Housing (London)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 3rd July 2001.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:30 am, 3rd July 2001

I am pleased to debate housing needs in London. I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Keeble on her appointment as the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and I look forward to her reply. I realise that she does not represent a London constituency, but she is a former leader of a London borough and must be acutely aware of the housing problems and other issues that Londoners face. Her background knowledge will be invaluable in persuading her Department, and perhaps reluctant colleagues, of the need for housing investment in London. I am sure that she will bring her skills to the problem.

Housing in London is a huge problem. During the election campaign, Londoners raised individual problems on the doorstep with candidates from all parties. Tragically, however, those problems did not surface in the reporting of the election. Indeed, most of the media reported the reporting of the election rather than the issues raised by the electorate, which was regrettable. It was also regrettable that London's media, with some honourable exceptions, seemed to deal almost exclusively with the private sector market and house prices. They continually wrote about the gains that people could make by selling their property rather than the desperate housing situation that many people face.

One does not have to travel far on the London underground to realise that there is an enormous and growing gap between the haves in London—those who are on the property boom ladder—and the have-nots. That problem is compounded by a new practice among building societies: they are offering huge mortgages for houses for private rent, which drives up the private rented market and house prices, and leads to an even greater gap between the haves and the have-nots in London.

Matters are not much different outside London. Much of the south-east suffers the same problem, with booming house prices and a shortage of affordable rented housing. However, the midlands and the north of England, and to some extent Scotland and Wales, suffer another problem: under-occupation of estates and the related question of housing management. That was brought home to me when I visited the May day rally at Burnley. My hon. Friend Mr. Pike, who spoke extremely well, said that the Government needed to sort out Burnley's housing problem: there are 5,000 empty properties in Burnley. That enormous problem leads to massive deprivation, vandalism and social exclusion. Clearly, it must be addressed. London, however, does not have that problem. London's problem is one of huge shortages. That is what I want to draw to hon. Members' attention this morning.

My borough of Islington has the same problems as most inner-London boroughs. My hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) both represent London areas with acute housing stress. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate has areas of enormous wealth and of enormous poverty. Less than half a mile—in some cases, only a few hundred yards—separate them.

My borough suffers from much the same problem. There is an image problem. Parts of the borough are extremely wealthy. Everyone there eats in expensive restaurants every night and their only concern is whether to eat Indian, Chinese or French food; nothing else bothers them. In reality, my borough is the eighth most deprived in London. Unemployment is as high or higher than in many northern towns. The borough has massive housing problems, most of which I am told about at my advice surgery every week.

Over the years, Islington, like other London boroughs, has developed comprehensive housing strategies. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a great building programme, but I am glad to say that few tower blocks were constructed in my borough—it was mostly houses set on a traditional street pattern with gardens. In the 1970s, when my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities was the chair of its housing committee, the council adopted a policy of purchasing within the private sector. She expertly developed the policy, which meant that many families were moved out of the few high-rise blocks in the area and given houses with gardens—something to which we should all aspire, especially for families with young children.

Following the Thatcherite counter-revolution in the 1980s, for a while, London boroughs managed to borrow their way out of the Government's policies and continued expanding their affordable rented housing stock. Eventually, however, the policy became impossible to continue. The supply of new affordable accommodation dried up. The constant cuts in local authority expenditure meant that borough after borough tried to save money each year by not investing in housing repairs or capital improvements; they did not have the money to do it. My borough was no different. By 1997, when the Labour Government came to office, there was a £500 million repair backlog. Massive repairs had to be carried out. The Government had inherited a difficult problem.

At the start of this Parliament, I tabled several questions about the construction of dwellings in each London borough. I shall not weary hon. Members with all the details that I received, but just quote a few figures. In my borough in 1996-97, private enterprise constructed 49 new properties; registered social landlords constructed 17 and the local authority constructed none. In 2000-01, private enterprise constructed 213; registered social landlords constructed 44 and the local authority constructed none. The list that was provided in response to my question shows that the number of properties built for affordable rent is low.

The London borough of Waltham Forest seems to have one of the best records. Almost uniquely among London boroughs last year, private enterprise constructed 216 dwellings, registered social landlords constructed 257 and the local authority constructed 260. I have not checked all the details yet, but I believe that Waltham Forest was the only borough that constructed more properties—they were aimed at people in need of affordable rented housing—than the private sector. Other boroughs had similar or worse results than Islington.

The consequences of either councils or housing associations not building sufficient properties for affordable rent are enormous. It is expensive, in both financial and social terms. People who visit my advice surgery live in grossly over-crowded accommodation, as do my friends. Let us imagine the social tensions of bringing up six children in a two-bedroomed flat, with one child wanting to play music, one child wanting to do homework and another child wanting to sleep. It is difficult to match those three activities in one room. We must bear in mind those tensions, as we must family break-ups, the lack of achievement by children at school, and youth vandalism and disinterest in society. Young teenagers often want to go out, but they also want to be able to return home when they want. If they can go home only to a flat that has one child sleeping in a corner, or to a bedroom that they must share with other siblings, they will prefer to hang about the streets at night instead.

