“a large proportion of tenants…to retain enough income to pay their rent and live according to government standards of affordability”.

Heidi Alexander: My hon. Friend is completely right. Our debate about what it is affordable to pay out in housing costs was interesting. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North gave scenarios in which people might be spending 50% of their household income on their housing costs alone. I know that the Department for Communities and Local Government, in the guidance it published a number of years ago on how local authorities should carry out strategic housing market assessments—the Minister might wish to comment on this—says that the definition of affordable housing costs is a household paying 25% of its overall income on housing. We are clearly seeing situations in which households are paying much more.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes a very important point and I have intervened on her now so that the Minister can have time to think about giving us an answer later. If a local authority ensures that an offer of a property is made at 80% of market rents and the family cannot afford to move into it, according to my understanding of the law, the local authority will have discharged its duty to provide a property for those homeless people who would then have no access to any public sector housing. They would only be able to access a completely free-market private sector. We will end up building a sub-class of people who are unhouseable in law and homeless in reality.

Heidi Alexander: It is a complete trap. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that.

I used some figures to demonstrate how much more people would have to pay out were they living in a family-sized property and being charged 80% of market rates. What concern me more are the proposals for universal credit in this context and what the £26,000 will mean for people in London who are paying out such amounts of money in their housing costs.

If we assume that the universal credit means that a family in London will get no more than £500 a week and that they are paying £240 a week for a four-bedroom flat at 80% of market rent in Lewisham, they will be left with £260 a week for all their other living costs. I presume that that £260 will cover their council tax benefit as well as payments for their gas, electricity and phone. We must also remember that if those people want to move into work, the costs of child care in the capital are much higher than elsewhere in the country and so are public transport costs. I therefore take this opportunity to ask the Minister to have conversations with his colleagues about how realistic the £26,000 universal credit cap is in a London context.

I draw a distinction between London and the situation elsewhere in the country. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talk about his upbringing. My dad is an electrician. He has a nice house now. If he was an electrician in

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London, there is no way that he would live in the sort of house that he lives in now. He would tell me that £26,000 is a lot of money. His annual income has been about that figure for as long as I can remember. So I have some sympathy with what the Government are trying to do with welfare reform, but I ask them to consider carefully what that means for people in London. I have spoken a lot about figures, and they show how dreadfully difficult that reform could be for people who live in London on low incomes.

If the Government do not think that families on low incomes should be able to live in London, they should come clean and say so, because that will be the result of their proposals and policies. We have talked about the impact of housing benefit changes and the potential clearance from London of people who simply cannot afford to live in their private rented properties. They will have to move either to the outskirts of London or elsewhere.

Personally, I genuinely think that we must ensure that those people—my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) talked about them—who drive the lorries to clear our roads and who clean our offices and work in our shops can live close to their places of work. It is right to do that. It makes absolutely no sense for people to have to rely on the transport system, and it makes no sense to people’s lives when they have caring responsibilities and need to pick up their children from school. It is right that we have genuinely mixed communities of people able to live in central London. The proposals to change the welfare and housing benefit systems run a real danger of making that impossible in future.

Before I move on from the wider changes to welfare reform, I want to pick up another point: the possibility of paying housing benefit directly to tenants so that they can pay it to their landlords. Housing associations in the capital have some concerns about that. I see where the Government are coming from, and it is right to make people realise and think about quite how much it costs to live in a property—encouraging individual responsibility is a good thing—but equally, housing associations tell me that this is the worst time that the Government could consider giving housing benefit and accommodation support benefit, even if incorporated in universal benefit, straight to tenants, because we all know that their household incomes and budgets are coming under extreme pressure.

Housing associations also tell me that if rent arrears increase, they could find it harder to borrow money because their cash flow will be less secure. They are concerned that the banks will re-price their debts when they borrowed the money to build homes. I hope that the Minister will pick up on some of those concerns when he responds.

I want to say a little about planning. I served on the Committee that considered the Localism Bill for a number of weeks, and I have a number of concerns about how the Bill’s proposals will impact on the construction of new affordable homes in London. I think the Chancellor said when he announced his Budget that there would be a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and that is completely at odds with what is said about planning in the Localism Bill. I am not saying that there are not occasions on which people should be able to say, “No, that development is not appropriate.” Indeed, there is a housing development

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like that in my constituency at the moment in a place called Pitfold close. It is right that local people should have a say about what happens in their neighbourhood, but what the Government propose, as many hon. Members will know, is the creation of neighbourhood forums that will be able to come up with neighbourhood plans. The Minister with responsibility for decentralisation, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who was on the Bill Committee, seemed to think that those neighbourhood plans would always contain higher housing numbers than the strategic plan for the local area, but my experience of attempts to bring development forward is that local people often want to say no.

I can understand people’s concerns about new homes. If a block of flats going up at the end of the road would cut out the sunlight to someone’s garden, I can understand why they might say, “I am not too happy about that.” I can understand why people might say, “How’s my child going to get into the new school?”; “How am I going to get on to the doctor’s or dentist’s list?”; or “What about all those cars coming down my road, blocking up the road network?” I understand why people are concerned about new development, but if we give too much power in the planning process to very small community groups in these neighbourhood forums, which it is proposed would include only three people, I am not sure that we will get the levels of house building in the capital that we need.

While I am on the subject of planning, there was much debate in the Committee about the 50% target, whereupon the Minister would jump out of his seat and say, “Ah, well, even though you had the 50% target, Ken Livingstone delivered only 36%,” to which I would say that at least we tried. Setting that target and saying that we believe the provision of affordable housing is so important that half of all the new homes built in the capital should be affordable is the right message to send to developers and planning officers. When those planning officers sit down at the table and start their negotiations, they should be saying, “Ideally, we want 50% of new homes to be affordable.” Yes, there will be some situations in which it is impossible to do that because of the commercial realities of the scheme, but it is right to have that target.

Angie Bray: Does the hon. Lady agree that one problem with aggressively setting such a target, as the previous Mayor of London discovered, was that many developers were put off coming into more expensive parts of London altogether because it was not worth their while financially? They tended to be put off rather than coming forward to work out what they might have been able to afford to do.

Heidi Alexander: There will be different situations in different parts of London, but I suggest that the hon. Lady goes back and looks at the figures for the number of home starts in London and the number of new homes that it is predicted will start in the next couple of years because of the policies of the Tory Mayor of London we now have.

I have probably tried Members’ patience by making a longer speech than I had anticipated making. I will end by giving an anecdote about someone whom I met a

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number of years ago, whose story sticks in my mind as a reason why we have to tackle the housing crisis in London. This picks up on a number of points that have already been made about the impact of poor-quality housing on people’s life chances—how healthy they are, how well they do at school, and how able they are to succeed economically. I was once asked to visit a family in an overcrowded flat in Deptford. When I was there I met a young man of 19 and chatted to him while his mum was doing something before she came to speak to me. I asked him if he was studying or was at school and he said, “I am retaking my GCSEs because I didn’t get the grades I wanted.” Later in the visit, it transpired that he was sleeping in an armchair in the living room. He had no bed to sleep in because the flat was so overcrowded. I thought to myself, how on earth can this young man do well at school? How can he get the GCSEs that he needs to go on to study at university, as he wants?

That image will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. That is why we have to do something to increase the supply of affordable homes in the capital. I am sorry to say that everything that the Government are doing in respect of housing makes it so much less likely that we will see the new homes that we so desperately need.

3.45 pm

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): It is a delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). I shall be interested to hear how the Minister responds to her devastating critique. I congratulate my very good friend the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). As he said, we go back a very long way. When I joined Haringey council many years ago, it was pronounced to me, as a new member, “Don’t worry; we’ve almost solved the housing waiting list problem in Haringey.” That was a year before Mrs Thatcher savagely cut housing investment programmes—and if I may say so, we appear to be going round the same cycle again.

I want to focus on two main areas. The first is the local housing allowance changes and their impact throughout London. Secondly, I want to reiterate points that have been made by many other people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East but also, very pleasingly, by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), on affordable housing and the problems that the new regime is creating. Before I do, I should like to give a brief overview of the housing situation in my borough, the London borough of Enfield.

We suffer from extreme housing stress. Indeed, we are told that Enfield is the fourth most stressed housing authority in the country, and easily the most stressed in outer London. For owner-occupation, the cost of an average house in Enfield has tripled since 1995. That is not particularly exceptional for London. The price to income ratio is now 9—again, not exceptional, but it makes owner-occupation unaffordable for a very large majority of the people living in the borough.

One in four of all households in Enfield are currently in receipt of some form of housing benefit. That is a 36% increase since 2005. There is some relatively good news, in the sense that the number of households in temporary accommodation has gone down from

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3,400 in 2006 to 2,300 in the latest year for which we have figures. Interestingly, that has happened mainly as a result of the deposit scheme that the previous Government introduced, which has made going into the private rented sector a good deal more secure than it was.

Sadly, locally, overcrowding in the social sector, and particularly the council sector, has increased markedly in recent years. The most common form of overcrowding in the social sector is in two-bedroom properties, among families looking to move to three, four and five-bedroom accommodation. That is where the biggest overcrowding problem is, and I will return to that because it is critical to what we are discussing today.

Others have already said that local housing allowances are very much a London issue. It is not just that rents are 50% higher in London than anywhere else; the private rented sector is much more important in London than anywhere else. Enfield is not currently affected by the changes being made to the caps. I note from documents recently released that there is some transitional protection for those in the private rented sector in central London, but that lasts only until 2012, so we can see the nightmare looming on the horizon. Indeed, there are already signs of it: my local authority did a little survey of who was claiming housing benefit or local housing allowance, and 28% of recent claims were made by people coming into the borough from outside. Many will not be from central London, but quite a lot of them will be.

London Councils estimates that more than 18,500 households will be affected by the changes, so we see that the changes could have a dramatic impact, not just in inner London—Members have spoken about the impact there—but in outer London. By 2016 quite a lot of outer-London boroughs will be unaffordable for tenants in the private rented sector. Quite a lot of boroughs will be affected, including Barking and Dagenham. In Enfield around three quarters of accommodation, mainly in the eastern half of the borough, will still be affordable then. Indeed, Enfield has estimated—I should probably say guesstimated—that upwards of 2,000 additional local housing allowance claims could be made following the ending of the temporary support for people on local housing allowance in central London.

What impact would that have on Enfield? We discussed the subject earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North mentioned that quite a lot of Islington tenants are temporarily housed in Enfield. I think the latest estimate is that more than 2,000—certainly a very significant number—of temporary accommodation tenants from other parts of London are housed in the London borough of Enfield. I mention that because if we have an influx as a result of the policies introduced by this Government, it will add quite a lot of pressure.

The issue of school places in Redbridge was raised earlier; we already have an acute problem. We have knocked on the Government’s door, asking them to help us with primary school places. That will be another difficulty for us. Of course, additional demands will also be placed on social and welfare services. We have not been able to estimate locally what the impact would be on private sector rents, but if demand increases, rents are likely to go up. Will that lead to greater overcrowding? Possibly. Even though we have a better record on homelessness in our area, it is still very high locally. Of

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course, that will put additional pressure on the very limited social housing in the borough.

I could talk about increases in poverty and deprivation. Many are concerned that with the changes in London, community cohesion is being strained to the limit. I would not subscribe to that view, but the significant movements that are going on are having an impact. Not all those impacts are caused by local housing allowance changes, but the changes will certainly exacerbate them.

To pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) put to Labour Members, what should we do? The first thing that we need to do is review the cap; it just does not make any sense for inner London. Setting the local housing allowance at the 30th percentile of rents will have a negative impact on London in particular, and the Government really need to look seriously at the implications of the local housing allowance changes that they are suggesting.

