We should put on record our thanks to my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell for his phenomenal speech in opening the debate and for his tremendous work for the Defend Council Housing campaign, supported by Alan Walters and many others. It has put council housing right up on the political agenda where it belongs.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that many people around the country simply do not accept the three options that have been proffered by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to deal with the housing crisis. It is simply not on to tell council tenants that they must choose between stock transfer, private finance initiatives and ALMOs, and that if they reject all three, as they have every right to do if a ballot is properly organised, they will get nothing. Where do the decent homes standards fit in with that? What sort of free and open democracy is it if we offer people no real choice other than a form of privatisation of their existing council stock? That is what it amounts to.
Not so long ago in our 1997 manifesto we said that we would free up all the capital receipts that could be used for housing investment. That has not happened. Some have been freed up but most are tied to some kind of private finance initiative or private investment in an estate. Some £2 billion is still being held that cannot be used for housing improvements. When tenants are asked to vote on a stock transfer or whatever, they are not given a free choice. They step out into the unknown if they say no, but many have said no.
I have just been through the experience of a large-scale stock transfer vote on the Tollington estate in Finsbury Park in my constituency. The tenants voted down the stock transfer emphatically: 60 per cent. of them said no. They did so because they were told that in order to lever in this private finance to improve the estate they would have to sell off what little open space there is to build 300 homes for sale on the open market at between £200,000 and £300,000 each, and 120 street properties owned by the council would have to be sold. In other words, in order to improve the housing conditions, which need improving urgently, we would end up with 300 more places for private ownership and sale and 120 fewer places for affordable rent.
The housing crisis in my constituency is worse than it has ever been. There are fewer new lettings and fewer new properties coming on stream from the council or housing associations. In fact, none come from the council; they come only from housing associations. There is a record high number of people in short-term tenancies and short-term lease properties. That is at a phenomenal cost to the public purse, largely through housing benefit. Frankly, the situation is not sensible.
Will the Minister recognise that there is currently a terrible housing crisis in London? Tenants looking for a transfer and people living in hostel accommodation who are desperate for somewhere to live have told me that they have been given only one offer—to move somewhere else in the country. If they have a genuine wish to move out of London, there is no problem, but most people cannot do that. They have to stay in London for family, work, education or whatever reasons. The only way forward is to invest in new affordable property in London.
Is that best done by investing in schemes in which the rents end up higher or by allowing local authorities the freedom to borrow, develop and provide housing for people in desperate need? I simply cannot understand the Government's position, and I do not understand the politics either. What we have done is to say to tenants throughout the country that they have a choice, when in reality they do not. They can choose only either some form of privatisation or going into substandard property that means that the Government cannot achieve their decent homes standard. I hope that the Minister, having considered the Barker review, the housing crisis in London and the south-east, the huge cost of privatisation and how we are pouring money into the private sector when the work would be done better and cheaper in the public sector, will be able to give us some news on the situation.
A number of estates throughout the country voted against stock transfer and have been left in limbo. Camden as a borough rejected stock transfer and ALMOs, so it has now a problem on its hands. I hope that the Minister agrees that the democratic wishes of the people of Camden should be recognised and that money should be invested for new housing development and improvements by the local authority. The Aylesbury estate in Southwark emphatically voted no, but the tenants have still not seen the improvements to which they have a right, like everyone else in this country who wants to live in decent housing.
Will the Minister please say that she has heard, understood and recognised the arguments for the fourth option and that she agrees that local authorities have provided and can and will provide decent, secure, good quality and cheap accommodation in desperate housing need? The options offered by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister do not achieve that.