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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of social housing in London.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making it possible for this debate to be held. Social housing in London is obviously a crucial issue. I appreciate that Members outside London are busy with the elections in their communities and therefore cannot take part in the debate.
The points that I want to make are probably incredibly obvious ones about the desperate situation of many people facing housing issues in London. I imagine that any London MP of any party would confirm that housing is the biggest single issue that we all face. The vast majority of our constituency casework is housing-related in some way, and the wider implications for society in London are often housing-related as well.
Housing issues in London are not new. It is the capital city. It has been a very fast-growing city. It had an unenviable reputation in the 18th and 19th centuries of being the fastest-growing city in the world when huge quantities of very poor-quality buildings were thrown up. A whole industry developed of slum landlords. The great social reformers of this country often started their work in the east end of London. I think of Charles Booth, Angela Burdett-Coutts and so many others, who did so much to try to improve the levels of housing stock. In the 19th century, there were serious reforming moves. Housing charities were set up to improve conditions, but they were always in competition with the viciousness of the private sector market, in which excessive rents were charged, with the potential to make huge profits.
How did London’s housing stock ever improve? The answer is a combination of things. There were the campaigns of the great social reformers, there was a growing social consciousness but, above all, there was the development of council housing in the early 20th century. I get very angry when I read in some of the weekend intelligentsia-related newspapers that council housing is a thing of the past, or that council housing models are outdated. Council housing made it possible for millions of people in London and throughout the country to live in decent housing and bring up their children in a safe, secure, affordable environment—something that we all aspire to.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but does he recognise—I see it particularly in my constituency and other inner-London areas—the importance of what has been done by many philanthropists, the most obvious of which is the Peabody Trust, whose house building and flat building programmes have stood the test of time? They remain some of the most exciting and sought-after social housing in many of our constituencies, 120 or 130 years after they were first built.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to George Peabody and the Peabody Trust, which has a very large number of properties in his constituency, that of my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson and many others. The Peabody buildings were of very good standard—very high quality—and they have stood the test of time. It pains me to the quick when I see the Peabody Trust and others being forced, because of their financial situation, to rent at commercial rents or sell off properties that were built for people in desperate housing need. That is not what George Peabody or others wanted to do, and we should look at that.
In my constituency there is a block called Parnell house, which was built in 1848, before George Peabody. The Peabody Trust took it over some years ago and has run it fairly well, but recently has started selling into the open market flats that have been social housing since 1848. That does not really help people in desperate housing need.
It seems a sad reflection on the great revolutions of 1848 that we should expunge them on the altar of the housing market in 2011. I shall return to council housing in a moment.
There were consistent campaigns and demands for security of tenure for people beyond council housing. Council housing has traditionally provided the most secure form of affordable tenancy and has provided for effective, stable communities. I commend those councils—I choose Camden because my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras was leader of the council—which did a high level of building when they were able to. They also adopted a planning policy that has ensured that there are stable, mixed communities stretching right into the Camden part of central London—working-class communities alongside the business areas of central London. We should be proud of that record in this city, and I would like to see it reflected in all parts of London. The same does not apply in the case of Kensington and Chelsea and—I hesitate to say it with Mr Field present—in Westminster where the policies have been different. I think one should commend boroughs such as Camden.
While I accept that the policies are somewhat different, and I suspect that most of my residents in Westminster are rather glad of that, there is a more serious point to be made. The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to stable, mixed communities. Does he not recognise that the London market has become ever more polarised? London is not just a capital city but a global city. That polarisation means that, for want of a better phrase, the squeezed middle is an ever bigger group in London. There are those who simply cannot afford to get on the ladder even if they are earning multiples of the average weekly wage and there are those who are so impoverished that they can qualify for social housing. In my constituency the Peabody Trust is trying to create a mixed community, by ensuring that there are in those communities, for want of a better term, yuppies—relatively well-off people in their 20s—who may only be short-term tenants, for three or five years, until they are in a position to afford their own home.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. In my borough, there are 15,000 names on the list of people who have applied for, and need, council housing, but only 5,000 of those are on the list of those who are able to bid—in other words, to make an application. The number of those who are likely to be successful is probably very small indeed. Single people in London cannot, for the most part, even get on a housing list.
Some 30% of people in my constituency are in private rented accommodation. A large number of them are young, single people who pay extraordinarily high rents, although they are not necessarily particularly well paid; they are earning between £18,000 and the low twenty thousands a year. They are probably spending 60% or 70% of their take-home pay on housing. That is an extraordinary figure. I do not have the comparative figures for the rest of Europe, but having talked to friends and colleagues about the issue, London seems to be one of the most expensive places in the world to live, in relation to income levels.
If we do not address the whole problem of the cost and supply of housing, London will become a divided city, and the people who do all the vital jobs in the ambulance service, hospitals, the Post Office, gas, electricity, road maintenance, and street cleaning—the people in all those essential professions—simply will not be able to live in London. It is extraordinary how fast social changes are happening in London. I met a street-sweeper in the borough who commutes in on a 45-minute train journey because he cannot afford to get a place anywhere near the borough. I see Labour colleagues nodding. I suppose that we all support the principle of housing for special grades of workers—priorities for nursing, the police and so on. There is a point to all that, but the real point is the general question of the supply and affordability of housing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. I would like to associate myself with what he just said, and I think many other Conservative MPs with London seats would, too; it is a problem that we all feel acutely. For some years, that stark divide in pockets of inner London has been part and parcel of our concerns on housing, but he is right to say that there has been phenomenally rapid demographic and other change. The phenomenon that he identifies now applies virtually throughout London, including in what might in the past have been regarded as the leafier suburbs of outer London.
Absolutely. London is a rapidly changing city, and that is, in many ways, part of the joy and attraction of it, but it falls to local government—to boroughs, the Mayor, and the Greater London authority—and central Government to recognise that if we want London to remain a successful, cohesive, coherent city, we have to address the issue of the provision of social housing in London. Otherwise, we will be looking at a city moving into decline, with greater division. It is a very serious issue.
I think about exploitation, the apocryphal stories of what Rachman did in the 1950s and ’60s in Notting Hill, and what was done by various other appalling people who used the rapidly rising property prices to winkle out tenants so that they could resell the buildings. I am not saying that the problem has quite come back to those levels yet, but excessively expensive private rented accommodation that becomes unaffordable for poorer people leads to landlords not maintaining, supporting, improving or looking after properties, and virtually forcing people out of them so that they can rent them out at a much higher rent. Later, I shall make some points about the need for intervention in the private rented sector, because in many ways, in London there has always been a conflict between the social desires of many people to ensure good-quality, decent housing on the one hand, and the pernicious effect of the property market and rapidly rising property prices on many people across London on the other hand.
On inequality, my borough of Islington commendably established in May last year a fairness commission, which has been taking evidence at very well-attended public meetings in community centres, schools and so on across the borough over the past year. It had a very effective final meeting last week, in which a whole paper was put forward on how public policy issues can be addressed. I quote a short part of the section on housing:
“Ensuring that the allocation process for social housing is transparent and effective is essential for addressing fairness in housing. Islington has more than 12,000 people on the housing register but only 5,000 households whose level of need is sufficient for them to qualify for Choice Based Lettings.”
The paper goes on to make recommendations on improving efficiency, changing the allocation system and under-occupation. That underlines the point about the need for new house building.
There is also a problem about the number of people living in private rented accommodation who are in receipt of housing benefit in London. As I say, 30% of my constituents are in private rented accommodation, and the number is rising fast. The proportion of owner-occupiers is now below 30% and falling. Nationally, the figure is falling a bit; in London, it is falling faster, and in inner London it is falling very fast indeed. In the next five to 10 years, we will probably get to the point where 25% or even 20% of housing in inner-London constituencies will be owner-occupied. The majority of new tenancies are not social tenancies, but private rented tenancies.
People who receive or are entitled to housing benefit are suffering grievously because of the Government’s announcement on how they, in their infinite wisdom, will meet the problem of the increasing costs of housing benefit—and those costs are huge. I do not deny people’s right to apply for housing benefit, but there is a public duty to question the cost of that benefit. That duty should fall on the question of how much rent is paid to landlords, rather than result in the punishment of the tenants in the properties.
The London figures show that local housing allowance rates in my borough are £245 a week for one bedroom, £290 a week for two bedrooms, £340 a week for three bedrooms, and £400 a week for four bedrooms. To some people, that sounds an awful lot of money, and it is, but the reality is that many people in desperate housing need are living in private rented accommodation that is paid for by housing benefit. On the anniversary of their application, all those housing benefit payments will be reviewed and—there is not much discretion available to the local authority—housing benefit will be reduced, which causes a terrible problem for the people in receipt of it.
I shall give the example of a constituent whom I know well, but I will not give their name as that would be invidious and wrong. In November 2010, the local housing allowance for the four-bedroom property that they live in was £700 a week. That is to be reduced to £400 a week under the housing benefit changes. There is no way that that family can find the difference. They have lived in the property for a very long time. They have children in local schools, they are very much part of the local community and they have caring responsibilities and all the things that go with that. They will be forced to move, which is damaging to them, the children, and the local community.
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. The knock-on consequence of those people being forced to move is that they will look to relatively cheaper private rented accommodation in outer-London boroughs, including Redbridge, where we have thousands of people on the housing list and almost no social housing. We have a lot of private rented properties, but in some cases they have appalling landlords and terrible letting agencies. The local authority has stopped using them, but inner-London boroughs will have to use them. They will send people out, and those people will need school places. Hundreds of young children in my borough cannot get a school place at the moment. This is the wrong policy at the wrong time, and it will have terrible consequences.
I can only agree. If the problem were limited to housing benefit in the private rented sector, that would be bad enough. However, in parallel with the cut in housing benefit payments, the Government have refused to introduce rent controls or even countenance the idea of controlling private sector rents. I hope that we will deal with that when we return to government in 2015 as a new Labour Government—not “new Labour”, but a newly elected Labour Government; I do not want anyone to think that I have changed my ways.
Possibly, yes. I would like that Government to bite the bullet, just as Harold Wilson’s Government bit the bullet in the 1960s and 1970s, and were prepared to introduce rent controls and security of tenure in the private rented sector. That policy area needs to be developed.
Another important issue is the increase in the notional rent levels for local authorities and housing associations to 80% of market rates. That has had absolutely devastating effects on the affordability, or otherwise, of council properties in areas where councils choose to charge 80%. As my hon. Friend Mike Gapes intervened on me, I shall cite the case of his borough. The average income in Redbridge of non-housing benefit tenants is £381 a week, and the average weekly rent is £102 a week. The median market rent of 80% of 2010 levels is £160 a week, so tenants in Redbridge are looking at a £60 a week rent increase, which is pretty bad, and I question the affordability of paying £160 a week on an average income of £381 a week.
Other boroughs are in a far worse situation. In Kensington and Chelsea, average income for non-housing benefit tenants is £370 a week, and current average rent is £113 a week, with 80% of market levels at £440 a week—in other words £110 a week more than such a tenant earns, so totally unaffordable. The borough with the lowest average income in London is Barking and Dagenham, where income levels in 2010 for non-HB tenants were £329 a week. Current average rent is £91 a week, and 80% of market rates is £148 a week. Even in Barking and Dagenham, which is regarded as “the most affordable place in London”, we are looking at 50% of pay going on rent alone in the public sector, never mind the private sector. The figures are available for every borough, and they make very grim reading indeed. The discretionary payments to London authorities to try to ameliorate the change to housing benefit should be much greater and more permanent, and the Government and the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government should look at rent controls and security of tenure in the private rented sector.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the social housing policy that Opposition Members strongly support, and I know that some Government Members do, too.
In Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in the country, 80% market rents around Canary Wharf, which sits right in the heart of my constituency, are astronomical for ordinary people. If local authorities and housing associations apply the 80% threshold, they will drive local people out of the area where their families have lived for generations. In the case of the Bangladeshi community, for example, that area constitutes their arrival point, so they will no longer be able to stay within the bounds of their own community.
Absolutely, and I endorse what my hon. Friend said. The average for Tower Hamlets is £248, but if it is assessed on an extremely local level—housing around Canary Wharf or at the edge of the City of London around Spitalfields—rent will become astronomically expensive and there will be rapid social cleansing.
What happened with Lady Porter in Westminster some years ago was regarded as appalling and disgraceful, and was social cleansing. People are coming to me for advice—and I am sure this is true for all London MPs—in desperation, frightened after what has happened, scared of where they are going to go and worried about the disruption of their children’s lives as they are forced out of private rented accommodation. We cannot sit back and watch the private rented sector grow rapidly in London without a greater sense of responsibility and intervening to protect people living in that sector.
What is the solution? Clearly, it ought to be the building of more homes for rent. I remember the halcyon days when my hon. Friend Mr Love and I were members of Haringey borough council, and we berated the council leadership—we did a lot of that; they probably deserved it—for not building more council housing. However, I take it all back and apologise. In 1979, Haringey council built 1,000 council house dwellings. Other boroughs did broadly the same. A lot of that building was very good; a lot of it was homes with gardens; a lot has become very nice properties which, because of right to buy, have been sold on and have become very desirable properties indeed. I do not have a problem with people living in desirable properties—I am glad that they do—but I want everyone to be able to do so, with some security, and I want children to grow up with enough space, preferably with a garden. The achievements by many London boroughs at that time are something that we should applaud and seek perhaps to repeat, because there is a desperate need in London.
My hon. Friend mentioned 1979, which has a resonance for many of us, because it was the year in which Mrs Thatcher was elected. If we look at the history books, we see that in 1980 she made massive cuts to housing investment programme capital funding. Does that have anything to do with the problems suggested by my hon. Friend?
The cuts in the Budget are even greater than those made by Margaret Thatcher’s Government in the 1980s. I remember very well the points that my hon. Friend made, because at the time, I watched housing demand rise and new build virtually disappear. The only surviving new build for affordable rent was undertaken by housing associations. I was disappointed that the Government who came in in 1997, who invested a great deal in improvements to existing council stock and who did a lot about homelessness and housing rights, did not in the early days do anything like enough to invest in new house building. I hope that that is something that we will not repeat when we return to office in 2015, because I want to see a process of new build.
It is difficult for local authorities to undertake new building at present, but I want to pay tribute to Islington council and James Murray, the executive member for housing, as they have managed, despite all the difficulties, to squeeze £10 million a year out of the council budget to invest in new build for rents at existing levels—not the 80% level. I applaud them for doing so. I want other boroughs to do so, and I want the Mayor of London, whoever it is—this Mayor or, hopefully, Ken Livingstone in future—to use his powers to return to building for social housing need, which has a huge benefit for people across London.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is making a thoughtful speech, and I hope that he will forgive me if I return to a point that he made earlier and the general thrust of his concern about the private rented sector. Does he share my worry that one of the difficulties in housing policy, going back to the institution of rent Acts in the first world war, is that too often it has just been an Elastoplast in trying to solve the most recent problem, which has been looked at in a small way? Does he have any thoughts about the huge explosion in the buy-to-let market, which is one reason why there has been an enormous increase in the private rented sector in his constituency? As London is a global capital, a huge amount of foreign money is coming in to buy up large blocks of flats and other properties. Do we need to look at that, and what suggestions can he make about the way forward?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that extremely valuable point. In London, at one end of the scale, somewhere near Hyde park, there is the world’s most expensive apartment. I cannot remember the exact figure, but it was around £1.5 million for a very small apartment. I checked my own mortgage capability and I did not seem to get anywhere near to it. At the other end of the scale are former council flats or houses that have been bought under right to buy, sometimes with the assistance of fairly disreputable or dodgy people who offer money to help people undertake that, which are then rented out, on housing benefit, at levels 200% to 300% higher than the neighbouring council rent. That makes me extremely angry every time I come across it, because they were built by the taxpayer for people in housing need and now we are allowing someone to make a great deal of profit out of them.
There are a number of ways to try to deal with that. One, which seems worth considering, is that a sitting tenant who buys a former council property under right to buy should be allowed to rent it out only at council rent plus 10%, taking away the incentive to do that. There are other incentives to consider, but we must be serious about this. The new build that councils and housing associations want to undertake at the moment can be funded under the Government’s new regime by doing what Islington is doing, which is scraping around to find what is a modest amount of money compared with the need, but nevertheless welcome, or by raising rents to 80% of market rates and using that for investment in new build, which makes housing association or council places unaffordable for those who desperately need them. As a result, people who are offered a council place will be unable to accept it, particularly if they are in work, which is regrettable. Housing associations are being told to build for sale and for commercial rent, and if they have any money left, to build a bit for social renting.
I seem to remember housing associations being founded on the principle of self-help to provide secure, good-quality accommodation for people in housing need. I am now being told by their chief executives that they are in a bind, which I understand and which is not of their making, and have to go down the road of becoming essentially house-building companies, where there might be the equivalent of a section 106 add-on with a bit of social housing at the end of it. That will not solve London’s housing problems.
The issue in London today is: what is housing need? I know it sounds absurd—the hon. Gentleman was one of the first to ridicule the current Mayor of London when he talked about people on £60,000 a year being in housing need—but this is part of the problem. Many people working in our constituencies simply cannot afford to live anywhere near, not even central London, but London as a whole, and have to commute long distances despite earning multiples of the average. They surely also have a housing need, and it is that housing need in the modern day that many of our social housing providers are trying to recognise in balancing their responsibilities to ensure that we have proper community cohesion within central London.
Obviously people on what are seen as relatively high incomes do have housing needs and are paying, as I outlined earlier, incredibly high levels of rent in order to survive, as a result of which they cannot save and therefore, even if they wanted to get into the owner-occupied market, simply could not do so. A young couple or single person in London earning £25,000 a year and paying £500 a week for a flat has only a limited ability to save and so will stay in the private rented sector for a very long time, if not for ever. People who do buy into the owner-occupied market usually rely on modest levels of inheritance to put down the deposit to do so. We are making housing unattainable for people on relatively high incomes, as the hon. Gentleman points out.
The definition of “affordable” in Hammersmith and Fulham now goes up to £80,000 a year, and I am sorry but I do not accept that that is reasonable. Let us put one myth to bed today, and that is that Boris Johnson is in some way committed to affordable housing in London. His own figures show that there will be fewer than 2,000 affordable housing starts this year and none next year.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has represented his constituency and pointed out what the council in Hammersmith and Fulham is doing, and what he is trying to do to meet the needs of people who are in desperate housing need.
I come back to the issue of people on housing waiting lists. What is the route for a homeless family, or a concealed homeless or about-to-be-evicted homeless family, in an inner-London borough, or probably any other London borough? If they go to the council and present themselves as homeless, they will probably get a hostel place. Hostels are grim places and have a devastating effect on the psychology and well-being of children who go into them. If they are there for a long time, it is an awful experience. If they knew it was for one, two, three weeks or a month, and that at the end of that they would have a secure council flat, that would probably be bearable. But if they are there for six months or longer and are told that the only pathway out is to go into private rented accommodation, and they ask me as their MP whether to accept that, I have to say that they must, because if they do not the council will have absolved itself of its responsibility to them.
A member of that family will say, “But Jeremy, housing benefit will have to pay this huge rent, and that means I can’t get a job, otherwise I will lose the housing benefit.” They are moving into the most awful bind. Quite often they are placed in flats in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton—no reflection on him; quite the opposite—and they then come and tell me what the flat is like: slum landlord, inefficient heating, badly maintained, possibly vermin infested. They can get no redress from the landlord because the landlord knows for certain that there will be no problem in renting it again through an agency. We report the matter to the local authority but this can go on for years. They move from one private rented property to another until, perhaps five or 10 years down the line, they achieve the gold medal of a council flat. That is a lifetime for a child. They will move primary schools several times, lose their friends and social contacts, their youth club and their networks. That is what is happening to dozens and dozens of children and families all over the city at this time.
I ask the Government: please think through what is happening. Think of the desire for somewhere safe and secure to live. Think of the housing benefit that is being wasted in excessive rents to private landlords, and allow local authorities to do what the old London county council, the Greater London council, and lots of London boroughs of all political parties did, which was to invest in good-quality bricks and mortar of secure housing for people to live in, which they could call their own home and know is their own home. That is what brings about stability in communities. The alternative leads to underachievement, homelessness, crime and the misery of unsustainable communities.
I do not call such building a waste. I listen with interest when building workers tell me that they are being laid off because there is nothing for them to do. There is a housing crisis out there that can be solved by the building of new properties that can put those people to good work and solve the social problems at the same time. London is crying out for a socially responsible approach to housing. Let us not leave it all to the market; The market is what created the problem in the first place.
I thank Jeremy Corbyn for securing this debate. As he clearly articulated, there are serious issues in London. Social housing has been one of the most intractable problems facing central and local government. The scale of the problem is staggering, but the Government have robust plans to deliver more homes in London and elsewhere.
Many of the problems that I come across in my weekly surgeries are to do with housing. The hon. Gentleman articulated many of the issues that people come to talk about. Perhaps they need a bigger house because they now have a bigger family. There may be overcrowding. Repairs may be necessary in flats and houses; some of the photographs that I see are absolutely disgraceful. People can be on the council house list for years. They cannot afford a deposit for private rental, and private landlords often do not give accommodation to those on housing benefit. People struggle to get into private rented accommodation.
In the bigger picture, 1.8 million households are on social housing waiting lists across the country and many of the 8 million people currently living in social housing are in properties that do not match their needs. Properties are often under-utilised—when children leave home, for example—but others are overcrowded. Some people are prevented from moving because of the lack of mobility in the system as a whole.
In London, as in many other major cities around the world, the problem is particularly acute. Housing waiting lists have nearly doubled in the past 10 years and about 54,000 households—three quarters of which include children—are living in temporary accommodation there. At the same time, buying a home in the capital is becoming increasingly difficult, as we have already discussed.
My hon. Friend Mr Field talked about the squeezed middle. Whether we are talking about central London or my constituency of Brentford and Isleworth, which stretches out towards Hounslow, it is still difficult to buy a home in London.
About 9,500 households are on the housing register in my borough of Hounslow. Last year, only 919 properties were available for rent.
My hon. Friend is coming to the point about the huge scarcity of social housing. I would argue that that resource needs to be much more properly and comprehensively assessed. Does she agree that far too many people in social housing are sub-letting illegally and that there needs to be a national campaign—although probably worked out at local government level—to make sure that those in social housing are properly entitled to it? That would help correct some of the terrible shortfalls and disadvantages experienced by many of her constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I agree that that is happening across London and we need to do something constructive to deal with it.
Hounslow council’s website advises that
“Most people waiting for housing will never be offered a property because the number of people registered is much higher than the number of properties we have available to let each year.”
We need a new housing model that provides a range of opportunities for people’s housing needs and that continues to protect the most vulnerable and those with the greatest need.
There is no doubt that there is a need for far-reaching reform of our social housing to meet current and future needs and to modernise the system while protecting provision for the most vulnerable. How can we deliver this better system? There is significant potential for innovation in the social housing sector overall. First, I shall focus on building new homes and bringing empty homes back into use. Secondly, I want to explore the use of new models in the private rented market. Thirdly, I will address the issue of encouraging increased mobility within the social housing sector.
On the first issue, clearly, there is a desperate need to increase the number of new homes being built and of empty homes being brought back into use. The national affordable housing programme and the new homes bonus, put in place by the Government, will both help to support that goal. The Government are investing £6.5 billion in housing, which includes £2 billion to make existing social homes decent and a £4.5 billion investment in new affordable housing to deliver 150,000 more affordable homes.
Housing associations play a critical role in the provision of affordable homes and the national affordable housing programme will provide them with a new model for the building of new homes. They will be allowed to set affordable rents on their new build homes, and some re-lets at up to 80% of the market value, to provide additional capital to reinvest in new property development.
I recognise that the Government are giving housing associations the flexibility to charge up to 80% of the market rent. How does the hon. Lady respond to the point, made by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, that for many people that is a poverty trap that keeps them out of employment? Many of them—especially those in constituencies such as mine—will not be able to afford 80% of the market rent.
