Why housing rules make me angry

Speech given to the Shelter fringe meeting, Brighton Party Conference, 2007

About half of the people who come to see me at surgery come because of their housing situation.

On one occasion, because a disabled child was involved, I went to visit in their own home a constituent with a housing problem. “Housing problem” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Nice three bedroom flat – but the flat didn’t start until the first floor. And to get to the first floor you had to mount a narrow and long staircase.

Now, the daughter – quadriplegic – had to be carried up and down that staircase. That was barely manageable when they moved in and she was five – but now she was eleven. The father worked and his work meant he wasn’t there to help. And the little brother was too small and young.

When I went in, I met the daughter – who was strapped vertically to a contraption that enabled her to be placed in front of a television to entertain her in the hours and hours that she had to spend immobile. She had no movement in any limb, couldn’t speak, but she could see and hear and her brain function and understanding were normal. I can’t even begin imagine what that is like.

For over five years since they applied to move to a ground floor – they were told – no three bedroom ground floor accommodation had become available – in the whole borough!

Five years – no progress. I mean, goodness me, the council could have gone down to the local estate agents and purchased a new house – if they’d really wanted to fix the problem. Because you see – this wasn’t a case of the council saying, “sorry, we’ve got no money” – although that often is an issue – but instead it was a case of the dead hand of bureaucracy mindlessly churning through the administrative wheels without any real desire to fix the problem.

All through was lacking the basic humanity and decisiveness that should have driven imaginative or nimble thinking about how to get round obstacles and really improve people’s lives.

I am convinced that if there had been the will – there would have been a way, whether it involved estate agents or not. And indeed, I wrote a polite letter to the Council. No joy. I wrote a more stroppy letter to the Council. No joy. Come and meet the Chief Executive. Stroppy meeting with the Chief Executive. No joy. I wrote my column in the local paper about it. And yes then – accommodation was found – a great result, but one that leaves me convinced more could have been done sooner if they’d been the will.

The saddest fact is that this is in no way a unique circumstance. Not all the cases are so clear – but there are so many many people in awful circumstances – overcrowded, dreadful and temporary accommodation that isn’t temporary.

So – one problem is that way in way bureaucratic rules stifles imaginative thought and sucks the humanity out of the administrators far too often.

But another problem is the way the rules keep on changing – and that stops people being able to plan their future, and make the best of it.

Now, if you were told at the outset that it would take (say) 15 years to get accommodation – or that the likelihood was that you would never get suitable accommodation – that would not be welcome news. But it would at least allow you to make a whole series of decisions about your life and what you will do with it for yourself and your family.

And then the third problem is that when the council offers you something finally – and it is disgusting – you pretty much have to say yes anyway, because if you don’t take the first property offered to you, you normally drop right down the list again. So people are forced into accepting totally unsuitable properties out of fear of otherwise never getting anything.

All these problems are getting worse – because the overall housing situation is getting worse.

There are half a million more more households on council waiting lists than when Labour came into power in 1997. 130,000 children live in unsuitable temporary accommodation; and there are one million in overcrowded accommodation.

This Labour government is obsessed with centralisation and tick box targets, but this a problem we need to tackle on a local level; Councils need to be allowed to build houses. The need to provide an adequate supply of affordable housing has got to be one of Brown’s top priorities.

Yet the solution so far has often been to massage the figures rather than house people properly. In Haringey, we have – or I should say had – about 26,000 people on the housing list.

In a quiet re-registration exercise, Haringey Council has removed 14,687 households from its council housing waiting list – that’s just under six in ten of the total.

How did this happen? Well, Haringey Council carried out a ‘re-registration project’ in September and October last year. People on the list were written to and given thirty days to complete and return a re-registration form. Those who did not return the forms were struck off the list.

This sort of statistical sleight of hand doesn’t actually house anyone or improve their condition. There is also the problem that 55% of council housing does not meet basic standards. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Affordable housing is a basic right – everyone should have access to a decent home, yet in my constituency this is not the case.

There are solutions to be sought in the supply of housing – particularly getting more derelict land and even empty housing into use – but there is also an oft neglected issue of quality.

It is about quality of design, quality of concept and quality of materials. The built environment is vital in terms of spirit and aspiration – and protecting our environment – yet those most in need of being able to lift their eyes above the daily miseries are often those who are worst treated and find poor quality developments rammed into their areas without the sustainable infrastructure needed to support increased densities – building in crime, building in misery, building in hopelessness.

Poorly designed, badly built developments are far too often rushed through – but cruddy housing on the cheap doesn’t just let down the current occupiers, it stores up more costs and problems for the future when that housing doesn’t last. Think of all the money we’ve had to spend on redoing the housing mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s – but there’s no reason why properties can’t survive in a decent state for much, much longer. It’s because they were badly designed and badly built we are now having to undo those mistakes. But far too often we’re just repeating them again – less bare concrete in site, but the same poor design and poor construction problems behind it all.

These issues of course affect housing beyond the bounds of council and social housing – as indeed does the issue of housing overall, though limitation of time means those will have to be left to another time.

But in conclusion – we need not just more, but better housing – and housing allocation systems which are administered not just better – but smarter, with a more imaginative approach to overcoming obstacles and a greater sense of certainty given to people as to what their futures might hold. So then they can make decisions and be in control of their life and destinies.