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9.4 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): Housing is an important subject for many of our constituents, and I therefore welcome this opportunity to make a small contribution to the debate tonight. I have raised questions on a number of occasions about the housing revenue account and the negative subsidy. I do not pretend that there is an elegant or easy answer to this complex and difficult question, but many areas of the country are contributing substantial sums of money, which is having a big impact on rents and on the ability of housing authorities and arm’s length management organisations to deliver a service. It is not necessarily coming from the leafier or more prosperous areas of the UK. There are areas such as Bolsover and Chesterfield—and even areas such as Barking and Dagenham in outer London—that have major housing problems, but are contributing to the pot. The Government need to come up with some kind of long-term solution, so that authorities contributing a lot of money can plan and perhaps provide some additional housing stock—or at least spend money on reducing the voids.

More importantly, when I talked to the Poole housing partnership, I found that it welcomed the decent homes standard and the money spent on housing stock. It also said, however, that if it had to continue paying the massive sums of money levied, it might not be able to maintain the housing stock in the long term. It might then have to look at some alternative arrangement and become more like a housing association. That would be a pity, because its satisfaction rates are very high. It is empowering tenants, teaching them to do all sorts of things like use computers and helping them with advice on how to deal with debt. The relative income levels of council tenants in my Poole constituency are surprisingly
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low, so there is a real need, as house prices are very high and social housing is going to take a major part of the strain.

As I said, there is no easy solution, but there is a problem. Many Government Back Benchers have realised that at the current rate of increase, it will not be many years before as much as £1 billion will be raised from tenants’ rents and then redistributed to other areas. The Minister said earlier that he would soon come up with a solution; we certainly need one soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) referred to home information packs, which were debated in connection with the Housing Bill. When we raised the question of what happens with these packs, which are time limited, if people do not sell their homes, the Minister always assured us that everything would be swept up when the home was eventually sold—but if someone puts their house up for sale in the current housing market and it does not sell for a while, they might have to provide two or three packs, with attendant costs and consequences. An argument for HIPs might be made in a booming economy, but in a housing market that is extremely sticky and likely to remain so for a while, they are an additional burdensome cost for people trying to sell their homes. They have become an impediment, so if my party gains the confidence of the British people and forms the next Government, it will repeal the HIPs as an important element in the strategy for housing market recovery.

I think that the Homes and Communities Agency is a welcome development. In the current economic situation, it will play a major and important role in kick-starting some developments that have fallen by the wayside. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) mentioned the agency in the context of Cambridgeshire.

Clearly, the Government are doing some good things, but what they have done in other respects is surprising. If someone had asked me in 1997 how many social housing units I thought the Government would provide during their term in office, I would have said, “Well, this is a Labour Government, so they’ll provide a lot of social housing.” I know that decent homes standards was their priority, but the reality is that the Government’s record on building council housing and other forms of social housing has been remarkably poor. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) often makes his point with a degree of force and common sense. The result is that fewer houses are available for those who need them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) mentioned armed forces housing. I welcome the recent legislative change to allow members of the armed forces to count for something on housing lists. That is rather a good thing.

The overall housing situation is one of great difficulty. I agree with the Minister that fewer people are currently losing their homes. Given that we have a crash market, many lenders are being sensitive and sensible in their dealings with people, but that is not because of Government policy. As we heard earlier, Government policy has not achieved an awful lot. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has always said that provided that people who are in trouble tell lenders honestly that they are in trouble, it may well be possible to work out a solution. I welcome that.

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As I said during the economic debate the other day, I am not very pessimistic about the long term. I am pessimistic about our levels of debt, but I am not pessimistic about the British economy. I think that it will grow next year. Given the amount of money that the Government have spent, the devaluation and the reduction in interest rates, it would be very surprising if things did not start to move. In the light of some of the initial figures that we are seeing, I think it legitimate to say that the position is stabilising, and will probably improve next year.

I hope that that will cause the housing market to stabilise as well. One of the big differences between the situation today and the situation in the early 1990s is the substantial level of personal debt among households. We know that unemployment will rise, although we pray that it will not rise by too much. People who lose their jobs, who do not receive help with their mortgages for quite some time, and who have credit card debts and other loans, will very quickly find themselves in financial trouble.

Finally, let me point out to the Minister that Dudley is one of the authorities that make a major contribution in the form of negative housing subsidy, and that that issue needs to be considered. We need a formula, which may have to be a compromise. Clearly funds cannot be taken out of central London overnight, but we need some way of getting through the current circumstances. We should ensure that authorities such as the Poole housing partnership can plan, maintain their independence and provide a good service, but we should also have a needs-based housing formula.

9.11 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome the debate, and congratulate both Ministers on their appointments. I look forward to hearing what the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), has to say in response to the debate.

I have the privilege of representing an inner-city community where housing is an enormous issue. Only 30 per cent. of my constituents are owner-occupiers; the rest occupy council, housing association or privately rented properties. The levels of deprivation and overcrowding are extremely serious. I compliment the Government on the amount of money they have given us to establish decent homes standards, improvements in community areas on estates and better estate management—that has been a huge step forward and a welcome development—but there are still many people on the housing waiting list, many who cannot even get on to the housing waiting list, and many on the internal transfer list.

