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I should like to finish, as another Member wishes to speak, but first I return to the eco-town. As the Minister knows, there were problems with the sustainability of
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the proposed town. No decision could be taken about whether it should be targeted at sustainability level 4 or level 5, and what would happen by 2020 when it was built and fully developed. Those are huge problems, and if the Minister answers none of my other questions I hope that he at least can confirm that the eco-town proposal in Mid-Bedfordshire is dead. Is that the last that we will see of it? That is important information for the residents, and for the committee that was formed because they were energised by that unwanted proposal, to take into account in our proposals to the Central Bedfordshire authority.

9.30 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I am grateful to colleagues for listening to Madam Deputy Speaker’s requests to keep speeches short so that everybody can take part in this debate.

In welcoming the new Minister for Housing to his inaugural debate, I could not help but note his telling observation that our homes matter more than anything else. That is obviously true, but if people do not have a home, or if where they are living is not adequate for their family’s needs, the observation is an empty statement that means nothing. Unless people have a decent home, they cannot say that their homes matter more than anything else.

The 2009 Budget will barely make a dent in the 1.8 million households estimated to be on the waiting list for housing. The £100 million for council house building will produce fewer than 1,000 houses. Some 400,000 children live in poverty, so the Government’s pledges in “Every Child Matters” are meaningless if those children have nowhere decent to live.

It is not often that I am almost moved to tears, because I have been around long enough to see neglect and poverty before. But we are now in the third millennium in the fourth or fifth richest country in the world. Short of failure to defend the realm, the biggest sin that any Government can commit is to fail to house our people. The Government of Clement Attlee were recovering from war, but they managed to build council houses. Successive Conservative and Labour Governments also managed to do so for some 45 years. The record shows that Conservative Governments built marginally more council houses than Labour Governments—there was almost a race to see who could build the most. Some 25 years ago, housing shortages had virtually ended and, in my town, there was no such thing as bed-and-breakfast accommodation for the homeless.

When Ministers tell the House that bed-and-breakfast accommodation has ended, they are wrong. I was nearly brought to tears by the sight of three little girls, aged two, four and six, running around the waiting room at my advice surgery. They had done nothing wrong. Whatever problems their parents may have had that put them in bed and breakfast—they are now on their second B and B, in Ipswich, having been exiled to Suffolk, even though the girls’ school is in Colchester—the children have done nothing wrong. The cost of keeping that family in bed and breakfast is considerably greater than if they had been allowed to stay in their housing association house, even though rent arrears had accrued. That would have been cheaper and it would not have
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destroyed the family—I fear that the next step will be for the children to be taken into care. I hope that that does not happen.

The last two lines of the Liberal Democrat amendment, which can be found on the Order Paper, would have been standard Conservative and Labour party policy throughout the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They refer to the need to

If we insert the word “council” for “social”, hon. Members will know exactly where I am coming from.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a powerful speech, with which I agreed. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to rural housing. I represent an urban constituency, but the consequences of the failure to provide council housing in villages that would enable the next generation of the indigenous population to live there mean that families are quite often driven into the nearest towns, where the housing problems are then exacerbated.

Reference has been made to empty dwellings in both the private and public sector. In fact, there is sometimes not a housing shortage but rather a mismatch because there are so many empty dwellings. In my constituency, the garrison town of Colchester, there are in excess of 200 empty family houses on the Army estate owned not by the Ministry of Defence but by Annington Homes, because the Conservative Government privatised them. The public purse is paying £3,500 a year for every one of those houses to stand empty. What a great tragedy it is that one of these houses could not be made available for the family of the three little girls who are in bed and breakfast in Ipswich. A compassionate Government would do something about that. I ask the Minister and his ministerial team to make urgent inquiries into why those 200 empty dwellings in my constituency cannot be brought back into public use, when the public purse is paying to allow them to stand empty.

Nadine Dorries: The hon. Gentleman mentioned 200 homes owned by Aragon Housing Association. When we have such situations in my constituency, I go to see Aragon, we discuss the problems and they are usually resolved. In my experience, it is a good housing association. Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that he could do something about that himself?

Bob Russell: I would never use the words “good housing association” to describe Annington Homes. I can assure the hon. Lady that the experience of Annington Homes in my constituency for serving members of Her Majesty’s armed forces and for those who have bought houses that Annington Homes has sold on to the private sector would not lead me to describe it as a good housing association.

Let me conclude on the question of the Homes and Communities Agency and housing associations. During the course of this debate, I tried to add up the total number of housing associations in my constituency. I got to 10, plus Colchester Borough Homes. Is it not time that we had a rationalisation of housing associations in different areas? The majority of these housing associations do not have any local management. As I am sure that we all know from our advice bureaux, if
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management is not local, there is a danger that antisocial problems will arise. I urge the new ministerial team to implore the HCA to rationalise the housing associations so that there are fewer housing associations in each location and to provide on-site supervision or management at least within the borough or district.

