I beg to move,
That this House
expresses disappointment at the minimal take-up of the Government's Homeowner Mortgage Support Scheme, Mortgage Rescue Scheme, many of the Homebuy schemes, and the facility for zero stamp duty for zero carbon homes;
notes that the Government's planning guidance on housing has led to a glut of flats, the destruction of gardens and a shortage of family homes;
asserts that the lowest level of housebuilding since World War II exposes the failures of the Government's top-down and undemocratic regional planning process;
believes that the Government's Home Information Packs have harmed the housing market further during the recession;
regrets the Government's failure to publish a Housing Reform Green Paper;
and registers disappointment at the rapid and regular change in housing ministers leading to the appointment of a fourth Housing Minister in less than 18 months.
I offer a warm welcome to the new Minister for Housing as he takes up his post. I know that his background and experience will be an asset to this important Department. He actually becomes the ninth Housing Minister since this Government came to power. He is the fourth that I have faced across the Dispatch Box in the last two years and the third in the last nine months. I therefore hope that he enjoys better security of tenure than his three immediate predecessors, who lasted 211 days, 254 days and 246 days respectively. I would not want to bet my house, however, on the right hon. Gentleman lasting beyond the next election.
I would like to offer the Minister a piece of advice; I encourage him to look at the recently produced Conservative green paper on housing, which puts forward a number of ideas that the Government could adopt immediately for their own housing programme, although it seems to have caused a little confusion with the right hon. Gentleman's immediate predecessor, who seems to have taken our "right to move" policy a little too literally.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman sat around the Cabinet table for the first time this morning. He may have harboured concerns that it was his rugged good looks that had won him a seat around the Cabinet table, but I am absolutely confident that he is there for much more than window dressing and that he will do a fine job. I wish him every success.
Let us start this evening's debate by thinking about those people who are lucky enough to own their own homes, but who are desperately trying to keep them by paying their mortgages. The Prime Minister likes to stand regularly at the Dispatch Box and claim that he is offering "Real help now" through the home owners mortgage support scheme, intended to allow people to postpone paying interest on their mortgages for up to two years. It was announced on
The Chancellor called the new scheme real help for home owners at risk of repossession, but it is not even available to many home owners. When first announced, the then Housing Minister claimed it would cover some 70 per cent. of the mortgage market. She said that she wanted to see "all lenders" signed up to the scheme, but the reality is that fewer than half of mortgage lenders are signed up to the scheme, with some estimates suggesting it may not be much more than a quarter. Since the former Minister for Housing claimed she wanted to see them all signed up, can the present Minister for Housing tell us when he thinks that might eventually happen?
When the scheme finally launched on
If the home owners mortgage support scheme has not worked, how about the mortgage rescue scheme? Now this is a scheme that invites registered social landlords to buy up equity in the homes of anybody struggling to pay their mortgage. It was announced on
The hon. Gentleman mentions the most vulnerable people, so will he explain why the motion by Her Majesty's official Opposition makes no reference to council housing, social housing or affordable housing?
I am grateful for that intervention because it gives me a chance to remind the hon. Gentleman that we held a debate about the lack of social housing in our last Opposition day debate on housing, although I am not sure whether he attended. He will also be pleased to know that I am coming to that subject in this debate because it is relevant to the Government's overall housing record.
I think I heard the hon. Gentleman say that 4,000 households had approached local authorities with queries about the mortgage rescue scheme, but data given to the Select Committee only last week suggested that only a few more than 1,000 had done so. Will he explain where he got the 4,000 figure from?
I believe that the 4,000 figure came from the Local Government Association, but I would be happy to check the figure if the hon. Lady would like to drop me a line about it.
Let me make a little progress.
What I want to know is whether the Minister can tell us how much of the headline grabbing £285 million of "Real help now" under this mortgage rescue scheme has been spent on rescuing just two households. The previous Minister said last November that the mortgage rescue scheme would provide "Real help now" to homeowners facing "tough times". Will the Minister for Housing say something today to the thousands of families who, having been given completely false hope, have been repossessed in the mean time?
The Council of Mortgage Lenders recently announced that the original figures for repossessions in this financial year would be downgraded, following last year's figures, which were lower than expected. How does the hon. Gentleman explain the fact that there are going to be fewer repossessions than were originally expected?
Frankly, when repossessions are running at an all-time high, with the only exception being— [Interruption.] If the position is this bad with so many families having their homes repossessed—the highest number for a generation—it is no great success and nothing to crow about if perhaps only 50,000 rather than 75,000 families are thrown out of their homes at a time when there are a bunch of failing mortgage rescue schemes going on.
I want to make some progress.
The important issue I want to raise with the Minister is what he has to say to the many families who have lost their homes when these schemes, which have been so headline grabbing and achieved 24-hour news coverage on their immediate announcement, have done so little to help families in real distress.
There is an important issue here, so I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman how long people had to wait under the previous Conservative Government to be eligible for help and assistance with their mortgages. Is it not this Government who have brought the time limit down to 13 weeks?
Under the last Conservative Government, the time limit was 13 weeks, and then it improved again when the economic situation improved, but the present Government have brought the limit back down once again. I am quite happy to stand at this Dispatch Box and answer all sorts of questions from Labour Members, but today's debate is about this Government's housing record and we want answers to the questions people out there are asking. I do not mean only people being repossessed; we are also talking about people who desperately want to buy their own homes, but who find it harder than ever to get on to the housing ladder. Affordability is now at an all-time low with average affordability having halved since Labour came to power.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that since the introduction of the home improvement pack scheme there has been a big decline in the number of homes available on the market? Although that is not the only factor, can he reassure us that such expensive and unnecessary bureaucracy will be scrapped by the new Government?
I said that the new Minister might want to pick up some of the tips in our green paper, and scrapping HIPs should be at the top of the list. They are a pointless, bureaucratic waste of time, and they are causing so much heartache out there. They are limiting the supply of new housing on the market, and making it much harder for first-time buyers to purchase properties.
Before I take any more interventions, I should like to say a little about those first-time buyers. Their number has fallen by more than 60 per cent. since 1997. It is even lower than the lowest figure during the last recession. The Government's policy has led to the lowest number of first-time buyers since records began.
I greatly enjoyed working with the hon. Gentleman when I held the housing brief. He has come on very well in the last 18 months. Does he agree that, for many potential first-time buyers, the key issue is the unaffordability of deposits? For all the promises made by the Government and, indeed, the banks, it is just not possible for first-time buyers with small salaries to find 25 per cent. of an enormous mortgage. That is one of the key barriers preventing the housing market from starting up again, certainly in Montgomeryshire and, I suspect, throughout the country.
Some credence can be attached to that intervention from a former Liberal Democrat housing spokesman—two or three housing spokesmen ago, I believe. Indeed, I think that while I have been in my present position, there have been three or four Liberal Democrat housing spokesmen, as well as the same number of Housing Ministers.
The Government's response to the issue of unaffordability has been to offer a plethora of new so-called homebuy schemes. One of them, the social homebuy scheme, is nothing if not confusing, conflicting and often contradictory in terms of itself and other schemes. It offered 15,000 families, supposedly by this point, the ability to buy part equity in their own social rented housing. Well, at this point, a mere 306 families have benefited from the scheme. Another scheme, another headline, and more disappointment for hard-pressed families out there.
What about the HomeBuy Direct scheme? I hope that the House is keeping up with the many different homebuy schemes. HomeBuy Direct was a flagship £480 million scheme, announced on
MyChoiceHomeBuy was yet another homebuy scheme. I know that the former Housing Minister used to be confused by these schemes; I wish the current Minister luck in getting his head around them more quickly. MyChoiceHomeBuy was one of two very similar schemes. Both involved key workers—first-time buyers—owning a share in homes on the open market, and buying them with housing association help. However, MyChoiceHomeBuy ran out of money just one month after the beginning of the financial year, leaving thousands of applicants stranded.
In the course of his work as a constituency Member of Parliament, the new Minister may have received e-mails such as the one that I received from my constituents Derek and Ellen, who wrote to me about their experience of MyChoiceHomeBuy. Both are key workers. They work for the NHS, and have young children. They were delighted, they say, when the MyChoiceHomeBuy scheme was recommended to them, and were delighted to be accepted on to it. They started to get excited and to look around homes. They viewed a number of dream properties that they had previously imagined to be out of their reach. Then they were told that the scheme had run out of money. That is not just their experience, but the experience of thousands of first-time home-buyers on modest incomes working in key positions.
There are so many things that need to be done to get the housing market moving. I shall take them in order: most of them are in my speech. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about many things done by the Chancellor, and by the Prime Minister before him, none of which have achieved the objectives in the housing market that the Prime Minister himself set out on entering No. 10.
We have already briefly mentioned home information packs. Only today we have had further proof, from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, that the housing market is suffering as a result of expensive and bureaucratic HIPs. According to RICS, new evidence released today suggests that HIPs are distorting the market, which is leading to fewer new instructions to estate agents at a time when people are struggling to buy homes. The Minister could act decisively today: he could do something practical to help the market. I offer him an opportunity to tell us now that he will use his temporary powers to suspend HIPs. In that way, he could give real help to real people.
As my hon. Friend will know, when the Department for Communities and Local Government was looking into HIPs, even the then Minister had to admit to the Select Committee, in response to questions, that they were not delivering as they ought to have been and were having no real effect on the market. It seemed to all of us on the Committee that they were a complete and utter waste of time, and that the Department was having to beef them up to justify their existence.
My hon. Friend is right. It was clear to those who listened to the evidence given to the Committee that the former Housing Minister was not keen on HIPs, but curiously she never got around to scrapping them when she had the opportunity to do so. The new Housing Minister has a clean slate. He has an opportunity to do something positive today to help people. I hope that he will take the advice not just of the Opposition Front Bench, but of organisations such as RICS and many others which say that HIPs are completely and utterly useless.
If the Minister is in the mood to do something for people, he should note that almost all first-time buyers—nine out of 10—could be exempted from stamp duty. That is another policy that he is welcome to borrow from us. He may know—if he does not, he will get his head around it very quickly—that, in a past Budget, the present Prime Minister said that zero-carbon homes would be allowed zero stamp duty. We asked, out of interest, how often that had come to pass. There had been a fair amount of time for the arrangement to bed in, and one would have thought that there would be a fair amount of stamp duty exemption. The answer was that only 18 homes had benefited, and that £70,000 of stamp duty relief had been granted. In my view, this was no more than a headline-grabbing idea, and it is clearly having very little influence out there. What will the Minister do to extend the programme?
My right hon. Friend is spot on. After three and a half years of consultation on what zero carbon might mean, the Government have still not reached a decision. That is what is holding back the market. That is what is making it so difficult for housing developers to know which way to turn. I wonder whether the Minister will bring the three and a half year consultation to an end soon, or whether he is aware of a recent European Union decision—made, I believe, within the last fortnight—to exclude off-site renewables from the definition of zero carbon. I understand that that has been an issue of debate and confrontation between the Treasury and the DCLG, which have different versions of zero carbon. Will the Minister pledge today to end that debate, to end the three and a half year consultation, and to produce a definition of zero carbon so that people can get on with building homes?
I have carefully examined the 11 lines of the Opposition motion, and I find no reference at all to affordable housing for rent, whether delivered by local housing associations or local authorities. Is that not evidence of the Conservative party's continued hostility to local authorities in that regard, which was all too evident in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman attended, or has read the record of, the previous debate on affordable housing, which was called by the Opposition and held in our time. To answer his question directly, we have no opposition to anybody providing affordable housing; there is no great philosophical reason why people and organisations should not be able to provide the housing this country needs. If we are talking about the supply of affordable housing, it is well worth mentioning that this Labour Government, who supposedly were elected to help the people in greatest need, have in every single year of their tenure in office built less affordable housing for rent than either John Major or Margaret Thatcher. That is the reality of this Government's housing record.
My hon. Friend knows very well the difficulty in building more houses in the south-east, which highlights the Government's monstrously bad record in this respect. Does he agree that it would make it easier for everyone if a commitment were given to put the infrastructure in place that could support these housing developments, instead of building houses in places that are completely unsuitable for the people who live there?
That is evidenced by the reality on the ground. Not only have fewer affordable homes been built, but this Government have on average built less housing overall in every year of their Administration. Something is going badly wrong, and what is not working is their regionalisation of housing policy. Planning and top-down targets are patently failing to deliver housing on the ground. The more it does not work, the more the Government think the way to make it work is to push harder and blame the people on the ground. They misunderstand the reasons why it is not working. People do not want building to be imposed on them; instead, they want to be part of the process of building their own communities.
That is a fundamental misunderstanding of how housing works which we will correct. We will end regional spatial strategies, get rid of regional assemblies—if the Government have not quite passed their legislation on that in time—and strip the regional development agencies of powers over planning, housing targets and numbers. We will return that to people on the ground, who can use those powers, together with incentives, to go ahead and build the housing that is really needed by local communities. In doing so, we will outperform this Government's appalling record on house building over the past 12 years.
The hon. Gentleman is right to remind the current Government that the Thatcher and Major Governments built considerably more council houses, and to highlight this Government's abysmal failure in not building council houses over the past 12 years. May I ask him, however, if it is Conservative party policy to allow councils to build council houses?
As I have said, our policy is that under a Conservative Government anybody who wants to step up to the plate and build homes to house people in this country will be absolutely at liberty to do so.
