It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I welcome the Minister, whom I like and respect in equal measure, to his role. His elevation was overdue and well deserved, and I am delighted that he will be responding. I am grateful to the other Members present for coming, and for deciding to participate in a debate on a subject that is rising rapidly towards the top of the political agenda. That was shown at an early stage by the new Prime Minister’s announcement that the Minister for Housing would attend Cabinet, which demonstrates that this is now one of the biggest political issues in the country.
There is no doubt that there is a big problem with housing provision in this country. The subject of this debate is fairly wide-ranging, and I intend to touch on a number of issues, to which I hope the Minister can respond. First, we should set out some of the problems that we face. A typical first-time buyer is now unable to afford a mortgage in 93 per cent. of towns in the UK. Given recent interest rate rises and future ones to come, it appears that that situation will only get worse. We should be very concerned about that.
I welcome the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that part of the reason for the unaffordability of homes for first-time buyers is the lack of housing supply over the longer term, and that one of the major bugbears is the failure of local communities to recognise the need for more house building?
I will come to that in a few moments. There is no doubt that we need to build more houses of all types. We undoubtedly need more private housing and it seems increasingly clear that we need more social housing provision, too. However, my concern and the focus of my contribution today is not so much the supply side, which the Government appear to be concentrating solely on, but the demand side.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising an important and topical issue. Although he is focusing on the demand side, does he accept that since I came into Parliament, the total number of immigrants to this country each year has increased by 300,000, that that is causing a massive increase in demand, and that it is one of the factors that we should take into account? I am not denigrating the immigrants themselves—this is a matter of public policy that has not been considered by the Government.
There is no doubt that internal migration within the country and external migration into the country are factors—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read my Select Committee’s excellent report, which sets out all the figures, so they are hardly a secret—but will the hon. Gentleman consider demography? The happy fact that we are living longer is responsible for about 40 per cent. of the extra demand.
The hon. Lady is right, and I shall certainly not be suggesting that immigration is the only reason that we need more houses. A number of factors come into play, and my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) rightly pointed out that immigration is one. We should not ignore it. The problem is that the Government have made some 17 statements—either oral or written—on housing, and yet not one has mentioned the effect that immigration is having on housing provision in this country. It is such an important factor that it surely cannot be right that of those 17 different statements, not one has touched on the impact of immigration.
Houses are becoming unaffordable for first-time buyers. Last year, we had the lowest annual total of first-time buyers since 1980—just 315,000. To strike a contrast, back in 1997 there were 503,000 first-time buyers. That shows the scale of the problem that we face. Fewer people are getting on to the housing ladder, and last year saw one of the first falls in the number of owner-occupied houses in this country. The Government should be ashamed of that and anxious to do something about it.
On affordability, the National Housing Federation states that in my local authority area—I would have thought that Bradford was one of the most affordable places in the country, not one of the least—the average house price is about £123,000. The average annual income needed for a mortgage to cover that figure is more than £33,000; however, the average income in Bradford is just over £19,000. Couples might just about be able to afford to buy a house, but in many cases they might not. Single people who want to get on the housing ladder when they leave university or school or enter work for the first time have little chance of getting into the housing market, even in Bradford. I am sure that that problem must be even worse in other parts of the country. We have a big problem.
The Government have decided that the answer is to build 3 million new homes over the next 20 years. My concern is that the focus seems to be entirely on supply. We are just accepting what is happening—and so we need to build 3 million new homes. There must be some mileage in considering the demand side of the equation, as well as the supply side. We are a small island—we cannot get away from our geographical nature—and surely we cannot just keep building more new houses in to the future. Surely someone will say, “That’s it. We’re not prepared to give up any more green fields, green belt, gardens or land.” I am not entirely sure when that point will come, or when the Government think that it will come. Surely it is not sustainable to build 3 million houses every 20 years. At some point, that will have to come to an end.
Is it not deeply disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman, despite his earlier protestations, to make the case that the need for additional housing is primarily or even largely driven by immigration? As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, the increased longevity of Britons is a key factor. In addition, a fundamental driver is household change. The real demand has come because families are no longer living together in the numbers that they used to. Those two factors are overwhelmingly driving the increase in demand. It is disgraceful of him to place that burden on immigration.
I understand the hon. Lady’s reluctance to get into a debate about immigration and its impact on housing. That is part of the problem with which we have been dealing: nobody will address the issues. She is absolutely right. I said earlier that there are many factors at play, and that immigration is only one. Family breakdown is certainly another, and it is a subject that I shall also mention. I have not even come to the numbers yet, so the hon. Lady is not aware of the extent to which I am claiming that immigration plays a role.
My hon. Friend may have seen in the Hansard for 17 July that the party colleague of the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), said:
“In the last three years for which we have data, the number of people coming to this country is about 2 million and the number leaving is about 1 million.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 17 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 8-9WH.]
Those figures may help my hon. Friend to judge the level of housing demand that flows from immigration. He will know that if the House does not address this issue, we will leave a vacuum into which the fundamentalist parties will come, which will be bad for immigrants and for our democracy.
My hon. Friend is right and I shall come to the figures. In passing, I pay tribute to Sir Andrew Green of Migrationwatch UK, who has used Government figures—not his own—to highlight the problem that we face. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who secured an informative and good debate yesterday on immigration and touched on the issue of housing, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who has done a great deal of work in this field. He has published a pamphlet called, “Too Much of a Good Thing? – Towards a balanced approach to immigration”. I think that it is available in all good bookshops, and I urge Members to have a look at it and to read yesterday’s debate, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex made some pertinent points.
According to the Government’s own figures, 31 per cent. of the new houses built are needed to deal with immigration. That means that of the 3 million houses that the Government have said need to be built, by their own admission 1 million are needed to deal with future migration into this country. They are needed to deal not with the current level of immigration, but with the Government’s projection of future migration, accepting their estimate that there will be a 30 per cent. drop in immigration, and factoring in their figures. That is how much immigration affects the amount of housing required. It is no good our trying to pretend that those figures are not there—they are the Government’s own and we cannot sweep them under the carpet.
The number of asylum seekers granted permission to stay in the UK has exceeded the number of new social houses built by nearly 40,000 in the 10 years since 1997. The number of grants of asylum and extended leave to remain has totalled more than 228,000, compared with the 188,000 additional social and local authority homes built in the period. That is clearly unsustainable. The Government cannot allow it to continue, and then wonder why there is such a shortage of housing at local authority level and for first-time buyers.
