Greater London Authority Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 28th March 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Labour 7:56 pm, 28th March 2007

My Lords, I am sure strong views will be expressed on a number of aspects of the Bill, but I should like to concentrate my remarks on the housing and planning proposals. I should begin by declaring an interest. I am a member of the board of Circle Anglia, which is a combined group of housing associations across London and the south-east, and I chair Circle 33, which is one of the largest registered social landlords in that group. Together we have 30,000 properties and we are likely to double that figure in the next three years. We are experiencing phenomenal growth through a combination of local authority stock transfer, merger with smaller registered social landlords and Housing Corporation funding for new build and regeneration. We are a large housing association, but certainly not the largest in London.

The reason I say this is to illustrate the changing shape of social housing provision in London. The old model of social housing purely being provided by local authorities is breaking down. There is now an increasing occurrence of affordable housing for rent, shared ownership or purchase being provided by large housing associations whose organisation and management often overrides local authority boundaries and accountability. In London we now have large housing associations using economies of scale to maximise the available stock of good quality housing for current and future tenants. They also have more freedom to innovate. That is why I am pleased to report that my housing association is leading a consortium which hopes to tackle the scandalous decline in MoD accommodation in return for access to land to build more affordable homes. I hope that noble Lords welcome experiments like that. And although it is a subject of continuing controversy, housing associations can currently access significant funding from the Housing Corporation to improve and increase the housing stock, which is not currently available to local authorities.

This broader mix of housing providers can bring benefits, but it is also in danger of leaving a democratic vacuum. It is an issue that housing associations are trying to address through increased tenant participation at the local level, and we are working hard to find new ways of involving tenants in shaping their services. Clearly these initiatives can play an important role in supplementing the continuing crucial role of local authorities in responding to local housing needs. However, the scale of the housing challenge that we face across London needs a broader democratic mandate. That is why I welcome the new powers in the Bill to enable the mayor to set a London-wide housing strategy based on a thorough assessment of housing need across the city, with practical powers to specify the numbers, type and locations of houses to be built.

It is impossible to overestimate the scale of the problem the mayor will inherit, which will need more than mere number-crunching to transform the housing crisis in the city. It has already been estimated that nearly 1 million extra people will move to London in the next 10 years. That is exacerbated by the year-on-year rise in single households, which put extra pressure on the existing stock. Meanwhile, we already have 62,000 families living in unsuitable temporary accommodation, and Shelter estimates that one in seven children is growing up in substandard or overcrowded accommodation. This is blighting the lives of a large number of our future generation, for whom poor housing also leads to poor health and to poor educational achievement.

To be fair, the Government have been bold in providing additional funding for housing on an unprecedented scale, but they will need to be bolder still. While they remain on course to meet the decent homes target for all existing social housing by 2010, Shelter has estimated that an additional 20,000 new units of social housing a year nationally need to be built to meet the growing housing need. The majority of those units will be concentrated in the south-east. I hope the Chancellor will address this issue in the Comprehensive Spending Review. He should do so with renewed confidence that the mayor and the GLA will be empowered to use any additional resources allocated to London effectively and efficiently.

I referred to the need for the Government to be bold, but there is an even bigger obligation in this Act for the Mayor and the GLA to be bold and imaginative in addressing our housing challenge. In particular they need to galvanise the wasted resources in the private sector. We already know the extra pressures caused by the accumulation of land banks for speculative gain. While the planning-gain legislation is a useful weapon, the Mayor will need a clear strategy to free up pockets of brownfield land for development. At the same time, we know we have an estimated 100,000 empty residential properties already in London. Again, some of those have been purchased purely for speculative gain, rather than for use—as I heard it described on the radio yesterday, buy-to-sit rather than buy-to-let. The new powers in the Housing Act could tackle those empty properties, but the Act will need to be imposed more systematically to make a real difference.

Lastly, the Mayor has the opportunity to be innovative in accessing the empty space in commercial premises and above shops, which could be converted into residential accommodation and help regenerate neighbourhoods. I do not pretend that these interventions will be easy, but we need to utilise every appropriate space within the confines of London before we can justify expansion. We need to maintain a high-level dialogue with the people of London to give a democratic mandate to the use of that space.

There is one further reason why, for me, the new powers for the Mayor are so important. Last week saw the publication of the report by John Hills into the future of social housing in England. He identified a crucial challenge: currently, more than half of those of working age living in social housing are without paid work. That is twice the national rate, and is not merely a feature of the disadvantage that may have qualified them for social housing in the first place. He identifies a range of possible explanations for that, such as a fear of losing benefits, the possibility of the location of social housing being in the wrong place to access work, the constraints on mobility and the downward impact of esteem in some neighbourhoods. He makes a strong thesis of a link between social housing and a lack of economic activity.

Some of his solutions can only be achieved by Government at a national level, but others could easily be achieved by a strategic London-wide authority that already has responsibility for delivering economic success across the capital. The new housing powers complement the existing economic powers, which can deliver better economic outcomes for those in social housing. For example, we could be talking about generating more local employment at a neighbourhood level, or about freeing up the mobility scheme to allow tenants to transfer jobs more easily for job-related reasons. We could be providing more integrated housing and employment support for young people, such as the foyer schemes that have been so successful. I hope the Mayor will champion innovation such as this, and will help to achieve our aspiration of thriving mixed economies and mixed communities across London.

Getting our housing strategy right remains a big challenge, and the Government have to play a part. There will need to be different solutions for different parts of the country. For us here in London, though, the best solutions lie on the one hand in improving community engagement, and on the other hand in an authority able to take a broad view of the housing needs of Londoners and deliver the extra homes we need. The Bill delivers that framework, and I am confident that the Mayor will use his powers wisely. I look forward to the continuing debate on the details of the Bill in the coming weeks.