There are good reasons why these policies are failing. We have talked about the failure of regional planning and the inability to understand that people on the ground best know what is required to house people in their local areas. The green paper that I have referenced addresses ideas to bring in local housing trusts, which would enable local people to decide how and where that housing goes, and also to deliver their own planning permission to go ahead and create those new communities. That would do a great deal to bring forward new housing in this country, and it would do so much more quickly than setting up massive bureaucracies that are unpopular and not democratically elected.
Let me now turn to a single example in my constituency, where this Government say that between 10,000 and 15,000 homes need to be built. We are not worried about the building of new homes; I happen to represent a couple of new towns and we are very comfortable with the idea of house building. The problem is that it is not right to stuff in 10,000 or 15,000 homes while closing the local hospital at the same time. Those are incompatible policies that have got even the local Labour and Liberal Democrat parties campaigning and leafleting with us against the Government's plans.
If the hon. Gentleman is not keen on having any kind of centralised or national target, will he cast a thought towards Mayor Johnson's approach in London of abolishing London-wide targets and saying everything has to be achieved through negotiations with the boroughs? The result of that is fewer homes for social rent, less housing for those who desperately need it, and a mayoralty and leadership that does not seem as desperately concerned about social housing as the previous Mayor was.
When it comes to building far fewer social housing units, this Government have the record to beat. Under them, the net change in social housing stock has been a loss of some 480,000 units, so they have very little to crow about. In the past five years, 122,000 houses have been added to the social housing stock, but for the same period before 1997 the figure was 257,000. There has therefore been a dramatic slow-down in the number of homes added. Moreover, one in six homes is judged by the Government's own measure to be non-decent.
If a local authority such as Westminster was therefore to make the decision that only 11 per cent. of all housing constructed in the borough year on year would be affordable, should it be allowed to do that even at the expense of spiralling homelessness and the second worst overcrowding rate in London?
It is key to fixing this housing crisis, for which the current Government more than any other have to take their share of responsibility, that we understand that the trick is to build more homes in total in order that everybody at every level of the housing market, right down to those people who are homeless, get the opportunity to live with a decent roof over their head. The obsession with targeting, numbers, sub-numbers and sub-targets is not solving the problem; in fact, it has made it much more acute. The people I meet when I visit homelessness shelters do not say to me that the problem is that the target for affordable home building is not great enough. They say that the problem is that not enough homes are built, and the people who run those organisations say the problem is that there is nowhere to move people. The root of the problem is that there are 480,000 fewer units of social housing under this Government. We cannot hide behind statistics such as the percentage of new-build; the problem is that this Government have built less affordable housing and less housing overall.
If the percentages do not matter and only the numbers for the absolute provision of housing matter, why is it that a low percentage does not necessarily equate to better numbers, as we can see in the failure to meet housing need? Surely housing need should be going down when the numbers are going up, regardless of percentages, but that is not happening.
Since this Government came to power, the housing waiting lists have increased from 1 million to 1.8 million families. That means that there are probably between 4.5 million and 5.5 million people languishing on the social housing waiting lists. It is getting ridiculous to be constantly lectured on how policies involving targeting, top-down Government initiatives and headline-grabbing news could possibly be the solution when the Government have failed to solve any of the problems for more than a decade. We need a new approach and a fresh start, and we need to find ways to ensure that housing actually gets built in this country to an extent that is commensurate with what people require in local communities.
We also need to solve some of our long-term housing problems, such as the so-called tenant tax. That is the confusing housing revenue account—or, rather, negative housing revenue account. It is a system whereby 140 of the councils that have their own stock or arm's length management organisations are paying into the pot and just 40 are getting something out of that pot. What happens to the rest of the money? It is sent to the Treasury, which keeps it. The sums involved are £200 million this year, projected to rise to £300 million next year. I know that many Labour Members who are interested in this subject recognise that that is a real problem. It is a tax on people who can least afford to pay it.
As the Conservative who represents the most council tenants, I can tell the House that they look very poorly on the fact that up to 50 per cent. of the rent they have to pay goes out of the area. The money does not fix the homes in my constituency or help to build new homes, but is instead sent to the Government centrally. That is not a sensible way of going about housing policy and it is not helping anyone; it is taxing the poorest people through a tenants' tax. It is completely unfair and the Government admit that it is a problem. They have put it into one of their lengthy reviews. Can the Minister tell us when the review will finally report? It has been going on for about 14 to 16 months. When will the review into the negative housing subsidy finally reach some kind of decision and tell us what is going to be done about the tenants' tax?
I am so pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that very important point. Council tenants in Kettering borough pay £12 million a year in housing rent, £3 million of which disappears out of the borough and into the Exchequer's coffers. If Kettering borough council was able to keep that £3 million, it could do a lot to improve local housing conditions.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. My local council pays over about £16 million and it is not as if there is not a big housing need. I have said that the Government want us to build 10,000 to 15,000 homes in the area. There is a logical way to get some of those homes built, but taking the money back to the centre is certainly not helping to tackle that problem.
I am aware of the time and I wish to allow others the opportunity to speak, particularly the Front Benchers. As they will get a chance to speak anyway, it might make sense if I were to make a bit of progress.
The Prime Minister came into office two years ago saying that housing would be this Government's No. 1 priority. He said that it was so important that whoever took the post of Minister for Housing would have to sit in the Cabinet and attend its meetings, yet, as we have seen, there have since been not three but four such Ministers. That is hardly the mark of a Government who are taking the subject seriously. Many of the Government's flagship policies have floundered and then sunk entirely. We have seen the collapse of the eco-town project. There were to be 10 eco-towns designed to deliver sustainable living around the country, but that good idea has been completely messed up by this Government's implementation and, as far as anybody can tell, there is no likelihood of the eco-towns ever seeing the light of day. We have seen derision about home information packs, and no progress has been made on the zero-carbon homes initiative or on the negative housing revenue account—
The hon. Gentleman has made a remark that I hope he will withdraw because it is clearly completely wrong. He said that no progress had been made on reducing carbon. Does he recognise that over the past few years a remarkable change has taken place in the approach of house builders, registered social landlords and other housing providers, who have responded positively to the initiative taken by the Government to try to drive up energy efficiency standards? Code level 3 is now being delivered and code level 4 is being delivered by many RSLs. There has been a complete change in attitude towards reducing carbon, so will he please give the Government credit for that?
I certainly respect the right hon. Gentleman's considerable experience in the housing world and on the topic of housing, but I am fairly sure that Hansard will show that I was talking about zero-carbon homes, as in the stamp duty relief to which I made reference earlier. As I described, no progress has been made in defining what zero-carbon will mean. I went to some lengths to describe precisely how the Government have spent three and a half years considering the issue but have reached absolutely no conclusion.
This Government have failed this country on housing: they have failed with their top-down targets; they have failed to give young people the opportunity to own their own home; and they have failed to protect those who are in their own homes but are desperate for some kind of help. Such people have been misled by the promise of real help now—that has never materialised. The Government have grabbed the headlines, but the required home building has simply not happened. They have gone for the column inches, but we face a terrible legacy of Labour's failed housing policies. It is now time to end the headline-grabbing housing announcements and get on with building some homes.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add:
"notes that the Government has put in place comprehensive support to help households avoid repossession, that 220,000 households benefited from Support for Mortgage Interest last year, over 1,000 households have received free advice from their local authority each month since the launch of the Mortgage Rescue Scheme and many more are expected to benefit through the Homeowners Mortgage Support scheme and pre-action protocol;
further notes that the Government has helped over 110,000 households into shared ownership and shared equity since 1997 and that demand for HomeBuy remains high;
believes that the Government's zero carbon homes policy is a ground-breaking contribution to the fight against climate change;
notes that planning policy makes clear the need for more family homes and that the Government is reviewing the evidence on garden development;
notes that the highest rate of housing supply since 1977 was reached in 2007-08 and that the Government has brought forward many measures to help the construction industry, most recently £1 billion in the 2009 Budget, including £400 million to unblock stalled development and £100 million for council house building;
further notes that regional planning is open and transparent and that regional planning bodies are required to take into account housing need;
believes there is no evidence that Home Information Packs have any adverse impact on the market;
and further notes that the Government is pursuing reform of council housing finance and the private rented sector and has set up the Tenant Services Authority to raise standards by putting tenants at the heart of regulation.".
I welcome this debate, and the remarks made by Grant Shapps at the start of his contribution. This is particularly the case on this, my second day in the job. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Austin, is in his first day in his new post, although he has been a councillor and a housing officer in the past. This is my fifth job in government, and normally, Conservative Members have been kind enough to drop me a note of congratulation. This is the first time that I have encountered a motion of criticism tabled instead, but I welcome this chance for an early debate.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I am following some very good Labour Housing Ministers, in particular my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, who is one of the most distinguished, accomplished and loyal Labour Ministers I have had the privilege to serve alongside. I am proud to have been asked to do this job, because our home matters more to each and every one of us, and to our families, than almost anything else. It is hard to have a settled life without a decent secure home in which to live. If someone's home is at risk their life is in turmoil, and everything is insecure. I am proud to be in a party that has been serious about helping to improve and promote housing in this country, and to protect people in their homes.
Council housing remains a very important part of the housing stock. The Minister will know the importance of reviewing negative subsidy on the housing revenue account. Can he give us some indication of when the review will report and we will know what the situation is? Poole has an arm's length management organisation that is very concerned about what its future will be unless the funding situation is changed.
The short answer is soon. The slightly longer answer is that the detailed work, which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, who spoke from the Front Bench, will appreciate is complicated, has been largely completed. I am aware that this issue is one of the big concerns; it is one of the big jobs for me to nail, and I intend to do that soon.
The Government have shown—this is why I am proud to be a Labour Housing Minister in a Labour Government—a determination to try to improve the homes that people live in, to build the homes that people need to live in, and to help them to stay in their homes during this recession when they are at risk of not being able to do so. We have shown that during the 12 months of this economic downturn, and during our 12 years in government. We ended the long-term use of bed and breakfast for families with children five years ago. The number of families in temporary accommodation has fallen quarter on quarter for more than three years. More than 1 million people who are disabled or elderly, or who have other special needs, are able to live in their own homes because of the Supporting People programme, and more than 1 million families now live in decent homes because of our programme of repair and refurbishment, and because we dealt with the backlog left in 1997.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He must be aware that in London, particularly inner London, local authorities tend to place people in private rented accommodation rather than in council or housing association accommodation; that is because of the shortage. Huge rents are paid, usually by housing benefit—and therein lies a benefit trap for people who are in such properties. Can he offer us some hope that not only will there be a substantial building programme to end that practice, but some progress will be made on rent control so that the public no longer, in effect, subsidise the excessive rents charged by private landlords?
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall come to tenants' rights. That issue has been on my desk, and what I was doing on day one of my job was trying to find ways to increase building in order to meet the needs, particularly during this downturn, of people in his constituency, in other parts of London and in the rest of the country.
I congratulate the Minister on his new job.
In the boom phase of their boom-and-bust approach to housing, when prices were going up, Ministers told us that they were going up because not enough houses were being built. Why are prices now going down, and what is the remedy to falling house prices?
Before we hit this downturn, we had the highest level of house building for 30 years, with more than 207,000 new homes completed. During this recession, the answer has to be a Government prepared to do more—precisely the contrary to what we see from the Conservatives. They do not believe that the Government have a role to play, and they are not prepared to make the investment that is necessary. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that without the measures that we are trying to put in place, there would be more people losing their homes, fewer homes being built and a greater problem in providing the low-cost or low-rent housing that people will need in future.
It is difficult to know for certain, and we will have a much clearer idea in July when we have the first deadline for bids from local authorities for the special money that was set aside in the Budget. At that point I will be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question more clearly.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. Today in Rotherham—my constituency and his borough—I helped to open a new socially affordable housing unit that will provide a number of low-cost homes. That is the way forward.
My right hon. Friend is Daniel in the lion's den today, and we should give him a break. However, the plain fact is that in the 1950s, his predecessor under a different Administration, Harold Macmillan, went out and built 300,000 homes a year, council and private. May I suggest that that is not the worst of ambitions? If we build homes for the people of Britain, they will not vote for the British National party in Yorkshire, and my right hon. Friend will be a full member of the Cabinet.
Do you know, I had been wondering.
My right hon. Friend Mr. MacShane is dead right, and the Prime Minister made a point about that idea several months ago. It is quite clear that local authority building has a bigger role to play. That was signalled in the Budget, but there is more that we can do. The Prime Minister said back in February that
"if local authorities can convince us that they can deliver quickly and cost effectively more of the housing that Britain needs...then we will be prepared to give...our full backing and put aside any of the barriers that stand in the way of this happening."
That is a very important part of meeting the challenge ahead, and developing a bigger role for local authorities in helping to deal with the particular problems that they face in their areas.
I congratulate the Minister on his promotion to his post. The last word spoken by his predecessor about housing revenue accounts was in answer to a question that I asked last week. I put to my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett the possibility of councils retaining all rent income so that they could reinvest in their local housing stock, build new houses and have the same access as registered social landlords to grants and loans to tackle the housing crisis. She seemed well disposed towards those suggestions and ideas, which have come from a wide range of organisations and individuals. Would the Minister say that he was a fan as well?
