I beg to move,
That this House
notes that the Government has failed to tackle the acute housing shortage which is central to the cost of living crisis and over the last four years has presided over the lowest level of new homes being built in peacetime since the 1920s and the lowest number of homes for social rent being built in at least 20 years;
further notes the recent reports that housing starts are forecast to fall this year with a large fall in affordable housing starts;
and calls on the Government to tackle the housing shortage and commit to increasing house building to at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020, including by boosting housing supply by creating a Help to Build scheme for small and medium-sized builders alongside a reformed Help to Buy, by reforming the development industry and introducing measures to tackle land banking, by bringing forward plans to deliver a new generation of new towns and garden cities and by giving local authorities a new right to grow to deliver the homes their communities need.
We have called this debate because we are in the midst of the biggest housing crisis in a generation. We are not building even half the homes that we need to keep up with demand, and regrettably the current Government are presiding over the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s. The shortage just keeps on growing. According to figures that I obtained from the Library recently, the backlog of demand since the Government came to power is 500,000 homes, which is equivalent to Birmingham, England’s second biggest city. Individuals, couples and families are being priced out of home ownership, which has fallen to its lowest level since 1987. Average house prices are now eight times average incomes, and in some high-demand areas the ratio is even higher.
I recognise that there is a crisis in housing. I am therefore shocked by the lack of ambition in the motion. Not only does it commit to only 200,000 extra homes each year, but it gives no commitment whatever to a target for social homes. We should not be surprised, given that for 13 years the Labour Government presided over year-on-year decline in social housing and an overall decline of 200,000 social homes.
I will not take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman, because in 2012-13 his Government built only 107,000 homes. We are talking about doubling that number. [Interruption.] Actually, the number of social homes has not gone up—I will come to that.
I was somewhat surprised by the intervention that Mr Leech made. Can my hon. Friend confirm that under the Labour Government, not only were there 2 million new homes, 1 million more mortgage holders and half a million more affordable homes, including 256,000 in the last five years of the Government, but 1.6 million social homes were brought up to standard through the decent homes standard, transforming the lives of millions of tenants?
The decent homes programme was one of the Labour Government’s proudest achievements. It transformed the homes and lives of millions of people in council houses. I say to Mr Leech that in our last year in office, we started 39,000 social homes. In the past year, the current Government started 3,900. I will come later to the affordable homes cliff edge over which they are presiding.
Millions of people across the country face the insecurity of private renting, not knowing whether they will be evicted from one year to the next or even one month to the next. Young people and families are watching as their dream of home ownership, which their parents and grandparents were able to achieve, slips out of reach.
The housing shortage is central to the biggest challenge facing Britain today—the cost of living crisis. We know that on average, working people are more than £1,600 a year worse off under this out-of-touch Government, but the problem is about more than just the pound in people’s pocket. It is about the insecurity that people feel, often in their workplaces and sometimes in their homes, and about the prospects of the next generation, with many parents feeling that their children will be worse off than they are.
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentions the impact on families in the private rented sector. As the Education Secretary has slipped into the Chamber, I wish to make the point that another real problem is the effect on children now of the uncertainty that she describes. It has long-term consequences, because children need stability and they need to be able to stay in the same school. If their parents have to keep moving, that stability is undermined and so are their long-term prospects.
In fact, academics have conducted interesting research showing that one driver of a child becoming a NEET—being not in education, employment or training—in later life is being shunted around from area to area. That constant churn and change in their schooling means that they do not attain what they need to educationally.
One thing that the Government are good at is making announcements, although I must say that the current Housing Minister is not quite as keen on rhetoric as one of his predecessors, Grant Shapps. Ministers come to the House armed with an array of statistics designed to dazzle and to distract from the Government’s real record. I am sure that that is what the Minister will try to do this afternoon. He is fond of telling the House that the Government have delivered 445,000 new homes since 2010, but if we do the maths we see that that is just over 111,000 a year on average—hardly a record to be proud of. In the Queen’s Speech a few weeks ago, the Government promised to increase housing supply and home ownership, but in truth home ownership is falling under this Government.
Since we are talking about statistics, will the hon. Lady welcome the approximately 2,000 new homes that are being built as a result of the previous Conservative administration of Crawley borough council, and will she condemn the same local authority’s current Labour administration for prevaricating on the local plan?
When I was last in Crawley I saw the white elephant of the free school there, which was refurbished and then was open for just two years. Apparently, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was spent on it, and for what good?
We learnt last week that the Minister’s own officials have recently forecast that house building will fall, not rise, this year, but the Minister himself seems to be in two minds about whether forecasts exist. In a written answer, he told my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn that no such forecasts exist, before going on to publish his own forecast in that answer—albeit a partial one—claiming that he expected private house building to rise, with no mention of affordable homes. I am curious as to whether his Department publishes forecasts or not. Does the Minister believe they exist? The “Newsnight” leaked document seemed to suggest that they do.
In the same written answer, the Minister acknowledged that the Government are worried about presiding over a “hiatus” in affordable home building, which is probably a neat and euphemistic way of describing the Government’s record. Perhaps he could have been more direct—levels of affordable housing are set to fall off a cliff, and it is an open secret that housing associations are reluctant to bid for the Government’s affordable homes programme. No wonder Ministers are worried.
When the Work and Pensions Committee visited Bedfordshire in connection with its work on housing benefit, housing associations told us that in order to get grants to build so-called affordable housing—which will be at 80% of market rent—they were required to place some of their existing stock into that category as it became available for rent. This housing is not truly affordable, so what effect will that have on the housing benefit budget in due course?
My hon. Friend makes a significant point that I was about to come to. I am sure the Minister will talk about the number of affordable homes that the Government are delivering, but 40% of those were commissioned by the previous Labour Government. Furthermore, “affordable” in the Government’s terms is 80% of market rent. That is clearly not affordable for many families up and down the country—indeed, the National Audit Office has estimated that housing benefit will end up costing the taxpayer £1.4 billion because of the short-sightedness of this Government.
In Northumberland, significant housing is being built on the former hospital sites at Stannington and Prudhoe, both of which lay idle for the entirety of the previous Government’s time in office. At Prudhoe, 80% of new purchases are made under the Help to Buy scheme and with help from this Government. Does the hon. Lady accept that that regional success is an example of the Government turning things around at local level?
I do not accept that because the figures speak for themselves. We are not building even half the number of homes that we need to keep up with demand. That is an appalling record, and not one the Government should be proud of.
We have one of the oldest district plans in the country partly because there was huge resistance to Labour’s over-heavy housing targets. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that we will be going back to much higher levels? What impact will that have on the district plans that have emerged in areas that have finalised them?
No, I am not suggesting that we go back to regional spatial strategies. We will not do what this Government did and throw all the pieces in the air and see where they land. We will largely keep the national planning policy framework in place. Where local plans come forward and are voted on, they can be successful. There are problems in areas where local plans have not been passed, and there is also a problem with not using common methodology in some of the local plans.
I welcome this debate and the motion is a step in the right direction. The hon. Lady must acknowledge, however, that the previous Labour Administration’s understandable focus on decent homes meant that they took their eye off the ball for council housing. The last year of the Labour Administration saw just 370 council homes built. Will she explain why the official Opposition do not call explicitly in the motion for a complete lifting of the borrowing cap?
We are not calling for a lifting of the borrowing cap, but we think that councils and housing associations have a key role in delivering a step change in the number of houses for social rent—that is real, affordable rent, not the affordable rent that we have seen from the Government.
I will make some progress because a number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to speak.
For all their hot air, Ministers cannot escape the truth that, on their watch, the number of homes built for social rent is at its lowest level for at least 20 years—hardly surprising since the first thing the Government did when they came to office was cut the affordable homes budget by an eye-watering 60%. The Government will no doubt try to say that all their success is due to the Help to Buy scheme, and the Opposition are clear that we support help for first-time buyers. Crucially, however, Help to Buy must be matched by help to build if prices are not to rise further out of the reach of families who want to get on the housing ladder.
The Government have announced and re-announced schemes, but failed to deliver. We had the NewBuy scheme, the Build to Rent fund, Get Britain Building— all failed to deliver their targets and all are part of a piecemeal approach by this Government. With such a record of delivery, it is no surprise that the Governor of the Bank of England said recently that housing is the “biggest risk” to our economy.
Unlike this Government, Labour understands the scale of the challenge we face and that real leadership is needed at central and local levels. That is why we have made a bold and ambitious commitment to increase house building to 200,000 homes a year by 2020. Our housing commission, chaired by Sir Michael Lyons and supported by a panel of experts from across the industry, will deliver a road map to help us to achieve that step change in house building. Unlike this Government, we understand that the market is simply not delivering. It is clear that there are deep structural problems in the land market and the house building industry. That is why Labour will take action to reform the development industry, tackle land banking, boost the role of small house builders, give communities the right to grow and deliver a new generation of new towns and garden cities.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned land banking. She must be aware that, particularly in London, a considerable number of houses, newly built flats and other places are being deliberately kept empty on the expectation of a rapid rise in value, so that they can be sold on without the encumbrance of someone living in them. Does she agree that it is a disgrace at a time of housing shortage to deliberately keep places vacant? If she becomes Housing Minister will she intervene to end that disgraceful practice?
Land banking is a real problem. It is not just developers who are sitting on land, but middlemen, promoters and agents. The Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recognised land banking as “pernicious”, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Nick Boles, also recognised that before he was given his job as Planning Minister.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
It is clear that land banking is an issue. We have set out specific proposals to deal with it. First, we will give more power and flexibility to local authorities to escalate fees where land banking is taking place on land with planning permission, and as a last resort we will ensure that local authorities have proper compulsory purchase order powers so that they can sell the land to developers that want to built the homes we so desperately need.
One key challenge in the house building industry is that it is now dominated by a small number of large players. In the 1980s, two thirds of homes in this country were built by small builders, but by 2012 that figure had fallen to below a third. As the number of small builders has declined and the big firms have grown even bigger by acquiring more firms and land, it has become easier for those big firms to buy up land. As Kate Barker found in her report 10 years ago, it is not always in the interests of big builders to build out sites as quickly as the nation needs. We must get more firms and players into the industry to build homes and provide competition. The high cost of housing is driven by the high cost of land. Often, the cost of land means that only big house builders are able to manage the risks. Let me be clear: big house builders play a crucial role in building the homes our country needs, but we need a much more diverse and competitive industry to deliver a step change in house building.
Let me ask the hon. Lady about leadership in this business. Some 30% of local plans were approved when this Government took office and that figure is now approaching 70%. Does that mean that we can expect much more house building to occur? Furthermore, let me press her on the structure of the building industry. The fact that we have larger and fewer house building companies is hardly a surprise when the Labour party so mismanaged the economy that—
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be short. Speeches must come after the Minister has spoken, and I do not want the hon. Gentleman to use up all his ammunition at this stage.
I thought George Hollingbery was starting to deliver his speech. I say gently to him that the last global financial crash was not caused by the Labour Government’s spending on schools and hospitals, and for him to tell us otherwise is completely fatuous.
Labour has set out plans to boost the role of small house builders, self-builders and custom-builders, who tell us that access to finance and access to land are the key barriers to getting homes built. We have proposed a help to build scheme, which will help them to access finance through the banks—crucially, to get them building—and on access to land we have said that we will ensure that local authorities allocate land in their five-year land supplies, while giving them guaranteed access to public land.
The hon. Lady knows that I have a private Member’s Bill on the subject of affordable housing. In an area such as mine—not a nimby area—the housing stock has more than doubled in the last 40 years, yet the housing problems of local people have got significantly worse. She will be aware that the situation is complicated and requires a more sophisticated answer than simply producing thousands more homes. Does she not accept that we need to look at, for example, controlling the number of second homes, which have increased greatly in areas such as mine? Do we not need to deal with issues such as that as well as simply build more houses?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I know that this is a particular issue in his constituency. I think that this whole debate around second homes is difficult. How do we prove which is someone’s first or second home? Many right hon. and hon. Members here, for example, split their time pretty much equally between London and their constituency. I am not entirely sure that the measures suggested by the hon. Gentleman would be fair or effective. I recognise that the problem is not just a matter of building more homes; it is also about whom we are building those new homes for. That is why it is crucial that the homes we build are truly affordable, which I believe is part of the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill. I agree with him on the key point that it is not just about the numbers; it is about quality, affordability and place making. It is right not to focus only on the numbers, but in my view the numbers are important.
