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16 July 2009 : Column 151WH—continued

2.57 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I welcome the new Minister to his post. I suspect that we shall be speaking to him on many occasions. I am afraid that I, as a representative of an inner-city seat, will take every opportunity that I can to lobby him on what is, in the end, a key issue for the vast majority of my constituents.

When I was first selected as the Labour candidate for Member of Parliament for Islington, South and Finsbury, my predecessor, the right hon. Chris Smith, asked me, "What is your interest in housing?" I said, "Not much," and he said, "It will be." And it is, because when I knock on people's doors, they open them and say, "Oh, Emily. Can I just show you how I live?" They show me in, and I see the most appalling circumstances, day in, day out. When they come to see me in my surgery, I sit there hoping that they will ask me about anything other than overcrowding. I almost feel that I can help them with anything else, but I cannot help them with overcrowding.

I do not mean to exaggerate, and I will not. In every speech that I have ever made about housing since I have been elected, I have kept to a certain golden rule, which is that I will speak not about my worst case but about my last case. I had a surgery last Saturday, and, if I may, I will illustrate how bad the housing crisis is in Islington with the following cases.

A woman named Nelopa came to see me last Saturday. She lives in a one-bedroom flat with her two sons, one of whom has attention deficit disorder and behaviour problems. The flat has a combined kitchen and living room, which means that all three family members have to sleep in one bedroom. Islington allocates housing on the basis of points which are supposed to reflect need. I am afraid that those of us who live in Islington have a kind of ticker in the back of our head, and we can work out how many points someone is entitled to. Nelopa does not even have enough points to be eligible to bid for property. Even if one could bid, they probably would not get a place, but she is not seen to be in
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sufficient crisis need even to be given the opportunity of bidding for housing. Yet there are three people in a one-bedroom flat.

Another woman came to my surgery on Saturday; I will call her Sarah. She first came to see me two years ago. She was living then in a two-bedroom flat with three children. At that time, she was pregnant with twins and she needed to move. Two years later, she comes back to see me again. She is living in the same flat, but she now has five children. In addition, her teenage sister has come to live with her as well. So there are eight people in two bedrooms and they have scant hope of being rehoused. That is intolerable and it is very difficult for me, as a Labour MP, to see these people and to know what to say to them.

I do not always want to talk about bad news; I have already broken my golden rule by doing so today. Consequently, I have taken from the top of my letters pile from yesterday a letter that I was about to sign, which contains good news. I have seen a couple of people for many years and I have been trying to help them to get rehoused. They were living in a two-bedroom flat with their three children. One of the children has type 1 diabetes, another one has autistic spectrum disorder and the third is fine, apart from the fact that he has had to sleep in the same bed as his dad for years. This family have been bidding for a three-bedroom flat for a very long time, but now they have been successful. Such successes sometimes happen, but far too rarely. Sometimes there is a glimmer of hope.

However the difficulty is that, because our housing system is overlaid by these very hard cases at the top, the woman who comes to see me as a regular thing every six months-I have referred to her before but I feel as if she is a kind of base line-is overlooked. She is a single woman with two girls in a one-bedroom flat. She also does not have enough points to bid. However, she comes to see me every six months and says, "Remember, Emily, I'm one of the ones who don't even have enough points to bid." It is because of the hard cases at the top of the system and because we can offer so little hope to them that the vast majority of the people who are overcrowded suffer. As far as I am concerned, that woman should not have to sleep on a sofa for the rest of her life, which is what she is going to have to do because she does not have any chance of going anywhere else.

The housing crisis within Islington is made worse, first, because we have not been building anything new and, secondly, because we are essentially kettling people in; we are putting them into a pressure cooker. When I was a council tenant in the 1980s, I was a Greater London Council tenant, so I could move around London because I was in social housing that was provided on a GLC basis. Now, however, all social housing is provided on a borough basis.

There are supposed to be a couple of schemes available; I think that one is called Seaside Homes and another one is called Move UK. They are not working; they have collapsed. It may be that the Minister will be advised contrary to that and on paper those schemes may be supposed to be working. However, I can assure him that they are not working and people cannot move out of Islington. So they are stuck.

