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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 28 June 2011

[Martin Caton in the Chair]

Social Housing (England)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—( Mr Vara .)

9.30 am

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, for the first time.

I sought to have this debate for a number of reasons. The first is that housing, particularly social housing, is an important part of the lives of people in this country, so much so that it ought to be the subject of frequent debate in this House. I might be wrong, but I do not recall a full, major debate on housing in the main Chamber so far in this Parliament. The second reason is that housing, particularly social housing, affects and is affected by so many other areas of Government policy that it needs constant attention at a time when other policy is changing rapidly. The third reason is that I am a new Member, and as such housing forms a substantial part of my constituency case load.

I am no housing expert, but I am fortunate enough to have an excellent senior caseworker, Pauline Ingall, who has made it her business to work with my constituents and with local social housing providers to solve problems, bringing to my attention inconsistencies and unintended consequences of policy that cause distress in people’s lives. Some constituents, in particular John Turner whom I thank for his encouragement to seek this debate, have also pointed out anomalies, and I pay tribute to Karen Armitage, chief executive of Stafford and Rural Homes, for bringing a number of matters to my attention.

I know that other Members wish to contribute to the debate, and I will therefore seek to limit my remarks to certain areas of this vast subject. I am sure that they will be able to fill in the gaps and add much local detail from their own experience. I will not tackle the question of supported housing, not because it is unimportant—far from it—but in the hope that others will refer to it. However, I will make, as I am sure will others, a number of suggestions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government. I know that he will take them seriously in his usual generous manner.

It will continue to be the case that most people in this country will wish to, and be able to, buy their own homes, or rent them in the private sector. It is also clear, however, that increasing pressures will mean that demand for social and affordable rented housing will continue to rise. I say “continue to” rise because despite the relatively strong economic growth between 1997 and 2007, the numbers on council waiting lists rose from 1.02 million to 1.67 million, and by 31 March 2010 they had reached 1.75 million. Over the same period, social housing stock declined from 4.38 million to 4.03 million, so only half the increased demand was accounted for by a reduction in supply.

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We live in tough economic times, and although I expect Britain to return to relatively strong growth within one or two years, this experience tells us that the rate of increase in demand is likely to slow rather than be reversed. Added to that, we have the pressures of an increasing population, estimated to be 65 million by 2018, and 70 million by 2028. We therefore have a serious imbalance in supply and demand, which is likely to increase in the coming years.

The Government’s approach is twofold: to encourage the increase of supply, and to help registered social providers and local authorities to take a more flexible approach to housing, so that this very valuable national asset can be put to best use. I welcome that general approach, but before I look at it more closely I wish to emphasise that housing can never be considered as just an asset. In fact, one of the main causes of the financial crisis around the world was the failure by financial institutions, Governments and property owners to recognise that viewing a home solely or substantially as a financial asset was very short-sighted.

A home is a vital aspect of someone’s place in the community. Understandably there is great emphasis these days on mobility, but people staying for a long period—perhaps their whole life—in the same place is just as valid a choice. My family lives in the house in which my wife grew up, and our children attended the same schools as she did. The big society is more likely to flourish in places where people stay put rather than where people move frequently and hardly know their neighbours, and that is why we need to be careful about making changes to social housing tenancies. We are dealing with not just bricks and mortar but with people’s lives, and I would like to hear the Minister’s comments on how he sees the balance between stable communities and the understandable need to make best use of social housing.

The Government recognise the need to build more social housing. The target of 150,000 new homes—37,500 a year over the next four years—is ambitious, and represents a substantial increase over anything achieved by the previous Government, under whom completions ranged from 14,000 to 26,000 a year. I welcome that target; the key is how it is to be achieved. I understand that because of the current financial circumstances capital funding has been reduced from £8.5 billion in the previous spending round to £4.5 billion, and that the difference is to be made up by allowing housing associations to introduce affordable rents of up to 80% of the market rent—recent figures show an average of 67%. Capital subsidy would be replaced by revenue funding from higher rents, combined with increased borrowing by housing associations against the value of their stock, and, of course, Government capital grants.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if rents are set at 80% of market rents they will simply be unaffordable for a lot of people in some areas?

Jeremy Lefroy: I do, and that is why the flexibility in the policy is very important.

Some people have asked whether the result of increased rents for new tenants will be to transfer capital subsidy to the cost of welfare because much of the increase will be covered by housing benefit. There is a clear difference

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of views here, with the Government saying that there is likely to be little or no increase in the cost of housing benefit, and others estimating the annual cost after four years to be up to £1.5 billion. This issue cannot be brushed under the carpet as a minor detail, and I ask the Minister to update the House regularly so that we can see the true consequences of the shift in funding new affordable rented housing more out of rental income and less out of capital grants. This is an important policy change, and we need to evaluate it.

In passing, I also wish to ask about the model used to calculate market rent. I understand that a model is being suggested that will cost housing associations some £40,000 to £50,000 a year to use. The main housing association in my constituency, Stafford and Rural Homes, says that it will perhaps be more straightforward and cheaper to use the local housing allowance as an indicator. I also ask the Minister to work closely with banks and housing associations to see how the obstacles to borrowing for building can be overcome. From anecdotal evidence I have heard, it is becoming more difficult for housing associations, especially the smaller, local ones, to borrow at reasonable rates from banks to build new properties.

With council housing, the proposals for self-financing are a continuation of the previous Government’s plans, and they make good sense. The figures from the past 10 years show that the current arrangements are complex and provide few incentives to increase housing stock. Some people have argued, however, that councils should be able to retain 100% of sales proceeds rather than the proposed 25%. It might be sensible to look at enabling councils to retain 100% for the medium term—or at least more than 25%—and to roll the money into new properties when demand is strong, in return for agreeing to release the funds to the Treasury at a later date. In effect, they would issue bonds to the Treasury, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those proposals.

There are strong arguments for local councils and housing associations looking more seriously at entering the bond market more substantially than at the moment. The central grip of the Treasury on the finance of public capital is too strong. Some housing associations, such as Places for People, have already taken that initiative, but there is surely scope for more. Local bonds issued by local bodies and taken up by local people would be a fine example of localism in practice.

Those who look back at the ’70s and ’80s and point to irresponsible local authorities, fail to take into account the great strides taken since. Local government, in my opinion as a former council cabinet member for finance—I declare that interest—is far more prudent than national Government, and council balance sheets are generally in reasonable health. I welcome the commitment to build 37,500 new social and affordable rented homes a year and urge the Government to set their sights even higher by working with councils and housing associations to tackle the financial and planning obstacles that stand in their way. Both sides need to be engaged in doing so day in, day out, rather than awaiting the next set of statistics. There is another important reason for encouraging construction: it will boost the economy and employment. Everybody will gain: more people will be properly housed,

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more income will go to housing associations and local authorities, more people will be in work and fewer will be on benefits.

The second arm of the Government’s approach is to encourage flexibility and ensure that social housing is available to those who need it. Allowing local authorities to increase rents for those on high incomes surely makes sense. It is hard to justify subsidising housing for someone earning £50,000 a year or more. Other measures are more problematic. It seems that 430,000 social homes are under-occupied, with two or more bedrooms in excess of requirements, but in practice there might be few opportunities to move to smaller accommodation within the same area. It is key to make it easier for people to move to smaller homes rather than penalising them. One main obstacle preventing people from moving is a shortage of suitable accommodation. There is a severe shortage of single-bedroom accommodation and homes designed for older or disabled people. Many local authorities and housing associations, including in my constituency, have recognised that and are responding with additional extra care and similar housing, but we are still well behind the demand posed by demographic trends in this country.

In a recent debate on food production and security, I said that agriculture is the business of the future. I believe that more people in rural areas will be employed in coming years, yet the shortage of affordable and social housing in rural areas is such that in parts of my constituency, they would have to commute from the nearest town to work. The solution lies not just with Government, whose planning reforms should make building such homes somewhat easier, but with local communities. I would be the first to oppose large and inappropriate developments in rural areas, but to oppose any development, especially of affordable and social housing, is wrong. People cannot complain on one hand about the loss of rural services such as post offices, village schools and public transport and, on the other, prevent the arrival of the very people whose presence would make those services more viable.

In each of our constituencies are hundreds of homes that have been empty for a long time. Whether they are in private hands or public—perhaps they were requisitioned as a result of road projects that are no longer live—they represent a waste of scarce resources. There are also commercial properties that have lain idle for several years as a result of a change in habits. Local authorities need to be able to take action to bring such properties back into use or change planning designations more easily to meet the need for more homes, particularly social housing. I welcome the Government’s proposals and initiatives on those matters and the Minister’s comments.

I have concentrated so far on social housing provided by councils and housing associations, but private rented property is a vital part of the mix and will be increasingly important as attitudes to home ownership change in the medium and long term after the experience of the past few years. I will not say more about that, as I am sure that other hon. Members want to contribute, but the key is to encourage responsible letting and tenancy.

It is clear that this country must provide more social and affordable rented housing. First, we must build at—and, I suggest, beyond—the increased rate forecast by the Government. Secondly, we must free up properties

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by enabling people to move to others that are more suitable or by bringing disused properties back into use. However, it is just as important to achieve the economic growth that will reduce the number of people who depend on social housing.

I conclude by considering some of the concerns brought to my attention by constituents. Problems arise when families break up and new partners, each with their own children, come together. Teenage boys and girls from different parents are sometimes expected to share rooms; indeed, a letter about such a case recently arrived in my constituency postbag. Although we cannot expect housing associations’ letting criteria to cover every eventuality, we must ensure that the heavy burden of waiting lists does not cause them to lose sight of the needs of individual families. That is particularly important for people with disabilities. Social housing providers make great efforts to meet the needs of those with disabilities, but the requirement to be fair and consistent due to concerns about being challenged must be balanced with the determination to tackle people’s real needs.

I also have concerns about how disputes between landlords and tenants are resolved. The Housing Ombudsman Service has an important role to play, but although its mission, according to its website, is to work

“with landlords and tenants to resolve disputes impartially, using processes that are fair, evidence-based, and free of bias and prejudice”,

it seems to see its role in resolving disputes in terms that I would regard as relatively narrow or legalistic. One person said to me:

“Housing associations have huge amounts of power. So if there are problems, you can only go to the ombudsman. However, the ombudsman only deals with things in a legal manner.”

I have sympathy with that comment.

What is needed is for the housing ombudsman or some other body to be involved in local arbitration between landlord and tenant at an earlier stage, when perhaps matters can be resolved before positions become entrenched. The relationship between landlord and tenant is sensitive, particularly when the tenant faces difficult circumstances. It is not simply a matter of being parties to a contract; it concerns the tenant’s home, family and community.

The structure and administration of housing associations are also an issue. They are not-for-profit organisations, often charities or industrial provident societies registered as charities. That gives them a certain status and some privileges, so one would expect restraint in remuneration, especially at the most senior levels, yet some executives have packages exceeding £150,000 or even £200,000 a year. I have always been mystified by how a small business that makes £20,000 or £25,000 in profit a year—effectively its owner’s income—can be described as for-profit, whereas a charity that pays an executive £200,000 a year has the elevated social and tax status of a not-for-profit organisation. Will the Minister and other colleagues consider whether it is appropriate for charitable bodies to retain that status if they pay excessive remuneration? Perhaps, as was the case with the bonus tax on banks, such organisations could be required to pay an additional levy on all remuneration above a certain level.

I have noticed that since stock transfers began, newly formed housing associations have tended to enter into takeovers or mergers. Although the need to come together

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for efficiency of scale is understandable, there is also a danger that contact with the local communities that they serve will be diluted. However good local staff are, tenants will be further removed from their landlord’s decision making. I do not wish to be prescriptive, but I welcome the Minister’s comments on how he believes social housing providers of all kinds can be more responsive to the needs of their tenants and communities.

