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

Orders of the Day — Homelessness Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 22nd October 2001.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold 8:15 pm, 22nd October 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 3, after "authority")", insert—

'and its strategic partners, to include registered social landlords and housing co-operatives, landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered with the authority under the Housing Act 1996, members of landlords' forums, and voluntary organisations and other relevant bodies ("strategic partners")'.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 1, line 16, at end insert—

'(4A) The authority shall maintain a list of those organisations which are its strategic partners, which it may modify from time to time.'.

No. 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 11, at end insert—

'; and

(d) the availability of housing advice within the district.'.

No. 4, in page 2, line 19, at end insert—

'(d) providing for the welfare of animals under the control of homeless persons.'.

No. 5, in clause 3, page 2, line 29, after "authority", insert "and its strategic partners".

No. 8, in page 3, line 12, at end insert—

'(5A) In formulating a homelessness strategy the authority shall have regard to—

(a) the total and types of empty housing and vacant property within their district which should be based on regular audits of such property;

(b) targets for the re-use of such properties for residential purposes;

(c) "turn-around" times for the re-letting of empty property; and

(d) its own action plan to achieve the targets set out in paragraph (b) above, including action by any public authority, voluntary organisation or other body or person whose activities are capable of contributing to the achieving of these objectives.'.

No. 9, in page 3, line 12, at end insert—

'(5A) In formulating a homelessness strategy the authority shall make specific reference to—

(a) the extent and nature of empty housing and vacant property within their district across all sectors and tenures;

(b) targets for the re–use of such properties for residential purposes; and

(c) a strategy for action to achieve the targets set out in (b) above, including action by any public authority, voluntary organisation or other body or person whose activities are capable of contributing to the achieving of these objectives.'.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

The amendment deals with the duty of the local authority to formulate a homelessness strategy, which is outlined in clauses 1 to 3. We consider it against a background of the number of priority homeless rising from 102,650 in 1997–98 to 114,350 in 2000–01—a 12,000 increase in the past four years. The figures come from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions press release entitled "Statutory Homeless England, Second Quarter 2001". The number of people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has soared by a staggering 152 per cent. from 4,500 in quarter 2 1997 to 11,314 in quarter 2 2001.

The duty on a local authority to formulate a homelessness strategy is extremely welcome, but we must get it right. Our amendment No. 1, which incorporates a number of other strategic partners, must be the right way forward. It should be the duty of a local authority to involve registered social landlords and other strategic partners—for example, representatives from the private rented sector and from non-governmental organisations, such as Shelter, Crisis or the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which have a particular role in a particular area. Given that background, it is important that we seriously consider this proposal.

Large-scale voluntary transfers have proceeded at a pace. The Minister announced that 27 local authorities will be able to proceed with

"32 transfers of all or part of their housing stock to registered social landlords."—[Hansard, 22 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 10W.]

Mr. Foster told us that by 2004 the majority of all council housing will be run by registered social landlords. We would not expect such a huge change under a Labour Government. The Conservative party welcomes that change, provided that it is accompanied by tenant choice. Careful safeguards should be in place so that tenants can be properly consulted about changes before they take place.

Registered social landlords have far greater flexibility to borrow money from the private sector. The Government are a little chary of that, and perhaps could improve the situation. By levying more money from the private sector, they would have more money to build more social housing units and thereby reduce the homeless figures that I have just given.

Some of those large-scale voluntary transfers are from large authorities, such as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. It is not just the smaller authorities, such as my own, that have carried out large-scale voluntary transfers: large numbers of houses are being transferred from local authorities to registered social landlords. Under those circumstances, it would be illogical, if not bizarre and perverse, not to put a statutory duty in the Bill that those bodies should be consulted by local authorities when drawing up their homelessness strategy. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that.