The hon. Gentleman states one of the problems in London. There is a range of models from which people can choose, but it is important for us to come up with constructive ideas about how we can make a difference to such issues and find a way that does not allow people to get stuck in that trap. That is to a large extent why we are doing a lot of work on welfare reform, so that we get people into work and make sure that they get the support that they need.
Before the hon. Lady moves on, I want to come back to the national affordable housing programme. She referred to the £4.5 billion that the Government are investing in new build. Will she tell me what percentage reduction that, in effect, represents from the money spent in the previous comprehensive spending review periods between 2008 and 2011?
All I know is that there is an incredible shortage of housing in London, so the last Government did not do nearly enough to solve the problem. Look at what Ken Livingstone did not achieve as Mayor; the current Mayor of London is trying to address the issue massively in creating new affordable homes.
The new homes bonus announced by the Minister for Housing and Local Government last month also provides powerful incentives to transform house building by encouraging local communities to support development rather than resist it. Under the scheme, the Government match the council tax raised from new homes for the first six years, and communities themselves can decide how to spend the extra funding—for example, to provide local facilities such as libraries, swimming pools or leisure centres. The scheme will also encourage councils to bring empty properties back into use, as they will receive the cash bonus for that.
That question is best directed at the Minister, who will, I think, disagree. I am sure that he will respond to it at the end of the debate.
The new homes bonus shows the concept of localism in practice, with local communities, local government, business and the third sector coming together to make decisions that will bring real benefit to the local area. The Mayor of London has made a commitment to deliver 50,000 new affordable homes by 2011, of which 30,000 will be social rented homes; the remainder will be for low-cost ownership. He is on target to deliver his manifesto by the end of his mayoral term, despite the biggest downturn in the market for many years. By the end of the financial year 2010-11, 40,000 homes will have been completed, with a higher proportion of social rented homes being family sized than in any previous mayoral term. The Mayor has also fulfilled his manifesto commitment to invest £60 million in bringing 3,142 empty homes back into use.
Secondly, let us consider the increased use of the private rented sector. We have been used to an “Englishman’s home is his castle” approach to housing, but it is clear that we need to move more towards a European model, whereby long-term renting is much more the norm. Private companies can play a role in that, and several are now developing models that provide grant-free housing for economically active families who find that they are unable to get social housing or who have no realistic prospect of getting on the housing ladder—the so-called sandwich class. Those companies work in urban areas to develop brownfield sites and provide good-sized family accommodation for under the £340 a week housing benefit threshold.
For example, the London Rental Housing Company intends to build 2,000 private rented units in the next five years, and it is currently searching for 10 sites across London that can accommodate at least 150 three-bedroom apartments. It also intends to build larger units for families and sharers. That is part of a new, emerging build-to-let sector, which is entering the market to build purpose-built mass housing. Perhaps one of the greatest indictments of the Labour years is the previous Government’s rigid adherence to political dogma and their ignorance of the private sector’s potential to help solve some of the problems.
The Mayor of London believes that, by attracting institutional investment, there is significant scope for the private rented sector to play a bigger role. He is also committed to ensuring value for money in the private rental market and introducing the London rents map, which enables prospective tenants to see the going rental rates for any given postcode area in the capital.
Thirdly, let me deal with increased mobility. The majority of tenancy agreements are currently made on a lifetime basis, with no regard for future needs. Indeed, tenants can leave properties to family members after their death, with no regard to their housing needs. Although I understand that it would be difficult to change the arrangements for existing tenants, and I appreciate why the Government have decided not to do that, the suggested changes for the future represent a much more realistic model for moving forward.
I am listening carefully, and I have heard about no under-occupation for social tenants, so long-standing families will be forced to move out of their homes. I have heard, “Let’s rely on the private rented sector”, of which, as a west London Member of Parliament, given our heritage from Rachmanism, the hon. Lady should be ashamed. I am now hearing that lack of security is a benefit. I hope that she tells her constituents what she believes about housing policy in London, because, given the size of her majority, I would like to see how they vote next time.
I take every single person who comes to my surgery with housing problems extremely seriously, and I deal with them, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, too. That is what a Member of Parliament should do.
I like the hon. Lady, who often comes out with some good stuff. However, today, she is not on the best of wickets. How will she deal with constituents who come to her when they are about to be evicted because they somehow fall short of the bedroom standard? How does she think that that standard will be applied? Does she think that neighbours will tell on each other? Will there be a percentage figure for how often the bedroom is used as an indication of whether someone should be evicted? She talks about realistic policies, but she does not seem to have realistically engaged with that policy.
When any constituent comes to me in dire need, I work with the council to find a solution. I work to ensure some solution is found for that person. Rather than hon. Members talking purely about all the problems, which we know are vast and need to be tackled, I would like to hear some really good solutions from the Opposition.
As I said, the majority of tenancy agreements are currently made on a lifetime basis, and the Government have decided that the most reasonable approach is to ensure that a two-year minimum tenancy should be available for landlords to offer. However, longer-term tenancies would be expected to be provided to vulnerable households or those with children. All tenants will also have access to a mechanism that will enable them to move if their circumstances change—for example, if they secure work in another part of London or need to move to be closer to other family members.
Earlier, it was asked what the Mayor of London has been doing. I have already mentioned the 50,000 affordable homes that he will deliver by the end of his mayoral term. However, he also made several other promises to help London: to halve severe overcrowding in social housing by delivering larger, better-designed homes and more family-sized homes; to provide major regeneration; and to end rough sleeping. He has taken a range of measures such as providing a record number of affordable starts—a 35% increase in 2009-10 on 2007-08, the last year of Ken Livingstone’s administration.
More family-sized, affordable homes have been provided under the current mayoral administration than in the previous 10 years, with around 40% social rented homes with three or more bedrooms to help deliver the goal. Some of the red tape has been removed in the draft replacement for the London plan, including the 50% affordable homes target—that was never going to be achieved in the good times, and it would stifle development in the downturn. There has also been a major programme to unlock stalled regeneration schemes, leading to £200 million investment in more than 10 schemes across London. There is also London’s biggest programme to bring empty homes back into use, trebling investment to £60 million, and 1,700 empty homes have been brought back into use so far. Progress has been made. That is not to say that no problems remain, but I stress that some progress has been achieved.
In summary, there is no doubt that the current system of social housing is broken and it was critical for the Government to find ways to improve it. However, there is also room for more innovation. We need to be aware that any provision that simply seeks to allocate supply on a more efficient or compassionate basis will fail unless it is linked to demand-side reforms. Of course, that takes us into the wider issues of transport and infrastructure planning and regional economic policy.
There is scope for innovation, and I believe that the extended freedoms provided to local authorities in the Localism Bill will help encourage that. In London, the Mayor will play a critical role in outlining the strategy and in driving forward his commitments.
We all agree that an effective housing model is important to London, where more than 8 million people live. I congratulate the Government and the Mayor on their aim to raise aspirations and promote opportunities; improve homes and neighbourhoods; maximise the delivery of new homes and end rough sleeping; strengthen localism and reduce dependency; create a more flexible system; try to find a better use of resources; and make the system fairer.
We are discussing improving people’s lives, especially those of the most vulnerable, throughout the city. This is an example of politics making a real difference to people and creating stronger communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing the debate, his fine speech and his long-term campaign on housing. I apologise for the fact that I have to leave early because I have a long-standing constituency engagement this afternoon, not related to an election.
Having a decent, secure and affordable home should be a fundamental human right, but sadly, it is not. For most of our history in this country, people have been expected to provide for themselves, and the majority have lived in insecure, cold, damp and often insanitary and overcrowded conditions, until, for a relatively short time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North pointed out, slum clearances and mass house building by councils produced safer, spacious, secure and affordable homes.
Then, however, with living standards and aspirations rising, more and more ordinary families moved out of their council homes—they did not have the right to buy at that time—and became home owners, and this nation became divided between home owners and non-home owners. Mrs Thatcher, of course, knew whose side she was on. Council house building was curtailed, and as the years passed, housing stock was sold off or fell into disrepair—nowhere was that more acute than in London and inner-city boroughs such as mine—yet no one seemed to understand that the housing market and private ownership would never offer a solution for all, given that profits had to be made and household incomes varied so widely. The Thatcher Government was a disaster for housing in London, and London has never recovered.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North also suggested, Labour too bears some responsibility. When we entered government in 1997, our priorities were education and health—that was absolutely right—and we succeeded extraordinarily well. However, we failed to connect education and health with housing—although of course, where there is inadequate housing, education and health are severely affected.
My right hon. Friend is making a strong start to what clearly will be an important contribution to this debate. I entirely accept what she and my hon.
Friend Jeremy Corbyn said about the invisibility of house building to the Administrations of whom we were a part. However, the Labour Government inherited 2 million homes below the decency threshold. Does she not give them credit for recognising that that was an absolute priority and for the good work done in that aspect of housing, which was very important, particularly for thousands of homes in Tower Hamlets?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. He anticipated what I was about to say—[Interruption.] There is no need for an apology, because he is so right, and I am glad to have my point reinforced in advance.
I was about to say that when we turned our minds to the housing crisis in the capital, we made progress. In my constituency a raft of Government policies, including the decent homes programme, led to huge improvements in conditions. Many large council estates were completely demolished and rebuilt, removing the tower blocks and providing modern energy-efficient homes in low-rise blocks and, in some cases, terraces with gardens. No longer did constituents come to me begging to be got off an estate or crying because the cold was so intense—because of crumbling windows, poor insulation and lack of central heating—that they could not endure the winters.
Overcrowding continued, however, and new starts did not keep up with the demand, particularly for the larger family-sized units. Making up for the lack of investment under a decade of Tory policy became impossible, because property and land prices rose by an unprecedented degree. However, the effort continued, and the Labour Government concluded their period in office having made available £5 billion of investment for housing in London between 2008 and 2011. As a consequence of the Labour Administration, new starts in affordable house building peaked in 2009-10 at almost 16,000 units. That Labour programme is nearing its completion, however, and hereafter numbers look certain to collapse, as my hon. Friend Mr Slaughter suggested in an intervention might happen.
In addition, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has abandoned Labour’s target of having 50% of all new build as affordable homes. In my borough the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation at the end of March was 924, and at the end of February there were 16,000 on the housing register. Once again we have a growing housing crisis in London.
Some 50% of those on the list are deemed to have a choice and a need. None the less, the other 50%, who are in the lowest band and so stand no chance of being offered anything, have a housing need too. I can testify to that, having seen hundreds—probably thousands by now—of them in my surgeries. They are on the register because they cannot find an alternative, or because what they have is absolutely unacceptable. They do not, however, have a bedroom deficiency.
I believe that Mary Macleod genuinely accepts the need in London and seeks to do the best for her constituents, but in all the schemes that the Government have put in place, or plan to put in place, there is nothing that meets my constituents’ need for affordable new units. There is a complete deficiency of supply, and I see no way of it being made up. There is also to be no security for tenants of social housing, and there are to be draconian cuts and changes to housing benefit that will result in thousands, including those at work and renting from private landlords, being thrown out of their homes because rents have become impossible. Those who currently enjoy security and pay substantial housing association rents will find themselves in rent arrears as rents are forced to rise to 80% of the private sector average.
Is no one—Lib Dem or Tory—in this Administration aware of incomes levels in London? How much does the army of workers serving the private sector—business and enterprise—in the capital city earn? In my constituency, people earn as little as £10,000 a year to support a whole family, and the average median wage is £26,500, yet the gross annual income required to afford housing association rents at 80% of market levels ranges from £35,500 for one bedroom to £83,770 for four bedrooms. At 60%, the range is £26,500 to £83,500, and so on. Analysis by Hometrack published in Inside Housing suggests that in London a household income of £44,500 per annum would be required to cover the higher rents.
The difficulties with house purchase are obvious. We all know that the price of property in London, even for a one-bedroom flat, let alone family-sized accommodation, is so many times the annual average income that it is impossible for the average worker in London, on whom all our prosperity and welfare depend, to become a home purchaser. It is a cruel deception to suggest that people should just rely on council housing in difficult periods and be able to move on. It just cannot happen, and we will quickly find ourselves with a revolving door to homelessness.
A divorced woman who was caring for her two children, was in work and had not been able to sustain a mortgage, recently came to see me. She had given up and gone into the private sector—she was not deemed eligible for council or social housing—and was paying an enormous amount of her wages to secure the housing, but the landlord had, as he was entitled to do, increased the rent. She came to me in total despair. She said, “What am I to do? I can’t pay this, I can’t get more housing benefit. Do I have to give up my job? Do I have to take my children into a hostel, after the family breakdown and everything they’ve gone through?” What could I say? There are no council or social housing units available to that family at this moment, and no prospects of one.
I saw another family—one of the most desperate I have seen—where the man, a bus driver, was supporting his non-working wife, who had two very young children, and his mother and mother-in-law, all living together. The two mothers were in wheelchairs. They lived in a maisonette and one had to stay upstairs, never leaving, while the other had to stay downstairs, but for the housing shortage, and for no other reason. Who could not deem that family to be in desperate need of specialised family accommodation? There was no alternative for that family. From lifting the mothers in their wheelchairs and so on, the husband now had a major back problem and faced the prospect of possibly not being able to continue in his job.
Whether they give a description or not, I know that every Member who speaks in this debate will have had harrowing cases of housing need where families are suffering immensely. It is, of course, the children who suffer. Sometimes there are three children in a bedroom, perhaps with asthma or in unhygienic conditions, or perhaps the oldest child is studying for exams in secondary school, but cannot get any peace and quiet because the whole family is living in two rooms.
In the past year in Lewisham there has been a 30% drop in re-lets being made available for social housing offers. The lettings outcome at the end of the year was reasonably positive, but only because of a high out-turn of new builds. However, the local authority, in giving me some information for this debate, said, “There’s a real concern that if re-lets continue to drop—and everything suggests that they will—along with new build decreasing as a result of reduced grant, the available supply to meet need will be dramatically reduced.”
The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth said that the Opposition had to offer some solutions. One solution, of course, would be for Londoners to elect a Labour Mayor next year. The Labour candidate, Ken Livingstone, has made a whole raft of suggestions. He has suggested, for example, using the Mayor’s planning powers to negotiate the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing in private development schemes and making better use of publicly owned land to provide affordable homes in mixed developments, including through an expanding council house building programme.
I do accept that, but the fact is that before Ken Livingstone there was no such requirement—no aim, no goal—so there was no provision. The hon. Lady might want to acknowledge that any politician who aims for 50% and achieves 36% is actually doing rather well. Having had that experience, Ken Livingstone is now clear that a 50% target could and should be achieved. That is why he wants it to be a target once more. He suggests changes to allow public bodies such as the GLA Group and London boroughs to borrow against their assets on the bond markets in order to invest in the development of new affordable housing. He also suggests raising money on the bond markets to build affordable homes, including for rent, to break the back of the housing shortage and create work, and, as I have said, restoring the target that 50% of new housing provision in London should be affordable.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it ill behoves the Tories to be smug about the achievements of Labour Mayors in London? Any failure to achieve was almost inevitably due to the failure of individual boroughs—particularly boroughs such as Wandsworth and Westminster, which have had a disgraceful record on this over many years—to build any affordable housing, even in single figures. The former Mayor’s achievements over that time working with Labour boroughs were actually extremely significant, which is of course why the targets were abolished.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I pay tribute to the Labour administration in Lewisham for working so hard with the Mayor of
London and social housing landlords in the borough to achieve considerable levels of new build, an effort that was defeated at times only by the price of land, which was often difficult to acquire.
Let me conclude. My greatest fear is that by the time I leave this House, we might have come full circle. We might be back to the kind of housing conditions that I saw and experienced through my constituents when I entered this House in the 1980s. At that time, Londoners and visitors to London were used to seeing those cardboard boxes under the arches on the south bank. There are some people here who will not have those memories, but they are so powerful for those of us who lived in London at the time. I have a terrible fear that instead of getting people into work and making London a better and more prosperous place, where people are properly housed, all the Government’s changes, along with the cuts and everything that goes with them, will return us to those terrible times.
Every borough has a duty to deal with homelessness, but is my right hon. Friend aware that although there are usually charities that deal with people who are sleeping rough, the number of rough sleepers and people sleeping in parks or on park benches in London is increasing dramatically? I fear that we are looking again at the misery of the 1980s, when there were all those cardboard boxes.
I agree with my hon. Friend. He uses the term “rough sleepers”, but we should bear in mind that those are often people with a multiplicity of problems in addition to their housing need. They need special programmes, special treatment and special care—provision that the Labour Government made available, reducing the number of people on the streets with additional problems so dramatically.
My greatest fear is not just that those numbers will increase, but that ordinary families and single people who do not have additional problems will be affected. Their only problem will be that they have become homeless because of Government policies, and that there will ultimately be no means for local authorities to cope with the strains and stresses of trying to house homeless people. What will happen is that the acceptance criteria will become more stringent, and many people who do not meet them will end up on the street.
However, I also have some hope that the people of London will not allow that to happen, but will apply sufficient pressure—through their local authorities and representatives, including Members of this House—to persuade this Government that however they thought up these policies, they must meet the test of practical experience, and that test shows that the market will not provide for the people of London. That is not to the shame of the people of London. It is not that they cannot earn their own living and pay their way—they can do all that—but they must have sufficient social housing provision in which to conduct their lives.
I should like to congratulate all the speakers who have taken part in the debate so far. They have made some heartfelt contributions. I particularly want to congratulate Jeremy Corbyn, who has an admiral record of consistency in campaigning on this issue. Come rain or shine, come Labour or coalition Government, he is there, trenchant in his criticism and committed to his solution. I do not want to simplify his solution, but I would describe it as a heritage Labour solution involving more public spending on building social housing.
I also commend my hon. Friend Mary Macleod, who has not yet had time to build up an admirable record of consistency on these issues, but is clearly making a very good start in defending her constituents. I am sure that, in the years to come, she will build up a record similar to that of the hon. Member for Islington North.
Joan Ruddock set out the problems in her constituency. I would like to point out, in regard to those problems and those in my own area—there are about 4,000 households on the housing waiting list in the London borough of Sutton—that many of those families have been there for many years. The problems have not arisen in the past 12 months; they have been a long-standing challenge that successive Governments have failed to address. The right hon. Lady put forward certain solutions—I think that they were actually Ken Livingstone’s solutions—including one involving bonds. Those solutions could have been implemented by the previous Government, and it is regrettable that that did not happen when her party had the opportunity, because there were some good ideas there.
I want to thank Centrepoint, which I am sure has sent briefings for the debate to other Members as well. I want to thank it in particular because, a couple of weeks ago, it took me round a couple of its schemes in the London borough of Sutton that focus on supporting young people. The first scheme that I visited comprised a number of bed-sits in a large house. There was a small Centrepoint office in the same residential property, so that the residents—typically 16 and 17-year-olds—can get help and advice on a range of issues from managing their bills to employment issues, whenever they need it.
I met a young man of 17 there who was just beginning to come to terms with living by himself. He was looking for employment and was hoping to start work with a firm of scaffolders when he turned 18. I thank him for explaining to me how the scheme was helping him to build up his confidence. We then went on to another scheme close by, which was made up of independent houses and flats for young people starting out in their own first full property by themselves. The Centrepoint schemes in my constituency and elsewhere are clearly making a significant contribution to supporting young people.
In return for Centrepoint helping me by showing me its local schemes, I should like to mention some of the points that it has raised in the briefing that it sent out to Members for today’s debate. I recognise that the coalition Government are, of necessity, having to take steps to address the budgetary problems that we face. I am afraid that Labour Members still do not recognise that, while the coalition Government are talking about saving £16 billion in the coming year, Labour had plans to save £14 billion. The ratio is, therefore, that for every £8 that we plan to save, Labour intended to save £7. There has to be some recognition of the need to tackle the financial deficit, but there has not been much evidence of that from Labour Members’ contributions today. When Ms Buck responds on behalf of the Opposition, perhaps she will not only set out Labour’s genuine concerns about the state of social housing in the UK—and particularly in London—but outline to us her solutions, so that we can assess their effectiveness or otherwise.
One of the issues that I will set out later is the absurdity of cutting—indeed, slashing—spending on social housing construction and consequentially driving up the housing benefit bill by pushing more people either into the private rented sector or into properties whose rent is set at 80% of the market rent. Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on the logic of trying to reduce the deficit by increasing it?
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making, but that does not really address the budgetary situation that we face. Unfortunately, I will not be able to listen to her speech later, but I will read carefully the full range of solutions that she sets out to see whether her party is now in a position to deploy effective solutions. I think that the hon. Member for Islington North would accept that Labour did not tackle the housing crisis very successfully when it was in government.
One of the arguments that has been deployed in the Finance Bill debates this week—which will be continued upstairs—was the need for a bank bonus tax. One of the benefits of such a tax would be to create the opportunity to build 25,000 additional units of accommodation over the next few years.
That might well be among the solutions that the hon. Member for Westminster North will list later. I should point out, however, that over the course of this Parliament, we will raise at least an extra £10 billion from the banks through the taxation measures that we have already introduced, and that there might be a limit to how much one can draw on that source of funding.
I want to move on to the specific points that Centrepoint raised in its briefing. I am sure that the coalition Government will want to monitor those issues, and to assess whether our proposals have had any unintended consequences. If that is the case, there might be a need to show flexibility further down the line. On social housing tenancies, there are clearly different views in different organisations on the idea of minimum fixed terms. I know that some Conservative and Liberal Democrat local authorities are reluctant to introduce them. Centrepoint says that, while it does not oppose them, it is crucial to have a degree of flexibility in the system, in particular for young people who might need more stability as they start out, and that tenancies should reflect people’s individual circumstances rather than acting as a straitjacket that constrains everyone in the same way.
Centrepoint also raised concerns, as have Members in previous debates, about the shared room rate, particularly the risk that as this applies to people up to 35, even more pressure might be put on properties currently going to younger people. There might be a tendency to give priority to the older person seeking a shared room, perhaps because they are more settled, which might have a displacement effect on younger people seeking shared accommodation. I hope the Minister will respond to that particular point.
Moving on from the Centrepoint briefing, does the hon. Gentleman support the removal of security of tenure for social tenants or only for some types of social tenants? If so, what types—older people or families, for example? He mentions young people, who might have insecure lifestyles, but what advantages does the hon. Gentleman see in taking away the security that social tenants have been used to for the past 50 years?
I am happy to give local authorities and others the powers to change the terms of tenure and I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that there is an issue with some people having security of tenure who, from a financial point of view, could afford to live in their own accommodation or in the private sector. Perhaps Bob Crow springs to mind as one such example. By continuing to occupy council or social housing, those people are not making that accommodation available to others in greater need. The hon. Gentleman might not want to draw the line in the same place as me, but I hope he will acknowledge that it could be argued with considerable justification that people at the extremes should not have security of tenure in premises that could be more appropriately given to people in far greater need.
A further point raised in the Centrepoint briefing was the issue of the uprating of the local housing allowance and the move towards basing it on the consumer prices index. It is argued that using the CPI figure could cost the Government money if there has been a drop in the rental markets locally. The Minister might want to look at that from a Government spending point of view.
The final point in the briefing is the issue of direct payments. I fully support the concept that people should take more responsibility for their expenditure, so I have some reservations about paying money directly to landlords. Centrepoint’s view is that there are circumstances—this might be particularly true for young people—where people might prefer to have the money paid directly to their landlord because they do not feel they are ready to take on that financial responsibility. Some flexibility there might help.
My final point is not one that Centrepoint raised; it is about arm’s length management organisations and I would like the Minister to update us on his view of them. Other Members in their places may well, like me, be members of the all-party ALMOs group. Members will recall that when tenants were given an option to transfer to an ALMO, a consultation process had to be gone through. The concern of the all-party group is that the travel nowadays is in the opposite direction and that some local authorities are seeking, perhaps precipitately, to bring ALMOs or social housing back under their control without going through the anticipated process of consultation. I hope that when the Minister responds—or, if necessary, in writing—he will pick up on that point and let us know whether he has heard those concerns and raised them with local authorities, as it is important to ensure that tenants are given a fair outline of their options and are fully consulted about the process. They can then make a decision with the full facts in hand on whether they want the responsibility for the management of their properties brought back in house or to retain the ALMO.