Over the last four years, the problem has been the failure to build affordable homes and social homes. The truth is that what are defined as “affordable homes” are unaffordable to most people on or below average incomes. Sadly, although I have great respect for Andrew George, the Liberal Democrats have propped up a Government who have destroyed affordable housing in this country.
I am delighted to say that in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham, we now have a Labour council that is committed to affordable homes and ensuring that developers deliver their fair share of truly affordable homes, particularly in areas of high demand, such as my hon. Friend’s, where average house prices are, frankly, eye-watering. It is different from the situation in my own constituency.
I am listening with interest to the hon. Lady’s proposals, but will she outline what additional resources she would attach to them?
I am not in the business of making spending commitments in this Opposition-day debate. All I would say is that we recognise that local authorities have a key role to play in delivering the homes we need, and that it was thanks to the reform of the housing revenue account, brought forward by the last Labour Government, that we have seen councils building many more homes than they used to. In fact, Labour councils are outbuilding Tory councils when it comes to affordable homes.
There are also issues to be resolved between local authority areas. Where local authorities are land-locked, as in Oxford, but their communities need to expand due to high demand, the Government’s duty to co-operate is, unfortunately, simply not working. It seems to be a duty to talk and talk, to stall—and then to do nothing. Labour, in consultation with the affected local authority areas, will give communities that need it the right to grow, and we will ensure that local authorities and housing associations have the tools they need to get on with job of building more homes.
We are determined to ensure not just that existing communities are able to expand; we understand the need to build new communities, too. The Government have said they support new settlements—they have been saying that four years, but it has taken them four years to do anything concrete about it. Of course we welcome the proposal in the Queen’s Speech for an urban development corporation to support the building of Ebbsfleet garden city, but it is worrying that it seems to have escaped the Chancellor’s attention that he promised 15,000 homes at Ebbsfleet, when his Government had already committed to 20,000 homes on the same site just two years earlier. It would appear that there is not going to be much “garden” or “city” in the proposals for this garden city. A core principle of such garden cities is a commitment to social and affordable homes, yet the Minister with responsibility for planning, in a written answer to a question from my hon. Friend Roberta Blackman-Woods, said that there will be no such commitment. I am thus left wondering what is garden and what is city about these proposals.
In contrast to this Government’s four years of inaction on new towns and garden cities, we are determined to get going from day one. That is why the shadow Chancellor has already made a commitment that our plans will be supported by a Treasury guarantee. It also crucial that we secure greater institutional investment in housing, including, crucially, in the private rented sector. We are committed to doing so to increase supply, quality and choice in private renting. We must also act to secure a better deal for those 9 million people—couples and families, and including 2 million children—who are renting from a private landlord. Unlike the Government, we are prepared to act to give them much needed stability and peace of mind by legislating to make longer-term tenancies with predictable rents the norm, and banning letting agent fees charged to tenants.
It is regrettable that this Government not only lack determination and leadership, but have taken a piecemeal approach to housing that is clearly not delivering. The numbers speak for themselves. We understand the urgency, commitment and leadership needed to deliver a step change in house building. The next Labour Government will rise to that challenge from day one, delivering 200,000 homes a year by 2020 and providing a home for this generation and the next. I commend the motion to the House.
It is a pleasure to stand here and have the opportunity to talk about a vital part our economy—this country’s housing industry. The industry is growing in strength and confidence. More homes have been built since 2007—a 31% increase in new homes in the last year alone. Planning consents have reached 216,000 in the last year.
What we do is add up all the numbers of houses that have been built; and more have been built since 2007. As I said, planning consents have now reached 216,000, and the top 10 building companies are at their maximum capacity and are planning to grow a further 15% in the next year.
Let me ask the question in a different way. The Minister’s predecessor said that the Government’s target was to build more homes than were being built before the recession—not in 2010, but before the recession. Will the Minister explain in which year of this Parliament the Government have achieved that target?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We have gone through a massive crisis since 2007—I shall say more about it in a few minutes—and responsibility lay solely at the feet of the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was part. We have been picking up the pieces ever since, and we aspire to deliver the houses that the country needs.
The Government’s affordable housing scheme is on track to deliver 170,000 houses as promised, and the houses committed by the previous Government are already delivered, demonstrating that we have delivered some 200,000 houses to date. We are so keen to accelerate the number of affordable houses that we are bringing forward our 2015-18 affordable housing programme and we want to deliver those much-needed affordable houses right across the country as soon as possible.
If the Minister is really so keen to build genuinely affordable housing, why will the Government not lift the borrowing cap on local authorities? Why are they so obsessed with worrying about public sector debt levels, given that borrowing for council housing is known to be a really safe investment? Other countries do not include it in public sector borrowing, and we should not do so either.
It is clear that the hon. Lady’s party does not care about the economy of this country. It is quite happy to add to the deficit that was created by the last Administration. This Government have taken opportunities to raise the housing revenue account cap by some £300 million, and we look forward to seeing those houses being built.
More council houses have been built in the last four years, under this Government, than were built in the previous 13 years. As a result of the right to buy, some 19,000 hard-working individuals and their families have secured their own homes. That rejuvenated scheme has delivered some 10,000 more homes than was predicted, and we have promised to provide a replacement for every house that is sold. So far, some 3,000 new council houses have been built with right-to-buy receipts.
Will the Minister explain why housing associations are being required not only to let newly built homes at 80% of market rent, but to turn over part of our existing stock as it becomes vacant and let it at that level of rent in order to obtain a building grant at all?
What is of key importance is for local authorities and housing associations to understand their stock, and to redesign, restructure and, where necessary, rebuild it to reflect local demand. [Interruption.] That is the answer.
So far, receipts from right-to-buy sales have ensured that some £420 million is available for the building of houses. We want councils to build them more quickly, and we are pushing them to do so, but I think that the Government should be extremely proud of the fact that 3,000 new homes have already been delivered as a result of the extra growth that generated those 10,000 sales.
In the Budget, the Chancellor announced that £300 million in HRA funding would be provided so that more council houses could be built. The prospectus has gone out, and we have received some responses. We will keep pushing councils to deliver those houses. Whatever the tenure, whether we are talking about private, affordable or social housing, this Government want to support the housing industry that is delivering it.
One of the tragedies that came out of the 2008 housing crash and the resulting recession, the deepest since the 1920s, was the loss of jobs. Some 250,000 people—a quarter of a million—lost their livelihoods: their wage packets disappeared. Many thousands of small and medium-sized building and construction firms were lost as a consequence of the dying days of the last Labour Administration, and the loss of that capacity—a direct result of the crash—is still being felt today. That is why the Government want to attract more young apprentices to the sector to secure the future of the housing and construction industry. Thousands of the 1.8 million apprentices whom the Government have supported so far—some 14,000 of them in the building and construction industry alone—are now the plumbers, chippies and brickies who are required to build the houses.
We have put together a builders fund worth a quarter of a billion pounds to support those small and medium-sized businesses, and we are ensuring that they can gain access to it so that they can build on smaller sites. A bidding process is about to end, and we look forward to making announcements in the future. We need to increase capacity, and to do that we need skills—the skills that were lost.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend recalls a visit that he made on
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not only were skills lost, not only were small and medium-sized businesses lost, but the companies that made the products that built the houses were lost as well. I remember visiting that site and talking to the foreman, who had been in a hut protecting the site for the best part of four years. I saw him on television the other day. The company is thriving. I said earlier that the industry was becoming stronger, and it is. At every level, whether we are talking about attracting young people to the sector or about encouraging investors to invest in the manufacturing of materials for house building, the industry is growing, and we should celebrate that boost to our economy.
We are extending the life of the Help to Buy scheme, thus giving some stability to the industry. One of the main points that have been made to me by its representatives is that they do not want a cycle of boom and bust; what they want is some consistency. They want to see products that will give a long life to house building, and if those products are there, they will invest. Some 1,200 businesses have signed up to the Help to Buy equity scheme, and more than 90% of them are small and medium-sized businesses.
Dawn frequently breaks to reveal the Prime Minister descending on a building site in wellington boots and a high-visibility jacket. We have heard 70 separate announcements of schemes including New Buy, First Buy, Build to Rent and Help to Buy. Will the Housing Minister explain why his own Department has forecast a 4% fall in new build housing starts next year?
The reason the Prime Minister appears on building sites is that he supports the housing industry, the reason I visit them is that I support the housing industry, and the reason the hon. Gentleman and his predecessors could not visit them is that they had crashed the housing industry and nothing was being built. As for leaked documents, I am not going to comment, but what I will say is that every element of our Department seeks—whether through planning, supporting skills or supporting small businesses—to ensure that we have sufficient starts to take advantage of the housing offer that is out there and to enable the housing industry to grow.
The Minister still has not explained why we have the lowest number of housing starts on record, and why the number is likely to be lower this year than last year. As well as spreading all the news of the developments that are heartening, why does he not address the real problems that affect house building at present?
The reason house building is still a challenge is that the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a member broke the economy, borrowed too much, crashed the banking system, and wiped out a quarter of a million jobs. That is why it is taking so long to put house building back on track, but it is becoming stronger.
As a direct consequence or our extending Help to Buy to 2020, we will deliver some 120,000 new homes. Help to Buy will continue to be a success. Some 30,000 homes have already been delivered, 87% of them to first-time buyers, and 91% are outside London. The average house price is about £151,000, well below the average price of a house in this country at the moment.
Does the figure that the Minister has just given apply to the number of homes that will be in the Help to Buy scheme, or the number of extra homes that will be built as a result of it? The two figures are very different.
The total Help to Buy figure, covering both guarantee and equity, is some 36,000. I was talking about the number of new homes built, which is 30,000. Those 30,000 houses have been built because businesses have taken up the Help to Buy scheme. Again, this intervention—this building of new homes—is specifically to help hard-working individuals get on the housing ladder. This intervention is there to help people who could not secure a mortgage or get a deposit together, but it is not only helping the hard-working individual; it is also supporting businesses. For every house that is built, a new job is created. The 30,000 that have come directly from Help to Buy contribute to the 1.7 million private sector jobs this Government have delivered.
As much as the small and medium-sized businesses are really important, and as much as the top 10 builders out there are extremely important in terms of capacity, we also need to expand our large-site developments. So far, our large-sites programme has provided some 80,000 new homes, but unlike the last Government with their failed eco-towns, which failed to deliver a single home, we will listen to local councils, we will support local plans, and we will encourage locally led interventions to deliver housing at scale. The garden city proposals were published in April and we look forward to continued discussions with localities about driving out those houses.
Having put a prospectus out there, I am not going to declare that to you. The key thing is that where individuals come forward—
Order. We do not use the term “you” in that way. The Minister is not referring to me. I am sure that rule is for the benefit of the House.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. The key is that where local authorities come forward, we will enter into discussion with them and hope to deliver that.
Does the Minister share my alarm about the words of Sir Michael Lyons on Labour’s review? The Minister has just discussed some of the hard-won commitments the Government have made to local plans and local accountability. Does he share my fear that Labour would return us to the bad old days of strict, authoritarian, top-down control?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The last Government went around the country telling local people what they had to do. This Government have laid out our desire to encourage local plans to come forward—to trust local authorities, to understand their local needs, and to have that dialogue with their public and come back with those approved plans. I will be shocked if Labour is again suggesting that it will dictate from Whitehall what communities will have to deliver.
I am interested in the Minister’s view that powers should be returned to local government. In that respect, will he review the permitted development rights that have been imposed on local government, whereby an office block can be converted into housing with no social content whatsoever and no requirement for planning permission? Does he not think it would be better if local government were able to determine what happened to those buildings and the number of social homes that were included in any developments?
I disagree with the point the hon. Gentleman makes. The key point is that there are lots of people who are desperate to secure their own home and, whatever the vehicle is, we need to support them in that process.
I am not going to take any lectures about affordable or social housing. The last Government failed to deliver sufficient social housing at a time of economic boom. They did not build the housing required. They did not address the issue of social need. In the most difficult times, however, this Government have stepped up and are delivering those houses. We need to deliver more, but we are setting about delivering that.
No, I am going to continue.
The key aim is to expand capacity, and one of the ways we are doing that is by encouraging—right across the country—the private rented sector. Thousands of individuals rent their homes, and the vast majority of them rent their homes from good landlords, but there are a few who are damaging the market and failing their tenants, and that is why this Government have set about introducing powers to pursue those individuals and have put moneys out there for councils to make sure we can pursue and prosecute those individuals who fail their tenants.
I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests.
