Housing and Regeneration Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 8:57 pm on 27th November 2007.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter PPS (Lord Jones of Birmingham Kt, Minister of State), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, PPS (Rt Hon Lord Malloch-Brown KCMG, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 8:57 pm, 27th November 2007

My hon. Friend is right that the Opposition have offered only the most trivial spin imaginable. They never follow through on what they say so exuberantly to housing charities and the media.

Part 1 of the Bill deals with the Homes and Communities Agency. I hope that the agency takes a robust line, and that the Government do not underestimate the scale of the task facing it. Various hon. Members have spoken eloquently about the problems in their constituencies, but I want to make a special plea for London—something that I know always goes down well with my friends in the north.

This country has 93,000 households in temporary accommodation, but two thirds of them are in London. We have heard that the average price for a property in some parts of the country is £140,000, but the average in my constituency is something over £400,000. There are some 24,000 people on the housing waiting lists in the two boroughs that my constituency covers, and about 4,000 people live in temporary accommodation.

The figures are worse than they sound. In Hammersmith and Fulham borough, there are more than 8,000 families on the housing waiting list, but the very deceptive banding systems that are used mean that only the 5 or 10 per cent. of people in the top two bands have any hope or prospect of being rehoused. In addition, overcrowding is a huge problem in the private rented sector but also, and especially, in social housing. That was never the case before, and Shelter estimates that black and minority ethnic families are seven times more likely to suffer overcrowding than white families.

Those are some of the bare facts, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of them. How are Conservative local authorities responding? Hammersmith and Fulham council in my constituency has reduced the target percentage for affordable housing from 65 to 40 per cent. It has tried to reduce the amount of social housing in the borough, and the leader of the Tory council has said that

"we must stop our borough becoming a ghetto for the urban poor".

The council's policy is to cut the target for the construction of social rented housing by more than half, even though its own housing strategy says that it needs to build 4,390 additional social rented homes.

Most extraordinary of all is Hammersmith and Fulham council's decision to switch existing designated affordable housing units for which permission has been granted and which have been built to something called "discounted sale". That may be a new concept to this House, but I shall give one example involving the well known Imperial wharf site, which is on the riverside in Fulham. On 30 October last, the Tory-controlled planning committee agreed to switch 191 social rented units and 50 shared-ownership units to discount sale. That means that, for almost 90 per cent. of the units, buyers will need an annual income of more than £50,000, while buyers of the other 10 per cent. will need an income of more than £35,000. As a final blow, the subsidy will come from the housing revenue account, which means that council tenants will pay the subsidy for people earning more than £35,000. In my constituency, 50 per cent. of households have incomes below £20,000. Only 20 per cent. of households are in the above £50,000 category and by definition they are the least in need. If Tory affordable housing policy is to cater only for people in the £50,000 to £60,000 bracket, we are living in deeply cynical times.

The main defender of affordable housing in London is the Mayor of London. My hon. Friend Ms Buck has already made this point, but it is worth repeating: there is provision in the Greater London Authority Act 2007 that the Housing Corporation should have regard to the Mayor's housing strategy. There should be a similar provision in the Bill and for the London plan.

I say that because I feel certain that the current Mayor will be re-elected next May; otherwise I should not be making the argument so strongly. Last week, I had the misfortunate to read a speech, headlined "Boris Johnson sets out his housing vision for London", which contained the following gems: we should not be

"getting too hung up on percentages of affordable accommodation...There isn't a dwelling in London that is intrinsically affordable or unaffordable, from the smallest flat in Lewisham to the biggest wedding-cake schloss in Kensington...I would like to concentrate on helping people on low incomes to live in London in beautiful homes of all kinds; and of all prices...Most people would like to live in either a village house or a bungalow."

Such words are extremely comforting to my Shepherd's Bush constituents, as perhaps is the final gem:

"The instinct for differentiation that is deep in the human soul and which explains why so many council house dwellers used to invest in gnomes."

That is the view of the Conservative party's candidate for the mayoralty of London—as unfunny as it is patronising. The prospects for my constituents fill me with dread, especially those in housing need.

Part 2 deals with regulation. The National Housing Federation and some Members have said that the requirements on RSLs are onerous. I beg to disagree. There are some good RSLs and some adequate ones, some of whom operate in my constituency. They are usually the ones who pay most attention to tenants and whose boards have the most tenant participation. For the past five years, until recently, the management committee of Shepherd's Bush housing association was chaired by Ron Lawrence—a tenant and a superb advocate of social housing, whom I hope to see next week when he collects his MBE from the palace. However, that association is the exception that proves the rule.

My general experience of RSLs is that they give tenants an indifferent, sometimes poor, service, and are unaccountable to their tenants. Notting Hill housing trust, for example, appears to have completely forgotten its rental tenants in the push for home ownership. The Peabody trust is busy selling off 10 per cent. of its stock at market values, while Genesis, William Sutton and Catalyst are rolling over before the demands of Tory councils intent on minimising the amount of social housing. Such RSLs need to remember why they were set up and what their purpose is, and if they are not prepared to act voluntarily, mainly through their tenants, I hope the regulation provided in the Bill will ensure that they do so.

I welcome clauses 257 to 259 on tenant empowerment. I am pleased to be a member of the all-party group on housing co-operatives and community controlled housing, ably chaired by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew. I am also pleased that several of the large estates in my constituency, including South Acton and, I hope, Acton Vale, will pursue tenant management. That is in part because of Ealing council's appalling management of their housing stock, but it is also a positive move, which should be encouraged.

I agree with the Local Government Association on two points. First, it is important that resources are given to support tenants in what is a difficult process, and often against the hostility of local authorities. Secondly, there is no reason why RSLs should not also be subject to tenant management.

My hon. Friend Julie Morgan has ably covered my final point on clause 272, so I will not go into it in detail. The clause extends the same rights to Gypsies and Travellers as are already extended to other occupants of mobile homes. It follows the decision in Connors v. the United Kingdom and my hon. Friend's Bill, the Caravan Sites (Security of Tenure) Bill, which I was pleased to support last year. A bit of prompting has been needed, but nevertheless I compliment the Minister on bringing the measure forward. It is an essential addition.

There is, of course, also a wish list, which Shelter has provided as it always does on these occasions, on overcrowding, on ground 8 of schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1988 and on improving the private rented sector, and I hope that that goes forward.

Let me conclude by addressing the security of tenure point. I hope that there is no threat to security of tenure from the Government. I do not believe that there is, and I ask the Minister to confirm that. I know, however, that there is such a threat from the Conservative party, which said in its policy review of this summer:

"Living in social housing should be viewed as a transition during which support is temporarily required".

That is completely beyond the pale. As security is being extended in the Bill, it is ironic that the Opposition should be seeking to take it away, and I will ensure that my constituents know that.

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