Council Housing (Southwark)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:01 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 4:01 pm, 22nd March 2005

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce an Adjournment debate. As I walked over here, I reflected that it is almost 22 years to the day since I made my maiden speech. That was on the Budget, but this debate is on an issue that is equally important to the majority of my constituents and to many others as well.

The Minister will be aware that the borough in which I live and in part represent—I share it with the Solicitor-General, Ms Harman, and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell—is the largest local authority landlord in London and the fifth largest in the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that, periodically, each of us returns to the management and future of council housing in Southwark as important issues for our constituents.

I checked the figures, as far as I could, and I believe them to be accurate. I would like to set them out to show the significance of such issues in our borough. There are some 105,000 households in Southwark, under 10 per cent. of which are owned outright by those who live in them. About 20 per cent., or one in five, homes are owner-occupied with a mortgage. Only 1 per cent. have shared ownership, but four out of 10 people in the borough live in local authority property. In my part of the borough—the old borough of Southwark and the borough of Bermondsey—the figure is well over 50 per cent., so very many more than half the people I represent are local authority tenants.

In addition to being the largest local authority landlord in London, with 42,500 properties run by the London borough of Southwark, we also have one of the largest amounts of leasehold properties—those bought under the right to buy, but where the council retains the freehold interest. The figure I was given last Friday was 12,600. Just over 15,000 properties have been sold under the right to buy, but some of those are completely freehold, rather than leasehold.

I want to put three other statistics on the record. First, the current figure from the office of the director of housing is that nearly 14,000 people are waiting either to become council tenants or to transfer within the local authority stock. Secondly, of those, 4,000 are waiting for a transfer while the others are waiting to become council tenants, so there are 9,000 people in the queue. Even though we are the largest landlord, there is still an enormous queue. Thirdly, the number of local authority properties being built is about 150, of which 100 are on the Elmington estate in Camberwell, in the constituency of the Solicitor-General, while 40 are on the Coopers Road estate in Bermondsey, near where I live. There are, of course, other developments that are not local authority developments.

That is the backdrop, and I want to put on record a few statements of what I believe the vast majority of my constituents regard as the issues. I hope to continue to engage with Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, including the Minister in the Chamber today and the Minister for Housing and Planning, in the constructive discussions that are talking place. I also hope to encourage them to continue doing the right things in the few weeks left, if the election is to take place this spring, and to ensure that those statements are on the record for whoever inherits ministerial office in relation to looking after housing in London after the election.

I want to say unequivocally that all the experience and information that I have confirms that the vast majority of Southwark council tenants wish to remain Southwark council tenants and therefore want what is colloquially described as the fourth option. The Government are very keen that the relationship between local authorities and their housing stock and tenants moves on. This has been well rehearsed on the Floor of the House: I have put questions to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, and many other colleagues have raised the issues, including Mr. Mitchell, who has regularly introduced an early-day motion on the subject.

Many have argued the case that if people want to remain conventional council tenants, they should be able to do so. I hope that that remains an option. The Minister will know that there was a ballot on one of the large Southwark estates, the Aylesbury, which is predominantly in the constituency of Camberwell and Peckham, although a small part of it is in my constituency. There was a 70 per cent. turnout—very high these days—and a 70 per cent. vote against transfer.

There was a possibility a few years ago of another estate—Tabard Gardens, which is entirely in my constituency—being transferred to the Peabody Trust, when my colleagues in the authority began, for the first time, a Liberal Democrat administration. My colleague, Councillor Beverley Bassom, who was then the executive member for housing, took the view that the tenant management co-operative that was then in place would not vote yes in a ballot for transfer to the Peabody Trust, so she stopped that process—rightly, in my view.

I hope that the Minister will accept that the fourth option for boroughs such as ours—with the overwhelming support of the tenants, the tenants' council, the representative bodies and the local authorities—can remain. That is the first and most important point that I want to make.

Secondly, I am conscious that the Government have rightly said that the immediate task is to find the money to achieve decent homes standards for all council tenants. I sign up to that; it is a laudable objective. People living in substandard council stock clearly need to be in much better homes, and I accept the timetable that has been set out. I hope it will be possible for the funding—not just of the coming financial year, which starts next week, but of years ahead—to make it possible for that to be achieved. I hope that, if there is a difficulty or a sticking point with funding from Government sources, according to the current projections, but it is possible to make up any difference through all the regeneration and other schemes that the local authority is happily exploring or proceeding with, we can achieve decent homes standards but retain the council stock.

It was a surprise to Ministers in other Departments that the decent homes programme does not require improvements that you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and probably the Minister, would regard as necessary. For example, a decent home on a decent estate might require a CCTV system to ensure proper security. As I understand it, that is not programmed in; I think it should be. Security and safety doors might be wanted at the bottom of a block where the concierge system might be. That should be included. Playgrounds and safe play areas for children ought to be included. I hope that we can improve decent homes standards to be able to give all the tenants on all the estates in Southwark—all local authority tenants—the opportunity to have a decent home that is also safe and in a safe, decent and respectable community.

