Entry: "Speech during opposition debate on housing - 5th May 2004"

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Housing has been my top priority since my election in 1997. I have spoken about it innumerable times, but never have I felt so heartened and truly optimistic as I do today.

It has always been my job to make real the human misery that is inflicted on my constituents by bad housing. I always think, for instance, of the 23-year-old woman I met who had shared a bedroom with her father throughout her life, of the family who had to place the baby's cot in the bath—that was where its bedroom was—of the family of 12 living in two bedrooms, and of the smaller family of just three, consisting of a 50-year-old woman, her 20-year-old daughter and the mother's brother, who had been made homeless for other reasons. He slept on the sofa in the living room for more than five years. It felt as though he was coming to see me every week for about three years, although it was probably less frequent than that; but I never had the heart to turn him away, because I kept wondering what I would do if I had to sleep on the sofa every night—or if I had to share a bedroom with my dad for my whole life, or share my house with 10 other family members living in two bedrooms.

I know that Tower Hamlets has always had an historic problem of poor housing. We had slum housing in the east end, followed by bombing, followed by inappropriate, poor-quality social housing as well as some private housing that has subsequently fallen into poor repair. I do not often indulge in attacking the Opposition, but monumental Tory cheek on this subject makes that, sadly, inevitable. We know about the £19 billion backlog of repairs, and we have just heard that the Conservative party cut funding for social housing down to one third of what it had been when it came into power in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). We know that, overall, the Conservatives halved the money spent on social housing, and we know that there was incredible Tory indifference during those 18 years to the real misery in the east end wrought upon people by poor housing.

I was surprised to find in the speech of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who is usually a very thoughtful Conservative MP, that there was, strangely enough, very little thought. There just was not much there at all. We have heard that the Conservatives are having a policy review and that there is something of a vacuum at the moment, which will be filled at some point, but there is really only one point that the Conservative Opposition need to address, which is the one question that they cannot answer: will they match this Labour Government's increases in funding for new homes? That is all that my constituents want to know, whether they vote Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem. The majority of them—70 per cent. in Tower Hamlets—rely on social housing, and they want to know, regardless of their political affiliation, where the parties stand on that issue. It is crystal clear at this moment in time that the Conservative party will not match the funding for new housing that the Labour Government have put in place.

I should also like to know whether the Conservative party will come round to supporting the Barker recommendation to increase the amount of affordable housing. I hope that it will come round to that idea, even if that housing is near its own backyard. If we do not increase the number of affordable housing units, Tower Hamlets residents will be among those who suffer most—although they will not be the only ones who suffer. I commend the work of Tower Hamlets residents in becoming engaged in the process—in particular Bernie Cameron, who has led the residents compact group in Tower Hamlets—and I commend the Tower Hamlets housing staff and housing directorate, as well as the housing associations, which have been at the forefront of innovative thinking on tackling poor housing.

We in Tower Hamlets feel that we should be rewarded, not penalised. Unfortunately, some of the Government's extremely well meaning attempts to deal with the housing problem in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere have not worked. The right to buy is an obvious example. On the Ocean estate, which had some of the worst housing not only in this country but possibly in Europe, this Government quite rightly said that they would invest £56 million, of which just under half, about £21 million, would go to housing. All that money was to go to improving housing, including making the repairs that had not been made for so long, in order to bring it up to standard. What happened? People on the estate thought, "Oh, well, we haven't had anything for 18 years—we haven't had anything for a very long time. Perhaps we'll all put in a right-to-buy application instead." So instead of any of the £21 million earmarked for housing being able to be spent on housing, more than £23 million had to be earmarked for buying out the right-to-buys. That is the economics of the madhouse.

I understand that there are different views across the House. The Conservatives think that we are obsessed with not allowing people to own their home, which is absolutely wrong. We are obsessed with not allowing people to live in slum housing—that was what we needed to deal with. I am concerned about the Conservative proposal to extend the right to buy to housing association properties, because for every two properties sold, only one would be built. If we extended that to its logical conclusion over time, the number of housing association properties would be halved. That cannot be the right way to proceed.

I speak to a lot of people in Tower Hamlets who have bought their own houses, and some of them now have two, three or four children. They tell me that there is no council housing available for their children—and there is not. If we sell off the housing stock, there will be no housing available for the next generation. That is what a generation in Tower Hamlets faces at the moment.

That is why I am so delighted at today's announcement, which paves the way for tackling problems with the Tower Hamlets housing stock as a whole, not just in areas such as the Ocean estate but throughout the borough. It removes barriers to housing transfer in areas of negative value. I was delighted while sitting in the Chamber to receive a letter from my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which said:

"I am acutely aware of long standing issues regarding inadequate housing conditions in areas such as Tower Hamlets, where there is a legacy of poor housing . . . I am delighted to inform you that today, after close co-operation between the Treasury and the ODPM, the Deputy Prime Minister was able to announce a centrally-funded gap funding scheme that will address the issue of negative value transfers directly."

That is a fantastic example of joined-up government, and I want to highlight the huge ambition of this Government's programme for decent homes.

As we have heard, for the very first time council tenants will have the right to demand a minimum standard in their homes. When I heard about the Government's programme, my first reaction was delight, but my second reaction was distress. To be honest, I thought that it would not be possible, because no British Government had ever come up with the money required to deal with the east end's historic housing problems. Today, however, I realise that it is possible because today this Government make it so. With the extra funds, a decent home for all by 2010 will be possible—for people in Tower Hamlets and across the country.

I pay tribute to Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I have outlined in some detail the problems for areas with negative values, the legacy of slum housing and the need for extra funding. We met the Minister for Housing and Planning, who gave us much time and attention, and he and his officials were amazingly constructive in their approach. We met the Deputy Prime Minister who, again, was extremely concerned about the problems that we raised and determined to resolve the issue. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for her help. This ministerial team, on behalf of this Labour Government, are making outstanding progress on housing.

After having lavished so much praise on ODPM Ministers, I know that hon. Members will not expect me to conclude my speech without asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to turn to the subject that I hope they will deal with next: overcrowding. That is still a big problem in Tower Hamlets. As the Under-Secretary knows, the current overcrowding standards date back to 1935, and those in turn rest on legislation dating from the 1880s, which is quite extraordinary. That means that kitchens can be counted as bedrooms, so if my constituent took the cot out of the bath and put it in the kitchen sink instead, that might be all right. In any case, if the cot holds a baby under the age of one, under current standards, that baby does not count.

Well, 2004 is not 1880, and in 2004, every child counts. I am sorry to be sexist, but I expect especial sympathy for this argument from my hon. Friend the Under Secretary, who is expecting a child in just three months. I know that women and other minorities have to put up with more expectations on their shoulders, but there we are.

I am very grateful that, at my request, the Department has undertaken research on the extent and impact of overcrowding, and I now ask the Government to go further and to bring the overcrowding standard into the 21st century.