Housing and Regeneration Bill

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 27th November 2007.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:11 pm, 27th November 2007

I welcome the Bill, not for its contents, but for the opportunity it gives us to explain the housing crisis that many Members' constituencies face. If what I have to say becomes repetitive, I beg no forgiveness for that, as the seriousness of the problems we face bear repetition.

My weekly surgeries are similar to those of virtually every other London Member—and, from what I have heard, similar to those held by Members from across the country as well. At least half of my surgery cases are to do with housing, and I could weep at the circumstances that people come to me about. Families are living in temporary accommodation often for up to a decade. They are churned around every 12 to 18 months, or the maximum of two years, living in temporary accommodation with licences or in lets that last no longer. They live in appalling, overcrowded conditions, the like of which in my area might not have been seen since the end of the second world war.

In my community, no council housing has been built, perhaps over the entire past two decades. Social landlords—housing associations—have come in, and there are some good ones in my constituency which I have tried to work with, but I must say that some of them are as unresponsive as any bureaucracy or private landlord.

Only an extremely limited amount of social housing has been built, so my constituents live in appalling conditions. We have seen the return of Rachmanite landlords who buy property after property. They milk the housing benefit system, and they plough nothing back into those properties. I fear for the health and safety of my constituents who live in such accommodation. At best, their children settle in appalling and overcrowded conditions, but as the churning continues, they move from school to school, which affects their education and their social life. Over the past couple of weeks in my constituency we have been exposing the fact that private landlords—the buy-to-let exploiters of the poorest within our society—are now housing people in outbuildings and sheds. That is how bad things have got in my constituency.

In my area, we went through a process whereby after three ballots—because, obviously, the tenants did not vote the correct way the first two times—an arm's length management organisation was established. During that balloting process, tens of thousands of pounds were spent on consultants, who came along to meetings. Many of my constituents have never eaten so well as they did at those various meetings held to persuade them that this was the way forward for them.

But the blackmail was there: people either voted for the ALMO, or they did not have their home improved. Eventually, they succumbed and transferred to the ALMO. I am extremely concerned about its management. We have had a number of examples of poor workmanship during the implementation of the decent homes programme in my area. I know of cases in which tenants have been injured as a result of the work that has gone on, following the resources that have been ploughed into the ALMO for the decent homes programme.

With the end of the council house building programme and with insufficient social housing being brought forward, we have a homelessness problem of the sort that I have never seen in the 30 years I have lived in the area. I was elected in 1997 and we had 40,000 homeless families in London. We now have twice that number. In my borough, between 1,600 and 2,000 families are homeless and desperately in need of accommodation. The explanation is quite straightforward: we are simply not building homes anymore. To be frank, in my area, the amount of accommodation that has been built as a result of planning agreements is relatively trivial in comparison with what we need. The Bill goes nowhere near tackling the problems in my area.

First, I find it offensive that there is empty accommodation in my area when people are living in such appalling conditions—some of them sleeping on the streets. I would like, if necessary, to look at the emergency measure of compulsorily purchasing private accommodation that has been left empty. Let us commandeer some of that accommodation, because we face a crisis on a scale that we have not seen since the second world war.

Secondly, we should end the tax regime that encourages people to purchase buy-to-let accommodation, which forces families in my constituency to live in these conditions. If there is to be private landlordism, we should regulate it properly. In my constituency, even houses in multiple occupation are not properly inspected because the local authority does not have the resources. We have had fires and there has been a high level of risk to families. If we do not ensure that there is proper inspection and enforcement, we will risk more tragedies.

At the end of the day, the solution is straightforward. It is not a new invention: it is called the council house. We need an emergency programme of building of the kind we have not seen for perhaps a generation. I do not see that happening as a result of the Bill. As my hon. Friend Lynne Jones said, the projected numbers for social housing and council housing in particular are trivial in comparison with the need. Introducing a means-test approach will break down what little we have left when it comes to communities that live together as equally as they can.

Not to allow councils access to the funding that they need to launch the programme is disgraceful and misguided. It is something that is lacking in the Bill. I do not understand why we are offering private companies, instead of local authorities, the opportunity to access public money. I thought that it was in the old days that people believed, "Private sector, good; public sector, bad." I thought that we were going to get a level playing field as a result of the Labour party conference decisions and some of the commitments that were given by the Prime Minister when he took over the leadership of the Labour party.

I will look at the Bill, but I will encourage a number of my colleagues to think about the amendments that we can bring forward to tackle the Rachmanite landlords of the buy-to-let regimes, and to enable local authorities to build council houses again and have access to resources in the same way as housing associations have access to them. We need to look at other emergency measures. It does not give me any pleasure to say this, but we have had 10 years of a Labour Government. It should not be like this after 10 years of a Labour Government. We have let down a generation of children, who, in my constituency, are living in quite dreadful conditions.

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