I welcome the opportunity to spell out the Government's vision for housing. The number of people present shows how much interest there is in the subject, and suggests a level of commitment to improving housing standards. Housing is a basic human requirement that has, perhaps, a greater impact on quality of life than anything else, influencing our health, educational achievements and even employment prospects.
Housing is at the top of the Government's agenda; we are deeply committed to improving standards in the social and private sectors, and have already done much to deliver those improvements. However, far too many people still live in poor conditions or overcrowded housing; too many families spend months in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and too many homes are left empty and abandoned in areas of low demand. That is unacceptable, which is why we have set ourselves the objective of offering everyone the opportunity of a decent home. Last December, we published the housing policy statement "The Way Forward for Housing", which sets out our strategy. I want to focus on the measures that we are taking to deliver our key priorities, although it will be possible to touch only briefly on the issues of improving the quality of housing stock, tackling homelessness, providing more affordable housing, fighting problems of low demand and abandonment and bringing about a culture change in the delivery of housing services.
First, let me address the problem of improving the quality of housing stock. In a modern society such as ours, no household should have to live in less-than-decent housing, which is why we set a target to bring all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010. That is a challenging target, but we must and will deliver on it. We have significantly increased resources for housing to meet the target, with an extra £1.8 billion from 2001-02 to 2003-04 in addition to the extra £5 billion made available through the 1998 spending review and capital receipts initiative. However, delivering the target will require not only extra resources but a partnership between the Government and social housing providers, who are key to improving the standard of stock.
First, I congratulate the Minister on her new post and wish her well.
On the provision of desperately needed homes, she will know that in 2000 only 137,000 new dwellings were completed and only 13,200 of those were for social housing. Can she give us hope that those numbers will increase not only in the future but this year?
We have made the commitment to provide extra affordable housing, which I shall deal with later. Obviously, problems exist in different parts of the country, especially London and the south-east, and I shall deal with those and with some of the means by which we hope to improve matters.
The Minister referred to the Government's commitment to providing decent housing by 2010. Does she accept that a trade-off has to be made between providing housing of decent quality and houses in sufficient numbers? Does she further accept that a regional tension exists between the south, especially London, where there is a pressing need for more units, and the north, where there is a need for repair? Some of the houses in the north may be repaired and then never filled.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, although I cannot accept it. Some of the worst conditions that I have seen since becoming a Minister have been in London. People's reasons for leaving their homes sometimes have nothing to do with the quality of their homes, but are to do with the quality of the environment. The Government are taking other measures to deal with that.
In terms of the quality of the stock, we are offering social landlords a range of alternative investment and ownership options, such as the new arm's-length management arrangements and the private finance initiative for housing, to help to improve both the quality and diversity of social housing. The transfer of housing from local authorities to registered social landlords remains one of the key routes to delivering decent homes.
The Minister is being characteristically generous with interventions, given the number of people who wish to speak today.
My area faces a dilemma. The local authority, Stroud district council, has a well-run local housing authority, and I have always opposed externalisation of the stock. The authority is faced with the double whammy of increasing sales through the right-to-buy scheme and a corresponding reduction in central Government grant. It is being driven to consider the idea of the community gateway. Is that what the Government want, or is there an alternative?
I am grateful for that point. The central Government grant is being reduced because of loss of stock. The reduction should reflect the reduction in the number of units, and it is not possible to continue to pay the same level of grant if the authority has a reduced amount of stock. It is appropriate for some councils to consider stock transfer as an option. Such councils must consider it with their tenants and, ultimately, the tenants will make the decisions. However, there is a range of issues relating to improvements to the fabric of the stock and the management structure. I shall try to make progress, otherwise my speech will eat into other Members' speaking time.
Stock transfer can bring much needed improvements to tenants' homes. It can also play an important part in securing regeneration—it has been particularly effective in areas of low demand. If tenants support proposals for this year's transfer programme, more than 300,000 dwellings could be transferred over the next two years, yielding more than £1.1 billion in capital receipts for authorities.
Of course, we must not ignore poor conditions in the private sector, which is where some of the worst stock is to be found. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that squalid conditions are not condoned simply because they are in the private sector. Some of our biggest commitments to future legislation on housing are therefore aimed at tackling problems in the private sector. That includes licensing of houses in multiple occupation and selective licensing of landlords in areas of low demand. I shall return to that issue later.
Whether to intervene in the private sector is for local authorities to consider as part of their strategic responsibility for housing across all tenures. That is why we plan to give them greater freedom over how they tackle poor-quality private housing. We shall propose secondary legislation to achieve that by Christmas. But it is not just the physical condition of housing that is important; the living environment is important, too. The current overcrowding standards have remained unchanged since 1935. Our understanding of people's need for space and privacy has come a long way since then, and we are reviewing the options for updating them.
I am well aware of the problems faced by many people, particularly in London and the south-east, in securing good-quality, affordable housing. We have significantly increased funding for new affordable housing—almost doubling funding for the Housing Corporation over the three years to 2003-04. That will help to deliver our target of providing 100,000 new affordable homes by the end of 2004.
I am pleased that the Minister is talking about expanding the number of affordable rented homes. Will she say more about the difficulties faced by local authorities and the near impossibility of building new council homes in London? That is due to the need for capital repairs on existing properties and the impossibility, so far, of borrowing against existing stock to finance new developments.
The provision of new social housing for rent has been procured through the Housing Corporation. Affordable housing has also been provided through partnership arrangements with the private sector. That approach will enable us to achieve our target of 100,000 new units over the period in question.
It is not only those on the lowest incomes who have difficulty in securing affordable accommodation, particularly in London and the south-east. Public sector workers are among those who struggle to secure homes near their place of work, and that can have a devastating impact on the provision of local services. It also has implications for the need to regenerate very disadvantaged areas in inner London. The starter home initiative makes an important contribution to meeting the housing needs of some 10,000 key workers, and the bulk of the investment from that programme is being put into London.
We must consider other ways of increasing the supply of affordable housing, while also aiming to develop more mixed and sustainable communities. There is no doubt that a concentration of one type of housing or tenure can lead to problems, whether in the monolithic social housing estates of London or in the rows of pre-1919 terraces that are now so unpopular in parts of the north. We are therefore encouraging local authorities to make the best use of the planning system to secure more affordable homes as part of mixed developments. We must also ensure that we make the best use of existing stock. Bringing empty properties back into use is an important contribution to increasing the overall supply of housing.
Some parts of the country suffer the opposite problem, because properties are in low demand or, in extreme cases, abandoned. Hon. Members whose constituencies suffer similar problems will be all too aware of the misery of home owners whose homes have fallen drastically in value and who are trapped alongside rows of boarded-up and empty properties. There are no easy answers to that problem. The causes and consequences of low demand vary from area to area. Sometimes there is a link to crime and disorder and sometimes the need for more jobs is a major factor. For some areas, we are contemplating wholesale regeneration at a cost of tens of millions of pounds. For others that risk tipping over the edge into total market collapse, we need to take more immediate action—sharp intervention when decline starts.
Can the Minister relate the supply of housing in areas of low demand to the problem of low demand and abandonment? How many additional homes have been built in, say, Newcastle and surrounding towns in the past 10 years, leading to problems of abandonment in that city?
The factors that the hon. Gentleman has identified do not match up. Problems in lower demand areas are focused far more on large swathes of single tenure housing, all of one type, where the market completely collapses. Other housing attracting people away is not the issue. There is no way to get people into certain types of housing. The activity of private sector landlords is also relevant—I shall discuss that issue shortly—and control of those would be a major factor in dealing with some of the problems of low demand, particularly in the north of England.
We need to develop a better understanding of the scale and dynamics of the problem if we are to carry out the Government's commitment to turn it around by 2010. Some hon. Members may be aware of work done by Birmingham university on the subject. Its report has many lessons for all of us who are concerned about the quality and quantity of the housing stock.
The private sector renewal reforms that I mentioned earlier, and our recent proposals for licensing the private rented sector in low-demand areas, will go some way to giving authorities the tools and freedoms they need to respond to local circumstances and develop strategies for lasting change. I have already mentioned the need to diversify the housing stock. It is clear that some stock—for example, some of the terraces that I mentioned—is obsolete. Local authorities must face some difficult decisions about the future of their stock if they are to ensure a supply of housing better suited to modern needs and aspirations.
Indeed, local authorities are key to the delivery of the Government's objectives for housing. That is why we are encouraging them to develop their strategic role and to work in partnership with other services, such as planning and regeneration, and with local stakeholders, including housing associations, tenants and the private sector. That is vital, not just to tackle market problems, but to ensure that they meet the needs of all local people and offer them a real choice about the type of housing and community that they have. Choice is an important part of the Government's housing policy. By offering social tenants choice as to where they live, we give them a greater interest in their homes and a stake in their community.
We are funding a number of pilot schemes to test out new approaches to letting social housing that treat tenants as customers rather than as people in receipt of a handout. The new choice-based approach is already up and running in a number of the pilot areas, and the pilot authorities are reporting a positive response from their local communities.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise to her for having arrived a few minutes late. She talks about the pilot schemes. Does she accept that housing need must remain a priority in housing allocation policies?
Yes, but I do not accept that people in need should be forced to live in houses in which they do not want to live. The point of the choice-based lettings approach is to ensure that people still have some say about where they live, even in areas of very high demand. It is fundamental for local authorities and others to adopt that change of culture in their treatment of, and approach to, tenants and people in their local communities.
Does my hon. Friend accept that rural areas present a particular problem because the planning system's inability to deliver affordable housing means that people who wish to live in such areas have no choice?
Of course it is harder in some areas than in others. Some local authorities, in both rural areas and big cities, have been very creative in their use of the planning system to provide affordable housing. Whatever the circumstances, it is important that local authorities and others provide people with as much choice as possible over where they live. In the areas that run choice-based schemes, it is interesting to see the displays of photographs and property details that give people who are waiting for housing the opportunity to match the types of places on offer with their requirements and wishes. There is, of course, still assessment of need, but people are not forced to live in properties where they really do not want to live. That is an important principle.
It is also part of our drive to develop more customer-focused housing services that respond better to people's needs. I have highlighted our priorities and just some of the measures that we are introducing to address them. Clearly, those are not the only challenges that we face. Tackling the rising number who find themselves homeless each year is a key priority for the Government. My Department has recently consulted on proposals for a national strategic framework to set the broad context within which local authorities will prepare their homelessness reviews and strategies. It will also set the context for the requirements of the Homelessness Bill currently going through Parliament. That Bill places a new duty on local authorities to undertake a review of homelessness in their areas and to develop a multi-agency strategy to tackle homelessness, with the emphasis on prevention. It also brings more people into the category of those regarded as homeless with a priority need for housing.
The response to homelessness has increasingly been to put families into unsuitable temporary accommodation, especially bed-and-breakfast hotels. That is unacceptable. We have established a new bed-and-breakfast unit to work with authorities to see what more can be done to reduce the use of such accommodation.
I thank my hon. Friend for her forbearance in giving way so often. She mentioned that a new unit has been set up. Does she accept that the public service agreements should set tight targets on the numbers who use bed-and-breakfast accommodation, so that we can reduce and eventually eliminate its use, especially in high-demand areas such as London?
I accept my hon. Friend's point and I shall certainly take it back to my Department. The bed-and-breakfast unit is looking at how to set about its task. It will identify the various people placed in bed-and-breakfast units, the types of problem that they face and how best to reduce them. It will pay particular attention to families in such accommodation, as the pressures that they suffer are the worst.
Finally, we must provide better quality and more appropriate housing for vulnerable groups. It will be important to separate the strategic and provider functions of local authorities, so that they can identify the vulnerable groups that require different types of housing and ensure that that housing is provided. The key to that provision will be our "supporting people" programme, which will make a huge difference to meeting the needs of vulnerable people when it comes into operation in 2003. Support services can help stabilise vulnerable people, help them move out of institutions or prevent them from having to move into residential care.
