HC Deb 07 February 2002 vol 379 cc1148-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

8.20 pm
Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by my first Thursday Adjournment debate in which I shall address the important issue of housing in Tottenham and the London borough of Haringey. This is the second debate on the housing crisis in London this week. I am especially grateful to the Speaker's Office, because I know that Mr. Speaker personally selects the subjects to be raised on the Thursday Adjournment.

Housing impinges on life's many fundamentals, including health, security, education and employment opportunities. Good-quality, permanent housing can generate a sense of community. It is the difference between a building and a home. A real home defines a sense of self, family and personal stability. It allows people a life of dignity and, in a sense, it is that dignity that is at the core of this debate.

No advice surgery I hold passes without a number of Tottenham parents describing the tremendous overcrowding in their two-bedroomed properties, where four or five brothers and sisters are crowded into one bedroom. That leads to poor health and safety standards for the family, little room for children to do their homework and endless sibling conflict. It is no wonder that many of our young people prefer the relative privacy of corners outdoors, on the estate, in the park or at the bottom of the street, where they can hang out with their friends, to falling out with their brothers and sisters in cramped conditions with stressed-out parents.

We know that such overcrowding leads to a breakdown in family relations, missed educational opportunities, exposure to physical and mental health problems and a growth in the drop-out culture, in which young people bypass legal employment and become involved in crime. That was the stark reality of Tottenham in the 1980s surely in the 21st century it is time for us to move on.

The tremendous volume of temporary accommodation is probably our biggest obstacle to moving on in Tottenham. While it feels intensely like a problem faced only in Tottenham, it is linked to homelessness in London as a whole. In that respect, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing an Adjournment debate yesterday on the housing crisis in London. In that debate, he stated, rightly, that there are 48,000 homeless households in accommodation in London. Some 10 per cent. of those households are in the borough of Haringey. That is 5,000 households—1,000 more than in any other London authority—which is between 15,000 and 20,000 homeless people.

When I speak of homeless households, I am not referring to the 532 people who literally live and sleep on the streets. That number has fallen by two thirds, thanks to the work co-ordinated by the Government's rough sleepers unit. Rather, I am referring to people, including many families with children, who are without a home and who present themselves either to Haringey social services or to the housing department as having nowhere to live.

At present, London's population growth is not out of control, with an increase of about 2 per cent. per annum. In numbers, that is significant, but it does not reflect the homelessness crisis proportionately as the homeless household rate is more than 10 times greater. In the past two years, the number of homeless households has increased by an alarming 25 per cent. That cannot all be put down to greater numbers of newly arrived asylum seekers.

The trend in the past 10 years has been for the large-scale buying up of properties by landlords and less reputable real estate agents. It is a scandal that those private social landlords—many of them modern-day pariahs—renovate the properties to minimum standards, divide already small houses into much smaller, unappealing flats and then, what is much worse, rent them back to local authority housing departments and the National Asylum Support Service at exorbitant rates.

If I may, I will describe the situation of a professional couple with young children in my constituency. The family bought a long lease in a privately built new block of flats in Tottenham. The flats were sold as an attractive and modern, new development with good transport links to the City and the west end. However, the developer and freeholder were soon in dispute and basic maintenance work was not done. A cycle of deterioration began common parts were not cleaned, wear and tear stayed worn and torn, the walls became dirty, the carpets stained and ripped. The front door lock and the intercom were smashed and unrepaired. Attempts to get together with other leaseholders in the block to pressure the freeholder failed.

Families started to move out and sublet to others with less stake in the property. Leases became hard to sell without a loss. A landlord in the temporary accommodation business gradually bought up half the flats cheaply from people desperate to get out. Others rented out their flats and are living elsewhere. Soon, that couple were the only original leaseholders still living there. Their neighbours now come and go, sometimes leaving without warning—some are rehoused, some are deported and some are evicted when their rent stops being paid.

