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The Housing crisis in Brent

October 26, 2004 12:00 AM
By Sarah Teather MP in Hansard
Sarah Teather MP making her Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Sarah Teather MP has raised the Brent Housing crisis in Parliament

It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate to raise important issues concerning housing in Brent. Access to housing and overcrowding are the No. 1 issues in my constituency. Of course, the issues surrounding that of housing in Brent are wide and could fill perhaps a dozen Adjournment debates; perhaps the House will allow me to raise those issues on other occasions. Today, I will confine my words to issues of access, overcrowding, and supply and demand across the sector, but with specific reference to the impact on social housing.

In common with much of inner London, Brent is an area of mixed economies, with varied wages and living standards. The average wage in Brent is about £25,000 a year, which is lower than the London average of about £33,000, but about the same as the UK average. However, that number masks huge variations. Unemployment is running at the 23rd highest of any constituency in the country, and 31 per cent. of children in my constituency are eligible for free school meals-I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that is a very high figure. The Audit Commission said that Brent is an area of significant deprivation, and the 13th most deprived London borough. Against that background, Brent has some of the highest property prices in London-in Brondesbury and Queen's Park-and has consistently been among the boroughs with the fastest rising house prices in London.

Rents are similarly high, which probably explains why so many people live in house shares. Brent is thought to have the highest level of houses in multiple occupation-HMOs-anywhere in the country. According to figures from the Brent private tenants rights group, one in 20 of unfit HMOs in England and Wales is in Brent. That extraordinary and shocking figure is borne out by my experience of constituents coming to my surgeries to complain about overcrowded bedsits, into which large families are packed, with poor escape routes and the concomitant fire risks.

Such pressures on the housing market and rented accommodation put increased pressure on the social housing sector. There are 2,076 applications on the housing transfer list in Brent-those are applications from Brent tenants who are waiting for transfers, and may well involve entire families-but there are 17,151 applications on the total register list, which includes everyone else, totalling 19,227 applications to move, as of September. That has risen by 40 per cent. in 18 months.

The ethnic breakdown of people on the housing waiting lists in Brent is as follows: 40 per cent. are black, compared with 20 per cent. of the Brent population; 19 per cent. are white, compared with 45 per cent. of the Brent population; 18 per cent. are Asian; and 6.5 per cent. are of mixed or other race. So, the problem disproportionately affects black residents in my constituency.

Brent expected the overall waiting list to reach 20,000 by 2006, but it will almost certainly reach it by 2005. However, lettings by Brent authority have declined to a 15-year low; it expects to be able to let properties to fewer than 7 per cent. of current applicants in 2004-05.

The Brent housing needs survey, which is compiled from a mix of census and sampling data and which looks at all the properties in the borough, whether inhabited by homeowners or tenants, found that 10.6 per cent. of households are overcrowded. That figure rises to 16 per cent. of local authority and registered social landlord homes, as compared with 2.4 per cent. of all English households.

Some 35 per cent. of those on the housing register are overcrowded. The 2001 census figures showed that Brent has the fourth highest level of overcrowding in London. Overcrowding disproportionately affects people from immigrant and ethnic minority families, as they tend to have larger families and because there is a chronic shortage of larger properties in the borough.

The impact of overcrowding and the sense of hopelessness about moving have an enormous impact on families. Week after week I hear the same heart-rending stories in my surgery, and it is to my immense frustration that there is often little or nothing that I can do to help. In almost every surgery the same story is told: a family of four has been on the waiting list for a number of years, and usually one or both parents are on anti-depressants as a result. The parents have mood swings and are often angry and lash out. The children have asthma caused from the damp in the property. The family have letters from their GP and the school stating that illness is affecting the child's ability to thrive and their academic standards. It is all because of the way they are living. The family have no sense of hope that they may be able to move.