Then I turn to my local authority, because in the end it has to be my local authority, working in partnership with the Government, that produces new homes. Before
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I go any further, I should say-it is only right that I do so-that, when I first began to knock on doors in Islington, all the social housing in the borough was a disgrace. The lifts did not work, the passageways were full of urine and the properties were damp, disgusting and squalid. I fully appreciate that that had a great deal to do with previous central Governments turning their back on the poor of Islington and not giving sufficient central Government grant to have allowed for that social housing to be kept up to a decent standard.

When the Labour Government came in, I fully understand why it was so important that we got all our social housing, throughout the country, up to decent-home standard. I am very proud of that; it is absolutely the jewel in Labour's crown and we do not say enough about it. One of the reasons why we do not say enough about it is because, although we are now proud of the social housing that we have, people are in such overcrowded circumstances within inner London in that social housing. I know that there are problems throughout the country, but the problems that are particularly associated with inner London are truly exceptional. Given those problems, I feel that we should have London-specific policies to deal with them.

I am very proud to work on the Communities and Local Government Committee. I know that I am irritating in the extreme to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who is the Chair of the Committee, in my overwhelming interest in housing. However, I have that interest because I try my utmost to be a proper representative of my constituents and their desperate housing need.

Having said that, there are other issues that I ought to raise at this point. It was very important-the Select Committee highlighted it in our report in February-that the Government stepped in, particularly given the credit crunch and the crisis in housing. We urged the Government to step in, to ensure that the housing crisis would not mean that there would be a lesser focus on housing. We urged the Government to stick to their target for affordable homes that was set in 2007, to prioritise the provision of more social rented housing within those targets and to invest more money in the homes that we need.

In essence, the 13,000 families that are on the housing waiting list within Islington are not in a position to buy or part-buy; I assure the Minister that that is the case. That is because house prices are so high. I have written to the Minister about this issue and I have written again to him explaining that house prices are now at such a level in Islington that those families cannot even afford to buy a proportion of a property. Within the parameters that the Department for Communities and Local Government have set, they still cannot afford to buy a small one or two-bedroom, ex-council flat on the estates in Islington. The house prices have moved beyond the parameters set by the Department and I ask the Minister to look at that issue again.

In reality, for the people on the waiting list for social housing within Islington, affordable housing is social rented housing. I believe that in my constituency in the last 10 years, when the council has been run by the Liberal Democrats, the Liberal Democrats have had their priorities entirely wrong. We should absolutely be prioritising the building of social rented housing but far too much part-ownership property has been built by the
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Liberal Democrats, which has not meant the rehousing of those people on the housing waiting list.

It is difficult, given how extreme our-

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I was listening to the hon. Lady's speech and I was enjoying it enormously until she got to the party political points, so I thought that I had better return the favour.

Does the hon. Lady not believe that the Government need to do a great deal more to enable councils to build more affordable housing for rent? I am sure that that is a point that we firmly agree on. For example, it is a shame that it has taken the Government 12 years to agree to dismantle the housing revenue account.

Emily Thornberry: I will move on to discuss that point about the HRA. Now, however, is perhaps the time that I ought to move on to another specific point. But before I do so, I will say that the analysis that I have done on new build within Islington shows that, in the last 10 years, only one in seven new flats have been social rented housing provided by the Liberal Democrats, which means that the housing waiting list continues to get worse and worse, because people simply cannot afford to buy. Although I agree that, in an ideal world, it would have been a very good idea for the Government not only to do up all the social housing within Islington but to build more social housing, nevertheless it may be that reality steps in and there are limits in the budgets that we have.

The one thing that we could do and should do but have not done in Islington is to stand up to developers and say, "You cannot build in this area unless 50 per cent. of what you are going to build is affordable housing and, in the Islington context, that is social rented housing." Because my local authority has not done that and instead copped out of doing it, many opportunities have been lost.

