I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to ventilate the important issue of housing. A number of my colleagues applied, successfully, to speak on this subject as it is of intense importance to us. Although I and many of my colleagues are London MPs, we do not claim for a second that the housing crisis is unique to our capital city. Jim Shannon has a housing waiting list of nearly 3,000 in his idyllic constituency. This problem affects all of us.
The housing situation in London has gone beyond inconvenience, awkwardness or even embarrassment to something that it is now in a profound state of crisis. In Ealing, the borough in which I have spent virtually all my life, we have 23,416 people on the housing waiting list and there is no chance whatever of them finally finding accommodation. One reason for that is that in London the average house price is £421,395, and the average London income is £26,962. Even in dear, dear Ealing, the average house price is £374,707, whereas medium earnings are £25,392.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. In doing so she has rather stolen my thunder, but I forgive her in that as I do in all things. The Government may well have a policy, but it is retrogressive. The idea that the solution to the housing problem in London is to sell off the last few remaining properties at vast, eye-watering discounts and somehow assume that, in extremis, property can be sold as cheaply as £10,000, and that that money will then go forth, multiply and create a new property, is absolutely absurd. The other strand of that—somehow to blame the whole housing crisis in London on the immigrant community—proves once and for all that it is a lot easier to find a scapegoat than to find a solution. The scapegoat is being identified; the solution is not.
Boroughs such as mine in Ealing are having to take incredibly exhaustive steps to build houses. We have a commitment to 500 new build houses over the next five years, but we also have an estate regeneration programme. We are using existing land to increase the estates that already exist, so that with hard work—exhaustive work—and a great deal of extremely fine officer time, we can create 5,044 units from a total of 3,653. I pay tribute to my colleague Councillor Hitesh Tailor in the London borough of Ealing, who has somehow managed to square the circle in the case of Copley close, an absolutely typical old Greater London council estate. Allegedly—I have never heard anyone disprove this, but I am told it is true—the architect who designed the estate never set foot in the borough of Ealing, let alone on Copley close. She took the scheme down from a shelf somewhere, ran it along the side of the railway line at Castle Bar Halt and left the people to get on with it. That is the scale of the problem we face.
What is the solution? On the figures I gave earlier for median house prices, the solution is not to unleash some great entrepreneurial surge or for everyone somehow to manage to do 15 jobs and buy their own property. One of the solutions is to do as my children, aged 24 and 22, have done and start sending away for loft extension catalogues anonymously. They pour through the door at an extraordinary rate—and I have finally accepted the hint. However, one thing we really can do—I want the Minister to give particular attention to this—is to consider raising the housing revenue account cap, which was discussed in the other place on
The idea at present is that there are streams against which local authorities can borrow, and not just the traditional ones, such as the Public Works Loan Board or the general fund. Some people have rather imaginatively —and in a way that is almost suggestive of Robert Maxwell in his prime—talked about borrowing against pension funds. That slightly worries me, but the housing revenue account, which has traditionally been massively in surplus, despite what some would have us believe, is a good thing to borrow against. The recent relaxations in this area are to the Government’s credit. Let us be honest: the Government have done the right thing on that. However, the present cap limits local authorities massively. They include not just boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, and Hammersmith and Fulham, which have a property portfolio worth well over £2 billion, but even small, modest boroughs such as Ealing, which could borrow more and build more.
Ultimately, let us never lose sight of first principles. A person who has no home has no hope, no job, usually no family and certainly no future. If someone loses their home, they lose everything. A person can lose their job and get another job; they can lose their health and get healthy again. Without a home, a person has nothing. Every single one of us in this House has a bounden duty to try to provide that simple, most basic of needs: accommodation. Raising the HRA cap to a more realistic level would give local authorities the power to do much, much more.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal or lead to permanent health damage. Carbon monoxide is tasteless, odourless and colourless. It is very much a silent killer. It makes no distinction among its victims—however, the young and the elderly are more vulnerable, as in many other cases—and it creates risks for pregnant women and their unborn children. The symptoms include headaches, tiredness, dizziness and nausea. These are common symptoms, often associated with other things; therefore, carbon monoxide poisoning can go unnoticed for many years.
The recent “Carbon Monoxide Incident Report”, published by the Gas Safety Trust, shows a welcome reduction in the incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning.
