Short-life Homes (Lambeth)
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab) rose— [ Interruption. ]
Mr Speaker: Order. I appeal to hon. and right hon. Members who, for whatever reason, quite unaccountably, are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that the hon. Member for Vauxhall is afforded the same courtesy for her Adjournment debate as they would want for theirs.
Kate Hoey: Thank you very much for those words, Mr Speaker, although I do not think the House will stay full for much longer.
It is with a great deal of sadness that I hold this Adjournment debate, but it is important that the House understands what is happening just over the river in Lambeth in terms of short-life housing disposals. If there were any kind of legislation on wording, using the description “short-life” would almost be in breach of it, because the homes are not short life in the sense that people have lived in them for only a few months. Many of the people I shall refer to will have been in their homes for 30 years or more—most of them for between 15 and 25 years.
There is a history in Lambeth. Short-life housing co-ops were formed in about 1980 to make use of Lambeth council properties that were in too bad a condition to let normally, but that Lambeth could not afford to repair to a lettable standard. Housing co-operatives were given licences to use those properties, usually by a secondary agency, typically a housing association. Initially, short-life meant short-life, six months being the normal period, but owing to Lambeth’s general mismanagement and policies that seemed to change every 10 years, many people have been in their homes for more than 30 years. One resident, Steve Drake, who lives in Nealden street in a co-op, has been there now for 31 years.
Through the mid and late 1980s and into the 1990s many housing co-ops became established as the properties that they managed became more long term. As I said, the phrase “short-life” became a misnomer. There were various schemes involving many properties attracting some limited funding via schemes such as Mini-HAG, which was mini housing association grants administered by the then Housing Corporation. That finished in about 2000. Housing co-ops needed an income to pay for the maintenance of the properties that they managed and the day-to-day running of the co-op, so co-op members paid rent, the amount agreed by members of each individual co-op.
Throughout that 30-year history of housing co-ops, Lambeth has changed its policy at various times, thought about recalling the short-life properties and threatened evictions at various times, but as recently as 1997, which does not seem such a long time ago, Mr Drake got a letter from the then chair of housing, Labour’s housing spokesperson in Lambeth, saying:
“I write to you further to your letter of 29 June 1997, to update you on the situation regarding shortlife housing.
I am pleased to say that at the last Housing Committee meeting at the beginning of September, we succeeded in persuading the other parties to back our proposals for proper negotiations
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with the shortlife housing co-ops. I am sure that … the Lambeth Federation of Housing Co-ops has been in touch with you … and I hope that as a result of this work, it will be possible to come to an agreement which allows the current residents to stay in their homes.”
That was from Tom Franklin, who was then the councillor in charge.
Shortly after that, the council seemed to change its policy. It did not seem to make much difference whether it was a Labour council, a coalition council or a hung council. The policy got into one of those files that seem to sit around local authorities, and for many years the residents had no idea what was happening, but they carried on with their co-ops, some of which were very successful. The Short Stock housing co-op—I have named the person who has been leading that, Steve Drake—has been going extremely well, and is part of the Lambeth Self Help scheme that involved buying Short Stock’s properties with tenants in situ. The plan was that the very large property would be worked on and could be sold, but that everybody would be allowed to stay in their houses and renovate them. The people in Nealden street and in Morat street have stayed on. During that time Lambeth had 100% nomination rights to any vacancies that came up.
Last year Lambeth Self Help was approached by Lambeth council. It submitted a plan, which the council wanted revised, given the change in central Government policy on social housing rents. The plan was resubmitted and rejected, then re-submitted and rejected again. Finally, Lambeth changed its policy in the summer and now wants to sell off all the remaining properties housing families of different sizes—there are roughly 150 of them—and the council wants to do a deal. It originally wanted to do a deal with Hyde Housing. Hyde Housing had come to an arrangement whereby some of those residents would be able to stay in their homes when they were bought.
That fell through because Lambeth did not think it was getting enough money. It has been in negotiation with Notting Hill Housing, which is making clear its opinion that it is doing Lambeth a favour. It will buy the properties and immediately put 80% of them on the open market, leaving 20% as affordable houses in Lambeth. I can understand that, as there is a shortage of capital, although Lambeth has not said that that money will go into housing. It has said that some of the money—we do not know how much—will go towards reducing the shortage of school places in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna). If there is money going out of housing to the council, it should come back into Lambeth to be used for housing, as there is a huge waiting list.