Mary Macleod: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that in some cases, albeit not many, ridiculous sums of money were spent? There were families receiving £104,000-worth of housing allowance. That is ridiculous, when other people who are working and earning much less cannot afford the rents that we have discussed.

Mr Love: If we searched long and hard enough we might be able to find an individual instance of someone receiving such sums. If I may say so, it is a bit like the Bob Crow issue that was raised earlier, and is entirely a diversion from the reality that people face in London. What we need to do in any debate in the House—indeed, it is incumbent on us to do so if we are to represent our constituents—is discuss the reality, rather than a figment of someone’s imagination involving Bob Crow.

Jane Ellison: We all accept that some of the exceptional cases that make the newspapers are just that. Nevertheless, at the general election the hon. Gentleman stood on a manifesto that made a commitment to look at and substantially reduce housing benefit. It was not just Conservatives who recognised that that was a problem; the hon. Gentleman’s own party manifesto recognised that it was, too, and made a commitment to reduce the cost of housing benefit.

Mr Love: I would not disagree with anything that has just been said, or deny that that was in my party’s manifesto. We must always look at the cost of housing benefit, as with any other welfare benefit. Of course, there is sympathy for trying to limit the amounts paid out from the public purse, if for no other reason than to stop, to put it colloquially, the Daily Mail headlines that we see every day and in every way. I accept that, but it is not reflected in the changes that the Government have made. They have gone much, much further, and those changes impinge on the real lives of ordinary people. As was said only a few moments ago, the people who are affected are train drivers, tube workers and hospital staff.

Lyn Brown: Is it not the case that the Government have changed and cut housing benefit for 1 million people to deal with what may be just a handful of people in the extreme circumstances of charging the taxpayer enormous amounts for their rent?

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Mr Love: Absolutely. That is the question that we wish to put to the Minister, and I hope that he will respond. We are not asking, “Have you taken housing benefit from someone who was receiving £100,000?” We would hope that that would be looked at carefully and sensibly, and we hope that if that was suggested, it would be done. What we are asking is why the Government are taking from families on low incomes in enormous housing stress and multiple deprivation their one lifeline of accommodation.

Let me park that issue and move on to the next, which is ever so important—the supply of affordable accommodation in London. As has been said by everyone, it is obvious that we need to increase supply to tackle severe housing stress in London. Let me repeat something that was said earlier, now that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth is back in the Chamber. She was asked how much grant funding had been slashed: it has been slashed by 63%, and how the Government can stand by and say that they can sustain the supply of affordable rented accommodation on the basis of a 63% cut beggars belief. Their argument is that the revenue from higher rents can be used to build houses that would not otherwise be built because grant is not available. The first thing that should be said about that is that the Homes and Communities Agency says that it will provide grant funding towards the building of accommodation, but only where the expectation—that is the word used is that the rents will be close to the maximum 80%. It also says that the tenancy should be of two years or thereabouts. Therefore, it is looking to set conditions.

What will be the impact of those changes? Everyone who has spoken from the Opposition Benches has already mentioned this, but I will say it again for emphasis. According to independent figures produced not by Opposition Members or Labour-dominated local authorities, but by independent commentators, in the year to 2011—before all this comes into place—there has been a 20% drop in housing starts. There is forecast to be a 40% drop between 2010 and 2013, and, as has already been said, because of the uncertainties and the dramatic change that is being brought in by the Government, the whole thing falls off a cliff after 2013. I hope that the Minister will give some reassurance that the Government are aware of that problem and will do something about it.

I tried to get figures out of my local authority. It proudly proclaimed that in the years from 2008 to 2011 it would reach the target of building 648 new properties, but it takes a long time to build houses, so they were all built—if I may put it this way—under the administration of the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. It also tells me that a significant reduction is anticipated. It could not quantify that, and it is still early days to be able to do so, but the local authority was secure in the knowledge that the number would be significantly lower. Therefore, what credence can we give to the figures being produced by the Mayor of London, and what are the Government doing to address this problem?

The problem with the slump in the supply of accommodation is the affordable rent model and the complex interaction between “affordable”—however that is defined; we seem to be redefining it continuously—and the introduction of universal credit in 2013. As background to this, in my local authority two thirds of all social

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tenants are on housing benefit, either partially or fully, so this affects a large proportion of my electorate. Comparisons of social rents with market rents show where the problem arises. In my local authority area, for one-bedroom accommodation it is 40% of the market rate, and for three bedrooms it is 33%. For RSLs, the equivalent figures are 45% and 41%. But on re-lets, where the rent goes up somewhat, it is 58% for one bedroom and 42% for three. It goes down even further for larger accommodation.

I would like to spread a little good news to ease the situation for the Minister. Under the current rules, accommodation in Enfield is affordable, whether one is working or not. As was mentioned earlier, however, under universal credit the figures will be capped at £500 a week. My local authority has worked out that if rents are set at 80%, as is being suggested, an average family, living in three-bedroom accommodation, will pay 46% of their universal credit in rent. They will have only 54% left for all the other necessities of life. If, on the other hand, we use the definition of affordability used by Enfield, and I think by many others, which is that no family should pay more than 30% of their income in rent, and no single person or childless couple should pay more than 35%, on a three-bedroom property, they would pay only 52% of market rent. So there is a very stark choice for everyone.

We do not yet know what the definition of “working” will be; it has been suggested that the cap might not apply to working households, but we do not know what “working” means. Many people in my constituency—and, I suspect, all over London—are in work, out of work, back in work and back out of work. How will it all pan out? I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government recognise the problem that I am trying to convey and have solutions to it.

Clive Efford: One of the things that the Government have never understood about their cap on the housing benefit limits in the private rented sector is that many in that sector are in work. They receive benefit because of the high rents in their areas. It is those people who will be shifted out of those areas and probably forced into unemployment.

Mr Love: We are waiting to see. As I understand it, there is not complete clarity on how people in work will be dealt with, how “work” will be defined and whether part-time work will be taken into account. I rest my case in the hope that the Minister will respond to some of my concerns.

Jeremy Corbyn: I want to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). I was recounting the figures earlier; there are at least three London boroughs in which the 80% rule on rent levels is higher than the average income of people in work and who live in council housing association properties. There will be 100% social cleansing of Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and perhaps some other boroughs as well. I am talking about people in work, not on benefits.

Mr Love: Absolutely. That reinforces the message that we are looking for flexibility and a recognition of the reality that people face in inner London. As has

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been mentioned, there are areas where rents are so much higher than anything suggested in the Government proposals. Unless the Government recognise the gap that will open up as a result of their policies, my hon. Friend will be absolutely right—the cleansing of social tenants will occur. That cannot be good for community cohesion or the economy of London; it is certainly not good for the people affected. I hope that the Government will recognise that, even now.

What are my local housing associations saying about the situation? It is early days, and they do not have firm enough data. However, they have been asked to submit proposals to the HCA. What they have come up with is that the 80% may be viable for one-bedroom accommodation. There is much more of a judgment in relation to two-bedroom accommodation, and for accommodation with three bedrooms or more, the figure is simply not economically viable. In other words, no family accommodation will be built at a time, when the real need in the social sector, because of overcrowding, is for accommodation with three bedrooms or more. There is an acute shortage of large family accommodation for those on the housing waiting list.

If we stick to the rules outlined by the Government, we will find that we are not building any large family accommodation. My housing associations suggest that there should be a target rent, rather than whatever the definition of an “affordable” rent would be. That would be intermediate between what we have generally known as affordable social renting in the past and the new so-called affordable rents suggested by the Government. The housing associations will put that suggestion to the HCA, and we shall see what eventually emerges. Anything the Minister can say about it will be helpful.

To respond to the invitation given by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, what housing associations tell me is that there must be flexibility on the £500 cap. There are different ways of doing it. The Government could separate the housing element from the rest of the universal credit, or they could give more universal credit in parts of London that are adversely affected, which would in fact include most of London. Flexibility is the key.

Another issue is increased capital investment and one way of providing that is through a bank bonus tax, as I said earlier. That investment is incumbent on the Government. If they do not want their Mayor of London to have egg on his face over his so-called target for affordable accommodation during his time in office, they need to do something about it. The system will not work as it stands. A sensible and pragmatic Government would be flexible in adapting it so that they could achieve what they claim to want—a significant increase in the supply of affordable accommodation.

I hope the Minister will be able to pick up those points. There is great concern, not just in inner London, which is mainly affected by the proposals, but in outer London too. These matters relate specifically to London; they do not apply in most other parts of the country and I hope the Minister will communicate the message to the Government. They need to be flexible about London. We all hope that things will improve in the future.

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4.12 pm

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): Before I make my few remarks, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In case anyone is curious about it, I rent out the flat I lived in previously. I am in every sense a small landlord. It is slightly unhelpful that whenever people talk about landlords, they constantly refer to Rachman and the like; it has peppered this debate. There are lots of good small landlords, just as there are some good big landlords. It is important that we acknowledge that and do not descend into cliché.

We have had a good debate. There are clearly some ideological differences across the Chamber and within parties, but we all know that there is an issue. Although the debate has been forced on us by circumstances, inasmuch as we appear to be almost the only MPs left in the building, it has been really useful to have a London-focused debate, because we all acknowledge that London is different. Indeed, it is unique.

As the Member for Battersea, I welcome and enormously enjoy representing a genuinely mixed community. I want to continue to represent a mixed community. One of the great joys of London is the amazing mix of people. This morning, I was out at an unearthly hour delivering leaflets in my constituency and I noticed the extraordinary conjunction of posh flats, tower blocks and rows of terraced houses. It is one of the things that makes London amazing and it is an honour to represent a London constituency.

I have a few remarks about a practical solution that my council, Wandsworth, has been putting into practice for some years. When I talk about the number of new homes created under the scheme, Members may think it is relatively small given the scale of need identified during the debate; nevertheless, it has brought real homes to real people in need over the last 10 years, and I take this opportunity to highlight it.

The project is called the hidden homes programme. In 2002, Wandsworth undertook an enormous survey of all its properties and started the first hidden homes initiative. It is an odd title, because obviously the homes are not hidden; they were previously hidden, but they should now be called uncovered homes. Wandsworth undertook a survey of its entire estate and looked at the potential to bring back into use as homes all the rooms and spaces that were designed into the 1950s and 1960s blocks but are no longer needed—storerooms, laundry rooms, the big old boiler rooms, some unused garage spaces and so on. Many of those spaces are abandoned and, as we all know, places where antisocial behaviour lurks. The opportunity was there not only to create some new homes, but to design out crime from some of the estates.

To date, Wandsworth council has built 183 affordable homes, latterly with a housing association partner. There is a potential programme to bring many more new dwellings on stream. Wandsworth estimates that around 10,000 such new homes could be created across London, and 70,000 nationally, if all councils replicated the programme. It means creating valuable additional housing units at relatively low cost because the land is already owned. The acquisition of land, which, as we all know, is one of the great hurdles in London because it is very expensive, is therefore not a problem, and the council can crack on with building.

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Planning permission is also relatively easy to secure. If a scheme is offered that could design out crime in areas where antisocial behaviour takes place, residents will greatly welcome that. Again, a box is ticked on that front. Another particularly positive aspect of the building programme is that it often involves valuable ground-floor and basement properties. Many of those who come to our surgeries have particular needs, which means that ground-floor accommodation is greatly in demand. Some properties have been designed and built from the start with adaptations for families who have a disabled member. The scheme therefore has many positives, and the accommodation has been provided quickly.

Another nice aspect is that many properties are unique in character. As I was slotting a few leaflets through letterboxes this morning, I was thinking that, as many of us recognise, people in social housing have the same desire as anybody else to live in a unique home, which has character and perhaps some quirkiness, rather than something standardised and mass produced. Again, the scheme has much to offer.