However, the report deals only with the gas industry and gas-related incidents. Carbon monoxide poisoning is not solely a gas appliance issue. Carbon monoxide can emanate from many sources. It is caused when carbon fuels do not burn properly, so although there is a perception that the problem is restricted to gas fires in the home, it can go much wider than that. Any fuel-burning appliance that is not properly maintained has the potential to be a source of carbon monoxide. Cookers, AGAs and hot water heaters can all emit carbon monoxide.
At this stage I would like to refer to my constituents Dave and Mary Jane Worswick. Their daughter Mary Ann was 15 years old. She was in her last year of school and dreamt of going on to study law. Owing to bad weather, she was studying at her friend’s house, in which there was a boiler that subsequently proved to be faulty. This fault was to cost Mary Ann and her friend their lives. I do not want to dwell on the subsequent legal processes that followed Mary Ann’s death, but I do want to pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Worswick who, having tragically lost their daughter, have continued their fight to raise the awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide. As the Worswicks say to me, everyone is aware of the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, but awareness of carbon monoxide remains low and way behind. The opportunity to raise the matter today will, I hope, help raise the awareness of this killer among us.
I want to highlight a further particular area where carbon monoxide can be fatal. My High Peak constituency is under about 12 feet of snow at the moment; it may seem odd, but I would like to raise the issue of camping, caravanning and barbecues. In a short while when the snow goes, I hope people will turn their thoughts to the summertime pursuits I have listed. As we sit outside a tent, caravan or motor home watching the sun go down in the summer, there is naturally a feeling of contentment, and possibly a barbecue shimmering in front of us, but we should be aware that this smouldering barbecue could be putting out carbon monoxide. Portable barbecues and portable heaters can and have been responsible for tragic deaths in campervans, caravans and mobile homes across the country. In Cornwall, Shropshire and other areas, tragedies have resulted from carbon monoxide emissions from this sort of appliance.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is widely thought of as an issue caused by appliances in the home and in the winter. That is not true, as it has claimed victims in the summer months, too. As summer approaches, I want to highlight the dangers of this gas—not just in the home, not just in the winter, but all year round and seemingly in some innocuous conditions.
Returning to the issue of carbon monoxide in the home, the Minister may well ask me what he can do. Over the years, numerous measures such as the removal of open-flued heaters from bathrooms and bedrooms and some landlord legislation have reduced the risks. The number of incidents is falling, but that is no reason for complacency.
We heard last week that the Chancellor has announced some excellent measures to help people to buy new build homes. The Minister himself has advocated the building of more homes that are needed across the country. May I ask him today to consider making mandatory the inclusion of carbon monoxide detectors in all new build homes? I understand that there are concerns about increasing burdens on house builders in these difficult times, but I am sure that at a cost of a little over £10, carbon monoxide detectors could easily be fitted in conjunction with smoke detectors into new homes. This small step would ensure the safety of many people and spare many families the heartache suffered by my constituents, the Worswicks.
I rise to speak about the Government’s proposal to free up planning to allow offices not in use to be converted into homes. I want to talk about the overall policy, its impact on my constituency and, if there is time, the more general issues of housing need.
In short, the Government believe that if all empty office space in the UK were converted into residential property, it would create 250,000 new homes, saving nearly £140 million in planning system costs. The Government tell us that, following the recession, between 7% and 9% of commercial space in the UK is empty, but that many developers have been put off converting buildings into homes because of the costs and time required to secure planning approval. That may be true in some parts of the world, but in my Hackney South constituency and particularly in Shoreditch, many developers have landbanked old offices and warehouses to cash in on rising housing prices as housing demand increases. They have been sitting on this for investment reasons rather than because they have been put off by the conversion costs. The conversion costs could soon be recouped, but every day that the developers sit and wait, the price of housing goes up.
In Hackney, the legislation will have a major impact on our business and creative communities and on the local economy. We sit right on the edge or fringe of the City. In fact, Broadgate used to be in Hackney until a boundary change some years ago, and many of our business locations will be adversely affected by this policy. The area is coveted as a residential location, but not for local people. It has fancy loft apartments for those with very deep pockets. This will put business at risk, potentially leading to forced relocation and loss of jobs for local people in an area where unemployment is already high. Of course, all of us speaking in this debate are keen to see more homes built, but this policy will encourage landlords and freeholders to dash for the short-term gain of changing offices to residential homes, at a big long-term cost to our area and to one of the engine rooms of our current economy.
