4.57 pm

Sheila Gilmore: I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate, especially the Government Back Benchers, who made it a proper debate. We may not agree, but this is an important issue and we all need to be challenged and to have that discussion. However, I am disappointed that they seem determined to paint this debate as a strictly binary dispute—everything should be private, or everything should be public—hence the insistence on trying to push Labour Members to “come out”, as it were, as renationalisers. I am sure that some of my colleagues are unabashed renationalisers. Our dinosaur Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington

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(Grahame M. Morris), demonstrated that he might be in good company, in that 70% of the British public might also be dinosaurs on this issue.

We do not need to approach this subject in a highly ideological way. There is a powerful pragmatic argument, whatever we think of the wider issues, in favour of retaining East Coast in public hands. That case was made powerfully by many Members. I do not want to ignore the contributions of others, but I would single out the powerful contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), who asked some important practical questions and pointed out that to rush this process—even in the face of what the investigation into the west coast fiasco told the Government—is to put ideology above common sense. Unfortunately, the Minister was so determined to talk about our policies then and now that he still has not answered a number of the crucial questions. He has not said why the east coast route should be prioritised over other long-distance routes. He did not say why the evidence presented in previous debates was not—

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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Foreign-owned UK Property

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

5 pm

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate. I welcome the Minister for Housing to his place and am grateful for the opportunity at the end of today’s business to consider the purchase of housing in the United Kingdom by people or companies based abroad.

When I was first elected—a long time ago now—the London Docklands development corporation was in charge of some of the dockland areas, including parts of my constituency. One of the most successful things it ever did was to have a scheme of building new homes and offering them for sale to people locally at discounted prices—or, at least, prices that did not make so much profit. There were huge queues of people and the homes were snapped up. There was a restriction on onward sales, whereby people had to live in the houses for a certain amount of time, and they met a lot of the unmet housing need of people who wanted to stay in Bermondsey, Rotherhithe or Surrey Docks but who could not afford to live there.

Sadly, the situation is now completely different. I want to talk about the problem first before suggesting some solutions, based on comments made to me once people knew the debate was happening and on documents that have been in the public domain or press in the past few days. Let me start with two e-mails that I received before the debate.

The first e-mail is from somebody in Battersea:

“Good to see someone at least talking about the housing crisis in London.

As an architect, part of my job is designing apartments in central London that I know are being sold off plan to buyers in China.

Sometimes whole developments are sold in a day, with Chinese buyers paying in cash.

That is before they are ever offered to the UK market, but should they ever be offered they would only be affordable to barristers and traders, not middle income workers like myself.

It infuriates me, as I am still in a share house after 7 years of being in London.”

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman mentions units being sold off plan before being offered to the UK market, but does he agree that by doing that some new home developers are discriminating against UK citizens?

Simon Hughes: That certainly appears to be the case. Let me give a constituency example. At the Elephant and Castle, just over the bridge, as people know, there is a controversial development of a former council estate, the Heygate estate, that is being done by Lend Lease, an Australian company. The first phase was either first put on the market in Malaysia or put on the market in Malaysia at the same time as it was advertised here. My constituents, who are desperate for the housing that was meant to replace the council estate, were more than angry to think that not only were they not getting the affordable housing they were promised at the promised

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levels but the property that was made available for private sale first was being block-bought off plan in Malaysia. This morning I went to look at an estate development in my constituency that has, I understand, been marketed principally in Thailand.

To show the other side of the coin, let me cite a second e-mail that I received unprompted in the past couple of days, entitled “Housing developers targeting foreign buyers”. It states:

“I am British and live in Singapore. Even though I have a work permit, the Government put an extra high stamp duty on property, and also restrict me from renting out a property I buy for the first three years of ownership.

I gather that the first phase of the Battersea development was out-sold in Singapore with over 800 units going to Singaporeans. The main reason is the devaluation of Sterling combined with the rising costs of housing in Singapore. Why buy a two bed in Singapore for £1 million sterling when you can buy two in London for £800,000?”

So in this country properties are increasingly being sold abroad and in other countries Governments are realising that they need to have some restrictions on the inward investment into their housing in order to look after their own people and ensure that they, or residents in these countries, who may not have been born there but have settled there, have opportunity in the market.