Currently, one migrant a minute is coming into this country—the equivalent in population terms of a city the size of Birmingham every three years or so. That level of immigration is completely unsustainable, and unless the Government get to grips with the issue and we have a controlled and sustainable level of immigration, we will not solve the housing crisis that we face.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to say how many people are leaving the country because they are emigrating? Would he also care to say, since he is so keen on the subject, why successive Governments, particularly those of his own party, built so few social houses and encouraged the sale of existing social stock?
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point made clear the net level of immigration. People are leaving the country, but far more people are coming in—that was my hon. Friend’s point. The shortage of social housing is largely fuelled by the increase in the number of people coming into the country through immigration, as the hon. Gentleman will find if he speaks to his colleagues in parts of the east end of London, where this issue is significant.
The hon. Gentleman has made a serious suggestion—I shall not use the word “allegation”, as it is a bit pejorative. Would he like to set out exactly what his evidence is? May I suggest that he should not argue about one area of the country and then generalise from it, as he has just done? The figures clearly show that most migrants to this country go to London. Just as 800,000 people, largely young families, are leaving London every year for the wider south-east, 800,000 migrants from abroad are coming into London to fill the employment gaps left. The hon. Gentleman should not suggest that that is happening across the country and that migration is therefore causing the pressure on social housing. The pressure is everywhere, whether or not there are migrants there.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point, but I was referring to my part of the world—that was the purpose of my seeking the debate. There has been a big increase in the amount of migration into Bradford over many years and particularly in recent years. The point that I was making to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is that there is a severe shortage of social housing in certain parts of London, caused by immigration.
I shall make some progress. I know that others wish to speak, and we could get bogged down for a very long time on this one issue.
I hope that the Government will indicate what effect they feel immigration has had on the amount of new housing required and what they intend to do about it. Do they accept that we need a limit on immigration to this country, and does the Minister accept the figure that I gave—that one third of new housing is needed to deal with immigration?
To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), according to Government figures a lot of the growth in housing need is due to the increase in one-person households. Part of the problem is demographic—nobody would dispute that—but it is also partly caused by family breakdown. A charity based in my constituency called Nightstop UK does a fantastic job in dealing with homeless people between the ages of 16 and 24. I highlight it because it does a superb job across the country in helping young homeless people to find homes.
When homeless people come to Nightstop UK, it does a survey and asks them what the factors relating to their homelessness are. Between 2001 and 2006, 44 per cent.—the single biggest figure—of young people who went to it said that family breakdown was the biggest reason for their homelessness; only 3 per cent. said that it was a lack of accommodation. Family breakdown in one form or another was driving their homelessness. I therefore encourage Members to examine carefully the recommendations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and his social justice policy review group. He made some brave and intelligent observations about what can be done to tackle family breakdown, which causes a great deal of misery to a lot of young people, not just in Shipley but across the country. We need to consider what we can do to tackle that problem.
Despite what I have said, I accept that we need more housing. If the Government were to tackle some of the issues driving the demand for housing, we would not need as much housing as they claim, but I accept that more houses need to be built. One issue to consider is where we are going to build them. I would not like them to be built on green belt land. The amount of housing built on such land has been one of my concerns in the past few years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) promoted a private Member’s Bill last year that would have introduced a rule whereby, once land had been allocated as green belt, it would be green belt for ever. If it is green belt land today, it should surely be green belt land tomorrow; that should not change. The Government will say, “There is as much green belt land now as there was in 1997.” [Hon. Members: “More.”] Indeed, but the issue is that it is not the same green belt land and it is not of the same quality. The Government build houses on some of the most beautiful parts of the country and replace those areas with land that most people would not consider green belt, and which is not of the same quality. To me, that is an erosion of the green belt, whether or not it is so in numbers terms.
Between 1997 and 2004, the Government allowed 162 planning applications for developments on green belt land, although they had the power to stop them. The aviation White Paper proposes aviation expansion resulting in the loss of 700 hectares of green belt land, and about 10,000 acres of green belt are at risk from proposals in draft Government regional plans, including land in Luton, Harlow, Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Coventry, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bournemouth, Poole and Nottingham. I urge the Minister to consider seriously the impact of allowing developments on green belt land, and then trying to cover that up by replacing it with land that is not of the same nature or quality, and pretending that there has been no erosion of the green belt under this Government. It is clear that there has been.
That is a particular problem in my region of Yorkshire and Humber, where 17 per cent. of the land within 1997 designated green belt areas has changed to residential use. That strikes me as an incredibly high figure—the national average in England is 12 per cent. Five per cent. of new dwellings built between 1992 and 2001 were built in 1997 designated green belt areas. I find that unacceptable, and I seriously hope that the Minister will reconsider the protection that we give to green belt land, and not just replace it with other land.
I also hope that the Government will reflect on building on floodplains. We have seen the devastating consequences, particularly in parts of Yorkshire, of building houses on floodplains. This is also a big issue in the Yorkshire and Humber region. The amount of land changing to residential use and the percentage of new dwellings being built in 2002 flood-risk areas is 16 per cent. It is no good allowing and encouraging houses to be built on floodplains and then saying how sorry we are when many of them get flooded, particularly if the response is as inadequate as it has been in many areas, but that is a topic for a different occasion. I hope that if one positive thing comes out of the tragedy experienced in many parts of the country, but particularly in parts of Yorkshire, in the past few weeks, it will be that the Government think again about the sense of building lots of houses on floodplains. All that that does is cause a great deal of misery to many people.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the new planning guidance that the Government introduced about a year ago—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I have got the date wrong—which very much strengthens Environment Agency guidance to local authorities, and enables the agency to call in an application if the council goes ahead and refuses to listen to it. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman supports that Government measure, which will deal with the problem that he identifies.
The hon. Lady must consider the measure as a whole. In a few minutes, I shall discuss some of the pressures that local authorities face in finding places to build houses. Those pressures are driven by the Government’s policy on targets, and if she will bear with me, I will come to that issue shortly. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the problems of building houses on floodplains.
I would also like to see a reluctance to build houses on gardens. My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) has done a great deal to promote a Bill to reclassify gardens from brownfield to greenfield sites. Of course, we all want more houses to be built on brownfield sites.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, because of the concerns that have been expressed throughout the country and, indeed, in this House, the Government have moved to change planning legislation in that regard. It is now possible for local planning authorities to reject such applications.
I will in a moment. I hope that there will be a presumption from now on that houses should not be built on gardens, because doing so blights local areas and completely changes the nature of villages. Places in my constituency such as Baildon, Eldwick and Menston have faced many such applications recently. I hope that there will be a presumption that houses should not be built on gardens and that gardens should be considered greenfield sites.