Corridors get littered—rubbish, unwanted furniture and items left by previous tenants are thrown in the yard outside, attracting more dumping from the surrounding area. Owing to the smashed front door and the availability of discarded furniture and beds, some rough sleepers have moved into the downstairs cupboard. The common parts are used by local young people to sniff glue, smoke crack cocaine or inject heroin. Burglary is a problem and residents never know who is going to be around the corner.

In all practical respects, the family are living in an unmanaged temporary accommodation block. The landlord who owns half the flats re-lets them to refugees and asylum seekers as bed-and-breakfast annexes and charges the local authority £250 per week. Breakfast appears to be a weekly plastic bag containing milk, a loaf of bread and a box of corn flakes.

If that were the only such example, I would not have asked for an Adjournment debate, but this is not an isolated incident. My constituents will tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is not a street, a close, an avenue or an estate in my constituency that self-seeking landlords have left untouched. The knock-on effects are huge and equally destructive. The opportunities for families who have grown up and lived in Tottenham for many years and who seek a permanent home there increasingly diminish as we risk the area becoming a colossal modern-day dormitory for people with the most desperate needs.

Presently, planning powers are not sufficient to prevent the particularly insidious development of bed-and-breakfast annexes. Although intended to encourage home owners to buy and live in Tottenham, the recent announcement of relief on stamp duty on the purchase of properties in deprived areas will no doubt lead to the proliferation of those annexes. A knock-on effect of the annexes is the low incentive for tenants to become financially active because they know that they will never be able to afford to pay their housing costs, thus creating a poverty trap for all but the landlords.

Tottenham's proliferation of temporary housing is directly responsible for high population transience, which detracts from our best efforts locally and nationally to regenerate the area and build a safe, sustainable community. There is up to a 20 per cent. turnover rate of people moving in and out of the area, constantly, week on week, month on month, year on year. That level of transience seriously damages any hope of community cohesion. It is exacerbated by boroughs as far afield as Redbridge and Hammersmith and Fulham placing their homeless families in Tottenham without any obligation to let Haringey council know where those families are.

I will be honest I am extremely worried. I have said before in the House that I grew up in a working-class community in Tottenham in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a community then of primarily white working-class, Caribbean, Irish and Cypriot families. It worries me that the children of the very families who thrived and made a home in that part of London, which has always been a gateway to the rest of London—a tradition of which we are proud—should now come to my surgery and express wrongly placed resentment towards newcomers for the poverty and instability that they purportedly bring.

Long-term residents who are housed by Haringey council find that they are unable to move to larger properties as their families expand, because those in temporary housing are naturally prioritised as permanent dwellings become available, leaving longer-term tenants lower down in the housing list.

We must not remain silent about the real backlash that asylum seekers face because of our failure to deal with London's housing crisis strategically. Families living in temporary households are disadvantaged because of the simple fact that they are seeking temporary accommodation. They face further social exclusion as they try to settle into a new area, get their children into a new school and gain access to public services. For many, English is their second language, and the one thing that they can be certain of is that they will have to move again in due course.

Research commissioned by Haringey council showed that of the children who had the stability gained from remaining in the same school in Tottenham for more than three years, 74 per cent. gained key stage 2, against the national average of 75 per cent. For children who had been in school for less than a year, the figure was 38 per cent. Clearly, their geographical instability was detrimental to their learning opportunities.

Furthermore, general practitioner registration lists show 3,000 rather than the recommended 1,300 patients in many of Tottenham's surgeries. We house the highest proportion of asylum seekers and refugees in the country, yet every ward in Tottenham is on the index of deprivation. When one throws together the circumstances of long-term and temporary residents living in a concentrated area of high deprivation, battling for access to overstretched public services, it is clear that there is a powder keg waiting to explode.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that two weeks ago I took a delegation from Haringey council to meet Lord Falconer, the Minister for Housing and Planning. I am pleased that he agreed to work with the council to commission further research to help us to understand the issues.