On the housing of vulnerable people, will the Minister give some thought to enabling registered social landlords to have more information, particularly on housing those convicted of paedophile offences? Although local authorities are entitled to that information, that is not the case for all other registered social landlords, who are therefore unable to make appropriate decisions about housing those people on estates where a lot of children live.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has particular concerns because of the number of prisons in his constituency. Many regulations surround the resettlement of paedophiles, and a lot of support and careful work goes into the management of that problem. I am confident about the provisions now in place, but we need to ensure that people are placed in the community where they can be monitored and that the proper precautions are in place. It is a hard balance to strike, but I am confident that, with the increased provision made by the Government, the public and especially children are better protected. The "supporting people" programme will be important in providing the sort of housing that is needed for ex-offenders, as well as for other groups who often fall through the safety net of current housing and social service provision.
The programme will also provide instant support when people hit a crisis, which might be due to homelessness or the need to flee domestic violence. It is about developing better, more flexible support services. Crucially, the new arrangements will increase quality and help local authorities to deliver the support that people want and need. It is a challenging programme and it will be difficult to put in place exactly the right services from day one. However, it will probably prove to be the most important development in securing the support, encouragement and welfare services that those who have slipped through existing safety nets need.
I have set out the Government's challenging agenda and touched on some of the controversial issues, and I am entirely confident that hon. Members will touch on many more. However difficult some issues might seem, it is vital that we face up to them and find ways through. Housing is fundamental to people's quality of life. We must strive to ensure access to a ready supply of affordable housing, but we must also ensure that the quality is right and that support services are in place for those who need them most. I look forward to hearing hon. Members' views during what will doubtless be a constructive and lively debate.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should tell hon. Members that it is not necessary to touch their microphones. In fact, for the system to work properly it is essential that they go nowhere near them and leave them to the experts.
I am delighted to participate in this annual housing debate. It is clear from the numbers in attendance that housing is of great importance to many of our constituents. It is good to have the opportunity to discuss at length an issue that will be dealt with on many fronts. In the short time available to me, I shall touch on only a few matters, but I know that other hon. Members will want to raise others.
I welcome the housing Minister, whose speech contained some wide-ranging aspirations, many of which we share. In particular, I welcomed her comment—I hope that I have remembered it correctly—that the Government are committed to raising all social housing to a decent standard by 2010, and that they must, and will, deliver on that commitment. We will support the Government in that, and I hope that they do indeed deliver on that important pledge.
We must all hope that the housing market remains stable in what may prove a declining economy. Given the current interest rate, the housing market is very different from that of previous economic recessions. None of us wants a repeat of previous dips in the housing market, because they make it much more difficult to build new houses in the private and social sectors.
Before the 1997 election, the Prime Minister promised everyone the chance of a decent home, but in reality he has made getting a foot on the property ladder more difficult. The average cost of a first-time buyer's home has risen by 23 per cent. since the Government came to power. In London, the average first-time buyer needs to find an extra £40,000. Part of the explanation is that the Government have increased a number of stealth taxes—
The hon. Gentleman says "Oh," but I will give examples of those stealth taxes and perhaps he will put them in his pipe and smoke them. The Government have abolished mortgage tax relief and raised stamp duty twice.
I shall give way in a moment, but let me finish with the taxes that the Government have increased.
Because the Government have raised the threshold for stamp duty, which has not kept pace with the increase in property value, the burden of stamp duty is now felt further down the property ladder than ever before. The Government have reduced the right-to-buy discounts. The maximum value of any discount was £50,000, but under Labour it has been reduced to £22,000 in the north-east and £38,000 in London, varying by region.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the Government is that council tax has risen by three times the rate of inflation—an extra £212 a year on band E property. That affects virtually all our constituents, who I am sure do not find it very amusing, although many Labour Members seem to.
Has it escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that interest rates for housing are at their lowest level since 1955? Does he agree that that encourages more home ownership? We have certainly seen evidence of that in the north-west.
It is thoroughly good that interest rates are as low as in 1955, when a Conservative Government were in power. It will also be good if those rates encourage more people to buy their own homes, something that our party wants to see.
Unfortunately, according to the Government's figures, the amount of social housing constructed under them has plummeted. From 1993 to 1996, local authorities and registered social landlords built 150,000 new social dwellings, but from 1996 to 2000, only 95,500 such units were constructed. That amounts to a 37 per cent. drop. One of the biggest issues that we can address today, and I say this in a spirit of non-partisanship—[Laughter.] Mr. Love may laugh, but if he waits to hear what I have to say, he might agree with it.
One of the most significant factors in the housing sector are the 763,900 empty houses—the Minister gave me that total in an answer on
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is going to see some of the charities that deal with the homeless, but does he accept that homelessness doubled during the last years of the Conservative Government? That period also saw massive disinvestment in housing, greater than that in any other sector or public service. Should he not, at least, have some humility at the consequences of the last Conservative Government's actions, when dealing with the matter and when meeting homelessness charities?
I shall give the hon. Lady an A for effort. The fact is that this Government are now in their fifth year, and they have not begun to sort the problem out. I shall make some criticisms of their approach to homelessness in a minute, but they have no proper homelessness strategy. They have a number of initiatives going round, but they have not tied them all together.
No, because I am trying to make a little progress. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very good at intervening because I have seen him many times in the Chamber, but if he can contain himself a little longer, I will let him intervene later, although I know that he is mischief making.
I return to the subject of empty property. Under this Government, the amount of empty council housing in England has risen by 7 per cent., from 81,200 in April 1997 to 87,186 in April 2000. We are concerned not only about the total numbers of dwellings, the figures for which I have supplied, but about the number of empty council houses, which is rising. That is unacceptable and I believe that the ombudsman had something to say about it.
On the subject of the homelessness strategy, the Minister knows that we welcomed the Homelessness Bill, which we believe will play a major part in dealing with this tragic problem. However, that Bill arrives amid a host of Government initiatives. We do not know what the Government's homelessness strategy will be, nor do we yet have guidelines on vulnerable groups, which are being published. I raised that with the Minister during the homelessness debate and have done so since. Many people outside this place are anxious to see the guidelines to which my hon. Friend Mr. Turner referred. They deal with critical groups: 16 to 18-year-olds who are being abused; 18 to 20-year-olds; and those who have left institutions. Will the Minister let us see those guidelines as soon as possible?
I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments because there has obviously been a sea change in Conservative attitudes towards homelessness. Does he disagree with the Conservative leader of Torbay unitary authority, who said last week that we should have zero tolerance towards rough sleepers and sweep them off the streets?
I shall deal with rough sleepers in a moment. If the hon. Gentleman can be patient, he will hear exactly what I have to say on that subject and about our policy.
The Bill includes policies for priority groups, but we have yet to see them or the proposals for rogue landlords in the private sector. The bed-and-breakfast unit is also a problem, as the hon. Member for Edmonton said. I probed the Minister on that in a written question, and she answered on
Housing benefit is a great difficulty for those at the lower end of the income scale and for those who have to administer it, and I am highly critical of the Government on that. Since Labour came to power in 1997, more than 100 changes have been made to the housing benefit regulations. That makes things almost impossible for any council, or any company to which a council might have contracted out.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that a Conservative Government changed the rules on local authority spending, which forced local authorities to put their housing benefit services out to tender? As a result, several appalling companies were brought in, such as IT Net, with which the people of Islington have the misfortune to deal if they try to claim housing benefit. The failure of IT Net in my borough has been repeated in borough after borough across the country. Does the hon. Gentleman support the principle of bringing housing benefit back in house to be run directly by local authorities, so that the service would be better run and more accountable than it is under those ghastly companies that are causing mayhem for many people?
The hon. Member for Islington, North has a nice way of trying to twist the facts. As I recall, each council was required to examine the cost of administering housing benefit to see whether it could be done more cheaply in the private sector. However, councils such as my local authority were allowed to continue to administer housing benefit if they could prove that their costs were lower than in the private sector. That is not to say that I do not sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's position, but the remedy is in his and the Government's hands. If the job is not being done properly in the private sector—nobody would condone that—it should return to local authority administration. In view of this serious problem, a Conservative Government would consider whether housing benefit should be taken from local authority control and handed to the Benefits Agency to be administered with other benefits. The Benefits Agency ultimately controls housing benefit because it operates the income support mechanisms that are the gateway to it.
Is there not a question mark over the wisdom and capacity of local authorities that signed contracts to outsource housing benefit, but included insufficient break clauses or penalties for companies that were incapable of delivering? Those authorities were mostly run by people of the same persuasion as Jeremy Corbyn.
My hon. Friend raises a pertinent and important point. Some authorities are making waste disposal contracts for 15 or 20 years, which is extremely worrying. When public services are let there should be break clauses to cover situations in which contract conditions are not met.
Will the hon. Gentleman convey to Westminster city council, which is a Conservative flagship council, the interesting sentiments that he has just expressed? It outsourced its housing benefit to Capita a year and a half ago, and it ended up with 27,000 items of unanswered post and hundreds of notices seeking possession. That provides a perfect example of the incompetent managing authorities to which he referred.
I am unable to confirm those figures. I hope that the hon. Lady will press her local authority carefully to examine the contract to see whether it is being adhered to, whether there are break clauses and whether there are penalties for sub-standard contractors. It causes suffering when private companies that are not up to standard engage in contract work. We all know the problems that arise when housing benefit is not paid on time: arrears build up and evictions can occur. Even in my local authority, such situations have occurred, which is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
I should like to move on because time is short and hon. Members want to raise other matters. I should like to raise the important issue of key workers. We all know that the housing market has put the price of houses at the bottom end of the scale out of the reach of many key workers in the public sector. That is a problem in London, the south-east and in my area, the Cotswolds. We must carefully consider schemes for key workers—not only those who are currently listed, but others who need to be included. In my constituency, the Fosseway housing association is undertaking an experiment with a key workers scheme in Swindon, and I hope shortly to have the results. I recently heard about a local post for a maths teacher for which nobody applied. The head teacher told me that one reason cited by some of those who had thought of applying was the price of housing in the Cotswolds. The same must be true of many other areas in the south-east.
As a near neighbour of the hon. Gentleman, I sympathise because I have the same problem. However, it affects not only people in public service, but care workers. Villages must be able to restore some element of social housing so that people can live and work in their communities rather than being imported from miles away.
I entirely agree with my neighbour. My council undertook a large-scale voluntary transfer. It has money in the bank; the problem is that it cannot find the sites. I have been prodding and cajoling it into building more social housing units in villages. The hon. Member for Stroud is right: unless we maintain the social balance in such villages—especially those in our constituencies, which tend to be unique in character—they will continue to die. The vital services that people need—the village shop, the pub, the health centre—will be threatened unless we can maintain a proper social mix.
I want to ask the Minister about the original Homes Bill. Do the Government intend to revive the proposals for seller's packs, contained in part I, or are they finally dead? I recently attended a meeting with the Council of Mortgage Lenders, where I was strongly lobbied to the effect that such added bureaucracy was not needed in the present precarious housing market, and that the advent of new technology such as e-conveyancing and e-local authority searches would eventually overtake the need for it. I ask the Government, in a spirit of bipartisanship, to drop that completely unnecessary—
I said that I would not. Many hon. Members want to speak, and it is only fair to them that I should conclude.
I have a final point for the Minister. On
"what recent research has been carried out by his Department on the causes of homelessness in relation to (a) violence in the home and (b) drug abuse."
The Minister gave an astonishing answer:
"This Department has carried out no research recently on the causes of homelessness in relation to violence in the home or drug abuse."—[Hansard, 9 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 462W.]