The Mayor of London this week produced a document “The greatest city on Earth: ambitions for London”. I share that view of London, as I think it is the greatest city on earth, and also the ambitions for it. I am hugely proud to be a London Member of Parliament and to represent my constituency. In the same month as that was produced, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published an article headed “The housing crisis: Westminster hit by soaring costs as it struggles with homeless crisis”. Today’s Evening Standard headline is “Rough sleepers double in 5 years: Mayor under fire after pledge to eliminate problem”. It gives the explanation as follows:

“Experts said the increasing numbers were a consequence of housing benefit cuts, soaring rents and the closure of a dozen hostels and day centres”.

Soaring rents are absolutely one of the reasons why people cannot find homes that they need.

As hon. Members would imagine, a lot of work has been done in this area. I am grateful to Savills Residential, with which I have met. It produces regular reports and is about to do another one on who invests in this country, where and how. A very good report was produced by the Smith Institute in July 2012 entitled “London for sale? An assessment of the private housing market in London and the impact of growing overseas investment”. Deloitte produces an annual prediction and has just done so. Knight Frank has accurate, up-to-date figures, which I have looked at and drawn on.

I have also looked at other articles, with titles such as “More restrictions on foreign property buyers in Switzerland” and “Property purchases: who can purchase property in Denmark?”. The Danes have clearly thought that they need to address this problem. I have looked at other general assessments—for example, an article in April entitled “Buyers not wanted: restrictions on international property investors”. It stated:

“While the world’s investors are busy snapping up property in London, other countries are putting up barriers to foreign ownership”.

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That is the backdrop to this. I want to say a word about the politics and then where we ought to go. I am very clear that the UK has prided itself always on its international connections. London is a great global city, and my wonderful constituency has been a destination and place of passage for people from all over the world for centuries. Nobody I know in public life, in my party or in my constituency, does not appreciate the contribution that foreign investment has made into our country in the past and will continue to make in the future. We have also historically prided ourselves on being a country based on the free market, from which UK citizens and residents can acquire interests abroad, and where non-UK citizens and residents, and companies registered outside the UK can acquire interest in property in this country. Most people know that many, if not most, of our leading companies now have foreign owners. I often raise the issue of Thames Water and its failure to pay adequate taxes, but it is, in effect, an Australian company and many of our other utilities are also run by foreign owners.

The reality is that my country, my city and my constituency are desperately short of homes. In particular, we are desperately short of homes to rent, for shared ownership and to buy at prices that are affordable to the average income earner or average family.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on making pertinent and timely points that my constituents will recognise. Are not these properties being marketed abroad because of the type of property being built? High-value, high-rise properties are the ones being built and the fault lies with the planning authorities, the Mayor and some borough councils, such as my local one, which are giving permission for tens of thousands of the type of unit that appeals to Malaysian investors but is completely unaffordable to his constituents and mine?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We do not always agree, but he makes a good point. Many of the properties that are being built are specifically built with the probability that they will be sold easily in the foreign market. These are not family houses; these properties are mainly flats, often studio, one-bedroom or two-bedroom flats—small flats—which will either be buy to rent, will be used occasionally by somebody from abroad who might come here a couple of times a year on business or will be just kept as an investment. There is evidence that a lot of these places have nobody in them at all; they are simply bought as an investment in this country and will be sold later at a higher price. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I checked the Office for National Statistics figures today. The average house price in the UK this year is £238,000, in London £414,000 and in my borough £389,000. Median employee earnings monthly in the UK are £505, in London £613 and in my borough £630. It will not surprise anybody in the Chamber to know that the gap between earnings and cost is growing and growing, and London is the place where the difference is greatest.

In London, just to keep pace with demand, best estimates suggest that we need at least 50,000 more homes each year, twice as many as are currently being built, and 20,000 a year more than the Mayor of London’s target. Central London, which for housing purposes

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often includes part of my borough and my constituency, is now an area where, according to the best figures, more than one third of all buyers are from overseas, and two thirds of all new-build property is sold to non-UK purchasers—a third of the total and two thirds of the new-build property. Over a third of properties are sold to companies from China and the Asia-Pacific region, more than one in 10 to buyers in the middle east and north Africa, and about 8% each to purchasers from western Europe, and to eastern Europe and the former Soviet states.