I started by saying that social housing is affected by many other areas of Government policy. I will refer to one: the reform of housing benefit. I appreciate the need to control expenditure, but some of the proposed changes might have the opposite consequence. Deductions from housing benefit for non-dependants might cause tenants to ask their non-dependent children to leave. As a result, those children might end up on some perhaps more expensive form of housing benefit, or present themselves as homeless. I am also concerned about the extension of the shared accommodation rate to those aged 26 to 35. I have imagined myself in the shoes of someone of that age and in that situation. It is not a good place to be. What plans does the Minister have to encourage the building of decent accommodation for people in such circumstances?

I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise some of the questions that my constituents and others have put to me during my first year in the House. I come at the subject without previous experience, and I know that other colleagues with far more experience will wish to put their views, but I approach it with the desire for social housing that is both sufficient for needs and of a high standard throughout the country. I know that most providers do an excellent job, but not all do. I look forward to working with the Minister and all who wish to make such homes better for those who live in them and for the communities of which they are a part.

9.49 am

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this important debate. I am surprised that more hon. Members are not here in Westminster Hall to discuss social housing.

I believe that we face a social housing crisis that is not of this coalition Government’s making. In Manchester we have thousands of people on waiting lists, many of whom have had to wait several years, with no realistic prospect of getting a social tenancy in the near future. Residents raise a large number of concerns with me, as they do with the hon. Gentleman, in relation to housing. I would say that the No. 1 issue that people come to see me about is either their concerns about the lack of social housing, or the fact that they are over-occupying their existing property.

The lack of social housing causes a number of problems, the most important of which is massive overcrowding in some of our social houses. I have constituents who have lived in a three-bedroom house with 10 or more people. Others end up having to move away from the area in which they have lived their whole lives to other parts of Manchester where the housing situation is not as serious as it is in south Manchester. The result is a big increase in the cost of private sector housing, and people are simply not able to afford the cost of going into private

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rented accommodation. All this has been exacerbated recently by a real difficulty in people being able to get mortgages and get on the property ladder, so more people have had to stay in rented accommodation.

I do not think that the Minister is to blame for any of this. It is the fault of previous Governments. We have to look at the right-to-buy legislation in the 1980s, which, while it had many merits, certainly had many drawbacks. It has resulted in a massive shortage of social housing in many parts of the country, and the money that was made from the sale of those council houses has not been invested back into the housing stock. In some cases in some parts of the country, those houses were almost given away, due to the low prices that people paid for them.

Unfortunately, following the introduction of the right-to-buy policy, the previous Labour Government, who followed a Conservative Government, did little or nothing to alleviate the problem. Social housing was not a priority of the previous Labour Administration, even in good economic times, when money could have been made available to build a significant number of social homes. We have, therefore, been left in a situation in which the coalition Government, with very little money to spend, face a rising need for social housing.

I would like to make three brief points on the future of social housing. The first is on changes to housing benefit, which the hon. Member for Stafford has already alluded to. There is a real problem with the proposed changes in relation to the single room rates for under-35s. The social housing simply is not available for people to share, which means that people will have to stay in properties where they will not be able to receive full housing benefit, or that they will lose their secure tenancies in social housing. It will also, almost certainly, result in an increase in housing benefit costs in many areas. In parts of my area, a one-bedroom flat occupied by someone under 35 who is in receipt of housing benefit is cheaper than the shared room rate in private sector accommodation would be in the same area. Therefore, rather than reducing the housing benefit bill, which is the intention of the legislation, we could end up increasing it.

Under-occupancy is another issue. I recognise that the Government’s plans on this issue relate to trying to make best use of the stock that we have, but that will not solve the problem, and for several reasons. The plans do not—rightly, in my opinion—include pensioners. In my area, the people who are most likely to under-occupy a property are pensioners. I want to make it clear that I do not want to see pensioners included in the change to the legislation. However, it is certainly the case that, in my area and other parts of Manchester, the people most likely to be under-occupying properties are the elderly. Rather than having disincentives for people to stay in properties, the solution, in my view, is to increase the incentives for people to move. At the moment, there are no incentives for people to move. As it stands, if someone who is under-occupying a property wants to exchange with someone who needs a bigger property, they have to take their new property as seen. There are no improvements when they move to a smaller property. An elderly person living in an immaculate house is never going to want to move to a smaller property that

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needs some work done to it. The Government’s plans to try to reduce under-occupancy by reducing housing benefit simply will not work.

My second point relates to the number of social homes. It is not rocket science—we simply need to build more. I am encouraged by the Government’s plans to build 150,000 social homes, but that is not enough. The tweaking of housing benefit rules will not disincentivise people from staying in bigger properties, so it is not going to solve the problem. We need to invest in more social housing. Local authorities in all parts of the country, with the possible exception of London, are sitting on large swathes of land that could be used for social housing. In Manchester, the council is waiting for land prices to go up, so that it can sell some pieces of land in my constituency to the highest bidder. We need to incentivise local authorities to make that land available to housing associations to build. Allowing local authorities to get more council tax as a result of building new houses will not be enough to persuade them to give up land that is worth millions of pounds. In the comprehensive spending review, we concentrated on spending our money in relation to transport on capital investment. We need to concentrate some of our resources in relation to housing on capital investment, to boost the construction industry and to build lots more social homes.

My final point relates to the size of the 150,000 homes that will be built. In my area, unlike that of the hon. Gentleman, there are plenty of one and two-bedroom flats. The real shortage of housing in my area is of larger, family properties. My plea to the Minister is that, when they come to be built, we get the right mix of social homes. In areas in which the shortage is in small, one-bedroom flats, let us build small, one-bedroom flats. In areas in which there is a massive shortage of bigger family properties, we must build three and four-bedroom houses, rather than two-bedroom houses. The social homes that have been built in Manchester in recent years have tended to be smaller family homes. We need bigger family homes so that all the people who are currently over-occupying properties in Manchester and other parts of the country are able to get bigger homes that are more suitable for their needs.

9.59 am

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Caton—it seems to be a regular occurrence. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing the debate. He has a reputation for being a thoughtful and wise MP, and he has shown that today. I also welcome the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), which were very informative and useful. I look forward to reading his speech in Hansard tomorrow.

I would like to declare an interest as set out in the register and to state that I am an unpaid member of the advisory board for the Centre for Social Justice. Our social housing is an enormously valuable national asset, which matters to the 8 million people who live in it. In my constituency, more than 12,000 households are in social housing, which is about one third of the town. A further 4,000 households are on the waiting list, which is down from 7,000 under the previous Government.

Social housing is the No. 1 issue in my constituency mailbox, but it is not just about putting a roof over

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people’s head—although that is, of course, the central mission. Social housing is a mechanism by which we measure social justice and help people to escape the poverty trap. I want to make three substantive points this morning. I shall acknowledge the major housing problems that we face, set out why some of the coalition’s policies will help to create a more socially mobile society and urge the Minister to go further and faster, particularly on shared equity schemes.

First, let me set out the key problem, which is waiting lists. Nearly 1.8 million households are on social housing waiting lists, which is a substantial increase that has taken place over the past 15 years or so. As I said, although the number of households on the waiting list is decreasing in Harlow, there is still an overhang of around 4,000 households that urgently need homes. The problem is not the queue in itself, which is inevitable, but that many families have no realistic chance of ever getting a home. The waiting lists are particularly clogged up because not enough priority is being given to local people and there are rigid and inflexible tenancies.

I look forward to the day when I can say, “Harlow housing for Harlow people.” I say that because an anguished bus driver—Mr Darren Presland—came to see me at a surgery last Friday evening. He sat in my surgery and was very angry for 10 minutes. He was furious that people from outside Harlow, including many foreign nationals, are allowed on to the Harlow waiting list. It is true that, for many years, local authorities have had to include literally anyone on their waiting list with few exceptions and that they have different bands of priority within the list. Mr Presland was making a serious point: that many people on low incomes are angry and disillusioned with politics because people who are not local are allowed on to the waiting list.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing such an important debate. On the point about local needs, Cornwall council has been effective at introducing criteria so that local people have priority on exception sites for social housing in villages. Not only has that been very beneficial to the people in those communities, but it has enabled the council to increase support for building more homes in rural areas because people have the confidence that those properties will be local homes for local people.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend sets out a very interesting idea, which I will come on to later. That is something other councils should follow.

Mr Presland made a very important point. He asked why families on low incomes should pay very high taxes for houses that they are unlikely to be able to live in. Along with many other Harlow residents, he takes the view that immigrants are not only taking away jobs and opportunities from British people, but being given an unfair priority on the housing waiting lists. It is very hard to dispel that view and it is very dangerous— toxic—for the body politic. Mr Presland is not a racist and he did not come to my surgery with an axe to grind or on behalf of the British National party. I am talking about his feelings and those of a number of other residents.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is going into very interesting and, in many respects, controversial territory. Many local authorities

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are considering how they offer local people council housing. Newham, Manchester and others are introducing schemes to enable that to happen. None the less, does he accept that there are dangers involved in “local homes for local people”? We saw that in Tower Hamlets in the 1980s, where the BNP got itself elected on the basis of “local homes for local people,” because what it actually meant was “local homes for local white people.” There is a genuine tension there and we must be responsible about how we manage and talk about such issues.

Robert Halfon: Yes, the hon. Lady makes an important point. However, the BNP was elected because, in many cases, the myth was purported that homes were being given to foreigners, and that was believed by residents who were not getting houses themselves. That is why the BNP was sadly successful in that area.

The second thing that clogs up the waiting list and stops the 4,000 waiting households in Harlow finding a home is the old system of rigid, lifetime tenancies. I welcome the Minister’s pledge that the rights of existing tenants will be upheld but, for too long, social landlords have been forced to give most residents an inflexible lifetime tenancy, which takes no account of how people’s circumstances might improve. I accept that the Localism Bill will help and that it offers many, if not all, of the solutions because it will give councils the freedom to prioritise their waiting list, as voters want them to do. As I said, I look forward to the day when I can say to the hard-working people in my surgeries, “Harlow housing for Harlow people.” When the Government consulted on the matter, two thirds of councils, including many Labour councils, said that they would welcome those powers.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): How does the hon. Gentleman define a Harlow person? How long does someone have to live there to be a Harlow person, or is there some other definition?

Robert Halfon: If somebody is brought up and born in Harlow, has spent a significant number of years in Harlow and has paid local taxes, that would define them as a Harlow resident.

The changes to the housing revenue account and the Tenant Services Authority are also welcome. For a long time, I campaigned against the HRA and argued for “Harlow housing money for Harlow people,” because the HRA was taking £13 million a year out of our town. Local residents groups, councils and neighbourhood associations do a much better and cheaper job of talking to social landlords than the Tenant Services Authority ever did. We have some very good residents groups in my constituency.

A number of other changes will also make a huge difference. First, £4.5 billion has been secured from the Treasury to spend on affordable homes over the spending review period. Secondly, there is the raft of schemes for promoting home ownership—Firstbuy, HomeBuy, Community Right to Build and mortgage rescue—and the house building incentives in the new homes bonus, which has brought £250,000 into my constituency this year. Thirdly, I welcome the decision to end the default setting of rigid, lifetime tenancies. That is an important issue, although it is very difficult and I have some questions.

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I think we would all agree that the Bob Crows of this world and other wealthy people do not need subsidised housing from the state, but there is the danger of creating a poverty trap if people are disincentivised from earning higher wages because they are afraid of losing their home. My concern is that we must not create ghettos of social housing, where people have no incentive to be ambitious and aspirational. There is a balance to be struck. I understand why the Government want to give social landlords the freedom to set new and more flexible tenancies with a minimum period of two years, but at the same time require that they must publish how their new tenancies protect the most vulnerable, including families with children.

