Housing (Haringey)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:20 pm on 7th February 2002.

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Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham 8:20 pm, 7th February 2002

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by my first Thursday Adjournment debate in which I shall address the important issue of housing in Tottenham and the London borough of Haringey. This is the second debate on the housing crisis in London this week. I am especially grateful to the Speaker's Office, because I know that Mr. Speaker personally selects the subjects to be raised on the Thursday Adjournment.

Housing impinges on life's many fundamentals, including health, security, education and employment opportunities. Good-quality, permanent housing can generate a sense of community. It is the difference between a building and a home. A real home defines a sense of self, family and personal stability. It allows people a life of dignity and, in a sense, it is that dignity that is at the core of this debate.

No advice surgery I hold passes without a number of Tottenham parents describing the tremendous overcrowding in their two-bedroomed properties, where four or five brothers and sisters are crowded into one bedroom. That leads to poor health and safety standards for the family, little room for children to do their homework and endless sibling conflict. It is no wonder that many of our young people prefer the relative privacy of corners outdoors, on the estate, in the park or at the bottom of the street, where they can hang out with their friends, to falling out with their brothers and sisters in cramped conditions with stressed-out parents.

We know that such overcrowding leads to a breakdown in family relations, missed educational opportunities, exposure to physical and mental health problems and a growth in the drop-out culture, in which young people bypass legal employment and become involved in crime. That was the stark reality of Tottenham in the 1980s: surely in the 21st century it is time for us to move on.

The tremendous volume of temporary accommodation is probably our biggest obstacle to moving on in Tottenham. While it feels intensely like a problem faced only in Tottenham, it is linked to homelessness in London as a whole. In that respect, I am grateful to my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn for securing an Adjournment debate yesterday on the housing crisis in London. In that debate, he stated, rightly, that there are 48,000 homeless households in accommodation in London. Some 10 per cent. of those households are in the borough of Haringey. That is 5,000 households—1,000 more than in any other London authority—which is between 15,000 and 20,000 homeless people.

When I speak of homeless households, I am not referring to the 532 people who literally live and sleep on the streets. That number has fallen by two thirds, thanks to the work co-ordinated by the Government's rough sleepers unit. Rather, I am referring to people, including many families with children, who are without a home and who present themselves either to Haringey social services or to the housing department as having nowhere to live.

At present, London's population growth is not out of control, with an increase of about 2 per cent. per annum. In numbers, that is significant, but it does not reflect the homelessness crisis proportionately as the homeless household rate is more than 10 times greater. In the past two years, the number of homeless households has increased by an alarming 25 per cent. That cannot all be put down to greater numbers of newly arrived asylum seekers.

The trend in the past 10 years has been for the large-scale buying up of properties by landlords and less reputable real estate agents. It is a scandal that those private social landlords—many of them modern-day pariahs—renovate the properties to minimum standards, divide already small houses into much smaller, unappealing flats and then, what is much worse, rent them back to local authority housing departments and the National Asylum Support Service at exorbitant rates.

If I may, I will describe the situation of a professional couple with young children in my constituency. The family bought a long lease in a privately built new block of flats in Tottenham. The flats were sold as an attractive and modern, new development with good transport links to the City and the west end. However, the developer and freeholder were soon in dispute and basic maintenance work was not done. A cycle of deterioration began: common parts were not cleaned, wear and tear stayed worn and torn, the walls became dirty, the carpets stained and ripped. The front door lock and the intercom were smashed and unrepaired. Attempts to get together with other leaseholders in the block to pressure the freeholder failed.

Families started to move out and sublet to others with less stake in the property. Leases became hard to sell without a loss. A landlord in the temporary accommodation business gradually bought up half the flats cheaply from people desperate to get out. Others rented out their flats and are living elsewhere. Soon, that couple were the only original leaseholders still living there. Their neighbours now come and go, sometimes leaving without warning—some are rehoused, some are deported and some are evicted when their rent stops being paid.

Corridors get littered—rubbish, unwanted furniture and items left by previous tenants are thrown in the yard outside, attracting more dumping from the surrounding area. Owing to the smashed front door and the availability of discarded furniture and beds, some rough sleepers have moved into the downstairs cupboard. The common parts are used by local young people to sniff glue, smoke crack cocaine or inject heroin. Burglary is a problem and residents never know who is going to be around the corner.

In all practical respects, the family are living in an unmanaged temporary accommodation block. The landlord who owns half the flats re-lets them to refugees and asylum seekers as bed-and-breakfast annexes and charges the local authority £250 per week. Breakfast appears to be a weekly plastic bag containing milk, a loaf of bread and a box of corn flakes.

If that were the only such example, I would not have asked for an Adjournment debate, but this is not an isolated incident. My constituents will tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is not a street, a close, an avenue or an estate in my constituency that self-seeking landlords have left untouched. The knock-on effects are huge and equally destructive. The opportunities for families who have grown up and lived in Tottenham for many years and who seek a permanent home there increasingly diminish as we risk the area becoming a colossal modern-day dormitory for people with the most desperate needs.