That is an extraordinary state of affairs, especially given that Crisis tells us that those suffering from drug abuse are one of the most difficult groups to deal with. If the Government are not carrying out research, they must be either commissioning it or relying on that carried out by others. If they are living in a vacuum and do not know how trends are developing in two key causes of homelessness, no wonder the figures for homelessness are rising. Mr. Deputy Speaker—
Mr. Pike, I did not see you creep in. A Deputy Speaker started the debate, and you are so stealthy and sylph-like that you crept in without my seeing you. We are delighted to see you here this afternoon.
There are many other issues to do with housing targets, greenfield and brownfield sites and planning law that I am sure my hon. Friends will raise this afternoon. The debate has been important, particularly in relation to homelessness and the most vulnerable in our society. Public sector housing is changing and by 2004 the majority will be provided by the social housing sector, not by the local authority sector. The Government should ensure that public sector tenants are properly looked after, and that they have a proper say in how their houses are run. At the moment it is felt that those in the local authority sector have greater rights of consultation, through their councillors, than those in the social housing sector. The Government must introduce proper tenant participation and, above all, look after the most vulnerable in society. Those at the bottom end of the scale must be helped and, in the words of the Prime Minister, given a little lift up.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Pike. With your encyclopaedic knowledge of housing law, we shall be careful to mind our Ps and Qs.
The Minister faces many challenges, and she expects to hear us recount some of them this afternoon. Personally, I would place the provision of an adequate supply of affordable housing at the top of my "to do" list. Nevertheless, I shall not assail the Minister with problems; most of my speech will be brimful of unremittingly good news, as I am sure she will be pleased to hear.
I would like to start with the Government's changes to planning policy. The changes to planning policy guidance No. 3—PPG3—are intended to help local authorities to use planning law to secure the provision of more affordable local housing. In some parts of the country, that is working tolerably well. I saw a good local example at a recent parish council meeting where the councillors were poring over a set of plans for a new housing development of 120 units. About a quarter of the units were affordable housing.
In some parts of the country the strategy is working well, but in others it is not. Last week, other hon. Members and I went to the launch of a report jointly produced by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Housing Corporation, called "Delivering Affordable Housing through the Planning System". I accept that the report will never be a best seller, but it makes a number of practical recommendations to help standardise the successes of PPG3 across the country. I shall not read the whole list, but it includes, for example, a recommendation that local authorities should have clearly based policies for achieving planning-led affordable housing, and that their policies should be underpinned by robust research and data. It also recommends that they select more specific targets for the amount, nature and timing of affordable housing. The Government do not escape. The report recommends that they set up an industry standard for an approach to affordable housing demand forecasting, and that they promote model clauses for documents such as section 106 agreements.
The report does not stop there. It also makes recommendations for developers and registered social landlords. Members who have not yet read the report should do so. The Minister had a representative in the audience for the launch, and I hope that she has examined the report and is willing to make use of it to review Government guidance and promote more consistency nationally.
I was pleased to see that a local authority in my constituency, Stafford borough council, was one of those praised in the report for the clarity of its affordable housing policies.
I have followed the hon. Gentleman's arguments with considerable interest. In south Staffordshire, the number of homeless people doubled between 1997 and 2001, the period for which figures are available. Does he believe that the Government's new policy will have an impact on that and decrease the number of homeless in our county?
I made my position clear at the start; affordable homes should be a priority. Investment, too, must be a priority. I do not run away from that. Planning-led achievement of more affordable housing is another useful tool for local authorities, and they should use it willingly. The hon. Gentleman mentioned south Staffordshire, but it is a bad choice because the district council, which is Conservative-controlled, has turned its back on PPG3, and I often urged it to do otherwise.
Order. Members do not raise points of order with another Member; they should be raised with the Chair. In any case, it did not seem to be a point of order. I call Mr. Kidney.
Let me move on to the subject of empty homes. As Mr. Clifton-Brown pointed out, it is not necessarily a good news story. More than 750,000 properties still stand empty, and six out of every seven are in the private sector. It is important that people in the private sector accept their responsibility to help to reduce the number. It would have been better news if the Minister had accepted my amendment to the Homelessness Bill, which would have required local authorities to set targets for reducing the number of empty homes.
Nevertheless, there is some good news. The Government recently reduced VAT for some parts of the sector in order to regenerate empty properties. Members are welcome to sign early-day motions to urge the Government to make further VAT reductions and to reduce and eventually end the 50 per cent. council tax discount for long-term empty homes, if not universally at least in some circumstances. I would welcome that; it was one feature of the Empty Homes Bill that I introduced in the previous Parliament.
I urge the Minister to go further and to amend the Homelessness Bill to provide guidance to local authorities on their duty to act strategically to reduce the number of empty houses. Local authorities should be better able to use compulsory purchase powers for empty properties that could be put to good social use.
Would my hon. Friend be interested in a scheme that I introduced in Croydon when I chaired housing? The council would act as a letting agent for empty private-sector houses and would guarantee the return of the house intact, refurbished and in good condition after a set time. That resulted in 600 empty houses being made available for affordable use by families.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I commend the Empty Homes Agency, which promotes co-operative work of that sort between local authorities and the private sector throughout the country. In some areas, the local authority or the private sector do not listen, but I shall mention in a moment an example in my area of the local authority and the private sector working well together.
It is not good news that the Government have not yet met their 1997 manifesto commitment to legislate to ensure the registration of housing in multiple occupation? We shall have an early opportunity to put that right with a private Member's Bill, the Home Energy Conservation Bill, which would provide a registration scheme. I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government will support it.
I came under a lot of pressure about the registration of houses in multiple occupation when I attended a Folgate residents' association meeting in Stafford a couple of years ago. It is an old estate, with narrow streets and large, terraced houses with no gardens. Many of the houses had been purchased by developers, who converted them into bed-sit accommodation. There was much social conflict between the long-stay residents—families who have more than one car—and the newcomers. They would certainly have welcomed a system for registering houses in multiple occupation because they were worried about social conflict and the safety of the property for its given use, especially as the properties were packed so closely together.
I have received representations from the student union of Staffordshire university. Stafford is fast becoming a university town, and many students occupy property in the private sector. On behalf of those students, the union is keen for acceptable standards to prevail. I can give an example of good local co-operative working in Stafford, where there is a robust three-way partnership between the university accommodation office, Stafford borough council and the private landlords. Between them, they agree minimum standards for the properties that the students will occupy, and the private landlords allow environmental health officers to inspect to ensure that standards are maintained. That shows a marvellous commitment on both sides. Meanwhile the accommodation office solves problems that arise between private sector landlords and their student tenants. The three groups work well together. As an offshoot, the borough council and private landlords work well in a forum and have developed a rent guarantee scheme. I would not anticipate much local objection to a statutory registration scheme for houses in multiple occupation, given the level of co-operation in the sector.
Anti-social behaviour affects issues wider than housing. The Government introduced an ability for councils and police to apply for anti-social behaviour orders as a quick way of stepping in when problems occur, but that has not happened often in my constituency. The council would rather the police spent their money and the police would rather the council spent its money, so neither has done anything. In Stafford, some of the registered social landlords are a little impatient that neither the council nor the police will help them. They want the power to apply for anti-social behaviour orders themselves. They say, "In many parts of the country we and not the local council are the big housing providers. Why should the council have preferential treatment in being allowed to apply for orders when we may not?" It is interesting that they should be willing to take that on.
I can cite another development in Stafford. A bunch of enterprising women set up a company called ASBO, which offers a service to local authorities and police to tackle the problems of anti-social behaviour. The company offers a complete service, including gathering evidence of sufficient quality, relevance and rigour to satisfy legal requirements, and winning the active participation of residents as witnesses through the process of witness support. The company employees are experienced and work effectively with agencies such as social services, youth offending, education and probation. They offer 24-hour-a-day availability and even provide training to council staff, police officers and residents.
The partnership between that private company and the local authority has made an amazing difference to Stafford in a short time, as I have seen at first hand by attending one of their witness support meetings. From a standing start—their first meeting was attended by five people with an interest in the subject—the meeting that I attended had 50 witnesses present. We heard a superb report of all the injunctions, repossession proceedings and anti-social behaviour order applications that had gone to court and shown a result. At present, the company manages 24 cases in Stafford.
The most important point is that the local community feels that it has won back control from the small minority who disrupted it. Through the publicity that those achievements have attracted locally, people see that anti-social behaviour is unacceptable and do not go on with it. That has created a good mood, whereas previously there was one of despair.
I am sorry to disturb the hon. Gentleman, who is making a thoughtful speech. Anti-social behaviour is, sadly, becoming a bigger problem for all areas. Ten years ago, when I became a Member of Parliament, it was almost unheard of, but it is now a common problem. Does he accept that the system of anti-social behaviour orders simply does not work, as very few are made, and that the Government need to have a completely new look at that system?
My answer is, absolutely not. Anti-social behaviour orders are working, although not enough local authorities and police apply for them. The point of being able to apply and being successful in applying is that people get the message, which is the important message that I am trying to deliver to hon. Members today. Claire Castle, who heads the company that I mentioned, said that she and her colleagues want a national witness support group to be created, because anti-social behaviour is a problem not only for local authorities, the Government, the police and housing associations but for the community as a whole. The community must take back control of its streets.
There are interesting debates in Stafford and, I am sure, elsewhere, about the use of CCTV in residential areas, policing of the streets and whether neighbourhood watch is a middle-class activity or one for everybody. In Staffordshire, the police have been excellent in trying to make neighbourhood watch effective, without regard to the kinds of property in an area or the backgrounds of the people who run them. Being a member of a neighbourhood watch scheme in Stafford is a socially inclusive activity.
My final good news is that, two weeks ago, I launched a care-and-repair scheme for the Stafford area. That came about because, instead of scrapping care-and-repair, as was on the cards under the previous Conservative Government—I state that as a matter of fact, not as a political point—the Government rescued it and put extra money into it. Stafford's is one of the new schemes that have been developed as a result of that commitment. It is superb to see the practical assistance being offered to elderly and disabled people: advice, help with filling in forms, or someone to tell them how to get their hands on the money and to give them support while their properties undergo the necessary renovation, repairs or adaptation. It is a marvellous scheme. Since I launched it two weeks ago, there have been hundreds of inquiries and I have already referred two constituents to it.
In another two weeks' time, it will be national warm homes week 2001. That is sponsored by the warm homes campaigner, National Energy Action, and British Gas. I shall launch the health through warmth in Staffordshire scheme, part of the £10 million health through warmth partnership between NPower, the national health service and National Energy Action. That is especially relevant in the month in which we are waiting for the publication of the Government's fuel poverty strategy.
The Minister should not let all this good news go to her head. There are still plenty of problems: too many empty homes, repossessions and evictions; too many homeless; too few affordable homes; and too little trust of local authorities. I ask the Minister to invest in housing with conviction and to give her trust to local authorities. There is nothing to be ashamed of or shy about in the work that she is doing. She should work positively and proactively with her social partners, with confidence, as she has a good story to tell and an important job to do.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Kidney. I very much agree with his final comments and will go into some of them.
A decent, comfortable and secure home should not be a luxury item, but more than 111,000 households lack that basic necessity. The effects of that housing deficit on society are far-reaching and costly. It is estimated that the national health service spends £2.4 billion annually treating health problems that are caused by homelessness or by poor housing conditions. Crime and drug use escalate dramatically among the homeless and those who are inadequately housed, as do calls upon social services and special educational services. Poor or inadequate housing directly affects the quality of life of those who experience it. Overcrowding, lack of heating, poor ventilation, condensation, inadequate insulation from noise and poor repair inevitably increase the risk of stress, family breakdown, illness—particularly mental illness—low educational attainment and contact with the criminal justice system.
If stable housing is such a fundamental need that it affects people's lives so strongly and adds to demands on the taxpayer, why are more and more people doing without? There is not enough affordable housing to meet demand. Last year in my constituency, which has 1,400 families on the waiting list, less than 200 units of accommodation were allocated. Each year, more people join the list than there are units to allocate. That situation is repeated across the country.
