I beg to move,
That this House notes that social housing waiting lists have increased to a record 1.8 million families, over 4.5 million people, over the last 12 months; recognises that the Government’s policies have reduced levels of house-building across all tenures; cautions that the number of families waiting for social housing is rising to record figures; expresses serious concern that the number of children living in temporary accommodation has doubled in the last 10 years; warns that the Government’s changes to the system for counting rough sleepers will drastically under-estimate the problem; further notes that the Government’s top-down policies with regard to housing have strangled it with red tape; and is concerned about the implications of the Government’s housing policies for the future supply of housing in general and for families and the most vulnerable in society in particular.
Every Member of Parliament knows that sinking feeling they can have when someone comes into their surgery desperately needing help and assistance with housing. There is the vulnerable young man with no dependants and no priority on the housing waiting list; the woman fearful of an abusive partner, who is almost scared even to discuss her situation; or the couple who, with the recession biting, are struggling to pay their private rent and, incredibly, are advised that the only way to work the system is to make themselves “unintentionally” homeless by deliberately withholding payment from a landlord whom they like and trust. There are the endless letters from general practitioners, social services and us Members of Parliament, trying to plead exceptional cases. We MPs do what we can to help; we work the system, write those letters, and try to establish whether the process might have gone wrong, or whether an individual might be better represented in their case.
Every now and then, we have a small triumph, and get a letter from a delighted constituent saying that without our help, they would still be living in appalling, cramped conditions in unsuitable circumstances. Those letters may give us a little job satisfaction for a moment, but we always have the sneaking suspicion that although we did what we could to help in that case, there are still thousands of others suffering on the ever-growing housing waiting lists. It turns out that the figures fully justify our unease.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that there may be a connection between the scenario that he paints and the right to buy, coupled, most importantly, with the failure of successive Governments over the past 25 years to undertake a council house building programme, such as that which the two main parties rightly undertook—they can be proud of having done so—in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s?
The question is almost as broad as the subject of the debate. We can debate the policies that were in place when I was at school, or we can talk about the future. The most relevant period in history to discuss is probably the past 12 years, during which we have built just a tiny fraction of the amount of social housing previously built. I will come on to the figures in a short while, and I hope answer some of the other questions that the hon. Gentleman asked.
Today there is an all-time record of 1.8 million families languishing on housing waiting lists; that is getting on for twice the figure of 12 years ago. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, that equates to approximately 4.5 million people, each of whom has their own, sometimes desperate, story to tell. The situation is definitely dire, but it is important to understand how we got here. I do not believe that the Government are hell-bent on increasing social housing waiting lists or on making people homeless, but regrettably it is as a result of policies that they pursued that we have ended up in this situation.
At the Labour party conference in Blackpool back in 1994, the shadow Chancellor, now Prime Minister, told his audience:
“When people ask ‘what would a Labour government do today?’ Let us tell them…we will get Britain building homes again”.
Those are fine words, but how different the reality has been. Under the last Conservative Government an average of 171,000 homes were built each year across England. Under Labour, that average has fallen to 148,000—a drop of 23,000 homes a year. These are not just statistics. These are missing homes for real people. It is not just in the market housing area that the Government have a truly dismal record. Since 1997 there has been a persistent shortfall in the provision of affordable housing. In particular, there has been a failure to deliver sufficient housing for social rent.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I am not sure that he will like the point that I am about to make. Will he join me in criticising Conservative flagship Westminster council, which in the past two years has managed to achieve a proportion of affordable homes at only 11 per cent. of all the homes being built? Is it not the case that Conservative councils across the country, and indeed the hon. Gentleman in his capacity as a Member of Parliament, are blocking the building of affordable homes?
That intervention gets to the heart of the difference between the parties on housing. I will come to that later.
I know that the Minister has only recently taken on her portfolio, but she would do well to consider these figures. In the last recession, 60,000 affordable homes were built by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) when he was the Housing Minister. This year we will be lucky if 10,000 affordable houses are built. It is a question not so much of what proportion of the total are affordable as of how many homes are built in total. That is the main point that we have to understand. Eleven per cent. of a big figure means more than a larger percentage of a smaller figure.
Is it a corollary of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that he intends to increase direct Government subsidy in the building of homes? One of the issues, on which I have had a disagreement with those on my own side over the past 12 years, is exactly how we finance the building of new affordable and social homes. Is he saying that his party is now committed to increasing direct Government subsidy?
The hon. Lady knows a great deal about social affordable housing and she has hit on a vital point. It is obvious to anybody—we need not pretend otherwise—that we are not about to return to a situation where the section 106 building of all affordable housing will deliver. In the boom years when so many building applications were made, it did not deliver the required amount of affordable housing, so it will not deliver in the future. I will come on to the figures.
I understood the hon. Lady’s question to be about whether a change in the system is needed. Of course there must be a change in the system. I will come on to—[Interruption.] If hon. Members will let me make some headway, I will come to what I think needs to change. It is clear that what has happened up to now has been a complete and utter failure.
The figures speak for themselves. This is the part that I know Labour Members understand. Less new social rent housing has been built in every year under the Labour Government than in any year under the Thatcher and Major Administrations—less social housing every year.
I entirely agree that we are building too few houses for social rent. We have an enormous opportunity in the current circumstances, when many of the big five house builders are mothballing flats. In my constituency, for example, there is a development of 72 flats that have been half-built and are being sealed against the weather. They could be finished tomorrow if the finance was available. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that finance should be made available to bring that housing into social rent? If so, will he press on his hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor the need for a fiscal stimulus to do that?
The hon. Gentleman picks up on an important point. One of the extraordinary things about the Government’s programme—I am sure they will talk about this in the debate—is that they allotted £8.4 billion for affordable housing in the comprehensive spending review from April 2008 to 2011. If we ask how much of that has been spent, we discover that it is very little, because the issue is driven by market housing, and the market housing is not happening for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman just outlined—mothballing. Aligned with that issue is the number of empty homes—those that have been built but not sold and those that have been previously sold but are now empty. We hear today from the Empty Homes Agency that that number has hit what is probably an all-time record, with 1 million homes left empty. That is a scandal, too, and the Government could do far more to address it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s criticism of the Government and their failure to invest in building new council and social housing. One of the problems in my constituency is not so much the lack of new housing, although that is a problem, but the fact that so many existing council homes have had to be demolished because of a lack of investment in existing homes. That began with a 70 per cent. overall reduction in our capital expenditure during the Conservative years. He has to look at overall housing investment, not just at new builds. The problem with the current Government is that they continued for far too long—
I understand the intervention and the sense of frustration on the part of some Government Back Benchers. It is a fact that the number of social houses built for rent has halved over the past 12 years. Simply going back to a time when another party was in power—now 12 years ago—and claiming that all the problems can be traced back to somebody else is an argument that has long gone. We need to consider the situation over the past few years and to understand that if one builds only half the number of social houses available for rent, one de facto ends up with a big social housing waiting list. That is how we have ended up with 1.8 million people languishing on that list.
I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to go back to the situation before 1997, but does he not recognise that the fundamental problem that the Government have had since 1997 is dealing with the incredible backlog of disrepair in social rented stock that they inherited from the previous Government? There were 40-year-old bathrooms and kitchens, and windows that had condensation and leaked. Since 1997, the priority has been to repair them. The legacy of the previous Government under his party caused the concentration on that priority.
I am tempted to say that the current Administration always like to think that it is someone else’s fault. If it is not the fault of somebody else abroad, it is the fault of the Government who were in power all those years ago. It is true that houses need repair, but I should have thought that that was obvious when the Prime Minister made the 1994 Blackpool conference speech in which he stated that the money from housing sales would be put to use to build more homes. That policy option was available at the time, but what has happened since is that the money that was ring-fenced from right-to-buy sales has not been used to provide new council housing.
In fact, when we left office, 1,550 council houses were still being built each year, whereas last year the figure had fallen to 450—and that, by the way, was an all-time record. There has been a tremendous drop in the number of council houses being built, and there are choices that the Government could have made over any of the last 12 years to help provide more social affordable housing. They failed to make those decisions, which is why they now preside over a housing waiting list that has nearly doubled during their time in office.
The hon. Gentleman seems extraordinarily reluctant to recognise that the key issue is the number of homes that are in decent condition and available to let. The problem of the legacy inherited from the Conservative Government was that there was a £19 billion backlog of disrepair affecting millions of council houses. Will he now give credit to the Government for the action that has been taken to improve large numbers of those homes?
My No. 1 priority is the 1.8 million families—4.5 million people—who are now languishing on the Labour party’s waiting list trying to get a decent home. It is an absolute scandal. The last Conservative Government created 52,000 affordable homes a year, but the Labour Government have managed just 27,000 a year. The Government’s recession cannot be used as an excuse, either. As I said before, during 1992—a year of recession—the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, ensured that 60,000 affordable homes were built. Estimates suggest that that can be compared with 10,000 this year.
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young); I remember his time as Housing Minister with pleasure. However, we want to know to what the Conservative party would commit in terms of the number of new social housing units, the number of council properties and the amount of budgetary spend from a Conservative Government in year one. What is the answer?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s interest in our manifesto, but I am afraid that he will have to wait for our Green Paper on housing to fill in the details and to find out what the next Conservative Government will do.
I am left with the impression that although this Labour Government never admit to doing anything wrong, they recognise at least privately that they have failed on housing policy. That is presumably why on taking power the Prime Minister came out with his bold statement about having 3 million new homes by 2020—a headline-grabbing initiative. To punctuate his commitment to housing, he invited the Minister for Housing to attend Cabinet, declaring that housing was from now on his No. 1 priority.
Considering the high priority status of housing, it is remarkable that in 2008 alone I have faced three different Housing Ministers across this Dispatch Box. That is the level of the priority. Of course, it is not the fault of the Minister for Housing that she inherited the 3 million by 2020 target, which we now see was based on wishful thinking. I think that she was immediately wise enough to recognise the difference between what she called a target and a mere ambition.
The debate is not about party politics or political point scoring; it is about real people’s lives. Reports from the Conservative Homelessness Foundation reveal the real pressures that exist at the very bottom of the housing ladder—among people who are living on the pavements. All the years of failing to build have led to a severe lack of social housing, and even more to a dramatic loss of mobility in the existing social housing stock. As a result, those in temporary accommodation can expect to find themselves there much longer simply because so little move-on housing is available.
I am deeply alarmed by the Government’s failure to do anything about the Department for Communities and Local Government’s approach to bracketing down the rough sleeper estimates provided by local authorities. Rather than the accurate number of 1,000-plus people sleeping rough on the nation’s streets each night, the official figure is therefore just 483. Worse is still to come. The Government’s new rough sleeping strategy, “No One Left Out”, which was published in November 2008 by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), states:
“We will no longer ask local authorities that do not count to provide an annual estimate in their annual housing statistics return.”
It is important to understand what that means. At a stroke, simply by fiddling the figures, the Government will report the laughable figure of 214 people sleeping on the nation’s streets, compared with the more likely estimate of more than 1,000.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the work that Crisis, the homelessness charity, has done, which quite clearly shows that many more people are sleeping rough? The hidden homeless—people who are living in other people’s homes, in frankly second-world conditions—contribute to the problem. Does he agree with me and with David Coulthread from Crisis that we have to be more honest about the figures before we can have a more honest strategy to resolve the issues?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have some sympathy with the Government on this issue, and I have tried to work constructively with them. It is notoriously difficult to work out how many people are living rough because it is so difficult to count them. It is even harder to find out how many people are homeless, with definitions including living in hostels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and sofa surfing in other people’s houses. I completely understand that it is not an easy science, but it is incredibly disingenuous to fail to count correctly the number of people sleeping on the streets.
I have pointed out the problem to Ministers before, and it could be resolved—at least to a reasonable extent. The latest proposals are artificially to halve the numbers to 214, but anybody walking on the streets knows that more than 214 people in the nation are sleeping on the streets. It is just not good enough, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that severe problem.
If solving social mobility would ease some of the problems and 70 per cent. of social tenants want to own their own homes, one might think that the Government would have acted somehow. They have—under myriad complex, confusing and sometimes completely contradictory schemes, all branded under the “homebuy” label. The Government have a target of helping 120,000 households into home ownership between 2005 and 2010. How have they done? There have been 4,500 sales under their open market homebuy scheme and 18,500 under their new build homebuy programme; so far they have got to about 23,000 of their 120,000 target, which is not too good. Social homebuy, a scheme designed to have helped by now in excess of 10,000 households, has in fact assisted just 235 families.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked the Minister for Housing about the issue; she told me that social homebuy, which has helped just 235 families, was just a pilot. I know that she is just the latest incumbent to hold the fast-churn housing brief, but I have to tell her that she is wrong. The scheme may have been a pilot once, but it has not been for nearly a year, and by now we would have expected it to be having an impact. According to the Government’s own figures, about 5,000 homes should have been purchased in that time. In fact, since the scheme ceased to be a pilot, it has been dropped pretty quickly by housing associations and local authorities.
There is a better way. We will scrap Labour’s failed top-down targets and replace them with real incentives to create the kinds of communities where people really want to live. We will scrap regional planning, regional assemblies, regional spatial strategies and all the quangos directed to tell local people that the Government know what is best for them. We will replace it all with a system that works with, rather than against, local people, helping them to develop their own neighbourhoods.
Has the hon. Gentleman communicated that desire to abolish targets to Boris Johnson, who, as we know, is the most senior executive Conservative in the country? He has an affordable housing target and, interestingly, has also completely failed to carry the boroughs with him. Of the 32 boroughs that have been asked to respond to the Greater London authority’s housing target, 22 have simply failed to negotiate anything at all.
That is a matter for local authorities, local government and devolved government, where that exists. Local authorities decide on how to proceed with such matters. That is the whole point of handing power to people locally. The Mayor will decide what is best for his local area; that absolutely makes sense and is consistent with everything that I am saying about Whitehall and how it should not make such decisions.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s earlier emphasis on the need to increase the output of social and affordable housing, what would he do if he were in office and discovered that devolving those options to local authorities, the Mayor of London and others did not produce the results that he expected?
I would quite simply increase the incentives. The difference between our approach and Labour’s is that rather than thinking that the way to solve a housing crisis is to create ever-larger, top-down, Whitehall-driven, almost Soviet tractor-style targets for building homes in people’s communities, we can work with communities to create the housing that is needed.
People are perfectly rational: all we need to do is provide incentives and allow people to get something out of them. We should allow people to improve the development of their communities and get something in return for creating more housing. When my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire was Minister for Housing, that system built more homes; when we combine it with those additional incentives for local communities, even more homes will be delivered.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to descend into our policy papers, he is welcome to do so. As I said in my conference speech back in October, for example, an element of council tax should be kept locally when new homes are built. That would be an incentive for local authorities to build more homes and help to ensure that local people got something out of it.
Fine; with interventions, I am sure that we can. However, I am keen that others should be able to contribute.
There are systems of incentives that we can put in place, such as the one linked to council tax. Furthermore, the Government now say that 15,000 homes have to be built in my constituency, but extraordinarily they think that that can be done by closing down our local hospital and cutting accident and emergency, maternity, elderly care and paediatric services and all surgery and operations. They then think that the local population will go for their housing targets. That does not work; we have to work with communities, join up the services and give people something in return.