The knock-on effects of overcrowding in producing poor health, under-achievement in education and all the other social breakdown issues are often directly related to housing. We all know of families who are experiencing hard times because of overcrowding, but when such families are given decent houses or flats, everything suddenly starts to look a great deal better. I believe that we—Government and local authorities—must do everything possible to improve the housing situation.

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In London as a whole, 200,000 families are living in overcrowded accommodation and 50,000 are living in temporary accommodation. Those figures are horrendous by any stretch of the imagination. The position can be dealt with only through a combination of policies, including a large amount of public investment in housing for people in desperate need.

While I understand why the Government are so sensitive about the issues of home ownership and mortgages, I feel that, since the 1950s, the country has developed an obsession with home ownership, often at the expense of social rented accommodation. There is an obsessive belief that everyone should aspire to home ownership, while council housing is seen as the housing of last resort. I should love to see people being given a genuine choice between renting and buying, with no social stigma attached to not owning a home.

No other country in Europe has become involved in home ownership to the same degree, and no other country in Europe has the same levels of excessive personal debt—largely because of home ownership, or because of the ability to borrow against what were perceived to be permanently rising house values and all the problems that accompanied that. I believe that we should take a rain check, and think it all through a bit more.

Both the Minister and the Conservative Front Bencher are new to their posts so I am sure they will find it difficult to answer all the points raised, but I would be grateful if they tried to deal with some of them. The latest Government statement on house spending includes the allocation of £100 million for new council development. That is very good news, but it will not build many homes. Although £100 million might sound like a lot of money, council places in London cost about £100,000 per unit to develop. That allocation is a very good start, but we have to go a lot further, and a lot faster. We must also recognise that one problem is that, because of the Tory Government’s policies in the 1980s of pushing sales of council properties and compulsory competitive tendering for council services, local authorities currently do not have enough skilled architects, planners and all the other expertise required to develop a housing programme, as that has either been sold off or gone away.

Over the past few years in London, it has generally been housing associations that have developed new housing—that is also the case in most other parts of the country. The Minister needs to look at a number of issues in this regard, such as the relationship between housing associations and the Homes and Communities Agency, and the possibility of zoning them because there are some highly inefficient housing associations with large numbers of properties scattered over a huge area and the on-costs of managing them are very high. The housing associations are aware of that, and some of them are undertaking sensible transfers to bring about more efficient management. We also need to look at the democratic running of housing associations, because there is a degree of accountability for council tenants and leaseholders as they can get hold of a councillor or council official, but I do not find the same degree of accountability in some housing associations. Some are exemplary, but others are truly awful in their management methods and their tenants’ representation methods, and we need to be tougher with them. They are not private companies; they are handling very large sums of public money and dealing with housing applicants who are nominated to them by local housing authorities.

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I started my contribution by pointing out that in my constituency, as in most in London, the fastest growing sector is the private rented sector. In an intervention on the Minister I made the point that my local authority, like many others, now routinely nominates people to the private rented sector because there are no council or housing association places for those in desperate housing need. The rent deposit is paid by the local authority, and housing benefit pays for the rent; and the rent levels are astronomical. I could give many examples of flats in the same council block where, for example, one is council-owned and is paid for by housing benefit of £100 a week and the other has been bought under the right to buy and then rented out on the private market at £300 a week, which is also paid for by housing benefit. The amount of public money we are pouring into the pockets of private landlords is ludicrous; the total is several billions per year in London. The total housing benefit bill in London is about £4 billion; I do not know the exact breakdown between the public and private sectors, but I am sure the unit cost of private rented accommodation is much higher. In the short term, there is not a lot we can do about that, as the private rented sector is providing housing for people, but rent controls in the private sector would prevent profiteering. Above all, we should provide far more places built to a decent standard, because I am shocked and appalled by the conditions of the private rented accommodation in which many people are placed at present.

Members’ work at our advice surgeries has made us all armchair experts on housing allocation policies. People come to us and say, “I’d like to get a house as we’re a bit overcrowded.” I look up and ask, “Any illness in the family?” They reply, “Not much”, so I say, “How much? What’s wrong with you?” When they tell me, I say, “Yes, that sounds bad.” We go through the whole process, and then I might think that they will get a few more medical, overcrowding or sharing points. There is an entire science involved. I wish that that science did not exist; I wish it was not necessary. Within that science, we endlessly change what the priorities are, and two groups of people, at opposite ends of the scale, lose out. First, most local authorities have long since ceased to house single people unless they are either very vulnerable or desperately ill. There are many very aggrieved single people in their 20s and 30s who have chosen to lead a single life—that is their lifestyle choice—but have no chance of getting local authority housing. They have no chance of buying because their salaries are not high enough and they even find it difficult to go into shared ownership. We need to examine the lifestyle choices that people are making and start to reflect them a bit more. Let us move to the other end of the scale. The building programmes of local authorities, housing associations and private sector developers are all ignoring large families—they do exist. We need family-sized housing to be constructed as part of the entire development programme.