It does not have to be like that. At the beginning of the financial year 2000-01, 763,900 homes were standing empty. It is surely a duty of government to ensure that the supply of housing is related to demand, and that no one is left out in the cold because they cannot afford housing. However, Government policies have run counter to that duty for 20 years: council houses have been sold but lost stock has not been replaced; local authorities have been denied the ability to meet local housing needs; and the ability of social housing providers to meet existing demand—let alone to offer a choice of accommodation—has been underfunded.
Most damaging perhaps has been the fact that Governments, including the present one, have resisted intervening in the market processes that result in the scandal of taxpayers' money being used to demolish inhabitable housing in parts of the country where there is infrastructure, while taxpayers are asked to fund new infrastructure to support privately developed housing in other parts of the country. Furthermore, that housing is often in developments of so-called executive houses that do not meet local housing need. Some developments in the south-west have had to be marketed in national papers to attract buyers.
I shall come to that later.
The market is in chaos and Government housing policy does not even begin to recognise the problem, which is a legacy of two decades of the same approach. Because of the different housing markets around the country, it makes sense for planning, fiscal and allocation responsibilities to be as localised as possible. That would require a radical rethink in Whitehall and acceptance of the fact that our centralised system of government has outlived its usefulness. It would require the creation of a pluralistic system of alternative centres of political power across the United Kingdom, in which local government was granted fiscal independence and a power of general competence to meet community needs, including local housing needs.
Giving local authorities more control over housing, planning and policy would make the system more accountable to the people and make it possible to tailor solutions to local demand. As things stand, councils are restricted in their ability to replace their diminishing housing stock using the proceeds of the right-to-buy scheme. That is like shooting someone in the foot and asking them to walk to hospital. Councils have been so hampered in their efforts to accomplish anything that they completed only 400 homes last year. In 1990-91, by contrast, 16,500 dwellings were completed. [Interruption.] I accept that that was under a Conservative Government.
Will the Minister tell us how much more money, as a percentage of GDP, is being spent on housing today than was spent under the last Conservative Government? I have a feeling that it is less. We should encourage councils to expand their stock as much as possible rather than placing obstacles in their path.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the right to buy. The logic unfolding in his speech appeared to support a suspension of that right in areas of high demand. Is that what he suggests?
Each local area, if given power over the relevant area of policy, should take that decision. I do not think that the solution should be imposed from the centre. I am not opposed to the right to buy. In my view it should be possible to use the proceeds from such sales to replace lost stock.
Although the right to buy certainly puts a strain on the provision of social housing, it is not the only culprit in the reduction in affordable housing.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say that by 2004 more than half of all public sector housing will be in the registered social landlord sector. Do the Liberal Democrats approve or disapprove of large-scale voluntary transfers, which give local authorities considerable additional cash to build more social housing units?
I was going to discuss stock transfer in a moment. Again, that is a matter on which each local authority must decide. The question of whether tenants would be better off with stock transfer under existing centralised rules depends on the level of debt, which can differ greatly from authority to authority. Ultimately, tenants have to vote according to the circumstances in their area. I do not approach the matter from an ideological position; I am interested in what works best for tenants in a given area.
As the quality of life in some of our inner cities and urban areas declines, more and more people aspire to living outside, particularly in rural areas. Consequently, they push up prices and price out local people, who then increase the demand for social housing in the very areas with the least of it. In addition, the demand for second homes or weekend retreats inflates house prices still further and sometimes undermines the viability of local schools, shops and bus services. In some west country villages, a majority of homes are occupied only when their owners grace the area with their presence. They do not use local services, which struggle to survive with fewer permanent customers.
Not only do second homes inflate local housing prices and undermine businesses and public services, but their owners are also given a tax break. Abolishing the 50 per cent. council tax rebate on second homes will make the system more equitable, but the extra revenue raised must be given back to the local authorities concerned to allow them to subsidise threatened services or to contribute to new social housing stock.
If the Government will not free up local government, perhaps they could at least make the system fairer by introducing a level playing field for social housing providers. Why not allow councils to borrow to build, repair or renovate on the same terms as non-statutory housing providers? Are the Government frightened that such competition might give tenants a real choice between stock transfer and remaining with their local authority? If all types of housing providers could compete to meet local housing needs, would we not see a reduction in waiting lists and more choice for those in need of such housing?
The Government's priority must be to provide more homes, which means increasing investment. An investment in housing is an investment in communities, areas and neighbourhoods, not just in bricks and mortar. However, the homes must be affordable, which means changing the housing benefit system. Affordable rents are a key component in any plan to tackle poverty. If left to the market alone, housing costs would exacerbate poverty. Affordable rents can be achieved in only two ways, or through a mix of both. The first is to regulate rent levels, although the risk is that the private sector will pull out as market suppliers. The second is to provide public grant or subsidy through cash payments to landlord or tenant, thereby funding the difference between a market rent and an affordable one. Whatever the reform, housing support should not be restricted by housing tenure. Assistance should also be available to those who wish to buy or part-buy housing.
Society pays dearly for poor housing. Decent, affordable housing brings more than economic benefits. Social housing providers make a long-term investment in the areas in which they operate, and are well placed to support neighbourhood renewal. The Government are not serious about tackling the housing crisis—they merely tinker at the edges of the problem—and the Conservative Opposition seem obsessed with the number, rather than the type, of homes that need to be built. A radical rethink on where decisions are taken and a commitment to invest in social housing are long overdue.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should point out that 10 more hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. Time is getting on, and I am not quite sure when Front-Bench Members want to speak. If I am not to disappoint many hon. Members, common sense and courtesy must be shown to those who want to contribute to this important debate.
I shall endeavour to lose half of my speech as I proceed.
As ever, I am pleased to contribute to a debate on housing, which remains the most pressing problem in my constituency. I have often described my constituency as a tale of two cities, because the affluence of the City and riverside living in glass penthouses in docklands contrasts with poverty, deprivation and hopelessness in the borough that ranks first on the deprivation index. When Charles Dickens wrote "A Tale of Two Cities" in 1859, he opened it with lines that apply to today:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times".
One could say that about housing in east London. It is the best of times: the Government have tripled the amount of money we have to spend on social housing. It is the worst of times: some families in east London, and elsewhere around the country, live in housing as bad as any seen in this country in the past 50 years.
I am pleased that the provisions in part II of the Homes Bill have been quickly brought back in this Parliament in the Homelessness Bill, which fulfils our 1997 manifesto commitment. It will put right the appalling injustice heaped upon people who are homeless by the previous Conservative Administration. This debate will allow hon. Members to reflect on concerns that we had during the early stages of the Homelessness Bill, and to highlight wider policy issues.
I tabled an amendment to the Homes Bill to introduce greater protection for those experiencing racial harassment, so I am pleased that that issue has been dealt with comprehensively in the Homelessness Bill. I am equally pleased to hear about the progress that has been made on the bed-and-breakfast targets following the establishment of the bed-and-breakfast taskforce. Families should not live in what are often appalling conditions in bed and breakfasts for anything other than a short initial assessment period.
The Government have placed on a statutory footing an applicant's right to accept an offer and simultaneously request a review of its suitability. The court judgment in March on this issue was enormously disappointing. It particularly affects applicants in Tower Hamlets because they get only 24 hours to decide whether to accept an offer. The Homelessness Bill will make the position clear, and I am glad that there has been no dissent about that provision coming into effect as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent.
I am disappointed that we could not persuade Ministers to give applicants a statutory three-day period to decide whether to accept an offer. The homeless have a right to seek independent advice, and as legislators we have an obligation to ensure that they receive the time that they need to get that advice. It would benefit my constituents if, in the Minister's closing remarks, she would make it plain that she regards a three-day period as the bare minimum to which the homeless should be entitled. In the absence of legislation, such a statement is the only thing that gives me any prospect of convincing the London borough of Tower Hamlets that its current 24-hour period is insufficient.
Similarly, I hope that the Minister will continue to press her colleagues in the Department of Health to close the loophole thrown open by the High Court ruling in May that social services have no obligation to intentionally homeless parents of children assessed as vulnerable and in need. We are forcing homeless parents to choose between having their children sleep on the streets or having them taken into care, which is no choice at all. Ministers have a chance, which they must take, to end that practice by amending the Adoption and Children Bill, which is currently in Special Standing Committee.
I hope that the Minister will give a commitment that the extra costs that local authorities will incur in meeting their new duties will be fully funded. I have raised that matter with her before. The Government mentioned a figure of £8 million to help with those costs, but that may fall short of what is needed. Some authorities have estimated substantial extra costs resulting from the requirement to examine the applications of 16 and 17-year-olds. The Government were right to give 16 and 17-year-olds extra protection, but would be wrong to put the cost on to local authority housing budgets, which are already stretched to breaking point.
The Minister will have received a copy of the response by the London group of Labour MPs to the public consultation on the forthcoming national homelessness strategy. The strategy must address two key priorities: first, the use of temporary accommodation must be reduced, especially by families with children; secondly, homelessness among those not eligible for priority need under the new legislation must be tackled and prevented.
Skipping several pages of my speech, I move on to the Government's commitment to a decent home for all by 2010. Everyone must remember that that commitment is not just to those picked up by the homelessness safety net. It is also to parents sharing a bedroom with their young children, or sleeping in the living room. It is a commitment to teenage brothers and sisters who have to share a bedroom. I met a 19-year-old girl who had been sharing a bedroom with her father for most of her life. It is a commitment to teachers, nurses and police officers who cannot afford to live in the areas where their services are desperately needed. It is a commitment to all the young people in London who cannot afford to rent or buy a place to live in the area where they were born and grew up. It is a commitment to disabled tenants stuck at the top of tower blocks with lifts that do not work, and to the many young mothers with toddlers who are stuck with prams on the eighth or twelfth floor and cannot get in or out of their accommodation. Finally, it is a commitment to pensioners left isolated and afraid in unsuitable and dilapidated accommodation.
To fulfil that commitment, we must have the funding. It is imperative for London to retain its existing share of approved development programme funding. I hope that, even at this late stage, a forward-looking household growth indicator can be included in the formula. That would guarantee ADP funding for the tens of thousands of new affordable homes that London needs.
I shall skip more pages to enable other hon. Members to contribute, but I will mention the transfer process. I pay tribute to one-stop transfer that has taken place in Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets Community Housing, under the determined leadership of Mike Tyrrell, is already ahead of the planned estate redevelopment schedule. It is important, however, to recognise that the stock transfer process in general needs support. I give it unreserved support in Tower Hamlets, but Shelter's recent report "Out of Stock" makes it clear that other local authorities have not been so good in ensuring that their contracts give people who transfer the greatest possible protection. That has had a detrimental effect on housing outcomes for homeless applicants.
We should accept Shelter's recommendations, which are: first, that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions review its current guidelines on stock transfer; secondly, that changes be made to the regulations governing the contracting out of homelessness and housing functions; and, thirdly, that greater emphasis be placed on meeting need in the Housing Corporation's regulatory code and statutory housing management guidance.
My final remarks are on the funding needed for affordable housing. We are not funding the building of enough social houses. Mr. Clifton-Brown mentioned the right-to-buy scheme. I have an astonishing statistic: in London last year, more than 11,000 council properties were sold off but only 3,000 new units were built to replace them.
In my experience, right to buy has been the single most disastrous policy. Although I agree that people should have the right to buy, we must safeguard the amount of stock that is available for social housing and consider other ways of doing so—for example, through the right to acquire. An extra £1.25 billion a year is needed in the housing budget. I urge the Minister to do everything in her power to persuade our colleagues in the Treasury that that money must be invested in socially affordable housing.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Ms King shortened her speech, as shall I. I thank her for taking that bipartisan action to try to ensure that all hon. Members who want to contribute can do so.
