losing their homes, fewer homes being built and a greater problem in providing the low-cost or low-rent housing that people will need in future.
John Healey: It is difficult to know for certain, and we will have a much clearer idea in July when we have the first deadline for bids from local authorities for the special money that was set aside in the Budget. At that point I will be able to answer the hon. Gentlemans question more clearly.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. Today in Rotherhammy constituency and his boroughI helped to open a new socially affordable housing unit that will provide a number of low-cost homes. That is the way forward.
My right hon. Friend is Daniel in the lions den today, and we should give him a break. However, the plain fact is that in the 1950s, his predecessor under a different Administration, Harold Macmillan, went out and built 300,000 homes a year, council and private. May I suggest that that is not the worst of ambitions? If we build homes for the people of Britain, they will not vote for the British National party in Yorkshire, and my right hon. Friend will be a full member of the Cabinet.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is dead right, and the Prime Minister made a point about that idea several months ago. It is quite clear that local authority building has a bigger role to play. That was signalled in the Budget, but there is more that we can do. The Prime Minister said back in February that
if local authorities can convince us that they can deliver quickly and cost effectively more of the housing that Britain needs...then we will be prepared to give...our full backing and put aside any of the barriers that stand in the way of this happening.
David Taylor: I congratulate the Minister on his promotion to his post. The last word spoken by his predecessor about housing revenue accounts was in answer to a question that I asked last week. I put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) the possibility of councils retaining all rent income so that they could reinvest in their local housing stock, build new houses and have the same access as registered social landlords to grants and loans to tackle the housing crisis. She seemed well disposed towards those suggestions and ideas, which have come from a wide range of organisations and individuals. Would the Minister say that he was a fan as well?
I would, and in the spirit of what the Prime Minister promised, we are now changing the system so that local authorities can bid for housing grants on the same basis as housing associations. We are also ensuring that local authorities that receive
grants from the Homes and Communities Agency can expect new homes to be excluded from the housing revenue account subsidy system. Those are steps to removing the barriers that we have seen in the past to councils playing a much bigger role in not just building but commissioning the houses that are needed in their areas.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I wish the Minister well in his aspiration to build more homes, but may I invite him to revisit the whole question of a one-size-fits-all housing policy for the country? He will recall that the former Salisbury district council ended up responding to the regional spatial strategy with a decision by the Liberal Democrat administration to build a huge new community in the middle of the countryside, with no infrastructure support. Will the Minister consider areas such as mine carefully? It has an area of outstanding natural beauty, a special area of conservation river, a world heritage site and a national park. Will he consider the absurdity that in those circumstances the planning authority does not have to listen to the water and sewerage companies? No statutory consultation with them is required, they are simply instructed, in completely inappropriate circumstances, You will provide the water and sewerage. We have to address that problem in the wider context of housing provision right across the country.
John Healey: In 48 hours I have heard a lot of jargon and read a lot of acronyms to do with housing, but a one-size-fits-all housing policy is not one that I have come across. It does not seem to fit the description that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield gave of our approach to housing, and I certainly do not recognise it. As for the serious local concern that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) has about his constituency area, if he will allow me I shall look in detail at the points that he has raised and write to him in response.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): As the Minister seeks to increase the available housing stock, may I commend to him the National Audit Office report of 18 March on service family accommodation? It highlights the fact that 18 per cent. of accommodation controlled by the Ministry of Defence is void, up from 15 per cent. in 2005, and against the Departments target of 10 per cent. Does he agree that that represents a huge waste, and will he speak to his colleagues at the MOD to see how much of that housing can be released to the general housing pool?
John Healey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I say to him genuinely that the NAO report was not part of the background reading that was provided for me on my first day in the job. I shall ensure that I look at it, and I will follow his points closely.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab):
May I wish the Minister all the best in his new job? On the subject of the money that has been allocated to local authorities, is he aware that the new unitary authority in Northumberland plans to pull down 30 or 40 council houses in my constituency to build an old peoples
home? I am not sure whether the money was allocated for that reason, but does he not think that that plan is a bit wonky?
John Healey: I did not know about that particular scheme, which makes it difficult for me to pass judgment on it just on my hon. Friends report, but if he wants to write to me with the details, I will be happy to take a closer look at it.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new job, and I welcome the Governments commitment to make money available for councils to start building houses again. I hope that that is just a first step towards a much larger programme. I do not know whether he has yet had a chance to read the comments of Sir Bob Kerslake, the chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government the other day. He said that if the schemes were to succeed, local authorities making bids would have to be prepared to put their land in for free, to get the maximum value out of the Governments money. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that is the case, and will he encourage local authorities to come forward with bids and put their land in, so that we get maximum value from the money available?
John Healey: There are few in the House with a greater knowledge of these matters than my hon. Friend, and he is exactly right. In the pitch that local authorities are making for part of the £100 million that we made available in the Budget for councils to build, we are looking for them to put their own land into the pot. That will contribute not just to the building of lower-cost new houses, but potentially to building the houses that are needed more quickly. That is part of the advantage of looking to local authorities to do more, in precisely the way that I want to see, as does the Prime Minister.