I would, and in the spirit of what the Prime Minister promised, we are now changing the system so that local authorities can bid for housing grants on the same basis as housing associations. We are also ensuring that local authorities that receive grants from the Homes and Communities Agency can expect new homes to be excluded from the housing revenue account subsidy system. Those are steps to removing the barriers that we have seen in the past to councils playing a much bigger role in not just building but commissioning the houses that are needed in their areas.
I wish the Minister well in his aspiration to build more homes, but may I invite him to revisit the whole question of a one-size-fits-all housing policy for the country? He will recall that the former Salisbury district council ended up responding to the regional spatial strategy with a decision by the Liberal Democrat administration to build a huge new community in the middle of the countryside, with no infrastructure support. Will the Minister consider areas such as mine carefully? It has an area of outstanding natural beauty, a special area of conservation river, a world heritage site and a national park. Will he consider the absurdity that in those circumstances the planning authority does not have to listen to the water and sewerage companies? No statutory consultation with them is required, they are simply instructed, in completely inappropriate circumstances, "You will provide the water and sewerage." We have to address that problem in the wider context of housing provision right across the country.
In 48 hours I have heard a lot of jargon and read a lot of acronyms to do with housing, but a "one-size-fits-all housing policy" is not one that I have come across. It does not seem to fit the description that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield gave of our approach to housing, and I certainly do not recognise it. As for the serious local concern that Robert Key has about his constituency area, if he will allow me I shall look in detail at the points that he has raised and write to him in response.
As the Minister seeks to increase the available housing stock, may I commend to him the National Audit Office report of
May I wish the Minister all the best in his new job? On the subject of the money that has been allocated to local authorities, is he aware that the new unitary authority in Northumberland plans to pull down 30 or 40 council houses in my constituency to build an old people's home? I am not sure whether the money was allocated for that reason, but does he not think that that plan is a bit wonky?
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new job, and I welcome the Government's commitment to make money available for councils to start building houses again. I hope that that is just a first step towards a much larger programme. I do not know whether he has yet had a chance to read the comments of Sir Bob Kerslake, the chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government the other day. He said that if the schemes were to succeed, local authorities making bids would have to be prepared to put their land in for free, to get the maximum value out of the Government's money. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that is the case, and will he encourage local authorities to come forward with bids and put their land in, so that we get maximum value from the money available?
There are few in the House with a greater knowledge of these matters than my hon. Friend, and he is exactly right. In the pitch that local authorities are making for part of the £100 million that we made available in the Budget for councils to build, we are looking for them to put their own land into the pot. That will contribute not just to the building of lower-cost new houses, but potentially to building the houses that are needed more quickly. That is part of the advantage of looking to local authorities to do more, in precisely the way that I want to see, as does the Prime Minister.
I shall now say something about our response during the past 12 months. We have aimed to act swiftly to support those most affected by the downturn—first of all, people and families at risk of repossession, and of losing the very thing that is at the centre of the stability of their life: their home. We have acted to try to help those with particular problems in the housing market, including first-time buyers. We have also acted to try to support the construction industry, as well as to maintain the supply of new homes. At the same time, we have tried to pursue the longer term goals of increasing the supply of new homes, especially for low-cost rent or purchase. We have also looked to raise the quality, in both design and environmental terms, of homes, as well as to reinforce the rights of tenants.
Our approach to the recession and those at risk of losing their homes can be characterised in two ways. The first is an attempt to put in place universal support available to all, whatever their circumstances. The support for mortgage interest scheme helps more than 200,000 households through the benefit system. We acted in January to change the rules so that more people could get more help more quickly through that scheme. That is why the Council of Mortgage Lenders, in its evidence to the Select Committee, said that the
"reduction in the period for claiming income support mortgage interest was a pretty fundamental change...it has been of very significant assistance."
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his well-deserved promotion. As he outlines the measures available, will he contrast those with the level of support available in the early 1990s, when interest rates were 16 per cent. and people faced negative equity and losing their homes?
I have worked with my hon. Friend for a long time and I have a great deal of time for him, but he has just stolen some of my best lines. He is right. We have tried to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes the Tories did in the 1990s. Moreover, we have fundamentally different values, and a different view of the role of Government when people are struggling and the economy is in recession. That is why we have acted where we can to try to help people stay in their own homes. We have acted to try to help firms stay in business. We have acted to try to help people stay in work. That is the fundamental duty of a Labour Government when people are in trouble.
The universal support that we have tried to put in place for all families and households irrespective of means and circumstances includes free access to advice desks in courts across the country. That is an important part of the help that has been made available. It also includes the negotiation of a comprehensive range of support from lenders through the home owners mortgage support scheme, which has ensured that lenders view repossession as a last resort, rather than moving faster to try to repossess.
The motion mentions the special schemes for people in specific circumstances. For example, more than 130 vulnerable households have so far benefited under the mortgage rescue scheme. It does not necessarily entail a simple buy-back of those homes; it can mean—as it has done in many cases— a freeze in the repossession actions by lenders. The scheme is not simply about stepping in to take over the ownership and equity for people who cannot pay the mortgage at all. Local authorities report to us that as a result of the scheme, more than 4,000 households that have been struggling with their mortgages have received free advice from their local authority.
The measures are designed to be more than the sum of their parts. The combination of mortgage advice, intervention in the courts and lenders viewing repossession as a last resort means that in the first quarter of this year—a time when many would expect repossessions to rise—we have seen a 40 per cent. fall in applications to the courts by lenders to take possession of people's homes.
The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield said that repossessions were at a record high. Repossessions were at a record high in the early 1990s. They were at a record high of more than 75,000 in 1991, when one in 12 households were in arrears and 1.5 million people were in negative equity. The combination of the action we have taken to try to help people stay in their homes means that at the very point at which one might expect the number of repossessions to go through the roof, as it did in previous recessions, only 12,800 were reported in the first quarter of this year. The result is that the director general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders said last month that his forecast of repossession numbers this year now looks pessimistic, and he expects to revise it. That revision is a direct result of the action that we have taken, in combination with lower interest rates and other actions that we have taken on the economy.
We know that first-time buyers have been hard hit by a lack of credit, with lenders in some cases requiring deposits of up to 40 per cent. So despite falling house prices, they are unable to get on to the property ladder. Mr. Redwood mentioned home information packs, but it is the lack of access to credit that is the fundamental cause of stagnation in the housing market. There is no evidence to suggest that home information packs have added to the difficulties. On the contrary, a survey by Connells estate agents showed that sales with HIPs get to exchange six days earlier. ICM has highlighted the fact that more than eight out of 10 first time buyers in particular want more information, and HIPs are part of the answer.
The hon. Gentleman invited me to look at his green paper on housing and stronger foundations. I have done so, and I was struck by several aspects of it, not least the introduction by the Leader of the Opposition. He said:
"Generations of families are trapped in social housing, denied the chance to break out...I don't want a child's life-story to be written before they're even born".
The hon. Gentleman says that, but it is social stereotyping of the worst sort. The truth is that council housing and housing association housing have provided security, strong communities and decent homes, meaning a decent start for many families that they would not otherwise have been able to afford.
I have talked about some of the things that we have done. I have talked about the mix of housing built by housing associations and by councils. I have also been clear about the fact that I see a much bigger role for councils in future. That is one of the big tasks that face me.
If I may, I wish to accept the invitation from the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield to look carefully at what the Tories are saying about housing. What comes over clearly is not a desire to build, to protect tenants' rights, or to give people a decent and secure home. Instead, it is a desire to remove the right to security from council tenants and housing association tenants—
Well, I have to say that, two days into this job, I am aware of a cacophony of Tory voices, some of them billed as experts and advisers on Tory policy, clamouring for the right to remove people's security of tenure, especially in local government housing. These are not marginal figures. They include the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, who is a distinguished and influential figure in Tory party policy circles. He published a paper in which he called for
"tearing down the Berlin Wall of varying tenure and rent levels that operates between the private rented and social rented sectors".
In other words, 8 million people—4 million families—would have the security of their home reduced to a two-month notice period.
If I understand correctly, the suggestion by that Tory spokesperson was that the Berlin wall between rent in the private rented sector and the social rented sector should be torn down. Surely if rents in the social sector in London went up to the level of the private rented sector, everybody in council accommodation in London would effectively be unable to work because they would lose their home, as they would lose their housing benefit. Is that really the policy that the Opposition propose?
That is the sort of intervention that I would expect from my hon. Friend. She sees very clearly that this is not just a question of removing the rights of tenure and removing security. The question of the Berlin wall between rent levels has profound implications of exactly the nature that she identifies.
It is not just a matter of the Opposition removing the rights to security and the rights of council tenants or housing association tenants. The truth is that they do not believe in social housing in the first place—there is no mention of it in tonight's motion. That is the case at all levels of the party— [ Interruption. ] They protest, but they have not put it in their motion. This is a debate about housing. If they believed in social housing, they would not be talking about cutting £800 million from the housing budget. They would not be talking about cutting £240 million from the budgets of local authorities. Those are not cuts for the future, but cuts that they would make now if they had the chance in government.
I talked about that being true at all levels of the Conservative party. It is true at a national level, but what about London? What about the Mayor of London? He scrapped the Labour Mayor's 50 per cent. affordable housing target—a Labour Mayor and a Labour regime that believed in social housing—in favour of what he calls negotiation with the boroughs. I will tell the House what has happened there: he is allowing them to shirk their responsibility to provide housing at levels that people can afford, whether they rent or buy. Members can look across the Tory boroughs at what this new Tory Mayor is allowing them to get away with. I mentioned Hammersmith and Fulham; my hon. Friends know—
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, not least because I cannot make the points that I would like to make in this debate, because my voice has gone. I am grateful that he has made the point about Hammersmith and Fulham, but will he bear it in mind that the points about abolishing security of tenure, market rents and having no responsibility for homelessness are not just ravings committed to paper? They are being implemented on my constituents today, with the demolition of their homes, the sale of their homes and the refusal, on purely ideological grounds, to build a single social rented property. What is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham today is the Tory plan for housing in Britain tomorrow.
My hon. Friend talks about Tory ravings; I have another example. It is not just from any old councillor, but from one of the housing advisers at Westminster council. If Members are looking for ravings, then this is an interesting article from Localis, the policy platform. The adviser talks about supporting social housing as an
"absurd, unjust and unfair subsidy".
If these were just ravings and writings, I would not be so concerned, but my hon. Friend Mr. Slaughter is right. He has told me about a development in Shepherd's Bush, on Bloemfontein road in his constituency. It is a £50 million development that, under the Labour Mayor and Labour council, was set to have contained 50 per cent. affordable housing—half for low-cost sale and half for low-cost rent. Under the new regime, now that the Mayor of London has let local councils in London off any responsibility for providing this housing, that will now be only 39 per cent. affordable housing with no provision for rent at all. The truth is that the Conservatives do not understand this type of housing. They do not support it, but they just dare not say so this side of an election.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the deputy cabinet member for housing in Westminster. Is he aware that in the same article the councillor went on to describe council housing as:
"A unique version of 'who wants to be a millionaire' UK welfare state style" and as a
"subsidy production...machine with lottery style levels of winnings"?
Does that, to my right hon. Friend, suggest someone who supports providing affordable housing for low-income households?
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. Of course, his Government are taking 20 per cent. of the rents off my tenants in Poole and whizzing it into central London to Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, Camden, Islington and the other authorities. If they are such lousy authorities in central London, why take £4 million from Poole?
We have had several recommendations from Opposition Members that contributions to the housing revenue account from their local authorities should be repatriated. Does my right hon. Friend share my suspicion that, were there to be a Conservative Government, unless they pledged additional money for housing investment, tenants in areas such as mine—in Hammersmith and Fulham, in Westminster and so on—would be dramatically worse off?
My hon. Friend, who understands these things as well as any other Member of the House, is right about those risks and about the dangers in the system. Precisely the same risks and hidden aims can be found in claims that the Opposition want to see localisation of the business rate, as that would drive a coach and horses through their ability to redistribute funding to local areas and local councils from areas that have the capacity and high tax base to raise it to those that have a low tax base but perhaps a high need for it.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been making a superb speech. Will he clarify whether he is saying that under a future Tory Government—heaven forbid—the good folk of Stoke-on-Trent would have less subsidy for council housing in their area?
That is easy. What is clear for Stoke-on-Trent is that were the Conservatives to come into Government, the funding for housing would be cut, the funding for local councils would be cut and the people of Stoke-on-Trent, many of whom need that support from central Government, would simply not get it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for being so generous with his time. I wanted the opportunity, like many others here tonight, to congratulate him on his new role, which he is fulfilling with great promise this evening. The implication of what he said about Conservative party policy is, of course, much greater. The last time the Conservatives deregulated rents, they said, "Let housing benefit take the strain." The implication for public expenditure of such proposals from a party that says that we have to restrict public expenditure is either that such expenditure will go through the roof or that tenancies will be jeopardised across the country.
Spot on. I can see why my hon. Friend serves with such distinction. He is certainly not wasting his time on the Select Committee on the Treasury, and I regret only that that commitment meant that he had to step down as my Parliamentary Private Secretary. I am grateful for the support he gave me, although I think that the period was too short.
