Sustainable Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 5th February 2003.

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Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Local Government and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 12:31 pm, 5th February 2003

Last July, I made a statement to the House about the Government's plans for a step change in our policies for building sustainable communities. Today, I am publishing "Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future"—a comprehensive programme of action to take these policies forward. Copies are in the Library.

The future of our communities matters to all of us in the House, and I would like to record my appreciation to the Select Committee for the work that it has undertaken on those issues, including its recent report on affordable housing. Much of the communities plan is properly about housing, but sustainable communities need more than just housing. They need a strong economy, jobs, good schools and hospitals, good public transport, a safe and healthy local environment, better design, more sustainable construction and better use of land, and much more. The plan is part of the Government's programme to deliver better public services, strengthen economic performance and improve our quality of life.

The history of housing over the past 30 years shows that all Governments have failed to meet housing need. All Governments have failed to provide sufficient long-term investment. All Governments have failed to deliver enough affordable housing, and all Governments have ignored the mistakes of the past, when we built housing estates, not communities. Not only did we underinvest in our housing; we used land wastefully, and too much of what was built was poor quality and poorly designed. In 1970, we were building nearly 300,000 homes a year. Today, it is half that, but the demand has increased. The result is a legacy of spiralling house prices, rising land values and a shortage of affordable homes.

In London and the south-east, more and more young people and key workers cannot afford to live where they want. They are being priced out of their communities. In other parts of the country—in the north and the midlands—the housing market has collapsed and thousands of homes face demolition. While private house building has declined over the past 30 years, so has the condition of local authority housing.

By 1997, the repairs backlog on local authority housing was a record £19 billion. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s not enough was done. The problem just got worse. As more people moved into home ownership—many of them through the right to buy—local authority housing continued to decline. The 1.5 million right-to-buy sales since 1980 cost the public purse a massive £40 billion at today's prices in discounts. Despite the £29 billion in actual receipts, not nearly enough was invested in improving the housing stock.

Local authorities were denied the money that they needed to repair the homes of their own tenants. Instead, capital receipts from right to buy were used to pay off the national debt. That is the legacy that we inherited—fewer homes being built and the condition of the stock getting worse by the year. We decided that the overriding priority was to halt the decline. That is why we released the £5 billion of capital receipts, which the previous Administration kept in the local authority banks, for housing refurbishment and why we established the major repairs allowance, which released another £1.5 billion a year—and this to apply nationally as the problem applies nationally. That is also why we committed ourselves to making all social housing decent by 2010, and we are on track to do that with 500,000 homes already improved.

Our first priority was to deal with the £19 billion backlog across the country. The decent homes programme will achieve the replacement of the £19 billion disinvestment by 2010. Now we must tackle the fundamental problems of high demand in the south and a collapse of housing demand in some of our most deprived communities.

May I deal first with the action that we propose to tackle housing market collapse? I am talking about communities where the properties have become almost worthless and where people on low incomes have become trapped in negative equity. In the worst cases, whole streets have been abandoned. In those places, there is no shortage of housing, but there is no sustainable community either. However, low demand requires a new approach—to re-create places where people want to live, not leave. That means not just tackling housing but, where we can, rebuilding sustainable communities.

We have already invested £5 billion over the next three years to help regenerate those areas, and we have set up partnerships in nine of the worst low-demand areas. Today, I am announcing a new fund of £500 million to help those partnerships over the next three years. In some areas, the only option will be to demolish houses that are obsolete, and we will make that easier for the residents. Home owners already get back the value of their home and the cost of moving. We propose to increase the compensation for the disturbance of moving home by more than £1,000—the first increase since 1991. We also propose to prevent the automatic renewal of planning consents, which will reduce the development of greenfield sites in low-demand areas.

The issues in high-demand areas are different. Rising house prices and shortages of affordable homes, especially in London and the south-east, are having a damaging impact on public services and the country's economic performance. We need a step change in housing supply, reversing the trend of the past 30 years. Two years ago, after extensive consultation, we said in RPG9—the regional planning guidance—that local authorities could provide new homes at the rate of 62,000 each year in London and the wider south-east. We put in place a "plan, monitor and manage approach" to planning, moving away from the failed "predict and provide" approach of the past, as I announced to the House.

We have said that if we used more brownfield land at a higher density, we could build more homes on the same amount of land. We are meeting our 60 per cent. brownfield target—seven years ahead of time—and will continue to do so. We are also taking steps to push up the density of build in the south-east.

Those changes, together with the £350 million extra resources that we are putting into improving planning and design, will increase the supply of new housing on brownfield land and the quality of what we build and where we build. Good planning means the right communities with the right homes and the jobs in the right place. I emphasise "right place", as I want to make it absolutely clear that we are not talking about homes anywhere and everywhere. We are talking about homes in sustainable communities to meet the shortfall in supply—not suburban sprawl, not soulless estates and not dormitory towns.

I recognise and share the genuine concern about our countryside. May I remind the House that a Labour Government introduced the green belt formulas over 50 years ago? [Interruption.] How true. Mr. Speaker, may I remind the House that a Labour Government introduced the green belt planning system over 50 years ago? I am glad that hon. Members appreciate and support that. They did not at the time, as I remember, but I leave that aside.

It was this Labour Government who provided access to the countryside and proposed the first national park in the south downs, and this Government who added an extra 30,000 hectares of greenbelt land, which is an area the size of the Norfolk broads national park. That is what happened in the first four or five years of a Labour Government.

