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My Lords, I join in the general congratulations to my noble friend Lord Whitty on instigating this debate on a subject which is of great importance to our nation, facing as it does a major housing crisis. I also join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lady Osamor on her fine and feisty speech in the cause of social justice.
Back in 1987, I became Labour’s first chair of Brighton’s housing committee, and as such I had a caseload of sometimes epic proportions covering housing repairs, rents, private landlord complaints and inquiries by homeless families. One of those who contacted me was a young single woman, with a small child, who was living in a room in a bed and breakfast just off Brighton’s seafront. The room was not much bigger than her single bed and had barely enough space for a cot and a few belongings. It was heated by an electric fan that consumed most of her income. The room was damp, miserable and depressing. The poor young mother asked if I could get her rehoused and I said that I would try, and that I could at least ensure she got more active consideration. I took a full note of her circumstances and made a description of the conditions in the appalling bed and breakfast. I then wrote to the housing manager, setting out her case and ensuring that she got active consideration for a new home. Not long after, she was allocated a flat, and she sent me a very kind note thanking me for my assistance.
Just after the 2010 general election, I received a slightly mysterious email from someone who said that I had helped them in the past. They wanted to update me and seek my advice. The email’s author asked to see me and said that she would bring someone along with her. I made an appointment and when they arrived, I realised that we had met before; the young woman looked familiar but it was actually her mother who I had met over 20 years before. The young woman was the daughter in the small cot, aged four months; now, aged 23, she had not long since got a first-class degree and her first job. Her mum said that she simply wanted to meet me to say thanks, not just for my help all those years before but because that simple act had, in her view, turned her life around. It had given her hope and a home, and led to her daughter’s success in life—a heart-warming story.
It is for reasons like this that I believe in not just social housing but council housing. I grew up on a council estate and I am proud of that fact, but since I left those homes have been privatised and the stock of council housing nationally run down, as we have heard. Right to buy has turned into one of the biggest housing swindles of all time, with housing once owned collectively now owned purely for profit. In Brighton, 50% of our council houses sold through right to buy are now owned by private landlords, and we have the obscenity of the council having to rent them back from those private landlords to house homeless families. That is madness.
In 1980, 30% of our stock was publicly owned; now, the figure is 17%. Council housing starts last year were just 6,000, while housing associations managed 35,000. But as we have heard from the National Housing Federation, we need at least 145,000 affordable homes. Government policy focuses exclusively on home ownership. I believe in home ownership but not at the expense of all else. Margaret Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy is exactly that—a dream. We have to get real and channel our investment where it works, and works fastest.
As housing chair in a local authority, I could summon up the land, pave the way for planning permission and build the homes. That was the reason why, even in the late 1980s, Brighton built 400 new homes a year. We could set targets for construction and we could meet them. It is why the single mother living in a bed and breakfast had a reasonable expectation that the council could help, and why she and her small family were able to thrive and grow, while having the reasonable expectation of, and aspirations for, a good life. We need to return to that dream and find ways to make it a reality. Council housing is, in my view, the route to that end.