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Housing Policy

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2008

1. What assessment she has made of the impact of the current economic climate on her Department’s housing policy. (236262)

The Government recognise that the current market conditions pose significant challenges. We are responding by helping those at risk of repossession, bringing forward money for affordable housing this year and next, and establishing new programmes to help first-time buyers and support the construction industry. While responding to the immediate challenges that we face, the Government remain committed to meeting the long-term housing needs of an ageing and growing population.

Is the Minister aware that 1.7 million families are languishing on housing lists waiting for homes? Why will she not allow councils the same borrowing rights as registered social landlords, so that they can buy land now while it is cheaper? Surely the Government should be trying to make the best of the current economic downturn, and using it to plan for the future.

We are trying to make the best of the current economic downturn, and we are indeed considering what can be done. In some circumstances councils have more freedoms than they have exercised, or in some cases been aware of, in recent years, but I assure the hon. Lady and the House that we are considering all circumstances and all options in order to do what we can to ease people’s problems through the present difficulties.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to affordable housing, but may I caution her against returning to the days when we built large mono-tenure housing estates? It is crucial for us to retain mixed-tenure estates. One way of investing in affordable housing to liberate the supply in the social rented sector is to build more affordable housing schemes for supported housing, which shakes people down through the tenancy stream and frees up social housing tenancies. Will she look again at our supported housing strategy, particularly for older people, but also for young people?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and has shown remarkable prescience. I am indeed taking a great interest in the possible opportunities for social housing, for precisely the reasons that he has given. Social housing can be beneficial and offer a better option to some who are seeking housing, but it can also help to solve the problem of under-occupation, which does sometimes arise.

The current market conditions are actually making housing more affordable, while also providing lower mortgage rates. We need more social housing in my constituency, but I am not sure that we need the Government’s long-term housing targets. The south-east draft plan refers to possibly allowing for overspill from London, and targeting us as a growth area. That causes the real worry of whether we can accommodate those people, given that much of the constituency is green belt.

I understand the anxieties that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, but we still have substantial unmet housing need. We cannot as a country, let alone as a society, afford to ignore that and hope that somehow it will vanish, because it will not. I have some sympathy with his concerns, and I know that there can be problems if people are anxious about these matters, but we have to put homes somewhere.

While demand for affordable housing is rising, does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment at the fact that my local authority, Westminster, managed to ensure that only 11 per cent. of the area’s housing built last year was affordable? Given that the Mayor of London now appears to be set on tearing up the target of half all housing built in London being affordable, will she take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we meet the growing demand for social and other affordable housing across the country?

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point, and share her disappointment that more was not achieved last year in her constituency and her area. She says that the new Mayor does not propose to continue with the targets set by his predecessor. She may be pleased to learn that the Mayor has assured me that he expects to be able to deliver as much, perhaps even more, through agreement with the boroughs, and I am sure the whole House will wish to hold him to that.

The target of 3 million new homes by 2020 was a very challenging one when it was announced many months ago, before the economy entered its downturn. Does the right hon. Lady believe that it is still attainable?

My understanding is that that was an ambition, whereas some of the more short-term numbers in the programme are definitely targets. Of course I appreciate that, owing to the present difficulties, people will consider whether and on what trajectory we should meet the need, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees that because the need is not going to go away, the targets cannot just disappear either.

In a difficult economic situation, there may be a tendency for developers to build on greenfield or green-belt sites before moving to the more expensive and difficult brownfield sites. The Government have an excellent record in the east midlands, where 75 per cent. of development is on brownfield land. Will my right hon. Friend continue to make her policy “brownfield before greenfield”?

I take my hon. Friend’s point. He is right that the Government have an excellent record, and this is one of the many targets that others said we could not possibly meet but we have met; in fact, we have exceeded the targets on building on brownfield. I understand his concerns, and I feel sure that all Members will agree with him that we should do this, rather than, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) mentioned, go for greenfield development.

Now that the new Minister for Housing has, we understand, dumped the Prime Minister’s 3 million by 2020 target for house building and has stated instead that it was only ever an ambition—it certainly was a target according to the quotes of the Prime Minister that I have to hand—can she tell us whether eco-towns were also only ever an ambition, or does the faltering eco-town project for 10 new eco-towns remain on target?

The eco-towns programme is totally on course. As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, we have only recently published the draft planning guidance and the sustainability appraisal. I am not committed to any specific number. It is certainly the case that under the programme that was previously put forward, one site has met the “generally suitable” criterion, and we believe others can meet it. They all have ambitious and difficult targets to achieve, however, which will be different for each one. What is important is that every site in that programme achieves the standards that would be required for eco-town status, and I have said—clearly, I hope—to those who are ambitious to take part in such developments, of whom there remain many, that they will be required to meet those standards. The standards will not be lowered, and that is why I say that I am not—neither are the Government, and nor have we ever been—fixed to any specific number. That will depend on which of those involved meets the targets, but I shall be extremely disappointed if there are not substantially more than the hon. Gentleman is trying to pretend.