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

The hon. Gentleman is right that household formation is one driver of changed housing need, but the figure that I quoted reflects that. The problem is that, even allowing for household formation and migration to London as drivers of increased housing need, our problem is not housing need, but housing supply. We must address that.

We have talked, rightly, about some of the facts, statistics and policies, so I shall do what I often do in such debates and remind hon. Members of what those mean and the type of cases that we are addressing. I am sure that my hon. Friends from high-demand areas will be familiar with them. Mrs. Padbury says:

"I am single parent with 7 children aged between 9 months and 14 years . . . two of my children are disabled. I am living in a 3 bedroom flat. My 14 year old daughter and my 13 year old son share one room. In another room I have . . . two sons aged 9 and 8. In my room is myself and my 9 month old. In the sitting room is my two daughters. My children fight all the time . . . my oldest daughter has her GCSEs coming up", but she is unable to study. The council's response is that only two four-bedroomed properties will be available to let on the transfer list this year. My constituent's position on the list implies that she will have to wait five years before she receives an offer.

Mr. Nutbourne shares a two-bedroomed home with his wife and five children. The council writes:

"Under the city council's bedroom standards, Mr Nutbourne's 2 sons and 2 daughters are expected to share one room".

They would be awarded additional overcrowding points only if one of them was over 17. In a third case, someone says:

"On April 30th, we had our third child . . . we are still in the same tiny 1 bed flat and there appears to be no progress whatsoever regarding a move either with the local council or Kensington Housing Trust. It makes me cry when I see other children living normally while mine are deprived of any proper living or sleeping space."

That is the reality for tens of thousands of households in London and in some other high-demand areas.

Another reality is that many of the families at the most acute end of the overcrowding problem are black and ethnic minority families. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's annual report on housing black and minority ethnic communities—my hon. Friend the Minister may be familiar with it—shows that 2 per cent. of white families report overcrowding compared with 23 per cent. of Pakistani and Bangladeshi families and 9 per cent. of black families; and 14 per cent. of white families had poor housing conditions compared with 35 per cent. of Pakistani and Bangladeshi families and 23 per cent. of black families. As many as 35 per cent. of white families want to move, which seems bad enough until you compare it with the 52 per cent. of Bangladeshi families and 52 per cent. of black families who want to move. Although many white families are deeply embittered and feel that immigration is the cause of the housing pressures, the reality is that black and ethnic minority families are suffering the most acute housing problems.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that the housing investment opportunities for social rented housing or for shared ownership housing do not have anything like enough scope to allow larger properties to be built. Four, five and six-bedroom properties are simply unavailable, and the grant process works makes it uneconomic for social landlords to build larger properties. Nothing is being done as a result. It is ironic that it is the most overcrowded and most desperately needy families of all colours who wait longest and for whom the least is being done. It is perhaps no surprise that many of those families have the lowest educational achievements and some of the worst health conditions; those factors are interlinked. I ask the Minister urgently to look into the issue of housing investment for larger properties.

We must build larger properties, to rent and to buy, in high-value areas. The Government are rightly committed to ensuring that we move away from having estates or even towns and cities that are predominantly poor and where people on low incomes predominate. We want to change that and we want to get mixed tenure right. However, the Government are not saying that we need to increase investment in some high-value areas—but if we do not increase investment in such areas in order to help low-income families buy or rent affordable property, where will they go? At the moment we are dealing with only one side of the equation—mixed tenure and mixed communities. We are failing to reflect the fact that those families exist and have to go somewhere. In the meantime, they are having to put up with acute or chronic overcrowding. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Love for his work on statutory overcrowding. I welcome the fact that some hon. Members are working on the problem.

My last comments are a variation on the same theme—the necessity of recognising that low-income families have to be enabled to live in high-value areas. The Government are piloting a proposal for standard rent allowance in the private rented sector. That is reasonable, not least because many private tenants face significant shortfalls between what they pay in private rent and what they receive in housing benefit. The intention is to give people a standard allowance based on geographical area. As a result, households will know exactly what they can purchase in the open market; they can then negotiate rents with the private sector landlords. The pilot scheme is relatively new, and I hope that it is successful. However, in his Budget speech, the Chancellor of the Exchequer flagged up the fact that he was interested in rolling out a similar standard housing allowance into the social rented sector. I put it to the Minister that the consequences of such a policy in high-value, high-cost areas are likely to be serious. It will polarise neighbourhoods, so that low-income families who have the least to spend will be driven to the cheapest properties.

Under the Government's policy of rent restructuring, there is a greater divergence of rents between high and low-value areas. New, good-quality properties will have higher rents; older, less modernised and slightly less attractive areas charge lower rents. If there were a standard housing allowance for a geographical area the size of a local authority, lots of people would either be priced out of good-quality accommodation, thereby concentrating low-income families in the poorest accommodation, or face a shortfall between their rent and housing benefit. According to research by the Association of London Government, 11 London boroughs said that the number of rents well above average—in other words, those that housing benefit would not fully fund—will rise as a result of rent restructuring. One borough has nearly one in five rents above average. That means that potentially one in five tenants will face a shortfall between their rent and the maximum amount of housing benefit that they can receive.