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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:10 am on 14th January 2009.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London) 10:10 am, 14th January 2009

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who speak frequently and knowledgeably on London issues. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was right to point out that housing is one of the most intractable problems that we face as Members of Parliament, whether we represent central or outer London.

The hon. Member for Islington, North asked what the purpose of housing associations was. At the point when a lot of responsibility was shifted from local authorities to housing associations, one of their purposes was to be more representative, accountable and accessible than councils. However, in my experience—it may be his as well—local authorities nowadays are all too often more responsive, in many ways, than housing associations. In terms of democratic accountability, from the housing perspective, it is much easier to put pressure on someone in the local authority than in a housing association. I am afraid that the original intention has been lost in recent years.

I had expected to make only an intervention in this debate. Indeed, before the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster turned up a minute or two before the debate, I thought that I would end up making the only Back-Bench contribution, so my remarks this morning are perhaps an extended intervention, containing a couple of key questions for the Minister.

Clearly, this is a critical time for the economy. It is already having a significant knock-on effect on home owners, and it will have a significant effect on people in social housing as well. Job losses will undoubtedly lead to home repossessions and people falling behind with their rent. How many homes does the Minister expect to be repossessed in London this year, and what impact does he expect that to have on the demand for social housing?

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly highlighted the impact of the situation on funding, particularly for projects where the local authority or a housing association is working in partnership to provide a mixture of affordable housing and housing for sale. Is it still the Government's preference to have mixed-tenure development? In the current economic circumstances, that will be more and more challenging.

From a London perspective, the Mayor has a significant responsibility for housing. It is regrettable that the 50 per cent. target for affordable housing to which he signed up during the mayoral campaign has been jettisoned. I welcome his target of building 50,000 new homes, as well as the fact that he places great emphasis on the need for boroughs to be at the centre of what is happening in housing. They have the tough job of balancing strong demand all over London for affordable housing with equally strong demand in many parts of London, particularly outer London, for the preservation of back gardens. Back gardens preserve a green lung and are in many cases the only habitat for wildlife in suburbia. They are often the reason why people choose to live in suburban London; people feel that gardens are an important part of the character of those areas.

I hope that the Minister, as well as the Mayor, will adopt the proposal advocated by Mike Tuffrey, a member of the London assembly, to provide real-time information about the number of homes being built. The Minister might want to put a diode display outside the front of his Ministry to show how many completions there have been each week. We could then see whether the Mayor's targets and the Government's were being met, and if they clearly were not, suitable action could be taken to address the situation.

In a London and national context, in relation to empty homes, it would be remiss of me not to mention something that the Liberal Democrats have banged on about endlessly: equalisation. VAT on new build should be the same as on renovations, to bring back into use the empty homes scattered across London, typically above shops on our high streets.

My local authority is still en route to becoming a two-star arm's length management organisation. Will the Minister reassure us that, notwithstanding the current economic circumstances, the money will be available for authorities that achieve two-star status? My authority has significant housing issues. The housing stock is not of a standard that I feel is appropriate. One of the explanations for that involves my final point.

We have been running a local campaign called "A Fair Deal for Sutton's Tenants", which brought a couple of busloads of tenants up to London to deliver a petition to No. 10 last year. Sutton's tenants, who suffer from housing that is not of an appropriate standard in some cases, make an average contribution of £1,473 each from their rent to the central pot. In effect, £10 million is being taken out of Sutton to subsidise and improve social housing in other parts of the country that we, not having two-star status in our borough, need to invest in improving our own property.

The Government have the issue under review, but I hope that the review will be tough. Local authorities of all political parties will be winners or losers if the Government address the situation. However, this is a fundamental issue of fairness. When tenants in a borough pay their rent, they expect that rent to be spent locally on doing up their own properties. They do not expect £10 million a year to be exported to do up council properties in other parts of the country.

I hope that the Minister will respond to those two or three critical questions, and I hope that the Government, working with the Mayor, will address the provision of social housing in central and outer London. It remains the single biggest intractable issue that we, as Members of Parliament representing London constituencies, must address daily.