Presently, planning powers are not sufficient to prevent the particularly insidious development of bed-and-breakfast annexes. Although intended to encourage home owners to buy and live in Tottenham, the recent announcement of relief on stamp duty on the purchase of properties in deprived areas will no doubt lead to the proliferation of those annexes. A knock-on effect of the annexes is the low incentive for tenants to become financially active because they know that they will never be able to afford to pay their housing costs, thus creating a poverty trap for all but the landlords.

Tottenham's proliferation of temporary housing is directly responsible for high population transience, which detracts from our best efforts locally and nationally to regenerate the area and build a safe, sustainable community. There is up to a 20 per cent. turnover rate of people moving in and out of the area, constantly, week on week, month on month, year on year. That level of transience seriously damages any hope of community cohesion. It is exacerbated by boroughs as far afield as Redbridge and Hammersmith and Fulham placing their homeless families in Tottenham without any obligation to let Haringey council know where those families are.

I will be honest: I am extremely worried. I have said before in the House that I grew up in a working-class community in Tottenham in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a community then of primarily white working-class, Caribbean, Irish and Cypriot families. It worries me that the children of the very families who thrived and made a home in that part of London, which has always been a gateway to the rest of London—a tradition of which we are proud—should now come to my surgery and express wrongly placed resentment towards newcomers for the poverty and instability that they purportedly bring.

Long-term residents who are housed by Haringey council find that they are unable to move to larger properties as their families expand, because those in temporary housing are naturally prioritised as permanent dwellings become available, leaving longer-term tenants lower down in the housing list.

We must not remain silent about the real backlash that asylum seekers face because of our failure to deal with London's housing crisis strategically. Families living in temporary households are disadvantaged because of the simple fact that they are seeking temporary accommodation. They face further social exclusion as they try to settle into a new area, get their children into a new school and gain access to public services. For many, English is their second language, and the one thing that they can be certain of is that they will have to move again in due course.

Research commissioned by Haringey council showed that of the children who had the stability gained from remaining in the same school in Tottenham for more than three years, 74 per cent. gained key stage 2, against the national average of 75 per cent. For children who had been in school for less than a year, the figure was 38 per cent. Clearly, their geographical instability was detrimental to their learning opportunities.

Furthermore, general practitioner registration lists show 3,000 rather than the recommended 1,300 patients in many of Tottenham's surgeries. We house the highest proportion of asylum seekers and refugees in the country, yet every ward in Tottenham is on the index of deprivation. When one throws together the circumstances of long-term and temporary residents living in a concentrated area of high deprivation, battling for access to overstretched public services, it is clear that there is a powder keg waiting to explode.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that two weeks ago I took a delegation from Haringey council to meet Lord Falconer, the Minister for Housing and Planning. I am pleased that he agreed to work with the council to commission further research to help us to understand the issues.

The solutions need to be addressed in a pan-London framework. Local housing authorities should co-operate rather than compete. In the short term, I would like a quota system for the number of temporary housing placements in each London borough to be developed. In the medium term, we need increased planning powers to control the present mass buy-up of available properties in Tottenham. In the medium to long term, registered social landlords such as housing associations must be encouraged to take the lead in the acquisition and renovation of a large stock of good-quality temporary accommodation in London. That means providing registered social landlords with the financial means and incentives to purchase and renovate properties to a decent standard and protecting them to some extent from the financial risks involved.

Like other world-class cities, London faces the challenge of dealing with housing need. Its economy is growing, so its population will continue to rise, with consequent housing pressure on inner-London areas. Therefore, that issue requires strategic policy development and the implementation of measures that aim to control the problem, rather than allow it to overwhelm us.

Despite all I have said, as someone who has grown up in Tottenham I feel compelled to tell my hon. Friends that there are many success stories to applaud in Tottenham. That is undoubtedly due to the commitment of the Labour Government who have targeted deprived areas, so savagely attacked by the previous Administration. Money is most definitely going into Tottenham, with more than £100 million of investment going into regeneration. Unemployment is down 17 per cent. since 1997, our schools are improving with nine schools out of special measures. Thankfully, we are a long way from the ugly scenes of the 1980s when anger burst onto our streets, because the investments made by the Government have to some extent given my constituents the breathing space to heal those deep wounds.

This Government recognise the moral and economic imperative of creating a nation where all people have access to a top-class education, to decent jobs, to neighbourhoods of which they can be proud and call home. My constituents certainly share that vision. One of the greatest problems holding them back from living that vision is the housing situation that keeps them chained to social exclusion. One can lengthen the chain by improving schools, the health service and crime rates, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to help them break free from a housing situation that keeps my constituents shackled. 8.36 pm