Hackney South and Shoreditch, as business development hot spots, have often been visited by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I cannot seriously believe that No. 10 Downing street is enthusiastic about the policy as it applies to Shoreditch. Business growth is under threat from the proposal. Without an exemption, existing businesses will be under threat, too, so I strongly support full exemption for Hackney, which Hackney council has bid for. I urge the Minister to give us some comfort today to ensure that the area remains a thriving business location making an important contribution to the economic prosperity of London and the UK.
To date, more than 1,000 businesses locally have signed a petition supporting exclusion. None of the active housing campaigners—whether they live in digs, are Hackney Homes tenants or members of tenants associations—have objected to the council’s stance on the policy because they see that the sort of housing we need is very different.
“won’t work for all buildings, or in every area”.
I say to the Minister that it will not work in Shoreditch and it should be stopped now.
On general issues to do with housing, what we need in Hackney is not more high-price right-to-buy sales but more affordable family-sized homes. About a quarter of my constituents are under 16. We have families who need housing who cannot find it. Instead many of those families are being hit by this invidious—
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that one of the great flagships of Government policy, the spare room tax, will not have anything like the effect that they anticipate because most of the people with extra rooms are pensioners, who are exempt from the bedroom tax anyway? Does she share my despair that that is the mast to which the Government are nailing the flag of housing hope?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. This invidious little tax is having a disastrous impact on many of my constituents. For example, if a family who occupy a three-bedroom property have two children of the same gender between the ages of 10 and 16, or two children of opposite gender under 10, they will be counted as under-occupying and be forced either to find the extra money to pay for the bedroom, until their children reach the age at which they qualify for the extra bedroom, or to give up their home and try to find, magically out of nowhere, a two-bedroom property. There is heavy demand for all types of social housing, while pensioners remain exempt.
When it comes to the under-occupancy subsidy, is the hon. Lady not also concerned about the 250,000 people who are living in overcrowded housing and the 2 million people on the housing waiting list who are desperate to get into some of the 1 million excess rooms held in the social housing sector?
Of course, and as I mentioned earlier, this is a big issue, but that is to do mostly with the supply of housing and there are other ways to incentivise people to move out of their homes, rather than taxing them. Over the years, there have been schemes to provide money to help, for example, pensioner households with their removal costs and the costs of new furnishings for their new home to encourage them to move at a small price to free up the larger properties that are desperately needed. In my constituency, where about a quarter of residents are under 16, we need affordable family homes to be supplied. We also need reform of the private rented sector, which in this short speech I do not have time to go into, but the Government abolished the register of private landlords and are doing nothing to tackle the issue. “Generation rent” in my constituency is among the biggest in the country.
The bedroom tax is an invidious policy. It will not free up rooms in the way Mel Stride expects. Up and down the country, people are being forced to move from their larger homes, although smaller homes are not available in their area, and they are being penalised if they cannot move. It is illogical. The policy provides a good cheap headline for the Government, but it will not deliver and it is having a negative impact on families’ lives. There are better ways to tackle the housing issue. Cross-party, we should look at supporting an increase in supply and ensuring that there are no loopholes in any schemes. In the Budget, the Chancellor talked about the mortgage guarantee, which will enable people to buy second homes. The Government have still not come up with a comprehensive rejection of that approach, so we can only take that as an assurance that people can buy a second home with a mortgage guarantee from the Government, while many of my constituents will continue to struggle to get on the housing ladder, or into a form of tenure that provides them and their families with security and the strong base in the community that we all want to see.
I begin by making my usual declaration of indirect interests.
I am raising an issue brought to me by a constituent who has serious concerns about the way in which gas safety certificates are dispensed. She recently bought a bungalow, and was supplied by the previous owner with building regulation compliance certificates, including gas and electricity safety check certificates. Having got those certificates, she trusted, as anyone would, that all the work and inspections had been carried out to the required standard, as did her conveyancing solicitor and surveyor.
