Local Government Financing

Part of Opposition Day — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:40 pm on 29th June 2010.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 5:40 pm, 29th June 2010

Let me begin by congratulating Paul Uppal on his excellent maiden speech. He certainly covered the attributes and aspects of his constituency. I congratulate him on the special place that he has achieved in parliamentary history and in the history of the Conservative party. It was good to hear his very generous comments about his predecessor, Rob Marris, who was respected for his honesty, integrity and friendship on the Labour side of the House. I think that is appreciated.

I was just having a brief discussion with my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett and my hon. Friend Angela Smith about the good things that come out of Wolverhampton. Unfortunately, the Wolverhampton Wanderers managed to sell to Sheffield Wednesday one Leon Clarke, whom the hon. Gentleman might remember. Leon Clarke finally scored a goal in the last game of the season, when we were struggling to avoid relegation. In celebrating his wonderful goal, he ran to the advertising hoardings and kicked them, breaking his toe, and was then substituted. I do not think it is true that everything that comes out of Wolverhampton is necessarily first class and admirable.

Let me move on to the debate. The Opposition have made it very clear that we have major reservations about the immediate impact of the cuts and about the proposals for the medium term. We believe it is unnecessary for the cuts to come immediately and that they go too far in the immediate term. We also believe that they are unfair in a number of respects. Bringing in cuts part way through the year has forced local councils to make the cuts that are available to them, which are not necessarily the cuts they would make if they had a bit more time to plan and bring them in properly. We also disagree fundamentally with the way the cuts have been targeted at funds that are themselves targeted at areas of deprivation. They are cuts against deprived communities, and they are the sort of cuts that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunell, would have been on his feet protesting about only a few weeks ago.

I want to raise two concerns about where the Government are headed-with their approach to housing and their approach to the general cuts to local government that will be announced in the next few weeks. I did not get an answer earlier from the Minister for Housing about housing targets: he said that the Government do not have any. I did not get an answer about likely numbers, how that area will be funded or what the funding mechanisms will be. I have a real worry regarding the comments of Liberal Democrats about the last Government not building enough houses. I have some sympathy with those sentiments because I think that although we did brilliantly on the Decent Homes programme, we did not build enough social houses to rent. That needs to be rectified, but does any Lib Dem in the House seriously believe that this Government will do better when they have no idea how that will be achieved? That is complete nonsense.

The problem is that people are going to be much more careful about committing themselves to buying a house as we head towards a situation in which spending will be reined in, people will be fearful of losing their job, wages will fall and benefits will be cut. The likelihood is that the housing market will stagnate, at best, in the next few months. Whether a double-dip recession and the economy going down will produce a slowing down of the housing market, or whether a slowing down of the housing market will produce a double-dip recession, is a chicken-and-egg argument. The likelihood is that economic activity will stall and the housing market will stall.

If fewer people feel able to commit to buying a home, there will be more pressure on social renting and local authority waiting lists, so what have the Government done? The first thing they have done is to suspend the Kickstart programme and schemes whereby local authorities were going to build houses directly for the first time in a long time. Labour and the Lib Dems welcomed that approach when it was introduced, but the Lib Dems are now cutting and stopping it. That is the reality of the situation. If local authorities are no longer allowed to build, what are the alternatives? I have not heard any. We have been promised an announcement at some stage in the future.

We have also been told that the reforms to the housing revenue account have been put on hold. That was one of the few opportunities for local authorities to return to council house building. If they could depend on a given rental stream for the future, they could perhaps use prudential borrowing for that purpose.

The housing association building model depends on cross-subsidies from the selling of homes. If the private sector housing market is stalled, those cross-subsidies will not be available. We do not know what will happen to social housing, because there is complete silence from the Government. All we know is that people who are in social housing will have a tougher time with the housing benefit rules, and some may be forced out of their houses into private rented accommodation.

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