I shall focus on just one of the matters that I wanted to raise. I fully accept the great need to discuss homelessness and provision for those people who require homes, but I want to talk about the house-building targets that are issued to councils by central Government. It is wrong for central Government to dictate to local communities how many houses they are to build over the next 15 years. In my county of Essex, we have been told that 5,200 houses a year must be built over that period. That worries me, principally for reasons of local democracy.
No, not at all. It is only right and fair to give local communities a say in whether, and to what extent, new houses are built in their environment, and absolutely wrong to impose targets against the will of local communities in which new homes are to be sited. That smacks of bureaucrats, politicians and civil servants in Whitehall riding roughshod over the wishes of local people.
No. I have given way once. I want to make some progress, as other hon. Members want to speak.
The imposition of targets is yet another example of central Government infringing the rights and freedoms of individuals. The imposition of mobile phone masts on local communities and the increasing burden of regulation and red tape on small businesses are other such infringements. I, like my party, believe that elected representatives in local councils are better placed to make decisions about local planning, because they are democratically accountable and better informed about its impact on their community. The Government should recognise that.
The other implication of imposing housing targets is the effect on infrastructure. In my constituency, the local hospital, police force, schools and doctors' surgeries suffer tremendous strain in trying to cope with the increasing demands that are placed on them. However, the Government want to impose more houses on local communities, which will only add to the strain on the infrastructure, not only in my constituency, but in many others, particularly in the south-east. For example, in the area surrounding the Wick housing development there is a clear shortage of school places and GP facilities, and the bus services are inadequate, but although that is recognised, there remains a proposal to build even more houses without putting in adequate infrastructure.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but in my constituency, as in many other high-demand areas, about 200 children of primary school age were without a primary school place. In areas of high demand, such as central London, we are also coping with a cracking infrastructure, about which we can do little. The only answer is to consider solutions that deal with more than simply our backyard. The problems that he raises must be seen in a wider context because to consider each one in isolation will not work.
Point taken, but that is not my argument. If we start imposing housing targets on local areas, we must make sure that the infrastructure is in place, and the simple fact is that it is not. That is the case not only in my constituency, but in the country as a whole. We know of the waiting lists for hospitals and that the number of pupils waiting to get into classes is rising, but there is also tremendous strain on the infrastructure generally, and we need only look at the roads to see that.
I hope to raise this issue in my speech, but it is directly relevant to the point made by Ms Buck. People who live in city centres are not the sort of people who want to live in rural communities. It is ridiculous to impose housing targets on rural areas outside London on the assumption that people from the inner city will want to live in villages and in executive homes, which are what invariably spring up all over the place. We must concentrate on the regeneration of inner cities and brownfield sights, not build on the greenfield sites of the south-east.
I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend. We must ensure that we have the right houses for the right areas, but that can only happen if local communities make those decisions, and are not forced to suffer centrally imposed targets.
Government plans to build on vast swathes of our countryside will have a huge and damaging impact on the environment. The visual landscape will be ruined, and the impact of new developments on traffic growth has not been properly assessed. Building new homes in areas away from existing towns and cities will mean more people using their cars to go to work, to take children to school and even to visit their GPs. Without new roads, tremendous traffic congestion will be created and will add to the woes already suffered by communities, particularly in the south-east.
I believe that the Government population forecasts and estimates submitted by various Departments are surrounded by uncertainty. The rise in the number of single-person households is fuelling household growth. According to the Government's figures, seven out of 10 households that will be formed over the next 20 years will be single-person households—I appreciate that that is a difficult figure to estimate, but those are the Government statistics. However, Labour's proposals for new building are more likely to result in premium, luxury and executive family homes on greenfield sites, as they will generate the biggest returns. We are discussing the problem of homelessness and the number of empty houses in our country. Those proposals are a prime example of a Government-led strategy, dictated from the centre, failing to help with the problem of homelessness and empty houses. Such a strategy disregards the reason for the general growth in demand for houses. I hope that the Minister will carefully consider that fundamental issue, because if it were attended to, it could help to ease an awful lot of the pain that the Government will inflict on councils in the south-east.
Single, elderly or young people will not want to live in the new developments. Too often they are devoid of local transport links, making it difficult for people without cars to go shopping, to go to work or even to visit the local doctor's surgery. Labour is building the wrong houses in the wrong places.
For the reasons that I have outlined, I oppose centrally imposed targets, which tend to ignore the wishes of local communities about the extent and nature of new housing. The issue needs careful scrutiny.
Local authority housing targets are handed down by the regional development agencies. Does my hon. Friend believe that, with the advent of regional assemblies, which may remove a tier of local government, local people may no longer have any say, which would be even more undemocratic?
I could not agree more. Regional assemblies would place at a further remove any say that local people had in the siting of new developments. That would do nothing to ensure that the nature and extent of housing provision was appropriate to the community involved.
I ask the Government to reconsider their entire approach to the subject, in the hope that local people may be given a greater say in the future of their environment, and to ensure that the implications of their policy for infrastructure are properly thought through.
Order. For the guidance of hon. Members I should point out that the replies to the debate will begin at about 5.10 pm. Seven hon. Members want to speak, so perhaps they would keep their speeches to about eight minutes each. I have no power to impose a time limit and my advice is for guidance only.
I want to discuss the job opportunities and serious skill shortages in the house-building sector. It is proving increasingly difficult to attract young people to train in craft skills such as bricklaying, plumbing and carpentry. Current Government education policy is geared towards encouraging school leavers to stay on for further education, whereas many would probably be better trained as apprentices in skills such as those I have mentioned.
It is a matter of deep concern in most of the crafts that, even though apprenticeships are now more readily available, the number of people seeking them is falling each year. Of particular note is the number of women entering the construction industry. That was already low, but it has fallen dramatically in the past two to three years. What are the Government doing to help industry overcome the shortage of craft skills in the house-building industry? Without those crafts we shall not fulfil our pledges to improve housing stock or build new houses.
We have heard today about the poor state of some accommodation. About 1.5 million dwellings are classified as unfit for human habitation. I am aware that the Government have announced a commitment to ensure that all social housing is of a decent standard by the end of the decade. That is an extremely tall order. However, in the private sector greater incentives are needed for people to improve their properties and, critically, not to use cowboy builders for that work. Hon. Members receive numerous letters from people afflicted by cowboy builders.
What progress are the Government making towards their target of bringing all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010? It is important that social landlords and others should improve housing stock. Will the Minister try to persuade the Treasury of the benefit of reducing VAT on domestic repair and maintenance to 5 per cent., as other countries have done? It would encourage more householders to improve the condition of their homes, and make life more difficult for the cash-in-hand cowboy builders, whose activities are one of the most frequent subjects raised in our postbags. 4.15 pm
I am grateful to hon. Members from all parties who have generously curtailed their thoughtful speeches. My speech will be brief, not least because many of the points that I wished to make have already been forcefully put by my hon. Friend Mr. Baron.
I am fortunate to represent the constituency of Bexhill and Battle. It is a large constituency in the south-east, but very unlike the constituency of Ms King. It includes the Edwardian seaside town of Bexhill and a large rural hinterland. More than 70 per cent. of my constituency is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, as most of it is on the High Weald.
What unites Bexhill and the small rural villages that lie inland is the across-the-board horror and anger at the Government's housing policy and their intention arbitrarily to impose a large number of houses on an area that is unable to take further housing because it lacks the necessary services or infrastructure. It is also environmentally inappropriate to have those houses imposed upon us. The Government insist on 2,290 new homes being built in East Sussex each year until 2016 in order to meet their regional target of 39,000 a year. The Council for the Protection of Rural England said that such an excessive level of housing development would damage the countryside, undermine urban renewal and generate local controversy for years to come.
I shall say later what I think the alternative should be. We need targeted housing in rural areas, but it must be done more thoughtfully and in conjunction with improvements in the social and environmental infrastructure.
More importance should be placed on brownfield development, on which the Government's record is lamentable. If the Minister wants to help, she should ask her colleagues in the Treasury to reverse the perverse tax policy that encourages development on greenfield but not brownfield sites. The Government have no reason to be proud of their record of regenerating our inner cities and brownfield areas. They continue to allow the south-east and other countryside areas to be paved over, with one Barratts home development after another springing up like carbuncles, yet the inner-city problems, of which we have heard a great deal today, continue unaddressed and unabated.
Brownfield development under the Conservative Government was about 45 per cent. of new build. The present Government have set a figure of 60 per cent., which is a significant increase. I return to the question that I asked earlier about the not-in-my-backyard lobby. If all authorities like Bexhill ask for something much lower than the suggested target, the number of houses required will not be built. That will lead to inflation in house prices and an increase in homelessness.
That is absolute and total rubbish. Labour Members are obsessed with crawling over the political history of the previous century, but have no interest in finding solutions to housing problems in the 21st century. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that fuelling the housing boom in the south-east by building yet more houses is the way forward in the 21st century, but I cannot even begin to imagine the logic of that. We need to encourage greater regeneration not just in inner London but in the north-west and the north-east where huge amounts of housing stock sit empty. When I stood for election in Eccles, I saw row after row of houses lying empty. It would be neither sensible nor just to the people up there to ignore them and, instead, fuel the housing boom in the south-east.
In an intervention, the hon. Gentleman made the point that we cannot simply translate housing demand in inner cities to developments in rural areas, whatever their type and location. There is some sense in that argument. However, by the same logic, one cannot claim that the housing demand in the inner-city areas of London and the south-east can be matched with the low demand for the empty properties in the north of England. That will not work. We must develop regional solutions, which means that areas such as his must be part of the solution.
I do not accept that we are a divided nation of regions. If we build more houses, we shall fuel housing demand. In the south-east, the more we build, the more insatiable that demand will become. What we need is sustainable, economic development in the north and the preservation of greenfield areas in the south. I am not proposing a blanket ban on housing in the south-east, but I totally reject the Serplan targets for my area, which are supported both by Labour and by the Liberal Democrats. Under the Serplan guidelines, 224,000 houses have already been earmarked for greenfield sites. At the current average density of 23 dwellings per hectare, those homes would cover an area of 98 sq km, which is more than twice the size of Crawley. That would be madness.
In my own area, we have good reason for not wanting more housing imposed from the centre, as the infrastructure is lacking to provide for it. The Government had an opportunity to put that infrastructure into place last summer when, after years of delay and dodging, they finally vetoed the Hastings bypass. That bypass would have provided a major arterial route, bringing economic development to Hastings, which is an area of high social exclusion. It would also have released land behind Bexhill that would have been appropriate for housing. Although the road is not now to go ahead, the housing target is still in situ. As a result, many of my constituents are extremely worried that the Government will insist on houses being built inappropriately in ribbon developments in areas of outstanding natural beauty in our Wealden villages or, even worse, on the flood plains. In Robertsbridge in my constituency, houses have been built in inappropriate areas that are now subject to ruinous flooding. Our area cannot take any more houses.
I also want to discuss the design and quality of housing. There would be less resistance to new housing developments in my area—and across the country—if the quality of design were higher. New housing developments, particularly those in rural areas, are often uniform, drab and of low quality. If there were greater emphasis on better design, more sympathy with vernacular architecture and greater thought given to the tastes and demands of local people, we might see the erection of buildings that pleased local communities instead of inciting their hostility.
Next Monday, I shall take a group of planners, councillors and council officials from all parties in my area to see the Prince of Wales development in Poundbury, Dorchester. We should learn some good lessons about building sustainable communities with a mix of social and other types of housing, and with buildings for work and leisure, that are built in a way that is sympathetic to that part of the world. I am not seeking to prescribe any one particular design or architectural style for my area, although I have a great deal of sympathy for the use of traditional vernacular architecture in rural areas. However, I believe that quality of design matters a great deal. Insufficient attention is paid to it, whether in social or executive housing. I hope that the housing that must be built to meet the needs of local communities in my area in the years to come will be of a high quality, and will reflect the architectural traditions of those communities.