There is a second argument in this saga. Housing associations are, by and large, run by volunteers. It would be odd if they were not consulted under the homelessness strategy. I can see no good argument why people who are giving such good service—I emphasise that—in the registered social housing sector should be excluded from the strategy. In my constituency, the Fossway housing authority does an extremely good job. I shall not go so far as to say that it does a better job than the local authority, but it does an extremely good job. It does much voluntary work. The Cirencester young persons housing association also does a lot of good work and is staffed by young people who put much energy into trying to solve the problems of young homelessness in the Cirencester area. To exclude such people from this homelessness strategy would be totally bizarre.

I do not believe that the fact that such bodies are voluntary should make any difference. They work with these difficult problems day in and day out. That proves that they are serious organisations. The argument may be put that they are too small to have any real input into the debate. I do not think that size makes any difference: if registered social landlords are small or large, if they represent a few or many private landowners or if they are deemed to have a realistic contribution to make to the debate, they should be included in statute.

We have been round this course twice before, so I know that the Government may try to resist our amendments. If they are not prepared to incorporate such bodies in the statute, as we think they should be, please may we have some pretty strong regulations that make it perfectly clear that local authorities would be expected to include them.

The third argument for including such organisations relates to the contention that they would undermine the strategic responsibilities of local authorities. As I have shown, within a few years the majority of the public sector housing stock will be run by registered social landlords. Admittedly, local authorities will still be involved and will have a vital role in determining public housing strategy, but it would be bizarre if these organisations were not included in the homelessness review.

There is a strong case for including those bodies. Amendment No. 5 is consequential on amendment No. 2, and on the organisations being included in the statute.

Amendment No. 8 sets out four considerations to which authorities should have regard in formulating a homelessness strategy. I think that the Government would have difficulty arguing that these matters are not important enough to be taken into account. The first is that the total and types of empty housing and vacant property within an authority's district should be based on regular audits of such property. Unless authorities are carrying out audits of how effective they are at turning property around, they are not doing their job well. Surely the Government's best value initiative will demand that audits are conducted. If the best value initiative demands that an audit should take place, why not put that in the Bill?

I can illustrate graphically the difference in efficiency between local authorities—the average turn-around of empty housing in the Isle of Wight is two days, whereas the three worst local authorities, which as one would expect are Labour controlled, including that of the Deputy Prime Minister, Kingston upon Hull—take many months to turn around their empty properties. I am sure that the Minister will argue that those Labour authorities have a much more difficult housing problem because they are inner-city authorities. That may be so, but that does not explain the huge difference between the Isle of Wight and the three worst Labour authorities—many other authorities are not far behind them in inefficiency.

We need to examine this problem carefully. If local authorities could bring up the average turn-around of empty properties and make it a little quicker, that would have a huge impact on the homelessness problem.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Is the whole amendment directed just at empty council housing?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

Indeed it is not. The hon. Gentleman has given me a chance to add that we need to do something about the huge amount of vacant property in the private sector. The same applies: I think we should give all possible encouragement to private landlords to let their empty properties. We have had many debates about, for example, the letting of flats over shops—an asset that the country is not using enough. We could better use it in various ways, certainly through the use of tax incentives to encourage the letting of flats over shops by those who currently find that uneconomic because they are compromising commercial leases. There must be ways around that.

It follows that, where there is a dichotomy between the best and the worst authorities in terms of how quickly they can turn around their empty properties, targets should be set. That is the object of paragraph (b) of amendment No.8.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 8:30 pm, 22nd October 2001

Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that this has very little to do with political control? It has much more to do with the action of housing markets in the areas involved. Where there is surplus stock along with a very short waiting list, there is no need to turn around empty houses, whereas in areas with high demand and long waiting lists there is such a need.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I agree with half of that. There is always a need to be ever more efficient when dealing with public property and public money, especially when people are waiting for housing in, sometimes, very distressed circumstances. We should never be complacent about the need to turn around housing. Indeed, if a local authority is particularly efficient—undoubtedly, it does happen—it will be able to accept more transfers from other areas. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman in that regard, but I agree with the other part of what he said.

