Affordable Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 19th June 2003.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North 3:27 pm, 19th June 2003

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

I congratulate the Committee on its important contribution to the debate and welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his new brief. The Government have done some important things in the recent past, not least increasing spending through the comprehensive spending review 2002. The bed and breakfast target constitutes a major recognition of the problem in London, and it was right and brave to begin to grapple with right to buy, which has been a politically taboo subject for a long time and has thrown up a number of problems.

Despite that, we have to recognise that, for our constituents, housing is an issue of public service delivery as important as education, health and crime prevention, yet it has nothing like the degree of political salience. Until it has such clout—it will never enjoy the public or media attention that those other issues attract, not least because most journalists do not live in social or shared-ownership housing—the Government will have to attach more importance to it. We have to do that because, as my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett said, we face a crisis.

It is unfortunate that the word "crisis" is bandied around so much, because it should be used selectively. In London—I am going to be unashamedly, unapologetically and nakedly metropolitan—we have a housing crisis. If we do not tackle it, there will be serious consequences in the coming years. Spending has increased recently, which is welcome. However, house building is at an 80-year low and housing investment is still below the levels of a decade ago. The £1.4 billion spending plans for housing are likely to leave us between 37,000 and 50,000 units a year short. In other words, we are dealing with about 50 per cent. of housing need and making few inroads into the backlog.

I accept that there is both a chronic problem of low demand and pockets of acute housing shortage in rural areas and some high-value towns outside London, but in London we face such manifestations of the crisis as the fact that 60,000 households are in temporary accommodation—the highest number ever. Seventy per cent. of Britain's homelessness backlog is in London. The backlog of unmet housing need in London is estimated to involve 112,000 households. The census shows that London has the worst overcrowding in the country.

Different policies can be put in place to help to tackle those problems. One policy that has been adopted by some local authorities and that the Government are committed to rolling out was in the homelessness legislation: the extension of choice-based lettings. Camden council, a very high-demand central London authority, has adopted choice-based letting and found that that tool has enabled it to reduce its homelessness problem. However, even with choice-based letting, we still need massive additional housing investment to deal with the problem.

It is sometimes said that part of London's housing crisis is due to migration. We have to discuss that important issue and tackle it head on, because competition for the scarce resource of housing is the principal practical driver of racism in the capital. We must deal with that. The number of homelessness acceptances in London is lower than it was 10 years ago; the problem is caused not by increased demand for housing, but by the fact that the supply of new lettings is falling, even with additional investment coming on stream. For every four lettings that were available to homeless families and tenants on the transfer list 10 years ago, we now have only three, and that trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.