The costs of treating the illness and the costs to society of children who are less well educated and of adults who are economically unproductive are obvious. It is an awful injustice when so much potential goes to waste. That story is repeated week in and week out. There is no more pressing injustice in my constituency. I want to tell a few of the stories.

Siobhan McCutcheon and her partner, Mr. Cottle are housing association tenants with three children who live in a tiny, two-bedroom flat in Willesden Green. The sitting room is very small; it is not big enough for a table. Their oldest child is too old now to share a room and the overcrowding is affecting his schoolwork. There is nowhere for him to do his homework because there is no table, so they have given him the small boxroom. However, there are two other children and the overcrowding problem has got worse as the family have got older.

The family have tried to make the best of it. The other two children are in the same room as their parents, but that is big enough only for a cot by the bed, so the three-and-a-half year old is in the cot. That child is the only one who will fit in a cot; the five-and-a-half-year-old is in the bed with the parents. That situation has been going on a long time. My representations to the housing association and the council have achieved nothing, because there is nowhere to move the family. The family are extremely angry and the mother is extremely depressed. I am sure that hon. Members would understand why and sympathise.

Another constituent who did not want to be named is also sharing a bed with one of her children. She has sickle cell disease, which at times causes her extreme pain and chronic problems with her hip. She cannot turn over in bed for fear of rolling on to her baby. Her other three children share a single room.

Mrs. Alderson and Mr. James live in a three-bedroom maisonette where there are eight people. The baby shares the bed with the parents and the two-year-old is in the same room. Their teenager, who has exams and is trying to get on with schoolwork, is in the boxroom. The other three children share one room. My representations on behalf of the family have brought them higher priority but no new home.

The story is similar for temporary accommodation. Brent spent £6 million on temporary accommodation in 2003-04. That covered both accommodation costs and housing benefit subsidy. It had 4,238 households in temporary accommodation in March 2004. It met the Government's target for reducing the number of people in temporary accommodation, but an awful lot remain. A recent Shelter survey of homeless households in temporary accommodation showed very similar effects of living in overcrowding to those that I have described.

In the survey, 78 per cent. said that they had health problems, 50 per cent. were suffering from depression and 50 per cent. said that their health had suffered from living in temporary accommodation. Children missed an average of 55 school days because of disruption caused by temporary accommodation. Two thirds of respondents' children said that they had problems at school. Nearly half the respondents described their children as "often unhappy or depressed". In 77 per cent. of those households there was no family member working, often because of health or mobility problems and insecurity about where they were living.

On the basis of a comparison of those needs, Shelter estimated that the additional annual cost to the public purse associated with temporary accommodation is about £500 million. That includes not only housing benefit expenditure and take-up of income support, but the result of missed school, additional take-up of sickness benefit and additional visits to GPs.The cost is huge.

Against that background Brent council has introduced Locata, which is a choice-based letting system. There are four bands in the Locata system-A to D, defining a homeseeker's priority. Locata, not the local authority, manages the allocation of property for each homeseeker. There are five steps to inclusion on the Locata scheme. First, one must become a member, which is automatic for local authority tenants and homeseekers. Once someone is a member, they are given a number defining their banding and their priority date-the date that they registered. They then check a fortnightly "freesheet" that lists properties. Those must be picked up from libraries, but for a small fee they can be sent out. They are free to the infirm.

Members can bid for any property for which they are eligible. The sheet is issued every other Friday and bids must be received by the following Wednesday. Bids can be sent by coupon for the cost of a stamp, by text for the cost of a text, by telephone at 25p per minute, or on the web, which is the cost of a dial-up-so tenants now pay to be rehoused.

Locata allocates the bids in priority order, and puts them on a shortlist that goes to the landlord. Therefore, if lots of band C members bid for a property, the one with the most points-based on the usual criteria of waiting time and overcrowding-wins. The successful bidder is told that they have won; others have to look at subsequent "freesheets" to find out.

In this week's "freesheet" there are 29 non-sheltered accommodation properties available for Brent residents: two studio flats, 13 one-bed flats, 10 two-bed flats, one three-bed house and three four-bed homes. Hon. Members may recall that earlier in my speech I gave the number of people who were waiting to be transferred-just over 19,000. That housing will not go very far.

The housing stock in north-west London has not increased by virtue of the system; there is still chronic need. Those who were considered a priority before and were thus almost the only ones who were likely to move, are still a higher priority and more eligible. However, they, rather than the local authority, now have to look actively for properties every week. If they do not bid, they will not get rehoused. No guidance is given to people on what properties they can realistically bid for. The only benefits of the system are that void properties can be let more quickly and that there is now no penalty for refusing a property. Other than that, the system is merely an elaborate scheme to change the way in which people are let down by the lack of housing.

I am not against choice, but I am against lack of real choice and false choice-the residents are led to believe that they have a choice and that they will get a new home through this system. They get a glossy magazine through the post and think, "Great, look at all these properties I can bid for." Then, if they are a larger family, they find that there are no properties that they can bid for, and that the chances of their being rehoused are almost nil. That is not explained to people.

I spoke to Lorraine King from one of the local papers-the Willesden & Brent Chronicle-who sees many people in a similar situation to those whom I see. Such people are right at the end of the road; they have run out of options. She explained her frustration that people often cannot manage the system because they are disabled or because they cannot read. They do not realise that they are falling through the net.

One option is to get more people into the private rented market, but there is a huge problem in persuading people to consider that. The reasons for that unwillingness are both cultural and pragmatic. Brent takes 34 days to process changes in circumstances for housing benefit; its tenants have the fourth longest wait in London. It also has the lowest percentage in London of new claims processed within 14 days. Many landlords, therefore, are not willing to work with the sector.

Brent has a rental deposit scheme. That is good, but the loan under the scheme is only £500. For a large family, that loan is not enough to get a new property-it will not go very far. Brent also has a private housing unit, which holds people's hands, takes them through the system and tries to explain what it means to rent privately. However, all too often, when the introductions are made, the private landlords say, "No, I won't take you on housing benefit", despite the fact that they are on the list for the council. We need to do much more to encourage people to rent privately. A better loan system is needed, but housing benefit must also be processed much more quickly, and more action must be taken to tackle unscrupulous landlords.

Many of the provisions introduced by and accepted when considering the Housing Bill are welcome. I was disappointed, however, that licensing was not extended to include two-storey properties. There are many bedsits in my constituency that fall into that category.

The real problem is lack of supply. Brent has one of the highest rates of empty properties in London, at 5.4 per cent. of private sector and 3.7 per cent. of public sector dwellings. I was pleased that some of the Liberal Democrats' recommendations were incorporated into the Housing Bill, such as provision for empty property management orders. We would also require local authorities to maintain a register of empty properties in their area, and Whitehall departments to audit their properties annually and report on that to Select Committees.

However, we also need more houses to be built. The Mayor's office estimated that 23,000 homes needed to be built in London annually, and that 10,000 of which should be affordable. I know that money has been invested in the decent homes initiative and into the new deal in my constituency, but neither of those initiatives tackles the problem of supply. They improve the quality, but not the total supply. That is the most important issue. We need to examine other areas for building.

Finally, I ask the Government to make public what land is publicly owned and underused. I ask the Minister to consider making Brent a pilot project-to survey all public sector holdings, be they in education, the NHS, local authority or ex-publicly owned, so that they could be made available either to sell off, ploughing the receipts back into social and affordable housing, or so that money for affordable housing could be gained through section 106 agreements. It is no good Departments sitting on publicly owned land and speculating about its future land value. The crisis affecting my constituents is here and now and needs an urgent solution.

The costs of the crisis are felt elsewhere in the public sector. I refer to high rents for temporary accommodation, and to mental and physical health problems. A decision to make the existence of the land public knowledge and to sell it off would require leadership, but that is no more than my constituents deserve.