Social housing in London

Mark made the following contributions to an Opposition Day debate on social housing led by fellow London MP, Jeremy Corbyn.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but does he also recognise—I see it particularly in my constituency and other inner-London areas—the importance of what has been done by many philanthropists, the most obvious of which is the Peabody Trust, whose house building and flat building programmes have stood the test of time? They remain some of the most exciting and sought-after social housing in many of our constituencies, 120 or 130 years after they were first built.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman is referring to George Peabody and the Peabody Trust, which has a very large number of properties in his constituency, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and many others. The Peabody buildings were of very good standard—very high quality—and they have stood the test of time. It pains me to the quick when I see the Peabody Trust and others being forced, because of their financial situation, to rent at commercial rents or sell off properties that were built for people in desperate housing need. That is not what George Peabody or others wanted to do, and we should look at that.

Mr Field: While I accept that the policies are somewhat different, and I suspect that most of my residents in Westminster are rather glad of that, there is a more serious point to be made. The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to stable, mixed communities. Does he not recognise that the London market has become ever more polarised? London is not just a capital city but a global city. That polarisation means that, for want of a better phrase, the squeezed middle is an ever bigger group in London. There are those who simply cannot afford to get on the ladder even if they are earning multiples of the average weekly wage and there are those who are so impoverished that they can qualify for social housing. In my constituency the Peabody Trust is trying to create a mixed community, by ensuring that there are in those communities, for want of a better term, yuppies—relatively well-off people in their 20s—who may only be short-term tenants, for three or five years, until they are in a position to afford their own home.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. In my borough, there are 15,000 names on the list of people who have applied for, and need, council housing, but only 5,000 of those are on the list of those who are able to bid—in other words, to make an application. The number of those who are likely to be successful is probably very small indeed. Single people in London cannot, for the most part, even get on a housing list.

Jeremy Corbyn: A stir again!

Mr Field: I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. I would like to associate myself with what he just said, and I think many other Conservative MPs with London seats would, too; it is a problem that we all feel acutely. For some years, that stark divide in pockets of inner London has been part and parcel of our concerns on housing, but he is right to say that there has been phenomenally rapid demographic and other change. The phenomenon that he identifies now applies virtually throughout London, including in what might in the past have been regarded as the leafier suburbs of outer London.

Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely. London is a rapidly changing city, and that is, in many ways, part of the joy and attraction of it, but it falls to local government—to boroughs, the Mayor, and the Greater London authority—and central Government to recognise that if we want London to remain a successful, cohesive, coherent city, we have to address the issue of the provision of social housing in London. Otherwise, we will be looking at a city moving into decline, with greater division. It is a very serious issue.

Mr Mark Field: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is making a thoughtful speech, and I hope that he will forgive me if I return to a point that he made earlier and the general thrust of his concern about the private rented sector. Does he share my worry that one of the difficulties in housing policy, going back to the institution of rent Acts in the first world war, is that too often it has just been an Elastoplast in trying to solve the most recent problem, which has been looked at in a small way? Does he have any thoughts about the huge explosion in the buy-to-let market, which is one reason why there has been an enormous increase in the private rented sector in his constituency? Because London is a global capital, a huge amount of foreign money is coming in to buy up large blocks of flats and other properties. Do we need to look at that, and what suggestions can he make about the way forward?

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that extremely valuable point. In London, at one end of the scale, somewhere near Hyde park, there is the world’s most expensive apartment. I cannot remember the exact figure, but it was around £1.5 million for a very small apartment. I checked my own mortgage capability and I did not seem to get anywhere near to it. At the other end of the scale are former council flats or houses that have been bought under right to buy, sometimes with the assistance of fairly disreputable or dodgy people who offer money to help people undertake that, which are then rented out, on housing benefit, at levels 200% to 300% higher than the neighbouring council rent. That makes me extremely angry every time I come across it, because they were built by the taxpayer for people in housing need and now we are allowing someone to make a great deal of profit out of them.

Mr Mark Field: The issue in London today is: what is housing need? I know it sounds absurd—the hon. Gentleman was one of the first to ridicule the current Mayor of London when he talked about people on £60,000 a year being in housing need—but this is part of the problem. Many people working in our constituencies simply cannot afford to live anywhere near, not even central London, but London as a whole, and have to commute long distances despite earning multiples of the average. They surely also have a housing need, and it is that housing need in the modern day that many of our social housing providers are trying to recognise in balancing their responsibilities to ensure that we have proper community cohesion within central London.

Jeremy Corbyn: Obviously people on what are seen as relatively high incomes do have housing needs and are paying, as I outlined earlier, incredibly high levels of rent in order to survive, as a result of which they cannot save and therefore, even if they wanted to get into the owner-occupied market, simply could not do so. A young couple or single person in London earning £25,000 a year and paying £500 a week for a flat has only a limited ability to save and so will stay in the private rented sector for a very long time, if not for ever. People who do buy into the owner-occupied market usually rely on modest levels of inheritance to put down the deposit to do so. We are making housing unattainable for people on relatively high incomes, as the hon. Gentleman points out.

Mr Mark Field: My hon. Friend is coming to the point about the huge scarcity of social housing. I would argue that that resource needs to be much more properly and comprehensively assessed. Does she agree that far too many people in social housing are sub-letting illegally and that there needs to be a national campaign—although probably worked out at local government level—to make sure that those in social housing are properly entitled to it? That would help correct some of the terrible shortfalls and disadvantages experienced by many of her constituents.

Mary Macleod: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I agree that that is happening across London and we need to do something constructive to deal with it.