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In Bargates in Leominster, an old Army base that became a turkey factory now has planning permission for 440 new homes. That is a significant number in a
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town the size of Leominster, which has only 10,000 people. My fear is that not only have those building plans been put on hold, a point that the Liberal Democrats raised earlier, but there is no way in which those houses will be built in the current economic climate. Because it is a large scale development, nobody will be able to build the one or two houses that are urgently needed, so nothing is happening.

On top of that, Bargates in Leominster already has such a significant traffic problem that I suspect that even rural Herefordshire will fail to meet the European emissions standards for traffic fumes. That is equally relevant to the debate, because without the necessary infrastructure it will be impossible for people to live in the houses that are planned.

Hereford city contains the Edgar street grid, and we need to be far cleverer about the houses that we are building. The city desperately needs its inner core rebuilt, and the houses that are built must not be for just one sector of society. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) was right when he said that we must not have segregated societies. We need some housing of each type. We cannot expect a business to relocate to Hereford, for example, if the only person who can find a house is the managing director. Different types of housing are needed for different types of people, according to the money that they have to spend and according to the incomes that they expect to receive. We need a far broader and more localised solution to the problems facing us.

When I talk about local planning, I cannot help but mention the Reves hill wind farm that is being foisted upon us in probably the most beautiful part of the most beautiful county in the whole of England. I have no objection at all to renewable energy—indeed, I believe passionately in it, but it must be appropriately sited. I hear hon. Members on the Government Benches laughing, thinking that areas of outstanding natural beauty where there are severe restrictions on what can be built should immediately be turned into wind farms.

There are good places where wind farms are appropriate, but when one sees the number of objections, one realises that the Reves hill project is entirely inappropriate and does immense damage to all those who believe in renewable energy. How on earth will we persuade people that that is good technology that is needed if we dump it in places where it is wholly inappropriate and ruins a community? We must get this right. The balance is totally out of kilter and it is wrong. I hope the Government will listen to the letters that I have written to them and call in that decision, which is wholly against the wishes of the local people.

Those local people want housing. They want to see their villages grow to accommodate people who were born and brought up in the area, but, oh no, they are not allowed that. We must stop the centralised planning system that dumps huge scale housing in certain areas that does not get built, does not allow small scale development in small villages, which is desperately needed, and allows the mass desecration of exceptional countryside—I am sorry that Government Members laughed when I spoke about the wind farm—in a way that I do not believe the Government ever intended. I
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believe that their intentions were good when they considered ways of encouraging renewable energy, which, as I said, I support, but in this instance it is wholly and utterly wrong.

If we are to address the needs of people who live in the countryside, who want to live in their communities, and who have different needs according to their ages, we must have a far more intelligent approach to planning and to the way we build houses. I regret that of all the speeches that I heard from the Labour Benches, not one Member said that the £12 billion that was spent on a VAT cut should have been spent on housing. I listened to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) talking about Hammersmith and Fulham—I did not intervene on him because I did not want him to last any longer. He used to run that council, which kicked him out so severely that it is not surprising that his speech contained so many sour grapes. On an issue as important as planning, we must get it right for people who live in the countryside.

3.27 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I understand that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) is visiting my constituency tomorrow. He will be welcome in the beautiful town of Colchester. I am delighted that he is coming to Essex. On an Opposition day, not one of the 13 Conservative Members representing Essex constituencies has bothered to turn up for a very important housing debate.

I rely on the hon. Gentleman to put that right. He will find an inspirational Liberal Democrat-led local authority whose housing policies in a very difficult time have won awards for their ways of trying to deal with the housing crisis and homelessness. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is going to the night shelter where those who are in desperate straits are accommodated, and he will find a town where we have the mayor’s project, the YMCA foyer, a women’s refuge and so on. What we do not have, unfortunately, is a house building programme such as we had 25 or 30 years ago.

It is important that we look back in order to learn the lessons so that we can go forward. It is to the credit of successive Labour and Conservative Governments in the middle 50 years of the 20th century, bypassing the war, that there was mass house building of family houses which meant that by 1980 there was no such thing as homeless people in my town. Families could be guaranteed a family home within six months of going on the waiting list. It is not good enough for the Government to try to blame the previous Government for the shortage of housing. If one looks back, one finds that the record shows that Conservative Governments built more council houses in towns, cities and villages than Labour Governments over that period.

There was a time when there was municipal pride—both Labour and Conservative—in providing housing for those in need. It might come as a bit of a surprise to the Minister to hear that one of the reasons I was driven out of the Labour party in 1981 was that I did not object to the principle of the sale of council houses, although I objected to the way it was rolled out with huge discounts. I find it quite astonishing that I was driven out of the Labour party because of my stance in support of those who wished to buy their home, only to
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find new Labour further to the right than the Conservative party of 30 years ago. I do not have any desire to return to Labour—certainly not as it is today.

Short of failing to defend the realm, the biggest sin of any Government is to fail to house their people. In my constituency, the number of names on the housing register is nudging 4,000, and more people are involved than those who are named. I am sure that in my constituency and in others there are empty dwellings. I want to see the Government and Opposition parties of the day trying to reach consensus on how we could look at the housing stock in its broadest sense and maximise its use. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), will have heard my intervention on the Minister for Housing. In my constituency the Government are responsible for more than 200 dwellings, and are paying rent on them, yet they are standing empty. That cannot be right. I am sure that there are other examples of empty dwellings around the country, some publicly owned but predominantly, I suspect, privately owned.

If the Government can fund an arguably illegal war in Iraq and can bail out the bankers, why can they not fund the housing sector, as suggested by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), so that housing can come through the system? Not only would that provide work for unemployed building workers and the supply industry—including those involved in fitting the property out with carpeting, furniture and so on—but, above all, it would provide decent family accommodation for hard-working families and their children. The Government have failed the children miserably when it comes to providing housing. If the children are not housed, a whole generation of dispossessed people is created.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) mentioned the new quango. My constituency—I cannot believe it is the only one—has about 100 acres of land zoned for housing, but nothing is happening. Why can the left hand of government and the right hand of government not come together, release that land and get unemployed building workers to build the houses to house those who are homeless? It strikes me that that is what government should be doing: government should be about considering the broader picture and it should be joined up. Housing should be provided for the Government’s people.

The Government have failed, but that is no surprise. I challenged the former Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the former Deputy Prime Minister when he was responsible for housing, and the Prime Minister on this point. I have been banging on about it for about 12 years. We can blame the last Conservative Government for their failures, but the Thatcher Government built considerably more council houses than this pathetic Government have done in 12 years.

Those are the facts and the numbers, but we can have the emotion, too. We are all housed. If we are running our advice bureaux and surgeries properly, we all know from the people who come through our front door, seeking our help, that there is a shortage of housing. If a post-war Labour Government—a real Labour Government—could build housing for homeless people in need in the aftermath of war, why, after 12 years of new Labour, do we have a housing crisis that is the worst we have had in 100 years?

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3.34 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Today’s debate has been interesting and important. The consequences of the problem of housing waiting lists reach far beyond the lists themselves; the reality is that there is all too often a human and negative impact on a whole range of affected families and communities. I am thinking of problems of education and health inequality, family problems and even crime. We all see such issues in our constituencies; every single week as a London MP, I see constituents in my surgery who face them. We know that, more often than not, a housing issue is at the heart of many of the social problems on our streets and in our homes.

Housing troubles are not the sole cause of society’s problems, of course. However, we need to consider the impact on us as a nation of the increased waiting lists that we have seen, certainly in the past 10 to 12 years. Some 1.8 million people are now waiting for social housing in Britain, and they are desperate to get a home. As we have heard today, a growing number of people are homeless—they do not have a home at all. Yet Government statistics are changed and goalposts are moved to make the situation look better than it is. The situation is dire. We all recognise that we cannot fix the problems overnight, but many in the House are concerned that the Government have gone backwards; they certainly have not fixed the problems in the 12 years they have been in power.

There have been a number of passionate and interesting contributions from Members across the House. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who is no longer in his seat, is a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee. He talked of his experience in Sheffield and the need for more flexibility in the management of housing stock as well as the need for more social housing. He was followed by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), also a member of the Select Committee She talked, perhaps more honestly, about the Committee’s concerns and what she called the “damning indictment” in its recent report. She expressed her own view, saying that we need to consider very grass-roots issues, including the capability of planning officers up and down the country. We need to make sure that they can get through the developments that communities want.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said that the debate should not come down to numbers, but there is no doubt that the numbers tell the story. As the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) just said, it has been this Government who have dropped the ball on social housing and who, year after year, have created less social housing than the previous Conservative Government did. If social housing had been created at the same rate, nearly 250,000 more social houses would have been built under the Labour Government. That fact is hard to deny. There is a desperate need for housing, but at the same time, as we have heard, there are plans to demolish 400,000 homes in the north of England. That suggests that the Government have no practical housing strategy that will make a difference to the very people who most need one.

One of this afternoon’s finest speeches was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and it followed an unfortunately vitriolic speech from the hon. Member
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for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter). My right hon. Friend put forward a more reasoned view about the right to buy. As he pointed out, that gave millions of people the chance to buy a home and fulfil the dream of home ownership; without the right to buy, they could never have done that.

Under this Government, the right to buy has been consistently reduced and trimmed back, so that current sales on that basis fell to just 15,000 in 2007-08. Many Government Members criticised the right to buy, yet their own Government have not got rid of it. Nevertheless, they seem to want it to wither on the vine. That is unfortunate, because a report by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, just a few years ago, stated that the right to buy was one of the most successful housing policies because it enabled many households to become owner-occupiers who would otherwise not have been able to do so. The Government’s own reports say that it was a successful policy, yet they are not maintaining it. Of course, they have brought forward other schemes such as social homebuy and shared ownerships, but those are all falling well short of the 120,000 sales target that the Government set themselves. So we have a restriction of the right to buy and a restriction in the operation of alternatives whereby people could start to share in the ownership of their home and see a route to owning their own home. Overall, it is a failing policy.

Let us not forget that many people face severe overcrowding in their homes. In London, 98,000 families are living in overcrowded properties, and it is often children who are at the sharp end of that. They must find it like trying to study for their GCSEs on the tube in terms of the amount of privacy and peace that they get. That is the sharp end of this Government’s failure to invest in and to create social housing at the levels of the previous Government.

We have also talked about homelessness. Perhaps the people who have suffered most of all are those who do not have a home. We do not even know the exact numbers, but charities such as Crisis estimate that the total number of hidden homeless people may be up to 400,000.

Mr. Slaughter: I will try not to be horrid to the hon. Lady, but what would she say to local authorities who regularly send back millions of pounds of unwanted social housing grant to the Housing Corporation, as it was—the Homes and Communities Agency, as it is now—because they do not wish to build the very houses that she is saying should be built?

Justine Greening: I am interested by the hon. Gentleman’s comment. In his time on Hammersmith and Fulham council, to which he is referring, the waiting lists went up. He should ask his question not of me but of his own Ministers. Given the concerns about housing that most Government Members expressed, one would have thought that they were in opposition, yet it is their own Government who have, for more than a decade, presided over a decline in social housing the like of which we have not seen for 30 to 40 years. If we had had over the past 12 years the same level of social home building that we saw under the last Conservative Government, there would be 250,000 more social housing units for people to live in..

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What today’s debate has shown, if nothing else, is that ultimately everybody starts from somewhere. Everybody in this country looks to the future and to what they can achieve not only for themselves but for their children, and they want something better. As an individual, as a community, as a country, we all aim for better lives for ourselves and our children, and often at the heart of this hope for the future is an aspiration to own one’s own home. For many families, that is the building block of their family life, but it is a building block that this Government appear not to value. That is demonstrated by what we have heard today about the decline in social house building over the past 12 years.

Owning one’s home is perhaps not a right, but it should certainly be a choice. Unfortunately, over the past decade, under this Government, it has become a choice that has been increasingly denied to more and more people. Labour MPs ought to be asking their own Ministers why they have failed. What we need to kick-start the housing market is a general election. That would be the best way to start dealing with some of the challenges that we all see in our surgeries, to get our housing market back on track, to get social house building back on track and to get waiting lists back down.

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I start by welcoming the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) to her Front-Bench team and the Communities and Local Government brief. It is the first time that we have debated, and I wish her well. I disagreed with about 98 per cent. of what she said— [ Interruption. ] I will say what the 2 per cent. remaining is shortly. I agree with her that this has been an important debate, as befits the significance of housing. I also agree with her that it is difficult to think of a single other topic that incorporates feelings of safety, security and well-being, community cohesion, health chances, life expectancy, economic prosperity and environmental concerns, but housing does precisely that. That is why the debate has been important and invaluable.

We have heard about the Belgrano, Iraq and Disraeli, and when I woke up this morning, I did not think that we would be debating those subjects. I did think that we would be debating shallow, superficial arguments from the Opposition, which is what we have heard today. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing analysed the argument of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and systematically and methodically demolished it. She effectively exposed the holes in his argument, as well as the holes that were in the roofs of council houses when we took power.

The hon. Gentleman was quite astonishing. He was so vague about what a future Conservative Administration would do, and on what “incentives” meant, as to be virtually incoherent. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) had him on the ropes after a challenging intervention, and the hon. Gentleman simply could not respond. I ask him again: what does he mean by incentives? Will they be financial incentives? Will he match the unprecedented £8.4 billion that was provided by the Government for the supply and provision of affordable housing over the comprehensive spending review period of 2008 to 2011? What does he think of the £510 million that we have provided for the housing,
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planning and delivery grant? In a previous debate, he saw that as a bribe; I see it as an incentive. I do not understand where he is coming from on that.

The hon. Gentleman says that local authorities should be doing more, but he provided no alternative answers. More than that, however, what really struck me about his comments and those of the hon. Lady was the sheer gall—the breathtaking audacity of their comments. When in power, their party presided over a housing policy that was characterised by neglect, disrepair and underinvestment. The legacy left by the Conservative Administration was downright disgraceful. My hon. Friend brought to the debate his considerable expertise and knowledge as chair of Sheffield council’s housing committee in the 1980s. He rightly mentioned the negative nature of our inheritance in 1997, and the sheer scale of what we had to do.

The hon. Lady said that we all start from somewhere—a very profound statement—but where we started from in 1997 was appalling disrepair and underinvestment. Quite rightly, the Labour Government had to address and put right the enormous repairs and maintenance backlog that we saw after 18 years of Tory Government.

Bob Russell rose—

Mr. Wright: It was absolutely disgraceful, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me.

Bob Russell: The Minister quite rightly pointed out the appalling legacy of the previous Conservative Government. However, will he acknowledge that that awful Conservative Government built more council houses than new Labour has in 12 years?

Mr. Wright: Actually, that brings me to a point that I wanted to make in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) about the fixation on numbers, whether in the case of waiting lists or otherwise. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the enormous contribution that he made to the decent homes standard, which gave us the ability to take a whole generation of poorly housed council tenants out of poverty and substandard housing. Some of the dwellings that were built after 1979 were, frankly, of a shocking quality. They were absolutely disgraceful and unfit for human habitation. We had to deal with the poor quality of fittings such as bathrooms and kitchens and the poor building quality of dwellings, as the 1996 English house condition survey showed vividly. We had to repair what the Tories failed to repair and put right what they had done. There had been a decade or more of neglect and underinvestment, and they should be thoroughly ashamed.

Grant Shapps rose—

Mr. Wright: In a week when people are apologising, I certainly give way to allow the hon. Gentleman to apologise. He is embarrassed about his party’s record on housing, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to apologise.

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