[Mr. David Amess in the Chair] — Housing (Standards)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 5th February 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley 9:30 am, 5th February 2008

When I was married to my late first husband, Bob Cryer, in 1963, we managed, fortunately, to rent a house from a Mrs. Singleton. I do not want to sound like a Monty Python sketch, but we had an outside toilet and no bathroom, and our only heating was a coal fire. Eventually, we redecorated the house, made it snug, and put a water heater in the kitchen. Mrs. Singleton was so impressed by our efforts that she put our rent up from £1 a week to £1.50. So much for our efforts.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

She probably was.

This morning, I want to focus on the problems in the Bradford district as a whole. Social housing is quite a hot topic today, because my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has been talking about how to manage social housing. Although I do not agree with some of her comments, she apparently said on the "Today" programme that she looked forward to having more and better social housing. That is what I am asking for in my constituency.

In the Bradford Telegraph and Argus last night, my hon. Friend Mr. Rooney apparently berated the Bradford Community Housing Trust about the lack of consideration for tenants in his constituency. Over past months, I have had numerous complaints from constituents on various estates in my constituency about the lack of repairs and care by the trust. This morning, I shall focus on one estate—the Woodhouse estate.

At a public meeting in Keighley in September last year, a representative of BCHT, the quasi-private organisation that took control of council housing following the stock transfer in 2003, admitted to tenants that they were living in homes that needed £45,000 of repairs each. I acknowledge the chronic condition of housing, but BCHT continued to receive rent either from its tenants directly or from the public purse via housing benefit. My attempts to seek an explanation as to how BCHT intended to remedy its self-confessed problem were met with comments, published in Inside Housing, that dismissed my calls for accountability on the ground that I was electioneering.

MPs may be accused of that whatever we do. Perhaps the trust would have me do nothing about anything. However, the fact that it has repeatedly failed to answer legitimate questions from an elected representative and the diligent councillors for the ward is reprehensible. We should have been aware of the possibility of this type of problem at the time of stock transfer. Taking publicly owned property and transferring it to a quasi-private body without democratic accountability was always likely to be a recipe for disaster. Stock transfer not only brought to an end the influence of elected councillors, but excluded registered social landlords from both the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I was not aware of that until recently.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising an important subject. Does she accept that a decent registered social landlord that is non-profit-making and is run by a board that includes the right number of tenant representatives can deliver decent housing standards and proper maintenance, whereas tenants whose properties remain in council ownership are not necessarily guaranteed that level of decent housing and maintenance?

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

My tenants are getting the worst of both worlds, and that will come out later in my comments.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. I had the same problem as she did, but the other way round. My council refused to give me, as the elected representative of 1,536 tenants, their names and addresses so that I could contact them to represent their interests during the transfer. That was deplorable and the Audit Commission and the local government ombudsman had to become involved in the matter.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

I seemed to have greater influence before stock transfer than now. In a perfect world there may be trusts that manage things better than the one in Bradford.

The same landlord—BCHT—refused to allow one of my constituents to bid for a property. She had served time in prison for a crime for which she had paid the price to society, and wanted to rebuild her life with her two children without again resorting to crime. BCHT believed that the punishment handed down by the courts was insufficient. It was hardly for the trust to comment in that way.

The same landlord attempted to explain the unacceptable condition of housing in my constituency on the basis of a 30-year business plan. My constituents, who are forced to live in such poor conditions, have been denied access to that plan even after an application under the Freedom of Information Act. As their elected representative, I must apparently wait until I am 98 to learn of the solutions. I shall probably be pushing up the daisies by then, or I may have lost interest.

What is worse, as many hon. Members may recall from their constituencies, stock transfer was secured on spurious grounds. First, tenants were promised investment in their homes. Any visit to the Woodhouse estate would demonstrate that that has not materialised. Secondly, any tenant who did not vote in the election to ratify the stock transfer was assumed to have voted for it, which was a deplorable insult to the concept of free and fair elections. Any hon. Member representing an inner-city or urban constituency will be only too aware of how difficult it can be for even the most hard-working and imaginative colleagues to encourage some of our constituents to engage in the electoral process. Such a vote devalues and undermines our process of government and administration and, moreover, makes a mockery of the ethos of being a social landlord.

From the outset, the signs were there. I argued against stock transfer, and I suppose I lost. That is clearly in the past, but just because stock transfer was built on shaky foundations does not mean that we must now passively allow this flawed, inappropriate and disengaged system to continue. I have asked legitimate questions, but have not been given the courtesy of an intelligent reply. I asked why, when operating and running costs have increased by 11 per cent. since stock transfer and income has increased by only 8 per cent., BCHT was using the funds raised through property sales to cover the annually increasing deficit, which is akin to corporate cannibalism. I was again told that it formed part of a 30-year plan, and my request to see the plan was denied. I also asked when the corporate cannibalism might cease and the proceeds from sales might be reinvested in areas such as Woodhouse, but was again referred to the 30-year plan, and my requests to see it were again denied.

How can I possibly be expected to explain the extremely poor conditions that many of my constituents have to contend with, day in, day out, by a 30-year plan? This economic model is, as yet, wholly untested in the social landlord stock transfer market, which is being used as a smokescreen to avoid accountability to democratically elected representatives such as me and local councillors, and does not deal with the practical issue of substandard housing. One director of the trust has suggested that the answer is simply to refinance the debts. At a time when the Governor of the Bank of England is asking us to tighten our belts and refrain from using our credit cards too much, I am being told—albeit privately—that BCHT should exercise its credit card. Perhaps the question at stake is one not only of accountability, but of the ability to count.

In response to my public and private questioning of BCHT, a consultation with tenants has commenced. Apparently, a meeting, or a so-called options appraisal, will take place tonight on the Woodhouse estate. I look forward to the outcome of that. However, the Housing Corporation has told me that the redevelopment of the Woodhouse estate was never in the infamous 30-year plan, that no application for funding in respect of that redevelopment has ever been made to the Housing Corporation and that, if it were made, it would be rejected on the ground that it did not provide value for money. That is what I was told several weeks ago in a meeting with a representative from the Housing Corporation.

Are we saying, therefore, that the economics of the marketplace should determine whether tenants have the right to decent housing? Treating tenants in such a way is undemocratic and immoral. To make matters worse, my attempts to address the issue were met by opposition from Bradford city hall and by calls for me to keep quiet. I was accused of getting it wrong, and of not understanding the situation or the economic model. I was told that my comments could damage Bradford. My constituency is one fifth of Bradford, and my Woodhouse constituents are a part of that. I think that it would be far more damaging to Bradford if I were to keep quiet.