I congratulate my honourable neighbour on securing this debate. I apologise for the fact that the attractions of a delegated legislation Committee mean that I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate. Does he share my concern that local authorities such as Leeds and perhaps Bradford are not making sufficient use of their current planning powers—such as the action plans in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and planning policy statement 3—to judge applications by the way that they meet housing need, rather than by the profit motive of developers? Also, is he satisfied that local authorities are doing enough to ensure that there is a sufficient proportion of affordable housing, and that that housing is truly affordable, when they do grant planning permission?
I have a great deal of sympathy with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, but we should recognise that local authorities often find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to housing applications. They are faced with piles of planning guidance from central Government, and with targets set for them by the regions—even though the regional assemblies have now been abolished—for the number of houses that have to be built in a certain area. Local authorities have to factor in all those things when deciding on planning applications.
It is no good trying to pretend that local authorities have a free reign in dealing with planning applications, because, as we all know, they do not. They often operate under the threat of a developer taking his case to a planning inspector on appeal, and the planning inspector then overruling the local authority’s decision, at immense cost to the local authority and the council tax payer. We cannot ignore that factor in their deliberations. According to the Government’s figures, a planning inspector overrules a council’s decision in one third of cases, so that threat is always hanging over local authorities.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I would like the Government to give local authorities more freedom in determining planning applications. At the end of the day, they are democratically accountable and best placed to know what is in the best interests of the local area. It is unfortunate that a planning inspector from Bristol will often visit a given area and overrule a democratically accountable and elected local authority that has made a decision that may be popular in the local community.
I certainly welcomed the announcement about abolishing regional assemblies—something that the Conservative party has called for for many years. My concern is that we have not actually moved away at all from the idea that a regional body of unelected, unaccountable and unwanted people should make decisions about the number of houses to be built in a particular area. The Minister accepted yesterday that the spatial planning strategies will still be going ahead as planned, and that the number of houses that the regional body, at the behest of Government policy, will expect my local authority to build will therefore be unchanged. My local authority must find places for those houses, regardless of whether local people want them or whether there are suitable places for them. The local authority is under pressure to find places, so that housing targets can be met.
The Sustainable Communities Bill went through the House of Commons not too long ago with all-party support. Its purpose was to try to ensure that local communities have more say in what happens in their local area. If the Government truly support the Bill, I hope that they will give more power and freedom to local authorities to determine housing applications, without the spectre of planning inspectors and regional targets hanging over them.
I have one final point. I am aware that I have taken up a lot of time, Mr. Cummings, but I have tried to be generous with interventions. One of the things that really irritates my constituents, particularly in Baildon—the village in which I live—is that housing applications are approved and more and more buildings go up, yet there is no infrastructure to support them. In the surveys that I carry out, this is a big issue for local residents. All that happens is that traffic problems and the quality of life get worse. Local people would be much happier if they felt that the infrastructure support followed the amount of housing.
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. We either have a housing shortage or we do not. If we do have a housing shortage, it has to be met and there has to be building somewhere. The point that he makes about the Sustainable Communities Bill is a fair one, but the issue is one for local authorities to decide—including, I suggest, his own. I was on the Committee that considered that Bill, and the thrust of it is that all the appropriate community infrastructure, such as schools, community centres, doctors and so on, must be in place when substantial development takes place. That is basic sense for any planning authority. I am surprised that his planning authorities have not learnt that. What have they been doing over the years?
The hon. Gentleman says that these are basic matters, but this is an issue all around the country. I do not know whether my local authority is unique in terms of the problems that it has experienced. I suspect not, because the issue of housing developments going up and the infrastructure not being there to support them has been raised in virtually every local authority in the country. There are certainly places in my constituency where houses are built and where every available piece of land is sold off to developers and built on. Yet no extra roads or infrastructure is put in place to support those houses, which exacerbates people’s frustration about the number of new houses that are built. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) will know that well, because there is a new planning application on his side of the constituency boundary near Menston, which borders my part of the constituency. A heap of houses are going up on an already congested road, but there will be no more roads built to support them, which just creates more problems for local residents. That is a big problem all around the country.
I assume that the development that the hon. Gentleman is talking about is High Royds. We have known about it for 10 years or more, so the local authority had a huge amount of time to plan, but it never did. That is the point that Labour Members are trying to make: planning powers are not being used as effectively as they could be to create a framework that anticipates pressure on the infrastructure.
I do not wish to get bogged down on a parochial matter, but the hon. Gentleman will also know that an extra 500 houses will be built on my side of the constituency boundary in Menston, on land on which the council did not want to build. The planning inspector put in the unitary development plan against the wishes of local people and the local council. Part of the issue is that the needs and wishes of local councils are overridden by Government bodies.
I apologise for having taken up so much time. I have had a quick canter around a few housing issues that affect my constituents, and which are of concern to many people in the country. I genuinely hope that the Minister will do his best to address some of the points that have been raised.
Housing is vital to my constituents, as it is to the whole country. I am pleased that it is now at the top of the political agenda, for which I have argued for some time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing the debate, although I disagree with some of his more provocative remarks on immigration and the green belt, which I will come back to later. I, too, would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and to welcome the innovation that the Minister for Housing now attends Cabinet.
I am particularly pleased about the strong emphasis on building new housing, particularly new social housing, in the draft legislative programme. Given the legacy of neglect that we inherited, the Government have a good record on investing in the refurbishment of social housing. Progress towards the decent homes standard is important, but not nearly enough has been done to increase supply, both of social housing and affordable housing to buy. That means that in my constituency and many others, thousands of people endure the misery of inadequate and over-crowded housing conditions, which has an appalling effect on their quality of life and on their life chances.
As the drive for more housing gathers pace and with the Green Paper in mind, I am particularly concerned that nothing in that Green Paper or in the language used to describe our housing approach closes off the option of development on appropriate green belt land near Oxford. In the circumstances confronting our area, we must have an urban extension to Oxford if we are to meet housing need, and there is nowhere else for that to go but on present green belt land because green belt boundaries are drawn so close to the built-up area of the city.
Housing provision is a key local concern to those in housing need and to the many people who have grown up in the city and who cannot now afford to live there. The impact of housing provision on the labour market, public services and business activity is raised with me all the time, whether I am meeting the chamber of commerce, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, universities, hospitals, or the trade unions. Just about everybody with an interest in housing provision and the economic vitality of Oxford, which is at the cutting edge of regional and national growth and could contribute still more given room to grow, accepts that we have to modify the green belt. I and local councillors have campaigned hard on this issue. Readiness to go ahead with an urban extension is synonymous locally with being serious about tackling the housing crisis.