The motion ignores entirely our record of success over the past 12 years, with unprecedented investment in social and affordable housing and unprecedented investment in dealing with a backlog of repairs and homes for 2 million people that simply were not decent enough to live in. It ignores the fact that house building in 2007-08 was at the highest level for 30 years. It ignores the dramatic falls in the levels of homelessness and the changes in the planning system that will make things faster, fairer and more strongly democratic. It also ignores the recent reforms that give tenants stronger rights and a more powerful voice.
The Government's amendment provides a fuller and fairer picture of our housing policy record. I am proud of much of what we have achieved so far, but I am also clear that we have a great deal more to do. We must do much more to help people get into the homes that they need, and to stay in the homes that they have. In particular, we have a great deal more to do to ensure that the homes that people need in future are built and available for them.
That is my task, as Housing Minister, from tomorrow—from day three.
May I begin by welcoming the Housing Minister and all the new ministerial team to their roles? Obviously, the Minister is not new to the Department, but I am sure that he will find the housing brief the most interesting and challenging part of the Communities and Local Government portfolio. Personally, I am disappointed and sorry to see his predecessor, Mr. Wright, go to his new post as Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I hope that the Minister will pass on my best wishes to him. It became almost a weekly ritual for us to debate housing in Westminster Hall, and he always made his points with charm and courtesy. I thank him for that.
It is a great frustration for me to debate yet another Conservative motion that has nothing positive to say. The Conservative analysis of Government failures in housing seems largely correct: it is certainly true that the Government's mortgage support scheme has so far helped just two people, that the facility for zero stamp duty for zero-carbon homes has helped just 18, that Government policies are leading to woefully inadequate numbers of homes being built, and that almost all of them are small flats. It is also a statement of the obvious that the Prime Minister appears to show a careless disregard for his own Housing Ministers, but where are the new ideas in the motion?
The motion is just one long whinge, and I for one find it deeply depressing. We have just lived through probably the most difficult few weeks in politics that I have experienced in my lifetime, and I suspect that most hon. Members will not be able to remember any time as difficult. Faith in representative democracy and in this place is at an all-time low: just one person in three turned out to vote last week, and it is really difficult to persuade people that politics actually matters and can make a difference.
I have spent most of the last few weeks going into schools, and it has been harder than ever to convince young people that being an MP is an amazing and incredible job because one has an opportunity to change not just the life of one person, but whole systems. Yet we are stuck here until 10 o'clock on a Tuesday evening debating an Opposition motion that does not mention a single idea for changing anything at all. It is no wonder that voters are disillusioned—I feel disillusioned too.
The hon. Lady made a very good point about flats. Does she agree that one of the worst things about an overarching central planning system is that it gives us lots of flats that cannot be sold, when what we need are family homes? Many families are living in very overcrowded conditions, and flats are not the solution.
The Conservatives do not have any proposals to address that problem, which I am not sure is governed entirely by planning. I think it is mainly to do with targets and how housing associations are funded, but they do not seem to have any solutions in that regard either.
I accept that the Conservative spokesperson has recently produced a couple of housing policy papers. The first, the so-called "Shapps report", contained no policy proposals whatsoever, being just a string of graphs that some researcher had downloaded from the DCLG website. His later papers on empty properties and building homes were notable for a much higher quality of graphic design, but that was not enough to distract me from the absence of any promises of new money.
The problem is that abolishing central targets alone will not build any new homes. We agree that it will build different types of homes, but it will not build any more homes. If the Conservative spokesperson is so pleased with the policy papers that he has produced, why on earth did he not put anything of what they contain into the motion that we are debating today? Instead, we have 11 lines of sweet Fanny Adams to discuss.
The hon. Lady is disputing whether we should argue over targets, but I am sure that she will accept that the Liberal Democrat council in St. Albans has successfully defeated the Government's regional spatial strategy on targets. I welcome that, as local people should decide how many homes there should be and where they should be placed. It is not just a question of having more and more homes: we need to put the infrastructure in place first, and then give local people the power to make decisions. I should have thought that she would welcome that, and not say that we need more houses regardless of what local people want.
If the hon. Lady had listened, she would know that I did not dispute the proposal to abolish central targets. What I said was that that alone would not build any new houses.
We attempted to amend the Conservative motion and, although our amendment was not selected for debate, it is on the Order Paper and hon. Members are welcome to read it. They will see that we accept the motion, and then go on to propose some solutions—something lacking from anything put forward by the Conservatives.
I accept the whingeing in the Conservative motion, and the criticism and analysis that it contains, but let us have some sort of solution that would make things better. Without that, why are we here? What were we elected for if we do not have any ideas for making Britain a better place? The motion is just pointless.
I hope that I can help the hon. Lady. Nowhere in the Conservative motion or the amendments proposed by the Government and the Liberal Democrats is there any mention of rural housing and the crisis that exists there. I know that hon. Members in all parties know exactly what I am talking about. As Grant Shapps knows, I am a great advocate of community land trusts. We have to look at rural areas, as the housing crisis is not confined to urban Britain. Our towns and villages have insufficient housing for people of lesser means, and I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that we have to address that as well.
I agree completely with hon. Gentleman, although I point out that my amendment deals only with housing and makes no mention of the words "urban" or "rural" specifically. I also agree with him about community land trusts, which he and I have debated in Westminster Hall. The trusts are very important in Cornwall and many other rural areas, and they may even represent a policy on which we can achieve all-party agreement.
I said that the Conservative motion was vacuous, but the Government amendment reminds me a little of the string quartet that kept playing as the Titanic sank. There is no acceptance of what is happening in the real world: the Government hunker down and comfort themselves by reeling off a list of statistics while closing their ears to the desperate cries of those who have lost their homes, who live in cramped and unacceptable homes or who have no hope whatsoever of getting even that.
Some 1.8 million families are languishing on council lists waiting for a suitable home that they can afford to rent. In London, around one household in 10 is waiting to be rehoused. In my constituency, the figure is even higher, with one household in five stuck on the waiting list for a council or housing association property.
Earlier, Mr. MacShane mentioned the link with the British National party, and I think that he is right. Some of the areas worst affected in terms of housing are in the old Labour heartlands. The very people who elected this Government are the ones most let down on the issue of housing.
Housing is a powder-keg issue. It ignites rows about race and immigration, and it provokes people to lose faith in the system. It is the very issue that fascist parties rely on to breed resentment and hate. The Leader of the House is correct to say that the Government should take responsibility for the rise of the BNP, and I completely agree. However, if there is to be any hope of tackling that sort of fascist politics, housing is where the Government have to start.
What is needed is a serious investment in affordable housing to rent. The Government invested £12.5 billion in a VAT cut that made little or no difference to people's lives, when they could have spent that on building tens of thousands of more homes for people to live in.
The Government also need to accept that the old cross-subsidy model of house building is not going to build any new homes in the short term. They need to scrap Treasury targets on the number of units per unit of subsidy so that housing associations have the confidence to know that they can use the money available to build without facing penalties later.
It is ridiculous that at the very time in a recession that we need house building to increase, building has been grinding to a halt. So much for the fiscal stimulus. By the time we get out of the recession, housing need will be greater, house prices will again spiral out of control, and we will not be able to do anything about it because the builders will all have retrained or gone back to Poland. We will have nothing with which to tackle the problem.
The Government have a real opportunity to improve housing now. Major investment now could absolve them of the sins of the past 10 years. I hope they will realise that they have an opportunity now and a clear way to make amends. I was pleased to hear the new Minister say how important he thinks it is that councils should be able to build homes. Councils are desperate to be able to build new homes for families in their area. They have to pick up the pieces when homeless families land on their doorstep, but they have only limited powers to fix the problem.
The Prime Minister made warm noises about that several months ago, but the proposals that were put forward were thin on the ground. The Minister was not sure how to answer the question from my hon. Friend Bob Russell on how many new homes would be built with the new money available. We calculated that it would be about 900 homes. That is two or three for every local authority area, which will make only a tiny dent in the number of 1.8 million people on housing waiting lists.
If councils are to be able to borrow to build, they need to know what their asset base and their rental income will be. Taking new homes alone out of the housing revenue account is not enough. We must have fundamental reform of the housing revenue account system now. I am pleased to hear from the Minister that it will conclude soon, but we have heard that for a very long time. Every time there is a change of Housing Minister, it gets further delayed.
I was pleased to hear the Conservative spokesperson join our campaign to end the tenant tax, but I was left a little unclear about what the Conservatives' proposals would be. Ms Buck stated the position well for me. In my constituency, Brent, we receive a subsidy from poor tenants in Cambridge. It is invidious for poor tenants in Cambridge to be subsidising poor tenants' repairs in Brent, and a solution is needed. Our solution is that that should be topped up out of general taxation. People like me, who can afford to pay out of their taxes, should pay for that, but the Conservatives have no proposal at all, which means that there will be no money for repairs in places like my constituency.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. For all political parties, need has always been the basis of housing. If there is a debate about whether some areas should have resources and some should not, there has to be some kind of compromise. General taxation is one way of doing it, but at present the negative subsidy is rising so fast that in five years most councils will not have council housing stock, because of what is happening to the financial system.
I entirely agree that we must end the system of negative subsidy. It is ridiculous. Councils cannot plan because they do not know what money they will have from one year to the next. They need to know that their rental income is available to reinvest in their housing stock for repairs or for building, and so that they have something against which they can borrow, knowing what their future revenue stream will be. The Treasury currently keeps about £200 million of the money coming in from rental income, so it is not as though all of it is going to repair houses in other parts of the country. It is unacceptable for the Chancellor to keep a portion of that rent.
The second thing that the new Minister should do urgently is to give councils back their right-to-buy receipts. Only then can councils replace the homes lost through right to buy, to make sure that future generations have a chance of somewhere to live. Since 1980, 2.5 million council properties have been purchased under right to buy from a council stock that then stood at 5 million. It is no wonder that councils have nowhere for people to live.
Taken together, new money, investment of rental and right-to-buy income, and extension of powers to borrow would make a real difference to councils' ability to build homes that people need. But in the Conservative motion and in their green paper, they have no plans to do that. They have plans to review the HRA system and to end the tenant tax, but no plans to top up finance that is lacking for repairs. They have no plans to invest more money in social homes and no plans to give councils back money from right to buy, so I cannot see how they can deliver on their promise to build more council homes.
Does my hon. Friend recall that I could not get an answer from those on the Conservative Front Bench on whether a Conservative Government would bring back the building of council housing?
Yes. It was a depressing moment. The Conservative spokesman seemed to be unclear which direction he would go in, were he to become a Minister. We are calling for a general election and he hopes to become a Minister, but he does not seem quite sure of the direction in which he would take his party.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady's incredibly disparaging remarks about the Conservative party's policy in this area, yet the Conservatives do not seem to be prepared to answer on any of the issues. Does that not speak volumes about the vacuity of what the official Opposition are offering?
Yes. My hon. Friend Julia Goldsworthy said to me from a sedentary position that she was not sure whether that was because the Conservatives did not understand or did not care. I shall not be as mean as that, but they seem to be unwilling to put their policies out there so that people can scrutinise them and argue with them. I do not understand why they are elected if they are not prepared to debate ideas. It seems to me that that is why we are here.
It seems strange to be debating the matter when the Conservatives are here but silent. As they are silent, let us continue debating it. The hon. Lady heard the answer from my right hon. Friend the Minister. We know what the Conservatives' policy is because their think tanks are telling us. It is no more social housing, no security of tenure, market rents, no responsibility for homelessness, and effectively the end of social housing in this country. They will not say that because they know that 8 million people out there will rumble them if they hear it.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman could not do that and I should offer him some advice as someone who lost her voice after being ill. It is best to keep quiet. It will heal much more quickly if he says less, I promise, but I thank him for his intervention.
I shall continue to be a little bit rude to the Conservatives, and then I shall move on. On right to buy, not only have they no plans to give back right-to-buy receipts, but they want to extend right to buy to housing associations. That idea has been universally condemned. Housing associations already face great difficulty because of the current economic climate, and the Conservatives want to remove their rental income and dwindle their asset base. Who on earth do they think will lend money to them to build homes under those circumstances? Worse, a requirement to sell properties at below market values would be against the charter of most housing associations. It is not a feasible or a sensible policy to take forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the right to buy council housing stock led to cherry-picking and the loss of some of the best council housing stock, and meant the ghettoisation of some council housing? Does she not fear that exactly the same thing would happen if Conservative policy for other social landlords were implemented?
In addition to building new homes, it is important that we make a more concerted effort to bring empty properties back into use. Dr. Murrison made a point about MOD housing—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester has made many times in the Chamber. It is an excellent point, but we need to be willing to think flexibly also about empty commercial space during a recession, and to be prepared to offer short-life housing to people who want it. The single most important thing that the Government could do to help to bring empty properties back into use is to make renovating them cheaper. They should cut VAT on renovation, rebuild and then make grant available to housing associations to repair the empty properties that they buy, because at the moment they cannot use Homes and Communities Agency money to do so. The Government should also offer grants and loans to individuals to repair properties in return for lets to social housing tenants. All those things would make a difference.
The Conservatives' key policy for tackling empty properties is to reduce the space and design standard for social homes, and I wonder whether they have any idea how long the average social tenant spends in temporary accommodation. If one puts a tenant into a draughty or cramped unsuitable home as a supposedly short-term measure, most will still be suffering in unsuitable housing a decade later.
