Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:39 pm on 23rd March 2015.

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Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence) 8:39 pm, 23rd March 2015

I place on record my indirect interests in the register entry for my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford.

The Chancellor had a throwaway line in the Red Book referring to a review he plans to undertake if he is re-elected and in government about whether the airport in Plymouth is needed and should be reopened. Let me point him in the first instance to the report produced for Viable, the group that has tenaciously kept the issue on the boil, and the report of some 146 pages produced for the city council at the end of 2014. I ask him to use those as a starting point rather than to delay the process by seeking a brand-new report covering the same ground.

In its Plymouth Plan, the city council has already made clear its intention of protecting the airport site. We also know that at last, as part of its bargaining tool to persuade the Government to back its expansion plans, Heathrow is considering offering slots or cash to smaller regional airports, and it will be interesting to see whether Gatwick follows suit. Governments of all complexions have missed a trick in relation to regional growth by not consistently supporting airports such as Plymouth. Plymouth should be receiving the sort of help that Dundee has received, which I think could be provided by the Government or one of the London bids.

The inclusion of Plymouth’s enterprise zone bid says a great deal about the quality of the offer, and I congratulate the Labour city council on making such a strong case, alongside the local enterprise partnership and businesses. Chancellors do not throw money away so close to a general election if they do not believe that doing so will bring about a positive outcome. Plymouth, under Labour, delivers.

One of the Government’s biggest failures has been their inability to keep the level of housing benefit down. Over the past five years, they have spent about £1.8 billion more than they planned to spend on housing benefit for people in work because they have depended on it to meet the cost of the otherwise higher rents that they have imposed through “affordable rents” or the private sector. That has happened notwithstanding the earlier mantra from, in particular, the then Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, who made a number of rash promises virtually all of which, unsurprisingly, proved to be inaccurate or undeliverable. Since the election of this Government, the number of working people who are forced to claim housing benefit to pay their rents has risen by more than 50%, and the Budget does nothing for them.

The Budget is very light on anything specific to the delivery of much-needed social rented housing. There is the offer of an individual savings account for first-time buyers, but that will not solve the main problem, which is the fact that we are not building enough homes. I find the Secretary of State’s bare-faced cheek extraordinary, given that his Government have delivered the lowest level of house building since the 1920s. During the run-up to the great crash, Labour were delivering 200,000 homes a year. This Government’s record of building new and affordable social rented housing is abysmal, and enormous pressure has been imposed on the private rented sector, pushing up rents.

The Government cannot duck the evidence. The UK Housing Review and the live tables of the Department for Communities and Local Government give clear figures for social rented housing starts and completions. The Chief Secretary may wish to listen, because he got the figures wrong in the Chamber the other day. In 2009-10, there were 39,492 starts and 30,939 completions. In 2013-14, the last full year, there were a meagre 3,961 starts and 7,759 completions. That is a massive drop in the number of homes available for social rent. It is also a further indication that the rise in rents that has resulted from people being given no option but to rent in the private sector, and the increasing number of so-called affordable rents, have contributed to the inexorable rise of the housing benefit bill.

The Budget contains no measures to boost social housing numbers. Indeed, the Conservatives are now talking about introducing a right to buy for housing association residents, which would reduce the stock further and leave people with low incomes facing the pressures of the private rented sector with little hope of finding homes that they could afford without recourse to housing benefit. Successive Housing Ministers have promised that their enhanced right-to-buy scheme, offering up to £77,000 per unit, would lead to a one-for-one replacement, but that scheme has failed dismally. Analysis shows that only one home has been built for every 21 that have been sold. That is not solving the problem.

The Government are pushing more and more housing associations to become developers, building homes for market sale rather than to meet social need. They will not be able to cross-subsidise from the market sales sufficiently to cover the loss of units from a potential right-to-buy option. That idea, floated by the Prime Minister, is yet another reason why people should vote Labour at the election. The hopes of home ownership aspirants can already be fulfilled through existing shared ownership schemes and other low-cost home ownership initiatives.

There has been a dramatic and deliberate reduction in the amount of social housing, and a further right to buy would have a devastating effect. The slashing of the social housing grant has already led to a reduction in the number of units that it has been possible to build. David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has said that this is

“not a budget to end the housing crisis.”

He did not mince his words, and he was right. Sadly, it is not a Budget that matches the reality of most people’s lives, and it will not help them to deal with the pressures that they face.