It later emerged that all the traders and engineers who had issued those certificates were personal friends of the previous owner, and it appears that the certificates were issued without them either checking that the work had been carried out or that it was up to the correct standard. Electrical and gas appliance installations such as the under-floor heating, boiler and heating system had been blindly certified by Gas Safe and ELECSA-registered engineers as a favour to a mate. There have been some consequences, such as de-registering the ELECSA trader, but the main concerns remain. The Electrical Contractors’ Association has accepted that its engineer was very wrong to issue a certificate for work he had neither carried out nor inspected for safety. However, it appears Gas Safe has been reluctant to take the same approach.
I by no means pretend to be an expert in the field of building regulations and appliance safety, but I do find it incredibly odd that although gas and electrical engineers can be struck off the register if they negligently leave an appliance unsafe, the same does not apply to those who issue certificates without doing or inspecting the work. There really does appear to be not simply a loophole but a gap in the legislation that endangers lives. My constituent sustained an injury as a result of the faulty appliances, and informed me that it was pure luck that the later inspecting engineer, who condemned the appliance, was not electrocuted.
“If a person…recklessly gives a notice or certificate that…purports to comply with those requirements, and contains a statement that is false or misleading in a material particular, he is guilty of an offence.”
Should the same rules not apply to those issuing gas and electricity safety certificates? My constituent has had to re-check one appliance after another after they failed to operate. The inspecting engineer found that the consumer unit was faulty and the sockets were not earthed. The boiler had parts missing, such as the mini-expansion vessel and the pressure-reducing valve. The under-floor heating system had parts missing: the pump, balancing valves and the heat-reducing valve. Also, the boiler was not earthed and the isolation switch had not been wired in. It appears that another blind certificate was issued, falsely to certify the safety of the boiler.
These are not just small mishaps or omissions, but fundamental issues that could have had very serious consequences. There is an urgent need for both Government and the industry to take this matter very seriously indeed. There has also been a considerable financial cost for my constituent. We need to establish who has the power of enforcement in such cases. Trading standards said that my constituent had misunderstood the issue, and she was repeatedly told that the engineer was certified to carry out the work. He might have been, but he still did not do the job properly. Trading standards also apparently said to my constituent that these things happen all the time—all the time!—but there is very little scope for pursuing the issue owing to the lack of relevant legislation.
It is my understanding that Gas Safe decided to investigate the engineer after persistent communication from my constituent. At present, the engineer is still on the register, even though the appliance certified by him failed to meet even the most basic safety checks. Yet Gas Safe, while seemingly not acting in this instance, took space in my local paper in January advising DIY-ers not to take risks with gas.
Legally, my constituent is also in a tricky situation: as she does not have a direct contract with the engineers in question, she cannot bring a case against either of them. Her conveyancing solicitor advised her that it was a matter of “buyer beware”. My constituent is frustrated because she was aware—she had done everything by the book and had accepted, as had her surveyor, that the certificates were valid and had been issued by a “trusted” professional. This practice of false or blind certification has to stop. Plymouth’s director for place has said that
“in essence the fact of the matter is that we are used to the presence of consumer protection legislation when we buy goods from a high street trader but those protections are considerably lacking when we buy our largest purchase, a house”.
What can the Minister do, through his Department, to liaise with those involved in consumer protection to put an end to this deceit?
Like my hon. Friend Stephen Pound, I wish to discuss the housing crisis in London, although five minutes is a very short time in which to try to describe a truly appalling situation. Some 360,000 families are on the housing waiting list in London—that excludes the large number of single people who usually cannot even get on the waiting list—and 750,000 Londoners are living in grossly overcrowded accommodation. The housing solutions for them are non-existent, and will be unless there is an enormous change in Government policy and in the policy of the Mayor of London towards this crisis.
My hon. Friend is an inner-London MP for an area that has a particularly severe overcrowding problem, but does he agree that this issue affects the outer-London suburbs as much as inner London? Does he acknowledge that a huge number of people in Harrow in my constituency are also waiting, without a great deal of hope, for a new home?
This is indeed a time for inner and outer London solidarity, and I am happy to declare that act of solidarity with my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North, for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and with many other outer-London boroughs. To be homeless in London is to be homeless in London, to be overcrowded is to be overcrowded, and to be on the waiting list is clearly to be on the waiting list.