I have seen for myself the houses on the Woodhouse estate, and I know what condition they are in. They are frequently well decorated and cared for by tenants, but the damp is showing through, which is soul destroying for the house-proud people who pay the rents. I challenge any of my critics to meet me at any time on the Woodhouse estate and tell me and my constituents that I and they are wrong and that the 30-year plan is working for them. I find it inexplicable that, after an audit on BCHT, the Housing Corporation found the estate to be satisfactory.

In Walsall, the post-stock transfer organisation faces similar problems. In that case, the Housing Corporation acted. I see no difference between the two scenarios apart from an unwillingness on the part of a regulatory body to carry out its function. If the auditors acting on behalf of the Housing Corporation had really seen the Woodhouse estate, serious questions must be asked regarding their competence. I doubt that they ever saw Woodhouse. Had they done so, they would not have come to their conclusion. I could question what the auditors saw or did not see, but, again, I would be faced with no reply and the stonewall of exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

It is not in my interests to criticise BCHT without good reason. It is the largest provider of social housing in the Bradford district, and I and my constituents have every interest in having a strong, successful social landlord. However, the reality is that, at a time when demand for housing is increasing, and will continue to do so, stock is significantly decreasing, while costs increase. The fact that BCHT and the Housing Corporation are reluctant to come clean merely adds to the suspicion that something is wrong. If it is the case that the Woodhouse houses are not worth £45,000 of investment but should be replaced, how will BCHT pay for any redevelopment? Had I been told last September that funding is simply not available, I would have immediately referred the matter to the Minister. In the 21st century and after 11 years of our Government, I do not accept that we can idly stand by and allow people to live in the conditions that are found on that estate.

I have been invited to meet the Housing Corporation and BCHT. I am told that they want to address the problems of Woodhouse, but are not yet in a position to share the details of those plans. Even the last-minute attempts to address the matter are shrouded in secrecy. What am I asking? First, I want an open and robust commitment to deal with the problems of the Woodhouse estate in Keighley. I want to see detailed plans and schedules. I want my constituents to be involved in the drawing up of those plans.

Secondly, I want a reappraisal of the meaning of "social landlord". In the case of BCHT, stock transfer appears to have diminished its ethos. When the interests of the company come before the interests of its tenants, something has gone dramatically wrong. Thirdly, I want to see a reinforcement of the principle of public accountability. Fourthly, there is no point in having a regulatory body if it passively accepts unsatisfactory performance and fails to challenge and find solutions to substandard housing. A regulatory body must have the ability and courage to enforce.

Finally, I want my constituents to be treated with the respect that they deserve rather than being seen as an inconvenience. I want them to be given the right to live in a home that is not harmful to them. Addressing social injustices is what we, and what social landlords, should be about. I do not wish to damage BCHT, but I do not believe that adopting the ostrich position in dealing with such difficult issues is beneficial to anyone.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 9:46 am, 5th February 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer on securing this debate and on putting over her case. It is a crying scandal for a housing association to be so unhelpful to its tenants and to its Member of Parliament. The record of Bradford Community Housing Trust does not seem good to an outsider such as me. It is not right for a social landlord to behave in such a way towards its tenants. The Housing Corporation is currently merging with English Partnerships, which I hope will not be the prelude to a further period of confusion. I hope that such a merger will effectively bring pressure on housing associations to behave more sensibly and in a more accommodating way towards their tenants.

I, too, lost a ballot on a large-scale voluntary transfer against the registered social landlord in Grimsby. In such cases, the deluge of videos and misleading information that descends on tenants has the effect of rigging the ballot. However, that is a loser's plaint, and I lost. Council housing was taken over by Shoreline housing association, which has been a good landlord and concerned to improve conditions. It has steadily improved the estates by rebuilding and pulling down the worst properties. I am entirely happy with Shoreline. The only problem is that it has not been able to bring into housing all the money that it promised. As a result, houses on some of the estates are boarded up and stick out like sore thumbs. They are clearly a distress to neighbours. Such conditions cannot be improved until the housing association raises the money on the markets, which is proving difficult. It will be a difficult year for housing associations, and for anybody else, to raise money.

The record of housing associations is very patchy. Some are excellent, some are good and some are disastrous. The Government conventionally criticised the councils. There were the same variations in the performance of councils in respect of housing. Some were effective landlords and some were not. The record was better on the whole that that of the housing associations because the tenants had a form of accountability. If they did not like how the council was behaving towards them, they could throw out the councillors. They had that means of redress. There is not the same effective pressure on housing associations. It is misleading to suggest, as Bob Spink did, that housing associations are better at consulting.

The experience is that tenant consultation by housing associations is less effective than it was by the councils. The machinery of consultation is usually set up, but it tends to wither in at least some housing associations. Tenants on the board are bound by the Companies Act 2006 to support the financial interests of the company rather than the interests of the tenants whom they were appointed to represent, so it is not an effective form of representation.

The record is one of sluggishness, particularly in respect of new housing. This country needs a massive housing drive and the Government have undertaken to promote such a drive. That will be very difficult this year, given the state of the housing market. I have tabled an early-day motion—it does not yet have a number—suggesting that money should be made available to councils to take over repossessed properties and put them into council housing stock, instead of the building societies and creditors selling off the houses for peanuts, as is usually the case. That would be a useful means of expanding the social housing that this country needs. I hope that the Government will listen to that.

The point is that we need a housing drive and the RSLs—the housing associations—are generally sluggish in their approach to new development. They prefer to build up reserves and balances—to have the money in the bank—and turn themselves into benign housing operators rather than launching a big housing drive in their area. If the councils cannot do that and the housing associations do not do it, it will not be done, so means have to be developed for the Housing Corporation, under its new name, to push housing associations into redevelopment.

The same is true of arm's length management organisations. Some ALMOs—certainly in Camden, where it is difficult to find land for new building—are being forced to sell off council housing to raise the money to carry out the necessary repairs. I think that that is happening in Sheffield. It is also happening in Birmingham, although it is not an ALMO there. We are in effect reducing the amount of social housing to raise money to repair the remaining social housing, rather than expanding the whole social housing sector. That is a scandal. It is distressing that the so-called Housing and Regeneration Bill—it will not do much for either, as far as I can see—does not tackle that problem right at the start.

This debate is about standards in housing, and the financial pressure on councils is preventing them from improving standards in housing. That pressure and the aspirations of housing associations to build up balances and reserves and to merge with one another to form ever bigger housing associations, covering the whole country and therefore having roots and commitments in no particular area, will prevent the improvements in housing standards that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley talks about and that we need throughout the country.

