Let me begin, as is conventional, by congratulating Mr. Webb on securing the debate and bringing the important subject of affordable housing in south Gloucestershire to the attention of the House. I know that it is of concern to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as it is, indeed, to us all.
The hon. Gentleman made several interesting proposals, on which I shall reflect; that is, after all, the purpose of such debates. Of course, some of his suggestions are already on the Government's agenda. In particular, we recently tabled amendments to the Housing Bill in support of the compulsory leasing of empty homes.
I know from the many representations that I have received from hon. Members and from the debates to which I have responded how urgent the issue of affordable housing is in the south-west. That is why I was happy to speak at the parliamentary launch on
The fact is that the south-west has experienced a near doubling of average house prices since 1999, with growth across the region and in south Gloucestershire continuing at 12 per cent. between the end of 2002 and the end of 2003. At more than £176,000, average house prices in the south-west are now the fourth highest in the country. Earnings in the south-west are below the national average, so measures of average house prices have reached more than seven times average earnings—a wider ratio than anywhere else in the country, except London.
Of course, such house price growth increases the wealth of many existing home owners. Nevertheless, we recognise that it can also create severe difficulties for people who are unable to buy or access housing at an affordable price to suit their needs. That can not only have distressing social consequences, such as increases in homelessness and the use of temporary accommodation or overcrowding in households, but create recruitment and retention problems for key public services. That is why the Government have made the provision of more affordable housing, especially for key workers and young families, a key part of our sustainable communities plan.
The hon. Gentleman graphically described the problems experienced by certain constituents in accessing social rented housing and affordable homes, and I have great sympathy for families facing difficulties in securing suitable accommodation. The latest south Gloucestershire housing strategy reports that the number of those on the housing register is expected to rise by about 240 each year. As he noted, 500 to 550 cases of homelessness are already being accepted—up from about 400 in 1999–2000.
Clearly, there has been little, if any, improvement in the imbalance between the supply of and demand for affordable housing in the hon. Gentleman's constituency since he last raised the issue in the House in November 2001. In responding for the Government in that debate, my predecessor, my hon. Friend Ms Keeble, pointed to South Gloucestershire council's poor record in providing affordable housing, and the hon. Gentleman alluded to that point. Unfortunately, I have to report that the council's record on providing affordable homes remains disappointing. Although about 1,000 homes a year have been built since 2000–01 and the council is on target to build the number of homes required in the local plan, only a mere 127 of them have been affordable units, which constitute about 12 per cent. of the total new build, whether funded by housing associations or through planning gain. Indeed, only 66 affordable homes were secured through section 106 planning gain agreements in the two years between 2002 and 2004. That is the case despite the council's declared policy of securing 30 per cent. affordable housing on sites with more than 25 units in urban areas and sites with more than 15 units in rural areas.
I am encouraged to learn, however, that South Gloucestershire council is anticipating a substantial increase in the use of section 106 agreements and developer contributions over the coming years to secure the delivery of more affordable housing units and supplement other projected completions on non-allocated or non-windfall sites. If that approach were successful, it would bring the average rate of additional affordable housing provision to around 200 units per year, which would be a 100 per cent. increase, although the level would still, of course, be below the council's own targets. I am also encouraged that south Gloucestershire jointly led the recent housing market assessment for the wider west of England area.
The housing study is the first of its type to be published in the south-west and is an excellent example of partnership working, not only between neighbouring unitary authorities of the west of England—the former Avon area—but with private developers and landlords, the regional development agency and tenants. The thrust of the study's 24 major recommendations is to increase partnership and proactive working in housing and planning between the unitary authorities in the west of England to drive much-needed improvements in the delivery of housing to accommodate employment and population growth in the area. I am pleased that the west of England partnership is considering how best to rise to that challenge and I look forward to significant progress in the years to come.
The Chancellor will announce decisions on future affordable housing investment in the spending review in the next few days, but I am proud of the Government's record of investment to date in improving the quality of social housing through the decent homes target and by increasing the resources for the Housing Corporation to more than £1.2 billion in 2003–04. That has meant, for example, that 48 key workers in south Gloucestershire were able to take part in the national starter home initiative between 2002 and 2004.
Recognising the level of need in the south-west, the Government have increased the south-west housing board's grant allocation by no less than 30 per cent. over the next two years, which is among the highest increases in allocation. From the recently announced £188 million investment programme, south Gloucestershire is due to receive £6.4 million to provide 229 additional affordable homes. They include 27 units for nurses, health workers and teachers from the £10 million south-west key worker challenge fund. South Gloucestershire council also received £2.1 million for investment in social housing and other capital investment for 2004–05 and 2005–06.
It is important that the south-west owns the agenda and seeks its own solutions. That is why we have set up the regional housing boards, which will give the region a real opportunity to identify its key housing priorities and to create its own response within a coherent national framework.
Affordable housing is the south-west housing body's No. 1 priority. It announced on
I am aware that south Gloucestershire includes an extensive rural area, so I am pleased to say that the current regional investment programme exceeded its target of providing 764 homes in villages with a population of less than 3,000 by allocating £33 million to provide 863 homes.
The Chamber should also be aware that we are working with local authorities to stop families being housed in bed and breakfast accommodation, except in emergencies, from March 2004, and to sustain the reduction in rough sleeping so that from 2002 onwards it remains at or below two thirds of the 1998 level. In 2003–04, the south-west received £4.4 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, with south Gloucestershire receiving the sixth highest amount in the region after Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, Gloucestershire and Bath.
At national level, the Government have strengthened the hand of local authorities in seeking to secure affordable housing through the planning system. We are clear that any development should ensure that communities are sustainable and should enhance the overall environment and protect the countryside. We must ensure that we get a better mix of housing that reflects the needs of everyone, and not just the market for large detached housing. We are therefore consulting on changes to planning policy guidance note 3 on the location and density of housing to widen the range of housing opportunity in terms of size, type and affordability. We are determined that the planning system will enable the provision of new homes in the right place—focusing on brownfields first—and at the right time to meet planned numbers. The purpose of the new Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 is to make the planning system faster and fairer.
The Government are also committed to responding by the end of 2005 to the recommendations of the Barker report on reform to the planning system, and are due to consult shortly on the proposed integration of regional housing and planning bodies.