Council and Social Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:34 am on 6th March 2012.

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Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 11:34 am, 6th March 2012

I am grateful to be able to take part in the debate. Since I was elected to Parliament, I have probably spoken more about the need to increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing than about any other subject. I have done so not because I have any great expertise in that field, but because I know how desperate my constituents are to find homes that they can afford. Successive Governments have failed to appreciate the scale of the housing crisis. My fear is that the policies of the current Government will just make it worse.

Every fortnight, I sit in my advice surgery in south-east London and have the same conversation over and over again with families living in massively overcrowded accommodation who want me to help them find a home. Some will already have a council home or housing association property, but many more will be renting in the private sector. Most of the people who come to see me are in low-paid, often part-time work and are juggling the pressures of bringing up their family while holding down a job.

I see mums who are on the edge of nervous breakdowns because their families are living in damp, depressing flats. I see dads who feel powerless to find their children a decent place to live. I often see children who are sharing a bed with their siblings, and sometimes I see children who have no bed at all. I also see families who live in a single room in a shared house. I say to myself that in 21st-century Britain, that cannot be right.

I often ask the constituents who come to see me what they do for a living. I ask them outright how much they earn. Obviously, their answers vary, but in the eight years for which I have been holding advice surgeries, first as a councillor and now as a Member of Parliament, not one of the families who have ever come to me for help with housing could afford to buy a property in London. For the vast majority of people who come to see me, even shared-ownership homes and part-rent, part-buy schemes are way out of their league. To access those homes, people need to be earning thousands of pounds more than many of my constituents are earning.

Increasingly, people have been turning to the private sector to meet their housing needs and have been resorting to housing benefit to help them cover their rent. In Lewisham, private rents are basically double what social rents are, so for many of my constituents the private sector becomes an option only if the state pays money to their landlord. Yes, we have heard a lot about the housing benefit bill going up, but let us think about this. If private rents in my constituency are double the social rents, there is no surprise in that. Our failure to build adequate amounts of social housing has resulted in our lining the pockets of private landlords on an industrial scale—and make no mistake: the policies of the current Government will make that situation worse.

Social rented homes in my constituency are a hugely sought-after commodity. Demand massively outstrips supply. If I had a pound for every time I have explained that in my surgeries, I would be a rich woman. In London, 350,000 people are on waiting lists, yet only a tiny fraction of those people will actually be able to move each year. If we are to meet the housing needs of my constituents, we must dramatically increase the supply of social housing. I am relaxed about whether that is housing rented out by councils or housing associations, but I am clear that it needs to be genuinely affordable.

What are the current Government doing to build more social housing?