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[Albert Owen in the Chair] — Affordable Housing (London)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:10 am on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 10:10 am, 9th September 2015

May I be opportunistic and place on record my appreciation of the Queen’s public service to this country, Mr Owen?

My hon. Friend Chris Philp is not so far down the road of public service, but he has done us a great service today by securing this debate on what one Member rightly described as the No. 1 political issue in the capital. It goes to the heart of the debate about what kind of London we want to live in and have our kids grow up in. I feel passionately that London, if it is to continue being the vibrant, brilliant place it is, must be somewhere that people of all ages and incomes can afford to live in decent homes, in neighbourhoods that are not segregated by wealth, class or nationality. In particular, it must be a place where young people feel that they really have a decent chance of buying or renting their own space and have the chance to get on.

I think most of us are here because we fear we are heading in the wrong direction, and that the pressures in this context are enormous. For me, it is an issue of social justice and intergenerational equity. It matters enormously, and I have detected, as I am sure that other MPs have, enormous change in sentiment in the area I represent, which is a relatively affluent suburb on the edge of London. Now, people cannot buy a one-bedroom flat for less than a quarter of a million pounds there, nor can they rent one for less than £1,000 a month. This issue is really concerning for people. The debate has changed from 2005, when I stood on platforms trying to get elected. The question then was, “How do we stop the development?”, whereas it is now, “Where are my grandchildren going to live?”, and “How do we build what we need to build without spoiling the area?”

There is no easy answer to those questions, but this is a fundamental challenge for our generation of politicians, because as others have said, the problem is likely to get worse, given the demand pressures, not least due to population increase. This is one of the biggest challenges for our generation of politicians. The past is less interesting than the future, but we have to recognise that Governments of both colours have failed the capital in the past, in terms of building the number of homes required. As hon. Members would expect me to say, the coalition Government deserve a great deal of credit for stopping the rot. I will leave it to the Minister to give the roll call of achievements; I think it is substantial.

The Mayor of London is not here today, but I think he also deserves great credit for changing the tempo and ambition, and for some really interesting innovation, particularly in helping working families on low incomes and giving them the support that they need. There have been a lot of very interesting initiatives and very good projects that I hope his successor—with respect to other candidates, I sincerely hope it will be my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith—will turbo-charge.

However, I guard against looking simply at incremental reform. I think we need to be more radical. The absolute priority is increasing the supply of affordable homes. This cannot just be about increasing the volume of building, because that will take too long. It is largely about what gets built. The starting point—if it takes a Conservative to point this out, so be it—is recognising that the market will not deliver, because, certainly in my area, it delivers what the market can afford, and not necessarily what the community needs. I believe that the state has to be more radical in terms of intervention. Local authorities have to get back into the business of building. We have to do big Conservative things to open up this market, which is too opaque. The power is concentrated in too few hands. We need more competition, more transparency and more innovation in how stuff gets designed, built and financed, and we need to bring in the public in a much bigger way, so that they feel a bigger sense of buy-in.

The debate is normally framed around power, land and money. I simply add a concern about skills. It was put to me by the director of a major development company that we can have the best policies in the world, but we do not have the people or skills to build what we want to build, and we need to address that.

In terms of power, I am a strong believer in decentralisation. I would like to see the next Mayor have more power, and we should be open to the idea of a new delivery agency. We need to question why Transport for London and the NHS think that they should be in the redevelopment business. I support the London Land Commission, but we need more clarity around the presumption and policy priority relating to public land. Is the priority to maximise the value to the taxpayer or to maximise value to the community? We are seeing that with the potential development of Northwood and Pinner cottage hospital in my constituency. The situation is too vague, and it is frustrating.

I am not at all sure that extending the right to buy is the right policy priority for London at the moment. I am open to persuasion. I want to be assured that it is compatible with a big increase in supply, and I certainly support the Mayor in his call for all proceeds of the policy to stay inside London.

Last but not least, I want to see much more innovation in design and financing. Siobhain McDonagh is entirely right. Organisations such as Create Streets show what can be done to redesign failing estates. We can build in different, modern ways. Laing O’Rourke is leading the way in the UK with important thinking on modular design that transforms the cost and timing of building. We should be doing more than dipping our toe into the waters of giving people the freedom to build their own home. We should be giving local authorities more freedom to explore new vehicles that give them more flexibility to deliver the homes that they see are needed. Enfield, Sutton and Ealing are leading the way with that.

We need much more creativity in giving opportunities for new sources of finance to come in that are not rapacious, but want to support and invest in infrastructure. Sir Merrick Cockell gave a fascinating speech in which he talked about the potential for London local authority pension funds to collaborate. They want to invest in infrastructure and they need new opportunities. He talked about the potential of municipal bonds and retail bonds to get communities involved in the opportunity to invest in their area. I was proud to lead our work in Government on developing social investment as an asset class. We lead the world in that, and there are pioneers in that area, such as the Cheyne Social Property Impact Fund, the Real Lettings Property Fund, and the Golden Lane Housing bond. Those organisations are looking for opportunities to invest for social benefit in this area, and what they are missing is opportunity. The problem is not supply of capital, but supply of opportunity, so I think there is a huge opportunity for local authorities, MPs and the Mayor to work together and reach out to designers, architects, developers, investors and pioneering local authorities who want to do things in different ways. That is what we need if we are to get serious about tackling the No. 1 issue in the capital that we love.