In the meantime, the council has said that it wants vacant possession, and every property must be empty by the time the deal goes through with Notting Hill Housing. Notting Hill Housing told me that it might have been prepared to consider taking on some of the residents who were adequately housed and in social need, but Lambeth council said that it wanted to give them with vacant possession, and Notting Hill Housing then said that it would take the properties only with vacant possession.
Lambeth’s legal firm, Devonshires, which must be making a fortune out of this, is now going to the courts in Lambeth or Wandsworth week after week to try to
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get the long-term residents evicted. On almost every occasion the courts have said, “Hang on, we haven’t got all the facts and we want to know more.” A number of cases have been postponed over and over again, costing Lambeth huge amounts of money each time. Many of the properties are in a really good state. There is absolutely no reason why they could not be kept by the council or, if they go to Notting Hill Housing, left with the current residents, who have maintained them to a high standard for over 20 years.
I simply do not understand how a housing association can get away with spending a lot of money buying up properties from a local authority that has tenants who need housing and then planning to sell off 80% of them. They are not trading organisations. I thought that the point of a housing association was to provide housing. I find Notting Hill Housing’s attitude very strange. If it is doing this as a favour to Lambeth, I do not think that it is much of a favour to the people living in the properties. The most recent communication I received from Notting Hill Housing on 30 November indicated that it was
“clear that the properties will be sold to us with vacant possession. That means that the Council will evict all the current residents. We will then refurbish 20 per cent, and will sell up to 80 per cent of them. This is the assumption so that we can give the Council the kind of receipt they require. I know this is distressing for many of the residents who have lived here for many years but I understand the council will rehouse everyone”.
Of course they will get an offer from the council.
I want to give some examples of the people who live in the properties and how they have been involved for many years in the local community, in campaigning organisations and in all the things that are so important to an inner-city area. The Cope family live at 26b Stockwell Park road. Indeed, some hon. Members live around that area, which is probably one of the most expensive in my constituency. Another long-term resident lives next to them, at 24b. The family have been in a short-life residence there since 1987, originally part of the Ekarro housing co-operative, which became a different housing co-op, and finally they ended up with South London Family Housing Association, which was later taken over by Amicus, which was when the licence was withdrawn from the housing association. The family have done all the repairs in the house and managed to prevent the ground-floor flat next door, which was owned by Lambeth council and had been empty for years, being squatted by what I call real squatters—I am not opposed to the squatting of long-term empty houses in some cases. The family have done all the work on that house but are now being told that they must move out, which will probably mean the loss of the last two or three remaining houses in affordable social housing in the middle of one of the most expensive areas.
The Cope family is very much part of the community, and all the residents of the Stockwell Park residents association have signed a letter stating that they want the family to remain. It just does not make common sense, because they will be moved into another Lambeth property that someone on a waiting list might have their eye on, and at the same time the family might be moved out of their community to somewhere many miles away from where their children go to school—and for what purpose? In the end the property will either go back to another tenant, if it happens to be in the 20% that Notting Hill keeps, or it will be sold on the open market.
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Just up the road, literally four houses up, 20 Stockwell Park road was one of those short-life properties. The resident was evicted—taken away, asked to get out—a few years ago; the property was squatted; Lambeth got rid of the squatters and re-did the place with new bathrooms and kitchens in two of the flats; three weeks later it was squatted again; and the squatters in one flat have not been removed. So, the council has spent a lot of money on its own property, allowed it to be squatted by people with no housing need and, at the same time, is trying to get rid of people who do have housing need.
The Clapham North Housing Co-operative is a very active co-op, with a substantial number of properties—19 homes—on which people still pay rent, and Lambeth could have negotiated with it. The negotiations started, stopped and then Lambeth changed its mind, so now, despite saying at the bottom of every letter that it is a co-op council, it is getting rid of co-ops. I speak as someone with many co-ops in the north of my borough and in Bishop’s ward, such as the Coin Street housing co-operatives, and I have seen the value of co-ops and how they link people with their community.