Mr Leech: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a better way to deal with people who no longer require social housing, due to the salary that they earn, would be to expect them to pay a market rent, rather than saying that they had to move? I do not want to use the example of Bob Crow, but instead of making him pay social rent, why not make him pay market rent for the property that he lives in, rather than expect him to move?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is worth looking at, but the problem is that the council house does not then become free for the people who need it most. That is an interesting idea, however, and I am sure that the Government will look at that.

I hope and believe that the Minister’s actions will help to tackle the waiting lists. I want to look at some potential solutions to asset inequality and to the housing crisis that we face. During the previous Parliament, the report “Breakthrough Britain”, by the Centre for Social Justice, suggested that social tenants who work, or who make a genuine effort to find work, should be rewarded with increasingly larger equity stakes in their home. The Conservative party adopted that policy in its manifesto, saying that social tenants with a good record should be rewarded with a 10% free equity share in their property, and that that could be cashed in when those tenants left the social rented sector. That could help in many ways; for example, as a small nest-egg for retirement, or as a deposit for their first house. I passionately believe in that policy: it is social justice in action, and rewards people who do the right thing. That is important because an Englishman’s home is not just his castle; it is his pension and an emergency source of funding for care in old age. People who never own equity in a house are shut out from that security, and have to live hand-to-mouth right into retirement.

When the economy improves, I hope that we will have the finance to implement that policy. There are other policies, however, that can have a similar effect. For example, the previous Government cut the right-to-buy scheme, which was so successful in the 1980s and 1990s. For many years, the Labour Government capped the maximum discount at £16,000, raised the minimum sale price and cut back the eligibility criteria. On top of that, Labour allowed the scheme to be eroded by inflation. In 1997, the typical discount was worth half a home’s normal value, but that fell to just a third in recent years.

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Why not dramatically restore the right-to-buy scheme, with proper discounts? I should also mention Harlow council again at this point. Why is it that, despite our councils paying to maintain homes and owning them outright, 75% of the sale price gets funnelled back to the Treasury—a point alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford—rather than kept in the local area? I accept that that is the system we have inherited, but it is against the spirit of localism, and is an issue that could be earmarked for future reform.

Finally, I urge the Minister to look at the possibility—I emphasise the word possibility—of housing vouchers, funded by the sale of social housing as they become empty when existing tenants leave. Housing vouchers would create competition. That would drive more homes up to the decent homes standard and give people real choice. That would be a radical transformation of our society, and benefit new tenants as they enter the social market. Instead of the state owning or running social homes, it would simply pay the cheque to help families access accommodation. Linking the voucher to national insurance numbers would make it easier to administer. To adopt a famous phrase from Chairman Mao that is very apt at present, we could let a thousand flowers bloom and, instead of huge social landlords and corporations running the show, give smaller, nimbler businesses and charities a chance to run social housing.

In conclusion, the Government are delivering Harlow housing, and Harlow housing money, for Harlow people. The Localism Bill represents a huge shift of power to communities—something we have not had for a long time. We must also help families to take that step and take their rightful place in a property-owning democracy by getting a foot on the housing ladder. That is why I support giving free equity to social tenants when the economy allows it, restoring the right to buy, and looking at major innovations such as housing vouchers.

10.15 am

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I start by making a declaration of an indirect interest in another Member’s entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford).

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing the debate. He gave a thoughtful and compassionate speech, and I support his remarks about the need for good-quality, caring case workers. Mine do a brilliant job too, and I am sure that the Minister will say exactly the same about his own.

I have to admit that when I saw the original title of the debate—the future of social housing in England—my immediate thought was simply to say, “What future?” I will therefore be listening very carefully to the Minister, not least because one of the first headlines I saw relating to his policies after he took on his shadow ministerial responsibility was, “The death of social housing”.

We have had a well-informed and passionate debate, with good contributions from hon. Members. There are a number of points that I would like to draw out of the debate in my summing up; first and foremost is the simple truth that the Government have decided not to support the building of any new homes for social rent during the course of this Parliament—I specify social

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rent. Of course, homes will be built. Some 67,000 homes, largely for social rent, will be delivered in the first two years of this Government. Let us not forget, however, that those homes are the tail end of Labour’s national affordable housing programme. The funding and contracts were arranged by the previous Labour Government, and the homes will be completed under this Government. It is worth remembering that in the previous Parliament under the Labour Government, 142,000 additional homes for social rent were delivered between 2005 and 2010, out of a total 256,000 additional affordable homes. That is 100,000 more than the 150,000 target put forward by the current Government, which is apparently so ambitious.

The hon. Member for Stafford understands the needs for social homes. In his submission to his local development framework consultation, he said that it was important to build sufficient homes of the right type. He went on to mention that social and affordable housing was in short supply. His submission is very interesting, and the Minister might want to have a look at it. It is extremely well thought through.

Will the Government deliver? I doubt it. We now have a framework for the delivery of homes with Government grants that clearly states that the building of new social homes will be supported in exceptional circumstances only. Some 142,000 social homes were delivered in the previous Parliament, in addition to the 67,000 from Labour’s programme that will be completed under this Government—more than 200,000 homes for social rent. That number will fall under a Government who are sending a clear message that they want to see the end of social rent: the Localism Bill encourages councils to place people directly into the private rented sector; rents are being put up towards 80% of market rent; flexible tenure is being introduced, which will destabilise communities; and they have no history of support for the sector. Is the private sector becoming the new council housing under this Government? Has the Minister thought through what that will do to confidence among those seeking to invest in the sector? By the way, I welcome the Minister’s U-turn and announcement that he has accepted Labour’s argument, made in the Committee stage of the Localism Bill, on the need for standards to be fixed in the private rented sector.

The Government have chosen to introduce homes at 80% of market rent level, which they have had the temerity to call affordable rent. To whom is that affordable? It is not affordable to tenants, many of whom will be shifted on to housing benefit as a consequence, or, if they are not eligible for housing benefit, will simply leave the area if they cannot afford the rent, and it is not affordable to Government. The Department for Work and Pensions has been busy claiming that it will bring down the housing benefit bill, and yet the Department for Communities and Local Government impact assessment of the introduction of the 80% of market rent policy is that the cost of housing benefit will rise by £1.2 billion. The Minister will probably say that it is “up to” 80%, but the evidence coming out of the Homes and Communities Agency bidding process is for councils being told that it is 80% or virtually nothing. We have that from the local authority in Cambridge, which has been told that it must develop at 80% and not at 60%. If the Minister disagrees, can he give us his estimate of the

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proportion for social rent? If he says some will favour social rent, will that affect the number of homes built—the number he keeps quoting?

For all the Minister’s protests about his understanding of the policy, the reality on the ground bears little resemblance to his assurances. What can he tell us about where the funding will come from to support the building of new homes after the current comprehensive spending review period? That is a crucial issue for all those involved, from house builders to lenders and especially for those in need. If the answer is simply a further shuffling of the tenants, some tenants and landlords will be pretty desperate by 2014. Can the Minister share his thinking on what happens next?

I raise two other issues: the completion of the decent homes programme; and, perhaps most importantly, the Government’s decision to legislate away a tenant’s right of security of tenure. On decent homes, Labour’s commitment to tackle the £19 billion backlog of repairs and maintenance in the social sector was important and right. The allegation that the previous Labour Government did not care about social housing—made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech)—is wrong, although his concern about better use of public land is justified and needs further development.

Mr Leech: I did not say that the previous Government were not concerned, I said that housing was not a priority for the previous Government.

Alison Seabeck: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I beg to disagree.

The decent homes programme not only provided dignity and warmth in the home for families, it saved thousands of social homes from being condemned and demolished—homes that were run-down and unfit to live in because the previous Tory Government had looked the other way. If people want to know why Labour did not invest in expanding house building early on, it is because we were spending the money on clearing up the mess in the social housing sector left behind by the previous Tory Government, who sold homes without making use of the capital receipts. Now, for local authorities with homes below the decent homes standard, the Government have cut again—far too deeply. Will the Minister leave the same legacy as that of the Thatcher and Major Governments?

On security of tenure, without any manifesto commitment from either coalition party, the Government have decided in the Localism Bill to introduce a new form of tenure: flexible tenancies, which can last for as little as two years. After as little as 18 months under the new tenancy, the eligibility of tenants will be reassessed. If they have worked hard and done well for themselves, or if they have met someone whom they have decided to settle down with and, consequently, their income has increased too much, potentially they will have earned themselves an eviction notice.

Interestingly, Centrepoint has taken the views of young people it works with, expressing support for a tenure with security. I quote a young person called Kiran:

“Having a mixture of people on estates is really important. It’s important that people living on low wages can get social housing as it can be really difficult for them to afford private sector rents, and some young people need the security of council housing to help them get a good start in life. It’s also really important for unemployed people to see other people working so they don’t give up and they keep working towards getting a job themselves.”

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That says it all.

I and, clearly, other hon. Members who have contributed today think it is wrong that hard work and responsibility should not be rewarded in the offer of council housing. Hard work and responsibility should certainly not be greeted with an eviction notice. The policy tramples on aspiration and is a block on tackling worklessness. The Minister tweeted recently—he tweets a lot—on the subject of Labour policy in this area. He suggested that, if Labour wanted to encourage working, we should support the 80% rent. The Minister simply does not get it. Where is the incentive for people to earn and get on if they have to leave their home after two years because their income has gone up, or earning has become marginal? They risk falling back into the benefit trap.

Mr Leech: Does the hon. Lady agree that someone who is a highest-rate taxpayer should pay a higher rent? That higher rent could then be reinvested in building more council houses.

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which is certainly exercising Labour Members.

I asked my constituents at the King’s Tamerton community centre, Dawn and her friends, what made their area work; they all felt that it was the stability they had. Many had lived in their homes for decades, looking after them and supporting their neighbours. They reinforced the comments made in debate today: the big society is more likely to work where people stay put. In my view, they are already the good society, making their community work.

Tenants already in social housing might find that they are overcrowded or want to downsize—they might want or choose to move. The only home that they would be offered, however, might well be a flexible tenancy, with no security of tenure. I am, therefore, sorry to have to disabuse the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) of his views, but the Government’s claim not to be changing the rights of existing tenants is simply not correct. It is fundamentally wrong, and that has been acknowledged by some Conservative and Liberal Democrat Back Benchers who bravely and wisely supported our amendment on the issue in the Localism Bill.

Before I finish, I touch on a point made by the hon. Member for Stafford when discussing issues related to the ombudsman and dispute resolution. We need further detail, and I hope that the Minister will come back to us on the issue.

Much more can be said on housing, which I am always grateful to have an opportunity to debate in this place—too often, the subject is overlooked. The policies of the Government are deeply damaging. They deserve far more frequent airing and, in the coming months and years, I suspect that is exactly what they will get.

10.27 am

The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing the debate on an important subject which, as he rightly said, has often not had as much attention in this House as it should. I am delighted to see the support of coalition Members

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but dismayed—as I am sure the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), is—by the lack of support from Labour Members. Social housing used to be an issue that they made great play of and insisted on being passionate about, so it is surprising to see their Benches quite so empty today. Until the arrival of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), I thought that the shadow Minister was in danger of being entirely alone.

Alison Seabeck: There is a strong argument against quantity: quality rather than quantity is the case today.

Grant Shapps: The hon. Lady is almost certainly right. The arrival of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich at least demonstrates a partnership approach to Labour’s housing policy.

On the record, I want to say how much social affordable housing is an important part of the housing mix in this country. It is vital to people’s welfare, for all the reasons that other hon. Members have pointed out. Social housing is the bedrock of support for some of the most vulnerable people in society. I am proud—privileged, in fact—to be the Conservative Member who, in the previous Parliament at least, represented more council tenants than anyone else. I look to those people and see how proud they are of the homes they live in. I believe passionately in ensuring that they have the best possible homes, with the highest possible standards of decency and, although the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View might be surprised to hear this, the security to feel that it is their place to live in, so that expectations are properly set.

