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Affordable Housing

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2007

John Hills’ review of social housing underlined the importance of promoting mobility and tackling worklessness. The report has provoked a wide-ranging debate on the role of social housing in the 21st century. We are carrying out a programme of work to address the issues raised.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Hills report says that of 4 million tenants nation wide, only about 5,000 to 6,000 move in any one year owing to employment-related factors, so existing mobility schemes simply do not work. Yet the number of homeless of people who live in socially rented housing is significantly higher than in any other tenures. That means that something must be done. What indications can she give us that she is considering this, and that action will be taken to help those people to get into employment?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. More than half of all social tenants of working age are not in work of any form, and enabling mobility to allow them to take up work must be an important part of our response. Of course, increasing the supply of social housing will be vital, and we plan to continue that, but we must also think about how, within our choice-based lettings schemes, at a local authority level and more broadly, we can enable people to move both within their area and across boundaries. I will say more about that later.

But following the collapse of Move UK earlier this year, when will social housing tenants in my constituency be able to move to another part of the country using something like the national mobility scheme, which the Government inherited in 1997?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I know that he used the opportunity of an Adjournment debate to raise this issue recently. Indeed, national mobility schemes are probably an important part of our response, although I point out to him that there have traditionally been far more mutually arranged exchanges than have ever taken place through a national mobility scheme. One way in which we can make this happen more quickly and easily than by resurrecting any of the old schemes—it was right that we took action when we did to correct a contract failure—is to ensure that choice-based lettings work thoroughly and appropriately to enable choice within the local authority area and, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), to enable people to move on a sub-regional basis across local authority areas or more widely.

According to a recent parliamentary answer to me, mobility has been falling for some time. Last night, I spoke to two tenants in my constituency. One was a single person living in a three double-bedroom flat and seeking to downsize; the other was a family of six living in a one-bedroom flat and hoping to get out of a desperately overcrowded situation. While the match is not exact, as we know, mobility can clearly make a real impact on overcrowding and on homelessness. Will my right hon. Friend commit to a major injection of energy and resources to try to get internal and external mobility back up even to the level that it was at a few years ago?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is working with the Greater London authority to ensure, especially in London, that incentives are given for people who want to change home, particularly to downgrade. I understand that so far about £20 million has been invested to that end. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that it is a priority. We must do more, and we are thinking about all the measures that we can take to make it easier for people to move home.

As the Secretary of State knows, in 1981, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), in a Conservative Government, introduced a scheme that allowed social housing tenants to move to new homes anywhere in the United Kingdom and retain their secure tenure. This year, under a Labour Government, the scheme has collapsed, scores of people have lost their jobs and tens of thousands of tenants have been left in the lurch, with no new homes to which to move and no scheme in place to offer support. After the incompetent introduction of home information packs and penal stamp duty, which have made it much more difficult for home owners to move, the Government have now made it much more difficult for social tenants to move. May we have a word of apology?

I clearly regret the failure of Move UK. It was set up to replace an already failing scheme, which did not deliver appropriate moves for tenants throughout the country. As I have already said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), far more moves took place under mutually agreed exchanges than any national mobility scheme ever produced. Clearly, the performance of the new scheme was unsatisfactory and I regret that. We must now work urgently to try to develop a choice-based lettings scheme, which is a preferable method of encouraging mobility, especially because most local authority tenants want to move in their area and fairly close to home—perhaps for child care support or employment reasons—and we must then work quickly to expand that scheme so that people have the opportunity to move across the country.

Will my right hon. Friend also address the issue of enforced mobility in the social housing sector whereby people who live in terribly overcrowded conditions are forced to move away, as she says, from their jobs and homes to find satisfactory accommodation? Will she examine the Housing Corporation-funded scheme that was piloted by Luton community housing association, which enabled social housing to be extended in the same way as we have loft and other extensions in our homes, to enable families to retain their jobs, places at schools and all the links with their communities rather than being forced to move?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is right that social tenants have choice just as it is right for people who own their homes to choose whether to move, build an extension or convert their loft. That is precisely why we are working with the Greater London authority and others in London to give people the opportunity to convert their social homes so that they have more choice about whether to move or stay where they are.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, if the Government’s policies push an extra 500,000 families on to the council house waiting list—as they have done—the pressure will reduce mobility, not increase it? Is not the cure to build more social housing? On balance, does she believe that mobility will be improved or worsened if the housing allocation policy of the Minister for Industry and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), were adopted nationally?

Of course the answer is to build more homes. That is why I am proud that the Labour Government are building more private sector homes as well as increasing the number of homes that are built in the social sector. The hon. Gentleman knows that the number of social sector homes has increased by 50 per cent. in the past two years. It is my priority and that of my Department in the comprehensive spending review to put new-build social housing at the top of our list. We must do more—he is right to acknowledge that. However, as he rightly says, it is a matter of increasing the supply of new housing, affordable housing and social homes.

Is the Secretary of State aware that 80 per cent. of the population in my constituency have no chance of buying into the private sector and that the only hope of those who are in overcrowded council accommodation is mobility within the borough or nearby? Yet in London, the chronic shortage of council housing means that it is impossible for many families who live in grossly overcrowded accommodation, with teenagers growing up three or four to a room, to have any chance of getting somewhere decent to live. Will the Government please invest a lot of money quickly in building council houses for rent for people in desperate housing need?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a real issue. I hope that he supports the additional investment that the Government have made in increasing the number of homes available at affordable rent. We must continue to make progress on that. We are now building at a rate of around 30,000 homes a year. We must increase that further to tackle the pressures that he rightly outlines.