We have some terrible individual cases. Heidi Usher, of 12 Thorpe Park road, has been there for many years. She has been adequately housed, with four children in her home, which she has kept beautifully, having done all the work herself, but she is now being taken to court. Fortunately, yesterday when she went to court, the magistrate said, “This is ridiculous, this needs more than an hour. I need at least a day,” and has deferred the case until 28 February. So, every case is being put back, and that gives the Minister an opportunity to intervene and do something that would give those people hope, because it does not make common sense.
I want to ask the Minister some questions that he might or might not be able to answer. Many of these issues have occurred because of the local authority’s inadequacy and incompetence over many years, for which we can blame many people, but at the end of the day the people who are suffering are the residents, whose fault it is not. The cost of all those legal cases could have adequately brought some of the homes up to the decent homes standard.
On the decent homes standard, when I visit those residents I feel that they are living in a decent home, as they do. It may not tick the box, because the kitchen may not be exactly like the modern kitchen that represents supposedly the decent homes standard, but, if they are happy there and adequately housed, why is the decent homes standard used as a reason to move them out?
Does the Minister share my view on what his Department could do to ensure that families are able to stay in their homes of many years? Surely the Government must have some say in the matter, because Lambeth will get Government housing money, as will Notting Hill Housing association. I should like an assurance that he understands Notting Hill Housing to be conducting the process properly, because I have concerns. about how it is doing so.
Some time ago, Lambeth offered many residents the right to buy, albeit at absolutely open-market prices, but some struggled to do so because it was their home. Will they be considered under the Government’s new policies on the right to buy at less than market value? That could be a solution.
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If Notting Hill Housing buys that group of properties, can the Government do anything to stop it immediately selling off 80% of them? It seems absolutely scandalous that it can spend public money buying properties and immediately sell them.
Can the Government insist on Lambeth council and Notting Hill Housing allowing those sitting tenants and residents who are adequately housed and meet the criteria to remain tenants of the association, rather than being moved somewhere else to move in somebody who has lived in Lambeth for only a couple of years? That would at least be a fair way of looking at the issue.
Does the Minister understand the anger and misery that is being caused by a policy of moving people out of their homes of over 20 years just so that at some time in the future they will be let to new tenants? Given that there are already very well-established co-ops in other parts of the borough, will he encourage Lambeth to incorporate those that are working adequately into some kind of system that would allow those people to stay? Most of all, does the Minister think that a local authority such as Lambeth could show a little more imagination? Of course we know that there is a shortage of money everywhere, but money from the Government has been stopped and we need to get some of that investment back.
Lambeth has improved its housing management. My previous housing Adjournment debate was also about Lambeth, and I have to say that things have improved since then. Lib Peck, who is the cabinet member for housing, has done a sterling job and has bought into the whole idea of this being the only way to protect the investment. However, the council’s policy is misguided and has been built on many years of mismanagement and neglect. As I said, there are many people to blame for this, but they are not the residents.
This is a complicated situation that is somewhat historical and almost unique to Lambeth, but sometimes in such cases, where there is clear injustice, we must find a way to stop it happening. I hope that the Minister will, at the very least, offer to meet me and a group of co-op residents from across the borough so that we can explain how unjust this is, because in such a short time I have not been able to go into much depth. Not a single ordinary person would read through all the dossiers and meet these people and not say at the end of it, “This does not make common sense in 2011.”
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing this debate and on the diligent work that she has done in support of her constituents and residents. She spoke very eloquently.
This is the first time that the situation that the hon. Lady described has come to my attention. I understand that Lambeth has a proposal that is designed to dispose of properties to help to fund renovation, perhaps of those properties but certainly of other stock in the borough, some of which is being let for short-term tenancies. She described the confusing development of the phrase “short-term” to mean something quite different and gave illustrations of the very long length of tenancies
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that some people have had in these properties. I want to make it clear that I am working from the description that she has given. I do not have first-hand information, and the Department has not been formally notified by Lambeth, or anybody else, of any transactions taking place.
The House will know that the Government fully understand the need for a radical and comprehensive approach to housing. That is why we published our housing strategy for England last week. That strategy covers a broad range of housing topics, including social housing, the reuse of empty housing, and a number of other factors of which I am sure that the hon. Lady is well aware. I want to stress that it is for the London borough of Lambeth to decide its own strategic approach to its housing, and not for Government to comment on it. Speaking in this debate as a member of the Government, I have to stick strictly to that rule. In the privacy of the Members’ coffee room, I might say something else. The reality is that the Government’s job is to provide the strategic approach to housing policy and it is for the London borough of Lambeth to decide its approach to its housing. Of course, the Government want all local authorities to adopt the effective management of assets, including in their disposal of stock and reinvestment.