None of that means that I believe that the system is fit for purpose, that it should never be changed and that it is a perfect situation. Much has been made, particularly by the hon. Lady a few moments ago, of changes to flexible tenure; in other words, the concept that one does not necessarily get a house and stay there for ever and a day. I have been surprised, almost shocked, by the degree to which Opposition Members have argued for the last remaining hereditary principle—that a home is given for life and passed on to the next generation, regardless of whether a social home is still required. The hon. Lady may not know that that reform was brought in by one Margaret Thatcher. The socialists in the House of Commons are arguing—dying in the ditches, in fact—to defend a Thatcher reform. I will give way to the hon. Lady, who will perhaps tell us whether her party would reintroduce lifetime tenure.

Alison Seabeck: When approaching the Localism Bill and the issue of tenure, did the Minister look carefully at the Law Commission report of 2006, which covered the subject? It introduced a degree of flexibility, which the previous Government supported and were looking at. It also introduced a single form of tenure, much simpler than the current position of multiple tenures and rents at different levels on different properties, where there will be huge disparity. Did the Minister read that report?

Grant Shapps: We considered all the material and evidence. I know that report was attractive to Ministers in the hon. Lady’s party at the time it was brought out in 2006. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline

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Flint), the current shadow Secretary of State and then Minister for Housing, was attracted by some of the ideas in that report when it came out, and hinted towards them, only to be slapped back down, and the ideas were then put away. It is important to have flexibility. If we are to talk of having one unitary cost for living in social housing, perhaps the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View can explain why her immediate predecessors—the last two I shadowed—cancelled convergence between social rent and affordable rent for housing associations and council houses. That did more to diversify the rents than bring them together, so there is a dichotomy at the heart of her argument.

I want to address my comments to the points raised by hon. Members, rather than read a prepared speech, and so tackle some of the issues. I am grateful for having the time to do so, on the first occasion I have had to address issues raised in debate in Westminster Hall, which is a real pleasure. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford talked of the social housing waiting lists and rises over the past 13 years. To be specific, the graphs show those rises taking place from 2003, as a direct response to a change in the way local authorities had to deal with anybody who approached them to go on to the housing waiting list. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) repeated that point.

The Localism Bill seeks to undo that to some extent, and ensure the ability, at a local, flexible level, to decide who should or should not be eligible for the list. Within a national framework, and under homelessness legislation, which I am not proposing to change—the reasonable preferences, for example—homeless people would still get the required cover, but there would be greater flexibility, not simply to have people apply to five, 10, 15 different council waiting lists, but to be able to manage people’s expectations. It is not right for people to sit on lists for ever. It is a national scandal that there are between 4.5 million and 5 million people languishing on those record housing waiting lists. The first thing to do is better manage those lists, and that is what the Localism Bill will do.

Alison Seabeck: I have listened with great interest to the Minister’s comments on waiting lists. One of my concerns is that we simply do not know who is on waiting lists nationally. We do not know their aspirations or why they are there. Therefore, any pressure that Government can bring to bear—and I know it is all about localism—on local authorities to do that piece of work would better inform the Minister’s Department about where the need exists and what it is.

Grant Shapps: The hon. Lady is absolutely right on that point. I became increasingly convinced of that in my three years shadowing this post. At one stage I went to see Owen Buckwell, an officer looking after housing in Portsmouth. I discovered that he had been doing precisely what the hon. Lady describes, which was to look properly through the list and try to manage it better, to understand who was on the list and for what purpose, and whether they had any likelihood of achieving a social house, or would be better looking elsewhere. The problem is that the current legislation—I think a 2002 Act—makes that nigh on illegal to do. He had to skate quite close to the limits of the legislation to

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manage that list properly. Bearing in mind the hon. Lady’s comments, I hope she will support—if not the entire Localism Bill—at least the aspects of waiting list reform which I believe will do what she has called on us to achieve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford talked about flexible tenures and stable communities. That is at the heart of so much of the current housing debate, for reasons I have already mentioned to do with changing the automatic presumption or insistence on a lifetime tenure. He is right that I believe in stable communities: I want them to exist and flourish. The intention of the legislation is not in any way to undermine the ability for that to happen.

Much has been made of two-year tenancies, referred to by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View. I am being clear, in all our language and in the tenancy standards that we will put in place, that two years is to be considered as an exceptional circumstance, and that at least five years would be the norm. I am sure many areas will want to provide tenancies of five, 10, 15, 20 years, perhaps even lifetime tenures still. However, the provision at a local level to provide for a short tenancy to account for exceptional circumstances could be very useful and welcome.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): If the Minister believes that the two-year tenancy should be the exception, why did his party not accept amendments to that effect when the Localism Bill was debated in Committee?

Grant Shapps: Quite simply because we have said we will include it in the tenancy regulations. It is a question of where it is mentioned. The fact is that there are some good and striking reasons why a short tenancy might be useful. I have used the following example in the House before and will use it again, as the family have been in touch this weekend. My constituent, Matthew Hignett, fell off his motorbike on his way to work and is now paralysed from the neck down and will be for life. He told me that he needed some support for just a very short period of time to get himself together and back into work, which, remarkably, he has now done.

When I approached our local authority—otherwise an excellent housing authority—it said it was sorry but that it had no option to help that constituent. He did not qualify for social housing because he previously had his own home, though mortgaged. If it were to give him a home, its only option would be to give it to him for life. That creates problems on both sides. He needed some help for a limited period of time. I want to make that available, and maximum flexibility will do precisely that for people who are sometimes in unusual circumstances, which are difficult to predict. There is no argument against flexibility.

To believe that people are going to be thrown out of their homes after two years is fundamentally to misunderstand the role of social landlords in this country. Social landlords, councils, housing associations, do not spend their time plotting how to kick people out of their homes. They are there to house people: that is their core activity, that is what they do. There is every reason to believe that they would want to keep people in those homes for as long as possible, and not to throw them out. Flexibility is the key; using the housing that we

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have to best advantage is essential. That is what the flexible tenure will provide within the circumstances of stable and secure communities. People’s expectations will be established, so that they know that they can live in their home for the next 20 years and bring up their family, but that when their family move away, they will probably downsize, as often happens in the private sector.

There has been a lot of discussion about the cost of housing benefit and the affordable rent scheme, and some interesting figures have been thrown about. I would like to cover that issue in a little more detail and note that the impact assessment that was published showed that the scheme would cost in the region of £25 million to £50 million. We do not recognise the figures running into billions of pounds that have been thrown around, for the simple reason that when somebody moves into affordable rented accommodation, they often come from the private rented sector where 100% of their rent is paid for and supported by housing benefit. They might then move into a property where the average rent is 67% of the market rent—that was the figure mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford—and in such cases, the cost of housing benefit would not rise but fall. Such a move will have been supported by capital to build the house through the affordable rent programme.

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the affordable rent programme that I hear mentioned time and again. In fact, the programme will assist with the housing benefit bill. That does not mean that there will be no pressures on the housing benefit bill; those pressure have been acknowledged, but they will cost tens of millions of pounds, not thousands of millions.

Alison Seabeck: The Minister talks about people moving from the private rented sector into new affordable rented properties, and the saving that will be made. Does he acknowledge that, because of the pressure on councils and the number of people on the waiting list, any vacancies that appear in the private rented sector will be further backfilled by people who are in need of housing? Private rented accommodation will continue to be filled at those higher rents—we know that rents are rising sharply, particularly in London, and we have just seen the latest figures. I query the way the Minister has reached his conclusion that the affordable rent programme will cost tens of millions of pounds and not a higher figure.

Grant Shapps: Our impact assessment lays the scheme out in considerable detail and I do not recognise the methodology used in the impact assessment mentioned by the hon. Lady. There are many different ways to slice the data, but everybody in social housing is essentially already there and not about to move. There is no reason for them to leave social housing and go into the affordable rented sector, and for that reason alone, we do not expect to see dramatic changes.

Will there be a change? Yes, there will. Let me be clear: we believe that it may be advantageous to put power in the hands of the tenant—the consumer—in order to ensure that they get the property they want. If the way to do that is through the housing benefit system, it would make sense to use it.

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Mr Leech: To the best of my knowledge, there are no social rented properties to share in Manchester. People under 35 in one-bedroom flats in social housing would not be able to move to other social housing. They would have to move to private sector rented property but, in Manchester, under the single room rate, that would cost more than staying in the one-bedroom flat. I urge the Minister to look at that issue. Ultimately, we will not save any money and it makes no sense to force somebody to move from a cheaper property to a more expensive, smaller property.

Grant Shapps: I will be happy to look at my hon. Friend’s comments and suggestions. The truth is that housing varies dramatically around the country. One problem with a debate such as this is that we all refer to our own constituencies and experiences. That is excellent and what Members of Parliament are supposed to do, but our experiences are rarely representative of what is going on across the country. Those of us who have spent years looking at housing and social housing realise that there is an incredibly fragmented picture across the country, and that the types of home available and rents vary, even before the introduction of the affordable rent programme. The traditions of local social housing also vary dramatically.

Mr Leech: Although I accept that every area is different, I am not aware of any local authorities that provide shared accommodation for people on a social rented basis. I suspect that all local authorities are in exactly the same boat on the issue of the single room rate, and I urge the Minister to take a proper look at the issue.

Grant Shapps: As I have said, I am happy to consider my hon. Friend’s points further. We are perhaps in danger of entering into a debate more suited to the Department for Work and Pensions than to housing, but I will follow up on those points and come back to him.

I want to ensure that we have covered the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, so I will look at the issue of housing revenue account reform, which is an incredibly important subject that I picked up from where the previous Government left off. There is cross-party support for the reform, and I hope that it will be introduced by next April with the passage of the Localism Bill. It means that tens of billions of pounds will no longer return to central Government, only to be sent back out to different local authorities. I think it is an important and critical moment in self-determination for local authorities that manage their own stock and want to plan properly for their housing future over the next 25 years. On average, authorities involved in the HRA reform will have 14% headroom, meaning that they can properly invest in the future and ensure that they meet further decent home aspirations.

At the moment, 75% of receipts from the right-to-buy initiative are returned to the Treasury. As hon. Members will know, sadly we have had to leave that measure in place because of the need to reduce the country’s enormous deficit. We have, however, said that it will be up for review at the end of the spending review period, and I remind the House that—from memory—£863 million has gone into the self-financing pot. In other words, the overall debt has been reduced by £863 million, to take into account the fact that rent will no longer be collected from homes sold under the right to buy.

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It is appropriate to mention the right to buy in a little more detail. I was pressed on that issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, who is clearly keen to extend the right-to-buy discount. Much as I hate to disappoint him, sadly we do not have the money to re-extend that discount. In many ways, right-to-buy arguments come from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The House will be interested to learn that there were only about 3,000 right-to-buy sales over the past year, and projections are for such sales to remain at a fairly low level. A disproportionate amount of time is spent in this House—and elsewhere—discussing the right to buy. I like the right to buy; I am keen for it to stay in place and I think that it recognises people’s aspirations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said, many people in this country still want to own their own home, and the Government should back that aspiration. However, the right to buy affects 2,000 or 3,000 homes a year, and a lot of time goes into discussing what is, in effect, a debate from 30 years ago.

Alison Seabeck: I am probably asking a question that, in the light of his comments, the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) would like to ask. The Minister said that at this moment in time, he sadly cannot do what the hon. Gentleman asks for in relation to the right-to-buy discount. Will the Minister tell the House whether he would do what the hon. Member for Harlow asked if the money were available?

