I am grateful to the Minister, because the 3,000 council houses that he announced will match the 3,000 that new Labour has built in the past eight years, which is in stark contrast to the 350,000 that the Thatcher Government built over an eight-year period. Bearing in mind the success of the Attlee, Callaghan and Wilson Governments in building hundreds of thousands of family council houses, why is new Labour hostile to council houses through its systems of management, ownership and new build?
We are not. I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the Government's considerable investment in improving the stock in his area. We have invested £35 million to support the arm's length management organisation in Colchester, which will bring all the council houses in the area up to a decent standard by 2007. He would better serve his constituents if he argued the case for improving the condition of existing homes. He has forgotten that the Government inherited 2 million council homes in poor condition and one of our proudest achievements is bringing 1 million of them up to a decent standard.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that we must not only build more affordable houses, but protect the affordable housing stock? Does he accept that the housing market has changed significantly in the past few years in areas such as Sheffield? As house prices have risen dramatically, more people have tried to rent and more have bought their council houses. The number of right to buys has gone up from about 400 in 1997 to more than 2,000 last year, which has created much longer waiting times. Will he consider extending the discount limits on the right to buy that apply to certain areas of the south to parts of the north in which there are real housing market pressures?
I had an agreeable visit to Sheffield recently and was delighted to see the impressive progress that is being made in renovating the existing stock and learn about the successful ALMO. I was also told about the opportunities for helping tenants to get an appropriate home through the choice-based letting scheme. My hon. Friend will know that people now want a range of choices and it is right that we should provide for people seeking good quality homes to rent, for those seeking homes to buy and for those seeking equity shares.
On right-to-buy discounts, my hon. Friend knows that the Government have taken steps to ensure that people should be able to acquire a home if they want to with a discount, but we also need to ensure that that is value for money, and that remains our objective.
I think that the Minister may be able to anticipate my question, which is straightforward. Does he believe that local housing authorities—that is, those that manage council housing, such as Macclesfield borough council, which by the way is debt-free—should be treated on exactly the same basis as registered social landlords? At the moment, they are not. Macclesfield is being forced to transfer its housing stock because the Government will not allow it to retain adequate revenue to keep to the decent housing standard. Will he look at this request, because I believe that council housing is important?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that council housing is important, but equally important is ensuring that housing is brought up to a reasonable standard. That is why we have required all housing authorities to carry out an option appraisal to look at the best way of ensuring that their housing is brought up to the decent homes standard in a reasonable period. I should have thought that he, like other Members, would want to support proposals that would achieve the decent homes standard in the quickest way, whether that is through retention by the local authority or a stock transfer to a registered social landlord. [Interruption.]
Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning recently visited North Wingfield in my constituency, in connection with its pathfinder scheme, which hopefully is making progress. Would one of the Ministers on the Front Bench like to revisit North-East Derbyshire? There is a place called Clay Cross, which has a great deal of experience of council housing and we would really like to get into detail with Ministers about the future of council housing and the role it should play in Government policy.
I apologise for the fact that my hon. Friend is getting an answer from me rather than from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, but I paid a visit to Derbyshire early in the lifetime of this Government and saw the terrible consequences of the dereliction by the previous Government, particularly in a number of former mining areas which had been abandoned and were disgracefully run-down. This Government have been investing not just in improving the quality of housing but in regenerating many of those former mining areas, including north Derbyshire, and I am proud of the record of trying to improve the conditions and prospects for people in such areas.
If this Government's housing policy was not so tragic it would be funny. It combines dictating where people should live with the provision of low-value prefabs, like a mixture of Chairman Mao and Maplin's holiday camp. But what is not funny is that the Government are building half as many social houses as the last Conservative Government did and, under Labour, 100,000 people are stuck in temporary accommodation. Does the Minister understand that his Government's failure to build social housing deprives desperate people of the homes that they long for and that their only hope is his and his colleagues' swift and enforced return to the Opposition Benches?
What a risible contribution from a party with a disgraceful housing record and a current policy of cutting £1 billion out of housing investment while pretending that it can somehow offer more, even though it opposes the Government's actions to ensure that housing needs are met and has done nothing to support the improvement of the appallingly substandard council housing that it left as our inheritance. The Conservatives would serve the country better by a period of silence on this subject.