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[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair] — Decent Homes

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:44 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 3:44 pm, 27th January 2011

That sounds like a depressingly familiar story. Indeed I have had similar relationships with a number of housing associations, including the Peabody Trust, in my own area. There needs to be a Select Committee investigation into the governance, accountability and democracy of housing associations. That would be a very good area to discuss. Having said that, I pay tribute to Islington council for setting up a well-run ALMO and for its attempts to co-ordinate the work of housing associations, the council, building programmes and the community to ensure that we get family-sized housing, which is in the greatest demand.

We also need to consider the standards of management and, where possible, amalgamate the management of housing associations and the council in particular areas. There can be six or eight housing associations operating on one estate, which is not a sensible way in which to run things. Tenants will have six or eight caretakers, six or eight managers and six or eight cleaning contracts. How about just having one? Clearly, there is a need for us to investigate that area as well.

I also want to thank the people who working in housing in my own borough-the caretakers, the cleaners, the repair people and so on. They are not often thanked; they are usually criticised and blamed. The majority of people who work in the public sector do so because they want to. They want to do a good job and to co-ordinate well with the tenants and the local communities. I want to praise them for what they do and the way in which they try to respond to people's needs.

The Select Committee report says quite a lot about the private-rented sector. The history of that sector in this country is a particularly chequered one. The Labour Governments of the '60s and '70s sought registration, rent control and a degree of national standards in the private-rented sector. The tenor of the Conservative Government of 1979 was against any kind of intervention in anything. The results included a property boom, privatisation, the sale of a lot of council properties and landlords' freedom to charge whatever they wished. Now, in order to adhere to national law on housing homeless families, local authorities have absolutely no choice but to place those families in the private rented sector. They have a legal obligation to house people. No London council still puts people in bed and breakfasts-as far as I know, anyway. Instead, they put them in the private rented sector, which is expensive, often inadequate and sometimes nowhere near the community from which those families come. The bill is usually paid by housing benefit.

The Government's solution is to cap housing benefit, which will mean in turn the removal of large numbers of people from central London. That is not a solution. The solution must be to support housing benefit, but it must also involve considering the impact and costs of the private rented sector on our society. Paragraph 162 of the report points out how many private rented properties the UK had in 2007. The number has increased a great deal since then, and I observe that it is increasing even faster at present.

Paragraph 173 is interesting. The Committee took evidence from Professor Tony Crook, professor of housing studies at the university of Sheffield, who discussed the influx of small-scale landlords, the number of buy-to-let mortgages that were granted and the resulting boom in the private rented sector. Shelter wants good-quality conditions in the private sector and is chary of introducing rent controls, as it thinks that that might reduce the number of places available.

I can see Shelter's point, but it seems to me that we in this country have built in an enormous problem for ourselves. People in my constituency who live in the private rented sector, unless they receive housing benefit, spend the highest proportion of their disposable income on housing-far more than any mortgage payer or social tenant-for the worst conditions and, generally speaking, the worst services and repair levels. The issue is not going to go away, and if my constituency is anything to go by, private tenants will increasingly start to come together and be much more vocal about it.

I support close examination and inspection and the use of building control and legal proceedings to ensure decent homes, decent repairs and decent quality, but we cannot escape considering rent levels in the private sector. It is done to some extent in the United States and to a great extent in Germany and many European countries. I do not see why we should not start considering a similar process in this country. With the best will in the world, even if a Labour Government were spending billions of pounds of capital investment on new housing at present, there would still be a housing problem in five or 10 years' time, particularly in London. It is an issue whose time has more than come, and a serious examination of it is needed. I hope that the Select Committee is prepared to undertake it.

The Shelter document that I obtained in advance of today's debate made this point:

"More than £4 billion of taxpayers' money is spent annually on housing benefit for private renters and this is set to rise to nearly £6.7 billion by 2010/11."

We do not yet know what the effect of the cap will be, but that is what we are paying at present. It goes on to make a good point:

"The sector doesn't function well enough. Too many tenants live in terrible conditions...Too many responsible landlords and professional property managers are undercut in the market by slum landlords".

I understand that point. There are good landlords out there who try to manage things properly, charge reasonable rents and be reasonable people, but then a cut-throat arrives next door and undercuts them or gets rid of them by other means. It is not a nice business in some areas.

"Too many landlords are confused about, or are unaware of, what their obligations are."

Taxpayers lose a great deal of money every year as a result, so tackling rogue landlords is very important and another issue to which I hope that the Government and the Select Committee will pay attention.

In areas such as mine, housing is the absolute, No. 1, top-of-the-list, key issue. If someone is a council tenant, they have security of tenure-unless the Government's new proposals under the Localism Bill come in and that security of tenure is under threat.