Skip to main content

Housing (West Ham)

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2007

Before I outline some of the difficulties faced by my constituents because of pressure on the housing market in Newham, I want to welcome the commitment in the Queen’s Speech to a housing and regeneration Bill, and in particular to increasing the amount of new social housing to be built. The key challenge will be to ensure that homes that have already been promised are provided.

I want to focus on housing pressures in my constituency which need to be addressed if the Government’s aim of ensuring that everyone has access to a decent, affordable home is to be realised. My first concern is that the new homes built in my constituency should be suitable for the people who most need them. To put it simply, we must build homes for those who are in the most need—those who are already on the housing list for affordable, acceptable accommodation. I speak particularly of the 5,000 people in Newham who are housed in temporary accommodation for years on end, shunted from property to property because their salary does not allow them to get their foot on the first rung of the housing ladder.

Let us not misunderstand what that means to those families. They are often shunted from home to home as their leases finish. They do not have the stability that comes with a permanent home. They do not manage to put down roots; they cannot sign on doctors’ lists; they cannot participate in local leisure clubs; they cannot participate in the community in which they live. Children must often move schools, or travel long distances for their education, which makes it difficult for them to fulfil their potential. That situation obviously does not make for a good community, but neither does it make for an equal society. Moving home is also an expensive business, and the cost affects the very poorest people in society.

There is currently a waiting list of 30,000 for Newham. We must build enough homes to ensure that each of those 30,000 households can find an appropriately sized home at a price they can afford. The waiting list for a two-bedroomed property in Newham is about eight years, rising to 10 years for a three-bedroomed property and 13 years for a four-bed. That is the waiting list for a property—not a house. I hope that the Minister will accept that those waiting times are far too long. It is larger family homes that are most urgently needed in the borough, but those are the least likely to be built.

In a prime example earlier this year of the pressure on housing in Newham, a three-bedroomed council property in Plaistow was named by Roof magazine as the UK’s most desirable property, not because of any palatial views or extensive landscaped gardens, but because Newham council received 1,035 applications for the property from would-be tenants. Why? Although the property is well maintained, I am sure that the £81 per week rent, which is a third of what one would expect to pay in the private sector, would make it very desirable indeed for the tenant who secured it. On average the council receives more than 330 applications for each property that it advertises. What practical measures are the Government taking to ensure that new homes are an appropriate size for those on the waiting list? Living in temporary accommodation is not acceptable and does not make for effective or sustainable communities.

A second pressure that should be considered when appropriate housing build for my community is being determined is the dreadful overcrowding that families endure. Size does indeed matter. During the summer of 2006, only 6 per cent. of the homes being developed in the borough had three bedrooms, whereas 65 per cent. had two bedrooms. Smaller properties are a safer and more attractive opportunity for investors, but as young single people become couples, and lucky couples become families, the need for bigger properties grows. Those bigger properties are not available. Newham has the highest average household size in the country. According to the 2001 census it has the greatest number of households in the UK with five or more residents—20 per cent.

The lack of bigger homes is a principal cause of overcrowding, which is a huge problem in Newham, where entire families often live in one-bedroomed flats. The negative impact of overcrowding on family, education, health and community cohesion have been ably demonstrated by organisations such as Shelter, but, sadly, those impacts are all too frequent in my borough. The 2001 census showed that more than a quarter of Newham’s households are overcrowded, lacking at least one room for the number and type of people in the household. It is a London-wide consideration, and the draft London housing strategy proposes that 42 per cent. of social rented homes entering the programme should have three or more bedrooms.

Research by the Housing Corporation in 2006 indicates that about 82 per cent. of people aspire to own their own home. Nationally those aspirations are gradually being realised, with 70 per cent. of homes owner-occupied, but in Newham less than 50 per cent. of houses are owner-occupied. I hope that our aspirations to assist people to realise their home-ownership aspirations will be taken seriously.

That brings me neatly to the issue of the right to buy—its regulation and its impact on West Ham. I should certainly welcome measures to cool the overheated buy-to-let market, which has helped both to ratchet up the cost of temporary accommodation for local authorities, at an extreme cost to the Exchequer, and to decrease the affordability of housing for ordinary working families, above all in the capital. Housing benefit spend in my borough is £245 million. A third of that—£67 million—is spent paying private landlords. The average amount of housing benefit paid to council tenants in Newham is £70 a week. The average housing benefit payment for temporary accommodation is £350 a week—five times that paid to council tenants. It does not take a genius to recognise that funding additional social housing provision in my borough could prove beneficial to the Exchequer, not to mention to those families who cannot afford to work and keep a roof over their heads.