In 2006, Wandsworth council built almost half the new council homes in London through the scheme. It is important, and I understand that three other boroughs are considering it. Some are already some way down the line of looking to do the same on their estates. Wandsworth council has always said that it is happy to share ideas and expertise. Obviously, people learn along the way—it is not always plain sailing. Some of the adaptations— I have come across one or two in basements—have been challenging. However, expertise is available in identifying potential sites and putting together suitable packages.

I encourage other Members to consider that approach in their authorities. As I said, some authorities are looking at the scheme, and it is well worth bringing it up and considering the potential. I do not pretend that it represents anything other than a small contribution towards solving London’s housing, but if it can be brought on stream quickly and relatively cheaply, what’s not to like?

I want briefly to consider under-occupation. I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing the debate, not least because, as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I must say that it was not an easy day to offer to supplicant Members, either in Westminster Hall or the Chamber. There was not a huge queue for the day, so it was excellent that we could have the debate and that the hon. Gentleman secured it. However, I want to pick up on one of his points about people’s need for a civilised family life in the context of solving under-occupation. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) also mentioned that. More imaginative thinking is being applied to the matter. The problem cannot be solved by saying, “Here’s the number of people, here’s the number of rooms. That’s it.” Clearly, that will not work.

We have talked about the needs of older people. We need to recognise that it might not be possible to persuade someone to move from a three-bedroom flat to a one-bedroom flat, but it might be possible to move someone from a three-bedroom flat to a two-bedroom flat with room for the grandchildren to stay or for someone who comes regularly to keep them company. Those things are really important. Many housing associations and the National Housing Federation are

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considering them and trying to encourage people to take that approach. They are not taking the one-size-fits-all approach.

Lyn Brown: I say gently to the hon. Lady that although that is a very humane way of looking at it, the current housing benefit policy would not make it possible.

Jane Ellison: I am not sure I entirely agree with that, if we are talking about older people and pensioners, in particular. Nevertheless, the housing associations are considering the matter, and it is something that we could all look to encourage as well.

I want to deal with another matter that I feel strongly about and that has been alluded to already. I think that the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) asked why people are not angry or marching on Parliament and so on, given that so many people sign petitions about other things. There is a genuine problem in how we democratically represent the housing problem. One of the biggest challenges we face is that we often do not speak on behalf of the people who are not yet living in an area. The voices to which MPs and councillors listen—rightly—are those of the people already living in their areas. However, there remains a democrat deficit when it comes to speaking up for the people who want to live in an area but are not yet there. Naturally representatives will tend to voice the concerns of local residents.

MPs and councillors have to set themselves a challenge. It was slightly naughty of the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) to suggest that nimbys are limited to any one party. I do not think that is true; there are nimbys across all parties, and probably, if we look to our own consciences, everyone at some point in their political lives has thought in their heart of hearts, “Hang on, actually there is a real need for this housing, but there is a huge local campaign against it.” Sometimes we have to take courage and say to someone, “No, I’m sorry, but there is a real housing need.” I did it recently at an exhibition on my patch. A lady was saying, “Oh, there are going to be too many houses and so on”, and I said, “I’m sorry, but there is a terrific housing need in London, and this is an urban area with brilliant transport links. This is a really great place to build some new homes. So I do support this building.” We have all got to be prepared to do that from time to time.

On a tangential point in relation to what is happening today around the country, I voted no in the AV referendum this morning, mainly because I worry about encouraging blandness and people’s desire to try to please everybody. Sometimes we have to show leadership and be prepared occasionally to be unpopular, perhaps in the short term or with a particular group of residents. Giving political leadership means that occasionally we have to be prepared to go against the grain, and housing is a good example of an issue in which we should be prepared to do that. There are things we can do. We have to encourage great design and sensitive interaction with local residents. I have seen the amazing difference that it can make if the people who want to build have in place a good programme of communication, but I have also seen terrible programmes with really bad models and representations and in which people have been treated with arrogance. I have seen good and bad examples.

We have to do much to convince people about designing out antisocial behaviour and crime. We all know that

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when we talk about building new blocks of social housing, some people worry that it will bring a disproportionate amount of antisocial behaviour.

Heidi Alexander: The hon. Lady has made a thoughtful and persuasive speech. On some of the understandable concerns that her constituents express about new developments, what assessment has she made of the provisions in the Localism Bill for neighbourhood forums? Does she think that those forums will come forward with plans to build new housing, including suitable housing for older people?

Jane Ellison: That is a fair question, and it takes us back to my point about leadership. We will have to engage with the problem, put the case to people and be a voice for those who have not yet got a home in our areas. People’s natural instinct is to be wary, and I acknowledge that it will not be easy, but I think we have a role there. There are sensible ways of proceeding—such as by presenting some of the benefits to the local area—although sometimes someone who objects to new houses being built might take one view as a resident, but will see things from another perspective when we talk to them about their children or grandchildren struggling to get on to the housing ladder or to find a home close to where the family has always lived. We all have a leadership role to play, although sometimes the objections will be entirely valid, as we all know. However, we have to be equally prepared to engage with the process and speak up on behalf of those who really are voiceless—people in great housing need or those who are sofa-surfing. They have fallen down the cracks of the democratic system, and we have to be imaginative on their behalf.

To finish, let me say that infrastructure planning is incredibly important, because as the hon. Lady said, people often object when they look at a scheme and ask, “Well where’s the school? Where’s the post office? Where are the car parking spaces? How will my local train or tube station cope?” It is important not to divorce the two, particularly in London—my view is that London is almost a mini-economy of its own. I am glad that many of the big infrastructure programmes have continued to go ahead and I welcome the fact that the Mayor is pressing ahead with some of those important transport capacity expansion projects. If we go to local communities with a plan that makes sense and that shows that we have thought through all the issues, we are more likely to find that people will engage willingly with the need to create more housing and expand our communities to meet the need that we all acknowledge exists in this amazing city that we all represent.

4.26 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Having listened to the whole debate this afternoon, I hope that the rest of the country leaves us to it more often, because it has been a very interesting debate. I have enjoyed all the speeches, from both sides of the House. I would make particular mention of the contributions from the Government Benches, because we have heard some of the more thoughtful and compassionate speeches from Conservative Members—that is probably why there were only three of them.

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I would also like again to thank the sponsor of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who really does know his onions on this issue. He has driven many debates on the issue over the six years that I have been in this House, and we are all grateful that he keeps it at the top of the agenda.

Without embarrassing him, I would also like to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who reminded us what this issue is all about. Those of us who are housing anoraks can get tied up in housing benefit regulations—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck)—and how the housing revenue account works, but in the end, this debate is about human beings. It is about our constituents. We would not think of half-teaching someone to read or performing half an operation, so it genuinely puzzles me that we should be content as politicians to leave people living in the most appalling conditions in our capital city. Not only has that happened throughout the tenure of all recent Governments, but it is getting worse. That is why the Government cannot afford to be complacent today.

The period when I was born, 50 years ago in Fulham, was what we would probably now call the heyday of social housing, following the Bevan period, when he was the Minister responsible for both health and housing in the 1945 Government. He genuinely understood the importance of housing as a public service, and although he probably would not have used the phrase “life chances”, he knew that housing is important to people’s life chances, just as it is to their basic health. That period was followed by Macmillan and other Tory Governments who would also have prided themselves on building a sufficient supply of housing—and doing so in what were, quite frankly, much more difficult economic times than today—to meet the nation’s need. Why that is no longer an ambition I do not understand. When I was growing up, council housing was the kind of housing that people aspired to. The houses had plumbing, for God’s sake! They had central heating and running hot water. They had inside toilets. In the ’60s and ’70s in Fulham, those things were not to be found in the private rented sector or even in the owner-occupied sector.

Yes, that was the era of estates, and there were good estates and bad ones, but—to follow up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington—they did not start leaking and falling down after four years, as they do now. An example of that is the South Acton estate, which I used to represent. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) might want to have a look at that. Many of the estates were very good ones, and they are still standing to this day and providing good-quality, affordable homes with a good space standard.

That was also the era of acquiring properties. Councils around London—Hammersmith, Islington and others—bought up private sector slum properties, renovated them and converted them into housing, sometimes with several flats in one Victorian house. There are now thousands of those properties in boroughs around London. Those boroughs are now being targeted by the designated sales policies of Conservative councils, but those were the mixed communities. When we walk down the street in Hammersmith, we see council and housing association accommodation and privately rented and owner-occupied

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houses next to each other in a row. Ironically, those are the mixed communities that the Government are seeking to destroy.

Fifty years ago, there were also housing action areas. Grants were available not only to private sector tenants but to poorer owner-occupiers to ensure that they had basic facilities in their homes. That was also the era that saw the start of the housing associations.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that housing action areas came in at the end of the wholesale building clearance policy and did a great deal to preserve London’s Victorian heritage and, at the same time, to preserve communities? They are something that we should applaud and welcome.

Mr Slaughter: Absolutely. Those areas presented a win-win situation. They maintained buildings that we now value, which some politicians and planners in the ’60s and ’70s did not value, and they also provided good-quality homes in which people could live and bring up their families while enjoying the facilities that most of us take for granted today.

Clive Efford: Has my hon. Friend read a book by Professor Peter Hennessy, who is now in the House of Lords? One of the points that he makes in the book is that the soldiers who liberated France after the invasion of Europe found themselves liberating people who were living in better conditions than those of their families back in England. The title of the book is “Never Again”. When those soldiers came back, one of the driving issues in the subsequent election was housing. That led to the era of building the communities and housing to which my hon. Friend has just referred. We have lost that sense of mission, but we need to get it back.

Mr Slaughter: I have not read that particular book, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. In my constituency, we have what used to be called “homes for heroes” estates that were built after the first world war. There are also 1930s garden estates, such as the Wormholt estate in Shepherd’s Bush. Those are fantastic examples of social housing, but the Tory politicians always seem to overlook them when they are decrying social housing and social housing communities.

Getting back to the subject of housing associations, I am going to read from the “Our history” page on the Notting Hill housing association website. Talking about how the association was set up, it says:

“In 1962…our founder Bruce Kenrick…came to live in Notting Hill in West London. He was shocked by social and financial inequalities experienced by poor and immigrant communities in West London. He later wrote:

‘What struck me painfully was the extent to which people’s problems stemmed from housing conditions. Marriages broke up because one or other partner could no longer stand the strain of living in one room with a stove and sink squeezed into one corner.’

In December 1963 Bruce Kenrick, together with a group of equally committed individuals, formed a new, proactive type of voluntary housing organisation. Notting Hill Housing Trust was born. Within our first year, we had bought five houses and housed 57 people. Within five years, we had become a large presence in west London, housing nearly 1,000 people.”

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I shall refer to the Notting Hill housing association later in my speech, in a less flattering light. In those days, however, people aspired to build decent housing for the working poor, and indeed for the ordinary citizens of London.

Twenty-five years ago—I think it was 25 years ago this week that I was first elected as a councillor in the London borough of Hammersmith—we had what we then thought was a housing crisis. Now, however, I think we would be quite grateful for the conditions that obtained then. It was a difficult time. Right to buy under the Thatcher Governments had depleted some of the best social housing stock, and problems of disrepair were growing yearly because of the neglect by Tory Governments and Tory councils of the council housing stock, which was already becoming a feature of the division between the political parties on this issue. Overcrowding was increasingly becoming an issue, too. Even in the mid-80s, however, it was possible to have hard-to-let properties; there was not the same degree of pressure or the same level of market rents or prices that forced people to live in ever-more overcrowded housing.

