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