I understand why London is a popular place for investment—the value of the pound, the fact that it is outside the eurozone, very low interest rates, and the fact that it is a world-class city with English as its main language. According to Knight Frank, average prices in prime property—property priced at more than £1 million —in London have risen by 50% from 2009 and more than 7.5% in the past 12 months alone. Compared to New York or Singapore, it is clearly a much more successful investment. Some purchasers buy these homes to live in, some to let, some as a home additional to their principal home or as a third home, and some buy simply as an investment.

These purchasers are on to a good thing for them, and the developers who sell to them are on to a very good thing for themselves as well. Developers find foreign purchasers—this relates to the question from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter)—often more willing than UK purchasers to buy straight from plan. They pay their money up front, which helps fund the development as a whole. London property commands good prices in the global market, so this maximises the returns and therefore the profits of the developers. It is a very successful response to international housing demand. It does not help the people I see in my surgery every week who want a first home or a home they can afford.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being very generous. Does he agree that there would be a little more understanding of new home developments such as those being built by Barratt if the units, when they became available, were offered to everybody, wherever they live, at the same time, rather than some that are left over being offered to local British buyers?

Simon Hughes: This is a real issue. I shall put some suggestions to the Minister, of which I gave him notice earlier today, so I hope I am not taking him completely by surprise.

People who have lived here for five years, 10 years, 15 years or all their life now cannot find a place they can afford. More offensive, even if they see them, they suddenly discover that the properties have been offered for sale abroad and are not available, or by the time people in this country can get their finances together, somebody has bought the lot. That is an unacceptable practice. Free market economics is a good starting point for the global economy, but responsible Governments, including I hope those with my colleagues in Government, should always be willing to intervene in the market where there is good reason and where the market is not

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working for the purposes that are the priority. Meeting housing need is now the priority, not meeting global housing demand.

We cannot go on as we are. We do not have enough land to build on at a reasonable price, there is much too little building of affordable housing, and now there is increasing purchase by foreign owners of the property that does become available. We need more supply and we need to moderate the demand that is forcing up prices even more. The purpose of this debate is to put down a marker that there needs to be a response at central Government level, at London government level and at local government level as well. I am not the only person who thinks that. Colleagues across the House and in different sorts of constituencies share my view. Even if I cannot get all my wishes announced in the spending review next week, I hope that at the latest by the time of the Budget next year I can persuade colleagues to make the sort of changes we need. I hope also that I can get the two Select Committees—Treasury and Communities and Local Government—and the National Audit Office to look into the subject, because I know they have an interest and think they would do a good job.

We want a change of policy, a change of strategy. We want a big change in the number of affordable homes available for residents of these islands, and we want it now. I will give the Minister my shopping list now, so that he has time to respond.

I hope that work outside this place and by the Select Committees and the NAO will be helpful on this, because I would like the Government to compile a report on legislation passed elsewhere to tackle this problem. As I said, Singapore and Denmark have taken action in recent years, and I understand that Australia, Canada, Thailand and some states of the USA have done so, too. Those are not socialist republics; they are countries with free-market economies that understand they have to do something to look after the people within their shores, to whom they have an obligation.

I should be grateful if the Government, over the next few weeks, commissioned up-to-date research, using all the sources available, into the extent to which residential property acquired by individuals who are not domiciled or resident here or companies that are not registered here is: acquired for investment only and kept empty; occasionally used; occupied primarily by staff; a home other than the principal home; or rented out. If the information could be broken down by local authority and postcode, that would be helpful. This is not just a London issue; it affects the west midlands and many of the big cities in England and other parts of the UK.

There may be policy and tax changes we could make. We cannot discriminate between UK and other EU citizens on the basis of their citizenship—I understand that entirely. However, it seems to me that we could have differential stamp duty or council tax, or another form of acquisition or disposal tax, or an annual asset tax, on properties held by non-EU citizens or companies based outside the EU. Secondly, we could have differential council tax or other tax by category of use, so a second or third home or a company-let flat, for example, would be in different categories. I am less certain that this would be the answer to many of the problems, but we could have differentiation of tax or council tax by price, with the aim of adding an extra tax on the middle-ranking

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properties, which are the ones that our constituents want to buy. That might have adverse knock-on effects, so I am not categorically proposing that, but I think the idea should be considered.

