Affordable Housing (London)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 15th June 2005.

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Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate 9:30 am, 15th June 2005

I am grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to debate a matter of crisis proportions in London: the lack of affordable housing and, most markedly, the lack of affordable housing within the rented sector. Such a pan-London problem is borne out by the number of colleagues who are present this morning—despite the intemperate weather—hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Cummings. The problem is further borne out by the amount of unsolicited briefings that I and colleagues received from several organisations at almost the same time as the debate was publicly announced.

I now come to what are sometimes boring statistics, for which I am grateful, in particular, to Shelter. The key facts are that, in London at the end of last year, 61,670 statutorily homeless households were trapped in temporary accommodation. The average wait in temporary accommodation has shifted from the average 91 days that families experienced in 1997 to 391 days. In 2003–04, 31,530 households were accepted as homeless and in priority need, including almost 30,000 children and 3,900 expectant mothers; 279,730 households were registered on council housing waiting lists; 174,200 households, including 261,000 children, were in overcrowded homes.

Those are stark facts, but before I draw attention to more facts, I wish to say that Shelter, the London Housing Federation and the Greater London authority paid unstinting tribute in their briefings to what the Government have done already and are in the process of doing to deal with the serious housing crisis in London. They paid tribute to the additional funding from central Government, to the five-year strategy of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and to the innovative use of land surplus to the needs of the Ministry of Defence and the national health service, which is to be used for building. The organisations paid tribute to the plans that have facilitated key workers in getting on to the housing ladder. However, my argument is not aimed at the situation of those who are desperate to get on to the housing ladder by virtue of being able to buy, but at the thousands of people who will never be able to buy property and who are still excluded from decent housing because of the lack of housing with affordable rents.

I wish to draw attention to what is happening in my borough of Camden, as set out in the briefing forwarded to me by the London Housing Federation. The cost of an average home is more than £388,000. The average gross income for a full-time employee in the borough is just over £34,000. In the private rented sector, an average weekly rent for a one-bedroom property is more than £215. The rent for a three-bedroom house is more than £356 and the average net weekly income for someone working in the borough is just over £472. I hope that these statistics kill the canard that still has a certain popularity among the tabloid press that the only people who live in my constituency are multimillionaires.

Two other issues that were raised in all the briefings that I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members received are the shortage of affordable rented housing and, as Shelter puts it, the Dickensian approach to what constitutes overcrowding. I am sure that we all regularly receive complaints about overcrowding at our advice surgeries. We all welcome what the Government have done in reconsidering what constitutes overcrowding, but it will be of little benefit to any housing authority to be able to award more points for overcrowding in its necessary definition of who has priority need if, as in my borough, it has virtually no three or four-bedroom houses.

I shall not go into the argument about whether the right to buy was right or wrong. That is water under the bridge and there have been changes to the right to buy, which I welcome, but we are failing to build a sufficient number of houses in London. We are not meeting the recommendation on the number of houses in the Barker report—a report that all those who submitted briefings to me welcomed. Even if we do manage to meet the target of 50 per cent. of all properties being affordable, there is still an imbalance with those affordable properties being apportioned to people who can only afford to rent. The ratio should be 70:30. In some instances, the relevant figure is only 6 per cent.

As well as examination of what constitutes overcrowding, there must be a shift to ensure that in the new build coming along, there are more houses that can accommodate larger families. We all read of middle-class families in which parents are still burdened with their grown-up children because they cannot afford to get on the housing ladder. I sometimes find such cases surprising. A case was recounted to me in which the grown-up child works in the City. I did not think that anyone working in the City could not afford to get on the housing ladder, but it just shows that the longer we live, the more we learn.

It is accepted that middle-class families should not have to endure such situations, yet if we move further down the socio-economic scale, society is expected to accept or endure large families having very low mean incomes. That is unacceptable, which is why I am attempting to reinforce my argument to the Government that we must examine the possibility of building more houses for larger families. Pray God we never return to the Dickensian days when there were families of 13, 14 and 15 and child deaths were almost accepted as the norm under the age of three, but we must begin to acknowledge the changes taking place in society and, most markedly and most particularly, in London. Everyone knows that no Government have a bottomless purse, but I am arguing that the Government should re-examine the amount of money that they apportion to new house build in London. I am not a mathematician, financier or accountant, but one possible way of making the case for more funding for London is by asking the Government to consider, using accepted accountability criteria, the cost to London and our society of the inadequate housing that is inflicted on families.

