[David Taylor in the Chair] — Rented Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:18 pm on 6th November 2008.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 4:18 pm, 6th November 2008

What I am disappointed about, and what makes me angry and determined to see change, is the need to build many more houses for rent. I am sure that everyone agrees that the Government have done well with the decent homes standard. We have made our estates much better, and improved them a great deal, which is good. However, we have not done anything like enough in building for social rent. That is the thrust of the report, and it is the thrust of what every hon. Member has said today. On that we are agreed. The hon. Gentleman has heard what I have said, so he is well aware of my views.

I hope that the Minister will give us some good news on the Government's attitude to council housing. I am a member of the all-party group on council housing along with the hon. Member for Chesterfield and others. We need to stop discriminating against local authorities and local authority tenants, who have freely chosen not to transfer to a housing association or to establish an ALMO. That is their right. It is unfair that local authorities such as Camden, Chesterfield and one or two others, where there has been no stock transfer, should end up losing grant and support, because they end up paying far more.

I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about reform of the housing revenue account. It is an arcane and difficult thing to understand, and most people switch off as soon as it is mentioned. However, through its method of operation, it is taking a great deal of money out of tenants' pockets and giving it to central Government. It is like a Government levy.

In my former life as a councillor and as an MP I have never been particularly in favour of right to buy, because it ends up taking properties out of the social rented sector. However, it is important to emphasise to local authorities that they now have the power to buy back under the right to buy, if they want to. Very few of them seem to be aware of that, and even fewer of them seem to be doing it.

We must recognise that the right to buy creates a number of problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and I are inundated by problems in relation to leaseholders, who are often not wealthy by any manner of means. When those people bought their flats in the 1980s or early 1990s, either the situation was not explained to them or they were not aware or did not bother to read the fine print of what they were getting into, but they seem to be totally shocked every time a capital expenditure bill comes along for a new roof or other work being done. There are then enormous arguments and debates between tenants and local authorities about who will pay for the capital repairs.

Leaseholders often are not wealthy—indeed, some are very much up against it, particularly if they are older—and they are absolutely terrified when they get a bill for £5,000 or £10,000 for their proportion of the capital expenditure. We need to think very carefully about that issue and take a much more sensible approach. We also need a much more robust system to work out what the charging mechanisms are. One gets the impression that some local authorities are desperate to meet the decent homes standard—I have no complaints about that—and are not pushing the contractors hard enough on the price being paid. There are some big issues in that regard that have to be dealt with.

I want to discuss rent policies. I represent an area in which about 40 per cent. of the community lives in council and housing association property. Income levels are such that at least 80 per cent. of that population has no chance whatsoever of buying their own property. For them, the only way out of a housing crisis is through local authority-inspired renting—either through nomination to a housing association or, in our case, through Homes for Islington.

People who live in grossly overcrowded accommodation suffer in many ways. Children suffer because if one child gets the flu, they all do. If one person gets a cold, everyone gets it, because they are living in such overcrowded accommodation. That is bad for their health and for their children's well-being. Having inadequate space to play is damaging to young children. Children from 11 upwards and young teenagers feel embarrassed when they live in overcrowded places. They cannot bring their friends home for tea or to stay over because there is no space for anyone to come in, and they hang around on the streets outside instead. There is nothing wrong with young people socialising, as that is part of growing up, but when their only option for doing so is to hang around in the streets, we end up with the levels of youth disorder and crime that we have at the moment. Those children then underachieve at school, are excluded and end up being over-represented in young offenders institutions. We are creating social disorder, crime, misery and poverty by not investing enough money in decent housing for everyone in our society and communities. I welcome the fact that the Select Committee report has looked at those issues.

On letting policies, I understand the need for priorities. However, when someone comes in to my advice bureau to talk about their housing problems, I find myself—as I am sure other hon. Members do—deftly asking, "Are you ill?" If they say, "Not really," I ask, "Well, how not really not ill are you?" and I try to work out a hopeful way of getting them some medical points. That is wrong really, but everyone does it, because it is a way past a shortage. We go through all that, and get letters from schools, doctors, psychiatrists and social workers, and then it all ends up being rejected, and they get nothing because they are not ill or bad enough. Then they will come back two years later, psychiatrically ill because of the stress that they have been put through, and we end up re-housing them in the end.

We re-house on the basis of need, taking into account whether children or elderly people are involved and whether there is disability or illness. A large proportion of households within our society—indeed the fastest-increasing proportion of households—contain single people. They get absolutely nothing under housing policies anywhere in the country that I know of. There might be places in which they do, but I do not know of them. We must recognise that single people have rights, needs and demands, just like the rest of the community. They should not be discriminated against because they are single.

The Select Committee has said that we need to build 50,000 units a year, and the Government generally accept that figure. I have no idea where that figure came from, but we could be far more ambitious, because there is desperate need. If the credit crunch is to mean anything, surely it is that the money that the Government have set aside to allow local authorities and housing associations to purchase is important and that it must be spent on purchasing properties, where properties are of adequate value, and available land. We must use this time and this opportunity to build housing for people who are in desperate need. That would solve three problems: it would house people who are in desperate housing need; it would provide work for building workers and building companies; and it would help to regenerate the economy, as the knock-on effect of the building industry is considerable.