New Housing Supply Debate (House of Commons – 5/03/2013)

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). I did not agree with everything he said, but I certainly agree with his last point that it is just plain wrong that, in the 21st century, we are paying money through housing benefit to slum landlords. I will probably pick up on that theme later.

I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), on opening the debate. I was a member of the Committee when we conducted the inquiry and the report was written up, and I think it should provide the Government with a lot of food for thought. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in his updated response.

This Friday, I will do my advice surgery in my constituency, and I can guarantee that I will speak to at least five people who have come to talk to me about problems with housing. There could be up to 10 such people on Friday, but I know that during the course of a year, I speak to hundreds of people about their housing circumstances. More often than not, I speak to mums who come with their children and who are living in desperately overcrowded accommodation. I sometimes see whole families who are living in just one room. These people are often working, sometimes with part-time jobs, but they are living in completely unacceptable housing conditions and I believe that Members of this House, and the Government, have a duty to address the appalling conditions that many of my constituents live in.

In the three years that I have been doing my advice surgeries as a Member of Parliament, not once has anyone come to see me about a housing problem who could afford to buy a house in Lewisham. The average cost of a property there is £260,000, but the average salary is in the region of £29,000. Furthermore, the vast majority of people who come to see me at my advice surgeries cannot afford to buy through the part-buy, part-rent arrangements either. Many of the shared ownership schemes that housing associations run in London are completely out of the reach of many of my constituents, because the salary required in order to access the schemes is many times the amount that many of my constituents earn; and yet we have a situation in which people are paying out huge amounts of money in the private rented sector, often to live in very poor conditions.

I want to focus on the need to build social rented housing in London. The reality of what has happened under this Government is that the number of affordable homes being built has collapsed. Nationally, 34,000 fewer affordable homes were started in 2011-12 than in the previous year. That represents a 68% drop. We should not be surprised about that, because one of this Government’s first actions when they came to power was to cut the national affordable house building programme by 60%. They signalled their intentions for the supply of new affordable housing when they made that decision.

Of course, that money also enables other housing to be built. What I mean by that is that some of the grant that goes into developments to deliver social or affordable housing enables a mixed-use scheme with mixed tenures to be created. Last year, when the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government launched their NewBuy scheme, they chose to come to Lewisham. They stood in a development there that had been constructed only because of a £25 million grant from the Homes and Communities Agency. The scheme, which is providing nearly 800 new homes—about 200 of which are affordable—was coming out of the ground only because of the capital grant from that agency.

I cannot overstate the need to build social rented homes in London, yet in the period between April and September 2011, only 56 new homes for rent were started by councils or housing associations. That was 56 in a six-month period in a city of 7 million people. That is not acceptable.

My own local authority, Labour-run Lewisham council, is due to build 250 new homes, but that is a drop in the ocean compared with the number of families on the housing register there. We have talked about ways of getting more finance into building affordable homes, and I support the comments made on the need to lift the borrowing cap placed on local authorities.

I ask the Minister to consider what more the Government could do about the number of overseas buyers purchasing property in London. Roughly 60% of new-build homes in London are being bought by foreign investors, which is ramping up the London housing market, pushing prices even further away from my constituents. If London is seen to be a safe haven for foreign investors in the London property market, we must surely be able to find a way to capture some of that investment in our great capital city to plough back into the delivery of affordable homes.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the scale of the buy-to-let market in ex-social housing in particular? Does she share my shock that there can be two next-door properties, of which one will be in the social rented sector at a rent of, say, £100 a week, while the other will be in the buy-to-let market in social housing with a rent of £500, £600 or in some cases even £700 a week? In what way does that provide any kind of value for money?

Heidi Alexander: I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and our hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) made a similar point. We are lining the pockets of private landlords on an industrial scale. There are no two ways about it.

Another suggestion I would put to the Minister relates to public land. The Government often talk about releasing public land to deliver new homes. There is a lot of rhetoric about this, and we do not see a huge amount of progress. In my constituency, we are experiencing the possibility of Lewisham hospital having two thirds of its land and buildings sold off. There are many hospitals in London for which significant land disposals are going to take place. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department of Health? If these disposals are going to happen—let me be clear that I am very much against it for Lewisham—can we secure requirements for 50% of the land to be used for affordable housing, as these are considerable sites of public land?

I would like feedback from the Minister on what he is doing with other public sector bodies to parcel up land to make it available to small and medium-sized builders. When this country was building the amount of housing it needed to meet the demand many decades ago, we saw small and medium-sized builders providing a far greater proportion of the homes built. At the moment, 75% of new homes come from seven of the largest house builders. If we could find a way of parcelling up the public sector land, enabling small and medium-sized builders to get hold of it for building purposes, that could be a win-win situation.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am listening with interest to what the hon. Lady says about finding new ways to parcel up land. Is she aware that local authorities have an obligation—I add that quite a few of them are not aware of it—to measure demand for self-build in their areas, and then to say what they are going to do about it? If we look at the experience of other countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and France, we find that a much higher proportion of total building is done not by large house builders, but by people for themselves, in some cases with the help of local authorities.

Heidi Alexander: One of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report is that the opportunities for self-build do exist. I will conclude on that note, grateful for having had the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

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