The figures on children in temporary accommodation are particularly shocking. One knows from first-hand experience from one's constituency of children who are not in secure accommodation and who may be moved—throughout London in some instances. They may spend 391 days in temporary accommodation, which sounds a long time to me, and that can happen more than once. There will be clearly be an impact on such a child's education and sense of security, and the capacity of the family to create the elements of the secure environment that we are all told are the basic building blocks of a healthy functioning society will be entirely eroded. There are clear implications for the further breakdown of families, which in some ways is one of the constituent factors in the need for further housing in London.

Also, the employment capacity of such families is reduced. If we could equate that to pounds, shillings and pence on the balance sheet, perhaps that would strengthen the argument that London should have more money to build more houses, most markedly houses earmarked for affordable rents. I know that hon. Members who do not represent London seats take umbrage at the argument that London should be a primary cause for concern, but we are told that London is the engine room of the national economy. I see no reason to discount that. For every job created in the City of London, two are created in the hinterland of the United Kingdom. We have to maintain our primacy, not only as one of the great capital cities of the world, but also as one of the great financial centres of the world, and one of the great centres for service industries. We are a benchmark for inward investment in many ways, as far as the wider European Union is concerned. However, although I am happy to put forward that argument, that is not, essentially, the argument that I am advancing today.

I began by pointing out the number of extremely helpful briefings that had been furnished to me, and, I am sure, to all hon. Members. Of course, the most potent and powerful briefings submitted to me come from the direct experience of my constituents. I will give two recent examples.

First, a single-parent family with four children live in a two-bedroom flat, where a 12-year-old brother and a nine-year-old sister have to share the same bedroom and the mother has to share her sleeping accommodation with a three-year-old child and a nine-and-a-half-month-old baby. Do not ask me where dad is. We can all imagine what has happened there. Severe overcrowding—a lack of affordable rented accommodation—can be a constituent part in the breakdown of families, with the implications that no one in this Chamber needs me to detail.

Another situation that came to me only two weeks ago was where an attempted suicide had been occasioned because of overcrowding. These are real, genuine, human tragedies, and we can do something about them. Again, I would argue that that must be a primary concern for our Government. They have done so much to examine how the services that government is justifiably expected to provide to our citizens can be delivered in an infinitely more joined-up manner. We are quite rightly pouring so much money into Sure Start, which is attempting to incorporate what local authorities provide—have to provide—in services to children. Yet I find it bizarre that we still have a huge, gaping hole that will negate all that excellent work, simply by impacting upon those children's ability to learn, to make friends and to participate in society, because they are not in permanent, decent, affordable accommodation.

As I said, all the briefings that I have received are mindful of the immensely good work that the Government have already done in this area, but they are equally detailed in pointing out that there is a great deal more that has to be done. From my own constituency I see that the issue has a wider impact than on just the immediate family. I am sure that we all have direct experience of serious neighbourhood disputes and of neighbours from hell, which stem quite simply from severe overcrowding, as in a case that came to me quite recently. A mother finds it virtually impossible to maintain a level of quietude in her overcrowded flat that does not impact upon her elderly neighbour. Her children—some at school, some at pre-school—have no garden in which to play. They live in a tower block where the lift does not always function, and it is virtually impossible to prevent those children from making a noise.

It may seem that much of what I have used for my contribution this morning is critical of local authorities, but I would not wish that interpretation to be made. I have immense admiration for what Camden has done and is doing in attempting to provide affordable housing for its council tax payers. It is innovative, and its housing benefit department has two charter marks for the excellence of its service. It was at the forefront of the local authorities that joined the scheme whereby someone who lives in Camden can be moved to another part of the country if they so wish. Again, I pay tribute to the Government, who are, I understand, examining the scheme so that if a family want to take the opportunity of moving out of London, they can get more detailed information on matters such as the job opportunities and educational facilities that are available to them.

I pay tribute to what my local authority has done, but I must say that my borough is not one in which any land will be available for building. We have serious problems even with repairs and refurbishment. There could be an argument—although I will not take time today on it—for re-examining the possibility of a pan-London scheme for lettings and, most markedly, for renting.

I am on record as saying that any Member who cannot say what they have to say within 10 minutes should not get to their feet. I see that I have broken my own rule, so I draw my remarks to a conclusion by once again saying how grateful I am for the opportunity of raising a problem of truly crisis proportions in London. It has its most marked impact on some of our most vulnerable people, such as children.