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22 Oct 2002 : Column 172—continued

Mr. Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Once more, for the last time.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has answered the question in his own words. As he himself pointed out,

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we propose that site value rating, or land value taxation, replace the uniform business rate. That would have huge benefits. It would solve a problem that he has still not said how he would solve, and return to use, for example, properties above shops.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I shall now move on to the Liberal Democrats' policy on the right to buy. Here we have an interesting conundrum. In a speech to a housing conference on 5 March 1996, the Liberal Democrats promised that they approved of the right to buy. In XA Home of Your Own", a policy paper produced in September 1996, they said:

They then seem to have had amnesia, changing their minds entirely. A press release issued on 8 October 2002, quoting the hon. Member for Torbay, stated:

As usual, the Liberal Democrats performed a 180-degree about-turn.

We think it inequitable that, while council-house tenants have a right to buy, the increasing number of housing association tenants, who have ceased to be secure tenants and become assured tenants, have no such right. We have therefore made a policy announcement that we will extend the right to buy from council to housing association tenants. We estimate, taking into account the 3.5 per cent. who applied during the first year of the right to buy council houses, that as many as 40,000 people might be able, and might wish, to buy their homes.

Those who buy their homes are given a stake in them, and an interest in what is going on. They gain an interest in keeping their homes in good repair, and, above all, an interest in their communities.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have got them all rising like sheep now. I think that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) was first.

Peter Bradley: The hon. Gentleman may be able to make a case for its not being equitable for housing association tenants to have no right to buy. It may well be that many would apply, and would enjoy the benefits of home ownership; but how would that contribute to increasing the amount of affordable housing available to people in housing need?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman should have been more patient, as I was just coming to that. However, I welcome his admission that people enjoy buying their own houses as it gives them a stake in their home and their community.

Up to 40,000 people may wish to buy their houses, empowering themselves and their families. We estimate that for every two houses that are sold we will be able to build one more house. That means that we will be able to build 20,000 extra affordable units. As the Government are currently building 22,000 affordable units, we would almost double the number of affordable

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units being built, so it would be a win-win situation. At a time when the Deputy Prime Minister wants to restrict the right to buy, we want to extend it.

Bob Spink: As my hon. Friend is doing so well, does he agree that if the 40,000 people who chose to buy their houses—thereby releasing 20,000 new houses on to the market for people who want social housing—were not allowed to buy their houses, they would never move on and release their houses; they would block them for ever and 20,000 people who wanted houses would be betrayed by the Liberal and Labour party policies?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has made an important and potent point. Last year, only 3.6 per cent. of the affordable housing stock in London became available for re-letting. The average tenancy in affordable houses is getting longer. That is bound to happen. When house prices and rents increase, of course people want to stay longer in subsidised housing. We estimate that the average tenancy in the affordable housing sector is 20 years, so unless we encourage some release from those 1.5 million houses in the registered housing sector, there will never be any movement. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is absolutely right. People on the waiting list at the bottom of the housing ladder will welcome a policy that involves building an extra 20,000 affordable units.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my near neighbour, for giving way. I wonder how his proposals would affect parish and town councils. As we share a common boundary, he will realise that under the current planning regime, which is long overdue for change, it is difficult to get communities to allocate new land for social and affordable housing. If we also propose extending the right to buy, can the hon. Gentleman honestly, hand on heart, say that such a proposal would be attractive to those parish and town councils? I do not believe that it will be.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is trying to trap me. I have already said that we propose some rural exemption or rural buy-back policies. We have to do that; he is right about that. He is my near neighbour and represents similar villages. If a village had only half a dozen affordable houses, one had been bought under the right to buy and the average tenancy is 20 years, that would mean that there would be no existing affordable units in a small village. Of course we have to treat those matters sensitively and we shall do so.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will not give way again as I must conclude.

The essence of the debate is simple. We have a crisis on our hands. The number of homeless people is rising at a huge rate. If the figures from Crisis are to be believed, there is a hidden figure of 400,000 homeless people—a record number. It is a scandal that there are so many homeless people. It is a scandal that so many people live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It is a scandal that we are not building more houses and it is a scandal that the Government are not building more

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affordable housing. The Government are presiding over one of the worst declines in the housing situation and the Liberals are doing no better. All they want to do is tax everybody and everything that moves.

The message is simple. The Liberals will tax the people; the Labour party will control the people; the Conservative party will set the people free.

6.14 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): At one point this afternoon, most Labour Members could have left the Chamber, as the debate had descended into a fight as to who the official Opposition on this issue are. I was also rendered almost speechless by the outrageous comments made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I cannot believe that he can stand at the Dispatch Box, given the Tory legacy of two decades of asset-stripping of our national housing stock, a #19 billion backlog of disrepair, leaving homes empty and council tenants in appalling housing conditions, and the desperate slashing of the housing association development programme. During their two decades in office, funding for council housing was halved, the number of rough sleepers doubled and there were record numbers of homeless people and repossessions. My constituency of Luton was dubbed the capital of repossessions. Only now are families recovering from having their homes repossessed as a result of two desperate Tory decades.

Week in, week out, in my constituency surgeries I see families who live eight to two bedrooms. They have no prospect of moving elsewhere because homes are being sold. Those sold under the right to buy have not been replaced and capital receipts cannot be used to replace them. I would have thought that Conservative Members would have the decency to apologise to my constituents, to the homeless and prospective homeless, and to families living in overcrowded accommodation up and down the country.

Ms Oona King: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the damage that right to buy has done in the past by allowing affordable homes to be sold off, but the damage that it is doing now? Although the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) recognised the need to ensure that right to buy does not continue to damage rural areas, the same must apply to urban areas. For example, in the Ocean estate in Tower Hamlets a #21.5 million project to increase social housing has been swamped by #28.5 million of buy-back costs. It is the economics of the madhouse.

Margaret Moran: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was about to make precisely the same point.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Houses that are purchased under the right to buy do not disappear. Under our policy they would enable new houses to be built. We should tell that to the people at the bottom of the housing ladder. They would like more affordable houses to be built and that is exactly what our policy would do in the hon. Lady's constituency.

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Margaret Moran: I believe that people who are homeless, living in overcrowded housing or in housing need will judge the Opposition on their record and recognise that their legacy has caused misery to thousands. As I will explain, their proposals make no economic sense. In government, they presided over record levels of spending on homelessness and bed and breakfast. Because of their dogma of doing away with affordable social housing, they preferred to put record numbers of families—including children—into bed-and-breakfast accommodation rather than allow social housing to be built or renovated.

Those of us who have been involved in housing for longer than we care to remember, those of us who started out in the days before XCathy Come Home", recall what homelessness meant then. This Government restored the rights of homeless people, after the Tories removed the safety net of social housing in the face of wholehearted opposition in the dying days of the Tory Government and turned the clock back to the days of XCathy Come Home". The Opposition should remember that legacy and some of the images that will stick in my mind for a long time. There were reports of Tory housing Ministers on their way to the opera stepping over homeless people and a Housing Minister who preferred to drink champagne with Tory sponsors rather than talk to people like us in local government who were trying to deal with the issues on the front line.

Those are the realities of the Tory decades. We recognise, and we are reversing, the economic madness that was Tory housing policy—a policy that involved escalating personal cost, costs in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, costs to the council tax payer, and the cost to society in general of doing away with social housing. We are reaping that whirlwind, and Opposition Members would do well to remember that. We recognise that thriving communities and decent housing underpin all our other social policies, such as tackling poor health and child poverty, regenerating our urban and other areas, and making sure that we have a proper, sustainable fabric for our families and communities.

The Liberal Democrats should not get away with things entirely. Their everlasting 1p on income tax is intended to fund health, education, transport and housing, so it is inexplicable how, under that arrangement, they intend to match our threefold increase in spending on affordable housing, our extra investment over the next three years to provide 30,000 affordable houses to rent per annum—including 10,000 homes for key workers—the #5 billion capital receipts released to improve 1.7 million council homes, and the spending on 143,000 private homes in poor condition. I await their answer. Those are just some of the things that this Government have already achieved, and it is worth reminding Opposition Members of them. For my constituents, the fact that mortgage rates are now less than half the level that they reached under the Conservatives is a very important factor. Those rates would not have been sustainable under the fairytale economics of the Liberal Democrats.

What are the Opposition parties' policies? We have heard something of the Liberal Democrats', but all that we have heard from the Conservatives is that they will extend the right to buy. Of course, that is not a new policy—it is a re-tread, a discredited policy. As a former

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chief executive of a housing association, I remember that, in the early 1980s—[Interruption.] Yes, I do have to remind the Opposition of their history. Back then, we not so gently pointed out to the Conservatives that there were fundamental problems with such a policy, not least of which was the fact that many associations—including my own—had homes that were fully or partly funded through charitable funds. Their policy constitutes a legal nightmare that would require primary legislation. Untangling which homes, or which parts of which homes, could be sold would create an amazing number of administrative problems.

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