Housing speech – Tuesday 9th June

Posted: 09/06/09

Ms. Karen Buck MP (Regent's Park & Kensington North) (Lab):

I, too, should like to welcome the Minister for Housing to that most important post. About three quarters of householders in this country are home owners. For most of those people, most of the time, being a home owner has been a happy and successful experience. It has benefited them and their families enormously. Obviously, the majority of people still aspire to be home owners.

However, people in many of those families are experiencing real pain because of a combination of factors, including lack of affordability and changes in their circumstances; in some cases they will have lost their job. That leaves many families genuinely worried, and they are sometimes at risk of losing their homes. That rightly causes concern to all of us. My right hon. Friend has already recognised that in the early 1990s the level of repossessions, with all the pain that repossessions put families through, was at least as high as it is now; in some cases it was higher. However, that should not stop us from focusing a great deal of attention and support on those families. It is absolutely critical that we do everything that we can to reduce repossessions and to help people through a difficult time.

On looking at mortgage law, I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) that we should in some cases do more to enforce controls against lenders who are excessively zealous in the action that they are taking. One particular group of people about whom we need to worry are tenants in buy-to-let properties. In some instances, we should also worry about unauthorised tenants in properties in cases in which the mortgage holder has defaulted. Such tenants have virtually no protection and are at risk of being thrown out, sometimes with no notice whatever. In many cases, they then become the responsibility of the local authority. I know that the Government are considering the issue; it is important that they look at it closely and act swiftly. For a host of reasons-for the sake of the people involved, and because of the pressures on local authorities-we need to do what we can to support those individuals.

Julia Goldsworthy: The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I agree that it is important that the Government and the Minister should come forward with proposals as soon as possible. Does she agree that the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which is currently being considered by the House, provides an opportunity to make such proposals, and does she agree that the Minister should make the most of that opportunity to bring forward proposals as soon as possible?

Ms Buck: I have not looked closely enough at the clauses of the Bill to know whether it would be an appropriate hook, but I see no reason at all why Ministers should not at least consider whether it provides an opportunity. There is no question but that there are large numbers of vulnerable households in such properties, whom we may need to act swiftly to assist.

Before I move on to the core of what I want to talk about, may I take the opportunity to raise with the Minister an issue that I have raised many times with his predecessors? It is the plight of local authority leaseholders-people who own ex-local authority stock, having bought it, sometimes through the right to buy, but more frequently through resale. In some cases-I am thinking of my constituents-as an unintended consequence of a desirable objective, namely the decent homes initiative, they face major works bills of £60,000.

Some groups of such leaseholders enjoy various concessions when it comes to that repayment. In particular, those who are retired are able to put a charge on their property for sale. However, many younger, working households have not so far been able to avail themselves of a scheme that gives them any realistic opportunity of being able to repay without losing their home. I am seriously worried about that group of people, and I urge the Government to swallow the resistance-a resistance that is also rooted in my local authority, Westminster, so it is cross-party-to providing practical support for those households. Some of them will lose their homes when those bills fall due, and they do not have the money to pay them.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Is that not a factor resulting from encouraging people at the margins to try to get into owner-occupation? That, in the long term, is unwise because of the costs and risks of owner-occupation, which some people can bear and others cannot.

Ms Buck: There is an important point in my hon. Friend's comment. Generally speaking, what he has mentioned was not a problem among local authority leaseholders, although it depended a little on where they were. The leaseholders causing me the greatest concern were those who held leases in high rises; it is extremely expensive to carry out decent homes initiative work on high rises. Many other leaseholders, however, were perfectly able to sustain a mortgage on ex-local authority stock in normal times.

However, there is a genuine issue. Last week in my advice surgery, I met yet again a woman on housing benefit, who-extraordinarily-was allowed to buy her local authority property from Westminster council. I do not understand how anybody could have been complicit in allowing and encouraging people on very low incomes-sometimes benefit-level incomes-to buy their own homes.

It is also fair to say that the roots of much of the global economic catastrophe with which we are now dealing lie in the American sub-prime mortgage market, in which people who simply had no realistic means of repaying home loans were encouraged to buy. We all have to be careful, however; the issue is not confined to America and it is not just a party political point. We have an understandable desire to support and encourage people into home ownership, but there are people on the margins who should not have been so encouraged.

That brings me to my core point, which has been mentioned in this debate. I am thinking of the 4 million social tenants and the 4 million or so people-who overlap with the former to some extent-who are in a queue for social housing. Fundamentally, the big dividing line in housing policy is now between those of us who believe that social housing is part of the solution and those who believe that it is part of the problem. I say in all fairness that the Government have not built enough social homes; I have never believed that they have, and I am on record as having said that. I am concerned about meeting housing need, and I cannot deny that that is true.

However, it is also true, although ignored on the Opposition Benches, that the money that we have invested in social housing has been much needed investment in the decent homes initiative. We have rehabilitated and refurbished tens of thousands of homes in my constituency that were long overdue. The investment was made, although I would have preferred it to have been slightly more balanced towards new homes.

Mr. Slaughter: I do not want to correct my hon. Friend, but the situation is worse than that. The Tory council in my constituency tried to give back the decent homes initiative money; it said that it did not want it. Now the councillors involved describe it as an exercise in upgrading the deckchairs on the Titanic. They really do not believe that there is a future for social housing. They think that the £13 billion of decent homes initiative money was wasted.

Ms Buck: My hon. Friend always manages to trump me when it comes to Hammersmith Conservatives; what is going on in that borough is jaw-dropping. He is absolutely right. Sometimes it seems to me that Hammersmith Conservatives make Dame Shirley Porter look like Octavia Hill. My hon. Friend will, no doubt, continue to fight that battle.

I return to the issue of the dividing line on social housing. The message coming through extremely strongly from the practice in Hammersmith, from the statements made by Westminster council's deputy cabinet member for housing and from many Conservative think-tanks and supporting politicians is that social housing is the fundamental problem. Even the Leader of the Opposition's introduction to Conservative housing policy talks about families being trapped in social housing. The language repeated again and again in such texts implies that tenants are second-class citizens. It equates social housing with deprivation and loss of status. The implication is that tenants should be ashamed. I deplore that, because social housing should be a choice and tenure is not a matter of morality. People in social housing may not be there for life. Obviously, with home ownership being so desirable because of the equity return over the years, many people want to leave their social housing at some point, when they can do so, and enjoy the benefits of home ownership. However, when and while they are tenants, they are not in some way morally inferior because of the exercise of that choice.

The thrust of the argument emerging from the Conservatives is focused on security of tenure. Tenants everywhere should be very worried about that emerging thinking because, as is well researched and documented, the loss of security of tenure has a devastating effect on communities and on the lives of the people it affects. There is a litany of policy in Conservative thinking that would do untold damage to neighbourhoods and families. It would also lead to additional expenditure being incurred by the public purse, particularly through housing benefit when tenants, whether in social housing or forced into the private sector, have to pay higher rents that must be picked up elsewhere by the public purse.