[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair] — Social Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:59 am on 10th May 2006.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:59 am, 10th May 2006

I shall be as brief as possible because it is important that all colleagues are able to get into the debate. It cannot have escaped your notice, Mrs. Dean, that the majority of Labour Members participating in this debate represent London constituencies; that is because of the nature of the housing crisis in London which my Friend Ms Buck outlined very well indeed.

I represent an inner-London constituency where property prices are going through the roof all the time. Anyone wishing to buy a property in my constituency, such as a two-bedroomed flat above a shop on a main road, would need about £200,000. I saw an ex-council, three-bedroomed flat on an estate advertised yesterday for £350,000. So-called "shared ownership" properties are so expensive that the possibility of anyone on less than a head teacher's income getting one is remote. In reality, there is a massive housing crisis. Little is being built and some council property is still being sold, fortunately at a slightly lower rate than in the past.

As my Friend said in relation to the choice-based letting scheme, people on the housing waiting list go into a bidding frenzy every Thursday when the local paper comes out. Most of them are sadly disappointed. People come to my advice bureau in tears saying that in two years they have managed to visit one property with 20 other families and did not even manage to get an offer at the end of that process. Such cruelty goes on week in, week out.

To some extent, I welcome the choice-based letting system. However, we should be careful because those who are not computer literate, whose first language is not English and who do not feel confident or comfortable using telephones often simply do not bid. Such people just wait, but they will wait for ever because they have no opportunity at all. While I am not against choice-based letting, we should be cautious because those whose first language is not English are, in my experience, in danger of losing out as a result of it.

Tony Baldry mentioned some of the problems in his area, and I have much sympathy with those, particularly the point he raised about the perverse levels of cost and the way in which investment can deal with the situation. I suspect that my local authority, Islington council, like most other London bodies, houses few people off the waiting list into any new development or vacant property. People tend to be directed into the private sector or into leased properties where the council or housing association take on the lease. Such leases are phenomenally expensive.

Ex-council properties that have been sold under the right to buy are then bought up by property companies or housing associations, or they are leased. The rent for such properties is often up to £300 a week. People in desperate housing need are put into them and the rent is paid by housing benefit; usually 100 per cent. of it is paid in that way, although that is not true in all cases. The family involved then often live in a poor quality property that is badly managed, very unsuitable and, in some cases, downright dangerous in my view. A huge rent is paid by the public sector.

If any member of such a family then manages to get a job—clearly we want people to get jobs and careers—they cannot afford to take it, because they are suddenly saddled with a bill of £15,000 a year in rent alone, and they have lost income support and other benefits. We are building a mad benefit trap that costs the public a huge sum to prevent somebody from working and keep them in a grossly substandard and inadequate form of accommodation. A lot of that money could be spent far more effectively on building new homes for rent for the people in desperate housing need throughout London.

I shall just quickly make two or three points because I recognise that many other Members wish to speak. First, on planning issues, the Mayor of London has rightly said that he wants 50 per cent. of all major developments given over to what he terms "affordable housing". I understand that aspiration, and I support it with one or two reservations. I do so because I want far more homes for rent to be available, but I do not like the use of the word "affordable" because the definition of it is loose. It means whatever anyone wants it to mean. Developers seem to think that something is very affordable when I do not think that that is the case. I would much rather say that we desperately need "places for rent at a fixed level in the public sector".

My local authority, Islington council, was controlled by the Liberal Democrats until last Thursday. Sadly from their point of view it now has no overall control, which represents an enormous step forward for Labour. One issue in the election was the Liberal Democrats' persistence on the policy that they would demand a proportion of social housing only on development sites of more than 14 units. In my borough there are few large development sites; most are very small. The Labour proposal was to go right down to the bottom and insist that all development sites have a proportion of social housing, which is eminently sensible. I hope that that is the new council's policy.

With major developments, developers do not think about the housing needs of people who are desperate to be rehoused; they think of their profits. Arsenal stadium sadly closed last week and the football team is moving to the new stadium. The old stadium site is being redeveloped as Highbury square. The developers, with the agreement of the Liberal Democrat council, are going to put 711 one-bedroomed private flats on that site. That is crazy. There is a desperate need for family housing to keep communities together. What happens is that single people and couples move to one-bedroomed flats and then cannot move to anywhere else in that community, so we end up with a community of either childless couples or old people. Those with children are forced to move out of inner London. I am sure that that occurs in other inner-London constituencies.

My last point is about the need to invest in development. The Library produced an interesting briefing for today's debate, which makes grim reading. The number of new council properties being developed throughout the country this year is somewhere around the zero mark, and the number of housing association properties being developed in the whole of London, which is at a record high for the past 10 years, is just 6,000. We need major investment in housing for rent either by housing associations or local authorities. We should give local authorities the freedom to invest in building properties for rent if that is what they want to do, not skew Government financing of housing investment so that it is impossible for local authorities to build for affordable rent.

If we do not tackle this crisis in London—and it is a crisis—what will be the long-term effect? More homeless people, more people living in grossly overcrowded accommodation, and more children growing up in grossly overcrowded flats. Is it surprising that young people and teenagers who are forced to share bedrooms with their siblings—often siblings of different sexes—do not like to spend time at home because there is simply no space? Is it surprising that families break up? Is it surprising that those young people hang around in the streets because they do not want to be at home in the evening, and encounter all kinds of problems as a result? If we do not deal with the housing crisis in London urgently and invest in the needs of the people, we will be exporting the poor out of London, and creating social divisions and misery for those people who manage to find somewhere—often somewhere expensive and inadequate—to live.

I hope that the Minister fully understands the crisis facing us in London, and the pain that we see across our desks at advice bureaux every week when people ask, "Is it so unreasonable to want a decent flat with a bedroom for each of my children so that they can grow up like all the other children do?" It is heartbreaking to hear what people go through. I hope that the Government will skew investment into new building rather than frittering it away on the profits of private landlords and property companies, which is what we are doing through the perversity of the housing benefit system.