This is an important debate. I have been a Member for 14 years and I have spoken in about 25 debates on this subject during that time. It is a particularly critical issue in London. I do not believe that there is much difference between us about the need to tackle the problem, although there are big differences in approach. I hope that in the months and years to come, my Government will demonstrate by the measures we are introducing that we are tackling the problem, growing the amount of social housing available and starting to address what has proved to be a real dilemma for Londoners for the last 30 or 40 years.
I also want to apologise for having to leave the Chamber for a period—not because of an appointment with the referendum, but because I have a debate in Westminster Hall, which might be more important. I congratulate my hon. and good Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who I think has become the conscience of the House on this issue over recent decades. He continually reminds us of the plight of many of our constituents. I also thank him for raising this matter because it provides us with an opportunity to get some of the issues associated with it off our chests.
My constituency faces the worst housing crisis since the second world war—perhaps even worse, given the level of demand. To be frank, I cannot cope much longer with my constituency advice surgeries, which I find so distressing. I have mentioned this before, but I find it difficult when I see how my staff are having to cope with it. We have even talked about whether we should be trying to get some counselling for the people concerned. So far as the role of being a local MP is concerned, I find the surgeries to be just about the most distressing experience of my life. I cannot cope with any more families coming in with their children at their ankles, in tears and desperate for a roof over their heads. I simply cannot understand why the sixth wealthiest country in the world cannot solve the problem.
I was born in Liverpool. My dad was a docker and my mum a cleaner. We lived off Scotland road. I have read from sociological studies that it was one of the worst slums in Europe, but we just called it home. I remember the day when we moved out into a council house prefab and I also remember the day when we moved from the prefab into a brick-built council house of Parker Morris standards, with a garden and all the rest of it. We celebrated as a family. I can remember us celebrating getting a decent roof over our heads in a decent environment. When people come to my surgery nowadays, however, I cannot offer them anything. I cannot even offer them a crumb of comfort; it is so distressing.
We are all going to quote our constituency figures. I now have 900 families homeless and 7,600 on the waiting lists. On average, it takes seven to 10 years before they have any real prospect of getting a council house or social housing. In my constituency, people have to be earning £51,320 a year just to afford any prospect of living in an average house—and that is well beyond the means of most of my constituents. The reasons have already been stated. The bulk of council housing in my area was sold off after the Thatcher policies and there has been no replacement. The money was not reinvested; often for political reasons under certain administrations, it was used for other purposes such as reducing the rates in order to get re-elected.
I am equally critical of the last Administration. It must be admitted that one of the most significant failures of the last 14 years under new Labour was the failure to provide adequate housing, although we did many good things, such as refurbishment. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend Joan Ruddock, that has had consequences for health, education, social well-being, and community life in general.
We had three referendums on the establishment of an ALMO in my area. In two of them, the tenants voted against it. They were invited to a number of parties and receptions. I have never seen so much glossy information material as that with which they were provided. Eventually they succumbed and voted for the ALMO, and they were then transferred to Hillingdon Homes. There was a wonderful new logo and most of the chief officers received salary increases, but the arrangement was a failure, and the housing was returned to council control. There was virtually no new build, although the decent homes programme went ahead and there was some refurbishment, which I welcomed.
In my area, the ALMO was not particularly well managed. Rip-off companies made extremely high profits in return for very poor delivery. Some months ago I raised the matter in an Adjournment debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunell, met tenants and me, and we are still calling for a public inquiry. The poor management in my area let down many people who were expecting their properties to be refurbished.
We also have a so-called “choice” bidding scheme called Locator. Desperate families bid every week for properties to which they have no hope of ever gaining access. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North that the problem is not simply the fact that local people with local jobs cannot afford a roof over their heads; I have known firefighters at Hayes fire station to commute from Cornwall and Devon, sleeping at the station and returning home after their shifts. There is also the problem of family breakdown, when people’s kids cannot live in their local area and have to move miles away. The whole family network breaks down, as does the social caring network. The system is completely counter-productive and it is not cost-effective, because the burden of care must fall on the state rather than on local families.
Of course housing associations play a key role in providing social housing in my constituency, but they are not as they used to be. I was involved in the development of the early housing associations, which were small and more like co-operatives. They had specialist roles, particularly in relation to the elderly and people with disabilities. No one ever envisaged their becoming the large corporations that they are now. There has been merger after merger, and takeover after takeover. Many of the tenants cannot distinguish them from private landlords. Some of the management is extremely poor. There is a slow response to requests for repairs. Within four years new buildings provided through housing associations in my area have developed damp and other construction problems because of poor standards and poor management of the construction process.
I must also put on record, because I am so angry about it, the consistently poor management by a number of housing associations in my area, and their failure to deal with antisocial behaviour. There are some extreme examples which I have raised with Ministers in the past. That problem continues, and has not been remedied.
I would be grateful if my hon. Friend commented on the lack of democracy in the running of housing associations and the problems that that has created. When they were small, semi-co-operative organisations, there was a clear line of responsibility and accountability, but I do not perceive any accountability in the majority of housing associations now.
Some of the smaller ones in the Irish community with which I have been involved, such as Innisfree and Casra, have done a very good job. They have remained relatively small, and have therefore managed to engage their tenants. In that sense, they are manageable. As I have said, however, most of the housing associations with which I deal now are mega-corporations. There is only tokenistic tenant involvement, with no element of real tenant control. When I, along with tenants, attend meetings with housing associations, we become supplicants, as if we were dealing with any private corporation or landlord.
I had a hand in the setting up of Community Housing in Camden. At one point, it announced that in future it would not allow tenants to vote to choose their representatives on the board; the board would do that. In a leaflet that it put out, it made clear that anyone who had ever taken it to the housing ombudsman or to court need not bother to apply. It took me a long time to persuade the Housing Corporation and the ombudsman to make it withdraw at least that small element of its anti-democratic approach.
I was head of the Camden council’s policy unit during the 1980s. I remember with pride the engagement and investment in developing tenants’ associations. They gave us a hard time—they were in your face—but they played an important democratic role in the raising of standards. In the case of the larger housing associations, that whole ethos has completely gone.
My hon. Friend has hit a rich seam, which I shall develop when I have an opportunity to speak in the debate. Not all housing associations are bad, even in terms of tenant involvement. The tenant chair of the Shepherd’s Bush housing association in my west London constituency does a good job. However, I am afraid that most of them, particularly the large ones—the Notting Hills of this world—are, as my hon. Friend says, corporations in all but name. The trouble is that, while they would like to think that they are out there wheeling and dealing in the business world, they are very poorly run and are doing a very poor job for our tenants. It is a disgrace. They are worse than the Tory councils in many respects, because their actions are not politically motivated. These are people whose only job is to provide affordable housing for people, and they simply are not doing it. That is a scandal which should be exposed.
I entirely agree.
I want to be able to attend my other debate so that I can say wonderful things about the British Airports Authority, so I shall move on to the subject of the second source of housing supply in my constituency. There have been a number of new private developments there in recent years. Thanks to Ken Livingstone’s policy of trying to create a social mix, we have gained a combination of private and social housing on individual sites. The problem is that the area is infested with a number of developers who are seeking to impose the highest possible housing density. In reality, they are building the slums of the future. I will name one company, Inland Homes, which is developing properties that not only fail to meet existing need but undermine the quality of housing in the area.
Let me give two examples. One is West Drayton in Porters Way. The Government have a role in that development, because it is a former Government site. It was the air traffic control centre for Heathrow and an RAF camp before it was handed over to the private sector for development. High-density, barrack-like accommodation was constructed, with inadequate parking facilities so that the parking spills on to the rest of the estate. It consists of flats which do not blend in with the houses with gardens on the rest of the estate. There is inadequate provision of social facilities— there are none at all for young people—and the local schools and medical facilities have become overloaded. The amount of traffic has increased, and even the drainage system cannot cope with the new development. The section 106 planning agreements have failed to deal with the costs and burdens placed on the local infrastructure.
The other development is on the old railway estate in Hayes, which was built for employers of British Rail and was sold off after its privatisation. The Glenister hall site—the former site of Hayes working men’s club—was sold to Inland Homes. Glenister hall was a community hall with playing fields and a football pitch on which the local team played, as did local kids, but the site has now been allowed to deteriorate. Inland Homes has made two planning applications for an intensive development. It lost the first, but Hillingdon council has approved the second. No alternative place has yet been provided for the kids to play football on. The company has offered to improve one site, which is already a football pitch, but it is literally a mile away, across busy roads. So we are now to have another intensive development. The local residents campaigned against it but were overridden by the council, and we are now hoping that the Secretary of State will call this in. One leaflet was put out anonymously by a local resident and the company is threatening legal action against the chair of the residents association, Peter Robinson, an elderly gentleman who is not in good health. He is being threatened with libel action, even though he did not put out the leaflet. This sort of ruthless developer is taking over entire sites in my area to build the slums of the future.
Under the previous Government—I hope it will not happen under this Government, but I think it will go on—the buy-to-let landlordism in my area grew massively. Individuals—this mainly involved individuals, rather than companies—bought up small property empires. They offer these places at high rents, often to families on housing benefit. Some of the properties have been developed into illegal houses in multiple occupation—they are not registered. These places are not maintained and people are living in appalling slum conditions. We are talking about Rachmanite landlords who threaten and abuse tenants whenever they make any complaint, and then evict them illegally. In many cases, these landlords fail to abide by even basic housing legislation, in respect of providing rent books and so on. People are evicted when they complain and if they seek to take legal action, they have neither the resources, nor the ability to do so—now that there are restrictions on legal aid, they will have even less ability to do so.
Hillingdon council uses local estate agents to push people into the private sector. We have discovered that the estate agents it has been using have often used these buy-to-let slum landlords. There is a belief that in Hillingdon an informal agreement exists whereby the estate agent will seek properties in the south of the borough, in my constituency—the working-class, multicultural area—and not look for them in the rich north of the borough. So an apartheid regime is developing with regard to housing homeless people in the borough—of course it is not that the north of the borough is represented by Conservatives who are protecting their own patches. This has resulted in families living in appalling conditions and overcrowding on a scale not seen in my area since the second world war. Some families are living in almost developing world conditions because some of the properties are so poor.
The housing shortage has also resulted almost in a planning free-for-all. There has almost been a breakdown in local planning controls, enforcement and monitoring in my area: extensions are put on properties; new units are put up in gardens; and new buildings are created with no control whatever. The council fails even to acknowledge a number of the developments and does not seem to be aware of the developments that have gone on. When these things are reported, the council gives retrospective planning permission.
A resident in my constituency, Brian Duffy, has led a campaign on the issue, working with Councillor Jaz Dhillon and others. They have looked on Google Earth to see what properties have been developed. We have seen a new phenomenon in my area: leisure rooms. These are, in effect, sheds built in gardens. They are given retrospective planning permission and are supposed to be used for leisure purposes, but on inspection— like many of my colleagues, I carry out walkabout inspections—we find that curtains have gone up, bathrooms and toilets have been installed and whole families are living in these “leisure rooms”. I understand that a large family might be desperate and might feel that this is the only way in which they can put a roof over their heads, but that is not what is happening in most cases. What is happening is that landlords are constructing these leisure rooms and getting families to live in what are, in effect, garages. In some instances we have discovered these places only when the family have turned up to register for council tax and we have found out that they are living in a shed or a garage as a result of these illegal developments.
There has also been an increase in people sleeping rough in my area. A large number of people sleep rough by the Grand Union canal and I tell the police that I do not want them moved on, because I do not know where else they could go. If they are seeking warmth and security under the bridge by the canal and that is the only place they can find, I cannot see what other option there is, because my area has no rough sleeping provision. The only option would be to send them to central London but there is barely any provision for them there either.
An element of squatting is breaking out in London again. That is understandable, because people have nowhere else to go. I am anxious about the Government’s proposals to introduce tighter legislation on squatting—I would certainly be anxious if they are cutting back on housing investment alongside that. I believe that their policies will make things dramatically worse. I do not wish to rehearse all the arguments I have put forward so far, but the benefit cuts, the increase in social housing rents and the cuts in the capital programme spell absolute housing disaster for my area. There will be an increase in problems such as homelessness, housing need and overcrowding. The tragedy of all this is that homeless people and the people living in these conditions have no political clout; they are largely voiceless. Therefore, it is our responsibility to use every platform we can to speak up for them, which is why I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North.
What is needed in this area? It is blindingly obvious that we need an emergency housing programme on a scale not seen since the second world war. We have to treat this situation as a crisis and put all the resources into it, and that means an emergency housing purchase programme. I want councils to be given the powers and the resources to buy vacant properties in my area that are on the open market and use them to house families—that is how critical the situation is. They must buy the properties and manage them directly. We can then develop for those properties schemes of small co-operatives, perhaps see a return of the housing association movement and break up the overly large, bureaucratic corporations. Perhaps we could see a return of that movement to its origins, but in the meantime we need an emergency housing purchase programme.
On new builds, I would like councils, particularly those in my area, to be given the opportunity of compulsory purchase and be allowed almost to commandeer sites for building. We should of course protect the green belt and the open spaces—I am worried about the Government’s threats to allotments—but to establish a new building programme we need to give the councils the powers to sequestrate sites to bring them into use, particularly industrial and commercial units, and the empty shops and properties above shops in town centres. Of course we can use creative design and creative construction techniques but, above all else, we just need to start building council homes again.
I also want an emergency programme of refurbishment. I want the decent homes programme to be not only maintained, but extended and intensified. I want higher standards and I want to ensure that these are green homes. I want them to be insulated and warm. I want renewable energy to be used and I want us to minimise the waste. In that way, we can find the funding—we could also end the tax breaks to the buy-to-let landlords, which they have used so extensively to profiteer over the past 14 years.
I was the Greater London council’s chair of finance and we had a capital pool. We had the most efficient borrowing scheme in local government in this country and possibly in western Europe. It had cross-party support and I believe it was started by a Tory administration and then maintained through a cross-party agreement throughout the life of the GLC. It enabled us not only to build, but to give mortgages.
I would like to see local authority mortgages brought back again. The London county council started them and because of the scale of London and of our resources, and therefore of our capacity to borrow and lend cheaply, the LCC and GLC mortgage was often the first mortgage that people took. It was an affordable mortgage that enabled people to get on the first rung of the housing ladder. People may recall that we developed, at that stage, our own part buy, part rent schemes, but they were affordable. Some hon. Members may also recall that we freed up properties through the seaside homes programme, whereby we bought and built properties in seaside resorts outside London where people wanted to retire to. Those people gave up their council properties and we were able to put families back into them.
We should be looking at creative incentive schemes such as those, rather than penalising people or limiting their ability to maintain their council house based on their wage or a particular time period. I agree that part of that proposal concerns the self-build projects that we launched and they should be built on. We need to use all those inventive and creative ways to tackle the housing crisis.
The most important thing to recognise—for everybody, but for this Government in particular—is that there is a crisis that cannot be ignored. In past debates and under past Governments, the whole point of housing policy has been not merely to paternalistically hand down housing from Government to people in need, but to be one of the most effective stimuli to the economy to get us out of recession. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North mentioned unemployed workers in the construction industry and that industry is one of the sectors of our economy that are faring worst at the moment. Whenever we have seen any lift or recent growth in the economy, the construction sector has held us back. If we could launch an emergency house-building programme on some scale, it would put people back to work, and a housing purchase programme would lift asset values. In that way, an emergency housing programme could help this country to tackle the recession. We could be lifted out of the recession on the basis of investment for social need rather than investment for greed and profit.
Today’s debate is very valuable and I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on securing it. I do not always agree with everything he says, but on this point there is a lot of common ground between his party, mine and that of my colleagues in the coalition Government.
Labour Members speak about housing as though it is an issue that affects only them and their constituents. We are demonstrating today that there is a housing problem across London that is experienced by all Members, particularly in their surgeries and postbags. People regularly come to see me about this in my surgery and I feel a fraud in many ways because they are concerned and upset about their housing or lack of housing and I know that we will not be able to do anything to help. I feel greatly sorry for them and we recommend that they go to the private sector in the knowledge that we have nothing in the public or social rented sectors.
I want to cover a few points that the Government are addressing as well as to speak about my experience. Some people seem to think that all London is completely the same, but it is not. We have diverse areas and different experiences, which is exemplified in the housing crisis across the city. It is a crisis; we have a problem. Many people are not only unable to afford their own homes but have a problem housing themselves in the type of quality accommodation we would expect all our families to live in.
That is why it is vital that the Government and local authorities continue to promote the development of attractive mixed-tenure communities in our local areas instead of the monolithic estates about which many of us have been concerned. We have seen not a rush but an agenda to knock those estates down, and they are crime-ridden in many parts of London. Promoting such a development is the only way we will help people into home ownership. At the very least we should change their tenancies so they are better suited to individual needs. That is how we will stop people being trapped in that vicious dependency cycle.
I shall not reel off a lot of statistics, but one thing that I am very keen on—I spoke about it in my maiden speech—is social aspiration. I do not believe that people who go into the social rented sector lack social aspiration, but I do think that they have it hammered out of them. In 2008-09, only 49% of tenants of working age in the social rented sector were in work, down from 71% in 1981. I have heard the comments about cardboard boxes under Blackfriars bridge, but they do not stack up with the statistics. In comparison, in that same year, 89% of home owners, and 75% of private renters, of working age were in work. About 60% of social rented households report that they are in receipt of housing benefit compared with just 20% in the private rented sector. I would not say that people in the social rented sector were failures, but I believe that they certainly end up feeling that they are at a disadvantage in comparison with other people who are perhaps attracted to, or able to afford, the private rented sector.
I am just glancing through a report from Family Mosaic, a large housing association that is very good, on the whole. It states that
“setting rents at 80% of market rent would increase our clients’ requirement for housing benefit by 151%”.
What does the hon. Gentleman think of that policy?
We should allow the social rented sector to help the people who really need that help. The hon. Gentleman asked the hon. Member for Carshalton and
Wallington (Tom Brake) who should be thrown out of their homes, and it is quite clear that no demographic section of the community should be thrown out, whether that is the elderly or people with children. It should be done on a financial basis to people such as Lee Jasper and Bob Crow, whom I read about in the paper today and who earns £145,000. If we removed people such as him, we would open up the social rented market to the people who really need it. That is what I think of that policy.
The point I want to make, which helpfully illustrates that answer, is that social landlords are required by inflexible and centrally determined rules to grant lifetime tenancies in the vast majority of cases, and I presume that someone like Mr Crow would have that sort of tenancy. There is no account of how their individual and household circumstances have changed and they cannot be removed. I spoke to my office today and I have received a telephone call from a lady in my constituency who said that she urgently needs to move house as her husband has become disabled, but she is unable to do so because of the rigid rules and structures that I have just described. In shocking contrast, other people’s tenancies can be inherited by family members who might no longer be in need of the housing that they have been allocated. That is clearly not a system that helps to serve the people we represent.
Labour Members have spoken about the development proposals in their local areas and how they feel that the local authority alone should be allowed to develop. That has not been the experience in my constituency.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once, so I am going to continue with my speech.
My experience has been very good. Large elements of the constituency certainly need development—I am thinking of the West Hendon estate and Perryfields, as well as areas of Burnt Oak and, significantly, the Grahame Park estate, of which some hon. Members might be aware. It was the site of the old RAF Hendon base and it is a location that has now changed to allow development from the private sector. That has been a great success and many of my friends live in that area, which is proving to be a real boon to the local economy.
I was pleased a couple of weeks ago to attend the first phase of Choices for Grahame Park, which is a separate phase of development in Colindale, with the mayor of Barnet, Councillor Anthony Finn. When that is completed, it will form a central part of the Colindale area action plan and will create a new community in my constituency, providing greater transport links on the tube, greater community health facilities and a radical rebuilding programme that will transform the estate, which has been a blight for many years. This will happen in the next 15 years and we expect to see about 3,000 new homes as part of this new heart of my constituency.
The regeneration of the area will also provide retail facilities and 25% of the existing homes are built in a traditional layout, instead of like the cardboard boxes and rabbit hutches that some hon. Members have described. In total, we will demolish 1,314 outdated and overused homes and replace them with 2,977 brand-new, purpose-built family homes that will revolutionise life in the Grahame Park area and in my constituency as a whole.
Does my hon. Friend agree that too often the special circumstances in London seem to get missed out in policy making? For example, I think we all want to see more family-sized homes built in the affordable sector rather than the small boxes that typified the affordable houses built under the previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Many people got very agitated about that because London wants family-sized homes. Here is the problem: a couple of London housing associations came to me and said that they would like to build more family-sized homes but in order to be able to afford to do that under the current circumstances they will have to charge 80% of market value, which many of their tenants will find difficult to afford. Is it not very important that—
Order. All afternoon, we have been drifting into longer and longer interventions. Interventions are supposed to be short, not an excuse for a speech, and the hon. Lady has now finished.
I was enjoying my colleague’s contribution. She certainly has some relevant experience in her constituency, but I want to continue by talking about the current system’s inflexibility in providing social tenants with heavily subsidised rents for the duration of their time in the sector regardless of their changing needs and ability to pay. Perhaps, again, Mr Crow is one of those people.
Inflexible lifetime tenancies contribute to significant imbalances between the size of the households and the property that they live in. A one-size-fits-all model for rents and tenancies is not the best answer to the wide-ranging needs and circumstances of those who access the social rented sector.
I understand—I hope to hear from the Minister about this later—that the Government believe that we must make far better use of existing social housing, by ensuring that we target our support where it is needed most. Given the huge pressures on the public finances, we must ensure that we get more for the money that we invest in new social homes. My colleague’s point about investing in family homes is a serious and important one, particularly for people in my constituency.
I hope and believe that the Government will create a more flexible system of social housing—a system that recognises that everyone’s needs are not the same, that offers stability when needed, that helps people to move when they start to work, for example, and that protects the most vulnerable people in society.
The hon. Gentleman makes quite a lot of an anecdote about Mr Crow—we could all make policy by anecdote—but does he recognise that the average income of social tenants is dramatically lower than that of private owners and tenants and therefore that Mr Crow’s house and those of a handful of others like him will not house the 1 million people who are on social housing waiting lists?
I thank the shadow Minister for making that interesting point, but a principle could be set that someone such as Mr Crow should not espouse certain values on the one hand and live in a different fashion on the other. She also makes the important point—I am sure that she is very keen to hear this—that the Government’s plan to make work pay for people will be a valuable incentive to encourage people towards home ownership rather than the culture of dependency that I spoke about earlier.
Currently, the rules to allocate social homes are unfair. Despite the previous Government spending £17 billion on social housing in the past 13 years, more than twice as many people were left on the waiting lists. Again, I welcome the Government’s recent consultation, and I notice that the local authorities that responded welcome the plans to give them extra freedoms to manage their waiting lists in particular and that two thirds of social landlords said that they plan to use the new flexibility to offer fixed tenancies—something that will reinvigorate the market. Indeed, the Localism Bill, which is currently before Parliament, will give landlords the option to offer flexible tenancies and give councils greater control over allocating their social homes. The valuable resource that we all have in our constituencies will be available to all those who need it, when they need it.
Bob Crow earns enough—if we can call it earning—to house himself, so I do not think that he will need such assistance from any local authority.
I hope that the Minister mentions some of the reforms that the Government are promoting. I am certainly aware of flexible tenures, which I have mentioned, and fair allocations, but I should like the Government also to focus on greater social mobility. Again, I return to making work pay and to fixed tenancies that allow people to consider their housing needs and, as they change, to change where they live.