There is an overwhelmingly strong case for building more housing in the south-east, particularly in central Oxfordshire. The city’s housing needs survey, which was conducted by Fordhams, identified a need for 1,700 to 1,800 new affordable properties a year. I would like to press the case for agreeing with the “Barker Review of Land Use Planning”, which states that the green belt policy
“has…in some parts of Southern England...had some unsatisfactory consequences”.
Barker’s interim report notes that there are now some 27,000 more jobs than residents in Oxford, which has led to large numbers of commuters “jumping”—to use the phrase that she used—the green belt every day. Of course, in practice, people are not so much jumping the green belt as crawling through it in the polluting traffic jams that creep in and out of the city each day.
Recommendation 9 of the Barker review states:
“Regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should review green belt boundaries as part of their regional spatial strategy/local development framework processes to ensure that they remain relevant and appropriate, given the need to ensure that any planned development takes place in the most sustainable location”.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
To meet the enormous backlog of social housing need in Oxford there is a strong case for one or more urban extensions of the city into the green belt, with a compensating extension of the green belt elsewhere. The city has unique economic needs, which can best be met within or adjacent to it. The substantial scale of housing needs within the central Oxfordshire sub-region cannot be accommodated in the county’s towns alone. There is an opportunity to build truly sustainable communities, associated with the city; also, new infrastructure is more sustainable and the associated costs are lower in proximity to the city.
Oxford city already has a very good brownfield development record. It is consistently the local authority with the highest rate in the country of reuse of existing sites for development. Yet that development has manifestly failed to meet the city’s substantial need for new homes. Moreover, the scope for additional housing in the built-up area is rapidly becoming exhausted, with unacceptable pressures on existing residential areas and green spaces in the city, including gardens, which the hon. Gentleman talked about. I very much hope that with the Green Paper and the south-east plan examination under way, the chance will now be taken to review the central Oxfordshire green belt, in the light of the overwhelming evidence, as well as the recommendations of the Barker review.
Before I draw my remarks to a close, let me knock on the head the nonsense that is heard from opponents of house building that those of us who believe in tackling market failure and responding to people’s real housing needs somehow want to concrete over south-east England. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Barker review analysis showed, outside London just 12.2 per cent. of land is currently developed. We can both build the extra houses that are needed and preserve the distinctive beauty of the English countryside. We can also respect the greatest aesthetic and ecological characteristic of cities such as Oxford by protecting the green wedges—the corridors of countryside that come right into the city centre, which, if we do not review the green belt, will come under inexorable pressure.
Some hon. Members may have seen a comment piece by Tristram Hunt in The Observer last Sunday, which claimed that Ministers
“advocated ripping up Britain’s green belt to solve the housing crisis.”
Ministers have said no such thing. They have argued that the primary source of land for new housing should be brownfield sites, but that local circumstances must be examined through the planning process. My argument is that within the overall provision of green belt protection we urgently need a review of the green belt in central Oxfordshire, to provide for housing and the continued economic vitality of the city. Those such as Tristram Hunt and the Campaign to Protect Rural England who maintain blanket opposition to any building in the green belt fail to understand that although it has an important role in preventing urban sprawl it is also responsible, in places such as Oxford, for urban strangulation. Such cities face enormous pressures, because of an over-tight green belt, including the loss of valued green spaces inside the city, the proliferation of houses in multiple occupation and flats, which are destroying the character of residential areas, the environmental degradation and congestion caused by thousands of commuters crossing the green belt every day, and a catastrophic housing shortage, with a real risk that Oxford and places like it will become affordable only to a small elite.
Mr. Hunt suggested in his article that developing part of the green belt might
“butter up the Home Builders Federation”.
My message to him is that it would alleviate the suffering and distress of families who live in overcrowded conditions, whose children cannot live in the city they grew up in, and would do something to help those in temporary or inadequate privately rented accommodation. I urge my hon. Friends in Government to be resolute and energetic in the drive for the new homes that we need, and, where the social, environmental and economic arguments point to the need for modest changes in the green belt, to get on and make them, using, of course, all the proper procedures, so that those whom we represent, who need and deserve decent housing, can get it.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing the debate, and welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his position. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) I also welcome the higher profile that housing has now secured, even if I do not necessarily welcome all the ways in which the issue is presented, including some that we heard from the hon. Gentleman. We look forward very much to next week’s housing Green Paper as a further demonstration of the Government’s renewed commitment to tackling what we all agree is both a crisis of affordable housing to buy and, particularly, a shortage of rented accommodation for people in housing need.
It is important to understand the full range of reasons that have driven that level of housing need in recent years. We accept that there is now a backlog affecting housing provision, because of a decades-long failure of the house building industry to meet need. It was only two years ago that private sector house building fell to its lowest rate since 1926. The pent-up demand that is now in the system is in large part driven by that failure. Of course, in the social rented sector it is also driven by a near halving of supply in many areas of the country, because of the impact of the right to buy. We all support the right to buy. It represented, in many ways, the biggest shift of wealth to poorer people that has ever happened in this country. However, for decades we failed to replace the stock, and as a consequence the people occupying many of the properties that were sold under the right to buy are no longer of the same profile as those who seek social rented housing. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of the impact.
I think that all Labour Members recognise also—I am sure that we shall hear more about this, Mr. Cummings, if my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who chairs the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, catches your eye—that there has been a rise in demand, which is driven by several factors. Those include, certainly, household change and the growth of single person households, the impact of the buy-to-let market and second home ownership, which have also had a significant impact on housing provision, and, indeed, to a certain extent, migration.
I, certainly, have no difficulty with discussing the impact of migration on housing, but, of course, this is not a debate on migration, and it is important that we try to focus only on the implications for housing. However, let us be very clear about who these people are, and why, in certain cases, we have a housing obligation to them. Primary immigration to this country has not occurred for decades. People arriving in this country are doing so through a number of routes, and some of them are entitled to housing, particularly social housing, but many, of course, are not.
In my constituency, I have seen the impact of immigration through the refugee and asylum routes. I invite the hon. Gentleman, and anyone else who doubts the legitimacy of the housing claims of people in that situation, to come and meet some of those individuals, and to tell me that they do not have a reasonable claim to social housing. Under this blanket description of migration and its impact on housing, we are in grave danger of forgetting human beings: who they are, what their circumstances are and the fact that, in many cases, they have come from the worst places and circumstances in the world. We have an absolute obligation to ensure that their needs are met.
