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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:17 am on 14th January 2009.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter PPS (Rt Hon Lord Malloch-Brown KCMG, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 10:17 am, 14th January 2009

I congratulate Mr. Field on securing this debate. I enjoyed his contribution and agreed with almost all his analysis and some of his recommendations. I was a bit worried that I would agree with everything; he started to say some nice things about Westminster city council and its long-term concerns about people in overcrowded housing, and I just managed to get to the point of disagreement in the end.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in much of what he said and in some of his recommendations. It is refreshing to hear a Conservative Member talk about the positive side of rented accommodation and the need for it, as one rarely hears that from that party. However, I was left with the impression that what he had really done was to give a justification of the previous Mayor's housing policies, rather than the current Mayor's. I cannot understand from what he said what could possibly have been wrong with a target of 35 per cent. social rented housing, 15 per cent. intermediate housing and 50 per cent. market housing. That seems exactly the right discipline for London at the moment.

The emphasis on social rented housing is based on the fact that, notwithstanding what is said about intermediate housing, it is clearly the area of most pressing need. We know that the past Mayor hopes to come back. If he is looking for a housing adviser, perhaps that job will be available, but the reality on the ground is very different. Housing policy in London is different, because it is now largely in the hands of mainly Conservative boroughs and a Conservative Mayor. I do not want to be a party pooper, but I want to reflect that reality for a moment.

The first point is that the abolition of targets is a very cynical move to ensure that less social rented housing is built in the capital. That process operates to the extent that one of my local authorities—Hammersmith and Fulham—judicially reviewed the Government to reduce the target that was set. Then, having won that judicial review as recently as last week, the authority was crowing over the fact that it now has much lower targets on social housing. It says, as the Conservative mantra has it, that that is because these targets create artificial boundaries. As I often remind colleagues on these occasions, under a previous Labour administration, it was possible to build 80 per cent. affordable housing, split almost 50:50 between intermediate and social rented housing. I would have thought that that was the paradigm for what the Conservatives say they wish to achieve, so I do not know why they should engage in the business of spending public money to go to court to reduce those levels, because not only are targets for affordable housing going but the definition of affordable housing is substantially changing.

The target for what is called "affordable housing", as far as my local Conservative council is concerned, is for people with a per annum income between £50,000 and £72,000. Previously the range was £50,000 to £60,000, but under the Mayor's housing strategy, the range is for people with a per annum income between £50,000 and £72,000. I do not know whether that is what the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster had in mind when he was talking about intermediate housing, but that is not what I call intermediate housing. When I talk about intermediate housing, I am talking about people on perhaps £20,000 to £40,000, who are the majority of people in housing need and looking for housing, but who may be able to access a level above social rented housing.

Those people are entirely excluded from my local authority's plans, but it goes much further than that. There are three pillars of housing policy in Hammersmith, the first of which relates to disposal. The reason why the council is unlikely to reach its targets on temporary accommodation is that, for example, it has just sold off by public auction large, good-quality properties for £1 million to £2 million each that provided more than 60 flats for homeless families in the centre of the borough, with family networks, schools and everything that goes with good-quality temporary accommodation when it is necessary. That sale happened so that those families can be moved, probably out of the borough and certainly into private sector leased accommodation, at a cost to the taxpayer that is three or four times greater than the cost was previously.

As I have already alluded to, the second plank or pillar of policy in Hammersmith is to build no new social rented housing at all in the borough. Again, that is a question of going back, renegotiating with and putting pressure on housing associations not to include any social rented housing at all in new developments.

Most provocatively, the third pillar of policy is to look at the demolition of existing social housing. If all the council's plans came to fruition, up to a third of all social housing in the borough—up to 5,000 units—would be demolished for redevelopment, either as commercial units or as private housing units. I do not have to explain any further; clearly, far from improving things, that policy will make the housing situation locally far, far worse.

Perhaps Grant Shapps, the Opposition spokesman, may wish to allude to this matter, but what must underlie a policy that is stated as reducing the percentage of social housing in Hammersmith and Fulham is a Conservative policy that was mooted last year; I do not believe that it is yet formally official policy. That policy is to relegate the status of social housing effectively to temporary accommodation, to remove security of tenure. I say that because that can be the only conclusion. It is certainly the stated policy of the Conservative administration of Hammersmith and Fulham council that it believes that social rented housing should be available only for emergency housing or for temporary provision. That idea was something that fed into the Conservative party's policy review. As I say, that can be the only conclusion of a policy that says that they wish to see a substantial percentage reduction in the availability of social housing over the next few years, when waiting lists and overcrowding are the highest for a generation.

I finish, as I always do on these occasions, with a plea to the Minister: in relation to London housing, only the Government can wave the stick to ensure that, far from being reduced, the amount of affordable social housing is increased, which I believe is Government policy. That applies not only to local authorities, but to housing associations, and on that point I agree with my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn.

Again, it is partly the fault of the Conservatives that public land sites that previously would have been transferred to housing associations at nil value are now being auctioned to the highest bidder. Of course, once the housing association is saddled with more debt and more expense, it can build only a lower percentage of affordable housing. However, many of the culprits in this situation are precisely the chief executives of the G15 group of major housing associations, who, almost as a matter of pride and policy now, see the future in housing for sale, rather than in housing for rent. That is a complete subversion not just of the function for which they were established, but of what, frankly, they are paid and instructed to do. The Government must come to terms with that, because those people are unaccountable, either to their paymasters in Whitehall or to their tenants, who are primarily the people whom they deal with. That is a matter that we must address.