The Minister rightly mentions private renting, as not everybody wants to buy; some want to rent, and some do not have any choice. Does he recognise the impact on children of having to move constantly because of the nature of the private rental market, and does he accept that Labour has very sound proposals on longer-term tenancies to deal with exactly that sort of problem?
The key point is that Labour was in power for 13 years and did not address this, whereas we have gone out there and put together a model tenancy that we plan to announce in the near future, and that will address that very issue about extending tenancies, through a negotiation between the landlord and the individual, to give some certainty, particularly for families.
We want to make sure that the private rented sector grows. We want it to be bigger, better and more professional, so that it attracts investors to take a long-term financial view, rather than having the short-term return model currently associated with this sector, which is why we went out there with a £1 billion Build to Rent scheme—a loan scheme. The first round has allocated some £124 million, which will deliver some 16,000 houses, and we are now in contact with further individuals and organisations and will make those announcements in the near future. The bulk of that £1 billion was in round two and we are in detailed negotiations about 16 projects. It is a very important part of the offer to grow and build on the private sector, to challenge poor behaviour, and to make sure we have high-quality private rented houses available.
In conclusion, we are not complacent about the position we are in. We picked up a smashed and broken industry. A strong industry is now emerging, but it has taken time to address and fix the problems left by the last Government—the banking industry issue, the lost jobs and skills, the factories that went to the wall. We are rebuilding the companies that failed and giving them the confidence to come forward and invest. So far, some 440,000 new homes have been delivered, but that is not enough, and we are determined to deliver more. I have to say to the House, however, that regardless of what I have said here today, this will be down to the graft of those individuals on the building and construction sites out there, it will be down to the risk takers who are investing in house building again, and it will be down to the young apprentices who are making a commitment to learning and developing their new career skills. The role of this Government is to support those champions of that industry. Every part of this Government is committed to delivering new homes—the homes that are needed—and I ask the House to reject this motion.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, instead of imposing a time limit, may I suggest that Members speak for about eight minutes so we can get everybody in?
First, may I draw the House’s attention to my interests as declared in the register?
I have to say to the Minister that his figures are very wide of the mark indeed. The simple harsh truth is that the present Government have the worst record on housing of any Government since the end of the second world war. Fewer new homes have been built in their period in office than in any comparable period of peacetime since the 1920s. On average, over their four years in office the coalition Government have managed to build just 112,000 homes a year. By contrast, the previous Labour Government built 1.8 million homes over their 13 years in office, averaging 145,000 homes a year—not enough perhaps, but very substantially more than we are seeing from the present Government, and I am surprised that the Minister does not have the honesty and integrity to admit that. Even in the depths of recession—[Interruption.] I will withdraw that.
Before you do, I will just say that we are going to be courteous to each other. This is going to be a very interesting debate, and I know you do not mean that and I see you are going to withdraw it.
I ask your leave to withdraw that last statement, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was really just saying that the Minister ought to look at the figures published by his own Department and not exaggerate, or gild the lily, by trying to give us an impression that things are much better than they are. This Government’s record is, in fact, a very poor one: in 2011, they managed just 113,000 new homes; in 2012, they built just 115,000 new homes; and in 2013, they got no further than 110,000. Those are the simple figures and they come from his own Department. All they demonstrate is that the previous Labour Government in their last year in office—in 2009, right in the depths of recession—built more homes in one year than this Government have built in any one year since. We built 125,000 homes in 2009 and the level has decreased to an average of just 112,000 a year over the past four years during which this Government have been in office.
That is not the point I was going to make. I was going to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman would accept that 200,000 homes per year is not an ambitious enough target. The fact that the motion contains no target for social housing—
Order. I have explained that interventions must be short. The hon. Gentleman has been here a long time and he has to help us to get other speakers in. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman got the gist of the question.
I did indeed. I say to the hon. Gentleman that given that output is currently averaging just 112,000 homes a year, a target of 200,000 represents a very substantial increase. We can have an academic debate about whether that is enough, but the harsh reality, which his party should not have ignored, is the total failure of this Government to deliver anything near the level required. The output number has to be doubled, and I hope he will support a Labour Government when they are in power—if he is still around—and are delivering to that target.
The Minister, like his predecessor bar one, Grant Shapps, loves to project future increases in numbers, so we hear about 170,000 affordable homes, for example. The right hon. Gentleman used to quote that figure, and we heard it from the Minister today. Let me just give the actual figures on affordable homes started by this Government: in 2010—the third and fourth quarters—they started 10,990; in 2011, they started 25,000; in 2012, they started 20,000; in 2013, they started 24,000; and in 2014—
And in the first quarter of 2014, the Government have started 5,900. Their own records show that, in the 15 quarters for which they have been in power, they have started 86,810 affordable homes. So let us hear no more boasting about unrealistic targets for how the Government are going to start all these homes, given that they have lamentably failed to deliver them.
Just to help, I think the right hon. Gentleman might be on silent meals if he does not give way quicker.
I am very grateful for that intervention, and I suspect I shall be in deep trouble tonight for my failure to give way earlier. My hon. Friend makes a very valid point about the absence of the Minister. I hope he is away for only a short time, because I am sure he will benefit from hearing some of the comments I am going to make in the latter part of my speech.
I am not married to the right hon. Gentleman, so I thank him even more for giving way. Would he like to explain his party’s figure as to what is considered “affordable, as this varies in different parts of the country?
I agree very much with that and I will cover it in the latter part of my speech. My thesis is that we need to have a range of differing types of housing, and only by delivering that will we ensure that we meet the ambitious target of 200,000 homes in the next Parliament.
The price of this Government’s failure to build the number of homes necessary is very much reflected in the second crisis of theirs on housing, which is on affordability. The shortage of sufficient homes has been driving prices up in both the owner-occupied sector and the rented sector. Curiously, the Government have been compounding the problem by driving up rent levels themselves in the social rented sector, because in place of social housing at target rents, which was very much the objective of the previous Government, we are now seeing the Orwellian concept of “affordable rent tenancies” where rent is set as a percentage of the market rents. A level of 80% of market rents in London is simply not affordable. How can anyone suggest that 80% of a market rent of perhaps £400 a week is an affordable rent for a family on low income? That is simply not credible. We need a programme that delivers truly affordable homes, and not just for social rent; in addition to social rented housing, we need low-cost home ownership options, and intermediate rented options for people who can afford to pay more than the social rent and are looking for suitable housing in that category.
A mix of tenures is required—a point I stressed when I was pleased to welcome Sir Michael Lyons to Greenwich earlier this year. He came as part of his inquiry, to which my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds alluded in her excellent introductory speech. I stressed to Sir Michael that we need a range of different tenures in order to expand output. It is well known that house builders—
Order. May I just be of help? The right hon. Gentleman has had eight minutes now and I am going to bring the hon. Lady in next. If she wishes to use interventions, she will not mind dropping down the list.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is a very pertinent point. I would like to tease out something about the intermediate option that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. Would he like to have means-testing of current social housing tenants? As we know, some of them earn lots of money.
Order. I am going to have to help. The hon. Lady was going to speak next. She will not mind going down the list a little bit, because it is unfair to keep intervening. The right hon. Gentleman has already taken nine minutes. I want to get everybody in and these interventions are not going to help when someone knows they are going to speak next.
I am grateful for that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I will now wind up because I have gone beyond my allotted time. I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for not answering that very detailed question. Perhaps she will be able to expand on the issue when she makes her speech.
I believe the Government need to look seriously at how they are spending money, because they are spending a lot of money on housing. The housing benefit bill has risen dramatically, despite the Government’s pledge to cut it, because they have been increasingly dependent on high-rent solutions and people have had to be given housing benefit to help them meet those higher rents. The Government have therefore been compounding the problem while talking about reducing housing benefit. At the same time, they have been spending money on the new homes bonus, a scheme for which nobody has yet produced any evidence to demonstrate that it is having any significant impact, despite more than £7 billion being committed to it. Their Help to Buy 2 scheme is highly profligate, with a £600,000 maximum limit and no tie to new homes, and, again, there is a question as to whether it is a good use of money. So I believe the Government are culpable—
I cannot take any more interventions.
The Government are culpable for failing to provide the homes, for compounding the problems on affordability and for spending money on schemes that are unproven, untested and not delivering value for money.
Suitably admonished, I shall keep my remarks brief to allow other colleagues to get in, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I wished to pick up on the comments made by Mr Raynsford about what is “affordable”, because in an area such as St Albans house values and land values are so high that it is genuinely difficult for any local authority and any house builder to deliver social housing and affordable housing. That is why I wanted to ask him whether he supported considering some form of means-testing for those currently occupying social housing. I just wanted to throw that into the mix.
My council in St Albans has the second oldest district plan in the country. I brought my council leader, Councillor Julian Daly, to meet the Secretary of State because I wanted my right hon. Friend to have a sense of the pressures on a place such as St Albans. There is high demand to live in our beautiful area. It is very commutable to London. It suffers similar housing pressures to London and has similar prices. The average house price in St Albans is £401,811. That is a massive sum for any young family to afford. The average mortgage repayment in St Albans is £738 or 16.1% of average income.
Another part of the mix, which has not been mentioned today, and about which I put in a plea to the Chancellor, is stamp duty. That has not been considered by the Opposition. In high-price areas such as mine, we have the Help to Buy scheme through which the Government are helping young families and young people to get on the housing ladder. Those people are saving hard for deposits, yet they have to give over a large whack in tax. Stamp duty has not been considered by the House since 2003 and I make no bones about the fact that I am trying to lead a charge on the matter.
Stamp duty means that some people are unable to trade down and free up homes for other couples because their house values have risen so much that they would pay a large amount of tax. It also makes it difficult for expanding families to move up. It is a barrier to fluidity in the housing market and to young people moving. It seems rather odd that we as a Parliament want to get young people on the housing ladder, yet we are happy to take large sums of money off them in areas such as mine. The cost of an entry-level property in St Albans is probably more than the national average house price, so for the many people trying to get such a property in our area, stamp duty is a big deal.
The reason for our having the most out-of-date district plan is not that we have a slovenly and lazy council—far from it. Our planning department is the busiest in the country. A huge number of people want to build in our area, and we have loads of challenges from developers. My council regularly spends large amounts of money fighting off predatory developers. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, smiles at me—I will be making my rail freight point—but it has cost my council millions of pounds to fight off inappropriate development applications.
The reason we have such an out-of-date district plan is that my council, along with other councils in Hertfordshire, was desperately trying to resist the high housing targets that were imposed top-down by Labour. If the Opposition go back to imposing top-down targets, there will be sclerosis in planning departments again. I welcome the fact that the Government have taken by the horns the point that local areas should decide. Local areas know their housing need best.
I am not giving way because I listened to Mr Deputy Speaker’s guidance and I am keeping my remarks brief.
The previous policy guidance, which set a housing density of more than 50 houses to the hectare, resulted in places such as St Albans being swamped with one-bedroom flat units, and large five-bedroom houses to pay for them. This skews the market. What we want in areas such as St Albans is to be able to decide whether we need two-bedroom flats or three-bedroom small family houses to suit the needs of the local population.
The Government have gone a long way to implementing localism. It is not perfect, or I would not keep referring—my hon. Friend the Minister is listening to me—to my rail freight point, but I would like to think that we have started listening to what residents want locally. Housing numbers should not be dictated centrally. St Albans was furious with the previous Government’s decision to lump us in with the north London arc, making us vulnerable to inappropriate development, which we have resisted. We are ringed by green belt but we do not have a NIMBY attitude in St Albans. We wish to deliver affordable local housing for young families, but we also realise that we are part of people’s investment portfolios.
The Opposition should be clearer about what they mean by “affordable” in areas such as mine. If they do not like the 80% calculation, how would they deliver affordable housing in an area where the average house price is more than £400,000? Nobody in St Albans is going to give their land away and a local authority has a duty of care to its residents, so it will not give away its assets and it has very little as a land bank of its own and very few buildings. Labour’s plans sound great, but how would it deliver affordable housing? That is very hard to deliver and the Government are going a long way to try to do so.
We need to build 250,000 new homes every year, probably for the next 20 or 30 years, if we are to address the housing crisis properly. That is the scale of the challenge that faces us collectively. In order to do that over that period, we probably need buy-in to such an approach from all political parties. That is a further challenge. I admitted in the Queen’s Speech debate that the Government whom I supported for 13 years did not build enough homes. The problem is that the present Government are building even fewer.
