[Joan Walley in the Chair] — Housing and the Credit Crunch

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:57 pm on 16th July 2009.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury 2:57 pm, 16th July 2009

I welcome the new Minister to his post. I suspect that we shall be speaking to him on many occasions. I am afraid that I, as a representative of an inner-city seat, will take every opportunity that I can to lobby him on what is, in the end, a key issue for the vast majority of my constituents.

When I was first selected as the Labour candidate for Member of Parliament for Islington, South and Finsbury, my predecessor, the right hon. Chris Smith, asked me, "What is your interest in housing?" I said, "Not much," and he said, "It will be." And it is, because when I knock on people's doors, they open them and say, "Oh, Emily. Can I just show you how I live?" They show me in, and I see the most appalling circumstances, day in, day out. When they come to see me in my surgery, I sit there hoping that they will ask me about anything other than overcrowding. I almost feel that I can help them with anything else, but I cannot help them with overcrowding.

I do not mean to exaggerate, and I will not. In every speech that I have ever made about housing since I have been elected, I have kept to a certain golden rule, which is that I will speak not about my worst case but about my last case. I had a surgery last Saturday, and, if I may, I will illustrate how bad the housing crisis is in Islington with the following cases.

A woman named Nelopa came to see me last Saturday. She lives in a one-bedroom flat with her two sons, one of whom has attention deficit disorder and behaviour problems. The flat has a combined kitchen and living room, which means that all three family members have to sleep in one bedroom. Islington allocates housing on the basis of points which are supposed to reflect need. I am afraid that those of us who live in Islington have a kind of ticker in the back of our head, and we can work out how many points someone is entitled to. Nelopa does not even have enough points to be eligible to bid for property. Even if one could bid, they probably would not get a place, but she is not seen to be in sufficient crisis need even to be given the opportunity of bidding for housing. Yet there are three people in a one-bedroom flat.

Another woman came to my surgery on Saturday; I will call her Sarah. She first came to see me two years ago. She was living then in a two-bedroom flat with three children. At that time, she was pregnant with twins and she needed to move. Two years later, she comes back to see me again. She is living in the same flat, but she now has five children. In addition, her teenage sister has come to live with her as well. So there are eight people in two bedrooms and they have scant hope of being rehoused. That is intolerable and it is very difficult for me, as a Labour MP, to see these people and to know what to say to them.

I do not always want to talk about bad news; I have already broken my golden rule by doing so today. Consequently, I have taken from the top of my letters pile from yesterday a letter that I was about to sign, which contains good news. I have seen a couple of people for many years and I have been trying to help them to get rehoused. They were living in a two-bedroom flat with their three children. One of the children has type 1 diabetes, another one has autistic spectrum disorder and the third is fine, apart from the fact that he has had to sleep in the same bed as his dad for years. This family have been bidding for a three-bedroom flat for a very long time, but now they have been successful. Such successes sometimes happen, but far too rarely. Sometimes there is a glimmer of hope.

However the difficulty is that, because our housing system is overlaid by these very hard cases at the top, the woman who comes to see me as a regular thing every six months-I have referred to her before but I feel as if she is a kind of base line-is overlooked. She is a single woman with two girls in a one-bedroom flat. She also does not have enough points to bid. However, she comes to see me every six months and says, "Remember, Emily, I'm one of the ones who don't even have enough points to bid." It is because of the hard cases at the top of the system and because we can offer so little hope to them that the vast majority of the people who are overcrowded suffer. As far as I am concerned, that woman should not have to sleep on a sofa for the rest of her life, which is what she is going to have to do because she does not have any chance of going anywhere else.

The housing crisis within Islington is made worse, first, because we have not been building anything new and, secondly, because we are essentially kettling people in; we are putting them into a pressure cooker. When I was a council tenant in the 1980s, I was a Greater London Council tenant, so I could move around London because I was in social housing that was provided on a GLC basis. Now, however, all social housing is provided on a borough basis.

There are supposed to be a couple of schemes available; I think that one is called Seaside Homes and another one is called Move UK. They are not working; they have collapsed. It may be that the Minister will be advised contrary to that and on paper those schemes may be supposed to be working. However, I can assure him that they are not working and people cannot move out of Islington. So they are stuck.

Then I turn to my local authority, because in the end it has to be my local authority, working in partnership with the Government, that produces new homes. Before I go any further, I should say-it is only right that I do so-that, when I first began to knock on doors in Islington, all the social housing in the borough was a disgrace. The lifts did not work, the passageways were full of urine and the properties were damp, disgusting and squalid. I fully appreciate that that had a great deal to do with previous central Governments turning their back on the poor of Islington and not giving sufficient central Government grant to have allowed for that social housing to be kept up to a decent standard.

When the Labour Government came in, I fully understand why it was so important that we got all our social housing, throughout the country, up to decent-home standard. I am very proud of that; it is absolutely the jewel in Labour's crown and we do not say enough about it. One of the reasons why we do not say enough about it is because, although we are now proud of the social housing that we have, people are in such overcrowded circumstances within inner London in that social housing. I know that there are problems throughout the country, but the problems that are particularly associated with inner London are truly exceptional. Given those problems, I feel that we should have London-specific policies to deal with them.

I am very proud to work on the Communities and Local Government Committee. I know that I am irritating in the extreme to my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey, who is the Chair of the Committee, in my overwhelming interest in housing. However, I have that interest because I try my utmost to be a proper representative of my constituents and their desperate housing need.

Having said that, there are other issues that I ought to raise at this point. It was very important-the Select Committee highlighted it in our report in February-that the Government stepped in, particularly given the credit crunch and the crisis in housing. We urged the Government to step in, to ensure that the housing crisis would not mean that there would be a lesser focus on housing. We urged the Government to stick to their target for affordable homes that was set in 2007, to prioritise the provision of more social rented housing within those targets and to invest more money in the homes that we need.

In essence, the 13,000 families that are on the housing waiting list within Islington are not in a position to buy or part-buy; I assure the Minister that that is the case. That is because house prices are so high. I have written to the Minister about this issue and I have written again to him explaining that house prices are now at such a level in Islington that those families cannot even afford to buy a proportion of a property. Within the parameters that the Department for Communities and Local Government have set, they still cannot afford to buy a small one or two-bedroom, ex-council flat on the estates in Islington. The house prices have moved beyond the parameters set by the Department and I ask the Minister to look at that issue again.

In reality, for the people on the waiting list for social housing within Islington, affordable housing is social rented housing. I believe that in my constituency in the last 10 years, when the council has been run by the Liberal Democrats, the Liberal Democrats have had their priorities entirely wrong. We should absolutely be prioritising the building of social rented housing but far too much part-ownership property has been built by the Liberal Democrats, which has not meant the rehousing of those people on the housing waiting list.

It is difficult, given how extreme our-