My hon. Friend has just made an excellent point, but would she agree that those who have fled persecution and made their homes in this country are making a fantastic economic and social contribution to our society? Without the levels of migration that we have had, London would simply stop.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One need only look at London’s public services, and hospitality and retail industries to see that that is the case. The statistics, of course, bear that out.
Setting aside asylum seekers who, of course, do not qualify for social housing, as well as those who have had a claim for asylum accepted, and become refugees and British citizens, many migrants simply do not have a claim to social housing. That is often forgotten given this blanket acceptance that migrants can arrive off the boat or through the channel tunnel and immediately be given priority on the housing waiting list; and I am afraid that quite often that mythology is consciously stirred up, which causes enormous damage to community cohesion.
The truth is that competition for social rented housing has come about because the number of people—there has been a relatively modest increase—seeking social housing are being squashed into an ever reducing number of social rented tenancies. If, through the additional investment that we are looking forward to in the comprehensive spending review and proposals in the housing Green Paper, we can redress some of that shortfall, not only will we meet the desperate housing needs of the homeless and those living in seriously over-crowded housing, but we will do something very important for community cohesion.
Does the hon. Lady not think that after 10 years of a Labour Government, something should have been done already? In those 10 years, the situation has got much worse, rather than better. Is that not a sad indictment of this Labour Government?
The number of times that I have said in this place that I am personally disappointed that the building of social housing has not been a higher priority for the Government would probably run into three figures. I think that it should have been a priority, but unfortunately that has not been the case, although in fairness to the Government they have been dealing with a decades-long backlog of housing in poor condition, because it was neglected by the previous Administration, and billions have been spent on the decent homes initiative, which has improved the quality of life for tens of thousands in my constituency. Not everything can be a priority at the same time, but I would have liked to have seen more house building.
We are now seeing, however, an extension of house building in London. I welcome very much the fact that the Mayor of London has given housing such a high priority; his housing strategy is driving forward additional housing construction. However, I ask my hon. Friend, the Minister, to keep his eye on the ball, because some local councils, particularly Conservative ones, are saying, on the one hand, “We want more house building,” but, on the other hand, when it comes to house building in their local areas, they are saying, “No, we are putting up the signs. We are full here and we do not want any more homes.” Sadly, that has been exacerbated since a number of councils became Conservative-controlled last year following the London elections. We have seen an immediate reduction in the number of properties coming on stream and being made available.
My hon. Friend has made exactly my point, and I hope that the Minister will address it in his closing remarks. If the onus again is to be put on councils to build houses—we welcome that commitment—what do the Government intend to do about Conservative councils such as Wandsworth borough council, which is building about 12 per cent. affordable housing, and Hammersmith and Fulham council, which is halving the targets for affordable housing in its borough? Fuelled by the sort of inflammatory remarks that we hear from Opposition Members, there is a willingness to decrease the amount of social housing, rather than to increase it.
I believe that the last period for which we have figures showed that my council in Westminster achieved only 21 per cent. of housing building at the affordable end of the spectrum, against a target of 50 per cent. We need not just more house building, but more that is not at the luxury end of the market. Luxury house building was one of the reasons that even properties being built were not providing homes for first-time buyers and those who do not have hundreds of thousands of pounds to spend on their own homes.
Supply is the key to resolving many of these problems, and we need a grown-up contribution from politicians of all parties and councils. We cannot build houses in the abstract; they have to be built in communities. Local councils and politicians need to show some leadership, step up to the plate, demand sustainability and ensure that facilities are in place to support those communities. They must also take on the leadership role to ensure more homes.
I have one or two other quick points: although supply is the key, the Government need to do a lot more on the demand side of the equation. I am not with the hon. Member for Shipley and some of his proposals, but we must ensure that we have a home swap system that actually works. Many people want to exchange their own homes, but we have not had in place for a long time, I am afraid, an effective mechanism that allows people choice and flexibility in moving between homes.
We need also proper investment in measures that allow those under-occupying to trade properties for ones that they want. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in homes too large, strictly speaking, for their household size. Those are their homes and nobody should force them to move, but many of them would move if an option were available that met their needs and they were given an incentive. A financial incentive of a meaningful size would be a considerably cheaper strategy than house building. I am afraid that it beggars belief that we have not managed to crack that particular nut.
I, and many of my colleagues, were very relieved when the recent John Hills inquiry into social housing rejected the siren calls for an end to the security of tenancies for people in social housing. However, it was alarming once again to see a report launched this morning by the Smith Institute, which flags up the possibility of ending the security of tenure. That report opened with the words:
“Shelter and security are the most basic of human needs”.
And so say all of us. It made other good points:
“The government should stop talking up home ownership as the only solution”—
to housing pressures—
“and support the rapid expansion of the rented sector and social housing in particular.”
So there is much to commend.
However, the report went on to say, alarmingly, that a
“simple reapplication for tenancy every five years”
would ensure that those who remained eligible for social rented accommodation would remain in that accommodation. Presumably, if they were not eligible, they would be out on their ear. That must be resisted. It would be a disaster of epic proportions for those people who are often the most vulnerable in society, many of whom have been down the homelessness route, if they thought that they had a home for life and the rug was pulled out from under them. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to say that that proposal is unacceptable and would damage only those people who need most assistance.
The current measure has been a long time coming, but we need more measures than simply the expansion of social housing and house building generally—which the Government have announced—including measures to tackle demand. Let us get on with that task and ensure that local councils are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Above all, let us not scapegoat individuals, be they homeless families, people in housing need or immigrants, as the sole cause of what is actually a very complex problem.
I will abide by your suggestion, Mr. Cummings. I welcome the debate and the fact that a Green Paper comes out next week. I hope that that Green Paper will at last enable the corner to be turned on the housing crisis in this country. I also hope that it will at last level the playing field for tenants of council estates or any other council tenant, so that the fourth option will be accepted and it will be legitimate for tenants to vote for an arm’s length management organisation, for a private finance initiative, for a stock transfer or to remain as council tenants and receive exactly the same investment and treatment that is so necessary for them.
I pay tribute to the Government for the amount of money that has been put into improving existing stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) is correct to say that that has been a major priority and it has meant a real change in the lives of many people who now have new kitchens, new roofs, new windows and new heating systems. There has been fundamentally a great improvement. That issue was sadly neglected by the Conservative Government in all those 18 years. There has been a major improvement and a major step forward.
The area that I represent, like that of my hon. Friend, is inner-city London, where the housing crisis is most acute. I hope that the Green Paper will recognise that unless a substantial number of council properties are built in the areas of highest housing stress, we will all pay a price. More than 900,000 children in this country live in grossly overcrowded accommodation. The effect on their lives is dramatic. They underachieve at school, they over-attend at doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, and they overachieve in crime and social disorder. Teenage children growing up in overcrowded flats on estates or anywhere else simply cannot socialise at home. Therefore they go out, and all the other problems emanate from that.
