Telford and Milton Keynes tell us something very interesting. When tenants in Peterborough new town were asked whether they would prefer a housing association or a council landlord, they voted by 94 per cent. to stay with the council. What are the Government doing? In Telford and Milton Keynes, they have decided to do away with elections for two years. They will transfer them first; then, after a couple of years, they will let the people have a vote—by which time they will have done all that they can to sabotage the ability of the local authority to offer an alternative management. That is why the so-called "tenants' choice" is in fact the landlords' choice. It is the opportunity to pick a tenant. If there were any real choice, it would apply to non-resident landlords in the private sector, so that tenants could genuinely make a choice in either the private or public sector. They are not allowed to do that.
The crisis hurts most for those who are homeless or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. An article in The Guardian last week by Michelle Beauchamp put it very well. She wrote about one individual:
For three pounds, he got a bed in a room with six other people (three bunk beds and a single bed), a few blankets and a cooked breakfast the next morning.
I assume that that was to escape the provisions of the Rent Acts.
There was also a television room with 12 beds in it and, at a guess, seven other rooms with between six and 12 people each. In all, there must have been close to 100 people staying there—all young and all homeless.
That would mean a rent of about £300 a week, and that is probably what the landlord would charge. The alternative would be for the landlord to sell the property and put the money into a building society. Without any of the hassle of being a landlord, he would get more money. That is why in my area, a few months ago, I found four people sharing a room, each of whom was paying £70 a week.
The Housing Bill will push up market rents to such a level that either landlords will go to the rich end of the market—to the companies and overseas businesses in London—or they will pack in as many people as possible. If they are really sharp, they will use the business expansion scheme that was introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, get a tax return after five years and then evict under the much easier to evict procedure of the Housing Bill in order to sell the property with vacant possession. They will enjoy both a vacant possession sale and a tax handout—all from the Government.
The Centre Point organisation that caters for many homeless people in London points out that it is very difficult for young people to return home. Conservative Members say from time to time that that is what they ought to do, and in her lecture to the Church of Scotland the Prime Minister seemed to think that it is a good idea, too. One quarter of the young people who stay at Centre Point have been in care. A number of them have been sexually abused at home. Are we really saying that they ought to return home? Is that the answer to the housing crisis?
What is happening is desperately serious, and in a funny sort of way it is now coming home to roost among the Conservatives in the south-east of England. The Government have divided the north from the south by using the proceeds from North sea oil to fund the south. They are also building the Channel tunnel. Incidentally and significantly, engineering companies are now advertising that they will pay the mortgages of the engineers that they are recruiting from overseas and in Britain because they will not move to the south-east unless their mortgages are paid. The M25 has also pushed up values. One may argue that all this should happen, but if it happens without sensible planning and without a sensible system for spreading economic wealth throughout the country, the result is a crisis in the south-east.
Last Monday, I said that it was all about boundaries and votes in the south-east. Some Tory Members said that it was not about that at all, but now we have written evidence from the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). He wrote a letter to a Conservative councillor but a copy was also sent to another councillor. In his letter the hon. and learned Member for Burton said:
Burton's structure Plan.
I note that 4,500 new homes are proposed. This means an increase in the number of electors of about 11,000 bringing the overall total to 83,000—some 15,000 above the figure we were warned at the last redistribution (when Burton was saved from fragmentation) would be likely to be acceptable at the next redistribution.
It follows that the building of any more houses on this scale is likely to lead to the dismemberment of the Burton constituency which is likely to reduce"—
this is it—
my Parliamentary majority—and ensure a Labour majority on the East Staffordshire District Council for most if not all of the time.
I am pleased to see that in the Burton Mail the Conservative councillor concerned said:
I have no wish to be associated with the contents of this letter.
Full marks to him. I note that the hon. and learned Member for Burton said in the Burton Mail that this letter was intended only for a Conservative colleague. [HON. MEMBERS: "Surprise, surprise."] If so, I wonder why it is written on House of Commons notepaper. You, Mr. Speaker, will have a view about using House of Commons notepaper for party political purposes.
The truth of the matter, as the right hon. Member for Henley said, is that the introduction of so-called rural villages will change the structure of Conservative voting in the south-east and lead to boundary changes. I said last Monday that I was one of the Labour party Members who suffered last time from boundary changes. This time it will affect the Tory party. That is one of the small morsels of pleasure that I get out of what is otherwise an appalling scene.
Many people in the south-east, as well as some Conservative Back Benchers, are right to be concerned about the unplanned building of houses and housing estates in the south-east. I referred last week to Old Basing, near Basingstoke. The new houses at Old Basing are not for first-time buyers. They are not low-cost accommodation for rent. Those houses will cost a minimum of £150,000. Nobody on low or average incomes will be able to afford them.
The Secretary of State's problem is that he has twigged that the Government will have to do something fast about housing. That led to the introduction of the business expansion scheme. The Government tried to let it rip in the south-east, in the hope that, somehow, the market would meet demand. The Government then found that a number of Conservative Members oppose their plans because they find that their nice, comfortable, cosy little areas will begin to look like urban parkland. Without sensible planning in Greater London, in the south-east and nationally, we shall not get this right.
Conservative Members believe that the answer lies in more and more home ownership. I accept that home ownership has increased by about 10 per cent., but if they believe that home ownership will solve the problem, I remind them that Switzerland, with one of the best housing records in Europe, has a very low level of home ownership. On the other hand, in Bangladesh, there is about 99 per cent. home ownership. The idea that tenure is the deciding factor is irrelevant.
If the Government are serious about solving the housing crisis, they must give money to local authorities, housing associations and other organisations. They must reform housing finance in such a way that people can choose between renting and buying their homes. They should not feel that they must buy because if they do not they will never be able to afford a decent home. There is no flexibility between renting and buying.
In other countries, one can switch from the rented sector to owner-occupation, and then switch back again without economic hardship. That cannot be done in the United Kingdom. It is impossible for elderly people to rent accommodation because they can no longer look after their own property. The young, those on low incomes and the unemployed cannot become owner-occupiers. They have to rely on rented accommodation. That is what is wrong with this Government's housing policies. What they have done is criminal. They have destroyed what was once an improving housing market, and thereby they have destroyed the lives of many people, particularly the lives of young people who are out there with their cardboard boxes looking for somewhere to live. It is time that this House gave them somewhere to live.