9.39 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): This is the second housing debate that we have had in nearly as many months. Despite what has been said by Government Members, our first debate focused on the important issue of social housing but we felt that there was more to talk about, as housing is such a vital issue for our party. We therefore wanted to hold a second debate today, in our Opposition time, to highlight the many major issues affecting housing in England. In fact, we called this debate to represent the real concerns and difficulties in respect of housing that are faced by millions of people in Britain—the first-time buyers finding it almost impossible to get on to the housing ladder, the home owners struggling to pay their mortgages and stay in their homes, and the families stranded in overcrowded houses or whose names lie on forgotten waiting lists. Above all, the underlying problem that Ministers never want to talk about is the present depressed rate of house building. As of 2008, it has been lower in every year of this Administration than it was in even the worst years of the Major or Thatcher Governments.

The people we represent face uncertainty and anxiety about whether they will get a home or keep the one that they have. If their circumstances change and they have to move, they are worried about whether they can remain in housing that meets their needs. Yet again, Ministers have talked a good game today about tackling housing issues—as ever, we have a lot of warm words—but I am afraid that the delivery has been sadly lacking. In both the good times and the bad times in our economy, there have been a series of failed schemes, headline-grabbing initiatives and misguided policies. The result is that Britain’s housing is in a very sorry state indeed.

Concerns have been raised by hon. Members of all parties about what is happening in their constituencies. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) talked about the challenges faced by leaseholders, and she pointed out that we must make sure that our desire to enable people to get on to the housing ladder is implemented in a sustainable way. That was a fair point to raise.

The hon. Lady doubted the Opposition’s commitment to social housing, but I assure her that we would not have devoted two debates to housing if we did not recognise how important the topic was. We may have debates about policy, but we would not spend time listening to the concerns expressed by hon. Members in this House and by people out in the country if we did not recognise the importance of the issue. As a prospective Government in waiting, my party must be able to give people a proper alternative whenever the next election is held, and that means that we must have an informed policy on housing.

We also heard from a number of Opposition Members in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said that communities can come up with good suggestions about where housing
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should go. He said that people will take responsibility for discussing how their housing needs can be met, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made a similar point.

Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is not in his place, but he made some very fair points in expressing his concerns about housing associations. He spoke about the need to make sure that they are accountable to the tenants whom they look after, and he made some thoughtful observations about housing waiting lists and the housing allocation priorities that local authorities constantly have to juggle.

I am sure that we can all relate to what the hon. Gentleman said, but the problem underlying everything is the fact that the amount of our housing stock is so constrained. That is why we have to keep coming back to the Government’s lack of delivery on housing. They have been in office for 12 years now, so we cannot say, “Well, it may get better in a few years.” All the evidence suggests that there is something fundamentally flawed in the Government’s approach to housing policy, as otherwise more houses would have been built before now.

We know that people are finding it hard to get on to the property ladder, as the number of first-time buyers fell to an estimated 300,000 in 2007, compared to 500,000 10 years before. There are also real concerns about sustainability: in 2007, nearly one mortgage in 10 was for 100 per cent. or more, and the problem is made worse by the lack of house building. On average, 23,000 fewer homes have been built every year under this Government, and housing starts this year are at their lowest since the 1920s. Social housing is beset with problems, too. As we heard, there are 1.8 million people on the waiting list. That is the consequence of a steady lack of house building in Britain over the past 12 years.

That is compounded by the fact that people who have accommodation often find it unsuitable. We have 560,000 households living in overcrowded conditions in England, and 200,000 of those households are right here in London. I am sure that many London MPs who participated in the debate today see those people in their surgeries every day. It is difficult to discuss their problems because of the underlying fact that not enough new housing is being built to give them a chance of having a home that meets their needs.

We spoke about the people who own their home but are struggling to stay in it. Repossession claims have soared from 67,000 a year in 1997 to a staggering 143,000 repossessions in 2008. The Government have talked the talk about how to help these people, but the mortgage rescue scheme that the Government launched has helped just two people. Ministers may say that it will take time for the scheme to produce results, but that was not the message last year when it was launched. Expectations have been badly let down by the scheme.

There has been a range of failed housing policies, such as home information packs, which add cost to the sale process and stifle the supply to the market. Only today, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said that it thought that HIPs had held back the market. As we heard, we still have no definition of a zero-carbon home. The Treasury has given tax relief on 18 homes, but the Department for Communities and Local
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Government does not know how to define them. Only under a Labour Government could one Department have a definition and another say that there is no definition.

We heard about eco-towns, a complete disaster project that ran into the sands because local people said no. We know that green issues are important to people throughout the country, yet when it came to smuggling in eco-towns through house building in inappropriate places, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) pointed out, local communities will not have it. They want Whitehall to work with them and give them the responsibility for deciding where the extra housing will be. They do not want the top-down targets that the Government have given them.

Let us not forget the disaster of the botched announcement on stamp duty last summer. We have not talked about that today, but if the housing market was under strain up until then, the Chancellor managed to stagnate it with that botched announcement and totally dried up the market in a way that would have been hard to achieve if someone had had to sit down and think about it as a challenge, but the Chancellor managed it.

