Backbench Business — [25th Allotted Day] — Social Housing in London

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:36 pm on 5th May 2011.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 1:36 pm, 5th May 2011

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.