I should like to commend Liberal Democrat Members on having given up at least half of their Opposition day to this debate. Precious few have attended, however: if the party attached so much interest to the matter, I would have expected more of them to be here.
There are certain rights and freedoms that distinguish a civilised society. They include the freedoms from fear, hunger and destitution, and the right to a home. I need no lessons from Conservative Members about the human consequences of inadequate housing. I saw them at first hand when I was a councillor in this very city during the 1980s and 1990s. The Conservatives took the right to buy one or two steps further, and I might add that they were unlawful steps. They sold off council flats as if they were going out of fashion—as indeed they were under the previous Conservative Government—and they cynically spurned opportunities to replenish the stock through the planning system.
The result was that the growing number of homeless people in the centre of London had no hope of finding housing. There were no transfers for growing families needing larger accommodation. Children's lives were blighted because they were never able to sit quietly and do their homework, or play, or simply grow up.
There were no transfers for sick and disabled people. I was a councillor for Millbank ward, just a stone's throw from the Palace of Westminster. I knew of people who needed oxygen tanks to allow them to breathe who were trapped on the sixth floor of their block of flats and did not leave their homes for six months. They could not move to empty flats on the ground floor because they were boarded up and for sale.
No one need tell me about the consequences of the Tories' policy or their record on affordable homes. The lives of individuals and families were blighted. Communities were broken up and dispersed. What made it worse was that that is what they set out to do in Westminster, the Tories' flagship authority. I have yet to hear a word of apology, regret or even acknowledgement from Tory Members.
There is much to welcome in what the Government have done already. Last Saturday I attended an exhibition of the proposals for the East Ketley millennium village in my constituency to mark the opening of a public consultation by English Partnerships. Six months ago, I complained in Westminster Hall about the role of English Partnerships, whose aim seemed to be not to promote affordable housing but to deprive the local authority of the means of achieving it. That has changed, which is a credit to the Government. The role of English Partnerships has been transformed, and the East Ketley millennium village is an exemplary scheme.
The scheme is based on public consultation, which first assesses and then addresses what people say they need. That involves providing schools, facilities for community, leisure and recreation and shops. Of the 800 homes that are to be built, 200 will be affordable homes. That compares with the 92 affordable homes that English Partnerships offered in the two years between 1998 and 2000. That is a credit to the Government.
My constituency is semi-urban and so, by definition, semi-rural. I want to focus this evening on the rural dimension. Opposition Members speak of the decline of the rural as distinct from the urban way of life. Whatever the rural way of life is, its decline has little to do with foxes and much to do with the lack of affordable housing.
Why have shops and post offices in villages closed? Under the Conservative Government, 450 rural schools closed in 15 years. Why are rural pubs closing? The answer is that the people who used to use those facilities do not live in the villages any more. Twenty years of Tory housing policies sucked the lifeblood out of many rural communities.
In the countryside, 86 per cent. of people are homeowners, and just 14 per cent. pay rent. That compares with the respective averages in urban Britain of 77 per cent. and 23 per cent. In the early 1990s, the Rural Development Commission estimated that 25 per cent. of people in the countryside lived on the margins of poverty, and that 40 per cent. of them could not afford to own homes. Where are those people now? Some are living, neglected and isolated, in abject rural poverty, next door to the comfortable Conservatives in their country houses. The rest live in towns—the only places where they can find decent housing.
In the five years to 1990, 91,000 rural homes were sold off under the right to buy and were not replaced. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, Mr. Clifton-Brown, spoke of a crisis of affordable housing in the countryside, but that crisis was created over 20 years by the Tory Government. Tory Members cannot defend their own record, much less feel pride in it.
In 1990, it was estimated that 80,000 affordable homes were needed in the subsequent six years, and 17,700 were built. Homes that communities needed to renew and sustain themselves were sold to commuters, retirees and people looking for second homes. That forced land and house prices up and the younger generation to move to the towns. It brought homelessness to rural communities.
The Opposition's response is to oppose any attempt to develop affordable housing on green fields. The hon. Member for Cotswold said a great deal about providing housing where it was needed, but we have yet to hear whether that includes providing houses in villages where people already live and where they want their younger generation to remain.
The Opposition now want to make that hugely difficult problem infinitely worse with their second initiative, which is the proposal to extend the right to buy to housing associations. I do not know whether the question is unparliamentary, but what sort of idiot could produce that idea? The answer is that it is none other than the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, David Davis, who is also a challenger for the Opposition leadership.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden wrote a letter to The Times last week, in which he said:
XUnder our plans, proceeds from right to buy sales would be reinvested to acquire or build new property."
The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to
Xallow housing associations the first right of refusal to purchase former housing association properties that come on to the market."
I repeat my earlier point that, if a housing association sells property at a discount of up to 70 per cent. and then buys it back at market price, how will it be able to afford to build anything other than the garden path up which the Opposition want to lead us?