If we want to improve social cohesion in our society, the best way to do that is through huge investment in the housing needs of the very poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. The current crisis means that local authorities cannot house people in normal council housing or with registered social landlords or housing associations, because there is nowhere for them to go. Instead, they are put in private rented accommodation, most of which is paid for through housing benefit.
I shall give an example. This morning, I visited a family living in a one-bedroomed flat—two teenage children, one small child and the parents were all sharing one tiny bedroom. The flat was damp, mice-infested and leaked, and the extraction equipment of the restaurant down below pumped straight into the bedroom windows. That is a private rented flat. The rent is £780 a month, all of which is paid through housing benefit. In other words, the public sector is paying £780 a month for a family to live in absolute misery. The only beneficiaries from that are the private sector landlords. It is simply an insane form of investment. How much better would it be to put money into bricks and mortar and build new places, rather than subsidising slum landlords, who exist all over London at present? I hope that when the housing Green Paper comes out, we will understand the absolute priority that should be attached to doing that.
I hope that the Green Paper, in recognising housing needs, will also recognise that many people living in the private rented sector, who do not necessarily depend on benefits to stay there but who are paying a very high rent, look to have some form of control and security—some form of secure future. In my constituency, there has been a very big increase in buy to rent. That means that many people are living unstable and insecure lives. Some form of security is needed for people living in that situation.
As I have only five minutes in which to speak, my last point will be on registered social landlords and housing associations. I recognise that RSLs have built quite a lot of places, although unfortunately nowhere near enough, as councils have not built anything over the past few years. There are questions about the management of housing associations, the efficiency of that management and the accountability of those who manage housing associations. I hope that the Green Paper will look towards a degree of accountability in that respect, because many of my constituents have real problems with housing associations, and housing associations themselves have financial problems that too often they solve by selling off vacant flats that are desperately needed for the social sector.
I hope that the Government will recognise that yes, we have had great achievements in improving existing council stock, but we must provide new homes for social rent. I say that because 75 or 80 per cent. of people in my constituency have no chance whatever of buying anywhere. The only route out of misery and poverty for them is through the provision of good-quality social housing through the local authorities. I hope that the Green Paper will recognise that and that we will turn the corner and end the misery being experienced by so many people living in inner-city Britain at the present time.
I shall use my constituency as an example of the way in which economic growth, a thriving economy, migration and housing are interlinked—not in the negative way that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) described, but in an extremely positive way.
Milton Keynes, as everyone knows, is a new city; it is 40 years old this year, but is still relatively new. It has been an immensely successful place, largely, I have to say, because of where it is, which is absolutely the right place to attract industry without any public subsidy at all. As a result, over the past decade 35,500 jobs have been created in Milton Keynes, and obviously that has required the creation of housing for the individuals working in Milton Keynes, but even so we have net inward migration daily, according to the 2001 census, of 16,000 people. I am sure that the figure is much bigger now, but I do not actually have a hard figure. We still have considerably more jobs than houses. Nevertheless, over the past year Milton Keynes topped the league in the south-east for the number of houses that were built. Last year, it was 1,857 houses—nearly twice the number for the second-placed town, which is Basingstoke—and 777 of those were for housing associations. The majority would have been for shared ownership, but a significant number would have been social rented housing.
We are creating jobs and building new houses. On the whole, Milton Keynes is a huge success. It is a place that people like living in. It has many lovely green spaces. I never tire of reminding the House that it is built on greenfield land—what was low-grade agricultural land—and that the biodiversity level in Milton Keynes, as evidenced by surveys of animals, insects and plants, is hugely greater now than it was when it was the monoculture that pervades across most of the rest of that bit of Buckinghamshire.
Milton Keynes is green, it is a nice place to live, and people choose to go there because they like it. It is also a city that is built on migration. There are, obviously, people living there who were born there, but the vast majority of people in Milton Keynes, including me, have come from somewhere else. They have come either from somewhere else in the UK—many are from London—or from outside it. That has added to the vitality and innovative nature of Milton Keynes and is a huge asset to the whole community of Milton Keynes. It is not a deficit; it is an asset. We as a country should regard migration in that way—as an asset.
Apart from the fact that we get new skills and new people, we are also redressing the rather bizarre demographic balance of our population, which, because we are living longer, is very overburdened—if I may use that phrase, as an elderly person myself nearly—with people who are moving into retirement and therefore need people of working age to pay taxes to keep them in the manner to which we have all become accustomed. That is partly what the migrant population is doing. It is redressing our demographic imbalance and ensuring that we have a thriving economy so that those of us who are moving into retirement or are retired have some hope of having a decent retirement because there will be a decent working population paying taxes.
Notwithstanding the success that is Milton Keynes, there is still a huge demand for market housing, shared housing and particularly for social rented housing. The effect of that on families can be extremely detrimental. I was mildly amused by the hon. Gentleman’s comment that we should do something about family breakdown as that would reduce the need for housing. If we do not build more housing, there will be more family breakdown, because nothing is more conducive to family breakdown than families living in the sorts of situations that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) described, of which we are all aware from our constituencies—certainly we Labour Members are, anyway. There are families living in wholly unsuitable accommodation, usually in the private sector although there is sometimes overcrowding in the social sector, and paying enormous housing costs on top of that, so they are living in poor conditions and are under severe financial stress.
I seem to have overrun, but I want to throw another point into the pot about infrastructure. The next stage of development in Milton Keynes is a wonderful example of how the private and public sectors can work together to come up with a solution to deal with the infrastructure problem—the Milton Keynes infrastructure tariff, which is sometimes called a roof tax. We have been able to do that because we have a forward plan for the next 10 years and we know what infrastructure will be required with schools and so on. There is a list, which we can cost and then divvy up between the number of houses that are going to be built, which comes out at £18,500 per house. All the developers are happy to pay their share through section 106 because they know what it is being spent on and that the developers at the front-end will pay the same as those at the end. They know that, between them all, they will get the infrastructure that is required, thanks to the Treasury front-loading it as well, so that our schools are built before the houses are built. That model benefits everyone, and could be followed. Other local authorities should consider proper ways of using section 106.
I shall not give way to the hon. Lady, who has only just come in, as we are very tight on time.
