Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:58 pm on 15th November 2001.

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Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South 4:58 pm, 15th November 2001

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.