The situation is not helped by the fact that much publicly owned land in Islington has been sold off by the local authority, so that now the Government are focusing on building more affordable housing-social rented housing, in my book-there is very little public land upon which we can build social rented housing. That is a great shame and the problem continues to this day. For example, in just two weeks City Forum was given planning permission to build thousands of flats in a very large area of Finsbury. City Forum is building a large amount of student properties. Frankly, we have enough students. I like students, but we have too many students. We have enough student accommodation as it is and the precious land of Finsbury should not be used to build more student accommodation. Of course, the problem with student accommodation is that it is planning-flat. It does not become part of any percentage section- 30 per cent., 20 per cent., 50 per cent., or whatever-that has to be met and so it just becomes neutral. Consequently, what always happens within a new development is that property for students is developed and whatever is left is parcelled up to the absolute minimum that the developer feels that they can get away with. Personally, I feel that we should be standing up to developers much more than we have been. We have lost an opportunity and we have lost too much land. People like Nelopa and Sarah are still languishing on the waiting list, because we have not been pragmatic and used the opportunities that have been available to us.

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My local authority recently stated that it would build a handful of council houses to rent, and I welcome that. At the same time, however, the Government are putting together a fund to kick-start projects that have started to dwindle and to augment the work that local authorities are doing, and I am concerned that my local authority has not stepped up to face the challenge. It has a handful of homes-that reveals the poverty of its ambition-but it is not committed to building as many social rented houses as it can. It is bidding for some of the funding, and we welcomed that until we realised from the small print that it wanted to use the funding simply to replace money that it had put to one side to build more council housing.

That is not the purpose of the fund. If the Government are stepping in to give local authorities more money, authorities should use it in addition to any money that they have set aside. It is wrong that we should end up with as little as we would have if the Government had provided no additional money. I lobby the Government to get additional funding for Islington, but then I see it fly out the back door because the local authority uses other funding for other purposes. In the meantime, Nelopa and Sarah sit on the waiting list.

I understand that proposals to reform the housing revenue account will be published during the recess. I realise that such reform is a complex, technical matter, but if it means that local authorities can take the lead in public housing programmes, it will be very welcome in Islington. It is vital that we get more money for new homes in whatever way we can, and I understand that there are advantages to borrowing through housing associations, for example, because that does not add to the public debt. In the end, however, my constituents do not care whose tenant they are as long as they get somewhere to live.

Many of us were interested in the suggestion that councils could borrow in ways that were seen as "reasonable", "prudential" or "sustainable", but will the Minister explain what that might mean in practice? Furthermore, I would ask the Government to ensure that tenants of councils such as Islington are protected from changes in the HRA subsidy system. For a variety of historical reasons, such councils have large debts to service, and it is vital that Islington tenants do not suffer as that debt is repaid.

Finally, I turn to the balance of tenure among new homes, and I underline once more the importance of social rented housing-in the end, that is what is important to those on the council waiting list in Islington. The strategic role of local authorities is vital and the HRA review is important, but it is for politicians and campaigners to debate the issues before us. The view of those on the waiting list is that we need more social rented housing. In Islington, we will be pragmatic and take that housing however we can, because we have an absolute crisis.

3.12 pm

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I begin where the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) left off-with the Homes and Communities Agency. Obviously, the agency was not created to deal with the
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present crisis, but thank goodness that it was created. Along with the Tenant Services Authority, it has been proactive in at least ameliorating the damage that has been done in the current difficult situation.

The reality is there for all to see: some people cannot get mortgages; others are worried about the future of their jobs, so they are concerned about moving home or buying their first home. The fall in demand for housing has led to a dramatic decline in house building, but we argue in our reports that the need for housing is just as great as it was one or two years ago, even though there is lack of immediate demand because people cannot afford homes that they could have bought a year ago or because they are concerned about their future. There has also been a switch in the nature of immediate demand. For a long time, most people would look to buy, and that is what the Government focused on.

