The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Local authorities have powers in this respect, if they care to use them, and some authorities do. Indeed, the local authority in my area is extremely proactive in pursuing empty properties and trying to bring them into rented use or have them taken over by a housing association or somebody else. Typically, these are places such as flats above shops. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is something criminally wrong about large numbers of good-quality homes being deliberately kept empty across London. Some owners see them as long-term, reserve places that they might live in at some distant point in the future. Some see them as an investment and will wait for property prices to go up. In a society where there is so much homelessness and housing stress, it is simply immoral for places to be kept deliberately empty. I would therefore support effective measures to bring those homes back into use by people who are in desperate housing need.
Where the previous Government did act rather belatedly was on the construction of housing association and council properties. There was an increase in housing association build, most of which came about under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and planning agreements on particular local sites. However, there was not enough intervention, and the previous Government were not proactive enough. Only rather belatedly did we start building council housing. I am pleased to say that my local authority is now building council housing again. That started during the latter period of the previous Government, when the then Liberal-controlled council brought the programme into being. That programme has continued and is being expanded under the current Labour-run administration in Islington. However, the authority lacks the capital that it requires from the Homes and Communities Agency. When the Minister replies, therefore, I hope he will understand that housing and building costs are high in London, that housing need is desperate and that the only long-term, efficient way out of the housing crisis is to construct council housing at fixed rents and with permanent tenure, which gives people a sense of security, a decent home and an environment in which to grow up.
Before I come to housing benefit, let me say one thing. If we go to any primary school, secondary school, police station or social worker in London and ask what the biggest problem is that we face, we will be told that it is related to housing in one way or another. Young people are growing up in small, overcrowded flats, with two or three siblings sharing a bedroom. That is no way to grow up. Young people in those circumstances cannot bring friends home and they cannot do their homework. There are fights over the television, there are fights over when the lights should be switched on and off-there are fights the whole time simply about space. Anyone who goes into a flat where three teenagers are sharing a room will see the arguments that go on and the stress that is caused to the whole family. What happens as a result? The teenagers do not stay home of an evening; they go out. They do not have a lot of money, so they get into bad company when they go out, and problems result from that. These teenagers underachieve in school. Illness runs rife throughout the whole family. The family breaks up. There is a huge cost to us all in terms of wasted lives, underachieving children, broken families, divorce and everything else. We must recognise that unless we provide all our young people with decent, secure, clean, dry and properly repaired accommodation, it is very unlikely that they will achieve their full potential in school, college or university. We are wasting a whole generation as a result of our failure to address the housing crisis in London.
Local authorities have great difficulty fulfilling their statutory housing obligations to house homeless families or those in desperate need. They do not have enough council or housing association allocations to do that. Incidentally, there is a whole science around allocation, with people looking at the choice of bidding or desperately looking on internet sites and reading newspapers to find out how many points they need to get which flat, how many steps are involved and all the other details, which are so important. However, most of those people, most of the time, will be desperately disappointed because they will fail even to be selected to look at a place, never mind to be shortlisted for possible allocation. For thousands and thousands of people, it is like losing a lottery every week, but the consequences are desperate. We therefore need to address the issue.
Local authorities often place families in private rented accommodation. I do not blame them for that; they have no choice. A whole industry has therefore grown up around the housing shortage, with letting agencies and private landlords charging as much as they can get away with. The housing benefit system will usually pay the rent. Although it varies slightly from borough to borough, the rent for a typical two-bedroom local authority flat in central London is of the order £100 a week. A two-bedroom flat in poor condition in the private sector costs at least £250 a week, and £300 is quite common. For a house, we are looking at £500 or £600 a week. The difference is paid through housing benefit, so we are all paying the exorbitant profits made by letting agencies and private landlords; they are the people who are living off the housing benefit system.
When the Government say, as the previous Government did, that they have to address the problem of the cost of housing benefit, particularly in London, I absolutely agree, because pouring money into the private sector in this way simply is not a good use of public funds.