I am following the hon. Lady's argument on empty properties with great interest, because empty dwelling management orders, as she knows, are a totally under-utilised device. Indeed, they have been completely under-utilised by the Liberal Democrat-led council in St. Albans, so before she lectures all of us on bringing back empty homes, I should say that I have been pressing my council to get its empty homes back into use. However, it has not as yet chosen to use that device. We could all lecture each other on empty homes, so I hope that the hon. Lady will bear that in mind.
I am greatly relieved to hear the hon. Lady's conversion to EDMOs, because her party opposed them when they were debated in this place.
Early in the debate, a lot of time was spent poking fun at the Government's mortgage rescue scheme and its total inadequacy in the face of the 50,000 or 70,000 repossessions—depending on which estimate one takes—this year. However, I shall give some credit where credit is due, because the Government have done some welcome things, particularly on the changes to income support for mortgage interest. When we add up all the different schemes, however, we still have the problem whereby tens of thousands of people fall through the net and face having their home repossessed. Similarly, if the landlord of a bought or buy-to-let property gets into difficulty, the people renting such properties may find themselves on the street with no notice whatever.
My hon. Friend was just talking about how the mortgage rescue scheme has failed to help many people who face losing their homes. Last week, a very worrying case was raised with me of an individual who, at the beginning of December last year, thought that they would be one of the first beneficiaries of such a scheme, but, at the end of April, they were told that they no longer qualified. During that period, their mortgage payments were frozen, and they are now more likely to face repossession as a result of their being rejected for the scheme. Should not the Government be helping to prevent such problems rather than making matters worse?
I absolutely agree: it is a very worrying case. The difficulty is that many criteria have been drawn tightly, and it has been difficult for the people implementing the scheme to understand exactly what will happen as they go through the process. It takes a long time before someone is approved or found not to be eligible to claim help, and, in the meantime, they can get into great difficulty.
The Government introduced a pre-action protocol that I thought contained many useful things. I agreed with all the protocol's sentiments, which we called for before the Government published it, but the problem is that it has no teeth, and I cannot understand why the Government are not prepared to reform mortgage law to give it teeth. If we were to reform mortgage law, we could give the courts the power to intervene to enforce some of the good things that are in the pre-action protocol. We would also be able to deal with the situation when a landlord's home is repossessed and the people who rent it get no notice at all, except when they go home and find that the locks have been changed. We can deal with much of that simply by giving the courts the power to intervene and then to put the rest into guidance, as the Government have done. I pressed the Minister's predecessor repeatedly on the issue, and I hope that the new Minister will consider it afresh.
I am pretty fed up to be debating another Conservative motion that has nothing in it.
What depresses me is that the Conservatives have nothing to say on the issue and the Government seem to be sticking their head in the sand. It depresses me because my constituents need this place to take positive action and to do something to make their lives better.
I shall end by telling the House a story that, I am afraid, is typical in Brent. Lucy has been living in temporary accommodation in my constituency for 14 years. She lives in a two-bedroom flat with her four children and bids regularly on the choice-based letting system. However, the highest that she has ever been ranked is 140th out of 300, and she has no hope whatever of moving. Her eldest child is now 16 and has lived in that unsuitable property for almost her whole life. She needs some room—a bit of quiet and privacy away from brothers and sisters—to study for her GCSEs, otherwise the misery of her housing situation, which has blighted her whole childhood, will ruin her future, too. We need the Government to act for people like that. We have a new Minister; I implore him to make a new start.
I, too, should like to welcome the Minister for Housing to that most important post. About three quarters of householders in this country are home owners. For most of those people, most of the time, being a home owner has been a happy and successful experience. It has benefited them and their families enormously. Obviously, the majority of people still aspire to be home owners. However, people in many of those families are experiencing real pain because of a combination of factors, including lack of affordability and changes in their circumstances; in some cases they will have lost their job. That leaves many families genuinely worried, and they are sometimes at risk of losing their homes. That rightly causes concern to all of us. My right hon. Friend has already recognised that in the early 1990s the level of repossessions, with all the pain that repossessions put families through, was at least as high as it is now; in some cases it was higher. However, that should not stop us focusing a great deal of attention and support on those families. It is absolutely critical that we do everything that we can to reduce repossessions and to help people through a difficult time.
On looking at mortgage law, I agree with Sarah Teather that we should in some cases do more to enforce controls against lenders who are excessively zealous in the action that they are taking. One particular group of people about whom we need to worry are tenants in buy-to-let properties. In some instances, we should also worry about unauthorised tenants in properties in cases in which the mortgage holder has defaulted. Such tenants have virtually no protection and are at risk of being thrown out, sometimes with no notice whatever. In many cases, they then become the responsibility of the local authority. I know that the Government are considering the issue; it is important that they look at it closely and act swiftly. For a host of reasons—for the sake of the people involved, and because of the pressures on local authorities—we need to do what we can to support those individuals.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I agree it is important that the Government and the Minister should come forward with proposals as soon as possible. Does she agree that the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which is currently being considered by the House, provides an opportunity to make such proposals, and does she agree that the Minister should make the most of that opportunity to bring forward proposals as soon as possible?
I have not looked closely enough at the clauses of the Bill to know whether it would be an appropriate hook, but I see no reason at all why Ministers should not at least consider whether it provides an opportunity. There is no question but that there are large numbers of vulnerable households in such properties, whom we may need to act swiftly to assist.
Before I move on to the core of what I want to talk about, may I take the opportunity to raise with the Minister an issue that I have raised many times with his predecessors? It is the plight of local authority leaseholders—people who own ex-local authority stock, having bought it, sometimes through the right to buy, but more frequently through resale. In some cases—I am thinking of my constituents—as an unintended consequence of a desirable objective, namely the decent homes initiative, they face major works bills of £60,000.
Some groups of such leaseholders enjoy various concessions when it comes to that repayment. In particular, those who are retired are able to put a charge on their property for sale. However, many younger, working households have not so far been able to avail themselves of a scheme that gives them any realistic opportunity of being able to repay without losing their home. I am seriously worried about that group of people, and I urge the Government to swallow the resistance—a resistance that is also rooted in my local authority, Westminster, so it is cross-party—to providing practical support for those households. Some of them will lose their homes when those bills fall due, and they do not have the money to pay them.
There is an important point in my hon. Friend's comment. Generally speaking, what he has mentioned was not a problem among local authority leaseholders, although it depended a little on where they were. The leaseholders causing me the greatest concern were those who held leases in high rises; it is extremely expensive to carry out decent homes initiative work on high rises. Many other leaseholders, however, were perfectly able to sustain a mortgage on ex-local authority stock in normal times.
However, there is a genuine issue. Last week in my advice surgery, I met yet again a woman on housing benefit, who—extraordinarily—was allowed to buy her local authority property from Westminster council. I do not understand how anybody could have been complicit in allowing and encouraging people on very low incomes—sometimes benefit-level incomes—to buy their own homes.
It is also fair to say that the roots of much of the global economic catastrophe with which we are now dealing lie in the American sub-prime mortgage market, in which people who simply had no realistic means of repaying home loans were encouraged to buy. We all have to be careful, however; the issue is not confined to America and it is not just a party political point. We have an understandable desire to support and encourage people into home ownership, but there are people on the margins who should not have been so encouraged.
That brings me to my core point, which has been mentioned in this debate. I am thinking of the 4 million social tenants and the 4 million or so people—who overlap with the former to some extent—who are in a queue for social housing. Fundamentally, the big dividing line in housing policy is now between those of us who believe that social housing is part of the solution and those who believe that it is part of the problem. I say in all fairness that the Government have not built enough social homes; I have never believed that they have, and I am on record as having said that. I am concerned about meeting housing need, and I cannot deny that that is true.
However, it is also true, although ignored on the Opposition Benches, that the money that we have invested in social housing has been much needed investment in the decent homes initiative. We have rehabilitated and refurbished tens of thousands of homes in my constituency that were long overdue. The investment was made, although I would have preferred it to have been slightly more balanced towards new homes.
I do not want to correct my hon. Friend, but the situation is worse than that. The Tory council in my constituency tried to give back the decent homes initiative money; it said that it did not want it. Now the councillors involved describe it as an exercise in upgrading the deckchairs on the Titanic. They really do not believe that there is a future for social housing. They think that the £13 billion of decent homes initiative money was wasted.
My hon. Friend always manages to trump me when it comes to Hammersmith Conservatives; what is going on in that borough is jaw-dropping. He is absolutely right. Sometimes it seems to me that Hammersmith Conservatives make Dame Shirley Porter look like Octavia Hill. My hon. Friend will, no doubt, continue to fight that battle.
I return to the issue of the dividing line on social housing. The message coming through extremely strongly from the practice in Hammersmith, from the statements made by Westminster council's deputy cabinet member for housing and from many Conservative think-tanks and supporting politicians is that social housing is the fundamental problem. Even the Leader of the Opposition's introduction to Conservative housing policy talks about families being trapped in social housing. The language repeated again and again in such texts implies that tenants are second-class citizens. It equates social housing with deprivation and loss of status. The implication is that tenants should be ashamed. I deplore that, because social housing should be a choice and tenure is not a matter of morality. People in social housing may not be there for life. Obviously, with home ownership being so desirable because of the equity return over the years, many people want to leave their social housing at some point, when they can do so, and enjoy the benefits of home ownership. However, when and while they are tenants, they are not in some way morally inferior because of the exercise of that choice.
The thrust of the argument emerging from the Conservatives is focused on security of tenure. Tenants everywhere should be very worried about that emerging thinking because, as is well researched and documented, the loss of security of tenure has a devastating effect on communities and on the lives of the people it affects. There is a litany of policy in Conservative thinking that would do untold damage to neighbourhoods and families. It would also lead to additional expenditure being incurred by the public purse, particularly through housing benefit when tenants, whether in social housing or forced into the private sector, have to pay higher rents that must be picked up elsewhere by the public purse.
My hon. Friend must be aware from her constituency that the transient nature of communities where the majority of people are in private rented accommodation leads to fractured communities, a diminution of community life, and a less satisfactory form of existence than for those who have security of tenure in council and housing association properties.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is exactly why housing associations grew up in the first place—to meet the needs of vulnerable people who were forced into the private rented sector and whose lives were damaged as a result.
The emerging thinking in the Conservative party is extraordinarily damaging. It threatens market rents for tenants and the loss of security of tenure for tenants. The abandonment of targets and the lack of acknowledgement of the need for social housing, as reflected in the motion, would mean that those people continued to be treated and regarded as second-class citizens, and that their housing needs would not be met. This Government, with their investment programme in the decent homes initiative and an expanded building programme within a continued commitment to affordable accommodation with reasonable rents, have the only solution to the housing pressures that we face.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this important debate. I particularly enjoyed hearing the opening speech by my hon. Friend Grant Shapps. There is nothing that I wish to add to or detract from his critique of Government policy and his exposition of our policies.
My purpose is simply to add some remarks relating specifically to South Cambridgeshire and the application of Government housing policy even in the months still available to them. Much needs to be done by the Government to offset the difficulties that we face in meeting our future housing need. The Minister will be aware that South Cambridgeshire is one of those places where housing need is the most acute, as are the problems of affordability and the house price to earnings ratio. In Cambridgeshire we have never taken the view that we wish to constrain the availability of additional housing supply; we have always actively sought opportunities to match new housing supply to the evident requirement for employment and new housing in our area.
That is why, five or six years ago, we identified additional housing requirements through the county structure plan. In my constituency, we have given up a great deal of green belt. New developments are happening in Cambourne and in Trumpington Meadows. Through the structure plan, we are committed to the development of Northstowe as a new town of more than 9,500 homes. We have always advocated that. We recognised, after an exhaustive process through the structure plan, that that location was the right place for us to take the next step towards supplying a substantial number of new houses as part of a large increase overall. In my constituency, even on our existing plans, we intended to double the rate of new housing in the next few years.
It will be no surprise to hon. Members that, in the fourth quarter of last year, much of the impetus simply stopped. It is vital to regain some of that initiative. The Government can do several things to help increase housing supply and provide more affordable and social housing in South Cambridgeshire. Like others, I have witnessed the number of people seeking social housing more than double during my time as a Member of Parliament.
Some of my hon. Friends have already made the point, so I will not go on about it, that in South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge city, more than £11 million disappears in negative subsidy on the housing revenue account—something approaching 40 per cent. of the rental income in South Cambridgeshire. By the measure of housing need, which is the starting point for negative subsidy, we clearly have dramatically rising needs. We also need social housing and I therefore urge Ministers to act quickly to enable us in South Cambridgeshire and in Cambridge city to respond to the dramatic housing need by retaining more resources to improve our existing housing stock and add to it.
Secondly, let me consider Northstowe. The new Minister for Housing told us nothing about the Government's plans for eco-towns in South Cambridgeshire. Despite all our efforts to offer additional sites for major new developments, the Government wanted to wish an eco-town upon us. We said that it was in the wrong place, there was no infrastructure to support it and that it was environmentally unsustainable. The Government wanted to go ahead, we fought and, in the space of several months last year, we defeated the proposal. It went away and I hope that it does not come back. We in Cambridgeshire will decide where best to support new housing supply.
