I welcome the new Minister for Housing and Planning to his place on the Front Bench. I was glad to learn of his appointment. Having had two Ministers with responsibility for housing and planning in the House of Lords, it is nice to have one based in the House of Commons. I hope that my hon. Friend will last longer in the job than the previous two incumbents, and that this afternoon's debate will prove useful to him. Given the crisis in affordable housing, I wondered whether it might have been better if he had gone out and dug some foundations or laid a few bricks, but I welcome him none the less.
I put on record my thanks to all who helped the Select Committee with our report: the Clerks to the Committee, the advisers and all the people who sent in evidence and allowed us to question them. They all helped us to produce what I believe is a good report, based on the evidence that we received.
I pay tribute to one of the members of the Committee as it was 12 months ago, my hon. Friend Ms King, who chivvied us into carrying out the inquiry. Throughout the spring of last year, we considered empty homes, going to places such as Bootle and finding out about the problems in the north of England. My hon. Friend made the point very vigorously that both overcrowding and empty homes were to be found in London, and she persuaded us to visit her constituency to see the problems in Tower Hamlets. During that visit, I saw in London far worse overcrowding than any that I have seen in the United Kingdom for many years. We were firmly pressed into examining the issues surrounding affordable housing. Unfortunately, the inquiry went on for a long time and my hon. Friend left the Committee before it was finished. However, I do not think that she will complain about the report.
When we looked into affordable housing, we learned that there is still far too much housing misery in this country and that we are nowhere near producing the number of houses that is needed. We also have to face the fact that the more we encourage people to choose the schools and hospitals they use and tell them which are the best, the more likely it is that there will be an acute housing shortage in one area, but surplus houses in another a few miles away. It is important that we ensure that all our schools and hospitals are good enough for everybody, so that we do not create the idea that certain neighbourhoods are attractive and others less so.
Let me describe the scale of the problem. The evidence that the Select Committee received showed that we need 85,000 new affordable houses each year, but in 2000, only about 17,000 were built; by 2001, that figure had fallen to only 14,000, and it is now 13,000. We are miles away from providing affordable housing on the scale on which it is needed. We need a step change. The Government announced the sustainable communities plan, which was supposed to achieve that step change, but I understand that the Housing Corporation is talking about not getting anywhere near to building 85,000 affordable homes a year for the next couple of years; if we are lucky, we might get some way towards 30,000. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say what progress is being made on achieving that step change.
The sustainable communities plan identified sites where there was to be a certain amount of affordable housing. Then, there was to be extra affordable housing. When we considered the plan in a recent report, we were rather alarmed to find that the Government did not seem to have identified the problems on each of those sites. I hope that the Minister will take one of the sites, whether Milton Keynes or Ashford, and say what the critical problems will be and what the Government are doing to overcome them.