The solutions to this situation have to be sought. Sadly, what was offered in the Budget is not a solution; I suspect that it will result in those with deep pockets being able to buy yet more properties, which they will then keep empty, as part of the disgrace of private sector land banking that is going on in London. I will discuss the other solutions concerning owner-occupation, social rented housing and private rented housing in a moment. First, I wish to deal with the issue of the large number of empty properties, often at the high end of the market, deliberately kept empty by people who have large amounts of money that comes from dubious sources. They have bought these properties in order to make a great deal of money out of them at a later date when their value increases. Given the current housing crisis, we should be giving powers to local authorities to take over properties that are deliberately kept empty, so that the people in desperate housing need can get somewhere to live in London.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the spare homes subsidy could be misused by exactly the people he is talking about, and that Government and taxpayers’ money could be misused?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. There is no clear definition of how this subsidy being offered by the Chancellor will be used, so it seems to be an opportunity for those with deep pockets to make a great deal of money for themselves. The people in desperate housing need, such as those represented by me or by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West or for Ealing North, will not have that same opportunity.
I will not give way any more, because I would lose my time.
The second area I wish to discuss is the social rented sector in London—council housing. The problems of housing in London are not new; they were acute in the 19th century and in the early 20th century. It was the inspiration and idealism of the Labour-controlled London county council in the inter-war years that did a great deal to build decent homes for people who were living in appalling slums. Indeed, in my constituency and others one can see the products of the inspirational work done by Herbert Morrison and others. The post-second world war council house building did an incredible amount to give people decent places to live.
I had the great honour of being a member of Haringey borough council from 1974 to 1983 and I remember complaining in 1979 that we had built only 1,000 council houses that year. I was complaining that we could have done more, but 1,000 is more than have been built in the whole of London in most of the past few years. I am critical of my party in government and of the current Government for not doing enough to build new council housing.
The Government’s solution is to suggest to local authorities that they should raise rents to 80% of the market rent to raise some funds to develop new housing. In my borough and those of most colleagues in London, council house rents would more than double. Islington borough council, to its credit, has refused to do that and has managed to develop a substantial building programme on its own land from its own resources. But obviously, there are limits to that programme, imaginative though it is.
We need central Government involvement in the building of new council homes as a matter of enormous urgency. The Mayor of London does not seem fully to grasp all that. In fact, there are quite a lot of things the Mayor of London does not fully grasp, but one of them is the essential need for the building of new council houses. The number of social rented properties—that is, council or housing association properties—built under his watch and by his means has reduced from 11,000 in 2010-11 to only 983 in the current year. Goodness knows how much lower than that the numbers will go in future years. We must kindly ask central Government to get a grip of the situation and do their best to intervene with the Mayor and with borough councils to ensure that there is a rapid increase in the supply of council housing in London. That is the best and most efficient way of solving the housing crisis. It provides jobs, provides homes and helps people to have a secure place to live.
The final area I want to mention was covered in a ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced and it is the private rented sector. In London, 800,000 families live in that sector—it is the fastest growing housing sector by a long way. In my constituency, a third of all households are in the private rented sector and that number is rising fast. Generally speaking, people who live in the private rented sector pay the most to live in the least efficient, worst repaired and worst maintained properties and in the least regulated sector. Not all landlords are bad—some are very good—but the lack of regulation means that those who are bad can get away with it. We need regulation of the letting agencies, registration and regulation of all private rented accommodation and, in my view, rent controls.
The housing benefit cap is acting as an agent for the social cleansing of the poorest people on housing benefit all over central London. They are being driven out of their areas and driven out of London. For that reason, we need not just to control housing benefit expenditure but to control it by controlling the rent levels instead, rather than forcing tenants out of their homes—
I want to speak about the protection of the green belt in Hillingdon. I have lived in my constituency and represented it in various guises for nearly 40 years. From the earliest days I shared a dream that we would surround our largely industrial and urban area, which is encircled with factory sites, offices, major motorways and airports to north and south, with country parks and open spaces. Decades on, we have succeeded, with new country parks to the south, west and east and the regeneration of our traditional parks and green-belt open spaces. That has been a tremendous community achievement. I have set up friends groups for each park and worked with organisations such as the London wildlife trust, A Rocha and Hillingdon natural history society to improve and open up our open spaces.
One of our greatest achievements is the creation of the award-winning Lake Farm country park. That land next to Hayes town centre was owned by EMI, which in the early 1990s sought to dig gravel from it and turn it into a rubbish tip. I set up a friends group, mobilised the local community and persuaded the council on a cross-party basis not only to reject the planning application but to buy the land to create a country park.
