§ 1. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
What plans he has to increase the availability of affordable homes in London. 
§ The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)
We are working on a range of measures, for both the short and the long term, to ensure that more people have access to an affordable home in London. For 2003–04, £482 million of the Housing Corporation's programme will go directly to London projects, along with a £200 million challenge fund to encourage quick delivery of 4,000 new affordable homes in the south-east through off-site manufacturing.
§ Mike Gapes
I am grateful for that reply, but does my right hon. Friend accept that London faces an acute housing crisis? Many people cannot afford to live and work in the city. Is not it time that we invested far more in social housing, instead of selling off the social housing that we have? At the same time, should not we recognise the needs of those London boroughs that do not have much land but which have serious problems with people on their housing lists? Should we not give those authorities the right to nominate people for the new social housing developments in the Thames gateway and elsewhere?
§ Mr. Prescott
I agree a great deal with my hon. Friend. Resources are important. Since the Government were elected in 1997, we have tripled the resources devoted to housing, raising the figure from £1.5 billion to £4.5 billion in the third year of the spending review. However, the problems are immense. On 18 July, I mentioned in the House that, by the end of this year or 299 the beginning of next, I would make a statement about how we will apportion the resources available in the community housing programme.
§ David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
The Deputy Prime Minister has made it known in recent months that he does not approve of the right to buy. In stressed areas such as London, he believes that it leads to a reduction in the availability of affordable housing. The outcome has been a panic in London, with applications for the right to buy doubling in many London boroughs. Will he comment on that?
§ Mr. Prescott
I have made it clear that we have not challenged the right to buy. The Government have brought before the House housing proposals that would have given us the opportunity to restrict the right to buy had we wanted to do so. As I have pointed out, housing problems in certain areas of London have reached such a crisis point that we need to act in a variety of ways, and that includes giving consideration to the right to buy. I chose to use legislation introduced by the previous Conservative Government that laid down that there could be restrictions on the right to buy in 25 rural district areas. I believe that homeless people in inner-city areas are just as important as those in rural areas.
§ David Davis
The Deputy Prime Minister seems to be getting excited, but I have looked forward for some time to this occasion today. I was going to say that he and I are old sparring partners, but his history and my broken nose mean that that phrase could be misinterpreted.
It is interesting that the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted the fact that he is interested in restricting the right to buy. We are not talking about rural areas today, although I have some sympathy with that argument. However, in the five years that the Government have been in power, homelessness in London has doubled. The Government need more imagination in what they are doing, instead of resorting to the simple ideological nonsense that the Deputy Prime Minister has come up with.
The Mayor of London has proposed that new development in London should be 50 per cent. affordable. At first sight, that proposal appears very good, but many experts think that it would drive development down or out of London. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give his opinion on that proposal?
§ Mr. Prescott
Perhaps I should have welcomed the right hon. Gentleman to his position, although I am confused about whether he is shadow Deputy Prime Minister or shadow Secretary of State; there are different interpretations according to who is asked, but I welcome him to whatever position it is.
On the right to buy, I think I have made the position clear: we want to consider the matter where there is a homelessness crisis, and that is certainly the case in some inner-city areas and in London. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a new policy at his party conference whereby about a million people in housing associations would have the right to buy. I should inform the House that that is not a new policy; it was announced by Mrs. Thatcher in 1979 and for 20 years the Conservatives were unable to implement it because 300 they could not get a majority for it in the House. Not only is the policy not new, it is completely uncosted and, frankly, has nothing to do with the right to buy, but only the right to become the Leader of the Opposition.
§ Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I welcome the Government's examination of the housing crisis facing people in the inner city, especially inner London. Does the Secretary of State accept that unless there is a substantial increase in affordable rented housing in inner London, the poor will simply be exported from the city? Will he also intervene when local authorities, such as Islington, are deliberately selling off vacant property and buildings that could be converted into affordable rented housing, to ensure that the working-class and poor people of this city can continue living in this city and do not become just a prey to property speculation?
§ Mr. Prescott
I agree with what my hon. Friend says, especially that the right to live in the city is equally as important as the right to buy and that those rights are in conflict. That is why I have asked my Department to look carefully into the circumstances and I hope shortly to be able to report our conclusions to the House.
As for how many houses should be built in those areas, I am looking into that problem and will report back to the House.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
I am not surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister is confused about the Conservatives' alleged new policy on the right to buy when, only five months ago, their then housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), referred to the right-to-buy scam. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that, with 100,000 empty homes in London, one way to solve the housing problem would be to bring some of them back into use? Is it not a disgrace that, if someone wants to build a four-bedroomed, double-garage, mock-Georgian house on a greenfield site, they pay no VAT, yet they have to pay full VAT at 17.5 per cent. to renovate empty properties? Should not VAT be equalised for both at 5 per cent?
§ Mr. Prescott
That sounds like quite a good policy—we have advocated it from time to time. The hon. Gentleman must await the Chancellor's decision; hon. Members would not expect me to give a judgment, although I might have a view on tax matters.
The hon. Gentleman's comments about empty houses are absolutely right—we have not done anything about that. I point out to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), whatever his title may be, that all parties have to take some blame. As I said on 18 July, it would be much better if we took more opportunities to improve the situation for the homeless rather than making political propaganda out of it.
The point about empty houses is obvious and I am looking at the matter, including the incentives that might be involved in achieving the objectives. I am taking a comprehensive view.