I take your point and I will be brief, Mr Howarth, because I want all Members who wish to speak to have an opportunity to do so.
I largely agree with the points made by Simon Hughes. Local authorities do have the power to buy on the open market and to take over empty properties, and they should use that power. Indeed, my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge was chair of the housing committee in my borough in the 1970s and undertook an enormous purchase of street properties throughout the borough, which did a great deal to preserve its street character and to house many people who would not otherwise have been housed. Clearly, there will never be enough land for new build in central London, so that is one way of dealing with the problem.
I want the Minister to answer four simple questions. I am sure that he will give me positive answers to them all because I know him to be a decent, reasonable and helpful chap who wants to deal with the housing problems in London, even though he does not represent a London constituency-there is no crime in not representing a London constituency. [Interruption.]I do not wish to be controversial, because that is not in my nature. The statements that the coalition Government have made over the past few weeks are disturbing, to say the least. They initially said that they would continue investment in infrastructure in our society, which I took to include the current building programme and the enhanced building programme for council houses-the Minister can confirm whether I am right or wrong. However, last week's Budget included a statement on housing benefit that is absolutely devastating for those of us who represent London constituencies. It is devastating for the whole country, but its effect will be particularly acute in London.
I should tell the Minister that 30% of my constituents live in private rented accommodation, that about 40% live in local authority or housing association properties, and that the remaining 30% are owner-occupiers. Many of those in private rented accommodation are in receipt of housing benefit. I will quote again from the information helpfully provided by Crisis:
"From Oct 2011, Local Housing Allowance (the new form of HB...) will be set at the 30(th) percentile (rather than the 50(th) as now). This is probably the most serious of the cuts and will mean many more people will face shortfalls and/or find it very difficult to find and sustain a tenancy. It will be particularly difficult in areas where more than 30% of the private tenants are benefit claimants. This may well lead to an increase in homelessness.
From April 2011, rates will be capped (from £250/week for a 1-bed to £400/week for a 4 bed). This will mean certain areas are likely to become no go areas for claimants, particularly larger families, with significant implications for mixed communities and community cohesion, through changes to the 30(th) percentile will affect more people...Alongside this, working age people in social housing will no longer be able to claim HB on a property deemed bigger than their needs. This is designed", apparently,
"to tackle under occupancy. From 2013/14 onwards, Local Housing Allowance will be uprated on the basis of the Consumer Prices Index, rather than on the basis of local rents."
Non-dependent deductions are another issue. When taken together, those proposals will be absolutely devastating for those of us who represent high-cost, inner-urban areas. They will, in effect, start a process of the social cleansing of claimants across London.