On average, year by year, fewer homes are being built under this Government than were built under the previous Government. That is a fact, however the Minister tries to dress up the figures. If we are to get that long-term buy-in to building sufficient homes, it has to be through all-party agreement, because the construction industry cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Another challenge is to train and keep construction workers to deliver the homes we need. As the Select Committee report in 2012 said, there is no single silver bullet—we need a range of different measures to provide a range of different homes.
We need the volume house builders to build more, of course. That is a challenge for them as well as for the Government. But we also need other forms of building, including building houses for social rent. We cannot simply build houses at 80% of market rent to help everyone in this country. There are people who not only cannot afford to buy, but cannot afford market rents, so we need a social house building programme as part of the total number.
Let me be clear to Front Benchers on both sides of the House. I support the campaigns of the Local Government Association and of the National Federation of ALMOs to lift the borrowing cap on local authorities.
That could build us at least 60,000 new homes, but that does not go far enough. In this Parliament we have had a 60% cut in the funding for social housing. Some, if not all, of it will have to be restored if we are to build sufficient social homes in the future. Whether we are talking about local authority homes—council homes—or housing association homes, we will not get them built without more public money being put in. That is a fact of life. It is uncomfortable at a time of stringency and constraint, but that is a reality and we all have to address it.
Another uncomfortable issue is the right to buy. The Government’s policy envisages a one-for-one replacement. In many parts of the country, such as my constituency, there is no point selling a family home and offering to replace it with a one-bedroom flat. The demand is for family homes. Like-for-like replacement is what is needed, and even that is not sufficient in some areas. If there is an acute shortage of social housing in particular localities, or there is not the land to replace homes that are sold, we may have to give local authorities the powers to restrict the right to buy.
Again, that is uncomfortable. It is not what anyone wants to hear, but it is about true localism and recognising that there are particular circumstances and particular housing markets where the problems are so difficult that that is what we may have to do. That, again, is something that the Select Committee report addressed and the Government dismissed. It is a factor if we are to deal with the acute crisis faced by many people who cannot afford to buy and cannot afford to rent in the private sector.
There are two other issues that I shall address. If we are to build sufficient homes, we all want to see a brownfield-first policy. The Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into the national planning policy framework and we look forward to the Minister coming before us. We may be slightly less harsh on him than some of his own colleagues were this morning in the Westminster Hall debate, which I chaired. If we have a brownfield-first policy, we will have to deal with the question why the proportion of houses built on brownfield sites appears to be declining. It is difficult to know because the figures are available only up to 2011. There is a gap in the figures, which is not helpful.
Perhaps there has been decline because of the problem of paragraph 47 of the NPPF and developers claiming that brownfield sites are not viable. Perhaps it is because we have lost the grants that the regional development agencies used to put in to deal with contamination and other problems on brownfield sites that made them easier to develop. Perhaps it is a bit of both. We face that challenge if we are to get brownfield development going. We must also be honest with people. Even if we build on all the available brownfield sites, we will still have to build on some greenfield sites in this country. We must be honest about that and face up to it.
Then we come on to the further challenge: how do we sign up local communities? The principle of the NPPF is to support sustainable development, which is consistent with the local plan, so putting in place local plans is absolutely vital. There may be some authorities that are dragging their feet, but there are some that are genuinely struggling to get local plans in place. That is what we are finding in our inquiry, and we will produce our findings on that in due course. There are a number of other issues that the Minister will look at in due course; perhaps he will do it when he appears before the Committee.
Let us return to the viability of brownfield sites. Is that an issue that needs to be addressed? It is stopping some local plans being put in place, as authorities are being forced to go back and relook at greenfield sites. What about the duty to co-operate? Those authorities are trying to co-operate, but cannot get a local plan in place because their neighbours will not co-operate with them. How do we deal with that challenge?
Finally, one issue that has come up time and again is the assessment of housing need. Many authorities are unclear about how they should do their sums. The planning inspector could come in at the last minute and say that they have got them wrong and that they should go back and start counting again. Although I am not generally in favour of heavy-handed centralism, should there not be a bit more guidance at the beginning of the process so that local authorities are clear about the numbers they are trying to address, and their local plans are not held up at the last stages?
I hope that those are helpful points that will help to move this matter forward. We must all face up to the fact that over the past 30 years we have had a collective failure to build sufficient homes in this country. If we are to address that collective failure, we need some collective agreement across the House about how we will proceed to build those homes over the next 20 or 30 years.
It is a pleasure to follow the considered speech of Mr Betts. I experienced a bit of déjà vu at the start of this debate, as we had the predictable trading of blizzards of carefully selected statistics and political froth, which does nothing to shed any light on this matter. As is often the case, there is, at this point, a coming together, with people trying to find constructive solutions, rather than simply trading selective statistics. People who accidentally stumble on this debate while seeking entertaining daytime television, and who happen to watch this kind of thing, will be left bemused or cold by the trading of figures that we saw at the start.
The obsession with chasing housing build targets and with trying to apportion blame is one reason why there has been, over decades, a complete failure to provide enough decent family homes that are affordable for people in this country. There seems to be an obsession with one rather two-dimensional issue, which is the building of thousands of houses. I have won the MPs’ equivalent of the national lottery by coming first in the private Members’ Bill ballot. On
This is a bespoke Bill—not one that is off the peg—on which I will seek cross-party support; it is still being drafted. I hope to gain support for it over time. At the moment, it is a veritable Queen’s Speech of a Bill that will probably have to be narrowed down. The issue on which I will primarily focus is the still insufficiently developed intermediate market for housing, particularly in the south, where there is a big mismatch between earnings and house prices. Constructing a new lower rung on the housing ladder of shared equity, shared ownership and mutual housing is necessary to address some of the problems in areas such as mine.
Having listened to the shadow Minister, I want to speak about some of the things that are undermining our attempts to fulfil the desperate need for affordable homes in areas such as mine. They include the proliferation of second or holiday homes. I have tried to advance the case for the introduction of a new use classes order in the planning system, which would cover those who want to convert a property from permanent to non-permanent occupancy. The order would last only for the lifetime of that occupancy, because otherwise there would be a perverse incentive for us all to go for that when we wanted to sell our properties. However, there does not appear to be political support for that at present. I urge both Labour and Conservative Members to look at the impact that that issue is having on areas such as mine, where four times as many properties are sold to second-home buyers than to first-home buyers.
As I mentioned in my intervention on the shadow Minister, we are not nimbys in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The housing stock has more than doubled in the past 40 years, yet the housing problems of locals have got significantly worse. It is not simply building homes that is the issue; we have significantly more second homes and holiday homes in our area and significantly higher housing need. This obsession with building hundreds of thousands of homes is not the answer. We need to be a little more sophisticated in our approach. It is not the case that if we dump a load of homes on the countryside the market will, by magic, ensure equilibrium, and local people will have their housing needs met. I can assure Members that that policy will fundamentally fail in my constituency.
There is also the impact of the spare room subsidy. I do not think I will have time to advance that issue, but there is a principle involved here: if someone is poor, they should not be less entitled to a stable family home than if they were better off. I am not sure that I will be able to advance that principle in my Bill, but I feel very strongly that it is something that has been lost in our obsession.
It sounds to me—I hope I have not misinterpreted the hon. Gentleman—as though there is an argument for building council houses again. What does he think about that? We have debated social housing time and again, but it would never meet the requirements of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Perhaps he should think about council house building.
Absolutely. I am not quite so obsessed with the issue of whether the property is owned by a council or by a registered social landlord. We have some fantastic housing associations in this country, and we have had some pretty rotten local authorities. What we need is social rented accommodation of a decent standard that meets the local need for affordable housing.
Time prevents me from taking another intervention from the hon. Gentleman. One of the unintended consequences of the spare room subsidy is that we will end up with smaller new build properties, and less flexibility for housing associations in meeting the needs of local communities. When I was involved in this sector, before I was elected to this House, I always recommended future-proofing new build estates. For example, if I identified an even demand for two and three-bedroom properties, I erred on the side of three and four-bedroom properties, because of the need to future-proof the estate. At the time of building, the marginal cost of adding another bedroom to a development is almost insignificant; it is tiny. That is why the spare room subsidy is driving policy in entirely the wrong direction, and that needs to be addressed.
Speculative landholdings need to be controlled, particularly in rural areas such as mine, where we are looking for exception sites. How can we do that when people are clinging on to land for dear life? One of the planning system’s big problems is that it is fuelled by greed, rather than need. If we are to meet local housing need, we need a system that forces landowners to use or lose their land. I would like the Government to address those needs.
In view of the time, I clearly need to bring my remarks to a close. I look forward to addressing these issues in private meetings in advance of our debate on
It is a pleasure to follow Andrew George. I echo what he said about the bedroom tax, not only because of its effect on those it directly affects, but because of the attitude that it shows to the 8 million people in this country who live in social housing, which is that they are effectively second-class citizens so far as the Government are concerned. I am sorry that so many of his colleagues voted for the bedroom tax, although he did not, which is entirely to his credit.
The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is very different from mine, and I hope he will not mind if I move the subject on to London, where housing problems are writ large and are intensifying. We see that in every indication, from the gap between housing demand and supply—the gap in London is some 30% of the gap in England as a whole—to rough sleeping, which has gone up 75% in London over the past three years; that is more than twice the increase in the rest of the country. It is tempting to say that the problems are too difficult to solve, and that house building should therefore take place in areas where land values are cheaper. I am well aware of that, because the median rent for a three-bedroom property in my constituency is £550 a week, which is more than the average London wage. The average purchase price for any property is approaching £750,000, which is completely unaffordable even for those on several times the average income.
Why have to address those problems, including in central London, because Government policy—and certain local policies, too—has intensified them. Local housing allowance for three-bedroom properties has been capped at £340. That is supposed to cover the bottom third of rents, but the valuation office’s up-to-date figures tell us that the lower quartile of rents in Hammersmith for a three-bedroom property is £459. The net effect of the change, and indeed of all the other changes the Government have made to benefits policy, is that it is almost impossible to find any property in the private sector that would be covered by housing benefit. We have therefore had an exodus—a process of social cleansing—that has forced people who, in many cases, have lived in London for generations out of the city, and away from where their homes, schools, jobs and families are.
That was intensified by a deliberate policy. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds for mentioning what happened at the local election in Hammersmith, which was a breath of fresh air to almost everyone who lives in the area. There was a deliberate demolition of council properties. Whole blocks of 200 or 300 good-quality council properties were held empty for six or seven years before being demolished to be handed to the private sector. Council properties were sold off as they became empty. Over the past four or five years, 500 homes have been sold that could have been used by families on the waiting list, had the waiting list not also been abolished.
I cannot understand the mentality of the Government or local councils, who want to exacerbate an already serious housing problem. I am therefore delighted that a Labour council came in, and the first thing it did on the day after the election was to cancel the demolitions and the sales. The first thing the council did at the first cabinet meeting was to say, “From now onwards we will again prioritise social rented housing, which for eight years has been excluded from the types of housing that could be constructed.”
I want to be a bit more optimistic, and talk about how we can achieve decent affordable housing in high-value areas. Our local plan envisages 50,000 new properties being built over a 20-year period. That is perhaps slightly over-ambitious, if anything, and somewhat unwise, in the sense that it means demolishing hospitals to build housing on their sites. I think that is somewhat short-sighted.
There are three opportunity areas in Hammersmith and Fulham. One is on the site that will be used for High Speed 2; it is envisaged that 24,000 new homes will be built there. The second is in White City, on the site vacated by the BBC, where it is envisaged that 6,000 properties will be built. The third is in the Earls Court and West Kensington area, where it is envisaged that 8,000 properties will be built. The problem is that under existing policies, not a single one of those almost 40,000 properties will be a social rented home. Clearly that will change with the planning policy, but many planning consents have already been given.
I draw attention to two facts. First, across London, and probably outside London, too, developers are relying on viability assessments, which are confidential documents that are not disclosed to the public, or even to councillors on most occasions. Developers typically say that they can afford to build 5% or 10% affordable housing at 80% market sale or 80% market rent. Every time that has been challenged and taken to the Information Commissioner, the documents have eventually been revealed. In the case of Earls Court, for example, we had to go to not only the Information Commissioner but the first-tier tribunal. It was only at that point that the local authorities gave in. Guess what? The viability assessments did not support the idea that there should be little or no affordable housing in those developments.