The pressures are considerable. Councils are being bullied, bamboozled and pushed into privatising their stock. The Government take from the housing revenue account £1.5 billion every year for redistribution and to pay off the historical debt. That money should go to housing. They take the revenues from right-to-buy sales—which should go to housing—away from the local authorities. Councils have been deprived of money. They are not being provided with any extra money in the generous way in which housing associations are provided with it, through gap funding and the write-off of debt. Councils are not allowed to compete on equal terms in order to push them into privatisation.

That pressure is increased by the Housing and Regeneration Bill, according to which tenants—I do not know how many; 10, 15, 20, 25 or perhaps only two or three—will be allowed to precipitate a large-scale voluntary transfer. One half of the Bill is devoted to pushing councils out of housing and the other half purports to bring them back into housing. That is a crazy combination; we cannot do both. If we are to improve housing standards, that dichotomy must be resolved; it is schizophrenic thinking to assume that we can do that. Even where councils are supposed to come back into housing, they are asked to do so on terms that make it impossible for most of them. In fact, the only terms on which they will be able to obtain regional grants is if they go for a large-scale voluntary transfer. It is a vicious circle.

All that means that after 18 Tory years of disinvestment in council housing and 10 Labour years of pressure to privatise, council housing is in a mess in many areas. The Hills report aspires to creating mixed communities, which is what we need and what there used to be. Professor Hills' research shows that up to 1979, council housing was in genuinely mixed communities, with better-off as well as worse-off people. Since then, the estates have become dumping grounds, because so much of the stock has been sold off. Some of the stock sold off has been repossessed and bought by landlords who just put in anybody, so the whole area goes steadily downhill and there is no longer any sense of community. In that situation, housing standards are declining. We want social housing and council housing to be in a genuine community in which people can grow up together, live together and aspire to move into ownership or to other areas. It has to be a base from which people can build, but it has not become that.

It is distressing to see the views of the new Minister for Housing in today's edition of The Guardian—exhibit A, which I cannot produce in court, but which I hold up in case anybody has long sight and can read it from a distance. I do not know what happens to new Ministers. It has not happened on the same scale to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Wright, but there is a kind of miasma in the basement of the Department for Communities and Local Government that seeps up and fills the minds of new Ministers, who begin to take up the kind of attitudes that one associates with the Smith institute. The attitude is basically that social housing and council housing are a kind of transit camp into which people will be moved on the basis of a means test and out of which they will be moved if they become better off. It is not that—it is housing for people; it is housing for communities. Until we get back to that basic aspiration, we shall have an unsatisfactory situation in which there are low standards in housing.

According to the article, the new Minister for Housing refers to

"the culture of 'no one works around here'".

That is often the case because unemployment is higher on council estates. It is higher still on housing association estates. It is distressing that the article states that, referring to the "no one works here" syndrome,

"she said there was some evidence that living in social housing acted as a deterrent to people seeking work due to the sheer and growing concentrations of unemployment and poverty on such estates. 'If you are in a family, an estate or a neighbourhood where nobody works that impacts on your own aspiration.'"

In other words, the estates, it is now argued, are the breeding grounds of a shiftless unemployed population that does not want work. That is the implication. Council tenants and social housing tenants are being abused in that fashion because they are in that situation as a consequence of the Government policy of selling off council housing and social housing under the right to buy, using the estates as dumping grounds for the needy and allowing landlords to buy the properties that have been sold off and allowed to deteriorate.

Questions arise from the Minister's statement. Does the view that if people want a council house they should find a job apply to council estates? That is not clear from the article. Does it apply only to council estates, or does it apply to registered social landlords and housing associations? Does it affect secure tenancies, which people on council estates have, and assured tenancies, which people in housing association estates have? The new commitment—[Interruption.] I apologise for that, Mr. Amess, I have an enormous fan club who clamour for me at the most inopportune times. I shall switch my phone off—perhaps the Minister for Housing is trying to call me to give me the proper interpretation of her remarks.

My point is that the threats are vague and unspecific. They will be received very badly on council and social housing estates all over the country. What are we about? We are the Labour party! We have been built up by support from people on council estates, and we treat them in such a fashion when they are at the end of a long period of financial deprivation, which has reduced them to their state. They are now being abused and told that they must go out and find a job. That is no way for a Labour Government to behave, or even to think.

Do the Minister's remarks apply to housing estates only or to RSLs as well? Does the policy apply to new tenancies, or, as the Minister seemed to indicate, will it be extended to existing tenants? She certainly left the latter possibility open in her speech. Will the policy apply to new contracts for people in social housing, which would force them to look for work in addition to the other pressures that they face? People need to be encouraged and helped to look for work, but to be forced to do so as a condition of tenancy is another matter entirely.

What happens when people buy properties on estates, particularly from RSLs? The Government encourage people to buy a share in their own house, which is an unpredictable burden for tenants, because they cannot be sure what repairs will cost, and how much of that will fall on them and how much on housing associations. It will be a difficult burden to shoulder, particularly for people on those estates where 67 per cent. of the population are on benefits of some kind. It is difficult to see that such people will rush to buy shares in their own property, but if they do so, are they going to be treated in the fashion that I described along with everybody else?

All those questions need to be answered but, most of all, the Government need to raise their aspirations for new house building by councils, as well as by housing associations. Councils have the best overview of the housing needs in their area and they want to serve those needs. It is therefore unreasonable to push them out of housing when we are trying to encourage the building of more social housing. Will the necessary funding be provided to generate the improvement in the conditions of the estates and the tenants?

We are committed to reaching the decent homes standard by 2010. Frankly, I doubt that we will reach it, but if we are going to do so, funding such as the gap funding that is made available to housing associations must surely be made available to councils, to help them to undertake the repairs and regeneration that are necessary in their areas. Our commitment must be to improve conditions for existing tenants as well as to build the new housing that is necessary because people cannot get on the ladder. Why can we not undertake both commitments?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 10:03 am, 5th February 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer on securing this debate. I thank her for the harrowing story that she told today about the behaviour of one registered social landlord in Bradford. When I finish my remarks, I hope that the Under-Secretary will give us some hope about the future regulation, administration and democracy of registered social landlords. I shall return to that matter.

If they wished to do so, hon. Members could pick up from the Library an interesting document titled "Social Indicators", which comes out every month or so. The section on housing is very interesting, because it shows that people buying their own homes are paying an ever higher proportion of their salaries on housing costs, so the need for socially provided housing through either an RSL or a local authority is increasing, especially if my own community is anything to go by. Roughly 80 per cent. of my population have no possibility whatever of buying their own place in the community, and therefore rely either on council housing or housing associations to provide one.

