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 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.