I agree with the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that infrastructure is essential. However, those of us who represent areas with very high demand face many of the same problems. In the past week I have met residents of the Dalgarno estate in north Kensington and the Warwick and Brindley estate in north Westminster, which consists of six 20-storey tower blocks and a low-rise estate. They are currently arguing with the council and registered social landlords about the building of additional infill accommodation. Those residents point to a level of density and a pressure on housing, particularly for those on low incomes and with high levels of social need.
I am not a popular person with those residents because I am prepared to say to them that we must tackle the issue of additional housing provision. I understand all their reasons for not wanting to do that, but housing demand and the problems that it causes are so acute and intense that we cannot hold out against such provision. We must concentrate our arguments on the problem of infrastructure. We need a regional solution for London, and that must be set in a wider context. In the old days of the Greater London council, its seaside housing initiative was one of the most successful housing policies ever run by a public organisation. It made a positive contribution to the problem of housing need, and I would like such an initiative to be revived.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle picked up on the reference to regional policy in my intervention. There is no flood of housing demand from the north of England that must be turned around. We are not dealing with that kind of population growth in London. My constituency contains two local authority areas—Kensington and Westminster—with the highest population growth in the country, but there is no huge influx of people from other regions with low housing demand. The problem in London arises from several factors, including the decline in social lettings during recent years, much of which is attributable to the impact of high house prices leading to people not moving out of social accommodation. Household formation and international migration, including asylum seekers—although that is a smaller and often overrated aspect of the problem—have also caused some rise in demand. A large part of the problem is the collapse of the private rented sector for people on low incomes. That must be dealt with.
My major point, which I have made a thousand and one times to the Minister and others, is about London, its problems and the need for assistance in dealing with them. London now has 52,000 households in temporary accommodation—the highest number on record. London's boroughs are accommodating a homeless population the size of Reading. There are nearly 3,500 homeless people in my constituency alone, including 450 in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. London has two thirds of the homeless households and three quarters of the total number of families in bed and breakfast in the country. Yet the funding formula is skewed against the capital, despite the extra investment allocated to us through the comprehensive spending review, which I recognise and warmly welcome.
The distribution formula is about to cause us serious problems. Those problems are relative. I accept that there is still growth, but that growth is not adequate to deal with the trend of housing need. Factors relating to low demand are included in the general needs index formula, but issues of affordability and household population growth, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Ms King, are not. The relative loss to London—taking into account what we should receive—is £128 million, which is equivalent to around 1,300 additional housing units. It is unacceptable and inexplicable that areas with high housing demand, which are in housing crisis, should be penalised by the funding formula. That is counter-intuitive, contrary to the objectives of the housing Green Paper and will make the work of the bed-and-breakfast unit much harder.
I support what the hon. Lady says. Is she aware that in the past four years the standard spending assessment formula has disadvantaged London by £400 million and rural areas by £700 million? Whatever the problem in the hon. Lady's area, the problem in rural areas is even worse.
The hon. Gentleman can make his own case, which I am sure he is more than capable of doing. My job is to make my case.
There is an urgent need for the housing needs formula—the general needs index—to be revised and for the relative loss to London to be redressed. I welcome the Minister's comments on overcrowding and the revision of the statutory overcrowding formula. We have understandably concentrated on the high visibility housing issues of rough sleeping and bed and breakfast. I am delighted with the establishment of the bed-and-breakfast unit, and wish it well, but we must not forget the hidden homelessness that afflicts my area and the constituencies of a number of hon. Members.
I shall refer to some of my constituents to highlight the problem. The Koudrai family, which consists of the parents and four children aged seven, six, three and one, share two bedrooms. Under the space standards element of the statutory overcrowding legislation, they are not overcrowded because the living room is of sufficient size to allow the adults to use it as a bedroom. The Bowen family, on the other hand, which consists of one adult and six children aged 13, 11, 10, eight, four and 18 months, are now officially overcrowded as the 10-year-old has become a person for the purpose of the rules. However, they remain between 8th and 17th on the list for four-bedroomed accommodation. That raises the question of what conditions other households have to cope with, but we know nothing about those conditions because for many years local authorities have not kept adequate records of statutory overcrowding or other overcrowding needs, because the legislation was so out of date.
I also cite the case of the Hassan family in Kensington, which consists of two adults and three children who live in a very small two-bedroomed flat on the third floor. Two of the children are disabled and statemented with autism. The family has the most medical points available to them but still only has 30 points in total, and the council explained that people with most priority have around 200 housing points. Some hon. Members may be able imagine what it is like to share a small two-bedroomed flat with three children, two of whom are autistic, but I certainly cannot. I find it hard enough to live with one child.
The demand for housing represented by those examples, and the stress and the physical and mental damage that living in such conditions causes those households, is almost impossible to contemplate. We urgently need to update the overcrowding standards. When considering allocation of resources, we should consider not only the visible and dramatic end of the housing spectrum, however hideous it is for families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but housing need in the round.
Like the rough sleepers initiative, the bed-and-breakfast unit will do a great deal of good, because it will have high visibility. A strong case exists for numerical targets for a reduction in demand, although Ashley Horsley said in The Guardian yesterday that he was not sympathetic. I believe that there is no alternative. Unless we have numerical targets to reduce the numbers living in bed and breakfast accommodation, we will not be able to monitor progress. I urge the Minister to consider that point.
The bed-and-breakfast unit could consider not simply how quickly people can be moved out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation but how to create a better package of support services. The Minister has done good work in that area already, but the Victoria Climbié inquiry highlighted how easy it is for vulnerable families to fall through the net, especially if they do not have English as a first language, or have other communication problems, and are highly mobile. The Bayswater families unit told me that there must be hundreds of other Climbié cases waiting to happen. We hope that they do not, but the risk exists because of mobility in the temporary accommodation sector. There is a strong case for targeting the next wave of the sure start programme on wards with a great deal of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, as they tend not to be highly ranked on the index of multiple deprivation.
As for family accommodation, the private rented sector does not provide a desirable long-term alternative to the social rented sector or to affordable homes for purchase, but it is an essential transitional stage and can help those who, for example, are moving to seek employment. I commend to the Minister the work of the Brent private tenants rights group, which has produced an excellent document—entitled "The Private Rented Sector: Problem or Solution?"—that contains a good analysis of the difficulties. The problem is that the supply of private rented sector accommodation in London has halved in the past five years. The quality is very variable, and because of housing benefit restrictions the relationship between the private rented sector, families on low income and poverty is highly significant. The Government have recognised that in their "market of despair" research in Brent, and the matter is now a priority.
The document sets out a number of solutions. It suggests bringing the needs of landlords and tenants together in a proper package of measures that include ending tax discrimination in respect of landlords who let properties, promoting adequate management standards—that ties in with the licensing of homes in multiple occupation—and abolishing local reference rents and allowing rent officers to take away from rent assessment committees the role of rent termination. Rent officers are closer to the ground, and such a move would increase transparency and allow greater flexibility in meeting tenants' needs.
As an added incentive for renting to low-income households, the document also recommends the excellent idea of a 5 per cent. supplement for landlords who set rents for tenants on housing benefit. That idea is worthy of analysis and I commend it to the Minister. Research by Cambridge Housing and Planning Research, which was commissioned by Shelter, shows that contraction of the private rented sector's contribution to housing need could be adding 10,000 people to the annual affordable housing requirement. Put another way, investing in returning the sector to its mid-1990s position is the equivalent of spending £700 million on new housing.
The reform of housing benefit cannot wait until we have achieved rent convergence. The Minister is aware of my deep reservations about the implications of rent restructuring. I am particularly worried about capital values and the possibility of high target rents in London and other high-value areas. We must urgently consider measures such as setting a cap of no more than £100 a week and allowing a high degree of local variation in respect of landlords who let properties that will be affected by high-target rents. Time is of the essence, as the proposals will come into force next April. This complex pattern of rent restructuring could blow up in our faces, and I urge the Minister to ensure that we do not run into serious problems.
Before we achieve the admirable objective of greater coherence and consistency between local authority social landlords and the private rented sector, we should make rapid progress by improving administration. For example, we could put pensioners into a separate housing benefit strand, set fixed terms for housing benefit claims and improve work incentives. Those suggestions are set out in two recent documents: the Audit Commission's review of the administration of housing benefit, and an excellent policy document by Pivot, entitled "Hope for Housing Benefit". The latter document makes the important point that if we do not seize the moment and integrate housing benefit more effectively as we enter a new phase of tackling poverty through tax credits and increased work incentives, it will not work as effectively in London and other areas of high housing cost as it does in the rest of the country. As a result, it will not be as successful as it should be in helping to tackle poverty.
As many hon. Members have stressed, the main issue in dealing with these problems is supply, supply, supply. We will not deal with any of them in the long term without a major increase in housing investment in areas of housing need. Under planning guidance, 50 per cent. of new build in London should be affordable homes through developments under section 106 agreements. That was recommended by the Mayor's housing commission, of which I was a member, and I strongly support that. I welcome the Secretary of State's indication that he might consider allowing councils to demand affordable homes from commercial developments as well. There is a lack of logic in insisting on affordable housing in those housing developments, and not in commercial ones. We should level that playing field.
The Government's commitment to public services and to tackling poverty is not in doubt, and has been demonstrated during the past few years. Without a decent home over people's heads, however, it will be hard to realise all the objectives and to make the best use of the new wave of anti-poverty measures and public sector investment being introduced.
It is a pleasure to follow Ms Buck, because she demonstrates not only her knowledge but her obvious commitment and independence of thought on this important issue. I thank those who curtailed their speeches, in particular Ms King, whom I could see skipping elegantly, gazelle-like, through the key points in her speech and avoiding the swampy lowlands occupied by the detailed recommendations of the London Labour group of MPs.
What a contrast that was with the remarks of Mr. Sanders, who was more like an elephant trying to remain on a tightrope. He tried to avoid falling off on one side with a policy that might offend urban constituents, and on the other with policies that might offend rural constituents. I did not hear him explain what market interventions he thought would deal appropriately with the problem of abandonment of housing in northern cities. Nor did I hear him respond—I may have missed it—to the question raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown about the exact details of the Liberal Democrats' policy on voluntary stock transfer, except to say that it could be done at local level.
The problem is that Liberal Democrat answers are different in every constituency. It is no good the hon. Member for Torbay saying that he wants to give local government the power to intervene in the market, to have new planning and fiscal powers and to have a general power of competence, if at the same time he wants regional government, with his constituents being run from Bristol and mine, heaven forbid, from Woking.
The problem that we have not faced is how to deal with abandonment. I have not yet heard a single answer to the problem of abandonment of properties in areas of high supply and obvious lack of demand. Will the Minister explain why additional housing is permitted in large rural areas in the south and the north of the country, when there is clearly a surplus of supply in some urban areas? Why is a house in Salford inappropriate for occupation when an exactly equivalent house in Newport in the Isle of Wight is not only appropriate, but one that people want to buy? The dimensions of those who live in Salford cannot be different from those of people who live on the Isle of Wight.
I must tell the hon. Gentleman that not everyone who lives in Newport has a yacht.
We need to deal with the planning problem at national level, but it will not be solved through national intervention and the setting of targets that are inappropriate for local areas. I will not go over the ground that has been covered so ably by my hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker), except to point out that my local authority—I do not usually attack the Isle of Wight council in this place, although I often do at home—sent someone to Serplan who voted in favour of the Government's target of 8,000 new houses on the Isle of Wight. That may not sound much compared with Essex, but it is enough for a small area. Of those 8,000 houses, 40 per cent. are to be built on greenfield sites—a target that is being implemented through the unitary development plan. I welcome the Government's publication of PPG3 with its 60 per cent. target for brownfield sites, but that document has no teeth as far as Isle of Wight council is concerned. It is happily giving its approval for building on greenfield sites, and the brownfield sites will never catch up.
