HC Deb 29 October 2003 vol 412 cc129-36WH 3.42 pm
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I am grateful to you for granting this debate on housing in my borough, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have agreed with the Minister that my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) will also contribute to the debate.

The context is simply this: although the inner-urban constituency I represent projects an image of wealth, metropolitan chic, cappuccino bars, wine bars and places where Labour leaders do deals, unfortunately, the reality for a large number of people who live in the borough is not quite the same. Islington's is very much a tale of two halves. Many of the people whom my right hon. Friend and I represent are extremely poor and live in seriously overcrowded accommodation.

The problems of housing in my constituency are the reverse of the problems in other parts of the country. We have a massive shortage of housing for rent, either by the council or by registered social landlords. We have a huge housing waiting list and problems of children and families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or short-term leased accommodation. Few families are rehoused off the waiting list, and only those in serious housing stress have any chance of being rehoused. In the past few weeks, a bombshell has been delivered to us in connection with the condition of one of the major estates in my right hon. Friend's constituency: the Packington estate. He will speak about that later.

I will briefly cite three sets of statistics that will help to outline the nature of the problem. The first relates to homelessness acceptances. In 1997—the first year of the Labour Government—949 families were accepted in my borough. By 1999, that figure had risen to 1,298. In the latest year for which information is available, 1,314 families were accepted. That is a 400-plus increase in the number of families that the local authority accepted for homelessness.

The second set relates to temporary accommodation. In 1998, there were 737 families in temporary accommodation in my borough. In 2001, there were 1,481, and the number this year is roughly the same. In other words, the number of families in temporary accommodation has almost doubled. Some of that accommodation is deeply unsuitable, but all of it is very expensive, and it costs the housing benefit budget a great deal of money.

The third set of statistics relates to new lettings. In 1997, there were 2,000 new lettings. In 1999, that number had dropped to 1,500. In 2001–02—the last year for which Islington council could provide statistics—there were 1,084 new lettings. In other words, there has been a huge increase in the number of homelessness acceptances, an increase in the number of families in temporary accommodation, and a halving of the number of new lettings made available. We have just had a very interesting debate on housing overcrowding, and I must say in parenthesis that roughly 6 per cent. of all council accommodation in London is more than seriously overcrowded. I do not have figures for my constituency, but the evidence is that it is massively overcrowded.

Behind those bald statistics lie many tragic stories. My right hon. Friend and I could give a great many examples of families living in grossly overcrowded accommodation. In August, I visited a family with four children living in a registered social landlord housing block that was grossly overcrowded. The family were living in a one-bedroomed flat in very poor conditions. I asked the eldest girl how she did in her GCSE exams. She said that she had tried hard and found them difficult, but had found it impossible to study at home because there was simply no room to do so. How on earth can she be expected to achieve as well as the child of a middle-class family with his or her own personal computer and everything else? We condemn her for underachieving in school, but we should condemn ourselves for allowing her to live in such conditions. A few days ago, I visited another family with four children in a two-bedroomed flat on a local authority estate. One of the children had serious learning difficulties and definitely needed her own bedroom and decent facilities. What offers are available to her?

Very few options are available to such families, except, too often, that of moving outside London. The bald figures make it easy to suggest that people should move away, given the empty properties in the north-east and north-west and the overcrowding in London. However, it simply does not work like that. Jobs, education, family connections and communities are involved. I want some recognition of the massive housing needs in inner London, especially in my borough, and Government assistance to help to solve the problem.

There are also problems associated with the right to buy. In an average year in my borough, some 700 to 800 properties are sold, valued at an astoundingly low price despite the Government's decrease in the amount of discount available. Even in the last year for which figures are available, the average sale price was £71,000. Many of those properties are then sold on a few years later, and if one reads the property press, one will see the very high prices that even ex-local authority stock now fetches. There are probably some 10,000 families on the registered waiting list in my borough, but in the last year for which figures are available, only 214 properties were made available for new rent. That means that the number of properties made available for rent is roughly one third the number of those that are sold, and that the numbers of people in homelessness and in short-life rented accommodation have increased. The information that I have is that we, as a society, are spending an awful lot of money subsidising housing benefit for people to live in substandard, overcrowded private rented accommodation, when we should be investing far more in rented stock.