I am keen to hear from the Minister—I hope he can be helpful—that there is now increasingly joined-up government between the ODPM and those responsible for housing, both nationally and in the Government office for London, and in other Departments dealing with, for example, leisure, safety—the Home Office—and open spaces and the like.

The third issue is a live issue, and the Solicitor-General and I share a view on this. Leaseholders who bought under the right to buy in boroughs such as ours have often had a bad deal. Some were badly advised when they bought their homes—we all have constituents who bought not knowing what the implications were and who did not get good legal advice—and some have not received a good service. My colleague, Councillor Stephen Flannery, who has just become the executive member for housing, is writing, as we speak, to all the leaseholders to apologise about the fact that people have had a bad service in the past, such as delays and inaccuracies with bills.

I have two propositions to put to the Minister. He might want to give an immediate response, but I want to feed them into the programme of government. First, a lot of people think it is unfair that an estimate for capital or other works is effectively a take-it-or-leave-it estimate once the council has put the job out to tender. Yes, people might be able to negotiate to pay in instalments; yes, Southwark and other local authorities have introduced a buyback scheme for people who discover that the cost is too big; yes, in extreme circumstances, a charge can be put on the property so that people do not have to pay and, following death or assignment, it goes to someone else who has it deducted.

However, the one thing that I have found hugely frustrating over the years—I was partly responsible for setting up the Southwark Association of Leaseholders and leaseholder organisations because of the many frustrations—is the fact that, once a section 20 notice is served, the council has put the job out to tender. So, effectively, although people are entitled to make "a reasonable response" as a leaseholder, if the council believes that the cost in the original tender is reasonable or that what is included in the works is reasonable, it is unalterable.

I propose that we should build into the legislation through a small amendment—I hope that Southwark will do this without legislation—something that will allow independent arbitration of the cost of capital or other works, so that after the council proposes, but before it disposes, leaseholders can go to an independent body and say, "We think this is too much. It is unreasonable and it encompasses other things."

I move to my second proposal. A private leaseholder in a private block for which there is a management company effectively goes out into the market, gets in some tenders and opts for one of them, but that is not possible for local authority leaseholders. Therefore, people who lease council homes from local authorities do not have the same rights and control as private leaseholders. Can the legislation be amended so that things can be handled that way round? Leaseholders would get the advice, then the council would say, "We need to put on a new roof, do security works and talk to you about new windows." Then we would have an agreed way forward.

Just this week, two reports were submitted to Southwark council about the Aylesbury estate, which the Minister may have etched in his political memory because it is the estate where the Prime Minister went to look out over the blocks and talk about the new Britain that would come under new Labour. The people on the Aylesbury are always hopeful that what was promised will be delivered; they are still hopeful, although it has not been delivered as quickly under this Government as they would have liked. They deserve to be looked after.

The northern half of that part of Walworth where the Heygate estate is, which the Minister will probably know from his travels around London, is to be demolished and replaced. The council is absolutely committed to providing at least as many affordable properties as before. Everybody who was on the Heygate will be able to return to an affordable property there, and everybody who wants to remain a council tenant will be able to do so. I have signed up to that, as it is a good scheme.

The southern half of that middle part of Walworth is the Aylesbury estate, which is one of the largest estates in London. The reports show, happily, that some concerns that were cause for alarm are not borne out. One report states that only the five and six-storey blocks on the Aylesbury, built using the large-panel system, need to be strengthened and that all other blocks, both higher and lower than that level, do not require any changes. Work also needs to be done to ensure that people in those blocks do not use gas and that they are transferred to an electricity supply.

Aylesbury New Deal for Communities—an organisation I support, which covers the whole estate—is working to ensure that the quality of life there improves. I hope that the Government will support Aylesbury NDC by providing the money needed to do the work that has clearly been identified as necessary. The report is not alarmist; the buildings are not about to fall down and there is no cause for panic, but work must be done on certain blocks to ensure that people are safe and feel safe, and the Government should respond positively to that.

When I was elected, which was around the time that Lord Heseltine's urban development corporation in London was set up, there was huge development along the river: wharves were converted to luxury flats and there were many new builds, shared ownerships and other property developments. However, there is still more than a bit of a tale of two cities. Things are fine for people on the lowest incomes who are happy to stay in council property, or people who are happy irrespective of their income. There is council property, but not enough. We need more.

People whose income means that there is no limit to what they can spend on accommodation can be offered places such as those at Butlers wharf, but for those whom we often refer to as ordinary, decent, working people—those who aspire to go up the ladder a bit, who want to stay in a borough such as ours, who love the inner city, whose families are there and whose children go to local primary schools such as the one I went to this afternoon—we still do not have enough suitable property.