I cited the three worst authorities in this respect, and pointed out that they were Labour authorities. They have bigger problems than others—they are inner-city authorities with run-down housing stock and various other disadvantages—but that is not to say that we, as a Government and a country, should not demand that they improve their efficiency. I register an interest as a chartered surveyor: I speak with a little professional knowledge. I think it possible for every local authority to improve its efficiency, which is why we want to set

"targets for the re-use of such properties for residential purposes".

Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in many circumstances, it is the amount of time taken to repair a property that is critical? Mr. Sanders mentioned the importance of considering different housing markets in relation to individual local authorities. I think that what is critical is the time taken by a local authority to take a void property and return it to use, not the time during which the property is sitting on its books while multiple offers are being made.

I have worked for a housing authority, and I know that properties can be offered eight or nine times. Authorities such as that—and it was a Labour authority—work very hard to ensure that properties are let as efficiently as possible. The hon. Gentleman fails to acknowledge that.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I accept that many people in local authorities throughout the country work hard to re-let their properties efficiently, and I accept that a change of tenant often provides a time during which a property can be refurbished. It is much easier to refurbish an empty property than it is to refurbish one in which someone is living. I suspect, however, that if some authorities maintained their housing stock a little better, they would not need to do so much refurbishment. I have seen some pretty innovative refurbishment of housing, and housing association schemes, in my authority—and, indeed, throughout the country, when I was a member of the Environment Select Committee.

If refurbishment schemes are conducted properly they should have a useful life of many decades, and there should be no need for major refurbishment. That is why I applaud a move to large-scale voluntary transfer to lever more money into the private sector, so that we can have more high-quality refurbishment. That is how we should be tackling some of our homelessness problems.

I find it hard to believe that any Member would rail against the idea that local authorities should be more efficient in re-letting their properties. I accept that some have more problems than others, but I do not accept that we should not make greater efforts. Paragraph (a) of amendment No. 8 is intended to reduce the time involved, paragraph (b) sets targets, paragraph (c) asks for an improvement in turn-around times for the re-letting of empty property, and paragraph (d) suggests that each authority should have an action plan for the meeting of targets. That would form part of the homelessness strategy.

Amendment No. 6 deals with the amount of time for which an offer shall remain open for acceptance. Let me, if I may, quote—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. As amendment No. 6 has not been selected, I am afraid that I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to speak to it.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Amendment No. 3 deals with the advice that local authorities must give in their homelessness strategies. This is an important matter, and we covered it in some detail in Committee, so I do not propose to do so again now. Suffice it to say that the regulatory code for the Housing Corporation and its registered social landlords may need to be examined. There are good and bad registered social landlords, and we must root out the bad ones and make sure that all landlords give proper advice to those registering as homeless. In particular, we need to make sure that proper registers of telephone numbers, fax numbers and e-mail addresses are kept. The Minister says that such registers do not exist, but I have seen them.

The Opposition are not the only ones saying that there is a variation in the quality of advice throughout the country. Shelter, an organisation that should know what it is talking about, conducted research, whereby people told different housing departments that they were single mothers, children or whatever in an attempt to get advice. In one case, a single mother received dreadful advice that was of no help at all.

When we were debating the Homes Bill in Committee, the then Minister, Mr. Ainsworth, said:

"The availability of housing advice, its quality and extent, should and will have to be considered as part of homelessness reviews."

In response to the hon. Member for Bath, he asked:

"Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the notes will be incorporated within the existing code?"—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 30 January 2001; c. 315-16.]

If those notes are to incorporated in the code, there is no reason why they should not be incorporated in the Bill. Surely housing advice to homeless people, and the quality of that advice, should be a major part of any local authority's homelessness strategy.

We touched on amendment No. 4 in our discussion on the rough sleepers unit. It covers housing provision for homeless people with pets. I accept that this is a sensitive issue, and I am sure that the whole House wants to treat it as such. There are some homeless people whose quality of life is hugely improved by the ownership of a pet, often a dog or a cat. Local authorities are not always as sympathetic as they might be to the need to provide housing that can accommodate pets.