Grant Shapps: I can reveal to the hon. Lady that if the money were available, I would want to abolish all manner of taxes and provide all manner of discounts to support people’s aspirations. However, I can go no further than to say that the money is not available at this time and that the discount will remain as it is throughout the period of this spending review as a result of the enormous deficit and debt, which we should never forget we were left with after 13 years of the Government whom she supported.

Robert Halfon: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) for reading my mind. Will my right hon. Friend consider again and comment on the shared-equity scheme? That is slightly different from the right to buy, but gives people a share in their home and a chance to take a step up the housing ladder.

Grant Shapps: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am very keen on shared-equity schemes and like to do all that I can to assist with them. I agree with his comments about that issue and will be happy to take a further look at it. I ask him to provide me with more details of his very interesting local bonds discussion, which is certainly worthy of further consideration. In terms of the housing revenue account reforms, local authorities can borrow the money elsewhere, particularly when the debt is large. That may apply only to those with the larger debts because it is difficult to beat the public works loan body percentage, which is still very good. Again, I would be interested to hear more about my hon. Friend’s ideas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford touched on tenancy abuse and whether people whose earnings are in six figures should continue to live in the same home. Again, that is not a huge issue because it does not

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involve very many people, but there is a basic principle that social housing is built for a reason. It is there to help people who would not otherwise be able to afford to get a roof over their head, and it is important that the homes are used for the purpose for which they were meant. I think that if people are staying in council homes, perhaps in London, with a £900-a-week subsidy—a subsidy that is paid for by taxpayers and to which some of the poorest people in society are contributing—long after their need has clearly gone, that is wrong. I agree with the comments that have been made on that.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) should know that it is our policy that if people want to stay, they simply have to pay. That is a very simple principle, which means that a community is not broken up but that if someone’s salary reaches six figures, which possibly places them among the top 1% of earners in the country—it has to be at a very high level to deal with the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View and to ensure that the provision is in no sense against aspiration or preventing people from bettering themselves—it is not unreasonable to ask them to pay if they want to stay in their social house, rather than having it paid for by everyone else.

The issue of under-occupancy and empty homes was raised. I passionately believe in trying to solve the equation of 430,000 people under-occupying while nearly 250,000 are overcrowded. I have provided some money, time and resources in order for the Chartered Institute of Housing to assist with that issue. Some of the reforms of housing benefit, which I know are controversial but which our colleagues in the DWP are pushing through, are designed to help to deal with some of the issues of under-occupancy by simply saying that it cannot be right for the taxpayer more widely to be paying for empty rooms. That does not make sense. We need to pay for people to live in homes, not to live with too much empty space. [Official Report, 13 July 2011, Vol. 531, c. 4MC.]

Mr Raynsford: The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) gave an illustration of the possible adverse consequences of the higher non-dependant deductions leading families to pressurise family members to leave their home because the amount of benefit would be reduced as a result of that increased deduction—this is very complicated. The Minister will recognise that that is clearly a perverse incentive to under-occupation. Will he deal with that concern, as highlighted by his hon. Friend?

Grant Shapps: It is an interesting point, because others would say that the change may well be an encouragement to people to work and help to pay the rent and stay living in the home. If they are of working age, they can of course work, contribute towards the rent and stay living in the home. There is obviously a balance involved. Tempting as it is, I do not want to be drawn into a detailed debate on that. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is a complex area, and many other points were raised in the debate that I want to cover.

There was discussion of the ombudsman, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford suggested that there needed to be something in-between to try to tackle problems. I agree: it is essential that the problems are dealt with at local level with real teeth. There has been some confusion in debate in the House about what

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has been described, in a rather ugly way, as the democratic filter, but the idea is, under the Localism Bill, that before people go to the ombudsman or to the Tenant Services Authority, as it used to be, they should first try to have the matters resolved locally. The reason why I am so keen for that to be channelled through local MPs, local councillors and tenants panels is that the tenants will be empowered to resolve problems, with the implicit threat that if the problem is not resolved through work with tenants and their representatives, a referral can be made to the ombudsman.

I believe that if that happens, far more cases will be resolved at local level and it will have the added benefit of drawing in councillors, who in many cases have become distant and disconnected from local housing problems, particularly where stocks have been transferred. It will draw them back into the discussion and an understanding of what is happening with the stock. It is very much about resolution.

Alison Seabeck: Will the Minister give way?

Grant Shapps: I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for not giving way. I want to cover some of the other points that were raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford raised the issue of registered social landlords and the sometimes extraordinary chief executives’ salaries of £200,000 and more. I can tell him that I have announced that I intend to include housing associations in the consultation on the Freedom of Information Act with regard to whether they should be drawn into that. I say this today: housing associations, if they want to avoid being drawn into this, need to become incredibly transparent, and very quickly. When local authorities are publishing details of every £500 of expenditure, I see no reason why housing associations should not be doing precisely the same thing. There are good housing associations that are large and good ones that are small. I have no particular pattern or picture in mind.

In reference to a point made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, housing associations are getting investment in now through private means. Just yesterday, there was an announcement on the London stock exchange

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that a large housing association has raised £100 million for the first time through that type of London stock exchange fundraising scheme.

There was quite a lot of discussion of mobility. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington made very reasonable points about people being able to move from place to place. It is probably worth reminding the House—or, possibly, telling the House for the first time—that by September of this year, for the first time in this country, 90% of social tenants will be covered by a mobility or swap scheme and able to move from one place to another. I intend that figure to be nearly 100% of tenants next year, so that for the first time tenants will have proper mobility and be able to move around.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the new homes bonus and queried whether that would be sufficient to persuade local authorities to build homes. The House will be interested to know that the new homes bonus is not a small deal worth a few millions of pounds, but a multi-billion pound deal across the period of this Parliament. In fact, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made a big play of how much it would cost when we were still in opposition. He was right. It is expensive, and it is right to do—it will help more homes to be built. I cite as evidence the 22% increase in house starts in the first year of the present Government. I suspect that, at least in part, people have been persuaded by the new homes bonus and the power that that brings to local authorities because they know that they can use the money for useful things.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned the importance of public land. We have just announced that 100,000 homes will be built on public land, with the build now, pay later and Firstbuy schemes being important elements.

I have nearly run out of time. I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford for raising so many important issues. I know that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View wanted me to talk about the future of our housing programme. I thought that it might be helpful to know first not what will happen in the next Parliament to our housing programme, which is what she was probing me on, but the Opposition’s housing policy for this Parliament.

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Construction Industry

11 am

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I am delighted to have secured a debate about an issue on which, for once, I believe I can actually speak with some authority.

I started my working life as an apprentice bricklayer under a scheme administered by the Construction Industry Training Board in the late 1970s. In those days, under the CITB training programme, people were given six months off the site to get relevant tools experience, site understanding and health and safety training, before being placed with the company under an indentured apprenticeship agreement. My placement was with Fairclough Civil Engineering, and after completing my three years, I worked for Fairclough International—it is now part of the AMEC group—in the Falkland Islands. That was in 1983, just a few months after the cessation of hostilities with Argentina.

On my return, I started my own construction business. After surviving two Tory-led recessions in the 1980s, I was persuaded to go into training to pass on my skills to a new generation of construction trainees. Eventually, I took up a post as a business manager at the now defunct Learning and Skills Council, where I oversaw funding for—yes, you guessed it—construction training programmes across Merseyside.

During that period, I graduated in construction studies from Liverpool John Moores university and began a master’s degree in contemporary urban renaissance. Although I did not manage to complete it, it gave me an insight into many different, and sometimes tangential, construction perspectives. Although there are far more eminent construction commentators than me, I can speak with a degree of understanding on this issue, given my broad personal experience.

I want to record my interest as a member of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and as one of its sponsored MPs, although I receive no remuneration for that. I would also like it noted that my son, Steven, is an apprentice electrician with M. J. Quinn. For the purpose of clarification, I should also say that I have previously proudly professed that I am the only brickie in Parliament, although my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) also lays claim to that most sought-after designation because of his trade background.

In recent weeks and months, much of the business, innovation and skills debate has been about ways to improve the opportunities for a high-skilled work force in a low-skill economy. One of the previous Labour Government’s greatest achievements was to give those who wanted to do so the chance to go on to further education through the introduction of the education maintenance allowance and the university loans system. As a result, Britain now has the most talented generation in recent history. Job opportunities in science and technology, graphic design and public relations, which were the preserve of the well connected, are now at the fingertips of this more industrious generation of Britons. Real progress has been made in diversifying the skills sets offered to young people across the country, but in

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areas such as my constituency, traditional industries such as construction also have a real part to play.

I am pleased that the Minister, who is responsible for construction, recently said:

“An efficient, effective and profitable construction industry is at the heart of any growing economy.”

That is why urgent action is needed from the Government to save the industry from the brink. The Government’s approach must change, because it is clearly not working, as we saw from the previous quarter’s growth figures. We already knew that construction had been hit extremely hard in the global financial crisis, but the 3.3% fall in output—the steepest the industry has suffered since the financial crisis of 2008—is all the evidence we need that things need to change.

I have given Members an insight into my background in the industry, and although I do not profess to be an expert, my interest in the sector spans three decades. That is why I know there is a fundamental problem with the Government’s thinking when the Construction Products Association’s economics director, Noble Francis, says:

“It is likely that construction output will fall 2% in 2011 and this will inevitably hold back economic recovery given that construction accounts for around 10% of the UK economy.”

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the VAT rise is having a significant effect on the construction industry and making life extremely hard for the many small and medium-sized construction firms in many of our constituencies?

Steve Rotheram: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That is certainly true of the refurb and maintenance sector. At the end of my speech, I hope to come up with some suggestions, which the Minister might like to take away to contemplate, given this issue with VAT.

I can almost predict what the Minister will say in reply to my comment about economic stagnation. I will try to pre-empt him by simply pointing out that although last winter’s adverse weather conditions will have had an adverse effect on construction, the weather was bad the year before, and we saw nothing like the fall in output that we did this year. The fall has more to do with a lack of confidence than with too much snow or the wrong kind of snow.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I represent an area where construction is very important and job opportunities for apprentices are critical. The construction industry has suffered a significant downturn over the past few years, and the background information certainly indicates that; indeed, another company in Northern Ireland folded just this week. We are always hard on the banks, but they were keen to lend money, albeit often without suitable guarantees. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Government should have more contact with the banks to encourage them to show more flexibility now so that companies that are having difficulties can get through them?

Steve Rotheram: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the banks. Again, I would like to tease the issue out further in my contribution. We cannot underplay the fact that one reason for the failure of construction is the lack of lending by banks.

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Urgent Government action is needed to save the industry from the brink. The Minister must surely understand the relationship between public sector spending and private sector growth. Despite the at times relentless desire of the coalition Government to drive a wedge between the public and private sectors, the two are heavily interlinked and co-reliant in the construction industry. If we cut one, the other will bleed, and the construction sector is now haemorrhaging and in need of a transfusion.

To take the example of Building Schools for the Future, the cancellation of 719 school improvement projects was devastating for not only head teachers, staff in classrooms and parents and children left with substandard facilities, but the construction companies that had won the contracts, and that has serious ramifications for the sector. As Steve Bratt, the group chief executive officer at the Electrical Contractors Association, said:

“Although any party in power would have had to take major steps to reduce the deficit, the cuts to public sector construction projects such as BSF are a case of short-term gain but long-term pain.”

The cancellation of the schools building programme is creating uncertainty in the construction industry. Furthermore, ambiguity over potential construction jobs in hospitals and prisons, in building and civil engineering alike, continues to cause great concern and leads to low confidence in the Government’s ability to secure the UK construction industry.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend I spent 40 years of my life in the construction industry, and I am glad that people from that industry are in the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s target on skills is significantly at risk, because their approach significantly challenges the construction sector’s ability to give training and to deliver skills to the marketplace? The Government treat the industry as the private sector, whereas as my hon. Friend said, it is fed from both private and public sectors. Will my hon. Friend also comment on the ownership of not only construction companies but supply companies in the UK, and whether he is worried that we are losing UK ownership of those companies?

