Affordable Housing (South Gloucestershire)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 29th June 2004.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 11:00 am, 29th June 2004

The Minister will have done his homework. He will know that this is not the first time that a debate with this title has taken place in this Chamber. I secured such a debate in November 2001, because after four and a half years as a Member of the House, I found that the lack of affordable housing to rent or buy in my constituency was one of the most significant problems brought to my attention by my constituents, week in, week out. I wish that I were not bringing the same subject back here today, but I make no apology for the fact that I am doing so, because the problem remains very serious for my constituents and not enough progress is being made. If anything, the situation is worse for my constituents than when I first raised the issue.

I want to link two closely related aspects of the lack of affordable housing. We use that term to mean houses that people can afford to rent and houses that people can afford to buy. Different groups of people are affected, but the issues are closely connected, as the Minister knows.

In south Gloucestershire, just over 5,000 households are on the council waiting list and 500 households are accepted as homeless each year, give or take a few. The statistics on trends are difficult to interpret because the council cleared out its housing waiting list numbers, which means that they have been volatile, but even in 2002–03, well over 1,000 households were added to the council's waiting list. The problem is very significant.

As the Minister knows, the council undertakes its own housing needs surveys, the most recent of which was in 2003. To show the scale of the problem, the council has calculated that if every house that is due to be built in the remainder of the local plan period up to 2011 were an affordable house, the waiting list still would not be cleared. That is the scale of the problem; if every house were an affordable house, people would still be waiting for affordable housing. In practice, the number of affordable houses provided will be a fraction of that amount.

There is a massive problem with affordable houses to rent or to buy. The rate of owner occupation in south Gloucestershire is high in comparison with the rate nationally. Not only have average house prices risen substantially in south Gloucestershire—up 74 per cent. from a typical £92,000 in 1999 to a typical £160,000 in 2003—but those at the bottom end of the market have risen even faster. Those are the houses in what is called in the jargon the lower quartile—the starter homes. The price of the properties to which people in search of an affordable home are looking have gone up from a typical £62,000 in 1999 to a typical £115,000 in 2003. That is an increase of 85 per cent.

That situation affects young people in south Gloucestershire who are in work and want to leave home and buy a house. In the relevant period, their wages have risen by roughly a quarter on average, but the price of starter homes has risen by 85 per cent. Those people are desperate to get a foot on to the housing ladder, which has a knock-on effect on the council's waiting list.

The council told me this morning that a third of the households accepted as homeless in south Gloucestershire in the past year were working households. One may entertain a mental picture of the people who are accepted as homeless, who may depend on benefits or have lost their job. Yet a third of the people accepted by the council as statutorily homeless are in work. In other circumstances, they would have been buying their home, but because the housing market has gone crazy, that is not an option for them.

I am sure that the Minister is an expert on housing and that in his constituency, at the other end of the micro-scale, he is as much visited as I am by people with housing problems. I shall not go into too much detail on any case, but I have spoken to expectant mothers housed in first-floor maisonettes who have to lug a young child in a pram up the stairs to the first floor when they are seven months pregnant. It is totally unacceptable that people live in those conditions. I meet adults who sleep night after night, month after month and year after year on the sofa or the floor because their accommodation is overcrowded and there is nowhere else for them to go. I come across marriages that have broken up, mental health problems and disrupted education, all of which are the human face of the statistics that we will discuss today.

It is rare to hold a surgery without seeing someone with a housing problem. Every Friday night after my surgery, I go home and thank God that I do not have such a problem. I know how much I value secure, permanent accommodation for my children and my family, as I am sure the Minister does, yet thousands of people in south Gloucestershire simply do not have such security. They can sometimes get into temporary accommodation, but may then have to wait years before permanent accommodation becomes available in the area in which their children go to school or in which they have family networks. That is a source of misery to thousands of my constituents. The problem is not going away; if anything, it is getting worse.

Clearly, there are things that councils can do. When I raised this issue in November 2001, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Ms Keeble, said that the council should ensure that more of the houses that are built are affordable. I agree. She failed to appreciate, however, that much of the house building in south Gloucestershire is not infill building, but the building of dirty great estates and thousands and thousands of houses. A problem with that approach is that developments such as Bradley Stoke or Emersons Green require massive amounts of infrastructure. In effect, the council is telling developers, "We'd like a primary school, a road junction and maybe a play area and a community hall. We'd also like subsidised transport. Oh, and we'd like 30 per cent.-plus affordable housing." The developers say, "Well, you can have some of that, but you can't have all of it."

It is true that a local authority that is making marginal increments to housing stock can be really go in hard and demand high levels of affordable housing, but a local authority that is absolutely strapped for cash or near the bottom of the funding league tables—we can argue about the numbers—is in a weak position to demand very high levels of affordable housing if it is also trying to secure a large amount of infrastructure. That is an obvious tension.

I am pleased that my Liberal Democrat colleagues on South Gloucestershire council want a target for affordable housing in new developments not of 30 per cent., but of 40 per cent.—a target with which I believe the Labour group is sympathetic. I would like progress to be made along those lines, but that target is massively removed from the reality of what is actually being delivered. A tiny fraction of the new housing is affordable. The 40 per cent. target is almost a fantasy figure. The proportion that is actually being delivered is a tiny fraction of that level.