I have glossed over the period of the Labour Government because it has already been dealt with. I will say, however, that I think it was a mixed record. Decent homes was a good programme, but I am not sure that the voice of London was heard strongly enough in those times. Decent homes became so much of a priority that housing supply, which is such a big issue for us today, did not get a fair crack of the whip. I recall that during some of the years when I was running a local authority, we tried by hook and by crook to build as many socially rented and intermediate homes as we could—and we succeeded as best we could—but housing supply remained a failure overall. I regret that. I believe that the last Prime Minister got it and I believe that the present Leader of the Opposition certainly gets it. Prime Minister Blair, however, did not get it when it came to the importance of housing, not just as a public service but as an important part of the country’s economy.

With that brief history, we come to today. Other Members have mentioned the statistics, which are important. The housing waiting list in Hammersmith and Fulham is the highest I think it has ever been, with 9,361 households—more than 12%—on it, even though it is one of the smallest boroughs in London. Those figures are often manipulated. Over the recess, I spent some days on the public inquiry into the new core strategy —this is how I spend my leisure time—and found the council claiming that there were only 3,000 on the waiting list, which is only a third of the official figures according to the House of Commons Library.

As I look down this list, I notice that the famous Tory boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster appear to have low numbers on their waiting lists—just 4% and 7% of their populations. That is half or even a quarter of the figures for some of the Labour boroughs. It is not because there is no housing stress in those boroughs—on the contrary, there is; they have a worse record on the supply of affordable housing than most Labour boroughs. It is because the lists are manipulated in a most unseemly way. People are discouraged in every way from going on the lists.

John McDonnell: It is a process of discouragement. I know of families in my borough who have been threatened with having their children taken into care if they seek

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to declare themselves homeless. That has happened too frequently for it to be no more than anecdotal evidence of what goes on behind the scenes when people turn up at a civic centre and seek to be interviewed for housing need.

Mr Slaughter: It is anecdotal, but it is a consistent stream—from the year a Labour administration was elected in Hammersmith in 1986 when I recall that the response of Wandsworth council’s homeless person’s unit was to put up a map on the door outside, showing people in housing need the way to Hammersmith’s housing office, right through to the most recent Tory administration in Hammersmith, which makes people wait outside in the cold if they turn up out of hours. They used to be allowed to wait in the foyer of the town hall, but now, in case they offend or upset anybody, they have to wait outside, even in the middle of winter. As I say, those are anecdotes, but they tell a story. Some estates in my constituency have 20% overcrowding—eight times the national average, and it is a growing trend. That is the position on need.

I do not pretend that it is easy to solve the problems created for low-income families in housing need by the price of land and the price of property. However, I do expect Governments to try to solve the problem, and if the present Government did try, they would have our support. I should like to see less partisanship, but I am afraid that this issue has become one of the most partisan of all.

I have spent some years using the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to get various seedy hidden documents out of Hammersmith and Fulham council in order to discover what it really thinks of its tenants and what its real plans are. I was going to quote from some of them, but I think it more entertaining to quote from press releases issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, particularly those issued in the name of a Liberal Democrat Minister. They say the same thing, only using more fantastical language.

This is what the Government are offering people in housing need. They are offering “flexible tenure”:

“Landlords will be given the freedom to offer their properties under fixed term tenancies, from a minimum of two years”.

They are offering “affordable rents”, which is a new technical term:

“Affordable Rent properties will offer fixed term tenancies at a rent higher than social rent - with landlords able to set rents at up to 80 per cent of local market rents.”

It is a bit like tuition fees. I suspect that most landlords will go for the full 80% rather than for 40%, 60% or 70% when they set their rents.

The Government are also offering

“greater flexibility for councils to make decisions on how best to help people at risk of homelessness at the local level.”

They say that

“Currently some homeless families are turning down the decent private rented accommodation they've been offered as a settled home, and demanding to be provided with expensive temporary accommodation, at huge cost to the taxpayer, until a social home becomes available.”

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The scandal of it! It is no surprise that the Liberal Democrat Benches are empty. A Liberal Democrat Minister has said:

“These changes will lead to a much smarter system”.

As well as those three principles, there are a couple that the Government do not need to make law in the Localism Bill. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), housing grant has already been cut by 63%. He also mentioned the changes in housing benefit. As I do not want to keep Members here all night, I will not go into the details.

The cumulative effect of those five principles—giving councils flexibility to use the private rented sector, which means no more social homes as a permanent solution; flexible tenure, which means no security of tenure; affordable rents, which means no more affordable housing; no more capital investment; and the changes in housing benefit—will be that hundreds of families in all our constituencies will no longer be able to afford to live where their relations are, where their schools are and, in many cases, where their work is, and will have to move out.

If it is allowed to develop over a period of years, the effect of those changes will be the end of social housing in this country. I say that not because I wish to be sensationalist, but because it is the inevitable conclusion, and, increasingly, the conclusion of experts. I think that the Government know what they are doing. I think that this is phase two of the desocialisation of the housing market which began with the right to buy, although this is a much deeper and more profound way of destroying a whole form of housing tenure.

I can speak with some authority about that development, because I believe that much of it originated in Hammersmith and Fulham, the borough that I represent. A document entitled “Principles for Social Housing Reform” contained four of the five principles that I listed—although not the one relating to housing benefit—and was published a year before the last election. When I drew attention to it, I was told that I was scaremongering and that what I was saying was nonsense. The Minister for Housing and Local Government told me on many occasions in the House that this was not Tory policy and would not happen.

The same discussions that led to the development of those principles led to the local policy in Hammersmith and Fulham, which was effectively a policy of removing the bulk of social housing tenants from the borough.

An Evening Standard features article in the middle of 2009 stated:

“Hammersmith and Fulham council is plotting a Dame Shirley Porter-style programme to move out the poor and replace them with private homes and retail developments…new homes will be built to attract residents with higher incomes and areas that have traditionally voted Labour will be broken up as more than 3,500 flats and houses are demolished…One document shows that if rents in Hammersmith were increased to private levels, a two-bed council flat currently costing £85 a week would go up to £360 a week.”

I regret to say that all that is coming true in Hammersmith.

I was amused to find that immediately after the election, in the first interview that he gave to a national newspaper, the Prime Minister singled out Hammersmith and said that he was angry about “appalling” Labour “lies” there. He said:

“They were telling people in Hammersmith they were going to have their council house taken away by the Tories.”

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The only thing that we got wrong was that we did not realise that this was going to happen so quickly and that it was going to happen across the country. We certainly did realise what was going to happen in Hammersmith, because we had seen the evidence on that.

Three main local attacks are being used in Hammersmith, and some of them will be familiar to the shadow Minister because we all remember the days of Shirley Porter in west London. We thought that we had got rid of the terms “designated sales” and “building stable communities” in west London, but they have come back to haunt us. Some 64 council properties were sold up to last year, bringing in just over £30 million and, according to a decision taken this month, a further 300 will be sold to bring in a further £107 million. These will not just be sales of the largest properties; a range of sizes will be involved, with one, two, three and four-bedroom flats being sold. As hon. Members will see, these properties will be expensive, selling for about £500,000 each in many cases. More than 9,000 families are on the waiting list, so what is the purpose of deciding to sell 300 to 400 of the council’s best properties? These will be not be sales of estate properties; they will be sales of street properties, which command very high values in Hammersmith and Fulham.

In discussing the second principle, I shall again talk a little about housing associations. For some years we thought that housing associations would save us from the ideologically driven policies of Tory councils and that associations such as Notting Hill Housing Association and Shepherds Bush Housing Association, the two largest in my constituency, would perform that role. As I said, Notting Hill Housing Association was set up, following the Rachman era, to perform that role and ensure that good quality, affordable housing was available.

I shall read just a few sentences from the NHHA’s response to the Government consultation paper proposing the social housing changes. It states:

“We are likely to grant 2 year tenancies to all new tenants of both new homes and existing homes that become available for new letting.”

It goes on to say:

“In appropriate cases we would like to be able to increase rents up to market rents for those who can afford them.”

It also says that

“we may want to sell some voids, or to let them on full market rents”.

It continues:

“The new flexibilities will also enable us to support boroughs’ efforts to create more mixed communities”—

that phrase again—

“reducing the concentrations of deprived often unemployed people found in areas of social housing in London.”

The NHHA response continues:

“we see no need for the Government to specify that particular groups of tenants such as older people or people with long term illnesses or disabilities must be provided with a social home for a longer period than the two year minimum.”

Finally, and perhaps most poignantly of all, given the history of the NHHA:

“We support the proposal…that local authorities should be given greater flexibility in bringing the homelessness duty to an end with offers of accommodation in the private rented sector.”

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What I find particularly objectionable about that is, as I said in an intervention, that these organisations were set up purely to provide good quality affordable housing to people.

The chief executive of Notting Hill Housing, who featured in the popular press over the last weekend and previously along with her partner, who was director of housing and regeneration for Hammersmith and Fulham, earns £200,000 a year, whereas he earns £260,000 a year as a consultant. Their jobs have been to run the two main social landlords in Hammersmith and Fulham and they are also the advisers to the Conservative party who contributed to the document “Principles for Social Housing Reform”. So far, he, Mr Nick Johnson, has been paid more than £830,000 as a consultant and director of regeneration in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): Is it true, as far as my hon. Friend believes, that that contract was given to Mr Nick Johnson under a corporate vehicle so that national insurance on those payments was not paid by Hammersmith and Fulham?

Mr Slaughter: Yes. I do not want to get too far off the subject and speaking about individuals can be invidious, but this is an extreme case. The Minister smiles, so let me read him what the Minister for Housing and Local Government said about the case. I should point out before I read that that Mr Nick Johnson retired on a permanent ill-health pension as chief executive of the London borough of Bexley with a £300,000 lump sum and a £50,000-a-year pension that was payable immediately. Within three months, he had taken up his £260,000-a-year job, first running Hammersmith and Fulham Homes and then as director of housing and regeneration in Hammersmith and Fulham. The House can imagine my views on this.

When I raised the matter in the House, the Secretary of State appeared to take Mr Johnson’s side. The council has certainly taken his side, as the Daily Mail reported this week that

“the council defended the move, saying Mr Johnson was ‘excellent value for money’.”

For once—this might be a one-off, so everybody should take note of it—I want to praise the Minister for Housing and Local Government, who said:

“Town hall pensions cost every council tax-paying household over £300 a year. Hard-pressed taxpayers cannot afford to foot an ever-growing bill. It’s not justifiable to have healthy employees working in local government and claiming an ill-health benefit at the same time. Councils have power to stop such payments and should use them.”

What is Mr Johnson being paid to do that means that he is such good value for money for the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham? I think we know why Ms Davies is good value for money, because she parrots every right-wing phrase that is needed to support the Government’s atrocious housing policies and that sort of support from the housing association movement, although shameful, is, I am sure, very welcome in providing cover. She is earning her money all right.

How is Mr Johnson earning his money? As director of housing and regeneration he was in charge—and is still, because even though Hammersmith and Fulham

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has now appointed a director of housing and regeneration on about £170,000 a year, Mr Johnson is still retained as a consultant to help him out—

John McDonnell: How is his health?

Mr Slaughter: It seems okay to me.

Mr Johnson is in charge of some of the most controversial and largest developments not just in this country or in Europe but across the world—that is, the opportunity area schemes in Hammersmith and Fulham that will see the demolition of thousands of units of good quality social housing and their replacement with luxury high-rise housing, principally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) said, for the benefit of people living abroad who wish to have a pied-à-terre somewhere near central London.

I have spent many days in the public inquiry dealing with this matter and I shall try not to bore Members with the subject for too long. The core strategy documents, which hon. Members will all have in their various boroughs, are interesting reading if one sits down with them. The housing policy in the Hammersmith and Fulham core strategy, which is the planning document that is supposed to last us for 20 years, states:

“The Council would prefer all additional affordable housing to be intermediate housing unless a small proportion of new social rented housing is necessary in order to enable proposals for the regeneration of council or housing association estates”.