The solutions need to be addressed in a pan-London framework. Local housing authorities should co-operate rather than compete. In the short term, I would like a quota system for the number of temporary housing placements in each London borough to be developed. In the medium term, we need increased planning powers to control the present mass buy-up of available properties in Tottenham. In the medium to long term, registered social landlords such as housing associations must be encouraged to take the lead in the acquisition and renovation of a large stock of good-quality temporary accommodation in London. That means providing registered social landlords with the financial means and incentives to purchase and renovate properties to a decent standard and protecting them to some extent from the financial risks involved.

Like other world-class cities, London faces the challenge of dealing with housing need. Its economy is growing, so its population will continue to rise, with consequent housing pressure on inner-London areas. Therefore, that issue requires strategic policy development and the implementation of measures that aim to control the problem, rather than allow it to overwhelm us.

Despite all I have said, as someone who has grown up in Tottenham I feel compelled to tell my hon. Friends that there are many success stories to applaud in Tottenham. That is undoubtedly due to the commitment of the Labour Government who have targeted deprived areas, so savagely attacked by the previous Administration. Money is most definitely going into Tottenham, with more than £100 million of investment going into regeneration. Unemployment is down 17 per cent. since 1997, our schools are improving with nine schools out of special measures. Thankfully, we are a long way from the ugly scenes of the 1980s when anger burst onto our streets, because the investments made by the Government have to some extent given my constituents the breathing space to heal those deep wounds.

This Government recognise the moral and economic imperative of creating a nation where all people have access to a top-class education, to decent jobs, to neighbourhoods of which they can be proud and call home. My constituents certainly share that vision. One of the greatest problems holding them back from living that vision is the housing situation that keeps them chained to social exclusion. One can lengthen the chain by improving schools, the health service and crime rates, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to help them break free from a housing situation that keeps my constituents shackled.

8.36 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) on securing this debate on an important issue for Haringey and people across London. He set out clearly and eloquently the size of the task facing the Government in meeting the housing needs of people in London. He is right to say that this is the second Adjournment debate this week on the subject of housing in London, which shows the concern that exists and the need to find a strategic, London-wide solution.

Two issues in particular need to be addressed and both were inherited by the Government from our predecessor. The first concerns the backlog of repairs and the need to bring social housing up to a decent standard after the Tory years of neglect and lack of investment. The second concerns the failure over those years to deal with upgrading some of the recognisable standards of what we would regard as being suitable housing. I shall deal with those matters during my speech. The main ones include the need to revise the overcrowding standards, the need to get a definition of homelessness that resonates with what people would recognise as homelessness, and the need to deal with some of the fitness standards. My hon. Friend set out clearly the consequences of those failures for his constituents.

In looking at the need for a strategic, London-wide solution, my hon. Friend may be aware that tomorrow there will be a conference to launch the consultation process for the 2002 London housing statement. It will set out the key housing policies and priorities for the capital, and describe the contribution that local authorities, registered social landlords and other major stakeholders can make to improve the quality and the quantity of the housing stock. It will form the basis of the Housing Corporation's investment strategy for 2003–04 and give direction to the housing strategies of all the London boroughs. The Minister for Housing and Planning will address the conference and I am sure that all London Members will take a great interest in that debate and will have a lot to say about it.

The Government are very aware of and concerned at the steep increase in the number of homelessness households in London and elsewhere, and in particular about their being placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. While we should be concerned about any increase, particularly about families with young children who are forced into bed and breakfast, 10 years ago the crisis in London was very much worse. That is not to say that we are complacent about the present situation; the Government have promptly taken action to address the figures showing an increase over the past couple of years.

We are aware of the phenomenon of landlordism which has afflicted the north of the country as well as London with annexed accommodation. Although in some cases such accommodation may have advantages over traditional bed-and-breakfast accommodation, it causes severe problems—especially when landlords simply go for housing benefit and make no effort to provide the housing management that would be expected of a social landlord.

My hon. Friend highlighted the difficulties in respect of high numbers, costs, turnover and standards. His points are well taken. The bed and breakfast unit has been asked to investigate them and to talk further to Haringey. The unit is working with local authorities and colleagues throughout the Government to find ways of helping authorities to access more temporary accommodation in their own boroughs. They are considering the strategic, pan-London measures that my hon. Friend described.