I criticise the approval in the unitary development plan for more houses without adequate parking space in both rural and urban areas. It is not good enough to take away car parks, and especially commuter car parks, from towns, because if people are to use public transport they must have somewhere to park at the end of their public transport journey. People can no longer drive their cars into Cowes on their way to work, because the Government have taken out of the unitary development plan some of the already limited parking space in the town centre.
The other problem with which we must deal is housing quality. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle. His comments also apply to social housing. Some of the social housing that is being built is frankly tat. It is poor quality: it is of a poor standard; its common areas are little more than deserts; and it has inadequate parking spaces, which is a problem because people who live in social housing also want to own cars. It also has inadequate private space. People who live in social housing want private space because they do not want to bring up children in flats, which admittedly are not as high in my area as some in London.
I am happy to say that we should set higher standards for social housing. People who need or desire to live in social housing have a right to live in decent houses with adequate private spaces and places to park their cars.
I welcome the remarks made by Mr. Kidney on anti-social behaviour orders. They should be implemented not only by the sometimes reluctant local authorities—my local authority has not implemented one—but by both registered social landlords and the private sector. Why should people not apply for a private anti-social behaviour order to see whether the courts will uphold it? We should allow people to bring forward traffic orders to deal with problems of parking for residents, which many local authorities relegate to the end of their programme. The problem of inadequate parking should be dealt with so that residents do not concrete over their front gardens in sheer despair at their inability to park. Such problems reduce people's quality of life.
Who pays for the social housing element of private development? There is a distinct difference between the prices that can be obtained in London for private sector housing, to the obvious detriment of many of London's people, and the prices that can be obtained in other parts of the country, including my constituency. In London, the profits made from building private housing are so great that the cost of social housing is, in effect, met by the developer. If the cost is 10 per cent. or whatever, the developer reduces his profit accordingly to provide space for social housing. However, it is difficult to develop a site on the Isle of Wight, or any rural area, where prices are low, because it is hard for the developer to make a significant profit. He will make sufficient profit, but he will not make a significant profit, and he will not necessarily be willing to lose that profit as a result of providing for 10 per cent. social housing.
Ultimately, the purchaser pays. In some areas, social housing is a tax on the developer, as is right and proper, but in other areas it is a tax on the first-time buyer. I hope that the Government will consider that when they make their housing allocations to registered social landlords, so that they do not have to depend to the same extent on taxing the first-time buyer.
I begin with a topic that is dear to your heart, Mr. Pike—the condition of private sector stock.
Let me tell Conservative Members exactly why private sector stock is in such a bad condition. They talk about terraces of houses that are completely empty. Those houses are more than 120 years old. Unlike houses in the rest of the country, they were built on the cheap by factory owners within walking distance of the mills. They were built with brick-on-end foundations, with inner and outer skins touching, and with attics that were common to the entire terrace, which presents a real hazard when one of the properties catches fire.
The reason why tens of thousands of those properties are empty in your constituency of Burnley, Mr. Pike, in Eccles, in Salford and in Bolton is that nobody wants to live in them any more. During 18 years of Conservative government, no money was made available either to improve them or to clear and replace them. Now we are stuck with the problem. The Government are wrestling with it and I am sorry to say that they will be doing so for a long time.
The densely populated inner parts of Salford, Bolton and Burnley need places for children to play. When houses are cleared, more houses should not be put back on the sites: we need green lungs, as in London. Wherever I go in London, I walk past a park. That is not true of many of the old wool towns in Yorkshire, or the cotton towns in Lancashire.
The figures for Bolton are staggering. According to environmental health officers, we have 22,000 unfit properties, 5,000 to 6,000 of which are considered to be irredeemably unfit, yet people still live in them. I agree with Mr. Turner that we need more living space. If he were to visit Bolton, I would show him the two-up, two-downs with small backyards. None of his constituents would like to live in those properties, or in similar ones in Bradford, Burnley and Eccles.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
If urban regeneration is to mean anything in towns and constituencies like mine, we must have the money to deal with such properties. They cannot be allowed to stand derelict and empty. Drug addicts inherit privately owned properties because private landlords buy them one by one for a few quid and reap large amounts of housing benefit by letting them to desperate people. Next door may live elderly people who are frightened of going out. Yards have rubbish dumped in them, which attracts vermin. None of our constituents wants to live in such conditions.
I plead with the Government to help constituencies like mine to deal with those mega housing problems. We need to clear properties that are beyond repair. The Government have been excellent at releasing capital receipts and working on neighbourhood renewal, but they are not getting to the heart of the problem.
Cutting my speech short, as have all other hon. Members, I turn briefly to the public sector. I have long argued that we should try to move away from the public sector borrowing requirement model of supporting public sector housing. At one stage, I thought that the general Government financial deficit model would be put into operation. Can the Minister confirm that? I understand that, of all the countries in the European Union, only this country and the Netherlands operate the public sector borrowing requirement model. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong on that.
I was not present at the Labour party conference, so did not hear the Secretary of State announce possible alternative financing of public sector housing, which has caused so much excitement in the housing arena. Will the Minister tell me about that? We need to borrow against our considerable assets because it makes sense and is done elsewhere in Europe. Why cannot public authorities borrow not only against the tenanted value of their properties, but against considerable rent streams. Will she clarify what the Secretary of State said in Brighton, which appears to have been denied by the housing press?
Will the Minister also look at the model, called a community regeneration company, presented to her by the director of housing in Bolton? If tenants must choose an alternative form of housing management, I ask her seriously to consider that model, which is not in the housing Green Paper but is recognised by people as a satisfactory alternative to proposals in it and has now been submitted to the Department. Best-value considerations have shown that the model is better than the options that the Government have suggested for Bolton and other authorities. Will she please consider it?
I am not against tenants having a choice of an alternative landlord, particularly if they have a bad one, which could even be a local authority. However, under successive Governments, Bolton has been one of the few north-west towns to have been given all the brownie points for housing management for, I think, nine out of 10 successive years. That is an incredible performance. If the tenants, local government and national Government are happy with the management, why should local authorities be put under extreme pressure to transfer either management or the ownership of their stock to an alternative landlord? That does not make sense to me. Surely, we can leave a few well-managed local authorities with their own stock to look after, because an awful lot of people are now in the queue for stock transfer.
Finally, has the Minister seriously considered securitisation as an alternative means of financing housing in the public sector? That is a hot topic in the housing press.
The events of the past few months are a timely reminder that the Government's commitment to the delivery of public services must be underpinned by the provision of good-quality housing. The crisis in recruitment, spoken about earlier, is a reminder that healthy housing markets and good-quality housing are essential to achieving many of the Government's key priorities, especially neighbourhood renewal. The improvement of public services could otherwise be undermined by an acute shortage of affordable housing, with intermediate housing being lost in some areas and problems of market failure and local deprivation in others.
We should take note of the unrest in areas such as Bradford, which, in terms of demography, ethnicity and housing conditions, is similar to my constituency. I was told by our local police that, had it not rained on the Saturday subsequent to the riot, a similar event would have occurred in Luton. That is hardly conducive to building a healthy community.
It is important to recognise that in areas such as mine, and in Bradford, there is overcrowding and an acute shortage of social housing. Owner-occupied housing is in poor condition with few resources to upgrade it because they are focused elsewhere. As a result, areas such as Bury park perform badly in all the indices of deprivation, including child mortality, high levels of heart disease and a horrifying rise in cases of tuberculosis, which is usually thought of as the disease of the poor. Homelessness, overcrowding and lack of investment must be tackled now through urgent intervention in such areas.
Although Luton generally has an acute housing crisis in areas such as Stopsley and Farley, special attention needs to be paid to areas where the housing crisis is magnified because of a multiplicity of deprivation. In Luton, the general and black and minority ethnic housing needs survey has shown the council the worrying levels of current and projected need in the town. According to data, in excess of 6,500 households are currently in need, and that will rise over the next five years to nearly 10,000. Half of those people will be looking to the council to provide affordable housing.
In the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community, households are four times as likely to be living in unsuitable housing as white households, and the average income of Bangladeshi households is around £5,000, compared with £17,000 in white households. The survey found that about 5 per cent. of white households were in need, whereas the comparative figures were 37 per cent. of Bangladeshi households and 30 per cent. of Pakistani households in need. There is therefore acute need in particular areas, which we must address.
As for the private rented sector and owner-occupation, demand and supply difficulties are exacerbated by the results of the private rented housing stock condition survey that was recently undertaken by the council, which shows high levels of disrepair in the town. More than 7,000 households in Luton are already in unsuitable housing, which is more than 10 per cent. of all households. It therefore has a bigger problem of disrepair than other comparable areas.
What needs to be done to tackle those problems? Greater priority must be given to investment in renovation of existing dilapidated stock. Greater focus should also be given to a strategy for empty housing. In Luton, for every one homeless family, there are seven empty private rented sector properties. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consult the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the need to review VAT on refurbishment, to enable us to bring those urgently needed properties back into use.
In respect of social housing, for which there is acute need across the town, there is even more pressing need for family-sized accommodation with four bedrooms and a bathroom. However, there is no opportunity in areas such as mine to new build our way out of that problem. We are landlocked. We must therefore focus more on increasing Housing Corporation funding for acquisition and refurbishment, which I know from my experience as a chief executive of a housing association is inevitably more expensive than new build. That needs to be reflected in the financing of that part of the programme.
We welcome the doubling of the approved development programme for housing associations. However, we must also recognise that we must build on brownfield sites that are contaminated, which are inevitably of higher cost than new-build sites. We must ensure that those higher costs are reflected in the Housing Corporation allocations so that we can achieve our brownfield targets.
The vision for healthy communities in the urban and rural White Paper depends critically on healthier housing markets. Greater and more strategic investment in housing is necessary, as well as much more effective co-ordination with economic and neighbourhood renewal strategies at national, regional and sub-regional level.
As we approach the next spending round, I want my hon. Friend the Minister to make certain requests in her discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As many other hon. Members have said, we urgently need an increase in the supply of new social housing. In some areas, there is an acute housing need, especially in the south-east. We have heard about the problems in London, but they are not exclusive to London. East Anglia has similar problems. We need a programme for an extra 20,000 units to tackle the problem of key workers and to keep our households out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is more expensive. It is estimated that, in 2003-04, that would cost an extra £6 million. I hope that Ministers will be calling on the Chancellor of the Exchequer for that added investment.
There also needs to be increased investment in existing regeneration programmes so that they can be maintained at their present value. There is a distinct query about how much of the existing regeneration programmes are concentrating on housing. Given that many of them are time limited, there is a severe question mark over the level of housing resources in the future. That needs to be examined. We must maintain investment in existing housing stock in order for the 10-year target to be met. I hope that the Minister will be dealing with such problems when she discusses matters with the Chancellor.
As other hon. Members have said, we do not need a shift of resources away from areas of acute housing need, such as London and the south-east, to areas of low demand. That conflicts with the overall objective of the review set by the housing Green Paper to focus investment resources in areas of greatest housing need. It also conflicts with the Government's recently announced objective to reduce the use of temporary and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Will the Minister reconsider such issues?
During the next 10 years, we must set targets for overcoming the backlog of need in affordable housing to parallel the targets that have already been set to tackle the problem of rough sleepers, and that we should have to tackle the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We need to set an annual target for reducing the number of homeless people who are placed in bed-and-breakfast and other forms of temporary accommodation. The Government must set out an emergency programme for enacting and achieving those targets. We have already said that we need urgently to enact the Bill that deals with houses in multiple occupation and several issues related to the private rented sector, which my hon. Friend Ms Buck outlined, and which have been set out in the Brent private rented sector housing survey.
