[Relevant documents: The Third Report of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 703, on Affordability and the Supply of Housing, the Government’s response thereto, Cm6912, and the uncorrected transcript of evidence taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee from the Minister for Housing on Tuesday 9th October 2007, on the Housing Green Paper, HC 1038-i.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill will help to turn our ambitions for 3 million new homes by 2020 into a reality. Those homes are desperately needed by first-time buyers, families on council waiting lists and those who are frustrated by the lack of sufficient affordable homes. The Bill is not simply about building more homes; it is about building better homes, underpinning the new timetable for all homes to be zero-carbon and building stronger communities by better linking housing and regeneration. The Bill is also about delivering a better deal for tenants in social housing, giving them greater choice and a stronger voice in decisions on how their homes are managed.
We know that housing is a central concern for families across the country and it is a central priority for this Government.
I made the point in Question Time earlier that never before has Chorley had people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but it is happening now because of the lack of rented accommodation in what is a wealthy constituency. The problem continues to grow because the local authority is failing to make provision. What can the Minister do to ensure that it will not happen in the future?
My hon. Friend is right. This is a serious and urgent issue for those families who do not have adequate homes and it affects every aspect of their lives—their children do not have enough space to do their homework, among other problems. That is why we have to build more homes, including more affordable homes. We must increase investment in social housing as part of that programme, and we want the Bill to make it possible to deliver those homes faster and more effectively.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the majority of the investment through the Housing Corporation in new social housing goes through housing associations, which are able to borrow independently and lever more resources into new homes. That is why 30,000 new social homes will be built this year. We have said that that needs to increase to 45,000 over the next three years as part of the investment that we are putting in. We also want to make it easier for councils to build council homes, as well as housing associations building homes, and the Bill includes measures to achieve that. Of course, councils will need to make bids and be assessed by the Housing Corporation. We want to make it easier for them to do that and that is why we are making changes.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Office for National Statistics forecasts the growth in population. The population is also ageing and more people live alone, so demographic change is also occurring. Some two thirds of the increase in households will occur because more people will live alone, including many older people. We have to address many kinds of demographic pressure, and that is why we need to build more homes.
My right hon. Friend does not need the help!
I am speaking to the Minister, not the hon. Lady. In my constituency, the Co-op owns about 5,000 acres of farmland on which it wishes to build up to 20,000 homes. The settlement is called an eco-town, but it will not be environmentally friendly. Unemployment in my constituency is 1 per cent., and although we welcome activity we do not need new jobs to be created in our area. The jobs to go with the eco-town will be imported, just like the houses. It seems to me that it would be better to place them near the Co-op headquarters, in Chorley.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is lucky not to need additional jobs in his area but, given the pressures on affordable housing right across the country, I would question whether people there do not need more homes. He will know that I cannot comment on individual proposals for eco-towns, but we welcome the fact that 50 proposals have been made for such new towns. Although some are not appropriate or acceptable, we will say more about the ones that are in the new year.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. New council houses are desperately needed all over London, but will she assure me that any council tenancies granted under the new scheme will be the same as existing agreements? It is not a question of social rent; the new tenancies must last for a lifetime, just as they do at present. Will she guarantee that there will be no change in the current arrangements?
The Bill allows councils to offer council tenancies. We need that change in the legislation; otherwise councils might not have been able to offer council tenancies for the homes that they have built. We believe secure tenancies to be extremely important, and that is why we propose some of the changes in the Bill. We also want to encourage the building of more affordable social and shared-ownership housing to meet the needs of people in all sorts of circumstances.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. The Meden valley “Making Places” scheme in the Bolsover and Mansfield area has led to 300 or 400 colliery houses being saved. Without that wonderful scheme, the region would have been facing an even bigger problem than it does already, so can it be extended to some of the other coalfield areas? We have already discovered one nimby on the Opposition Benches who does not want any council houses in his area but there are lots of potential clients on this side of the House, so will she give us first option?
My hon. Friend is right. My constituency is also a coalfield area, and we support the building of more homes on the former pit sites. Regeneration can be achieved through housing as well as through jobs, and we are putting investment into existing homes as well as into new ones. Many Opposition Members think that the north is a low-demand region, but that is a mistake. Many parts of the north face serious pressures when it comes to affordable housing. We need to build more homes in those areas, as well as in the south.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I have an important question, and am certainly desperate for an answer. Over the next few weeks and months, the Minister will be reflecting on housing need across the nation, but will she also think about the needs of our armed forces in that respect? Is she aware that many British forces personnel posted overseas are unable to get mortgages from UK companies for homes in the UK? They are fighting for our freedoms in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the Council of Mortgage Lenders and its friends are not interested in lending them money. That has encouraged many of those personnel to be less than candid about whether they have an existing residence in the UK. Will the right hon. Lady give the House a commitment that she will meet Defence Ministers to deal with this very serious problem?
The Bill already makes changes that will support those who leave the armed services so that they can be properly treated if they need homelessness assistance or if they are waiting for social housing. We want to do more to help those in or leaving the armed forces to be able to buy affordable housing and shared-ownership housing, and we are already working with the Ministry of Defence on that issue. I am obviously happy to look into the matter further.
I am grateful to the Minister of State both for her generosity and for her concern for my physical health.
The draft south-east plan presented to the Government in March 2006 proposed the creation of 28,900 new homes per year. I do not sniff at that—there is a need for new housing—but the plan added the rider that the creation of new homes should be closely related to the availability of infrastructure and associated services. Now that the Government’s panel of planning inspectors has said that it does not accept that new home levels should be contingent on infrastructure, I eagerly anticipate discovering on which side of the argument the Minister falls.[Official Report, 6 December 2007, Vol. 468, c. 8MC.]
The hon. Gentleman knows that I obviously cannot comment on the details of the south-east plan, which is still going through the planning process. However, he will be aware of my frequently stated view that at a time when we face growing pressure from first-time buyers and rising demand for new housing the South East England regional assembly’s proposal to cut the level of new housing in the south-east is bonkers. It is not an appropriate position for that regional assembly to have adopted. We need more housing, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need more investment in infrastructure. From my Department alone, we set out proposals to increase the level of infrastructure to £1.9 billion over the next few years; there are proposals from other Departments, too. Today, as part of the Planning Bill, we published details of the community infrastructure levy that will allow local councils to raise additional resources for local infrastructure. I urge the hon. Gentleman and his party to support that proposal so that we have the parks and play areas as well as the new transport systems we need to support new homes for the future.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the supporting people budget has substantially increased the amount of provision for people who need extra help with their housing, such as those with mental health problems, homelessness difficulties or care needs. We want and expect the Homes and Communities Agency to continue the work of the Housing Corporation in funding, where appropriate, particular dedicated types of housing and support.
My right hon. Friend is talking about the building of houses for rent, particularly for the low-paid. Will she ensure that those houses are eco-friendly, and can she tell us something about the eco-friendly villages that could be created to improve the environment?
My hon. Friend is right. We must not simply build more homes, but build better homes. That includes cutting carbon emissions from new homes. We have set the most ambitious target of any country in the world—that all new homes should be zero-carbon by 2016. Before that, we want proposals for eco-towns and smaller developments that will reach much higher environmental standards right across the development, not only for the homes but also for the pubs, clubs and schools—even eco-offices.
I am grateful to the Minister; she has been generous.
I warmly welcome the Bill, but how does my right hon. Friend see its provisions and the work of the new agency tackling a pressing problem in my area and a number of others—to bring more quickly into use sites that could be suitable for social housing but are blocked at present, not least by some Opposition Members?
My right hon. Friend is right: critical to delivering additional homes is the bringing into use of appropriate land for new affordable and market homes. The new planning rules and changes to the local framework will achieve that, but in addition we want more public sector land—rapidly—so that we can build more homes on it. The whole point about the Homes and Communities Agency is that it will bring together for the first time public sector land and public sector investment in housing; and bringing those two things together will give us a huge opportunity to accelerate the delivery of new homes on public sector land—to build the homes that families across the country badly need and to give them a secure place they can call their own home for the future.
I have taken several interventions and I will happily take more later on, but I hope that Members will allow me to make a little progress for now.
Since 1997, we have made important progress in improving existing homes, with investment in the decent homes programme. Investment of more than £20 billion has helped more than 1 million children out of cold, damp and poor housing, transforming their lives as a result. We have seen a drop in the number of people sleeping rough on the streets, and we have also seen low mortgage rates and long-term economic stability help more than 1 million more people into home ownership.
We have an ageing and growing population and we have more people living alone, and for more than a generation this country has simply not built enough homes to keep up with demand. We need more market housing, more social housing and more shared-ownership housing. Young families can face the greatest pressures. Many of them struggle to take their first step on the housing ladder, with 40 per cent. of first-time buyers now having to rely on their family and friends to raise a deposit, which is simply unfair, and hundreds of thousands of families are on the waiting list for social housing. We owe it to them to do more.
House building has increased substantially over the past few years. More land is being identified for homes, but we need to do more. The Prime Minister has said that by 2016 this country must be building 240,000 new homes per year—2 million homes by 2016 and 3 million more by 2020. This is not just about building more homes, however; those homes must also be more sustainable and in strong communities. The housing Green Paper published in July set out a wide range of measures to support more and better homes, ranging from new eco-towns to better use of public sector land. The Bill is crucial to helping us deliver that vision.
Delivering the homes we need depends on the house builders and the private market, and on housing associations and their investment decisions. However, as we set out in the Green Paper, it also critically depends on local councils, through their planning decisions, through allocating land for housing, through use of their own land—for example, through local housing companies—through their assessment of housing need, through their promotion of affordable housing and through their ability to promote higher standards.
Councils cannot do that alone, however. Often they need help with funding, with land and with expertise. That is why the Bill creates the new Homes and Communities Agency to provide that essential support and help us deliver those badly needed new homes. The agency will bring together the functions of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. Therefore, responsibility for public sector land and public sector investment will be brought together properly for the first time. We are putting unprecedented levels of new investment into affordable housing—£8 billion over the next three years—but we have to make sure that we get the best possible results for that affordable housing.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I think that the whole House welcomes the proposals. On the subject of trying to build eco-towns and sustainable low-carbon footprint homes, and given the debate that is currently under way in the other place on climate change, as this Bill progresses will my right hon. Friend consider whether there should be a duty on the new agency to incorporate and have regard to sustainable development? In the past, we set up the regional development agencies without a specific duty, but it is not enough just to say that they “may” have regard to sustainable development. Will she consider them having to have regard to that?
Clearly, the Homes and Communities Agency has to operate within the framework of the planning system, and, as my hon. Friend may be aware, we will shortly set out a new planning policy statement on planning for climate change and how we can better work for new development to cut carbon emissions. The Homes and Communities Agency must work within that framework, and the Housing Corporation, one of the component parts of the new agency, is already promoting higher standards in new social housing than is currently expected in the private sector market. Therefore, it is already leading the way in cutting carbon emissions, but we are certainly keen on looking at what more we can do.
On affordability, the typical starter home in my constituency costs between £80,000 and £100,000. That is beyond the means of many young people in Bury, North. The Opposition want to cut stamp duty on homes worth £250,000. What is the best way of helping young families in my constituency: increasing the supply of homes they can afford or cutting taxes on homes they could never afford?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If one simply cuts stamp duty and does not build more homes, at a time when supply is limited all that happens is that prices go up, and home buyers are no better off. It is important that we recognise the real pressures that people face. That is why building more shared-ownership homes offers a huge opportunity. We are funding 25,000 more shared-ownership homes through the Housing Corporation next year, but we want to go further—through local housing companies and other programmes.
Since his election, the Mayor of London has hugely increased the supply of affordable housing—by 10,000 additional units a year. However, the Bill does not specifically require the Homes and Communities Agency to work with the Mayor on the delivery of affordable homes. I am sure that that is an omission of no great significance, but will the Minister ensure that the Homes and Communities Agency works with successful deliverers of affordable housing, such as the Mayor of London?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. She will know that the Housing Corporation is tasked to deliver the Mayor’s affordable housing strategy in London and we certainly envisage the Homes and Communities Agency being able to do the same thing. We would expect it to support the Mayor in his strong promotion of affordable housing and his target that 50 per cent. of homes put through the planning system should be affordable. I notice that the Opposition’s mayoral candidate, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), has rejected that target. That is a sad indictment of his lack of commitment to affordable housing in the capital.
I am enthused by the idea that the Government are going to give more help to local authorities, perhaps to build more council houses. However, does the Minister have any plans to alter the legislation on the housing revenue account subsidy? Over the next 10 years, my city of Portsmouth will lose £100 million, which will go elsewhere, from rents paid by council tenants in the city, just because we have looked after our houses better than other local authorities. If she is genuine about wanting to help local authorities, changing or abolishing that system alone would go a long way to help.
The hon. Gentleman may want to look more carefully at the Bill, because it includes proposals to make it possible for local councils to be taken outside the housing revenue account system—with support for pilots and the potential for greater reform to the housing revenue account system. The important principle that underlies the housing revenue account is the recognition that there are different needs in different parts of the country, and there were different historical funding arrangements. There is an important and fair principle of redistribution underpinning the housing revenue account. However, there are fundamental problems with it. It does not deliver the most effective long-term management of the housing stock by local councils. That is why we have said we want to set up the pilots—to look at what appropriate longer-term reforms could be made to the housing revenue account to deliver a fairer deal for every part of the country.
What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage local authorities to ensure that, when planning applications are being made for new build by the private sector, there is a large percentage—30 to 40 per cent.—of social housing? In my borough, that has not occurred on anywhere near that scale. The average wage in my constituency is just over £20,000. There is a desperate need for new affordable social housing. I hope that her Department will look into that.
I have taken a huge number of interventions and I really need to make some progress.
There are a series of important measures in the Bill, including the setting up of the Homes and Communities Agency, which I have described for hon. Members, and the new Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, which will have a statutory objective to protect the interests of tenants. Where landlords fail to meet standards, the regulator will have new powers to step in with fines and enforcement measures. There are measures to strengthen the voice of tenants in council homes, especially where stock transfers are being considered. The Bill makes possible a wider series of pilots and reforms to the housing revenue account, which is not the best framework for councils to use to manage their stock in the longer term.
I will not; I need to make some progress. I apologise to hon. Members.
The Bill sets out an important series of changes, and I urge Opposition Members to support its main purpose. They have said that they plan to oppose the Bill, and that is a matter of huge regret, given the important measures that it introduces. We would welcome political consensus on the amount of housing needed. After all, in the 1966 election, all three major parties ran on the same pledge to build 300,000 homes a year. I ask Opposition parties to join us now in a commitment to building 240,000 homes a year from 2016, and to join us in making a commitment that they should all be zero-carbon. Some 170 organisations across the country have done so already, ranging from house builders to green groups, from councils to housing charities, from the CBI to the TUC.
I ask Opposition parties to join us in backing 240,000 zero-carbon homes a year. If they think that that is the wrong figure, they should tell us how many homes they think the country needs. Let us have a debate about it. The national housing and planning advice unit has said that the number should be 270,000; there are different views on the subject. How many homes do Opposition Members think that the country needs—or are they just afraid to admit that they want to cut new housing and betray first-time buyers who need more homes?
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—the predecessor of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps)—said that 200,000 homes were not enough, and he was right—we need 240,000. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) told Inside Housing that the Conservative priority would be
“housing numbers, housing numbers, housing numbers”.
Fine, but which ones? A person cannot be serious about housing needs for the nation if they have no view on how many homes the nation needs. Hon. Members need to set out what they think the needs of the nation are.
It is simply not enough to hide behind local councils and what they want, because many councils now back more housing. Large numbers of councils are coming forward to be growth points, and to support proposals for eco-towns and local housing companies. They are coming forward because they want to work with the Government and—once it is set up—with the Homes and Communities Agency that Opposition Members oppose.
What about the key Conservative local councils that should be supporting more homes? We know that councils across the south-east argue for a cut in the level of house building, but the problem is not simply in the south-east. Let them travel with me to Yorkshire and listen to the Yorkshire Conservative leaders. A Tory leader in Leeds has said that regional housing figures are “unsustainable and unattainable”. The Tory leader in Kirklees went further:
“Building the number of houses they’re talking about is, for the vast majority of councils in this region, totally impossible… We haven’t got the ambition and we don’t see the need yet to build more and more houses.”
That is in Yorkshire, a region with large amounts of brownfield land, house prices that have shot through the roof, and house building rates that have simply not kept up with the number of new households forming each year.
Let me be clear that I do not criticise those councils for opposing or turning down bad developments—they should; that is their job. There are still too many dreadful developments that should not get the go-ahead. There are some stupid proposals in unsustainable locations that should be turned down. I do not criticise them or Opposition Members for opposing inappropriate developments, but I do criticise Opposition Members for opposing overall increases in housing, and for arguing for overall cuts to housing, as they have repeatedly done.
I have often teased the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield for his “No Way to 10k” campaign—the temptation is just too great—but I would not criticise him if he simply opposed the odd block of flats or the odd floodplain development. However, I do criticise him for trying to cut the overall number of homes being built across the country. His attitude is epitomised in a phrase that he used just a few months ago, when he said:
“Much as we all disliked the Regional Assembly, it did at least put up some resistance to the Government’s plans to build tens of thousands of new houses”.
That is what the hon. Gentleman wants to do—fight plans for tens of thousands of new homes. That is a betrayal of tens of thousands of first-time buyers and the abandonment of tens of thousands of families waiting on council lists or in overcrowded accommodation. It is not fair on those families to try to block all those new homes.
I ask Opposition Members even now to reconsider and back our plans for 240,000 new homes and for a big increase in affordable housing. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he will back those additional homes and the additional investment that we want to put into building affordable homes.
May I explain to the Minister that in my area both of my Conservative local councils are meeting their targets and building the houses? It is not the numbers that concern them, but the location. They are deeply concerned when they see, at an inquiry about a waste incinerator, a gentleman by the name of David Mellor looking at an area like Wisley, on the edge of the greenbelt, where the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden is located. David Mellor is fronting an organisation that has bought a lot of that land with the wish to put an incinerator on it and an eco-town around it. What is curious is that he seems to have some inside information very early. Perhaps the Minister might look over her shoulder.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot comment on individual planning applications or on any proposals for eco-towns at this stage in the process. However, we need every council in every part of the country to recognise that they need to increase their ambitions for more homes. Faced with the growing need for affordable housing and for housing across the board, every region in the country needs additional housing.
Opposition Members should take the opportunity to change their position, back more homes and back the extra investment that we need. Let them pledge today to support this unprecedented level of investment in new social and shared-ownership housing. Let them back plans for £1.9 billion of investment in infrastructure, and back plans for a community infrastructure levy for councils to raise the additional cash, as we have set out in the Bill. I urge them to pledge today that they would not cut that additional funding.
Let Opposition Members reconsider and support the Bill that will help us deliver the extra homes in the long run. The central proposal to bring together public land and public housing money has been widely supported. The Local Government Association says that it supports the broad aims of the Bill. Shelter says that it supports the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency. A wide range of organisations involved in regeneration and housing across the country have supported the Bill. It is important that it links regeneration principles and the building of communities, as well as the building of more homes. It is also about helping us to deliver more affordable homes, get more bang for our bucks and support more homes overall.
Why on earth do Opposition Members want to vote against proposals that deliver a better deal for housing association tenants? Why on earth do they want to vote against plans that will help tenants who are not getting their repairs done? Why do they want to vote against a Bill that gives Army veterans fair access to social housing or to homelessness assistance? Why do they want to vote against a Bill that gives councils a greater ability to deal with antisocial behaviour? Why do they oppose a Bill that will help this country to build the affordable homes that it badly needs? Why on earth do they want to oppose the Bill? For the sake of first-time buyers in the future, for the sake of families waiting on council waiting lists, for the sake of all those in need of more, better and more sustainable housing, the Labour Government are introducing the Bill today, and I urge the whole House to support it.
I beg to move,
To leave out from “That” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof; this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Housing and Regeneration Bill because it creates a top-down, centrally-driven approach to development and regeneration, allows the unaccountable Homes and Communities Agency, in conjunction with the unelected regional development agencies, to ride roughshod over local communities, takes further powers away from democratically-elected local authorities and places them in the hands of politically-appointed Homes and Communities Agency officials, does not extend to social tenants proper rights to buy or part-buy their homes, fails to address the growing problems with the Housing Market Renewal and Thames Gateway regeneration schemes and provides insufficient measures to promote genuine brownfield regeneration, choice for social tenants, wider home ownership and the raising of environmental standards in house building.
At 169 pages and 280 clauses with 10 schedules, the Bill is particularly large. The fact that the explanatory notes stretch to 121 pages suggests that it is probably also overly complex. What does the Bill say? One of the first things it tells us is that the Housing Minister intends to merge the Housing Corporation with English Partnerships to form the new Homes and Communities Agency.
After the Government spent £167 billion on quangos in the past year alone, perhaps the Minister has finally realised that getting rid of a quango would be a good thing to do. But does she not realise that more bureaucracy will not equal more homes? Sadly, if one wades through the Bill to page 36, one discovers that the Government could not help themselves. Clause 80 creates a brand-new quango, the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, which, I am reliably informed, will be called Oftenant. The Bill is a classic piece of new Labour draftsmanship—it deletes two quangos but then sets up two more.
The aims of the Homes and Communities Agency are laudable enough, but the Government have misjudged our housing challenge by creating a bulging piece of legislation that simply replicates the failed measures of the past. They are introducing a top-down, Whitehall-driven, centrally controlled, big-Government-know-best approach, while local people and their communities are having their powers stripped away.
As I was explaining to the House, the problem is not the Housing and Regeneration Bill. The problem is that the Bill sets up two quangos, so we will return to having two quangos administering housing issues. To understand the Bill’s shortcomings, one must appreciate the Government’s dismal record on housing. The Government lecture about social justice, but when it comes to housing, they have decreased social mobility. When Labour came to power, the average home cost three and a half times average earnings; now in parts of this country, it is 10 times earnings, and in other parts of the country, it is 20 times local earnings.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how many new homes the Conservative party thinks that we need to build each year?
I will come on to that in just a moment, if the hon. Lady is patient. I want to tell her about the Prime Minister’s huge hikes in stamp duty, which have prevented people from buying homes. The lack of affordability means that fewer people can get on to the housing ladder, because the first rung has been cut away.
As house prices have hit unaffordable levels, a truly massive transfer of wealth has taken place in this country from young people to older people, and home ownership is falling for the first time since records began. Most embarrassingly for the Minister, less social housing has been built every single year under this Labour Government than in any year under the Thatcher and Major Governments. Perhaps that is why clauses 67 to 69 sneakily redefine social housing to include affordable housing. At the stroke of a pen, the Government will be able to claim the provision of hundreds of thousands more social housing units without building a thing. What a load of spin! When will the Minister understand that people want homes not headlines?
When the Government have intervened to try to achieve more, they have failed. For example, they introduced the social homebuy scheme in 2006, but they have recently been forced to admit that they have managed to sell just 88 homes. Most tellingly, they have consistently failed to meet their own home-buying targets. When the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and others discuss targets, it is worth considering that the Government cannot meet their own targets. Under the Thatcher and Major Governments, we averaged 173,000 units a year; this Government have managed 145,000.