I want the Government to consider fairer provision for homeless people. I should like local authorities to have greater flexibility to make decisions on how best to stop people becoming at risk of homelessness. Currently, some homeless families turn down the decent private rented accommodation that they have been offered as settled homes and demand to be provided with more expensive temporary accommodation at greater cost to the taxpayer until a social home becomes available. Surely—I hope the Minister agrees—that cannot be right for the taxpayer, and it cannot be right for those individuals.
I shall leave my comments there, but as I said, I certainly welcome the debate. It is important; we have heard some good contributions; and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Mary Macleod referred to 1.8 million people being on the housing waiting list.
That is a staggering figure. I recollect that a petition on the No. 10 website against speed cameras once attracted 1.2 million signatories and received headlines in newspapers throughout the country. So speed cameras generate comments in the national newspapers, but the fact that 1.8 million people are on the list does not. I wonder when those people will get angry. We all marched against cuts a few weeks ago—500,000 people marched through London. When will people start to get angry about this issue?
We could all write the Minister’s speech. He will go on about the fact that Margaret Thatcher built more council houses than Labour did in the last 13 years. He will say that Ken Livingstone was a failure because he had a 50% target but only achieved 36%. We have heard all that before, and quite frankly, it is just not good enough. For the past 30 years, Government Members—Labour and Conservative—have, quite frankly, failed on the issue.
Hang on a minute; I have hardly started.
We can make excuses—they are good ones—about the amount of money that we invested in social housing over the last 13 years. We should be proud of that investment. Many of my constituents live in far better quality housing as a result of the commitment and money that we invested in social housing, but we lost sight of a growing crisis in the provision of affordable rented accommodation for our constituents right across the capital and the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing the debate. He referred to articles about how unattractive social housing is, how the failed experiment of building huge monolithic estates of rented accommodation became microcosms of all social ills, and how people with social problems became concentrated in those communities, which were unattractive and difficult for people to leave, but that is not my recollection of growing up in communities full of rented council and housing association accommodation. Back in those days, the Church Commissioners provided social rented accommodation where I lived.
I will in a moment. Calm down. [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members will notice that I was more restrained in my comment.
Those people did not lack aspiration or exhibit all the problems that people have given as reasons for not investing in building social rented accommodation. We have lost sight of the issue. It has been suggested that such people lack aspiration and that such areas become concentrations of high unemployment, low educational attainment and high levels of crime, particularly antisocial behaviour among young people. Such circumstances become self-fulfilling prophecies as a result of people having to be housed according to priority need.
Over the years, the housing supply has been constantly reducing. Because of the right to buy, the amount of social housing for rent went down consistently, in spite of the new building that was taking place, until only a couple of years before the previous Labour Government left office. The only time there was an increase was from about 2008 onwards as a result of the investment of the previous Labour Government. Just as we got to the end of our last term in office, we actually got it and finally started to invest in building again, and so the building of council housing began again. There were projects in my constituency and my local authority was successful in bidding for money to start to build council housing again. That is what we have to get back to. It will be no good the Minister’s coming to the Dispatch Box and saying that it has all been bad under both Tory and Labour Governments. We have to get this right for future generations.
We have heard about the flexibility of having 80% of market rents. To give them credit, many registered social landlords and housing associations are saying that going for 80% of market rents would fundamentally change their ethos. It would mean that they were no longer providers of social housing and they believe that they would be wrong to go down that route. To accept rents of 80% of market rents would be to accept the principle that people who live in social housing should subsidise the future development of social housing—that they should pay for it rather than the general taxpayer or anyone else. For many years, people buying private housing got enormous subsidies. A myth has built up that there are huge subsidies for council housing, but the housing revenue account has paid its own way for decades. Even my local authority, in its response to the consultation on social housing rents, made the mistake of believing that there was a cost to the taxpayer of providing social housing.
It cannot be right, at a time when the Government have stated that they want to cut the housing benefit budget, to introduce a policy of moving social housing rents towards market levels. That has to be counter-intuitive. The people who cannot afford to find rented housing in the private sector or to buy will, by the very nature of the problems they are facing in their lives at times of crisis when they search for social housing, be likely to get priority and be on lower incomes, so that policy is likely to have an impact on housing benefit if rents of 80% of market rents are encouraged. At the same time, the changes in housing allowances and the new 30th percentile rate will increase the amount that people will have to contribute to their rent if they are in the private rented sector. That will force many people who live in central London to move to areas such as mine where rents are lower, relatively. That is bound to increase the demand for housing there, which could have an impact on the private rented sector and, again, have a negative impact on rent levels if demand goes up. If the private rented sector refuses to rent to people on housing benefit, what will happen to those people and what will be the consequences for local social housing and the level of demand? How will the council deal with that?
What the Government propose in their social housing strategy does not add up or make sense and will have very contradictory outcomes in many areas. The fundamental problem behind what we are dealing with is supply. Some hon. Members have argued that we should have flexible rents that change as people move through social housing and that people should move into the private sector as they gain employment and increase their income. I do not agree that people should be in social housing only at times when they have a low income and that they should be encouraged to move through the system. Such arguments about the management of social housing are to do with the fact that we are managing a limited supply of housing. That is the fundamental problem and we have to increase that supply.
One issue with which we have faced problems in the past—successive Governments have been at fault in this regard as well—is the supply of land. We have put too many obstacles in the way of local authorities’ supplying land to build social housing. In fact, we have often put incentives in their way to dispose of it. We end up in the curious situation whereby local authority land is sold to a private developer for it to build a housing estate, so that we can try to get a residual amount of properties through that development for social housing under planning gain—usually through a housing association whose rents are higher than the local authority’s target rents. That is certainly the case in my area. That approach has failed to deliver the number of properties that we needed over the past two decades, and is a major contributory factor to the huge shortage of social housing in London.
I do not blame private developers. They do what private developers do. They swim in the sea of regulations that we create for them. The profits that they can make from private developments—buying the land, developing it and selling it on—are absolutely huge. We have failed to tap into those profits to recycle resources and invest in future social housing. As a consequence of that policy, until only a few years ago we saw, effectively, a year-on-year reduction in the units of social housing available for rent. So we need to ensure that the land is made available, and that local authorities are encouraged and given incentives to make that land available for future developments.
Where there have been developments they have often been of the wrong type, in which the properties are not available to local communities. Shelter did a study of eight local authority areas. One was Tower Hamlets, and although that is not my local authority the report makes very interesting reading. Between 2006 and 2010, 10,430 properties were built in Tower Hamlets. Barclays bank, whose headquarters is in Canary Wharf in Tower Hamlets, has just paid out over £1 billion in bonuses to its staff. I wonder what that £1 billion could have done for the 21,000 local people on the housing waiting list in Tower Hamlets if it had been invested in local housing.
Of the houses that were built in the four years between 2006 and 2010, 8,500 were in the private sector and just under 2,000 were built by housing associations. None were local authority builds. Fifty-four per cent. of the properties in Tower Hamlets have been built since 1966, and yet there are 21,000 on the waiting list. There is a very high vacancy rate in the new-build properties in private ownership. So we have been building houses at a heck of a rate in Tower Hamlets, but we have not been building them to meet the housing crisis there. I am not attacking the local authority; I am not attacking anyone. As I have said, it simply highlights the fact that the policy is completely and utterly wrong.
I have a development in my constituency, the Kidbrooke Regeneration. I visited some of the brand-new properties that had been built as the first phase of that development— beautiful properties. The price is £300,000 for a two-bedroom property overlooking one of my local parks. I asked who the target market was for those properties—who was expected to buy them. Was it local people living in big three or four-bedroom houses who were nearing retirement, whose children had moved on and who wanted to downsize to a comfortable flat? I was told “There may be one or two of those, but mainly we’re advertising abroad.” In that regeneration we have knocked down 1,900 local council properties. About 30% or 35% of the 4,400 properties will be social housing, provided through a housing association. Most of the private properties will be targeted at people who are not local.
I am not attacking the developer; it works in the market that is out there, and is trying to maximise its profits, as any company would. However, clearly we need to look at how we encourage development, and who we encourage it for, if we are ever to deal with the lack of supply that is at the root of all the problems that we are debating today.
I do not intend to intervene very much. The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but how does he reconcile his proposition with the commitment of the previous Government, the current Government and the Mayor of Newham to the desirability of encouraging mixed communities, so that there is a range of tenures, occupations and populations in an area, which benefits the economy of the area?
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a report on the desirability of mixed tenure back in 1990. We have had that argument, and we have moved on a bit. With regard to my hon. Friend’s point about the development in Kidbrooke, does he agree that one of the real problems, referred to earlier, is the people who buy to let? Does he agree that it might not be too fanciful to suggest returning to the days when a person could have only one mortgage, rather than having 10, 15 or 20, in a way that rips the heart out of any housing development?
I agree. Buy to let has not been the success that some thought it would be in providing rented accommodation and encouraging people to enter the private rented market; that idea has been consigned to the history books. I hope that we do not go back down that route again.
We need to deal with the problem of the supply of social rented accommodation. I point out to the Minister, before he attacks the previous Mayor of London’s record, that thanks to the last Government’s subsidy, the number of affordable house-building starts in 2009-10 was 16,000. Last year that was down to just over 2,000. This year, 2011-12, the figure is 2,000. From 2012-13 it is zero. I do not know how the Minister will explain at the Dispatch Box how the Mayor of London will hit his 50,000 homes target without building a single home in 2012-13 or 2013-14—unless, that is, the Mayor moves a whole host of Bob Crows. [Interruption.] The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Ms Buck, is waving an informative graph at me; coincidentally, I happen to have a copy. It is from the Homes and Communities Agency, and she will no doubt refer to it in her speech. It officially confirms the figures that I gave; they come not from a Labour party press release, but from the Homes and Communities Agency. Boris has clearly failed in his objective and his promise to provide affordable housing for people in London.
Another policy that we must confront is the one that Boris described as “Kosovo-style social cleansing” when it was announced. I have never agreed with him more—but unfortunately, the following week he went on to say:
“My consistent position has been that the government is absolutely right to reform the housing benefit system which has become completely unsustainable. I do not agree with the wild accusations from defenders of the current system that reform will lead to social cleansing.”
Boris says one thing in front of a microphone when the policy is first announced, but he secretly makes those comments at a later date. When the matter is in the media and it is discussed on the 6 o’clock news he appears to stand up to the Government, but after he has been sat on by the Minister and everyone else, he sneaks out a press release a week later saying that he absolutely agrees with their policy—a policy that will result in people on low incomes being moved from large areas of inner London to places outside London where private sector rents are lower.
There have been huge clearances of estates, to which my hon. Friend Mr Slaughter will doubtless refer, as perfectly good council housing, in which millions of pounds has been invested under the decent homes programme, will be knocked down to make way for private luxury developments. The Conservatives just do not get it when it comes to housing. Surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats do not get it either. My hon. Friend John McDonnell made a point about how essential it is that people on low incomes should be able to live in mixed communities across the capital. During the earlier spell of cold weather, my local authority kept the roads clear so that people could get to work. I am sure that that was true, too, of Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and other areas.
There is affordable housing in those areas for people who do all sorts of jobs in the local economy, from driving refuse lorries to sweeping the roads and pushing trolleys in local hospitals or even cleaning floors in posh houses in the leafier parts of central London, but those people will have nowhere to live in those communities if the Government continue to pursue their policies. Those people will not be there to do jobs such as stacking shelves in supermarkets. They are an essential part of our local economy, but they will disappear from many of our communities. The biggest effect on the Tories will perhaps be that their cleaning costs will go up, because of the shortage of cleaners, pushing up the hourly rate.
During the crisis in the freezing cold weather, many of us could get to work only because fairly low-paid people in local authorities across the capital got into work early in the morning, driving gritting lorries, clearing roads and so on, so that buses could run and other people could keep the economy moving. Those people are an essential part of our economy. I suspect that they will not qualify, even if they can afford it, for key worker schemes, to buy properties in those areas. They will be forced out by higher rents and the lack of housing benefit designed to support part-time workers who provide essential jobs such as child minding and caring and other roles. Under the policy, they just will not be there.
Social housing is not just a benefit that is means-tested and provided by a welfare cheque. It is an essential part of our communities and economy. To get rid of it in large parts of the capital is a hugely retrograde step that we will all come to regret. Social housing is also essential not just for people on low incomes, but for those who aspire to buy their own homes. We know now that the house lending market has changed—probably for ever, but certainly for a long time. It will no longer be possible to gamble on the future value of a house to borrow 100% of its cost on the understanding that we know that it will be worth more in the future; 100% mortgages are a thing of the past. Any bank or building society will make it clear that no one is lending 100% mortgages any more, and they do not foresee that happening. That means that people will have to be savers for a long time before they can become home buyers. Even people in social housing who aspire to buy their own home will have to save for a long time.
In a study published in October 2010, the Home Builders Federation came to the conclusion that
“In London, first time buyers aged between 22 and 29 cannot pay their rent and save for a deposit—this would cost 10% more than their net monthly income.”
It goes on to state:
“The average deposit across the UK is 230% that of average salaries—almost 300% in London.”
Even if people wanted to become home owners, if they are forced into the private rented sector they can never save enough money to do so. That tells us that affordable rented accommodation is not just about people on benefits or on low incomes, people who lack aspiration or are in a crisis in their lives, but is essential to the future of the housing market, particularly in London where deposits will be high. If we do not provide affordable housing at levels at which people who may aspire to become future home owners can reasonably be expected to save at a decent rate, we are undermining the future of our own housing market. To have a home construction industry in the future, we will be relying on developers of schemes, such as mine in Kidbrooke, where they sell to people not from the local community, not even from the UK, but to business people from abroad. That cannot be right. That is not right for the future of our city, and we should not encourage it.
My final point concerns the social management of council rents and registered social landlord rents in order to create mixed communities. As my hon. Friend Stephen Pound said, we have debated that for many years and it has never worked. When I grew up in rented accommodation in Southwark, surrounded by friends who all lived in rented accommodation, we had mixed communities. In those days, under a Labour Government, unemployment was not prevalent. Under the most recent Labour Government we increased employment enormously, and that is the policy that we need to return to, rather than the huge cuts that we see from this coalition Government.
The idea that we cannot create mixed communities because we have social rented properties is something that we should put behind us and never return to. It is not a matter of the tenure, but the people who live there. If we provide employment, we provide mixed communities, whether Bob Crow lives there, the local GP or shop owner, or someone experiencing a temporary period of unemployment. We need a Government who are prepared to stand by people and help to create jobs in those communities and invest in them in order to ensure that we do have mixed communities. They will not be created by flexible rents and social engineering.
My hon. Friend has made an important point. I do not believe that the Government now believe their own rhetoric on mixed communities. The estates that Conservative councils are demolishing are mixed communities; mixed communities are made up of rented, owned, freehold and leasehold properties, with mixed income levels. Those estates are being replaced not with mixed communities, but with exactly what my hon. Friend described—ghettoes of the rich. They are properties that are advertised abroad or go for prices far above what ordinary families can afford. That is the future for housing in London. “Mixed communities”—
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend.
It is a fool’s paradise to suggest that we can continue with the policies of the last 20 years or more and just build social housing as a fag end of private sector development. We need to make local authority land available for development, build social housing and create mixed communities by encouraging employment within communities, without messing around with flexible, temporary or probationary tenancies.
That is the way forward for housing in London; it is essential for future generations, whether they aspire to be homeowners or not. Affordable rented accommodation, even in communities where property values are extremely high, are absolutely essential if we are to have a thriving economy and thriving communities in those areas. We need to return to that situation, and I hope that the Government will reconsider their policies on the cuts in housing investment under the Mayor and the cuts to support to new council housing building programmes. I hope that we can start to build the houses that future generations need.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Having rightly been chastised by you for allowing my intervention to run a little long, I thought that I would expand it into a very brief contribution in the form of a speech.
I want to reiterate the point that I was trying to raise with my hon. Friend Mr Offord. In a number of areas, London has a particular set of circumstances that are not shared by the rest of the country. I sometimes feel that London does not get fully considered in the general policy making of Governments of all persuasions. That is why it is so important that we London MPs should sometimes get together and have an opportunity to raise some of the specific issues affecting our constituencies. What we are debating is a particularly important example.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to something brought to my attention by representatives of a couple of London housing associations, who came to see me to express concerns. They are very keen to build more family-sized houses, which is what we all want. As I said before, it is fine to have large numbers of the sort of very small affordable flats that the previous Mayor of London was famous for building, but there are not the family-sized homes that we all want.
The issue is that the housing associations would very much like to build family-sized homes, but to be able to—in London, particularly—they will probably have to go to the 80% of market value to generate the kind of funds that will make such building possible. There is concern that they may find it difficult to charge that rate to a number of their tenants, but without that 80% they will find it difficult to deliver the kind of homes that we all want so badly. A bit of a problem has been thrown up through the particular circumstances that pertain in London.
I hope that the Government, particularly the Homes and Communities Agency, will bear those circumstances in mind when making the assessments. I am delighted that the HCA is going to be taken into City Hall, because that will make it a great deal more sensitive to the needs of Londoners. It is important that the gap should be considered properly to ensure that there are family-sized homes in the affordable sector. They need to be built, because they are such an important part of building our communities.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, my neighbour, for giving way. She says that family-sized homes are the homes that “we all want”. May I urge her to accept the fact that not everybody wants to live in a family home? A great many people with disabilities, or widows, widowers or people on their own quite enjoy the small properties that she rather put down and implied were some creation of Ken Livingstone that nobody wanted to live in. Actually, a great many people do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important contribution. Of course it is true that not everybody wants to live in family-sized homes, but the problem in the past was that small properties were the only affordable housing on offer. A large number of families in our communities need affordable houses, and one or two-bedroom, even three-bedroom, flats simply do not accommodate them properly. It would also be nice to think that families might have a bit of green space outside and not always be housed in large blocks of flats.
Of course there has to be a balance, but in the past family-sized houses were neglected; it was too easy to tick boxes, as the previous Mayor did, to say, “I’ve delivered X affordable homes,” but they were flats rather than the family-sized houses that many of us think of when we hear the word “homes”. My request to the Minister is that he ensures the Government are fully aware that London’s special circumstances make it important to recognise the particular problems of housing associations when they are providing housing in areas where market rents are high.
Research by the school of medicine at University College in my constituency suggests that apart from smoking, the principal sources of avoidable illness and premature death are overcrowding, homelessness, a poor standard of housing and insecurity of housing. We need to bear that in mind when discussing anything to do with housing.
The previous Government achieved quite a lot in improving the existing stock, but were carried away by the fashionable idea that the first step on the housing ladder is the cheapest place that people can buy. It seems to me that the first step on the housing ladder is somewhere decent to live that meets the needs of the people concerned, whatever the form of tenure. There is no excuse for the state of housing and the massive pressure for further social housing in London, including my area of Holborn and St Pancras, and Camden in general, because we should have a big drive to start building more houses.
It is very simple. We do not need a degree in some fantastical form of economics to conclude that if there are not enough houses, one of the things we do is build more of them. It has been done in the past—admittedly when I was leader of Camden council. I do not say that vaingloriously, but because it demonstrates that things can be done and problems addressed. During the 1970s, Camden council built no fewer than 500 new homes a year, and sometimes started as many as 1,000 a year. We were much mocked when we bought between 5,000 and 6,000 flats from the private sector, largely at the behest of the people living in them, sometimes in real slums but sometimes in mansion flats overlooking Parliament Hill Fields. Those people wanted to become council tenants because they wanted security of tenure and to get away from Rachmanite private landlords. The arrangement had the benefit of giving them security but it also meant that when anywhere fell vacant the council could let the property to people on the housing waiting list.
One of the consequences, which strikes me almost violently, is the difference between what happens at my advice surgeries now and what happened when I was first elected in 1979, at the end of the period of building and of the municipalisation of housing in Camden. When I was first a Member of Parliament, if people came to me and said, “We need somewhere decent for our family”, I would write to the council, which would write back. I used to tell people, “If you haven’t got a new flat in six or nine months, come back and see me.” Hardly any of them had to do that because they were rehoused. If I said that now, they would all be back because hardly anybody is rehoused any more. The problem has been that all those who form the leadership in our politics have not given sufficiently high priority to building and providing social housing for people who cannot afford to purchase a home.
Instead of buying and building property, there has been a lot of selling. Some councils, including Camden under the Lib Dem-Tory coalition—we had some experience of that between 2006 and 2010—sold off valuable street properties to the private sector. The housing associations in Camden, two of which were established as niche organisations to help solve problems, started selling off properties. Circle 33, which was founded in Primrose Hill in the 1970s, grew and grew, became Circle Anglia and started selling off much-needed property in my constituency so that it could use the funds to build social housing in Cambridge. That was not its purpose, in my opinion and that of most of the people I try to represent.
Even under Mrs Thatcher—I must give her credit for this—when public land became surplus, be it from the railways or the hospitals, the local authority was given first choice of whether it wanted to buy it for socially useful purposes. That prevailed for a long time when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. Subsequently, doubtless at the Treasury’s behest, things were sold to the highest bidder. It is about time we went back to giving first go to using surplus public land for public social purposes.
In my area, it is as if someone has declared war on the prospect of providing more social housing. There is a proposal, which I support, for the biggest laboratory and research centre in the country to be located behind the British Library in Somers Town in my constituency. It is a combined effort by the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and University College. It will undoubtedly make a major contribution to medical research worldwide, but it is located on a site, a substantial part of which was originally designated for housing. All the time that the talks were going on, I argued that some land that the Medical Research Council owns at the National Temperance hospital should be made available for the housing that would be displaced from the laboratory site. However, the Government have decided, “Oh, no. It should be sold on from the public sector.”
Similarly, when properties became surplus after the new University College hospital was built, a proposal, which local people and the council overwhelmingly supported, was made to knock down buildings and build decent housing on what was known as the Middlesex hospital annexe site. Two and a half years ago, a proposition by English Heritage to list the building was duly turned down. The law states that if a Minister wants to reverse that decision, they cannot do it within five years unless something new comes up. Someone managed to cobble together a connection between this ex-workhouse and
Charles Dickens and claimed, at one point, that it was the workhouse described in “Oliver Twist”. Well, they had obviously not read even the first page of that book, because Oliver had to leg it to London from the workhouse in a country town often believed to be Kettering.
I am reluctant to intervene on my right hon. Friend, but as one who spent 10 years as a hospital porter at the Middlesex hospital, I can assure hon. Members that the connection is that Charles Dickens frequently gave public readings that funded the hospital’s building. That is the connection, although on Kettering my right hon. Friend is spot on.
But no one claimed that famous connection. Indeed, English Heritage was quite happy to nod through the demolition of the whole of the Middlesex hospital—we are talking about the annexe that was left. Anyway, that programme for a large number of new flats has been set back for God knows how long.
Similarly, there is meant to be the building of a lot of social housing on the King’s Cross railway lands behind King’s Cross station, but I understand that the project has been set back because Ministers are not prepared to help the private developer comply with the section 106 agreement that the developer entered into in order to get on and build some new flats. As a final encore from the Government, they are proposing not just to prevent the building of new social housing, but to knock down social housing for 360 people who live in the blocks of flats that will have to be knocked down if High Speed 2 is going to come into Euston, which is itself a ridiculous proposition.
We feel a trifle beleaguered in Camden. We are massively affected by the ludicrous increase in property prices in our area and the ludicrous increases in commercial rents. However, at the same time as rents are soaring out of sight, the Government, including those caring Liberal Democrats, have proposed the slashing of housing benefits. To demonstrate just how out of touch they are in setting the new housing benefit maximum levels, I will provide a simple illustration. A Member who lives outside London and needs to rent a single-bedroom flat in London is given the money—rightly—by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. IPSA has decided that the going rent in London for a single-bedroom flat is £340. That is the most it will pay. However, £340 appears to be a magic figure among public bosses these days, because the Government have decided that £340 is also the maximum housing benefit that can be paid to anybody in London for a three-bedroom flat. So officialdom now says, “One-bedroom flat for an MP: £340. Three-bedroom flat for a family: £340”. The fact is that the going rate for a one-bedroom flat probably is £340, but for a decent privately rented flat in London, £340 goes nowhere near towards meeting the costs of family accommodation.
