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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:18 am on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 10:18 am, 9th September 2015

In the four minutes or so I have available, I want to acknowledge the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark—[Interruption.] Sorry, my hon. Friend Helen Hayes, who represents the borough of Southwark, because she painted exactly the picture in my constituency. She laid out very comprehensively the financial challenges of building homes for social housing providers. I find myself, perhaps not for the first time actually, in total agreement with Mark Field, because there is a real issue in my constituency too about overseas developers, and I will touch on that.

I want to cut to the issues that I want to raise with the Minister, but I need to add that my surgeries, too, are full of people in great distress. When I started out in politics about 20 years ago, housing was a huge issue. It was a case of having to visit people in bed and breakfasts; there were all those sorts of problems. Things got a bit better, but they are now worse, I think, than they have ever been. People are so distressed. They are living in overcrowded conditions, and there is no way out. They are put in temporary accommodation a long way from home and have to remove their children from school. They are unable to get a foot on the housing ladder, find it a struggle to pay the rent and have no security of tenure in the private sector.

I should just alert Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Mr Owen. I let a property, so I understand the technical side for landlords. There is a lot of bleating, frankly, from some of the landlords’ associations about the challenges of keeping rents at a rent escalator level, so that when someone goes into a tenancy, they know how long they will be there and what the rent will be. I do not think that there is a problem for any landlord, big or small, in managing a business model along those lines.

Let me cut to the issues that I would like the Minister to address. I agree with the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster that we need to tax the overseas investors. I am not an expert in how that should happen, although the Select Committee that I chair may well end up pursuing that issue. It is a real issue. I commend to the Minister the map that Private Eye did. It simply looked at properties that were sold and whom they were sold to. The situation is shocking. Let me just mention my area. There are flats down the road from me. As my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said, small properties that should be going to local first-time buyers are being bought by overseas companies. They are somehow getting a tax break for doing that. That is not the sort of investment that we need. I recognise that huge sites, such as Battersea power station, may need to attract overseas investment, but this is taking away from local people, so the Minister and the Government need to look at that.

The Government need to go back to the drawing board on the right to buy. As I said in my intervention, taking family-sized properties away from Hackney council to backfill for the sale of housing association properties is double-hitting the affordable housing stock in my area, where it is increasingly unaffordable for someone on the minimum wage even to rent a property, certainly without housing benefit. I recently heard of a nurse moving into a new housing association development who was reliant on housing benefit from day one. That is my other point: the Government must grasp the nettle of housing benefit. Subsequent Governments of differing hues have not done that. When Sir George Young, who was formerly in this place, was a Housing Minister more than 20 years ago, he said, “Let housing benefit take the strain.” Housing benefit is now taking the strain to a ridiculous extent. If that money were better invested, we would make a dent in the problem.

This is something the Minister could easily do. Certainly my party had discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders before the last election about allowing longer tenancies in the private sector. It is the mortgage lenders that, ridiculously, suggest that a year’s contract is more secure. Frankly, a tenanted property in London often represents a more secure income for the mortgage lender than that from someone in a precarious job. That is something the Minister could quickly act on, and I urge him to do so.