I believe it would be possible to have priority bidding for rent, shared ownership or purchase for people who have lived in the area for a certain period. We could not do that by nationality, probably, but we could do it by length of residence. Councils are now allowed to give priority on their waiting lists to people who have lived in the area for a certain period, so surely we could do the same in the sale, shared ownership and rental sectors. We could require residential properties to be advertised in this country at the same time as or before they are advertised anywhere else. We could do what the London Docklands development corporation did, which is ensure that properties are initially offered locally. There would be legal questions to deal with, but we could consider it. Finally, we could give tax incentives to people or companies willing to invest in affordable housing for rent, shared ownership or sale at below-average prices, rather than give them only to those who want to build expensive properties. We could incentivise the right sort of investment.

We could pilot these proposals, or give powers to the Mayor or local authorities in London and elsewhere to try differential planning and council tax arrangements, to see the effects on the market. As the Mayor of London has suggested, we could ask the Government to make sure that any taxation—for example, stamp duty—generated in a particular local authority from a certain type of property goes into the housing fund for that local authority.

I am open to any solution that works. I hope that the Minister and his Department are open to helping us to tackle this major and growing concern to voters of all parties and none, and all our constituents. I do not think we can say that nothing can be done.

5.19 pm

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing a debate on this important matter and on offering, as usual, a range of ideas. I received his shopping list—thankfully it was not confused with Mrs Prisk’s shopping list, which might have been awkward—and take it in exactly that vein, as a set of positive suggestions. It recognises some of the challenges, some of which I will seek to answer. I also undertake to reflect in detail on his list’s itemised elements, rather than seeking to do so in the remaining 11 minutes.

The right hon. Gentleman has a strong record of speaking eloquently and frequently about housing stress in London. I will preface my remarks by looking at the housing market as a whole and then focus on the question as it relates to London, because I think that is where the heart of the problem lies. For too long now, regardless of which party has been in government, our housing markets have been dysfunctional. From my political background, and my professional background as a surveyor, I think that this country has probably built only half the homes we need year on year for perhaps a generation.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, that has caused a long-term housing shortage and, with it, significant social problems, and that is especially true in Greater

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London. That is why the coalition Government are determined to take a different approach. Our housing strategy seeks to be comprehensive and to address both supply and demand and both freehold and leasehold, and it seeks to start to reverse the loss of 421,000 affordable homes that, sadly, we saw under the previous Administration. It is why we are reforming the planning system to speed up the development process, why we are unlocking large sites to create lasting settlements, and why we are building over 170,000 more affordable homes. It is also why we are seeking to create a bigger and better private rented sector that gives tenants greater choice and quality.

At the same time, we are supporting demand for new homes through the Help to Buy equity loan scheme. Boosting demand matters, especially after the record lows of recent years. I believe that not just because I am a passionate supporter of home ownership, but because a rise in demand gives builders the confidence to accelerate building and can boost overall market supply, including of affordable homes. That is an important point about how the flow of cash and investment helps the market as a whole, a point I will return to in a moment.

On the specific question of foreign investment in housing, it is natural to look principally at London. We have to recognise that London, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly said, is a truly global city; perhaps it is the global city. It has not only the fastest growing economy and population in the UK, but immense international appeal. I think that Members on both sides of the House recognise that as a highly desirable position to be in.

London’s success is in part the result of our open and free markets. Being a global city brings many economic benefits, with wealth creation and inward investment in jobs. Only a week or so ago the Mayor announced the securing of £1 billion of Chinese investment in the area that used to be covered by the old London Docklands development corporation but is now an enterprise zone, which is a very welcome long-term investment. The preparedness of others to invest here is a vote of confidence both in this country’s current economic strategy—that of the coalition—and in London’s future. I think that that openness is also vital to the character of London. It is a diverse city with a fantastic range of influences and cultures, and that is something to be welcomed.