Official Newham statistics state that of the 950 new homes completed in 2005-06, only 132 were for the social rented sector. I have no doubt that the bulk of that new private accommodation will be buy to let: 45 per cent. of the market homes in London are bought to let, and the proportion is greater in areas where property is cheaper. In comparison with many parts of London, Newham is cheap. I recognise the importance of the private rented sector for those who cannot yet afford to buy their own home, and for those who are seeking more temporary accommodation, but rents are climbing as rapidly as house prices. We do not want to return to the Rachman era in London, with people being forced to pay exorbitant rents because they have no other choice.

I want to touch on regulation. The Housing Act 2004 introduced a welcome mandatory licensing scheme for larger houses in multiple occupation. It placed the onus on the landlord to register the property with the council, or face a fine. That means that environmental health officers have a much better chance of finding the properties that are more likely to endanger the health and safety of the occupants, and of improving the immediate physical conditions and management standards. I do not want the Minister to get me wrong: some landlords understand their responsibilities both to their tenants and to the wider community. However, a small number exploit their tenants, graze on housing benefit subsidies and ignore the impact of antisocial behaviour on neighbouring residents. I have lost count of the number of complaints that I have received from my constituents about absentee landlords.

There are two principal problems with the current regulations in my constituency. First, the mandatory licensing scheme only covers homes with three or more storeys. The borough contains the largest building site in Europe—if it is not, it feels that way—and some of the population is made up of migrant workers who often live in small homes, many to a room. The homes are too small to accommodate the number of people living in them, and many facets of living, some with significant links to health problems, overflow into the street and garden.

Secondly, the exceptionally high levels of occupancy are causing stress in local communities, and the local council does not have the power to do anything about it. Residents have told me that they will most likely sell and move if the situation does not improve, and their homes are more likely than not to be bought and let, thus exacerbating an already difficult situation. I have discussed the matter, albeit briefly, with the mayor of the borough, and I understand that he would not welcome additional powers unless they were accompanied by severe penalties. The financial reward for cramming houses with large numbers of people is so great that paltry fines do nothing to deter such behaviour; rather, they reinforce the contempt in which some hold the law and those who enforce it.

Little is done to protect those in smaller houses of multiple occupation. Some 80 per cent. of such homes are not covered by the mandatory licensing regime, and the vast majority in my constituency fall outside the mandatory threshold. Newham’s environmental health officers must play detective to check that standards are being met, which wastes precious time and resources. If they finally get a landlord to court, he or she would face only a risible fine. I hope that the Minister will consider extending the threshold to all houses of five or more occupants and ensure that the penalties are sufficiently severe and easy to enforce to deter those bent on breaking the law for the easy-to-obtain and high financial benefits.

I am also concerned about the density at which new homes will be built—higher density properties where viable are encouraged by the new proposals. Density of new properties has increased by almost 60 per cent. in this country. In 1997, there were an average of 25 dwellings per hectare; in 2005, there were 42 dwellings per hectare. I appreciate that higher density housing will mean that less land is needed for the proposed 3 million new homes, and that that will help to protect what little remains of Newham’s green and pleasant land, but I cannot advocate a return to the tower block estates of the 1960s and 1970s, which so drastically altered the physical landscape of our towns and cities, produced innumerable social problems, and destroyed communities.

Newham has had many high-density housing developments and by the 1980s had one of the highest concentrations of tower blocks in Britain. The developments failed as communities and the resulting social problems cost the borough and the country huge amounts to put right. The blockbusters programmes of the 1980s attempted to get rid of blocks throughout the country, so why would we want to build more of something that we have recently disposed of? Why would we knowingly recreate the same problems? Public confidence in high-rise tower-block living has been severely eroded, and therefore new blocks are unlikely to include mixed communities. I urge the Minister to look again at the issue and to ensure that we do not create isolated tower blocks of social housing that are destined for failure and disposal.

I am concerned about density. I listen incredulously to nimby debates in the House in which representatives of Her Majesty’s Opposition speak against any housing development in their area. They demonstrate little appreciation of others’ living conditions, particularly people in the capital. Newham is already densely populated and will undoubtedly become more so as we approach 2012. I am told that we will build a city the size of Portsmouth within my constituency by 2020, but even now, even in the backstreets, it is impossible not to notice the constant bustle and the number of people walking by.

The 2001 census, which is disputed locally as it tended to under-count the population, showed the population density of London to be 45.6 people per hectare. My borough, Newham, was shown to have 67.3 people per hectare, almost one and a half times the average population density of London. The 2006 estimate for the population density of Newham was yet higher at 72.4 persons per hectare. At 45.6 persons per hectare, London is the third most crowded of the major European cities after Paris and Barcelona. Some 15 per cent. of the UK’s population lives in London, but it covers less than 0.5 per cent. of England’s land mass, which has an obvious effect on the quality of life.