The range and gravity of housing problems under the present Government and the Department are clear to see. Fewer houses are being built, and there is greater overcrowding, growing waiting lists, falling home ownership and rising repossessions. The Government’s record on housing is reflected in the chaos that we have seen over the past week in the Communities and Local Government team. The Housing Minister has gone. The Communities Secretary has gone. Even the Under-Secretaries were moved. They are not here today to defend their record on housing, but given the Government’s history of decisions in this area, perhaps leaving their team was the one good decision that they have made so far.

We cannot go on as we are. We can tackle the issues that we have been debating today—get rid of home information packs, take nine of 10 first-time buyers out of stamp duty, get rid of the top-down targets set through the regional spatial strategy, and have local housing trusts that make sure that local communities can decide for themselves how much new housing they have and where it is located. However, we will not resolve any of these important matters until we have a general election. We have had 12 years of failed housing policy. It is time to give the British people the general election that they so desperately need. Then we can have a Conservative Government who can deliver the sort of housing policy that will make a real difference to families throughout the country.

9.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): I thank Opposition Members for welcoming me and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing to our new positions. This evening’s debate has been a very useful early induction for both of us, not least because it has been such a good debate among Members in all parts of the House.

Despite the disappointment about the changes, to which the Opposition’s motion refers, I am delighted to be doing this job, because for many people their homes are not just their greatest asset but their greatest source of security and a strong foundation on which so much
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else depends: good health, getting a job, building a career, fulfilling potential at school and being part of a community. My predecessor as Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), made a similar point in a similar debate several months ago, when he said that housing brings safety, security, community cohesion, health, life chances, prosperity and a host of other issues. I pay tribute to the work that he did and welcome all contributions that all Members have made today.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing rightly set out this Government’s impressive housing record, which the motion before us entirely ignored. He set out also our efforts to maintain and build on that record, despite the difficult economic circumstances. We have been proactive and decisive, learning from the experience of the 1990s about the consequences of delay and inaction. Although the motion finds fault in a number of our policies, it fails to propose any alternative. The Opposition obviously want to criticise our record on housing supply, because that is what they are there for, but they do not tell us that this Government’s efforts led to the highest levels of house building in 30 years in 2007-08.

The Opposition’s motion also neglects to mention the 110,000 households that have been helped into shared ownership and shared equity through our programmes, and the £29 billion that we have invested since 1997 to bring more than 1 million social rented homes up to scratch. The Opposition also failed to mention the significant strides that we have made on homelessness, rough sleeping and temporary accommodation: statutory homelessness decreased by 60 per cent. between 2003 and 2008; rough sleeping has fallen by 74 per cent.; the number of households in temporary accommodation is down by 33 per cent.; and we have ended the long-term use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children.

That is an impressive track record. Every previous Housing Minister should be very proud of it, and we are committed to building on it. That is why we have acted proactively and decisively in the economic downturn to help people at risk of repossession, first-time buyers and the construction industry. Our priority has been to help those in financial difficulties to stay in their homes wherever possible, which contrasts with the 1990s, when the Government failed to act while people lost their homes.

My right hon. Friend spoke about the wide range of measures that we have introduced—to strengthen universal support and to bring in specific schemes—and, as a result, the Council of Mortgage Lenders is now expected to revise downwards its forecasts of repossessions. Although our critics clearly want to focus on the number of households at the final stages of specific schemes, they do not want to talk about the real help that families are receiving. Lenders covering 80 per cent. of the market either have signed up to the home owner mortgage support scheme or offer their own comparative arrangements. Thousands of families are getting free advice from their local councils every month and lenders now have to prove to the courts that they have exhausted all other options before seeking to repossess.

We have also introduced new support, in the light of the restricted global supply of credit, to help first-time buyers get a foot on the housing ladder. We have also
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increased the availability of shared equity schemes and introduced a new “rent first, buy later” scheme. Demand for our existing schemes remains high.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Austin: I shall be responding to the points that were made by those people who were present for the whole debate.

There were more than 6,000 sales under the open market homebuy scheme in 2008-09, and from the experience of the 1990s we know how destructive an economic downturn can be for the construction industry. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes twice, so we have put in place a comprehensive package of support: £1 billion at the Budget; buying up unsold stock from developers; bringing forward funding for affordable housing, including higher grant rates where needed; and the new kick-start fund to get faltering schemes going again. My right hon. Friend clearly demonstrated the scale of the Government’s efforts to reduce the damage of the downturn on households and the construction industry now and in the future.

I shall now turn to the specific points that were made in the debate. My hon. Friend—

Justine Greening: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Austin: My hon. Friend the Member for—

Justine Greening: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Austin: Go on then.

Justine Greening: Housing starts are at their lowest level since the 1920s; who does the Minister think is responsible for that? Is it the fault of his Government’s failed policy, or of the construction industry?

Mr. Austin: I will deal with that point in due course, but the point that I wanted to make related to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who spoke with great eloquence about the impact on families who face repossession, and the position of leaseholders. I congratulate her on the work that she is doing to protect her constituents from a local Conservative council, whose policies were set out in great detail.

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