I invite hon. Members to visit hostel or bed-and-breakfast accommodation, some of which is appalling. London's children are living in abominable conditions: 40,000 families are living in temporary or bed-and-breakfast accommodation without proper washing or cooking facilities. That is disgraceful. Such accommodation is also expensive—local authorities pay hundreds of pounds per week through the housing benefit system straight into the pockets of bed-and-breakfast landlords. In addition to the financial cost of such accommodation, there is the high cost in social terms—the under-achievement of school children and ill health.

The local authority could decide that the only solution to the problem of family X living in over-crowded accommodation is to move them out of the borough, which sounds good. There are empty properties in Lincoln, Coventry and Newcastle, to which they could be sent. However, life is not so simple and I do not believe that we live in a centralised state in which local authorities or the Government can order people to move to designated areas.

One family showed me their offer of accommodation 150 miles away from London, which, at one level, was attractive—it was a reasonable property with a bedroom for each child. However, what would happen to the grandmother living down the road, the family's jobs and the children's education? Why should a family be uprooted from the area in which they have grown up and that they love, merely because we as a society are not prepared to recognise the housing needs of such families? I hope that the Government understand those concerns.

The alternative to renting affordable accommodation—buying housing in the private sector—is not realistic in London because of the high cost involved. We must consider the consequences for all of us of the housing shortage in London. Towards the end of the previous Parliament, the Government proposed a scheme to provide specialist housing, initially for teachers, police officers and nurses. I understand the Government's reasons for doing that. We are all acutely aware of the shortage of teachers, especially in inner-London schools, the difficulty of retaining such teachers and the consequences of high teacher turnover. Similar problems affect the recruitment of police officers and nurses—at high cost to the national health service, which is forced to employ agency nurses because of the impossibility of employing permanent staff, who cannot find affordable local housing.

The offer of specialist housing may be an attractive proposition for a teacher, but, in some parts of London, there is a shortage of postal workers and, in other parts, a shortage of hospital cleaners, road sweepers, plumbers or carpenters. There will be shortages of all sorts of people if we allow such a massive imbalance in housing provision to continue. I urge that we look rationally at the matter and ensure that a greater proportion of new dwellings in London is in the affordable rented sector. I hope that the Minister will offer some hope that that will happen.

Research has been conducted into the problem. There is a mass of books and glossy and not so glossy reports, of which I have a few, including the Government's Green Paper and the excellent report from the Mayor's Housing Commission, chaired by Chris Holmes of Shelter, entitled "Homes for a World City". Many people who are actively involved in housing were members of the commission. Another good document is the Association of London Government's "A housing strategy for London" which is a good summary. In the preface to that document, Tony Newman, chair of housing on the ALG, talks of the challenges in improving the quality of housing stock in London:

"These challenges are a consequence of under-investment in London's housing over the last twenty years. We must respond to those in the most acute housing need as well as helping a much wider group of Londoners who cannot afford to rent or buy property in the capital including key workers who are essential to keep London running and to serve as a basis for...long-term sustainability" of the city.

We have inherited problems in London such as the poor quality of housing stock and management, and the huge level of repairs required. There are 48,000 households in temporary accommodation in London, of which 6,000 live in B and Bs. One hundred thousand households need permanent housing in London. There is clearly a need to deal with that. Additionally, 31,000 new households come to London every year, of which a proportion—perhaps a third—will be in need of affordable rented housing.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on the problem of the sale of existing council properties and the demolition of some parts of estates to create a better quality of life. I support the latter policy because it is possible to make a deeply unattractive housing estate much better by selective demolition of parts of it to create more open and communal space and to develop community facilities. That can turn a community around. However, there is a cost: the loss of some housing stock that must be replaced elsewhere.

On the sale of council houses, I realise that the Conservatives' campaign in 1979 was largely based on offering £10 notes for a fiver to tenants on housing estates—buy the property and all will be well. Sadly, some people bought property in very poor condition and, as a result, are paying high repair bills, service charges and all that goes with that. Other people bought street properties that were later sold. It is sometimes galling to go to an area where the council formerly owned many street properties for people in housing need. Those houses were sold to tenants who later sold them in the private market. They are now inhabited by extremely wealthy people, or rented to people on housing benefit, which means that we the public pay housing benefit of £200 or £300 a week, rather than £70 or £80 a week on exactly the same property. The only difference is that the money is paid to a private landlord rather than to the local authority.

Again, that is a hidden cost to the public. The strategy of the sale of council properties has led to a huge reduction in affordable rented stock, which seldom, if ever, comes back to the public sector. Perhaps initially, we could give local authorities the opportunity to buy back properties that have been sold. Homelessness costs are rising because of that problem, but we must examine the way out. We must build and purchase more properties in London.

The land supply issue in London is huge. It is not possible to build our way completely out of the housing crisis, although by planning and examining every vacant site it is possible to do a lot. Indeed, "A housing strategy for London" suggests that in the next 15 years it will be possible to construct a further 381,000 properties in Greater London. I do not know what proportion of those houses will end up as affordably rented, but it is clearly possible to make a big dent in the problem.