However, I stress to Ministers that, during the discussion last year with the Minister's predecessor but one, we made it clear that we wanted Northstowe in my constituency to be the first eco-town. In July 2007, just after the Prime Minister took office, one of his first proposals, which he set out in The Sunday Times, was to build eco-towns. The example that he gave was described as "Oakington in Cambridgeshire." Oakington, which is in my constituency, is the location of the planned new town of Northstowe. We want it to be an eco-town, an exemplar and the first new town of its kind in this country. We want it to go ahead, but that will not happen at the moment. Gallagher, the developer, has backed out and the proposal depends on the Homes and Communities Agency, with Government backing, being prepared to turn it into the first exemplary eco-town. I urge Ministers who are taking on their new responsibilities to consider positively how we can make Northstowe the first eco-town.
If we are to take a rational approach to providing additional housing, the Government must remove from the regional spatial strategy in the east of England the specification that the housing targets are "a minimum". If we carry on as we are, with little new housing being built, opportunistic developers will try to claim that, because we are not on track to meet the housing target in the regional spatial strategy, they can make highly speculative proposals for new house building in highly unsuitable locations at some unspecified time in the future. We will end up with an enormous overhang of designations for new housing in the wrong places, whereas local authorities should decide, with local people's support, where that new housing should be built, with the necessary infrastructure support. I urge Ministers to reject that misuse of language in the regional spatial strategy, which drives that bad effect.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Lansley, who made a thoughtful contribution and some points that deserve consideration. It was very different from the contribution from the Conservative Front Bench. I agree with Sarah Teather, who has now left, that that was vacuous. Indeed, in my view parts of it were positively dangerous.
I want to focus on a couple of the points in the Conservative motion, because it is important that we rebut them. First, Grant Shapps spoke from the Front Bench about the take-up of the mortgage support scheme and the mortgage rescue scheme, as well as the homebuy schemes. His comments were essentially debating points and party political point scoring, and did not give a realistic assessment of the reality of the situation.
I would point the hon. Gentleman to the interesting evidence that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government heard from the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Intermediary Mortgage Lenders Association. They said that it was far too soon to judge the success or otherwise of the two schemes to support people facing repossession, because of the time that it takes for people to get through to the end point. The famous two households at the end of the MRS involved individuals whose houses have been bought by a council or a housing association.
The CML and the IMLA both made the point that those schemes are actually about preventing repossession. Much of the benefit achieved by both schemes, including the one that was introduced as recently as April, has been in encouraging those who are experiencing difficulties to approach their lenders straight away. Regrettably, in the past, people having difficulty with their mortgages tended to put their heads in the sand and hope that the problem would go away. They would build up huge arrears and at that point there would be repossessions. The evidence from both of the current schemes is that many people are going to their lenders first and that lenders are exercising forbearance—although partly out of self-interest.
Lenders have realised that it costs a lot for a mortgage company to repossess a property—about £35,000 to £37,000—and there is not a lot of point in doing that in the current circumstances, because they would not be able to sell the property and recoup any losses. Lenders have been persuaded, partly in their own self-interest and partly because of the pressures put on them by central Government, that they should exercise forbearance, come to an agreement with their borrowers and use all possible measures to maintain people in their homes, thereby avoiding reaching the end of the process and having to get the council or a housing association to buy a property.
Simply to cite the figures for how many people reach the end of the process, as the hon. Gentleman did, is to make a debating point. It shows that he does not give two hoots about the individuals involved and does not want to have a constructive debate—and the same goes for his comments about the other mortgage scheme. [ Interruption. ] I notice that the hon. Gentleman is closing his ears, obviously because this is uncomfortable to hear, which will be interesting for everybody out there—not those in the Public Gallery, because there are not many there now, but for everybody who reads Hansard tomorrow. They will realise that the Opposition spokesperson is now chatting to the person next to him, because he does not want to hear the debate—which, if I may say so, also demonstrates his contempt for Parliament, as there is little point in having a debate if people do not listen to the contributions of others.
The second point in the Conservatives' motion, which nobody has even alluded to, is the ridiculous suggestion, which the Opposition constantly make, that it is the Government's planning guidance on housing that has led to a glut of flats. There are two reasons why there are so many flats in city centres. The first reason is that local councils have not used their planning powers properly and have allowed planning applications to go through. The second reason is that developers make more money if they pack lots of tiny flats on to a small site.
Opposition spokespeople frequently suggest that the reason why there are so many flats is the Government's rules on increasing the density of housing. Actually, the density of flats in city centres is many times higher than that set out in the guidance on density provided by the Government. The reason why flats are being built is that developers want to make the maximum profit, and that is what flats give them. Previously, they were able to sell the flats and get their money back. Supine councils do not make proper use of the planning powers that they already have to draw up proper local development frameworks that would allow them to refuse planning applications in the first place. It is ridiculous for the Opposition constantly to blame the Government's density requirements and to pretend that local councils have no responsibility in the matter.
That brings me to the points that an Opposition worth their salt should have been making today, because there are some things that the Government need to do more of in order to address the problems before us. Mr. Redwood, who is obsessed with regulation, made the astonishing point that he could not understand why house prices were falling even though housing need still exceeded housing supply. That is happening because there is no mortgage money. House prices, regrettably, do not respond to people's need; they respond to people's ability to compete for a scarce resource, which bears almost no relation to people's need for housing. Regrettably, many people who need housing do not have the financial resources to express that need economically.
In order to enable more people to gain access to the housing market, we need to free up mortgage finance. That is not within the gift of the Department for Communities and Local Government; it is within the gift of the Treasury. Some very reasonable complaints were raised in the Select Committee about the asset-backed securities guarantee scheme. I cannot go into the technicalities now, but I refer the Minister to the transcript of the evidence. Clearly, certain things need to be done to tinker with that scheme in order to get mortgage finance flowing more freely. That would help shared ownership and shared equity schemes, in particular, and enable people to express their housing need economically.
The Government are taking certain steps to try to get the housing market moving again. Evidence was given to the Select Committee by the two lenders as well as by the National Housing Federation and the Home Builders Federation, representing the housing associations and the builders. All those groupings said that the Government were doing the right thing, but not enough of it, and that more money should be made available for the schemes. In relation to the asset-backed securities guarantee scheme in particular, they said that it was not just a question of more money, but that the Treasury should be prepared to take greater financial risks. I urge the Government to consider that idea.
The major criticism that the Opposition have made of the Government's steps to cushion businesses and home owners from the effects of this recession is that we are spending too much money, that we have borrowed too much, and that we should be borrowing and spending less. That is at complete variance with what was said by all those who gave evidence to the Select Committee. They said that, if anything, the Government should be borrowing and spending more now in order to try to restart house building, to keep the construction industry going and to ensure that the people whom we represent, and care deeply about, can gain access to the housing that they need at a price that they can afford, either to buy or to rent.
I therefore urge the Government to consider increasing their spending even more, because if we do not spend that money now, the cost that society will subsequently have to bear of the lost opportunity to keep the house building industry going will be immense, as will the cost to the people whom we represent, because more families will have to live for longer in unsatisfactory and overcrowded accommodation. Those costs will be borne by future generations.
Housing is an important subject for many of our constituents, and I therefore welcome this opportunity to make a small contribution to the debate tonight. I have raised questions on a number of occasions about the housing revenue account and the negative subsidy. I do not pretend that there is an elegant or easy answer to this complex and difficult question, but many areas of the country are contributing substantial sums of money, which is having a big impact on rents and on the ability of housing authorities and arm's length management organisations to deliver a service. It is not necessarily coming from the leafier or more prosperous areas of the UK. There are areas such as Bolsover and Chesterfield—and even areas such as Barking and Dagenham in outer London—that have major housing problems, but are contributing to the pot. The Government need to come up with some kind of long-term solution, so that authorities contributing a lot of money can plan and perhaps provide some additional housing stock—or at least spend money on reducing the voids.
More importantly, when I talked to the Poole housing partnership, I found that it welcomed the decent homes standard and the money spent on housing stock. It also said, however, that if it had to continue paying the massive sums of money levied, it might not be able to maintain the housing stock in the long term. It might then have to look at some alternative arrangement and become more like a housing association. That would be a pity, because its satisfaction rates are very high. It is empowering tenants, teaching them to do all sorts of things like use computers and helping them with advice on how to deal with debt. The relative income levels of council tenants in my Poole constituency are surprisingly low, so there is a real need, as house prices are very high and social housing is going to take a major part of the strain.
As I said, there is no easy solution, but there is a problem. Many Government Back Benchers have realised that at the current rate of increase, it will not be many years before as much as £1 billion will be raised from tenants' rents and then redistributed to other areas. The Minister said earlier that he would soon come up with a solution; we certainly need one soon.
My hon. Friend Grant Shapps referred to home information packs, which were debated in connection with the Housing Bill. When we raised the question of what happens with these packs, which are time limited, if people do not sell their homes, the Minister always assured us that everything would be swept up when the home was eventually sold—but if someone puts their house up for sale in the current housing market and it does not sell for a while, they might have to provide two or three packs, with attendant costs and consequences. An argument for HIPs might be made in a booming economy, but in a housing market that is extremely sticky and likely to remain so for a while, they are an additional burdensome cost for people trying to sell their homes. They have become an impediment, so if my party gains the confidence of the British people and forms the next Government, it will repeal the HIPs as an important element in the strategy for housing market recovery.
I think that the Homes and Communities Agency is a welcome development. In the current economic situation, it will play a major and important role in kick-starting some developments that have fallen by the wayside. My hon. Friend Mr. Lansley mentioned the agency in the context of Cambridgeshire.
Clearly, the Government are doing some good things, but what they have done in other respects is surprising. If someone had asked me in 1997 how many social housing units I thought the Government would provide during their term in office, I would have said, "Well, this is a Labour Government, so they'll provide a lot of social housing." I know that decent homes standards was their priority, but the reality is that the Government's record on building council housing and other forms of social housing has been remarkably poor. Bob Russell often makes his point with a degree of force and common sense. The result is that fewer houses are available for those who need them.
My hon. Friend Dr. Murrison mentioned armed forces housing. I welcome the recent legislative change to allow members of the armed forces to count for something on housing lists. That is rather a good thing.
The overall housing situation is one of great difficulty. I agree with the Minister that fewer people are currently losing their homes. Given that we have a crash market, many lenders are being sensitive and sensible in their dealings with people, but that is not because of Government policy. As we heard earlier, Government policy has not achieved an awful lot. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has always said that provided that people who are in trouble tell lenders honestly that they are in trouble, it may well be possible to work out a solution. I welcome that.
As I said during the economic debate the other day, I am not very pessimistic about the long term. I am pessimistic about our levels of debt, but I am not pessimistic about the British economy. I think that it will grow next year. Given the amount of money that the Government have spent, the devaluation and the reduction in interest rates, it would be very surprising if things did not start to move. In the light of some of the initial figures that we are seeing, I think it legitimate to say that the position is stabilising, and will probably improve next year.
I hope that that will cause the housing market to stabilise as well. One of the big differences between the situation today and the situation in the early 1990s is the substantial level of personal debt among households. We know that unemployment will rise, although we pray that it will not rise by too much. People who lose their jobs, who do not receive help with their mortgages for quite some time, and who have credit card debts and other loans, will very quickly find themselves in financial trouble.
Finally, let me point out to the Minister that Dudley is one of the authorities that make a major contribution in the form of negative housing subsidy, and that that issue needs to be considered. We need a formula, which may have to be a compromise. Clearly funds cannot be taken out of central London overnight, but we need some way of getting through the current circumstances. We should ensure that authorities such as the Poole housing partnership can plan, maintain their independence and provide a good service, but we should also have a needs-based housing formula.
I welcome the debate, and congratulate both Ministers on their appointments. I look forward to hearing what the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Austin, has to say in response to the debate.
I have the privilege of representing an inner-city community where housing is an enormous issue. Only 30 per cent. of my constituents are owner-occupiers; the rest occupy council, housing association or privately rented properties. The levels of deprivation and overcrowding are extremely serious. I compliment the Government on the amount of money they have given us to establish decent homes standards, improvements in community areas on estates and better estate management—that has been a huge step forward and a welcome development—but there are still many people on the housing waiting list, many who cannot even get on to the housing waiting list, and many on the internal transfer list.
The knock-on effects of overcrowding in producing poor health, under-achievement in education and all the other social breakdown issues are often directly related to housing. We all know of families who are experiencing hard times because of overcrowding, but when such families are given decent houses or flats, everything suddenly starts to look a great deal better. I believe that we—Government and local authorities—must do everything possible to improve the housing situation.
In London as a whole, 200,000 families are living in overcrowded accommodation and 50,000 are living in temporary accommodation. Those figures are horrendous by any stretch of the imagination. The position can be dealt with only through a combination of policies, including a large amount of public investment in housing for people in desperate need.
While I understand why the Government are so sensitive about the issues of home ownership and mortgages, I feel that, since the 1950s, the country has developed an obsession with home ownership, often at the expense of social rented accommodation. There is an obsessive belief that everyone should aspire to home ownership, while council housing is seen as the housing of last resort. I should love to see people being given a genuine choice between renting and buying, with no social stigma attached to not owning a home.
No other country in Europe has become involved in home ownership to the same degree, and no other country in Europe has the same levels of excessive personal debt—largely because of home ownership, or because of the ability to borrow against what were perceived to be permanently rising house values and all the problems that accompanied that. I believe that we should take a rain check, and think it all through a bit more.