I ask the Minister to comment on some aspects of the problem. The Government have provided a very large amount of money for the improvement of existing council stock in Islington. I think that about £140 million has been provided in the past four years. I am grateful for that money—the new roofs, windows, doors and security systems, and landscaping and other improvements to some estates are very welcome, and I appreciate them. However, I hope that he recognises that any future cuts in the major repairs allowance will impact badly on people in the remaining estates that have not been improved or repaired. Those people look to MPs and the Labour Government to provide them with better housing conditions. I hope that he will be able to persuade the Treasury of the value of investment in good-quality homes—in particular, for young people to grow up in.

My concern is that amid all the problems, very little is being built or developed. That is happening for several reasons, one of which is that the planning gain issue allows only a quarter of new developments to be for affordable rented housing. I am not very keen on those words and prefer the words "council housing", but never mind; that is the legal term. Miraculously, most developments in Islington come in at 14 units, so the 25 per cent. rule simply disappears—hence the present tiny numbers for development.

The council is unwilling, unable or at least not very keen to develop new properties. Since the Liberal Democrats gained control of Islington council in 1999 they have been obsessed with selling any property that they can get their hands on in order to lower the council tax slightly—although it still went up a great deal this year. They do not appear to have a housing strategy, and I should be grateful if the Minister commented on why the council is allowed to sell vacant council property and any other saleable building that it can get its hands on when there is a desperate housing shortage and housing needs should be addressed.

I attended a meeting organised by the Federation of Islington Tenants Associations a couple of weeks ago to debate a transfer to an arm's-length management organisation. It is unpopular among the tenants, and attendance at the meeting was quite good. The tenants take the view that the local authority is best placed to be the landlord because it is the most accountable body, and they are deeply concerned that the council is apparently allowed to go ahead with an ALMO application without holding a ballot of all the tenants. I should have thought that at the very least a proper ballot consultation with all the tenants in the borough should have been insisted on.

Estate transfers are a further issue. I believe strongly in the provision of public sector housing for people in housing need. Council housing has, by and large, done good work and provided good homes. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury chaired the local housing committee in Islington, there was a considerable increase in stock, as there was when the Minister for Children was housing chair and bought a large number of street properties. Many of those were expensive to rehabilitate and repair, but provided excellent homes for families in housing need. It is therefore with some concern that I note the major proposal for the transfer of the Tollington estate to North British Housing—or Places for People, which is its arm's-length subsidiary.

I have had meetings with Places for People and raised several concerns. Last week I was at a public meeting of tenants on estates that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning visited in the summer. They were concerned about losing accountability and about the fact that in order to pay for the demolition and reconstruction of part of the estate, whereby they would end up with flats that might be of better quality but would be no larger, 300 properties would be built—on an already overcrowded estate—for sale on the open market. I ask the Minister to consider seriously whether expecting tenants to pay for the reconstruction of their estate through the sale of land for the construction of properties that are to be sold on the open market is a sensible way to tackle the housing problems of a densely populated inner-city area.

As for the issues surrounding the performance of the company concerned, I have in front of me a letter about the way in which the Housing Corporation has placed Places for People under supervision because of concerns about its corporate governance at group board level. We should be seriously concerned if the largest estates in the borough are to be subject to a housing transfer application when the board of the housing association itself has been placed under supervision because, I understand, of mismanagement. Many tenants will vote against the transfer because of concern about the worse conditions overall that they think will arise, because of higher density, because of the record of the organisation concerned, and above all because of the loss of accountability in the way in which their housing is run.

We had a Labour Government in the 1920s in which John Wheatley played a great role in the construction of council housing—we have a John Wheatley house in Islington in recognition of his role. After the war, we were able to conquer much of the housing shortage. The Labour Government of 1974 to 1979 had a very good record on innovative, good-quality housing developments. I just want the children of working-class families in my borough and elsewhere in London to have the chance of having somewhere decent to live.

That requires us to grasp the nettle. We should not hand housing over to expensive, private sector solutions. Instead, we should invest in good-quality housing so that more and more people do not face the prospect of living in short-term bed-and-breakfast accommodation or, because it is their only offer of housing, having to move far away from where they have grown up and from their families and communities. We need investment in inner-city communities for those communities to thrive. I make that plea to the Minister today on behalf of the people in housing stress in my borough.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who is presenting this so far splendid debate, has been kind enough to alert me to the fact that he and the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) consulted the Minister with a view to intervention. That is fine and all in order, save that we must be careful not to overrun. I would be remiss in my duties were I not to alert everyone to the fact that this debate must finish at 12 minutes past the hour.