The council is also considering reducing the scale of development to which the rules would apply, and it is starting to insist on quite small developments as well as the large ones. Some argue that the developers will not be able to make enough profit if the target is 40 per cent. I do not accept that argument. We have to get tough with the developers. Huge amounts are being made from building houses in south Gloucestershire, but not enough of the right sort of houses are being built at the right sort of price for the people who live there.

The council has a responsibility in this matter, and I pay tribute in passing to those in the local authority who work to address people's housing needs. That is not a job that I would want to do; having to tell people year in, year out that the council is continuing under the right-to-buy scheme to sell off far more houses than the housing associations are building. Between 1998–99 and 2002–03, the number of houses in the area under local authority control fell by about 250, while the number of houses under housing association control rose by only 100. Right-to-buy sales are not being replaced by housing association properties on the necessary scale. The supply is falling while the demand grows. Demand is rising because young families cannot afford to leave their parents and buy a first home and because of family breakdown. Demand is rising all the time, yet the supply seems to be shrinking.

What can central Government do? Clearly, central Government determine the amount of the money that the subsidised housing sector in the region receives. I gather that growth in Government support has been slower in the south-west than in other regions, yet the housing situation in the region is arguably one of the worst in the country, as the ratio of house prices to earnings is about 7:1. I gather that that is arguably as bad as the situation in London, and worse than anywhere else. Across the south-west as a whole, wages tend to be relatively low, but house prices have been rather high. I am sure that the Minister will tell us of the millions, hundreds of millions or billions of pounds that are being committed, promised or whatever. I hope that they are being committed, and I hope that they will deliver. All I can say is that on the ground over the past seven years, I have seen the problem getting worse and not better.

I talked to the local authority about what would help it, and it is keen to look at ways of promoting what it calls an intermediate housing market—something between the extremes of pure renting and pure buying. There are already examples of such an approach, including shared equity schemes and so on, but the authority has given me some examples of where someone can be delivered off the waiting list for less subsidy than a traditional council house would require.

It is possible to rent at below the market rent with some subsidy allowing people to save money for a deposit so that they can buy somewhere. That gets people off the housing list, but does not cost the full subsidy of a council house. A shared equity property is another option, where people pay the interest on the mortgage but might not pay any rent to the social landlord. That is cheaper than a subsidised council house, but it gets someone off the waiting list.

My local authority would be keen to promote such schemes and to be innovative. One of the problems is that it is quite resource intensive to offer every individual a whole menu of options involving different combinations of renting, buying, subsidy, equity and so forth. I believe that the local authority is in the process of putting in funding bids to get support to tailor housing solutions to individual need. If authorities can offer something other than pure social renting, pure council housing or pure housing association provision, the subsidy can spread further and deliver more houses for the same amount of public money. I would be grateful for any encouragement from the Minister on that front.

My local authority would welcome greater powers over empty properties. The Minister will know how grievous it is for a homeless family to know that empty properties are sitting empty month after month, year after year, not only in the public sector, but in the private sector. The authority would be interested in the power of compulsory leasing for long-term empty properties.

The council is keen to see private renting encouraged. In south Gloucestershire, the current situation is likely to discourage private renting for two reasons. First, housing benefit processing remains slow. Obviously, the council needs to sort that out, but it is a disincentive to private landlords.

I do not know whether the second problem is a nationwide one, and would be grateful for the Minister's comments. My local authority says to people who are coming to the end of a private sector tenancy, "Do not move out. If you know that your tenancy is up in a month or two months, and your landlord says that they are going to sell up and that they don't want to renew your tenancy, we are not interested until you absolutely have to leave. Do not go when they ask you to, do not go when they tell you to, wait until there is an eviction notice and they have taken you to court to force you out. Then we will treat you as homeless." As there is nowhere to put such people, they are made to stay for as long as they possibly can, well beyond the point where they might reasonably have moved out. Landlords are coming to me saying, "This is a disgrace. We are being encouraged to rent properties to people and then we cannot get them out at the end of the tenancy, because the council is telling them to stay put."

I know why the council is saying such things; there is so little property into which people can be moved that if someone physically has a roof over their head, the council has to accommodate them for one less night. That is a desperate situation. It is unfair on the tenant and the landlord, and for that matter the council. Is the Minister aware of that situation, is it happening elsewhere and can something be done?

Clearly, there have to be more houses, but in an area such as south Gloucestershire, which has significant green belts and villages that would lose their character if there was urban sprawl, it is all the more important that the houses that are built are those that local people can afford and that meet their needs. As the Minister knows, we need housing development of the right sort. High density housing does not have to be unattractive or undesirable. We can consider the issue of housing density.

We have to consider greater use of brownfield sites, but it is critical to ensure that it is not the developers who win, but local people. We have to bite the bullet. The only way to get enough affordable housing for local people is to ensure that when those new houses are built, a much higher proportion are homes for local people at the prices that they can afford. That is vital.

I have heard the Government say that millions and billions of pounds are being spent on housing, but I have not yet seen any evidence of that. Perhaps the serious money is yet to come through. Judging by what I see week by week in my surgery, however, it seems that the problem is getting worse. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that I will not have to be back here in another two and a half years to raise the same topic.