Lastly, the Minister has doubtless been made aware of and fully understands all the issues associated with council housing and its finance. He has had plenty of time to get his head round that, having been in the job a whole day.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): Half a day.

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Jeremy Corbyn: It takes but an hour.

There are major issues to address. We must review the housing finance system to end what is, in effect, the taxation of council tenants and ensure that the money is fed back to meet the needs of people on housing waiting lists. It should also go back into maintenance and support systems for existing housing stock and into ending the discrimination against council tenants who have freely made a choice not to undertake a stock transfer to a housing association and not to become part of an arm’s length management organisation. They should receive public sector support in exactly the same way as anybody else does.

I wish the Ministers well in their new positions. If we do not solve the housing crisis, the horrors of the rise of the far right and of the British National party, and the destruction of so many people’s lives because of bad health, educational under-achievement and family break-up, will continue. It is our duty to conquer the housing crisis in this country.

9.22 pm

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on his new role. I thought he was still a Whip and had got lost, so I was delighted to learn that he has been promoted, and I hope he does very well.

I benefited from right to buy, without which my family would still be living on a Liverpool council estate. When I canvass the housing association areas in my constituency, people always say to me, “We love living here and we love our house. We wish we could buy it. We wish it was ours and we could pay for it ourselves.” I wanted to make that point before going on to discuss eco-towns. Perhaps the Minister will respond by outlining the Government’s thinking, and what his thinking is as a new Minister, on right to buy. Will that be made available again?

Will the Minister clarify the position on eco-towns? My constituency was targeted to have an eco-town of 20,000 new homes. There was no rhyme or reason to the proposed site of the eco-town. It was in the middle of green fields, next to a lake, in a valley; it was nowhere near any infrastructure, hospitals, doctors, shops, rail networks, public transport or road networks. The proposal was to put the eco-town in the middle of the local beauty spot and that made no sense. As far as my constituents are aware, that project has died a death, but will the Minister confirm that? Can the people of Mid-Bedfordshire say goodbye to the eco-town?

I would like to inform the Minister of a positive effect that the eco-town proposal had for Mid-Bedfordshire: it made residents very aware of the dangers presented by Government house building targets. My constituents realised that the Government could allocate a target and an area and they would have very little say in what was built, how it would look, where it was positioned, how large it would be and whether it would serve any useful purpose. That energised my constituents. I have harnessed that energy and made good use of it, and at a large public meeting we formed a constituency-wide housing committee; another meeting is to take place in September.

We have formed three more committees from that one: a central planning committee to identify where we think housing is needed and should go, the type of
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housing it should be and the local needs it should meet; a tourism committee, because we would like the growth development targets in Mid-Bedfordshire to be met through tourism; and an environmental committee to examine the impact of housing on the area. The three committees will all report to the central Westminster forum, and we will feed that information into the new Central Bedfordshire authority.

The reason we are doing that is that, as I am sure the Minister is aware, the East of England regional assembly recently published a report in which it stated, having talked to developers, that there should be up to 120,000 additional homes placed in Mid-Bedfordshire. Given that we have only 77,000 homes at the moment, that is an incredible number of homes, and it would more than double the number in the area. As one can imagine, many residents were alarmed about that.

One reason for our alarm was that we sit between Luton and Bedford. I do not know whether the Minister has been to either area, but both are desperately in need of inward investment and urban regeneration. The hospitals, Bedford hospital and the Luton and Dunstable hospital, are based there. The main employers are based in those areas, and they have good public transport, good road and rail links and good bus routes. There are good schools, which are not full, as those in my constituency are. There are doctors’ practices there, whereas there are no places on doctors’ waiting lists in Mid-Bedfordshire. There are dentists, whereas there are no dentists in Mid-Bedfordshire.

Both Luton and Bedford have large numbers of people who need social housing or are on housing association waiting lists. They have employment and they live in the areas that need investment in housing. Yet, for some reason, the Government have decided that the housing should be placed in Mid-Bedfordshire, between those two areas but with no bus routes, no links, no employment and no infrastructure.

I ask the Minister to let us know why, if he feels that Bedfordshire needs such a high density of housing, it is not appropriate to put that housing in the areas where the people in Bedfordshire are screaming out for it rather than in an area that is mainly agricultural and has no employment and no employers looking to move in. One housing proposal that was halfway through being built in Wixams has been blanketed, and the developers have walked away from it. It is not now being built, for the reasons that I have highlighted. Nobody is interested in the homes, because there is no employment. Can the Minister please inform me why he is not looking at the areas that need the houses to be built?

We are not nimbyist in Bedfordshire. We are not saying, “No building in our backyard, we don’t need any.” Of course we do. We have a population that is growing at such a rate that we need homes, including social housing, but nowhere near 120,000 homes. As one can imagine, that is an alarming figure, and that is why our committee has been set up and is feeding into the new Central Bedfordshire authority, which I am sure will challenge those figures and challenge the Government head-on.

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