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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s criticism of the Government and their failure to invest in building new council and social housing. One of the problems in my constituency
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is not so much the lack of new housing, although that is a problem, but the fact that so many existing council homes have had to be demolished because of a lack of investment in existing homes. That began with a 70 per cent. overall reduction in our capital expenditure during the Conservative years. He has to look at overall housing investment, not just at new builds. The problem with the current Government is that they continued for far too long—

Mr. Speaker: Order. An intervention should not be a speech.

Grant Shapps: I understand the intervention and the sense of frustration on the part of some Government Back Benchers. It is a fact that the number of social houses built for rent has halved over the past 12 years. Simply going back to a time when another party was in power—now 12 years ago—and claiming that all the problems can be traced back to somebody else is an argument that has long gone. We need to consider the situation over the past few years and to understand that if one builds only half the number of social houses available for rent, one de facto ends up with a big social housing waiting list. That is how we have ended up with 1.8 million people languishing on that list.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Let me take the hon. Gentleman on to his current policy. He mentions empty homes. Does he support empty dwelling management orders, for example? Does he support Liberal Democrat calls for a cut in VAT on renovation and rebuild?

Grant Shapps: I shall leave it to Liberal Democrat Front Benchers to explain their policies and shall instead make some progress.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to go back to the situation before 1997, but does he not recognise that the fundamental problem that the Government have had since 1997 is dealing with the incredible backlog of disrepair in social rented stock that they inherited from the previous Government? There were 40-year-old bathrooms and kitchens, and windows that had condensation and leaked. Since 1997, the priority has been to repair them. The legacy of the previous Government under his party caused the concentration on that priority.

Grant Shapps: I am tempted to say that the current Administration always like to think that it is someone else’s fault. If it is not the fault of somebody else abroad, it is the fault of the Government who were in power all those years ago. It is true that houses need repair, but I should have thought that that was obvious when the Prime Minister made the 1994 Blackpool conference speech in which he stated that the money from housing sales would be put to use to build more homes. That policy option was available at the time, but what has happened since is that the money that was ring-fenced from right-to-buy sales has not been used to provide new council housing.

In fact, when we left office, 1,550 council houses were still being built each year, whereas last year the figure had fallen to 450—and that, by the way, was an all-time
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record. There has been a tremendous drop in the number of council houses being built, and there are choices that the Government could have made over any of the last 12 years to help provide more social affordable housing. They failed to make those decisions, which is why they now preside over a housing waiting list that has nearly doubled during their time in office.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman seems extraordinarily reluctant to recognise that the key issue is the number of homes that are in decent condition and available to let. The problem of the legacy inherited from the Conservative Government was that there was a £19 billion backlog of disrepair affecting millions of council houses. Will he now give credit to the Government for the action that has been taken to improve large numbers of those homes?

Grant Shapps: My No. 1 priority is the 1.8 million families—4.5 million people—who are now languishing on the Labour party’s waiting list trying to get a decent home. It is an absolute scandal. The last Conservative Government created 52,000 affordable homes a year, but the Labour Government have managed just 27,000 a year. The Government’s recession cannot be used as an excuse, either. As I said before, during 1992—a year of recession—the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, ensured that 60,000 affordable homes were built. Estimates suggest that that can be compared with 10,000 this year.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young); I remember his time as Housing Minister with pleasure. However, we want to know to what the Conservative party would commit in terms of the number of new social housing units, the number of council properties and the amount of budgetary spend from a Conservative Government in year one. What is the answer?

Grant Shapps: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s interest in our manifesto, but I am afraid that he will have to wait for our Green Paper on housing to fill in the details and to find out what the next Conservative Government will do.

I am left with the impression that although this Labour Government never admit to doing anything wrong, they recognise at least privately that they have failed on housing policy. That is presumably why on taking power the Prime Minister came out with his bold statement about having 3 million new homes by 2020—a headline-grabbing initiative. To punctuate his commitment to housing, he invited the Minister for Housing to attend Cabinet, declaring that housing was from now on his No. 1 priority.

Considering the high priority status of housing, it is remarkable that in 2008 alone I have faced three different Housing Ministers across this Dispatch Box. That is the level of the priority. Of course, it is not the fault of the Minister for Housing that she inherited the 3 million by 2020 target, which we now see was based on wishful thinking. I think that she was immediately wise enough to recognise the difference between what she called a target and a mere ambition.

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The debate is not about party politics or political point scoring; it is about real people’s lives. Reports from the Conservative Homelessness Foundation reveal the real pressures that exist at the very bottom of the housing ladder—among people who are living on the pavements. All the years of failing to build have led to a severe lack of social housing, and even more to a dramatic loss of mobility in the existing social housing stock. As a result, those in temporary accommodation can expect to find themselves there much longer simply because so little move-on housing is available.

I am deeply alarmed by the Government’s failure to do anything about the Department for Communities and Local Government’s approach to bracketing down the rough sleeper estimates provided by local authorities. Rather than the accurate number of 1,000-plus people sleeping rough on the nation’s streets each night, the official figure is therefore just 483. Worse is still to come. The Government’s new rough sleeping strategy, “No One Left Out”, which was published in November 2008 by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), states:

It is important to understand what that means. At a stroke, simply by fiddling the figures, the Government will report the laughable figure of 214 people sleeping on the nation’s streets, compared with the more likely estimate of more than 1,000.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the work that Crisis, the homelessness charity, has done, which quite clearly shows that many more people are sleeping rough? The hidden homeless—people who are living in other people’s homes, in frankly second-world conditions—contribute to the problem. Does he agree with me and with David Coulthread from Crisis that we have to be more honest about the figures before we can have a more honest strategy to resolve the issues?

Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have some sympathy with the Government on this issue, and I have tried to work constructively with them. It is notoriously difficult to work out how many people are living rough because it is so difficult to count them. It is even harder to find out how many people are homeless, with definitions including living in hostels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and sofa surfing in other people’s houses. I completely understand that it is not an easy science, but it is incredibly disingenuous to fail to count correctly the number of people sleeping on the streets.

I have pointed out the problem to Ministers before, and it could be resolved—at least to a reasonable extent. The latest proposals are artificially to halve the numbers to 214, but anybody walking on the streets knows that more than 214 people in the nation are sleeping on the streets. It is just not good enough, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that severe problem.

If solving social mobility would ease some of the problems and 70 per cent. of social tenants want to own their own homes, one might think that the Government would have acted somehow. They have—under myriad
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complex, confusing and sometimes completely contradictory schemes, all branded under the “homebuy” label. The Government have a target of helping 120,000 households into home ownership between 2005 and 2010. How have they done? There have been 4,500 sales under their open market homebuy scheme and 18,500 under their new build homebuy programme; so far they have got to about 23,000 of their 120,000 target, which is not too good. Social homebuy, a scheme designed to have helped by now in excess of 10,000 households, has in fact assisted just 235 families.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the Minister for Housing about the issue; she told me that social homebuy, which has helped just 235 families, was just a pilot. I know that she is just the latest incumbent to hold the fast-churn housing brief, but I have to tell her that she is wrong. The scheme may have been a pilot once, but it has not been for nearly a year, and by now we would have expected it to be having an impact. According to the Government’s own figures, about 5,000 homes should have been purchased in that time. In fact, since the scheme ceased to be a pilot, it has been dropped pretty quickly by housing associations and local authorities.

There is a better way. We will scrap Labour’s failed top-down targets and replace them with real incentives to create the kinds of communities where people really want to live. We will scrap regional planning, regional assemblies, regional spatial strategies and all the quangos directed to tell local people that the Government know what is best for them. We will replace it all with a system that works with, rather than against, local people, helping them to develop their own neighbourhoods.

Ms Buck: Has the hon. Gentleman communicated that desire to abolish targets to Boris Johnson, who, as we know, is the most senior executive Conservative in the country? He has an affordable housing target and, interestingly, has also completely failed to carry the boroughs with him. Of the 32 boroughs that have been asked to respond to the Greater London authority’s housing target, 22 have simply failed to negotiate anything at all.

Grant Shapps: That is a matter for local authorities, local government and devolved government, where that exists. Local authorities decide on how to proceed with such matters. That is the whole point of handing power to people locally. The Mayor will decide what is best for his local area; that absolutely makes sense and is consistent with everything that I am saying about Whitehall and how it should not make such decisions.

Mr. Raynsford: Given the hon. Gentleman’s earlier emphasis on the need to increase the output of social and affordable housing, what would he do if he were in office and discovered that devolving those options to local authorities, the Mayor of London and others did not produce the results that he expected?

Grant Shapps: I would quite simply increase the incentives. The difference between our approach and Labour’s is that rather than thinking that the way to solve a housing crisis is to create ever-larger, top-down, Whitehall-driven, almost Soviet tractor-style targets for building homes in people’s communities, we can work with communities to create the housing that is needed.

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People are perfectly rational: all we need to do is provide incentives and allow people to get something out of them. We should allow people to improve the development of their communities and get something in return for creating more housing. When my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire was Minister for Housing, that system built more homes; when we combine it with those additional incentives for local communities, even more homes will be delivered.

Mr. Betts: I am fascinated by that answer. Clearly there is a well worked out policy lurking there somewhere. Will the hon. Gentleman precisely define what the incentives would be and how much they would cost?

Grant Shapps: If the hon. Gentleman wants to descend into our policy papers, he is welcome to do so. As I said in my conference speech back in October, for example, an element of council tax should be kept locally when new homes are built. That would be an incentive for local authorities to build more homes and help to ensure that local people got something out of it.

Mr. Betts rose—

Grant Shapps: I am happy to go into an extended debate on this—

Mr. Betts indicated assent.

Grant Shapps: Fine; with interventions, I am sure that we can. However, I am keen that others should be able to contribute.

There are systems of incentives that we can put in place, such as the one linked to council tax. Furthermore, the Government now say that 15,000 homes have to be built in my constituency, but extraordinarily they think that that can be done by closing down our local hospital and cutting accident and emergency, maternity, elderly care and paediatric services and all surgery and operations. They then think that the local population will go for their housing targets. That does not work; we have to work with communities, join up the services and give people something in return.

The Government’s record on housing is one of complete failure: top-down targets working against local communities, rocketing house prices followed by a crash, and the slamming in people’s faces of the door to home ownership. Housing is central to today’s financial crisis, and the collapse of our housing market is both a cause and consequence of the severity of Labour’s recession, but the people who will hurt the most are the people on the all-time-record social housing waiting lists, whom this tired old Government seem incapable of helping—or are too incompetent to help.

1.6 pm

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

One thing—perhaps the only thing—that no one in this debate is likely to dispute is that there is substantial unmet housing need in the country today. That need is visible in every sector, whether it be social housing, private sector rental or home ownership. The motion before the House first highlights the levels of house building, particularly for those in need of social housing.

As he does on every occasion, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) made a feature of the level of new build. His fundamental argument—on house building, social housing, temporary accommodation and rough sleeping—seems to be that the former Conservative Government had a housing record of which today’s Conservative party should be proud, and that it contrasts favourably with the record of this Government. I am not sure that that was altogether wise of him; there are one or two flaws in that argument.

What is unquestionably true—the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to it earlier—is that in the early 1980s, the then Government instigated a whole-scale sale of council properties. Understandably, that was a very popular policy. The first hole in the argument of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield appears when we recall that the properties sold were not replaced. In fact, repeated obstacles were put in the way of local authorities—many of them Conservative—that wished to replace lost stock so that they could continue to provide homes needed for social rent. From 1983 on, however much they built, there was a net reduction in local authority housing stock in every year of the life of that Conservative Government.

Ms Buck rose—

Margaret Beckett: I was not planning to give way so early, but, okay, I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Ms Buck: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I want to emphasise the importance of her point. Are not Conservative councils such as the one in my area—and other ones, I am sure—renting back properties sold under the right to buy to house homeless households at a cost of about £400 a week to the taxpayer, when rent on the identical council flat next door costs £90 a week? Does that not expose the sheer insanity of a policy that sold but did not replace?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes her point clearly and powerfully, and I am glad that I gave way and allowed her to make it.

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