There are all sorts of arguments about what we should do about this problem. My point is this: If in that great centre of capitalism, New York—so that includes Wall street—they still have rent controls in the private sector, I see no reason why we should not reintroduce rent controls in this country. If that upsets a few property developers or if the Gaddafi family’s property portfolio suffers from a cut in rental income,
I do not really mind. I want rents to come down and there to be a massive increase in housing for those most in need, because as my hon. Friend Clive Efford pointed out, there are legions of people whose daily contribution to the life of this city makes it a tolerable place to live.
I would rather not. I will just get on, because other people want to speak.
There is no chance now of a tube driver, an ambulance driver, an ordinary police constable, a nurse, a midwife or, in some cases, a junior doctor meeting anything like the going rate for a private sector home. They are out of that market altogether. If we want such vital people to contribute to making living in London tolerable, we have to go much further than we have in the past, under Governments of all persuasions, because otherwise the place will be torn apart. I know that the leader—at least for the time being—of the Liberal Democrats, the Deputy Prime Minister, objects to the term “social cleansing” in relation to driving up rents and removing security of tenure, but as the inventor of the phrase, I make no apologies for it, because that is what will happen. If people’s security of tenure is removed, and if rents are driven up and subsidies for them are also removed, they will be driven out.
People say that we are spending far too much on housing benefit—and indeed, one could not make a more truthful statement. I think the figure is £22 billion, and it is that high because the rents are too high. If we want to cut the amount of money going into housing benefit, the best thing would be to cut the rents. Rather than trying to cut housing benefit, we should cut the entitlement by ensuring that we reduce the rents.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government’s claim is that when the housing benefit allowance is cut, the tenant can negotiate with the landlord, who will understand the situation and therefore reduce the rent? The Minister himself told me that in his office. I expressed some astonishment and decided to check up with Islington council, which has tried to negotiate rent reductions with landlords. The council tells me that, sadly, it is very difficult to do that, if not well nigh impossible, even for the most well-meaning and determined people. Surely the answer is not only controls, but investing £10 billion in housing, rather than £22 billion in housing benefit. That way we would all be a lot better off.
I entirely agree. Even if we transferred the money from the housing benefit account into the account of, at least, the public sector landlords who are charging high rents, that would bring rents down and be to everyone’s benefit.
My final point is this. Large numbers of places have been sold under the right to buy—certainly in my area—that have then been sold on by those who bought them or their children, following which the buy-to-let people have moved in. Therefore, somebody will have bought the flat with a massive subsidy from the taxpayer, then someone else will have bought it with a tax incentive and now they will be charging a rent that is two, three, four or five times higher than it would have been had the property never been transferred from the council’s ownership in the first place. So when people talk about public subsidy for housing, they should remember that the biggest imaginable public subsidy involves those who own or are buying a buy-to-let property that was formerly a council flat. That is the sort of thing that we need to stop, rather than rabbiting on about taking away security of tenure from all sorts of other people.
I hope that the Government will eventually take this matter seriously. One of the biggest housing programmes in my constituency was carried out by Neville Chamberlain when he was Minister of Health. Indeed, one of the buildings is called Chamberlain house. Tories should not be ashamed of their distant past record on social housing; all they need to do is revert to type and stop being mad marketeers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing this debate. I know that he has been a fearsome campaigner for social housing and all manner of other housing issues in London, and I am pleased to be able to make a contribution today.
I would also like to pick up on the comments made by Angie Bray, just before she leaves the Chamber. She said that London faces specific and often unique circumstances in relation to housing. Many people across the country might not understand that. When I tell my parents, who live in Swindon, that I spend a lot of my time doing work on housing, they look at me slightly quizzically, as if to say, “Why is that?”, but anyone listening to this debate must realise that London faces quite extraordinary circumstances.
According to an estimate by the Greater London authority, the cost of renting in London is 51% higher than anywhere else in the country, and the National Housing Federation has recently estimated that, in order to buy an average-price house in London, a first-time buyer would need a salary of almost £100,000. Social housing, whether it is owned by a local authority, an arm’s length management organisation or a housing association, therefore fulfils a large number of needs for people across the spectrum, including those on benefits and all the others we have heard about today: the construction workers, the public sector workers, the nurses and the doctors. Sometimes, when people outside the capital think about housing, they do not really understand the true nature of the housing market here.
I also want to reflect on the fact that we are having this debate on the day when people are going to the polls to vote on changing the voting system. A couple of weeks ago, I did my street surgery. I write to 2,000 residents once a month and say, “If you want to see me on a Saturday morning, please put this poster up in your window. I will come and sit in your front room and talk about whatever you want to talk to me about.” A couple of weeks ago, when the Westminster village and the media were getting very excited about today’s referendum on changing the voting system, all my constituents wanted, without fail, to talk to me about social housing. One elderly gentleman lived in a block of flats, and his wife had just broken her leg. They had lived there for 25 years. He said, “I just need the housing association to move us to the vacant flat downstairs.”
Well, I am really pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the housing association—it is quite a large one, London and Quadrant—responded superbly when I contacted it. I am pleased to say that that gentleman has been moved to the flat that he wanted. So there are cases where housing associations respond and provide the sort of services people need, but that is not to say that there are not other circumstances in which couples desperately need to live in a more suitable home but cannot achieve that. There are hundreds of people whom I have seen in my surgeries and out on the doorstep since I became an MP whose families are living in desperately overcrowded situations—and it is mainly for those people that I make my remarks in today’s debate.
I shall speak on three main themes. The first is the massive need, as others have mentioned, for more homes that people can afford to rent. The second is the Government’s proposals on housing and how they relate to the wider welfare reform changes. I have a number of concerns about how they interrelate. Thirdly, I shall speak briefly on a topic that has not been mentioned so far—the proposed changes to the planning system and how some of them might result in fewer homes, particularly affordable homes, being built. I shall reflect on how proposals in the Localism Bill might make it harder to build the affordable homes that London needs.
Let me deal with the supply side first. We know that 350,000 people are on the social housing waiting list in London, and that one in 10 households are living in overcrowded conditions. As others have said, there is undoubtedly a massive need for more homes in London that people can afford to rent. Tackling the problem of under-occupation has been mentioned, and some argue that people are living in properties that are too big for the number of people living in them. I have seen research that shows that even if we tackled the problem of under-occupation in London completely, it would come nowhere near to solving the housing crisis.
My hon. Friend makes an important point in that under-occupation is only a slight issue and tackling it would not solve the problem. If children move away from home and grandchildren are born, is there not something quite reasonable, normal and acceptable in the idea of those grandchildren going to stay with their grandparents in the house’s bedroom? Why should it be that those in social housing cannot lead the kind of lives that anyone living in an owner-occupied place would assume to be perfectly normal and sufficient for them and the entire family’s needs? Why cannot we be a bit more human about it?
I entirely agree. Many people look forward to that sort of thing in later life. We need to ensure that, whatever policies are in place in future, we recognise that issue. I would say, however, that I sometimes meet constituents who are living in a large three-bedroom house and find it too hard to manage and cope with. Lewisham has a positive record as a local authority in providing the assistance needed to make a move easier. More can be done about under-occupation, but it will not solve the problems in London, as I said. In the rest of the country, it could make a significant difference, but not in London because of the scale of the challenge we face.
In my area, those who, like my hon. Friend’s constituents, want to move out of a large place—perhaps a widow or an elderly couple—are often reluctant to do so because the front room of the one-bedroom place they are offered is simply too small. One of the practicalities of dealing with the issue, then, would be to provide a bigger front room in those properties, as people are often reluctant to get rid of the nice furniture that they have had with them for a long time.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, with which I entirely agree. Interestingly, I spoke a few months ago at the launch of the National Housing Federation’s “Breaking the mould” report, which looked at the housing needs of older people or those moving into later life. Given that one in five children born today will live to the age of 100, it is important for us to ensure that, as more people move into later life, we provide housing that meets the specific needs of our population.
Campaigns are sometimes mounted against the building of extra care housing. When I spoke at the launch of that report a few months ago, I encountered a gentleman who had been trying to build such housing through a church-sponsored scheme in north London. He was amazed at the degree of opposition that the scheme had generated in the local population, who said that the development was too big, too ugly and too wide. I could not help thinking that their concerns might be genuine. There is a desperate need for new forms of extra care housing, but we must give thought to the specific type of housing that is required, whether it is social or private sector housing. I shall say more about that later.
Mary Macleod, who is no longer in the Chamber, referred to the amount being invested in the national affordable house building programme. I asked her how that compared with the level of investment over the past three years. She declined to give me the answer, but I can give it to the House now. The national affordable house building programme has been cut by 63%. Between 2008 and 2011, £8.5 billion was invested in it, with a target of building 155,000 affordable homes. In the current comprehensive spending review period, between 2011 and 2015, £4.5 billion is being invested, and the Government have a similar target, namely the building of 150,000 affordable homes. That represents a halving of the programme. The budget has been slashed, and, whatever Boris Johnson or Government Members may say, that has dealt a devastating blow to the future of house building.
I mentioned Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London. I want to say a little more about some of his pronouncements about his record of building affordable homes. We have seen him on television recently, standing in front of new flats. I often scream at the television—I do not know whether other Members do as well—
It does not, which is partly why I am making this speech in the House.
When Boris Johnson stands there and looks proudly at new homes, I feel like saying to him, and to the public, “Those new homes are a result of the Labour Government’s investment in housing. They are a direct result of the national affordable house building programme.”
I have been involved in regeneration and attempts to build new homes in Lewisham for a number of years, and I know how long it takes to get new developments off the ground. Any homes that are being built at the moment probably went through the planning process three or four years ago, and the commercial viability of the scheme was probably assessed and agreed three or four years ago. For Boris Johnson to stand there and claim this as his victory is entirely wrong. His record will relate to what happens in the years to come. As we have heard, the Homes and Communities Agency predicts that in a couple of years no new affordable housing will be being built in London. It will fall off a cliff face. Boris Johnson should bear in mind that that will be his legacy for London, not the legacy left by the last Labour Government.
Another thing that I wish to say about my experience of trying to deliver regeneration in Lewisham is that no thanks are due to the Liberal and Tory councillors in this regard. As soon as there was the faintest whiff of local opposition to a new housing scheme, whether it was a private sector development or affordable housing, they generally chose to vote against it. Some of the plans in the Localism Bill will make it easier for some of those nimbys to block development. If we really are going to build more homes, we need to be thinking about how the planning system works.
I have talked a little about the fact that the capital grant programme has been slashed and the Government seem to be moving to a way of funding new homes that relies on the future rents that they will get in from properties. The approach of allowing housing associations to build and charge 80% of market rents seems to relate to an argument about why capital grants are being reduced. My big problem with that approach is that I fear we are simply not going to build the type of housing that Londoners, including my constituents, can afford.
I have done a bit of research on the average rents in Lewisham in the private rented sector and for housing association properties, and I have thus been able to work out what 80% of market rent would mean. At the moment, the average median rent for a one-bedroom flat in Lewisham is £170 a week and the rent in a housing association for such a property is about £80 a week. An increase to 80% of the market rental value would make the cost £136 a week and would mean a weekly increase of about £55.
That is bad enough, but the average market rent for a four-bedroom flat or house in Lewisham is £300 a week. Someone living in a similar London and Quadrant property would pay, on average, £114 a week. If London and Quadrant builds new homes in Lewisham and charges 80% of market rent, that figure would increase to £240 a week, which is an increase of about £125 a week. That represents a monthly increase of £500 and an annual increase of £6,000 in someone’s housing costs. If someone is lucky enough to be in full-time work in Lewisham and they are on the minimum wage, they will be earning less than £12,000 a year, so how on earth are they going to find £6,000 extra to pay towards their housing costs? I cannot see how that will happen and the London Council agrees with me. Its recent briefing produced for councillors in London on the affordable rent model states:
“There is already a widespread recognition that the ARM will fail to deliver on larger sized family homes; and that, at 80% of market rates, the model’s maximum rent level will be unaffordable in the capital”.
As I have mentioned, I am also concerned about families living in overcrowded situations. When they are offered a flat or house at 80% of the market rate, how are they going to be able to afford it? If they are going to have to pay an extra £6,000 a year, they are not going to move and so will stay in the overcrowded flat that they are living in.
My hon. Friend Ms Buck discussed in an intervention the additional costs that could be pushed on to housing benefit, and that is precisely what the affordable rent model could result in. I recently read an interesting report by Family Mosaic entitled “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre: our drive to provide more social housing”. Family Mosaic did some research on about 50 of its new tenants who moved into properties across London at the end of last year. Some of those people were in work and some had caring responsibilities; the real-life situations of a vast range of people were researched when putting together that report.
Family Mosaic estimates that if every one of those 50 individual households lived in a property at 80% of market rent, the housing benefit bill would increase by 151%. That is a huge amount of extra money that will have to go out in housing benefit and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North is completely right to say that that is a way not of tackling the deficit but of making it worse.
At the end of the report, Family Mosaic asks what we can do:
“How do we go forward?”
In answer, the report states:
“To mitigate this risk”— the risk that people might not be able to afford the rents—
“we could change the profile of our tenant group, and not let new properties to those most in need: this, however, goes against our core principles.”
I am concerned about how the affordable rent model will deliver any homes in which people can afford to live.
It is refreshing to hear that from a housing association. The quote is from the same report that I mentioned when I intervened on Mr Offord, who chose, for reasons best known to himself, to answer about security of tenure. The report completely gives the lie to the idea that so-called affordable rent—a piece of Orwellian speak if we have ever heard one—will be in any way affordable. It also states that 60% market rents will not be enough to enable
“a large proportion of tenants…to retain enough income to pay their rent and live according to government standards of affordability”.
My hon. Friend is completely right. Our debate about what it is affordable to pay out in housing costs was interesting. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North gave scenarios in which people might be spending 50% of their household income on their housing costs alone. I know that the Department for Communities and Local Government, in the guidance it published a number of years ago on how local authorities should carry out strategic housing market assessments—the Minister might wish to comment on this—says that the definition of affordable housing costs is a household paying 25% of its overall income on housing. We are clearly seeing situations in which households are paying much more.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point and I have intervened on her now so that the Minister can have time to think about giving us an answer later. If a local authority ensures that an offer of a property is made at 80% of market rents and the family cannot afford to move into it, according to my understanding of the law, the local authority will have discharged its duty to provide a property for those homeless people who would then have no access to any public sector housing. They would only be able to access a completely free-market private sector. We will end up building a sub-class of people who are unhouseable in law and homeless in reality.
It is a complete trap. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that.
I used some figures to demonstrate how much more people would have to pay out were they living in a family-sized property and being charged 80% of market rates. What concern me more are the proposals for universal credit in this context and what the £26,000 will mean for people in London who are paying out such amounts of money in their housing costs.
If we assume that the universal credit means that a family in London will get no more than £500 a week and that they are paying £240 a week for a four-bedroom flat at 80% of market rent in Lewisham, they will be left with £260 a week for all their other living costs. I presume that that £260 will cover their council tax benefit as well as payments for their gas, electricity and phone. We must also remember that if those people want to move into work, the costs of child care in the capital are much higher than elsewhere in the country and so are public transport costs. I therefore take this opportunity to ask the Minister to have conversations with his colleagues about how realistic the £26,000 universal credit cap is in a London context.
I draw a distinction between London and the situation elsewhere in the country. I heard my hon. Friend John McDonnell talk about his upbringing. My dad is an electrician. He has a nice house now. If he was an electrician in
London, there is no way that he would live in the sort of house that he lives in now. He would tell me that £26,000 is a lot of money. His annual income has been about that figure for as long as I can remember. So I have some sympathy with what the Government are trying to do with welfare reform, but I ask them to consider carefully what that means for people in London. I have spoken a lot about figures, and they show how dreadfully difficult that reform could be for people who live in London on low incomes.
If the Government do not think that families on low incomes should be able to live in London, they should come clean and say so, because that will be the result of their proposals and policies. We have talked about the impact of housing benefit changes and the potential clearance from London of people who simply cannot afford to live in their private rented properties. They will have to move either to the outskirts of London or elsewhere.
Personally, I genuinely think that we must ensure that those people—my hon. Friend Clive Efford talked about them—who drive the lorries to clear our roads and who clean our offices and work in our shops can live close to their places of work. It is right to do that. It makes absolutely no sense for people to have to rely on the transport system, and it makes no sense to people’s lives when they have caring responsibilities and need to pick up their children from school. It is right that we have genuinely mixed communities of people able to live in central London. The proposals to change the welfare and housing benefit systems run a real danger of making that impossible in future.
Before I move on from the wider changes to welfare reform, I want to pick up another point: the possibility of paying housing benefit directly to tenants so that they can pay it to their landlords. Housing associations in the capital have some concerns about that. I see where the Government are coming from, and it is right to make people realise and think about quite how much it costs to live in a property—encouraging individual responsibility is a good thing—but equally, housing associations tell me that this is the worst time that the Government could consider giving housing benefit and accommodation support benefit, even if incorporated in universal benefit, straight to tenants, because we all know that their household incomes and budgets are coming under extreme pressure.
Housing associations also tell me that if rent arrears increase, they could find it harder to borrow money because their cash flow will be less secure. They are concerned that the banks will re-price their debts when they borrowed the money to build homes. I hope that the Minister will pick up on some of those concerns when he responds.
I want to say a little about planning. I served on the Committee that considered the Localism Bill for a number of weeks, and I have a number of concerns about how the Bill’s proposals will impact on the construction of new affordable homes in London. I think the Chancellor said when he announced his Budget that there would be a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and that is completely at odds with what is said about planning in the Localism Bill. I am not saying that there are not occasions on which people should be able to say, “No, that development is not appropriate.” Indeed, there is a housing development like that in my constituency at the moment in a place called Pitfold close. It is right that local people should have a say about what happens in their neighbourhood, but what the Government propose, as many hon. Members will know, is the creation of neighbourhood forums that will be able to come up with neighbourhood plans. The Minister with responsibility for decentralisation, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark, who was on the Bill Committee, seemed to think that those neighbourhood plans would always contain higher housing numbers than the strategic plan for the local area, but my experience of attempts to bring development forward is that local people often want to say no.
I can understand people’s concerns about new homes. If a block of flats going up at the end of the road would cut out the sunlight to someone’s garden, I can understand why they might say, “I am not too happy about that.” I can understand why people might say, “How’s my child going to get into the new school?”; “How am I going to get on to the doctor’s or dentist’s list?”; or “What about all those cars coming down my road, blocking up the road network?” I understand why people are concerned about new development, but if we give too much power in the planning process to very small community groups in these neighbourhood forums, which it is proposed would include only three people, I am not sure that we will get the levels of house building in the capital that we need.
While I am on the subject of planning, there was much debate in the Committee about the 50% target, whereupon the Minister would jump out of his seat and say, “Ah, well, even though you had the 50% target, Ken Livingstone delivered only 36%,” to which I would say that at least we tried. Setting that target and saying that we believe the provision of affordable housing is so important that half of all the new homes built in the capital should be affordable is the right message to send to developers and planning officers. When those planning officers sit down at the table and start their negotiations, they should be saying, “Ideally, we want 50% of new homes to be affordable.” Yes, there will be some situations in which it is impossible to do that because of the commercial realities of the scheme, but it is right to have that target.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one problem with aggressively setting such a target, as the previous Mayor of London discovered, was that many developers were put off coming into more expensive parts of London altogether because it was not worth their while financially? They tended to be put off rather than coming forward to work out what they might have been able to afford to do.
There will be different situations in different parts of London, but I suggest that the hon. Lady goes back and looks at the figures for the number of home starts in London and the number of new homes that it is predicted will start in the next couple of years because of the policies of the Tory Mayor of London we now have.
I have probably tried Members’ patience by making a longer speech than I had anticipated making. I will end by giving an anecdote about someone whom I met a number of years ago, whose story sticks in my mind as a reason why we have to tackle the housing crisis in London. This picks up on a number of points that have already been made about the impact of poor-quality housing on people’s life chances—how healthy they are, how well they do at school, and how able they are to succeed economically. I was once asked to visit a family in an overcrowded flat in Deptford. When I was there I met a young man of 19 and chatted to him while his mum was doing something before she came to speak to me. I asked him if he was studying or was at school and he said, “I am retaking my GCSEs because I didn’t get the grades I wanted.” Later in the visit, it transpired that he was sleeping in an armchair in the living room. He had no bed to sleep in because the flat was so overcrowded. I thought to myself, how on earth can this young man do well at school? How can he get the GCSEs that he needs to go on to study at university, as he wants?
That image will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. That is why we have to do something to increase the supply of affordable homes in the capital. I am sorry to say that everything that the Government are doing in respect of housing makes it so much less likely that we will see the new homes that we so desperately need.
It is a delight to follow my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander. I shall be interested to hear how the Minister responds to her devastating critique. I congratulate my very good friend Jeremy Corbyn. As he said, we go back a very long way. When I joined Haringey council many years ago, it was pronounced to me, as a new member, “Don’t worry; we’ve almost solved the housing waiting list problem in Haringey.” That was a year before Mrs Thatcher savagely cut housing investment programmes—and if I may say so, we appear to be going round the same cycle again.
I want to focus on two main areas. The first is the local housing allowance changes and their impact throughout London. Secondly, I want to reiterate points that have been made by many other people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East but also, very pleasingly, by Angie Bray, on affordable housing and the problems that the new regime is creating. Before I do, I should like to give a brief overview of the housing situation in my borough, the London borough of Enfield.
We suffer from extreme housing stress. Indeed, we are told that Enfield is the fourth most stressed housing authority in the country, and easily the most stressed in outer London. For owner-occupation, the cost of an average house in Enfield has tripled since 1995. That is not particularly exceptional for London. The price to income ratio is now 9—again, not exceptional, but it makes owner-occupation unaffordable for a very large majority of the people living in the borough.
One in four of all households in Enfield are currently in receipt of some form of housing benefit. That is a 36% increase since 2005. There is some relatively good news, in the sense that the number of households in temporary accommodation has gone down from
3,400 in 2006 to 2,300 in the latest year for which we have figures. Interestingly, that has happened mainly as a result of the deposit scheme that the previous Government introduced, which has made going into the private rented sector a good deal more secure than it was.
Sadly, locally, overcrowding in the social sector, and particularly the council sector, has increased markedly in recent years. The most common form of overcrowding in the social sector is in two-bedroom properties, among families looking to move to three, four and five-bedroom accommodation. That is where the biggest overcrowding problem is, and I will return to that because it is critical to what we are discussing today.
Others have already said that local housing allowances are very much a London issue. It is not just that rents are 50% higher in London than anywhere else; the private rented sector is much more important in London than anywhere else. Enfield is not currently affected by the changes being made to the caps. I note from documents recently released that there is some transitional protection for those in the private rented sector in central London, but that lasts only until 2012, so we can see the nightmare looming on the horizon. Indeed, there are already signs of it: my local authority did a little survey of who was claiming housing benefit or local housing allowance, and 28% of recent claims were made by people coming into the borough from outside. Many will not be from central London, but quite a lot of them will be.
London Councils estimates that more than 18,500 households will be affected by the changes, so we see that the changes could have a dramatic impact, not just in inner London—Members have spoken about the impact there—but in outer London. By 2016 quite a lot of outer-London boroughs will be unaffordable for tenants in the private rented sector. Quite a lot of boroughs will be affected, including Barking and Dagenham. In Enfield around three quarters of accommodation, mainly in the eastern half of the borough, will still be affordable then. Indeed, Enfield has estimated—I should probably say guesstimated—that upwards of 2,000 additional local housing allowance claims could be made following the ending of the temporary support for people on local housing allowance in central London.
What impact would that have on Enfield? We discussed the subject earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North mentioned that quite a lot of Islington tenants are temporarily housed in Enfield. I think the latest estimate is that more than 2,000—certainly a very significant number—of temporary accommodation tenants from other parts of London are housed in the London borough of Enfield. I mention that because if we have an influx as a result of the policies introduced by this Government, it will add quite a lot of pressure.