There has been great excess demand for a long time, and as we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), there has been a chronic shortage of social housing to rent in many parts of the country. That is also true of my constituency. The position in Sheffield has been variable. At one stage a few years ago, the Liberal Democrat council was actually knocking council houses down, which seems rather a mistake in hindsight, and it is now looking to build houses on the same sites. That happened in the north of the city, but the south, where my constituency is located, has always had a greater shortage of social housing. We have not traditionally had as many large council estates, and many of the estates are very attractive, so large numbers of people have exercised the right to buy.

Even before the credit crunch, therefore, housing need was very real and was often unmet. People are now waiting longer and longer to gain access to a home that meets their needs. With the credit crunch, people who might have bought a couple of years ago cannot buy or choose not to do so, so demand for social housing has gone up even further.

At CLG questions the other day, I mentioned the case of Katie Wilson, who is one of my constituents. She tried all the Government schemes to get part-ownership of a house, and she failed at every hurdle. Eventually, she had to fall back on her position on the waiting list, which she has been on for about 17 years. She simply wants a home to rent in the part of the city where she grew up and where her family lives. That is not a big thing to ask for. She now informs me that she is renting privately for £500 a month, which is quite a lot for people on low incomes and quite a high rent for Sheffield.

The problem is repeated elsewhere. I probably will not have as many absolutely disastrous cases as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury-however bad the position is in the south of Sheffield, it is even worse in the south of Islington-but I have an awful lot of very bad cases. My heart sinks, just as my hon. Friend's does, when somebody walks into my surgery and says, "Mr. Betts, we've got this really serious housing case. Can you sort it out for us?" They will go through all the facts, and I will sit there listening. I will say "I absolutely agree with you. We should be able to house you. I see your circumstances." They may want to live near a parent with real caring needs, or their bus route may have changed, so they have to move to keep their job. They may also want to move near a grandparent
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who can look after the kids, so that they and their partner can work-that has become increasingly common over the years. However, I sit there thinking, "They've got a very strong case, but so had the last three people I saw, and none of them is probably going to get re-housed in the foreseeable future."

The need for social rented housing is there and it has become greater. Our latest report therefore welcomes the Government's extra £1.5 billion, which comes on top of the money that was previously made available. That extra money has been offered to local authorities to build homes for rent, and it is great even in principle that we are building council houses again. Some of us remember the days when we had major house building programmes, and they were not all disasters. People often say, "Look at the high-rises that were built," but they probably forget that councils tended to build to Government direction in those days, and it was a national policy that sent us down that route. However, councils also built many attractive houses, and I hope that we can get into that business again. There will be a bit of a learning curve for many authorities, and it will take a bit of time to get the process going.

However, councils must be prepared to put their land in for free. If the Government are putting in social housing grant, councils must make a financial contribution, too. I have certainly encouraged Sheffield city council to do that. It is Liberal Democrat controlled, but all five Labour MPs in the city put a letter in our local paper, The Star, the other day saying that social housing is an absolute priority. We said that we could work on the issue across the political divide and that we were prepared to offer the council any support and assistance that we could when it bids for Government money, because housing is crucial for the people whom we represent.

In our report, we raise another question, which the Minister probably cannot answer today. A new programme of council house building cannot just be a quick fix for our current economic crisis and housing problems. There is a long-term problem with providing more social housing, and councils must play a real role in tackling it in the long term. We would like a commitment from the Government on that. We know that there are uncertainties about future public finances, and we always hear that health and education are a priority-the Leader of the Opposition certainly makes that clear, although the Opposition then talk about reductions in public expenditure, so we get the horrible feeling that housing might be one of the areas where they are talking about making reductions. We must make it clear not only that social and rented housing is a priority for us now, but that it will continue to be so in the future.

Allocations are a difficult issue, but I was pleased with the Government's announcement the other day. I accept that there are differences in different parts of the country, and I have explained my understanding of the even greater pressures in parts of London, but I have had concerns for a long time-the new Housing Minister and the Secretary of State recognise them-about people being on the waiting list for years and never getting the priority that would enable them to secure the homes that become available.

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