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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Deputy prime minister John Prescott clashed over the despatch box with David Davis for the first time since the former Conservative Party chairman David Davis was appointed to shadow the deputy prime minister's department - but without the shadow title.

They agreed there was a housing crisis but hotly disputed the role of right to buy.

Mr Prescott told Mike Gapes, Labour MP for Ilford South, - who said much more should be invested in social housing rather than selling off social housing - the government was working on both short and long-term measures to increase affordable homes in London. In 2003-04,£482m of the Housing Corporation programme would go directly to London projects, plus a£200m challenge fund to encourage quick delivery of 4,000 new affordable homes in the south-east of England through off-site manufacturing.

Mr Prescott said that despite the government tripling the resources devoted to housing, raising the figure from£1.5bn in 1997 to£4.5bn, the problems were immense.

Mr Davis claimed that the deputy prime minister's reported disapproval of the right to buy had led to a panic in London, with applications for right to buy sales doubling in many London boroughs.

Mr Prescott replied: 'Housing problems in certain areas of London have reached such a crisis that we need to act in a variety of ways, and that includes giving consideration to the right to buy. I chose to use legislation introduced by the previous Conservative government that laid down that there could be restrictions on the right to buy in 25 rural district areas. I believe that homeless people in inner-city areas are just as important as those as in rural areas'.

Mr Davis said that since Labour came to power, homelessness in London had doubled. 'The government need more imagination in what they are doing, instead of resorting to the simple ideological nonsense that the deputy prime minister has come up with', he added.

Mr Prescott retorted that he wanted to consider the right to buy in areas where there was a homelessness crisis, and he said the 'new policy' announcedby Mr Davis to give about a million housing association tenants the right to buy was not new. It had been announced by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the Conservatives had been unable to implement it because for almost 20 years they could not get a parliamentary majority for it.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster said he was not surprised people were confused over the Conservatives' alleged new policy. Only five months ago, their then housing spokesman Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP for Cotswold, referred to 'the right to buy scam'.

Mr Foster said one way to solve London's problems would be to bring back into use some of the 100,000 empty homes. It was a disgrace that large, expensive houses could be built on greenfield sites without payment of VAT, yet to renovate empty properties full 17.5% VAT was payable. He suggested that VAT should be equalised for both at 5%.

Mr Prescott agreed, and said parliament must await the chancellor's taxation decisions. He said Mr Foster's comments about empty houses were correct - the government had not done anything about that, and all parties had to take some blame.

Hansard 16 Oct 2002: Column 298-300

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