Housing in the South East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:01 pm on 7th June 2000.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 4:01 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Carnarvon for allowing us the opportunity to debate this most fundamental of issues today. I declare my interest as a commercial and residential landlord in London.

There is a chronic shortage of temporary and permanent accommodation for single people in London. The system is silted up from top to bottom. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has drawn attention, as have previous speakers, to the high rents in London. I want to concentrate on that special area.

There is a shelter for young homeless people in Berwick Street. Five years ago, young people who were homeless were allowed to stay for a maximum of 10 days before moving on to more appropriate accommodation. Last year, one young person was there for more than 150 days. That is 10 times more than the architect had in mind when he built the place.

Moreover, many young people are being put into inappropriate bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Elderly single homeless people are being put into supported accommodation and are staying there and staying there. Therefore, no new people are able to use that very important facility because the people there are not moving on.

There is a street shelter for 15 to 16 to 25 year-olds in Soho. Young people are allowed into their rooms on their own only at ten o'clock at night. Some of those young people are extremely troubled and the staff do not wish them to harm themselves. Each room is shared with one other occupant. During their time in the hostel, they will have very little time for any privacy.

There is a great mix of young people. The short-term homeless are either at risk of permanent homelessness or they have been on the streets for a few nights. Even so, some have had experience of being in a psychiatric hospital, residential care home or prison before coming onto the streets. Others are asylum seekers who were previously happy until they faced that traumatic experience of war.

For example, I saw one young asylum seeker working at her homework the other day. Another resident said to her, "What are you doing that for? What is the point of doing that? I have never studied and I do not see the point of it". That hostel is designed as a clearing house and it should be used for that purpose. There should be accommodation to which those young people can move.

Young people at risk are being put in B&Bs. They are being put into bed and breakfasts in Earls Court. It may be the intention that they are there only for a month but there have been cases when they have been there for eight months. The accommodation is overcrowded and filthy. There is inadequate security and a high level of theft by other residents. Young people who may have been in residential care or prison are staying there. They are given £40 a week from which they are supposed to pay for take-aways. It must be a great temptation to return to crime.

Facilities for older single homeless people are extremely valuable. Many older homeless people have low-level mental health needs which go unrecognised by the statutory authorities. There is a single homeless project providing 500 beds in London which has available a psychiatric nurse who can advise on appropriate treatment for those people. But if beds are not made vacant, then the new people who need that help will not receive it.

I recognise that planning for housing in London is now the mayor's responsibility. Will the Minister undertake to convey my concern and that of other noble Lords about the need for low-cost rented accommodation in London?

My other concern is a strategic one. Some time ago, I lived for 16 to 18 months by a housing estate—one of the largest housing estates in Europe—in south London. I have worked with young people from housing estates, organising activities and excursions for them on several occasions over periods of three weeks or so.

There is now £19 billion of repairs needed to be made to social housing. How did we come to that pass? What is to prevent us from returning to it? We need to bear in mind the figures produced by the Rowntree report on social exclusion. The problem is worsening. Between 1995 and 1998, the numbers on very low incomes rose from 4.3 million to 5 million. So the poorest of the poor are becoming poorer.

Primary school children are becoming increasingly polarised in schools with very high numbers on free school meals compared with schools where few of the pupils are on free school meals. So child poverty seems to have become increasingly polarised in particular primary schools. Society is changing. It may be that we cannot now talk of the privileged few but we have the affluent majority, the privileged many. The danger is that the experience of politicians and the public will diverge greatly from those who are socially excluded. The very welcome policies now being put in place will not be seen through to completion. The general public will not demand that; they are busy with their own business. The socially excluded are in a minority. Many do not vote. Many vote only one way and so perhaps their vote is disregarded. Fewer and fewer politicians come from working-class areas. That was an issue raised earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. As I said, it reflects the way in which society is changing.

While it is good that people are better off and can expect more from life than they did in the past, we must have regard to the side effects of that affluence. The experience of the underprivileged is less well represented. At the moment we are living in an exceptional time. After many years of a Conservative administration we now have a Labour government. The Chancellor has a large war chest. However, what will happen when the economy takes a downward turn? What will happen when the expected reaction against the many positive interventions currently being made by this Government takes place?

How can we sustain these improvements? Can we achieve an all-party and national consensus that those who are socially excluded should receive the help they need? I make that point in this debate because if the excluded do not receive the help they need, I am concerned that the low-rent, social housing we are discussing today will, over time, degenerate. Even if that housing is well designed—which was not the case in the past—if people are neglected, their communities tend to degenerate and their homes degenerate along with them. I agree with the right reverend Prelate when he pointed out that it is not enough to have merely bricks and mortar; communities and stable homes are also of vital importance. I am concerned that we may lose touch with the grass-roots experience of people living in sink estates.

My father had an answer to the problem of how to sustain the momentum. He would recall the absentee landlords of Ireland in the 19th century—my forebears. They lived away from Ireland during the famine. They would send over a few pennies to support the starving farmers. My father would say that if those landlords had spent more time on their estates, perhaps they would have paid more attention to the needs of their tenant farmers. My father worked in Toynbee Hall and brought that experience to bear on his opinions, like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who also has important experience of working with the socially excluded. My father would say that we must ensure that we acquaint ourselves personally with those on the margins and that we must understand their experience of daily life.

I recall once being taken by four or five primary school children to watch their home being demolished. They had lived in a tower block on a Deptford housing estate. The blocks were destroyed because of their poor architecture, but we must be careful that we do not make even more mistakes which could lead to a similar experience in 20 years' time from now.