In conclusion, I wish to put on the record issues about which I have spoken in the House before. There are clear interrelationships between housing and poverty in my borough. The exceptional cost of housing and the problems caused by a lack of public sector housing are compounded by the impact of the benefits system. I have spoken previously of evidence from my constituents that housing benefit and the way in which it combines with other sources of income, benefits and tax creates a poverty trap for those in low-paid work. Overcrowding and unsuitable housing contributes to the stark health inequalities that people in my area face as compared with their peers in Westminster, Kensington or Chelsea. The interrelation between high housing costs and other types of deprivation is clear to me, as I hope it is to the Minister, and I believe that a strategic approach to combating the problems engendered by housing affordability and supply is imperative.

I have outlined a whole agenda of issues that I have brought to the Minister directly from the community I serve. The issues arise from a challenging reality, and are urgent and immediate to my constituents and those of many other hon. Members who serve areas in which there is high stress on housing. Will the Minister recognise that we must find real and lasting solutions to these problems? Not to do so would undermine much of what the Government are trying to achieve in the creation of a fair and equal Britain.

May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope, for what I believe is the first time? I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) has secured this debate on the important issue of housing demand in her constituency. I wish to pay tribute to her work campaigning on behalf of her constituents, particularly on housing-related topics such as overcrowding and homelessness, which I shall mention later.

My hon. Friend articulated well the serious pressures on housing in her constituency. She recognises, however, that the issue does not arise only in West Ham or London as a whole. Every region in the country now faces affordability pressures, which is why the Prime Minister has made housing a key priority for the country and the Government. Much is being done but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there remains an awful lot to do. There is a great deal to cover in the time available, and the matter must be set in context. If I do not cover all my hon. Friend’s points, I should hope that she would allow me to write to her in future.

It is clear that Newham has high levels of housing demand, as my hon. Friend stated. The number of households on the local authority register of housing increased by slightly more than 4,200 between March 2005 and March 2006, and the latest figures show that there are 5,988 homeless households living in temporary accommodation in the borough. That is one tenth of the total of households in temporary accommodation, a proportion that is, frankly, too high for one single London borough. It is imperative that we work on securing both adequate and affordable housing options in the area. Additionally, the census shows that overcrowding is an issue—more than a quarter of households were deemed overcrowded in 2001.

Although affordability is a problem nationally as well as in London, it is further compounded in Newham where average weekly earnings were assessed at £383, compared with a London average of £450 per week, and average house prices stand at £237,065. There are also relatively low levels of employment, with just over 48 per cent. of working-age adults in employment compared with an England and Wales average of 60 per cent. The number of single-person households is also relatively higher in Newham—it stands at 34 per cent. compared with an England and Wales average of 30 per cent. The borough has the highest proportion of lone-parent households with dependent children in London. All those factors fuel the demand for housing.

So, why do I mention those facts? As my hon. Friend so eloquently made clear, there is a direct link between housing, prosperity, aspiration and opportunity. If people have poor housing, they will have poor life chances. We need to intervene to deal with that. The combination of high levels of social rented tenancies and low employment levels means that accessibility and affordability are vital to get the right sort of housing for my hon. Friend’s local community.

My hon. Friend asked what measures the Government are taking to ensure that new homes of an appropriate size are being built. Planning policy statement 3 sets out how the planning system will deliver. Local planning authorities will have to identify enough land to deliver the homes needed in their area over the next 15 years. We have published new guidance that shows how councils can find the land they need. In cases where councils have not identified enough land and do not grant sufficient planning permissions, planning inspectors will be more likely to overturn their decisions and give housing applications the go-ahead.

We regard it as essential that local authorities maximise the supply of building land in their areas, and so we announced in the housing Green Paper published in July our intention to establish a new housing and planning delivery grant to reward local authorities for the delivery of new housing. We will make £510 million available for that grant in the comprehensive spending review. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing launched a consultation on how the new grant should work to provide incentives for those who are doing their bit to deliver the extra housing needed, including bringing more empty homes back into use.

Overcrowding and the supply of family homes were central to my hon. Friend’s speech, so I want to expand on those issues. First, however, I want to set the strategic context in London. We believe that the challenge posed by London’s housing needs will best be met if we give the Mayor a strong strategic role. That is why the Greater London Authority Act 2007 gave the Mayor the responsibility for producing a statutory housing strategy and for advising Ministers on the allocation of housing investment through the regional housing pot in London. In September, the Mayor launched his draft housing strategy, which will go through a period of consultation before it is finalised next year.