I accept that much housing is high-rise and therefore unsuitable for pets, but pet ownership should be one of the factors considered when determining the suitability of housing for homeless people, and that should be stated in the Bill. Some might say that we should regard the homeless themselves as the priority, not their pets, but there are heart-rending cases of people being put into unsuitable housing and having to get rid of a much-loved pet. We need to think carefully before we deprive people who are already in difficult circumstances of their pets.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Pavilion

Has the hon. Gentleman consulted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or other animal welfare organisations in formulating amendment No. 4?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

The RSPCA has commented previously on the matter, and I think that it is self-evident that that organisation exists to ensure that all pets in the United Kingdom are treated humanely. The RSPCA would certainly not condone someone with a pet being given housing that was unsuitable for keeping the pet in proper conditions.

There is quite a lot of meat to our four amendments in this group. We have already been round the course of annunciating the voluntary partners that should be incorporated in the homelessness strategy, but I believe that the Government should seriously consider specifying such matters in the Bill. If they will not include such provision, please may we have some forceful directives that make local authorities consider all those bodies?

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

As my amendment No. 9, on empty homes, is linked to amendment No. 1, I should like to take this opportunity to seek two specific reassurances from the Minister, the first of which is on the guidance on empty homes that Ministers will, according to the Bill, give to local authorities. The second reassurance concerns local authorities' powers of compulsory purchase.

The Bill requires all local authorities to formulate strategies, and then to perform their duties and exercise their powers in accordance with those strategies to reduce homelessness. Amendment No. 9 states that the Bill should require local authorities to refer in their strategies specifically to tackling the problem of empty homes.

The Minister and I do not differ in recognising the importance across the country of the problem of homes that are standing empty. I suspect that we agree also that too many properties are standing empty needlessly. In England, at any one time, about 750,000 properties are standing empty, the vast majority of which are in private ownership. I think that she and I agree also that too little has been done to reduce the number of empty properties. The Empty Homes Agency, however, estimates that only about half of local authorities have a formal strategy to tackle the problem of empty homes.

I hope that the Minister agrees that public opinion supports tough action to fill empty homes, and that people feel very strongly about the issue, and not only when there is a campaign against a proposal to build a housing estate on a nearby greenfield site. I should think that all hon. Members in the Chamber share my experience of many constituents complaining about the waste of good-quality homes that are standing empty.

At one point in Committee, I felt that the Minister was perhaps suggesting that the empty homes problem is not shared uniformly across the country but affects only parts of the country. Subsequently, therefore, I tabled a written parliamentary question to ask whether she could provide the statistics for the number of empty homes by region. I hope that she will agree that the figures for 2000, which she provided in her answer to me of 18 July, show that the total number of vacant dwellings in every region of England, at least, is simply too high.

I accept that the statistics showing the number of properties standing empty are only a snapshot of the situation at any one time and that the number of empty properties varies over time, as empty properties are occupied and occupied properties vacated. Nevertheless, the total number of empty properties is simply too high in every region of England.

The Empty Homes Agency does a great job in the work that it does. It highlights scandalous cases of empty properties, collects and disseminates examples of best practice and gives advice to local authorities and others. The Empty Homes Agency is the strongest proponent of taking action along the lines proposed in amendment No. 9, requiring local authorities to identify the scale of the problem in their area, to adopt targets to reduce the number of empty homes and to work with partners to fill empty homes.

During Committee stage, I corresponded with the Local Government Association about the amendment. However, it was not possible to get a considered response from the LGA until after the conclusion of the Committee. It is fair to point out today that the LGA's considered view is to ask me to accept that the amendment is unworkable and that this is a problem best dealt with by ministerial guidance.