As a result of that, the housing market in London is quite different from the housing market across the rest of the country. Across the rest of the UK, domestic demand has suffered, with mortgage constraints and the difficulties builders have had in securing development finance, but in London the availability of foreign investment has kept development going. It has generated the cash flow that developers need to progress schemes.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned research. A recent report by the Greater London authority looked at barriers to housing delivery. It estimated that in prime London markets—the very highest—up to 75% of buyers are from overseas, and across London as a whole approximately a third of buyers are foreign. The report goes on to note that

“construction activity demands investor sales—many, if not most, major London residential schemes only commence due to the expectation of the sale risk being mitigated by the chance to sell to UK-based and overseas investors.”

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We should also pay attention to what developers say. Tony Pidgley of Berkeley Homes recently said that to try to curtail foreign investment sharply is unrealistic, because it is only through such funding that Berkeley and others can build more homes and affordable homes. Before turning to the specific matters raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I will quote Tony Pidgley, who says:

“Basically most sites that Berkeley are building are a third affordable, a third goes abroad, and a third to the UK market”.

He goes on to say that without foreign investors,

“London would be worse off and we would have fewer affordable homes and fewer private homes.”

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I totally understand the sense of frustration and challenge that local authorities and, indeed, local people may feel about this issue, but if we seek to curtail inward investment in a crude or ill-defined way I think we can both agree that it would lead to a significant set of unintended consequences.

Simon Hughes: I will be brief, because I know the Minister has other things to say. A report that is about to be published will show that, sadly, the figure given by Tony Pidgley of a third is much lower in reality, both in London and across the UK. Although that may be the theoretical quota, in my borough the figure is much lower and I fear that nothing like that is being delivered, because, to be blunt, companies get more money out of having fewer affordable homes.

Mr Prisk: Clearly local areas will differ, as will some builders, but what Mr Pidgley has said is reflected in some of the other builders’ remarks. We should not ignore them, but I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point.

Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Prisk: I am going to try to answer the points raised by the Member who secured the debate, if I may.

A number of people have said—indeed, it has been mentioned in this debate—that perhaps the majority of homes owned by foreigners lie empty. We have looked at the evidence carefully and Jones Lang LaSalle says that the vast majority of international buyers—85%—let property once purchased. There is, therefore, a benefit in that homes built in response to that demand often—in 85% of cases—go on to be let.

The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark also asked whether wider research could be commissioned for London in particular and, having looked at his shopping list, I can see that he also wants some granularity. He will understand that this is a devolved matter in London, but I will certainly bring

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this issue to the Mayor’s attention to see what granularity is available beyond the conventions of the English housing survey and so on.

Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Prisk: I am running out of time and want to answer some of the questions asked by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, if I may.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the broader question of whether tax laws might differentiate in some ways. Property taxes such as stamp duty and land tax do not distinguish between UK and foreign nationals. That is partly because of EU laws, to which the right hon. Gentleman has alluded, but it is also partly because of significant administrative difficulties. Although he will understand that tax policy, as I am constantly reminded, is for the Treasury, I will nevertheless make sure that Treasury Ministers are aware of his suggestions and concerns.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned council tax differential rates, which we have discussed before. In April, having to listened to his concerns and those of others, we gave new powers to local authorities to establish an empty homes premium for long-term empty properties. Clearly, it is up to local councils how they do it, but I think that this is a power that is able to address many of the problems, perhaps in a simpler and more localised way than we thought. It is something that we will happily encourage, but as a localist Government we will not seek to impose it.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned foreign comparators. We certainly look at them, but we have to be careful to look not just at fiscal or planning arrangements but at the picture as a whole. Having looked at Hong Kong, I know that although it has made certain fiscal changes its difficulty is that prices are still rising.

I will respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific shopping list, but let me conclude by saying that I think there are perfectly understandable concerns about the potential impact of people from overseas buying homes in London. We should not, however, pretend that there are no benefits—I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not seek to do that. Inward investment has helped more homes to be built and it encourages confidence. We need a balance to be struck, but overall London benefits from being an open and diverse city, which both welcomes and, indeed, attracts investment from around the globe. I look forward to continuing this dialogue and to making sure that we continue to keep on top of what is a difficult and vexed issue that we hope to challenge.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

House adjourned.