Ironically, it is the council that is now planning to build on our country park. It proposes to build a three- form entry primary school on the park, putting at risk the natural habitats of the skylarks and other abundant birdlife and wildlife on the site as well as taking away a considerable portion of the park from public enjoyment. That has caused uproar in our community.
The council argues that although the development is contrary to local and national policies, and those of the Mayor of London, on protecting the green belt, there are exceptional circumstances because of the need for additional school places and because there is no other site for the new school in the area. The planning process by which Hillingdon council reached that decision has plumbed the depths of disgraceful, mendacious and, at times, farcical local government incompetence.
I urge my hon. Friend to resist this even more strongly that he is already inclined to. Were he to enter London along the broad, majestic A40, he would see the three mounds of Northarla fields, which were achieved by Ealing council and the Northolt and Greenford countryside park, influenced by, in admiration of and in tribute to the work of his borough of Hillingdon.
If this goes ahead, all green-belt open space in west London will be vulnerable to attack.
On the demand for pupil places, it is only three years since the council proposed closing and selling off a local school because it was surplus to requirement. Then, 12 months ago, we were told that the projections for pupil numbers had rocketed and new schools were desperately needed. In particular, a three-form entry school had to be built.
Bizarrely, the council has failed properly to take into account a new four-form entry school being built, with the enthusiastic support of the Secretary of State for Education, at Guru Nanak college, which is in the same ward. The overwhelming number of pupils applying for places at the college have come from the local area, thus freeing up places in local schools. The council has also refused to take into account the request by a new two-form entry school in the same wards to expand to at least three, if not four, forms of entry. That would obviate the need to build on our local park.
The council failed to search adequately for alternative sites for the new school. Initially, it refused to release its search site report to the general public, or to me, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. When the report was finally released, we discovered that the council was rushing to sell off the most obvious alternative site to a developer for housing. The council’s planning meeting, where the council gave itself planning permission, descended into farce, as petitioners were ignored, new figures were presented to councillors on the night and it was revealed by a Labour councillor and committee representatives that the land in question is subject to a section 106 agreement from the 1990s, which the planning chair and the officer seemed oblivious to.
Nevertheless, the planning application was sent off to the Mayor, who we hope will adhere to his election pledges to protect the green belt. I know that he has stated his concern about school places being used as an excuse to make incursions into the green belt in London.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend is telling a familiar story. My local Conservative-led council is in the process of selling off a third of a public park in the most deprived part of my constituency to a private owner, who will then charge £90 an hour for people to play football there.
I hope that the Minister and the Department will monitor this in London. The Mayor has raised his concerns. A pattern is emerging of excuses relating to the number of pupil places needed. Alternative sites that have been discussed, particularly brownfield sites, are not being examined properly, and then the issue is used as an excuse for incursions into the green belt, sometimes for profiteering, as my hon. Friend suggests.
My concern is that if the council gets permission for a primary school, it will then roll out to a secondary school, and then it will argue for housing on the site. We will then lose the whole park, which is award-winning, and which we achieved on a cross-party basis. The planning application has gone to the Mayor, who we hope will reject it or refer it back. However, this morning I discovered that the council has withdrawn the application from the Mayor and rushed off to a barrister for counsel’s opinion on how to get over the section 106 problem, to which it has now clearly been alerted.
Hillingdon council—I raised this point before Christmas —is in chaos. That is not a party political point, because I would say the same whoever was in control. I was in local government for nearly 30 years. I think that the council is degenerating into incompetent farce. At the moment, planning is left in the hands of consultants, who have no knowledge of the area or its planning history. Indeed, they often ask for directions to sites during visits because they are unaware of the sites’ existence. Councillors have too much interest in development or housing, and many of them have associations with developers and as landlords.
Before Christmas, I appealed to the Secretary of State to intervene on Hillingdon council, and, if necessary, to take the drastic action of sending commissioners in, because I was worried about how contracts were being awarded. I understand that there is now an internal investigation into a number of those contracts. However, I have had enough. This planning issue has now gone beyond anything that is acceptable. I appeal again to the Secretary of State, and I am willing to see him take direct control over Hillingdon council and restore some semblance of good governance within the area.