Secondly, much of these developments are on public land in the widest sense. If they are not on council-owned land or Government-owned land, they are on land owned by the BBC, Network Rail or Transport for London. If we cannot build decent affordable housing on publicly owned land, we are saying to developers, “In those cases, you can also get away with building 95% market housing.” In inner London, that means that properties are for sale abroad, off-plan. Most properties currently being built in my constituency are advertised on websites in the far east, Russia and elsewhere. One-bedroom and two-bedroom properties begin at £1 million-plus. Those properties are not affordable to anyone, by any means, which is why there is effectively a coalition between those who need social rented homes and those who could afford quite a lot on the private market. All my constituents say to me, “When will the Government act to ensure that houses are built that are affordable for the people who live and pay taxes in this country?”
If I am following the hon. Gentleman’s logic correctly, he is arguing for scrapping the ability of developers to vary section 106 agreements on the basis of a project’s financial viability. Is that the Labour party’s policy? Does he not understand that that may well reduce the overall supply of affordable housing?
I am asking for the viability assessments to become transparent, open documents, so that everyone can see where the truth lies. I am also asking for Conservative local authorities to stop colluding with developers to drive out affordable housing for their own political, economic and ideological motives. That is what is happening across London, and I am sure outside London, too. I support exactly what Michael Lyons said yesterday at the LGA conference, which is that if local authorities are going to act in that way, there has to be an impetus to build more social housing, and that has to be in addition to any revival in the private housing market.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East that we do not want to change things back to exactly how they were, but the four principles that the Government have relied on need to be reversed. They have cut capital investment in housing, reduced security of tenure and almost eliminated affordability, certainly in London, and now they are refusing to determine on the basis of need how housing should be allocated. That is more than a generational step back. Frankly, those are not housing policies that any Government should support. I hope that when my hon. Friend is Housing Minister, she will reverse them.
It is appropriate that I should follow another London Member, Mr Slaughter. At the risk of being criticised—we often rightly are—for being London-centric, London does face specific challenges, so I would like to spend a few minutes talking about that subject, which is close to my constituents’ hearts.
It is worth setting out some context. Since 2001, London’s population, and therefore the demand for housing, has increased by 1 million. That is equivalent to creating a new borough every two and a half years, such is the speed of growth. That means we have to respond to the challenging housing needs with innovation and imagination. To borrow the words of the former Housing Minister, Mr Raynsford, who I think struck the right tone when talking about the failure over 30 years, we also need to find some common ground, particularly if we are to deal with some of the challenges in London.
As the Mayor has rightly identified, if we are to catch up and keep pace with demand in London alone, we will need to provide about 49,000 accommodation units every year for the next 10 years. To put that in context, that has not been achieved since 1930, an age when building on the green belt was not an issue and we did not face the challenge of having to develop brownfield sites, which I believe offer a big opportunity in London. It is probably accurate to say that we have been building, on average, about 20,000 units a year over the past 30 years.
We now have a situation, as Members on both sides of the House have rightly pointed out, in which rents and the cost of purchase in London are so disproportionate to the rest of the country that supply is clearly the key. Let us face it: we cannot simply wave a magic wand, whether at local government level, mayoral level or here, but we have to pull whatever levers we have at our disposal to try to help drive the supply solution. I have looked with interest at some of the proposed measures for doing that, and at one in particular, which I will speak about shortly—the housing zones, which were recently announced in my constituency.
So tricky is the problem we face that we are looking at more imaginative ways to provide more housing. The Mayor’s land and development programme is effectively bringing forward surplus public land owned by the Greater London authority to regenerate areas and help provide housing. About 60 live sites are already under way, which will hopefully deliver at least 40,000 homes over the period of their development. There are 20 housing zones—I will outline this later for the benefit of the House—which are ambitious plans to create 50,000 much needed homes. It is crucial, as I think we all agree, to target those on low and middle incomes who are seeking to buy affordable homes as well as those seeking to rent.
A considerable number of empty homes in London need to be brought back into use. Between 2008 and 2012, around 5,000 empty homes were brought back into use, and I am sure that we can do more. We have more funding to bring another 1,100 empty homes back into use. In fact, there are now about 25,000 fewer empty homes in London than there were in 2008. Supplying new homes is crucial, but so is work on decent homes—restoring the stock we have to make them liveable—and restoring empty homes. In my borough we have benefited from £44 million, which we are halfway through spending between now and 2015, just on decent homes alone.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will address the point that the Minister would not deal with. The Mayor’s definition of affordable is an income of up to £80,000 for larger properties and up to £66,000 for smaller properties. I realise that that is a maximum, but the hon. Gentleman will have seen the story in the London Evening Standard this week about housing associations such as Notting Hill, which frankly is a disgrace. Pitching the target at those levels, they are demanding for their affordable housing a minimum income of £66,000 in order to qualify.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I did not quite catch the whole point, but I think that my hon. Friend Mrs Main made the point about the steep variation in what is an affordable home. Some regard it as just 80% of market value, which is a lovely description and quite enticing, but we know that that still faces a lot of challenge. However, I welcome many of the Government programmes, such as Help to Buy, that will help to overcome the challenges, particularly on deposits, which are crucial. I happily declare an interest in that regard, having had to help finance one of my daughters when she bought a home. I was lucky enough to be able to do that, but many people are not. The Help to Buy scheme was not around at the time, but I have two more daughters to go, so who knows—I am in trouble now.
I will briefly mention the housing zones. I am grateful that the Mayor and the Chancellor—local government working with national Government—have come together to launch a housing zone scheme across London. They will create 20 zones where home building will be accelerated by working in partnership with boroughs, landowners, investors and builders—all the key stakeholders brought together. They are based on a “something for something” deal, not just a handout. That will enable the GLA to act in concert with the key boroughs and stakeholders so that we can focus resources on sites that will be expensive to redevelop, such as brownfield and former industrial sites. With such policy interventions, we can either drive and fast-track developments that are planned at the moment but facing the hurdles we have all talked about, or stimulate new plans and new sites.
In order to ensure that we see progress on housing zones as quickly as possible, the Government will grant the Mayor the powers he needs—so-called mayoral development orders—to remove planning obstacles. That will accelerate the much needed construction in the zones. The site in my constituency has not, I hasten to add, been formally approved yet. The London borough of Enfield, in concert with Network Rail, has already secured development of a third track up to Angel Road. The development will hopefully be called Meridian Water and be on the very important line between Liverpool Street and Cambridge. That crucial ingredient helped to stimulate developers to show their interest and invest in a site that was once industrial and had gasworks on it, which is very expensive to redevelop. The bid that will be going in for Meridian Water will be effectively to seek assistance in site remediation, some land acquisition and decentralising energy infrastructure.
I will draw my comments to a close, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I can see that that is something you clearly wish me to do. The point is that that fast-tracking will enable us to deliver 5,000 homes at a relatively fast speed, if the scheme is approved, which I am optimistic it will be. That will be critical in achieving the overall challenge that London faces. If it is repeated in 20 other zones, that will make a significant difference. I commend those steps to the House.
I very much welcome this debate. The last two speakers have talked about their own constituencies in London. Clearly, my constituency is not in London, but it is experiencing similar house prices and many of the stories that we have heard this afternoon have resonance in Brighton, Pavilion. The failure of successive Governments over the past 30 to 40 years to build anything like enough homes is a scandal that has been ignored by those in power, who have been busy enjoying the short-term economic benefits of inflated house prices. Those prices have skyrocketed in the past year in a market that is both irresponsible and unfair.
I also welcome the motion tabled by the official Opposition. It represents a step in the right direction, but I am concerned that it is quite vague and I hope that they will fill in some of the gaps during the debate. That is why I have amended the motion, and I will say a few words about that in a moment. I want to focus on the issue of council homes, which have not been built in significant numbers for decades. Instead, hundreds of thousands of them have been sold off cheap. On the failure to build, a recent House of Commons Library note shows the long-term steep decline in house building in England over the past 35 years.
Order. Perhaps I can help the hon. Lady. She might have tabled an amendment but it was not selected, and the motion has not been amended. We are dealing with the motion before us and no other.
Order. The hon. Lady said that she had amended the motion, and the problem is that people might therefore think that there is an amendment to the motion. That is all I am bothered about. There will be just one vote.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I sought to amend the motion—devastatingly unsuccessfully —and I will not mention the matter further. I do, however, want to mention the substantive issues in the Opposition motion, as well as certain things that are not in it but have nothing to do with my amendment—or rather, my proposed amendment that does not exist. It was a figment of my imagination.
On the failure to build, a recent House of Commons Library note shows the long-term steep decline in house building in England over the past 35 years. Nearly 307,000 homes were built across all tenures in England in 1969-1970, but the number fell to just 107,000 in 2012-13. There was a minor increase in housing association building over that period, although it amounted to fewer than 15,000 more dwellings being built last year than in 1969-70. What is most striking is that the steepest decline was in the building of council homes, which fell from 135,000 to 1,360 over that same period.
To their credit, the last Labour Administration did attempt to address the chronic backlog of repairs and maintenance left after 18 years of deliberate Tory neglect. It is just a shame that this was done at the expense of building the council homes that were needed. For example, only 60 council homes—a tiny number—were built nationally in 2001-2002. By 2008-9, the figure had gone up, with 490 council homes completed in that year, but that was still fewer than one per constituency. The number of housing association homes was higher, with 14,000 in 2001 and 26,500 in 2008, but the numbers were still woefully low. The current Government are clearly worse; they have cut funds for social housing by 60%. The need for strong solutions to get the council and social housing we need built is an absolute priority in our discussions this afternoon.
I see the reality of the housing crisis every day in my constituency. The chronic long-term lack of housing supply is evident everywhere in Brighton, Pavilion and I am regularly contacted by people in despair and in real housing need. Our local paper, the Brighton Argus published a housing special last Saturday entitled “Can you afford to live in the city?” This was a rhetorical question, because for most people in housing need, the answer is a very clear no: the average price in the city has been driven up to more than £367,000. We have seen a 13% increase in house prices in the last quarter alone. Therefore, it is no surprise that we have 18,000 people on the council’s housing waiting list.
The city’s housing market is fast becoming known as a “mini-London”, with average house prices in Brighton nearly twice the national average. Young Brightonians who do not have rich family backers have no hope of getting on the housing ladder. The combination of stratospheric rent and price rises and policies such as the pernicious bedroom tax—which appear to be designed to push people in need of housing benefit, particularly those with disabilities, out of desirable areas—has created a situation in which people on low incomes and those on average wages are being pushed to the margins.
The motion does not say very much about how the Opposition would achieve the aims that they are putting forward. Those aims are laudable, but where are the means? I would like the unfair restrictions on local authorities to be lifted. Housing associations are allowed to borrow against their assets to build but councils are not, despite being able to do so more cheaply. That makes no sense. We must fully lift the borrowing cap to get council homes built again. Councils suffer unnecessary restrictions. They are bound by prudential borrowing rules anyway, so the cap is arguably unnecessary; it is just stifling the building of local authority homes.
Using the Department for Communities and Local Government self-financing model, a joint report published in 2012 by the National Federation of ALMOs, the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Association of Retained Council Housing and many others showed that if the borrowing cap were fully lifted and councils were able to make prudential use of their borrowing potential, they could borrow up to £20 billion over five years. That extra borrowing could enable between 170,000 and 230,000 extra homes to be built.
The main justification for the imposition of borrowing caps on local housing authorities is that the additional debt incurred by councils would add to the overall Government debt, but that need not be the case. The UK is unique in Europe for classifying a wide range of bodies as coming within the definition of “public sector” that is used to measure public debt. No other EU country treats social housing investment in the way that happens in England. There is a strong case for local authority borrowing for housing not to be counted towards the public sector debt. Local authority borrowing for housing would be largely self-financing in any case, and it is transparent and low risk.
I would be the first to admit, however, that lifting the borrowing cap will not be enough on its own to replenish our social housing stock following the giveaway of council houses under right to buy and the failure to build. A significant increase in grant funding is needed if we are to begin to reverse the chronic failure to build the housing that we need. That money would also create the benefit of a multiplier effect, generating jobs, apprenticeships, an increase in tax revenues and reduced welfare spending. Shelter has said that £1.22 billion extra, on top of the current £1 billion of Government grant spend, could be sufficient to get us building enough homes if it was combined with a package of reform. That would certainly be a good start. Serious consideration should be given to channelling some of the huge windfall increase in stamp duty revenues predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility into building new council homes. That would be one way of using some of the tax proceeds from our distorted market to increase social housing supply.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you are looking a little fidgety, if I may say so. That indicates to me that you would like me to wind up shortly, and I will do so. However, I just want to mention one other matter, which has not been raised this afternoon. The increase in housing supply that we need must involve housing that people can afford to run, as well as buy or rent. This is an opportunity to tackle the scandal of fuel poverty and the rising cost of living. We must use house building to reverse this Government’s weakening of energy saving, water efficiency and other standards. This Government have acted to prevent local authorities from going further than minimum national standards for energy efficiency, despite those standards looking weaker by the day.