To go back, perhaps I should say that the basic assumption is that local authorities will plan for holding or redeveloping all their council stock. Clearly, the right to buy entitles tenants to purchase properties. The hon. Lady asked whether the right to buy would apply to these particular tenants. The nub of that issue is that it depends on the nature of their tenancy agreement. If they have a standard council tenancy, which it seems they may not have from her words, they would be entitled to exercise their right to buy. Otherwise, they would not have a statutory right to buy.
As well as tenants buying stock, councils can engage in partial or whole stock transfers, but those require the consent of the Government. There can be no question of wholesale disposals without the need for some consent or approval. Similarly, housing associations registered with the Tenant Services Authority need consent to dispose of their properties. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that in this system, there is a strong degree of control over what happens to social housing stock.
Kate Hoey: Does that mean that if this sale was going through, the Secretary of State would have to agree to it?
Andrew Stunell: I certainly want to cover that point. There is a regime known as general consents, which means that if certain preconditions are met, specific consent over a particular transaction is not required. The key point is that money arising from such disposals must be reinvested in affordable housing or regeneration. That would be within the general consent. Use of the money elsewhere would not be suitable. The meaning of investment in affordable housing is perhaps self-evident, but regeneration has a technical meaning. It means projects or activities on land where the land is
“vacant, unused, underused, ineffectively used, contaminated or derelict”
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“the works or activities are carried out in order to secure that the land or the building will be brought into effective use”.
The hon. Lady has mentioned the possibility—obviously I have only her words to go on—that it was proposed to provide more school places with some of this money. It would be a matter for examination whether that was a regeneration activity. If it was not, the expenditure of the money from this projected sale would require specific consent from the Secretary of State. If it was regeneration, it would come within the general consent. I am happy to write to her to spell that out, because it is a complex area to get across in this debate.
The treatment of properties that are occupied by secure tenants is tightly controlled and it always requires specific consent, unless the disposal is to the occupant. In other words, if it is not a right-to-buy sale, a secure tenant’s property cannot be transferred without specific consent. The nature of the tenancies that these constituents enjoy again depends on the intricacies of the story that the hon. Lady has presented to the House.
The Government do not have any intention of changing those arrangements. Of course we are keen to see run-down properties passed on to landlords who are able to invest in them while retaining them for social tenants. I have had the opportunity to announce to the House a £100 million fund for bringing such empty homes back into social and affordable use for social tenants. Those disposals can be to other bodies or individuals, and they could be covered by the general consents in the situation that I have previously outlined.
No application has been received in respect of the schemes that the hon. Lady has mentioned, and I cannot comment on what decision the Secretary of State might take unless one is submitted and there is a proper investigation into the circumstances by the Secretary of State.
The Government have put significant support into social housing in Lambeth. We have committed £18 million this year and next to bring homes up to a decent standard there, with a further £82 million provisionally allocated for the next two years, making a total of £100 million to be invested in Lambeth to bring its backlog of non-decent homes up to a decent standard. A significant amount of money is available to Lambeth from the Government to improve its homes, and she may want to consider encouraging the council to direct some of those resources to the homes that she has mentioned today.
London has been allocated 27% of the new affordable homes to be provided through the affordable homes programme. Combined with the existing commitments, that means that the target of 50,000 new affordable homes by 2012 set by the Mayor is very likely to be reached. I am not in a position today to say how many of those homes will be built in Lambeth, because that is subject to contracts, not all of which have been sold.
Lambeth currently has 25,000 council homes, and according to the housing strategy statistical appendix it has a waiting list of 23,000. In other words, there is an acute demand for social housing there. It is also true that Lambeth has an above-average number of empty social homes, or voids. In April, 4.1% of its stock was vacant compared with a national average
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of 1.5%. According to the council tax database, Lambeth has 1,676 long-term empty homes, which are those empty for longer than six months.
The hon. Lady might like to consider the fact that given the £100 million that is being provided to Lambeth over the next four years for decent homes, given the
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investment that we are making in new and affordable homes and given Lambeth’s higher than average number of empty homes and long-term empty homes—
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).