Earlier this month, Natural England declared Ministry of Defence land at Lodge Hill in my constituency to be a site of special scientific interest. In numerous plans over 18 years, the site has been clearly designated for 5,000 homes and for employment opportunities for 5,000 people. A total of £35.5 million has been spent to get to the point of planning consent being granted. After all this time and money, the council is concerned, to put it mildly, to be thwarted at the last hurdle by Natural England, which does not consider the economic impacts. The council leader, Rodney Chambers, responded as follows:
“This is very disappointing news to receive from unelected quangocrats at Natural England. As a local authority we are eager for this scheme, which is on government owned land, to progress and deliver the houses and jobs we badly need.
The government is constantly telling us that we should be going for growth, kick starting the economy and fighting the recession and yet here we are with a shovel ready project that would deliver 5,000 much needed homes being delayed by a government agency.”
The reason for this, we are told by Natural England, is that a study of some description has discovered that 84 nightingales might use the site. The comparison to be drawn is between those 84 nightingales and homes for 12,000 people and jobs for a further 5,000 people. We are told by the Prime Minister that we are in a global race, but it is not clear that that message has yet filtered through to bodies such as Natural England.
There have been similar instances locally. On the Isle of Grain, a proposal for the generation of 6,000 jobs on a site owned by a National Grid company has been delayed for some three years because it is possibly the habitat of a certain type of bug. Near Medway, in the Swanscombe area, a proposal that would deliver 27,000 jobs has been delayed because of concerns about a breed of spider. At Dungeness, there are concerns about vegetated shingle that has to be considered in the context of the development of power generation.
It is not surprising that council leaders in the area say that we need to end the absurd situation of a non-elected Government agency dictating to national and local government on how to run things. Medway is an example of a council that is pro-development, that wants to support the Minister and that wants to show that it is open for business. Will the Minister assure me that our local council will be able to decide where it is best for development to go, not Ministers or their inspectors, and still less these quangos? We have heard of the bonfire of the quangos; in the case of Natural England, it appears to have fizzled out.
I understand that the executive board of the body has taken this decision, that it is going to be reviewed and that there is, as ever, some consultation process, but I am not sure whether that is a mere formality or a genuine process. We are told that in July the decision will be reviewed by the full board of Natural England, but we do not know if that will be anything more than a rubber-stamping exercise. I would appreciate the Minister’s views on whether it will be a genuine exercise and whether the board will really consider the wider representations or the Government’s policy. If it is not able to consider Government policy, how can democratic Ministers have their way when competing in what they call the global race? When councils such as Medway have planned to develop land for many years and have spent millions of pounds, will they be able to make the decisions that are required?
Having heard the range and quality of the contributions from Members from all around the House, I feel like an unwitting contestant on “Just a Minute”. I fear that after I address the subjects that have been raised, on which I am so profoundly inexpert, Members may conclude that I am actually a contestant on “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”.
First, I will address the hon. Members who have spoken on behalf of their constituencies in London on a range of issues. Stephen Pound spoke about the cap on borrowing against the housing revenue account. I am glad that he welcomed the flexibility that the Government have provided to authorities to undertake prudential borrowing. I reassure him that within the cap for the 29 stock-holding authorities in London, there is £1.4 billion of borrowing headroom. I would encourage local authorities to take advantage of that. He will be aware, although his party often professes not to be, that unfortunately we have to maintain strict controls on the deficit and to limit increases in our national debt. That is why the Government are not considering relief of the cap.
Meg Hillier made an eloquent argument for the exemption application against the new permitted development right for change of use from commercial to residential. She will be aware that we are considering a great number of exemption applications from authorities across the country and will understand that we need to apply the criteria that have been set out fairly and objectively to all authorities. I therefore hope that she will understand that I cannot give her any specific reassurances about the result of the application from her local authority. I can reassure her that the process is happening as quickly and fairly as possible, with outside expert help to assess whether the criteria apply.
The hon. Lady also raised the removal of the spare room subsidy from people in her constituency who are in receipt of housing benefit. I remind her, as she will have heard many times from this Dispatch Box from people who are much more senior than I am, that the housing benefit bill has doubled to £22 billion a year. The removal of the spare room subsidy will save half a billion pounds a year. When she or her colleagues come up with another way to save that money, the Government will be delighted to hear it.