The scale of homelessness has not been properly recognised in some legislation. As my hon. Friend knows, the Homelessness Bill is completing its passage through Parliament. We shall also introduce a priority needs order. For the first time, those measures will include some groups of homeless people in London who have never had housing rights, especially 16 and 17-year-olds and care leavers. It will be a major challenge to meet their needs.

As part of our commitment to tackling the problems of homelessness, my Department is setting up a new homelessness directorate. It will include the bed and breakfast unit and will work with local authorities, such as Haringey, to reduce homelessness and the number of people in bed and breakfast and temporary accommodation. It will also be responsible for ensuring the effective implementation of the Homelessness Bill.

We are also introducing the "Supporting People" programme. My hon. Friend mentioned that for some people their home is not just the roof over their head. The programme will provide an opportunity for some of the most vulnerable people in our society—especially in London—to have a home with support services. They will be able to live properly. The programme will provide more sustainable communities.

Affordable housing is of prime concern to many people in London. The Government have a range of strategies to ensure that, over time, we improve affordable housing and increase it. As my hon. Friend knows, we have increased investment in housing in London.

My hon. Friend also identified the problem of housing standards. Many people are condemned to live in unfit housing. That is why the Government made a clear commitment to bring all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010 and a third of it up to a decent standard by 2004. Money has been put into achieving that target. It will not be an easy task for Haringey and other London boroughs that have huge repair backlogs. However, with good business planning and careful consideration of all the available investment options, I am confident that those targets can be achieved.

My hon. Friend mentioned overcrowding and the fact that, at many of his advice surgeries, constituents turn up accompanied by one or two children, with whom they are living in a one-bedroom flat. They suffer significant problems of overcrowding, and the children have nowhere to do homework.

The Government are intensely aware of the concern about the current overcrowding standards. The current room and space standards date from the Housing Act 1935 and have not been revised since. The fact that they have passed unchanged from 1935 to 1985 and then on into the 21st century is in itself a reason for taking a close look at them now. We have been taking a keen interest in that issue. I believe that it is time for the standards to be re-examined, although primary legislation would be required to change the overcrowding standards.

We are currently considering the best way to tackle the problem. We need to investigate the issues that surround overcrowding and the effect of a change to the current standards. My hon. Friend set out clearly the urgent need to address that serious problem, which impacts on many families in his constituency and elsewhere throughout London.

Over the next two years we are injecting an extra £300 million above current levels into London's social housing. Even with the massive increase in investment in London's housing since Labour came to power, it is clear that it will not be possible to fill the gap by public subsidy alone.

No one agency and no one measure will solve the problem. Our aim is to think creatively about how to make a difference. Private funds in the form of planning gain are already providing more than 2,000 affordable units in London each year, but we need to ensure that we are obtaining best value for money from public funds and private sector contributions, so we need to make better use of existing housing, whether in the social or the private sector, and we need to provide more sites on which affordable housing can be built.

We can learn greatly from the good practice that is being piloted in some London boroughs and some of the models that they are pioneering of partnership developments involving the public and private sector, to create high-standard affordable homes in which Londoners want to live. That will also provide sustainable communities.

My hon. Friend mentioned the range of disadvantage experienced by people in his constituency. It was in recognition of that type of disadvantage and the urgent need to address it that the Government introduced the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, and the new deal for the community. My hon. Friend has a new deal project in his constituency.

In conclusion, the Government have inherited some major problems with the housing stock in London and throughout the country. We inherited a backlog in the funding needed just to bring housing up to a reasonable standard, and a need to improve standards in regulation. However, we have taken structural steps to increase the funding to tackle the most pressing problems, specifically of homelessness and of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and have looked to a range of measures to improve people's rights to housing and access to housing.

I am confident that we will provide some of the solutions to the problems that my hon. Friend mentioned. I am sure that the conference tomorrow and the discussions that flow from it will be a major step forward in finding some of the strategic solutions that will apply across London and the measures that will benefit my hon. Friend's constituency. I believe that the debate has highlighted some very important issues and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Nine o'clock.

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