The Government’s record on housing is one of complete failure: top-down targets working against local communities, rocketing house prices followed by a crash, and the slamming in people’s faces of the door to home ownership. Housing is central to today’s financial crisis, and the collapse of our housing market is both a cause and consequence of the severity of Labour’s recession, but the people who will hurt the most are the people on the all-time-record social housing waiting lists, whom this tired old Government seem incapable of helping—or are too incompetent to help.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes that the Government is investing over £8 billion between 2008 and 2011 to increase the supply of social and affordable housing, has invested over £29 billion since 1997 to bring social housing up to a decent standard and has made £205 million available for a mortgage rescue scheme to support the most vulnerable home owners facing repossession so they can remain in their home; further notes that there has been a 74 per cent. reduction in rough sleeping since 1998, that the long term use of bed and breakfast accommodation as temporary accommodation for families provided under the homelessness legislation has ended and that since 2003 the number of people who have been accepted as owed a main duty under the homelessness legislation has reduced by 60 per cent.; further notes that the Government has helped more than 110,000 households into low cost home ownership since 2001; believes that the introduction of enhanced housing options services provides tailored housing advice reflecting a household’s individual circumstances while choice-based lettings schemes give social housing applicants greater choice over where they want to live; and further believes that the Government has taken measures to make best use of the social housing stock such as tackling overcrowding and under-occupation.”
One thing—perhaps the only thing—that no one in this debate is likely to dispute is that there is substantial unmet housing need in the country today. That need is visible in every sector, whether it be social housing, private sector rental or home ownership. The motion before the House first highlights the levels of house building, particularly for those in need of social housing.
As he does on every occasion, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) made a feature of the level of new build. His fundamental argument—on house building, social housing, temporary accommodation and rough sleeping—seems to be that the former Conservative Government had a housing record of which today’s Conservative party should be proud, and that it contrasts favourably with the record of this Government. I am not sure that that was altogether wise of him; there are one or two flaws in that argument.
What is unquestionably true—the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to it earlier—is that in the early 1980s, the then Government instigated a whole-scale sale of council properties. Understandably, that was a very popular policy. The first hole in the argument of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield appears when we recall that the properties sold were not replaced. In fact, repeated obstacles were put in the way of local authorities—many of them Conservative—that wished to replace lost stock so that they could continue to provide homes needed for social rent. From 1983 on, however much they built, there was a net reduction in local authority housing stock in every year of the life of that Conservative Government.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I want to emphasise the importance of her point. Are not Conservative councils such as the one in my area—and other ones, I am sure—renting back properties sold under the right to buy to house homeless households at a cost of about £400 a week to the taxpayer, when rent on the identical council flat next door costs £90 a week? Does that not expose the sheer insanity of a policy that sold but did not replace?
My hon. Friend makes her point clearly and powerfully, and I am glad that I gave way and allowed her to make it.
I shall anticipate anyone who wishes to point it out by saying that, since 1997, it has clearly been open to this Government to put additional resources not just into housing, but into council housing. We have done so. In partnership with housing associations, which were able to raise money from the private sector, we instituted a house building programme that built 25,300 homes for social rent last year; that was part of overall additions to the social rented stock of more than 29,300.
I am pleased to hear the Minister point out that the Conservatives began the policy of not allowing full receipts to be returned to councils after the right to buy. However, her own Government did not change that policy, and receipts from right to buy continue to go to the Treasury instead of being invested locally into new build.
I will return to that point a little later in my speech; if the hon. Lady wishes, I will give way to her again then.
That brings me to the second flaw in the hon. Gentleman’s argument: that it is somehow all our fault that we do not have enough social or low-cost housing. It is the case that not all the substantial resources—and they were substantial—made available for investment in housing went into new build. Why not? It is only right to remind the House that when we came to power in 1997, we found it necessary—I use the phrase beloved of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—to mend the roof while the sun was shining. In fact, we found ourselves mending roofs not just in housing but in schools, hospitals, and laboratories; roofs that had literal—not virtual or metaphorical, but literal—holes in them; roofs in every part of the public sector and in every part of the country. What is more, when it came to social housing, we were not just mending roofs but replacing doors, windows, floors, kitchens and bathrooms. We were picking up the tab—billions of pounds-worth of tab—for 18 years of neglect, decay and dereliction, so that council tenants might have not just a roof over their heads but a decent home. It has long been a source of complete astonishment to me that anybody on the Conservative Front Bench has the unmitigated gall to accuse us of not mending the roof when the sun was shining. The Government we replaced left a £19 billion backlog of desperately needed maintenance and repair right across the social housing sector.
Moreover, this utter betrayal of stewardship—this gross dereliction of duty of which the hon. Gentleman seems to be so proud—was committed by a Tory Government who had had the greatest windfall of any in the history of this country. I refer, of course, to the windfall bounty of North sea oil and gas, which in the years up to 1997 produced the equivalent of at least £35 million per day, every single day of the week, for a solid 17 years. I will repeat that, because I know that there is nothing that the Conservatives hate to hear more: the equivalent, in official figures, of £35 million a year, every day of the week, for 17 solid years. No Government in this country’s history have ever had a greater opportunity to invest in its future—whether it be in housing, in education or in infrastructure—and none have more disgracefully neglected their responsibilities. The Norwegians, who found themselves in a not dissimilar position, still benefit from a sovereign wealth fund. What we inherited were holes in the roads, holes in the roofs, and decay and dereliction in the very fabric of our country.
When we embarked on this huge programme of repair, we encountered yet another consequence of Conservative neglect—the effects of their recessions on the construction industry. Not only was there a dramatic drop in numbers—there was also a catastrophic deterioration in skills, with the departure of trained and skilled staff whom we could ill afford to lose. To this day, we can hear people in construction refer to the “lost generation” of building workers, who left the industry then and never returned. In the first quarter of 1990, there were 2.31 million people working in construction. By the last quarter of 1993, that had declined to 1.79 million, and it remained at similar levels throughout the 1990s. It was not until 2006—
It is no good the hon. Gentleman wittering on about that. He is the one who said that he wanted to dwell on the record of the previous Conservative Government, and I am going to talk about it.
It was not until 2006 that the number climbed back to over 2 million; and it may be no coincidence that that was when the numbers of new homes built began to return to the levels we need.
All this is, in part, why we have brought forward £550 million of investment from our forward programme to be spent over the next two years: not only to make sure that much needed affordable housing actually gets built but to support the construction industry while demand from the private sector is weak. Through real help now, we can keep people in work and businesses afloat, maintaining capacity in the industry so that it is ready and able to accelerate building again when the upturn comes.
Before the Minister gets overly confident with her remarks about skills and keeping the construction industry afloat, I draw her attention to the DCLG’s conclusion, which says:
“There is a significant risk that major Government targets for development and regeneration will be missed because our planning system is unable”
to deliver. Indeed, the Government have had that pointed out to them for several years. There is a skills shortage in the planning system and they are repeatedly refusing to address that problem.
We are taking steps to reform the planning system; we published a review only a few weeks ago. One of the major changes that has been made is the recent passage of the Planning Act 2008. I do not wish to mislead the House, but I think that I am right in saying that the Conservative party did not support large parts of the improvements that we made, including the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. I entirely accept that there are defects in the planning system, but we are beginning to address them. I certainly accept that there is a skills shortage; we are addressing that and encouraging local authorities to do so.
The Minister knows that I welcome her commitment to improving greatly the Labour party’s record in delivering affordable homes, and she is right to say that the construction industry has suffered terribly. Has she been able to make any progress in her discussions with the housing association sector to see whether it can spend the money that it wants to spend to do the work that it wants to do to bring people into jobs to build or finish the homes for which planning is agreed but which are not yet completed?
Through the Homes and Communities Agency, we are talking to housing associations, among others—people right across the board—about places where there are, as the hon. Gentleman says, projects in various stages of progress and what can be done to remove any obstacles to bring them to fruition. We recognise that if we are able to free up those sites, that in itself would be a contribution to keeping the industry at a higher level of operation than it otherwise would be and to bringing those homes into being.
The right hon. Lady implied that the Planning Act 2008, which introduces the community infrastructure levy, would help to increase the number of houses being built. Is she saying that housing is now becoming subject to infrastructure statements and will therefore be the responsibility of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, because otherwise there is no reference in the Act to speeding up housing planning?
No, I was not making that point, nor will the hon. Lady find, when she looks at the record, anything in my remarks that suggested that I was. I was merely drawing attention to the fact, a general point having been made about planning, that when it comes to improving our planning system the Conservative party has not always been supportive. I am not making any suggestion of the kind to which she refers.
The decent homes programme—a programme of repair and maintenance—is now coming close to completion. As progress has been made on making existing social rented properties fit to live in, so too the new build programme has increased and accelerated. We exceeded the spending review target of 75,000 new homes for social rent between 2005-06 and 2007-08; and in the present spending review period, the capital programme for new affordable housing increased by 50 per cent. to a record £8 billion-plus, £6.5 billion of which is for social housing.
I am certain that the Minister would want to join me in congratulating Cheltenham Borough Homes in my constituency on its early completion of the decent homes programme, which has been genuinely appreciated by many of my least well-off constituents. Does she agree, however, that it is regrettable that energy efficiency and renewable energy did not play a bigger part in that programme, and that that now offers an opportunity for more Government investment that might help to counter the recession in house building and related trades?
I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he casts his mind back, he will recognise that when the decent homes programme was first instituted, there was not the emphasis on energy efficiency that there is today. He will also find, if he looks at the recent homes survey, that there is a higher level of energy efficiency in social housing than in most other sectors of housing, but there is certainly more to do, and more will need to be done in this sector and right across the board. I do not want to enter an area of great controversy, but it is a source of astonishment to me that those who are concerned, quite rightly, about the impact of emissions and climate change say a great deal about the potential of another runway in various parts of the south-east, but currently about 30 per cent. of our carbon dioxide emissions come from domestic buildings. We hear very little about that.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that there has been substantial investment in the decent homes programme, but, great as that has been, it has still been inadequate, particularly for cities such as Birmingham, where the only prospect that the council has of meeting the decent homes standard is to embark on large-scale demolitions. We have lost about 1,300 houses a year for several years, and we have built only 850 new homes through section 106 expenditure and social housing grant. The council reckons that we need to build at least 4,000 new social homes a year. What prospect is there that we will reach that target soon?
I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely, but I will come to the issue of new build in this sector in a moment or two, if I may.
Our aim was to deliver 70,000 affordable homes, of which 45,000 would be for social rent in each year from 2010-11. However, I recognise the possible impact of the present downturn on those plans. We have already taken steps to address that and to keep the overall programme on track. Not only have we brought forward investment, as I have described, but we have been exploring new ways of securing new homes for social rent and affordable housing. For example, we have earmarked £200 million to spend on good quality, unsold homes from private developers. To date, about £160 million of that pot has been allocated, buying up almost 5,000 homes, including 3,400 for social rent.
More recently, we have supported local authorities who are interested in building new housing by utilising land that would not be developed by housing associations. We are currently consulting on a series of measures that would make it easier for local authorities to build new homes. Those include changing the revenue and capital rules that currently redistribute rent and capital receipts from new council housing. We are proposing that councils will be able to keep the full revenue and capital returns from new homes, which is itself a stronger incentive to build. Councils will also be able to bid for social housing grant from the Homes and Communities Agency for funds to subsidise building, and if there are other obstacles that prevent cost-effective schemes from getting off the ground, we will look at how to overcome them.
Will the right hon. Lady discuss with other Departments the fact that the Government have control over empty houses, particularly the Ministry of Defence? In my constituency, more than 200 family houses are standing empty—admittedly privatised by the previous Tory Government and sold to Annington Homes—and £3,500 is paid per dwelling, per year, out of the public purse for them to stand empty. Surely the Government should be banging heads together and ensuring that those houses can provide accommodation for people living in bed and breakfasts and inadequate housing.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue many times, but if he writes to me about it, I will be happy to look into it again. I wonder whether it is something to do with where those properties are, but I take his point about the impact.
The Minister has come to the point that I raised earlier. Why is she consulting only on giving receipts for rental income and the right to buy for new homes, and not tackling the rental income for existing stock? It would make a huge difference to councils’ ability to plan what they can borrow if they knew what money was coming in to pay back that loan.
As I hope the hon. Lady is aware, we are taking a fundamental look at how the housing revenue account operates. I expect to receive a report on that subject a little later this year. In the meantime, we were anxious to remove the active disincentives to new build.
Birmingham is relatively unusual in that it has retained council housing and 22 council houses were built last year. However, the council would like to build a lot more. What the Minister is saying implies that council housing is a second-best option to registered social landlords. Perhaps it should be seen as a positive option, particularly in the light of the credit crunch.
I do not recall saying anything that would lead anyone to that conclusion, but if anyone did draw such a conclusion, let me immediately refute it. When I referred to the investment made through housing associations, I was pointing out that public money made available through a joint project with those associations, matched by money from the private sector, goes a lot further. That was undoubtedly the reason for the emphasis on extra build in the first place. I certainly do not dispute that. It is why we have created an opportunity for local authorities to bid for social housing grant.
This is a key point, which the Prime Minister touched on in his recent speech. Until such time as the rules are changed and local authority borrowing does not score against public expenditure totals, local authorities will never be cost-effective when compared with housing associations. Are there any plans to change those rules?
As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will recall from his own years in power, that matter is under continual discussion. However, the position on housing associations is also changing, and I do not think that anyone can be confident about the balance that will emerge in the longer term. It has unquestionably been more cost-effective for some time in the past, and it has been the model for building in partnership with housing associations that have mostly raised revenues from the sale of their own properties, but have also been able to attract investment and bank lending. It is not quite clear the extent to which that will be the case in the future, which changes the balance on these matters.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that local authorities must not only build homes but develop a housing strategy that encompasses all initiatives so that they can make the best of them for their constituents? Would she be as surprised as I was to learn that Liberal-controlled Sheffield city council has bid for only £60,000—to buy two empty flats—out of the £200 million that the Government have made available, compared with the £2 million that Labour-controlled Barnsley council has obtained?
Yes, I am extremely surprised to learn that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and other Sheffield politicians will do everything that they can to encourage a more robust approach.
I would like to touch briefly on some of the other issues raised by the Opposition motion. While we were repairing existing homes, and building more, strides were also taken to try to tackle the number of formerly homeless people living in temporary accommodation, and to reduce the number of rough sleepers. The numbers living in temporary accommodation were themselves, in part, a reflection of the inherited neglect of housing from those Conservative years. It is no use the hon. Gentleman pretending that levels of homelessness and rough sleeping were not a well-known social scandal during his party’s years in office.
In fact, despite the hon. Gentleman’s denunciation of all targets as Soviet-style, it was this Government, not his, who made an attempt to set a target to halve by 2010 the numbers of households in temporary accommodation, in comparison with 2004. I realise that that had other effects, which are causing unforeseen difficulties in other areas, but I hope that no one will contest that we did need, and do need, to tackle the issue. This Government have already overseen dramatic falls of 74 per cent. in the number of rough sleepers and we have committed ourselves to ending rough sleeping by 2012. I note that the Opposition motion fails entirely to give any recognition to what has been achieved, but merely expresses the pious hope that there will be problems with the system of counting the number of rough sleepers in future.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), deals with the issue of rough sleepers and has a good deal of specialist knowledge about it, and he will mention it in his winding-up speech. I know that he will cover the matters that the hon. Gentleman raised.
The Opposition’s motion ends by expressing concern about the implications of the Government’s housing policies for the future supply of housing, especially to the most vulnerable people. However, there are two notable omissions from its text. Extraordinarily, it fails even to mention the implications of the recent downturn, which are obviously grave, and it gives no indication of Conservative policy, which I therefore assume remains to do nothing to tackle the problem. That would certainly be consistent with the approach of the previous Conservative Government. I understand that they made resources available only by buying up stock, including some houses that had already been repossessed, to prevent it from dragging the market down.