Jeremy Corbyn raised similar issues about the housing crisis in London and spoke of the need to build new council housing. He will be aware that councils can build new council housing. Many councils of all stripes are seeking to do so. I disagree with his idea that rent control would be nirvana for his constituents and for those who have to manage the housing benefit bill. The last time that we had rent control, there was a collapse in the private rented sector because investors were unwilling to invest in it. Our approach is very different. We are investing in the private rented sector through a generous scheme of guarantees that has been over-subscribed and to which the Chancellor committed more money in his Budget last week.
What would the Minister say to my constituents who are faced with a gap, in some cases of more than £100 a week, between their housing benefit and their new private rent and who will be forced out of the community where their children go to school and their families live, leading to community disruption? What would he say to them when they are sitting across the table in an advice bureau?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have spoken to a number of people in my constituency who face the same situation and not a great deal more housing is available. I accept that it will be very difficult for certain people, and I, as I am sure that he is, am doing everything that I can to work with councils on their local housing solutions and with Citizens Advice to put people in touch with alternative options and to encourage them to explore the possibility where appropriate—often, with families, it will not be, but for single people, it might be—of renting out spare rooms to offset the reduction. We have to save money from the housing benefit bill, however, and we have not yet heard any better or fairer suggestions from the Opposition on how to do that. When we have heard that, perhaps we will be able to discuss it.
John McDonnell raised a different but important issue about protecting the green belt and how that is assessed against the importance of providing new school places. He will understand that because he has asked that the proposal about which he is concerned be called in by the Secretary of State, I cannot comment on it. I can reassure him, however, that the national planning policy framework is clear about the protections for the green belt: there can only be development on the green belt in very special circumstances, so planning authorities would have to meet quite a tough test in law, if they wished to approve such a proposal. That has to be balanced, however, against the equally explicit commitment that great weight be given to the need to create and expand schools. I cannot prejudge how that will be arrived at in that case, but he has made an eloquent and passionate argument. Officials in my Department and I, as Planning Minister, have heard it and will take it into account when we consider the proposal.
I think that I can now move away from London to my hon. Friend Andrew Bingham, who spoke movingly and effectively on behalf of the constituents of his who faced the unbearable tragedy of losing their daughter, Mary Ann. He will be aware that the Government constantly consider ways to raise awareness of the risks of carbon monoxide, and I can tell him that there will now be a label on barbecues to warn people of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. He will also be aware that building regulations require a carbon monoxide alarm when a solid fuel appliance is installed in a home. It is not currently proposed to make it mandatory to install those alarms in new homes, as he suggests doing, but he has made a strong argument, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend Mr Foster, will be keen to listen to his concerns and consider them as he reviews building regulations.
Alison Seabeck told a tale of woe on behalf of her constituents about what appeared to be the fraudulent issuance of a safety certificate. I cannot comment in detail, because it is not my area of expertise; I can only reassure her that we will write to the Health and Safety Executive and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, who oversee the HSE, to ensure that she receives an adequate answer on how her constituents’ interests can be properly protected.
I turn, finally I think—no doubt, someone will holler if I have missed them out—to my hon. Friend Mark Reckless. I can well understand the dismay of Medway council, which is seeking to do what all hon. Members across the House understand is necessary: to make provision to build more houses. I can well understand their dismay that such a major scheme should be put at risk by a declaration that the site is to be viewed as a site of special scientific interest. I cannot comment on the merits of the decision or the scheme, but I can reassure him of two things. First, notification of a site as an SSSI does not necessarily mean that it cannot be developed, but it does mean that the developer must make advanced efforts to mitigate, or, if they cannot do that entirely, to compensate for any impact on the site. Only last week, I met the chairman of Natural England, and I would be happy to explore with him the status of such a notification, how it came about and whether it can be managed to ensure that the houses needed for people in my hon. Friend’s constituency are built. I hope that has answered all the questions raised by hon. Members.
Thank you for keeping your remarks short so that we can have as many speakers as possible in the next general debate. If everybody turns up, there are 28 Members who would like to contribute to the David Amess debate—[Laughter.] I mean the general debate. We will start with a five-minute limit on speeches, but if we need to we will reduce it to four minutes so that everybody can at least get in and get something on the record before the Easter recess.