We need to ensure that our council housing is of the highest quality. I ask that we should be allowed to continue to build more good-quality council housing, but that—I accept that the Deputy Prime Minister has been alive to this issue—we do not keep losing stock out the other end through the old Conservative right-to-buy policies, which meant that the best stock went, and was often sold on and lost. We must continue to have good-quality, rented, affordable housing so that Southwark can become a mixed community of the sort that people can be proud to come to and stay in, not least because the housing is of good quality.

I am grateful for the Government's work so far, and I think that we share the same objectives. I probably have the largest number of council tenants of any English Member of Parliament, so I hope the Minister understands that this is a hugely important issue whether it is election year or not. I also hope that the investment, support and work with my local authority will continue.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 4:17 pm, 22nd March 2005

I congratulate Simon Hughes on securing the debate. I assure him, his constituents and all Southwark council's tenants that we are committed to delivering decent homes for all.

The hon. Gentleman may not know this, but I visited the Aylesbury estate last Thursday—not that part that is in his constituency, or I would, of course, have informed him accordingly—and I conducted, for the first time, a street audit regarding an organisation called Living Streets and what can be done when local issues affecting people's lives are addressed, as well as how changes can be made by the community, the local authority and other partners to improve the quality of life on the pavements, along the shop fronts, in the streets and among traffic. I may say some more about that.

The hon. Gentleman began with a good summary of the position in Southwark—the number of houses in council ownership and so on—and I want to put that description of Southwark into a national context, because it is helpful to see its relevance. There are 4.1 million social homes, which are a tremendous asset in financial terms—worth around £400 billion—and an immeasurable asset to the community and the country. However, the impact of decades of neglect and under-investment left us with a £19 billion backlog of repairs in 1997. We responded to that huge challenge by radically changing our approach to housing policy, building in far greater flexibility and greater capacity for investment in that housing stock because of the scale of the problem.

The results of that radical change since 1997 have been dramatic. We have reduced the number of non-decent social homes by no fewer than 1 million and we have increased the proportion of vulnerable households in the private sector living in decent homes to 63 per cent. That is important to us. We have massively increased investment: local authorities have invested more than £13 billion in bringing their homes up to a decent standard and a further £5.3 billion—£1 billion being £1,000 million—has been levered in from the private sector through transfer. On top of that, local authorities' plans suggest that they will invest a further £11 billion in their stock by 2008. That is a huge investment in our local social housing stock.

We are on track to meet our target that, by 2010, everyone living in social housing will have a decent home and that 70 per cent. of vulnerable households in private accommodation will also have a decent home. By the time that we meet our target, we expect that local authorities and housing associations will together have spent no less than about £42 billion on ensuring that their tenants live in decent homes.

That target is not merely about bricks and mortar—a point the hon. Gentleman made. It is about individuals, families, the young and the old, and their right to live in a secure and stable environment. That is absolutely right. The spending of that £42 billion by 2008 is a crucial part of our commitment to create safe, sustainable communities. Last month, the Deputy Prime Minister launched "Homes for All", the Government's five-year plan that sets out the way forward for housing. Decent homes and the decent homes target are, of course, an integral part of that plan. I am confident that we all agree that the decent homes strategy is tremendously important to our communities and neighbourhoods.

I will now talk about Southwark specifically. The hon. Gentleman rehearsed some of the facts. For example, 44 per cent. of Southwark's homes do not meet the decent homes standard. Southwark is considering what is achievable with the resources that it has. It may be viable for Southwark to deliver most, if not all, decent homes using the borough's resources. That is, of course, for Southwark to determine. It is the responsibility of the London borough of Southwark to work with tenants to develop a strategy for the council to achieve its decent homes target and to close the funding gap.

Other London boroughs with a large housing stock have taken on that challenge. The London borough of Lambeth, for example, is also one of the country's biggest landlords. The council's option appraisal—the appraisal of the various options for improving the stock in Lambeth—has just been signed off. I stress that we need Southwark to do the same. I do not for one moment underestimate the size of the challenge facing Southwark. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is one of the largest landlords in the country, and the largest in London, with responsibility for more than 45,000 properties.

There are options and choices, and I shall mention one route that might be appropriate for Southwark. If retention is not an option, the arm's-length management organisation option is one that will deliver additional resources to deliver decent homes while keeping the stock in local authority ownership and ensuring that tenants retain all existing rights. That is important, because it is not the popular understanding.