Given the scandal of fuel poverty and the hardship being caused by high energy bills, as well as the urgent need for radical cuts to carbon emissions, new homes must be built to a genuine zero carbon homes standard. The Government’s exemptions for small developments mean that around a third of all homes could be exempted altogether. If the Government were sticking to the original zero carbon homes standard, the situation would not be so bad. Under the original standard, annual energy bills for residents in new homes would be under £300, but the Government are again capitulating to big business, watering down the standards and creating loopholes, so energy bills will be around £800.
In summary, we need sufficient homes, which means lifting the borrowing cap and ensuring that imaginative sources of revenue such as stamp duty funding are properly ring-fenced. It also means ensuring that our homes are fit to live in.
Listening to some of the speeches by Labour Members made me feel that they were in deep denial about what happened at the back end of the previous decade, which had a significant, if not catastrophic, impact on the construction industry and the house-building programme. I gently remind Emma Reynolds that it was the previous Labour Government who brought the economy to its knees, causing problems which had such a devastating impact on the construction industry that there was no possibility of providing the houses that were needed. Frankly, it is living in cloud cuckoo land to suggest that there has been no improvement since then. Since April 2010, 445,000 new homes have been delivered. That, to me, is quite an achievement. We have seen a reduction in the number of empty properties, and rightly so. Just over 200,000 planning permissions were granted last year. Those are signs of the beginning of improvements in a market that had been brought to its knees.
Having said that, I agree with everyone who has spoken that it is crucial that we meet the housing needs and requirements of a growing population. My own local authority, Chelmsford, has been extremely good. Between 2001 and 2020, we are being required to provide 16,000 extra homes to meet local demand. The council has been imaginative and innovative in identifying brownfield sites, to start with, throughout the borough and providing new planning permissions for housing on them. Owing to the scale of the housing provision required, it is moving on to greenfield sites in the north-east of Chelmsford, where we are hoping to get a new station as a result of a new almost-ward of just over 3,000 properties, of which 35% will be affordable housing to meet the needs of local people who will benefit from it.
I would like to raise an issue with my hon. Friend the Minister about affordable housing. The main provider of social housing in Chelmsford is Chelmer Housing Partnership. That housing was originally the housing stock of Chelmsford borough council, as it was then. Chelmer Housing Partnership has had an imaginative way of developing its properties since it took them over about 20 years ago. For example, all the houses have had central heating put in, which means that no one comes to my surgeries any more complaining about massive condensation. It has improved the fabric of the buildings, and, through its imaginative policies, is investing in building more housing stock for its tenants.
The other housing associations vary as to the quality of the service that they provide to their tenants, and that worries me. Chelmer Housing Partnerships operates a policy of housing for local people. The problem in Chelmsford—I am sure it is not unique—is that significant numbers of young people are leaving school or university and living at home because they cannot afford, at that stage in their lives, to buy a property. Meanwhile, there is not enough social housing available, because most of the housing associations have a policy whereby half the allocations are for local people and the other half are up to the housing association. A lot of people from outside the borough, often from London, are being rehoused in social housing in Chelmsford. If we had a surfeit of properties, that would be perfectly reasonable, but we have long waiting lists for housing. Realistically, a 21-year-old in Chelmsford who is single, has no children and lives with their parents would be on a housing waiting list for a minimum of 10 years before they might get anywhere consideration for an offer. I believe that is wrong.
Local housing should, first, be for local people, and if there is then spare capacity, people from elsewhere may certainly be encouraged to go to live there. Chelmsford is a very attractive place. It has two of the finest grammar schools in the nation. It has good communications with London. About 8,000 of my constituents commute by train down to London to work. It is an area with good shopping, and so on. That means that there is constant demand for housing in the borough. We therefore need to look at this issue again, to make sure that local residents who were born there and whose families have lived there all their lives are able to get housing, along with other family members who may wish to come back to Chelmsford to help to look after elderly or ailing family members and parents.
I make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister: is there any way of fine-tuning the allocation of social housing to make sure that local people are given greater priority, rather than having to compete with people who have no connection with the area and, in effect, queue-jump? That causes tensions within the community, because people ask why they have to wait so long to get housing when people who have never been there before and have no connections can get an allocation through a housing association and come to live in a very attractive and vibrant city.
I am pleased that we are having yet another debate on housing, and I hope there will be many more between now and the next election.
There is clearly a housing crisis facing very many people in this country. Basically, the problem is that 200,000 new households are being created every year through population growth or people choosing to live alone. New house building comes nowhere near to meeting those demands. Thus the shortage is dealt with by rising property prices, rising private sector rents and greater demand on social housing—or, at the other end of the scale, increasing homelessness, rough sleeping, overcrowding, underachievement in schools, and desperate poverty among many people who deserve somewhere decent to live.
I hope that we can look at this debate on the basis of the needs of the entire population. I am particularly concerned about those who are really up against it in inner-city communities such as the one I represent. I am very proud to represent an inner-London constituency. It is a place of growing division, I am sorry to say, because of the housing situation. House prices are rising very fast. The number of owner-occupiers is now well below 30% and falling fast. The number of council properties is increasing only as far as the council is able to find land to build and develop council housing, which is the most secure and affordable form of housing available to people. The remaining provision comprises the private rented sector, which has limited regulation and tends to be very expensive.
The strategy adopted by this Government, through the Department for Work and Pensions, on limiting the local housing allowance but not controlling rents means that large numbers of private tenants, who are often in work—as well as some who are not in work but have right of access to the local housing allowance—cannot afford to remain in those properties and are therefore decanted out of the area. That is happening not just in central London but in the central and more expensive parts of every town and city in the country. Frankly, there is a process of social cleansing going on. That is the effect of the overall housing shortage and the very great increases in costs associated with it.
I have raised with the Minister a specific concern about the development of new properties in former industrial or office buildings under what are known as permitted development rights. The Government decided that they would lift the planning restriction applied to permitted development rights on former office buildings. That means that a local authority has no control over what happens to a former office building, which can then be converted into housing. In some cases, it might be entirely appropriate to convert an office block into housing if there is no longer any requirement for an office block or likelihood of anybody wanting to use it as such. The problem is that if the local authority has no say in the matter, it has no opportunity to try to protect local employment, as it might sometimes wish to protect. Moreover, the local authority has no power whatever to insist that a proportion of the dwellings created are available for social rent. I do not like using the phrase “affordable rent,” because most of the “affordable” rents in London are not at all affordable to anyone on an average income or below.
Yesterday, the all-party group on the private rented sector had a very interesting meeting about access to housing for under-35s. We took evidence from Crisis, the National Union of Students and a company called Essential Living, which is backed by $200 million of equity funding from American pension funds and is very keen on developing the larger-scale private rented sector in London. It says that at some point in the future it wants to develop some kind of affordable rented model, but it is very unclear what that model is. It has bought into an office block in my constituency called Archway tower and turned it into, I think, 120 flats marketed at people earning more than £80,000 a year. It does not require local authority permission to do that; it is only building control and any external work to the building that need to be passed by the local planning authority. Requests have been made of the company to contribute to the social needs of the area by providing a proportion of those properties for social rent. Its responses have been polite and well informed, but the answer has always been the same: it says no, it will not do it.
When I say to the Minister, therefore, that there is a need to intervene in the development of the private rented sector, I do so not only because I want to see the continuation of the diverse mosaic of London’s communities, but, quite simply, for the sake of the survival of the economy of this very big city, which, indeed, will affect that of other very big cities. I pray in aid the London chamber of commerce statistics on the numbers of people who are finding it difficult to afford to buy or rent anywhere to live in London. There is a growing problem of labour shortage, and the same applies to other parts of the country.
I am rather puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s comments about his constituency. Given the paucity of greenfield and urban exception sites available to build new estates in boroughs such as Islington, I would have thought that he would welcome permitted development rights, to enable the cumulative release of more housing of all types and perhaps even affordable housing for his constituents and people across London.
Uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman does not seem to have been listening very carefully. I did not say that I was opposed to the conversion of vacant office blocks or industrial premises into housing. My point is that if there are jobs to be protected—this could apply anywhere in the country—the local authority should at least have a say, so that a rational decision could be made. Secondly, any development has to have a sense of social responsibility, so at least a proportion of those properties should be available for affordable social rent rather than market rent, which is completely unaffordable for the majority of people in my constituency.
When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope he will reflect on the ways in which permitted development rights are actually militating against the housing needs of those people who are most desperately in need of somewhere safe, secure and affordable to live.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to follow Jeremy Corbyn, who made some interesting points about the particular demand for housing in London. It has already been said in this debate—but it needs to be reiterated—that London is the key to the national housing supply. There is a chronic shortage and it is having a ripple effect, not only in the south-east, but more widely.
I suppose the situation is an echo of developments after the war and during the post-war era, when the so-called London overspill moved out from the slums of many parts of the metropolis into the bright new housing provided, among other places, in Swindon. I have the pleasure of representing estates that were very much part of that London overspill planning. Indeed, many of those Londoners still live in the houses they occupied in the 1950s and ’60s. The 1950s were a time of mass house building in this country, presided over by a Conservative Government and a Conservative housing Minister, Harold Macmillan. As the result of a pledge at a Conservative party conference, 300,000 houses were built every year in the early 1950s.
The hon. Lady is talking about 1968—the year of my birth. I agree that house building reached its peak at that time, but I also remind her that in the immediate post-war era, between 1945 and 1951, about
700,000 houses were built, which is only just over 100,000 a year, and that Aneurin Bevan’s record on housing does not match that of Harold Macmillan.
It is important to make such points, historic though they may be, because neither of the main parties in this House can claim a moral authority when it comes to house building. It ill behoves the hon. Lady and her party to make intemperate criticism of this Government when the previous Labour Government’s public house-building record speaks for itself as poor. The year 2008-09 saw the lowest level of house building since, I think, 1923, which is hardly a record of which the Labour party can be proud. If Labour’s record was so poor then, why on earth should we believe its pledges now about house building from 2015? Please forgive me, but, to be frank, I am sceptical of those claims, though I am sure they are well-intentioned.
Swindon is a town that continues to grow—it now has in excess of 200,000 people—and we have delivered house growth for much of the past 30 to 40 years: first, in the form of the London overspill estates, such as Park North and Park South, and then through developments in the ’70s and, indeed, the ’80s in west Swindon, which comprise the constituency that I have the honour of representing today.
We are no strangers to, or shy of, house building, and we continue to do it. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, who has responsibility for planning, is familiar with the Wichelstowe development in my constituency. It is one of the biggest developments in the country and it continues to be rolled out. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and the Government for contributing £800,000—nearly £1 million—to allow a joint venture to be set up, which will enable the local authority, Swindon borough council, together with a private partner, to start developing homes specifically geared towards retired people who wish to downsize and live in homes that, while they do not meet the criteria of sheltered housing, are designed with the needs of older people in mind.
I am talking about homes with fewer bedrooms but larger living accommodation and that are adaptable for the disabilities that sometimes come with old age. That detailed work has been commissioned by the local authority. It has identified a growing ageing population in Swindon who will need that type of housing, and I look forward to the joint venture being set up in the early part of next year and to houses being delivered in Middle Wichel. A new Waitrose supermarket has been opened on the site, which is welcome. We already have shops and infrastructure, which I hope will match the housing to be built there. I am delighted that this week’s announcement of local growth funding has earmarked more than £20 million for the development of infrastructure to facilitate the development of Wichelstowe, which will include the enhancement of junctions 15 and 16 of the M4. That is vital if Swindon is going to be able to sustain the housing expansion expected of it.
In recent years, planning and development have not had the best of reputations. Accusations have been made that developers have land-banked. Until a few years ago, I think there was a case to be made, but the evidence is shifting. My recent experience of the granting of local planning applications is that developers are, in fact, keen to get on site and start developing. I am no longer as convinced as I was about the accusations of land-banking. I have read the detail of the Opposition motion and think that they are a little behind the curve when it comes to the real evidence. They are quite right to be concerned about land-banking—I do not approve of it at all—but I think the evidence is moving against them as the economy picks up and construction development continues.
That leads on to my point. I have concerns about proposals that address non-existent problems. The Opposition proposal could make the situation worse—poorly prepared and considered developments could go ahead, but that is not we want, and certainly not in Swindon.