That was amended during the public inquiry to add the words “and affordable rented housing”. That is a bit of a give-away that the Minister might want to blush about. In other words, all the time that the definition of affordable housing was social housing, the council wanted none of it, but as soon as it became 80% of market rent, it was happy to include it in its planning documents. That exposes what so-called affordable housing is about.

I am dealing with dozens of those schemes across the constituency, but let me mention just three of them. There are three opportunity areas in the borough. There are 30 of those large London plan schemes—roughly one per borough—but we have three of them in Hammersmith and Fulham, even though it is one of the smallest and most densely populated boroughs. One of them covers Earls Court and West Kensington, where the proposal, apart from knocking down the historic exhibition centres, is to demolish 750 newly modernised, good quality and popular council homes, half of which are terraced or semi-detached three or four-bedroom houses with garages and gardens, so that they can be replaced with 7,500 luxury flats in blocks up to 30 storeys high. That is described as four villages and a high street. I went to the architect’s premises to look at the plans. He had given nicknames to the high street and the other road that will be built—one was Sloane street and the other was South Molton street—and that is where the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates are at present.

Of those 7,500 homes, the only social rented homes will be for tenants who are displaced because their homes have been demolished who insist on having a new home in the area. I believe that about 250 such homes will be built, and they will be built conveniently just outside my constituency, so that those people will not be able to vote for me anymore.

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The White City opportunity area is much larger. It is the area around the BBC site in which at least another 4,000 homes will be built—again, in blocks 20 to 30 storeys high. The planning document contains a little orange circle where it says, “This is where we are going to build just over 1,000 social rented homes.” That sounds like quite an attractive prospect, until one finds out that those homes will be built so that tenants can be moved from the 2,400 homes on the White City, Batman Close and Wood Lane estates in another part of Shepherd’s Bush. In other words, without saying anything about what will happen to the nearly 2,500 families who live on those estates—the document is silent on that—more than 1,000 homes will be built to rehouse them. Well, I might not be Inspector Clouseau, but I can work out that once those families are moved into those 1,000 homes, the leaseholders have been bought out and other people have been discouraged from living in the area, the bulldozers can then go into the White City estate, which is the largest estate in my constituency.

The most controversial site is Hammersmith town centre and riverside, which includes the listed town hall, cinema and flats owned by the Pocklington Trust, which is a trust for people with visual impairments. Again, the ambition is demolition and to build 320 luxury flats and a footbridge over the A4 that will take out a third of the riverside park, so that Malaysian investors can have somewhere with direct access to the riverside to put their money into and perhaps come to when they are in Hammersmith. How that is conceived as providing for all the needs—let alone the housing needs—of my constituents I do not know.

Council officers proudly told me that the Earls Court development is the largest one of its kind—I think that they mean by value—outside China. They are very proud of that. What those developments have in common is that they face the unanimous opposition or near-unanimous opposition of residents and that the council is co-developer. The planning authority is the developer in each case, and hon. Members can imagine how planning committees go in that context.

The key point for today’s debate is that there is no affordable housing—not one new unit of affordable housing, by which I mean social rented housing. As London citizens will say, the only type of housing in London boroughs such as mine that is affordable to people on the London living wage, which is now almost £8 an hour, is social rented housing. That is what there is a need for. Of course, we need other types of housing as well, but they are easier to provide. The function of government is to provide for unmet needs, but those unmet needs are not being provided for. On the contrary, the whole thrust of policy—not just in Hammersmith, although it is more obvious in Hammersmith—is to reduce the quantum of social rented housing, to stop the construction of new social rented housing and in that way to change the nature of housing tenure across inner London.

What is the motivation for that approach? If I am right about this, and I think I am because I have spent a lot of time looking at it, the first motivation of those politicians—principally Conservative, although we must now associate the Liberal Democrats with them—is economic. A phrase that I hear from Conservatives in my area is “sweat the asset”, and a memorable comment from the leader of the council is, “We want to attract

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people to the area who are very rich.” I think that such people see council houses with affordable rents, on what would otherwise be very expensive land, as an affront to them economically. They think, “This is not what should be done with this piece of land. What we should have here is a 30-storey, Singapore-style tower block or a conference centre or office block. What we should not have is low to medium-rise housing built in the same style as the rest of the district when it was created in the Victorian era.”

The second motivation is, I think, a social agenda. Estates are described in the most disparaging terms in official council documents—as “not decent”, or “inward-looking”. I know that Tory politicians are often not comfortable with council estates, but I do not know whether that is because they think the people who live on them vote Labour or because they do not like the collective ideals that built them. Perhaps they do not like the communities who live there, but they could at least leave them alone. Those communities are often the opposite of inward looking: they are some of the most diverse and cohesive in the country and now, partly because of housing policies, they are among the most stable in the country, but they are pilloried in that insulting language.

The third motivation is a personal objection to people who live on council estates. If hon. Members do not believe me they should go back and look at some of the election literature and what was said in Hammersmith and Fulham about dependency culture and how living in subsidised housing with security of tenure makes people flaccid and unambitious. Some politicians think that such people need a touch of iron and that we should go back to the more competitive and animalistic culture that the Conservatives would like us to have.

Angie Bray indicated dissent.

Mr Slaughter: I hope that my constituency neighbour, who is not, from what I have heard of her comments, in that category, shakes her head because she does not want to be associated with such people.

I shall close on a point that I think is where this debate, in relation to Hammersmith, started. I shall read a couple of paragraphs from an article on ConservativeHome, of which I am a great reader. I enjoy it and find it amusing—sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Hon. Members can make up their own minds about the article, which is about social housing and was written by the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council in relation to a Commons debate such as this one almost exactly two years ago. It reads:

“On the day of the first Opposition social housing debate for three years, we ask here whether this is the time to reform social housing. It may not be an issue for the current intake of Conservative MPs at this time, but it will become an issue for many new MPs elected from target marginals which have far higher levels of social housing. Figures supplied to Greg Hands MP from the Commons Library show that shadow housing minister Grant Shapps’s seat (Welwyn Hatfield) has the highest percentage of social rented housing of any Conservative seat. Some key targets have huge percentages: Hammersmith at 36%, Westminster North at 30% and Birmingham Edgbaston and Battersea both at 29%.”

With the exception of Battersea, what do those other three seats have in common when one looks at the results of the last election?

The article continues:

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“Whilst Conservatives are at a highpoint in local government, we still have a mountain to climb in our inner cities. We have no Conservative councillors in Liverpool, Sheffield or Newcastle and just one in Manchester. Many inner London boroughs remain either Labour or Liberal Democrat-run…Finally Boris Johnson’s stunning victory in our capital city was largely a suburban revolt. Why is this? The current state and levels of social housing in our inner cities may provide part of the answer. All our inner cities have relatively high levels of social housing compared to their suburbs. Today social housing has become welfare housing where both a dependency culture and a culture of entitlement dominate…Competition revolves around drawing welfare support and taking something out of the system. Conservative principles of freedom, self-reliance and personal responsibility run counter to this culture.”

That is not some lunatic adviser in the Conservative party; that was the head of the innovation unit for local government, who is running the Mayor’s campaign for re-election and is the leader of a London borough council.

I do not make the obvious point, which is that this is all about politics and gerrymandering. Of course it is about that, in a far more profound way than the things that Shirley Porter did. But the fact that we have people like that driving policy within the Conservative party creates a complete divide between the parties that has never existed before, such that it is now impossible for rational voices to be heard—even the voices of people in the Conservative or Liberal parties who know that they have a duty towards people in housing need and ought to be helping them, and that that should be separated from a political argument. This well has become so poisoned now that I believe that, unfortunately, it is Government policy—I have traced in this speech the link from that article through to the “Principles for Social Housing Reform”, through to Government policy in the Localism Bill and the demise of social housing—that is driving social housing policy in this country, particularly in London.

I do not expect to get a rational response from the Minister to this debate today—or probably ever—but I would like Government Members to think about the implications, not for us in our seats and our livelihoods going forward, but for the thousands of families who are the victims of the very crude political policy that is being pursued, in relation to housing uniquely. We can all have disagreements on other areas of policy, but they do not have such profound effects on people’s lives as this form of experimentation—demolishing people’s homes, making people move away from the communities that they have lived in for generations and separating families.

Those are the policies that are being directly pursued by the Conservative-Liberal coalition Government now. They are shameful policies. They should have received more attention from the media, and I wish that they did, but I think there is enough morality in the governing parties for them to go back and look at what they are doing in relation to housing policy and to think again. We are talking about future generations of people in this country who are growing up in conditions that are wholly uncivilised and wholly unworthy of the country.

5.8 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Follow that! Today’s debate would be really important at any time, and I am really grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing it, because as other

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hon. Members have said, it is a good idea for Members from the capital to get together and debate subjects that are central to the capital.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, because he represents a London constituency so I know that he will be able to empathise, at least, with some of the issues that we are bringing forward today—and as he is a West Ham United supporter, I am sure that he is honourable enough to take note of the concerns expressed in the House and perhaps try to do something about them. When we are thinking about our national housing policy, we might want to look specifically at the needs of the capital within that, where a one-size-fits-all approach may not be possible, ethical or even manageable, in the long or even the short term. I ask the Minister to listen carefully to the arguments that have been so persuasively advanced from both sides of the House, and see whether he can do anything to influence Government policy in this area.

The judgment that many experts have reached is that taken together, the Government’s policies will make it increasingly hard for people on low incomes to find a decent place to live in London. What happens to social housing and its supply, security and affordability are central to the story that will unfold across the country, and especially in London, in the next few years. As we have heard Labour Members say time and again, Ministers have announced a raft of policies that will, among other things, reduce and restrict the financial support for housing available to many who are already struggling on low and fixed incomes. The Government will end security of tenure in social housing for new tenants and penalise social tenants who have just one spare bedroom.

The Government have tried to assert that the measures are part of a solution that somehow progresses fairness and flexibility, but there is more than enough information now for us to see that their approach will lead to new problems without seriously addressing the core priority, which must be to increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing. That is important for all of London, and for our national economy. The shortage of decent affordable housing in London is holding back economic growth and the creation of a socially successful city for residents and businesses alike.

London clearly faces big housing challenges. That is not new; it has been the case for some time. Labour Members have confronted the Government with the issues in previous years, so we are not saying these things simply because a Government of a different colour have been elected. The city’s population has been increasing steadily since the 1980s, which has led to high and sustained demand for housing. House prices have held up better in London than anywhere else in the recession. The upshot is that the average London house costs about 14 times the average London annual salary, taking home ownership further and further beyond the reach of those on low and even modest incomes.

For many, the only realistic option is renting, but probably not in the social housing sector, as there are more than 800,000 people on housing waiting lists in London—more than 30,000 in my area of Newham alone. Shelter says that at the current letting rate, it will take Newham council 38 years to clear the list, so for most of those waiting, social housing is just a dream.

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The Government have correctly noted that people who are not working are over-represented in social housing, but if there were more social housing we would see a more mixed community living in it; it is as simple as that. The Government have incorrectly concluded that social housing is the primary problem, and that the way to solve it is to end secure tenancies.

As the Minister is a London MP, he will understand that the extraordinary pressure on social housing means that it is increasingly occupied by the people with the greatest needs, such as the elderly, the disabled, the chronically sick and lone parents. The Government’s response—ending secure tenancies—misses the fundamental point, and will cause difficulties for vast numbers of residents. In Newham 35% of households already rent privately, and the demand for that form of accommodation seems sure to rise. If we consider all those facts, it becomes obvious that the top priority, and the most cost-effective thing to do, is simply to create more social housing in London.