As there has been much misleading campaigning about that option, not just in London but elsewhere, I want to be clear about the fact that ALMO programmes are not a means of privatising housing by the back door. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, where tenants opt to have their homes maintained by an ALMO, those homes remain the property of the local authority. That is an important point. The option, therefore, is not only not privatisation—I will keep saying that until people finally understand it—but it offers tenants an improved service, with many council housing departments making particular efforts to raise their performance so that the ALMO can achieve the necessary two-star rating and attract additional Government funding to help it to deliver decent homes. Southwark is in that position. So, we have opportunities and options.

Separating management and maintenance functions enables councils to focus their efforts more directly on the strategic management of their stock, while the ALMO focuses its efforts on delivering the highest standards of service to tenants. Those high standards are delivering results. This year we will see the first ALMOs bring all the council stock that they manage up to the decent homes standard.

So, I understand why the hon. Gentleman mentioned what he called the fourth option—a different option for investing in housing. That does not exist, but ALMOs do, as does the option of retaining the existing stock. I hope he recognises that ALMOs are an option that merits attention.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Of course I recognise that point. I have never disputed it. The issue is what the tenants want.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

If tenants prefer one option to another, I hope the Government will support that option.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

That is absolutely right. To start that debate with tenants, Southwark needs to engage in the options appraisal process. Southwark has started some of the necessary steps to make that process work and is working closely with the ODPM and the Government office for London to come up with a strategy to take forward the options appraisal process.

Given the hon. Gentleman's point, the important aspect is that effective tenant engagement is critical to the options appraisal. He is absolutely right about that. Tenants are at the heart of the options appraisal process and the need to engage with them to seek their views on future management of their homes is vital to our policies. All local authorities are obliged to draw up communications strategies that set out in practical terms exactly how they intend to involve tenants and other stakeholders.

We go further than that. We also ensure that tenants are properly equipped to make informed decisions about the options open to them. We recognise that it is fundamental to tenants' rights that they can access impartial information without bias to any option. That is why we encourage local authorities to use an independent tenant adviser to ensure that tenants have a clear picture of the process.

Our community housing task force, which brings together expert advisers from a range of social housing backgrounds, provides advice and support to local authorities on all aspects of options appraisal, including how best to inform and consult with tenants. Tenant engagement does not stop once a decision has been made: tenants make up about a third of the governing boards of transfer housing associations and ALMOs, which broadens tenant participation to estate and neighbourhood level.

The hon. Gentleman raised one or two points other than the specifics about decent homes. I want to address them. First, on the wider questions of security, safety, playgrounds and play areas, he will be aware that the Government have adopted a public service agreement—PSA 8—which is about liveability and ensuring that we have cleaner, safer and greener communities. That is my shorthand for it.

That PSA target requires not just one but nine Departments to work collaboratively. We have established an inter-ministerial departmental group made up of Ministers from each of the relevant Departments—the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the ODPM, which is in the chair, and others—to consider what we can do to bring together the various strategies that affect a local community.

When I did the street audit that I mentioned, it was clear to me that a vast number of organisations are affected. I did a short walk from St. Peter's church to Walworth road and back to the bottom end of the Aylesbury estate. We are considering issues surrounding crime, policing and community support officers, as well as waste management and litter clearing. We are also considering questions of shop frontage, roads up and down the Walworth road, crossing the road safely and access for people with disabilities or who have buggies.

Those issues have to be tackled using a joined-up approach or this simply will not work. We are promoting such street audits as a good way of engaging local councillors, MPs—I am sure the hon. Gentleman would enjoy undertaking one of those activities—and, in particular, local residents. I was on the Aylesbury estate with local residents and two young people who are year 6 pupils at the local St. Peter's school. They were very articulate and they pointed it out to us that people of a certain height can see certain things, but that those who are slightly smaller see other things on the streets with regard to their lives and what would make those streets a cleaner and more pleasant place to be. This is an effective process.

We are publishing three new guides. We have already published the first, on town centre management. It joins together all the resources and powers available to local authorities and other partners to make town centres better. There will be a second guide, on managing residential areas, to be published, I hope, in June—depending on events that the hon. Gentleman alluded to—and a third, on parks and open spaces, to ensure that those are properly managed and delivered.

We are alive not only to the specific issue of decent homes and the long-term future—working with organisations such as Aylesbury New Deal for Communities, which is doing a magnificent job—but to the everyday management of the street, which is important when people walk out of their front door, through the parks and into the town centre and the shopping centre. What is life like for local people and how can we make it better? I am delighted that, as the hon. Gentleman said, the board of Aylesbury New Deal for Communities is at the forefront of taking forward new proposals to improve quality of life on the estate.

The issue involves not only decent homes, but putting together a comprehensive package of improvements for local residents. Southwark has started to make progress, which is encouraging. That means that Southwark's tenants should all be living in decent homes by 2010. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can use his influence in the council to ensure that members of the council remain committed to the stock options appraisal process. He can use his influence among tenants to ensure that there is positive engagement with what is an important agenda.

It being twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.