Development problems concern not only those of us with an interest in housing, but everybody who wants quality of life. I deal regularly with what I call speculative planning applications, which fall outside the line of development as agreed by local plans and do not capture the consent of local people. Although I was delighted that the old top-down regional spatial strategy was abolished—the number of houses being imposed on my area was excessive—we are in a transitional period between the abolition of the old regime and the adoption of a new local plan. There has been an over-reliance on the five-year land supply argument. That causes a problem for growing towns such as Swindon—it is very difficult to argue that we have such a supply.
My hon. Friend the Minister is well aware of those problems, but the message on development and new homes must go out loud and clear. In Swindon alone, 238 new homes have been purchased through Help to Buy, and under the affordable homes scheme, just under 1,000 homes have been delivered. Real progress is being made. The Government are sowing the seeds of a renaissance in housing development. The proposals in the Opposition motion are ill-conceived and do not address the issues properly, and they would cause more problems than they seek to solve.
I start by making my usual declaration of an indirect interest, which relates to the entry in the register of my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford.
I agree with Mr Buckland on the need for a mix of new housing, including housing for people who are retiring. However, I disagree with his assessment of the housing crisis and the figures. In 2009, in the depths of the recession, which was caused in America and ultimately affected countries globally, Labour built—completed—124,980 homes, which is more than we have seen in any single year under the current Government. We need to have that on the record.
We face a housing crisis, with too few homes being built. In parts of the country, mortgage levels are racing ahead. Rents are rising, and the availability of homes for those in the highest housing need does not meet demand. Homelessness and rent arrears are rising because of Government polices such as the bedroom tax. The housing benefit bill is not falling, but rising. All the Government’s policy changes, which were clearly based on sums written on the back of a fag packet, are failing. Their decision to come into office and throw all the cards in the air—it did not matter whether the Labour Government’s policies were starting to work, even with the problems faced in the recession—was injudicious, unwise and ideologically driven.
The Government and the Minister seem to be burying their collective heads in the sand. It would be nice if the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Kris Hopkins, were on the Front Bench to listen to hon. Members’ contributions, and particularly those from Government Back Benchers. Some of their contributions have been thoughtful—Nick de Bois made a sensible and interesting contribution about the problems in London.
House builders have been given quite a lot of freedom by planning changes. I am disappointed, because when I was shadow Housing Minister, house builders frequently told me that, when conditions were right, they could step up to the plate, and build quickly and in numbers, but that is not happening. There are a range of complex reasons, some within the control of house builders, and some that are not, which the Government ought to address to expand the number of new homes being built.
The evidence appears to show that we are likely to have a fall in housing starts. The Home Builders Federation briefing to hon. Members says that that could be
“as a result of affordable housing starts reducing in the transitional period as the current affordable housing programme comes to an end and before the new commences”.
I would have expected the Government to have had a decent transition to ensure that that reduction does not happen, but the Minister was not clear. He threw in a number and said, “We are going to bring forward money from the 2015 to 2018 programme in order to deal with it and everything will be okay,” but he was completely unclear about how much and where. All such questions were left hanging in the air.
We have a problem about where value sits in a housing development. That is a big issue. The Government should be putting their hands up and saying, “We are not doing enough.” They should stop pretending that everything is rosy, when in fact it is shocking. We have the lowest level of house building in peacetime. Young people are finding it difficult to find a place to rent, let alone buy. In the south-west there is a shortfall of some 36,000—that is the difference in the past three years between housing completions and demand. As my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds said from the Opposition Front Bench, help to build is an interesting concept and would take us in the right direction.
The Government’s complacency and, at times, arrogance, needs to be challenged. The figures that were bandied about by the former Housing Minister, the Minister without Portfolio, Grant Shapps were fanciful. He made the allegations and assertions repeatedly in the House, and I have advised his office that I will talk about him today. He repeatedly made the claim that the Government would build more homes in five years than the Labour Government had built in 13 years, and fell foul of the UK Statistics Authority and the Information Commissioner. An article in
The Independent on
Government Members repeatedly quote figures on the number of social homes that are based on a subtraction of right-to-buy sales, which serves an interesting purpose from their point of view, but is incredibly misleading. That is from a Conservative party that wholeheartedly supported the sell-off of social housing. Both Labour and the Conservatives have failed to build using the proceeds of those sales. A number of Opposition Members have put their hands up to that. One of those parties—the Conservative party—did so wilfully, and one believed that the priority was getting the assets, or the housing stock, back up to a decent standard, because the previous Conservative Government had let it rot, which is not wise with valuable assets against which we might want to borrow for further investment. That was incredibly poor housing management from an ideologically blinkered Tory Government.
The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Keighley mentioned right-to-buy sales of about 10,000 and the delivery of 3,000 new homes, but that falls well short of the one-for-one provision promised by the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, or even like-for-like provision.
In Plymouth, despite the best efforts of the Labour council, there is still a shortage of homes to buy and to rent. The city council has been extremely imaginative in looking at self-build and eco options, as well as at making good use of brownfield sites. We also have one of the largest regeneration schemes in the country, begun under the previous Labour Government, which is transforming the area. However, Shelter has highlighted problems in our region. Some 80% of UK properties are too expensive for new buyers. That figure rises to 94% in the south-west, and to 99% in Exeter. The managing director of a large company linked to property sales in Plymouth, James Clarke from Lang and Co., has said that it is not selling to first-time buyers, but to second or even third-time buyers, as first-time buyers are not coming forward.
We have heard about the bank of mum and dad, but it simply is not available to most young people in low-income areas such as mine. We should also consider some of the other pressures. People are living longer in their homes; those homes are not being passed on through inheritance; and the money and equity in those homes are being used up for care purposes. That money is not therefore coming back into the housing market.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East very clearly set out Labour’s priorities and how we will deliver the house building that we need. Effectively, a number of ducks have to be got in a row before we can get such numbers, including land parcelling and construction skills. This Government are simply not getting their ducks in any sort of a line; frankly, they are shooting them one by one as each of their housing policies fails. We need a change of direction, and a change of Government.
I congratulate Emma Reynolds on securing a debate on this exceptionally important subject.
It is less than a year since we in this country were talking about a sclerotic housing market, in which people were not confident and housing was not being built. Now, almost every time the Governor of the Bank of England opens his mouth, we are talking about a housing bubble. We have gone from one to the other inside 12 months, with no intervening period of sanity, despite the ever-present, predictable and long-run need to have a roof over one’s head. One might have thought that that indicated a systemic flaw in our housing market.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the Government’s failure to build houses. I want to point out the very simple fact that Governments do not build houses. They can get in the way and make building houses easier or more difficult, but they do not build them. House builders build houses, in response to demand from tenants who wish to rent, and from buyers who wish to buy. At least, that is how it is supposed to work. We do not have a national shoe service, yet everyone in the Chamber is wearing shoes. The supply of shoes rises to meet demand, and the same is true of chairs. We do not feel the need to have a national chair service, yet we all have chairs to sit on when we need them.
That suggests that we need to deploy another factor, something that is not yet fully available: the energy of the people who want houses or somewhere to live. Rod Hackney, the Prince of Wales’s architectural adviser, said:
“It is a dangerous thing to underestimate human potential and the energy which can be generated when people are given the opportunity to help themselves.”
That is why I formed the all-party group on self-build, custom-build and independent house building. It is why I was so delighted that when Kevin McCloud addressed the group only a few weeks ago, both the Minister with responsibility for planning—my hon. Friend Nick Boles—and the shadow Housing Minister were able to attend.
For that reason, I was also delighted to take some all-party group members, Mr Allen, and people from several local authorities and housing associations, including the excellent Saffron Housing in my constituency, to look at Baugruppen, or building groups, in Berlin, where more than 5,000 dwellings have been created from the bottom up by more than 300 groups. I am sorry that the Minister with responsibility for planning and the shadow Housing Minister were not able to come, but the Department for Communities and Local Government sent some officials, and I know that the Minister will hear more about the visit. It was interesting to see both affordable rentals provided by Genossenschaften—so-called housing co-operatives—and, in some cases, housing for purchase. Most of what we saw was affordable housing, which shows that with imagination, drive and energy from the bottom up, more can be achieved.
I have not drawn first prize in the lottery of life, as Andrew George has, but I drew prize No. 4, so on
And the House of Lords. I will briefly mention the three things that I hope the Bill will do. First, it would impose a requirement or duty on local authorities to keep a register of people or community groups, whether they want to rent or purchase, who are interested in bringing forward or acquiring land for what in Berlin are called self-organised projects. Secondly, when bringing forward housing initiatives in local plans, local authorities would have to take account of and make provision for the needs of people on the register. Thirdly, they would have to do something in the affordable space, so that people with affordable obligations can meet them, or at least part of them, as a result of people’s contributions from the bottom up.
I am the tail-end Charlie again; that is the position that I like to have in these debates.
What an interesting debate we have had this afternoon. Yet again, the Opposition think that the glass is half empty. They need to look at the whole of the country. They need to look at beautiful South Derbyshire. In 2012-13, not only did we build twice as many houses as the average constituency across the country, but a third of those were affordable houses. South Derbyshire district council, which has been Conservative-led for the past seven years, has been building new council houses. How is it able to do that? By managing the housing revenue account very successfully. All those things are possible when an area has a council that cares about its people, understands value for money and does not waste money. Of course, that Conservative council has not put the rates up for four years, either.
Another reason why this glass-half-empty Opposition debate is astonishing is that they are talking only about new builds, and not about bringing properties back into use. The most imaginative scheme has come from a charity that looks after ex-service people. It has bought two rows of houses in the north-east for £1 a street. The houses are being brought back into use by the people who will live in them. That is not costing the public purse anything. Everybody had written off those houses because they are up in the north-east and stuff does not happen up there. That is not good enough. It is time that the Opposition decided to play a better and bigger part in solving this problem.
There are lots of empty homes in our country. Councils that are using their initiative are not just putting the council tax on empty homes up from 50% to 80%; they are charging 100%, then 110% if the home is still empty the next year, and 120% if it is still empty the year after that. That can go up to 140%, because we want homes to be brought back into use. That is not about restricting people or taxing them out. The council wants the homes to be brought back into use, so it says to the people who own them, “Do you want tenants? Our council housing people will organise tenants for you.” That is done at private rent prices and can involve short-term lets, three-year lets or whatever they want. Innovative councils are bringing empty homes back into use.
I will finish on that point, because I think that Madam Deputy Speaker wants to move things along. I find it so depressing that, as usual, all we get is a mithering, miserable debate from the Opposition. Where are the Opposition Members? Yet again, there has been speaker after speaker from the Government Benches, because we are proud of what we are doing on new housing and on bringing properties back into use. We are proud that we have really good-quality builds, such as the one that the Minister with responsibility for planning, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, kindly came to see in Melbourne in South Derbyshire. We are proud of what we are doing. I say to the Opposition: for goodness’ sake get a grip. Start cheering on what is good about this nation, and stop knocking it.
We are in the midst of the biggest housing crisis in a generation. I am sorry that Heather Wheeler finds it miserable that I am pointing that out, but many people in my constituency and across the country are suffering. Under this Government, house building is at its lowest level in peacetime since the 1920s. Since May 2010, the backlog in demand has reached 500,000.
Today, we have heard the latest stats, and clever words from Government Members that are, as my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds said, designed to dazzle, and to distract from the Government’s poor record. There was certainly an attempt to distract at the start of this debate, but there was not much dazzling. The number of announcements the Government have made about housing is about the same as the number of homes they have built. The impact that the housing shortage is having on the financial security and the hopes and dreams of millions of people across the country is rightly a concern for this House.
In a typically excellent speech, my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford showed how the Government have totally failed on housing. For his sake, the whole House was relieved when he gave way to my hon. Friend Alison Seabeck. She was keen to intervene because she is proud of his record. Millions of people live in decent homes because of his focus on improving the housing stock, and we should pay tribute to him for that. The Government of which he was a member built 2 million new homes, including, as he said, half a million affordable homes.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, spoke powerfully about the contrast between the approaches of the current and previous Government. The current
Government’s first decision on housing after taking office was to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%. The number of homes built for social rent fell to 7,759 last year—the lowest number since records began, and a fall of 75% from 2009-10, the last year of the Labour Government. The number of affordable homes built fell last year to the lowest in at least five years; that represented a fall of 32% from 2009-10. Overall, home ownership fell to its lowest level in 25 years—it is lower than in any year under the last Labour Government. The latest English housing survey showed that the proportion of homes lived in by owner-occupiers had dropped to 65.2% from 71% in 2003. It is at its lowest level since 1987.