Hon. Members may have received a briefing from the LGA for today's proceedings. The briefing summarises the objections set out in the correspondence with me. First, the LGA says that local authorities do not have full control of all the properties that are empty, and so it would be unfair to impose targets on them. Secondly, local authorities work in partnership with others and cannot impose their views on their partners. Thirdly, the amendment is described as unworkable.

I am not convinced that some redrafting of the wording could not satisfy the objections, but the thrust of the LGA's objections is that it is pleading for the flexibility that guidance gives. There are times when we should not agree to give Governments of any political hue flexibility, but when those who are to be on the receiving end of the guidance feel that that flexibility would be helpful, it is reasonable to listen. My amendment does not need be pressed to a vote as a result of the LGA's view.

The first point on which I seek reassurance is on the question of guidance. All local authorities are under a duty to formulate homelessness strategies. Will the Minister confirm that the guidance will say that tackling the question of empty properties is an important part of such a strategy? In this way, all local authorities will be required to have a strategy to tackle empty homes. This will plug the main gap that the Empty Homes Agency feels exists at present.

Will the Minister say something about the allocation of resources to local authorities? Can she confirm that when the Government allocate funding, the performance of local authorities in giving effect to the guidance will be taken into account? That would be a powerful message to local authorities to carry out what the Government say.

The second issue is compulsory purchase. I mentioned earlier that hon. Members will have received complaints from constituents about properties standing empty. I would like to illustrate that from my casework, with two spectacular examples of empty properties. For the first, I refer to my local newspaper of record, the Staffordshire Newsletter, and the on-going saga of a semi-detached property in a good residential area of Stafford town that, apparently, has stood empty for 30 years. In the report, a resident of the street is quoted as saying, rather mournfully:

"One day it may be resolved but goodness knows when. It goes on and on."

The second example concerns correspondence that I have had with a number of people, including the local authority, about a sturdy, characterful property on the edge of a conservation area that was once rented out by its private owner but has been kept empty since 1982. Owners in both cases have done just enough to avert the local authorities stepping in and exercising powers to require renovation, demolition or closure, but the properties stand empty.

My Empty Homes Bill in the last Parliament proposed that the power of local authorities for compulsory purchase should be tweaked. Local authorities should have the power in the pursuance of a strategy to exercise compulsory purchase to bring back into use empty homes. Surely owners should not have an open-ended right to keep good quality residential properties empty for long periods. Local authorities should be able to acquire them at a fair price and ensure that they are occupied by local authority tenants, by a registered social landlord taking over the ownership and renting it out, or by an owner-occupier. Will the Minister say something about powers of compulsory purchase? I know that in the last Parliament there was an exhaustive—officials might say exhausting—review of compulsory purchase powers, but I hope that some action will now result.

I share the Minister's intention of reducing homelessness. I believe that tackling empty homes is an important step among the several measures that will be effective in achieving that.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health) 8:45 pm, 22nd October 2001

We in Plaid Cymru welcome the Bill and its emphasis on a strategic approach to homelessness and on strengthening the position of homeless people.

I support amendment No. 9 rather than amendment No. 8. It takes a complete approach to the entire housing stock

"across all sectors and tenures".

Much of rural Wales—and rural England, for that matter—has sufficient housing stock, with more than enough houses of the proper quality and in the right locations to meet community needs, yet those houses stand empty, out of the reach of local people because of the high price or the high rent. Many also stand empty for long periods because they are second homes.

Those houses are a fundamental part of the housing stock—perhaps 20 or 30 per cent., and more in some areas. In case anyone is taking comfort in the idea that they are in remote locations, it should be understood that many of them are in the centres of villages. They influence the entire provision, taking large parts of the stock out of the equation and causing housing need.

We also have substandard housing in rural areas, as was clearly shown recently by the National Assembly for Wales's new index of deprivation. Such substandard housing, which is now recognised whereas it was previously disregarded, again causes housing need.