Both the Minister and the Conservative Front Bencher are new to their posts so I am sure they will find it difficult to answer all the points raised, but I would be grateful if they tried to deal with some of them. The latest Government statement on house spending includes the allocation of £100 million for new council development. That is very good news, but it will not build many homes. Although £100 million might sound like a lot of money, council places in London cost about £100,000 per unit to develop. That allocation is a very good start, but we have to go a lot further, and a lot faster. We must also recognise that one problem is that, because of the Tory Government's policies in the 1980s of pushing sales of council properties and compulsory competitive tendering for council services, local authorities currently do not have enough skilled architects, planners and all the other expertise required to develop a housing programme, as that has either been sold off or gone away.
Over the past few years in London, it has generally been housing associations that have developed new housing—that is also the case in most other parts of the country. The Minister needs to look at a number of issues in this regard, such as the relationship between housing associations and the Homes and Communities Agency, and the possibility of zoning them because there are some highly inefficient housing associations with large numbers of properties scattered over a huge area and the on-costs of managing them are very high. The housing associations are aware of that, and some of them are undertaking sensible transfers to bring about more efficient management. We also need to look at the democratic running of housing associations, because there is a degree of accountability for council tenants and leaseholders as they can get hold of a councillor or council official, but I do not find the same degree of accountability in some housing associations. Some are exemplary, but others are truly awful in their management methods and their tenants' representation methods, and we need to be tougher with them. They are not private companies; they are handling very large sums of public money and dealing with housing applicants who are nominated to them by local housing authorities.
I started my contribution by pointing out that in my constituency, as in most in London, the fastest growing sector is the private rented sector. In an intervention on the Minister I made the point that my local authority, like many others, now routinely nominates people to the private rented sector because there are no council or housing association places for those in desperate housing need. The rent deposit is paid by the local authority, and housing benefit pays for the rent; and the rent levels are astronomical. I could give many examples of flats in the same council block where, for example, one is council-owned and is paid for by housing benefit of £100 a week and the other has been bought under the right to buy and then rented out on the private market at £300 a week, which is also paid for by housing benefit. The amount of public money we are pouring into the pockets of private landlords is ludicrous; the total is several billions per year in London. The total housing benefit bill in London is about £4 billion; I do not know the exact breakdown between the public and private sectors, but I am sure the unit cost of private rented accommodation is much higher. In the short term, there is not a lot we can do about that, as the private rented sector is providing housing for people, but rent controls in the private sector would prevent profiteering. Above all, we should provide far more places built to a decent standard, because I am shocked and appalled by the conditions of the private rented accommodation in which many people are placed at present.
Members' work at our advice surgeries has made us all armchair experts on housing allocation policies. People come to us and say, "I'd like to get a house as we're a bit overcrowded." I look up and ask, "Any illness in the family?" They reply, "Not much", so I say, "How much? What's wrong with you?" When they tell me, I say, "Yes, that sounds bad." We go through the whole process, and then I might think that they will get a few more medical, overcrowding or sharing points. There is an entire science involved. I wish that that science did not exist; I wish it was not necessary. Within that science, we endlessly change what the priorities are, and two groups of people, at opposite ends of the scale, lose out. First, most local authorities have long since ceased to house single people unless they are either very vulnerable or desperately ill. There are many very aggrieved single people in their 20s and 30s who have chosen to lead a single life—that is their lifestyle choice—but have no chance of getting local authority housing. They have no chance of buying because their salaries are not high enough and they even find it difficult to go into shared ownership. We need to examine the lifestyle choices that people are making and start to reflect them a bit more. Let us move to the other end of the scale. The building programmes of local authorities, housing associations and private sector developers are all ignoring large families—they do exist. We need family-sized housing to be constructed as part of the entire development programme.
Lastly, the Minister has doubtless been made aware of and fully understands all the issues associated with council housing and its finance. He has had plenty of time to get his head round that, having been in the job a whole day.
It takes but an hour.
There are major issues to address. We must review the housing finance system to end what is, in effect, the taxation of council tenants and ensure that the money is fed back to meet the needs of people on housing waiting lists. It should also go back into maintenance and support systems for existing housing stock and into ending the discrimination against council tenants who have freely made a choice not to undertake a stock transfer to a housing association and not to become part of an arm's length management organisation. They should receive public sector support in exactly the same way as anybody else does.
I wish the Ministers well in their new positions. If we do not solve the housing crisis, the horrors of the rise of the far right and of the British National party, and the destruction of so many people's lives because of bad health, educational under-achievement and family break-up, will continue. It is our duty to conquer the housing crisis in this country.
I congratulate the Minister on his new role. I thought he was still a Whip and had got lost, so I was delighted to learn that he has been promoted, and I hope he does very well.
I benefited from right to buy, without which my family would still be living on a Liverpool council estate. When I canvass the housing association areas in my constituency, people always say to me, "We love living here and we love our house. We wish we could buy it. We wish it was ours and we could pay for it ourselves." I wanted to make that point before going on to discuss eco-towns. Perhaps the Minister will respond by outlining the Government's thinking, and what his thinking is as a new Minister, on right to buy. Will that be made available again?
Will the Minister clarify the position on eco-towns? My constituency was targeted to have an eco-town of 20,000 new homes. There was no rhyme or reason to the proposed site of the eco-town. It was in the middle of green fields, next to a lake, in a valley; it was nowhere near any infrastructure, hospitals, doctors, shops, rail networks, public transport or road networks. The proposal was to put the eco-town in the middle of the local beauty spot and that made no sense. As far as my constituents are aware, that project has died a death, but will the Minister confirm that? Can the people of Mid-Bedfordshire say goodbye to the eco-town?
I would like to inform the Minister of a positive effect that the eco-town proposal had for Mid-Bedfordshire: it made residents very aware of the dangers presented by Government house building targets. My constituents realised that the Government could allocate a target and an area and they would have very little say in what was built, how it would look, where it was positioned, how large it would be and whether it would serve any useful purpose. That energised my constituents. I have harnessed that energy and made good use of it, and at a large public meeting we formed a constituency-wide housing committee; another meeting is to take place in September.
We have formed three more committees from that one: a central planning committee to identify where we think housing is needed and should go, the type of housing it should be and the local needs it should meet; a tourism committee, because we would like the growth development targets in Mid-Bedfordshire to be met through tourism; and an environmental committee to examine the impact of housing on the area. The three committees will all report to the central Westminster forum, and we will feed that information into the new Central Bedfordshire authority.
The reason we are doing that is that, as I am sure the Minister is aware, the East of England regional assembly recently published a report in which it stated, having talked to developers, that there should be up to 120,000 additional homes placed in Mid-Bedfordshire. Given that we have only 77,000 homes at the moment, that is an incredible number of homes, and it would more than double the number in the area. As one can imagine, many residents were alarmed about that.
One reason for our alarm was that we sit between Luton and Bedford. I do not know whether the Minister has been to either area, but both are desperately in need of inward investment and urban regeneration. The hospitals, Bedford hospital and the Luton and Dunstable hospital, are based there. The main employers are based in those areas, and they have good public transport, good road and rail links and good bus routes. There are good schools, which are not full, as those in my constituency are. There are doctors' practices there, whereas there are no places on doctors' waiting lists in Mid-Bedfordshire. There are dentists, whereas there are no dentists in Mid-Bedfordshire.
Both Luton and Bedford have large numbers of people who need social housing or are on housing association waiting lists. They have employment and they live in the areas that need investment in housing. Yet, for some reason, the Government have decided that the housing should be placed in Mid-Bedfordshire, between those two areas but with no bus routes, no links, no employment and no infrastructure.
I ask the Minister to let us know why, if he feels that Bedfordshire needs such a high density of housing, it is not appropriate to put that housing in the areas where the people in Bedfordshire are screaming out for it rather than in an area that is mainly agricultural and has no employment and no employers looking to move in. One housing proposal that was halfway through being built in Wixams has been blanketed, and the developers have walked away from it. It is not now being built, for the reasons that I have highlighted. Nobody is interested in the homes, because there is no employment. Can the Minister please inform me why he is not looking at the areas that need the houses to be built?
We are not nimbyist in Bedfordshire. We are not saying, "No building in our backyard, we don't need any." Of course we do. We have a population that is growing at such a rate that we need homes, including social housing, but nowhere near 120,000 homes. As one can imagine, that is an alarming figure, and that is why our committee has been set up and is feeding into the new Central Bedfordshire authority, which I am sure will challenge those figures and challenge the Government head-on.
I should like to finish, as another Member wishes to speak, but first I return to the eco-town. As the Minister knows, there were problems with the sustainability of the proposed town. No decision could be taken about whether it should be targeted at sustainability level 4 or level 5, and what would happen by 2020 when it was built and fully developed. Those are huge problems, and if the Minister answers none of my other questions I hope that he at least can confirm that the eco-town proposal in Mid-Bedfordshire is dead. Is that the last that we will see of it? That is important information for the residents, and for the committee that was formed because they were energised by that unwanted proposal, to take into account in our proposals to the Central Bedfordshire authority.
I am grateful to colleagues for listening to Madam Deputy Speaker's requests to keep speeches short so that everybody can take part in this debate.
In welcoming the new Minister for Housing to his inaugural debate, I could not help but note his telling observation that our homes matter more than anything else. That is obviously true, but if people do not have a home, or if where they are living is not adequate for their family's needs, the observation is an empty statement that means nothing. Unless people have a decent home, they cannot say that their homes matter more than anything else.
The 2009 Budget will barely make a dent in the 1.8 million households estimated to be on the waiting list for housing. The £100 million for council house building will produce fewer than 1,000 houses. Some 400,000 children live in poverty, so the Government's pledges in "Every Child Matters" are meaningless if those children have nowhere decent to live.
It is not often that I am almost moved to tears, because I have been around long enough to see neglect and poverty before. But we are now in the third millennium in the fourth or fifth richest country in the world. Short of failure to defend the realm, the biggest sin that any Government can commit is to fail to house our people. The Government of Clement Attlee were recovering from war, but they managed to build council houses. Successive Conservative and Labour Governments also managed to do so for some 45 years. The record shows that Conservative Governments built marginally more council houses than Labour Governments—there was almost a race to see who could build the most. Some 25 years ago, housing shortages had virtually ended and, in my town, there was no such thing as bed-and-breakfast accommodation for the homeless.
When Ministers tell the House that bed-and-breakfast accommodation has ended, they are wrong. I was nearly brought to tears by the sight of three little girls, aged two, four and six, running around the waiting room at my advice surgery. They had done nothing wrong. Whatever problems their parents may have had that put them in bed and breakfast—they are now on their second B and B, in Ipswich, having been exiled to Suffolk, even though the girls' school is in Colchester—the children have done nothing wrong. The cost of keeping that family in bed and breakfast is considerably greater than if they had been allowed to stay in their housing association house, even though rent arrears had accrued. That would have been cheaper and it would not have destroyed the family—I fear that the next step will be for the children to be taken into care. I hope that that does not happen.
The last two lines of the Liberal Democrat amendment, which can be found on the Order Paper, would have been standard Conservative and Labour party policy throughout the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s. They refer to the need to
"invest in a large-scale homebuilding programme to address the crisis in social housing which disproportionately impacts on the most vulnerable."
If we insert the word "council" for "social", hon. Members will know exactly where I am coming from.
Jeremy Corbyn made a powerful speech, with which I agreed. Mr. Drew referred to rural housing. I represent an urban constituency, but the consequences of the failure to provide council housing in villages that would enable the next generation of the indigenous population to live there mean that families are quite often driven into the nearest towns, where the housing problems are then exacerbated.
Reference has been made to empty dwellings in both the private and public sector. In fact, there is sometimes not a housing shortage but rather a mismatch because there are so many empty dwellings. In my constituency, the garrison town of Colchester, there are in excess of 200 empty family houses on the Army estate owned not by the Ministry of Defence but by Annington Homes, because the Conservative Government privatised them. The public purse is paying £3,500 a year for every one of those houses to stand empty. What a great tragedy it is that one of these houses could not be made available for the family of the three little girls who are in bed and breakfast in Ipswich. A compassionate Government would do something about that. I ask the Minister and his ministerial team to make urgent inquiries into why those 200 empty dwellings in my constituency cannot be brought back into public use, when the public purse is paying to allow them to stand empty.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned 200 homes owned by Aragon Housing Association. When we have such situations in my constituency, I go to see Aragon, we discuss the problems and they are usually resolved. In my experience, it is a good housing association. Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that he could do something about that himself?
I would never use the words "good housing association" to describe Annington Homes. I can assure the hon. Lady that the experience of Annington Homes in my constituency for serving members of Her Majesty's armed forces and for those who have bought houses that Annington Homes has sold on to the private sector would not lead me to describe it as a good housing association.
Let me conclude on the question of the Homes and Communities Agency and housing associations. During the course of this debate, I tried to add up the total number of housing associations in my constituency. I got to 10, plus Colchester Borough Homes. Is it not time that we had a rationalisation of housing associations in different areas? The majority of these housing associations do not have any local management. As I am sure that we all know from our advice bureaux, if management is not local, there is a danger that antisocial problems will arise. I urge the new ministerial team to implore the HCA to rationalise the housing associations so that there are fewer housing associations in each location and to provide on-site supervision or management at least within the borough or district.