3.57 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Thank you for allowing me to contribute to the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for giving me the chance to speak briefly.

I strongly endorse the passionate case that my hon. Friend has made for the need for substantial new investment in housing in our borough. Week after week, he and I meet constituents in desperate housing need—people living in overcrowded conditions in inadequate accommodation, in flats that are in urgent need of repair and renovation, on estates that have seen better days and from which many people wish to move away. It is now extremely difficult for the children of existing council and housing association tenants to have any chance at all of remaining in the borough in anywhere other than the parental home. The need is urgent.

I am grateful to the Government for the substantial additional investment in the borough during the past six or seven years. The money for housing work in the borough has been more than doubled, but it is still not enough. I hope that the funding will increase in the coming years. There are two urgent needs to be met. The first is the improvement of existing estates. Some £400 million-worth of repair, improvement and maintenance work is required to bring the estates up to the standards that the Government expect by 2010. The second need is to create new accommodation for people in need of it.

Having made that general plea, I want to raise one specific issue relating to the large Packington estate in my constituency. Only in the past three or four months has it been discovered that that estate was built on a large-panel construction basis. It contains gas systems and it is six storeys high. It has only just been discovered—although it should have been discovered 30 years ago—that the estate does not meet the health and safety requirements introduced following the Ronan Point disaster some 30 or 35 years ago. Following consultation with the Health and Safety Executive, the council has decided that, in order to abide by the regulations, the Packington estate must be demolished and redeveloped.

The estate is very large, with hundreds of flats, and the tenants will face substantial upheaval. I received a letter recently from a 73-year-old man who has lived on the Packington estate for 43 years. He faces being completely uprooted at a time in his life when that is the last thing that he wants, and the same is true of many tenants on the estate. However, the Packington's tenants are not the only ones for whom there will be problems: tenants everywhere else in the borough will face real difficulty, because the rehousing requirements from the Packington will pre-empt the resources available for rehousing and new accommodation for people who need it across the rest of the borough. The decreasing figure of 1,000 or so new lettings that my hon. Friend cited for the past year will be reduced even further as a direct result of the demands that the Packington redevelopment will create.

I hope that the Minister will discuss the Packington estate with the borough as a special case, and perhaps raise the need for special funding treatment to ensure that not only is the redevelopment the best for the Packington tenants, but it does not have a seriously adverse impact on the remainder of the borough's housing stock.

4.1 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

I begin, as is conventional, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate on matters that are important for all who live in Islington. This is not the first time—farfrom it—that he has raised the issue of housing in the borough and the problems that many of his constituents face in securing good-quality housing at an affordable price.

I am also aware of the deep concern felt by other London Members about the matters that my hon. Friend has raised. Not least among them is my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who drew attention to two key issues: the need to improve existing estates to the decent homes standard, and the need for new homes. He raised his concerns about the Packington estate and its future. I undertake to pursue the matter and will be in touch with him shortly.

I am conscious of the relative brevity of the time available to me, but I cannot resist first responding warmly to the points about capital investment that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North made. It must be said that he has often been critical of Government policy on funding for housing, so the fact that he now congratulates us on the money that we are putting into housing improvements is an encouraging sign that our policies are, in his view, perhaps just beginning to bear fruit.

Since coming to office, we have more than reversed the decline in housing investment over which the previous Administration presided, to such an extent that funding in 2004–05 will be about three times the sum that was provided in 1997–98. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced £2.1 billion a—huge sum—over the two years for housing in London to meet our commitment to provide more affordable housing in the capital. That will provide more than 10,000 affordable homes each year, including homes for the key workers we need to deliver high-quality public services, and will help to bring existing homes up to a reasonable standard of decency. The total spend will of course be considerably more, because of private finance that can be levered in by housing associations.

I turn now to the issues surrounding decent homes and private sector investment that my hon. Friend raised. Even with the massive increase in investment in London's housing since the Government came to power, it is clear that there is no realistic prospect of the backlog of work required of authorities such as Islington in order to meet the decent homes target being met by public subsidy alone. Increasingly, we need to lever in more investment from the private sector.