In Wales, as elsewhere, we have homelessness. In my constituency, much of the recognised homelessness involves young people who live with their parents or parents-in-law or with friends in overcrowded and unsuitable bad housing. They are unable to rent because of high rents and the lack of suitable property, and unable to buy because they are on low wages, perhaps in seasonal employment, and are pushed out of the market by high prices. They are the victims of structural homelessness. It is no fault of their own.

As well as recognised homelessness, we have masked homelessness in rural Wales. It is masked by out-migration, not through choice but because of poverty and the lack of decent housing. We also have rough sleepers—yes, in rural areas, as was shown some time ago in my constituency by research carried out by a local group, Cywaith Joseph, which found people sleeping rough in the smallest of villages.

There are consequences for the viability and vitality of local communities, and there are particular pressures on communities in which the Welsh language is the everyday medium of community life. That was shown by research carried out by my constituency predecessor, Dafydd Wigley, this summer. There are many such communities in my constituency, and they are on the brink of losing the fight for survival.

Clause 3 is aimed at preventing homelessness and ensuring that sufficient accommodation is available for those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. In the category of people at risk are those who have had to migrate out of their area. The clause is also aimed at providing services for such people. To accept amendment No. 9 would contribute considerably towards the achievement of those aims, especially in the circumstances of structural homelessness that I have outlined.

Amendment No. 9 refers to

"vacant property . . . across all sectors and tenures" and calls for targets for reuse. That would encourage the planning of use across the whole of the housing stock, which, I submit, should include the purchase of existing stock by social landlords, rather than new build, which has been the pattern in much of Wales over the past few years. The amendment calls for a strategy for action—action that is sorely needed. I will draw it to the attention of my colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales ahead of their consideration of these matters, and for now I give it my wholehearted support.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The principal aims of the Bill are to set a coherent framework for local authorities to adopt in tackling homelessness, to strengthen the homelessness safety net and to extend choice. Those aims have generally been widely and warmly welcomed.

The Government may set the framework for tackling homelessness, but local authorities are best placed to co-ordinate strategies locally and to initiate preventive measures in their local areas. The Bill requires local authorities to take a more strategic approach to tackling and preventing homelessness.

A partnership approach is central to our proposals. We require local authorities to take a multi-agency strategic approach to preventing and responding to homelessness. Many agencies are involved with people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so, and it is important that those agencies work together to avoid duplication and gaps in the provision. A wide range of bodies should be engaged in reviews and strategies, and in the prevention and management of homelessness: probation services, voluntary organisations, housing associations, and organisations working with young people and those suffering from mental health problems. Organisations that deal with rough sleepers, too, have a vital role to play.

Amendment No. 1 would specify the bodies that should co-operate with local authorities. One, presumably unintended, effect of the amendment would be that many very small landlords and small organisations would be caught up in the obligation to participate in homelessness reviews and strategies. Co-ops and landlords of houses in multiple occupation are indeed important housing providers, and some will want to engage with the authorities. Where there is a willingness to co-operate, I would expect local housing authorities to welcome that, and to build real partnerships—but such arrangements cannot be forced, and I believe that they would be undermined by a statutory obligation.

My main objection to the amendment is that it would undermine the strategic responsibility that we are placing on local housing authorities. It is for them to undertake homelessness reviews—in partnership, and as part of their wider housing and community responsibilities. It is important that authorities accept that, and are clear that the responsibility rests with them.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I anticipated earlier that one of the Minister's arguments would be that local authorities would lose their strategic role in producing homelessness strategies if it was incorporated in statute that other agencies were to be included. However, as I said then, if by 2004 more than half of all public housing is run by registered social landlords, surely it is correct that they should be incorporated in statute as one of the consultees in the homelessness strategy policy.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

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.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold 9:00 pm, 22nd October 2001

I thank the Minister for her very full reply. I would have more sympathy with her rejection of all our amendments if it were made in a different climate. Against the background of a rising number of priority homeless people and those housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, I am a little sceptical about all these matters being put into the guidance and about whether they will affect the situation. However, we shall have to wait and see. The time is getting late and we want to allow enough time for Third Reading. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn