2 Mar 2010 : Column 179WH

2 Mar 2010 : Column 179WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 2 March 2010

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Housing (London)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Watts.)

9.30 am

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I rise to begin this important debate in the hope that a Minister will join us shortly. Nevertheless, given the importance of the issue, I shall begin and keep my comments as brief as possible to allow my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, who have a greater knowledge of the subject than me, to contribute. I will be grateful not only for their contributions, but for their interventions.

As this is a broad subject, I will give some structure to my contribution by confining myself to the leading issue. I say to the Minister, who is now in his place, that he has not missed a great deal because I have been introducing the subject gently.

The issue to which I wish to confine most of my comments is affordability. In saying that it is the key issue for housing in London, I do not mean to suggest that there are not other serious matters that need to be debated. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for example, has a debate on the private rented sector in this Chamber later in the week. Moreover, there are issues related to owner-occupation. In particular, there are the problems that owner-occupiers may face during a recession and the steps that the Government have taken to alleviate them, with the consequence that repossessions are running at about 50 per cent. of those in previous recessions.

Those are all important topics, but given the social and economic position of London and, in anecdotal terms, the case load in my surgery and in my postbag-I suspect that the same is true for many other hon. Members here-the issue of access to housing and affordability is chronic in London, and also acute in that we now have a crisis.

I will say a bit about the scale of the problem and a bit about the Government's response. However, the majority of my remarks will focus on the policy of the Mayor and the boroughs in London, which is going to give serious cause for concern. Such a policy is not alleviating the current problems of affordability, but worsening the situation. I will end my contribution with two specific questions for the Minister.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's contribution will tend to be fairly parochial-the same will be true of mine, if I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mrs. Humble-but will he accept that there is a danger of perhaps being slightly over-partisan, although that does not necessarily come entirely easily to his nature? In commenting on the record of the Mayor, and no doubt that of the administration in Hammersmith and
2 Mar 2010 : Column 180WH
Fulham, will he also give some credence to the campaign being run by the Evening Standard, which somewhat worryingly refers to the lack of activity in this and related areas of poverty over the past decade or more in London and in the UK as a whole?

Mr. Slaughter: I welcome the campaign being run by the Standard, and I hope that is in the tradition of crusading social journalism, which is sometimes absent from the modern press. If my comments become parochial or partisan, I will put them in a wider context. What is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham is not simply an issue for my constituents and those who wish to live in affordable housing in the borough, but it is the blueprint for what many other boroughs-and, indeed, the Mayor-are now doing.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): I have no qualms whatever in making this political. What is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham is being replicated across the whole of London, not least in my own borough of Camden, and it seems to me that the policies are those of the Conservative party. If they are allowed to run, the damage wreaked on some of the most vulnerable people in our city, not least children, will be astronomical.

Mr. Slaughter: I am grateful for that comment, because it puts our discussion into context. I will try to be moderate in my tone and precise in my comments because, at the end of the day, those in housing need or in social housing-either council or housing association housing-are interested not in party political squabbles, but in having a secure and decent home for the future. There is a political divide and it is important that we identify it, but we must do so in forensic rather than emotive terms.

I will briefly run through the statistics, which are probably familiar to many of us. We have 45,000 households in temporary accommodation in London, which is 75 per cent. of the national total. Despite concerted attempts-in some cases, quite unseemly attempts-by councils to discourage people from going on to the waiting list and to prevent people from getting access even to the queue for social housing, some 350,000 people are on that waiting list. London has a third of the overcrowded households in the country. Some 25 per cent. of households in Hammersmith and Fulham live in overcrowded conditions.

As for affordability, on the latest figures, private sector rents on average are £207 for London, compared with £81 for registered social landlords and £76 for local authorities. That factor in boroughs such as Hammersmith and Fulham, which has high land values, rises to a ratio of 1:4 between social rents and private sector rents. The average price for house purchase in London is £315,000. In Hammersmith, the price went down between mid-2008 and mid-2009 from £570,000 to £480,000. It is now rising again and is almost certainly above £500,000.

The ratio between average earnings and the average house price for London is therefore a factor of eight, and for Hammersmith and Fulham a factor of 12. Some 40 per cent. of households in Hammersmith and Fulham have a household income of £20,000 or less. A third of households in London have an income of £30,000 or less. I identified those figures from the many
2 Mar 2010 : Column 181WH
statistics that are available because they show that, for many people and the vast majority of people in housing need, social rented housing is the only option in London. That is not necessarily true in other parts of the country.

I welcome genuine low-cost home ownership when it is accessible to people on moderate incomes or is a way for people in existing social rented housing to get into a form of ownership, thereby freeing up other units. Increasingly and cynically, it is not being used in such a way. The overwhelming demand is for social rented housing.

The previous Mayor had a target of 50 per cent. affordable housing. Within that, 70 per cent.-35 per cent. of the total-was to be social rented housing. When Labour was last in charge in Hammersmith and Fulham four years ago, those figures were running at 40 per cent. social rented, 40 per cent. intermediate and 20 per cent. market housing on good figures for new build, which shows that with a lot of application it is possible, even in boroughs with high land values, to achieve very good levels of affordable social housing and rented housing.

The Greater London authority's own figures show that the target of 18,000 affordable homes a year should, if we are to meet current need, break down such that 45 per cent. of that is social rented. Against that need, the Mayor's response has been, first, to abolish targets; secondly, to have a shortfall of 5,000 properties on that target of 18,000; and, thirdly and most bizarrely, to raise the threshold for affordability to an income of £74,000 a year. I do not know by what definition that threshold is affordable.

Mr. Mark Field rose-

Mr. Slaughter: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is going to say that he would like to bid for one of those homes; he is probably in the right income bracket.

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman may well be right about the income level. I fully appreciate his passion for this subject and I would agree that, in many ways, we have an absurd situation. It is particularly absurd, obviously, given the polarisation here in London. However, does he not accept that the erstwhile Mayor's targets were providing some very perverse incentives for developers, who were just sitting on their hands waiting for a change in administration or a change in policy?

I fully accept that the current situation is a very undesirable state of affairs. None the less, the erstwhile Mayor's targets simply were not working, which is why the current Mayor decided to do away with such targets. One of the problems, particularly in central London boroughs, was that, in essence, so little was being built, simply because those targets were unrealistic, given the market conditions.

I can understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman has experienced over many years, both in this place and wearing a previous hat. None the less, having strict targets simply was not achieving anything, which is the main reason why we have gone for a much more flexible approach that will, I hope, pay certain dividends in the years to come.

2 Mar 2010 : Column 182WH

Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman is the acceptable face of the Conservative party in London, but on this issue I have to say that I disagree with him absolutely. First, as the figures that I gave earlier show, it is possible to develop high levels of affordable housing. Secondly, if there were consensus between the major parties on providing for people in housing need, as there would have been 30 or 40 years ago, developers would not have the option of waiting for a change in administration or policy. I always found that developers were persuadable and that they would rather have a profit now than the possibility of a larger profit in the future.

Hammersmith and Fulham council is a very good example-in the past, Wandsworth council would have been a very good example, too-in that it has set out its stall as being "open for business". What that means is allowing unrestrained development-essentially, saying to developers, "Come here and you can do what you want," and beyond that, saying, "Actually, you can only do what you want if you also do what we want, and what we want is not to increase but to reduce the amount of social housing." I will say a little more about that in a moment.

I will be gently critical of the Government and say that I do not believe that, in the first 10 years of the Labour Administration, the provision of new social housing had the same priority as the renewal of existing housing stock under the decent homes programme. That is understandable because the decent homes programme was dealing with existing tenants and leaseholders, because of the scale of the neglect during the previous 18 years, and because there are regional differences. This debate is about London, however, where the problems of affordability and access to housing are greater.

I am pleased to say that, with the change of Prime Minister, we had a change of policy towards housing supply, so I give credit to the Government for the £7.5 billion that they are now putting into affordable housing; the £300 million being put into new council housing, which is very welcome; the £500 million being put into the Kickstart programme, although there are concerns about quality in that programme; and the £1 billion going into housing via RSLs and the housing pledge. Those are all very positive developments. They are only the start, but they give me confidence that a new Labour Government would open a new chapter in the supply of housing and affordable housing in this country. Given what the polls are saying to us, perhaps that is something that we can now look forward to.

There has been an ideological problem. If one goes back to the 1945 Government and later Governments, including even some Conservative Governments, social housing would have been given the same priority in terms of improving people's quality of life as health and education. Clearly, however, it has slipped down the agenda. I hope that it is now being put back where it should be.

Social housing is not only about the right to a decent home, which the Government have done an extraordinarily good job on, or about how people live; it is about where they live. In Hammersmith and Fulham, 32 per cent. of households are in social housing-either council housing or rented social housing-and that is in an area with the third highest land values in the country. I am very proud of that. I am very proud because it means that,
2 Mar 2010 : Column 183WH
economically, the city works; it means that people on low and moderate incomes who do essential jobs can have decent accommodation in the centre of the city; and it means that we have mixed communities. The great lie now being promulgated by the Conservative party is that getting rid of social housing encourages mixed communities, but the social housing in my constituency houses mixed communities-mixed in terms of tenure, people and income. That job is being done by the market, as well as by people choosing where to live, if they have that choice.

I do not want to put a gloss on that situation. There are big problems of poverty and disrepair and there are poor landlords, many of whom are RSLs and local authorities. At least 50 per cent. of my casework in surgeries relates to housing-mainly problems of overcrowding, disrepair and the like-but when I deal with that work, I always ask people if they like living where they are living. I do not think that one person in five years has said to me, "I don't like living in Shepherd's Bush," or "I don't like living in Hammersmith." People want to live in vibrant inner-city areas; they like the fact that communities in those areas are mixed communities.

I fear that the effect of Conservative party policy in London is to create exactly what the Conservatives say they are not trying to create: mono-tenure, wealthy ghettos of the sort that we see in some other European cities, from which the poor are driven out to the outskirts of London or to beyond the M25. My local council leader's favourite phrase is, "Sweat the asset." He has a genuine resentment of people on low incomes living in areas with high land values. That is what that policy is about; it is about a raw type of capitalist, Thatcherite policy, which we have not seen in London for a generation.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): In Camden-the borough that I jointly represent with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson)-the Conservative council is selling off flats and houses that become vacant. I must say that it is doing so with the enthusiastic support of the Liberal Democrats, with whom the Conservatives are in coalition in Camden. The council is doing that despite the fact that there are 18,000 people on the housing waiting list. To reduce the stock that is available is a bizarre response to a waiting list of 18,000.

I take that personally because when I was the leader of Camden council, we bought up 6,000 properties from the private sector, so that we could give people security of tenure and take other people off the waiting list and put them into the vacant flats. If some people think that being in social housing is unpopular, all I can say is that during the time that I was council leader I did not receive one single communication, by any means, from anyone saying that they did not want to become a council tenant-

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. I have to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, whose intervention has turned into a speech. I am sure that his hon. Friend understands the point that he is making.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): It was a very good speech.

Mr. Slaughter: It was indeed. My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to his own creditable record on housing, because exactly the same thing was done in Hammersmith in the 1960s and 1970s. What partly
2 Mar 2010 : Column 184WH
created the mixed communities in Hammersmith is what are called the "acquired properties". If one walks down any Victorian terraced street in Shepherd's Bush or Hammersmith, one will probably go past three or four houses and the first will be a housing association property, the second will be a private rented property, the third will be a council house and the fourth may be in owner occupation. One could not create that paradigm if one set out to do so, but that is what exists and I believe that it is now under threat.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I really must respond to the point made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson). The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that the reason why Camden council has had to sell off properties is because his Government will not fund the council to do up the homes that are still the responsibility of the council. If the Government were prepared to honour the promise to provide decent homes for tenants in Camden, Camden council would not be in the position of having to sell off homes to fund that promise.

Mr. Slaughter: My flow is being interrupted, so I will let other hon. Members make their points in their own time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) is exactly right. If the aim is to destroy affordability in housing, there is a raft of ways to do it. I wish I had an hour to catalogue the crimes, but I will try to end in 10 minutes.

Hammersmith and Fulham council has disposed of 13 homeless hostels, which constitute about 60 good-quality self-contained units of accommodation. Homeless families will now go into privately leased properties outside the borough, which will cost the taxpayer five times as much and destroy communities-but the council has a capital receipt that it can use to pay down debt. The council has sold by auction a number of the acquired properties that I mentioned. It has even gone to the extent of giving itself planning consent to convert large Victorian properties that have been divided into five units into single residential units, which can be sold for a couple of million pounds on the open market, so it is not even catering for the intermediate market, as it says it is. In addition, because it is selling by auction in a recession, it is getting a return of about 25 per cent. less than the taxpayer should get.

Jeremy Corbyn: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and apologise for missing the first part of his speech. Does he acknowledge that by selling off properties and forcing people into the private sector, where rents are very high, the burden is being passed on to the taxpayer through housing benefit? Housing benefit costs for private rented accommodation are roughly three or four times those for rents in the council and housing association sector. That is a monstrous waste of public money.

Mr. Slaughter: Absolutely. I will run through six ways in which affordable housing is being damaged in Hammersmith. Each of the examples is echoed across London and each one, as well as the social cost, usually has an economic cost for the taxpayer.

Next Section Index Home Page