Affordable Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:01 pm on 9th December 2003.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) 3:01 pm, 9th December 2003

I certainly hope that it will. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not misunderstand my use of the word "professionals". I was talking about health care professionals, police officers and teachers. They are professional people who need housing, but because of the current structure of the private rented sector—certainly in my constituency, and I imagine that the same is true in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, given that he is a London Member—sometimes they cannot afford private sector rents. The proposal that I was trying to back, which comes from research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says that if we think about the issue more imaginatively than developers have done in the past, we can meet that need through the market, but pointers and encouragement are needed from Government.

The really difficult sector in terms of affordable housing is those very low-income workers who will never move on. They may be elderly. They may be in jobs that mean they will never move up the scale. The Government need to produce subsidies in that area, as is currently the case, through housing associations and housing authorities.

One issue on which the Government have been dragging their feet and could take immediate action is empty homes. There are many empty homes in the public and private sectors in areas of high housing demand. In London, more than 100,000 properties have been empty for a considerable time, 83 per cent. of which are in the private sector.

In my constituency, several streets have empty homes that have been sitting idle, unused and unoccupied, for years. If one goes off the A3 at the Hook junction to Gladstone road, Haycroft road and Brook road, one will find 29 family properties that have been empty for more than a year. Indeed, some have been empty for several years. I have been working with the local councils to see whether we can persuade the owner of those properties to bring them back on to the market. The gentleman happens to be very elderly and seems not to take the advice of some of his advisers, so there are difficult problems. However, when more than 1,000 families are in temporary accommodation in the royal borough of Kingston while 29 large family homes sit empty, people can see the need to act on this issue.

What have the Government done? In a debate in Westminster Hall on 19 June, I urged them to have a consultation on new compulsory leasing powers for local authorities. The Government reacted to that and, just before the summer recess, or perhaps during it, they published a consultation paper, which I welcome. The problem is that they are being slow on the consultation. The Housing Bill contains provisions for orders that will allow local authorities to make quite severe interventions in their local communities to try to ensure that some of their problems are dealt with. However, the Government are not minded at the moment to bring into the Housing Bill some of the empty property management orders in the consultation paper.

When will the Government get another chance to legislate on the issue? Given that the Select Committee was sympathetic to the proposal, I hope that the Minister will give us some explanation of why the Government are failing to act, even though they have the chance to do so and the ideas are ready to go. I hope that they will consider that again.

Time is short, so I will bring my remarks to a close. The Government have been slow to react to the affordable housing crisis. In previous parliamentary Sessions, my hon. Friends and I, particularly those with constituencies in London, have talked about the problem time and again. The Liberal Democrats have warned the Government that they are undermining their public service reform agenda because of the skills shortage in public services in London and elsewhere. I am glad that they are addressing it at long last, but they must be far more imaginative and ambitious if they are going to make an immediate impact.