Other councils should consider proper uses of section 106, particularly the Tory councils that argue that there should not be planning gain supplement. They must come up with more effective ways of using the gain that landowners and private developers get out of planning permission to pay for the infrastructure that facilitates their profits.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing this debate, but I suggest that there might have been a slight mismatch between the title of the debate and his contribution. I welcome the Minister to his new role and congratulate the Government on placing housing at the top of their agenda, as the hon. Gentleman said at the start of the debate.
The issue at the forefront is making housing affordable for the many and not just the few. Members on both sides of the House look forward to next week’s statement and Green Paper. Of course, there are demand issues, which we have talked about a little, but I think that the focus will primarily be on long-term supply, because such issues have developed over a long period. We can all remember back to the ’50s and ’60s, when it was not unusual for 300,000 houses to be built in a year. The Government are saying, and I agree wholeheartedly, that we need a significant and sustained increase in supply. The figure of 3 million houses has been mentioned, which I welcome as a recognition of the need that exists. We are also talking about a planning Bill to speed up the development process, and about partnerships between Departments in order to assemble the land that will make all that possible. We are doing all that in the context of trying to protect the environment and to build mainly on brownfield land.
I had a great deal of sympathy with the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) for greater flexibility. We all know the problems: we face an acute housing shortage, and it is simple to see why. We are producing roughly 160,000 to 180,000 new homes a year, but household formation, of whatever sort, is running at 220,000 a year, so there is an enormous need out there. It is not just about first-time buyers, although they do face significant problems. In London, the average deposit for a first-time buyer is about £40,000. How many people can afford that? They are having to take on mortgages of five to six times their income. Such levels have not been seen since the 1980s, and it is tough out there for many first-time buyers.
Many people cannot afford to own their own house, and there are 500,000 overcrowded homes in the country. We all know the impact that that has on health, education and children’s future prospects. Some 90,000 people are homeless or in temporary accommodation, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to halving that number in the next few years. Given the enormous need out there, when people say, “Yes, we need to build more homes, but let’s not have too many or have them in my area,” I wonder how they would answer the question of how first-time buyers are to get on to the property ladder. What do they say about people who are homeless?
The case has been made that we need to increase supply; indeed, it was made by Kate Barker in her report, which said specifically that the level of market housing is relatively stable. The problem has primarily and most acutely been with the level of building of social, rented accommodation, which is at a quarter of that in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. We all know why that happened, and we need to respond. The Government have responded in some ways. They have recognised and increased the provision of social, rented accommodation in the past few years, particularly this year, but we need to do more if we are to solve our housing problem.
Cambridge university has carried out several studies on housing, and it suggests that we need 10,000 to 20,000 additional new homes per year. I do not suggest that those figures should be a target, but I understand that the Select Committee has endorsed them as a place to start, at least. We must recognise that there is a great deal more to do, and that there are ways of dealing with these matters. We should use more modern construction methods to build homes more quickly. I hope that the mythical £60,000 house that the previous Deputy Prime Minister used to talk about can still become a reality.
We also need to think about having more family-sized accommodation rather than the one and two-bedroom units that seem to be churned out. Infrastructure has been mentioned. We must all recognise that the sustainability of the communities that we are creating has to be a major priority—my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East touched on that important issue. If we are to balance all the different aspects, we need to take regional factors into account. The Select Committee discussed that issue, and others have commented on it. The housing provision issues in London differ from those in the wider south-east or in Oxford. We need to take on board local opinion, knowledge and experience. The regional housing boards have an important role to play if we are to get the balance right regarding the type of accommodation that we are delivering.
Thank you, Mr. Cummings. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing an important debate. Given the respect that I have for things that I have heard him say previously, regrettably, I cannot congratulate him on his analysis of the solutions to the housing problems facing this country. Family breakdown is an issue, but his party’s proposals for a tax break for married couples, irrespective of whether or not they have children, will hardly solve the problem, just as it did not in the 1970s. I was sad to hear him raise an immigration scare as being the answer to the housing problem.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) talked about the Select Committee report and gave the example of 80,000 people from London moving out to the south and the same number of immigrants moving in. The 80,000 people moving into London would not constitute 80,000 households, because many of them are young, single, eastern Europeans coming to work temporarily, for two or three years, before going home with their savings, and they are living in rented flats in multiple occupation. I can think of a small number of Polish workers who are doing the same thing even in Chesterfield, which has a small immigrant population.
In my constituency, immigration accounts for 3 per cent. or less of the population, and many of those people are second or third-generation English people. A huge housing problem exists even there. The waiting list for social housing in Chesterfield has trebled in the past 10 years, and that has nothing to do with immigration.
There is a housing crisis, so, like the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), I am pleased that this debate is taking place. Like him, I have been raising the issue since I entered Parliament—that was six years ago. The hon. Member for Shipley rightly said that there was a need for more private house building. The home ownership figure in this country is 71 per cent.—the highest in Europe—and it is difficult to see how much higher that can be pushed. The private housing market is overheated and under-supplied; first-time buyers and key workers cannot buy. Last week, in response to a statement by the Prime Minister, one hon. Member gave the example of an affordable flat in London that went on the market at £300,000. That makes a nonsense of much of the talk about providing affordable housing for people to buy.
Unless we do something about the housing market, we are in danger of entering another negative equity slump such as the one that we experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s. Mortgage debt has increased by 150 per cent.; lending is at three to three-and-a-half times people’s income; interest rates have increased and are still climbing; the number of people in debt has doubled, and the number of repossessions has trebled this year compared with last year; and the fixed rates for the mortgages of 2 million people will end in the next 18 months. Therefore, the problem will get much worse in the near future.
Where will the new build come from to help us start to tackle the issue of the supply of houses for people to buy? The situation is not as bad as some people paint it: builders have a land bank for about 200,000 houses, which is a year’s supply; identified brownfield sites will provide about 1 million houses; and there is scope for 1 million new housing premises over shops and commercial premises in cities and towns across the country. If we were to let councils have more flexibility and control, instead of having to respond to diktat from regional government offices and from London, they, too, would be able to bring more land on stream.
My constituency contains brownfield sites that are waiting to be developed. It is doing a good job on brownfield sites. It also contains greenfield sites—not green belt sites—that were identified for housing nearly 30 years ago, but they are rightly not being brought into housing use until all the brownfield areas have been redeveloped.
The greatest gap in the speech made by the hon. Member for Shipley was on the need for social housing—I believe that he allocated just six words to that. The waiting list for social housing has increased from 1 million to 1.6 million in the 10 years of this Government, which is a disgrace. Some 1 million children live in overcrowded accommodation, and 130,000 children live in unsuitable, temporary accommodation. Councils have been forced to privatise their housing stock, and are starved of funds if they do not. Only 4,000 council houses were built in the past 10 years, compared with 400,000 in the first 10 years of even Mrs. Thatcher’s Government. We are told that housing associations are the answer, but they have not even built enough houses every year in the past 10 years to replace the right-to-buy losses.