Many Members have raised the issue of affordability. Mrs Main said that house prices in her area are not affordable. I agree that we need to deliver more affordable homes, and different types of homes. I reassure her that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East said, we do not intend to impose housing targets of the type that she fears, but of course we want people in all areas of the country to think about the relationship between house prices and the availability of houses. That is as important in the hon. Lady’s community as it is in mine.
My hon. Friend Mr Betts called for all-party agreement on increasing house building and on the need to build social homes. He has done much work to build that cross-party agreement through his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. Andrew George spoke of his private Member’s Bill on social housing. I know that the shadow Minister will talk constructively with him about that Bill. He talked a great deal of sense about the bedroom tax, which he opposed, and he highlighted its consequences. Of course, his party is accountable for that policy, and we have used Opposition days to give it many opportunities to overturn it, but it does not take the opportunities that we present.
My hon. Friend Mr Slaughter spoke about the deliberate demolition of council properties in his area, and why voters at this year’s local elections rejected that social cleansing so comprehensively. I pay tribute to him for highlighting the issue so consistently in the House. My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn talked about the same issue—what he sees as social cleansing—but he also mentioned his concerns about the need for reform of the private rented sector.
It is clear that the Government are failing. House building is at its lowest levels in peacetime since the 1920s, and the number of completions has been lower in each year of this Government than in every year of the last Labour Government. The Government cannot continue to claim otherwise. The number of homes built for social rent is at its lowest for 20 years, home ownership is down, and millions are facing insecurity in the private rented sector as house prices rise faster than wages. The Governor of the Bank of England says that housing is the biggest risk to our economy, and the Opposition recognise that risk. That is why we are putting policies in place to tackle the housing shortage that is so central to the cost of living crisis.
I came back this morning from Bournemouth, where I attended part of the Local Government Association conference. I spoke to a lot of Labour councillors; many of them were familiar faces, but there were many new faces, following our success in this year’s local elections. Many of them told me proudly about the homes that they are building for their communities. Councils such as Southwark, York, Exeter, Leeds, Nottingham, Ipswich and Stevenage are all using the new financing agreed under the Labour Government to push ahead with building more council houses. Overall, five times as many social homes are being built in Labour authority areas as in Conservative ones. Of course, I welcome Conservative councils that are building—the hon. Member for South Derbyshire spoke about how her council is building homes and bringing others back into use. Of course we want to work with councils of all political types to bring forward new homes across the country, but it is clear that Labour councils are already showing the commitment that the next Labour Government will show.
In contrast to the current Government’s failure, we will tackle the housing shortage. We recognise that there are deep structural problems in the land market and the house building sector. As the number of small builders has declined and the big firms have grown even bigger, it has become easier for the dominant firms to buy up land. The truth is that to get the number of houses built that we need, there has to be a change in how the housing market works, but Ministers have simply failed to acknowledge that.
We must get more firms into house building to build homes and provide greater competition, because as we know, the high cost of housing is driven by the high cost of land and the shortage of housing supply. That is why Labour set out plans to boost the role of small and medium-sized house builders and get them building again. We have proposed a “help to build” scheme, which would help small and medium-sized builders to access finance through the banks. Those builders tell us that access to finance is a key barrier to getting homes built, and we will help them overcome it.
Access to land is another key barrier. That is why we have set out plans to ensure that a higher proportion of small sites are allocated in local authority five-year land supplies, and we will give them guaranteed access to public land. The system is not releasing enough land for housing development, and by the time land is given planning permission it is often prohibitively expensive. That creates an incentive to bank land, rather than build on it.
According to documents written by the Minister’s Department and obtained by “Newsnight”, there are 9,000 sites with planning permission to build 350,000 new homes that have not yet been started. Under the current system, however, there is little that local authorities can do about land banking. That is why we would create greater transparency by ensuring that developers register the land they own. We will also give councils and communities the power to charge developers escalating fees for sitting on land with planning permission, to incentivise them to either build or release the land to someone who will. As a last resort, we would give local authorities the power to compulsorily purchase land, so that they could assemble the land and we could make progress.
The purpose of those measures is to address the imbalance of power between local communities and developers. There are also issues to be resolved between authorities. Where local authorities are landlocked but their communities need to expand, the Government’s duty to co-operate is nothing more than a duty to talk and talk. In my area—in Corby and East Northamptonshire—the two neighbouring district authorities have worked well together. There is a huge amount of house building—indeed, both Ministers on the Front Bench have been to see it—and Corby is set to double in size by 2020 because of that co-operation between neighbouring authorities. We need to have that all around the country, and that is why we will give communities the right to grow.
After four years of promises but inaction by this Government, we welcome the proposal for an urban development corporation to support the building of Ebbsfleet garden city. We are disappointed, however, that the Minister says there will not be a requirement for affordable housing. Garden cities can offer a considerable amount of social and affordable housing; that is part of the principles behind them. Labour is determined to bring forward plans to deliver a new generation of new towns and garden cities as part of fulfilling our commitment to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020. The right to grow; use it or lose it on land banking; reform to the housing revenue account; backing small and medium-size builders; tackling empty homes; reforming the private rented sector; scrapping the cruel bedroom tax—those are serious measures to bring about the step change that we need to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance of having a good home. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.
This has been an illuminating and at times arresting debate. We have witnessed a near domestic in the household of Mr Raynsford and Alison Seabeck. Caroline Lucas has tantalised us with talk of an amendment that seemingly never was, and the contribution by my right hon. Friend Mr Burns had, I fear, the absolute opposite of his desired effect because it made us all want to move to his constituency and put ourselves on the list of the excellent Chelmer housing authority.
My hon. Friend Andrew George spoke movingly about the particular issues facing areas that are attractive to people who want second homes. He sits next to my hon. Friend Tim Farron, who will have similar issues in the beautiful end of the country that he represents. I hope that both my hon. Friends will be able to explore the potential for community land trusts to provide a form of housing for sale that can be secured in permanence for people on typical average local incomes.
I believe that the best contribution in this debate came from the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. He enjoined us all to recognise that we as a country, one Government after another, have been building too few homes for
30 years. He urged us to put aside debates about statistics—endlessly tedious debates, I might add—and instead to focus on a long-term cross-party strategy to correct our common failure. It will be hard—not least because Andy Sawford fired quite a few political bullets over the Dispatch Box in his winding-up speech—but I am going to try to follow the injunction of the distinguished Select Committee Chair.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that this is the first time I have tried to do that. I feel that is a little harsh. But I promise not to do it again.
To build houses, we need a few basic things. As everyone has pointed out, the first thing we need more than anything is land. I am delighted that this Government have done the hard work of reforming planning policy to create the national planning policy framework, and I am even more delighted that the Labour party has agreed not to scrap it and to continue to work within that framework.
As my hon. Friend Nick de Bois is about to leave his seat, let me say that I am very pleased that the Mayor of London and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer have announced housing zones, working on ideas drawn up by the excellent organisation, Shelter, to bring forward brownfield sites in areas of desperate housing need. I look forward to a successful housing zone in my hon. Friend’s Enfield constituency.
I am delighted that the Chancellor is spearheading the right to build—a proposal included in the Budget—which is intended to provide small blocks of land for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who would rather not rely on a big house builder, but want to get on, hire a local builder and an architect and build themselves a house—and they often find that they can get it built a good deal cheaper, too. Again, I am glad that the Opposition have indicated their support for this initiative.
Proposals to bring forward land, then, are the first key step. I believe that this Government have done a lot, although it is taking a long time to come through—longer than any of us would have wanted to deliver the houses we need. It is right and proper that we have that as part of our long-term strategy.
The second thing we need is lots and lots of different institutions building homes. Sadly, as a result of the crash—I shall not get into the debate about where it came from; there was a crash and it was one of the worst this country has ever faced—where 5,000 firms were building between one and 10 houses a year in 2007, a few years later, there were fewer than 3,000 such firms. We have thus seen a collapse in the small and medium-sized builder market.
Every Member has talked about the falling off of council house building. I do not believe that any of us should be ideological about this issue. I want as many institutions that have the money and want to build houses to be able to do so. That is why I welcome the relaxation of the HRA borrowing cap announced by the Chancellor, for which bids are now being sought.
We need institutions to be able to get working capital in order to buy the land and to carry the land on their balance sheet while they are working through the planning process. That is why the Government have introduced a builder’s finance fund, and I am glad that the Opposition also have proposals to provide finance for small and medium-sized builders. In that long-term strategy, as well as a common approach on bringing forward land, there can be a common approach on ensuring that as many institutions as possible and as many individuals as possible are able to get on and build houses.
In addition, we need people who want to buy houses to be able to get mortgages. I am afraid that that is another thing that was entirely devastated by the crash. It was devastated perhaps for good reasons, with the banks, having over-extended themselves by lending people too much money off slightly flaky asset values and having gotten themselves into terrible problems, having to retrench and pull back their balance sheets to rebuild their equity reserves. As a result, for love nor money, people could not get a 95% mortgage—unless their daddy was very rich, in which case the mortgage probably was not needed in the first place. That explains why this Government have brought forward Help to Buy.
I know that the Opposition like to snipe about Help to Buy, but there is no question about it. Every house builder in the country will say that they are building again because they have people to sell to who are able to get mortgages. That is why I trust that once the heat of the election has subsided, the Opposition will acknowledge that Help to Buy is a key part of the long-term strategy for house building.
Notwithstanding my attempts to be bipartisan and ecumenical, I shall be urging my hon. Friends to oppose the motion. My reason for doing so is simply this: in the Opposition motion, there are some glib proposals, which I hope might work, but I fear that Opposition Members have not thought them through and that they might do more harm than good.
There is the proposal, simply named, for a “right to grow”. We heard a complaint about the duty to co-operate—the complaint that it involved endless conversations—but, when challenged on whether the “right to grow” meant a right just to impose, the Opposition said “No, of course there will be consultations.” What are consultations? Consultations are exactly the conversations that are happening as a result of the duty to co-operate. The boroughs surrounding Oxford have got together with the city of Oxford to produce a joint housing market study, so that they can understand jointly what their needs are and decide jointly how they will meet them. That is the duty to co-operate in action. Either we continue that approach, or we become more heavy-handed and we impose. I think it important to be honest: the right to grow certainly sounds more like an imposition, and I fear that those who apply it will find that they are building resentment, not houses.
I am troubled, too, by the glib approach to garden cities. The Government have been very clear about the fact that they are dying for local authorities to come forward with proposals for large new settlements which we could help to fund with a mixture of guarantees and other support, and which would deliver substantial amounts of new housing. We have made that plain for many, many years, but I have to say that we have not been overwhelmed with proposals as yet. The one place from which we did receive a proposal is the one place where we are providing that support: Ebbsfleet, where both local authorities want a garden city and absolutely see the need for it, and where we have responded by arranging for an urban development corporation to provide it.
The Opposition policy on garden cities means one of two things. Either it means that local authorities are invited to come forward with proposals for new garden settlements, in which case it is precisely the same as the Government’s current policy, or it means a proposal for Sir Michael Lyons—or some other distinguished gentleman or lady—to get out his red marker pen, look at a map of England, and start drawing his own maps of where those garden cities will go. It must be one or the other. Either it is a voluntary process in which local authorities—
Oh, it is in between! Everything is “in between” when the detail becomes awkward, but the detail is the responsibility of Government. We cannot smoosh around the words and hide among the vagaries when we are in government, which is why that policy, too, is a dangerous one.
There is also the proposal to confiscate land from builders who do not build. There is nothing more frustrating for any of us than to see a site that has had planning permission for a while not being built out, but it is important that we ask ourselves what the fundamental reasons are for that. Usually, it is because the site will not make money if it is built out and sold on now. We must also ask ourselves this: what will be the result of our saying to builders “We are going to force you to build out, or else we will take the land away from you”? I fear—and not as a result of any ideological prejudices—that there will be fewer applications for planning permission and fewer houses for which development is proposed, and that we will have made the problem worse.
The Chairman of the Select Committee is right. On either side of the House, we have not yet succeeded in solving this problem. We must work together to establish a long-term strategy in order to do so, but I do not believe that the proposals in the Opposition motion will achieve that, and I therefore urge the House to reject it.
I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the question relating to the draft Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Amendment of Schedule 1: injunctions to prevent gang-related violence) Order 2014, the Ayes were 274 and the Noes were 203, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]