When will this Government actually meet a target that they have set? They have tried targets in health care; they have tried targets in education; and they have tried targets in policing. For some reason, those targets have not worked, but they believe that they can set targets on housing and achieve them, although all the evidence—they are supposed to build 200,000 homes a year—demonstrates that they cannot do so. They are not even meeting those targets. People cannot live in targets. They need homes and that is what we would provide. The Government have a dismal record of failure on housing, and the Bill simply repeats exactly the same mistakes. Instead of constructing an overarching new agency with immense powers and a massive budget, ready to steamroller over local democracy, a more enlightened approach is required.
What should the Bill look like? It should be used to foster co-operation between local communities and central Government. The Minister needs to understand that not much is achieved by branding anybody with any kind of legitimate concern a nimby. We need to incentivise local communities and to ensure that new housing will benefit them and their families. An existing population should reap the rewards of housing projections based on a larger population. If that were done intelligently, by linking house building to population growth, it might safeguard local hospitals such as the one in my constituency. Infrastructure must be guaranteed and, where possible, lead development.
Sadly, the Bill will achieve none of that. Power will flow from the centre and democratic control will flow away from our communities. The Minister has ensured that the staff of the new agency will be able to enter someone’s home to make a valuation for compulsory purchase with just 28 days’ notice, yet obtaining a home information pack to sell a house can take longer than that. Southern Water recently admitted problems in supplying a search for a HIP within 60 days. Under the Bill, the Minister will have powers to buy someone’s home faster than that person can sell it. Incidentally, I commend her on her embarrassing U-turn last week, when she extended the period for HIPs first-day marketing so that the exemption will last for another six months. Perhaps if she had listened to us earlier she would not be red-faced now. No apology whatsoever has been offered for the turmoil and chaos that all this has caused in the marketplace.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this debate is not about HIPs, his local hospital or Thames Water, but is a serious debate about housing supply? Will he therefore tell us what is his party’s policy on house building?
I have to inform the hon. Gentleman that it is a debate about the Housing and Regeneration Bill, so we are discussing its clauses. Let me tell him about them because a power-grab is going on. In clause 14, we discover that the HCA may seize powers to become the local planning authority at the Secretary of State’s whim. Later in the same clause, it may also assume responsibility to charge for hazardous waste. In clause 15, it may take powers to adopt streets. Clause 17 allows it to make traffic regulation orders. There is almost no limit to the remit of that power-grabbing new agency. Buried in schedule 3 there is even a provision for the HCA to seize graveyards and build on them. In clause 19, the HCA is granted powers to enter someone’s home. With just 28 days’ notice, it can survey it, value it, dig for minerals or even compulsorily purchase it. All those powers rest only on consultation with the Secretary of State, and everyone knows how discredited consultation has become in the past 10 years.
I have taken the opportunity to read the amendment, which makes no mention of homelessness—a major priority—or first-time buyers, who are in great difficulty throughout the country. Are we meant to take seriously an Opposition who are unaware of the major concerns related to housing?
Given the hon. Gentleman’s interest in homelessness, he will know that the week before last I issued my own report on rough-sleeping, which revealed that three times more people are sleeping rough on the streets each night than the 498 whom the Government want us to believe are doing so. We do not want to take lectures about rough-sleeping and homelessness from a Government who have hidden the figures, even though they are being collected by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
What the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) failed to note is the key point about local authorities. They are the key to regeneration and the Government have ridden roughshod over them with yet another quango. They are being deprived of money, and they are having their powers taken away. It is another nail in their coffin.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all know that local communities can deliver affordable homes, but the Minister sees local people as the problem, rather than the solution, so she calls anyone with any legitimate concern on unsuitable development a shocking nimby, unless they happen to sit on the Front Bench as one of her Cabinet colleagues.
I am fascinated by the hon. Lady’s intervention. References have been made to my “No Way To 10k” campaign. I thought I would take the precaution of citing an excerpt from the website:
“While we do need homes for local people…we cannot build more than there is adequate space and infrastructure to support. 10,000 homes is too much.”
It also refers to supporting 6,000 homes. Not my own words, but those of the Labour parliamentary candidate in my constituency.
It is sad to hear the way in which the Government, and the Minister in particular, criticise councils that are doing the right thing—councils such as Wandsworth, Swindon, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Peterborough, Barnet and Hammersmith and Fulham, to name but a few, many of which are exceeding even the Government’s own targets.
What is sad is that my constituents support the need for more affordable housing, but feel increasingly alienated by the perception that their voices are not being heard in the planning process. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Minister was entirely silent during her contribution about how the new agency will work with democratically accountable local government, and entirely silent about how it will work with the lord mayor’s office?
My hon. Friend is on to something here, because the key point is that we all want more homes. The argument is about how we get there—how we construct those new homes. The problem is that relying on top-down development in areas that lack services and infrastructure, and which are having their hospitals axed in many cases, will fail time and time again. On Sunday, Jasper Gerrard in The Observer said of this Bill:
“This isn’t planning, it’s centrally controlled chaos.”
The independence of the new Oftenant regulator is already under threat with the Bill affording powers to the Secretary of State to push through initiatives on any number of policy areas to such an extent that the National Housing Federation has said:
“These proposed powers for the regulator could threaten the non-public status of Housing Associations by effectively making them subject to management direction by the State.”
The regulator will be funded by fees, but housing associations have, up until now, been not-for-profit social businesses. According to the National Housing Federation, the changes could mean
“rents paid by tenants will have to increase and money would be given back to Whitehall, rather than remaining in the communities.”
The short-sightedness of this legislation is frankly astonishing. When it comes to more housing, the Government simply do not understand that local communities are part of the solution, not the problem.
We welcome the greater flexibility given to local authorities to keep the revenue from social housing to build more, but a previous pledge to reduce red tape for highly performing housing associations is missing from the Bill. What else is missing from it? There is no transparency. The Prime Minister promised a more open Government, but they are still covering up the results of HIPs trials that cost the taxpayer £4 million. We have been promised the MORI results time and again; they have never come out. The Government are still rolling on with HIPs—they have no intention of stopping and they are covering up those results.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the Minister came before the Select Committee at the end of October and assured us that the Department would evaluate that MORI poll before rolling out any further HIPs, but, lo, a few weeks later, they are doing just that. How can we take what is said to us at face value? The Minister said one thing in Committee, but something completely different happened a few weeks later—the coverage of HIPs has been extended without the evaluation we were promised.
My hon. Friend is right: the issue of the day is the Government’s competence—or lack of it. They say that they will publish the results of a trial that cost £4 million of our money, fail to do that, yet still introduce HIPs for properties with one and two bedrooms. That proves that they cannot be trusted. That is why we said that we want the Secretary of State to be asked to come to the House to report on the new agency every year. It will have the power to spend not only £4 million but £3 billion of taxpayers’ money. We call for an amendment that would require the Secretary of State to report to the House each year. I hope that the Minister will consider that.
Say what one likes about the Government, as they lurch from one crisis to the next, at least they have been consistent in one matter: their absolute refusal to learn from mistakes. Given that they look ever more tattered and torn, perhaps it is hardly surprising that they have chosen this time to discuss regeneration policy. However, recent reports from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office make damning reading for the Minister. Perhaps she has averted her eyes; if so, I shall tell her about them.
The controversial pathfinder initiative was designed to intervene in the housing market in the north and the midlands. Despite costing £1.2 billion, the NAO stated earlier this month that
“it is not possible to identify the extent to which changes in local housing market activity are the direct result of Pathfinder activity”.
Perhaps the Minister can tell us why a further £1 billion has been allocated to the project. I would welcome an intervention.
A report from the PAC on the Thames Gateway is even more damning for the Department for Communities and Local Government. It concludes that the Department does not know how much the regeneration of the Thames Gateway will cost the taxpayer—after £673 million has already been spent.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman has read the whole report. If so, he will have noticed that the Public Accounts Committee asked for the new Homes and Communities Agency to take over responsibility for Thames Gateway because the project is currently not delivering. Does he support that conclusion of the PAC as well as the one that he chose to cite?
We are happy to continue the investment in the Thames Gateway—indeed, to increase it and support the project’s progress—and also to increase investment in the housing market renewal programme, which, as the NAO made clear, is making a significant impact in that those areas where the interventions took place are doing better than similar areas with low demand problems. However, I stress to the hon. Gentleman that he should tell us whether he backs 240,000 more homes a year, as so many organisations throughout the country have done.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). I believed that we would get a clear answer to the question. The Bill constitutes a missed opportunity if it does not do what I imagined—give control to the Homes and Communities Agency for the development. I still have not heard whether that will happen—perhaps we will get clarification at some stage.
The Bill is a missed opportunity to reduce expensive regional quangos and return powers to democratically elected bodies. As some critics fear, it may be a house building delivery agent, but without tackling the problem of the provision of local infrastructure and jobs.
Since hon. Members of all parties agree about the importance of building homes, the Bill could have achieved something truly historic. However, whereas a progressive approach could deliver millions more homes by working with local communities, the Bill falls back on the tired old Government versus the people syndrome. By incentivising and trusting the people, we could create sustainable communities, higher environmental standards and more affordable housing.
Instead, the Government have again completely missed the point. They have failed to reach their existing house building targets, but they have not bothered to ask why. They have simply published a Bill that proposes a bigger stick, a bigger state and bigger targets, but we simply cannot live in targets.
We all recall that the Prime Minister would not trust the people when he bottled the election. At a time when the competency of the Government is under attack as never before, the Bill is a missed opportunity to trust local people to help solve the housing crisis. We trust local people, and that is why we cannot support the Second Reading tonight.
I should like to remind the House of the report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, “Affordability and the Supply of Housing”, which was published before the summer recess and supported by all parties on the Committee. The Committee welcomed the Government’s then objective to raise the number of net additional homes by 200,000, but said that that was probably not enough, which has since proved to be the case. Indeed, I am not convinced that even the new target is sufficient to meet housing need.
I want to re-focus this debate on what my constituents would want it to be about. I am disappointed by the speech that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) made, because that sort of cheap debating style is exactly what puts ordinary people off this place. In particular, it puts women off big time. This debate is about two issues that are of enormous concern to my constituents and, I would have thought, to those of almost all hon. Members.
The first issue is the fact that young people are increasingly priced out of the housing market, as prices rise beyond their reach. I commend to hon. Members a series of booklets by the National Housing Federation called “Home Truths”, which show the level to which housing inaffordability has risen in every part of the country. For example, even in Milton Keynes, a growth area with lots of houses, people need a household income of more than £50,000—two and a half times the average income in Milton Keynes—to pay the average mortgage. In the rest of Buckinghamshire, where incomes and house prices are higher, people need a household income of £85,469 to pay the average mortgage, which is 3.8 times the average income.
Our constituents know that such statistics mean that young people who in former times might have reasonably expected to buy a house now have no hope at all of doing so unless their parents can give them substantial sums to help them into the housing market. That is a huge concern to me, and I would have thought that it would be to every other Member, but we did not get a flavour of that from the hon. Gentleman’s speech.
I would simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as he knows, only two interventions can be taken, otherwise time is eroded, unlike with Front-Bench spokespersons, and I am barely into my speech.
The second group that should concern almost every Member comprises those constituents whose incomes are too low for them ever to conceive of buying a house or even entering shared ownership, who are wholly dependent on the social rented market and who have no hope whatever of being allocated a social rented house. In my constituency—I assume that the situation is the same in a great many others—the only people who can get into social rented housing who are not there already are individuals who are statutorily homeless and in extreme housing need, although even they will not necessarily get into social rented housing.
The local council in my area—I am not blaming the council, Liberal Democrat-controlled though it is—is now obliged to advise people who come to it as statutorily homeless that there are no social rented houses available. Those people are given advice on how they can be placed in the private rented sector or in temporary accommodation elsewhere, and be funded through housing benefit. That is a disgraceful situation, and the prime solution is to build more houses, including more affordable shared ownership and social rented houses. I was disappointed that the Conservatives gave no indication of the level of house building that they would propose.
I was interested to see in The Guardian that Mr. George Monbiot—who, 30 years ago, used to live extremely close to me in the area that I represented as a councillor—has suddenly discovered that there are people who live in appalling social and private rented accommodation. He could have found that out 30 years ago in his own street if he had only asked me.
I am pleased that the Government are now increasing the funding for housing in general, and for social housing in particular, and that they are putting in place mechanisms to provide additional funding from developers for infrastructure. The Milton Keynes tariff has been an extremely useful model for that. I am also pleased that they are setting higher targets, although I think that it will be incredibly difficult for them to deliver on them.
I remain extremely upset that the Conservatives are apparently opposing the Bill, despite the fact that it is broadly supported by Shelter, the Local Government Association—which is Tory controlled—the National Housing Federation, the National Federation of ALMOs, Help the Aged and even the Tories’ favourite organisation, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. All those bodies broadly welcome the Bill. That reinforces my view that Tory support for more housing is based on the model of St. Augustine. They say, “Yes, but not now” or perhaps “Yes, but not in my constituency.”
The Homes and Communities Agency will bring together the regeneration expertise of English Partnerships with the housing expertise of the Housing Corporation. I commend the Housing Corporation in particular for its recent good track record on increasing the proportion of family homes in social housing developments in London and the south-east. The Select Committee has stressed that that issue is not simply about numbers; it is also about the range of housing available. There is a desire for considerably more family housing in most, though not all, areas, and I am pleased that the Housing Corporation has taken that on board and been delivering such housing in London and the south-east.
Amalgamating the expertise and the powers of the two bodies should result in a saving of resources and a sharing of expertise between an organisation that has concentrated on regeneration and one that has concentrated on housing. I have already remarked on the fact that it is odd that the Conservatives are opposed to the establishment of the agency, when the Public Accounts Committee report on the Thames Gateway said that the agency, rather than all the fragmented local bodies, should take responsibility in that area.
The Milton Keynes partnership—a joint committee comprising the local authority and English Partnerships—is delivering on house building in our area, where such delivery was not occurring before. Most people in my area want more housing. Of course there are arguments about individual estates and individual development frameworks, but the council remains the overall planning authority. The partnership is delivering housing in our area within the development framework set by the council. The council often attempts to hide behind the partnership, or the Government, so that it will not be held responsible for the decisions that it has taken—on the grid roads in Milton Keynes, for example—but the reality is that it is the council, as the planning authority, that takes those decisions. The decisions are implemented in parts of Milton Keynes by the council, and in other parts by the Milton Keynes partnership and English Partnerships.
The hon. Gentleman asked me a specific question about my constituency, and I enter a plea for the headquarters of the new agency to be in Milton Keynes. It is the obvious place for it to be, and such a move would save having to build new offices. I am grateful to him for allowing me to make that point on behalf of my constituency.
There is an issue about the relationship of the new agency to local authorities. I suggest that the Minister look closely at whether there should be a duty on the new agency to co-operate with them, as it may not be enough for the HCA simply to be a named partner in local area agreements.
I welcome the establishment of a regulator—Oftenant—and I am pleased that it is separate from the HCA’s provider role. The regulator will give tenants much greater rights and allow them to challenge poorly performing housing associations, but I urge the Minister to consider extending Oftenant to council tenants and arm’s length management organisations as soon as possible, which the Local Government Association and the National Federation of ALMOs support. I also urge her to take up Shelter’s suggestion that there should be enabling powers for a national tenants’ voice.
On sustainability certificates, the code for sustainable homes is absolutely essential in signposting for builders and developers the direction in which building regulations standards will be improved and made more stringent. It should give the builders and developers the certainty that they need to deliver the higher standards that we are all asking for and to achieve the zero carbon target by 2016. I ask the Minister seriously to consider making the code for sustainable homes mandatory on new homes, and also urge the Government to find ways of extending the code to existing homes. Existing homes comprise about 99 per cent. of the housing stock and they are much less energy efficient than new houses, so we need seriously to improve the energy efficiency of existing stock. The Minister might consider, for example, setting dates—reasonably far in the distance—by which every home must be made compliant with at least the bottom two levels in the code for sustainable homes.
I am hugely doubtful about what exactly the Conservatives are suggesting in respect of sustainability. Although they mention it in their amendment, as a kind of ritual obeisance, we have absolutely no indication of what those words mean.
I have regularly and publicly supported Aylesbury Vale district council when it has given the go-ahead to sometimes unpopular, but undoubtedly necessary, developments in my constituency. Does the hon. Lady, who I know is a keen supporter of East West Rail, concede that early progress on that project is a highly relevant consideration when we are trying to decide what sort of scale of expansion in the south-west sector of Milton Keynes—it will impact on my constituency as well—would prove to be sustainable?
I am happy to support the hon. Gentleman, who—unlike some of his Conservative colleagues—does not try to get the infrastructure without the housing. I know that Aylesbury Vale’s commitment to housing is exactly what is required for the Milton Keynes partnership to have the confidence to help through the infrastructure tariff in ensuring that the East West Rail link can reopen in advance of developer funding coming through—if that is not too convoluted. I am happy to support the hon. Gentleman on that, but I am less happy to support Aylesbury Vale council’s agreeing that although more houses are needed, they are all needed in the Milton Keynes area and not in the Aylesbury Vale area. That highlights one of the key problems of what I take to be the Opposition’s policy of leaving local authorities to decide. It is far too easy for a local authority to decide that it is in favour of more houses—not in its own area, but in the one next door.
Reform of the housing revenue account is absolutely essential if councils are to be able to build additional housing. I welcome the proposed pilots and urge the Government to extend them as soon as possible so that all councils as well as housing associations can build.
I note another Tory obsession, which is also in their reasoned amendment: the right to buy. It brings enormous benefits to the individuals who are able to exercise that right, but it does not create a single extra home. It is a one-off benefit to those individuals and it bleeds out of the social rented sector the most desirable—or the least undesirable—homes. That is one of the reasons why council housing stock in many areas now includes very few family homes. It consists almost entirely of flats, which is why so many families are in danger of overcrowding. I urge the Minister to accept Shelter’s call for a new definition of overcrowding.
The hon. Lady referred approvingly to our Select Committee report. Does she agree with the following statement, which appears in it?
“If new house-building is concentrated in areas of high housing demand on the edges of towns and cities, there is a danger that commuting times will be increased and quality of life will suffer. It is vital that urban sprawl is avoided”.
The general intent of both the July Green Paper and the Bill, which seeks to make part of the Green Paper reality, is welcome. Both recognise that there is a huge housing crisis. It is, however, something of a shame that that recognition comes 10 years late. It would have been much better if the Government had published the Green Paper back in 1997, rather than waiting 10 years for the crisis to become worse and worse.
There is the crisis of the 71 per cent. of the population who are home owners, and the people who would like to join that total. This country has the third highest percentage of home owners in western Europe, and in the two countries with higher percentages house prices are much, much lower. In this country they are nine or 10 times the average salary, while in areas such as London they are up to 19 times the average salary. That has caused huge problems, not the least being that in 70 per cent. of our urban areas—not just London, but urban areas across the country—key workers such as policemen, nurses and teachers cannot afford to get on to the housing ladder. If key workers in steady, responsible jobs earning reasonable wages cannot afford it, obviously a huge chunk of the population have not a hope in hell.
An even greater crisis involves social housing for rent, which in the old-fashioned way used to be called council housing. For 50 years after world war two, councils built an average of 120,000 properties per annum while the private sector built an average of 150,000 per annum. In the last 10 to 12 years—certainly in the last 10—councils have built only 4,000 council houses, and last year they built just 400. Housing associations, the Government’s preferred alternative for the provision of social housing, have managed an average of only 22,000 properties a year over those 10 years. Those figures are hopelessly inadequate, and it is not possible even to stand still given the number of properties being lost as a result of the right to buy. Over the last 20 years a third of council housing has ceased to be available, and there has been very little to replace it.
Nationally, waiting lists for council housing have risen by 63 per cent. The number of applications has increased from 1 million to 1.63 million—1.63 million families, or 4 million people. In many parts of the country, the position is much worse. In my Chesterfield constituency and in Sheffield, where I grew up in a council flat, waiting lists have trebled in the 10 years since Labour came to office, and in Bolton the figure has quadrupled.
Many councils around the country have enormous problems with affordable housing, not least when council properties are sold to private speculators who take them out of circulation and let them to students.
The dramatic increase in council house waiting lists has caused two problems. The first is the human misery that I see in my surgery every Friday afternoon, including last Friday. People who are desperate for suitable housing have little hope of being able to move into an old folks’ bungalow, which would free up a family council house, or to move into a family house when they are sleeping on sofas, in their in-laws’ living rooms or in friends’ houses.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a desperate and urgent need to update the overcrowding criteria? Young children who are trying to do their homework cannot possibly be expected to use a living room as an extra bedroom. I know of families with an autistic child who are still expected to rotate bedrooms. Surely there is a need to ensure that such families are statutorily treated as living in overcrowded conditions.
I agree that there is a huge problem. One of the reasons is that the regulations that decide what constitutes overcrowding date back to 1935 and the depression. They date not only from 70 years ago, but from an entirely different world, where people’s living conditions were far inferior and overcrowding was accepted as normal. I hope that we will be able to table amendments in Committee to see whether we can get the Government to move in the direction of redefining overcrowding in modern terms. One of the reasons they will be reluctant to do so is that 1.63 million are on the waiting list, and if we redefined overcrowding to meet modern standards, far more people would be deemed to be in unsuitable housing and, therefore, in priority need of rehousing.
We must consider not only the human misery of waiting lists and out-of-date definitions, but the open goal that is provided to racists. My constituency has few immigrants and almost no asylum seekers, and they almost all live in privately owned or privately rented properties. Even in such a constituency, people who complain about the lack of council housing regularly say, “It is all because they are taking our houses.” The situation is an open goal for racists and the British National party. It has been stoked up by 10 years of policy from this Government. They have denied the provision of council housing and have presided over a collapse in the provision of any alternative form of social rented housing. I welcome the Green Paper, including the parts of it that have found their way into this Bill, but it is 10 years too late.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the problem that a number of people on benefits face? When they try to rent a property they find adverts in the papers saying, “No benefits.” Such people face great difficulty in finding somewhere that is not statutory social housing. Not only is that restriction used by individual landlords, but a survey that I undertook of mortgage companies found that one third of them have a clause in their buy-to-rent schemes that says that people cannot rent to those who are on benefits.
This is a major issue for people who are on benefits. Traditionally, of course, councils provided the housing for that part of the population, but they have been denied that for the past 10 years and little has been provided to replace it. It is often said that the press have power without responsibility. These days, councils have increasing responsibility without power.
The Bill contains one clause that rightly says that members of the armed forces should be able to establish a local link. Often when people come out of the armed forces they are simply rejected by every council to which they apply—even the one for their former home area—because by being in the armed forces and moving around they have lost the link. Again, a responsibility is being given to local authorities without the power to do anything about the situation. We need to reverse that ridiculous state of affairs.