In contrast, we are doing everything we can to help households avoid the trauma and upheaval of repossession. We have secured an agreement from lenders that repossession should always be a last resort, and they have agreed to wait a minimum of three months before seeking to repossess. We have also expanded and introduced schemes to help households in particular circumstances and to support advice services, including by providing additional court desks.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not. I have almost concluded, and I gave way to him earlier.
We have advanced and expanded assistance for those who have lost employment, and we have introduced a mortgage rescue scheme intended to help vulnerable groups who would be eligible for support from their local council under homelessness legislation if their homes were repossessed, meaning that they would automatically be eligible for social housing. That could include the elderly, disabled people and those with children. The scheme will help eligible families to stay in their homes as part-owners or tenants, with the support of a housing association.
I am grateful to the Minister, who has been very generous in giving way in this important debate. May I ask her, on behalf of many of my constituents who are council tenants, to say a little more about the comprehensive review of the housing revenue account, and particularly about negative subsidy? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] This year, council tenants in my constituency anticipate having to pay more than £10 million to the Government in their rent. They also know that the Treasury will be a net beneficiary to the tune of £200 million from the balance of subsidy receipts and payments in the coming year. They want to know, at the very least, whether during the review that the Government are still conducting, they will accept that there should be no further changes to the amount of subsidy that councils are given or to the negative subsidy that tenants are asked to pay. Will the Government consider that? At the moment, my tenants are feeling rather hard-pressed—
Order. That intervention is verging on a speech.
I will have to study the record, and I am not quite sure about the hon. Gentleman’s final point. I can certainly assure him that we are fundamentally examining all aspects of the housing revenue account. I cannot yet say what the balance of the decision will be.
The hon. Gentleman’s party has made less noise than some others about the Exchequer’s surplus in the account, and I heard a lot of “Hear, hear” from the Opposition Benches when he mentioned it. Much has been said about that, as if it were a completely new phenomenon. The records go back only as far as 1994, but they show that the housing revenue account was in surplus under the Conservative Government and did not go into deficit until we instituted the decent homes repair programme, which I have mentioned. Such a surplus is not a new phenomenon at all. I accept that colleagues will have differing views about whether it is desirable for the housing revenue account to be in surplus, but there is nothing new about it. I am sure that Opposition Members will draw that to the attention of all the tenants’ groups to which their local authorities are making representations on the matter.
I can assure hon. Members that we are continuing work with lenders on a further scheme to help those who face potential repossession or suffer a sudden drop in household income, who were mentioned earlier, and we hope to bring it forward in the not-too-distant future.
I note that despite the concerns raised in the motion, it makes no mention of what is presumably supposed to be the Conservatives’ better offer if, as they hope, they win the next election. I know that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield mentioned that in his final remarks, although I am not entirely sure whether he left the House much clearer about it. Perhaps the motion does not mention it because the Leader of the Opposition’s budget proposals indicate that the budget for my Department would not be allowed to grow by more than 1 per cent. a year. In other words, if the hon. Gentleman were to become Housing Minister, he could expect to preside over a budget cut of, at best, about £800 million, or a potential cut of 10,000 new homes for social rent.
I welcome the concern for the most vulnerable people expressed in the motion, but a debate on housing should definitely be the occasion for more than a few home truths. The plain truth is that neither the Conservatives’ record in office nor their proposals for the future, insofar as they are clear, match up in any way to their rhetoric on what I agree is a vital issue for our country. That is yet another example of why it would not be safe in their hands.
When I saw today’s motion, I could not quite believe my eyes. The Conservatives knocking the Government for failing to tackle the social housing waiting list is a little like Jonathan Ross complaining about the lack of moral fibre in the BBC, or perhaps Jeremy Clarkson fronting a new campaign for Scottish pride. It is simply not credible. I wonder what we will see next from the Conservatives. Perhaps the next Opposition day will bring a motion condemning the sinking of the Belgrano, talking up the benefits of free milk for every child or expressing posthumous solidarity with the 1984 miners’ strike.
I have to admire the brazen, bare-faced cheek of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). However, he delivered his speech without any obvious sense of irony, which demonstrates either a breathtaking absence of self-awareness or a degree of self-delusion that puts to shame even the best of narcissism in this great place.
I think that it was Disraeli who described the Conservative party as “an organised hypocrisy”. Was not today’s speech by the Conservative spokesman a perfect example of the fact that hypocrisy is still alive and well in the Conservative party?
Something like that—I am not sure whether I would dare to use such a term, as it might be deemed unparliamentary, but I agree entirely with the sentiment.
The Minister said that the Conservative motion entirely lacked policy proposals. The only one that I could find in it was to cut red tape, which seems to be the Conservatives’ sticking-plaster option for all their policy gaps at the moment. But it takes bricks, concrete and builders to build houses—solid, expensive and tangible things. The Conservatives’ approach to house building is a little like one of those Etch-a-Sketch toys I had when I was a child. Everything is in outline, but the drawing dissipates as soon as anyone shakes it. The Conservatives are the party that invented the right to buy and prevented councils from reinvesting the full receipts in new homes, that slashed the Housing Corporation’s budget and whose legacy was a catalogue of disrepair.
Since 1980, about 2.5 million council properties have been purchased under the right to buy from a council stock that then stood at more than 5 million. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield tried to make a point about the replacement of those houses, but I am afraid that the successive policies of both Conservative and Labour Governments have prevented councils from reinvesting the money from the right-to-buy scheme locally. That is why we have seen such a shortfall in social housing. Worse, the Conservative party would impose the same policy on housing associations—an idea that experts in the sector have universally condemned. Housing associations already face financial difficulty because of the climate of lending and the extent of their debt. However, the Conservatives want to remove their rental income and dwindle their asset base. The Conservatives are right about the problem—the Government have failed to tackle the housing waiting list—but they have offered us no solution today.
There is no solution for my constituent Mr. Ahmed, a single man approaching his 60s. He is disabled, unable to work and struggling to care for himself now that his children have moved away. By any measure, he is profoundly vulnerable, yet he has been on the housing waiting list since 1984. After four Prime Ministers—two from each main party—people such as Mr. Ahmed have little or no chance of finding a home.
In my constituency, if we continue building at the same rate but lose properties through the right to buy, it will take more than 200 years to house the 20,000 families who are waiting for new homes—and that assumes that no families are added to the list.
On that point, and the impact of the right to buy and a possible extension of the policy to housing associations, does the hon. Lady have the same experience as I do? In my constituency, approximately half the properties sold on several estates are now in the hands of property companies and multiple landlords. The argument that the right to buy automatically translates into home ownership for individuals and does not influence the total stock of affordable housing is therefore wrong.
I agree. There are elements of our constituencies that are very similar. However, I also know from colleagues in the south-west that some properties sold under the right to buy are now second homes for people who live in London and come down to holiday in them during the summer. The hon. Lady is right to say that the right to buy has not meant that those properties are left for people in the community.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an alternative—a way to allow the occupant to get possession, while retaining the local authority’s right to take the property back when the possession ends? The most progressive authorities in the country—South Shropshire comes to mind—have done that. It means that the properties stay with the community for local residents to take up tenancies after the initial occupation.
My hon. Friend is right. Last week, we debated proposals for community land trusts, which Liberal Democrat Members have championed for some time. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is saying that the Government championed it, too, and the Conservatives are joining in—
I am not going to get into that sort of competition, but I am pleased that there is all-party agreement on the matter. However, it does not detract from the point that the right to buy, without giving the money to local authorities to invest, has caused much damage and created housing need in local communities.
One in 10 of my constituents lives in temporary accommodation. That is typical of many areas in London—the figure is even higher in some parts of the city. Most of them are in a poverty trap, with high rents and housing benefit meaning that they cannot afford to work. I have many constituents whose parents were in temporary accommodation when they were born, and they experienced all the regular moves and disruption to school work that that entails. Some of them are now having families of their own, still in temporary accommodation. A whole generation has been condemned to uncertainty and poverty. The misery and helplessness of those waiting for housing eats away at their existence. The Government’s failure to tackle the problem is a betrayal of the people who elected them.
I am trying to follow the hon. Lady’s argument because, a minute ago, in reply to the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), she mentioned her concern about the right to buy, yet the Liberal Democrat amendment would in many ways strengthen the policy by allowing local authorities to keep receipts. Is it the Liberal Democrat position that right to buy is good or bad?
I am amazed that the hon. Lady cannot grasp the point. I must have made it about four times in the debate, including in interventions on Labour and Conservative Front Benchers. Councils should be allowed to keep receipts from the right to buy and invest them locally. However, we do not want the policy to be extended to housing associations because it would disrupt their asset base. For those that are charitable organisations, it is even against their charter. I thought I had made that point clearly.
Does the hon. Lady agree that far too few new buildings for council or housing association rent have been developed in the past 10 years or more? One problem is that, in local authority planning, the threshold is too high, so that most small developments, which are the norm in central and inner London, simply have no social element. For several years in my borough, less than 5 per cent. of all new buildings were for social rent.
I am prepared to say that the right to buy has been an unmitigated disaster. I will not go into detail, but if we are to encourage councils to build more homes—I sincerely hope that we will—how will we prevent their asset base from being destroyed if the right to buy continues unabated?
Sometimes it depends on the subsidy offered under the right to buy. There are many variations to ensure that, especially in areas where there is a lack of stock, it is not degraded further. However, I accept the hon. Lady’s point.
The most important thing that the Government could do for families in my constituency and in constituencies across the country is to tackle the policy problems that prevent councils from building new homes. They should give councils back the receipts from the right to buy, as I have said many times—perhaps I had better say it again to ensure that Conservative Front Benchers understand me—and they should give them certainty about their rental income so that they can plan. [Interruption.]
Maintaining social homes in Brent and many other parts of London costs more than can be raised through Brent’s council tenant rents. [Interruption.] There is so much hilarity that I shall repeat my point. When it comes to subsidy and housing revenue account, in places such as Brent and other constituencies in inner London it costs more to maintain those homes than can be raised by Brent’s social tenants. Why should the responsibility for paying for the shortfall lie with council tenants in Cambridge, Chesterfield or Solihull? Why have the Government imposed an additional tax on council tenants—individuals and families who already live on low incomes? Any subsidy should come from general taxation, paid for by people on a higher income, not the poorest people in council housing. The system of pooling council tenants’ rent nationally amounts to a tax on tenants.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Is the housing revenue account not made even worse by the Treasury’s retaining some of the funds, so that the poorest people not only pay for improvements in other areas but pay a tax directly to the Treasury?
I agree. The point was made earlier to the Minister, who tried to say that the problem was not new. Yes, it is an old problem, and it is time that the Government fixed it. I know they are consulting about it, and they say that they will conduct a review. Unfortunately, their current proposals suggest, as usual, that they have taken the title but not written the prose. I want the Government to reform the housing revenue account radically and introduce proposals as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about the negative subsidy. It is a big disincentive to local authorities to maintain council housing and a big incentive to opt out or have stock transfer. In the long term, it will lead to poorer standards of council housing unless it is reversed.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It means that councils have no certainty about their income, thus making it impossible, when they are also losing receipts from the right to buy and do not know what their rental income will be from one year to the next, to plan.
The plight of families waiting for housing will get worse with the recession. However, the ability of housing associations and councils to match the problem is getting weaker under existing policy. Housing associations say that building has ground to a halt as they are hampered by banks renegotiating existing loans and raising the stakes on new ones. Worse, they can no longer cross-subsidise developments through private sales and shared equity homes. As I said to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), councils that relied on section 106 agreements to get social housing built find that everything stops as private development stops.
We must accept that, in the short term, a higher subsidy is required in many areas to keep homes being built. The Homes and Communities Agency has said that it is willing to be flexible. However, that needs to filter through to housing associations urgently. I think it will require the intervention of the Minister to ensure that that happens.
We must keep building. If we stop building in this recession, when banks start lending again there will be a real danger of hyper-inflation in the housing market—need does not go away because people cannot get mortgages, and people do not stop needing social housing because there is not enough available. If we stop building, we will lose the construction workers who build the homes that we need, and if we lose their skills it may take a generation to replace them.
But the recession is also an opportunity. Land is cheaper. Homes are cheaper. However, the Government have invested just £200 million in the national clearing house scheme to allow housing associations to buy up unsold property. The Government say that they want to build to create jobs, yet they have brought forward just £400 million to build 5,000 new homes. That will barely dent the list of need in this country.
Instead of spending money on a VAT cut that made little or no difference to most families in this country, the Government could have spent the money providing insulation for 1 million people languishing in fuel poverty and building 40,000 new zero-carbon homes. If the Government really wanted to offer a VAT cut, how much more useful would a cut in the rate for renovation and rebuilding be? Today the Empty Homes Agency has said that it expects the number of empty properties in this country to reach 1 million for the first time. If we really want to tackle both the social housing waiting list and the blight of derelict properties in our communities, such a cut would be a tangible change that would make it cheaper to bring those homes back into use.
Finally, I want the Government to go further in trying to prevent the recession from increasing the number of people who find themselves requiring emergency social housing. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has estimated that 75,000 families will face repossession this year. We have seen a raft of announcements that provide solutions for small numbers of families who meet specific criteria, but the announcement that held out the most promise for the most people—the pre-action protocol—is the announcement that suffers most from a lack of teeth. The Government urgently need to update mortgage law to drag it into the 21st century and give courts the powers to intervene if they see fit. I urge the Government to legislate and not to leave the problem until it is too late.
Housing need is a serious and urgent issue—an issue that causes devastation for millions in this country, traps whole families in poverty, ruins life chances and extinguishes hope. In the face of this depth of need, we have seen from the Conservatives a motion that is so shallow and narrow in its solutions as to be insulting to my constituents who desperately want help. The Conservative party needs to start taking the issue seriously and come up with a proper policy. That is the job of the Opposition, and the Conservatives are failing in their duty.
This debate started very interestingly, when the official Opposition tried to institute collective memory loss about what happened before 1997. Those of us who lived through that period as local councillors—I was chair of housing in Sheffield in 1980, when some of the problems began—have a slightly different recollection of how the problems that this Government inherited started.
In Sheffield we were building around 1,000 council houses a year; people could walk into the housing department and get a flat almost on demand; and it took two to three years on the waiting list to get a family home. We had an ongoing building programme and a significant programme of modernising and upgrading our existing housing stock. In the next few years of the early 1980s, our housing investment programme was cut from more than £100 million to less than a third of that amount. That is why we got into the problems that we faced in 1997: not only did we stop building houses because there was no money, but we largely stopped modernising, leaving the backlog of disrepair to be picked up by the decent homes programme.
I remember delegates from the association of municipal authorities, as we were then, going to see various Environment Secretaries in the Conservative Government. I particularly remember one meeting with the late Nicholas Ridley, at which we got cups of tea but no sympathy whatever. It was not just Labour councillors who were outraged, as we clearly were, at the end of the meeting; the Conservative councillors who had gone to report their problems had to be told, “Well, simply stick up your rents to pay out of your revenue for long-term capital problems.” That was the only answer—it was not an answer, of course—to the massive backlog of disrepair that had been identified and which steadily got worse.
That was the reality of the situation, and that was why we were in the position that we were in in 1997, when the Government understandably had to concentrate in the first instance on the problems of disrepair and repair the 40-year-old kitchen units, the 40-year-old bathroom suites—it was hard to call them that in most cases—and the windows that leaked water, as well as the roofs and walls that were not fit for purpose. That was absolutely right. Indeed, one thing that the Government can be proud of is their investment in the existing housing stock and the fact that thousands—indeed, millions—of people’s lives have been made better as a result of that programme.
At the same time, we had the right to buy, although it was interesting that the Opposition spokesperson referred to commitments made by the Prime Minister previously to spend capital receipts on building new homes. Funnily enough, that is exactly the same promise that local authorities were given in 1980, when the right to buy was introduced. One Conservative Minister after another said, “Don’t worry—sell your homes off to sitting tenants, and the money that you get from those sales can be reinvested by councils in building new houses.”
Of course, what happened was that the amount of money that was allowed to be spent was 25 per cent. of the capital receipts gained, which had to go into making up the shortfall in the repairs and modernisation programmes that had been cut by the Government. That is the situation that we were in. Virtually not a single penny ever went back into building new homes as we had been promised. That was a broken promise that created long-term damage and difficulties.
Since the 1990s house prices have increased, which has meant that houses have become less and less affordable to people on low incomes who want to buy. We have experienced enormous pressure from the increasing numbers of people who want to rent homes. In Sheffield, we had 90,000-odd council houses back in 1980, but that number, including stock transfer, has gone down to just over half. If we have only half the houses that we had and if we have not been building over a long interim period, there will be pressures on the waiting list. That makes it rather difficult to understand why, when the Lib Dems were in power in Sheffield at the end of the 1990s, they knocked down several hundred family homes in the city. To put things into a historical perspective, that was a most enormous mistake for which they ought to be held accountable, so I have to smile a little when I hear their comments today.
The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) was right: this issue is about personal tragedies. When people come to my surgery with their housing problems, they all have very good reasons why they should be the top priority—they are sleeping either at friends’ or parents’ houses; their families have split up; their homes are massively overcrowded; or they are living in poor private rented accommodation. In 2007, the figure in my constituency for allocations of three-bedroom family houses off the waiting list in Sheffield was 12. That is the problem. The shortage is of family homes in particular, rather than flats. If we are looking to build more homes in the future, I hope that we will concentrate on family homes.
The problem is not just the number of houses we build but how we allocate them. I am waiting for the Government’s response to the Hills report about our allocations policy and other management issues, because by changing the policy we could make better use of our housing stock. In particular, I understand that when pressure is put on the waiting list, and when there is a shortage, there will always be more and more priority cases. However, that means that people who have been on the waiting list for many years—a constituent has written to me to say that he has been on it for 10 years and wants a move—are denied their right to a move, because there is always someone with a higher priority. My constituent says that around 90 per cent. of the homes that he now sees through choice-based lettings advertised by Sheffield Homes go to priority cases, whether those cases have arisen because of the demolition of properties or whether they involve homeless families or other people with a particular need.
The Hills report identified one particular issue, by pointing out that in many cases people need to move within social housing in order to access work or be nearer families who can offer them child support so that they can access work. Those are important issues. Sometimes when a house becomes vacant, it should not necessarily go to the person at the top of the priority list. It might be that another tenant can move into that property and thereby release their home, so that in the end we have better allocations and better use of properties. That issue is something in the Hills report that I hope the Government will respond to positively and give guidance to local authorities about.
The problem of the lack of family house building is not exclusive to Sheffield; it is a nationwide issue, and it certainly affects a great many people in London. Is my hon. Friend aware that exactly the same problem pertains in private sector developments, some of which have now been taken over by housing associations or local authorities? We now have a disproportionate number of large families in short-stay, temporary accommodation, living unrealistic lives and being forced to move from one temporary home to another.
Absolutely. That is a major problem. The idea that children brought up in those housing circumstances have any realistic equality of opportunity in education, health or anything else is clearly nonsense.
It is important to acknowledge that the Government have recognised that tackling the backlog of under-provision in social housing is a real priority. There are clearly immediate problems, which I will say more about in a moment. When the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, of which I am a member, produced its report on the supply of rented housing, it welcomed the Government’s increased target of 45,000 homes a year, although we said we were not convinced that that figure was high enough. Given the evidence that Kate Barker and the National Housing Federation took, we should be talking about at least 50,000 rented social homes a year to deal with the immediate shortage and to do something to address the backlog.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be much more robust with local housing targets for such cities as Sheffield and Leeds, to ensure that they are geared to meeting housing need rather than housing greed, as has been the case in the past? That greed has led to many flats being built, and it is now impossible to find occupiers or buyers for them.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was going to mention that later. Local authorities have an important role to play, not only as the providers of rented homes—which I hope they will become—but as the strategic housing authority for their area, to ensure that there is a proper match between the demands of families, in particular, for homes and the supply of homes across a range of different tenures and provision.
The immediate crisis facing us all—and facing the Government in particular—is that section 106 deals are not going to be done in the present climate. In many parts of the country, section 106 arrangements have been responsible for more than half the social rented homes that have been built, but housing associations can no longer get the necessary private funding or the cross-subsidies from selling houses to provide rented homes. There is encouragement for local authorities to develop housing companies to enable them to build homes, but those companies are not going to get off the ground in the current climate because they, too, will have to rely on an element of private sector cross-subsidy to make the social rented homes affordable that the local authorities want to build.
The reality is that if housing associations are going to build homes, they are going to need much higher levels of social housing grant. If the level of the grant remains at that indicated by the Government, fewer homes will be built by the housing associations as a result. I certainly welcome the Government’s bringing forward finance to enable homes to be built more quickly, to address the immediate problems, but the solution is not just about bringing money forward; it is about increasing the amount of money available, in this spending review and the next. Even increasing the amount in this spending review would probably not lead to any more homes being built, because of the need for higher amounts of social housing grant for each unit of accommodation provided.
In principle, I welcome the Government’s commitment to allowing local authorities to build. Sir Bob Kerslake, chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, was here the other day talking to the all-party parliamentary group on local government. I think he would accept that, if local authorities are going to build in the current circumstances, they will need Government support—which I think they are going to get, at least in principle—and, to quite a large extent, social housing grant from the Homes and Communities Agency. Also, local authorities are going to have to put in their own land for free to make these schemes work. I hope that the Government will make that clear and encourage them to do that. In the present circumstances, there could be no better use for local authority land than making it available for building social rented homes. These schemes will simply not stack up unless the local authorities are prepared to make that commitment, so I hope the Minister will encourage them to do so.
I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to provide £200 million of resources—although more might need to be provided now—to buy up empty homes in the private sector. We must be cautious, however, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said, there are many empty private flats that cannot be let or sold at the moment, and they are not necessarily the right properties for the social sector to buy. We need to concentrate on family homes. There are some interesting statistics available. Some local authorities are working with the housing associations to target that kind of property, but it is a great shame that the Lib Dem Sheffield city council has managed to buy two flats so far, and not one family home, with the money that the Government have made available. It should be ashamed of that.
It is also important for local authorities to adopt a collective strategy across their areas, to ensure that all the Government’s initiatives are made available to local people. The other day, one of my constituents went to see a representative of Sheffield city council. They were having desperate problems with their mortgage, and had been made aware of the Government’s excellent scheme that will, in some circumstances, allow people to convert their mortgage into rent. The answer that they got back from the city council was, “We know nothing about this scheme, and we haven’t got any money.” Lib Dem Sheffield city council should ensure that it is at least able to offer advice to people and point them in the right direction so that they can get access to this excellent scheme that the Government have promoted.
That constituent is certainly in the process of getting that advice; we are in regular dialogue. We are also going to advise the city council that it could do a little better in its efforts to help local people.
I also welcome the Government’s scheme to help people who go on to income support. They will now get help with their mortgages after 13 weeks, rather than nine months. It is important to prevent those people from having to place demands on the social rented sector and make waiting lists even longer. I look forward to hearing from the Minister when the Government will be able to implement a similar scheme for families who have not gone on to income support but who have suffered a loss of family income—because of reduced earnings through short-term working or a family member becoming unemployed, for example—which makes it virtually impossible for them to pay their mortgage. At present, they cannot get access to such a scheme if they are not on income support.
We are not going to roll back and unscramble the right to buy altogether. There have been some advantages to it, as well as some serious disadvantages, which have already been highlighted. The right to buy was about two things: it was about allowing people to get on to the home ownership ladder, and it was about breaking down some of the monolithic tenure areas in which every single property was a council house. In 1980, one ward in Sheffield comprised 99.9 per cent. council houses. The only non-council houses were the doctor’s house and a few shops; that was it. The problem now, however, is that the opposite has happened. In some areas, all that is left is a tiny handful of social rented properties, and all the rest are owner-occupied, with a few in the private rented sector.
Following the Select Committee’s inquiry, we said to the Government—who I know are looking into this—that local authorities in such areas should be allowed to suspend the right to buy until such time as there were more rented houses available. For example, in an area where it was possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of family houses available for rent, unless the right to buy were suspended there would be never be any property available to young people who had grown up in the community and who would never be able to afford to buy, but who wanted to remain in the community for family or other reasons. Without being against the right to buy completely, I believe that there should at least be a strategic approach to deal with those problems in certain areas.
Earlier, I challenged the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield about building new homes. The reality is that some communities will not want social housing in their area, whatever the incentives being offered. At a public meeting in my constituency two years ago, we talked about some new homes being built. Eventually, one person got up and said, “Well, I suppose we might have to have some new homes in the area, but we don’t want homes for those sorts of people, do we?” We knew what he meant by that, and I stood up and said that everyone in the community, including those who could not afford to buy, had a right to live there if they had grown up there and wanted to stay. I said that we should be providing homes for rent. However, some communities will refuse to do that.
Parliament has a responsibility to say that, right across the country, people who can afford only to rent a property have a right to live in their community. If we can get agreement with local councils to build homes, we should proceed by agreement, but if we cannot, Governments and this Parliament must retain the right to say that homes have to be built in those areas for the people who need to rent. In the end, the Opposition have to address that problem because there is a gaping hole in their policy in that respect.
Finally, I am prepared to say that there may even be a role for the private rented sector, but not for the sort of shoddy landlords that we are sometimes used to who rent out squalid properties. There may be a case in the long term for involving the pension funds with investment in high-quality, private sector accommodation for rent. The organisations that build such properties should go into their long-term management rather than proceed on a buy-to-let basis. There are interests at stake here, so the Government should look at how to encourage these developments.
There is also a responsibility to look further into the problems that the Select Committee saw when we went around homes in Westminster. We found that ex-local authority properties in tower blocks had been sold off under the right to buy, only to be sold off again, then rented out by a private landlord and managed by a housing association. Westminster council then put homeless families in them and was being charged £400 a week rent. Thus, a property sold with a public subsidy and discounts under the right to buy was subsequently massively subsidised by the taxpayer in order to put a homeless family back into the property.
An organisation called Local Space, which is operating in Newham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and one or two other London boroughs, is putting forward some interesting schemes. Instead of those housing benefits going to private landlords, they go into a housing association that has been set up to buy property, which will eventually become available for social rent over a number of years. Instead of the public subsidy going into the pockets of private landlords, it is going into housing association funds and it will eventually create more properties for social rent.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when we set up companies that may well put properties back into the public sector, as with Local Space, we must ensure that the model is not predicated on using the highest ever level of housing benefit, as that traps people once again in a cycle of dependency on benefits?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I think that Local Space is offering a better solution than that of private landlords in these circumstances, although there are still some problems. I hope that Local Space will be able to work with the Government to address them. It represents an important step forward, but my hon. Friend is right to suggest that it does not provide the absolute solution.
To conclude, the Government have an excellent record on their decent homes programme. It was made necessary by the complete absence of any attempt to improve and repair properties in the 18 years of Conservative government. We must now address the serious problem of the lack of supply of social rented housing. There are some immediate difficulties with the current housing crisis. I believe that the Government have to commit more funds to build homes in the future and they have to engage with local authorities here and now in order to get more housing grant to them and encourage them to put land into schemes to get more homes built. It should be a major priority for the next few years to put an end to the enormous personal tragedies that we all see on such a regular basis at our constituency surgeries.
The Government set themselves what I believe was an over-ambitious target of 2 million homes by 2016 and 3 million homes by 2020—a significant number of which I assume would be affordable homes for sale or rent. I dispute the Government figures, particularly when we have so many perfectly useful homes lying empty—a matter I shall touch on later.
In response to my inquiry about skills shortages, the Minister for Housing said that she was dealing with the matter. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is, like me, a member of the Select Committee, and I hope that he will reflect on some of the comments I am about to make about skills shortages, which I believe are further delaying the Government’s delivery of their particularly ambitious housing agenda.
What, then, are the main obstacles to the delivery of the Government’s proposed housing targets? They are skills shortages in planning. In July, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, on which I serve, published its report, “Planning Matters—labour shortages and skills gaps”, regarding the lack of skilled staff in planning. Anyone living in a high-price area such as St. Albans will testify to the fact that it is extremely difficult to get experienced planners into the system and then to retain those officers.
The Government published their response on 3 November 2008. To say that the Government have given a somewhat vague and lacklustre response to this report would be an understatement. If they are really serious about delivering their housing targets, however ambitious, and if they are really serious about cutting waiting lists for social rented housing and about speeding up build delivery, it would be logical to assume that they would be really serious about ironing out some of the obstacles or problems that appear to beset our planning delivery at a local level—obstacles and problems that have been pointed out to them by the Select Committee, most noticeably shortages of planning skills.
Our Committee concluded in its report:
“Perhaps the most surprising, and frustrating, point to arise repeatedly from this inquiry is the fact that labour and skills shortages in planning are so unsurprising. They have been evident for well over a decade, but review after review, report after report, recommendation after recommendation have not resulted in their reduction. This must change.”
That is a damning indictment of 10 years of the Government’s inability to tackle the problem. Although the Government acknowledged in their response that progress had been slow and that there was more to be done, they maintained that
“the Government is confident that there will be both a greater supply of people to work in planning, and that professionals working in local government will have a more appropriate skill set to do the work which is necessary”.
Where, given the years of inactivity that I have alluded to, do they get that confidence from?
The Government’s response contains little or no detailed commitment to specific action. We cannot build houses if the planning system cannot deliver them. Instead, the Government showed an over-emphasis on the roles of others, rather than themselves, and simply restated existing or past initiatives without any new proposals to deal with those acknowledged problems. Do the Government really expect us to accept that the constant assertion that progress will be made will indeed mean that progress happens?
A key issue raised in the report was training for councillors in planning matters. Again, it was acknowledged that many councillors were expected to make complex decisions and that the turnover of councils sometimes means that there is little in the way of a training base for councillors. Again, we are led to believe that development is thwarted or held up through lack of informed decision making. Our recommendation 22 urged the Government specifically to address that problem, but in response to our request for councillor training, the Government simply agreed that it should not be compulsory and provided examples of where training was already given. One of their key examples, however—the Planning Advisory Service 1:1 support programme—has delivered training to only 36 councils, which is hardly a seismic shift in speeding up the planning upskilling that councillors need.
The Committee’s report concluded:
“The Minister for Housing and the Department for Communities and Local Government seem likely to continue to suffer from ‘review-itis'”—
I am not sure that that is really a word, but it appeared in our report—
“until the repeated concerns expressed and recommendations made over the past 10 years are translated into actions that raise both the number of people who want to be planners and the range and level of skills they possess.”
So, instead of the decisive action that we urged on the Government, who have set themselves hugely ambitious targets to deliver more and more houses, they have buried their heads in the sand. The Government’s response disagreed with, or failed to address, the key issues in the report’s recommendations.
Given the stated recognition by the Government that
“planning is crucial to the economic prosperity of the country”
and the acknowledgement that there are low numbers entering the profession, our report recommended annual assessment so that shortages could be addressed and more encouragement given to get more people into a profession that is so sadly lacking in critical numbers. However, the Government chose not to accept that recommendation; they simply gave a commitment to undertaking three-yearly audits of existing numbers of planners and of their skills base and needs. This three-yearly audit of trends implies a passive monitoring role on the Government’s part rather than proactive engagement in, and pursuit of, a solution to this serious professional shortfall, which will no doubt hobble the Government’s intention to build more houses. Why, if the Government want to speed up delivery, do they fail to accept the report’s findings? I would like the Minister to answer that.
In the case of planning skills shortages, the Committee was so concerned that it felt it had to point out to the Government:
“There is a significant risk that major Government targets for development and regeneration will be missed because our planning system is unable to manage either the volume or the variety of tasks it will be asked to perform between now and 2020.”
What is the Government’s response? To do nothing. Perhaps the Minister will at least attempt to explain how even a reasonable percentage of those extra homes can be built when the Government have refused to address one of the biggest obstacles to delivering them—the lack of skilled planners.
The Government’s other glaring deficiency is their absolute failure to deliver their own legislation in the shape of empty dwelling management orders. As we have already heard several times today, the Empty Homes Agency has estimated that more than 1 million homes in the United Kingdom are empty. The vast majority—more than four out of five—are believed to be owned by private landlords. The Government have been intending to address the problem, but little has been done.
The EHA estimates that of the 762,000 empty residential properties in England, 650,000 are owned by private landlords, and almost half are thought to have been empty for more than six months. According to the charity’s own estimates, there are at least another 77,000 empty residential properties in Scotland and 50,000 in Wales and Northern Ireland. Surely, at a time when we are being pushed to “build, build, build”, if there are tools in our toolbox enabling us to return empty, serviceable homes to use so that families can live in them, that should be our first duty. I do not know why the Government have abandoned it.
The EHA’s chief executive, David Ireland, predicts that the total number of empty residential properties will pass 1 million, a prediction that we have heard again today. He has said:
“The situation is getting worse…Even these figures were compiled in October 2007, before the property downturn led to a rise in repossessions. We're at the beginning of a trend of rising empty homes, which is what we have seen at the beginning of other recessions.”
The Housing Act 2004 made provision for local authorities to take over the management of certain residential premises, but, in October 2007, the Government reported that only six interim empty dwelling management orders had been approved since that provision came into force, and very few orders have been employed since then. In November, in reply to a question asked by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), the Minister for Housing revealed that only 15 had been issued—15, when 1 million homes stand empty! In St. Albans alone, an extremely highly priced area, there are 1,500 empty domestic dwellings. The Government’s council tax records show that, in 2007, there were 762,635 in England as a whole, so St. Albans is fairly typical.
The Government are now quietly shelving the EDMOs. Although levels of homelessness are expected to rise, we shall have 1 million empty built homes along with the sclerosis in the planning system that prevents us from building the homes that are desperately needed. I pay tribute to the charities in my constituency that pick up the pieces for those 1,500 people: Centre 33, Emmaus and Open Door. I visit all of them regularly, and all of them tell me that this is a growing problem affecting homelessness in St. Albans, and a growing problem for all local authorities that cannot deliver fit and decent homes for people speedily enough.
Access to housing that is adequate in terms of both size and condition is by far the most serious problem for my constituents and, I suspect, those of many Members representing inner-London and other inner-city areas. The pressures related to schools and health care experienced by inner-London areas as a result of social deprivation and population mobility are exaggerated in comparison with those in other parts of the country, but the housing pressures that they experience are exaggerated to an even greater degree.
Although I am pleased that we are debating this issue, I am frankly appalled by the trivial and content-free stance that the Opposition have chosen to take. This is student politics. They have picked a Labour issue on which the Conservatives have an atrocious record over many decades to see how far they can get with it. In the time available to me, I shall give a London perspective. I hope to demonstrate not only that this is a complicated issue, but that where the Conservatives are in power—as they predominantly are in London, at both regional and local level—what they are doing, often through deliberate policy, is the opposite of what the motion suggests.
Housing waiting lists are a guide to housing need, although, interestingly, my local Conservative council says that they are irrelevant because anyone can sign up to them. The statistics on overcrowding or temporary accommodation are probably a better guide. They show that 75 per cent. of families in temporary accommodation are in London, as are 40 per cent. of overcrowded households.
I am pleased that the Government are now investing, but their priority was dealing with conditions that had to be dealt with. I wish that investment to deal with housing supply and the size of units had begun earlier, because we are now having to play catch-up. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), we should appreciate that the appalling conditions in which council housing had been left had to be addressed; however, because of the increase in housing need—largely due, in London, to the state of the property market over the past few years, which has not been redressed by the fall in prices—we need immediate investment to deal with the number and size of units.
The problem is that the delivery arm of that necessary investment—which, in terms of both policy and action, consists of registered social landlords, local authorities and the Mayor of London—is simply not reacting. The Mayor’s housing strategy involved two significant factors, one of which was the removal of targets. I have heard the rhetoric, and I see it again in the motion, but I have yet to hear anyone explain convincingly how the absence of targets would increase the number of affordable housing units built in London. In the financial year ending in March 2008, the first year in which the Conservatives were responsible for housing starts in Hammersmith and Fulham, fewer than 5 per cent. were affordable housing starts.
It would have to be 5 per cent. of a very large number to make any contribution, and it certainly was not that.
The other significant factor in the Mayor’s housing strategy was the raising of the affordable housing income threshold to £72,000. Recently, during a debate in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) asked the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to what extent he believed people earning significantly more than Members of Parliament were a priority for housing need in London. I think that the hon. Gentleman has yet to answer that question as well.
The principal culprits in relation to London’s housing strategy at the moment, however, are the Conservative boroughs. Let me run through some of the policies that are currently in force. I shall be happy to give way to Opposition Members who may wish to say whether they support them. It is true that there is a decline in the property market, but local authorities still have a fair amount of section 106 money. My Conservative authority has said that it does not wish to use for the purpose of building affordable housing money given to it specifically for that purpose. When units have already been built or planning consent has already been granted, it wishes to return those units to the developer so that they can be used for luxury housing. That happened to 250 units on the Imperial Wharf site in Fulham last year. Apparently, those units—50 shared-ownership and 200 social rented—were not needed by a local authority with 8,000 people on the waiting list and more than 1,100 families in temporary accommodation.
The Conservatives are quick to criticise the Government for not making Government land available, but Labour councils, when land was available to them—it is at a premium in inner London now; it really is quite precious—used to pass it to RSLs, at nil value, for the development of social housing. Obviously that meant that the land went further: with the social housing grant that was available, it was possible to build more and cheaper units. Those bits of council land that do become available are now auctioned off to private developers or RSLs, with the consequence that the predominance of housing on those sites is either market housing or what is called intermediate housing, which is very expensive. As a result, most RSLs in west London are now property developers. They are not building affordable housing at all; they are simply building market housing or what is called discount market sale housing.
The motion briefly mentions rough sleeping—I think it crept in as an afterthought. Policy on that is dealt with in my local area not by the councillors who are responsible for social care, but by the councillors who are responsible for antisocial behaviour and crime. As a consequence, when the BBC offered us a night shelter and all the funding for it, that was refused by the local authority on the grounds that it might encourage undesirable elements into the area. The one large day-centre for homeless people in Shepherd’s Bush—the Broadway project, which I sat on the board of for about 20 years—is an excellent project operating from a purpose-built building, but the authority is seeking to withdraw its grant and to close it, because it believes it lowers the tone of the area.
The key policies Conservative councils are pursuing are the disposal and demolition of social housing, and the failure to construct new units of social housing. In policy terms, we have moved from a situation in which 40 per cent. of all housing built in the borough was socially rented housing—that was under a Labour administration—to one where the target is 10 per cent. but the reality is zero; the real target is that zero units of new housing should be socially rented, on the basis that there is already too much socially rented housing in the borough. There is, in fact, 32 per cent. social housing in the borough, which is less than the inner London average, and, of course, any sensible person would say, “Well that creates a need for more social housing, as families grow and houses are sold through the right to buy and so forth.” In reality, however, the policy is that that is too much and we need less. Therefore, we now have situations such as that in White City, which is quite famous because the Mayor was caught out changing his mind: all the social housing was stripped out of a new development, contrary to what the tenants and residents of the area had been promised, simply to ensure that market housing was built on the site. That regularly happens across the borough.
Last week, I attended a public meeting called by the leader of the council for tenants and residents of 800 council leasehold and tenanted flats in west Kensington. Rather than give my own no doubt partial version of events, I shall read the account that was published on the front page of the local newspaper. The headline was, “Rich inherit the borough: residents seethe at council leader’s plan to bulldoze homes to make way for wealthy to regenerate economy”. The article reports:
“Householders reacted with anger and dismay to plans to bulldoze their homes as the council leader claimed he wanted ‘very rich people’ to live in North Fulham.
Stephen Greenhalgh confirmed his redevelopment proposals for West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates as part of a wider revamp including Earl’s Court and Kensington Olympia.
Addressing a crowd of seething residents this week he declared: ‘We want to attract people who are very rich if we want to boost the local economy.’”
[Interruption.] So 800 council rented and leasehold flats are to be demolished to build an international conference centre, and no—[Interruption.]
Order. If Members wish to intervene, it is much more helpful if they stand up and do it in the usual way. Is the hon. Gentleman willing to give way?
I actually wished to make a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The concern I wished to raise is that the hon. Gentleman is making a speech about a constituency that is not his own; he keeps on referring to Fulham, which is represented by another Member.
Members’ remarks are in no way confined to their own constituencies. They may talk about whatever they like to talk about.
Is that really the best the hon. Lady can do? She is a near neighbour of mine as she represents Putney. That is also an inner-London constituency. Despite Wandsworth council’s attempts over the years to move all the poor out of the borough, she must experience some of the same concerns as I do. I have invited Opposition Members to intervene on any of the examples I have given. I am speaking very slowly so that they can understand what Conservative housing policy means in practice in inner London. I have given about six examples so far; Conservative Members are yawning a bit and looking at their watches, and I am sorry if what I have to say is not more entertaining. I invite them by all means to challenge me and say whether or not they support their authorities’ policies, but for the hon. Lady to come up with a point of such triviality just confirms what I have been saying.
The second area I would like to look at is low-cost home ownership, because Hammersmith and Fulham council has put a huge amount of money into promoting that. I shall at this point respond to the hon. Lady’s remark. She probably understands that even in Wandsworth housing allocation policies are done on a borough basis. Therefore, what happens in Fulham affects my constituents in Shepherd’s Bush. The 200 homes that were given back, in a cosy deal, to a private developer would have been homes for people living in Shepherd’s Bush as much as for people living in west Kensington and Fulham. Therefore, the hon. Lady’s point is not only trivia, it is inane as well and I am sorry that it is the best she can do.
No one is against low-cost home ownership; indeed, the previous Labour council in Hammersmith and Fulham brought in a much higher proportion and amount of low-cost home ownership than the current Conservative council. The real shift has been away from social rented housing to market housing. However, there is a problem with low-cost home ownership in London: it is not low cost. That is a problem for many authorities. On the council’s own figures, the average income of people accessing low-cost home ownership in Hammersmith and Fulham is currently £38,422. The Conservatives would like it to be higher than that—that is why the Mayor has extended the upper income limit to £72,000—but an income of £38,000 excludes almost everybody in housing need; on those terms, the numbers we are talking about are almost in single figures. The vast majority of people on the low-cost home ownership register are not council tenants or those in temporary accommodation, and they are certainly not people who are disabled or people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, because the council itself concedes that its policies discriminate against those classes of people as they tend to be on lower incomes. Already, people accessing this kind of housing are earning £40,000-plus, but 40 per cent. of households in the borough are on incomes below £20,000, and they are, in general terms, those most in housing need. This average figure is distorted by the fact that a lot of very wealthy people live in west London, but even the average income is only £28,000.
The ratio in 2007—I appreciate this might have changed, but not to a very great extent—between average income and the average price of a home was 19; people needed to raise 19 times their average salary in order to buy a property in Hammersmith and Fulham. The general costs of shared ownership properties are about two thirds of market rates when one takes into account discount, rental element, service charges and so forth; that is the formula that housing associations and RSLs tend to work on. Even if the ratios are no longer as much as 19 and two thirds, it does not take much imagination to understand the sort of income level that people need to have to access low-cost home ownership property. This is a problem.
Hammersmith and Fulham is the local authority that has made it an absolute testament only to invest in property for sale; it is not interested in property for rent whatever. So far this year, five properties have been sold under the right to buy, and about 40 people have accessed housing through the total raft of home ownership schemes. That includes through social homebuy. It speaks very highly of that—although I know those on the Opposition Front-Bench do not—yet it has failed to sell a single unit through that scheme. So, the approach simply does not work.
Low-cost home ownership is used by Conservative councils as a Trojan horse for doing nothing. They are happy for people on £50,000 or £60,000 to have a property that they would not otherwise be able to access unless they were on £70,000 or £80,000, but these so-called home ownership schemes are simply not a possibility for people on £20,000 or £30,000—the key workers, and the people on low, average or even twice-average incomes. The Government need to take note of that, because we often all fall into the trap of saying that we are providing for people who just do not qualify for social rented housing when, in reality, we are not providing for that class of society at all—things are being done with extraordinary cynicism.
The final point that I wish to deal with is slightly topsy-turvy, because although these policies are being pursued with some gusto by Conservative councils across London, their net effect is to keep waiting lists down. That is partly because of the temporary accommodation targets, which are a good thing, but they have unintended consequences. Conservative authorities, in particular, are looking at ways of keeping people off the housing register come what may, and that can be done through the crudest and cruellest measures.
For the 25 years that I have been going to Hammersmith town hall, if a homeless family turned up out of hours—after 4 o’clock and thus having not been able to get into the housing office—they would have to wait in the reception at the town hall until the emergency service could find them emergency accommodation. In such circumstances, people now have to wait outside the town hall, where a red phone has been put up. They speak to someone on the other end of the line and they then wait for one hour, two hours, three hours in the rain or the cold because they are not considered fit people to wait in the town hall foyer of an evening. Staffing, too, has been considerably cut back.
These are all old tricks learned from Wandsworth and Westminster in the 1980s. There is a story that may be apocryphal, although I do not think it is, that back in the early ’80s Wandsworth council closed its housing advice services and put a map on the front door showing the way to Hammersmith and Fulham town hall, because that is how much it was interested in people in housing need in the area. The messages are unmistakable. If a Member of Parliament writes in to complain about somebody who is wrongly banded in an allocation scheme or who has been waiting an inordinate amount of time, they receive the most cursory letter back emphasising—it does not apologise or give an explanation—the length of time people would have to wait to access social housing. These letters say, “For this type of property, the wait will be a minimum of 12 years.” Everything is geared to encouraging people not to register, to move out and to go somewhere else—that is the policy. It is not surprising that that is the policy, given what I said about the absolute decline that has taken place—the demolition and sale of housing, and the failure to build it. In such circumstances, of course these councils cannot cope with more people on their waiting lists.
Someone who does manage to see a housing adviser at Hammersmith and Fulham will be pressurised into signing a form that says that they do not wish to go on to the housing register. What they will be given instead is a little assistance with accessing housing benefit and possibly with a deposit. They will then be introduced to a friendly private landlord who will offer them a property—this is called “direct lets”. Typically, it will be an ex-local authority property—under some of the schemes that we have heard about—in another borough, it will be vermin-infested and it may not have gas or electricity. But the council does not mind that, because the person will be not only off the list, but out of the borough. The relationship that local authorities have with some very dubious landlords of this kind simply in order to be able to prevent people from accessing social housing or even getting in the queue for it is, again, something that the Government need to examine. The irony is that this system means that the housing waiting lists are lower than they perhaps otherwise would be. I do not deny, and have never denied, that this is an issue with which the Government must come to terms; it will not be resolved by local authorities in London.
I shall give one more example, because it was used earlier in relation to temporary accommodation. There is some good council-owned temporary accommodation in residential streets throughout the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham—not only in Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith, but even in Fulham. That is being sold off for auction; in other words, the families who are in those properties are being moved out. Either these families jump the queue, which is good for them, but bad for others on the list, or they go into private sector temporary accommodation, which is, again, usually outside the borough, and the taxpayer will be paying up to £700 a week in housing benefit charges. Again, the council does not mind that, because it gets a capital receipt for selling off the property in the borough. The council also does not mind that the total cost to the taxpayer might have been £100 or £200 a week when the family was in the original accommodation and will be £700 a week in the new accommodation—after all, it is not the council’s money; it is the Government’s money.
This approach is being taken on every possible criteria and in every possible area of policy. What is the reason for that? Part of the reason is social engineering and, indeed, political engineering. The Tories who are running London make Shirley Porter look like Joseph Rowntree in terms of that degree of policy. A deeper motivation is involved, which came up in the Tory policy review. I have put this to the Opposition spokesman on many occasions and he wriggles a bit. The press release put out by my local Conservative council celebrating the overturning of targets states:
“Council housing can be a great safety net to help get people back on their feet, but that should be all it is. Council housing is a springboard – not a destination”.
That is what lies behind the Conservatives’ housing policy, and these authorities are simply a stalking horse for what I believe we will see if they get into government; permanent council housing—rented housing—is no longer considered to be an option, which is why we will see right to buy in respect of registered social landlords and why we will see no new building, despite what is said here. We have heard nothing from them to say where the money will come from for that building. We will see a continued pressure on the most pressurised part of our society—people who live in housing need—with all the socially detrimental effects that we all know that has in terms of schooling and health. This is a deliberate policy—it is not incompetence and it is not down to a lack of money or resources—of studied cruelty, which the Conservative party has decided to put into effect. It has certainly done so in London, and I suspect that it has done so in other parts of the country too.
That is why I say that despite this welcome opportunity to debate these issues, rather than making the trivialising and schoolboy points that we have heard, the Conservatives should look at what they are doing to a significant sector of our society—people who are being marginalised and punished for nothing more than not having the means to afford good quality housing in our capital city.
It is a pleasure to follow my successor but one, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter). I was not surprised to hear that housing remains the most challenging problem for his constituents—it certainly was for the 23 years that I represented Ealing, Acton—but I must say to him that he overstated his case. Accusing my hon. and right hon. Friends of having a housing policy of “studied cruelty” is absurd, and saying that it is our intention to punish poor people is a parody of my party’s housing policy. I honestly do not think that that sort of language advances very far what should be a serious debate about housing.
I wish to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). I am sure that some communities are resistant to more social housing being built, but other communities do not have the rather narrow vision to which he referred. There is a village in my constituency in Hampshire that is accommodating all the extra houses required by the local plan and still has taken the view that there is not adequate social housing in the village. There is a move to sell off the allotments owned by the village and relocate them at the edge in order to provide more social housing in the middle of the village, over and above that which it has to provide. The reason for that movement is that the village is in control—this is not additional housing being foisted on it by a remote authority; it is local people seeing a local need for houses for the teachers, the postmen and the nurses, and wanting to make that provision. So, there is another side to that coin of resistance to new housing.
I do not want to fight old battles, although there is a real temptation to do so, given that some of the speeches we have heard have gone back to the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s. However, I will say that the introduction of the right to buy was a progressive and enlightened social reform that was bitterly resisted by Opposition parties at the time. It enfranchised millions of people and made a reality of home ownership for people for whom it had previously been a dream. It transformed monolithic local authority estates and generated large sums of money that either reduced public debt or were recycled back into new housing. I make no apology for being a keen supporter of the right to buy when it was introduced.
Other policies were bitterly opposed at the time—housing action trusts and large-scale voluntary transfer—but are now an accepted part of housing policy. They are the foundations on which housing policy is now built.
I was a housing Minister in the 1980s, and the receipts from right to buy tended to clock up in Tory-controlled boroughs outside the cities. We prevented them from spending those receipts and we recycled the spending power into the inner cities, which were not generating right-to-buy receipts to the same extent. That was not a popular policy with my colleagues, but it was the right thing to do. So it was certainly the case that we stopped some local authorities spending their capital receipts, in favour of areas of greater need.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Government must be wishing that the £12 billion spent in December on the VAT reduction had been spent, at least in part, on helping those in housing need. Instead of an imperceptible reduction in retail prices, the money could have been used to buy up land at low prices; build out sites with planning consent; buy properties overhanging the market; increase grant for section 106 schemes frozen in the pipeline; and put more resources into the mortgage rescue scheme, helping those in housing need and threatened with being homeless. We would then have had something tangible to show for the huge debt that the Government have clocked up in our name. We would have had some assets on the other side of the balance sheet.
If people are in housing need, what matters to them is not the number of new homes being built, but the number that are re-let. That is the currency that really matters. I was disappointed to read—I think that it was in The Times last Saturday—a badly informed piece attacking the tenants incentive scheme. If one wants to provide a new home to rent to someone on the housing list, it is much cheaper and quicker to encourage someone to move out of an existing local authority or housing association home and re-let it. It is perfectly acceptable to say to people whose circumstances have improved since they became the tenant of a registered social landlord, “Can we help you achieve what may be your ambition of becoming a homeowner?” In that way, public money can be used to generate a re-let and increase turnover. I hope that the tenants incentive scheme and related schemes will remain part of the portfolio, and that the Government do not fall for the criticism that I read last Saturday.
A constituent who came to see me at my advice bureau a few days ago said, “Why are the Government putting so much money and energy into rescuing the motor industry and not doing nearly so much for housing?” He had a good point. I note in passing that both the motor industry and the construction industry have as their sponsors experienced Ministers who left the Government when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, but who came back last year at the invitation of the Prime Minister—Lord Mandelson and the Minister for Housing.
We all have sympathy with those who work in motor manufacturing, but I start from the premise that people need homes more than they need cars. In the motor industry, there is excess supply and inadequate demand, as pictures of cars stacked at docks constantly remind us, but when it comes to affordable housing, there is excess demand and inadequate supply. So, to the neutral observer, the case for additional Government support is far greater for housing than for motor manufacturing, especially as houses, by definition, are manufactured locally, whereas a good percentage of the cars we buy are imported.
My constituent had a good question. Why, since the beginning of the year, have we had statements, initiatives and publicity on the one, but not on the other? It may be because the motor industry is better organised and located in politically sensitive areas. Whatever the reason, we need to redress the balance, and I hope that in the next few weeks we will have an announcement of support for the housing and construction industries. The £12 billion spent on VAT reduction was a wasted opportunity, and I wonder what housing Ministers were doing during the debates before that decision. Did they make their case forcefully?
I wish to be brief, as many hon. Members wish to speak, but I want to touch on two options, one a dead end and the other a possibly useful way forward. The dead end is a return to council house building. I have nothing against local authorities building houses, but it is not a sensible use of public money. As Bob Kerslake said in Inside Housing last week:
“The problem is that the HCA has been forced to treat money councils borrowed to build homes, on top of grant, as public subsidy. If a housing association bids, only the grant is counted as public subsidy, making council schemes more expensive to the public purse.”
So anyone who wants to get more homes for a given amount of public money will route the money through housing associations, not through local authorities.
The pressure to build council houses is not coming from those on the waiting list. All they want is a good quality home, at an affordable rent, with a responsible landlord—they do not mind whether it is a local authority or a registered social landlord. The pressure to build council houses comes from councils that do not realise that the world has moved on and that they now have a strategic and enabling role, rather than one as a direct provider.
The Prime Minister has raised false hopes on this front. Speaking at the New Local Government Network, he said:
“If local authorities can build social housing in sustainable communities that meets the aspirations of the British people then we will give them our full backing and put aside anything that stands in their way.”
Elsewhere he inserted the key phrase “cost-effectively”. When he was Chancellor, he was pressed on several occasions to change the rules to allow local authorities to borrow without that scoring against public expenditure, and he refused. It would be an astonishing U-turn if he now agreed to that, especially as we now have an independent body in charge of the definition of public borrowing. Those who believe that the resumption of council house building will solve our problems are crying for the moon. A much more promising option is not mentioned in any of the motions, but it would help those on waiting lists and in housing need. It is to revive the debate about getting private institutional funds into renting, through housing investment trusts or real estate investment trusts. For 15 years, there has been an all-party consensus on the need for a new investment vehicle to promote investment in residential property that would attract long-term institutional funds, broaden the market, give a wider choice to those who want to rent, help those on the waiting list and enable private and institutional investors to get exposure to the residential property market that they cannot get at the moment.
Such trusts were envisaged as the last stage of a series of reforms to promote the increased supply of good quality rented housing. We introduced assured shorthold tenancies to put tenancies on a viable basis. Once we had that underpinning the private rented sector, there was going to be a new fiscal framework to get serious, respectable, long-term institutional funds into property for rent. At present, such institutions can get exposure to equities and to commercial property, but not to residential property. Such trusts would allow that exposure. No one knows whether we are at the bottom of the property market, but we are a lot closer to it than a year ago. There is therefore a real appetite to invest now, with billions of pounds available, as long as we have the right investment vehicle. Unfortunately, the Government have been very dilatory.
In March 2004, the Treasury consultation paper said that a real estate investment trust
“structure in the UK would therefore set a challenge for the industry to encourage development of new housing, which could...be managed within”
that structure. It continued:
“The Government is keen to encourage greater renewal in the property sector, and the development of new...residential buildings”.
In 2006, the then Chancellor said in his Budget speech:
“To attract more capital into house building, we are now legislating to introduce for Britain the real estate investment trusts that are so successful in the USA.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 293.]
However, nothing has happened since. The only investment trusts have been in commercial property and pubs.
At a meeting with Bob Kerslake a few days ago, I was interested to hear that that dialogue is being revived, at long last. With public expenditure now stretched to its limit, we need a fresh look at how institutional funds can be harnessed to tackle the needs that my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) mentioned so eloquently in his opening speech. It is going to need some flexibility and lateral thinking, but the time is right for a fresh initiative. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up, will tell us that that option is being actively explored, as I believe that it would offer very real benefit to those in housing need.
First, may I draw attention to the interests declared in my entry in the Register Of Members’ Interests? Secondly, may I say what a pleasure it is to follow the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)? I followed him, although not quite so immediately as this afternoon, in the role of Housing Minister. Both of us know, as do almost all hon. Members, just how important housing is to the lives of our constituents and how crucial an effective and good housing policy is to ensuring social well-being and economic prosperity for the country.
Housing is an issue that has commanded considerable political salience throughout much of the past century, but the policies adopted at various points during that time have not always been as intelligent and far-sighted as they might have been. In the period immediately after the second world war, and for much of the following three decades, the focus was remorselessly on numbers. It was understandable why numbers were seen as important, as we were dealing with the backlog of wartime damage, dereliction and the fact that no homes at all had been built for some years.
However, the danger with the remorseless focus on numbers that was very much the driver of housing policy at that time was that other issues tended to be given a lower priority. The remorseless focus on numbers displayed today by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) will not do a service to the country if his remarks serve to draw attention away from the equally important issues of quality, sustainability and the need for appropriate mixed-tenure developments that provide a decent environment for people to live in.
I was going to say that all Governments have tended to adopt that approach. It is very easy and simplistic. A politician under pressure is likely to say that he will deliver numbers. Nye Bevan did it immediately after the war when he increased the housing output dramatically. Harold Macmillan did it in the 1950s: he promised 300,000 homes a year and delivered them. Harold Wilson said, “I’ll go one better, I’ll do 400,000 homes a year,” and he did it.
In their own terms, those politicians were successful, but the legacy was not so successful. When the right hon. Gentleman was Housing Minister—and this was still the case when I was in the post—he had to deal with the problems associated with an excessive focus on quantity not quality. Those problems were partly seen in the very unsatisfactory council estates that were often badly designed and shoddily built, and which above all were inadequately maintained. Many of them had to be either demolished or substantially remodelled at enormous cost.
However, an equal problem involved the many very unsustainable private housing developments that were often built on greenfield sites to unsustainably low densities. Their very poor energy efficiency has left us with a huge legacy of homes that are very difficult to keep warm economically and which contribute massively to global warming through carbon emissions. So let us not go down the route of focusing uniquely on numbers and forgetting the wider issues that are vital to a good and sensible housing policy.
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that people must be sacrificed? He must accept that people need to be housed, yet people are numbers so housing them must be a question of numbers. If we go for quality rather than quantity, what happens to the surplus that does not meet the quality criteria?
Of course we have to be responsible about meeting demand, but focusing remorselessly on numbers was a problem in the past—and I am afraid that it was the problem with the speech from the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield—as it meant that quality and other issues tended to be forgotten.
The result of such thinking is that dwellings have to be demolished—and this Government had to demolish hundreds of thousands of them—because they are unsatisfactory. That is a vast waste of resources that could be better spent, and I put it to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that the problem cannot be resolved by increasing numbers in a simplistic way. Instead, we need a housing policy that addresses a range of issues, only one of which is quantity.
When we came into government in 1997 there was a huge backlog of substandard housing, as has already been noted. The bill to put right all the disrepair in the social housing sector alone came to £19 billion. There was also a problem with unsustainable patterns of development, and the disproportionate building at low density on greenfield sites quite rightly provoked public anger and led to charges that the countryside was being concreted over. In fact, the legacy belonged to the previous Conservative Government, but the new Opposition were quite clever about shifting the political responsibility and blame on to the present Government. However, the legacy that I have described was the product of unsustainable patterns of development, and that policy had to be changed.
There was also a problem of social division that resulted from a curious aberration of housing policy in the 20th century. For the first time in human history, to my knowledge, a policy of social apartheid was deliberately adopted. Estates were created with uniquely owner-occupied housing in some areas and uniquely social housing in others. The two never met.
I am open to correction, but it seems to me that one can look back to the 18th or 19th centuries, or back to mediaeval times or even before that, and see that although richer people obviously enjoyed better housing, communities did not suffer from rigid social stratification with areas treated exclusively as the preserve of only one social class. That was a pernicious influence, and it needed to change.
That is why I say that a good housing policy has to be about more than just numbers: it has to be about the quality, style, location and mix of a development too. The incoming Labour Government put in place measures to tackle precisely those problems. The decent homes programme has been a very significant success, as I think hon. Members of all parties must accept, and it has helped to turn around the huge inherited problem of the backlog of disrepair in the social sector. Moreover, the change in emphasis away from greenfield development and the greater focus on brownfield development have undoubtedly helped to reduce pressure in the countryside, while the work to try and get acceptance for mixed-tenure developments has been very important, especially in the long term.
That was not an easy task, as the house building industry was strongly resistant. Its members wanted to go on building in the patterns that they had traditionally used throughout most of the post-war era and with which they felt comfortable. Getting them to accept that it was desirable and appropriate to build mixed-tenure developments with some social housing, some intermediate housing and some housing that was for sale outright took time, but we got there and the industry accepts that mixed-tenure development is appropriate.
The house building industry also accepts the need to improve hugely the energy performance of housing. I was Minister for construction in the very early days of the present Government, and I remember the resistance among housebuilders to the change in part L of the building regulations that was designed to improve energy efficiency in housing but which they saw as a burden and an undesirable imposition. Fortunately, the industry is now engaged in a constructive dialogue with Government about how to achieve the hugely ambitious target of zero carbon emissions by 2016. That will not be at all easy to achieve, but the fact that housebuilders are engaged in the dialogue represents a sea change in the industry’s attitude.
I am aware of some of the developments that have been achieved, and one of them is the Greenwich millennium village in my constituency. I live there, and it is frequently talked about: a mixed-tenure development of very high-quality housing, with a lovely environment, it has excellent transport linkages, a school and a health centre. It was built on sustainability principles, and it works. Such exemplars exist and we should be proud of them. We should talk about them more and promote them, but unfortunately all the processes of change take time.
My local authority is Greenwich council, and it was awarded the beacon council award for new housing development precisely because of its support for developments such as the millennium village. Part of the beacon council arrangement is that people from other authorities are invited to come and learn from the ones that win the award, but many of the people who came to Greenwich did not believe that it was possible to use section 106 and other such mechanisms to achieve that sort of development. That is a politics and social policy issue; it is a question of effecting change, and getting people to see what can be done.
Using new mechanisms better takes time. All the changes have taken time, and I accept openly that there has been a problem of an inadequate supply of new housing. The irony is that just before the impact of the credit crunch was felt, there was a rising trend in new building, both in social housing and market housing, as a result of the Government’s increased emphasis on output. We were approaching a figure of 200,000 homes a year, and the objective of 240,000 homes a year by 2016 was not unreasonable. Things have totally changed. We are living in a completely different world. The impact of the credit crunch, the withdrawal of mortgage facilities from large numbers of people, and the inability to maintain the traditional development model of cross-subsidy from market housing to social housing have all created huge problems in delivering a homes programme on a decent scale.
Fortunately, there is one bright spark in the otherwise grim situation, and that is the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency. For that, I give great credit to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who will respond to the debate, and who took the Bill that created the agency through Parliament. The creation of the agency was a really positive move. I am sorry that the Opposition were opposed to it at the time, and cast all sorts of doubts on the agency; they must now recognise that in this extremely difficult period, the agency is the one body that gives us a chance to achieve a sustained housing programme of some capacity to meet needs.
The agency has some very difficult tasks. It has to help to prevent the current level of repossessions from undermining confidence even further. It has to ensure that developments that would otherwise have stalled are helped to proceed through the judicious use of investment. It has to try to maintain capacity in the construction and house building sectors. It has to ensure that the housing association movement can continue to develop when its traditional model, based on cross-subsidy from sales to rented housing, is no longer effectively workable. It has to ensure that a range of standards that make housing desirable continue to be met, even though the industry is increasingly resistant to meeting the high standards expected of it because of financial pressures.
The agency has a hugely difficult task, but we are lucky that it is there, and very lucky that it is led by an absolutely first-class team, headed by Sir Bob Kerslake. His colleagues on the agency’s senior management team are a very experienced and high-calibre group of people. I am delighted that we have their expertise to help us through extremely difficult times.
What is required is not sloganising or simplistic political debates, but a serious analysis of how we guide ourselves through difficult times, how we build as many homes as possible in these difficult circumstances, and above all, how we ensure that they meet the quality and sustainability objectives that we now understand are fundamental to good housing policy. For that reason, I do not believe that the Opposition’s motion merits support. I hope that it will be decisively rejected.
I declare my interest, as set out in the Register of Members’ Interests; I am the director of a building company and a property company, and have one or two other entries.
This is an interesting and important debate. Unemployment did not quite break the 2-million mark today, but many Members see people with housing problems in their surgeries. It is fairly clear that many of the people who come to see me time and again with great, long-term problems have difficulties that date from their being caught with negative equity in the early 1990s, when my party was in government. They have never quite recovered from the housing difficulties that they faced then.
The difficulty today, as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago, is the level of personal debt; mortgage debt is far higher. I fear that as unemployment rises, the consequences for individuals will be pretty severe. One welcomes any kind of assistance with mortgages, but the reality is that if somebody is out of work for any time, they will get into financial difficulty. If there are two people in a household who work, and one loses their job, the household does not necessarily qualify for mortgage help. The rules mean that those who are highly geared up, in particular, will face problems. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), our Front-Bench spokesman, the figures show an increase in the number of people on the waiting list for social housing. I think that in the next two or three years, there will be a large growth in those figures.
There was not much that I could disagree with in the speech of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford); it was a well-turned speech on housing policy. Numbers are not the only issue, although they are important. The difference between this country and the United States of America, which has surplus housing, is that longevity and divorce mean that there will be continued housing demand here in the long term. However, we must ensure quality housing, and we must manage our housing stock better. Financial or tax incentives to manage our housing stock better are necessarily far more productive than sallying forth with targets for 3 million homes.
We should bear it in mind that there are some 2 million empty flats over shops, and local authorities and social landlords still have quite a lot of void properties. There are far too many empty properties in the private sector, and a lot more could be done to use existing housing stock to house people. We have to consider the issue as a whole if we are to provide housing, that most basic requirement. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) mentioned the difference between the car industry and the housing industry. He was right; it is important that we house people, because the consequences of poor housing for families and children are substantial. I am on the Health Committee, which is looking into health inequalities, and the issue of housing tends to come up fairly regularly in relation to health inequalities. The issues are intricately linked.
In the brief time available to me, I would like to raise an issue that I mentioned in an intervention. We are fortunate in my area to have Poole Housing Partnership, an arm’s length management organisation. It does a very good job in providing housing for people. It is still within the housing revenue account system. This year, it is paying £3.4 million of negative subsidy—in other words, it pays that amount into the pot. Next year, it is expected to pay £4.5 million into the pot, which is about 20 per cent. of council rents. Our area has high housing costs, and we have a waiting list as a result. Social housing has to take the strain. Local people find it difficult to understand why, when they pay rent to Poole Housing Partnership, that money is recycled elsewhere and goes towards national public policies. It was pointed out in an intervention that if it is right to subsidise council rents, the subsidy should come from general taxation; it should not be other tenants who subsidise council rents. That is a powerful point.
We are heading towards the decent homes standard, which is good; I think that we are all in favour of that. However, many authorities and arm’s length management organisations will find it difficult to continue to maintain their houses at a decent standard if the sums that I have mentioned are to come out of their budgets. Poole Housing Partnership is worried that the current system may not be sustainable in the long term because of the sums that are taken out of the rents. Those sums could be spent on maintaining properties, reducing the number of void properties, and providing a real service.
I make a plea to the Minister. I know that the issue is under review, and that there are no magic bullets. I know that things are difficult, because if we ended the system, there would be complications and difficulties elsewhere, but my constituents, particularly those in council housing, find it difficult to understand why they are subsidising other parts of the country. They have a good arm’s length management organisation in Poole Housing Partnership; they will not forgive it if, in the long term, it has to become part of a bigger organisation because of the method of financing.
As we all know, housing is a basic service. It is important to our constituents. The point that my right hon. Friend made about the VAT reduction was valid. Given the situation in the building industry, the number of surplus building workers, and the fact that there is potential housing land on the market, the money could have been much better spent on a long-term objective that would meet the demand that many of our constituents want met.
I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), and I shall keep my comments short so that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) can contribute.
I shall speak about rural housing. Over the past five years alone, the proportion of rural households that form part of the national homelessness figure has more than doubled from 16 per cent. to 37 per cent. of the total. There are more than 700,000 people joining rural housing waiting lists. The rural housing time bomb is not ticking; it has gone off.
In Herefordshire, numbers on housing waiting lists have risen from 3,218 in October 2002 to 5,507 today, including 164 homeless households. There are just 10 to 15 housing association properties available each week. Young families are not only priced out of buying houses, but see themselves as just a number on a list. Without a gold band from Home Point, they have no chance of getting a house in my constituency.
I have heard appalling stories, the worst of which concerned a child molester who had been released from prison on early release. He had come back to the property in which he had lived before, which happened to be on the other side of the garden fence from his victim. To get that family out of that house took a considerable effort. I have no criticism of excellent local housing associations such as Marches, but when we see what such people are going through, our heart goes out to them. They face a very tough situation.
The targets being set do not contribute to solving those problems; in fact, they distort the communities that they are meant to help. Targets overwhelmingly dominate local planning. The wonderful section 106 solutions that could have been used to provide local housing for local people are put to one side, and we see people coming from outside my constituency who, in some cases, are even more desperate for housing. They are parachuted in, so all those well thought out ideas do not deliver the housing that we need.
In Bargates in Leominster, an old Army base that became a turkey factory now has planning permission for 440 new homes. That is a significant number in a town the size of Leominster, which has only 10,000 people. My fear is that not only have those building plans been put on hold, a point that the Liberal Democrats raised earlier, but there is no way in which those houses will be built in the current economic climate. Because it is a large scale development, nobody will be able to build the one or two houses that are urgently needed, so nothing is happening.
On top of that, Bargates in Leominster already has such a significant traffic problem that I suspect that even rural Herefordshire will fail to meet the European emissions standards for traffic fumes. That is equally relevant to the debate, because without the necessary infrastructure it will be impossible for people to live in the houses that are planned.
Hereford city contains the Edgar street grid, and we need to be far cleverer about the houses that we are building. The city desperately needs its inner core rebuilt, and the houses that are built must not be for just one sector of society. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) was right when he said that we must not have segregated societies. We need some housing of each type. We cannot expect a business to relocate to Hereford, for example, if the only person who can find a house is the managing director. Different types of housing are needed for different types of people, according to the money that they have to spend and according to the incomes that they expect to receive. We need a far broader and more localised solution to the problems facing us.
When I talk about local planning, I cannot help but mention the Reves hill wind farm that is being foisted upon us in probably the most beautiful part of the most beautiful county in the whole of England. I have no objection at all to renewable energy—indeed, I believe passionately in it, but it must be appropriately sited. I hear hon. Members on the Government Benches laughing, thinking that areas of outstanding natural beauty where there are severe restrictions on what can be built should immediately be turned into wind farms.
There are good places where wind farms are appropriate, but when one sees the number of objections, one realises that the Reves hill project is entirely inappropriate and does immense damage to all those who believe in renewable energy. How on earth will we persuade people that that is good technology that is needed if we dump it in places where it is wholly inappropriate and ruins a community? We must get this right. The balance is totally out of kilter and it is wrong. I hope the Government will listen to the letters that I have written to them and call in that decision, which is wholly against the wishes of the local people.
Those local people want housing. They want to see their villages grow to accommodate people who were born and brought up in the area, but, oh no, they are not allowed that. We must stop the centralised planning system that dumps huge scale housing in certain areas that does not get built, does not allow small scale development in small villages, which is desperately needed, and allows the mass desecration of exceptional countryside—I am sorry that Government Members laughed when I spoke about the wind farm—in a way that I do not believe the Government ever intended. I believe that their intentions were good when they considered ways of encouraging renewable energy, which, as I said, I support, but in this instance it is wholly and utterly wrong.
If we are to address the needs of people who live in the countryside, who want to live in their communities, and who have different needs according to their ages, we must have a far more intelligent approach to planning and to the way we build houses. I regret that of all the speeches that I heard from the Labour Benches, not one Member said that the £12 billion that was spent on a VAT cut should have been spent on housing. I listened to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) talking about Hammersmith and Fulham—I did not intervene on him because I did not want him to last any longer. He used to run that council, which kicked him out so severely that it is not surprising that his speech contained so many sour grapes. On an issue as important as planning, we must get it right for people who live in the countryside.
I understand that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) is visiting my constituency tomorrow. He will be welcome in the beautiful town of Colchester. I am delighted that he is coming to Essex. On an Opposition day, not one of the 13 Conservative Members representing Essex constituencies has bothered to turn up for a very important housing debate.
I rely on the hon. Gentleman to put that right. He will find an inspirational Liberal Democrat-led local authority whose housing policies in a very difficult time have won awards for their ways of trying to deal with the housing crisis and homelessness. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is going to the night shelter where those who are in desperate straits are accommodated, and he will find a town where we have the mayor’s project, the YMCA foyer, a women’s refuge and so on. What we do not have, unfortunately, is a house building programme such as we had 25 or 30 years ago.
It is important that we look back in order to learn the lessons so that we can go forward. It is to the credit of successive Labour and Conservative Governments in the middle 50 years of the 20th century, bypassing the war, that there was mass house building of family houses which meant that by 1980 there was no such thing as homeless people in my town. Families could be guaranteed a family home within six months of going on the waiting list. It is not good enough for the Government to try to blame the previous Government for the shortage of housing. If one looks back, one finds that the record shows that Conservative Governments built more council houses in towns, cities and villages than Labour Governments over that period.
There was a time when there was municipal pride—both Labour and Conservative—in providing housing for those in need. It might come as a bit of a surprise to the Minister to hear that one of the reasons I was driven out of the Labour party in 1981 was that I did not object to the principle of the sale of council houses, although I objected to the way it was rolled out with huge discounts. I find it quite astonishing that I was driven out of the Labour party because of my stance in support of those who wished to buy their home, only to find new Labour further to the right than the Conservative party of 30 years ago. I do not have any desire to return to Labour—certainly not as it is today.
Short of failing to defend the realm, the biggest sin of any Government is to fail to house their people. In my constituency, the number of names on the housing register is nudging 4,000, and more people are involved than those who are named. I am sure that in my constituency and in others there are empty dwellings. I want to see the Government and Opposition parties of the day trying to reach consensus on how we could look at the housing stock in its broadest sense and maximise its use. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), will have heard my intervention on the Minister for Housing. In my constituency the Government are responsible for more than 200 dwellings, and are paying rent on them, yet they are standing empty. That cannot be right. I am sure that there are other examples of empty dwellings around the country, some publicly owned but predominantly, I suspect, privately owned.
If the Government can fund an arguably illegal war in Iraq and can bail out the bankers, why can they not fund the housing sector, as suggested by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), so that housing can come through the system? Not only would that provide work for unemployed building workers and the supply industry—including those involved in fitting the property out with carpeting, furniture and so on—but, above all, it would provide decent family accommodation for hard-working families and their children. The Government have failed the children miserably when it comes to providing housing. If the children are not housed, a whole generation of dispossessed people is created.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) mentioned the new quango. My constituency—I cannot believe it is the only one—has about 100 acres of land zoned for housing, but nothing is happening. Why can the left hand of government and the right hand of government not come together, release that land and get unemployed building workers to build the houses to house those who are homeless? It strikes me that that is what government should be doing: government should be about considering the broader picture and it should be joined up. Housing should be provided for the Government’s people.
The Government have failed, but that is no surprise. I challenged the former Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the former Deputy Prime Minister when he was responsible for housing, and the Prime Minister on this point. I have been banging on about it for about 12 years. We can blame the last Conservative Government for their failures, but the Thatcher Government built considerably more council houses than this pathetic Government have done in 12 years.
