I am pleased to be able to speak about tenants' rights, opportunities and participation, which are extremely important subjects for my constituents. Cambridge city council was mentioned in the housing investment programme as being one of the top 50 councils that were well ahead of the field, especially in terms of tenants' participation. I welcome the debate and I am pleased to be able to draw to the attention of the House the success of Cambridge city council in the schemes in which it has participated. The relevant schemes have been in existence for three years and have been well developed.
Two tenants sit on each of three housing subcommittees—development, management and policy. Although the law prohibits voting by tenants, they have a right to speak, to take part in discussions and to influence decision making at the end of the day. Tenants in the private-rented sector do not have those rights.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that local authorities will continue to have a role as providers as well as enablers. Cambridge city council demonstrates well that local authorities can be good providers and that should not be forgotten. There are good and bad providers in every sector and it should be recognised that local authorities can be good and that there are impressive examples, especially in Cambridge.
There is some anxiety in my constituency about forthcoming legislation on compulsory competitive tendering. Some of the progress made with tenant participation in Cambridge may be eroded if tenants cannot choose their contractors. If the selection must be made as the result of competitive tendering, rather than on the basis of the best quality, that may limit choice. Will the Minister take that into consideration? I am aware that a paper on competitive tendering is to be published soon.
Although the proposed legislation is welcome, the Government are still fiddling while Rome burns. The Audit Commission report clearly showed that insufficient housing investment is creating problems of real concern to many of my constituents. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) mentioned the importance of making land available for social housing. I support that approach, and ask the Minister to consider carefully a plot of land on the edge of Cambridge known as Clay farm, which could accommodate 900 houses. The city council intended to develop that site with housing associations in the provision of social housing for the people of Cambridge, which would have contributed a great deal to alleviating the housing shortage in my constituency.
Unfortunately, that land was put into the green belt by the Conservative and Social Democrat groups on the county council, whose decision was later ratified by the Secretary of State for the Environment. That issue should be reopened and the decision reconsidered, because that land is desperately needed. It is difficult to see how additional housing can be provided if it remains out of use.
Hon. Members in all parts of the House stressed that the lack of capital building has caused an increase in the number of homeless families. The 16 and 17-year-olds whom one sees on the streets are the visible face of the housing crisis, but other aspects are visible to those of us who represent local communities as Members of Parliament or councillors. I refer for example to the increasing number of families who find themselves in inappropriate housing.
About 70 families in my constituency are waiting to be transferred to more suitable accommodation. Raising a family should be a joyful and rewarding experience, but for many of my constituents it is a fraught and stressful one. Few male Members of Parliament have spent time at home being economically inactive and looking after children. I am glad to be one of the new women Members of Parliament who can speak from personal experience of the stresses imposed on family life when conditions are less than adequate.
Children and adults need space. Boisterous youngsters need room to play, let off steam and to fight if necessary. If they do not have it, it can create intolerable family stresses that manifest themselves in all sorts of ways.
When a family is marooned in a one or two-bedroomed flat on an upper floor of a block, with no lift or access to a garden, everyday living becomes something of a nightmare. Many of the young mothers to whom I speak feel themselves trapped when going to the shops, hanging out the washing or collecting a prescription—activities which any of us would consider a normal part of everyday life. However, if one is a young mother with a baby and toddler, and has to carry both of them and a pushchair down two flights of stairs, and the toddler wants to take his trike as well, they become almost impossible tasks. Coming back is even worse, because the children are tired and so is the mother. The other day, I spoke to a young mother who had been faced with a choice between leaving her baby at the bottom of the stairs and leaving her shopping there. When she returned for the shopping she found that it had disappeared: it had been stolen.
The problem is difficult to describe, because it is largely invisible in the streets; it is a problem, nevertheless, and it is increasing rapidly. To my distress, I find that as a new Member of Parliament I can offer little hope to constituents who come to me—often in desperation, even tears—because I can see no way out. Unless the Government are prepared to change their policy and make more housing available, I fear that the situation will become worse and worse.
I urge the Government to put real power into people's hands. I urge them to give some self-respect to young mothers and to return some real choice to their lives—to liberate them from the stresses imposed by their own families, whom they should be able to enjoy. One of way of doing that would be to release capital receipts, thus allowing councils to build more houses. That would not only help homeless families, but have a tremendous effect on the families whom I have described.