During the recession the Labour Government increased investment in the construction of new affordable homes, and the volume coming on stream has risen for several years as a direct result, protecting construction jobs and enabling the economy to continue at least to bubble along in the circumstances. Last year, however, the new Government decided to slash the budget in the spending review, and whereas more than half of the cost of any housing association building scheme used to be met from capital grants, that will go down to 20%, which is far too low. Experts say that with much less public investment, the number of new social home completions will inevitably fall.

The Government claim that that need not be the case, and say that the difference can be made up both by borrowing, which worries many housing associations, and, as we have heard from Labour Members, an increase in the income from higher rates, which worries all of us. Under the Government’s so-called “affordable rent” model—my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) nicked the term “Orwellian” from me—rents can be set at up to 80% of the market level, threatening to price many people out of their home in the capital, especially larger families, once the universal benefit cap of £20,000 a year kicks in.

We are about to see major disruption in the private sector too. Average rents vary enormously in London, so pegging local housing allowances city-wide will instantly price some households out of some districts, making London more socially segregated and geographically unequal, and further increasing churn. I do not want hon. Members to think that churn is some kind of social or geographic term with few or no consequences. It results in children being shunted from house to house, living in poor conditions and temporary accommodation, often over chip shops or Chinese takeaways. It has profound effects on health, education, inclusion in the community and mental well-being. It weakens the sense of community across London while giving tenants little reason to invest in their home or local area and become part of an inclusive community by generating income and making a contribution. Thousands of people are expected to be displaced outwards from the centre, risking jobs and work, child care and schools for families with children, and breaking valuable ties with GPs and hospitals for the elderly and disabled.

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By 2016 most of inner London will be unaffordable for tenants claiming local housing allowance, so cheaper neighbourhoods in outer London will have to house many more people. Those areas, which include my part of east London, already have high rates of deprivation and unemployment, so they are poorly placed to cope with a surge of incomers with acute housing and other needs. Newham expects people to migrate from more expensive areas nearby such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, putting further strain on hard-pressed council services that have been subject to big cuts, and increasing the gap between supply of and demand for school places in the borough.

My constituents have problems of their own. Newham has the fourth highest level of child poverty in the country. Research for the East Thames Group confirms that in our area more than 65% of households will be unable to afford a three-bedroom home at the 80% market rent, which is a very high number. I am sure that the Minister will not want to see such results in Newham or elsewhere, because the churn and movement resulting from higher rents will effectively find its way to Bromley and surrounding areas.

What will people who find themselves in this position do if they are on a low or fixed income and cannot make up the shortfall? Apart from moving to cheaper areas, with all the problems that that entails, they seem to have only two options. Either they can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) said, move to a smaller home—further increasing the number of overcrowded households in the city, which is already worryingly high—or they can try to hold on, as they do. They try to hold on, despite the odds against them, despite it being mathematically impossible, because they do not want to move the children, or because they have roots in the area that make their property so important to their life. They will go into arrears and run up huge debts, increasing the risk of real poverty and homelessness.

The Government’s approach rests in part on the premise that reducing local housing allowance will force landlords to lower their rents, but experts say that that is wishful thinking in London, where the demand for rented accommodation is unusually strong—and, as Ministers are keen to point out, one cannot buck the market. They also risk prompting an increase in homelessness—a shocking reversal in trend after a series of years in which the number of homeless households was reduced, thanks to the successful preventive policies of the Labour Government.

When taken together, rather than improving the position of people in housing need in London, the Government’s policies look like making things so much worse, creating needless distress and huge destruction along the way. That means that Ministers have some serious questions to answer. First, they need to explain where, in the city, people on low incomes will find decent affordable accommodation in future, once all the policy changes have come into effect. They also need to explain why they have chosen to introduce measures that will make life considerably harder for thousands of Londoners, including many vulnerable elderly and disabled people, for no good end, instead of focusing relentlessly on increasing the amount of affordable social housing.

People need homes, not just a roof over their heads. Secure tenure is an essential feature of a home, and that is what social housing should continue to provide. Social housing’s key defining characteristics have always been

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security and affordability, so that those in housing need can access it. But now it seems that Government policies will make it impossible for either of those conditions to go on being met in London.

Ministers need to explain how, under their policies, the social housing that does exist can possibly still be worthy of the name. Instead of introducing confused policies that will rip communities apart and leave many living in insecure inadequate housing—or worse, homeless—the Government must start delivering the decent affordable housing that is so desperately needed.

5.24 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): I begin, as many others have done, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on introducing the debate. How the years slide by, and I think of the first time that we spoke in the Chamber on housing in London, joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and others, who have all been habitual attendees of housing debates. How we wish that the problems that we were so exercised about in 1997 were the problems that we face now.

I am also delighted to place on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue on the Floor of the House. We often have our debates in Westminster Hall, but it is important to be able to use the main Chamber to reflect on an issue that is so important to many of us. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) said that we so often address with great passion the welfare concerns involved in education and health policy, but housing, which is at least as critical and stands alongside those issues in importance, tends to be marginalised.

I thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) for making an important point. She said that London was often not understood in the context of national politics. Although, sadly, there are housing pressures and problems in every part of the country, London is unique and faces particular cost pressures. It is good that we have had an opportunity to bring London Members together to talk about London problems, but we want colleagues from other parts of the country to hear more about why London is different and why the pressures are so intense here.

We have heard outstanding speeches from Opposition Members. I am thinking of my right hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), for Eltham, for Hammersmith, for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), for Edmonton (Mr Love) and for East Ham—

Angie Bray: West Ham!

Ms Buck: I am sorry; I meant my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown).

All those speeches addressed, with slightly different emphases, the impact of the housing crisis on people—on families in overcrowded accommodation, homeless families and families forced into constant moves and changes of address. The statistics matter, but it is important that we should remember that people are at the heart of the

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issue. I suspect that most of us in the Chamber, on both sides, have sat in advice surgeries with people weeping with distress as they have talked about the conditions in which they live and the number of times they have been uprooted and forced to move. They crave only a stable home.

Opposition Members drew out something important about social housing policy—that it has come about as a consequence of market failure. It is precisely because the private housing sector could not meet the needs of low-income and vulnerable people that council housing came about—and before that, there were the great social housing developments of Peabody and Octavia Hill. Subsequently, the housing association movement grew up in response to the catastrophe of the private rented market, particularly in places such as my previous constituency, the home of Rachman and Hoogstraten.

As the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) said absolutely rightly, most landlords are not bad landlords at all—I am happy to place that on the record. However, the grim truth is that a substantial minority are, which brings the entire sector into disrepute. We already know from the English housing survey that 40% of private houses are below the decent homes standard and the conditions in the private rented sector are worse across the piece; a larger proportion of them fail to meet that standard. That is a particular challenge if vulnerable people are in the part of the market that has failed. That is exactly why the housing association movement developed. It is sad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith how some housing associations seem to have strayed so much from their original purposes.

Mr Slaughter: I want to get something off my conscience; I promise that this will be my last intervention. Last Friday, I got a planning application—again, I am afraid, from Notting Hill Housing—for 41 high-quality houses, including four new five-bedroom houses on St Peter’s square. They go for about £3 million each. Not one of those 41 houses will be an affordable home because there is not enough equity in the scheme. That is what some of our housing associations have descended to.

Ms Buck: My hon. Friend is right, and that is extremely sad. In some cases, there appears to be a deliberate straying away from the original aims and objectives; in others, the kind of thing that he describes is a response to the constraints under which housing associations now operate.

All my right hon. and hon. Friends critiqued aspects of Government policy. A number of them drew particular attention to the risks inherent in the cuts to the local housing allowance. We heard from Government Members extreme examples of high-cost private sector tenancies. We agree. Indeed, the Labour manifesto stated that measures would be taken to deal with some of those extremely high costs. I completely accept that, but if it was the objective of Government policy why was it not confined to tackling the relatively small number of high-cost cases? I think I am right in saying that the Government have not even been able to tell us how many, if any, properties cost more than £100,000 a year, yet throughout the country—not just in London—nearly 1 million households will have their local housing allowance cut.

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My hon. Friends the Members for West Ham and for Edmonton raised concerns about what would happen when people are displaced, particularly from the central London broad market rental area where only 5% of accommodation will remain affordable, and a knock-on displacement moves those families to highly stressed, poorer communities on the fringes of London and beyond. Many Members talked about social housing investment and tenure, and I shall return to those issues briefly.

We heard thoughtful and reasonable contributions from Government Members. I single out particularly the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton and for Battersea (Jane Ellison), not least because they are still here. They made good points. In some cases, there is shared understanding of the impact of the housing shortage, particularly in central London.

From the hon. Ladies and from the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr Offord), for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), we heard support for Government policy on market rents and the end of security of tenure, which it is asserted, without significant evidence, will deal with the shortage of social housing that we are all concerned about. Frankly, that assertion is a triumph of hope over experience, and I shall spend a moment or two deconstructing it.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hendon is no longer in the Chamber. He revealed a little of the attitude towards social housing and social tenants that permeates so much of the Government’s thinking about the problem—that secure and affordable social housing traps individuals in deprivation and unemployment, and the language of welfare dependency reinforces that belief. However, as several of my hon. Friends said, the fact that social housing is now such a scarce resource means that people with social problems are concentrated in it. Far from being the problem for many vulnerable and poorer families, it is an essential part of the solution.

We all agree that the problems facing social housing in London are complex, long term and difficult to resolve. Anyone who claims to have a magic bullet is lying. We know that the supply of social housing has been squeezed for decades, principally through the non-replacement of right-to-buy stock during the 1980s and 1990s, but in retrospect it is a shame that more properties were not built under the Labour Government, as several of us have pointed out. It would be hypocritical of me not to say that, as I lined up many times during the Labour Government to make exactly that point. However, as has been said, we can be proud of the substantial investment made during those years in the decent homes initiative, which brought millions of homes to a decent standard.

The decline in supply is not the only problem. London is a global city; foreign, national and business money distorts the market, and the fact that house prices have risen so much over the decades has its consequences. One striking issue about social housing is that between 10 and 15 years ago there was a steady outflow of tenants buying their home, sometimes through right to buy but often in the private market, which has effectively silted things up, as people on modest incomes are no longer able to afford a house. The relationship between the private housing market, owner-occupation and the

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social market must be properly understood. The Labour Government invested in decent homes and new buildings, so by 2009, the lead-in time for planning and investment led to a high of 16,000 starts in London. We now know that that was the golden age.

The coalition Government have a package of investment and policy suggestions, which are likely to combine to cancel out almost all the hoped-for objectives. They want more social homes—don’t we all?—but they have made, as we heard, a 63% cut in the affordable housing grant. Consequently, the 16,000 starts peaked in 2009-10 and will fall away to nothing, according to the Homes and Communities Agency, in 2012. The Government want housing benefit to take the strain—to fill the gap in the affordable housing grant—but they also want housing benefit expenditure to fall. Those two things are incompatible.

The Government want to improve work incentives—don’t we all?—but they propose 80% market rents, which will make work incentives much harder to achieve. If it is hard to make work pay when rent is £100 a week, how much harder will it be when rent is £400, £500 or £600 a week? They want more social homes, particularly, as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton said, more family-sized homes, but the overall benefit cap means that housing developers and housing associations do not want to build family-sized homes. The set of policies is completely incoherent. Something has to give.

The Government want mixed communities—don’t we all?—but they suggest throwing people out of their homes when they achieve a certain amount of income. What could be a worse work disincentive than saying, “If you earn a certain amount of money, you’ll be out on your ear”? What nonsense that makes of the concept of mixed communities. However, the Mayor of London proposes a £60,000-plus ceiling for access to socially assisted housing, which cuts across the stated objective of not allowing people with a decent income to be assisted with housing.