There are a number of ways in which local authorities can attract private funding to enable them to meet the decent homes objective. The three options available are: setting up arm's-length management organisations, also known as ALMOs; private finance initiative schemes; and stock transfer. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has repeatedly made it clear that those are the only options. Each of them makes the best use of the available resources by separating local authorities' strategic housing responsibilities from their role as landlord. That provides a strong incentive for better performance, ensures a sharper focus on the two distinct housing functions, and helps to guarantee tenants a greater role in the future management of their estates.

Islington council has considered the various options and decided that seeking ALMO funding is the best way to attract additional funding. It successfully bid in the last ALMO bidding round, and in August was offered £24.9 million in additional Government support for 2004–05 and 2005–06, with the possibility of further allocations in subsequent years subject to a satisfactory Audit Commission inspection of the ALMO once operational. I know that some in the borough—my hon. Friend may be one of them—see the ALMO as a backdoor form of privatisation. I want to assure him that that is not the case. ALMOs provide improvements to housing stock and the housing service by the front door. Council homes will remain council owned, and tenants will remain tenants of the council.

Although a tenants' ballot is not a legal requirement for an ALMO since there is no change of landlord, the necessary statutory approval for the ALMO to start work will not be forthcoming unless I am satisfied that the majority of tenants across the borough understand the implications and support the proposal in general. Officials in my Department and an independent tenant adviser are working with the council to help tenants reach an informed judgment, and to develop a mechanism to test tenants opinions and address their concerns.

I would also like to assure my hon. Friend that Islington's ALMO allocation is not set in concrete. It is a provisional allocation based on information known at the time of the bid. ALMO funding is allocated two years at a time, and allocations can be revisited if circumstances change. For Islington, and other ALMOs in the latest round, we have explicitly acknowledged that allocations may need to be reviewed if the eventual decisions on the distribution of management and maintenance allowances—on which we consulted this summer—have a significant effect on the overall level of resources available to ALMO authorities.

I now turn to the more specific issue of stock transfer. Islington is considering some smaller-scale stock transfers to supplement investment for the improvement of social housing. Tenants benefit from stock transfer because provisions are built into the new landlord's business plan for proper maintenance and future repairs. Homes are subject to a programme of catch-up repairs to bring them up to a modern standard. That investment is possible because, as private sector organisations, registered social landlords can borrow outside the public sector borrowing constraints, unlike local authorities. Increased investment also means that any backlog of repairs can be carried out and better living conditions achieved more quickly than if the properties had remained in local authority ownership.

Earlier this year, my hon. Friend raised concerns with my predecessor about the proposed transfer of the Tollington estate in his constituency. As he said, I visited that estate in July. I realise that the refurbishment programme will cause some disruption to tenants, but the council and the proposed new landlord are consulting tenants on a range of proposals to keep disturbance to a minimum. There are also plans to improve the existing community facilities on the estate. Nevertheless, we will agree the transfer only if a ballot of tenants shows that a majority supports it. My hon. Friend has recently written to me about the funding arrangements for the transfer and the forthcoming tenants' ballot. I have sent him a detailed reply covering both issues.

In the time remaining to me, let me say more about the central issue of investment in housing, which was raised by both my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North. At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the considerable increases in investment in housing in London. We anticipate that the number of social houses constructed in the next two years will be 50 per cent. greater than the current number. However, there will continue to be competing needs within London, and we are determined to ensure that resources are distributed in the best interests of our communities.

That is why we introduced new arrangements in the communities plan for regional housing boards to advise on how resources should be allocated to address strategic housing priorities in each region. The London housing board faces an extremely difficult task, and I congratulate it on the way in which it managed to get the key London players to work together to publish a regional housing strategy in July, which set out proposals to tackle London's housing problems. The scale and complexity of meeting housing demand in London merits a new approach. Costs, supply and demand are spread unevenly across London. Joint working between boroughs on a sub-regional and regional basis is essential. The London housing strategy strongly endorses a sub-regional approach. Sub-regional partnerships have been established in London, and all sub-regions are producing housing strategies.

Islington played a key role in developing the north London housing strategy, which I had the pleasure of launching last month. On the strength of the London housing strategy and the board's funding recommendations, we have decided to allocate almost £1.5 billion for affordable housing over the next two years, of which £371 million will be for key workers. My hon. Friend raised concerns that the direction of money to key workers will mean that fewer new houses will be available for social renting to tackle homelessness in London. We do not underestimate homelessness in London, but that will not be the consequence of the policy.

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