Steve Rotheram: My hon. Friend is right. There are big supply chain issues that need to be addressed. On the earlier point, about apprenticeships, uncertainty in the sector prevents companies from thinking long term, so they stop taking on apprentices. I remember when, in the 1980s, under the Thatcher Government, pretty much all the construction industry stopped taking on apprentices. That created long-term problems for the industry, and skills shortages many years later, which meant heavy intervention was needed to plug the gap.

I am sure that the Minister is fully aware that every £1 spent on construction leads to an increase in gross domestic product of nearly £3 and stimulates growth elsewhere in the economy worth nearly £2; I think he recognises that, so surely he agrees with me that monumental cuts in construction make no economic sense. The Minister and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills need urgently to tackle the problem, but that

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urgency, like leadership, has been sadly lacking in the past few months. It has been widely reported that currently one in five firms going into administration are from the construction industry. That is a frightening figure, when we recall that construction is responsible for about 10% of the UK economy. The alarming statistics keep on coming for the Minister. Research undertaken by the

Financial Times

has found that construction orders have fallen by 40% in the past 12 months. That is before the Government’s programme of the deepest and most unfair cuts in recent history has even taken full effect.

Jonathan Hook, global head of construction at PwC, said:

“It is the end of the money—coming through from Government stimulus—and no one knows if, when and to what extent, the private sector will come back.

It is a substantial reduction, but if you look at the numbers companies are reporting—you are not really seeing it reflected yet. They are trading off work that was won three years ago, but it is creating a bow wave of falling activity in two years.”

There is more: Anthony Cork, director of Wilkins Kennedy, said;

“The Government has slashed capital spending on infrastructure across the board in order to plug the deficit and that has pushed the construction sector into a double dip.

The question now is how quickly private sector construction work will be able to pick up the slack left by the public sector. So far this has not happened.”

The most devastating impact, in areas such as Liverpool, Walton and many other pathfinder areas, has been the withdrawal of housing market renewal funding, which has not only decimated the house building industry but left swathes of derelict land and boarded-up terraced streets without much prospect of development. Because of the economic downturn it is widely acknowledged that the construction industry’s saving grace was major public sector infrastructure projects such as Building Schools for the Future, and new hospitals and prisons. The Labour Government were right to bring forward additional capital project spending to help the industry to stay afloat. They were also committed to the building of additional social housing, including new council homes, in the latter half of 2009 and early 2010, with additional commitments to employ local workers and train apprentices.

I made my maiden speech as a councillor in Liverpool on the ability of local authorities to use social clauses to ensure that, for publicly funded construction projects, they would achieve the best possible outcomes for local labour and apprenticeships. Unfortunately, Liverpool was at that time controlled by the Liberal Democrats, and they missed the opportunity. Our current Labour administration is not making the same mistake. The previous Government put their money where their mouth was, and provided Kickstart funding in October 2009 to help 54 stalled private sector housing projects to restart work. Those commitments were primed to give the depressed housing sector a much-needed stimulus. The confidence that the Labour Government were instilling in the industry was the key factor. By the first quarter of 2010, all the construction surveys and indicators showed that confidence was returning to the sector. Firms were reassured that work would come their way, with many projects scheduled to start in mid-2010, and those companies were gearing up to take advantage of the opportunities.

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Cancelling those programmes devastated the sector and demonstrated that the Government have little regard for the work that it does. It ripped the confidence out of the industry. The state is obviously the largest client of the construction industry. The Government’s role in procurement policy is therefore vital—and more so in times of economic downturn, when the private sector is less able to provide the work that is needed. I can personally testify to the way lack of investment in the 1980s stored up trouble for the industry many years later, and created huge skills shortages. That is because the industry operates on a two to three-year lag. It did not need to have the confidence torn out of it once again, within weeks of the formation of the coalition.

Given the time constraints that we are under, I shall catalogue just a few of the licentious achievements of the coalition in the past year, as they have single-handedly knocked the stuffing out of the fragile construction industry. On 17 June 2010 the Government cancelled millions of pounds worth of infrastructure projects including the North Tees and Hartlepool hospital, the A14 road widening, the Kent Thameside strategic transport programme, the Leeds Holt Park well-being centre, and the Birmingham magistrates court. On 4 July 2010, the Government announced major cuts of £220 million to the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was claimed that that was because of a black hole in the funding for the Homes and Communities Agency, and that it would result in many of the newly announced social and council housing building projects being cancelled. We later proved that there was not a black hole in the funding, so why have the cancelled projects not been reinstated?

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a timely debate. Does he share my concern about the Homes and Communities Agency, and the fact that it has scrapped its national targets for the number of apprenticeship scheme places provided through agency funding? Is he concerned about the impact of that on the number of apprenticeships that will be created?

Steve Rotheram: That decision is regrettable. It seems that the Government say things such as “We are going to create 250,000 apprenticeships,” but do not realise the knock-on effect of other policies. The training tap cannot be turned on and off. For construction trades colleges need to gear up, and they need space. Sometimes, once construction programmes have ceased, other uses are found for the space and it is not possible just to go back and scrap whatever it has been used for temporarily, to re-instigate construction training. It is more complex than that, however, because the staff that have been let go cannot always be re-employed, yet relevant construction experience is necessary; we also need people with teaching qualifications to train students to the NVQ standards. It is another short-term gain, but there will be long-term pain for the construction sector.

On 5 July 2010, the Education Secretary announced that the Building Schools for the Future programme was effectively being scrapped. BSF was the biggest construction project in Europe; it was intended to rebuild all 3,500 secondary schools in England. The work was to have been done over 15 years. When the Secretary of State made his announcement, 180 schools had been

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rebuilt and 231 projects had been given the green light, as they had already reached financial closure. BSF would have cost £45 billion over the lifetime of the project.

Early in September 2010, it was revealed that the Government’s decision to scrap the regional housing strategy had resulted in plans to build 100,000 new homes being shelved by local authorities. That has severely depressed private sector housing. On 20 October 2010, the Government announced their comprehensive spending review. That further confirmed the reduction in Government spending on construction; by 2015, annual construction spending by the Government will have been reduced from £59 billion to £47 billion, a reduction of more than 20%.

Again, the most savagely affected sector was public housing. The housing and regeneration budget is to be cut by 70%, from £6.8 billion to £2 billion—but that £2 billion will be used only on projects to which the Government are legally committed. Surely the Minister cannot blame all those policies on snow. The general consensus is that, at best, the industry is treading water; although some sectors of the industry are improving, such as office building in London, others remain in the doldrums. Despite its flexibility, construction is a complex industry, with hundreds of job roles and professional and technical relationships. Despite being only a few months old, the Government’s construction strategy needs impetus in order to achieve its objectives.

What else can the Government do? To answer an earlier point, we know that bank lending is a major problem for small and medium-sized enterprises; indeed, the banks failed to meet their Project Merlin proposals earlier this year. That is a particular difficulty for construction companies.

Firms in Liverpool tell me that part of the problem is that banking has become too impersonal. Years ago, when a construction firm secured a contract it would phone the manager of the local branch—he was probably known to the firm—to explain the job, say what would be needed and how the job was to be staffed. The bank manager would sometimes pop down to the site to make a physical assessment, and a loan would be negotiated. However, the relationship manager—the bridge between the construction firm and the banker bureaucrats—has now gone. Many banks have their central office space elsewhere, not in places such as Liverpool or wherever the construction firm is based, and companies are refused loans before a thorough assessment can be made.

Gordon Banks: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. Although some banks do not lend to the sector, in some ways the Government’s broader economic policies are having an impact on the banks by restricting them and preventing them from making the right decisions on lending to the construction sector. The underlying current of concern is the Government’s economic policy.

Steve Rotheram: There are real issues with regard to the Government’s economic policy. However, on that aspect of Project Merlin I agree with the Government; setting targets that forced banks to lend to SMEs was the right approach. Unfortunately, they missed their own targets once again.

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Gordon Banks: The fact that the Government have pulled the rug from under the construction industry through the reduction in state spending is making the industry a less attractive proposition for the banks. That is the point that I was trying to make; the Government’s policy on the construction industry also affects the banks.

Steve Rotheram: That point is well made, and spot on. More than a third of members of the Federation of Master Builders have seen their access to credit restricted, and nearly half have had their costs increased since 2008. That is restricting. It is for the Chancellor to use his powers to force the banks that caused the financial crisis to assist SMEs, the very people who will help get the economy going again. It is not acceptable for the Minister and his colleagues to hide behind Project Merlin until the end of the year, hoping that they will meet their targets and reacting only if they do not. The construction firms with which I speak are looking for proactive solutions now, not reactive compromise in six months’ time, after the Government have blundered their way through yet another failed policy.

Markets hate uncertainty, and at present the construction industry does not have enough confidence to kick-start its recovery. It pains me to say that, because I have a vested interest in the industry and plenty of friends who still work in it. It is therefore for the Government to consider matters that affect the industry to determine whether there are mechanisms to assist it.

One such matter is insurance. Ian Fletcher, a friend who runs a small scaffolding company despite the economic uncertainty, is just about keeping his head above water. However, spiralling insurance costs are jeopardising the jobs that he has created. Pressure must be brought to bear to ensure that businesses are not priced out of the market by excessive insurance premiums. We need to restore confidence in the domestic construction sector. Housing has huge potential for growth. The demand is there, but the Government lack a coherent and well considered fiscal plan. Such indecision means fewer homes, fewer construction jobs and fewer supply chain opportunities.

I am reminded of yet another policy cancellation that has devastated construction—Labour’s HomeBuy Direct scheme. In places such as Liverpool, the construction industry can take people off benefits and put them into a lifetime of work. I know from my own experience—and more latterly from my advice surgeries—that Liverpudlians are desperate to get back to work. They understand the dignity that comes with having a job and being able to provide for their families, and they are worried about their future.

For me, one of the most alarming things is that construction is failing to recruit a sufficient number of apprentices. Every year, despite the recession, the industry still needs more than 30,000 recruits. The lack of confidence in the relationship between the Government and the industry means that, for many people, a job in construction is only a short-term measure and far from stable. For businesses, that lack of confidence manifests itself in a climate in which few SMEs have enough confidence in the future of their business to recruit an apprentice. Quite simply, they are too busy trying to stay afloat.

Catherine McKinnell: My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. As he knows, increasing the number of apprenticeships is something that I have been promoting

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in Parliament through a private Member’s Bill. In discussions on the subject, I have met representatives of the majority of trades in the construction industry, and they all raise significant concerns about the skills shortage for the new green economy. Some of the new business opportunities are available now and will become more so, but we will lose some of those investment opportunities because we do not have the skilled work force, either now or in readiness for the future, to meet those challenges.

Steve Rotheram: My hon. Friend makes another important intervention, but it is not even as simple as that. Some of these new technologies need to find space in colleges to train those who will train the providers; we also need to train people with relevant construction qualifications in their specific fields, which means that there will be a lead-in period for such changes. If we had a medium-term strategic plan, we should be considering future job opportunities and starting to plan for when they come to fruition, so that we can ensure that we have people trained and qualified to take up those jobs.

Another fundamental problem is that companies are thinking only in the short term because that is all the Government are doing. Firms are not directly employing workers and they are not prepared to make the effort or take on the cost of training anyone, despite the evidence of significant returns on such investment.

The previous Government recognised that construction companies were not training sufficient numbers of apprentices and began to introduce procurement policies that required contractors to train apprentices on Government construction projects. If companies did not train, they did not get the work. I hope that the Minister will cover that issue in his contribution. Will he tell us whether the present Government support such a policy? If they do, will he explain that to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) who apparently does not?