The Government want to tackle under-occupation—don’t we all?—but they are doing so in a way that possibly even some of my hon. Friends have not yet fully internalised. They propose doing so through a cut in housing benefit for social tenants who have one or more bedrooms more than they are deemed to need. That will hit 150,000 London households with an average of a £21-a-week loss in benefit. I do not have the London figures to hand, but I know that, nationally, if every single person affected by the proposed cut in housing benefit tried to avoid that penalty, it would mean that every one and two-bedroom property allocated in the social housing sector for the next five years would have to go to those households. That is clearly nonsense and would lead to a catastrophe of homelessness and overcrowding. Indeed, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) let the cat out of the bag by making it clear that the policy’s intention is not to tackle under-occupation, but to save money. As far as the Government are concerned, the fewer people who move, the better.

The Government also want to end security of tenure. When I, like my hon. Friends, was on the campaign stump last year, and warning people that a Conservative Government would mean a move to market rents and the end of security of tenure, we were howled down and

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accused of lying. Our only error in robustly defending that position was not realising how quickly it would happen.

I have been remiss in not making the point earlier, but shadow Communities and Local Government Ministers, who are out campaigning today, are rightly opposing those measures in the Localism Bill.

The Government’s policy is fundamentally flawed and deeply incoherent. It will have the opposite effect, almost across the board, to what it seeks to achieve. At the very least, we know that the Mayor of London’s re-election campaign is on a cliff edge as new housing supply drops to nothing. We therefore look forward to a campaign that will replace the Mayor, who has talked the talk, but is not walking the walk. He will not deliver new social housing; he is not standing up for London tenants or those who face a housing crisis.

Although the crisis has been long building and slow burning, it is reaching one of the most critical points that I have ever known. Whether for people in social housing, people in the private sector waiting to obtain social housing, those in the queue or those facing homelessness, it is clear that the Government’s policies will do nothing to resolve that crisis. It will take a Labour Mayor and a Labour Government to resolve the crisis of social housing in London.

5.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on obtaining this debate. As has rightly been observed, he has been a consistent advocate of housing issues in the Chamber. He has advocated them seriously and with great commitment, and although I do not always agree with all his analysis and remedy, I respect how he approaches these matters.

Jeremy Corbyn: So the Minister agrees with some of it?

Robert Neill: I do not want to tempt the hon. Gentleman into being too optimistic, but I do appreciate the spirit in which he raises those matters.

It has been a worthwhile debate for all London Members. I thank all hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed. We have heard some thoughtful contributions. In particular, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), who have contributed thoughtfully, as have some Labour Members. Sometimes, that standard of thoughtfulness was not consistently applied, and we have heard examples of conspiracy theories reaching almost to the delusional. However, I put that down simply to the excitement of matters elsewhere in the country at the present time.

I am a London Member, I have spent the whole of my life in London and I recognise the importance of this issue. As hon. Members said, there are particular pressures on housing in London that put it in a different category from other parts of the country. However, the affordability issues and so on are not unique to London, which is a world city. The same problems will be found, to a degree, in New York, Paris and Tokyo. However, within

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the UK, London is in a unique situation, and as I shall mention later, the Government are recognising that fact by devolving much more power over housing policy and housing funding to the Mayor of London, who is democratically accountable and will have, therefore, the ability to respond in a more flexible and nuanced way to the particular London demands that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton and others mentioned.

I am very conscious personally of the importance of housing. I hope that Labour Members will take this in the spirit intended. My grandfather worked in the London docks. He was born in a slum in Stepney. He started his married life in rented accommodation in Canning Town. He managed to work his way to buying the semi-detached house in which I was born. Against that background, first I do not need to be lectured by anyone about the importance of affordable and decent housing for working people in London, and secondly I recognise the issue of security of tenure. However, I hope that hon. Members will recognise that that does not mean that we should automatically go down the same route that was perhaps appropriate and effective in the past. We might need now to be more imaginative in thinking of alternative solutions and other ways forward.

Jim Fitzpatrick rose

Robert Neill: I give way to a fellow West Ham supporter.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Minister and I share several passions: the Thames Gateway, because we both live there, the no to AV campaign and West Ham United football club. He is also a former constituent of mine on the Isle of Dogs. I raised earlier issues about market rates in the Canary Wharf area and people in Tower Hamlets who cannot afford 80% market rates on those terms. Given his background—I would not challenge his credentials and pedigree as a Londoner—does he not recognise that the Government’s policy of trying to force market rates of 80% rents for social landlords and council housing will drive local people out of Tower Hamlets and into wherever they can find decent housing?

Robert Neill: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but two things have to be recognised. The first is the acceptance in his party’s manifesto that the current model of dealing with housing benefit was not sustainable. Secondly, I will go into this in a little more detail in a moment—I hope that he will forgive me if I return to it in the order that it appears in my speech—but there remain significant numbers of houses in London that are affordable. It cannot be sustainable for people who happen to be in receipt of housing benefit who can afford houses not to have to make the sometimes difficult choices that people in work at lower wages have to make.

I will return to the detail later, because there are some useful points to make. However, it is also worth saying something else—something that I am sure the hon. Gentleman and others will reflect on. I put this as gently as I can to Opposition Members, but they are not really in a position to criticise this Government for trying to do something to deal with the housing crisis in London when they left us in such a heaven’s awful mess in the first place. We heard a grudging acceptance that

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things were not quite right from some Opposition Members, including one or two who served in the previous Government, but let us put things where they are: the lowest levels of house building in peacetime since 1924; social housing waiting lists at record levels; 250,000 families in social housing living in overcrowded conditions; and—this is a particularly worrying factor—only half of social tenants of working age in work.

That is the inheritance that this coalition Government are trying to pick up, and at a time when there is less money available from the public finances, because of the economic mess that the previous Government left behind. I can understand that people such as the hon. Member for Islington North, who have been consistent in their criticism, are entitled to make the points that they do. However, there are other Opposition Members who—if I may politely say so—have selective memories, and I am not prepared to brook criticism from that source.

There is some common ground between us, however, so let us look at what we need to do. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) talked about the need to increase supply, which is obviously right. We need to increase supply right across the types of tenures that are available, because the complexity of the London housing market is such that there is no single bullet. That point is right, and I will deal with it later. We also need to look at flexibility in social housing, which includes the questions of tenure and so on. There is probably common ground there, too. We also need to accept that there is an obligation to protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged—something that I also want to touch on.

On the first point, about supply, I am not going to rehearse the rights and wrongs of our disagreement with Labour about the targets approach to the delivery of housing. We know where the previous Government stood; Labour Members know where we stand. However, at the end of the day, there was a failure to deliver an adequate supply of housing. We are determined to take steps to address that, which is why we are seeking to incentivise housing right across the board. That is why the new homes bonus is an important factor in again giving communities a real stake in giving permissions. That will be important in dealing with the reluctance of some communities previously to accept needed development because they felt that they had no stake in it and that it had been imposed on them without having a proper say-so. That is why we propose to reform the community infrastructure levy and turn it into a localised tariff, so that—to deal with the point that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made—the community that receives development has a means of getting back a meaningful proportion of the planning gain arising from it.

Those are some important supply-side issues, but we are also setting aside £1 billion over the comprehensive spending review period for the new homes bonus scheme—I would politely point out to the hon. Member for Edmonton that the first £200 million, in the first year, is additional money from the Treasury. We seek to incentivise those authorities that are prepared to accept necessary and sustainable growth. We are investing a further £6.5 billion in housing, which includes more than £2 billion to make existing social homes decent and nearly £4.5 billion in new affordable housing to help to deliver up to 150,000 affordable homes. There is therefore significant investment taking place, against a background of seeking to pay down the debts that we inherited as a Government.

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Those are supply-side issues that we are seeking to deal with, but the other key issue to the supply side is getting the economy right. Ultimately, confidence has to be restored to the markets, so that people start lending and builders can build once more. Getting the economy right—on which the Opposition have not been exactly supportive of the Government so far—is key, too.

Heidi Alexander: The Minister is talking about supply-side interventions. Can he explain why the Government have insisted on the new homes bonus gimmick, rather than putting that money directly into capital subsidy for building new affordable homes?

Robert Neill: It is not a gimmick; it is a holistic solution. With respect, the hon. Lady is making exactly the error that Labour Members sometimes make, which is to pluck out social and affordable housing policy and to treat it as though it were separate from the rest of the housing market. Everything is interlinked, however, and the key objective is to increase supply across the board. An increase in supply will lead to greater mobility of people, which will free up accommodation in the often hard-pressed social rented sector.

I want to turn to the changes to flexibility in rents and market rents. Those proposals have been made because affordable rent is a less grant-dependent system than previous models. Criticism has been made about the grant, but we have had to reflect the fact that money is limited because of the mess we inherited. We have moved to a model that we think is proportionate and less grant intensive, in order to make better use of the money. This also recognises the reality that we need to encourage housing associations. I am sorry that there has been a degree of criticism of housing associations. They vary; in my experience as a London MP, I have found that some are very good, and others less so. It is wrong, however, to denigrate the whole sector, just as it would be wrong to denigrate the whole private landlord sector. Lest I forget, let me place on record the fact that my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests refers to a single property from which I receive some income.

If we are to generate income for reinvestment in new affordable housing, there has to be an income flow into the housing associations. As a result of the mess that we inherited, that cannot be entirely dependent on Government grant, so it is necessary to get that money from somewhere else. That is why we believe that an affordable rent model will lead to more houses being built, and more households being able to access the benefits of what is still a sub-market rent.

We are all concerned about the specific situation in London, which is why we are devolving the Homes and Communities Agency’s powers to the Mayor. The Mayor has raised issues about the way in which he intends to operate these functions in London, and we will look at the flexibility of that. We will also look at the responses of various associations, and the Minister for Housing and Local Government will respond to those in due course. That is why I will not go into that matter further at this stage.

It is important to recognise that the housing policy spend in London is significant, and that the Mayor has already established a good track record in this area. He

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is on track to deliver 50,000 affordable homes by the Olympics, but he has been up front and said that, because of the economic situation, that might have slipped by a year. However, he preferred to be honest and say that it had slipped a year because of external economic factors, compared with the previous Mayor, who set a 50% target that was not met in any of the eight years that he was in office. The best he achieved was 34%, so Mayor Johnson is much more on track than his predecessor. He has also recognised that we will need transitional arrangements to deal with the issues arising from the change to an affordable rent model in the sector.

The reform of tenure was recognised before the election by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), in one of the periods when she was off the Front Bench, as an issue that needed to be tackled. In that context, existing tenants will be protected. It seems perfectly reasonable to say that, if we are to encourage a more flexible supply of tenure, people who go into a new tenancy should do so in the knowledge that, if circumstances change, it will be appropriate to review that provision.

Heidi Alexander rose

Robert Neill: I will finish this point, then I need to make way for the hon. Member for Islington North.

Some of the more alarmist comments about churn in a city that has a great deal of population churn anyway are unjustified.

Ms Buck rose—

Robert Neill: This will have to be the last time I give way to anyone.

Ms Buck: Will the Minister confirm something for the record? I understand, following the consideration of the Localism Bill in Committee, that existing tenants who voluntarily downsize to smaller properties or move from overcrowded properties will, after the new rules are introduced, be subject to short-term tenancies. That does not seem to me to be consistent with what he and others have said about current tenants not being affected.

Robert Neill: The point is that it is a voluntary change in the arrangements, not what exists at the moment. At the end of the day, we must be sensible and recognise that, if we want more new homes, either we go down the route of pumping more and more public money in—when, thanks to the actions of the previous Government, there is no public money—or we go down the alternative route of using a bit more common sense and imagination and being prepared to look at more flexible models for dealing with the situation.

