That is a fair point, and a real issue. Due to how the housing benefit system operates, we can end up with a kind of social cleansing of certain areas because housing benefit costs often do not meet the rent costs. We all have cases of someone coming to see us because their housing benefit covers perhaps 80 per cent. of their private sector rent and they have to pay the rest out of income support, so they end up on an incredibly low take-home income. That has to be looked at.
Clearly, the housing crisis in London can and must be resolved by rapid investment in new build and much tougher planning regulations on the level of building within private sector developments. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out that the number of rented units available through housing associations is declining because most of their developments are predicated by sales policy, or indeed by commercial lets policy.
We must ask ourselves what housing associations are for. They were established to provide housing for people in housing need, roughly equivalent to the local authority. Indeed, the allocations for affordable rented property come entirely from the local housing authority anyway, but since they now have much less than half their capital costs provided by central Government through the homes agency, or indeed any other source, they have to borrow the rest, so they are encouraged to build for sale and to go to some extent into commercial renting. We must then ask ourselves why on earth we have housing associations if they are not providing the kind of social rented housing that we need.
We must look carefully at what some housing associations are doing and whether they are behaving more like property companies than agencies for renting to people in desperate housing need. I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort in that regard.
I also want to mention local authority building. For a long time, local authorities were the main source of provision of new housing for people in housing need. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the level of council house building was enormous, and I think that 100,000 houses were completed in 1979. The number declined rapidly after that to almost zero, although it has now increased a little.
Local authority housing has provided good-quality homes for a large number of people, and surely that ought to be the solution to the current crisis. Investment in council housing is a means of regeneration, conquering unemployment and keeping the building industry going. Above all, it is a way to provide for people living in appalling overcrowded conditions and to help to prevent underachievement in school, high levels of crime and all the other problems that result from bad housing and overcrowding. Those can be improved by this strategy.
I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort that it will be possible for the money allocated for housing development during the current crisis and the money given to the homes agency to be used for that purpose.
My final remark returns to the point I started with, which was about allocations policy. There is obviously a huge science around all that, but frankly, I just wish that we could provide housing as of right so that we would not have to have these arcane debates.
I am concerned that the number of households in London that are populated by single people is increasing. Indeed, that is predicted to be the fastest-growing area of social living in London over the next 20 years. In most housing association and local authority allocations, it is hard to get housing for single people. They have to be either vulnerable or elderly or suffering from some serious medical condition.
Increasingly in London, many single people—quite often people in work—must sofa-hop from one friend's home to another, sometimes ending up sleeping in cars and all the rest of it, because they cannot afford private rent at the rate of £200 or £300 a week and cannot be allocated a council or housing association property because they do not figure as a priority. I hope that we can become slightly more balanced and ensure that their needs are met as well as others'.
We have it in our hands to do something about this crisis. If we do not, the result will be sheer misery for those living in grossly overcrowded accommodation, and a more divided social structure in central London, which is in nobody's interests.