We are now taking that further. Today, I give the House a guarantee to maintain or increase green-belt land in every region in England. We are creating a new body, the land restoration trust, to turn 1,500 hectares of derelict land in our towns and cities into new urban green spaces. We are providing resources for English Partnerships and the regional development agencies to reclaim more than 1,400 hectares of brownfield land each year—an area the size of a typical town. Now that is what I call a step change.

The House will be aware that in July last year I announced four priority growth areas to help to meet the shortfall in housing supply in the south-east. Each area offers an exciting opportunity for new design-led sustainable communities, such as the successful Greenwich millennium village, which is now being built. Each will maximise the use of brownfield land and accommodate growth in a sustainable way, with jobs, housing and regeneration going together.

The Thames gateway is the largest brownfield site in Europe. Plans for its development have been on the table for years, and we must now turn these plans into action, so today I am announcing new seedcorn investment of £446 million, which will help to attract extra private investment. With our partners, we will set up new local development agencies in east London and Thurrock to increase the pace of development. We will also invest £164 million over the next three years in the other three growth areas: Milton Keynes and the south midlands, London-Stansted-Cambridge, and Ashford. The four growth areas, including London, have the potential to deliver 300,000 more jobs and an extra 200,000 homes in the next 15 to 20 years. We must take that opportunity.

Every part of the country needs affordable housing, both for rent and for purchase. We are making £5 billion of our housing investment money available for more affordable housing over the next three years, including at least £1 billion more for key worker housing—trebling the current rate of investment—and extra resources for affordable homes built using fast-track, modern methods of building and design.

We will also tackle the problem of empty homes. In London and the south-east 70,000 privately owned homes have been empty for more than six months. That is not acceptable. The House will be aware that local authorities can lease empty properties on a voluntary basis. It is our intention that councils should be able to bring empty properties back into use through compulsory leasing, as recommended by the Select Committee. I also intend to allow local authorities to end their council tax discounts on empty homes.

Many rural areas, too, suffer from acute shortages of affordable housing. We are therefore increasing the number of affordable homes built in small rural communities, and we have changed the regulations to make it easier to keep homes bought under the right to buy for local people.

The Government are committed to home ownership, which has increased by 1 million since 1997, but we also want to protect the social housing stock. Right to buy is one way to help people into home ownership, but there are other ways that do not involve the loss of a social home to the community, and I believe that we could make better use of those schemes. That is why today I am asking the Housing Corporation to lead a new home ownership taskforce to advise on ways of helping more tenants into home ownership, using the whole range of existing ownership schemes, but without reducing the amount of social housing. [Interruption.] I remind the House that such schemes give social housing back to the community—they do not simply sell it off to the private sector and thereby reduce the number of houses available. That is the sort of social ownership that we have to take into account. The Conservatives spent £36 billion on giving right-to-buy discounts, but there are better ways of using public subsidies to assist home ownership and the provision of public housing. No doubt, we will debate the matter in future.

Sustainable communities need a safe and attractive local environment. We have already given local authorities an extra £1 billion in the local government funding settlement to improve the local environment and cultural services. I am now backing that up with more funding. Over the next three years we will give £50 million for neighbourhood wardens to help people to feel safer; £41 million to drive up the quality of skills in urban design; £70 million for community-led programmes to improve neighbourhoods; and £89 million to help local authorities to transform the quality of their parks and public spaces. All that will be supported by the proposals that we will make in our forthcoming antisocial behaviour White Paper and Bill, which will tackle issues that undermine our communities.

The most basic requirement of a sustainable community is a decent home. That is why we are making sure that tenants will be involved right from the start in decisions about how their homes are improved. It is why we are investing £2.8 billion over the next three years to improve council housing, making the private finance initiative easier to use, and providing £685 million of PFI credits to refurbish local authority homes. It is why we are providing an extra £60 million to improve conditions in private housing and £260 million to tackle the problem of temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We also want to improve conditions for people in privately owned homes, especially older people and those on low incomes.

As the House has often said, there are inadequate powers to tackle bad private landlords who make life a misery for too many of our people, often supported by public subsidy through housing finance. I will publish draft legislation to licence all houses in multiple occupation and introduce a selective licensing scheme to tackle bad landlords in low-demand areas. In advance of the legislation, we are already funding new pilot schemes to target bad landlords.

The step change that I have described requires a different approach, which links housing with regeneration, growth, transport, public services and good design. It also requires major reforms of our system of housing finance. We must move away from the top-down approach of the past and decentralise our policies and programmes so that we can deliver regional solutions to regional problems.

I am pleased to tell the House that for the first time we are publishing nine regional daughter documents with the report, which set out what the action plan means for all our regions. As I said in July, we will move towards pooling housing spending in regional pots. Housing strategies will now be drawn up at regional level by new regional housing boards involving the key partners. English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation will also work together at the regional and national levels so that finding the land is directly linked with providing the housing.

This is a comprehensive programme of action for sustainable communities that I hope will command support across the House. Perhaps I am hoping for too much. [Interruption.] In view of the Opposition's proposed 20 per cent. cut in public expenditure, perhaps they could support these proposals. The programme is backed with substantial resources of £22 billion, a 40 per cent. increase over three years and more than double the cost of the plans that we inherited when we took office. That is a step change in resources by anyone's standards.

But that is just a start. This is an enormous challenge for all of us. The proposals are about people and the places where they live. They are about raising the quality of life and working in partnership. They are about taking a different approach and creating sustainable communities. I commend them to the House.