The Green Paper and the Bill contain too little on sustainability, on affordability and on social housing to rent. On sustainability, we have heard the talk of 10 eco-towns. Some 40 local authorities said that they wanted to build an eco-town, but only 10 are to be allowed to do so. That is a symptom of the central control and diktat under which we operate. Even 40 such towns would only have scratched the surface. Government legislation wants all new houses to be built to eco-standards from 2016, but we feel that that could be done from 2011—Germany already does it. Whether it is done by 2016 or 2011, the provision ignores the question of the existing housing stock. By 2050, two thirds of our housing stock will be properties that are already built, most of which will be from the 20th and 19th centuries, and even earlier. The Government’s Warm Front scheme would take 120 years to get round that existing housing stock and would provide relatively low levels of insulation and upgrading. Much more is needed if we are to tackle sustainability issues.
On affordability, again too much is disappointing in what the Government propose. When “affordable houses” first go on sale they are not affordable at all—flats in London that cost £200,000 or £300,000 are not remotely affordable for most people. When such properties are sold on, they are certainly not affordable. We believe that 25 per cent. of the 3 million houses that the Government want to build over the next 13 years—we would like them to be built over the next 10 years—should be affordable. Affordability should be locked in from day one, and at every resale. We should consider schemes such as shared equity, which the Liberal Democrats in South Shropshire implemented, and community land trusts, which could certainly use the brownfield sites that Government have identified to release for housing. [Interruption.] They are not gimmicks: they have worked in pilot schemes in the UK, in many European countries—especially in Scandinavia—and in the United States. Indeed, the Army, which intends to relocate 6,000 families from the British Army of the Rhine to the west midlands, is lobbying the Ministry of Defence for an Army land trust for that purpose for Army personnel. It is not a gimmick, but a mainstream policy that could ensure that houses are affordable when first sold and every time they are resold, because the price of the land is not available as it is locked into the community for ever.
The Government’s proposals contain far too little on social housing to rent. Some 25 per cent. of the 3 million new houses should be social housing to rent. Crisis and Shelter would probably put the percentage even higher, at 30 or 35 per cent. The big difference that I have with the Government on the issue is the need for a level playing field for the 140 to 200 authorities—depending on whether one counts the ALMOs—in which tenants voted democratically against a stock transfer. Even when the tenants had a loaded financial shotgun to their heads—they were told, “Transfer and get your houses modernised or stay with the council and be starved of funds”—they voted to stay with the council, in some cases, such as Camden, by four to one. For the Government to tell those tenants that they have to rot in those houses, and that their council cannot build any new houses, is a moral outrage and a democratic disgrace.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the building of affordable housing for rent should include larger houses? I have many families in my constituency—especially Asian families, who tend to live in extended family groups, and Somali families—who struggle on the waiting list because the houses that are being built are two and three-bedroom properties, not four or five-bedroom.
I agree, and that is related to the points that I intend to make about the general thrust of Government housing policy and central diktat. Councils should be allowed much more flexibility to decide what is needed in their area. The Bill continues a process that began nearly 30 years ago with the last Conservative Government, who seized power from local authorities and imposed redevelopment corporations, garden cities and the rest on councils. New Labour has continued that with a vengeance, and the Bill takes it further. It would be better to reverse the process and let councils decide.
One example is the size of houses. Different areas have different issues. In some areas, councils need old folks’ bungalows far more than they need flats for young single people. Another area may have more young couples who need to be housed or large families who need houses with more than three or four bedrooms. Demand varies from urban to rural areas, from north to south and even from one bit of London to the next. We should allow councils to decide, not impose the decision from the centre of London.
I understood that the Liberal Democrats had a national target for affordable housing provision. How does that square with the hon. Gentleman’s comments that the decision should be entirely up to local councils? One cannot both have a national target and allow councils to decide what to do.
It is clear enough to me that one can make an estimate of housing needs and of what the construction industry could actually build in a certain period. In June, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) made a speech on housing to the Rowntree Trust, which Shelter has publicly and frequently credited with pushing the Government into some of the proposals made in the Green Paper a month later. He said that we needed not the 2 million houses that would be built in the next 10 years in the normal course of things, but 3 million, and that estimate was based on all the reports of housing need for various family formations and an ageing population that will include more single elderly people. The delivery of that target is a different matter, and I do not see the contradiction in saying how many houses the nation needs, according to all the professional estimates, and leaving delivery to the local authorities who know their patches far better than someone sitting in Eland house, Victoria street. We should leave the matter for local authorities to decide, as I shall show.
On Saturday morning, I spent three hours in the Derbyshire High Peak area—where I was a teacher for 17 years—with staff of the Johnnie Johnson housing association. We visited all sorts of urban communities scattered around the district, looking for places where development could be carried out. We considered plots suitable for two bungalows, or 50, or more, depending on size.
One plot, classified as a green belt site, was a scrubby piece of land like a long triangle, sandwiched between a railway embankment and some houses. The local authority responsible for that land should be able to allow houses to be built there, as there was nothing “green belt” about it. If local authorities were free to make such decisions, they would be much more likely to identify where housing could be provided.
In addition, a lot of greenfield and brownfield land is available for housing. The Government in London say that local authorities are not willing to release land, but Chesterfield and Yeovil offer good examples of the sort of problems that councils face. Chesterfield is urban, with lots of brownfield sites available on former mining facilities and engineering works that were closed down by the Conservatives, while Yeovil is totally different, with lots of greenfield land that could be used for housing. Both areas face the same problem, however, in that the regional spatial strategy does not allow them to release those parcels of land for the purposes of house building.
I listened to the answer that hon. Gentleman gave to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), but what does he say to his colleagues in the Stockport local authority who are preventing new houses from being built in Reddish and in other parts of a borough that is crying out for extra housing? In effect, the authority’s housing policy and unitary development plan HP1.2 effectively restricts all new infill developments to a handful of brownfield sites in the town centre.
The local authority in Stockport is trying to operate under controls put in place by the Government, and for that reason we should not rush to judgment. Like Chesterfield and Yeovil, Stockport has already hit the limits of its regional spatial strategy rationing. The central controls should be removed, and local authorities should be allowed to decide these matters.
May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that planning policy statement 3 came into force in April? It changed the arrangements, and allowed local authorities to go further. They should not accept the ceilings proposed in outdated regional spatial strategies: instead, they should use the new planning rules to identify and bring forward land on which houses can be built.
It is very good that the Government are inching forward on such matters, but they are taking other powers back at the same time. The UK is the most centrally controlled state in Europe, and we need that to change completely. Local authorities should be given back the power to raise funds and to borrow prudently, but the Bill does not do that.
Some clauses in the Bill offer a slight redefinition of the right to buy, but why are local authorities not allowed to decide? Some authorities with housing surpluses and people whom they want to move around are happy with the present arrangements, but others—especially, but not only, those in rural areas—believe that the right to buy is anathema because it has destroyed their ability to provide family houses. We should allow local authorities to take decisions about housing on behalf of the local communities that democratically elect them.
The detail of the Bill shows that that will not happen. Sops were given in the Green Paper and over the summer to Labour activists who were getting edgy as the conference season approached. For three Labour conferences in a row, those activists had voted for the fourth option on council housing—that is, for power to be restored to the 200 local authorities whose tenants had said that they would not do what the Government wanted them to do. In response, conference rules were changed so that there could not be any more votes on the matter. Moreover—and in advance of the election that never was—a lot of the activists were bought off with promises that councils would be allowed to start building again, using money out of the housing revenue account.
We can explore the details in the Public Bill Committee, but the Government’s notes that accompany the Bill estimate that about 2,500 houses will be built as a result of letting councils make their own decisions about building. That compares with the 400 houses that were built last year. That will not make a big difference to a waiting list of 1.63 million. It is a tightly controlled and limited experiment. Ten, or possibly 14, hand-picked local authorities will be allowed to set up private vehicles to experiment with building—only 10 or 14 from the 140 that directly manage their stock and the 60 ALMOs. That is only a small percentage and the exercise will not restore freedom or power to democratically elected local authorities.
Reference has been made to the housing revenue pilots. Cambridge was one of the authorities that carried out a paper exercise and has done the number-crunching. As I have told the Minister in previous meetings, the current proposal is a complete non-starter. The money that authorities would have to borrow from the private market to buy out their outstanding debt and pay off the Government—a debt the Government would write off if a housing association were taking over—would eat up all the money from right to buy and rents that they were allowed to keep. They would not be a penny better off; they would be no more able to repair houses or build the new ones that local populations are desperately crying out for. That is central control, lock, stock and barrel, with sops to buy people off. As we have not had an election, there will be a couple of years for Labour activists to find out they were duped and they will get very restless.
One part of the Bill covers the regulation of social housing and the introduction of Oftenant, which was recommended in the Cave review. Most people would describe it as a good move forward. The provisions have a hollow ring, however. The Bill talks about putting tenants at the centre of the process and empowering them, yet when half the tenants in the country—more than 2 million—voted not to be transferred to registered social landlords, the Government said, “Tough, you’re just going to sink. You’ll have no money to do up your houses and we won’t build new houses in your area.” They told those tenants that they would be ignored and punished because they had the wrong views—their views did not fit with the Government’s. Saying that tenants will be at the centre of things is rather hollow; they certainly will not be the council tenants—more than 2 million families.
The measure will plug a gaping hole for RSLs. At present, when council stock is transferred to an RSL, tenants have no influence at all over their new landlord. The introduction of Oftenant will give them some power to have a say. It may be limited—[Interruption.] It may be effective; we shall have to see, but it will at least give the tenants of RSLs the opportunity to have a say in the management of their houses. They will not be able to change their manager, or landlord, as they can if it is the council because they can elect someone else, and they will not be able to opt back into being council tenants because they were forced down a one-way street, but the regulator is a step in the right direction.
The Audit Commission has put in a bid to provide the regulatory body, so when the system is extended to councils—as we are told will probably happen in a year or two—they will find that instead of a simpler process they will be subject to two inspection regimes. The functions of Oftenant could have been wrapped up with the work of the Audit Commission.
Will there be a level playing field? When Oftenant is inspecting a council, will it say, “You’re not doing a very good job at meeting your tenants’ needs, not like that nice housing association down the road”? Of course, the nice housing association down the road keeps all the rent to spend on its houses. In Chesterfield, the Government already take £3.2 million away from us and over the next few years, as they increase rents by inflation-plus to try to reach market rents, every extra penny will go not to council housing in Chesterfield, but to the Government. They will be taking £5 million from council tenants in Chesterfield, and the same process applies to 70 per cent. of the councils that run housing; their tenants’ rents are taken away to be spent by the Government somewhere else—not on local housing need. That is a moral outrage and a democratic disgrace. Oftenant may judge that councils are not doing as well as housing associations, but that is because councils are not allowed to keep the rents to spend on their houses.
Clause 68 refers to the definition of social housing. I have talked to the Minister about that point and we shall certainly be pursuing it in Committee. The clause notes that social housing is accommodation “made available for rent”, that
“the rent is below the market rate,”
and, crucially, that
“the accommodation is made available in accordance with rules for eligibility designed to ensure that it is occupied by people who cannot afford to buy or rent at market rate.”
That provision has rung alarm bells in a huge number of organisations. Of course, that could fit in with Smith Institute proposals of a couple of years ago, with proposals that were trailed prior to the publication of the Hills review, although they certainly were not in that review, and with proposals from a Conservative think-tank published this summer: that as soon as the circumstances of someone in social housing for rent improve—their wages increase, for example, or they get a job—they should be moved on. It has been proposed that people in such circumstances should be shifted out of social housing, as that should be the housing of last resort for the people who really cannot afford it; it then becomes a stigmatised source of housing, which is what it has very much become in the past 10 or 20 years. We shall certainly probe the Government on that in Committee.
Finally, let me explain why we will not vote for the Conservatives’ amendment. They argue that the Bill
“creates a top-down, centrally-driven approach to development and regeneration”.
It does not. It adds a little finishing touch to what the Conservative Government of the 1980s started and new Labour has developed over the past 10 years, but it certainly does not introduce the earth-shattering process that is described. The amendment also criticises the Bill for allowing the Homes and Communities Agency
“to ride roughshod over local”
government, but the briefing of the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association does not share that Conservative Front-Bench view. The LGA supports the broad aims of the Bill, on balance thinks that the creation of a single regulator is a positive step, and supports the creation of Oftenant—so there is not an awful lot of evidence that people in local government share this apocalyptic view of what is involved here.
Another reason why we will not support the Conservative amendment is that it twice focuses on shifting the right to buy to tenants of RSLs. Have the Conservatives thought about how that would destabilise RSLs’ finances and ability to maintain borrowing from the private sector, just as it did with councils? We should, perhaps, be looking at removing some of the right-to-buy provisions. Should we not let councils remove the right to buy where there is huge local need and it does not fit with local circumstances, instead of imposing it willy-nilly on RSLs, whose whole financial structure is based on secure rents to secure their private-sector borrowing in order to provide the social housing that this Government have so abysmally failed to provide over the past 10 years?
May I at the outset draw attention to the interests stated in my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests, and also say how much I welcome the Bill, which gives effect to many of the commitments set out in the housing Green Paper published last July, and how deplorable I found both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Bench speeches?
Listening to the trivial speech of the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), I found it hard to believe that it came from a representative of the party that was proud to have played a role in setting up two organisations—the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships—that have played a major role in meeting housing needs in recent years, and which are the nucleus of a new body established in the Bill. It was difficult to believe that he is from the same party that took responsibility for housing policy in previous decades; that shows how much today’s Conservatives have abnegated their responsibility for meeting some of the most pressing needs of our society.
Listening to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), I was reminded of nothing more than the old days of the Militant Tendency. We heard a glibly offered target—“Yes, we want to have 3 million homes”—and then any means of ensuring delivery was given away when it was said, “We will just leave it to local authorities, and, of course, we’ve got no plans to deal with the situation if they choose not to build those houses.” That creates the impossibilist demand that then allows the cry of “Betrayal”—the classic tactic of the militant. Frankly, that is non-credible and the hon. Gentleman should recognise that that type of politics was discredited and thrown out some decade and a half ago. I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats of today appear to have gone back to it.
The Government’s programme was set out in their Green Paper of July. It is an ambitious programme, which involves both a substantial increase in the output of new housing for sale and rent and at the same time a real advance in energy efficiency standards in our housing in order to meet wider sustainability objectives.
Let us be under no illusion: these are very challenging targets and the Government will have a genuinely hard task in meeting them. We should all be aware of just how ambitious they are, and it is essential that we have the agencies in place to enable delivery. One of them—the most important in my view—is the Homes and Communities Agency established under part 1 of the Bill. Importantly, it has a wide remit: not just improving the supply, quantity and quality of housing, but securing the regeneration or development of land or infrastructure, and supporting the creation and maintenance of sustainable communities. Those objectives are ambitious. My overarching concern is that the process of setting up the new agency, and merging the various existing organisations that will make it up, should be pursued energetically and swiftly so that the HCA can make the significant impact that it is expected to and will need to if the Government’s targets are to be achieved.
Up until now, the process has been rather lengthy. It is some 18 months since the proposed merger of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation was first publicly mooted. We all know that a long period of uncertainty, particularly when organisations are being merged, can be debilitating and damaging. The sooner we reach a point at which it is quite clear that there is a new management structure in place to take forward the new agency and build confidence that it is going to be there to deliver its objectives, the better. It is essential that the Government act quickly. I understand that formal, legal requirements have to be satisfied, so the agency cannot technically be in operation for a while yet. However, that should not delay the process of getting a shadow management team in place and ensuring that all the steps are taken to enable the agency to deliver. A suitably qualified chief executive—the post demands an exceptional person—must be in post as soon as possible, with a remit to pull together all the elements of the new agency so that it can make its mark and chart the way forward in the coming months. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is well aware of that and I hope that she can make rapid progress in setting up the core of the new agency in the coming months.
Part 2 of the Bill sets out a new framework for the regulation of social housing, based on the recommendations of Martin Cave’s fine review. I was disappointed that when I intervened on the Conservative spokesman, he did not appear to have read the Cave review. His failure to reply to my question implied that he was not familiar with the review’s contents. I broadly support the proposed framework involving a new domain regulator to cover all providers of social housing and promote the interests of social housing tenants, irrespective of their landlord. However, the devil lies in the detail. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to give the closest attention to this matter in the coming weeks, to ensure that we have a regulatory system that delivers the desired outcomes, as set out in the Cave review, and that does not have unwelcome and unforeseen consequences.
First, there is the extension of the regulator’s remit to cover local authority and ALMO—arm’s length management organisation—housing. That is essential if we are to have the domain regulator proposed by Cave. I understand why the detailed provisions for achieving that are not yet in the Bill. There are some difficult issues relating to governance and accountability that will need to be bottomed out. However, the risk with the two-stage approach implicit in the Bill—registered social landlords first, and local authorities and ALMOs later—is that there will be inconsistencies and tensions that will be less easily ironed out over time than if the whole regulatory framework had been put in place from the outset.
Secondly, there is the relationship of the regulatory regime to registered social landlords. Many people with a deep understanding of the issues have voiced real fears that the framework set out, particularly in clauses 173 and 177, is incompatible with the continued classification of RSLs as not public sector bodies. The nub of the argument is that clause 177 allows the Secretary of State to direct the regulator to set standards and rules that, under clause 173, registered social landlords will be required to comply with. These cover a plethora of issues, including the type of housing needs to be met, allocation criteria, the terms of tenancies, rent levels, housing maintenance, estate management, dealing with complaints and tenants’ concerns, dealing with antisocial behaviour, and the landlords’ contribution to the economic, social and environmental well-being of the areas in which they have properties.
No one can object to good practice guidance on all those matters. That is what currently applies. The Housing Corporation, which is currently the regulator of RSLs, issues guidance on how RSLs can best approach their responsibilities. If concerns are raised about the performance of individual RSLs, the regulator can quite properly have regard to how the organisation has responded to the guidance and that may well influence the decision on whether the relevant housing association has been guilty of mismanagement or misconduct, justifying intervention by the regulator.
An important distinction is that failure to follow guidance is not of itself misconduct or mismanagement. RSLs are independent bodies whose boards must have the freedom to determine how they can best meet their objectives. That is essential to their classification as non-public sector bodies whose privately raised finance does not count as public expenditure. It is a moot point whether that classification, which is of course vital to the ability of RSLs to raise billions of pounds of private investment to supplement public funding, can be sustained if they are subject to a direct chain of command requiring their compliance with rules and standards that can be imposed by a Minister of the Crown.
There is also a related point about the extension of the regulatory regime to local authorities and ALMOs—bodies with their own democratic accountability structures, separate from Government. Requiring them to comply with detailed rules and standards laid down by Ministers does not sit comfortably with the Government’s stated objectives of reducing the burden of centrally imposed regulation and giving local authorities more discretion to respond as they see fit to local circumstances. Nor does it accord with Martin Cave’s clear recommendation for a proportionate regulatory regime that does not impose unnecessary burdens and that avoids unnecessary red tape. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. and hon. Friends will take a further look at the parts of the Bill that I mentioned, and will be willing to consider amendments that ensure that the regulatory regime is effective but not unduly burdensome or damaging to the classification of RSLs as independent bodies.
Finally, I must raise concerns about the loss of the current requirement that RSLs be non-profit-making organisations. I fully understand the need for the regulatory regime to allow the regulator to oversee profit-making bodies that choose to get involved in the provision of social and affordable housing. That naturally flows from the Government’s entirely sensible approach of encouraging private developers and house builders to become more involved in mixed-tenure developments, and indeed to be able to bid for social housing grant in certain circumstances. There must be a level playing field, with common requirements for all, whether they are profit-making or not-for-profit. However, it is a different matter to open the door to existing RSLs converting from not-for-profit to profit-making status, as the new formulation in clause 111 appears to do. That would, at a stroke, give credence to all the scaremongering of organisations that are opposed to the transfer of tenancies between sectors, who claim that a transfer from a council to a housing association is privatisation that would expose tenants to potentially rapacious profit-making landlords.
RSLs can and do cross-subsidise their work, and several are involved in directly building for sale, knowing that the profits made from that part of their activity can be ploughed back into supporting other very necessary social objectives. There is no need for the new definition to enable such activity, which takes place at present, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to look again at the provision.
The Bill contains a number of other important, laudable provisions, including measures to promote higher standards of energy efficiency and sustainability, measures to clarify procedures for consulting tenants, and the option for local authorities to explore new financial freedoms outside the housing revenue account. Those, and the other points on which I have focused, are all good reasons for welcoming the Bill and supporting it through all its parliamentary stages, as I do. Inevitably for such a long and complex Bill, points of detail will require amendment, and I hope that that can be achieved as the Bill makes progress, but that is no reason to oppose a measure that will be vital to the delivery of the Government’s commitments on one of the most important social issues facing our society.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who has forgotten more about housing than most of us ever knew. I am only sorry that there is not room in the new Brown Administration for his talent. As for the Front-Benchers’ speeches, I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) made a robust speech, and I found the Minister for Housing’s speech much more partisan than the one that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich would have made if he had been introducing the Bill.
I begin by mentioning clause 267—a clause that no one else has mentioned, but that represents a triumph by Housing Ministers over the Treasury. As the House will know, many local authority tenants have voted to transfer from a local authority to a housing association in exchange for guarantees on rents and commitments to investment in their homes. For theological reasons, the Treasury has insisted on rationing the number of transfers each year, and as a result a number of tenants have had to wait for the improvements, and the local authority has had to wait for the receipt of capital that it would have reinvested in new social housing.
Clause 267 prises the clunking fist of the Treasury away from this process and, we hope, brings an end to the rationing of large-scale voluntary transfers. My welcome for that clause at the end of the Bill is balanced by an unforgivable omission in chapter 4, which deals with the functions of the new Homes and Communities Agency. One of the aims of the Bill, which I applaud, is to empower tenants and give them more choice, but there is nothing in the Bill that requires the landlords of social housing to work together to enable tenants to move from one landlord to another.
Unlike owner-occupiers or private sector tenants, who can up sticks and move, social housing tenants are not in control of their destiny. The stock distribution of their landlord is often based on local authority boundaries, and if they want to transfer it can take a long time so to do. The popular and successful national mobility scheme, which was inherited by the Government in 1997, collapsed earlier this year owing to mismanagement. There is now no way that a tenant in, say, Andover can move to another constituency except through laborious methods such as those which existed when I first became an MP 33 years ago, with a tattered reciprocal exchange book and the individual negotiating skills of housing officers.
I had a debate on this fiasco earlier in the year. It remains my strong view that there should be in the Bill a statutory basis for a national mobility scheme, and I hope the Bill will be amended in Committee in order to secure that. Without it, the promise of empowerment and choice for social tenants rings rather hollow.
The right hon. Gentleman and I both spent time on the homes board in previous years. I agree with his point. Does he further agree that for the Bill’s objective of increasing social and economic mobility and opportunities for social tenants, the statutory homes-type organisation will be critical so that tenants can move where employment is available?
What I want is a provision in the Bill that obliges somebody to run a national mobility scheme. I hope that if an amendment along those lines is tabled and if the hon. Lady is on the Committee, it might have her support.
The main thrust of the Bill is basically to split the Housing Corporation into two, and it adds extra functions to each half. On to the investment half is tacked English Partnerships, and on to the regulatory half is tacked Oftenant, which will eventually cover all social tenants. The social housing landscape will change significantly when the Bill goes through. It is worth pausing to reflect that the most successful private finance initiative that the country has ever seen has been the Housing Corporation. Some £35 billion has been invested in social housing, with not one default. If one compares that with private finance initiatives in health, transport or defence, one can see that it is a fantastic record. One could argue that instead of abolishing the Housing Corporation, the Government should be cloning it.
It is vital—I pick up a point that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made—that, in the new landscape, we continue to generate substantial private capital to invest in social housing, and nothing in the Bill should prejudice that aim. In particular, the new regulator must not cause housing associations to be reclassified as public sector bodies. I remember the so-called Ryrie rules, which meant that the private funds raised by housing associations scored as public expenditure, wholly negating the advantage of borrowing from the City. We must not return to those days, and we need to address the concern of the National Housing Federation that the regulator might inadvertently so reclassify. That would be a shot not so much in the foot but much higher up.
On the case for the abolition or splitting of the Housing Corporation, which was set up some 40 years ago, there has been a rather academic debate as to whether the dual responsibilities of the corporation—regulation on the one hand, and investment on the other—complemented or compromised each other. I tended to be in the complementary camp, for the reason that I have just mentioned. There was an implicit reassurance for investors that regulation of housing associations would have an eye on the lenders, as well as on the tenants. Having both functions under one roof meant that money was not lent to housing associations, for example, where there were doubts about corporate management, and there was a one-stop shop for housing associations.
I hope that under the new regime we are not heading for a Northern Rock-type scenario by spreading responsibility for housing associations over more than one institution, with the new HCA being a sort of Bank of England in control of the money supply, and the new Oftenant being in control of regulation, with a possibility of confusion and regulatory failure.
As the Minister said when she introduced the Bill, the HCA is about supply, and there has been much emphasis on the need for 3 million new homes. Supply should, of course, be increased, and we all want to see faster help for those in housing need. However, I must make a basic point: the quickest and cheapest way to help those on the waiting list is to create vacancies for them in the existing housing stock. For those on the waiting list, the statistic that matters is not the number of new social houses built, but the number of re-lets in the existing housing stock. We should be doing far more to accelerate the number of re-lets by helping those whose circumstances have improved to do what many of them want to do, namely become home owners. The part of the Housing Corporation budget that promotes mobility has been squeezed, and I hope that the HCA will revisit that balance. In turn, that would help to encourage demand at the lower end of the housing market and give confidence to house builders. If we are to hit the ambitious target, we must look to the private sector as much as possible to build the new homes rather than the public sector.
The right hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed to the need to increase mobility, but surely someone who can buy and therefore leave a council house is most likely to buy that council house. How does he propose to prevent that mechanism coming into play, which would result in not more council housing but less?
I agree that if one is going to incentivise existing tenants to move out, it should be accompanied by measures to increase supply in the private sector; otherwise one will simply drive up house prices. If one were to do the first, one would need to do the second in order to avoid house price inflation.
On a related question about the balance of the budget, there is nothing in the Bill about private sector renewal, because the funds come from elsewhere. However, the emphasis on affordable housing, which has been brought forward from the Green Paper, has pre-empted a huge chunk of the overall housing budget. If, for example, one examines the small print of the comprehensive spending review 2007—the public service agreement 2007, as was—one sees that the target for decent homes has been deleted. The improvement of social rented homes to decent standards is now one of 198 optional indicators in local authority agreements. There are now no indicators relating to the improvement of private stock or to the specific delivery of adaptations. The housing pot will be under enormous pressure to deliver the targets for new affordable homes, and the initial indications are that there will be substantial reductions in other parts of the housing budget and particularly those parts of it that go to private sector renewal.
I am the chairman of a small national charity, the Foundations Independent Living Trust, which helps elderly or disabled people on low incomes to stay in their homes, or to return to their homes after they have been in hospital, by working through home improvement agencies. More and more older people are home owners and want to live with dignity in their own homes for as long as possible. Home improvement agencies face enormous pressure on improvement grants, and there is a real risk that by putting so many eggs in the new build social housing basket, the Government will pay a price elsewhere on the housing front.
My main concern about the Bill is the balance between the HCA on the one hand and local authorities and housing associations on the other so far as delivery is concerned. I believe in devolving down, so the job of building houses or communities is for local government or housing associations—it is not a job for a new national quango. The Housing Corporation did not build homes directly. If one examines the powers being given to the HCA and the language used by Ministers, it appears that the HCA will displace existing delivery agents and centralise decisions that are currently taken locally. The Chartered Institute of Housing got it right when it said that it saw the HCA as “providing flexible tailored support”. The HCA should be an enabler—a sort of godfather. The notes on the Bill tell us that it will be able to establish new communities or work to regenerate or develop existing communities, buy land and provide employment and training opportunities. It even has powers to preserve trees, deal with antisocial behaviour and own houses. That poses the question: why are housing associations or local authorities not performing those functions? The Bill sits rather uneasily with what is stated in “Homes for the Future”:
“We want to see local authorities step up to play a stronger role in addressing the housing needs of all residents. We want to see them develop their strategic housing role by using the full range of housing and land use planning powers”.
Yet clauses 13 to 17 take those powers from local authorities and give them to someone else. If a new town is going to be built, then of course a new town corporation needs those powers, but rebuilding existing communities should be done by democratically elected and accountable local authorities working in partnership with housing associations that have their roots in those communities.
On Oftenant, I hope that we will get light-touch regulation leaving housing associations to get on with the job, not go back to the old days of prescriptive regulation and interference. The Bill suggests that the regulator’s functions go way beyond those relating to housing and intrude into other areas. Environmental and social and economic well-being functions also come under the regulator, whereas if they were carried out by anybody else, they would not. There is a risk of regulatory creep.
Clause 173 gives the regulator powers on rents. We need to think through how his powers on housing association rents will impact on local authority rents, because there is still a gap in many parts of the country.
On clause 54, I am surprised that we are still running down the new towns. I thought that I wound up the last of the new towns in the 1980s. It was argued then that we could not dump all the land in Milton Keynes on to the market. Yet here we are, 20 years later, still making provision for what the Commission for the New Towns owns.
I welcome the provision regarding members of the armed forces, who tend to miss out when it comes to the allocation of housing. Does the relevant clause cover wives in circumstances where the marriage breaks up and the husband leaves the Army, leaving the wife and family behind in married quarters?
There will be upheaval and turbulence, and there will be a cost, which risks diverting attention. I want a regime that decentralises, resources and empowers those in the front line, and guides and helps in delivering the new homes that the country needs; I do not want over-regulation, duplication or centralisation. The Government will have to be very careful if they are to get that balance right.
I welcome this opportunity to have another serious debate about housing needs. As one who represents an inner-city constituency that is very much up against it, I look forward to the possibility of conquering at least some of our housing problems.
It is worth putting it on record that during the past 10 years there has been a phenomenal amount of investment in the decent homes standard, which has delivered a great improvement, and in improving the common parts of estates. That is very welcome. Lectures from the Tories about social housing policy sit rather ill when those of us who were in this House throughout most of the Thatcher and Major years remember how local authorities were starved of funds to undertake basic repairs. In 1997, the incoming Labour Government inherited a massive backlog of repairs and disorder in estates and housing. Now is the time—perhaps it is well past the time—to move on to building housing for people in very desperate housing need; and they do not come more desperate than people living in inner-London constituencies.
Like all my colleagues, I hold regular advice bureaux and I am heartbroken every week by the stories of overcrowding, tensions in families, illness that spreads between children because they are unable to have separate bedrooms and of underachievement in school and over-participation in criminal activity because of factors relating largely to housing shortages and gross overcrowding. As a country, we have to do something about that and do it very quickly indeed.
It is not just in the council housing sector that people are living in poor quality, overcrowded housing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and others have pointed out, when homeless families present themselves to a local housing authority, the arm’s length management organisation, if there is one, or the council’s housing department, if it still has that form of management, increasingly cannot do anything for them, so they are then put into a private sector, privately rented place, through a rent deposit scheme.
I have visited far too many of the privately rented flats into which councils put people, and I can tell the House that they are appalling, disgusting, badly repaired, badly maintained, and they often have an absentee or distant landlord who does not care what is going on there. And for the most part, we are paying the bill for that through housing benefit. I have come across people whose rent of £300 per week or more is paid largely by housing benefit. As I explained to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions last week, I have no quarrel whatsoever with the principle of housing benefit being used to pay rent. I do, however, have a problem with paying rent for poor quality places and—I know this is not the subject of the debate, but I would like to draw the House’s attention to it—the increasing existence of a benefit trap created by high private sector rents.
If someone gets a job, they lose their jobseeker’s allowance or income support; they probably lose all or most of their housing benefit; and they can only get a maximum of £60-a–week in-work benefit for people returning to work. I welcome the principle of that benefit, but it goes nowhere near meeting housing costs for inner London or, I suspect, other parts of the country either. We are creating a perverse trap that I am sure no one intended to create, but our function is surely to try to do something about it.
I was going to come on to housing associations in a moment, but I accept my right hon. Friend’s point. Although the Bill does not go far in the direction of regulating rents in the private sector—if it does so at all—we have to consider that issue. The private sector rented market in many parts of this country is in effect a housing benefit rented market because such benefit is paid into it more than anything else. We have to consider such issues seriously. In London, where the shortage of all forms of housing is most acute, we have problems with people buying to rent. That money ought to be better invested in social housing rather than just being poured into the pockets of private landlords. I know that the Minister is aware of that, and is concerned about it. It is something we can and should do a great deal more about.
As I have pointed out, because of existing housing legislation there is a growing tendency for tenants to be forced into a choice of going into an ALMO or staying with the local authority. Hitherto, unfortunately, opting for an ALMO attracted subsidy, debt write-off and investment, while staying with the council did not. ALMOs exist in most parts of the country. In some cases, they work all right, and in some, they work very well indeed. However, I hope the Minister will be able to help me with a governance issue when he responds. Councillors in elected local authorities are responsible for what their authorities do. If something goes dramatically badly wrong in housing and the service is run directly by the local housing authority, a councillor has to answer for that. It is not the same under an ALMO. People might well be elected to the board of it, but they assume a corporate identity and corporate responsibility on election. It is not a responsive election process designed for the tenants or leaseholders who have elected the board, but for the perceived needs of that board. I would prefer a more robust democratic process.
The Bill deals with registered social landlords—housing associations. Although I acknowledge that they are now the major providers of new homes for social and secure rent throughout the country, they have had, increasingly, to borrow large sums of money. Under the Tories, the proportion that they borrowed increased a great deal and, because they borrowed so much, they have to balance their books and far too many RSLs now finance improvements to their properties to fulfil the decent homes standards by selling existing properties. In an area of high housing stress, such as my constituency and those of many of my hon. Friends, it makes no sense to sell housing association properties to do up the remaining such stock. I am sure that everybody recognises that every house sold means that somebody else is staying longer in private or hostel accommodation and not having their housing needs met. Surely we can do better than that.
I should like us, first, to stop RSLs developing into property companies that buy and sell land and deal increasingly in selling existing properties and, secondly, to examine seriously the governance issue that affects housing associations and introduce much more tenant participation and democracy into their running, instead of the direction in which they have unfortunately been going in the past few years.
I want to speak briefly about planning in London. London is growing fast and the Mayor has done his best to try to ensure that 50 per cent. of all major new developments provide what he calls affordable homes. I asked the Department for a definition of affordability and I got one, which I think I understand, but it was not the answer that I wanted. Affordability means that a person on an ordinary living wage in a community can afford a property. Eighty per cent. of my constituents—I suspect that those of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) are in the same boat—have no chance of buying on the open market in our constituencies. Even those on professional salaries have no chance. Many properties that are on sale for key workers or for part rent-part purchase are also way beyond the reach of anyone locally. We are not providing affordable homes, but simply calling something affordable. Developers are good at describing something as affordable to get planning permission but simultaneously claiming that they cannot meet communities’ social housing needs.
I want us to be tougher on planning law and tougher with the developers. We should tell them, “If you want to develop in inner London or any other part of the country with high housing stress, we want at least half the housing to be affordable rented accommodation.” That means controlled, fixed-rent accommodation. Far too much development is unaffordable and not proper social housing. Although few social homes—for want of a better term—have been built in my borough in the past few years, far too many of those that have been built are one or two-bedroom flats when family housing is desperately needed. There is nothing more depressing than a large family in a small flat or house, who know that there is no chance for several years, until the kids have grown up, of getting anywhere decent to live. Imagine how miserable that is for the kids and imagine the tension that that creates. We all pay the price through failure in education and many other areas of society because we do not house people properly.
We are beginning to turn the corner on housing policy. I wish that we did not have such an obsession with owner-occupation when we should be obsessed with decent homes for all. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) asked the Minister many questions. I hope that, in answer to some of them, social renting and people in housing need are not defined in such a way that someone who is unemployed or on benefits and is allocated a council or housing association flat has it taken away from them because they get on fairly well and find a reasonable job in a profession. Surely, as the Government often tell us, strength lies in mixed communities. A council estate or a housing association block is a mixed community— long may it stay that way. I want a clear answer from the Minister at the end of this debate saying that that can be achieved.
My absolutely final point is about family policy and housing policy. Our society is changing and will continue to do so. The Minister for Housing acknowledged that in her opening remarks and others have said it too. We have far more single households and far more people living in extended families, and all kinds of other complicated relationships. It is time that housing allocation policy caught up with that. If a divorce happens and a family breaks up, that is obviously sad, but these things happen and we have to try to provide the children with the best opportunity that we can to have good contact with the parents. If the parent who does not have full residence with the children is offered no social housing whatever and ends up in a bedsit, that is damaging to that parent’s relationship with the children—it is usually the father—and to the children themselves.
I know that it is expensive, complicated and difficult, but surely we are here as a Parliament to try to do something about those with desperate housing needs. That includes children and everybody else. The Bill will give us an opportunity, I hope, to invest in housing need and start to transform the lives that have been blighted by the free market, private landlord system, which too many people have to live under at the present time.
I am pleased to take part in this debate, because housing is probably one of the most important issues in my constituency. I should like to focus my remarks on the powers and responsibilities of the new Homes and Communities Agency, in part 1 of the Bill, and how they might be better looked at.
I should like to start with the role of the HCA and its ability to take planning power from local authorities. We in this Chamber represent a wide diversity of constituencies shaped by local history, local economies and, importantly, our locally elected representatives. The Bill paves the way for a potential dislocation of planning the future of our communities from the people who live in them. I am concerned that provisions in the Bill will mean that the HCA may have the opportunity to take local control from towns identified as centres for growth. Basingstoke has been identified by the South East England Development Agency as a diamond for growth. We are proud of that, but equally we feel that we need to keep control over how that develops within our community. I look to the Minister who will be winding up this debate to reassure me that that will be the case, because constituencies such as mine are the lifeblood of the country. They provide jobs and wealth, and it is important that they should continue to be as successful as they are now.
I should also like to mention the ability of the HCA to acquire land under schedule 3 and, with the Secretary of State’s consent, to acquire land compulsorily that it could then use for planning and development, which is a far-reaching power. I suppose that I am particularly interested in that provision, because in my constituency we have already felt the Secretary of State’s hand and her ability to intervene in local planning decisions, in the decision on the German road development in Bramley. Despite two planning reports, including one from the Government’s own planning inspectorate, which said that developing 400 houses on a narrow plot of land in the village was unsustainable, the Secretary of State felt that the Government knew better and could come in and mandate that the development should go ahead.
I am therefore cautious about the intervention of the Government in such matters. Perhaps the Minister could reassure me on when the new quango may intervene in such circumstances. I am thinking in particular of an area to the west of my constituency called Manydown locally. The area has been earmarked for major development, with perhaps 100,000 houses to be built over the years, and is currently owned by the local district authority and the local county council. It has been decided, again as a result of a local planning inquiry, that developing that land at this point is inappropriate. Would the new HCA simply be able to intervene, acquire the land compulsorily and go ahead with planning, despite the views of local residents and locally elected representatives at both the county and borough levels? Perhaps the Minister will turn his remarks to that when he sums up.
It is also interesting to read the wide-ranging powers that the new body would have under the Bill with regard to open spaces, such as commons and allotments. In my constituency and, I am sure, those of other hon. Members present, local residents set great store by the ability to have open space in their communities. In my constituency, allotments are an important source of enjoyment and quality of life for many residents, who use them to great effect. Are we to believe that local authorities such as mine that try to protect those areas of land from development could be penalised?
I thank the hon. Lady for such a useful intervention. I can tell her exactly how many new homes Basingstoke needs, because as I said at the beginning, housing is an issue that we take seriously. I have been told by local officials that we need around 600 houses a year in Basingstoke, but Government targets have dictated that we are currently building 1,000 units a year. We are happy to shoulder some of the burden imposed by the deficit of housing in the area, but in my area we are fortunate to have an unemployment rate of only 1 per cent. The hon. Lady will probably know where I am going with this one, but that low unemployment rate means that we are dragging more people in my area—it is a great place to live and I am proud to represent such a great part of north Hampshire—who then have to go outside Basingstoke to seek jobs.
We are obviously concerned about the importance of protecting the green spaces in our communities. Indeed, some of those green spaces have become an integral part of our drainage system, for example. As some hon. Members may be aware, in the 1960s the London overspill was built into the heart of our community and is now an important part of what makes Basingstoke a thriving place. The construction of those estates relied on quite large amounts of open space surrounding them, to ensure that flooding did not occur. Are we to imagine that under the Bill those estates will lose those open spaces, which are so integral to their design, or will we see investment for further improvements in our drainage systems, after the tremendous amount of flooding in the recent summer storms?
There are other elements of concern in the Bill, which I am sure will be considered in more detail by those who are fortunate to serve on the Committee. I refer in particular to the ability of the new HCA to acquire burial grounds and other religious sites for development. I am sure that that would only ever be done in a sensitive manner, but the way it is described in the Bill perhaps needs a little more detail, to ensure that it does not cause any concern or possible uncertainty in communities such as mine.
I should like to turn to the responsibilities of the new quango for infrastructure. Infrastructure improvement is not currently going hand in hand with the house building targets that the Government are foisting on the south-east of England. I was somewhat concerned by some of the language in the Bill relating to the responsibility of the HCA to provide infrastructure. It states, for example, that the agency “may” provide infrastructure. The terms used are vague and lack specificity. In particular, the Bill lacks a commitment to ensure that any house building targets will be matched by improvements in local services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) expressed the view very succinctly in his opening speech that infrastructure needs to be guaranteed, and I should like to reiterate that on behalf of my constituents, who are suffering from a lack of investment in infrastructure locally. That is now starting to cause significant problems of traffic congestion on our roads, and on main arterial highways such as the M3. I am running a strong local campaign, with the support of about 1,000 residents, to get remedial measures put in place at junction 6 of the M3 to deal with the congestion problems there. The Minister might be interested to learn that those problems have resulted in two fatalities in the past two years.
The Government also need to explain how the HCA is to be held to account. If there is to be no obligation to ensure that a sufficiency of local services goes hand in hand with any house building programme, how are we to ensure that the agency can be held to account?
I should like to highlight a couple of measures that I would have liked to see in the Bill. First, and perhaps most importantly for my constituents, there are no measures to tackle the barriers that still exist to prevent first-time buyers from getting into the market. It is all well and good to talk about housing targets and building more houses—we are building 1,000 new houses a year in my constituency—when all that we have seen over the past decade are house price rises that have outstripped any increase in wage inflation.
I should also have liked to see a provision in the Bill to ensure that enough family homes with gardens are built, rather than the high-rise blocks that are increasingly becoming the trend throughout the country. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) also made that point in his speech. In my constituency surgery, I meet families who are being forced into accommodation that simply does not provide sufficient space for them to bring up their children in the way that they want to. I am concerned that my local authority is being forced to give permission for the building of more tower blocks when my constituents need more family homes. It would also have been useful to incorporate in more detail provisions to encourage the development of more community land trusts, which would give residents the ability to participate in purchasing their own homes at a reasonable price. Many people have an aspiration to own their own home for their family.
I have just returned from an interesting trip to visit our armed forces in Afghanistan, and I am pleased to see that the Bill contains provisions to help ex-armed forces personnel to find accommodation. That issue has caused particular concern in my constituency. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to some of the points that I have raised, which are important issues, not only in my constituency but throughout the south-east and the rest of the country, and are worthy of consideration.
I hope that no one with any experience and knowledge of the conditions in their constituencies would wish to oppose the promise of 3 million new dwellings. I hope that that goes without saying. I shall support the Second Reading, but I hope that a number of amendments will be made in Committee to improve its narrative. As I see it at the moment, its narrative is “Private good, public bad”, and that needs to be challenged and dealt with properly in detail in Committee.
It is right to remind ourselves that, immediately before the Conservative Government of 1979, about a quarter of families lived in local authority housing. About 5 million local authority dwellings formed part of the general housing stock of 20 million homes. The figure has now shrunk to about one seventh. That has coincided with the present crisis—I have to use that word—in housing. People might say that that is a spurious statistic, but I do not believe that it is. We can all find examples in our constituencies to support the idea that there is a strong, direct correlation between the loss of publicly rented housing that was subsidised for the public good—I shall mention the S-word again later—and our present problems.
I regret to say that, in my constituency, under a Labour Government, the waiting list for local authority—now ALMO—dwellings is longer than it was at any time under the Thatcher Government. I am almost ashamed to stand here and say that. I cannot help but draw the conclusion that that is directly related to the disastrous policy not of selling council houses but of giving them away. A situation was allowed to develop in which people bought their houses at rock-bottom prices, found that they could then move into the proper private ownership sector, and left their houses to be let by an agent. I shall come back to that issue in a moment as well; it is a very serious matter in my constituency.
I welcome the building of 3 million additional dwellings, but I say to the Government that it is important to know how we are going to do it, and what proportion will stay where. At the risk of being described as a militant I suggest that at least one third of those houses should be built, controlled and managed by our local authorities. That is essential. I also think that perhaps 1 or 2 per cent. should be developed and managed by housing associations, and I will tell the House why. The great Anthony Crosland, who knew about these things, recognised that local authorities had to have policies that could be seen to be consistent, fair and even-handed between one applicant and another. They therefore devised points schemes that recognised the different factors that affected someone’s need—or not, as the case may be—for a local authority dwelling.
Housing associations have had no such problem. They are usually organised by voluntary groups, often involving people known as do-gooders. Do-gooders are always better than do-badders, as far as I am concerned. The associations were able to meet the needs of those who fell outside the points scheme, however broadly defined it might have been. They have therefore played a vital role in allowing people that little bit of flexibility that the local authority, with the best will in the world, could not provide.
Two thirds of the rest of the homes were owned by the people who lived in them, and I would also advocate that strongly. The Labour party was never opposed to people owning their own homes; we just objected to the ownership of homes by private landlords. We had learned the lessons from 1903 or 1904, when more than 90 per cent. of all houses in this country were owned by private landlords. We all saw, read about, knew of and understood the conditions that prevailed for the vast majority of families and people throughout those years. Then, however, came the giants.
In 1945, we had a Government who understood that the very best contribution to improvement in public health was publicly owned, built and managed housing—better even than the national health service itself. On the shoulders of giants such as Bevan—and, indeed, Attlee for facilitating it—Stafford Cripps, Dalton and others and more recently the great Anthony Crosland, who preceded my hon. Friend the Minister who is in his place, we understood not only that people had a desire to own their houses but that a capitalist society, sub-divided and stratified as it is, needed a facility to look after its own and to be able to say with pride, “We have a stock of housing that is fit for purpose and occupation and shall be occupied by people who at any time require and need it.”
Yet, since those days, particularly under the Conservative Government, we have seen that very practical scheme taken apart. We saw the sale—not really a sale, but a giveaway—of council houses. What happened was based on the ideas of a person who used to represent one of the constituencies in my city of Wolverhampton—Enoch Powell, who said, “All these council estates should be broken up into small parts and sold off to private landlords.” Well, we have come close to that with the new industry of mortgages for buying to let. We are returning to the days at the turn of the 20th century when 90 per cent. of homes were owned by private landlords. How far down the road do we have to go before we understand the lessons that we should have learned?
What we hear is the great mantra—I am afraid it is new Labour’s, too—of diversification, choice, choice and more choice. Let me tell the House that this choice does not come free of charge. To misquote my great hero, Harold Wilson, one man’s choice is another man’s redundancy, another man’s difficulty, another man’s inability to get a decent house. We need to understand that these diversities should remain on a very small scale in local communities where willing people come together to do something helpful. Our great thrust should be to recognise that the two thirds-one third split served us extremely well—notwithstanding the fact that some homes were poorly managed; the local electorate had an opportunity to do something about that. We must recognise that there are straight lines that people will understand, are explicable and will meet our needs: no gimmicks.
Let me deal with suggestions about regulation and Oftenant. I have already heard one or two tenants’ leaders describe it as “Bugger Off Tenant”. I think that there is a real danger of that becoming the case. Let me tell Members what it can do—
I never speak in order to offend, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was, in fact, quoting tenants’ leaders. I certainly do not approve of that statement myself. I could never subscribe to that—[Laughter.]
The time is slipping away, so let me make an important point about the duties of Oftenant. They extend to
“the nature of the housing demands to be addressed,… the extent to which demand is to be supplied,… criteria for allocating accommodation,… terms of tenancies,… levels of rent (and the rules may, in particular, include provision for minimum or maximum levels of rent or levels of increase or decrease of rent),… maintenance,…procedures for addressing complaints by tenants against landlords,… methods for consulting and informing tenants,… methods of enabling tenants to influence or control the management of their accommodation and environment,… anti-social behaviour,… landlords’ contribution to…environmental…well-being”—
and so it goes on. That is actually describing new means-testing—and my party does not approve of mass means-testing, so I say to my Ministers that that has to be addressed seriously. We cannot, we will not, and we must not tolerate a situation in which people’s tenancy of a local authority home—or, indeed, of an ALMO—depends on their income. I hold as an ideal mixed estates of people from different walks of life and I do not believe that it is within the Labour philosophy to exclude people from what may have been their home for 20 years on the basis that they have suddenly got a better job. That is an absolute outrage. In supporting the Bill tonight, I want to make clear the responsibility of Members in Committee to ensure that proper amendment is made in good time.
Let me first declare an interest as a member of a local authority that is still, fortunately, a housing authority.
Let me take the House back to the beginning of the debate when I asked the Secretary of State about the change in the housing revenue account subsidy. Other Members suggested that it was in the Bill, but they cannot have read it. My city of Portsmouth, which was proud to build 31,000 council houses, now has fewer than 13,000. As others have said, that residue comprises houses that were not bought because they were in unsuitable locations and were undesirable. We have been left in an appalling situation. Whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, our local authority prided itself on honouring its commitment to tenants to keep well maintained properties and to keep rent at respectable levels, but it is now being punished. Unless there is a substantial change in how the housing revenue account subsidy works, we will have lost £7 million in council rents by the end of this year and £97 million if it continues to 2013. All that money will have been stolen from Portsmouth’s council tenants in order to subsidise authorities that have not done what they should have done—look after their properties properly.
The Secretary of State says that it is all about balance and that some did well. Of course some did well, as they had huge problems. The shame of my city is that there are more people on our housing waiting list today than there were in 1945, when half of the properties in the city were either demolished or so badly damaged by the Luftwaffe that they were uninhabitable. Yet today, we are writing to people saying, “Your wait on the housing list is going to be so long that it is pointless for you to be on the list. Please do not ask for housing.” What have things come to when a country such as ours cannot provide people with somewhere decent to live?
Members who believe that the housing subsidy problem will be resolved by the Bill should read the small print. They should read the Local Government and Housing Act 1989; they should look at where exceptions are made. It is a shame that the Secretary of State did not read it and tell us who would be the beneficiaries. It will certainly not be local authorities such as mine or many others represented by hon. Members present.
I enjoyed and greatly shared the sentiments of the speeches made by the hon. Members for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Both touched the nerve of what the debate should be about. It is about housing need and giving people a reasonable expectation that in a reasonable amount of time they can have the opportunity of living in a decent house. I was brought up in a council house—like other Members, I suspect—and I am proud of it. Parker Morris gave me things that kids who I went to school with envied, such as a bathroom that was a separate room—indeed, a bathroom that was inside the house. Many of my contemporaries who lived in privately rented properties did not have that luxury, and I shall always be grateful to Mr. Parker Morris for the council house standards that he introduced.
Sadly, the standards have dropped, and most of the houses have been sold.
We must examine the real issues in housing. We need a root-and-branch review of the way in which housing benefits are paid. At least two Members mentioned that. Many of the problems that we encounter in our constituencies relating to both price rises and the difficulty of renting property are caused by our failure to ensure that the price charged matches the quality of the property. The hon. Member for Islington, North was right to say that we should be more careful and more inquisitive about the standards of private rented property if we are paying public money. Is the £14 billion a year paid in housing benefit really good value for money? It is for those who are lucky enough to be in decent houses, but those who are not in decent houses would seriously question any claim that we do not need a review.
We must consider what the need really is. Over the past two or three years, the concentration in south Hampshire has been on small properties—one-bedroom flats, some of them high-rise, and properties with a maximum of two bedrooms. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) pointed out, people with children need decent homes. If the home is a flat, it should have facilities nearby so that the children can play, but it should really be a house with a garden so that the family can develop in the harmony that we all want.
As others have said, the larger four and five-bedroom properties have vanished from the face of housing association builds. I doubt whether any Member could name a large estate on which more than 1 or 2 per cent. of properties are four-bedroom houses, but every local authority in the country needs properties of that kind. Why are they not being built? Why can we not understand that families who need decent homes need that type of property? We need to break down that barrier to development.
I support the view that if we are to have 3 million new houses, 1 million of them should be council houses. I do not see anything wrong with calling them what they are. What do terms such as “social housing” and “affordable housing” mean to people? The Minister could not even give the hon. Member for Islington, North a suitable and understandable definition of affordable housing. People understood what council housing was, and we should be proud of the fact that local authorities in this country built those houses. Tory, Labour and Liberal authorities did it and should be proud of it, and we as a Parliament should trust them enough to give them the chance to do it again.
Like the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, I have some doubts about the role of Oftenant. I am curious to know who will start the ball rolling. Who will set the initial guidelines?
Yes, or the girls for that matter. I am also curious to know who will set the punishments that will be afforded to those who offend against Oftenant’s regulations.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) raised two fundamental points that have been generally ignored. One concerned the need for a national mobility scheme to enable tenants to move between authorities. I have seen very good results when people have been given that opportunity. Nowadays a person must be on a witness protection programme to move from, particularly, a London authority.
The right hon. Gentleman was also right to question the commitment to our armed forces. How easy it is for a service marriage to break down. The serviceman leaves the married quarters, and within days—hours in some cases—a notice to quit is put through the door, telling his wife and children that they are no longer eligible for service accommodation. Where do they go? Do they go to the local authority where the married quarters are, or do they return to the part of the country from which they came, with no help whatever from the military? If the Bill is really to cater for the needs of service families, the Government should understand one of the biggest issues facing conurbations such as mine in south Hampshire—and, for that matter, in north Hampshire and Colchester—where large service units are sited. Fifty per cent. of all naval accommodation is in the greater Portsmouth area, and marriage break-ups in the area cause much suffering among people in that position.
We have not heard much about regeneration. It will work only if local authorities, housing associations and the private sector and their tenants are brought together in an equally sided triangle. It cannot be forced down people’s throats, and it cannot be generated simply by the willingness of a private developer to say, “I will put money into this area, provided that you do what I want you to do.” That will immediately alienate the tenants, and probably the local authority as well. The issue needs to be thought through seriously.
While I agree with many of those who have said that there is much to be welcomed in the Bill, I think that the Minister should consider a sunset clause for comes to the Homes and Community Agency. It ought to be conditional on whether Labour stays in power. I should be very reluctant to see a Tory Minister with the power that such an agency would deliver. Like Labour Members who have spoken, I was in local government when the Conservatives were in power, and I know how difficult it was. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is commenting from not a sedentary but a horizontal position. If he cares to interrupt and put me right, I shall be only too pleased to hear from him.
I remember from my days in a local authority the way in which local authorities that wanted to develop council housing were punished by the Conservatives, and I should be extremely reluctant to give them the power that goes hand in glove with the establishment of a Homes and Community Agency. I should be extremely nervous if an election ever went the other way.
It is for the hon. Lady to work that one out. I merely want to see the right thing done for people who want to be rehoused. I think there is a great deal in the Bill that will offer people the chance of a decent home, provided that Ministers heed much of what has been said this evening and, I suspect, will be said in Committee.
It is important that we get this right. With the possible exception of immigration, I do not think that any issue with which I deal in my advice centre does not relate at least partly to housing. Whatever the issue—crime, education or health—it can be traced to the same fundamental flaw. For a long time—the best part of a decade or in some cases more, probably 20 years—we have been unable to give people decent homes. A decent home is something to which every Member in the House aspires, and we should do all we can to ensure that the rest of the community has the same chance.
I hope that Ministers will listen. I was bitterly disappointed with the Conservatives’ performance this afternoon. I hoped that they would give us a straight answer to a straight question and tell us how many houses they believed were needed, and what proportion would be for social housing. More important, I expected them to be a bit more constructive about a Bill that would offer people at least an opportunity to fulfil that aspiration to a decent home.
I, too, warmly welcome the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I liked the emphasising of the word “regeneration” by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). The Government now acknowledge in public policy the desperate need for affordable, decent homes for families to rent. We had moved away from that for far too long.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) said that there is a “crisis”, but I believe it to be a crisis of hidden family homelessness in Britain. The Bill acknowledges that, and puts forward practical proposals and new budgeting structures to start to tackle it. I profoundly believe that 80 per cent. home ownership, which could be better expressed as mortgage indebtedness or as mortgage dependency, is socially and economically unsustainable. That is far too high a level for any society, so I welcome what I suspect might be a helpful rebalancing in the Bill.
My regular advice surgeries in my inner-city constituency, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), are overwhelmed by people suffering what could be described as housing stress. Such people include: young couples who are desperate to get a home of their own and are sleeping on sofas with families; youngsters with children who are sleeping in the front room with their grandparents; and people who are overcrowded in what are euphemistically called “box rooms”, which fall well below the Parker Morris space standards. Such people perhaps have two cots, but they are trying to cope. People in flats with children—that was against the points system—will have to wait years for their kids to grow up before they change circumstances, and their only dream is to get downstairs to be in a home with a garden. May we start from the premise that there is a profound shortage of homes to rent, because the Bill does just that?
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), a former Housing Minister, suggested that people might be able to buy their way out, but I do not think that that is possible any more. The reason for that is the fact that the gap between the floor and the first step in the housing ladder is well beyond their financial means. The average income in my constituency is £16,000 a year. The mortgage companies in the city assume that the average income in Leeds as a whole, which is doing rather well, is £23,000. My constituents are regarded as being on £23,000 when they are on £16,000, and they have no chance of breaking into the mortgage market. They cannot even afford to buy a modest back-to-back house, because such houses sell at £80,000. That is the scale of the problem.
It is not true that Leeds is not building houses. Some 26,000 private units have been built there since 1997. They are mostly expensive, single-person, single-unit flats and apartments to buy in the city centre, and support the booming finance and office sectors. We are talking about studio flats for professionals, but the problem is that they are well beyond the means of people in my neighbourhood—they will never be able to buy them. What is more, all the city council evidence shows that 70 per cent. of the new build stock has two bedrooms or fewer, but 70 per cent. of the city’s housing demand is for houses with two, three or four bedrooms or more. There is a total mismatch between the needs of the people and what is being provided.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the lack of family housing provided in many communities. Does he have any concern, as I do, that the Government’s targets of densities have driven this situation and led to an inflexibility whereby developers say, “I’ll give X units because I have to cram on so many”? The way forward would be if local authorities were more able to decide what sort of homes they want. This should not be density-driven.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, because she reminds me that the Conservative Government introduced what I believe was called the development corporation in my city centre. It introduced those density levels, which resulted in the flats that were built.
I remember the wife of a footballer who got a job in the city when Leeds United was doing rather better coming to my advice surgery to tell me that she had moved into a flat that had been built for Porsches and not for prams. What could the families there do—there were no doctors’ facilities or shops? The flats were costing more than £200,000 to buy, but for the needs of the rich even they were inappropriate.
I simply suggest that there is an imbalance and mismatch between the type of housing that has been built and what is needed. We ought not to get the balance wrong again. There are plans to provide 3 million extra houses, but we must ensure that we do not simply build new units. We must build the right sized homes to meet the need. If we neglect that issue, we will make no progress.
I welcome the recognition that the first rung on the housing ownership ladder is now so far out of many young families’ reach that the need to build affordable homes to rent should be acknowledged universally as a priority. We have made some progress. I also welcome the proposal to set up the new Homes and Communities Agency, and in particular the merger with English Partnerships. I say that because it brings together the land problem and the provision of buildings problem. When the former Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), promised that he could build houses for £60,000 for first-time buyers the problem was that the value of the land was never added into that cost. Once that was done, the house cost much more than £60,000 and was again beyond those people’s reach. So bringing together the land and development issues will be helpful. However, if we put the whole package together from the outset, it is also essential, as I believe the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South mentioned, that regeneration remains an essential part of the whole process.
Elements of the Bill on regeneration cannot be overemphasised, particularly in respect of inner-city neighbourhoods, where derelict and semi-derelict brownfield land could be brought into use for small-scale housing development now. Some of the housing associations have done an excellent job with what we called “pepper-potting” or “infill sites” to show that neighbourhoods can be built and to enable people who want to live near their parents or grandparents to live within communities again. There is a focus on communities rather than on simply suggesting that development be large-scale and further away.
Perhaps English Partnerships could intensify its work with local councils to begin to identify inner-city brownfield sites. I live in the inner city, and I am not asking for my neighbourhood to be concreted over, as someone suggested the other day. Plenty of space is available to use; derelict sites could be brought into use while leaving us new green spaces and play areas to redevelop neighbourhoods in the city. It is ludicrous that a young woman with a pram and two kids has to walk nearly a mile and a half up a hill to go to care for her elderly parents but the points system does not allow her to move into a house four doors down, which would enable her to do her care work on a daily basis. We should start to ask whether the housing development that we are putting together serves the needs of local communities and to put that focus back in. We can do that while insisting that we do much more to increase the supply and extend the number of properties that have been built.
I have heard no one in this debate suggest that we go back to the tower blocks of the 1960s, the “system build” houses, and the high density developments and the large estates beyond the ring roads that were generally soulless and did not have community facilities. Much more can be done with careful analysis. We can use brownfield, inner-city sites without creating a panic about building on, and encroaching on, the green belt. There is no reason why the only options are either new houses on green belt or no new houses. Much more can be done to redevelop inner-city neighbourhoods such as mine.
Rebuilding local communities must be sustainable. We should take much more account of one element in the Bill—the idea of the sustainability code. One of my Labour colleagues suggested that it be made mandatory, because simply putting the units up and not building in the future environmental and energy efficiency will be short-sighted in the extreme. We will end up where we have ended up every time that we have gone for a building push—we put up houses that we then knock down within 50 years. How often has that happened? We have put the houses up, found a fault, knocked them down again and wasted resources. Will we think a bit more long-term this time and build in that environmental sustainability? I am not only talking about the sustainability of the building. Will we begin to think more holistically about the sustainability of local communities?
I have always believed that Leeds is a city of urban villages. People can say which side of the street belongs to which neighbourhood and which street divides the neighbourhood. People on one side of a street come from Bramley whereas people on the other side of it come from Armley. Those clusters still exist even with a high turnover of 30 per cent. of the people moving through the neighbourhoods every three years. It is a high turnover area, but still has strong local identities, and we should focus on those much more. We should get English Partnerships to work with local authorities to identify where we could start the pepper-pot, infill building.
We should restructure housing finance. The sale of council houses was a massive discount sale, and the best third of the stock went—that is why there is such a drastic shortage. When I was a councillor, an old councillor dredged up some comments made when the first council housing in the country was built in my city in the 1930s. A Conservative councillor, who opposed council housing on principle, said, “Make the people buy, and then we will force them to vote Conservative directly.” I hope that that old argument is by the way now, and that we are not playing politics with whether a home is to rent or to buy.
I suggest that the balance between renting and buying is out of sync and unsustainable economically, socially and in terms of providing neighbourhoods for the future. I hope that we can have all-party support, for once, for the proposition that building affordable, decent homes to rent is the right approach. At least the Bill sets a bit of a trail in the right direction.
It is a delight to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). He mentioned density, and it was this Government who insisted on a high density of 30 to 50 to the hectare under PPG3 and often overturn my authority when it wishes to build at a lower density. I look forward to the Government giving more control back to local authorities to build the houses that they want.
The Homes and Communities Agency will be given a broad set of powers, including the catch-all provision that it
“may do anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of its objects or for purposes incidental to those purposes.”
It may also
“impose charges for, or in connection with, anything done by it by virtue of”—
“of such amounts as the HCA considers to be reasonable.”
The devil will be in the detail, and with 121 pages of detail the Committee will have to consider all aspects of the Bill carefully.
As a matter of principle, I fully support the rights of local communities to decide how they take shape and grow. Too often, people in my constituency have felt dictated to on housing totals and density by the Government, so are understandably irritated when planning decisions made locally are controversially overturned by the Secretary of State. In Hertfordshire, we face the threat of continually escalating housing totals that we feel are unsustainable and lack supporting infrastructure. Indeed, infrastructure will be key to the Bill. We do not know the eventual housing total for Hertfordshire and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) said, we have some concerns about density and sustainability.
The hon. Lady talks of high density as if it is a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with high density schemes provided that they are properly designed, the rooms are big enough and the facilities are provided. The advantage of high density schemes is that less land is used and, therefore, there is less incursion on to greenfield sites.
I agree that high density schemes can be well designed. Indeed, some of our wonderful Georgian and Victorian terraces are high density. The problem is that planning for an estate can be decided on its overall density, so it has large executive homes at one end and shoeboxes at the other. A blanket approach to density can skew a development and be very unfortunate for those people who are put into the small amount of housing that is designated as affordable.
The role of the local planning authority, along with the democratically elected councillors who make up the local planning committees, could be marginalised or made irrelevant by certain aspects of the Bill. If the HCA becomes a local planning authority as outlined in clause 14(2)(b), the role of the true local authority will be neutered. I cannot imagine that my constituents would be happy with the thought that the HCA were in control, rather than democratically elected councillors.
Clause 8 provides that the HCA may acquire, manage, reclaim, repair, improve and dispose of housing. My concern is that that is a duplication of responsibilities under the empty dwelling management orders for local authorities. If the HCA is to go ahead, EDMOs should be part of its responsibilities, to avoid duplication. I would like to hear the Minister’s view on that point.
Clause 9 includes worrying provisions about the HCA’s power to acquire land compulsorily, including allotments, commons, village greens, open spaces and public gardens. I checked with the lawyers on the Bill Committee the wording of subsection (5), which states:
“The power…to acquire land compulsorily includes the power to acquire land compulsorily for the giving in exchange for the land”.
The information I received today suggests that the HCA will be able to acquire compulsorily land such as a common or village green and designate a piece of land elsewhere with similar rights. How will the community that has the rights over the original village green or common have any say over the land that is given in exchange? Such pieces of land are often at the heart of our most beautiful villages and can be integral to village life and community activities. If we truly value communities, it must be a worrying notion that a piece of land used for community amenity can be swapped for a piece of land elsewhere.
That provision, and the replacement of the local planning authority, will mean that local people can be dictated to. Commons, such as the one in Colney Heath, are a valuable environmental resource, contain sensitive habitats and often define villages. If the HCA can compulsorily purchase them for development, what say would local people have if they lost commoners rights? Common land status is not only defined by greenery: some of our historic market towns contain tranches of common land, where commoners’ land rights exist over hard landscape. When I was a councillor, I served on an old town regeneration scheme and we discovered that odd tracts of land in the village bore common land rights. Over the years, it had evolved from hard-standing for animals and carts into small car parks or marketplaces. If such common land is to be developed, we need to ensure that common land rights are not extinguished, but they would be very hard to duplicate elsewhere.
I am sure that the Minister will be as well versed as she needs to be on the subject of fuel allotments, which could also be exchanged or moved elsewhere under the Bill. I was bemused as to what a fuel allotment was until I read “A History of Clewer” today—if the Minister has not done so, I recommend it. A fuel allotment, which can be exchanged, sold or used for development, was established under an Act of George III in 1813 for vesting parts of Windsor forest and gave people foresters rights, including the right to collect fuel. I fail to see how a fuel allotment area—possibly an old piece of land with historic rights over it—could easily be replaced by another piece of land elsewhere. I look forward to examining in Committee how fuel allotments will be dealt with. Those details call for extremely close scrutiny.
Similarly, I am concerned that clauses 16, 17 and 21 of the Bill may neuter the role of the local highways authority. They allow private roads to be adopted, made into public highways or, sometimes, opened up. That could have far-reaching implications for residents who enjoy a private, semi-rural highway that is not laid to tarmac or, at the other end of the spectrum, those who live in the traffic-averse, gated environments that can be found on some of the newer estates. I understand that residents can appeal against compulsory adoption, but at what cost and on what planning grounds? Surely, any alteration to our highways would need new planning guidance for highways.
I also want to touch on the certificates of energy sustainability, and those who assess them. We are asked to accept that the new inspection regime will have 890 assessors in place by 2008, and I presume that we are meant to feel comfortable that they will be fully trained and in place by the right date. However, given the Government’s handling of the roll-out of home information packs, and especially their failure to bring forward enough suitably qualified energy assessors, I am sure that other hon. Members will share my scepticism that the plan will fall into place in a timely manner.
For example, in March 2006 we were assured that between 5,000 and 7,400 full-time home inspectors would be required yet, by May 2007, the Secretary of State was compelled to announce to the House that the actual figure was far lower. According to a recent BBC report, a lack of work and inflated expectations of earning power had left qualified assessors deeply disappointed with their role. Will the new assessors in training for the energy certification job be able to look forward to far more security?
We need honesty and transparency in the energy certification process, as otherwise we risk a rerun of the HIPs debacle. I am concerned that there will be a degree of duplication and overlap with the energy assessors already in training. That needs to be looked at carefully, as we do not want the Bill to leave us with yet more duplication.
We have heard a great deal today about sustainable communities, homes and towns. Although a house must be eco-friendly when it is built, we must also ensure that similar consideration is given to the resources used to build it and to the labour force that put it together, as well as to other aspects of construction. The people who buy the homes will want to know whether servicing them will require lots of workmen migrating in and out. In my constituency, for example, there is widespread concern about a contemplated rail freight interchange. That would not be sustainable, as all the labour force required to service it would have to be brought in.
There are many problems with the Bill that will have to be ironed out in Committee. My constituents are lucky enough to have precious green spaces in their communities, but their biggest worry—which I share—is that the Government will shoehorn even more development into them. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some comfort about that; if not, I hope that the matter, which many people regard as crucial, is explored fully in Committee.
This is a wide-ranging and complex Bill and I welcome it. I shall address my remarks specifically to its provisions in respect of Gypsies and Travellers. They make up only a small part of the Bill, but they are very important to a lot of people.
I am delighted that, in clause 272, the Government address the issue of security of tenure on sites for Gypsies and Travellers run by local authorities, and I welcome the fact that the clause gives residents of such sites the security of tenure enjoyed by residents of other mobile home sites. The proposals are very fair, and I welcome the Minister’s commitment. These are important matters for Gypsies and Travellers, many of whom have come to the House to meet members of the all-party group on Gypsy-Traveller law reform, which I chair. They have told us about how the insecurity of the present arrangements has affected their lives, families and children. It is therefore very good that the Government are going ahead with the proposals in the Bill.
Nearly 40 per cent. of Gypsies and Travellers live on sites provided by local authorities, and they have suffered grievously from the lack of security of tenure. Increasingly, Gypsies and Travellers have wanted to retain a more permanent base while retaining the tradition of living in a caravan and travelling during the summer. Often, that is because they want their children to attend school and, as a result, many more Gypsy children attend primary school than used to be the case. I should say that most Gypsy children on settled sites do so, although that is not so true of secondary schools.
The lack of security of tenure has caused problems for Gypsies and Travellers when it comes to getting jobs, and it is well known that their health is much worse than that of the rest of the population. It has been acknowledged already in the debate that housing and health are very important factors, and that is more true of the Gypsy and Traveller population than it is of any other sector of society.
The Bill allows Gypsies and Travellers—or their family members—to purchase the sites on which they reside. Given the debate about the right to buy council houses, would the hon. Lady like any restrictions to be placed on that proposed right for Gypsies and Travellers?
The Bill proposes the same restrictions as apply to other mobile homes, but I agree that such matters need to be considered in detail.
The present lack of security of tenure means that site residents can be evicted even when they have done nothing wrong. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 provides that, to gain possession of a pitch on a Gypsy site, a local authority need only provide 28 days’ notice of termination of a Gypsy’s or Traveller’s licence, after which it can obtain a possession order from the court. However, resident Gypsies and Travellers have no opportunity to put any defence against such an order and thereby to prevent their eviction.
In May 2004, the European Court of Human Rights decided the case Connors v. United Kingdom, in which the claimant had been evicted from an official local authority Gypsy site on which she had lived for many years. The ECHR decided that the lack of any procedural safeguard was a clear breach of the occupant’s rights under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which provides a right to respect for a person’s home, private life and family life.
An amendment to the Housing Act 2004 gave judges the discretionary power to suspend possession orders, but it did not address or remedy the incompatibility found by the ECHR in the case to which I referred. That point was also made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its 13th report.
In November 2004, the Government sent a memorandum to the Council of Ministers indicating that they accepted that security of tenure would have to be introduced on local authority sites for Gypsies and Travellers. The delay in introducing that led me, in July 2006, to sponsor the Caravan Sites (Security of Tenure) Bill. Clause 272 of the Bill under discussion today provides most of what the earlier Bill sought to introduce, but I remain concerned about Gypsy and Traveller families currently facing eviction from local authority sites. They are not protected at the moment, and that is causing them a great deal of stress and difficulty.
I understand from the Minister that local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites will not constitute social housing under this Bill. I hope that the Government will reconsider that, and ensure that such sites fall under the authority of the social housing regulator. I welcome the fact that the regulator’s objectives ensure that
“actual and potential tenants of social housing have an appropriate degree of…choice, and…protection”,
and that they
“have the opportunity to be involved in its management.”
Placing Gypsy and Traveller sites under the authority of the social housing regulator would fit in with the Government’s planning policy statements on housing. Paragraph 37 of the document published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in May and entitled “Local Authorities and Gypsies and Travellers: A Guide to Responsibilities and Powers” states:
“Gypsy and Traveller sites are considered as affordable housing where they are owned and managed by a local authority or Registered Social Landlord.”
Considering Gypsy and Traveller sites to be a form of social housing would help to mainstream provision, and could therefore contribute to the creation of the mixed communities that are part of the aim of the Bill.
If local authority-run Gypsy and Traveller sites were to constitute social housing, as defined by the Bill, the social housing regulator’s objectives would cover most of the matters that are included in the Caravan Sites (Security of Tenure) Bill but which are not covered by clause 272 of this Bill.
My main purpose in focusing briefly on clause 272 is to welcome it and to tell the House what a difference it will make to the lives of so many people. The provision will not give residents of local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites special rights; it will simply give them the same rights as other residents of caravans or mobile homes. The disparity until now has been grossly unfair.
The clause will not prevent residents who break the conditions of their secure tenancy from being evicted. It will mean that, like tenants of other forms of accommodation, they cannot be evicted without good reason and without proof of an infraction of the rules. It is important that they have the same opportunities as other site residents.
The clause will not give security of tenure to anyone on an unauthorised encampment or development. The grave shortage of legal sites, which forces about a quarter of Gypsies and Travellers in caravans to park illegally, is addressed by the implementation of other legislation. I hope very much that local authorities will provide sufficient sites for those who need them, but it is too soon to say how successful that legislation will be.
Clause 272 will undo a serious injustice that has afflicted Gypsies and Travellers for too long. I am pleased that the Government have finally recognised that, and that they are implementing such an important clause. I hope the provision will be taken up by the Welsh Assembly and that it will apply to Gypsies and Travellers living in Wales.
A decent home is one of the most important things for all of us. One section of the population has suffered badly in that regard and I am pleased that the Government are addressing the problem.
When we debate housing, I often think about the two great leaders whose statues stand outside the Chamber—Churchill and Lloyd George, who stood at the Dispatch Box, arguing and debating the housing crisis of 100 years ago.
We had homes fit for heroes. In the 1930s, we had new, innovative garden cities. During the 1940s and 1950s, we built vast council estates. During the 1960s, we had new ideas so we knocked down a lot of perfectly good housing to build more new estates and tower blocks. Parliament debated housing issues then and we are still debating them today. We still have a housing crisis: we still do not have enough homes fit for our constituents.
In 1990, when I first started on my passage to become Member of Parliament for Teignbridge, there were just over 1,000 people on the council’s waiting list. Today, there are about 4,000 families on the list. During that time, under the right to buy, Teignbridge council sold off more than 3,000 council homes, but because of financial restrictions and other constraints it has been able to build only 1,300, so it is no wonder that the waiting list in Teignbridge has grown: there is clearly a shortfall of 1,700 houses—homes that are lost to the public sector.
I want to raise two key issues about healthy housing. First, I shall draw together a few threads from what has already been said about good design. Earlier I mentioned tower blocks. Much of the housing built in the 1950s and 1960s has already been knocked down—in some cases because it was poorly constructed, but often because it was badly designed. The houses were not fit for purpose; they were not a humane environment in which people were happy to live.
In an intervention on the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), I said that high density is not bad density. High-density design can be good. While I am in London, I live in Dolphin square, which is a high-density block built in the 1930s. It is well designed and perfectly good for people’s needs. Other properties, such as Georgian houses, are high density, but they work because space was created in them; the room sizes work for families. They are large enough for families to breathe.
Parker Morris standards, which were referred to earlier, guaranteed a minimum amount of storage, but they have been abolished. When I was a young architectural technician, I remember working out the amount of storage that had to be included in the design. When the standards were abolished, room sizes were the same but houses were slightly smaller because no storage was provided. What used to be part of the design of the house became part of the room fitments, so when we abolished Parker Morris we reduced the size of many houses.
People are being squeezed into more compressed spaces, yet the material needs of society are expanding. We provide much more for our children in their rooms. When I was a teenager I did not have a television in my room. I had a record player, but nowadays in most children’s bedrooms there is a computer, a television and a record player.
Vinyl is making a comeback.
There is more need for space, so we should not have abolished Parker Morris; we should have revised the standards to take account of the fact that houses need to be bigger to meet the expectations of the modern family. We need the 3 million homes the Minister has proposed to be well designed. Homes and estates should certainly be sustainable but they must also be well designed.
We need to make sure that houses are big enough. There must be a good mix and diversity within an area to provide a humane environment. During the 1960s, we ignored the fact that people need defensible space. They need that space so that they can flourish on their estates and not feel hemmed in. Young people need to be able to let off steam occasionally, but without every other member of the household doing the same thing because they are all bottled up together in a confined space.
My second point about healthy housing relates to diversity of housing type. I said earlier that I worked in architecture. I do not know whether I should confess that I used to design houses; perhaps I should confess that a lot of the buildings that were knocked down because they were badly designed were ones I worked on during the ‘70s—probably a good job, too, in many cases. I would be the first to accept that. [Interruption.] Conservative Members shake their heads, but I did what I was paid to do. My first job as a young technician was designing clothes racks for the balconies of tower blocks. The buildings may still be standing, but they were appalling pieces of design and should never have been built.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) referred to Gypsies. I want to talk about another group of caravan residents—those in park homes. We were homeless at one point and I lived in a caravan for seven years, although at only 22 ft by 7 ft my caravan was rather different from modern park homes. During the passage of the Housing Bill in 2004, the Minister considered proposals for legislation on park homes made by the all-party park home owners group. She accepted that there was a need for it and brought in some much-needed legislation. We desperately need more legislation to control bad park home owners. There is an appalling situation in a park home site in my constituency. The residents are elderly, and they are stressed because they feel they are being bullied and that the site owner is trying to get them off the site.
I ask for a Minister to visit some of the park home sites around the country. They should not write in advance to say they are coming, because then everything will be done to clean the place up first. The visits should be impromptu. I—and, I am sure, other members of the all-party group on park home owners—will facilitate them; I am happy for the Minister to visit the site in my constituency. Ministers should take a look at the conditions that we expect some people to live in.
Park homes might be moved because they are too close together; they might be less far apart than the required 6 m interval. Teignbridge district council, for instance, decided to enforce the relevant legislation. Let us consider what can happen when a park home is moved. Those who move it destroy the residents’ garden. They move the home a couple of feet, and in doing so they knock down the porch. They do not reconstruct the porch for the residents. They do not rebuild the garden for them. They do not in some cases even immediately put steps in place so the residents can get up to their front door. I have seen park homes with temporary building blocks left in place instead, and with no handrail so elderly people have to stagger up them to get through the door. Because of the condition the site is left in, when it rains a torrent of mud might run down through the site. The roads are potholed. The lighting is inadequate. When the site owners have moved someone off, they will leave the electricity box broken and exposed. The residents are elderly people who want their family to visit, but they do not want to let a young child wander around a site that is in such a state—they would not do that because they care for their grandchildren’s safety. They are cut off because they do not feel they can allow their family to visit them as where they live is not safe.
People such as Mr. Small who runs Buckingham Orchard can run a site in such a way, however, and the local authority says there is little it can do. I ask the Minister please to do something to help those people. They are relying on the Minister. The Government have the opportunity to accept amendments to the Bill that will deal with such situations. In a previous Bill, the Government brought in a fit and proper person requirement for owners and landlords of housing in multiple occupation. I ask them to look into adding such an amendment to this Bill.
I welcome the Bill as being the first serious attempt for perhaps three decades to seek to address the issues of severe housing shortage and unaffordability. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), tried—rather synthetically, I thought—to counter the Bill, and in doing so made one of the thinnest speeches I have heard for a long time from the Opposition Front Bench. The Bill is a major step forward, and he would be wise to recognise that, although I would be the first to agree with other Members that some aspects of it need further consideration, and I want to concentrate on some of them.
The first is the scale of new house building in relation to need—the Conservative spokesman refused on more than half a dozen occasions to comment on that. The number is still distinctly short of what is required. For more than a quarter of a century, public housing in this country has been starved of investment. It has plummeted from 6.1 per cent. of Government spend per year in 1981—the trend started under Mrs. Thatcher’s Government—to just 1.6 per cent. in 2005. That is a staggering drop. If we put it in current price terms—which is the way to make sense of it—the Government today are spending about £22 billion less a year on public housing than their predecessors were at the end of the 1970s.
We should add to that the fact that half the public stock has been removed by sales and transfers of various kinds. The council waiting list was 1.6 million two years ago, and it is probably higher today, and it is now virtually impossible to get a council tenancy at all in current conditions. The situation in my town, Oldham, is similar to that in many other Members’ areas: the waiting list is now 11,000 and the total number of council properties remaining after all the sales is only 12,000 or 13,000. Even if someone is lucky enough to get a council tenancy, the rent-setting formula has now been changed from pooled-historical rent to one that is partly related to owner-occupied housing in the area. Therefore, just as house prices have risen dramatically, rents have also risen sharply, sometimes so much that they are out of financial reach.
As Members have also said, no one today has got a conceivable hope of buying their way out into the private sector as almost everywhere in the country the ratio of mortgage loans to income is now 5:1 or 6:1, and in some places even 8:1 or 10:1. Nor is it clear—I find this very worrying—that a small increase in housing will necessarily stabilise, let alone bring down, housing prices in view of the fact that the flow of house-purchase lending, which is now at the staggering level of £1 trillion a year, is rising so much faster. If extra house building increases the stock by, let us say, 1 or 2 per cent. a year, which might well be an effect of this Bill, while at the same time the credit available to buy it is rising at 5 per cent. or even more a year, house prices can hardly be expected to fall.
I admire the aspirations of the Bill but I do not think it is ambitious enough. I think that what is needed is a return nearer to historical levels of housing investment and a major construction drive targeted at good-quality council housing made available at construction-cost-related rents and entirely unrelated to the ballooning prices in the private sector. Although the Government’s proposals for increased house building are very welcome, I fear that they fall well short of matching the demand. The Government are proposing 200,000 new homes a year to 2016, and 240,000 new homes a year by 2020, but the housing economist with the best reputation in this area, Alan Holman, has estimated the required new housing formation every year at about 220,000 and that the extent of unmet housing need that has accumulated over the years—due to overcrowding, for example, and bad-quality, damp housing—is probably another half a million homes. If that latter category were to be cleared in a 10-year housing programme—which, I think, is modest—that would require 270,000 houses a year, which is considerably more than the Government’s aim.
I do not wish to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman, who is as a former Environment Minister, but could not much of the increased housing numbers he seeks could be found by local authorities doing far more to deal with their voids—with their empty properties—and by their releasing them back into the rented sector? The fact is that some of the worst offenders in terms of not releasing such voids are Labour authorities. [Interruption.] Yes, they are.
I entirely disagree with that. Of course voids are a problem, but the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that one should release more of those properties to the private sector is not the answer at all. The reason that they are voids is that there has been low investment and a low level of repairs. Let us not forget that, under the Conservative Government, repairs and improvements plummeted. The cost of the repairs that had been accumulated by 1997 was estimated in a report of that year to be about £20 billion. That is the fundamental problem and that is what the Government are taking their first steps to try to deal with.
More particularly, within the total, the number of additional affordable houses for renting, which is the epicentre of what we have to attend to, needs to be considerably higher. The Government propose an extra 15,000 houses a year, which is very good. It is 50 per cent. above the current output. But is it enough? I think the centre for housing and planning research at Cambridge has done the most recent and thorough work on this matter. It has updated the Barker analysis and has used the latest population forecast. It has estimated that an additional 60,000 social rented homes are needed by 2011—above the planned outputs in the Bill—to meet urgent newly arising need and to do what the Government rightly intend to do: halve the total in temporary accommodation, which is currently about 100,000. What we are seeing is a good first step, but we need to address the issue.
Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, even though the figures that he refers to may be insufficiently ambitious, they will not be met in parts of the country such as mine, which include national parks, where the restrictions are such that often housing need is not taken fully into account?
We will have to see whether those targets are met. With regard to national parks, there is a serious environmental issue to consider. That is not to say that there should not be house building in national parks. However, as was referred to a few moments ago, as a former Environment Minister, I would want those needs to be reconciled with the need to preserve the landscape and amenity value of the parks. I do not believe that those things contradict each other, as the hon. Gentleman said.
Where are the extra houses to come from? I feel strongly that local authorities should be able to borrow on the open market exactly as RSLs can, against the security of their own housing stock. However, the only movement in the Bill on this matter is that a few councils will be able to access housing grant—that is welcome—but through an ALMO, or what is called a special venture vehicle, which seems an odd euphemism for a wholly owned private company. Even where those things exist, it is proposed that there should be a pre-qualification process before the councils are allowed to bid. It is likely that only a small number of councils will actually get to access grant. It is helpful and right that the Government are saying that local authorities should be able to keep the income and capital returns from new housing supply where the capital subsidy is provided by them. However, frankly that is of little use if councils cannot access the capital subsidy in the first place. We need to look again at that.
In addition to the adequate supply and funding of new housing on the scale required—particularly social homes for rent—there are a number of new policy developments in the Bill that cause some concern. As many others have said, the Bill establishes a new quango—the Homes and Communities Agency—to take over key functions such as the compulsory purchase of land and the granting of planning permission. However, if those functions are not to be left with democratically elected councils, which is what I would expect, at the very least the Bill should state that those decisions must be taken in co-operation with local councils.
The Bill creates an unaccountable regulator, Oftenant, and transfers key responsibilities from elected Ministers and Departments, including responsibility for such sensitive issues as the criteria for allocating accommodation, the nature of housing demand to be met, the extent to which housing demand is to be supplied, the terms of tenancies, the level of rent, the procedures for addressing tenant complaints, and even antisocial behaviour. Those are extremely sensitive matters of policy. I recognise that the powers will apply in the first instance to RSLs, but it is clearly the intention that they should be extended to council housing. In effect, after stock transfer, RSLs, ALMOs and the right to buy have shifted vast quantities of council housing away from local government, the latest proposal could go a long way to removing the rest from local democratic control and ministerial supervision.
This is a very far-reaching—I would even say breathtaking—proposal and it needs to be examined extremely carefully. It could well undermine ministerial responsibility for one of the most fundamental needs of citizens, which many hon. Members have spoken about eloquently. I am talking about the provision of good quality, high standard accommodation for all, and particularly for the poorest 20 per cent. in society, whose income and employment are so precarious that they are inevitably dependent on public subsidy.
Ominously, that proposal is further buttressed by two other proposals in the Bill. One is that profit-making companies will be allowed for the first time to register as social landlords under a lighter burden of regulation. That must inevitably chip away at social responsibilities. The other is that, for the first time—as I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) said—means-testing is included in the definition of social housing. That inevitably abandons one of the fundamental founding principles of council housing in this country. Council housing was based on local authorities providing high quality housing for all sections of society, not just housing of last resort for those who cannot afford something better.
According to Professor John Hills, only 30 years ago, 20 per cent. of the richest 10 per cent. lived in social housing. Now, if the Bill goes through, council estates will further concentrate deprivation and council housing will be further stigmatised. The Government, as the champion of choice, ought to promote council housing as a tenure of choice for those who wish it. A great deal in the Bill is to be welcomed, but those issues need to be examined much more fully.
If people want to find the devolution dividend—the social gains from devolution—they should look no further than the Bill. Many of the objectionable, more nefarious proposals that the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) has just referred to do not apply to Wales. The introduction for the first time of eligibility based on means-testing and the creation of profit-making social landlords—surely an oxymoron—do not apply to Wales, nor does the creation of a new quango. We got rid of quangos in Wales some years ago and we have no appetite for creating new ones.
Having said that, I agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) that there is something positive at the heart of the Bill. It is implicit that the Government have at long last recognised the scale of the housing crisis, or challenge as they may call it—certainly it is a huge social problem that we had better find some answers to quickly. At long last, there is finally an acknowledgement from Members not just on the Government Back Benches, but on the Front Bench, that the social rented sector, and particularly council housing, has to be a core element of the response. If there is to be a benchmark by which we judge the success of the Bill in years to come it should be the extent to which it has resurrected the council housing sector.
Unfortunately, over the past decade there have been more false dawns in Government policy on council housing than in the revival of the Welsh rugby side. In 1997, when the Government were first elected, they said that they would release the capital receipts that had been held by the Tory Government. Between 1980 and 1997, those receipts could not be touched by local authorities that wanted to build houses to replace those that they had lost as a result of the right to buy. The Labour Government did release the capital receipts in full, but only for debt-free local authorities. That is less than 10 per cent. of all local authorities. In particular, the most disadvantaged areas, where need was highest, could not get access to capital receipts, and about £3 billion of that money still lies in a fund. Those capital receipts, which were built up between 1980 and 1997 from the right to buy, are still held out to local authorities as a carrot; if they transfer their stock, they will get those capital receipts to beef up their general fund.
As I say, there have been false dawns. Take the prudential borrowing ability for local authorities. There was talk of an investment allowance on the part of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. That would have been based on need, and local authorities could have used the prudential borrowing requirement intelligently to build up their local authority housing stock. Unfortunately, the Government rejected the investment allowance route, and instead chose the method proposed in the Bill. As we know, post-1997, local authorities get only 25 per cent. of capital receipts from properties sold. The money goes into a pool system. Quite fairly, that is partly to redistribute some of the right-to-buy receipts across the country. I understand the reason for that, but it means that the local authority sector does not get the entirety of the right-to-buy receipts returned to it, even under a Labour Government. That surely cannot be right to any of us who want to support and defend the principle of publicly owned housing.
We hope that we will be able to amend the Bill as it goes through its stages in the House, and on that basis we will support it tonight. In the Bill, there is some acknowledgement of the problem. In the impact assessment, the Government admit that local authorities and the council housing sector have faced two problems. The first problem, as the Government admit, is that they channelled the money through registered social landlords. The second problem is that the housing revenue account subsidy system not only does not provide the entirety of the capital receipts, but does not even give local authorities back the entirety of their rent income. Only 74 per cent. of rent is returned to local authorities. How on earth can they keep up the quality and fabric of their existing stock, let alone build new social housing, given the iniquities of the system?