The Government should also introduce legislation to remove rent rebates from housing revenue accounts of local authorities to enable the full introduction of resource accounting. Local authorities' housing targets need to be put on a statutory basis. If we are to achieve an increase in affordable housing, we must give local authorities full powers and make it mandatory within their housing strategies so that they can work effectively in partnership with registered social landlords in their areas and the private rented sector to carry out the full range of duties in relation to all aspects of housing provision. That will require a strengthening of the obligations placed on RSLs and other housing providers to assist local authorities to meet their housing duties. That will be all the more important because, by 2004, more than 50 per cent. of all social housing will be managed and owned by residential social landlords. The strategic role of local authorities needs to be put more firmly on a statutory basis.
I make a final plea for the self-build movement, which makes a small but significant contribution to tackling the enormity of the housing problem that many of us experience. It is a movement that I espoused in my former life as leader of Lewisham council. In those small in-fill areas where we have a desperate shortage of land, such as in my constituency, self-build housing can be of moderate assistance in tackling the problem. We must re-examine the way in which the funding rules of housing corporations apply, so that we can enable unemployed and young people to build their own homes, thus providing them with a roof over their heads and empowering and training them. That is in the spirit of the Government's policy of regeneration and neighbourhood renewal.
I can sum up the whole of this largely good-natured debate in terms of investment. Everything that hon. Members have mentioned has come down to increased investment in both the public and private sectors. Other hon. Members mentioned that, and I hope that the Minister will respond to the point. Renovation grants in the private sector are vital for improving the housing stock. That applies not only to the north of England, but to all hon. Members' constituencies. Lack of local funds is at the heart of the problem. Few councils offer renovation grants because of constraints on local government finance.
The debate has been wide-ranging and I wish to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond, although I know that she will not be able to cover all our points. The debate has been excellent and a joy to hear.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron), for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for their excellent speeches that related, pertinently, to the Government's targets for housing in their areas. I have to say to the Minister—I hope in a non-partisan manner—that we cannot continue to build on our greenfield sites at the rate that those targets suggest. After we have built over the sites, we cannot get them back.
Pertinent points have also been made about building on brownfield sites. Yesterday, I was in Ipswich where the council is inhibiting a major development on a brownfield site because it will not allow a new road to be built although it has received private finance and will not cost the taxpayer a penny. Such political dogma against the car is unacceptable. We ask the Government to ensure that we meet brownfield housing targets.
I am a chartered surveyor—that is a registered interest—and I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle. We need well-designed social housing. We know the mistakes that were made in the 1960s, and some housing that was built then must be pulled down because the designs are so bad. I remember visiting a block of flats in Glasgow with a Select Committee. A poor woman on housing benefit was paying £20 a week for her electricity bill and, during the winter, the flat was colder inside than outside.
Mr. Sanders mentioned investment. That is what this problem is all about. If we do not have investment, we will not get the quantity of social housing units that we want. The Chartered Institute of Housing calculated that the Government must transfer a further 1 million homes in order to meet their 10-year renovation target. That represents a critical sum of money, and the money that is generated from stock transfers will depend on the rent strategy. There is little point in trying artificially to hold down rents in the private sector, and then complaining that the private sector produces insufficient housing units.
One of the comments made by Dr. Iddon caught my attention. He seemed to suggest that no urban regeneration occurred under the last Conservative Administration. That is absolute nonsense. We saw excellent regeneration in areas such as Docklands and the centres of Glasgow and Leeds.
No, I will not take any interventions because I know that the Minister will want to wind up the debate.
I do not know about the local authority of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, which he complained about. However, I suspect that the way in which the authority was run in the past has something to do with the housing stock. Hon. Members should examine the difference between the housing stock in Wandsworth and neighbouring Lambeth.
I sympathise with the problems of Labour Members, particularly those in London. I tell Ms Buck that if the Mayor pushes higher targets on the amount of social housing that will be built, it will have one of two effects: either the housing will not be built or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle said, it will impact on the price of starter homes, making it even more difficult for people to get on the housing ladder.
The Minister has a highly complex task this evening. She has a huge number of points to answer. I hope that she can answer many of them; if not, perhaps she will write to hon. Members. I wish her luck in her winding-up speech, because she has a difficult job.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part in this excellent debate. Many issues have been raised. I am sure that Mr. Clifton-Brown means it when he says that he is trying to be non-partisan, but nothing demonstrates more the chasm between this Government and the Conservative party—both now and when it was in power—than our approaches to housing.
No, I will not because I do not have long.
The hon. Member for Cotswold talked about the awful things that the Government have done to private home owners, but one of our great achievements has been to provide a stable economy with high employment and low interest rates. As a result, the majority of people, as never before, are in an excellent position to own and maintain their own homes and have a good quality of life. That has been a priority for this Government, and rightly so.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the problem of homelessness, which is a blight on any civilised society. Our priority should be to house the homeless and to ensure that they have the necessary support so that they do not become homeless again. What a contrast there is between the approach of the Conservatives when they were in power and our approach, which involves the rough sleepers unit, the bed-and-breakfast unit and the work being done with the Army and Prison Service on the symptoms and causes of homelessness.
I was delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is going to Crisis this year. I am astonished that he has been in public life for so long and seems not yet to have met a homeless person.
No, I will not give way.
I remember the council of which I was leader and other councils struggling against an intransigent Conservative Government to ensure that we could include homeless 16 and 17-year-olds among the ranks of vulnerable people who were entitled to housing. To be able to include those people under the homelessness regulations is a defining difference between Labour and the Conservatives.
The contributions from the hon. Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron), for Bexhill and Battle, and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) showed not only that the Opposition have no housing policies, but that they either do not know or do not understand what the Government are doing. It is inconsistent, to say the least, to castigate the Government for not providing enough housing, and then to say that houses should be built anywhere but in their own constituencies. The best way to deal with their points is to send them the planning policy guidance notes, so that they can know and understand the Government's actions on brownfield and greenfield land, and on improving standards and design.
No, I have said that I will not give way.
Mr. Sanders presented the Liberal Democrats' wish list. That may be want they want, but it would be the economics of utter madness. He said how awful it was for homeless people, and suggested using all the empty houses for them. For the reasons that my hon. Friends have set out, I reject the idea of simply matching up homeless people and empty houses. The hon. Gentleman mentioned building council housing and subsidising rents, but there is more to a good housing policy than just the building of houses and the paying of rents. Of course we must deal with those issues, but a host of others must also be addressed, such as those raised by my hon. Friends. I shall quickly go through the issues, and then try to respond to them in turn. I shall write to hon. Members about any points that I cannot deal with.
Hon. Members referred to affordable housing, bed and breakfast and homelessness, empty homes, houses in multiple occupation, housing allocations and time scales for acceptance, finance for homelessness, issues raised by Shelter, working with the Housing Corporation, skills shortages, women and black and ethnic minority communities and building, problems of housing in London, the detailed workings of the Children Act 1989, overcrowding regulations, health and children in bed and breakfast, the private rented sector, rent restructuring, housing benefit reform, affordable housing and commercial development, low demand, the Secretary of State's statement about housing finance, the Bolton model, securitisation, the need to link housing to wider regeneration, the need to deal with racial disadvantage in housing and private sector renewal. That long list shows the complexity of the issues surrounding housing. We need detailed policies to deal with all those problems.
My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney raised the issue of planning and affordable housing. He is absolutely right. The planning system helps to provide better housing and better communities. He was also right to highlight the importance of dealing with empty homes. We need a range of strategies to deal with the different types of empty homes and what has caused them to be empty. He also spoke about houses in multiple occupation. My officials have been working closely with my hon. Friend Dr. Turner on his Home Energy Conservation Bill. We welcome the fact that it has helped to push the problems of houses in multiple occupation right up the political agenda.
My hon. Friend Ms King talked about time scales for responses. The Homelessness Bill says that local authorities must act reasonably. Reasonableness is open to many interpretations, but it provides local authorities with the flexibility that they need. Clearly, if they do not act reasonably, they can be challenged through the courts. She also mentioned the impact of recent court cases on social services obligations under the Children Act 1989. We are currently looking into that and it has been the subject of extensive discussions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow also raised the issue of finance for homelessness. We have provided £8 million. Obviously we shall see the extent of that as new categories come into the ranks of the homeless. It would be as wrong to exclude 16 and 17-year-olds from qualifying for housing as it would to exclude care leavers or other vulnerable groups. She also referred to Shelter. I have had meetings with the chair of the Housing Corporation and the Department, and Housing Corporation officials are working closely with us to ensure that we provide a seamless service for the general public.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas was right to raise the issue of skills shortages. In some parts of the country, particularly the north-west, the biggest barrier to housing renewal and regeneration in inner city areas is a shortage not of Government funds but of skilled labour. She was right to highlight the particular shortage of women entering the construction industry. Women represent only 9 per cent. of the work force in the building industry, and only 2 per cent. come from black and minority ethnic groups. The Government are working through the "rethinking construction" programme to tackle some of those issues. Clearly we are missing out on a huge range of the population who could help us to overcome that skills shortage.
My hon. Friend Ms Buck talked about the need to examine closely the concentrations of disadvantage in otherwise affluent areas—which we are doing—to ensure that the housing problems of those communities are addressed. She said that there was a need for a sure start scheme for children in temporary accommodation. We are considering producing guidance to deal with some of the health problems of children in bed and breakfast. I take her point that those children are some of the most needy and vulnerable. She also clearly set out why we must examine the problems of overcrowding.
I completely endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon, who highlighted the problem of abandonment.
On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I think that the basic courtesies of this House are not being observed. I did not intervene once on the Minister in her opening speech. She made a personal attack on me and would not give way. Will you use your role as protector of Back Benchers to ensure that the issues that my hon. Friends and I have raised are addressed during the last five minutes of this three-hour debate?
Under the normal conventions of the House, the Minister can decide whether she wishes to give way. She is trying to reply to a comprehensive debate. I accept that she is trying to respond to all points, and has made it clear that she will write to hon. Members if she is not able to respond during the debate.
Thank you, Mr. Pike. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Cotswold feels that he needs to be protected from me. I did not intervene on him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, after his interesting comments on abandonment, asked about the Secretary of State's statement. The prudential code on possible new borrowing arrangements is currently under consideration.
My hon. Friend Margaret Moran mentioned multiple disadvantage. That is one reason why it is so important that the Government's housing strategy is seen alongside the wider neighbourhood renewal strategies. She raised the subject of racial disadvantage. The Department is working closely on that with the Housing Corporation, which is trying to overcome the appalling fact that, in this day and age, people still suffer housing disadvantage because of their ethnicity.
I have said that I will send hon. Members the detailed policy guidance so that they can clearly understand how the planning system works, and see that the Government have taken action on the brownfield-greenfield issue. We have also taken action on design, density and parking spaces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford gave me very good advice about being confident in the Government's record. Nothing gives me greater confidence than the bare-faced exhibition of exclusiveness and mean-minded nimbyism that we have seen from the Conservative Opposition this afternoon. It is in stark contrast with the Government's commitment to supporting private home owners, including providing the seller's pack to which we are committed. We are committed to bringing all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010, to renewing the private sector, to dealing with racial disadvantage in housing, to increasing the supply of affordable housing and to tackling the appalling problems of homelessness and overcrowding. We are committed to ensuring that people have decent homes at prices that they can afford, to overcoming the legacy that we inherited and to making sure not only that people have a decent home of their own choice but that it is in a sustainable, safe and sound community.
On a point of order, Mr. Pike. I thought that the ayes on this side of the Chamber were far louder than the noes on that side of the Chamber. I suggest that we put it to the vote.
The hon. Gentleman is challenging the Chair's view on that point. I made it clear that hon. Members could speak again if the debate had not concluded.
Question agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Five o'clock.