The construction industry and I want the Government to provide additional resource and investment through a major programme of social housing. The housing industry is desperately in need of assistance for both economic and social reasons. There are currently more than 1.8 million people on housing waiting lists. Hundreds of construction firms are ready and willing to get back to work to begin building those houses. Perhaps such an investment would help to rebuild the shattered confidence in the sector. We need to promote a policy to develop green building technologies; to help get people back to work and to create new apprenticeship opportunities. Such a policy would tackle the growing homelessness crisis and the ever-expanding housing waiting lists.

Perhaps the Minister could consider lowering the VAT on home repair, maintenance and improvement works. Such a move could be used as a catalyst to stimulate activity. It could increase the overall tax-take that growth in the sector would generate.

Gordon Banks: My hon. Friend talks about finance in the sector. Does he not agree that there is also a need to address mortgage lending? In 2006, the Halifax conducted some research and found that first-time buyers in the private housing sector injected some £2.1 billion of spend into the UK high street. Does he not think that the challenged retail sector would benefit from more first-time buyers re-entering the market? The Government

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must work with the banks to ensure that we have a decent level of mortgages from about 90% without punitive interest charges and punitive arrangement fees.

Steve Rotheram: Most commentators would support that economic argument. Growth creates further growth and confidence. If mortgages were secured for first-time buyers, it would help both the house-building sector and the industry to get back on their feet. To me, such a proposal seems like a no-brainer, but we still have to persuade the Government of our arguments.

I have gone over my time because of all the interventions, so let me say in conclusion that to do nothing but to cross our fingers and hope for the best is not good enough and that our industry deserves better than that.

11.33 am

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this important and timely debate. Like him, I have a building industry background. I trained as a bricklayer and come from a long line of building workers: my father was a plasterer, one brother was a carpenter and my other brother trained as an electrician and can turn his hand to plumbing and many other things. Following in my footsteps is my own son who has gone into the construction industry and is training as a surveyor with Bowmer and Kirkland, so we are keeping the family tradition going.

I want to make a brief contribution about the central importance of the construction industry in rebalancing the economy. The Government say that they want to rebalance the economy and to see the private sector taking a leading role. I cannot see how that ambition can be realised without the construction industry playing a central role. The Government have made it much harder for the construction industry to contribute to the rebalancing of our economy by scrapping the Building Schools for the Future programme. Let me talk for a moment about the impact that such a decision has had on my own constituency of Derby North. Although Derby is made up of two and a bit constituencies, schools in the city are all affected in a similar way.

The five secondary schools in my constituency—Bemrose, Lees Brook, Murray Park, Littleover and St Benedict’s—were all looking forward to the impact that a new school would have on the children, the staff and the parents. Some of them have real problems. Lees Brook in particular is a health and safety hazard, suffering as it does with problems related to asbestos. The scrapping of the BSF programme was a great disappointment to everybody in the city and it had a huge impact on the construction industry in the local area.

The aim of rebalancing the economy and of enabling construction to play a key role was made even harder to achieve when the Government decided to halve the social housing grant. As a consequence, the number of affordable homes coming on stream has been severely diminished.

A further obstacle to the Government’s ambition was the decision to abolish the regional spatial strategy and the consequential abolition of the housing targets. Although the Government were critical of those targets, the number

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of planning permissions that have now been jettisoned as a direct consequence of that decision is running in excess of 100,000 homes.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): On the issue of planning, does my hon. Friend agree that the confused regulatory framework that now exists because of the advent of the Localism Bill has created a massive amount of uncertainty for the construction sector and has been an additional bar to making progress?

Chris Williamson: My hon. Friend makes a central and pertinent point. The confusion that has been brought about as a consequence of the Localism Bill has created a real problem. I do not particularly want to make a partisan point here, but I was disappointed in the debate on the Bill that Government Members were queuing up to say how the measures would enable them to stop housing developments from taking place in their local areas.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I apologise for my late arrival to this debate, Mr Caton. Circumstances beyond my control meant that I could not get here on time, so I sincerely apologise.

Let me take the hon. Gentleman back to regional spatial strategies. He will no doubt be aware that in August 2009 the then shadow spokesman for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), wrote to council leaders and developers indicating that an incoming Government would probably scrap the regional spatial strategy and that they should continue with plans to build, but based within a context of working with local authorities in developing local development frameworks. There was never a moratorium on building. That was just a different way in which to pursue the same ends—to build more homes for people who need them.

Chris Williamson: The real problem is that the housing targets offered some cover for local authority planning departments and planning committees. With those targets gone, they are much more exposed. As we have seen up and down the country, they have come under pressure from people who do not want to have their view spoiled or who do not want to see new housing developments. None the less, we all know that new housing is desperately required. But now local authorities will be much more exposed, because they cannot refer back to the regional targets set by Government. I know that the RSS was not perfect, but I genuinely believe that local authorities and in particular locally elected representatives need some additional support to help them to drive through the new housing that is needed throughout our country.

I want to say a little about the contribution that the construction sector makes to the wider economy. A thriving and vibrant construction sector has a significant and beneficial knock-on impact on the wider economy, not least because 80% of the materials that are procured by the construction industry are procured from within the UK, which creates an additional stimulus outside of the construction sector itself.

Gordon Banks: On that point, I just want to reiterate a point that I made earlier. I come from the materials side of the construction industry and I understand it

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very well. However, does my hon. Friend have some concerns that although 80% of construction materials are produced in the UK the ownership of the companies producing that material is rapidly falling into the hands of multinational conglomerates, and that as a result decisions are being taken in Australia and Mexico that can affect British jobs and the production of that 80% of construction materials within the UK?

Chris Williamson: That is another valid point and the Government need to consider it; it is a source of some concern. As I say, we are in a fortunate position at the moment, in that 80% of construction materials used in the UK are procured within the borders of the UK, but that might not always be the case. As my hon. Friend suggests, the Government need to be alive to the potential for change as the ownership of firms passes to multinational conglomerates. If that trend continues, the percentage of construction materials procured within the UK could diminish quite rapidly and quite significantly, and we need to be vigilant about that.

Susan Elan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that another important factor in this debate is the employment of young men in the construction industry? If we are to accept—as I think, at times, the Government seem to be accepting—a high level of young male unemployment, there are serious social consequences to that as well.

Chris Williamson: Yes, there most certainly are. My hon. Friend puts her finger on another important element of the construction industry. Clearly, it is a very labour-intensive industry. A vibrant, thriving and growing construction sector provides plenty of training opportunities, as she points out. That has significant social implications, because we all know the detrimental consequences—both for individuals personally and for the wider community—of large-scale unemployment. When we consider some of the Government’s other targets, supporting the construction industry and creating training opportunities in the industry would have huge beneficial impacts well beyond the obvious impacts, which I think are clear for all to see.

I wanted to make a point about housing and the importance of having a vibrant housing sector. In particular, I wanted to say why I am so disappointed with the decision to get rid of the housing targets. I have already mentioned the procurement of construction materials from within the UK, but a vibrant housing market also has much wider beneficial impacts, in that people are moving house and buying new carpets, curtains, furnishings and so on, which also benefits all the people employed in those sectors. At the moment, all those sectors are in significant decline.

I would like to talk again parochially for a moment, this time about the commercial sector. In Derby, we have 1.25 million square feet of office space that has planning permission. Those development sites are now standing empty; some have been cleared and some are just a dilapidated eyesore. We were looking forward to those sites being developed, possibly with a view to civil servants moving into them as part of the Lyons review. At the time of that review, developers were talking about building speculatively, but that will not happen at the moment. Derby is not the only example of a town or city where there is a plentiful supply of commercial

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space available. In the current climate, no developer will build speculatively; they need end-users and certainty. In fact, they need certainty to get a development funded for a start.

I will be interested in hearing the Minister’s response to that point, because I plead with him to say what assistance the Government are prepared to provide to give that stimulus to the construction sector. There is one very simple thing the Government could do that would achieve another one of their targets, which is reducing public spending. That simple thing is to move civil servants from extremely expensive central London locations and out into the regions. When the Government are looking at the relocation of civil servants, I hope that they will consider Derby, because developing a prestigious site in Derby could be achieved at around £20 to £25 per square foot and I know for a fact that in central London some of the prices that some of the Government agencies are paying are in excess of £100 per square foot; indeed, they might be up towards £150 per square foot. Clearly, relocating those agencies and staff to Derby would be hugely beneficial, not only to Derby and the construction sector but to the Government’s own target of reducing public spending. In fact, it will reduce public spending in a way that will not hit front-line services. However, it seems that that relocation process has stalled. I do not know why that is and I would be interested to hear the Government’s thoughts on that.

I am pleased that the Minister is here today for this debate and I know that he is considering locations for the green bank. I have written to him to say that Derby would make a perfect location for the green bank and I hope that he will consider Derby, particularly as Barclaycard has moved out of significant premises in the city. Derby would be an ideal location for the green bank and I hope that he will bear that in mind when he makes his final decision on that issue.

The Government are going in the wrong direction at the moment—the opposite direction to the one they need to go in. What they need to do is to create an economic virtuous circle and construction can play a really important role in delivering that virtuous circle. That means investing in the economy to create the growth that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton referred to, which will have a knock-on impact. I think that he said that growth begets growth, or growth generates more growth, and clearly it does.

My hon. Friend and I are not the only ones saying that. I myself am a humble bricklayer—what do I know about economics? But I just look at my history books. I look at what President Roosevelt did in the 1930s, when there was 25% unemployment in the US during the great depression. A lot of the recovery from the depression was built on the back of construction, including huge construction projects such as dams, roads and housing. We saw that happen again in 1945 in this country, with the efforts of the post-war Labour Government.

Gordon Banks: On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that not only does such investment help the economic situation at the present time but it prepares us better for generations to come?

Chris Williamson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because such investment creates employment opportunities and the better infrastructure that future generations, as

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well as the current generation, will benefit from. I was talking about the Roosevelt legacy; Americans are still benefiting to this day from some of the investment that Roosevelt was responsible for. Surely, therefore, it makes sense to invest in the economy now.

I want to conclude by saying that we also have a perfect example of such investment in this country. In 1945, following the ravages of the second world war, the post-war Labour Government did not shirk their responsibilities. At that time, they faced massive debts and a massive deficit, but they demonstrated that by using the power of the state we can turn the economy around and build a better life for people, including better houses, good-quality services and a better, more cohesive community and society.

We all know that Britain is facing very difficult times, but they are not as dark or as bleak as the times that we faced in 1945. We demonstrated then that we could achieve so much, so I plead with the Government to think again. We have talked about a plan B, which will probably be an issue that is beyond the Minister’s pay scale; it is a matter for the Chancellor. But there are certain things that I have mentioned today that the Government can consider—the green bank, slightly tongue in cheek, being one of them for Derby. We must also consider how we can get civil servants out of the centre of London and into the regions, which will help to stimulate the local economy, including the construction sector, in those regions, creating jobs and a better society for all of us.

11.49 am

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Caton, and to be able to contribute to this very important debate.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram). We perhaps do not have much in common politically, but we both represent cities that have a district called Walton at their heart, so there is some agreement across the Chamber. I spoke on regeneration for Her Majesty’s Opposition in the previous Parliament, and during a visit to Liverpool—to north Liverpool, Rock Ferry and Bootle—in 2009 I was struck by the positive and good work undertaken by the Liverpool NewHeartlands pathfinder scheme. From what I heard of his speech, the hon. Gentleman put his case this morning confidently and reasonably, and I will try to pick up on some of the issues that he has talked about.