The issue of school places in Redbridge was raised earlier; we already have an acute problem. We have knocked on the Government’s door, asking them to help us with primary school places. That will be another difficulty for us. Of course, additional demands will also be placed on social and welfare services. We have not been able to estimate locally what the impact would be on private sector rents, but if demand increases, rents are likely to go up. Will that lead to greater overcrowding? Possibly. Even though we have a better record on homelessness in our area, it is still very high locally. Of course, that will put additional pressure on the very limited social housing in the borough.
I could talk about increases in poverty and deprivation. Many are concerned that with the changes in London, community cohesion is being strained to the limit. I would not subscribe to that view, but the significant movements that are going on are having an impact. Not all those impacts are caused by local housing allowance changes, but the changes will certainly exacerbate them.
To pick up on a point that Mary Macleod put to Labour Members, what should we do? The first thing that we need to do is review the cap; it just does not make any sense for inner London. Setting the local housing allowance at the 30th percentile of rents will have a negative impact on London in particular, and the Government really need to look seriously at the implications of the local housing allowance changes that they are suggesting.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that in some cases, albeit not many, ridiculous sums of money were spent? There were families receiving £104,000-worth of housing allowance. That is ridiculous, when other people who are working and earning much less cannot afford the rents that we have discussed.
If we searched long and hard enough we might be able to find an individual instance of someone receiving such sums. If I may say so, it is a bit like the Bob Crow issue that was raised earlier, and is entirely a diversion from the reality that people face in London. What we need to do in any debate in the House—indeed, it is incumbent on us to do so if we are to represent our constituents—is discuss the reality, rather than a figment of someone’s imagination involving Bob Crow.
We all accept that some of the exceptional cases that make the newspapers are just that. Nevertheless, at the general election the hon. Gentleman stood on a manifesto that made a commitment to look at and substantially reduce housing benefit. It was not just Conservatives who recognised that that was a problem; the hon. Gentleman’s own party manifesto recognised that it was, too, and made a commitment to reduce the cost of housing benefit.
I would not disagree with anything that has just been said, or deny that that was in my party’s manifesto. We must always look at the cost of housing benefit, as with any other welfare benefit. Of course, there is sympathy for trying to limit the amounts paid out from the public purse, if for no other reason than to stop, to put it colloquially, the Daily Mail headlines that we see every day and in every way. I accept that, but it is not reflected in the changes that the Government have made. They have gone much, much further, and those changes impinge on the real lives of ordinary people. As was said only a few moments ago, the people who are affected are train drivers, tube workers and hospital staff.
Is it not the case that the Government have changed and cut housing benefit for 1 million people to deal with what may be just a handful of people in the extreme circumstances of charging the taxpayer enormous amounts for their rent?
Absolutely. That is the question that we wish to put to the Minister, and I hope that he will respond. We are not asking, “Have you taken housing benefit from someone who was receiving £100,000?” We would hope that that would be looked at carefully and sensibly, and we hope that if that was suggested, it would be done. What we are asking is why the Government are taking from families on low incomes in enormous housing stress and multiple deprivation their one lifeline of accommodation.
Let me park that issue and move on to the next, which is ever so important—the supply of affordable accommodation in London. As has been said by everyone, it is obvious that we need to increase supply to tackle severe housing stress in London. Let me repeat something that was said earlier, now that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth is back in the Chamber. She was asked how much grant funding had been slashed: it has been slashed by 63%, and how the Government can stand by and say that they can sustain the supply of affordable rented accommodation on the basis of a 63% cut beggars belief. Their argument is that the revenue from higher rents can be used to build houses that would not otherwise be built because grant is not available. The first thing that should be said about that is that the Homes and Communities Agency says that it will provide grant funding towards the building of accommodation, but only where the expectation—that is the word used is that the rents will be close to the maximum 80%. It also says that the tenancy should be of two years or thereabouts. Therefore, it is looking to set conditions.
What will be the impact of those changes? Everyone who has spoken from the Opposition Benches has already mentioned this, but I will say it again for emphasis. According to independent figures produced not by Opposition Members or Labour-dominated local authorities, but by independent commentators, in the year to 2011—before all this comes into place—there has been a 20% drop in housing starts. There is forecast to be a 40% drop between 2010 and 2013, and, as has already been said, because of the uncertainties and the dramatic change that is being brought in by the Government, the whole thing falls off a cliff after 2013. I hope that the Minister will give some reassurance that the Government are aware of that problem and will do something about it.
I tried to get figures out of my local authority. It proudly proclaimed that in the years from 2008 to 2011 it would reach the target of building 648 new properties, but it takes a long time to build houses, so they were all built—if I may put it this way—under the administration of the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. It also tells me that a significant reduction is anticipated. It could not quantify that, and it is still early days to be able to do so, but the local authority was secure in the knowledge that the number would be significantly lower. Therefore, what credence can we give to the figures being produced by the Mayor of London, and what are the Government doing to address this problem?
The problem with the slump in the supply of accommodation is the affordable rent model and the complex interaction between “affordable”—however that is defined; we seem to be redefining it continuously—and the introduction of universal credit in 2013. As background to this, in my local authority two thirds of all social tenants are on housing benefit, either partially or fully, so this affects a large proportion of my electorate. Comparisons of social rents with market rents show where the problem arises. In my local authority area, for one-bedroom accommodation it is 40% of the market rate, and for three bedrooms it is 33%. For RSLs, the equivalent figures are 45% and 41%. But on re-lets, where the rent goes up somewhat, it is 58% for one bedroom and 42% for three. It goes down even further for larger accommodation.
I would like to spread a little good news to ease the situation for the Minister. Under the current rules, accommodation in Enfield is affordable, whether one is working or not. As was mentioned earlier, however, under universal credit the figures will be capped at £500 a week. My local authority has worked out that if rents are set at 80%, as is being suggested, an average family, living in three-bedroom accommodation, will pay 46% of their universal credit in rent. They will have only 54% left for all the other necessities of life. If, on the other hand, we use the definition of affordability used by Enfield, and I think by many others, which is that no family should pay more than 30% of their income in rent, and no single person or childless couple should pay more than 35%, on a three-bedroom property, they would pay only 52% of market rent. So there is a very stark choice for everyone.
We do not yet know what the definition of “working” will be; it has been suggested that the cap might not apply to working households, but we do not know what “working” means. Many people in my constituency—and, I suspect, all over London—are in work, out of work, back in work and back out of work. How will it all pan out? I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government recognise the problem that I am trying to convey and have solutions to it.
One of the things that the Government have never understood about their cap on the housing benefit limits in the private rented sector is that many in that sector are in work. They receive benefit because of the high rents in their areas. It is those people who will be shifted out of those areas and probably forced into unemployment.
We are waiting to see. As I understand it, there is not complete clarity on how people in work will be dealt with, how “work” will be defined and whether part-time work will be taken into account. I rest my case in the hope that the Minister will respond to some of my concerns.
I want to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend Clive Efford. I was recounting the figures earlier; there are at least three London boroughs in which the 80% rule on rent levels is higher than the average income of people in work and who live in council housing association properties. There will be 100% social cleansing of Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and perhaps some other boroughs as well. I am talking about people in work, not on benefits.
Absolutely. That reinforces the message that we are looking for flexibility and a recognition of the reality that people face in inner London. As has been mentioned, there are areas where rents are so much higher than anything suggested in the Government proposals. Unless the Government recognise the gap that will open up as a result of their policies, my hon. Friend will be absolutely right—the cleansing of social tenants will occur. That cannot be good for community cohesion or the economy of London; it is certainly not good for the people affected. I hope that the Government will recognise that, even now.
What are my local housing associations saying about the situation? It is early days, and they do not have firm enough data. However, they have been asked to submit proposals to the HCA. What they have come up with is that the 80% may be viable for one-bedroom accommodation. There is much more of a judgment in relation to two-bedroom accommodation, and for accommodation with three bedrooms or more, the figure is simply not economically viable. In other words, no family accommodation will be built at a time, when the real need in the social sector, because of overcrowding, is for accommodation with three bedrooms or more. There is an acute shortage of large family accommodation for those on the housing waiting list.
If we stick to the rules outlined by the Government, we will find that we are not building any large family accommodation. My housing associations suggest that there should be a target rent, rather than whatever the definition of an “affordable” rent would be. That would be intermediate between what we have generally known as affordable social renting in the past and the new so-called affordable rents suggested by the Government. The housing associations will put that suggestion to the HCA, and we shall see what eventually emerges. Anything the Minister can say about it will be helpful.
To respond to the invitation given by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, what housing associations tell me is that there must be flexibility on the £500 cap. There are different ways of doing it. The Government could separate the housing element from the rest of the universal credit, or they could give more universal credit in parts of London that are adversely affected, which would in fact include most of London. Flexibility is the key.
Another issue is increased capital investment and one way of providing that is through a bank bonus tax, as I said earlier. That investment is incumbent on the Government. If they do not want their Mayor of London to have egg on his face over his so-called target for affordable accommodation during his time in office, they need to do something about it. The system will not work as it stands. A sensible and pragmatic Government would be flexible in adapting it so that they could achieve what they claim to want—a significant increase in the supply of affordable accommodation.
I hope the Minister will be able to pick up those points. There is great concern, not just in inner London, which is mainly affected by the proposals, but in outer London too. These matters relate specifically to London; they do not apply in most other parts of the country and I hope the Minister will communicate the message to the Government. They need to be flexible about London. We all hope that things will improve in the future.
Before I make my few remarks, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In case anyone is curious about it, I rent out the flat I lived in previously. I am in every sense a small landlord. It is slightly unhelpful that whenever people talk about landlords, they constantly refer to Rachman and the like; it has peppered this debate. There are lots of good small landlords, just as there are some good big landlords. It is important that we acknowledge that and do not descend into cliché.
We have had a good debate. There are clearly some ideological differences across the Chamber and within parties, but we all know that there is an issue. Although the debate has been forced on us by circumstances, inasmuch as we appear to be almost the only MPs left in the building, it has been really useful to have a London-focused debate, because we all acknowledge that London is different. Indeed, it is unique.
As the Member for Battersea, I welcome and enormously enjoy representing a genuinely mixed community. I want to continue to represent a mixed community. One of the great joys of London is the amazing mix of people. This morning, I was out at an unearthly hour delivering leaflets in my constituency and I noticed the extraordinary conjunction of posh flats, tower blocks and rows of terraced houses. It is one of the things that makes London amazing and it is an honour to represent a London constituency.
I have a few remarks about a practical solution that my council, Wandsworth, has been putting into practice for some years. When I talk about the number of new homes created under the scheme, Members may think it is relatively small given the scale of need identified during the debate; nevertheless, it has brought real homes to real people in need over the last 10 years, and I take this opportunity to highlight it.
The project is called the hidden homes programme. In 2002, Wandsworth undertook an enormous survey of all its properties and started the first hidden homes initiative. It is an odd title, because obviously the homes are not hidden; they were previously hidden, but they should now be called uncovered homes. Wandsworth undertook a survey of its entire estate and looked at the potential to bring back into use as homes all the rooms and spaces that were designed into the 1950s and 1960s blocks but are no longer needed—storerooms, laundry rooms, the big old boiler rooms, some unused garage spaces and so on. Many of those spaces are abandoned and, as we all know, places where antisocial behaviour lurks. The opportunity was there not only to create some new homes, but to design out crime from some of the estates.
To date, Wandsworth council has built 183 affordable homes, latterly with a housing association partner. There is a potential programme to bring many more new dwellings on stream. Wandsworth estimates that around 10,000 such new homes could be created across London, and 70,000 nationally, if all councils replicated the programme. It means creating valuable additional housing units at relatively low cost because the land is already owned. The acquisition of land, which, as we all know, is one of the great hurdles in London because it is very expensive, is therefore not a problem, and the council can crack on with building.
Planning permission is also relatively easy to secure. If a scheme is offered that could design out crime in areas where antisocial behaviour takes place, residents will greatly welcome that. Again, a box is ticked on that front. Another particularly positive aspect of the building programme is that it often involves valuable ground-floor and basement properties. Many of those who come to our surgeries have particular needs, which means that ground-floor accommodation is greatly in demand. Some properties have been designed and built from the start with adaptations for families who have a disabled member. The scheme therefore has many positives, and the accommodation has been provided quickly.
Another nice aspect is that many properties are unique in character. As I was slotting a few leaflets through letterboxes this morning, I was thinking that, as many of us recognise, people in social housing have the same desire as anybody else to live in a unique home, which has character and perhaps some quirkiness, rather than something standardised and mass produced. Again, the scheme has much to offer.
In 2006, Wandsworth council built almost half the new council homes in London through the scheme. It is important, and I understand that three other boroughs are considering it. Some are already some way down the line of looking to do the same on their estates. Wandsworth council has always said that it is happy to share ideas and expertise. Obviously, people learn along the way—it is not always plain sailing. Some of the adaptations— I have come across one or two in basements—have been challenging. However, expertise is available in identifying potential sites and putting together suitable packages.
I encourage other Members to consider that approach in their authorities. As I said, some authorities are looking at the scheme, and it is well worth bringing it up and considering the potential. I do not pretend that it represents anything other than a small contribution towards solving London’s housing, but if it can be brought on stream quickly and relatively cheaply, what’s not to like?
I want briefly to consider under-occupation. I thank Jeremy Corbyn for securing the debate, not least because, as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I must say that it was not an easy day to offer to supplicant Members, either in Westminster Hall or the Chamber. There was not a huge queue for the day, so it was excellent that we could have the debate and that the hon. Gentleman secured it. However, I want to pick up on one of his points about people’s need for a civilised family life in the context of solving under-occupation. Joan Ruddock also mentioned that. More imaginative thinking is being applied to the matter. The problem cannot be solved by saying, “Here’s the number of people, here’s the number of rooms. That’s it.” Clearly, that will not work.
We have talked about the needs of older people. We need to recognise that it might not be possible to persuade someone to move from a three-bedroom flat to a one-bedroom flat, but it might be possible to move someone from a three-bedroom flat to a two-bedroom flat with room for the grandchildren to stay or for someone who comes regularly to keep them company. Those things are really important. Many housing associations and the National Housing Federation are considering them and trying to encourage people to take that approach. They are not taking the one-size-fits-all approach.
I am not sure I entirely agree with that, if we are talking about older people and pensioners, in particular. Nevertheless, the housing associations are considering the matter, and it is something that we could all look to encourage as well.
I want to deal with another matter that I feel strongly about and that has been alluded to already. I think that Clive Efford asked why people are not angry or marching on Parliament and so on, given that so many people sign petitions about other things. There is a genuine problem in how we democratically represent the housing problem. One of the biggest challenges we face is that we often do not speak on behalf of the people who are not yet living in an area. The voices to which MPs and councillors listen—rightly—are those of the people already living in their areas. However, there remains a democrat deficit when it comes to speaking up for the people who want to live in an area but are not yet there. Naturally representatives will tend to voice the concerns of local residents.
MPs and councillors have to set themselves a challenge. It was slightly naughty of Heidi Alexander to suggest that nimbys are limited to any one party. I do not think that is true; there are nimbys across all parties, and probably, if we look to our own consciences, everyone at some point in their political lives has thought in their heart of hearts, “Hang on, actually there is a real need for this housing, but there is a huge local campaign against it.” Sometimes we have to take courage and say to someone, “No, I’m sorry, but there is a real housing need.” I did it recently at an exhibition on my patch. A lady was saying, “Oh, there are going to be too many houses and so on”, and I said, “I’m sorry, but there is a terrific housing need in London, and this is an urban area with brilliant transport links. This is a really great place to build some new homes. So I do support this building.” We have all got to be prepared to do that from time to time.
On a tangential point in relation to what is happening today around the country, I voted no in the AV referendum this morning, mainly because I worry about encouraging blandness and people’s desire to try to please everybody. Sometimes we have to show leadership and be prepared occasionally to be unpopular, perhaps in the short term or with a particular group of residents. Giving political leadership means that occasionally we have to be prepared to go against the grain, and housing is a good example of an issue in which we should be prepared to do that. There are things we can do. We have to encourage great design and sensitive interaction with local residents. I have seen the amazing difference that it can make if the people who want to build have in place a good programme of communication, but I have also seen terrible programmes with really bad models and representations and in which people have been treated with arrogance. I have seen good and bad examples.
We have to do much to convince people about designing out antisocial behaviour and crime. We all know that when we talk about building new blocks of social housing, some people worry that it will bring a disproportionate amount of antisocial behaviour.
The hon. Lady has made a thoughtful and persuasive speech. On some of the understandable concerns that her constituents express about new developments, what assessment has she made of the provisions in the Localism Bill for neighbourhood forums? Does she think that those forums will come forward with plans to build new housing, including suitable housing for older people?
That is a fair question, and it takes us back to my point about leadership. We will have to engage with the problem, put the case to people and be a voice for those who have not yet got a home in our areas. People’s natural instinct is to be wary, and I acknowledge that it will not be easy, but I think we have a role there. There are sensible ways of proceeding—such as by presenting some of the benefits to the local area—although sometimes someone who objects to new houses being built might take one view as a resident, but will see things from another perspective when we talk to them about their children or grandchildren struggling to get on to the housing ladder or to find a home close to where the family has always lived. We all have a leadership role to play, although sometimes the objections will be entirely valid, as we all know. However, we have to be equally prepared to engage with the process and speak up on behalf of those who really are voiceless—people in great housing need or those who are sofa-surfing. They have fallen down the cracks of the democratic system, and we have to be imaginative on their behalf.
To finish, let me say that infrastructure planning is incredibly important, because as the hon. Lady said, people often object when they look at a scheme and ask, “Well where’s the school? Where’s the post office? Where are the car parking spaces? How will my local train or tube station cope?” It is important not to divorce the two, particularly in London—my view is that London is almost a mini-economy of its own. I am glad that many of the big infrastructure programmes have continued to go ahead and I welcome the fact that the Mayor is pressing ahead with some of those important transport capacity expansion projects. If we go to local communities with a plan that makes sense and that shows that we have thought through all the issues, we are more likely to find that people will engage willingly with the need to create more housing and expand our communities to meet the need that we all acknowledge exists in this amazing city that we all represent.
Having listened to the whole debate this afternoon, I hope that the rest of the country leaves us to it more often, because it has been a very interesting debate. I have enjoyed all the speeches, from both sides of the House. I would make particular mention of the contributions from the Government Benches, because we have heard some of the more thoughtful and compassionate speeches from Conservative Members—that is probably why there were only three of them.
I would also like again to thank the sponsor of the debate, my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who really does know his onions on this issue. He has driven many debates on the issue over the six years that I have been in this House, and we are all grateful that he keeps it at the top of the agenda.
Without embarrassing him, I would also like to mention my hon. Friend John McDonnell, who reminded us what this issue is all about. Those of us who are housing anoraks can get tied up in housing benefit regulations—particularly my hon. Friend Ms Buck—and how the housing revenue account works, but in the end, this debate is about human beings. It is about our constituents. We would not think of half-teaching someone to read or performing half an operation, so it genuinely puzzles me that we should be content as politicians to leave people living in the most appalling conditions in our capital city. Not only has that happened throughout the tenure of all recent Governments, but it is getting worse. That is why the Government cannot afford to be complacent today.
The period when I was born, 50 years ago in Fulham, was what we would probably now call the heyday of social housing, following the Bevan period, when he was the Minister responsible for both health and housing in the 1945 Government. He genuinely understood the importance of housing as a public service, and although he probably would not have used the phrase “life chances”, he knew that housing is important to people’s life chances, just as it is to their basic health. That period was followed by Macmillan and other Tory Governments who would also have prided themselves on building a sufficient supply of housing—and doing so in what were, quite frankly, much more difficult economic times than today—to meet the nation’s need. Why that is no longer an ambition I do not understand. When I was growing up, council housing was the kind of housing that people aspired to. The houses had plumbing, for God’s sake! They had central heating and running hot water. They had inside toilets. In the ’60s and ’70s in Fulham, those things were not to be found in the private rented sector or even in the owner-occupied sector.
Yes, that was the era of estates, and there were good estates and bad ones, but—to follow up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington—they did not start leaking and falling down after four years, as they do now. An example of that is the South Acton estate, which I used to represent. Angie Bray might want to have a look at that. Many of the estates were very good ones, and they are still standing to this day and providing good-quality, affordable homes with a good space standard.
That was also the era of acquiring properties. Councils around London—Hammersmith, Islington and others—bought up private sector slum properties, renovated them and converted them into housing, sometimes with several flats in one Victorian house. There are now thousands of those properties in boroughs around London. Those boroughs are now being targeted by the designated sales policies of Conservative councils, but those were the mixed communities. When we walk down the street in Hammersmith, we see council and housing association accommodation and privately rented and owner-occupied houses next to each other in a row. Ironically, those are the mixed communities that the Government are seeking to destroy.
Fifty years ago, there were also housing action areas. Grants were available not only to private sector tenants but to poorer owner-occupiers to ensure that they had basic facilities in their homes. That was also the era that saw the start of the housing associations.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that housing action areas came in at the end of the wholesale building clearance policy and did a great deal to preserve London’s Victorian heritage and, at the same time, to preserve communities? They are something that we should applaud and welcome.
Absolutely. Those areas presented a win-win situation. They maintained buildings that we now value, which some politicians and planners in the ’60s and ’70s did not value, and they also provided good-quality homes in which people could live and bring up their families while enjoying the facilities that most of us take for granted today.
Has my hon. Friend read a book by Professor Peter Hennessy, who is now in the House of Lords? One of the points that he makes in the book is that the soldiers who liberated France after the invasion of Europe found themselves liberating people who were living in better conditions than those of their families back in England. The title of the book is “Never Again”. When those soldiers came back, one of the driving issues in the subsequent election was housing. That led to the era of building the communities and housing to which my hon. Friend has just referred. We have lost that sense of mission, but we need to get it back.
I have not read that particular book, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. In my constituency, we have what used to be called “homes for heroes” estates that were built after the first world war. There are also 1930s garden estates, such as the Wormholt estate in Shepherd’s Bush. Those are fantastic examples of social housing, but the Tory politicians always seem to overlook them when they are decrying social housing and social housing communities.
Getting back to the subject of housing associations, I am going to read from the “Our history” page on the Notting Hill housing association website. Talking about how the association was set up, it says:
“In 1962…our founder Bruce Kenrick…came to live in Notting Hill in West London. He was shocked by social and financial inequalities experienced by poor and immigrant communities in West London. He later wrote:
‘What struck me painfully was the extent to which people’s problems stemmed from housing conditions. Marriages broke up because one or other partner could no longer stand the strain of living in one room with a stove and sink squeezed into one corner.’
In December 1963 Bruce Kenrick, together with a group of equally committed individuals, formed a new, proactive type of voluntary housing organisation. Notting Hill Housing Trust was born. Within our first year, we had bought five houses and housed 57 people. Within five years, we had become a large presence in west London, housing nearly 1,000 people.”
I shall refer to the Notting Hill housing association later in my speech, in a less flattering light. In those days, however, people aspired to build decent housing for the working poor, and indeed for the ordinary citizens of London.
Twenty-five years ago—I think it was 25 years ago this week that I was first elected as a councillor in the London borough of Hammersmith—we had what we then thought was a housing crisis. Now, however, I think we would be quite grateful for the conditions that obtained then. It was a difficult time. Right to buy under the Thatcher Governments had depleted some of the best social housing stock, and problems of disrepair were growing yearly because of the neglect by Tory Governments and Tory councils of the council housing stock, which was already becoming a feature of the division between the political parties on this issue. Overcrowding was increasingly becoming an issue, too. Even in the mid-80s, however, it was possible to have hard-to-let properties; there was not the same degree of pressure or the same level of market rents or prices that forced people to live in ever-more overcrowded housing.
