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 support the principle behind the Mayor's spatial development strategy, although I feel that he has set the figure rather too low; I suggest that such housing should make up half of the development site and that the threshold should be lower than 15. In my borough, few sites are large enough to come under the spatial development strategy because most sites are very small.

When intervening on the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions yesterday, I made the point that I would like the opportunity to intervene on planning decisions to force half of developments to go to affordable rented housing and that the threshold should be lower than 15 houses—seven or eight even. Most of the developments in inner London are very small and we miss out as a result. Indeed, the figures that I cited earlier show that last year only 8 per cent. of new property in Islington was for affordable rent. The council could do little about that because of the law. I support the principle behind the Mayor's proposal, but the figure should be lower.

The other stark issue that we must consider is house prices in the private sector. As I said, the opportunity for people to buy their way out of the housing crisis in London is extremely limited. People in my borough and, I suspect, in Camden and neighbouring boroughs who are on quite good incomes find it impossible to buy anywhere to live. The cheapest property available in my borough costs about £100,000: that would, with luck, buy a one-bedroomed flat above a shop on a main road. A two or three-bedroomed property or a house with a garden in inner London would cost about £300,000 or £400,000, and in some parts even more. Unless they have inherited income or lottery winnings, for example, a couple buying such a home—an ordinary property in London—must have a joint income of more than £100,000 a year. Average incomes in London are slightly higher than in the rest of the country, but not that much higher. The housing opportunity gap is much greater in London than in other parts of the country.

Before I conclude with a few policy thoughts, I bring to hon. Members' attention a grim statistic relating to the supply of housing for affordable rent, whether council or housing association. As a result of council house sales and the demolition of parts of badly designed estates, in the next 20 years, there will be a net loss of about 130,000 properties in Greater London. The issue is not, therefore, that current building is insufficient, but that current building does not even begin to meet the gap created by demolitions and loss. A radical agenda is necessary to make a genuine dent in London's housing needs, which I hope the new Government will be able to do.

I should like the Minister to consider three policy issues. I hope that this is not the only time that we debate housing in London. I suspect that we shall return to it time and again. I intend to keep returning to it, because I can no longer stand being in advice surgeries week after week with families coming to me with sick, under-achieving and badly behaved children because they simply can no longer cope. They and the community as a whole deserve better.

The post-war Labour Government managed, despite shortages and financial turmoil, to build much good-quality housing for rent that radically improved the lives of many Londoners, such as the wonderful London county council cottage-type estates that were built after the war. I realise that times have moved on, that supply of land is not what it was and that we cannot necessarily achieve that. However, local authorities developed imaginative solutions in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s for good-quality housing—high density but on a street pattern—and changed the lives of a lot of people. I look to this Labour Government to achieve similar results, so that we may reverse what happened in the 18 years when the previous Government missed those opportunities.

I should like the Minister to comment on three policy issues. The first is estate transfers in London—an issue that is deeply controversial and about which many tenants are extremely worried. It is hardly a level playing field when tenants are offered a ballot that essentially states that they can transfer their estate if they want to do so, and that if they go to a housing company or association they will receive money for improvements and development and if they stay with the local authority they will not. That is hardly fair. The documents that were presented to the Labour party conference and the national policy forum made it clear that an awful lot of people felt that we should offer a level playing field in decision making. A level playing field means that all the options are open and that public investment is the same, whether the transfer takes place or responsibility remains with the local authority.

My second point relates to the growth of housing companies and registered social landlords. Last week, I asked a parliamentary question, which the Minister answered, concerning the structure, democracy and running of housing associations—or registered social landlords, as they are now more commonly known. Although I accept that there is tenant representation on their boards and that, usually, there is local authority representation and some independent representation, we need to look again at the issue of democracy with regard to the running of housing associations. Although they often started out as small enterprises, many of them are now major landlords that are involved in massive financial dealings, and they have a huge impact on people's lives. They also eat up large sums of public money through various forms of subsidy, and they use that as an accelerator to borrow even larger sums from the private sector. Democracy and accountability with regard to housing associations must be addressed: we must ensure that they are well run and properly account for their money, and that tenants have a far greater influence over what happens within them.

My third point concerns housing benefit and its administration. In Camden, which is ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate, it has been demonstrated that it is possible for housing benefit to be well run in-house by public employees in the public sector, so that the people who deserve benefit, receive it—and those who do not, do not. It is not rocket science; it is about getting money in, and then giving it to the right people. Unfortunately, the boroughs that have gone down the road of outsourcing to a private contractor—my borough has outsourced to a company called ITNET and there are many other such companies in the area—face unbelievable chaos, which causes terrible stress to the tenants concerned. If contractors fall down on the job, we should say bluntly to the local authorities concerned that they should terminate the contracts, bring them back in-house and ensure that they are run properly. It is appalling that people should be subjected to such high levels of stress as a result of the bad administration of what is, after all, not a local benefit, but a national benefit—although for some bizarre reason, in 1981, the then Prime Minister decided that it should be handled by local authorities. I thought that her decision to make them responsible for a new benefit that they did not want to administrate was her perverse way of saying that she disliked local government.