In the Bill, the Government provide two new options. One is for local authorities to exempt themselves from the housing revenue account system. The problem is that they must buy themselves out with a massive one-off payment to the Treasury. In their own analysis, the Government accept that the vast majority of local authorities, and particularly the ones that need the resources the most, will not be able to buy themselves out. That is part of the problem with Government policy on council housing. If an authority wants to be self-sufficient and wants the receipts of sales and income in order to invest, it has to buy itself out, but if it wants to transfer its stock, the Government write off its debt. That shows that, unfortunately, there still is not a level playing field under the Government’s policy on council housing. The other option offered is to exempt new properties from the subsidy system. At least there is partial recognition that the subsidy system has worked against local authorities, but why not offer that exemption across the whole local authority sector? Why confine it to new build?
I have to tell the Minister that as the so-called flexibilities stand, they will be of very limited benefit to most of the local authorities in Wales. That is probably the case in England, too, and it is certainly the case for the authorities that we should care about most—those in areas where social housing need is greatest. Although the acknowledgement of the problem is welcome, the proposition that the Government present in the Bill will do nothing. It will get us nowhere near the level of new council housing build that we need.
I do not oppose targets; in fact, it is important that a Government of the left have targets when we are faced with a huge social need. Why is there no target for the number of council houses that we want, as part of the overall target? The Government refuse to say. There was reference to a figure of 300 new council houses a year—it is even less than that in Wales. That is appalling. All that the Government will say is that probably, as a result of the proposed changes, the figure may increase to several thousand a year. Again, that is a drop in the ocean, if we consider what we really need. Why are the Government not prepared to say that there should be an overall target for the number of new council houses, as part of the entire figure? Then we can judge the effect of the new policy against the target.
On clause 259, I sympathise with local authorities that have gone down the stock transfer route. It is unfortunate that local authorities feel that they have no other option because of the way in which the cards are stacked against them. Recently, Conwy thwarted an attempt to take it down that route by the thinnest of margins—by 50.8 per cent. to 49.2 per cent. Tenants feel that they have no option. A number of local authorities in England and Wales, including Wrexham, have voted against such a change. However, it would appear that the Government are not satisfied when tenants vote no. Under the clause, a piecemeal approach is effectively created. Even when tenants and local authorities decide not to go down that route, there is the potential for landlords—even for predatory private-sector landlords, in England—to try to persuade tenants with inducements, and to cherry-pick the best estates, which eventually vote in favour of stock transfer.
How will it be possible for local authorities in England and Wales to plan for their council housing stock if they do not know, year by year, which estates will be part of that stock, or if the parts of the local authority housing stock that bear the highest income are transferred to the private or independent sector? That is the Tory Government’s housing action trust policy of the 1980s: cherry-picking estates. If a whole local authority cannot be won over, the aim is to pick off individual estates. The Government need to think carefully about that.
Finally, in Wales, the Essex review on social housing regulation is due to report by the spring. Will it be possible to incorporate some of the review’s recommendations in the Bill? In Wales, there is consensus that we would like to move to a single social tenancy. We certainly want to make sure that where tenants are pushed into the hands of the private or independent sector, there is no diminution of their rights. Scotland has already done that, and there was talk of a single common tenancy in England, although I am not sure what has happened on that proposal. In Wales, there is consensus: we want a single social tenancy across all sectors. Will the Minister allow us to bring such a proposal forward, if the review finds in its favour, in the framework of the Bill?
I have been advised that I should declare an interest before participating in the debate. I refer hon. Members to the Register of Members’ Interests. When my brothers and I left home my mum was living on her own in a three-bedroom council house, so I helped her to buy a flat. The house was therefore released back to the council so that another family could live in it. When my brother resettled in England after working for nearly 20 years in central Africa as an aid worker, I gave him the money for the deposit on his one-bedroom flat. My husband owns a house that is rented out to some young people whom we know, who are on low incomes.
Until I was elected, I had no particular interest in housing, except perhaps from my own experience of how desperately we need to provide social housing. When I was seven, the bailiffs came. I remember that they wore bowler hats and they chucked us out of our house. We had nowhere to go. Thankfully, we were given a council house. I do not know what would have happened to us otherwise. I hate to think.
I now represent an area that has one of the worst housing crises in the country, and for me housing has become a passion. I do what I can. Sometimes it is hard, and I am willing to admit that some of my housing cases keep me awake at night because sometimes all I can give my constituents is tissues.
Last month a woman came to see me. I shall call her Jackie. She has two little children. She was going to be evicted the next week. The rent that she had to pay on her flat was far too much. She could not possibly afford it, so she had got behind and was about to become intentionally homeless. Islington council therefore had no obligation to rehouse her and would not do so. She was desperate to stay in the borough where her children were at school, but she has had to move many miles away to a private rented flat. I could not help her and her family get affordable housing in Islington.
I cannot say that that is the hardest case that I have had to deal with, but I raise it now because it reminded me so much of the situation that my mother was in 40 years go. The position has not got any better over 40 years. The overcrowding is worse and homeless families continue to face terrible crises. In Islington there are 13,000 families waiting for housing. Two thirds of those are living in overcrowded conditions. It is estimated that in the next two years 7,000 more households will be created, but the houses will not be built. Islington’s housing crisis is desperate. The market cannot and will not provide.
The median income in Islington is about £25,000 a year. The entry level price for a two-bedroom flat is about £300,000, which is 12 times the median income. In this week’s paper, the cheapest one-bedroom flat, an ex-council flat, is £250,000. That is 10 times the median income. What about the private sector and private rented homes? Unfortunately, there is nothing there approaching an affordable rent. The cheapest one- bedroom flat in this week’s local paper is £210 a week. The person on a median income, £25,000, is taking home £320 a week, so paying £210 in rent leaves only £110 for food, bills, travel, council tax and so on.
Our median person, one of the 7,000 new households, cannot rent or buy in Islington. What will happen to them? Many of my constituents are poorer than the median person. The average household income of people on council estates in my constituency is £15,000 a year, and nearly half of my constituents live in social housing. Many of those households include children.
That brings us back to social housing and the 13,000 families on the council waiting list. Allocations are managed by a system that is laughably called choice-based lettings. There is no choice and there are hardly any lettings. Only those in the top half of the waiting list are even allowed to bid for properties. The bottom half, 6,500 families, have to hang on until things get better, and they are not getting better.
Perhaps the Opposition Members, none of whom is still in the Chamber, who campaigned so actively to ensure that we do not build any more affordable homes would like to guess where the woman whom I am about to describe is on the waiting list. She came to see me a year ago. She is a single mother with one child. She is homeless through no fault of her own and is living in a hostel provided by the council. Let us call her Fatima. She has one room in the hostel. That is no place to bring up a child. Hostels should be for emergencies.
Where is Fatima in the list of 13,000—in the top 1,000, who might have a chance of getting a home in the next year? No, because she is not seriously ill and nor is her child. Is she in the top 2,000, who could reasonably expect to be rehoused in the next two years? No. Fatima is in the bottom 6,500—those who have no chance of ever getting an affordable house in Islington. She came to see me again in my surgery recently. She still does not have enough points to bid for a home, so she is stuck in the hostel with a larger toddler now. She is on income support. Should she go to a one- bedroom flat in the private market at £210 a week? What would happen if she got a job? How would she feed herself and her child? Surely it makes sense for us to build enough affordable housing for rent so that my constituent has a chance of a home for herself and her child.
My Lib Dem Islington council’s record on the matter is a disgrace. Councillors must be disconnected from real life in Islington. I cannot believe that they are intrinsically evil or wicked people, but they do not seem to understand the crisis. They will not stand up to developers and they will not refuse planning permission unless half of it is affordable housing that my Islington families can afford. Instead, only one in seven of all new homes that are being built in Islington is affordable rented housing. It is not good enough. I am pleased that the Government will step in.
I do not know, off the top of my head. [Interruption.] I am being prompted by one of my hon. Friends, but I do not know.
People buy up council housing and rent it out at extraordinarily high prices as temporary accommodation. We are expected to foot the bill by way of housing benefit. That is how people get caught in a poverty trap and we must do something about it. The only solution in the end is to build more. In Islington, where land prices are so high, the council could take advantage of that and say to developers, “You can’t build here unless half of what you build is for local people. You can make your great big profits on the other half.” That takes backbone, which my Liberal council does not have, and it ought to.
No, I have let the hon. Gentleman intervene once.
The Bill establishes the Homes and Communities Agency, which will be an engine for the Labour Government to ensure that we build more affordable homes, thank goodness. We must make sure that our councils do the right thing. We must build more affordable homes, and we will build 3 million of them. That is such good news. Affordable housing in the Islington context is only social rented, so let us build. Let us build for the sake of Jackie. Let us build for the sake of Fatima. Let us build for their children. Let us build for the younger generation across the whole country, whose birthright was being sold cheap by those who are not on the Opposition Benches but who ought to be. This is a major social issue, but they have all gone off to the bars instead of listening to this incredibly important debate. There is—
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Opposition Members are not in the Chamber to listen to this important debate. There is a younger generation who rely on us to ensure that more homes are built so that they have somewhere to live. If we do not do that, we are selling short the future of a younger generation. Let us ignore the nimbys and get on with it. Let us just build.
We want not just more housing, but better run housing. I do not agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). I welcome the provisions of the Bill.
We need housing associations to be more accountable locally. In my experience housing associations can have an excellent national reputation and in some parts of my constituency may be running estates well, but in other parts the estates are a disgrace. Let me give the House an example. I did a survey recently of housing association tenants. One of the questions that I asked was whether they were satisfied with the level of service that they were receiving. Peabody appeared at the top of the league tables, but it also appeared at the bottom. In Farringdon lane, the tenants all said that the service was okay, good or excellent; yet on the Priory Green estate 64 per cent. residents rated Peabody as poor or very bad. When an estate is badly run, there seems to be nothing that tenants, councillors or the Member of Parliament can do about it.
I visited Priory Green with the chief executive, Steve Howlett, in early 2006. Priory Green was built by Lubetkin. It was one of the jewels in the crown of the old borough of Finsbury’s social housing. In 1998 it was transferred after a vote of tenants, who said that they wanted to go to Peabody. About £10 million of Government money was spent on the estate. Government and public money was spent on security works and on improving the structure. When I went to see it with Steve Howlett, the place was dire. We could just walk in, because the security gates did not shut. We climbed over piles of rubbish and through pools of fetid water. We chatted with residents about rats and mice and lack of hot water. We smiled sweetly at tenants climbing through a broken window, which seemed to be the quickest route to a working lift. A long list of improvements were promised.
Last week I had a coffee morning and four ladies from ground floor flats on that estate came to see me. Two years have gone by and they still have no reliable hot water or heating. There are rats nesting in the basement and coming into their flats. Another resident stopped my assistant in the street. That resident is 67 years old. He has no heating, little hot water and a pile of rubbish outside his door. “It’s not fit for dogs,” he said. I visited another lady on the top floor, the seventh floor, where she lives with her elderly mother and two small children. She has no hot water either. She has been told that the pipes do not work that high up. When the lifts do not work, she is stuck there all day. I asked my coffee-morning ladies whether they had complained. They told me in great detail that they had, but that they could never get through on the phone to the person they wanted to speak to and that their calls were never returned. The 67-year-old guy in the street said that he had waited in all day on a cold day in November for a plumber who did not turn up. Those people should be able to hold their landlords to account.
In my private Member’s Bill, the Housing Association (Rights and Representation of Residents) Bill, I proposed that tenants should be able to report their landlord, demand improvements, and, if no improvements occurred, swap their landlords for someone better. Hon. Members will therefore be able to imagine how delighted I was when I saw a similar proposal in the Bill. The Bill will allow the people of Priory Green to trigger an inspection if things do not improve on that Peabody Trust estate. I want the Bill to go as far as the suggestion in the Cave review, in which case if Priory Green were not to improve, the Peabody Trust would lose it and another housing association would take over.
I am pleased that the Bill does not include any attempt to remove security of tenure for tenants. I understand that that was never considered seriously, but I want to put on record my complete opposition to it, because it would penalise social tenants who work and exacerbate the poverty trap. I approve of incentives to help people move out, if they want to, but I am certainly against means-testing.
A possible addition to the Bill is a provision on overcrowding. We have a Dickensian definition of overcrowding from 1935 that excludes babies who are less than 12 months old. When mothers come to see me, they say, “My baby does not count! Of course my baby counts.” The definition also includes kitchens and living rooms as rooms that people can sleep in. Nearly 500,000 households are overcrowded in Britain under the current definition, and 8,000 households in Islington are overcrowded. Shelter has done a lot of work on the effect of overcrowding on children’s health and life chances. We need a modern definition, and then we must work to end overcrowding.
We can mess around with measures such as making sure that voids are given over quickly to new tenants, but in the end there is one major solution: we must build more and ignore the nimbys. Housing is a grave social problem. We have the solution; we have the vision; let us get on with it.
In the north-west over the past decade the housing scene in our large cities and towns has changed from one of low demand, and even of abandonment in our older terraced streets, to one of affordability. Affordability is not only a matter for London, the south-east, York and Chester, because it hits all our areas today, including my town of Bolton.
Regeneration has been one of this Government’s successes—if hon. Members visit Manchester today, they will see all the cranes on the skyline—and it has extended to housing in our older urban areas. Whereas once we had street after street of decaying and deeply unpopular terraced housing stock from the factory eras blighting the lives of the people who lived there, today we have a new hope in most of those areas. I urge the Government not to take their foot off the accelerator of regeneration, especially in the pathfinder areas of the north-west.
Our region still faces the greatest incidence of low-quality private sector housing in the entire country. We need to invest both in providing new homes to meet increasing demand, which is partly driven by substantial demographic changes, and in valuing our existing stock, which needs the refurbishment that this Bill will hopefully provide.
As economic growth accompanies urban regeneration, people are—fortunately—being attracted back to live in our town centres. Town centre living has been positively encouraged in Bolton, where we have built on brownfield sites, such as the recent use of an old picture house, and converted old mills and churches into affordable accommodation for purchase. However, the speculators have moved in, too, and we have our fair share of buy-not-to-let properties in Bolton. Cities such as Leeds and Salford report that between 40 and 50 per cent. of new private sector flats in the city centre are empty, which is a scandal considering what we have heard this afternoon. The Government must try to tackle that. Are we building for sale far too many one and two-bedroom flats, rather than much-needed family accommodation?
Rising prices have restored confidence in recent years in the older end of the private sector market. Young people are now buying in areas that they would not have considered 10 years ago, and they are spending money on refurbishing homes at the cheaper end of the market.
I joined Bolton’s housing committee in 1977, and after that we rightly abandoned general improvement areas, which were vehicles for tarting up run-down areas. Instead, housing action areas were introduced under the Tory Government, which were a way of not only substantially improving older properties, but investing in the surrounding environment. Our first HAA was declared in the Castle street area in my constituency in 1977. We promised the residents a further 30 years of life for their properties, and it is ironic that we are having this debate 30 years later. Those properties in Castle street, and many thousands more throughout Bolton that were refurbished after that under the HAA, must last for many more years given the current rate of regeneration. My fear is that if we do not tackle that problem large clearance areas will reappear at some point.
I am in favour of limited clearance, but not on the scale at which we used to do it in Bolton in the ’60s and early ’70s, when 1,000 properties were cleared every year. We must slowly regenerate our towns by replacing some of the clapped-out houses, otherwise we will face the major clearance problem that I have mentioned. Although Bolton has supported the need for housing market renewal, which is clearly demonstrated by those areas chosen as pathfinders, it has meant a considerable slowing down of the regeneration of older properties in Bolton and throughout the north-west. The danger is that we will return to a point at which private sector housing falls into disrepair faster than we can improve it.
I welcome the formation of the Homes and Communities Agency under the Bill. Its focus will be on regeneration as well as the provision of more rented social housing. The Government have some tough challenges to face, but I hope that they will commit themselves to meeting those challenges.
In the north-west, house price rises far outstrip wage and salary growth, and there is an urgent need to develop a higher-wage economy in our region. In 2002, only four districts in the north-west were experiencing lower quartile house prices to lower quartile earnings affordability ratios of above five, but by 2006 only eight districts had a lower ratio, and a significant number had a ratio in excess of six. Those facts, along with the sub-prime crash in the United States, are having an increasingly serious effect on the British housing market as credit becomes harder to acquire, which is making buying a home much more difficult today.
I have been worried for some time that if the economy slows, stagnates or crashes—I hope that that does not happen—there will be nowhere to house those people who lose their owner-occupied houses. In my opinion, we have concentrated too much on home ownership, which is currently far too high at over 70 per cent. I ask Ministers how much further we can go beyond 70 per cent. Of course, it is most people’s ambition to own their own home, but the problem is that many of those who have been persuaded or even cajoled into buying their own home can no longer afford to maintain it. Today, for example, I visited a refurbished council estate, where it was easy to pick out the houses that had been bought in previous years, because they desperately need refurbishment.
There is a desperate need for more affordable rented accommodation in the private and the public sectors: both have a role to play. The problem is that one third of our former council homes have been sold off through the right-to-buy policy. There is not much point in building more affordable rented homes if the right to buy will be applicable to them. Shelter shares my concern about that. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to find a way of protecting such homes from sale in the future.
We need to replace those lost affordable rented homes as quickly as possible, as the housing market again changes rapidly. It is noticeable that the turnover of council properties has slowed down significantly and that, as a result, waiting lists have risen—in Bolton, from about 5,000 in 1997 to more than 18,000 today. That figure is very up to date, because we have just cleared out the dead wood in the waiting list by writing to everybody. It is a joint waiting list held between the council and all the housing associations in the town. Like Shelter and many Members who have spoken, I am completely opposed to the application of a means test for social rented housing. Social housing should not become residual housing only for the very poor. In 1997, the new Labour Government faced a backlog of £19 billion-worth of repairs of the council-owned stock caused by 18 years of gross neglect of that stock by the Tory Government. In the 10 years when I was chairman of housing in Bolton, from 1986 to 1996, I lost 70 per cent. of housing investment in our town. Is it any wonder that we face this crisis today?
The decent homes standard will be met in Bolton by 2010, and Bolton Homesforyou, the arm’s length management organisation that manages the stock, has gone well beyond the standards laid down by the Government. I am pleased to announce to the Minister that the SAP—standard assessment procedure—ratings on Bolton’s refurbished ALMO-managed properties averages 72 per cent., which is exceptional.
Today, 27 November, is Lancashire day, when, in 1295, the first elected representatives from Lancashire were summoned to Westminster by King Edward I to attend what became known as the Model Parliament. It has been a particular pleasure for me to take part in this debate, because although I live in Bolton I regard myself as a Lancastrian.
Housing is of such fundamental importance to my constituents that I am absolutely delighted to be speaking here today. I should like to make three main points. First, I want to welcome the Bill and to illustrate the desperate need for appropriate affordable housing in West Ham. Secondly, I want to outline how the buy-to-let market has caused difficulties for my constituents and to seek some comfort from the Minister. Finally, I want to offer some thoughts on the proposed merger of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation.
Newham has almost 6,000 families in temporary accommodation, often on short-term leases. Families in those circumstances have to move regularly and are unable to settle or to put down roots. They are often not on doctors’ waiting lists or accessing preventive health care. They do not know where the library is, or the youth clubs or leisure centres. Children have to change schools several times or face long journeys to school each time they move during the 12-year-plus wait for local authority housing. That is very disruptive to a child’s education and development.
It is not similar, in the main. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her speech, because it put a human face on many of the difficulties that my constituents experience.
In Newham, 30,000 people are on the housing waiting list. To give some perspective, that number is roughly equivalent to the population of Pontefract, which is of course represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. Tenants living in the private rented sector, waiting for a council home, pay in excess of £1,000 per calendar month for often cramped two-bedroomed flats sitting over parades of shops. Even after the introduction of the minimum wage and support to families through tax credits, the vast majority of Members will recognise just how difficult it must be for families with high rents of that nature who wish to keep a roof over their heads and to work. My constituents also have to contend with the evils bedevilling overcrowded households. According to the 2001 census, more than a quarter of households in Newham were classified as overcrowded under the current definition, which, as we have heard, is not generous. Newham also has the highest proportion in the UK of households with five or more residents. This intense pressure on housing in Newham is exacerbated by the fact that the supply of new properties is not meeting local demand. During the summer of 2006, only 6 per cent. of the homes being developed in the borough were three-bedroom properties, whereas 65 per cent. were two-bedroom. Smaller properties are clearly a much more attractive option for investors, but they will not ease the immense pressure upon homes appropriate for families. The draft London housing strategy proposes that 42 per cent. of new social rented homes entering the programme should have three or more bedrooms. Does the Bill give the Minister the power to intervene if, once these targets are set, they are not being met?
As part of the developments planned for my area, including the Olympics and Stratford city, thousands of new homes are being developed; obviously, I welcome that. The intention is to ensure that all developments are mixed communities, with properties built for the social and private housing sectors. I genuinely believe that mixed communities are absolutely the right policy. However, building for the private sector is not a guarantee of mixed communities or a guarantee that it will provide for owner-occupation.
That is the crux of the problem. Forty-five per cent. of new homes in London are bought to let. A far greater proportion are bought to let in areas where property is cheaper; and, in comparison with many parts of London, Newham is cheaper. Official London borough of Newham statistics state that of the 950 new homes completed in 2005-06, only 132 were for social rented accommodation. Because of difficulties in data collection, Newham was unable to say how many of the private homes were for buy-to-let and how many for owner-occupation. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that much of this new private accommodation will have been bought for the letting market, bringing even more accommodation into the unaffordable private lettings sector in my borough. Given that we have nearly 6,000 families in temporary accommodation and 30,000 families on the waiting list, I wonder whether it is possible to consider how we might regulate the housing market to limit the numbers of buy-to-lets in any given locality, according to circumstance.
In the light of the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes, is she concerned or alarmed that the Bill envisages social housing grant, which is after all public money, being given to profit-making companies with almost no protection for tenants or taxpayers, when the same resources are being denied to good local authorities and their existing stock is being coerced away from them through pressured tenants’ ballots? That is rather an odd mix, is it not?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I want more affordable housing in the public sector that owner-occupiers in Newham can afford to access.
Without regulation of the private letting market, I fear that new build in the private sector will only exacerbate an already difficult situation, resulting in the continued accumulation of unaffordable homes. Such regulation is not completely unprecedented. Planning permission in the Lake District national park determines the number and growth of holiday-let businesses in the area, with certain homes being designated for local occupancy only. I do not wish to draw an exact parallel, or say that this legislation can be easily brought to bear elsewhere in the country, but I ask the Secretary of State to give some thought to how homes built under our house-building programme can be targeted at those whom the scheme is meant to target and benefit—those with an aspiration to own and live in their own home, and those with public sector housing needs.