When we look at the completion of permanent dwellings by sector in the UK, we will see that in 1997 there were 160,000 private sector completions, 28,000 registered social landlord completions and 1,500 local authority completions. By 2005-06, there were 188,000 private sector completions, registered social landlord completions had gone down to 24,000 and local authority completions, at 326, had almost disappeared. That means that out of the 213,000 new properties that were completed in that year, fewer than 12 per cent. were for people who apply for social housing of some sort. In my constituency, which is pretty normal for inner-urban Britain and certainly for inner London, about 45 to 50 per cent. of the population live in properties owned by either the local authority or a registered social landlord. If we applied that figure to the rest of the country, we would begin to see that, by our failure to build, we are creating a bigger problem for ourselves.

On the following page of "Social Indicators", the story begins to unfold. In 1997, 44,000 households were living in temporary accommodation arranged through local authorities. That figure increased to 101,000 in 2004. I am pleased that it has now come down slightly, yet there are still 87,000 households living in temporary accommodation.

Members of Parliament earn a good salary and usually have somewhere very nice to live, if not two or three nice places to live, according to the "Today" programme. They do not have a sense of insecurity. Imagine what it is like for people who are trying to bring up a couple of children when they are homeless. They will be placed by a local authority either in a bed and breakfast hotel, a hostel or temporary rented accommodation from a private landlord. They do not know how long they will be there. Their landlord is totally unresponsive to the need for repairs and so on. There is nowhere for their children to play. They have nowhere to get their own furniture, and there is no way for them to make their accommodation their home. After six months, they could be moved on, and their children might have to move school. That could happen again and again. Those people are desperately waiting for the dream of being offered a permanent tenancy in a decent flat where they know that they can put down roots and become part of the local community to come true.

Imagine the effect of that situation on children who grow up with such a sense of insecurity. When they go to school, they are too embarrassed to say to their mates, "Come home and have tea with me tonight." They are embarrassed because they live in a hostel or in a temporary place, or because they would have to travel a long way. I constantly meet young parents whose children go to primary schools in my constituency but who are homeless, so the local authority has placed them in rented accommodation, sometimes as far away as Enfield. That might not sound so far to us, but we should imagine making a 90-minute journey each way to school by bus to maintain a link with a community—we should think about children spending three hours a day on a bus.

None of that is necessary. It has become the norm, because as a society and as a country we are not addressing the seriousness of the housing needs of an awful lot of people who are desperate to have somewhere permanent, safe and secure to live. I hope that we will begin to develop some sense of national endeavour, as this country managed to do after the second world war. The endeavour to solve the housing problem went on for nearly 20 years. None of the problems are necessary, and the damage that they are doing to people's lives is very serious.

I welcome what the Government did in 1997 on decent home standards and in investing large amounts of money in improving estates. When I go around my constituency, I see new windows, new roofs and better common parts. All those things are very welcome. It is good news, and it has certainly improved the lives of many people. I hope that the Minister will take the decent homes standards a little further. First, much better energy efficiency standards are important for all new properties—not only local authority or RSL properties, but those in the private sector. Energy prices are likely to rise, so a lack of energy efficiency will mean higher costs for tenants.

Secondly, within the planning guidelines, will the Minister ensure that much better standards of open space, particularly play space, are made available in urban areas? We are building to high levels of density. I can understand the pressure for high-density living, but it is important to make provision for some open space, including children's play areas. We also need something to be done about minimum room sizes and ceiling heights; again, that affects people's quality of life.

Lastly—I say this with feeling—a large proportion of properties in my constituency are Victorian, and of themselves they are nice buildings and certainly attractive, but most of them have been converted into smaller apartments, and relatively few remain as family houses. The standards of conversion vary, but the standards of soundproofing are appalling. Many people come to my advice bureau, and to those of councillors and others, who are driven to distraction by noise from neighbours' flats. It is not necessarily that the neighbours are particularly noisy, but with such a low level of soundproofing on conversion, life can be intolerable. For instance, if a middle flat has three or four children running around all day, older people living in the ground floor flat would find their sympathy for the younger generation disappearing. All kinds of social tension result. Standards, open space and quality of housing are important matters.

Many of my constituents are in desperate housing need. As I have explained, some are in less desperate need, in the sense that they are not eligible for local authority assistance, but they cannot buy because they do not earn enough, so they rent on the private market. Rents in London and in most big cities are very high. People living in my constituency, usually young people, are paying £250 to £400 a week for a flat. That makes a big hole in their salary, and they have no permanent security of tenure. Normally, they are on six-month to one-year lease agreements, and the rents can go up again at the end of that time.

That has a number of effects. First, as a society we end up with a poorer sense of community, because people do not feel a sense of belonging or of security. Secondly, many people are making vast sums out of the buy-to-let market. Indeed, it is one of the biggest growth areas. Is it sensible to encourage that sort of investment without any rent regulation and with such vast profits being made? I ask the Minister to think seriously about what degree of regulation should be introduced into the private rented market.

In 1974, the Labour Government, led by Harold Wilson, was prepared to control rents. It was a popular measure, and it was effective. It also brought about much greater security of tenure in the private market. The Conservative Government, under Margaret Thatcher, did away with most of those protections and controls, and we are still paying the price.

I ask the Minister to look at the totality of expenditure. He is doubtless considering investment in housing—that is his job and what his budget is for—but I ask him to encourage the Government to look at the problem more holistically. I go back to the point that I started with: people are placed in privately rented, leased flats by local authorities because they are homeless. Some of those places are in appalling condition, and the rents are usually higher than on the open market. Many cost more than £400 a week—I do not joke, it is that high—but it is all paid through housing benefit.

I do not object to people receiving housing benefit—quite the reverse; I support it—but it means that the community is paying out sums that would cover a pretty large mortgage, and that money is being spent on flats of an appalling standard, with insecurity of tenure, which are bad places to bring up children, and all the rest of it. And who is making money out of this but fly-by-night slum landlords, who are being subsidised by the public sector? It is immoral and wrong. The solution is to be tough on standards. The long-term solution is building far more places for rent for those in desperate housing need.

The last point that I want to make is about democracy in housing. In my area, as in others, an ever larger number of people are living in properties owned by registered social landlords, and most development is undertaken by them—very little is done by the local authority. Islington local authority is at last developing a hundred-and-something new council houses. It is the first time for many years that we have seen new development.

I welcome such developments, but unfortunately they are often paid for by the sale of a large number existing council properties—either businesses premises, or places that the council could not afford to do up, with street properties sold at auction on the open market. Those properties were not sold to people in desperate housing need; most were sold to property companies. I ask myself, who is helping whom? If we sell some properties in order to improve the remaining properties for development, we will end up with fewer places to rent, not more—the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell.

When the Minister next considers the details of the legislation before the House, I hope that he will look seriously at the question of the democracy and administration of housing associations. I have a large number of housing associations in my constituency. I meet them all from time to time. I have a great deal of correspondence with them. Some of them are extremely responsive and helpful, and I have no particular complaints about them—they respond to my requests and those of my constituents, and that is fair enough—but some are much less responsive, some do not respond at all, and some are so large that they hardly know where their properties are to be found.

We come down to the question of accountability and democracy. Is it really such a good idea continually to encourage housing associations to merge and grow endlessly? Circle Anglia has become an enormous housing association, with properties from London to Lincolnshire. It has executive offices and super-executive offices and super-duper-executive offices, with lots of executives running all over the place—and somewhere, somebody sometimes ends up doing some of the repairs. The management structure covers a diffuse selection of properties—probably expensive ones.

We need much greater rationalisation. We need the zoning of housing associations, so that they are restricted to one city, county or area. I hope that when the Mayor of London takes over the London Housing Board in April, and it becomes the main motor for investment in London properties, he will be given the power to encourage, if not force, housing associations to restrict themselves to one part of the country.

We should also introduce a sense of democracy in housing associations. There was a time when they were small and local, and often democratic. Many operated on semi-co-operative principles. Indeed, in my constituency we still have a number of housing co-operatives. I do not see why we cannot return to that state. RSL tenants hardly know who their landlord is; their landlords are remote, and non-responsive. We need a return of a sense of democracy.

This debate is about housing standards. For some people, the standard is high, but for far too many, standards are poor, and it makes life very difficult. We need a sense of priority. Too many families break up; too many young people fail; too many youngsters end up in the criminal justice system; too many people have utterly miserable lives. Simply put, that is because we as a community are not prepared to invest sufficiently or sensibly enough to conquer the housing problems that so many in our society now face.


May I ask the Hon.Gentleman to think also of University and College students accommodation. Some years ago my son went to Manchester and was in lodgings with a room to himself. However as time went on it ended up with four lodgers(not all students) One was a bus driver with irregular hours, and one used to bring his girl friend in for the ususal boy/girl activities. My son was not too well when he went to college, but returned home a wreck, and has been a sufferer from a severe mental health problem ever since. It was not the housing itself that made him ill, as he had shown signs of disturbance before leaving home which we put down to the difficult teenage years.
These days students are coming out of University and College with large debts to face, unless they have parents who are financially able to support them.
Many are not suitable anyway for University, but would do better at more practical studies.
So please, sir, remember the students in the housing crisis, as well as all the other impoverished individuals and families.

Submitted by Alix Cull

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government 10:19 am, 5th February 2008

First, may I say what a delight it is to work again with these two hon. Gentlemen, the Minister and Grant Shapps, as we did on the Housing and Regeneration Bill for more than a month recently? Indeed, I think that it would be true to say, without fear of exaggeration, that we are the most effective political trio since the first triumvirate in Rome 2,000 years ago. Of course, in this analogy, the hon. Member for Ceilidh—

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

You must have flown over it.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

On a number of occasions. As I was saying, Mrs. Cryer would be the character of Cleopatra, who has come here to romance Mark Antony, the Minister, for housing favours, and I hope she gets what she is looking for. May I also congratulate her on having secured this debate? It is an important debate, and she has highlighted, with her local example, an issue that affects many people across the country.

I think we would all agree that politicians have a moral obligation to ensure that, in this first-world country, we have first-world housing for its citizens. I think that we would also probably all agree about the outcomes that we would like to see in terms of the quality of housing, so I will not dwell on that issue. However, I would suggest that, to achieve those outcomes, there are three criteria that we need to fulfil, and the Minister and the Government will hear me develop these three themes in the months ahead. The three criteria to achieve a high standard of housing are a sustainable environmental approach towards housing, a sustainable economic approach to the housing market and a sustainable social approach to communities.

All three of those criteria are intimately connected with the standard of housing that we create. In an environmental context, it seems obvious to me that all new housing should be zero carbon. However, given that in 2050 most people will be living in housing that has already been built now, we must find a way to raise the standard of environmental performance of existing housing stock. Having said that, as we are primarily talking about the social elements of housing today, it would be inappropriate for me to pursue that idea in great detail.

The second criterion, a sustainable economic approach to the housing market, is very relevant; we have already heard from other speakers about how important it is to ensure that the housing market is affordable, both in terms of the cost of buying housing and the cost of renting, which is perhaps even more salient today. We have heard a horror story from Jeremy Corbyn, describing a situation where there is a very low standard of housing at a very high price, which is the worst of both worlds. All of us need to think about how we can effectively ensure that housing is affordable for those at the lower end of the income scale.

Thirdly, it is also obvious to me that the quality of a community is closely connected to the quality of housing and how that housing is structured. We have already heard from the hon. Member for Keighley and particularly from Mr. Mitchell about how vital it is that we do not ghettoise people on low incomes.

The Minister for Housing is claimed to have said, "If you want a council house, find a job"—that is the headline in The Guardian today. I do not think that that is what she ought to be saying, in terms of the messages that she is sending out to those who are depending on and looking for social housing. Having said that, I would like to issue a health warning: I know from my own experience that it is very easy for the media to misrepresent what politicians and Ministers say. She is also probably the only person in Parliament who has held her housing portfolio for a shorter time than I have, so it is possible that she was not necessarily thinking about the nuances that could be represented, or even misrepresented, by the media. So I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt here, and I would like to hear from her directly, at first hand, what she really thinks, rather than depend on what is often now, sadly, an unbelievably unreliable written press to be judge and jury of what she has said.

Nevertheless, I think that we would all agree that, if people are excluded from the social housing sector, the only option for them is to go into the private rented sector, where rents are almost always higher. Housing benefit does not always cover that additional amount, which puts a further pressure on households that already have a relatively low income. That pressure can lead to default and eviction, and those households will therefore contribute to the homelessness figures, so it is very important to recognise the vicious spiral that can occur if we depend on the private rented sector to make up the difference between what households require and what is available in the regulated social housing sector.

