Like other hon. Members, I warmly welcome the Select Committee's report and congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey on her introduction. I add my voice to those that have emphasised the importance of the point that the report makes about the need to increase radically the amount of social rented housing units to be built in the future. Shelter has urged that for some considerable time and I am pleased that the Committee endorsed it. I know how passionately my hon. Friend the Minister feels about it and she has rightly said that it will be considered during the comprehensive spending review. I have no doubt that she will make her points during that review and it is important that the message is also sent—from, I hope, both sides of the Chamber—that we wish to see a step change in the good work that is already being done by the Government.
If we are to increase effectively the supply of affordable housing, it will involve a partnership between the Government, housing associations, social landlords, developers and, obviously, local government. I wish to say one or two words about the situation in Birmingham. There is no doubt, as Mr. Dunne said, that overall housing investment in the west midlands needs to go up, and go up radically. But I have some concerns about the policies being pursued by the current administration on Birmingham city council. That is not to say that the previous administration, which was Labour, got everything right. It did not and other hon. Members and I had criticisms of it. Some of those points were brought out in a seminal report by Anne Power, who chaired an independent commission on council housing in Birmingham. Had the Labour administration remained in power, some important progress would have arisen from that report, but sadly the present administration has decided not to take up its recommendations.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition that now runs Birmingham does not get everything wrong, however. It does some things right, but I have major concerns in two areas and I would appreciate my hon. Friend the Minister's comments on them when she replies to the debate. The first is the approach to meeting the decent homes strategy for the city. The way in which the council is approaching that might not be sustainable and could have a detrimental impact on the supply of affordable homes in the city. The second is the council's whole approach to tackling homelessness.
The council has based its decent homes strategy on what it calls positive retention, which appears to be financed by a rush of land sales. I hope that I am proved wrong, but it is not clear to me that the figures add up in a way that would make the programme sustainable in the medium term. That is why it was wise of my hon. Friend the Minister to advise the council, in her letter of
The problems extend beyond whether the figures add up. There is also a real concern that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration's desire to raise as much money as possible from land sales could be pushing up land prices in a way that is not necessarily helpful in promoting house building in the social rented sector and the social housing sector generally that the Committee's report recommends and Birmingham certainly needs. Another unwelcome consequence of the administration's approach is that it is centrally driven and could end up inhibiting the development of the effective community engagement and locally based housing initiatives that are so important to building mixed, sustainable and safe communities. The independent housing commission that I mentioned emphasised that approach as very important.
We have been pioneering that approach in my constituency of Northfield on a cross-party basis and I hope that the city council does not try to stifle what is being done or subsume it into models imposed from above. I have some concerns about that because I know that my hon. Friend Steve McCabe—who, as a Whip, cannot speak for himself—has real worries about the way in which the city council has terminated a management agreement for the largest tenant-managed co-operative in the country in his constituency. I do not dispute that there are serious allegations against that management co-operative, but my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green maintains that the city has gone about trying to tackle the problem in an unacceptably heavy-handed way. Moreover, its procedural approach appeared questionable and in some cases to be contrary to the rules of natural justice—to the extent that my hon. Friend has had to refer the matter to the ombudsman and the district auditor. Once again, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at the matter in the coming period.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on Birmingham's management of its homelessness service. Local authorities such as Birmingham have Government targets to reduce the number of families presenting as homeless, but the problem that I identified in that debate was that Birmingham seemed more concerned about meeting the letter of the target than its purpose. In other words, a big part of the city's strategy appeared to be based more on reducing the number of families recorded as presenting as homeless or threatened with homelessness than on identifying the number who are in fact homeless or threatened with homelessness and helping to overcome that as well as possible.
That approach led the council to adopt a series of what I can describe only as "gatekeeping" measures that made it more difficult for families threatened with homelessness to be so recorded in its figures. In the Westminster Hall debate, I drew attention to the most ludicrous aspect of the matter: even when landlords were acting lawfully in giving tenants notice to quit and the tenants involved felt that that was reasonable, the council was forcing them into unnecessary disputes and costly court actions. I pointed out that, in adopting that strategy, the council was not tackling the problem of homelessness.
I accept that some improvements have been made since then, and that useful work has been done on an advice and referral service called Home Options that is being adopted by the council and some of its partners. The council recently nominated itself for a Chartered Institute of Housing award. It did not win—despite what its press release said—but it did reach the final shortlist.
However, problems remain: as far as I can tell, for instance, Birmingham city council is still forcing landlords and tenants into the unnecessary and costly court procedures that I described earlier.
There are other, more fundamental, problems. Birmingham city council still seems to think that reducing the number of families whom it allows to register as homeless or threatened with homelessness is the same as reducing the numbers who are in fact homeless or threatened with homelessness.
Another difficulty has to do with schemes such as Home Options. Such schemes have some good points, as I said earlier, but problems arise with the highly misleading statistics that the council gives for the number of cases in which it considers a scheme has prevented a family from becoming homeless. All too often, they deal with cases that are referred by housing department staff to some other agency, either internal or external. Any such case that is not sent back to the housing department is recorded as one in which homelessness has been prevented.
A statistic derived in that way might mean that a case of homelessness has been prevented, but it might not—the result might simply be that an applicant has joined the ranks of the hidden homeless. Housing organisations such as Shelter are aware that the hidden homeless exist, and all hon. Members know the same from their casework, but all too often those people do not show up in the statistics.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Smith and my hon. Friend Ms Buck have also spoken of the hidden homeless. I stress that I am not talking about cardboard city: I am talking about young people sleeping on friends' floors, and about families who are forced into already overcrowded accommodation with relatives, with all the stresses, strains and family breakdowns that that involves. Such cases might not show up in the statistics, but that does not alter the fact that they are real.
Birmingham city council has just published a scrutiny report on its homelessness service, and I commend it for that. The report makes some useful points, although I hope that the council will publish the evidence on which it is based. It says that the council wants to review the situation in the coming year. I hope that the review will ask some searching questions about exactly what the statistics the council uses are based on. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to keep a close eye on Birmingham and this issue to see whether, in reality, the claims that the council makes for itself reflect the whole picture.
I also ask my hon. Friend at least to consider changing the target that applies to councils to one that obliges them to focus their efforts on preventing homelessness and tackling it where it is unpreventable—rather than one that relies on recorded homelessness presentations, which can lead to overly restrictive definitions of what that means by particular councils and to overly restrictive definitions of what constitutes temporary accommodation. I know that organisations such as Shelter are worried about that. It is not a problem that applies only to Birmingham, but it is an issue that we need to address.
I say those things because I think that they are necessary, but, of course, they are entirely without prejudice to my plea for more socially rented homes. However the homelessness service is managed, without the necessary supply of affordable homes, particularly in the social rented sector, we will not have the necessary properties. I hope that my hon. Friend will look closely at Birmingham. It is making some improvements, but I still have significant concerns—as do others—about the way in which the housing policy is being managed.