I particularly want to look at the wider context of construction, because it strikes me that Opposition Members are not giving due credit to some of the things that the Government have done in the 15 months of this coalition Administration. They do not concede that in 12 or 13 benign economic years, with incremental growth, there was still failure to deliver the appropriate results in the construction sector. An average of 145,000 new homes were built between 2000 and 2010, but in 2009— the last year for which figures are available—only 103,000 housing completions were delivered, which is the lowest number since 1923, and that was, coming back to the point that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) raised, with the regional spatial strategy.

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The regional spatial strategy was not a panacea or an answer to the conundrum. It did not deliver what it was meant to. There might have been elements of localism, and some stasis in planning departments, in the competence of councillors and in the willingness of people to use the existing legal system to block such development, but the bigger question is: “Were we building the right homes in the right places?” Between 1997 and 2005 we built 117,000 homes in the east and south-east, on the flood plain, and we need to look at that. Were we building the appropriate quantity of homes, and on what demographic basis?

Chris Williamson: Will the hon. Gentleman at least concede that before the unprecedented worldwide economic downturn the regional spatial strategy was making a positive contribution? The number of new housing starts in the past year has fallen again to a new record low, so the policies being pursued by the Government are not working. Will he concede that the economic downturn is the biggest reason for the reduction in the housing stock, and not the regional spatial strategy?

Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is persistent, not least in his aspirations for Derby to host the green investment bank. I have to tell him, regretfully from his point of view, that Peterborough got in first, and we have a good chance because we are an environment city with excellent transport links—we are a sustainable bus city. However, I must not stray too far from the locus of the debate.

What the hon. Gentleman says is not necessarily true. If we look at the first quarterly figures on private sector housing starts, yes, they are patchy but we are looking at an upward trajectory, certainly in the eastern region and also possibly in the east midlands and other parts of the country. I accept that there will be a difficult time, because historically this is the worst period that the construction industry has suffered in the past 60 years.

Gordon Banks: I have worked in the private housing industry for a significant time, and I think that it would be an experience for the hon. Gentleman to make a journey up to Scotland to see the absolute decimation of the private housing sector there. Major developers are releasing four or five plots for development at a time, where 10 or 15 years ago there were four or five completions per week. The housing industry in the UK, and in Scotland in particular, is as far down on its knees as it can get.

Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman will therefore support the views of the Government, and particularly those expressed in the ministerial statement issued by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 23 March, which focused on a presumption in favour of sustainable development, encouraging developers to question local planning authorities vis-à-vis section 106 and the financial viability of each development.

Gordon Banks: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has been listening to the debate. The driver behind the private housing sector is bank finance and mortgages.

Mr Jackson: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed, he will hear my comments on that in due course.

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I agree with the premise of the financial importance of the construction sector. It is certainly the case that there is a multiplier of £2.84 to every £1 invested in the construction industry. I also agree that we have a social and economic responsibility, and the Government see it as such, to tackle the historically high levels of people on social housing waiting lists—currently 1.75 million. That concentrates our minds, whichever constituency of the country we represent. We must not be too churlish, however, about what the Government have done. The new homes bonus, which we developed while in opposition, is a fiscal incentive, to encourage local authorities to build appropriate housing, and because it is based on council tax bands rather than on capital values, it builds in a predisposition for quality homes at the same time as paying due regard to the need for social housing.

Chris Williamson: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when this matter was considered by the Communities and Local Government Committee, all the expert opinion was that the new homes bonus simply would not work and that it needed an overlaid target? The hon. Gentleman throws his eyes into the back of his head but that was what they said. They were unanimous. All the expert opinion was that the bonus would not work without an overlaying of a national target system.

Mr Jackson: We all know that there were limits to the concept of localism. It would be foolish for any Secretary of State or any Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to say that they could second-guess the development control—to use the old term—or the planning policy of each of the 400-odd local authorities. In densely populated areas of the south-east of England local authorities might feel that they have reached an equilibrium in quality of life and do not want more house building. There are large parts of the north of England, however, for example County Durham, Northumberland and the north-west, where better quality housing perhaps is needed.

Susan Elan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Jackson: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not give way for the time being because I have quite a few points to make and others might wish to speak. I will let her in later.

It is not possible to design a system that delivers the same result in every part of the country, and the experts the hon. Gentleman mentioned will be disproved, I believe, by the impact. Six years’ matched funding for infrastructure, giving genuine fiscal power to local authorities, will deliver, using the market mechanism, the right kind of quality housing in the right place. None of us can prejudge that until we have seen it in action. The new homes bonus will work, based on a council tax band D of £1,414, and the Home Builders Federation projects that that will bring £1.2 billion into local authorities each year. That is income to the local economy of each authority that builds new homes, which can only be good, and it is 215,000 jobs.

The wider context of the Government’s construction policies is about rebalancing an over-reliance, in some parts of the country in particular, on the public sector, and trying to encourage, with tax policies and a regulatory

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regime, more private sector growth in jobs. We have already begun to see that. We are not steaming ahead with the creation of private sector jobs, but the trend is in the right direction, and I expect more jobs to be created in the construction industry.

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

The Government’s plan for growth, published in March at the same time as the Budget, introduced significant changes that will help the construction industry. Of course, it makes a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and the wording was criticised for being opaque, but it is now in place and subject to consultation and discussion. The national planning policy framework is coming forward. I have some concerns about it. I am particularly mindful of the possibility of a watering down of the primacy of town centres over out-of-town shopping centres, and the Treasury needs to be mindful of it too. It is all very well creating Asdas and Tescos on the fringes of towns, but that effectively destroys the viability of niche retailers in town centres.

Generally, however, the national planning policy framework will de-clutter the governance of planning, which can only be good. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton is right that certainty and the ability to plan properly are absolutely integral to a successful construction industry. That is why this Government’s remit includes simplifying generic planning policy.

To my mind, we are not going fast enough in piloting local land auction models, but we are going in the right direction. Public land will be the first to be auctioned. There is a myth about the availability of land, and a lack of available land clearly contributed to the overheating of the housing market between 2006 and 2009. However, even in the south-east of England, only 12% of land is used for housing, and 10% is used across England as a whole.

The conversion of commercial premises to residential premises and a duty to co-operate would meet some of the objections made by the hon. Member for Derby North about regional spatial strategies. The Local Government Association and others, including KPMG in its report on regional governance, found that regional development agencies did not alleviate differences between regions, or even within regions. He will know that there is a world of difference between Rutland and Melton and inner-city Nottingham or Derby. We as a Government believe—I cannot speak for the Minister—that there are sub-regional economies that were not reflected in regional development agency boundaries. We believe that it is much more practical and flexible to consider a duty to co-operate, particularly in the development of infrastructure.

We are proceeding with a major infrastructure planning system overhaul and consulting on the liberalisation of use classes as a way forward, but the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) is absolutely right that the principal issue is mortgage finance and the capital available for the development of housing. None of us can deny that—it is absolutely the case—but he must concede that the Minister for Housing and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), did an extremely good job in raising with the Treasury the importance of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater in terms of the Financial Services Authority’s mortgage market

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review. Both the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills are mindful that the FSA review must get the balance right. Without reckless spending, they must make available the mortgage moneys that young people need to buy their first property.

To give my own local authority a plug and pay tribute to it, Peterborough city council voted just last week to put £10 million aside for a local authority mortgage scheme. Without wanting to be too partisan, I must say that I am slightly disappointed that the Labour group on Peterborough city council has seen fit to call in that decision, which will delay the process of getting young people the finance that they need to buy property. Not everything that the previous Government did was wrong. The HomeBuy Direct scheme was good, and we have built on it pragmatically and practically with the Firstbuy scheme, which will put about £1 billion into the system and help 10,000 first-time buyers.

The other issue is the planning system. We cannot get away from the fact that the planning system in this country can be construed as dysfunctional. One hears anecdotes all the time. Developers bring an expensive, costed plan for the development of a few hundred houses to a planning department and an officer says, “Yes, that’s a good plan. We can run with that.” He leaves, and another officer comes in and says, “Hmm, I don’t really like the aesthetics. Will you do it again?” Time is money, and that takes an enormous amount of time. It is extremely frustrating, and it is not fair on shareholders or on the people who want to buy the new houses.

We must develop a way to break through the shroud of mystery around town planners, as we used to call them in the old days. They are a bit like hospital consultants: “Don’t question my professionalism on this.” However, it matters to economic growth and people’s jobs and livelihoods that planners expedite decisions. We must develop a way to incentivise them to get inherently viable projects off the ground. They must work much more closely with developers on things such as section 106 and focus on the affordability of individual projects. The evidence that has been presented shows that it is complex. Some supplementary planning documents for large-scale developments can take 18 months to two years. With core strategies, site allocation plans and consultation on local development frameworks, the process can be frustrating for developers. We must find a way to simplify the system.

A report by Michael Ball of Reading university, “The labour needs of extra housing output”, suggests that the costs associated with development control could be up to £3 billion a year. That is not acceptable if we are committed to a pro-growth agenda. Since January 2005, 3,250 pages of national planning policy guidance have been issued. The complexity and cost of development are significant. The hon. Member for Derby North made the point that the gross cost of regulation, the cost of construction and the market price of floor space are significantly greater in London and other UK cities than elsewhere.

I am being admonished by you, Mr Walker, to conclude my remarks, but I will say that we need to see construction policy holistically. We need to consider residential real estate investment trusts and what the Treasury can do to simplify them. We need to consider how EU procurement rules affect large-scale regeneration. We need to consider

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brownfield remediation to make it simpler for construction companies to build. We need to encourage special purpose vehicles through the tax system so that local authorities can work with developers. We need to push forward tax increment financing so that there is a fiscal incentive to regenerate town centres and other areas. We also need to concentrate on empty properties.

We must find a way to deal with land banking by people who hold land but will not release it—

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order. We must find a way of concluding this speech as well, Mr Jackson.

Mr Jackson: I am happy to conclude my speech, Mr Walker, with three brief points. Developers must engage properly with local authorities and local planning authorities, and with politicians here in Westminster, to lobby hard for changes in the Budget next year. Mortgage providers must provide more flexible mortgage products. We must also concentrate on developing the right houses in the right places at the right price. There is a wider issue, which is not just a local issue of building.

My final point concerns apprenticeships. This Government have a good record on apprenticeships and announced 50,000 new apprenticeships in the Budget. That will be an integral part of growing and enhancing the construction sector.

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): The Front-Bench spokesmen have about 10.5 minutes each.

12.9 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. My time is about half of the 20 minutes that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) has just taken, and 20 minutes is exactly how late he was for this debate, so he has done well out of the past hour and a half. I know that he apologised.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. I will not enter into the argument between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) about who is the best brickie in the House, but it was a delight to hear from both of them and to hear about the Labour party’s commitment to the construction industry. This debate is taking place because it was sought by Labour MPs, and I contrast the attendance of Labour representatives with that of Government representatives. We have had one contribution from the Conservative party and no contributions whatever from the Liberal Democrats. We will be on tenterhooks when we listen to the Minister, whom I am very fond of and have listened to on many occasions. Although we disagree on practically everything, I think that his comments are starting to resemble some of the things that I said when I was in government. That certainly did not happen when he was in opposition.

This is an important debate, because the construction industry in the UK is in crisis. The situation is extremely serious. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has already provided some quotes from the industry. A survey by Wilkins Kennedy suggests that the number of businesses going bankrupt rose sharply in the first quarter of 2011, from 706 to 948. Analysts at

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the firm also warned that the private sector was not providing the necessary growth to substitute for the withdrawal of the investment that the public sector provided in response to the worldwide banking crisis. My hon. Friend has outlined what Mr Cork from Wilkins Kennedy has said.

The reduction in capital investment that was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his first Budget last summer is only now beginning to kick in. We have heard a lot about deficit reduction, but we are now beginning to see the impact of this Government’s deliberate decision to take matters forward. The construction industry does not like it. The Federation of Master Builders says: