Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
When the Government introduced the hated bedroom tax, the headline in the Nottingham Post was, “Nowhere to go”. It was spot on, of course. Thanks to the Government’s dismal record on affordable housing, thousands of people are being forced out of their homes or into poverty by the cruel and ill conceived bedroom tax, and millions of people cannot buy the homes they want, or find decent-quality affordable or social homes at all. I do not claim that the shortage of high-quality affordable housing started in 2010, but the Government’s policies have made the situation worse, not better.
Let me begin by setting out how the Government got it so wrong. Their first decision on taking office was to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%, leading to a collapse in affordable house building, and they consistently watered down affordable housing requirements on developers. The Prime Minister rushed out the latest proposals this week in a desperate bid to appeal to first-time buyers, but as Gavin Smart, interim chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said, the Tory plan
“smacks of building for one group of people at the expense of another.”
As usual with the Government, those on lower incomes are set to lose out, but that should not be a surprise. In London, where the housing crisis is at its most severe, the Mayor has, in his London plan, banned Labour councils from insisting on building genuine social homes through section 106 agreements, against the guidance of the planning inspector but with the approval of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Even developers have warned of the dangers of weakening the affordable homes requirements; the Westminster Property Association described the idea as “deeply flawed”.
My constituency was one of the first hit by the Government’s cuts, when a £200 million redevelopment of the Meadows, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, was scrapped. Nottingham city council had been working closely with local residents for three years to devise the plans to transform their estate by demolishing unsuitable and unpopular properties and replacing them with new homes to meet existing and future need, including extra care homes for elderly tenants. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), promised to visit the area to see for himself the issues left unaddressed, but that was just another broken promise.
If the Government are allowed to continue, we could sadly see the demise of genuinely affordable social housing. Their affordable rent model is anything but affordable to families on low incomes, and it is pushing up housing benefit bills in the long term. The number of affordable homes provided last year fell to its lowest level in nine years, and was 26% below the 2009-10 level. The number of homes built for social rent is at its lowest level for at least 20 years, and is falling.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is primarily driven not by finance but by ideology? Leaving social tenants in insecure properties, raising their rents, failing to invest in properties and failing to accommodate people on the basis of need—all that comes from policies, many of them dreamed up by the previous council in Hammersmith and Fulham. Is that not a deplorable way to treat people in housing need in the 21st century?
My hon. Friend is right. The Government seem to have no interest in the idea of social homes.
Crisis noted that in England last year, just 7,458 affordable and social rented homes were completed, compared with 9,026 in the previous year. Let us judge the Government by their own standards. In 2010, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, then Housing Minister, told the Communities and Local Government Committee that building more homes than Labour
“is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.”
Given that the Government have presided over the lowest levels of house building in peacetime since the 1920s, I suggest that they will be found wanting. House building in every year under this Government has been lower than in any year under Labour. There were 118,000 home completions last year; we are building fewer than half the homes needed to keep pace with demand.
Affordable housing is not just an issue for tenants, although I will return to the issues faced by those renting their home later. Many of my constituents want to own their own home, but if they think that the Tory party will help them to achieve their dreams, they will be sorely disappointed. Home ownership is at its lowest level for 30 years, and there are now 205,000 fewer home owners than there were at the previous election. To put it another way, in 2009-10, 67.4% of households owned their own home, compared with 63.3% now. For the first time, home ownership in the UK is below the European Union average for the pre-accession 15 countries. The number of people with a mortgage has declined, and is now lower, for the first time in more than 30 years, than the number of households living mortgage-free. Rising house prices and the requirement for larger deposits, in combination with low wages and insecure employment, is pushing home ownership out of the reach of many people. The National Housing Federation’s report, “Broken Market, Broken Dreams”, shows that with the average house price in England having risen to more than £250,000, the average first-time buyer needs to find a deposit of £30,000—almost 10 times as much as was needed by those buying a house in the early 1980s, or when I bought my first house in Nottingham 21 years ago.
Two thirds of first-time buyers rely on financial help from their parents, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. It is easy to see the disproportionate impact on those from poorer families. In the past, they may have been able to get on the housing ladder; now, they could be locked out of home ownership for ever. For the sake of the next generation, we need to tackle the housing crisis, and the Government’s plans are simply not up to the task. Their schemes have not helped anywhere near the number they claimed they would. The Prime Minister claimed that New Buy would help 100,000 on to the property ladder, but it has actually helped less than 6% of that target.
It is questionable whether a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate. Local housing market conditions and local demographics are important factors, and there is huge variation between and within regions. In Nottingham, average house price are well below the national median, although so are wages, and we do not suffer the problems found in London and the south-east, where there are large numbers of buy-to-let, or buy-to-leave-empty, investors.
Help to Buy has not been taken up in large numbers because those on middle incomes have alternatives, so it is those on lower incomes who are still missing out. In contrast, right to buy has increased significantly since the higher discounts were introduced in April 2012. It benefits those who are able to participate, but makes life even more difficult for those struggling to find somewhere to live. Ministers promised at the time that the additional homes sold would be replaced one for one, but that simply has not happened.
Across the country, more than 26,000 social homes have been sold in the past three years, but according to the Department’s own figures, only 2,298 homes were started by councils between April 2012 and September 2014. This month’s Inside Housing reveals that the Department’s original claim of 4,795 had to be revised down after it was challenged by the Chartered Institute of Housing. Even the most recent figures from December take the number of starts only to a total of 2,712. A further 3,285 homes were sold between October and December, up 15% on the previous quarter. The problem is getting worse, not better.
With their route to home ownership blocked, more and more people are living with their parents into their 20s and 30s, and only 36% of 25 to 34-year-olds now own their own home. With the social housing stock being depleted, it is no surprise that the proportion of young people renting in the private sector has risen to 48%. Overall, a record 11 million people—one in five of the population—are now living in the private rented sector. That is an increase of 2.5 million since 2010, and it includes 1.5 million families with children.
Rents rose across England by an average of 8% last year, according to the English housing survey. That has not only had an impact on household incomes, although rising rents are undoubtedly contributing to the cost of living crisis for many families. It goes to the heart of the Government’s failure to reduce the housing benefit bill, as more people—particularly working people—are forced to rely on state support to rent in the private sector.
Although rents in Nottingham have not risen as rapidly as in other parts of the country, there has nevertheless been a dramatic increase in the cost of subsidising private sector rents. In 2009-10, local housing allowance payments totalled £22.5 million. By 2013-14, that figure had risen to £41.6 million—a staggering 85% rise. More people are using the private rented sector, and they need financial help to do so.
Of course, for many people in our city, the private rented sector is not a positive choice. With more than 10,000 households on the waiting list for social housing, the private rented sector is simply the only option available. Nottingham still has a larger-than-average social housing stock, and possibly as a consequence, a larger proportion of the population want to live in a council or housing association home. However, demand outstrips supply. The problem is particularly acute in some parts of the city, such as Clifton, where there is a high demand for social housing and a large number of social homes have been lost as a result of tenants exercising their right to buy.
For families with children, the lack of long-term certainty about their housing is a particular worry. For working parents who have settled their children into local schools, built up support networks and got child care arrangements in place, six-month tenancies and the possibility of significant rent rises do not offer the stability and certainty that they need.
The difficulties have been exacerbated by the bedroom tax, which affects more than 3,000 households living in Nottingham’s council-owned social housing and hundreds more in housing association homes. The policy penalises poorer households, who are forced to cut back on essential items to pay their rent, go into debt or build up arrears that put the future of their tenancy at risk. Some, who genuinely have rooms to spare, would be prepared to downsize to escape this iniquitous measure, but there simply are not the homes to move into, with an acute shortage of smaller properties in some areas, particularly two-bedroom houses.
As the Post predicted, some people are left with nowhere to go. According to “The homelessness monitor”—independent research commissioned by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation—the combination of a lack of affordable homes, the recession and cuts to social security has led to substantial rises in homelessness in recent years. Department for Communities and Local Government statistics show that in 2014, over 111,000 people in England made an application to their council to state that they were homeless—an increase of 26% in four years—and “The homelessness monitor” found that the true figure was even higher than the statutory figures indicate. Rough sleeping has become noticeably worse, rising 55% in the last four years and by 79% in London.
Once people are homeless, the lack of affordable homes is keeping them trapped. It is increasingly difficult to access hostel accommodation, because there is a lack of affordable rented properties for current occupants to move into. Even for those tenants who choose to live in private rented housing—for many students in Nottingham, that is the case—there are real concerns about quality and suitability. Student unions at the university of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent university and New College Nottingham recently published their “Notts Student Manifesto 2015”. In it, they identified student housing among their top-four priorities,
“with rogue landlords and poor conditions a threat to wellbeing.”
Problems highlighted range from a failure to meet basic safety standards to poor maintenance and issues relating to personal safety and security. International students reported particular concerns.
Of course, positive initiatives in the sector have been put in place since 1997; I particularly highlight action to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. Statutory homelessness fell by 70% under Labour, from 135,000 in 2003-04 to 40,000 in 2009-10. We also took action to improve housing standards. Having inherited a £19 billion repairs backlog, we brought 1.5 million social homes up to a decent standard through the decent homes programme, including by fitting over 700,000 new kitchens, 525,000 new bathrooms and over 1 million new central heating systems at a cost of £33 billion.
Locally, Nottingham’s arm’s length management organisation, Nottingham City Homes, is celebrating its 10th year, and I am proud that tenants are more satisfied than ever with the quality of their home, value for money and the repairs and maintenance service. Over the last decade, the proportion of non-decent council homes in Nottingham has fallen from 44% to around 2.6%, and with work still being carried out to improve the stock—more than 26,000 homes—that figure could be close to zero within weeks.
I have spoken before in the House about the difference that the decent homes work has made to the lives of the people I represent, and I pay particular tribute to the tenants and leaseholders who, in 2010, took their campaign to the front door of Downing street to secure continued funding for that vital work, which has improved the health and well-being of thousands of families in our city.
Nottingham City Homes and Nottingham city council have also led the way in improving the energy efficiency of homes in our city. Again, I have spoken many times about the greener housing scheme; despite the Government’s energy policy changes, which threaten to wreck our plans, that scheme has already delivered solid-wall insulation to thousands of families in Nottingham across all tenures, cutting fuel bills, providing warm and comfortable homes for residents and improving the appearance of our estates.
I am delighted that Nottingham city council and Nottingham City Homes are building new homes and replacing some of the less popular and difficult-to-maintain stock, as the shadow Minister has seen for herself. Some 166 homes have already been completed, and there are plans for a further 327. Small disused sites, such as derelict garages, have provided opportunities for redevelopment, and some of these homes, including five on Eddleston drive in Clifton, were built using NCH’s own labour force, boosting local employment and providing apprenticeships. Housing associations, including Nottingham Community Housing Association, asra Housing Group and Derwent Living, have also built new houses, mainly on sites provided by the council, but we could do so much more if we had a Labour Government with a real plan to tackle the housing crisis. That is the choice that voters can make in 64 days’ time.
Labour has endorsed the comprehensive plan set out by Sir Michael Lyons’ housing review, the first of its kind in a generation. It sets out how we will meet our commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, and sets a course for doubling the number of first-time buyers by 2025.
We will give local authorities the powers and resources to build the homes that their communities need, ensuring that all councils produce a plan for home building in their area and allocate sufficient land for development to meet the needs of local people. We will provide powers for groups of local authorities to collaborate and form Olympic-style new homes corporations to build on designated land at pace. We will implement measures to drive competition in the house building industry, increase capacity and expand the number of small firms. We will introduce a help-to-build scheme to underwrite loans to small builders to get them building again and fast-track planning on small sites. We will set out Treasury guarantees and financial incentives to unlock sustainable garden city development, and we will give local areas real powers to deliver garden cities through garden city development corporations, based on updated new towns legislation.
Labour councils are already building twice as many affordable homes as Tory-run authorities. A Labour Government will make housing a bigger priority for capital investment in the next Parliament.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware, through her connection with Nottinghamshire, that the Conservative-controlled Newark and Sherwood district council has built a number of properties in Ollerton and Edwinstowe. In fact, on Friday, I will cut the ribbon in Bilsthorpe on some new properties that have been developed through Newark and Sherwood Homes.
I welcome any new developments of that sort, but things could be so much better. We will make better use of existing resources through a move to single-pot funding, and by refocusing public expenditure on house building over time, going from benefits to bricks. We will make fuller use of provision for Government guarantees, including for social housing, and encourage more innovative use of public land. We will also introduce a stronger definition of affordable housing in the planning system and tougher rules for assessing the viability on housing developments. We will reverse the Government’s changes, which have watered down affordable homes obligations.
We will also introduce a fairer deal for private renters. We will give tenants in the private rented sector security and peace of mind by legislating for three-year tenancies, giving them a stable home and landlords the confidence to invest. We will end excessive rent increases and ban rip-off letting agent fees for tenants. We will drive up standards by introducing a national register of landlords, and make it easier for local authorities to introduce licensing schemes. We will bring an end to cold homes by setting a new target to upgrade the energy efficiency of properties in the private rented sector, and, of course, we will scrap the hated bedroom tax. With just 64 days to go, those vital changes to our broken housing market cannot come soon enough.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am an adviser to Essential Living.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing the debate. Ensuring that people can afford to live in a decent home is one of the top issues for many of our constituents, and rightly so. Despite the suggestion that all the evils in housing started in May 2010, the reality is that our housing markets have been dysfunctional for more than 25 years, so we have built far too few homes, rents and prices have risen, and thus we have this issue of affordability. That means that when the current Government came to power in 2010, they inherited a real mess. For my money, the classic illustration of that is the loss of some 420,000 affordable homes under the last Labour Administration.
Since 2010, good progress has been made, so during this Parliament we should see the fall in the number of affordable homes reversed and an increase of some 170,000. Just as importantly—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to refer to this—the Government are now seeking to accelerate the increase in the number of affordable homes so that in just a three-year period we should see 165,000 additional affordable homes being built. That would, I think, represent the fastest rate of building in this sector for 25 years.
The hon. Gentleman is rightly focusing on the idea of affordability. Can he help us by giving his definition of affordability? Does he agree with the Mayor of London’s definition of affordability, which is that 80% of market rent is affordable, or does he agree with me that that is simply nonsense?
It actually relates to the ratio depending on where someone lives and what their wages are. One problem for our constituents is that we talk about affordable housing with a capital A—the Affordable Housing programme—but most of them think about it with a small a, in terms of mortgage costs or rents, so we need to be very careful not to get caught in artificial terminology.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said about building thousands more homes, including this week’s announcements on starter homes. That builds on a programme that I was able to start, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which has helped some 77,000 people. However, much more can be done, and I would like to make three suggestions. I suspect that colleagues will want to consider issues such as section 106 and planning gain, which I think is an area ripe for improvement and reform, but let me touch now on three other things.
First, we will get a sustained increase in the number of affordable homes built only if we focus on delivering a long-term framework for investment. When I took on the role of Minister for Housing in 2012, housing associations rightly complained to me that the rental and capital policies of Governments of all political persuasions had always been short term. They might be for two years, or there might be an understanding of what the policy framework would be for three years, but housing associations argued that a long-term approach was needed if development was to increase and then be sustained. That is why I pushed for and, I am pleased to say, secured both a 10-year rental policy and long-term housing guarantees from the Treasury to underpin the investment. That means that rental policy is now set all the way through to 2025, and that gives the housing associations and their lenders the confidence to build more and for longer.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I completely agree with the point that he has just made, and wonder whether he could extend the same logic to councils. As a result of our self-financing initiative, councils can now start to look forward and build more homes. Does he agree that we need to give them long-term opportunities to borrow more money, perhaps by lifting some of the caps placed on them, so that they can plan well into the future for more council-built houses, too?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which is that we need everyone, in both the public and the private sectors, to engage and that will mean that we need to consider greater flexibility for local authorities. I will come on to that later if I can.
With regard to housing associations, now that we have the long-term framework, we need to hold them to their commitment. Many are performing well, but some are not. I hope that I may encourage the Minister to challenge those housing associations that could and should be building many more homes. I will also encourage the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), should she cross the Chamber and take office in May—heaven forfend, from my point of point—not to tinker and meddle with that long-term rental programme, because the result of that would be inconsistency in policy. It would take everyone’s eye away from delivering actual homes for our constituents. As politicians, we have a habit of wanting to tinker and meddle, but consistency is important.
My hon. Friend has made a valid point about working with housing associations. Does he agree that councils need to work closely with housing associations to identify sites for affordable housing? The Together Housing Group, which includes Housing Pendle, has recently rescued an abandoned development of 21 homes on Knotts lane in Colne. That development was left partially built a number of years ago, when the previous developer went into liquidation. Now, that housing association, by working with the council, has been able to rescue the development and provide much-needed affordable family homes for the local community.
My hon. Friend is a brilliant campaigner on this issue in Pendle. When I was the Minister for Housing, I had the chance to go and see the work that he does. He is absolutely right: we need the collaborative approach, across the sectors and between the different agencies, if we are to get the building of these homes unlocked.
I have spoken about the need for a long-term rental policy for housing associations. My second point is that we need to match that with a long-term commitment to sustained supply for all housing tenures. I recently had the chance to co-chair—with the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), who was himself a very capable construction Minister under the previous Administration—a housing commission sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group. That commission brought together an outstanding group of public and private sector experts, who were crystal clear about the key issue. The report states:
“We believe that only a long-term commitment, across the political parties, will deliver the additional homes needed over the next decade. A realistic target is to complete 2 million to 2.5 million homes by 2025. To achieve this there is no single solution, no silver bullet. Rather what is needed is a larger, more competitive and diverse market in the supply of homes.”
As the report rightly says, we must not only expand the house building and private rented sector, but encourage housing associations and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) pointed out, local authorities to contribute more. We need not only the larger contractors, which the hon. Member for Nottingham South mentioned, but more small builders and, indeed, self-building. In addition to more homes for sale, a new professional private rented sector needs to develop. We will need not only to regenerate urban areas but to establish completely new settlements as part of a long-term comprehensive approach.
On that note, I very much welcome the Minister’s statement to the House yesterday on Ebbsfleet. He is making excellent progress on that; I remember the tensions and challenges of dealing with it. That, together with the potential in Bicester and elsewhere, is really good progress. Together—not individually but together—all these different elements can give us a sustained increase in housing supply, an increase not for one year or two years, but over a decade or more.
That brings me to my third and last point, which was a key finding in the housing commission’s report. We need to turn idle public land into affordable family homes. Government, in all its forms, owns a lot of buildings and land that are either underused or, frankly, completely idle.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it would have behoved the Mayor of London to sell off for that very purpose the fire stations that he has been selling? My local one has been sold for £28 million to an as yet unannounced but no doubt private developer.
I am not an expert on the hon. Lady’s constituency, so it would be wiser for me not to wade into that particular parish, but the Mayor is very clear about raising the number of homes built and he has been crystal clear about ensuring that we get land brought into use. The Government have established an effective register within Whitehall, but it has always proved difficult to turn that register into actual homes. The prize is great, as we discover if we talk and listen to some of the people who have analysed this. Savills, for example, estimates that up to 2 million homes could be built on publicly owned land. I welcome the recent announcements by Ministers about engaging the Homes and Communities Agency to drive that forward, and I commend Ministers’ efforts in releasing land, which should result in the building of up to 100,000 homes over this Parliament.
I contend that more can be done, however, and I suggest that we need to overhaul Treasury rules that guide public asset sales in this field. The strict application of best value rules works against long-term development partnership, and it means that we fail to use public assets to provide homes that people can afford. Instead, we need to incentivise Government Departments, agencies, NHS trusts and local authorities to become long-term development partners and to use public assets to deliver homes that are affordable to many more people. There are some good signs, and I draw the Chamber’s attention to the fact that the Ministry of Defence, which is often criticised in that regard, has managed to secure a sensible long-term programme in Aldershot.
More can be done, however. I encourage the Minister, although I suspect that he does not need much encouragement, to be ambitious in this field and to encourage his colleagues across Whitehall to do likewise. Alongside that, I would like other long-term owners of land—such as our universities, which are substantial landowners, many of the large private landowners and many of our large pension funds—to be able to work in a new legal and tax framework that actively encourages them to develop communities for all and, more importantly, homes that most people can afford.
Of all the problems that will face the next Government after May, meeting our country’s housing needs will probably be one of the greatest challenges. Many of the concerns that will be raised in this debate and others are symptoms of the wider problem—dysfunctional housing markets, which have meant that for 25 years or more, we have been building roughly half the homes we need, year in, year out. To break that long-term cycle, we need a long-term commitment across the parties to create a larger, more diverse and more competitive market in the supply of homes. There are no quick answers and no easy solutions, but if we create a consistent, long-term policy framework, we can build the homes that our constituents need.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this debate on a topic that is important not only for my constituents but for people in the rest of the country. May I also declare an interest? I still own my late mother’s flat, and we have been renting it out to the same tenant since she died.
Many people misunderstand my constituency. It is in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, and 40% of my constituents live in social housing. We have a great mixture of people. The very rich, the very poor and people from all over the world rub shoulders. I have the smallest amount of green space of any constituency in the country. We all live on top of one another, and we quite like it that way. However, the housing crisis is fundamentally changing the nature of my constituency. The average house price in the UK is an outrageous £188,000, which makes it impossibly difficult for the average person to buy these days, but the average price of a house in my constituency is £665,275. Tomorrow, I will see some 12-year-old children at one of my local schools. They were born and brought up in Islington, and they are ambitious and looking forward to life. How on earth will any of them still be able to live in Islington in 15 years’ time? Why are we allowing that to happen? Why are we not doing something about it? It is simply unfair.
These days, not only the children of the poorest but those of the richest will be unable to live in Islington when they grow up, because our house prices have got completely out of control. I do not want my constituency fundamentally to change, and neither do the residents of Islington. We can see no reason why it should, and we think that radical housing change is needed to regulate the market. Some people in this Chamber and in this building will think, “Oh, my goodness. What is this, some form of Stalinism? We can’t start controlling the housing market.” Excuse me, but yes, we can. Most world cities have some form of housing regulation that goes much further than the pusillanimous attempts that have been made in recent years to control the housing market in London. We must start taking strong action to ensure that London people can live in London.
I do not have any problem with people from outside London wanting to come and live here. There is a great tradition of people from all over the world coming to live in Islington. However, do you know what is happening now, Mr Gray? I went to see a woman a couple of months ago who is living in a completely overcrowded council flat. She is busting out at the seams. Her husband runs a local café, and has done for 25 years. They are a good local family, and the kids are doing well. She said to me, “I have no idea where my kids are going to live. They are all grown up now. Where are they going to go? How can I help them to live in Islington? We want them to stay here. We are absolutely overcrowded, and look at that,” and she pointed at the enormous tower block that is being built on the canal nearby. It is called Canaletto, or something equally ridiculous. It is covered in fancy stone, and it reaches up into the skies. We all know that when it has been sold, the lights will be off at night because no one is going to live there. People across the world are investing in our housing market, which is not properly regulated. If they have a choice between investing their money in a few gold bars and saying, “Let’s buy a flat in London,” they will buy a flat in London, because it is nice and secure. They will keep it empty, warm and secure, and they will rob the people of London of somewhere to live.
Personally, speaking as a Back Bencher, yes, I do. I want to see rent regulation. An individual should be able to enter a tenancy agreement with a landlord for a long period of time—three, four or five years—at a set rate, which should increase only in line with inflation. We should not be able to treat people as they are being treated.
I believe that the private sector has an important role to play in meeting our housing need; I am not one of those people who do not believe in the private rented sector. However, we now have an entire generation of youngsters—some of them are our own children and our researchers’ friends—who move into properties and are exploited. They are asked to pay ridiculous amounts of rent. They make a home, but after six months or a year, perhaps because they have complained about the fact that their windows are leaking, they will be chucked out and they have absolutely no rights. We have to strike the right balance, and we must not give tenants so many rights that landlords are frightened off, but we are talking about people who want to be able to make a home in a community. For them to be able to contribute properly, they need some form of security. We should not allow them to be pushed out of our cities and our metropolises because rents are continually being hiked up.
The hon. Lady is talking about striking a balance. Does she agree that the acute problems that affect her constituents are of a different magnitude to the problems in the rest of the country? Affordable housing is a difficulty in the rest of the country, but not on the scale that she has outlined.
I completely understand and agree. That is why when the Government talk about localism, I say, “Hooray! Let us come up with some local solutions to local problems.” However, when my local authority starts to introduce innovative schemes to try to address our problems, we are either trampled on by the Department for Communities and Local Government continually changing the rules and tightening up on section 106 agreements, which we are using as imaginatively and laterally as we can to build as much affordable housing as possible—in Islington, that has to be social rented housing if it is to be properly affordable—or we are trampled on by the Mayor.
The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) talked about publicly owned land, and the Mount Pleasant site in my constituency is one such cause célèbre. It used to be a massive piece of publicly owned land, which was owned by Royal Mail. When Royal Mail was privatised, the large site at Mount Pleasant was deemed to be a “car park”, so it was sold for a song. The developers now say on behalf of Royal Mail that, because it is a development site, they should be able to get huge amounts of money back, so they cannot possibly afford to put affordable housing on the land. There is a battle royal going on in my constituency about the matter. My local authority and Camden local authority both say, “We are in desperate need of real affordable housing, and this is one of the largest development sites in the area. Please, please, let us build homes for local people. Please don’t stop us.” And what happened? The Mayor came in and said, “What we mean by ‘affordable housing’ is 80% of market rent.” Guess what? Nobody in Islington can afford that. This is nonsense.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being generous with her time. May I take her back to her comments on property values in Islington? How would she seek to control the market? How would that work in reality? What steps would she like to see a Labour Government take to control the marketplace and control property values?
No, I will not go back to that. I will carry on talking about Mount Pleasant for a minute, because it is a disgrace. The more we talk about it, the more we expose the difference in values between the Conservative party and local people and why the Mayor is trampling on local people’s wishes. The Mayor is the Tory party’s London representative, and he aspires to high places within the party. People should be warned about his agenda.
Some 681 new homes will be built on the Mount Pleasant site, and 163 of those homes will be affordable, at 80% of market rent, but the rest will carry the most ridiculous prices in which only people cashing in their gold bars in China could invest to be able to live there. We have 19,000 families on the housing waiting list in Islington who want to stay in Islington. If we could build 1,500 affordable social rented homes on that site, on the Canaletto site or on another such site, we could unplug our housing waiting list. People would then have a fighting chance of getting themselves a social rented home.
I will illustrate the sort of people on my housing waiting list. I never try to exaggerate. Whenever I make a speech, and I have made this speech many times over the past 10 years, I always talk about the very last person I met. In this case, the last person I met was a woman with three children. She has lived in so-called temporary accommodation for five years. She had polio, so her legs are in the most terrible state. She has 28 steps up to her front door, and she has fallen down twice and broken her leg. She now has to have a knee replacement. She has a child with special needs, and she is stuck in this accommodation. And guess what? She has also been hit by the benefits cap. She is in temporary accommodation, which costs £400 of the £500 a week that is available to her. She and her three children are living on £100 a week in entirely inappropriate accommodation. My local authority is doing its utmost to find alternative accommodation.
Frankly, if someone moves their car in Islington, we have built a flat there by the time they come back in the evening. We are building as much social rented accommodation as possible in the area, despite the Government having cut back the subsidy to local authorities and despite the Government making it so difficult for my local authority to stand up to developers and say, “We need social rented accommodation. That is what our local people say. We are the local representatives. Who are you? What is localism? Let us have our say.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the potential role of a progressive Labour Mayor would be to drive up the number of affordable homes on these big sites, rather than taking every opportunity to drive down the number of affordable homes, as the current Tory Mayor is doing?
Absolutely, and I will give another example. Clerkenwell fire station is on the other side of the road from the notorious Royal Mail site, which was sold off for a song and out of which a huge profit is now being made. My local authority is attempting to constrain the Clerkenwell fire station site by saying that it must be used for affordable housing. We believe that best value does not just mean that a public body should squeeze as much money as possible out of a site by building as many luxury flats as possible. Best value for the community—this is a public asset in the middle of the community—ought to be what the public want and what will give best value to that community. Providing homes to my local community in Islington is best value as far as we are concerned, which we hope a Labour Mayor would understand. I will always give Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt, and I will be completely converted if he comes back with this, but I want him to say, “Emily, I understand that ‘best value’ means affordable homes on that site, which means a large proportion of social rented accommodation.” I hope against hope, but I am always an optimist. You never know, Mr Gray; you never know.
I appreciate that I have taken a bit of time, so I will wind up, although there is much more that I want to say, as I am sure people can tell. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said that there is no silver bullet, but there is. The reason we do not have affordable housing, whether in Northern Ireland, in his constituency or in London, is that we do not have enough homes. We have not been building enough homes, and we did not build enough when we were in government. We did a great deal of good, and we did up all the country’s social housing. We made all social housing conform to the decent homes standard, which was a fantastic achievement that we do not shout about enough, but we did not build enough new homes. We needed to build more.
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to carp about that, but, frankly, his party should look at the plank in its own eye. How much has his party built during its five years in government? Very little indeed. That is why we are in this crisis, and one thing on which we can all agree is that we must build more homes. We need to be brave and allow local communities to decide on the sorts of places that they need. The solutions that are appropriate for my constituency might not be appropriate for Nottingham or York. Nevertheless, we must drive local authorities and local people, so that we are able to give our younger generation a chance. My youngsters might not be able to live in Islington, and Nottingham youngsters might not be able to live in Nottingham, because they cannot afford to move into the sort of accommodation in which their parents lived. This is all about intergenerational justice, and we, the older generation, either have secure social rented homes or are buying our own places, but our youngsters have no chance unless we grasp the nettle and say, “Yes, we owe it to the youngsters in this country to start building more homes.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate, because there is a huge affordable housing problem. Whether in the social rented sector or the private rented sector, people are struggling. She and the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) are right that the problem is not new; there has been a problem for a long time. The previous Government did not build enough houses, which leaves us where we are now, and the current Government have not fixed the problem, either.
My constituency of Cambridge has an acute problem, partly because we are a success story. We have a booming local economy and very low unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, but we have not had the housing or infrastructure that are needed to keep up. In fact, in previous decades, there was a deliberate policy of not building houses in Cambridge but only building in the surrounding villages, which increased the cost of housing and worsened traffic congestion. That has now changed, but it takes a long time to catch up, so private sector prices are getting ever higher, whatever the category. Rent for a one-bedroom flat in Cambridge is the highest in the entire east of England. The average house costs 11 times the median salary, which prices many people whom we desperately need—researchers, teachers and nurses—out of the housing market.
We have a shortage of social and council housing. As of September 2014, 2,500 people were on the housing needs register. Many people are waiting two years or longer to find a place. There is huge demand. In November, there were 90 bids for a one-bedroom flat, and there were 152 bids for another property in December. We have a shortage, which is not a new thing. The previous Government managed to reduce the number of social and council houses by 421,000 across the country, which is a big problem—a huge indictment.
What hit us perhaps even worse in Cambridge was the ridiculous negative subsidy scheme, in which council tenants’ money was taken from Cambridge to be spent elsewhere. In Cambridge, £1,300 had been taken from every tenant by the time we got rid of the scheme. Over the 13 years of the Labour Government, the sum taken from Cambridge city council was £120 million. In our surrounding district, South Cambridgeshire district council lost £118 million to the scheme. The money was taken directly from council tenants.
Just think what we could have done with that money if we were allowed to keep it. We could have spent £5,000 doing up every council house and still have had enough money to build about 1,000 more. I am delighted to say that the Government have scrapped the scheme, so the city council has been able to build and improve council housing. When we ran the council, we started a programme to invest £286 million, partly from those savings, to build 2,000 council homes over the next decades. Free from negative subsidy, we can make that a reality: we built 146 council homes before the elections last year.
We got through an ambitious local plan, now being inspected, calling for 14,000 new homes by 2031, 40% of which would be affordable, and the Greater Cambridge city deal with a total of £1 billion of investment in affordable housing and transport. I want to go further and faster. Although we lost control of the city council last May, just last week at the budget meeting we pressed the new Labour administration to invest the council’s own money in housing, rather that speculate on commercial property as it wanted, because we think that people in Cambridge need those houses. We therefore argued for £12 million to be put into 100 affordable homes, but sadly Labour decided to stick with its rather more risky approach. That housing was needed locally and would have generated revenues for the council as well.
We will keep pressing, but we also need to do that nationally. My party has the most ambitious plan among the three parties: to build 300,000 homes a year, because the calculations show that replacement needs 225,000 homes as there are more households. If we do anything less than 300,000, we will not be keeping pace and the pressure will continue, albeit perhaps at a slower rate.
I am sure that the hon. Lady has heard the discussions. Garden cities would be a large part of that plan, because they are a sustainable way to go ahead. It is no secret that we have wanted to see much more of this, but coalition government is not the same as a single-party, Liberal Democrat Government—I look forward to seeing that at some point.
The other thing we would like to do that we have set out in plans is to give local authorities the ability to suspend the right to buy and the right to acquire. They have played a useful role in many places, but they are incredibly damaging in other areas. They are depleting social housing in places such as Cambridge. A localist agenda would allow councils to decide what is best and ensure that all proceeds are used to build more social housing.
Since we have the Minister here, I would like to pick up another issue quickly.
I will not, I am afraid, because other people wish to speak.
On 28 November, new guidance on housing developments and section 106 payments was issued for sites with small developments of fewer than 10 units. We need those section 106 payments. In Cambridge, a 10-unit site is substantial and incredibly valuable. That measure is already costing the city more than £200,000 and the figure is expected to reach £500,000 a year, and that is a mistake. That makes it harder for somewhere such as Cambridge to ensure that housing is available for people on low incomes and prevents the establishment of properly mixed communities, which are the most sustainable kind. I therefore urge the Minister to get rid of that proposal immediately because of the harm that it will do to Cambridge and elsewhere.
I also urge the Minister to look again at the vacant building credit, which is also causing problems, at least in its interpretation, because people can use it to avoid the contributions that they should make.
My last point is that the Treasury still places a tight cap on the amount that local councils can borrow from the housing revenue fund to build new houses. That was true under the previous Government, as well us under this one. Places such as Cambridge need to be able to keep pace, so we need those powers. I know that that is up to Treasury Ministers, not this Minister, but that cap should be got rid of, or at least lifted, so that councils can manage prudentially. For the council to borrow money to invest in housing in Cambridge would be a good investment financially and for the people of the city. Cambridge has been a success story and that has brought problems. We are growing and unemployment is down, but we therefore have more and more pressure on housing. We must deal with that urgently.
They are the rough sleepers, for example, whose numbers have increased by 55% under this Government; the homeless, whose numbers have increased by 26%; sofa surfers; adult children and grandchildren still living with their parents or grandparents; and families in grossly overcrowded conditions.
York has one of the strongest economies in the north of England. Under the Labour Government the number of jobs grew from 40,000 to 57,000, and that growth has continued, although slightly more slowly, since 2010. However, that has not been matched by housing growth, so a shortage of housing is driving up the cost of both renting and buying.
The problem is getting worse because the gap between top earners and low earners is increasing. Back in 1997, lower quartile housing prices were four times greater than lower quartile earnings, but now they are eight times lower quartile earnings. There are currently 717 homes for sale in York, with an average sale price of £290,000. Of course, that is less than in London, but wages are far less than in London, too. The average price for a one-bedroom, entry-level flat in York is £133,000. The annual income required to buy that is therefore £43,000. By comparison, elsewhere in the region, in Leeds the required income is £33,000, in Wakefield it is £26,000 and in Barnsley it is £20,000.
Who can afford to buy in Yorkshire? In York, a barrister, a GP or a mortgage adviser can afford a one-bedroom, entry-level flat on their wages, but a construction site manager or a police sergeant cannot. In Leeds, an estate agent or insurance broker can afford to buy, but a university lecturer cannot. In Wakefield, a police constable or a schoolteacher can afford to buy, but a paramedic cannot.
The thresholds for private renting are pretty much the same, although in York the construction site manager on £42,000 a year could rent, but the police sergeant on £37,000 could not. In Leeds, a class teacher could rent, but the police sergeant could not. Those are people whom every one of our communities needs: police officers, teachers, estate agents and lecturers.
My hon. Friend talks about some of the sorts of people who cannot afford to buy, but is the position not so much worse for so many vital public sector workers, such as home care workers and many others, who are trapped on insecure contracts, and increasingly on zero-hours contracts, and do not have any certainty about their long-term income, despite doing vital jobs?
My hon. Friend is right, although it is not only public sector workers who are on zero-hours contracts; such contracts affect a lot of people who provide essential services. Every time we go into a shop, we are buying something we need from a private sector worker.
During my time, York has never built enough affordable housing, and that is my biggest regret—I might say my biggest failure—during 23 years in this House. I say to my friend, the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who is here, that unless he and my successor, the new Member for York Central, increase the amount of housing we build in York, we will snuff out the economic growth that has been so important to the city in recent decades.
The number of affordable housing completions in York is falling. In 2010-11 we had 282, but in the following year we had 151, then 127 and, in 2013-14, just 50. Why are those numbers falling? The Government have introduced five measures that have reduced the amount of affordable housing built. First, they raised the affordable housing threshold for rural developments, so that affordable housing is not provided on developments of 10 homes or fewer. Since that change, only one rural housing scheme of more than 10 homes has been proposed in York. In the previous 18 months, 11 such schemes were proposed, all of which made contributions towards affordable housing, but that has stopped.
Secondly, the vacant building credit will mean that there is not an affordable housing component when vacant buildings are converted, or razed to the ground and rebuilt, to provide housing. A large part of the Nestlé factory site is available for redevelopment. The plan was to provide a couple of hundred homes, of which a substantial proportion would have been affordable. Now, because of the Minister’s change of policy—will he look up from his phone for a minute?—those affordable homes may no longer be provided.
Thirdly, there is the exemption from the right to convert offices to residential use. That also used to generate a proportion of affordable housing but no longer has to. The council in York estimates that since that change 77 affordable homes in York have been lost. Fourthly, York has a healthy housing revenue account, but the cap on the council’s ability to convert the resources it has into further building is reducing the amount of affordable housing that is made available. Fifthly, of course, the Government have also cut their grant for affordable housing to £23,000 on average per property, which is roughly half of what it was. All these five policies need to change. Of course, the lack of affordable housing is pushing people into the private rented sector, so what the Government are doing is reducing their capital contribution to building housing and instead spending the same amount of money, or more, on subsidising private landlords, which cannot be a good use of public money.
There is a very special problem in York with the broad rental market area, which is used to set the local housing allowance. It is a problem because rents in York are much higher than in areas some 20 miles away that are deemed to be part of the same local market for determining the BRMA rate. For example, the average private rent in York for a one-bedroom property is £564 a month. The BRMA local housing allowance is £430 a month, leaving families to find £134 a month from their own resources. However, in Selby, which is just 12 miles away, the average rent is £391, nearly £40 lower than the local housing allowance. People on the periphery are getting what they need—their full rent is covered—whereas people in York are getting substantially less. There are similar figures for two and three-bedroom properties, but I will not give them now. However, there is a gap of £220 between the local housing allowance and the average rent for a three-bedroom property.
This problem of a single BRMA covering a high-cost city and a much lower-cost rural periphery affects just four places in Britain. One is Cambridge, and I have written to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) about this; some months later, I am waiting for his reply, to find out whether we can do joint work on this issue. The other three are Oxford, York and, in Scotland, Edinburgh. If the Government do nothing else in those four cities, they should split those BRMAs, because then the BRMA would provide something closer to the real cost for people in the centre, and it would stop wasting public money by overpaying, if I might say so, on the periphery.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not received my response. I definitely sent one; in fact, I was surprised that he had not replied to me. Nevertheless, he is absolutely right: the BRMA, as introduced by the last Government, has been a calamity for places such as Cambridge, and I hope that that issue can be resolved.
Right: I will work with the hon. Gentleman in the few weeks that I have left as an MP, and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith).
One thing that the Government and local authorities must deliver is more land for housing. Critically, York needs to agree a local plan to designate where development will be permitted. That has not happened for decades under successive Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat-led councils in York. The current Labour council has submitted a plan; it was rejected by the Government and the council was told to redraft it. Now, there is an argument between the parties. Labour and the Green party argue that the council should plan to build 850 homes a year; the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are proposing something like 730 homes a year.
In York, 4,200 homes have been built in the last 10 years, which is 420 a year. That is 300 homes a year less than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are asking for, and 425 homes a year less than Labour and the Green party are asking for. I ask all those parties locally to stop shilly-shallying, to cut a deal and to get the plan approved, so that developers know where they can provide housing and where they cannot. If we do not do that, the housing that is so desperately needed simply will not be provided.
Thank you very much, Mr Gray, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I endorse every comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) in her excellent speech, and congratulate her on securing this debate.
Housing in my constituency is simply in crisis. In my constituency, more people rent privately—30% of my constituents—than own property, and 44% of my constituents rent social housing. Private rents in Hackney are now at 54% of income, and there is a huge lack of certainty about the length of private tenancies, and about rents, which often increase just because they can be increased.
I will give a couple of examples. I have routinely been sending out questionnaires to constituents, because I have so many people contacting me about these issues. Two adults and a child live in a one-bedroom property. One full-time income and one part-time income brings them in £2,100 a month after tax, and they also have child care costs on top of that. When we compare those figures with the weekly median rent in Hackney, which is £330 a week, it does not take much knowledge of maths to work out that their income does not go very far.
I will give another example. Somebody said that a combination of having to pay high fees every time they move, and the fact that they have to move every 12 months due to rent increases and the inability to obtain longer-term tenancies, has seriously hindered their ability to save as well as settle. This issue affects not only private tenants but the community as a whole, because of the churn that we get as a result.
House prices have gone up 124.9% since 2005, when I was first elected, and the average house price is slightly lower than in Islington, at £606,000. Of course, for new social housing, there is now the edict that most social housing should be 80% of local private rents. In Hackney, that is nonsense; the sums arrived at are not affordable. Tenants, often strangers to each other, are now sharing rooms out of necessity. Then, of course, we have the invidious bedroom tax. On Wenlock Barn estate alone, in Hoxton, 74 households are hit by that tax, and they live in fear about what will happen to them. It is not as if there is available housing of the right size for them, because there is such a squeeze on need; even if they were made to move, there is nowhere for them to move to.
I have some specific local concerns. One is about non-domiciled landlords. They do not let slum properties; we do not have that many very, very bad properties in Hackney. However, the appeal of rental yield is what many properties are sold on, off-plan, which means rents go up each year, because the letting agent is on a ticket to increase their profit and that of the overseas landlord, be they in Dubai or Hong Kong. Increasingly, huge swathes of properties are sold overnight off-plan, even when developers have promised the local planning committee that they will not do that. There is no legal constraint on the number of properties that can be sold to someone overseas. I hope that both Front-Bench teams consider looking at this issue.
There is a really shocking case that I have come across recently. A national property developer in the UK employs staff whose job is entirely about arguing with planning departments for additional units of housing and for fewer units of social housing. Those staff members are paid a bonus for every additional unit that they argue up, and for every social unit they argue down. In the process, they tie up days and days of council officers’ time. In one case, nearly a whole year—more than 300 days—of council officers’ time was taken up, because these staff keep coming back, as their income depends on it. I use the word advisedly, but that practice is an immoral way to earn a living, and it is shocking when I consider the impact on my constituents.
Recently, we had a battle over the New Era estate. I will not go into that again, but private landlords there are able to sell property on, forgetting that they are selling not just property but people’s homes, which affects their lives. In London, we see our Mayor caving in to private developers. He wants to maximise luxury flats, which are often sold to overseas buyers. The local fire station in my area has been sold for £28 million, which can only mean luxury flats. That is a scandal, especially with fire response times now more than six minutes in the area. In Bishopsgate in Shoreditch, an area that has not had a social housing unit built in 10 years, the Mayor is again on the drive for a 48-storey tower block with luxury flats.
Hackney is building; it is one of the top two councils nationally when it comes to building new homes. It could do more if the housing revenue cap were lifted, and if we could see a long-term solution to this problem, which is what is needed. Again, I appeal to both Front-Bench teams. We should look at the ballooning housing benefit bill, which is pouring money down the drain when it could be better spent on building new homes that are genuinely affordable. I have a few asks. I go further than my Front-Bench team, because I believe that Hackney’s problems today will ripple out; we are the canary—Islington probably is too, in some respects—showing what will happen in the rest of the country.
We need longer tenancies. The Council of Mortgage Lenders, which I met yesterday, says that that is possible; there is no big block in the system. So why is it not happening? I applaud our Front-Bench team for pushing for longer tenancies. There also needs to be greater certainty about rents; perhaps there could be a rent escalator model. We also need to stop retaliatory evictions. There should be a landlord register, with a quality kitemark, so that tenants know what they are buying, as they would in any other area of business.
We should disbar landlords who are not fit and proper. There should be mandatory installation of fire and carbon monoxide alarms. We should change the definition of “affordable”, to break this ridiculous link with market rents, which does not have any relation to the incomes of the people that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) referred to. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) that the Treasury rules need to change, to allow the sale of public land for public benefit. St Leonard’s hospital has now gone to PropCo and the NHS, and the fire station is being sold off. All around us in my area, every possible bit of development land is being sold, not for affordable housing for local people, but for overseas buyers to live in luxury flats.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate.
As a country, we face a severe housing crisis. We are not even building half the number of homes that we need to keep up with demand. As the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), the former Housing Minister, said, certainly for more than 25 or 30 years, we simply have not been building anywhere near the number of homes that we need. It is regrettable that, under this Government, we have seen the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South has spelt out, people are being priced out of home ownership, and millions are on the waiting list for a social home. Home ownership is at its lowest for 30 years, and a record number of young people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are living at home with their parents, are suffering most from this. We had the lowest number of homes in 20 years built for social rent last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) pointed out, there has been an increase of 55% in those sleeping rough since 2010, and an increase of 26% in those who are statutorily homeless. As he also said, different people from public and private sector organisations are being priced out of home ownership. They may be cleaners, childminders, office workers, bus drivers or shop workers in some areas. In other areas, they could be teachers, police officers, or university lecturers. The list goes on.
The lack of affordable housing is not only bad for those who cannot afford to live in their communities. It is also bad, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for taxpayers and the wider economy. Worryingly, there has been an increase in the benefits bill because of people who are in work receiving housing benefit: an increase of two thirds since the Government came to power. It is a threat to our economic growth and competitiveness, with businesses in high-demand areas such as London—but not only London—worrying about where their staff will be able to afford to live. So it is clear that we need many more affordable homes, including council homes. I grew up in a council house, where I spent the early part of my childhood, so this is not just an abstract notion for me.
It is regrettable that the Government have taken every opportunity to undermine the building of genuinely affordable homes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South pointed out, it was an early signal of intent that, within weeks of taking office, the Government cut the affordable homes programme by an eye-watering 60%. They have redefined what affordable means. They changed what was meant by an affordable home when they introduced the 80% affordable rent model. As my hon. Friends the Members for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Hackney South and Shoreditch pointed out, the truth is that homes at 80% of market rent are very often unaffordable in high-demand areas. According to research carried out by Inside Housing, for a home to be affordable for those in Kensington and Chelsea, a combined income of £80,000 is needed, and for many other London boroughs people need an income of £40,000. That is not affordable for many of the key workers we need to live in our cities.
As though redefining “affordable” was not enough, the Government have watered down the requirement to provide affordable housing and removed the requirement for affordable housing contributions on sites of fewer than 10 units. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central pointed out, this is having a particularly devastating impact in rural areas. The Government have introduced what they call a vacant building credit, which is basically an excuse for developers not to fulfil their affordable housing requirement, and even the developers themselves think that that goes too far. The Westminster Property Association, which includes British Land, Land Securities, Berkeley Homes and the Grosvenor Group, said that the policy was deeply flawed and would lead to a further erosion of the ability of people from a wide range of backgrounds to live in the heart of the capital.
If I cross the Floor of the House, as the hon. Gentleman suggested earlier, we will obviously inherit the current affordable homes programme, but we will make our plans for the future clearer in the weeks to come.
Even Westminster city council’s deputy leader, Robert Davis, has said that the policy
“threatens our capability to deliver much-needed housing in central London.”
His director of planning went even further and called it insane. The Housing Minister claimed that the reforms would not have a significantly adverse effect on the affordable housing programme, even though his own Department admitted that it had not done a formal assessment of the policy’s impact.
The City of London has estimated that this policy will reduce its housing budget by a massive £8 million. It is clear that the Tory Mayor, as hon. Members have already suggested, is keen on driving down the number of affordable homes, particularly on big developments. My hon. Friend mentioned the Mount Pleasant development, which used to be public land. It has not been used to provide the number of affordable homes that we need, precisely because Boris Johnson has taken it upon himself to call in that application and force down—not up—the number of affordable homes on that site.
The Government have failed to live up to their promise of replacing homes sold through right to buy one for one. Since 2012, for every 21 council houses sold under right to buy, only one has been built. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South underlined in her contribution, the Government’s bedroom tax is not only a complete failure of a policy that hits the most vulnerable the hardest, but it has led to a rise in rent arrears and, in some cases, homes being left empty.
One or two such changes would have been bad enough, but the cumulative impact of the changes that the Government have introduced has meant that people across the country are struggling to find a home to rent or buy. Tragically, the lack of affordable housing is having a real impact at the sharp end. I have already mentioned homelessness and rough sleeping, but it is worth mentioning again that the lack of affordable housing is, unfortunately and tragically, driving the numbers up.
Housing will be a day one priority for the next Labour Government. It is true that the market has not been delivering for quite some time. There is a huge and pressing need to increase the overall supply of new homes. We have made it clear that, under a Labour Government, housing will be a priority for capital investment. We will reverse the watering down of section 106 and ensure that tougher rules are in place to assess viability, so that developers cannot dodge the rules. We will scrap the Government’s affordable homes avoidance scheme. We will make sure that we use public land to drive the development of affordable housing, and we want to see councils return to their historic role of building council homes. Wolverhampton city council is building the first new council homes in our city in more than 30 years. I am proud that Labour councils are building twice as many affordable homes as Tory local authorities.
There is a crucial role for housing associations. I am always grateful for the wise advice of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford. He suggests that I make sure that they have great stability going forward. I say to him that some of the biggest changes to the way in which housing associations operate have occurred under his Government. There has been a huge cut in funding, and the welfare chaos that we have seen has provided unstable and uncertain conditions for them to operate in. Unfortunately, the story of this Parliament has been an ever-rising need for affordable homes, but we have had a Government seemingly determined to do everything that they can to undermine the building of new, affordable homes.
I know that the Minister will get up and aggregate the numbers over a five-year period, but if the Government are so serious about building affordable homes, why did they cut the affordable homes budget by 60%? Why did they water down the definition of affordable? Why have they watered down the requirements on developers? Why have they changed the way in which viability is assessed? All those measures have led to the number of affordable homes, particularly those for social rent, going down. Only a Labour Government would have a comprehensive plan to tackle the long-term housing crisis by making the market more competitive and making sure that councils have the powers and flexibilities to build and provide the housing that we need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) made some good points, as he always does, on how we built the foundations for the success we are seeing with house building. He should be proud. One point he touched on, which showed the Government’s ambition, was the public sector land that has been released, which is enough to build 100,000 houses. A few Members made that point, and I am pleased to announce that we have surpassed that target. When Members leave the Chamber, they will see that we have gone past 100,000 and set ourselves a higher target of 150,000 in the next Parliament.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) seems to lack real ambition. The Labour party generally seems to lack ambition compared with us on what can be achieved. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) made a fair point on the ambition of what we should be delivering. I have often commented that setting targets can lead to unintended consequences and fictitious outcomes. We should be driving for the right outcome, which is homes that people can afford. The Labour party’s lack of ambition in wanting to hit 200,000 homes by 2020 is clear and evidenced by the fact that this Government’s programme, as we outlined this week, will hit 200,000 homes by 2017.
I hope to work with Jane Hunt in a Conservative Government. I visited her in Nottingham South, where she is fighting hard to ensure that we get even stronger Conservative representation in this place. She wants to be part of a Conservative Government who would build 200,000 homes for first-time buyers. Not only will we offer first-time buyers a chance to benefit from Help to Buy, which has allowed tens of thousands of families to get on to the housing ladder with a reduced deposit following the economic farce and crash that we inherited, but we will go further by giving them a 20% discount, making the achievement of buying a first home more open to more people.
The hon. Members for Nottingham South and for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and I have spent many times at the Dispatch Box in the past few months in full agreement, so it is probably a healthy return to normal that we disagree today, but I suggest they go away and read some of the documentation before they come to this place and make comments that are absolutely inaccurate. For example, it is worth having a read of the Hansard transcript of the Communities and Local Government Committee sitting last week, where we made it clear that the right to buy programme is delivering on the replacement of homes in the way it was designed. There is an interesting contrast, because the replacement rate was 1:170 under Labour. Opposition Members should be very aware of that. It is important to understand that with the starter homes—it is clear in the documentation that the Government have put out—we are looking at making available land that has not been viable before. We are doing that without section 106 agreements and we are reducing regulation for developers so that they can offer those homes at a minimum discount of 20%.
I will finish the point I am making. The hon. Ladies have made a fair few interventions today and I want to respond to the points raised in the short time we have left. There is no direct cost to buying those homes at that discount. It makes home buying affordable to the very people that the hon. Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) mentioned. Some of those who have not been able, even with Help to Buy, to get on the ladder will be able to link Help to Buy with a starter home to make house buying accessible. From day one, fixing the housing market and the economy have been top priorities for us in government.
Not at the moment, no. We have channelled new investment into every area of the housing market. We have cut the deficit to keep interest rates low for investors and home buyers. We have introduced a wide range of measures to get Britain building again, and that plan is working. More than 500,000 home have been built. There are 700,000 more homes in England, with house building at its highest level since 2007.
When I talk to developers in York, they say that there are two constraints: one is the lack of land and the other is the lack of building materials. There has been a shortage of bricks. What are the Government doing to ensure that the supply chain delivers enough technically qualified builders and enough building materials to build the number of houses they seek?
We see in London the effects of an untrammelled Tory Administration. Private developers have free reign. There is less affordable housing. Where it is affordable, it is 80% of private rents. That applies to a number of sites, as we have highlighted. Is that the Minister’s ambition if he is in power after the election?
As I have outlined, the ambition is to ensure that we are building the houses that this country needs. Those 200,000 starter homes will give people opportunities that the Labour party simply cannot match. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford—my predecessor—outlined, we are at the start of a programme that is building affordable housing at the fastest rate the country has seen in more than 20 years.
The hon. Member for York Central made a good point. People often expect the challenge for the development industry over the past couple of years to have been land supply, but it is not, thanks to the changes that we made to the top-down rigours and structures in planning that stopped development under Labour. Through that, our driving of planning locally and because we have kept interest rates low, we are seeing benefits. Some 240,000 homes have been given planning permission in the past 12 months. Members touched on the changes the Government have made to finance for small building projects, which have made that finance available. We went further a couple of months ago. One area that developers consistently mention is the supply chain. I was delighted yesterday to reopen a brick factory that shut down in 2008 during Labour’s recession. It reopened on Monday and will deliver 2 million bricks a year to the industry.
The construction industry is working and hiring at the fastest rate since 1997, and the hon. Gentleman is right that that delivers the second challenge to the industry, which is skills. One thing we can all do—I hope that all parties agree on this—is encourage more people to come into the sector. It is a phenomenally rewarding career, with wide opportunities at home and, potentially, abroad. There are a wide range of careers in the industry. We need to change some of the perceptions of the construction industry to encourage more people into it. That is why I hosted a skills summit with the Minister for Skills and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) just before Christmas at the fantastic new Olympic park. Developers, apprentices and colleges discussed those issues to try to ensure that we are delivering the skills we need for the future. Construction is no doubt one of the opportunities we have to see more jobs coming to this country, beyond those we have already seen.
Does the Minister agree that for parts of the north of England, such as the area I represent, it is important that we focus not only on new build homes, but also on bringing long-term empty properties back into use? I thank him for the support he has provided to Pendle borough council. We have done fantastic work to reduce the number of empty homes in the borough from more than 2,000 to just 1,200.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know from when I visited his constituency that he makes that point passionately and has worked hard with the excellent leadership of Pendle borough council to develop that work. Earlier, Members talked about the work that is often unsung. The work to bring empty homes back into use under this Government has been phenomenal. Empty homes are at the lowest level pretty much since records began. That is a big step forward in replacing and moving forward from that loss of 420,000 socially rented homes under Labour, as Members have touched on.
No, I will conclude, as there is only a short time left. Over the next Parliament, we will build more affordable housing at a faster rate than at any time in the past 20 years. Our first priority has been to ensure that we get the public finances back under control. We knew that public spending had to be constrained. We have to live within our means, and that is part of the problem we inherited with the Labour Government’s fiscal mess.
We have given housing associations the tools they need to build more homes. The changes we have made will from April give certainty and stability to social tenants and landlords alike. We have protected social tenants from large rent increases. Our strong economic record has allowed us to offer housing guarantees to housing associations, which mean that they are borrowing at the cheapest rate in the sector’s history. That has helped to provide more than £1 billion of support to affordable homes across the UK. All sectors need to be delivering, even social housing.
The hon. Member for Cambridge and others touched on the issue of building by councils. We have to be responsible with borrowing, and the borrowing that councils do has an impact on the public sector borrowing requirement, so there are no plans to lift that cap. As part of our long-term economic plan, however, we have incentivised councils to build. The power of competence has allowed them to move forward. We made more money available last summer for those who needed headroom and wanted to borrow more. Councils have more powers and greater freedoms to deliver the housing they need. We need to build more houses in this country. We have a fixed, strong, long-term economic plan that gives us a secure economy to deliver those houses and the jobs that are the benefit from that house building. We are delivering for those who want to buy a home of their own to give security for themselves and their families.