Clause 1 — Duty of local housing authority to formulate a housing strategy

Part of Orders of the Day — Homelessness Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 22nd October 2001.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions 8:45 pm, 22nd October 2001

The hon. Gentleman might think about the difference between the strategic purchaser function and the provider function. In this instance it is important that the local authority have a clear strategic role in identifying the views of the community and ensuring that provision is in place. Of course authorities will need, and want, to do that in partnership with local agencies and everyone involved in the community, but I would argue the reverse of what the hon. Gentleman says. As the provider role is dispersed more widely, it is even more important for the local authority to be absolutely clear about its strategic function of dealing with housing issues and ensuring that proper provision for homeless people is in place.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 are consequent on amendment No. 1. We must take a sensible and strategic view of what is necessary to establish a robust and coherent framework for undertaking reviews and delivering strategies—a framework that allows offices to run their affairs competently. That means taking a sensible view of the level of detail required on the face of the Bill.

Last week I made copies of a draft chapter of the code of guidance and draft good practice guidance covering homelessness reviews and strategies. It is available for Members in the Library. Hon. Members will see that the need for close co-operation and ways of achieving effective partnership working are thoroughly explored in those documents.

Amendment No. 3 would require local authorities to review the availability of housing advice in their district as part of their homelessness review. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising that important issue. It is certainly our underlying intention that these provisions should do more than address the consequences of homelessness: they should help to avert it. Prevention, through advice, assistance and multi-agency working, will be an important aspect of all homelessness strategies and reviews. The availability of housing advice, and its quality and extent, should most certainly be considered as part of a homelessness review. I hope that that will give Mr. Clifton-Brown the assurance that he seeks.

Not every issue that should be addressed in a review needs to be listed on the face of the Bill. Indeed, I take the view that housing advice falls clearly under 2(1)(b), read with clause 2(2)(c), which is the requirement that reviews look at the activities carried out for purposes of providing support for people in the district who are or may become homeless. Moreover, in the draft chapter to the code of guidance that I have made available in the Library, hon. Members will see that the provision of advice services is clearly included under the list of activities that contribute to the prevention of homelessness and that one would expect to be considered as part of a homelessness review.

Amendment No. 4 would place on local authorities, as part of their statutory duties to undertake homelessness reviews, a requirement to review provision for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons. I agree with Opposition Members that authorities should try to ensure that those placed in temporary accommodation are able to keep their pets, as far as it is possible and reasonable to do so. The issue is of particular concern to two groups. One is elderly people; it is important that local authorities make proper provision and treat the issue with great sensitivity. The second is homeless people; attachment to pets is often a substantial barrier to helping people get off the streets. A number of local authorities have made specific provision to deal with that problem—for example, providing kennels in night shelters, or removing the "no animals" clause from housing association tenancy agreements.

However, it is not appropriate to place such a requirement in primary legislation or to give it more prominence than many other important matters that local authorities will have to address in drawing up their homelessness reviews. The draft 1999 code of guidance for local authorities on the allocation of accommodation and homelessness already makes specific mention of an authority's need to be sensitive to the special needs of applicants, especially elderly applicants, with regard to the companionship they may get from their pets, when allocating accommodation. We will also ensure that the issue is covered in guidance in relation to homelessness. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising this issue and I fully recognise the concerns expressed, but the matter can and should be addressed through guidance, not through the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 would require local authorities to include an empty homes strategy in their homelessness strategy and are specific about the steps that they would have to take to devise such a strategy. Local authorities that are committed to effective action on empty properties will normally choose to set out their plans in the form of a clear strategy that matches resources to the scale of the problem in their district. Indeed, the housing investment programme encourages authorities to do so and we require them to report their performance through the best value in housing programme. That does not mean, however, that we should impose a statutory requirement on authorities to produce such a strategy or to set out prescriptively the procedures that they should follow in drawing it up. I am not convinced that that would in itself result in any greater commitment, or level of useful activity, on the part of some authorities. I am even less convinced that the Bill is the right vehicle for proposing such a duty on local authorities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney for the points that he raised and I pay tribute to the work that he has done to highlight the issue and the work of the Empty Homes Agency. We are looking again at compulsory purchase. I hope that my assurances on guidance will satisfy my hon. Friend that the Government are taking bringing empty properties back into use seriously. We will be ensuring that the revised code of guidance on homelessness takes full account of best practice in reducing the number of empty homes and converting redundant commercial property to housing use. However, if right hon. and hon. Members have any illusions about the complexity of the issues surrounding empty properties, particularly in the north of England, they should read the excellent report produced by the centre for urban and regional studies at Birmingham university on the problems of low demand in the M62 corridor. The report deals with the serious implications for housing strategies in areas where demand has collapsed. In both the public and private sectors there are real difficulties to do with bringing back empty properties into use that go far beyond issues of housing efficiency.

On the basis of the assurances that have been given, I would ask the hon. Member for Cotswold to withdraw the amendment.