Thank you, Mr. Cummings, but I am not the Home Secretary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing this debate. The mere fact that there have been so many diverse contributions shows how interesting the House finds the subject of housing. I also congratulate the Minister on his first ministerial appearance in this Chamber. Perhaps he could take the message back to the House authorities that a full-day debate in Government time on housing would be worth the investment.
We are beginning to drill down into what the issues are. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) pointed out that longevity is one of the issues involved in the demand for housing. I am approaching my 60th birthday. I maintain that 60 is the new 40, but I am a victim of longevity. Several hon. Members referred to single-household formation and family breakdown, and those are also relevant issues.
I commend to all hon. Members the extensive report by the Commission on Social Justice, because its analysis is spot on and its recommendations will help us to move towards healing many places in our society.
I do not think that anyone disagreed with the view that migration was part of the reason for increased demand. There are many forms of migration, including internal migration, which the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West mentioned. We are also well aware of positive inward migration into this country from other countries. It is accepted by the Government and is good for the economy. I do not have a problem with it, provided that it is controlled, that there are proper border police, and that we have clear knowledge about whom we are welcoming into this country.
The previous Home Secretary said that the Home Office was “not fit for purpose”. Part of the reason for that was that the immigration and nationality directorate was unable to deal with the flow of migrants and the people that we have here. That has been confirmed by a written answer that I received recently from the Home Office, saying that it would be five years before many cases will be sorted out. If people wait five years for a decision, not only will we have a dislocated society; we will also be unable to take the greatest advantage of those who are legitimately here, so that they can get into the economy.
Like everyone else, I look forward to next week’s Green Paper. I hope that it is in better shape than that reported by Peter Riddell in The Times, that there is meat and substance to it, and that it addresses the issue of the green belt. Last week, the Secretary of State indicated that she was thinking of not defending the green belt, but by that very afternoon No. 10 had issued a denial. I hope that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) has noted that denial and that the green belt will remain inviolate.
Yesterday, a statement was made on ending the regional assemblies and giving control over housing to even more undemocratic organisations—the regional development agencies. I must declare an interest: my husband is not only leader of East Sussex county council but deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency. There are issues on which he and I do not necessarily have to agree. This is already on the record, but I believe that SEEDA or any other development agency making any decisions about housing in the south-east takes away from local people control over their own environment. The best way to get people to acknowledge that they want housing is for them to own that decision, rather than for it to be dictated by central control, as is already the leitmotif of this new Government. After three weeks, we have gone back to the old socialism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister, Mr. Cummings. You are my next-door neighbour in terms of parliamentary constituencies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing an important debate. I like and respect him too. We worked well together on the Modernisation Committee. This has been a fascinating and important debate, reflecting the importance of the subject. Its energy, vibrancy and passion have made it extremely interesting, although at times I thought that I was in a debate on immigration and that I had been transported back in time to the 1950s. It is important that we have had this debate to ensure that this issue is at the top of the political agenda.
I do not have much time left in which to speak. I want to respond to all the points made by hon. Members. If I do not manage to do so, with their permission, I shall write to them. As a starting point, it is worth setting out where we started. Over the past 10 years, a great deal of improvement has been made in housing. Home owners have seen the value of their properties increase, thanks in some degree to sustained economic growth, stability and an implicit recognition on the part of home owners that interest rates will remain historically low and stable for the foreseeable future. The number of households living in non-decent housing in the social sector has fallen by more than 1 million. Concerted action means that homelessness is down by nearly 30 per cent., and the number of people sleeping rough has fallen from 1,850 on a single night in 1998 to just over 500 last year. Local authorities are also on course to halve the number of households living in temporary accommodation by 2010.
A climate of economic growth and stability, unlike the boom and bust of previous decades, has led to 1 million more home owners over the past 10 years. I welcome that, because it is absolutely right—indeed, vital—that the Government facilitate such ambitions and aspiration for hard-working families.
Most hon. Members who participated in the debate referred to demographics and how that squeezes demand. We have an ageing population, and more of us are living alone as a result of social changes, which produces a demand for new and rented homes. That imbalance is growing as demand rises faster than supply. As house prices have increased faster than wages, it has become increasingly difficult for young people to get on the housing ladder. It is important that we act now to ensure that present and future generations can access the housing market and reap the benefits of home ownership.
Projections show that on average, from now until 2026, 223,000 additional households are needed each year. In 2006, 185,000 extra homes were delivered, giving a shortfall of almost 40,000 homes. Unless we act now to address the problem, the serious problems of affordability will continue to worsen, further pricing people out of the market. Let us be blunt. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, ignore the problem and hope that some other community will deal with the matter that Opposition Members have alluded to.
A fundamental question—I do not think the Conservative party has addressed it—is how to ensure that our children, first-time buyers and young families will be able to afford homes in their own communities without relying on help from their families. Some families cannot tap into wealth. We must do something about that, and the Government are addressing the matter in a way that other parties are not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and others rightly mentioned the imbalance in supply. In her review of housing supply, which was published in 2004, Kate Barker recognised that there had been an under-supply of new housing for many years, and called for a step change to address that. The Government’s response in 2005 set out an ambition to increase the rate of new housing supply in England to 200,000 a year over the next decade, alongside a package of measures to reform the planning system, provide more social housing and protect the environment.
I return to what I would like to see in housing, which is the biggest domestic issue facing this country, and facing aspiration and our ability to fulfil our potential as a country. There seems to be an issue, because Conservative Members say that they fully understand the need for housing and agree full scale that there is a need for extra housing, but not in their communities. That is reminiscent of the phrase,
“Lord, make me pure, but not yet.”
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said, we need a grown-up discussion about how local authorities can engage properly in a regional and local debate about the availability of affordable and social housing in all our communities. The suggestion of putting up signs saying, “This community is full up”—that is what the hon. Member for Shipley seemed to allude to—is unsustainable. Conservative Members must ensure that we have that grown-up debate, and facilitate and lead it in their communities. Tory MPs sign early-day motions saying that we cannot have more housing in their areas, such as Cambridgeshire and East Sussex, but that is simply wrong and does not help to fulfil the potential of those areas .
That is the fundamental point. Targets have been set so low, and 30 additional houses in a county is unacceptable, given the level of economic potential and development that could be there.
In conclusion—I realise that I am out of time, Mr. Cummings—I pledge to write to every hon. Member here.