Last month, we announced the proposed regional allocations of housing investment, which will offer London an unprecedented £3.97 billion in 2008-11. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is considering the Mayor’s recommendations for how that funding should be allocated between affordable housing, local authority decent homes, private sector decent homes and regeneration. All that additional funding will allow us to provide more social housing, which, as my hon. Friend said, is sorely needed in London to reduce the use of temporary accommodation and to alleviate overcrowding in the capital. The Housing Corporation’s recent bidding round reflects the proposals to improve the housing choices for Londoners in the Mayor’s strategic housing investment plan, which is part of the draft strategy.

In the meantime, we will invest £1.5 billion in the London affordable housing programme for 2006-08. Through the AHP, we have provided 6,350 social rented homes and 5,370 low-cost home ownership homes in London in 2006-07. We aim to provide 8,000 social rented and 7,870 low-cost home ownership homes in 2007-08.

Newham is central to that growth. Crossrail, the Olympics and Paralympics and the need for a legacy from those games, Stratford city and the Thames Gateway all offer an unprecedented period of opportunity for the borough and its residents. Across the borough and, specifically, in the 2012 unit at Newham, agencies and organisations are working hard to ensure that they achieve a lasting legacy from their role as one of the key host boroughs for the Olympics. That legacy will include the provision of new affordable housing and the creation of jobs for local residents. I hope that my hon. Friend will find it positive that some £38 million of London’s affordable housing programme for 2006-08 has been allocated to Newham to deliver around 500 affordable homes.

We are also looking forward to massive regeneration at Canning Town and Custom House. That project forms part of my Department’s mixed community initiative, and includes the building of 8,000 new homes and the creation of 500,000 sq m of floor space in a revitalised town centre. The aim of the £2.5 billion project is the physical, social and economic transformation of a highly accessible location in London, creating a sustainable and cohesive community.

There will also be investment in the retail areas, new or improved schools, health, leisure and other community facilities. That will reap dividends for the communities living there and in the surrounding areas. External support for the project is also strong. English Partnerships, the London Development Agency and the Greater London authority, together with a consortium of housing developers and registered social landlords, have all registered their commitment to realising the vision of Canning Town and Custom House regeneration.

I turn now to the new deal for communities in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which began with a bang on the Brooks estate—quite literally—when Watts Point crashed down under a controlled explosion in May 2003. Now, 200 new homes are being built by the community housing group and extensive internal and external refurbishments have been carried out on many of the Newham properties. Although work is expected to continue until 2010, the Brooks estate already looks greatly improved.

My hon. Friend mentioned the plight of those in her constituency who live with overcrowding. The Government are aware of that. It is a particular problem in her borough but there are also serious issues of overcrowding in other London boroughs. We are taking action to reduce overcrowding in areas such as my hon. Friend’s constituency by seeking to increase the supply of housing in general and, in particular, to increase the supply of family-sized homes.

Through the Housing Corporation’s 2006-08 affordable housing programme in London we have increased the proportion of new social homes with three or more bedrooms from 27 per cent. to 34 per cent. Through the London housing pot for 2006-08 we are also funding £20 million of works to extend or remodel social rented homes to provide family homes with four or even more bedrooms.

Following recommendations from the Mayor, which have been accepted by the Government, we shall look to increase further the proportion of homes in the Housing Corporation’s 2008-11 programme with three or more bedrooms to 42 per cent. We also want to help families to take a first step on the housing level, so we will move incrementally towards a target that will require 16 per cent. of all intermediate homes funded by the Housing Corporation—and by the home and communities agency once the Housing and Regeneration Bill receives Royal Assent—to have three bedrooms or more by 2010-11. We will also fund five sub-regional co-ordinators in London between 2006 and 2008 to work with boroughs to tackle overcrowding.

My hon. Friend mentioned with great eloquence her concern about the density at which new homes are to be built and that we should not return to the tower block estates of the 1960s and 1970s. Government policy on the density of housing is set out in PPS3. Density is a measure of the number of dwellings that can be accommodated on a site or in an area. If done well, the imaginative design and layout of new developments can lead to a more efficient use of land without compromising the quality of the local environment. The highest density of housing in London is found in Kensington and Chelsea. We need to stress the importance of good design and good quality to ensure that people have the homes that they deserve.

The Mayor’s London plan provides a matrix for residential densities. In the West Ham area, that will vary from at least 200 habitable rooms per hectare in less accessible locations up to 700 habitable rooms per hectare and more in very accessible locations, such as near town centres and major transport interchanges. The borough is already generally building to those density standards

The Government are committed to achieve a step change in the supply of housing throughout the country. We are putting in place the framework and the funding to achieve our ambitions. However, it is not just about what Government can do. It must be a shared endeavour, with private, public and third sector delivery parties all playing full roles. We must involve local communities, too. In short, everyone needs to play their part. Working together, we can make a real difference. With my hon. Friend leading her community in West Ham, I am sure that we will see the housing pressures relieved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two o’clock.