[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair] — Social Housing (Central London)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:57 am on 14th January 2009.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:57 am, 14th January 2009

I shall be brief because we want everybody who wishes to contribute to have time to do so. I congratulate Mr. Field on his contribution and appreciate his obvious concern for his constituents' needs.

Social housing is obviously important, but I wish we could find some other term, because "social housing" has connotations of unmunificent charity, not of people's right to decent housing. I do not know what that alternative term is, but I wish we could find one. I am sure that the Department for Communities and Local Government will find one in time—it always does.

I represent Islington, North, and the hon. Gentleman talked about the issues that affect his constituency, which are similar throughout central London. The growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in central London is quite appalling and, actually, economically damaging to London in the longer term. In Islington, North, even now, if a council house or housing association property becomes vacant through either death or somebody moving away from the area, it is nearly always let to a larger, poorer family, but if a private property becomes available for sale—a street property—it is nearly always sold to somebody much wealthier than the previous owners. That pattern is repeated across London, so the gap between the richest and the poorest in our capital city is increasing quickly. That is very much my experience.

There is enormous pressure on allocation and resources in my borough, just like all the others in London, and I find it sad that we end up having an endless debate about the science of allocation policy for housing for people in desperate housing need. We all have advice surgeries, so we probably all have far too much knowledge of the workings of the points allocation system. We all spend a great deal of time writing letters to local authorities to try to get somebody more points or greater allocation because of medical needs, or to deal with problems such as overcrowding, children of different sexes sharing bedrooms and so on. Those problems are important and it is part of our job to deal with them, but the issue, fundamentally, is the lack of supply of housing for people in desperate housing need. That must be addressed.

I was looking yesterday at the statistics for housing developments in my borough over the past 15 years. The number of units built each year for rent by housing associations varied between very few and a few hundred. The number built by the local authority for most years was zero, but happily it is now building a small number of homes.

The vast majority of development has been small infill development by private sector developers, typically creating between half a dozen and a dozen private flats, some of which are sold on the buy-to-rent market. My local authority chose to set the threshold for what it terms social housing too high, so most of those developments contained no social rented element whatever and were nearly all for sale. That threshold has been reduced a little, so the number of places available for rent by people on the housing list has gone up a little. However, we have to be tough about this: there are developments across London that will probably soon by mothballed or stopped, so this is a golden opportunity for local authorities to take them over and use them to house people in desperate need.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the purchasing of private properties by housing associations, but sadly many of them are simply inadequate and built to too low a standard. That alone is a condemnation of our system: the private sector building is of such low quality that local authorities and housing associations could not buy them even if they wanted to. I look to the Minister for much tougher building regulations on the private sector in addition to the welcome improvements in the public sector.

I also want briefly to mention the private rented sector. My constituency has an owner occupation rate of only about 30 per cent., which is well below the national average, and indeed well below the London average. That level is declining fast, in part because people have difficulty selling in the current climate and prefer to rent and hang on to the capital value of the property. The local authority stock was declining fast due to right to buy, although that has now declined a great deal, so the stock is more or less static.

The only stock that is fundamentally increasing is that of housing associations, but it is in the private rented sector that the biggest problems emerge in that the local authority has limited resources and huge demands are placed upon it: there are roughly 13,000 families on either the waiting list or the transfer list in my borough council area, and I suspect that there are similar figures across central London.

Therefore, the local authority can allocate housing only by guiding people into the private sector to rent a property, and because most of those who apply for housing are on benefits, housing benefit pays the rent. That costs the public sector a great deal of money, but it comes not from the local authority, but from central Government, who are paying astronomical rents of £200 or £300 a week for wholly inadequate properties.

That issue has been raised many times by successive Ministers and with the Department for Work and Pensions, and I was pleased that the Secretary of State agreed to meet a delegation of London MPs to discuss housing benefit costs in the private sector, because it is an enormous waste of money. We are paying a great deal of public money to keep people living in misery.