I shall now say something about our response during the past 12 months. We have aimed to act swiftly to support those most affected by the downturnfirst of all, people and families at risk of repossession, and of losing the very thing that is at the centre of the stability of their life: their home. We have acted to try to help those with particular problems in the housing market, including first-time buyers. We have also acted to try to support the construction industry, as well as to maintain the supply of new homes. At the same time, we have tried to pursue the longer term goals of increasing the supply of new homes, especially for low-cost rent or purchase. We have also looked to raise the quality, in both design and environmental terms, of homes, as well as to reinforce the rights of tenants.
Our approach to the recession and those at risk of losing their homes can be characterised in two ways. The first is an attempt to put in place universal support available to all, whatever their circumstances. The support for mortgage interest scheme helps more than 200,000 households through the benefit system. We acted in January to change the rules so that more people could get more help more quickly through that scheme. That is why the Council of Mortgage Lenders, in its evidence to the Select Committee, said that the
reduction in the period for claiming income support mortgage interest was a pretty fundamental change...it has been of very significant assistance.
Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his well-deserved promotion. As he outlines the measures available, will he contrast those with the level of support available in the early 1990s, when interest rates were 16 per cent. and people faced negative equity and losing their homes?
John Healey: I have worked with my hon. Friend for a long time and I have a great deal of time for him, but he has just stolen some of my best lines. He is right. We have tried to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes the Tories did in the 1990s. Moreover, we have fundamentally different values, and a different view of the role of Government when people are struggling and the economy is in recession. That is why we have acted where we can to try to help people stay in their own homes. We have acted to try to help firms stay in business. We have acted to try to help people stay in work. That is the fundamental duty of a Labour Government when people are in trouble.
The universal support that we have tried to put in place for all families and households irrespective of means and circumstances includes free access to advice desks in courts across the country. That is an important part of the help that has been made available. It also includes the negotiation of a comprehensive range of support from lenders through the home owners mortgage support scheme, which has ensured that lenders view repossession as a last resort, rather than moving faster to try to repossess.
The motion mentions the special schemes for people in specific circumstances. For example, more than 130 vulnerable households have so far benefited under the mortgage rescue scheme. It does not necessarily entail a simple buy-back of those homes; it can meanas it has done in many cases a freeze in the repossession actions by lenders. The scheme is not simply about stepping in to take over the ownership and equity for people who cannot pay the mortgage at all. Local authorities report to us that as a result of the scheme, more than 4,000 households that have been struggling with their mortgages have received free advice from their local authority.
The measures are designed to be more than the sum of their parts. The combination of mortgage advice, intervention in the courts and lenders viewing repossession as a last resort means that in the first quarter of this yeara time when many would expect repossessions to risewe have seen a 40 per cent. fall in applications to the courts by lenders to take possession of peoples homes.
The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield said that repossessions were at a record high. Repossessions were at a record high in the early 1990s. They were at a record high of more than 75,000 in 1991, when one in 12 households were in arrears and 1.5 million people were in negative equity. The combination of the action we have taken to try to help people stay in their homes means that at the very point at which one might expect the number of repossessions to go through the roof, as it did in previous recessions, only 12,800 were reported in the first quarter of this year. The result is that the director general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders said last month that his forecast of repossession numbers this year now looks pessimistic, and he expects to revise it. That revision is a direct result of the action that we have taken, in combination with lower interest rates and other actions that we have taken on the economy.
We know that first-time buyers have been hard hit by a lack of credit, with lenders in some cases requiring deposits of up to 40 per cent. So despite falling house prices, they are unable to get on to the property ladder. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) mentioned home information packs, but it is the lack of access to credit that is the fundamental cause of stagnation in the housing market. There is no evidence to suggest that home information packs have added to the difficulties. On the contrary, a survey by Connells estate agents showed that sales with HIPs get to exchange six days earlier. ICM has highlighted the fact that more than eight out of 10 first time buyers in particular want more information, and HIPs are part of the answer.
The hon. Gentleman invited me to look at his green paper on housing and stronger foundations. I have done so, and I was struck by several aspects of it, not least the introduction by the Leader of the Opposition. He said:
Generations of families are trapped in social housing, denied the chance to break out...I dont want a childs life-story to be written before theyre even born.
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman says that, but it is social stereotyping of the worst sort. The truth is that council housing and housing association housing have provided security, strong communities and decent homes, meaning a decent start for many families that they would not otherwise have been able to afford.
John Healey: I have talked about some of the things that we have done. I have talked about the mix of housing built by housing associations and by councils. I have also been clear about the fact that I see a much bigger role for councils in future. That is one of the big tasks that face me.
John Healey: If I may, I wish to accept the invitation from the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield to look carefully at what the Tories are saying about housing. What comes over clearly is not a desire to build, to protect tenants rights, or to give people a decent and secure home. Instead, it is a desire to remove the right to security from council tenants and housing association tenants
John Healey: Well, I have to say that, two days into this job, I am aware of a cacophony of Tory voices, some of them billed as experts and advisers on Tory policy, clamouring for the right to remove peoples security of tenure, especially in local government housing. These are not marginal figures. They include the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, who is a distinguished and influential figure in Tory party policy circles. He published a paper in which he called for
tearing down the Berlin Wall of varying tenure and rent levels that operates between the private rented and social rented sectors.
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