Those are the facts and the numbers, but we can have the emotion, too. We are all housed. If we are running our advice bureaux and surgeries properly, we all know from the people who come through our front door, seeking our help, that there is a shortage of housing. If a post-war Labour Government—a real Labour Government—could build housing for homeless people in need in the aftermath of war, why, after 12 years of new Labour, do we have a housing crisis that is the worst we have had in 100 years?
Today’s debate has been interesting and important. The consequences of the problem of housing waiting lists reach far beyond the lists themselves; the reality is that there is all too often a human and negative impact on a whole range of affected families and communities. I am thinking of problems of education and health inequality, family problems and even crime. We all see such issues in our constituencies; every single week as a London MP, I see constituents in my surgery who face them. We know that, more often than not, a housing issue is at the heart of many of the social problems on our streets and in our homes.
Housing troubles are not the sole cause of society’s problems, of course. However, we need to consider the impact on us as a nation of the increased waiting lists that we have seen, certainly in the past 10 to 12 years. Some 1.8 million people are now waiting for social housing in Britain, and they are desperate to get a home. As we have heard today, a growing number of people are homeless—they do not have a home at all. Yet Government statistics are changed and goalposts are moved to make the situation look better than it is. The situation is dire. We all recognise that we cannot fix the problems overnight, but many in the House are concerned that the Government have gone backwards; they certainly have not fixed the problems in the 12 years they have been in power.
There have been a number of passionate and interesting contributions from Members across the House. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who is no longer in his seat, is a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee. He talked of his experience in Sheffield and the need for more flexibility in the management of housing stock as well as the need for more social housing. He was followed by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), also a member of the Select Committee She talked, perhaps more honestly, about the Committee’s concerns and what she called the “damning indictment” in its recent report. She expressed her own view, saying that we need to consider very grass-roots issues, including the capability of planning officers up and down the country. We need to make sure that they can get through the developments that communities want.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said that the debate should not come down to numbers, but there is no doubt that the numbers tell the story. As the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) just said, it has been this Government who have dropped the ball on social housing and who, year after year, have created less social housing than the previous Conservative Government did. If social housing had been created at the same rate, nearly 250,000 more social houses would have been built under the Labour Government. That fact is hard to deny. There is a desperate need for housing, but at the same time, as we have heard, there are plans to demolish 400,000 homes in the north of England. That suggests that the Government have no practical housing strategy that will make a difference to the very people who most need one.
One of this afternoon’s finest speeches was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and it followed an unfortunately vitriolic speech from the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter). My right hon. Friend put forward a more reasoned view about the right to buy. As he pointed out, that gave millions of people the chance to buy a home and fulfil the dream of home ownership; without the right to buy, they could never have done that.
Under this Government, the right to buy has been consistently reduced and trimmed back, so that current sales on that basis fell to just 15,000 in 2007-08. Many Government Members criticised the right to buy, yet their own Government have not got rid of it. Nevertheless, they seem to want it to wither on the vine. That is unfortunate, because a report by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, just a few years ago, stated that the right to buy was one of the most successful housing policies because it enabled many households to become owner-occupiers who would otherwise not have been able to do so. The Government’s own reports say that it was a successful policy, yet they are not maintaining it. Of course, they have brought forward other schemes such as social homebuy and shared ownerships, but those are all falling well short of the 120,000 sales target that the Government set themselves. So we have a restriction of the right to buy and a restriction in the operation of alternatives whereby people could start to share in the ownership of their home and see a route to owning their own home. Overall, it is a failing policy.
Let us not forget that many people face severe overcrowding in their homes. In London, 98,000 families are living in overcrowded properties, and it is often children who are at the sharp end of that. They must find it like trying to study for their GCSEs on the tube in terms of the amount of privacy and peace that they get. That is the sharp end of this Government’s failure to invest in and to create social housing at the levels of the previous Government.
We have also talked about homelessness. Perhaps the people who have suffered most of all are those who do not have a home. We do not even know the exact numbers, but charities such as Crisis estimate that the total number of hidden homeless people may be up to 400,000.
I will try not to be horrid to the hon. Lady, but what would she say to local authorities who regularly send back millions of pounds of unwanted social housing grant to the Housing Corporation, as it was—the Homes and Communities Agency, as it is now—because they do not wish to build the very houses that she is saying should be built?
I am interested by the hon. Gentleman’s comment. In his time on Hammersmith and Fulham council, to which he is referring, the waiting lists went up. He should ask his question not of me but of his own Ministers. Given the concerns about housing that most Government Members expressed, one would have thought that they were in opposition, yet it is their own Government who have, for more than a decade, presided over a decline in social housing the like of which we have not seen for 30 to 40 years. If we had had over the past 12 years the same level of social home building that we saw under the last Conservative Government, there would be 250,000 more social housing units for people to live in..
What today’s debate has shown, if nothing else, is that ultimately everybody starts from somewhere. Everybody in this country looks to the future and to what they can achieve not only for themselves but for their children, and they want something better. As an individual, as a community, as a country, we all aim for better lives for ourselves and our children, and often at the heart of this hope for the future is an aspiration to own one’s own home. For many families, that is the building block of their family life, but it is a building block that this Government appear not to value. That is demonstrated by what we have heard today about the decline in social house building over the past 12 years.
Owning one’s home is perhaps not a right, but it should certainly be a choice. Unfortunately, over the past decade, under this Government, it has become a choice that has been increasingly denied to more and more people. Labour MPs ought to be asking their own Ministers why they have failed. What we need to kick-start the housing market is a general election. That would be the best way to start dealing with some of the challenges that we all see in our surgeries, to get our housing market back on track, to get social house building back on track and to get waiting lists back down.
I start by welcoming the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) to her Front-Bench team and the Communities and Local Government brief. It is the first time that we have debated, and I wish her well. I disagreed with about 98 per cent. of what she said—[Interruption.] I will say what the 2 per cent. remaining is shortly. I agree with her that this has been an important debate, as befits the significance of housing. I also agree with her that it is difficult to think of a single other topic that incorporates feelings of safety, security and well-being, community cohesion, health chances, life expectancy, economic prosperity and environmental concerns, but housing does precisely that. That is why the debate has been important and invaluable.
We have heard about the Belgrano, Iraq and Disraeli, and when I woke up this morning, I did not think that we would be debating those subjects. I did think that we would be debating shallow, superficial arguments from the Opposition, which is what we have heard today. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing analysed the argument of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and systematically and methodically demolished it. She effectively exposed the holes in his argument, as well as the holes that were in the roofs of council houses when we took power.
The hon. Gentleman was quite astonishing. He was so vague about what a future Conservative Administration would do, and on what “incentives” meant, as to be virtually incoherent. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) had him on the ropes after a challenging intervention, and the hon. Gentleman simply could not respond. I ask him again: what does he mean by incentives? Will they be financial incentives? Will he match the unprecedented £8.4 billion that was provided by the Government for the supply and provision of affordable housing over the comprehensive spending review period of 2008 to 2011? What does he think of the £510 million that we have provided for the housing, planning and delivery grant? In a previous debate, he saw that as a bribe; I see it as an incentive. I do not understand where he is coming from on that.
The hon. Gentleman says that local authorities should be doing more, but he provided no alternative answers. More than that, however, what really struck me about his comments and those of the hon. Lady was the sheer gall—the breathtaking audacity of their comments. When in power, their party presided over a housing policy that was characterised by neglect, disrepair and underinvestment. The legacy left by the Conservative Administration was downright disgraceful. My hon. Friend brought to the debate his considerable expertise and knowledge as chair of Sheffield council’s housing committee in the 1980s. He rightly mentioned the negative nature of our inheritance in 1997, and the sheer scale of what we had to do.
The hon. Lady said that we all start from somewhere—a very profound statement—but where we started from in 1997 was appalling disrepair and underinvestment. Quite rightly, the Labour Government had to address and put right the enormous repairs and maintenance backlog that we saw after 18 years of Tory Government.
Actually, that brings me to a point that I wanted to make in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) about the fixation on numbers, whether in the case of waiting lists or otherwise. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the enormous contribution that he made to the decent homes standard, which gave us the ability to take a whole generation of poorly housed council tenants out of poverty and substandard housing. Some of the dwellings that were built after 1979 were, frankly, of a shocking quality. They were absolutely disgraceful and unfit for human habitation. We had to deal with the poor quality of fittings such as bathrooms and kitchens and the poor building quality of dwellings, as the 1996 English house condition survey showed vividly. We had to repair what the Tories failed to repair and put right what they had done. There had been a decade or more of neglect and underinvestment, and they should be thoroughly ashamed.
This is an important point. There has been a gross imbalance between the demand for and supply of housing. Kate Barker said in her review that 223,000 new households were formed each year. The target of 3 million homes by 2020 is backed by empirical evidence. It is not a figure that has been plucked from the air but as the result of long-term social demographics. People are living longer, thanks to the recovery of the NHS under this Government. More people are living on their own and need to be housed. I suggest that rather than be fixated on the figures, we should consider the underlying causes. I shall come later to rough sleeping, in which I know the hon. Gentleman has a particular interest.
I am grateful to the Minister. He knows that I am very fond of him and of Hartlepool, and that when I was a Minister, we spent a great deal of money on Hartlepool. One problem that we had when I was a Housing Minister was that the councils in the north-east of England, which were all run by Labour, did not know who were the tenants in a quarter of their council houses. People could go to Nigeria and buy the key to a council flat in the north-east.
I expected better of a distinguished Member. The fact remains that, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said, we inherited a backlog of repairs and maintenance estimated at £19 billion. Half a million more dwellings were classed as unfit between 1991 and 1996—a symptom of neglect, decay and a lack of care. Britain became the object of shame throughout the world as the number of people living on the streets and in doorways in the capital and elsewhere rose by thousands. As the hon. Lady said, we all have to start somewhere, and that was where we started. That was our inheritance, and we had to deal with it.
The Government have invested more than £29 billion since 1997, having taken a definite and correct decision to rebuild the fabric of our appallingly maintained housing stock, with a target of bringing all social housing up to a decent standard. More than £40 billion will have been invested by the end of 2010. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and others who have participated in that process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) made what I thought was a measured speech. He is a real champion of affordable housing, and he made an important point about the rigour of housing waiting lists, saying that we should not be fixated on them. There is undoubtedly a housing problem that we need to do something about, and this Government are investing substantial and unprecedented resources to do that. However, I could go on to a housing waiting list in Hammersmith and Fulham and one in Hartlepool, so there can be an element of duplication. My hon. Friend rightly said that we needed to focus on temporary accommodation and homelessness acceptances to tackle urgent need. We have achieved genuine success with that.
The number of households in temporary accommodation stabilised in September 2004 and has been reducing since the fourth quarter of 2005. Current statistics show a reduction of 13 per cent. in September 2008 compared with the same date the previous year, and figures have fallen below 75,000 for the first time.
Homelessness acceptances have reduced steadily since late 2003, following the effective homelessness prevention work that housing authorities and their delivery partners have undertaken. That is a key point. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield was kind enough to mention the rough sleeping strategy that I launched in November. It has three Ps. First, we need partnership working— working together to ensure that we do something to end the scandal of rough sleeping. Secondly, we need prevention—we must put resources up front so that we do not have to deal reactively with rough sleeping. Thirdly, we need personalised services—we must tailor services to the needs of the individual rather than having a blanket, one-size-fits-all system.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is worried about rough sleeper counts, which he has mentioned on several occasions. I hope that he will join me in celebrating the enormous success of the rough sleeping strategy in the past 10 years. We have never professed that rough sleeper counts provided a bed for everyone who sleeps rough on a specific night. However, they provide a snapshot, and I am keen to make it clear in the new rough sleeping strategy that annual figures are not estimates of all those who sleep rough in the country. I want to focus resources on the street need audit because I want the rough sleeper count to be perceived as the beginning, not the end of the process, and not only to offer an opportunity to identify need, but, more important, to act as a call to arms.
The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) made a witty and perceptive speech. She mentioned the slashing of the Housing Corporation’s budget and the catalogue of disrepair under the previous Administration. She is right about both points. I agree with much of what she said, but I temper that by saying that I would like more consistency from her party. Her warm words in the Chamber were welcome, and we should celebrate them. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe said, when Liberal Democrats run things, it is a different story. Durham city is ably represented here by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), but the Liberal Democrats there were shambolic. Good, honest people were let down by Liberal Democrat councils in the City of Durham and elsewhere. I should therefore like more consistency from the Liberal Democrats.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made an entertaining contribution, in which he mentioned the role of councils—a theme that has run throughout this afternoon’s debate. Local authorities have always had a key role in assessing the housing needs of their area. We want to increase that so that, as well as playing an important strategic role, they have a direct delivery role. The Prime Minister has been firm about the matter. We want to remove some of the disincentives that have been established in the past 30 years so that we can provide a direct delivery role. I therefore hope that hon. Members from all parties will work with us to achieve that. The consultation paper about allowing councils to build was issued on 21 January and I urge hon. Members to look at it.
The key theme of the debate is the alternatives that the Opposition propose. I have waited throughout our discussion for a credible alternative from Conservative Members. The hon. Lady and my hon. Friends suggested alternatives. I wanted to hear from the Conservative party a substantial policy that moved away from party political point scoring and towards addressing the concerns of the people of this country. How will Conservative Members deal with the housing waiting lists? How will they tackle the long-standing imbalance between supply and demand for housing? How will they stimulate the construction industry and help the economy by building the homes we desperately need? How will they address the worldwide lack of credit and subsequent drying up of mortgages? How will they improve the quality and design of the housing stock? How will they make the housing stock greener by ensuring that existing homes are made energy efficient and that new homes minimise damage to the environment?
We had it confirmed in today’s debate that the Tories’ housing policy is this and this alone: they will provide incentives. What an astounding abdication of responsible opposition. What planet are they on? Who do they purport to represent? It is certainly not the decent and hard-working young families of this country who are concerned about housing and who want high-quality, affordable and well-designed homes and communities in which to bring up their children.
The Opposition seem removed from the concerns of real life. The Conservatives have no credible alternative and they will do nothing. In contrast, we are providing unprecedented sums of investment and we are working night and day to address the concerns of families in these difficult times. We will continue to provide real help now—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Question put accordingly (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House notes that the Government is investing over £8 billion between 2008 and 2011 to increase the supply of social and affordable housing, has invested over £29 billion since 1997 to bring social housing up to a decent standard and has made £205 million available for a mortgage rescue scheme to support the most vulnerable home owners facing repossession so they can remain in their home; further notes that there has been a 74 per cent. reduction in rough sleeping since 1998, that the long term use of bed and breakfast accommodation as temporary accommodation for families provided under the homelessness legislation has ended and that since 2003 the number of people who have been accepted as owed a main duty under the homelessness legislation has reduced by 60 per cent.; further notes that the Government has helped more than 110,000 households into low cost home ownership since 2001; believes that the introduction of enhanced housing options services provides tailored housing advice reflecting a household’s individual circumstances while choice-based lettings schemes give social housing applicants greater choice over where they want to live; and further believes that the Government has taken measures to make best use of the social housing stock such as tackling overcrowding and under-occupation.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you tell the House whether you have received representations from the Leader of the Opposition, wishing to correct the comments that he made about Titian? Or is it enough, in this modern technological age, for his staff simply to alter Wikipedia?
The right hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member of the House, knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair; but his comments are on the record. [Interruption.] Order. Will Members who are not staying for the next debate please leave the Chamber as quickly and quietly as possible?