I have glossed over the period of the Labour Government because it has already been dealt with. I will say, however, that I think it was a mixed record. Decent homes was a good programme, but I am not sure that the voice of London was heard strongly enough in those times. Decent homes became so much of a priority that housing supply, which is such a big issue for us today, did not get a fair crack of the whip. I recall that during some of the years when I was running a local authority, we tried by hook and by crook to build as many socially rented and intermediate homes as we could—and we succeeded as best we could—but housing supply remained a failure overall. I regret that. I believe that the last Prime Minister got it and I believe that the present Leader of the Opposition certainly gets it. Prime Minister Blair, however, did not get it when it came to the importance of housing, not just as a public service but as an important part of the country’s economy.
With that brief history, we come to today. Other Members have mentioned the statistics, which are important. The housing waiting list in Hammersmith and Fulham is the highest I think it has ever been, with 9,361 households—more than 12%—on it, even though it is one of the smallest boroughs in London. Those figures are often manipulated. Over the recess, I spent some days on the public inquiry into the new core strategy —this is how I spend my leisure time—and found the council claiming that there were only 3,000 on the waiting list, which is only a third of the official figures according to the House of Commons Library.
As I look down this list, I notice that the famous Tory boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster appear to have low numbers on their waiting lists—just 4% and 7% of their populations. That is half or even a quarter of the figures for some of the Labour boroughs. It is not because there is no housing stress in those boroughs—on the contrary, there is; they have a worse record on the supply of affordable housing than most Labour boroughs. It is because the lists are manipulated in a most unseemly way. People are discouraged in every way from going on the lists.
It is a process of discouragement. I know of families in my borough who have been threatened with having their children taken into care if they seek to declare themselves homeless. That has happened too frequently for it to be no more than anecdotal evidence of what goes on behind the scenes when people turn up at a civic centre and seek to be interviewed for housing need.
It is anecdotal, but it is a consistent stream—from the year a Labour administration was elected in Hammersmith in 1986 when I recall that the response of Wandsworth council’s homeless person’s unit was to put up a map on the door outside, showing people in housing need the way to Hammersmith’s housing office, right through to the most recent Tory administration in Hammersmith, which makes people wait outside in the cold if they turn up out of hours. They used to be allowed to wait in the foyer of the town hall, but now, in case they offend or upset anybody, they have to wait outside, even in the middle of winter. As I say, those are anecdotes, but they tell a story. Some estates in my constituency have 20% overcrowding—eight times the national average, and it is a growing trend. That is the position on need.
I do not pretend that it is easy to solve the problems created for low-income families in housing need by the price of land and the price of property. However, I do expect Governments to try to solve the problem, and if the present Government did try, they would have our support. I should like to see less partisanship, but I am afraid that this issue has become one of the most partisan of all.
I have spent some years using the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to get various seedy hidden documents out of Hammersmith and Fulham council in order to discover what it really thinks of its tenants and what its real plans are. I was going to quote from some of them, but I think it more entertaining to quote from press releases issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, particularly those issued in the name of a Liberal Democrat Minister. They say the same thing, only using more fantastical language.
This is what the Government are offering people in housing need. They are offering “flexible tenure”:
“Landlords will be given the freedom to offer their properties under fixed term tenancies, from a minimum of two years”.
They are offering “affordable rents”, which is a new technical term:
“Affordable Rent properties will offer fixed term tenancies at a rent higher than social rent - with landlords able to set rents at up to 80 per cent of local market rents.”
It is a bit like tuition fees. I suspect that most landlords will go for the full 80% rather than for 40%, 60% or 70% when they set their rents.
The Government are also offering
“greater flexibility for councils to make decisions on how best to help people at risk of homelessness at the local level.”
They say that
“Currently some homeless families are turning down the decent private rented accommodation they've been offered as a settled home, and demanding to be provided with expensive temporary accommodation, at huge cost to the taxpayer, until a social home becomes available.”
The scandal of it! It is no surprise that the Liberal Democrat Benches are empty. A Liberal Democrat Minister has said:
“These changes will lead to a much smarter system”.
As well as those three principles, there are a couple that the Government do not need to make law in the Localism Bill. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Love, housing grant has already been cut by 63%. He also mentioned the changes in housing benefit. As I do not want to keep Members here all night, I will not go into the details.
The cumulative effect of those five principles—giving councils flexibility to use the private rented sector, which means no more social homes as a permanent solution; flexible tenure, which means no security of tenure; affordable rents, which means no more affordable housing; no more capital investment; and the changes in housing benefit—will be that hundreds of families in all our constituencies will no longer be able to afford to live where their relations are, where their schools are and, in many cases, where their work is, and will have to move out.
If it is allowed to develop over a period of years, the effect of those changes will be the end of social housing in this country. I say that not because I wish to be sensationalist, but because it is the inevitable conclusion, and, increasingly, the conclusion of experts. I think that the Government know what they are doing. I think that this is phase two of the desocialisation of the housing market which began with the right to buy, although this is a much deeper and more profound way of destroying a whole form of housing tenure.
I can speak with some authority about that development, because I believe that much of it originated in Hammersmith and Fulham, the borough that I represent. A document entitled “Principles for Social Housing Reform” contained four of the five principles that I listed—although not the one relating to housing benefit—and was published a year before the last election. When I drew attention to it, I was told that I was scaremongering and that what I was saying was nonsense. The Minister for Housing and Local Government told me on many occasions in the House that this was not Tory policy and would not happen.
The same discussions that led to the development of those principles led to the local policy in Hammersmith and Fulham, which was effectively a policy of removing the bulk of social housing tenants from the borough.
An Evening Standard features article in the middle of 2009 stated:
“Hammersmith and Fulham council is plotting a Dame Shirley Porter-style programme to move out the poor and replace them with private homes and retail developments…new homes will be built to attract residents with higher incomes and areas that have traditionally voted Labour will be broken up as more than 3,500 flats and houses are demolished…One document shows that if rents in Hammersmith were increased to private levels, a two-bed council flat currently costing £85 a week would go up to £360 a week.”
I regret to say that all that is coming true in Hammersmith.
I was amused to find that immediately after the election, in the first interview that he gave to a national newspaper, the Prime Minister singled out Hammersmith and said that he was angry about “appalling” Labour “lies” there. He said:
“They were telling people in Hammersmith they were going to have their council house taken away by the Tories.”
The only thing that we got wrong was that we did not realise that this was going to happen so quickly and that it was going to happen across the country. We certainly did realise what was going to happen in Hammersmith, because we had seen the evidence on that.
Three main local attacks are being used in Hammersmith, and some of them will be familiar to the shadow Minister because we all remember the days of Shirley Porter in west London. We thought that we had got rid of the terms “designated sales” and “building stable communities” in west London, but they have come back to haunt us. Some 64 council properties were sold up to last year, bringing in just over £30 million and, according to a decision taken this month, a further 300 will be sold to bring in a further £107 million. These will not just be sales of the largest properties; a range of sizes will be involved, with one, two, three and four-bedroom flats being sold. As hon. Members will see, these properties will be expensive, selling for about £500,000 each in many cases. More than 9,000 families are on the waiting list, so what is the purpose of deciding to sell 300 to 400 of the council’s best properties? These will be not be sales of estate properties; they will be sales of street properties, which command very high values in Hammersmith and Fulham.
In discussing the second principle, I shall again talk a little about housing associations. For some years we thought that housing associations would save us from the ideologically driven policies of Tory councils and that associations such as Notting Hill Housing Association and Shepherds Bush Housing Association, the two largest in my constituency, would perform that role. As I said, Notting Hill Housing Association was set up, following the Rachman era, to perform that role and ensure that good quality, affordable housing was available.
I shall read just a few sentences from the NHHA’s response to the Government consultation paper proposing the social housing changes. It states:
“We are likely to grant 2 year tenancies to all new tenants of both new homes and existing homes that become available for new letting.”
It goes on to say:
“In appropriate cases we would like to be able to increase rents up to market rents for those who can afford them.”
It also says that
“we may want to sell some voids, or to let them on full market rents”.
“The new flexibilities will also enable us to support boroughs’ efforts to create more mixed communities”— that phrase again—
“reducing the concentrations of deprived often unemployed people found in areas of social housing in London.”
The NHHA response continues:
“we see no need for the Government to specify that particular groups of tenants such as older people or people with long term illnesses or disabilities must be provided with a social home for a longer period than the two year minimum.”
Finally, and perhaps most poignantly of all, given the history of the NHHA:
“We support the proposal…that local authorities should be given greater flexibility in bringing the homelessness duty to an end with offers of accommodation in the private rented sector.”
What I find particularly objectionable about that is, as I said in an intervention, that these organisations were set up purely to provide good quality affordable housing to people.
The chief executive of Notting Hill Housing, who featured in the popular press over the last weekend and previously along with her partner, who was director of housing and regeneration for Hammersmith and Fulham, earns £200,000 a year, whereas he earns £260,000 a year as a consultant. Their jobs have been to run the two main social landlords in Hammersmith and Fulham and they are also the advisers to the Conservative party who contributed to the document “Principles for Social Housing Reform”. So far, he, Mr Nick Johnson, has been paid more than £830,000 as a consultant and director of regeneration in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Yes. I do not want to get too far off the subject and speaking about individuals can be invidious, but this is an extreme case. The Minister smiles, so let me read him what the Minister for Housing and Local Government said about the case. I should point out before I read that that Mr Nick Johnson retired on a permanent ill-health pension as chief executive of the London borough of Bexley with a £300,000 lump sum and a £50,000-a-year pension that was payable immediately. Within three months, he had taken up his £260,000-a-year job, first running Hammersmith and Fulham Homes and then as director of housing and regeneration in Hammersmith and Fulham. The House can imagine my views on this.
“the council defended the move, saying Mr Johnson was ‘excellent value for money’.”
For once—this might be a one-off, so everybody should take note of it—I want to praise the Minister for Housing and Local Government, who said:
“Town hall pensions cost every council tax-paying household over £300 a year. Hard-pressed taxpayers cannot afford to foot an ever-growing bill. It’s not justifiable to have healthy employees working in local government and claiming an ill-health benefit at the same time. Councils have power to stop such payments and should use them.”
What is Mr Johnson being paid to do that means that he is such good value for money for the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham? I think we know why Ms Davies is good value for money, because she parrots every right-wing phrase that is needed to support the Government’s atrocious housing policies and that sort of support from the housing association movement, although shameful, is, I am sure, very welcome in providing cover. She is earning her money all right.
How is Mr Johnson earning his money? As director of housing and regeneration he was in charge—and is still, because even though Hammersmith and Fulham has now appointed a director of housing and regeneration on about £170,000 a year, Mr Johnson is still retained as a consultant to help him out—
It seems okay to me.
Mr Johnson is in charge of some of the most controversial and largest developments not just in this country or in Europe but across the world—that is, the opportunity area schemes in Hammersmith and Fulham that will see the demolition of thousands of units of good quality social housing and their replacement with luxury high-rise housing, principally, as my hon. Friend Clive Efford said, for the benefit of people living abroad who wish to have a pied-à-terre somewhere near central London.
I have spent many days in the public inquiry dealing with this matter and I shall try not to bore Members with the subject for too long. The core strategy documents, which hon. Members will all have in their various boroughs, are interesting reading if one sits down with them. The housing policy in the Hammersmith and Fulham core strategy, which is the planning document that is supposed to last us for 20 years, states:
“The Council would prefer all additional affordable housing to be intermediate housing unless a small proportion of new social rented housing is necessary in order to enable proposals for the regeneration of council or housing association estates”.
That was amended during the public inquiry to add the words “and affordable rented housing”. That is a bit of a give-away that the Minister might want to blush about. In other words, all the time that the definition of affordable housing was social housing, the council wanted none of it, but as soon as it became 80% of market rent, it was happy to include it in its planning documents. That exposes what so-called affordable housing is about.
I am dealing with dozens of those schemes across the constituency, but let me mention just three of them. There are three opportunity areas in the borough. There are 30 of those large London plan schemes—roughly one per borough—but we have three of them in Hammersmith and Fulham, even though it is one of the smallest and most densely populated boroughs. One of them covers Earls Court and West Kensington, where the proposal, apart from knocking down the historic exhibition centres, is to demolish 750 newly modernised, good quality and popular council homes, half of which are terraced or semi-detached three or four-bedroom houses with garages and gardens, so that they can be replaced with 7,500 luxury flats in blocks up to 30 storeys high. That is described as four villages and a high street. I went to the architect’s premises to look at the plans. He had given nicknames to the high street and the other road that will be built—one was Sloane street and the other was South Molton street—and that is where the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates are at present.
Of those 7,500 homes, the only social rented homes will be for tenants who are displaced because their homes have been demolished who insist on having a new home in the area. I believe that about 250 such homes will be built, and they will be built conveniently just outside my constituency, so that those people will not be able to vote for me anymore.
The White City opportunity area is much larger. It is the area around the BBC site in which at least another 4,000 homes will be built—again, in blocks 20 to 30 storeys high. The planning document contains a little orange circle where it says, “This is where we are going to build just over 1,000 social rented homes.” That sounds like quite an attractive prospect, until one finds out that those homes will be built so that tenants can be moved from the 2,400 homes on the White City, Batman Close and Wood Lane estates in another part of Shepherd’s Bush. In other words, without saying anything about what will happen to the nearly 2,500 families who live on those estates—the document is silent on that—more than 1,000 homes will be built to rehouse them. Well, I might not be Inspector Clouseau, but I can work out that once those families are moved into those 1,000 homes, the leaseholders have been bought out and other people have been discouraged from living in the area, the bulldozers can then go into the White City estate, which is the largest estate in my constituency.
The most controversial site is Hammersmith town centre and riverside, which includes the listed town hall, cinema and flats owned by the Pocklington Trust, which is a trust for people with visual impairments. Again, the ambition is demolition and to build 320 luxury flats and a footbridge over the A4 that will take out a third of the riverside park, so that Malaysian investors can have somewhere with direct access to the riverside to put their money into and perhaps come to when they are in Hammersmith. How that is conceived as providing for all the needs—let alone the housing needs—of my constituents I do not know.
Council officers proudly told me that the Earls Court development is the largest one of its kind—I think that they mean by value—outside China. They are very proud of that. What those developments have in common is that they face the unanimous opposition or near-unanimous opposition of residents and that the council is co-developer. The planning authority is the developer in each case, and hon. Members can imagine how planning committees go in that context.
The key point for today’s debate is that there is no affordable housing—not one new unit of affordable housing, by which I mean social rented housing. As London citizens will say, the only type of housing in London boroughs such as mine that is affordable to people on the London living wage, which is now almost £8 an hour, is social rented housing. That is what there is a need for. Of course, we need other types of housing as well, but they are easier to provide. The function of government is to provide for unmet needs, but those unmet needs are not being provided for. On the contrary, the whole thrust of policy—not just in Hammersmith, although it is more obvious in Hammersmith—is to reduce the quantum of social rented housing, to stop the construction of new social rented housing and in that way to change the nature of housing tenure across inner London.
What is the motivation for that approach? If I am right about this, and I think I am because I have spent a lot of time looking at it, the first motivation of those politicians—principally Conservative, although we must now associate the Liberal Democrats with them—is economic. A phrase that I hear from Conservatives in my area is “sweat the asset”, and a memorable comment from the leader of the council is, “We want to attract people to the area who are very rich.” I think that such people see council houses with affordable rents, on what would otherwise be very expensive land, as an affront to them economically. They think, “This is not what should be done with this piece of land. What we should have here is a 30-storey, Singapore-style tower block or a conference centre or office block. What we should not have is low to medium-rise housing built in the same style as the rest of the district when it was created in the Victorian era.”
The second motivation is, I think, a social agenda. Estates are described in the most disparaging terms in official council documents—as “not decent”, or “inward-looking”. I know that Tory politicians are often not comfortable with council estates, but I do not know whether that is because they think the people who live on them vote Labour or because they do not like the collective ideals that built them. Perhaps they do not like the communities who live there, but they could at least leave them alone. Those communities are often the opposite of inward looking: they are some of the most diverse and cohesive in the country and now, partly because of housing policies, they are among the most stable in the country, but they are pilloried in that insulting language.
The third motivation is a personal objection to people who live on council estates. If hon. Members do not believe me they should go back and look at some of the election literature and what was said in Hammersmith and Fulham about dependency culture and how living in subsidised housing with security of tenure makes people flaccid and unambitious. Some politicians think that such people need a touch of iron and that we should go back to the more competitive and animalistic culture that the Conservatives would like us to have.
I hope that my constituency neighbour, who is not, from what I have heard of her comments, in that category, shakes her head because she does not want to be associated with such people.
I shall close on a point that I think is where this debate, in relation to Hammersmith, started. I shall read a couple of paragraphs from an article on ConservativeHome, of which I am a great reader. I enjoy it and find it amusing—sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Hon. Members can make up their own minds about the article, which is about social housing and was written by the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council in relation to a Commons debate such as this one almost exactly two years ago. It reads:
“On the day of the first Opposition social housing debate for three years, we ask here whether this is the time to reform social housing. It may not be an issue for the current intake of Conservative MPs at this time, but it will become an issue for many new MPs elected from target marginals which have far higher levels of social housing. Figures supplied to Greg Hands MP from the Commons Library show that shadow housing minister Grant Shapps’s seat (Welwyn Hatfield) has the highest percentage of social rented housing of any Conservative seat. Some key targets have huge percentages: Hammersmith at 36%, Westminster North at 30% and Birmingham Edgbaston and Battersea both at 29%.”
With the exception of Battersea, what do those other three seats have in common when one looks at the results of the last election?
The article continues:
“Whilst Conservatives are at a highpoint in local government, we still have a mountain to climb in our inner cities. We have no Conservative councillors in Liverpool, Sheffield or Newcastle and just one in Manchester. Many inner London boroughs remain either Labour or Liberal Democrat-run…Finally Boris Johnson’s stunning victory in our capital city was largely a suburban revolt. Why is this? The current state and levels of social housing in our inner cities may provide part of the answer. All our inner cities have relatively high levels of social housing compared to their suburbs. Today social housing has become welfare housing where both a dependency culture and a culture of entitlement dominate…Competition revolves around drawing welfare support and taking something out of the system. Conservative principles of freedom, self-reliance and personal responsibility run counter to this culture.”
That is not some lunatic adviser in the Conservative party; that was the head of the innovation unit for local government, who is running the Mayor’s campaign for re-election and is the leader of a London borough council.
I do not make the obvious point, which is that this is all about politics and gerrymandering. Of course it is about that, in a far more profound way than the things that Shirley Porter did. But the fact that we have people like that driving policy within the Conservative party creates a complete divide between the parties that has never existed before, such that it is now impossible for rational voices to be heard—even the voices of people in the Conservative or Liberal parties who know that they have a duty towards people in housing need and ought to be helping them, and that that should be separated from a political argument. This well has become so poisoned now that I believe that, unfortunately, it is Government policy—I have traced in this speech the link from that article through to the “Principles for Social Housing Reform”, through to Government policy in the Localism Bill and the demise of social housing—that is driving social housing policy in this country, particularly in London.
I do not expect to get a rational response from the Minister to this debate today—or probably ever—but I would like Government Members to think about the implications, not for us in our seats and our livelihoods going forward, but for the thousands of families who are the victims of the very crude political policy that is being pursued, in relation to housing uniquely. We can all have disagreements on other areas of policy, but they do not have such profound effects on people’s lives as this form of experimentation—demolishing people’s homes, making people move away from the communities that they have lived in for generations and separating families.
Those are the policies that are being directly pursued by the Conservative-Liberal coalition Government now. They are shameful policies. They should have received more attention from the media, and I wish that they did, but I think there is enough morality in the governing parties for them to go back and look at what they are doing in relation to housing policy and to think again. We are talking about future generations of people in this country who are growing up in conditions that are wholly uncivilised and wholly unworthy of the country.
Follow that! Today’s debate would be really important at any time, and I am really grateful to my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn for securing it, because as other hon. Members have said, it is a good idea for Members from the capital to get together and debate subjects that are central to the capital.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, because he represents a London constituency so I know that he will be able to empathise, at least, with some of the issues that we are bringing forward today—and as he is a West Ham United supporter, I am sure that he is honourable enough to take note of the concerns expressed in the House and perhaps try to do something about them. When we are thinking about our national housing policy, we might want to look specifically at the needs of the capital within that, where a one-size-fits-all approach may not be possible, ethical or even manageable, in the long or even the short term. I ask the Minister to listen carefully to the arguments that have been so persuasively advanced from both sides of the House, and see whether he can do anything to influence Government policy in this area.
The judgment that many experts have reached is that taken together, the Government’s policies will make it increasingly hard for people on low incomes to find a decent place to live in London. What happens to social housing and its supply, security and affordability are central to the story that will unfold across the country, and especially in London, in the next few years. As we have heard Labour Members say time and again, Ministers have announced a raft of policies that will, among other things, reduce and restrict the financial support for housing available to many who are already struggling on low and fixed incomes. The Government will end security of tenure in social housing for new tenants and penalise social tenants who have just one spare bedroom.
The Government have tried to assert that the measures are part of a solution that somehow progresses fairness and flexibility, but there is more than enough information now for us to see that their approach will lead to new problems without seriously addressing the core priority, which must be to increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing. That is important for all of London, and for our national economy. The shortage of decent affordable housing in London is holding back economic growth and the creation of a socially successful city for residents and businesses alike.
London clearly faces big housing challenges. That is not new; it has been the case for some time. Labour Members have confronted the Government with the issues in previous years, so we are not saying these things simply because a Government of a different colour have been elected. The city’s population has been increasing steadily since the 1980s, which has led to high and sustained demand for housing. House prices have held up better in London than anywhere else in the recession. The upshot is that the average London house costs about 14 times the average London annual salary, taking home ownership further and further beyond the reach of those on low and even modest incomes.
For many, the only realistic option is renting, but probably not in the social housing sector, as there are more than 800,000 people on housing waiting lists in London—more than 30,000 in my area of Newham alone. Shelter says that at the current letting rate, it will take Newham council 38 years to clear the list, so for most of those waiting, social housing is just a dream.
The Government have correctly noted that people who are not working are over-represented in social housing, but if there were more social housing we would see a more mixed community living in it; it is as simple as that. The Government have incorrectly concluded that social housing is the primary problem, and that the way to solve it is to end secure tenancies.
As the Minister is a London MP, he will understand that the extraordinary pressure on social housing means that it is increasingly occupied by the people with the greatest needs, such as the elderly, the disabled, the chronically sick and lone parents. The Government’s response—ending secure tenancies—misses the fundamental point, and will cause difficulties for vast numbers of residents. In Newham 35% of households already rent privately, and the demand for that form of accommodation seems sure to rise. If we consider all those facts, it becomes obvious that the top priority, and the most cost-effective thing to do, is simply to create more social housing in London.
During the recession the Labour Government increased investment in the construction of new affordable homes, and the volume coming on stream has risen for several years as a direct result, protecting construction jobs and enabling the economy to continue at least to bubble along in the circumstances. Last year, however, the new Government decided to slash the budget in the spending review, and whereas more than half of the cost of any housing association building scheme used to be met from capital grants, that will go down to 20%, which is far too low. Experts say that with much less public investment, the number of new social home completions will inevitably fall.
The Government claim that that need not be the case, and say that the difference can be made up both by borrowing, which worries many housing associations, and, as we have heard from Labour Members, an increase in the income from higher rates, which worries all of us. Under the Government’s so-called “affordable rent” model—my hon. Friend Mr Slaughter nicked the term “Orwellian” from me—rents can be set at up to 80% of the market level, threatening to price many people out of their home in the capital, especially larger families, once the universal benefit cap of £20,000 a year kicks in.