As the Minister here today knows, I am disappointed that the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which we will return to on Report, will not regulate the private rented sector in the same way that it will regulate the registered social housing sector. The Minister might want to say something about that today. What is obvious is that, if the private rented sector is going to end up as the collecting point for all those vulnerable households that do not have jobs and so forth, the landlords in that sector will be disinclined to play ball. They will say, "Well, we don't want to have these vulnerable tenants, because they could default," so the vicious spiral gets ever worse.

If the Minister wants to comment on what his colleague, the Minister for Housing, said about council houses, I will understand. Otherwise, I hope that the Minister for Housing will clarify to the House where she stands on this issue. I am perfectly willing to accept that the fault was presentational rather than intentional.

I would like to turn now to what the other speakers in the debate have said. The hon. Member for Keighley highlighted something that I have seen myself, namely that the quality of a community housing trust is very often dependent on the individuals running that trust. I do not know the particular circumstances that she mentioned, but I have seen good trusts perform effectively simply because the individuals within the management structure do a good job. As a result, the standard of housing remains high, repairs are done quickly, and the tenants have a very high regard for those bodies. At the same time, once in a while I have seen managers who are not so effective. As a result, the corporate culture of the association declines and that directly impacts on the standard of housing for the tenants.

I wonder whether the Minister has any views about how we can ensure that the variability of the quality of management is in some ways dampened, in terms of its consequences for the tenants. It could be that the Minister feels that the Housing and Regeneration Bill will be the right mechanism to achieve that. I suspect that we cannot completely eliminate that variability, but if he has a view on that issue I would be very pleased to hear it.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made some very important observations. I have given my view on what the Minister for Housing said. I would simply add, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that we have a responsibility as legislators and politicians to ensure that individuals and households who need the support of the Government to obtain adequate accommodation, both for the adults and for the children who are being raised, receive that support.

Those words are easy to say, but it is much harder to take action. Does the Minister really think that we will achieve the goals set by the Government by 2010? That is only 22 months away, or if we give him the whole of 2010, 34 months away, which is still not very long. The Government's ambitious target will be expensive to achieve. If he reassures us that he believes that that target is still attainable, I would ask him to outline briefly the Government's strategy to make that colossal investment in less than three years. I want to see the target met, but I think that perhaps not enough has happened so far, since it was set, to ensure that it is achieved.

The hon. Member for Islington, North highlighted one of the most serious and worrying statistics in this debate: the 87,000 households in temporary accommodation. That is not really a quality of life that we should tolerate in a country with the wealth that the United Kingdom has. What can we do to ensure that that figure is halved? It was half that figure previously, when I would have said that there was less wealth in the UK than there is now.

Looking ahead, what are the next steps? As I said, we should return to the issue of economically sustainable housing. We should retrospectively consider implementing certain standards to the housing stock if we are to make the United Kingdom a zero-carbon economy in the not-too-distant future. We must also recognise that the only real way to have sustainable housing and a sustainable housing market is to increase the availability of housing stock.

There are some creative solutions around, not all of which we need to discuss today. However, the Minister may not be aware that there are about 1 million potential properties over shops and other retail outlets, which, for administrative reasons, it is hard to convert into housing. Would he like to hear more about that from me and from institutions that have been looking at the issue? Those 1 million properties would make a big difference to easing the back pressure on purchased and rented accommodation, as long as their standard could be secured.

On sustainable communities, we can also do a great deal to ensure that we design good community life into good housing. We all have noble intentions on this issue, and although the cost of doing something is high, the cost of doing nothing is even higher. Somebody made the insightful point to me that there is only one letter's difference between homelessness and hopelessness, and that is very true. People who drop out of society often feel that it has not offered them much, and those who end up living rough or living on the good will of their friends will eventually begin to display a degree of social disconnection.

If the Minister says that we can solve all these problems by the end of 2010, I shall be delighted to hear it. If he does intend to pursue these issues, how will he do so and what can we do collectively—on a cross-party basis—to ensure that housing is treated not as a political football but as a social responsibility that we must all take on in a sombre and serious way?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party 10:32 am, 5th February 2008

I congratulate Mrs. Cryer on securing a debate on this important subject, which will concern hon. Members of all parties. As Members of Parliament representing our constituents, we should have good access to those who run the social and affordable housing in our areas. If we are to act on behalf of constituents, we need lobbying and information, and such things should not be withheld from us.

The hon. Lady eloquently highlighted the situation in her area, where the local ALMO—I assume it was the ALMO—failed to provide adequate information and responses. It is deeply regrettable and sad that that body feels that it is outside the right and proper democratic process and that it is beyond the requirement to respond. It is difficult to envisage that in the case of a local council, which will feel more politically responsible.

I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance and that he might even be able to act on the issue by sending a letter to all the organisations involved in providing housing, including ALMOs and RSLs. I hope that he will remind them that they are still part of the process of providing social housing, which means that they are responsible to Parliament and to their Members of Parliament in a way that cannot be ignored. That is quite proper, and it is only right for the hon. Lady to expect an adequate response when she has had cause to write to the ALMO in question.

My assertion is not that ALMOs are bad; indeed, there are excellent ALMOs out there, just as there are excellent RSLs and good councils managing stock. Whoever is in charge of social and affordable housing in the public sector, however, has a responsibility to answer hon. Members. As I say, I hope that the Minister can say something about that and provide some reassurance.

In my borough, we have about 11,000 council houses, and the residents have thus far resisted the opportunity to move to an ALMO, because they feel that the local council does a good job of managing the estate properties. That goes to show that good social housing can take many different forms, and that someone who attempts to be prescriptive by saying that all housing should be supplied in one particular way will almost certainly have arrived at the wrong interpretation of the problem and the wrong solution.

The hon. Lady has done a great service in raising this issue, because it raises fundamental questions about the quality of our housing stock. The Minister and I have spent the past month in Committee together, and I have mentioned several times in passing that the decent homes standard—laudable though its objectives are—has not achieved the desired results and will, by the Government's own admission, miss their targets. I would be interested to hear what he has to say about that.

The Minister may or may not know that I recently asked him a parliamentary question about the issue. I was told that there were 8.7 million non-decent homes in 1997, although the hon. Lady will be interested to hear that that figure had declined to 6 million by 2005. Over those five years, therefore, there was a 14.5 per cent. reduction in the number of non-decent homes. Clearly, therefore, as Lembit Öpik said, the Government's programme is very unlikely to be concluded by the 2010 deadline, given that we would need a dramatic 27 per cent. drop in the number of homes outside the decent homes standard in just a couple of years. Indeed, the Government have already admitted that they will miss their targets.

I suspect that the reasons for that are manifold. The targets in many of our constituencies may have been found to be too specific and too centrally driven, with the Government seeking to create houses that may or may not provide a good standard of living for the people in them. In my area, the council has been encouraged to improve aspects of housing that, on any objective measure, do not require improvement. If the local housing provider had had a bit more flexibility to decide what was included in other areas, that might have resulted in a more sensible approach to this agenda.

Although I recognise that the number of houses of non-decent standard has fallen, the real tragedy of the past 10 years, which was alluded to by the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is just leaving, and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), is that the number of houses available in the social area—I was going to call it the market—has been lower in every one of the past 10 years than it was in 18 years under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Those on the socially conscious left of the Labour party must be wondering how on earth that could have happened.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Those of us who were in the House during the years of the Thatcher premiership and who represented areas such as mine were in despair about housing. The right to buy was destroying our estates, and we are now paying the price for that, because many houses have left the public sector. The refusal to allow local authorities to invest sufficiently in repairs also meant that there was a massive £1 billion backlog of repairs by 1997, which the current Government had to pick up. I do regret the lack of social housing being built, but I have no good memories whatever of the Tory years.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

It is a really interesting point. The hon. Gentleman will recognise the bare facts, which are that, by hook or by crook, this Government have produced less—

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

Yes, it may be crook. However, the Government have produced not only less social housing every year, but less housing overall. The average during our time in office was 176,000 houses a year, but the average over the past 10 years has been 145,000. Both the social housing stock and the overall housing provision have declined.

The hon. Member for Islington, North and I could argue about the rights and wrongs of right to buy, but it was before my time in the House, and for his information I am prepared to accept that there are better ways of doing it—for example, by allowing the money to be invested in new council housing. I would like councils to build new houses. On this matter, the left and right might have formed an—I was going to say unholy alliance, but perhaps it is a holy alliance. I do not see why councils could not start building houses again—either through right to buy, or by keeping receipts or allowing councils and RSLs to build houses that benefit the population.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

I shall resist entering into a theological debate about the benefits of buying and the moral obligation to buy that some people feel. However, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that other countries, such as Germany, resolve the problem by making it perfectly normal for wealthy households to rent accommodation. That is one way in which we could overcome the ghettoisation of those in rented accommodation and diminish the price pressures that we are seeing in this country.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman is correct and his desires might be coming true, because home ownership is falling for the first time since the 1980s, although inadvertently, I suspect, as far as the Government are concerned.

I shall turn to the announcement by the Minister for Housing this morning. I agree with the hon. Members for Great Grimsby, for Islington, North and for Montgomeryshire that it was misplaced, that it misfired and that it does nothing to help to understand the fundamentals at the heart of social housing. In fact, I think that it is a mistaken policy announcement along the same lines as dragging youths to cash points or saying that we should have British jobs for British workers. It was a meaningless announcement. Let us think it through: not only are there the implications described by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire—if we kick a family out of social housing they will have to enter rented accommodation, which in many cases might be impossible—but, worse still, where children are involved, the council has a statutory duty to house those kicked out and, therefore, will end up picking up the tab for kicking them out. It is pure headline-grabbing nonsense.

A growing number of people in social housing are unemployed. The response to that should be a much more systematic appraisal of the problem, and solutions more in line with the welfare to work proposals that we described the other week. The solution is certainly not for the Government to claim that they have a silver bullet involving kicking people out of their homes, because obviously the Government will simply have to rehouse those with families. Could the Minister not have advised his new boss quietly and on the side before she made such an ill-thought-out announcement? Could he not have suggested that she think about reality and how the announcement might work in practice before making a proposal that will not stand the test of time—by which I mean about 15 minutes after being written up in the newspapers? It is quite clear from a couple of hours' thought that it cannot resolve the many deep and serious housing problems in this country. I am rather saddened that her first major speech as Minister for Housing has fired off in the most ludicrous headline-grabbing manner. I would have expected more from her.

In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley on securing this debate. Her concerns are real and genuine, and I would be surprised if there were any hon. Members who do not share them. I call on the Minister to act, perhaps by writing to all RSLs and other providers of social housing, be they ALMOs or councils, to remind them of their responsibility to respond to those democratically elected to represent constituents and their housing needs.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 10:44 am, 5th February 2008

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Amess, and to serve under your chairmanship. This has been a good debate on a matter of enormous importance, not only to Bradford, Grimsby and Islington, but across the country. The idea of housing standards and of ensuring that everybody has a choice of housing of an excellent standard is fundamental. Every Government should deal with that.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer, who in her usual manner highlighted her concerns about housing standards in her constituency with the utmost eloquence, wit and style—if only every hon. Member were as committed as she is. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who also do a fantastic job. Sometimes I disagree with them on housing, but their commitment to it and to raising housing standards is important.

I also welcome back to the reunion—not as good as Led Zeppelin's I would suggest, but it is not far off—the hon. Members for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). As has been said, we have spent the last month on the Housing and Regeneration Bill Committee, which I thought was very good. It was challenging and scrutinised the Bill to ensure that housing policy is fit for the 21st century.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

Although Led Zeppelin's might have been a more formidable reunion, is it not us, in housing terms, who are seeking collectively to build a stairway to heaven?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

That is absolutely dreadful. I apologise to the Chamber for allowing such an intervention. That was absolutely disgraceful. I demand a full apology from the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

On a point of order, Mr. Amess. I wish to apologise to the House and to Robert Plant for my dreadful pun.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

This has been a good-natured debate, but there are some serious points to make.

I wish to cover three broad themes that came out in the debate. The first is about decent homes—where we have come from, what we have achieved in the past decade and where we are going in order to hit the 2010 target. The second theme that I shall address at some length deals with serious points about engagement with tenants and the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley about standards as well as broader governance issues in Bradford. She made an important point about a particular estate, to which I shall respond later. The third theme is about the future. We spent the past month on the Housing and Regeneration Bill and, in particular, the last couple of sittings, talking about Oftenant and the establishment of a new social housing regulator, the fundamental objective of which is to raise standards for all social housing tenants and to ensure that they have decent homes. I shall talk more about those objectives, as I did in Committee on clause 86.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I am most grateful to the Minister, who was always generous with his acceptance of interventions in Committee. For hon. Members who were not in the Committee, will he explain why it is that, although he says that all tenants will benefit from Oftenant, those in council housing will not?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

If the hon. Gentleman looks at Hansard tomorrow morning he will notice that I did not say that—I hope. I said that tenants of all social housing—

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I am not dancing on a pin. Our intention is clear. We want tenants of local authority homes brought under Oftenant, but there are practical difficulties, rather than ideological concerns. Those are being looked at now and we anticipate that it will take about two years before they are resolved. We need to consider how to align the regulator's work with the comprehensive area assessments. We also need to consider funding. All those difficulties need to be encountered before we move to a single domain regulator. However, we definitely aim to achieve that policy objective within two years.

On the subject of decent homes, we have a massive social asset in social housing. There are about 4 million social homes, they are valued together at about £400 billion, and they are an important national, collective asset. Everybody recognises that in the years before 1997, there was disgraceful neglect and chronic under-investment. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North was in the House when it happened, and he has been most eloquent on the subject. I should happily take an intervention from the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, who speaks for the Conservatives, if he would like to apologise for the chronic under-investment that took place under the Thatcher and Major Administrations.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I am most grateful to the Minister, because my intervention may give him an opportunity to explain, as he did to the Public Bill Committee, how right to buy gave him and his family the opportunity to move through the different types of housing that were available. I think that the Committee Hansard shows that he thanked Margaret Thatcher for the opportunity that right to buy gave his family.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman taunts me. I do not want to rehash the arguments from the Housing and Regeneration Bill, but he knows that I said that one reason why I am in the Labour party is because Mrs. Thatcher absolutely decimated Hartlepool and the north-east. It was a disgraceful chapter in my town's history, which I do not want to go anywhere near again, so I certainly did not thank Mrs. Thatcher.

There was chronic under-investment before 1997, and that has been a task for this Government. Indeed, I do not think that the Government receive the recognition that they should for their investment to achieve decent homes. Prior to 1997, we estimated that £19 billion of repairs and maintenance was needed to bring homes up to a decent standard, so we set a target that by 2010, all social homes would meet minimum standards of decency, and that 70 per cent. of vulnerable households in the private sector would have decent homes. It must be said—I have seen it in my own patch and elsewhere—that the target, with its specific deadline, has galvanised massive improvement in the social housing stock, and it has been done in innovative and transformational ways.

Let me recount to the Chamber a little tale. I used to work in Newcastle, a city with which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has a long association. I worked in the centre but travelled out to Walkergate, which is a good, traditional north-east community. When I was there in the mid-1990s, it had—how shall I put it?—not been invested in for quite some time. We have discussed registered social landlords, large-scale voluntary transfers and arm's length management organisations such as Your Homes Newcastle, and I travelled up there last summer to have a look around and see what has been done on investment. I must say that, on the improvements to tenants' homes, Your Homes Newcastle has been absolutely fantastic, revolutionising the way in which tenants live, with decent homes, new kitchens, energy efficiency and central heating systems. We should shout from the rooftops—the decent rooftops that we have put in place—what we have done.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

Obviously, the Liberal Democrat administration up there is partly responsible for that. However, does the Minister agree that there is nothing in Newcastle that cannot be repeated in other places, as long as they have the will, the intent and the strategic planning to make it happen?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Funding is important, too, and the Government have unlocked a load of funding to ensure that we have decent homes. Since 1997, we have also increased the funding available to councils to help to deal with the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby sometimes says that, on council investment, we have turned off the taps, but I say to him gently that that is simply not true. This year, council spending per home is about £1,100, compared with about £800 in 1997, so there has been a 30 per cent. increase in real terms. On top of that, we have also made £3.7 billion available for ALMOs, such as Your Homes Newcastle, to deliver improvements to council housing stock, and we will have made available £2.7 billion in private finance initiative credits for PFI schemes by March this year.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

I would like a definite response to my questions. The trust has told us that £45,000 needs to be spent on each house on that estate, but it says that it will not do so because it is not worth spending, so it needs to build new houses to replace them. At the same time, however, the Housing Corporation says that it is not worth spending money on the estate to build new houses. What will happen to the tenants in the meantime and for the foreseeable future? Will they continue to live in that substandard housing? What will be done for them?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend passionately argues her case for her constituents, but if she will forgive me, I shall mention just a couple more statistics and then come on to that precise point.

More than £20 billion of public money has been put into improving social housing standards since 1997, and as a result of levering in private sector money, a total of £40 billion will have been invested by the end of 2010. On our achievements, since 2001, we have put in 518,000 new kitchens, 440,000 new bathrooms and 910,000 new central heating systems, which, with reference to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, helps precisely with energy efficiency. That issue is important. I woke up to hear my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy on the "Today" programme this morning talking about energy prices. At a time of increasing energy prices, it is vital that we address the issue by ensuring that people stay warm and that there is environmental friendliness.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I understand that point, and I welcome the Government's suggestion for better energy efficiency. Will the Minister go further, however, and specifically encourage—indeed, require—new developments to include self-generation through photovoltaic cells or heating cells, so that there is lower use of grid electricity in such homes?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows about the target—the most ambitious target anywhere in the developed world—for all homes built from 2016 onwards to be zero-carbon homes, and we have a clear road map on how we reach it. There are provisions in the Housing and Regeneration Bill to ensure that the code for sustainable homes is made mandatory through an assessment, which, like the decent homes standard, will help to galvanise improvements in efficiency.

I shall now pick up on the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley raised. She mentioned her concerns about the ballot, which I understand, but I shall make two points about it. Tenants voted 62.2 per cent. in favour of stock transfer, from a turnout of 65.5 per cent., which was higher than some local council elections, and higher than the turnout in the 2005 general election. I looked into her concern that if tenants did not vote, that was classed as a yes vote, and I have minutes from Bradford city council, which suggest that that is not true. The point was made clear on the ballot paper, and the minutes say:

"It needs to be made clear that it is a majority of those that vote that will win the day—and that people who don't vote will not be taken into account."

I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of governance and democratic accountability. In keeping with best practice from the Housing Corporation, when the council's stock was transferred through the LSVT system to Bradford Community Housing Trust, there was the traditional one-third representation: one-third tenants, one-third councillors, and one-third independent members. I understand that the RSL is restructuring its board and governance procedures, but that activity will put greater emphasis on tenants, who will hold a majority on the board. That will be important in raising housing standards in the organisation, so again, I hope that my hon. Friend takes some reassurance from that point.

My hon. Friend mentioned important points about the Woodhouse estate, and I would very much like to come up to see it, if she will invite me. I have similar issues in my area, and I understand her concerns. The Woodhouse estate has been examined closely, and it is not considered cost-effective to repair some houses. She rightly said that Bradford Community Housing Trust carried out an options appraisal, and its preferred approach is to decant, demolish and rebuild. I understand, and I shall ensure, that the trust has met local residents to discuss that preferred option, but meetings have been poorly attended.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. We must move on to the next debate.