Ultimately—I am conscious of the need to allow the hon. Member for Islington North time to respond to the debate—this Government are strongly committed to housing in London. The current Mayor is committed to housing in London and there has been a 35% increase in the number of affordable starts since Mayor Johnson took office. Increasing the number of family-size properties is another important issue and there has been a 40% increase in three-bedroom houses, so we do not think that we have anything to be ashamed of in respect of our

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housing policy in London. I am confident that, when we debate the subject again in perhaps a few years’ time, I shall be able to defend Mayor Johnson’s record after he has been re-elected. I am sure that the hon. Member for Islington North will still be there to raise housing issues with the same passion and vigour. I hope that I have left him enough time to conclude.

5.56 pm

Jeremy Corbyn: In closing the debate, I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allotting us the time for it. There was initially some doubt about whether sufficient London Members would attend the debate and whether it would be last the full time allotted to it. We have been proved wrong on that, as many Members —14, I believe—have spoken and put many valuable points on the record.

I would like to thank both Front-Bench teams. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for her fantastic record on housing. The fact that she is still a Member after the last general election is because of her record on housing and her support for the people in her community. I would also like to thank the Minister not only for the manner of his reply but for the fact—unprecedented in my experience of watching Ministers in operation—that he has been in his place throughout the whole debate and listened to every speech. He will have heard the passion and commitment shown by many Members on housing issues.

Let me remind the Minister of these points. None of them is new; housing issues are not new; the passion and commitment of London MPs to social housing

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issues in London is not new—and it will not finish with today’s debate, as we will be back, back and back again because we passionately believe that everyone deserves somewhere decent to live and we passionately believe in cohesive communities.

When the Minister goes away from this debate, I would like him to reflect on four points on which he could take action. First, he should re-examine what is happening with the housing allowance, how it has been imposed and how families have been forced out of their communities, creating a huge problem that is hitting people in areas such as the one that I have the privilege to represent.

Secondly, I accept that not every private landlord is a bad landlord—but there are some bad landlords and some badly maintained properties. Private tenants pay more than others for heating, lighting and everything else because the homes are often badly maintained and inefficient—not all, but quite a lot are.

Thirdly, the Minister should recognise that the housing needs of London are special and that if we do not recognise them we will end up with a divided, inefficient, ineffective city. I do not want that; the Minister does not want that; nobody in the Chamber wants it.

Lastly, I ask, please, for money in the form of investment in good homes for a good future for our young people. It is better to put the money in bricks and mortar than to subsidise private rents. That has to be the way forward. London can do it, but we need the Government’s recognition and support if we are to succeed.

Question put and agreed to .

Resolved ,

That this House has considered the matter of social housing in London.

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Port Health Authorities

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

5.59 pm

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured the debate. I do not think that the subject of port health and port health authorities has been discussed in the Chamber before; indeed, I do not think that most people—including, I suspect, some hon. Members—know what a port health authority is or does. Just as many people assume that a port consists of a quay, some cranes, some trucks and some men unloading goods from ships on to trucks, many people, if they consider the matter at all, assume that a port health authority is about health in ports. Well, it is not; or, rather, it is about much more than that.

Port health authorities are, to put it simply, the last line of defence—and a very thin red line at that—for the United Kingdom as a whole. They protect us from incoming disease in humans or animals, from contaminated food, and from dangerous merchandise that has, as we know, entered the country in the past with devastating consequences. They provide the first and last opportunity for a nation that lives on trade, mostly through ports, to be defended from such unwanted intrusions.

If infected or unfit animal products enter the country, that concerns port health authorities. If sick or infected animals enter the country, that concerns port health authorities, along with others. If there are aflatoxins in peanut cargos, that concerns port health authorities. The preparations to combat a world influenza pandemic that we saw a while ago are very much a concern of port health authorities. Standards relating to food imported from outside the European Union are a central concern of port health authorities, as are the standards and certification of hygiene and cleanliness on cruise, cargo and passenger ships. The disinfecting of ships in ports concerns port health authorities, and many other things do as well.

About 120 port health authorities, or branches of such authorities, undertake the task of carrying out what I think we all agree are vital national functions. That number includes not only coastal ports, but inland ports and airports such those that serve London, including Gatwick. They are maintained and funded by local authorities, but—for there is a but—they are maintained mostly by the local authorities in whose areas most of a port sits, regardless of the national or regional importance of the work being undertaken. There is no line in local government revenue support grant marked “port health”, and there is no weighting factor in formula funding that recognises the existence of local authorities’ port health responsibilities. As a result, local authorities shoulder the cost by charging council tax payers. Moreover, there is no national underwriting of any aspect of port health authority activity. A national association, the Association of Port Health Authorities, undertakes national co-ordination and pursues national activities relating to port health, but it is funded solely by the subscriptions of its member authorities.

Let me complete the picture by making two points. Local authorities have been and are scrupulous in funding the net costs of port health. I say “net costs” because although port health authorities can charge for a number

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of their services, such as the provision of health certificates for ships, by no means all their activities enable their costs to be recovered in that way, and, as I shall illustrate, the list of such activities is growing. Southampton port authority, in my city, provides an example. It covers: the container port, which is the second largest in the UK; the cruise ship terminals, which are the largest in the UK; general port bulk activity; the wharfs on the Itchen and Hamble; the military port in Marchwood; the oil terminals at Calshot; and Southampton airport. In short, the authority covers a complex of port areas and activities which are much more extensive than the area covered by Southampton city council and it undertakes nationally significant activity.

All that work—the activities of Southampton’s port health authority—is carried out at a gross cost per annum of £1.1 million and a net cost of some £300,000, and it is funded by the council tax payers of Southampton. Southampton’s port health authority has 13 staff, as well as administrative support, to cover all those duties and the movements in this vast port, and it is on duty 24 hours a day. It is very effective and very efficient, and it provides very good value for money. However, its duties continue to increase in scope and the new duties are mostly unfunded. So not only does the PHA not gain resources, but it has to cope with an ever-increasing work load with static resources.

An example of these new duties relates to regulation 669 from the European Union, which came into force on 20 January 2010. It deals with the inspection and, if necessary, the seizure of incoming non-animal foodstuffs, and all the new work that it involves is unfunded. Tony Baldock, the food quality inspector for Crawley borough council in Gatwick airport, is reported to have received a visit from EU inspectors last November and they expressed astonishment that no more resources were available to him to deal with the 2,600 extra consignments that he and his team were inspecting—indeed, this is true. In most other European countries the equivalent functions are resourced and undertaken on a national basis, but at Gatwick and other port health authorities all this work is done on the basis of existing and locally raised resources.

I mentioned the issue of aflatoxins in peanut imports. Aflatoxins are essentially a virulent fungus that can come into the country with peanut imports and it can cause liver failure if it is released into the general retail environment and infected nuts are consumed. It is essential that port health authorities carry out inspections for aflatoxins and, if necessary, prevent these imports from coming into this country, but no funding is provided for such inspections. Of course, port health authorities also carry out preparations and operations concerning emergencies such as the world avian flu virus, as well as inspections for radioactivity in food coming in from Japan, but no funding is provided for such work either.

The picture—I believe I am giving a fair picture—shows that even under conditions of extreme budgetary strain, local authorities are not sacking staff and making net funding reductions in port health authorities; they are acting very responsibly as far as their enforced local charges are concerned. However, there certainly are no new resources available to deal with new demands and requirements, and port health authorities, including Southampton’s, are operating increasingly stretched round-the-clock cover under progressively more difficult circumstances. That thin red line for all is being kept in

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place by efficiency savings, additional work rosters and responsible but difficult funding decisions being taken by local authorities in specific places.

In short, we face not an imminent catastrophe or collapse, but the skin being stretched tighter and tighter across the fabric of the service. For example, we face having future foot and mouth threats being dealt with by hand-to-mouth methods, and that is not ideal. This is not a recipe for all of us to sleep easy in our beds knowing that all will be well for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, as I have mentioned, because the funding and underwriting decisions are taken authority by authority, and locality by locality, no national co-ordination takes place, even when that would have obvious advantages—for example, a ship inspection database could help to avoid inspection duplication. The exception to that funding approach, as I have mentioned, is the APHA, which attempts to fill the breach with the few thousand pounds it gets in subscription from its member authorities. It is sometimes described as taking national action on corner-shop resources.

The problem with all this—at national level at least—is that the existence of all these duties and the degree to which they are overloading our present system is not recognised. Indeed, it is salutary to reflect that a recent report, the Rogers review of national enforcement priorities for local authorities, completely failed to notice or record the existence of port health authorities as a local authority function. Perhaps part of the issue is one of departmental responsibility and awareness. Does port health come under the Department of Health because of its public health implications, the Department for Communities and Local Government because of its locational and funding concerns, or perhaps the Department for Transport because it concerns ports and airports? That is not entirely clear in some circumstances and, perhaps for that reason, it falls between the cracks in the pavement.

If I have been able to bring to the attention of the House the existence and scope of, and difficulties facing, port health authorities, I hope I have achieved a little, but I believe we should be looking to move matters forward more urgently as far as port health is concerned. We should not proceed for the long-term future hoping that particular local authorities will be able to find the share of the funding not taken up by others. We must not cross our fingers and hope that, somehow, those officers in post now will exponentially absorb new duties and responsibilities so that our dinner tables and public health concerns can remain protected. I believe we should do more.

I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in his place to answer the debate, as I had been given to understand that it would be answered by the Department of Health. I am sure that he is equally delighted to be here and it is good that he will be able to reflect on the issues I have raised as far as the DCLG is concerned. Some might see this as an additional burden placed on some particular local authorities, whereby funding has to be found from within that area but goes towards activities that, I think we will agree, are nationally significant or at the very least regionally significant in their benefit and that are undertaken on behalf of us all.

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We need at least to make allowance in the funding formula for the existence of port health alongside introducing mechanics to ensure that the load on local authorities is fairly shared to reflect the national importance of the function. That is a consideration for the DCLG. I cannot say I am completely optimistic that such a change in formula will immediately come about, but I would hope consideration of what it means to run a port health authority, the responsibilities on the shoulders of local authorities and the difficult circumstances that local government is in will be taken fully on board by the Department.

We also need recognition of the need for national support for public health co-ordination of port health at a national level, perhaps through providing support for the Association of Port Health Authorities to carry forward national co-ordination work. That is perhaps for the Department of Health to consider, and I hope that the Minister will convey those thoughts to his colleagues in that Department when the opportunity presents itself. Above all, I want port health to work to the best possible benefit of us all, not just for my city. It is incumbent on us all to think how best that can be secured.

6.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) on securing the debate and raising this important issue, which straddles departmental boundaries, but I am happy to do my bit for the greater good and to shoulder the burden, as I was here anyway. I am much better informed, as is the House, thanks to his debate. I see the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in his place, and I have come across the issue as a London Member of Parliament in the context of Heathrow, but the hon. Member for Southampton, Test has usefully set the matter in a broader context.

Perhaps I can deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raises and consider whether there are ways forward. He is absolutely right: local authorities have the fundamental responsibility under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 for protecting the health of the population. Some of those public health functions are indeed discharged by port health authorities, which obviously have a particular focus in that regard. The 1984 Act provides for a port health authority to be formed either by a single local authority, as I think is the case in Southampton and in most of the cases that I looked at before the debate, or jointly by a number of authorities. To reflect local circumstances sensibly, there can be a joint board or other appropriate management arrangement.

Such arrangements are set up by a port health authority order made under the 1984 Act. Those orders are constituted by the Secretary of State for Health, but as the hon. Gentleman has observed, the funding issues tend to fall within the formula grant, which comes via the Department for Communities and Local Government, so that is where some of the overlap occurs.