Thank you, Mr Chairman.
I’m pleased to have secured this short debate today on a subject which is critically important to my constituents – Housing.
I am sure everyone here is an avid reader of my website www.chionwurahmp.com. You will therefore know that I publish pie chart summaries of the issues constituents bring to me.
March’s pie charts are up at the moment showing I dealt with thirty six housing issues in March, just behind benefits on 37.
Since I was elected six years ago, housing has consistently been one of the top three issues in Newcastle Central, often number one.
That is the reason that I have called a number of debates on housing and related issues including empty properties in 2012, local authority funding settlements in 2013 and holdbacks, also in 2013.
Early this year I held a Ward Summit in Blakelaw, attended by local councillors, residents groups and organisations.
The minutes are on my website and you can see that Housing was the number one issue. Late last year I held a Ward Summit in Benwell and Scotswood, Housing was the number one issue there.
Just last week I held an informal surgery with the Sisters Study Circle Group at the Newcastle Central Tawheed Mosque in Elswick. Housing was of great concern to them.
Why, I was asked, was it now next to impossible to get a council house in Newcastle?
I explained that 6,000 households were on the waiting list, of which 4,000 were actively bidding, but only 185 properties become available each month.
I also explained that much of the council housing stock had been sold off and that now it was only really available for those with the greatest need.
Why did the Government not build more houses, they asked me, did they not realise the impact bad housing had on health, on crime, on education?
How can young people focus on studying or a job if they haven’t got a decent roof over their head? How can parents give children the support they need if they are constantly worrying where they will be living next week?
After a while Mr Chairman I grew tired of trying to explain this Government’s thinking to them, thinking I have to say I do not understand myself.
My job is not to justify this Government but to hold it to account. I’m sure the Minister agrees that my constituents are right to be concerned about the lack of housing in Newcastle.
So, Mr Chairman I applied for this debate to find out from him exactly how he believes Newcastle City Council can overcome the barriers preventing them building more houses to improve the lives of the thousands of people in my constituency who need a home.
Last year the Government presided over the building of just 9,590 homes for social rent compared with 33,180 delivered in Labour’s last year in office, the lowest level of affordable homes built for over two decades.
Having knocked on a great many doors over the last few weeks and years, I know they bear testament to the last Labour Government’s investment in our housing stock.
Labour could and should have built even more homes but the Decent Homes programme, visible in new doors, windows, kitchens and the fabric of so many homes in Newcastle, effectively renewed the existing stock so that it could last for another generation.
This contrasts with this Government’s record, cutting investment and building just one new social home for every eight sold through right to buy.
A Government where the term ‘affordable rent’ is not recognisable to most people.
A Government that thought up the unfair “bedroom tax” which has affected half a million households.
And a Government that has overseen a rise in private rents in of 22% since 2011.
Newcastle is a growing city, Mr Chairman, it’s estimated that by 2021 there will be 16,200 more people living in our great city.
I believe the Government has a duty to ensure that local authorities have the means – in both funding and powers – to provide the homes that local people need.
Newcastle needs 16,400 new homes between now and March 2030 – or 1,000 per year – not including student accommodation for those studying at our world-class universities.
Residents quite rightly do not want to lose greenfield assets. Much of the land available for building these homes in Newcastle is brownfield with high clean-up costs.
Providing those homes in these circumstances is already a huge challenge for the Council given the huge, ideological and politically-driven cuts to central government funding.
Yet the Government seems insistent on piling further pressures on top, putting further barriers in the way.
The 1% cut in social housing rent over the next four years will leave a hole of £593 million in the council’s 30 year financial model.
0.6 BILLION pounds, Mr Chairman. Investment earmarked for building those homes that the city so needs and investing in the city’s stock.
A 1% cut in social rent may seem like a good thing for social tenants but it is the Council not the Government which pay for it, taking money away from the capital investment needed for repairs and improvements and, critically, new homes.
If the Government was so concerned about saving social tenants money, they would abolish the grotesque bedroom tax. By the way, the Government is the biggest gainer from the rent cut as the DWP housing payments bill falls.
It’s not hard to see that when you cut their income, housing authorities will have less to invest. Over half a billion less in Newcastle.
Trampling over locally-elected councils’ planned investments in this way deserves its own debate.
But that hole in the city’s investment plan is going to be widened by the Government’s forced sale of higher value housing to pay for the new right to buy.
Building a new home in Newcastle costs a minimum of £120,000. But the result of the much criticised Housing and Planning Bill will be the selling of homes at an average market value of £80,000.
Even if this were re-invested, at best we replace only two thirds of the homes sold.
The Minister will be aware of the analysis published by Shelter last month that showed that Newcastle will need to sell over 400 homes every year to raise its £52m annual contribution to Government’s policy.
That’s 100 more than they are building each year now, before the Government’s Housing Bill bites, with its inevitable knock-on effect on investment.
My constituents who are on the lowest incomes already find it more difficult to buy homes at the lower end of the market than they would in other parts of the country.
The council has done some brilliant work in recent years, delivering much needed specialist housing, building more affordable homes, returning vacant private sector properties to the market and working to reduce homelessness.
But it is under attack from a Government that seems determined to dismantle our social housing stock from the centre. I simply cannot see how the council is supposed to meet the needs of local people given the straitjacket the Minister is putting them into.
Those I have spoken to in Newcastle believe – as I do – that the Government locally and nationally have a duty to provide homes for people. I want to see a healthy mixture of tenures.
But the actions of this Government and this Housing Bill will throw up more barriers to building homes that, frankly, seem designed to destroy social housing altogether.
So could the Minister begin by telling me and the House what role he sees for councils in building and providing homes? And how much discretion they should have?
What modelling has his Department done on the effect of the 1% cut in social rents on investment in Newcastle and across the country? Would he publish that?
Does he not agree that decisions on rent should be with the local authority and if central government wants to cut rent – a laudable aim – they should provide the money to pay for it rather than punish future generations?
And what modelling has he done on the forced sale of council homes to fund his right to buy policy? Does he agree with the analysis that Shelter have done on this and if not, will he publish his own sums?
On the subject of his right to buy policy for housing associations, I wrote to him last year about constituents of mine who are unable to sell their properties because the freehold is owned by the St Mary Magdalene and Holy Jesus trust who refuses to extend them.
In his response he said that my constituents should write to the advisory body LEASE, which they did, to no avail. There are three different Housing Acts that affect different types of properties and the rights they enjoy. The Minister said he would consider this further as part of the Housing and Planning Bill. Has he any hope – or clarity – to offer my constituents on that issue?
Finally Mr Chairman, what would the Minister say to my constituents who cannot get a council home and cannot afford the rising rents in Newcastle? Does he think that his Housing Bill will enable Newcastle City Council to build enough homes in the next 30 years? Can he explain how it will do that? And if not, how does he expect the private sector to fill that gap at affordable prices for different types of tenure?
Will he take a leaf out of the book of the new Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and commit to ensuring affordable housing in Newcastle?