This is the second housing debate that we have had in nearly as many months. Despite what has been said by Government Members, our first debate focused on the important issue of social housing but we felt that there was more to talk about, as housing is such a vital issue for our party. We therefore wanted to hold a second debate today, in our Opposition time, to highlight the many major issues affecting housing in England. In fact, we called this debate to represent the real concerns and difficulties in respect of housing that are faced by millions of people in Britain—the first-time buyers finding it almost impossible to get on to the housing ladder, the home owners struggling to pay their mortgages and stay in their homes, and the families stranded in overcrowded houses or whose names lie on forgotten waiting lists. Above all, the underlying problem that Ministers never want to talk about is the present depressed rate of house building. As of 2008, it has been lower in every year of this Administration than it was in even the worst years of the Major or Thatcher Governments.
The people we represent face uncertainty and anxiety about whether they will get a home or keep the one that they have. If their circumstances change and they have to move, they are worried about whether they can remain in housing that meets their needs. Yet again, Ministers have talked a good game today about tackling housing issues—as ever, we have a lot of warm words—but I am afraid that the delivery has been sadly lacking. In both the good times and the bad times in our economy, there have been a series of failed schemes, headline-grabbing initiatives and misguided policies. The result is that Britain's housing is in a very sorry state indeed.
Concerns have been raised by hon. Members of all parties about what is happening in their constituencies. Ms Buck talked about the challenges faced by leaseholders, and she pointed out that we must make sure that our desire to enable people to get on to the housing ladder is implemented in a sustainable way. That was a fair point to raise.
The hon. Lady doubted the Opposition's commitment to social housing, but I assure her that we would not have devoted two debates to housing if we did not recognise how important the topic was. We may have debates about policy, but we would not spend time listening to the concerns expressed by hon. Members in this House and by people out in the country if we did not recognise the importance of the issue. As a prospective Government in waiting, my party must be able to give people a proper alternative whenever the next election is held, and that means that we must have an informed policy on housing.
We also heard from a number of Opposition Members in the debate. My hon. Friend Mr. Lansley said that communities can come up with good suggestions about where housing should go. He said that people will take responsibility for discussing how their housing needs can be met, and my hon. Friend Mr. Syms made a similar point.
Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn is not in his place, but he made some very fair points in expressing his concerns about housing associations. He spoke about the need to make sure that they are accountable to the tenants whom they look after, and he made some thoughtful observations about housing waiting lists and the housing allocation priorities that local authorities constantly have to juggle.
I am sure that we can all relate to what the hon. Gentleman said, but the problem underlying everything is the fact that the amount of our housing stock is so constrained. That is why we have to keep coming back to the Government's lack of delivery on housing. They have been in office for 12 years now, so we cannot say, "Well, it may get better in a few years." All the evidence suggests that there is something fundamentally flawed in the Government's approach to housing policy, as otherwise more houses would have been built before now.
We know that people are finding it hard to get on to the property ladder, as the number of first-time buyers fell to an estimated 300,000 in 2007, compared to 500,000 10 years before. There are also real concerns about sustainability: in 2007, nearly one mortgage in 10 was for 100 per cent. or more, and the problem is made worse by the lack of house building. On average, 23,000 fewer homes have been built every year under this Government, and housing starts this year are at their lowest since the 1920s. Social housing is beset with problems, too. As we heard, there are 1.8 million people on the waiting list. That is the consequence of a steady lack of house building in Britain over the past 12 years.
That is compounded by the fact that people who have accommodation often find it unsuitable. We have 560,000 households living in overcrowded conditions in England, and 200,000 of those households are right here in London. I am sure that many London MPs who participated in the debate today see those people in their surgeries every day. It is difficult to discuss their problems because of the underlying fact that not enough new housing is being built to give them a chance of having a home that meets their needs.
We spoke about the people who own their home but are struggling to stay in it. Repossession claims have soared from 67,000 a year in 1997 to a staggering 143,000 repossessions in 2008. The Government have talked the talk about how to help these people, but the mortgage rescue scheme that the Government launched has helped just two people. Ministers may say that it will take time for the scheme to produce results, but that was not the message last year when it was launched. Expectations have been badly let down by the scheme.
There has been a range of failed housing policies, such as home information packs, which add cost to the sale process and stifle the supply to the market. Only today, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said that it thought that HIPs had held back the market. As we heard, we still have no definition of a zero-carbon home. The Treasury has given tax relief on 18 homes, but the Department for Communities and Local Government does not know how to define them. Only under a Labour Government could one Department have a definition and another say that there is no definition.
We heard about eco-towns, a complete disaster project that ran into the sands because local people said no. We know that green issues are important to people throughout the country, yet when it came to smuggling in eco-towns through house building in inappropriate places, as my hon. Friend Nadine Dorries pointed out, local communities will not have it. They want Whitehall to work with them and give them the responsibility for deciding where the extra housing will be. They do not want the top-down targets that the Government have given them.
Let us not forget the disaster of the botched announcement on stamp duty last summer. We have not talked about that today, but if the housing market was under strain up until then, the Chancellor managed to stagnate it with that botched announcement and totally dried up the market in a way that would have been hard to achieve if someone had had to sit down and think about it as a challenge, but the Chancellor managed it.
The range and gravity of housing problems under the present Government and the Department are clear to see. Fewer houses are being built, and there is greater overcrowding, growing waiting lists, falling home ownership and rising repossessions. The Government's record on housing is reflected in the chaos that we have seen over the past week in the Communities and Local Government team. The Housing Minister has gone. The Communities Secretary has gone. Even the Under-Secretaries were moved. They are not here today to defend their record on housing, but given the Government's history of decisions in this area, perhaps leaving their team was the one good decision that they have made so far.
We cannot go on as we are. We can tackle the issues that we have been debating today—get rid of home information packs, take nine of 10 first-time buyers out of stamp duty, get rid of the top-down targets set through the regional spatial strategy, and have local housing trusts that make sure that local communities can decide for themselves how much new housing they have and where it is located. However, we will not resolve any of these important matters until we have a general election. We have had 12 years of failed housing policy. It is time to give the British people the general election that they so desperately need. Then we can have a Conservative Government who can deliver the sort of housing policy that will make a real difference to families throughout the country.
I thank Opposition Members for welcoming me and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing to our new positions. This evening's debate has been a very useful early induction for both of us, not least because it has been such a good debate among Members in all parts of the House.
Despite the disappointment about the changes, to which the Opposition's motion refers, I am delighted to be doing this job, because for many people their homes are not just their greatest asset but their greatest source of security and a strong foundation on which so much else depends: good health, getting a job, building a career, fulfilling potential at school and being part of a community. My predecessor as Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr. Wright, made a similar point in a similar debate several months ago, when he said that housing brings safety, security, community cohesion, health, life chances, prosperity and a host of other issues. I pay tribute to the work that he did and welcome all contributions that all Members have made today.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing rightly set out this Government's impressive housing record, which the motion before us entirely ignored. He set out also our efforts to maintain and build on that record, despite the difficult economic circumstances. We have been proactive and decisive, learning from the experience of the 1990s about the consequences of delay and inaction. Although the motion finds fault in a number of our policies, it fails to propose any alternative. The Opposition obviously want to criticise our record on housing supply, because that is what they are there for, but they do not tell us that this Government's efforts led to the highest levels of house building in 30 years in 2007-08.
The Opposition's motion also neglects to mention the 110,000 households that have been helped into shared ownership and shared equity through our programmes, and the £29 billion that we have invested since 1997 to bring more than 1 million social rented homes up to scratch. The Opposition also failed to mention the significant strides that we have made on homelessness, rough sleeping and temporary accommodation: statutory homelessness decreased by 60 per cent. between 2003 and 2008; rough sleeping has fallen by 74 per cent.; the number of households in temporary accommodation is down by 33 per cent.; and we have ended the long-term use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children.
That is an impressive track record. Every previous Housing Minister should be very proud of it, and we are committed to building on it. That is why we have acted proactively and decisively in the economic downturn to help people at risk of repossession, first-time buyers and the construction industry. Our priority has been to help those in financial difficulties to stay in their homes wherever possible, which contrasts with the 1990s, when the Government failed to act while people lost their homes.
My right hon. Friend spoke about the wide range of measures that we have introduced—to strengthen universal support and to bring in specific schemes—and, as a result, the Council of Mortgage Lenders is now expected to revise downwards its forecasts of repossessions. Although our critics clearly want to focus on the number of households at the final stages of specific schemes, they do not want to talk about the real help that families are receiving. Lenders covering 80 per cent. of the market either have signed up to the home owner mortgage support scheme or offer their own comparative arrangements. Thousands of families are getting free advice from their local councils every month and lenders now have to prove to the courts that they have exhausted all other options before seeking to repossess.
We have also introduced new support, in the light of the restricted global supply of credit, to help first-time buyers get a foot on the housing ladder. We have also increased the availability of shared equity schemes and introduced a new "rent first, buy later" scheme. Demand for our existing schemes remains high.
I shall be responding to the points that were made by those people who were present for the whole debate.
There were more than 6,000 sales under the open market homebuy scheme in 2008-09, and from the experience of the 1990s we know how destructive an economic downturn can be for the construction industry. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes twice, so we have put in place a comprehensive package of support: £1 billion at the Budget; buying up unsold stock from developers; bringing forward funding for affordable housing, including higher grant rates where needed; and the new kick-start fund to get faltering schemes going again. My right hon. Friend clearly demonstrated the scale of the Government's efforts to reduce the damage of the downturn on households and the construction industry now and in the future.
I shall now turn to the specific points that were made in the debate. My hon. Friend—
Housing starts are at their lowest level since the 1920s; who does the Minister think is responsible for that? Is it the fault of his Government's failed policy, or of the construction industry?
I will deal with that point in due course, but the point that I wanted to make related to my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who spoke with great eloquence about the impact on families who face repossession, and the position of leaseholders. I congratulate her on the work that she is doing to protect her constituents from a local Conservative council, whose policies were set out in great detail.
My hon. Friend Dr. Starkey, the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, speaking with a knowledge and expertise that few in the House can match, made a fascinating contribution and a devastating critique of the Opposition's case. My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who has made himself an expert on housing issues, made a thoughtful speech about the state of the housing market and the need to remove the stigma attached to rented housing. [Interruption.] I shall move on to the questions asked by the Opposition spokesman, Grant Shapps, if I may, but first I point out that my hon. Friend Bob Russell asked questions about the housing association movement. We have set up a new regulator for social housing, the Tenant Services Authority, which will drive improvements in standards and place tenants at the heart of regulation. It will also have a wider range of powers to intervene when things go wrong.
The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield raised a number of questions about the impact of the Government schemes. He asked how many additional lenders had confirmed that they were signing up to the home owner mortgage support scheme. I can tell him that Lloyds bank, Northern Rock, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Bradford & Bingley, Cumberland building society and others signed up to the scheme at its launch. He will be interested to hear that a number of others have confirmed that they will offer the scheme as soon as possible, including the Bank of Ireland, GMAC RFC, GE Money and others. There is no cut-off point by which lenders must sign up to the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman asked about take-up of the home owner mortgage support scheme. It is a new scheme; nothing like it has ever been tried before. It enables eligible households in short-term difficulties to defer part of their mortgage interest payments. Lenders covering more than 80 per cent. of the market have either signed up to offer the Government-backed scheme or are offering comparable arrangements. Both the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Intermediary Mortgage Lenders Association have welcomed the impact that the scheme is already having on borrowers getting in contact with their lenders to discuss options.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the low take-up of the mortgage rescue scheme. It is targeted at vulnerable households—those made up of the elderly or the disabled and those with children—who would be eligible for help under homelessness legislation if their homes were repossessed. The scheme involves households getting thorough advice on their financial circumstances, and selling part of their home, which takes time. [Hon. Members: "How many?"] More than 130 households have had repossession action against them halted, and more than 1,000 households struggling with their mortgage have received free advice from their local authority. We believe that 6,000 households will be helped over the next two years.
I hate to disappoint Nadine Dorries, but I can only tell her that the eco-town programme was designed to deliver a final shortlist of up to 10 potential locations. However, decisions will be made on the basis of quality, not quantity. I cannot comment on specific areas, but it is not a done deal, and no decisions have been made on the locations in which work will go forward. The other point that she made was about the right to buy, which has helped thousands of families to realise their aspiration to own their homes. The Government completely support it.
claimed to move the closure (
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put forthwith (
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (
That this House notes that the Government has put in place comprehensive support to help households avoid repossession, that 220,000 households benefited from Support for Mortgage Interest last year, over 1,000 households have received free advice from their local authority each month since the launch of the Mortgage Rescue Scheme and many more are expected to benefit through the Homeowners Mortgage Support scheme and pre-action protocol; further notes that the Government has helped over 110,000 households into shared ownership and shared equity since 1997 and that demand for HomeBuy remains high; believes that the Government's zero carbon homes policy is a ground-breaking contribution to the fight against climate change; notes that planning policy makes clear the need for more family homes and that the Government is reviewing the evidence on garden development; notes that the highest rate of housing supply since 1977 was reached in 2007-08 and that the Government has brought forward many measures to help the construction industry, most recently £1 billion in the 2009 Budget, including £400 million to unblock stalled development and £100 million for council house building; further notes that regional planning is open and transparent and that regional planning bodies are required to take into account housing need; believes there is no evidence that Home Information Packs have any adverse impact on the market; and further notes that the Government is pursuing reform of council housing finance and the private rented sector and has set up the Tenant Services Authority to raise standards by putting tenants at the heart of regulation.