I do not ask that for social or ideological reasons alone, but for sound financial reasons, too. Housing benefit spending in my borough is £245 million per year. A third of that—£67 million—is spent on paying private landlords. The average amount of housing benefit paid to council tenants in Newham is £70 a week. The average payment for housing benefit in temporary accommodation is £350 a week—five times the housing benefit paid to council tenants. I seek additional regulation of the private rented sector, and I wonder whether the miscellaneous provisions of the Bill could be amended to accommodate that.
I am situated in the borough with the largest building site in Europe. If it is not, I cannot imagine anywhere else with more building going on. We have a population of migrant workers who almost uniformly find accommodation in the private rented sector, which in Newham consists largely of small terraced properties. Overcrowding in those homes is almost de rigueur. Landlords can and do make a killing, packing those homes with temporary residents. As the homes are too small to accommodate the number of people, many facets of living often overflow into the street and garden, which can lead to significant health problems. Such exceptionally high levels of occupancy are causing real stress in local communities and the local council does not have the powers to do anything about it.
I have discussed that issue with many of my constituents, who tell me that they will sell and move if the situation does not improve. That would be bad enough, but their homes are more likely than not to be bought to let, thus exacerbating an already difficult situation. That owner-occupier flight, if it continues at the present rate, could seriously jeopardise our efforts to create and sustain mixed, sustainable and cohesive communities in Newham. There are currently no real powers to deal with this problem. Under the Housing Act 2004, there is a mandatory licensing scheme for larger houses in multiple occupation.
Currently, the mandatory licensing scheme covers only homes with three or more storeys. The regime does not cover 80 per cent. of houses in multiple occupation, including the vast majority of those in my constituency. Having discussed that, albeit briefly, with the mayor of my borough, I understand that he would not welcome additional powers unless they were accompanied by severe penalties. The financial reward for cramming small houses with large numbers of people is so great that paltry fines do nothing to deter the practice; rather, they reinforce contempt for the law and those who seek to enforce it. I hope that the Minister will consider extending the threshold to all houses of five or more occupants, and ensure that penalties are severe enough to act as a real deterrent.
I welcome measures to increase the regulation of social housing landlords, adding vital additional protections for tenants of housing associations. As I know from listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), I am not the only MP who gets frustrated by the lack of responsiveness to constituents’ needs on the part of some housing associations. I am sure that the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords will allow tenants far greater opportunities to hold their landlords to account and encourage them to up their game. I hope that the Minister ensures that the new office has real teeth and the ability to penalise or break up associations if they are considered to be completely unresponsive to the needs of their tenants, or to be too large and unwieldy.
Finally, English Partnerships has been a key player in the regeneration of east London. It has demonstrated the capacity to turn unloved wastelands into attractive developments for people who wish to buy on the riverside. However, it has not always developed the social rented homes that my constituents desperately need. The Housing Corporation used to be criticised for what was seen as a rather cold and unsympathetic attitude—an assessment that was always a little unfair. However, in recent years we have seen a new mentality take hold within the corporation that is focused more on the homeless people and overcrowded families who desperately need the homes that it funds. Bringing the two agencies together is a logical move, but my final plea to the Minister is that when the time comes for the merger, the ethos of the Housing Corporation should prevail.
In conclusion, I believe that the Bill can significantly improve the circumstances of many in my constituency. However, the Government’s efforts must surely focus on providing the homes that are needed most, to those that need them most. In West Ham, that means providing affordable family homes, for rent and owner-occupation.
My speech follows a succession of very good and powerful speeches on this side of the House, all of which have drawn attention to the problems that have arisen from 30 years of disinvestment in social and council housing, and from 10 years of low build levels of social housing. The inevitable consequences that follow—the powerful and terrible effects on people—featured in the brilliant speeches that we heard from Islington and West Ham.
The only answer is a bigger build programme. Fortunately, we are now getting that—belatedly perhaps— from the Government. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) said, perhaps the build programme is not big enough. The Cambridge study certainly indicated that it needs to be bigger, but at least we are starting along the road. However, I want to question whether we are doing enough to regenerate existing council estates and to improve the situation that they have been put into by the right to buy. This is a regeneration Bill as well as a housing one, and I want to emphasise that point.
I should begin with the inevitable mantra of welcoming the Bill. I have to say, in welcoming it, that I have some reservations. First, I cannot accept the introduction of a means test for housing. We would be saying that low-cost rental housing is for people who cannot afford to buy or rent at market rates. That means a means test, which is unacceptable to the Labour party or, I think, the people. A basic principle of Labour policy on council and social housing will be revoked by the clause in question. I do not know why it is there; I hope that the Minister will explain it to us. It should not be there, and we should not have any truck with such a policy. A means test for admission would mean that low-cost housing became a transit camp, not a permanent settled place of residence where people could build communities and settle their lives. They would have to be moved out when they reached a certain level, just as they had moved in because they had sunk to a certain level.
Secondly, I am concerned that local authorities, which must drive local housing developments because they know the needs of the people in the area and see what the problems are, are not in the central position that they should be. In fact, we are giving more power to the private sector by allowing private builders to register as social landlords, and by allowing registered social landlords to turn themselves into limited companies driven by a profit motive. Those seem to be retrograde steps and the emphasis should be on the councils. However, the impact assessment for the Bill says that the provisions for allowing them to build will allow the building of only 2,500 houses. That is after 300 houses had been sold in the last year.
Councils’ first choice is to build 2,500 out of their own resources. If they do not do that, they must register—there is a procedure for examination and ratification—as ALMOs or special purpose vehicles. That will give them access to social housing grants. However, they will compete with the private sector and RSLs for limited funds. The Bill will therefore not put local authorities in the strong position that they should occupy. Local authorities should be the main providers of social housing. A much higher proportion of the housing that we build must be public housing for rent and the best way to provide that is through councils.
I am worried that that discrimination against councils is carried through to the local housing companies, of which there are 15. Councils are asked to give up land to the private sector and private developers.
My hon. Friend talks about local authorities being the main providers of social rented housing. I do not disagree that we need more council housing. Does he agree that it is crucial to enable councils to bring in private finance by changing the accounting system? One of the benefits of RSLs is that they can secure private finance. Surely we should give councils more power to bring in private finance so that they can build more homes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point, with which I shall deal—at perhaps inordinate length—later, depending on the time.
Local housing companies are a way to get councils to hand over land to private developers. Council houses will not be built on that land under the rules as I understand them. That, too, is a retrograde step.
My third reservation is that the Bill continues the campaign to cajole, pressurise and bully councils into privatising their housing stock. Indeed, it extends that campaign by allowing a group of tenants to get together—however manufactured that might be and even if it is a contesting group of tenants—to demand a large-scale voluntary transfer in their area. That is a terrible reversion to the 1988 Nicholas Ridley idea, which was barmy then and is barmy now, of housing action trusts. The proposal produced a massive tenants’ revolt and was withdrawn shortly after having a comparatively minor effect. Why are we, a Labour Government, reverting to Conservative party policy, which failed in 1988? The question deserves an answer.
Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am by the proposal to give the new regulator powers to transfer compulsory management or even ownership of council housing without consulting all the tenants, without a tenants’ ballot and without the express permission of the Secretary of State? Is that not going too far?
I am not surprised but amazed that that is happening. There is no reason for it.
However, my main argument is that we should not continue the campaign of cajoling and bullying councils into privatisation. At least the ballots should be better regulated because most of them are an affront to democracy. The Department accepted a rerun of a ballot in Sefton—as if Sefton were Denmark—which produced a different verdict with a lower poll. I am amazed that the Government do not take the opportunity to tighten up such matters. The campaign to privatise weakens councils when we need to mobilise their energies and concern for housing to get behind the building drive.
The three faults that I have outlined are basic. The Bill’s big idea is a new super-quango, constructed by merging the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships. That may produce a new synergy, but it will not do it quickly because such mergers take much time, create many difficulties and can be destabilising. Their consequences can also be messy.
The housing crisis is happening now. I put it to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), that the sort of discontent that housing and transport problems generated and that helped damage the Labour party in the south-east in 2005 will be much worse at the next election. We need the house-building programme now; we should not wait for a new super-quango to get its act together. The strains will grow—they are increasing all the time, as my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for West Ham (Lyn Brown) have shown. I am worried about that.
I am not sure what to make of the ability that the Bill grants to councils to opt out of the housing revenue account. The impact assessment contains an incredible endorsement, which states that the arrangement
“would not be viable for most councils. This settlement would create an opening debt level within those councils higher than could be supported by their income”.
We offer an opportunity yet tell councils not to accept it. That is crazy. I do not understand it. If councils opt out, it breaks up the housing revenue account, and that will have an adverse effect on those that are left in. The provision is gobbledegook, which does not achieve what the Bill’s main purpose should be—to implement the decisions of the Labour party conference. I personally regard those decisions as Labour party policy because the Labour party conference passed them three times, yet the Bill does not implement them.
The Labour party conference argued for a fourth option, which is a level playing field between housing associations—RSLs—and local authorities and the ability to raise money and to write off historic debt. Why should councils struggle on with historic debt when it is written off—simply as a bookkeeping transaction—for RSLs? Councils should be able to borrow—the Housing Act 2004 allows them to do that. However, the management and maintenance grant that the Department pays them is not adequate. The Government’s business research establishment has told them that it is far lower than it should be. If they paid 100 per cent. of the grant that they should pay for management and maintenance, that would provide a revenue stream on which councils could borrow to build, renovate and improve. Why have we not done that?
We should end the £1.5 billion deduction every year, about which the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) complained. There is no justification for that deduction. It should be left for local authorities to use for housing. It is a failing not to include in the Bill the intentions—indeed, the principles—that the Labour party conference enunciated and put councils on a level playing field with RSLs.
I want a return to the mixed communities that council estates were. In 1947, we changed the principle on which council estates were built from accommodation for the working class and manual workers to accommodation for anyone. As Professor Hills’s research showed, a substantial proportion of the better-off tenth of society lived on those council estates in 1979. Since then they have become social dumping grounds, and that has broken down all sense of community. We must rebuild that, and that means making council estates mixed communities again, and refurbishing and regenerating them. All that is part of the problem of regeneration, which I hope that we can tackle through the Bill. There are faults in the measure and I look forward to improving it in Committee and on Report.
I should like to draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, as a member until May of one of the housing authorities in my constituency.
I am pleased to be called to speak in this debate, which I consider to be vital to many of my constituents and to the people of this country as a whole. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who spoke quite a few words of wisdom—I hope that the Government are in listening mode.
I welcome the Bill because if we get it right—I believe that the broad thrust is right—it will greatly improve housing. We all know what the problem is, as it has already been mentioned by other speakers. There are just not enough houses to meet the demand out there for people, and families in particular, to be housed. For the past 25 years or more, we have taken our eye off the ball, although we are all to blame to some extent. There is a substantial problem in my constituency and, from what we have heard, those of other hon. Members, too.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of right to buy—I do not intend to go over those today—without building houses to replace those that were sold off, let alone additional houses to meet the growing demand of an expanding and changing population, we have created a severe shortage in socially rented accommodation in parts of the country. That is certainly the case in my constituency, as an average advice bureau in any of the seven venues in the Stockport and Tameside parts of my seat would bear out.
How did we get where we are today? As we know, not only have local authorities been stripped of their financial ability to build more homes for rent, but they have struggled adequately to maintain the ever-diminishing stock that they managed, to the extent that billions of pounds of repair backlogs built up over the years. The investment made in those houses after 1997, bringing them up to the newly defined decent homes standard, was definitely the right focus for the Government initially. The work done by Irwell Valley housing association and the New Charter housing trust group in Tameside and by Stockport homes in Reddish is a testament to the massive investment in stock renewal that the Government have permitted and pursued.
New windows, doors, bathrooms and kitchens are fantastic, but only if people have a roof over their heads in the first instance. For too many people coming through the door of my advice bureau, there is no realistic prospect of being offered a home in the socially rented sector in the first place, because there are just not enough to go around. Like other hon. Members, I find it disheartening that, because of how the system works, younger couples—working but on low wages, struggling to do their best and bringing up families—just do not have enough points ever to be allocated anything.
Those are the very same kinds of families who after the second world war could expect a nice new council house—a semi-detached house, with a front and back garden for the children to play in. That provision was also there, just about, for their children, but sadly not for their grandchildren or their great-grandchildren. The reality today is that some of those young couples are forced to split up because of the lack of any prospect of being housed as a family. Some live in cramped conditions, with a friend or at mum’s and dad’s house, in the hope that the letter from the housing department offering them a house will come through the letterbox. That is far from ideal, but it is sadly a common occurrence I hear about at my advice surgeries.
The situation is made worse in that some of those families would previously have had the option of buying a small terraced property, of which there is a plentiful supply throughout my constituency. In the past, such a property was an ideal starter home for those who could just about scrape enough together to cover a small mortgage. However, over the past 10 years the property market in Denton and Reddish has boomed—excellent news for those with their feet already on the property ladder, but not good news for those starting out today.
The property market in my constituency has seen a 398 per cent. increase in a decade, albeit from a low starting point. The average cost of that small terraced house in Denton and Reddish is now £140,000. Some hon. Members might think, “£140,000? Wow—affordable housing!”, but what is affordable to some is out of the price range of others. The average wage of my constituents is £16,800 a year, although for many it is much less than that, placing even terraced housing firmly beyond their reach. So the social rented sector is no longer an option and, for many now, neither is buying. At present, therefore, the only option seems to be the private rented sector.
Let me put it on record that there are some very good, honest, decent private landlords. I do not wish to tar all private landlords with the same brush. However, in my constituency and elsewhere rogue landlords are operating. They do not care a jot about their tenants or about the conditions in which they are forced to live. I have seen squalid conditions over which the local authority has few powers to intervene.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to modernise the whole of the private rented sector and to find ways of incentivising landlords, particularly those who are on the cusp between being good and bad? Perhaps we could offer to take them into a different tax bracket, but only if they were prepared to be decent landlords in the private sector.
I agree with my hon. Friend. As always, she has some imaginative ideas, and I hope that we shall be able to pursue some of them in Committee. Who knows?
As I was saying, it is obscene that people, especially children and the elderly, should be expected to live in squalid conditions. Furthermore, they are often being subsidised by the taxpayer to do so. Sadly, some of the properties involved are ex-council, bought under the right to buy, then sold on or passed down to people who rent them out without a thought of reinvesting in the property.
Do we not also need to strike a balance between ensuring that there is sufficient provision of private rented housing and giving certain rights to the tenants in such housing? If we give the tenants too many rights, the sector will diminish. Given that the private rented sector is now expanding, however, does my hon. Friend agree that this might be the time to start improving the rights of private tenants?
Indeed I do. We talk a lot about rights and responsibilities, but unfortunately the tenants in the private sector often do not have the rights and the landlords do not fulfil their responsibilities.
I was talking about ex-council properties that are now in the private rented sector. In my constituency, there are two such houses next door to each other. One is owned by New Charter Housing, which took on all of Tameside council’s housing stock in 2000, and has had thousands of pounds spent on it. It has a new roof, a new kitchen, a new bathroom, insulation and new windows and doors. It is an absolutely beautiful property. The house next door is semi-derelict. It is damp and cold, with rotten windows and doors and a 1960s bathroom and kitchen, with the mould to go with them. It is a disgusting flea pit. The rent for that property was £20 a week more than the property in the social rented sector next door. Its tenant—who has now, thankfully, moved out—was in despair because he could not get hold of the landlord, who was totally uninterested in his plight.
A useful statistic that I have received from the National Energy Action charity highlights this very real problem. In my constituency, it is estimated that 16 per cent. of properties would not meet the thermal comfort target set out in the decent homes standard. Given the massive investment in the social rented sector, one can only assume that the vast majority of that 16 per cent. are in the owner-occupied sector or, more likely, the private rented sector. This issue needs to be addressed.
My hopes for the Bill are high. This is not just a north-south divide issue. For sure, some of the circumstances are different in different parts of the country—the spectre of housing market failure exists in parts of the north, as does the ongoing debate on renewal or clearance—but many of the issues are the same. They include identifying growth areas; ensuring that infrastructure is put in place at the same time as housing is built; land use pressures; and the debate over green belt land. For my constituents, the simple, basic fact is that we desperately need more houses in Greater Manchester, particularly in Tameside and Stockport, to meet the unmet demand that we all know exists.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that these estates should not be mono-tenure? They need to be mixed communities. When we walk down a street, we should not be able to tell whether a house is rented, owner-occupied or in shared ownership. In the trade, this is often known as taking a tenure-blind approach. Does he agree that that is the way we need to go?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I think that that is the way the general public want us to go. People do not want to be seen to be in some kind of stigmatised property. They do not care who owns the bricks and mortar; they want a decent home that would not look out of place on a private estate, and why shouldn’t they? It is the job of the planning authorities to ensure that we get good developments.
As part of meeting that unmet demand, we need more socially rented housing—yes, many thousands more properties. The two councils in my constituency and their partners need to go away and identify possible sites and ensure that they are brought forward for development as soon as possible. That in itself is going to be difficult. Both Stockport and Tameside are pretty high-density boroughs already, and most of the available space is now developed. There may be scope for some infill. I can think of areas such as the ex-Manchester overspill estate in Haughton Green and at Denton’s Yew Tree estate where the housing was laid out among some very generous open space provision. There are some significant brownfield sites dotted around both boroughs, which could be brought forward for housing rather than for other uses.
We also need to look at the problem across the Greater Manchester city region, not just within the constraints of those two boroughs. Yes, Tameside and Stockport must do their bit, but that has to be within the bigger Greater Manchester-wide picture, too. As part of that city region overview, I believe that we also need to be much more imaginative about housing types. I do not want to see a return to monolithic housing estates and the planning mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s, where certainly the numbers of housing units that we would like to see were constructed, but with little thought for human needs. Let us be clear that not everyone will want to rent, so we need to look into shared equity and, for many, we need to explore some new low mortgage options.
The Government may not be able to deal with all those points as part of the Bill, although I hope they can look at the scope for extending regulation in Committee. If not, I urge them to use whatever means they have at their disposal to ensure that all private landlords, not just those in areas experiencing housing market failure, are licensed and that the decent homes standard is made to apply to all housing for rent, whether it be in the social sector or, most important of all, in the private sector.
As I said at the start, I broadly welcome the Bill, which has many excellent provisions. The decision to create a Homes and Community Agency is, I think, right. It should ensure not just that the investment is in place to build new houses, but that sufficient land is identified and planning hurdles are easily overcome. The decision to create an Office for Tenants and Social Landlords is also a good move. It should strengthen the regulatory regime and empower tenants in the social rented sector. It should not just apply across the social sector—including ALMOs and councils—but should cover all tenants and all landlords for the reasons I have stated, including the many thousands of my constituents in the private rented sector.
I hope that these issues will be taken up in more detail by the Minister in Committee. This is a good Bill with good intentions. With a small amount of tweaking, it has the making of a great Bill with great intentions.
I, too, believe that this Bill gives us cause for great optimism, notwithstanding the depression that often surrounds the debate because of the circumstances in which our constituents find themselves. I have to say that my optimism was tempered by depression when I heard the opening speech from the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) claimed that we had refused to learn the lessons of past mistakes. May I say that that is exactly what the Opposition have done? I fail to see how they cannot understand that tackling housing need, particularly that for affordable rented homes, helps to stabilise the housing market, which is good for the stability of the overall economy.
I had one of those time-warp moments when I was taken back to the real world in which I used to exist before coming into this place. I was chief executive of a small housing association, as we were then called, and I well remember how over-regulated we were. I had to keep filling in five or six of the same forms, giving the same information when I wanted and needed to be out doing deals with private finance institutions to enable me to develop more homes for those in housing need.
I am pleased to say that this Bill introduces more streamlining of regulation for registered social landlords, which means better value for the housing market, better value for RSLs and, more important, better value for those who need housing, which we should be able to support. I thought that Opposition Members welcomed more streamlined regulation and the added value that it can bring, but we hear one argument today and another tomorrow.
I find myself in a time warp, back in the days when I was chair of my housing committee and, latterly, leader of Lewisham council. I well remember the then Tory Government’s ideological opposition to the building of any affordable housing for rent, be it local authority or housing association accommodation. I remember the limbo dancing that we had to perform, and the funny-money deals in which we had to engage to secure foreign investment that would enable us to build or renovate housing in Lewisham. I remember, when I led on housing in the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, discussing these issues with Opposition Members—many of whom, sadly, have now left the Chamber—and pleading with them to allow local authorities to invest in not only the provision of desperately needed new homes, but the renovation of properties that remained empty because of their state of disrepair.
We saw record levels of homelessness. We saw Conservative Ministers walk over the homeless on their way to the opera, and we saw a record number of repossessions because of high interest rates. My constituency of Luton became known as the mortgage misery capital of the country. When I moved to the constituency, I saw house after house that I could not bring myself to buy because the families had fled leaving all their possessions, including the children’s toys, and had thrown the keys back through the letter box because of the legacy of the Conservative Government. There was also a huge backlog of council stock repairs, in which, to their credit, this Government have invested massively as part of the decent homes strategy.
Let us be under no illusion: we are still experiencing the legacy of the Conservative Government. It is not possible to switch housing construction on and off like a tap. The skills and the materials must be there, and all the pieces must be in place. Sadly, Opposition Members do not seem to realise that, but I am pleased to be part of a Government who do. [Interruption.] Rather than heckling from the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) would do well to listen and learn. We must be able to put all the mechanisms in place before we can deliver our programme of social and rented affordable housing.
I am stunned by just how long the lead-in period has to be for a Government to deal with the succession of housing problems about which we have heard from the hon. Lady and her colleagues. How about 10 years? Does the hon. Lady not think that her party could have got somewhere in the past 10 years without waiting until now?
I am pleased to say that this Government have got somewhere in the past 10 years. They have addressed the legacy of disrepair in the council housing stock; they have virtually eliminated street homelessness; they have done magnificent things in reducing the number of people in temporary and bed-and-breakfast accommodation; and, as most registered social landlords will confirm, they have done a great deal to increase the level of investment enabling RSLs to provide affordable housing. This Bill represents the next step forward.
Opposition Members are clearly in denial about the reality of the legacy for people in my constituency. Like others who have spoken, I regularly see families of six or even eight living in two-bedroom accommodation, and the tragedy of children who have nowhere to live but the streets. Is it any wonder that young men and women—teenagers—are out on our streets, with all the consequences that that brings, when they simply do not have room in their homes in which to live and when families in our constituencies have responsibility for disabled and elderly people as well as young children for whom they simply do not have room? I have a young constituency; it has a high number of families who have very young children. The legacy for them is that they have no hope in the immediate future of a decent home. Their only hope is afforded by the Bill.
Luton is a densely populated area and it is green girdled—it does not have room to expand. To the credit of my newly elected Labour council, as opposed to the former Liberal Democrat council, which did absolutely zip about any of these issues, it is examining all those infill, brownfield sites, but that simply is not enough. Others have made this point, but when I see in my constituency, day after day, week after week, a trail of people for whom I can give no hope, I have to be able to say that our Government are putting the pieces in place to give such people—if not immediately, at least in the medium term—some hope of a home. They do not have that at the moment, because they will languish on the housing list for ever in the current circumstances, even if they fall in the most urgent priority group.