We are about to see major disruption in the private sector too. Average rents vary enormously in London, so pegging local housing allowances city-wide will instantly price some households out of some districts, making London more socially segregated and geographically unequal, and further increasing churn. I do not want hon. Members to think that churn is some kind of social or geographic term with few or no consequences. It results in children being shunted from house to house, living in poor conditions and temporary accommodation, often over chip shops or Chinese takeaways. It has profound effects on health, education, inclusion in the community and mental well-being. It weakens the sense of community across London while giving tenants little reason to invest in their home or local area and become part of an inclusive community by generating income and making a contribution. Thousands of people are expected to be displaced outwards from the centre, risking jobs and work, child care and schools for families with children, and breaking valuable ties with GPs and hospitals for the elderly and disabled.
By 2016 most of inner London will be unaffordable for tenants claiming local housing allowance, so cheaper neighbourhoods in outer London will have to house many more people. Those areas, which include my part of east London, already have high rates of deprivation and unemployment, so they are poorly placed to cope with a surge of incomers with acute housing and other needs. Newham expects people to migrate from more expensive areas nearby such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, putting further strain on hard-pressed council services that have been subject to big cuts, and increasing the gap between supply of and demand for school places in the borough.
My constituents have problems of their own. Newham has the fourth highest level of child poverty in the country. Research for the East Thames Group confirms that in our area more than 65% of households will be unable to afford a three-bedroom home at the 80% market rent, which is a very high number. I am sure that the Minister will not want to see such results in Newham or elsewhere, because the churn and movement resulting from higher rents will effectively find its way to Bromley and surrounding areas.
What will people who find themselves in this position do if they are on a low or fixed income and cannot make up the shortfall? Apart from moving to cheaper areas, with all the problems that that entails, they seem to have only two options. Either they can, as my hon. Friend Clive Efford said, move to a smaller home—further increasing the number of overcrowded households in the city, which is already worryingly high—or they can try to hold on, as they do. They try to hold on, despite the odds against them, despite it being mathematically impossible, because they do not want to move the children, or because they have roots in the area that make their property so important to their life. They will go into arrears and run up huge debts, increasing the risk of real poverty and homelessness.
The Government’s approach rests in part on the premise that reducing local housing allowance will force landlords to lower their rents, but experts say that that is wishful thinking in London, where the demand for rented accommodation is unusually strong—and, as Ministers are keen to point out, one cannot buck the market. They also risk prompting an increase in homelessness—a shocking reversal in trend after a series of years in which the number of homeless households was reduced, thanks to the successful preventive policies of the Labour Government.
When taken together, rather than improving the position of people in housing need in London, the Government’s policies look like making things so much worse, creating needless distress and huge destruction along the way. That means that Ministers have some serious questions to answer. First, they need to explain where, in the city, people on low incomes will find decent affordable accommodation in future, once all the policy changes have come into effect. They also need to explain why they have chosen to introduce measures that will make life considerably harder for thousands of Londoners, including many vulnerable elderly and disabled people, for no good end, instead of focusing relentlessly on increasing the amount of affordable social housing.
People need homes, not just a roof over their heads. Secure tenure is an essential feature of a home, and that is what social housing should continue to provide. Social housing’s key defining characteristics have always been security and affordability, so that those in housing need can access it. But now it seems that Government policies will make it impossible for either of those conditions to go on being met in London.
Ministers need to explain how, under their policies, the social housing that does exist can possibly still be worthy of the name. Instead of introducing confused policies that will rip communities apart and leave many living in insecure inadequate housing—or worse, homeless—the Government must start delivering the decent affordable housing that is so desperately needed.
I begin, as many others have done, by congratulating my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on introducing the debate. How the years slide by, and I think of the first time that we spoke in the Chamber on housing in London, joined by my hon. Friend Clive Efford and others, who have all been habitual attendees of housing debates. How we wish that the problems that we were so exercised about in 1997 were the problems that we face now.
I am also delighted to place on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue on the Floor of the House. We often have our debates in Westminster Hall, but it is important to be able to use the main Chamber to reflect on an issue that is so important to many of us. My hon. Friend Mr Slaughter said that we so often address with great passion the welfare concerns involved in education and health policy, but housing, which is at least as critical and stands alongside those issues in importance, tends to be marginalised.
I thank Angie Bray for making an important point. She said that London was often not understood in the context of national politics. Although, sadly, there are housing pressures and problems in every part of the country, London is unique and faces particular cost pressures. It is good that we have had an opportunity to bring London Members together to talk about London problems, but we want colleagues from other parts of the country to hear more about why London is different and why the pressures are so intense here.
We have heard outstanding speeches from Opposition Members. I am thinking of my right hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), for Eltham, for Hammersmith, for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), for Edmonton (Mr Love) and for East Ham—
I am sorry; I meant my hon. Friend Lyn Brown.
All those speeches addressed, with slightly different emphases, the impact of the housing crisis on people—on families in overcrowded accommodation, homeless families and families forced into constant moves and changes of address. The statistics matter, but it is important that we should remember that people are at the heart of the issue. I suspect that most of us in the Chamber, on both sides, have sat in advice surgeries with people weeping with distress as they have talked about the conditions in which they live and the number of times they have been uprooted and forced to move. They crave only a stable home.
Opposition Members drew out something important about social housing policy—that it has come about as a consequence of market failure. It is precisely because the private housing sector could not meet the needs of low-income and vulnerable people that council housing came about—and before that, there were the great social housing developments of Peabody and Octavia Hill. Subsequently, the housing association movement grew up in response to the catastrophe of the private rented market, particularly in places such as my previous constituency, the home of Rachman and Hoogstraten.
As Jane Ellison said absolutely rightly, most landlords are not bad landlords at all—I am happy to place that on the record. However, the grim truth is that a substantial minority are, which brings the entire sector into disrepute. We already know from the English housing survey that 40% of private houses are below the decent homes standard and the conditions in the private rented sector are worse across the piece; a larger proportion of them fail to meet that standard. That is a particular challenge if vulnerable people are in the part of the market that has failed. That is exactly why the housing association movement developed. It is sad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith how some housing associations seem to have strayed so much from their original purposes.
I want to get something off my conscience; I promise that this will be my last intervention. Last Friday, I got a planning application—again, I am afraid, from Notting Hill Housing—for 41 high-quality houses, including four new five-bedroom houses on St Peter’s square. They go for about £3 million each. Not one of those 41 houses will be an affordable home because there is not enough equity in the scheme. That is what some of our housing associations have descended to.
My hon. Friend is right, and that is extremely sad. In some cases, there appears to be a deliberate straying away from the original aims and objectives; in others, the kind of thing that he describes is a response to the constraints under which housing associations now operate.
All my right hon. and hon. Friends critiqued aspects of Government policy. A number of them drew particular attention to the risks inherent in the cuts to the local housing allowance. We heard from Government Members extreme examples of high-cost private sector tenancies. We agree. Indeed, the Labour manifesto stated that measures would be taken to deal with some of those extremely high costs. I completely accept that, but if it was the objective of Government policy why was it not confined to tackling the relatively small number of high-cost cases? I think I am right in saying that the Government have not even been able to tell us how many, if any, properties cost more than £100,000 a year, yet throughout the country—not just in London—nearly 1 million households will have their local housing allowance cut.
My hon. Friends the Members for West Ham and for Edmonton raised concerns about what would happen when people are displaced, particularly from the central London broad market rental area where only 5% of accommodation will remain affordable, and a knock-on displacement moves those families to highly stressed, poorer communities on the fringes of London and beyond. Many Members talked about social housing investment and tenure, and I shall return to those issues briefly.
We heard thoughtful and reasonable contributions from Government Members. I single out particularly the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton and for Battersea (Jane Ellison), not least because they are still here. They made good points. In some cases, there is shared understanding of the impact of the housing shortage, particularly in central London.
From the hon. Ladies and from the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr Offord), for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), we heard support for Government policy on market rents and the end of security of tenure, which it is asserted, without significant evidence, will deal with the shortage of social housing that we are all concerned about. Frankly, that assertion is a triumph of hope over experience, and I shall spend a moment or two deconstructing it.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hendon is no longer in the Chamber. He revealed a little of the attitude towards social housing and social tenants that permeates so much of the Government’s thinking about the problem—that secure and affordable social housing traps individuals in deprivation and unemployment, and the language of welfare dependency reinforces that belief. However, as several of my hon. Friends said, the fact that social housing is now such a scarce resource means that people with social problems are concentrated in it. Far from being the problem for many vulnerable and poorer families, it is an essential part of the solution.
We all agree that the problems facing social housing in London are complex, long term and difficult to resolve. Anyone who claims to have a magic bullet is lying. We know that the supply of social housing has been squeezed for decades, principally through the non-replacement of right-to-buy stock during the 1980s and 1990s, but in retrospect it is a shame that more properties were not built under the Labour Government, as several of us have pointed out. It would be hypocritical of me not to say that, as I lined up many times during the Labour Government to make exactly that point. However, as has been said, we can be proud of the substantial investment made during those years in the decent homes initiative, which brought millions of homes to a decent standard.
The decline in supply is not the only problem. London is a global city; foreign, national and business money distorts the market, and the fact that house prices have risen so much over the decades has its consequences. One striking issue about social housing is that between 10 and 15 years ago there was a steady outflow of tenants buying their home, sometimes through right to buy but often in the private market, which has effectively silted things up, as people on modest incomes are no longer able to afford a house. The relationship between the private housing market, owner-occupation and the social market must be properly understood. The Labour Government invested in decent homes and new buildings, so by 2009, the lead-in time for planning and investment led to a high of 16,000 starts in London. We now know that that was the golden age.
The coalition Government have a package of investment and policy suggestions, which are likely to combine to cancel out almost all the hoped-for objectives. They want more social homes—don’t we all?—but they have made, as we heard, a 63% cut in the affordable housing grant. Consequently, the 16,000 starts peaked in 2009-10 and will fall away to nothing, according to the Homes and Communities Agency, in 2012. The Government want housing benefit to take the strain—to fill the gap in the affordable housing grant—but they also want housing benefit expenditure to fall. Those two things are incompatible.
The Government want to improve work incentives—don’t we all?—but they propose 80% market rents, which will make work incentives much harder to achieve. If it is hard to make work pay when rent is £100 a week, how much harder will it be when rent is £400, £500 or £600 a week? They want more social homes, particularly, as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton said, more family-sized homes, but the overall benefit cap means that housing developers and housing associations do not want to build family-sized homes. The set of policies is completely incoherent. Something has to give.
The Government want mixed communities—don’t we all?—but they suggest throwing people out of their homes when they achieve a certain amount of income. What could be a worse work disincentive than saying, “If you earn a certain amount of money, you’ll be out on your ear”? What nonsense that makes of the concept of mixed communities. However, the Mayor of London proposes a £60,000-plus ceiling for access to socially assisted housing, which cuts across the stated objective of not allowing people with a decent income to be assisted with housing.
The Government want to tackle under-occupation—don’t we all?—but they are doing so in a way that possibly even some of my hon. Friends have not yet fully internalised. They propose doing so through a cut in housing benefit for social tenants who have one or more bedrooms more than they are deemed to need. That will hit 150,000 London households with an average of a £21-a-week loss in benefit. I do not have the London figures to hand, but I know that, nationally, if every single person affected by the proposed cut in housing benefit tried to avoid that penalty, it would mean that every one and two-bedroom property allocated in the social housing sector for the next five years would have to go to those households. That is clearly nonsense and would lead to a catastrophe of homelessness and overcrowding. Indeed, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Chris Grayling let the cat out of the bag by making it clear that the policy’s intention is not to tackle under-occupation, but to save money. As far as the Government are concerned, the fewer people who move, the better.
The Government also want to end security of tenure. When I, like my hon. Friends, was on the campaign stump last year, and warning people that a Conservative Government would mean a move to market rents and the end of security of tenure, we were howled down and accused of lying. Our only error in robustly defending that position was not realising how quickly it would happen.
The Government’s policy is fundamentally flawed and deeply incoherent. It will have the opposite effect, almost across the board, to what it seeks to achieve. At the very least, we know that the Mayor of London’s re-election campaign is on a cliff edge as new housing supply drops to nothing. We therefore look forward to a campaign that will replace the Mayor, who has talked the talk, but is not walking the walk. He will not deliver new social housing; he is not standing up for London tenants or those who face a housing crisis.
Although the crisis has been long building and slow burning, it is reaching one of the most critical points that I have ever known. Whether for people in social housing, people in the private sector waiting to obtain social housing, those in the queue or those facing homelessness, it is clear that the Government’s policies will do nothing to resolve that crisis. It will take a Labour Mayor and a Labour Government to resolve the crisis of social housing in London.
I thank and congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on obtaining this debate. As has rightly been observed, he has been a consistent advocate of housing issues in the Chamber. He has advocated them seriously and with great commitment, and although I do not always agree with all his analysis and remedy, I respect how he approaches these matters.
I do not want to tempt the hon. Gentleman into being too optimistic, but I do appreciate the spirit in which he raises those matters.
It has been a worthwhile debate for all London Members. I thank all hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed. We have heard some thoughtful contributions. In particular, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), who have contributed thoughtfully, as have some Labour Members. Sometimes, that standard of thoughtfulness was not consistently applied, and we have heard examples of conspiracy theories reaching almost to the delusional. However, I put that down simply to the excitement of matters elsewhere in the country at the present time.
I am a London Member, I have spent the whole of my life in London and I recognise the importance of this issue. As hon. Members said, there are particular pressures on housing in London that put it in a different category from other parts of the country. However, the affordability issues and so on are not unique to London, which is a world city. The same problems will be found, to a degree, in New York, Paris and Tokyo. However, within the UK, London is in a unique situation, and as I shall mention later, the Government are recognising that fact by devolving much more power over housing policy and housing funding to the Mayor of London, who is democratically accountable and will have, therefore, the ability to respond in a more flexible and nuanced way to the particular London demands that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton and others mentioned.
I am very conscious personally of the importance of housing. I hope that Labour Members will take this in the spirit intended. My grandfather worked in the London docks. He was born in a slum in Stepney. He started his married life in rented accommodation in Canning Town. He managed to work his way to buying the semi-detached house in which I was born. Against that background, first I do not need to be lectured by anyone about the importance of affordable and decent housing for working people in London, and secondly I recognise the issue of security of tenure. However, I hope that hon. Members will recognise that that does not mean that we should automatically go down the same route that was perhaps appropriate and effective in the past. We might need now to be more imaginative in thinking of alternative solutions and other ways forward.
The Minister and I share several passions: the Thames Gateway, because we both live there, the no to AV campaign and West Ham United football club. He is also a former constituent of mine on the Isle of Dogs. I raised earlier issues about market rates in the Canary Wharf area and people in Tower Hamlets who cannot afford 80% market rates on those terms. Given his background—I would not challenge his credentials and pedigree as a Londoner—does he not recognise that the Government’s policy of trying to force market rates of 80% rents for social landlords and council housing will drive local people out of Tower Hamlets and into wherever they can find decent housing?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but two things have to be recognised. The first is the acceptance in his party’s manifesto that the current model of dealing with housing benefit was not sustainable. Secondly, I will go into this in a little more detail in a moment—I hope that he will forgive me if I return to it in the order that it appears in my speech—but there remain significant numbers of houses in London that are affordable. It cannot be sustainable for people who happen to be in receipt of housing benefit who can afford houses not to have to make the sometimes difficult choices that people in work at lower wages have to make.
I will return to the detail later, because there are some useful points to make. However, it is also worth saying something else—something that I am sure the hon. Gentleman and others will reflect on. I put this as gently as I can to Opposition Members, but they are not really in a position to criticise this Government for trying to do something to deal with the housing crisis in London when they left us in such a heaven’s awful mess in the first place. We heard a grudging acceptance that things were not quite right from some Opposition Members, including one or two who served in the previous Government, but let us put things where they are: the lowest levels of house building in peacetime since 1924; social housing waiting lists at record levels; 250,000 families in social housing living in overcrowded conditions; and—this is a particularly worrying factor—only half of social tenants of working age in work.
That is the inheritance that this coalition Government are trying to pick up, and at a time when there is less money available from the public finances, because of the economic mess that the previous Government left behind. I can understand that people such as the hon. Member for Islington North, who have been consistent in their criticism, are entitled to make the points that they do. However, there are other Opposition Members who—if I may politely say so—have selective memories, and I am not prepared to brook criticism from that source.
There is some common ground between us, however, so let us look at what we need to do. Mr Love talked about the need to increase supply, which is obviously right. We need to increase supply right across the types of tenures that are available, because the complexity of the London housing market is such that there is no single bullet. That point is right, and I will deal with it later. We also need to look at flexibility in social housing, which includes the questions of tenure and so on. There is probably common ground there, too. We also need to accept that there is an obligation to protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged—something that I also want to touch on.
On the first point, about supply, I am not going to rehearse the rights and wrongs of our disagreement with Labour about the targets approach to the delivery of housing. We know where the previous Government stood; Labour Members know where we stand. However, at the end of the day, there was a failure to deliver an adequate supply of housing. We are determined to take steps to address that, which is why we are seeking to incentivise housing right across the board. That is why the new homes bonus is an important factor in again giving communities a real stake in giving permissions. That will be important in dealing with the reluctance of some communities previously to accept needed development because they felt that they had no stake in it and that it had been imposed on them without having a proper say-so. That is why we propose to reform the community infrastructure levy and turn it into a localised tariff, so that—to deal with the point that John McDonnell made—the community that receives development has a means of getting back a meaningful proportion of the planning gain arising from it.
Those are some important supply-side issues, but we are also setting aside £1 billion over the comprehensive spending review period for the new homes bonus scheme—I would politely point out to the hon. Member for Edmonton that the first £200 million, in the first year, is additional money from the Treasury. We seek to incentivise those authorities that are prepared to accept necessary and sustainable growth. We are investing a further £6.5 billion in housing, which includes more than £2 billion to make existing social homes decent and nearly £4.5 billion in new affordable housing to help to deliver up to 150,000 affordable homes. There is therefore significant investment taking place, against a background of seeking to pay down the debts that we inherited as a Government.
Those are supply-side issues that we are seeking to deal with, but the other key issue to the supply side is getting the economy right. Ultimately, confidence has to be restored to the markets, so that people start lending and builders can build once more. Getting the economy right—on which the Opposition have not been exactly supportive of the Government so far—is key, too.
It is not a gimmick; it is a holistic solution. With respect, the hon. Lady is making exactly the error that Labour Members sometimes make, which is to pluck out social and affordable housing policy and to treat it as though it were separate from the rest of the housing market. Everything is interlinked, however, and the key objective is to increase supply across the board. An increase in supply will lead to greater mobility of people, which will free up accommodation in the often hard-pressed social rented sector.
I want to turn to the changes to flexibility in rents and market rents. Those proposals have been made because affordable rent is a less grant-dependent system than previous models. Criticism has been made about the grant, but we have had to reflect the fact that money is limited because of the mess we inherited. We have moved to a model that we think is proportionate and less grant intensive, in order to make better use of the money. This also recognises the reality that we need to encourage housing associations. I am sorry that there has been a degree of criticism of housing associations. They vary; in my experience as a London MP, I have found that some are very good, and others less so. It is wrong, however, to denigrate the whole sector, just as it would be wrong to denigrate the whole private landlord sector. Lest I forget, let me place on record the fact that my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests refers to a single property from which I receive some income.
If we are to generate income for reinvestment in new affordable housing, there has to be an income flow into the housing associations. As a result of the mess that we inherited, that cannot be entirely dependent on Government grant, so it is necessary to get that money from somewhere else. That is why we believe that an affordable rent model will lead to more houses being built, and more households being able to access the benefits of what is still a sub-market rent.
We are all concerned about the specific situation in London, which is why we are devolving the Homes and Communities Agency’s powers to the Mayor. The Mayor has raised issues about the way in which he intends to operate these functions in London, and we will look at the flexibility of that. We will also look at the responses of various associations, and the Minister for Housing and Local Government will respond to those in due course. That is why I will not go into that matter further at this stage.
It is important to recognise that the housing policy spend in London is significant, and that the Mayor has already established a good track record in this area. He is on track to deliver 50,000 affordable homes by the Olympics, but he has been up front and said that, because of the economic situation, that might have slipped by a year. However, he preferred to be honest and say that it had slipped a year because of external economic factors, compared with the previous Mayor, who set a 50% target that was not met in any of the eight years that he was in office. The best he achieved was 34%, so Mayor Johnson is much more on track than his predecessor. He has also recognised that we will need transitional arrangements to deal with the issues arising from the change to an affordable rent model in the sector.
The reform of tenure was recognised before the election by Caroline Flint, in one of the periods when she was off the Front Bench, as an issue that needed to be tackled. In that context, existing tenants will be protected. It seems perfectly reasonable to say that, if we are to encourage a more flexible supply of tenure, people who go into a new tenancy should do so in the knowledge that, if circumstances change, it will be appropriate to review that provision.
I will finish this point, then I need to make way for the hon. Member for Islington North.
Some of the more alarmist comments about churn in a city that has a great deal of population churn anyway are unjustified.
Will the Minister confirm something for the record? I understand, following the consideration of the Localism Bill in Committee, that existing tenants who voluntarily downsize to smaller properties or move from overcrowded properties will, after the new rules are introduced, be subject to short-term tenancies. That does not seem to me to be consistent with what he and others have said about current tenants not being affected.
The point is that it is a voluntary change in the arrangements, not what exists at the moment. At the end of the day, we must be sensible and recognise that, if we want more new homes, either we go down the route of pumping more and more public money in—when, thanks to the actions of the previous Government, there is no public money—or we go down the alternative route of using a bit more common sense and imagination and being prepared to look at more flexible models for dealing with the situation.
Ultimately—I am conscious of the need to allow the hon. Member for Islington North time to respond to the debate—this Government are strongly committed to housing in London. The current Mayor is committed to housing in London and there has been a 35% increase in the number of affordable starts since Mayor Johnson took office. Increasing the number of family-size properties is another important issue and there has been a 40% increase in three-bedroom houses, so we do not think that we have anything to be ashamed of in respect of our housing policy in London. I am confident that, when we debate the subject again in perhaps a few years’ time, I shall be able to defend Mayor Johnson’s record after he has been re-elected. I am sure that the hon. Member for Islington North will still be there to raise housing issues with the same passion and vigour. I hope that I have left him enough time to conclude.
In closing the debate, I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allotting us the time for it. There was initially some doubt about whether sufficient London Members would attend the debate and whether it would be last the full time allotted to it. We have been proved wrong on that, as many Members —14, I believe—have spoken and put many valuable points on the record.
I would like to thank both Front-Bench teams. I particularly thank my hon. Friend Ms Buck for her fantastic record on housing. The fact that she is still a Member after the last general election is because of her record on housing and her support for the people in her community. I would also like to thank the Minister not only for the manner of his reply but for the fact—unprecedented in my experience of watching Ministers in operation—that he has been in his place throughout the whole debate and listened to every speech. He will have heard the passion and commitment shown by many Members on housing issues.
Let me remind the Minister of these points. None of them is new; housing issues are not new; the passion and commitment of London MPs to social housing issues in London is not new—and it will not finish with today’s debate, as we will be back, back and back again because we passionately believe that everyone deserves somewhere decent to live and we passionately believe in cohesive communities.
When the Minister goes away from this debate, I would like him to reflect on four points on which he could take action. First, he should re-examine what is happening with the housing allowance, how it has been imposed and how families have been forced out of their communities, creating a huge problem that is hitting people in areas such as the one that I have the privilege to represent.
Secondly, I accept that not every private landlord is a bad landlord—but there are some bad landlords and some badly maintained properties. Private tenants pay more than others for heating, lighting and everything else because the homes are often badly maintained and inefficient—not all, but quite a lot are.
Thirdly, the Minister should recognise that the housing needs of London are special and that if we do not recognise them we will end up with a divided, inefficient, ineffective city. I do not want that; the Minister does not want that; nobody in the Chamber wants it.
Lastly, I ask, please, for money in the form of investment in good homes for a good future for our young people. It is better to put the money in bricks and mortar than to subsidise private rents. That has to be the way forward. London can do it, but we need the Government’s recognition and support if we are to succeed.
Question put and agreed to .
That this House has considered the matter of social housing in London.