Housing (Calderdale)

– in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 19th February 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley 1:00 pm, 19th February 2008

With your permission, Mr. Taylor, I should like my hon. Friend Mrs. Riordan, whose constituency neighbours mine, to speak in the debate.

Calderdale is one of the five boroughs in West Yorkshire. The local authority is the sixth largest of the 36 metropolitan areas in terms of land area. It has a population of about 192,000 people, comprising 81,000 households. Calderdale itself is made up of many distinct and diverse communities. It is a multicultural area: people of Asian, Irish, Italian and eastern European origin have formed part of the community for many years, the largest group being the Pakistani community, which has a very young age profile.

Most social and economic indicators show Calderdale to be close to the national average for prosperity, but that can mask wide variations within the borough. Deprivation figures for 2007 published by the Department for Communities and Local Government showed that four wards contained areas ranked within the 10 most deprived in the country, and that poor quality of housing is a significant factor in those and several other wards of the district. Conversely, there are some very prosperous areas in the borough. Calderdale is equidistant from the regional centres of Manchester and Leeds, and good rail and road links have drawn commuters who wish to live in the area.

In recent years there has been an enormous spate of development of executive apartments, many of which are located in former mill buildings. Calderdale is therefore an area of great contrasts, with high house prices in areas that also accommodate deprived communities living in poor quality older properties. Although its mix is in many respects healthy, it has the effect of masking underlying problems. As a result, Calderdale has not always attracted significant public expenditure from national and European institutions and regeneration programmes of the kind enjoyed by its surrounding neighbours.

Calderdale's traditional economic base was founded on textiles and engineering, and those sectors still account for a quarter of local employment. In recent years, employment in the service industry has grown, particularly in the financial sector, HBOS being the largest single private sector employer. With local schools consistently performing well, and blue chip employers established in the borough, Calderdale has the potential significantly to contribute to strategies for the economic development of the region. However, if that potential is to be realised, it is vital not to neglect basic agendas that will attract and retain a skilled work force in the borough. In that respect, housing agendas are neglected at our peril.

In that context, I want to set out some of the challenges that are currently being faced in Calderdale as it attempts to implement a five-year housing strategy entitled "Decent and Affordable Homes in Safe and Sustainable Neighbourhoods". The council recently undertook a comprehensive survey of its private sector stock, which rightly drew attention to its condition. The key findings were that half the private sector stock was built before 1919. More than 8 per cent. of the stock was statutorily unfit for human habitation, which is 2 per cent. above the national average. The rate at which dwellings are becoming unfit is greater than the rate at which unfit dwellings are being improved. Almost one fifth of all private sector homes were classified as being in serious disrepair. There was a high level of damp, and private tenants are more than twice as likely to live in unfit properties as owner-occupiers.

The highest concentration of unfit housing and homes that are difficult to heat is among pre-1919 stock. Three quarters of the privately rented property in Calderdale was built before 1919. More than half of the unfit houses have an energy efficiency rating substantially below the level required to achieve affordable warmth among low-income groups. The study concluded that more than £300 million was required to remedy that level of unfitness and to bring the private sector stock up to an acceptable standard of general repair. It seems extraordinary that after decades of housing policy and investment, we can still paint such a picture.

I want to use the Harley Bank area of Todmorden as an example. The streets are stone-built terraces of a dozen or so properties. The stone building lends a certain charm, but it can mask poor conditions. Homes in Harley Bank, as indeed in most of Calderdale, are genuinely back-to-back properties. They literally back on to another property, and are bounded on either side by others in the same terrace. A typical arrangement would be a one-up, one-down house, perhaps with an attic room. Roofs are generally in poor condition and doors and windows usually need renewing. The properties are usually of a single leaf stone construction, with no cavity, so energy efficiency improvement is, to say the least, challenging. Kitchen areas are likely to be modest in scale, and there is often one precipitous winding staircase to the first floor. Despite those limitations, such properties can be, and are, made into attractive homes for single people and smaller families. They can be cheap and economical to run, but they need investment, if they are to be a useful part of our housing stock in the future.

The agenda that I am discussing concerns our commitment to the most vulnerable people, who are most likely to live in such homes, and to their most basic need, which is a warm, secure home in decent order. The Minister shares that commitment, and I am sure that she wants to honour it. Other agendas are germane not only to Calderdale but to West Yorkshire in general and places further afield. I know that it is believed in some quarters that the north of England is not affected by the problems of affordability and high house prices that are found elsewhere, but that is not true. House prices have perhaps not reached the dizzy heights in the south of the country, but the increase in house prices in recent years has been dramatic and has had a substantial impact on communities where wages are historically very low. In Calderdale, house prices have risen 24 per cent. since 2004. The highest average rise in the whole country between 2001 and 2004 took place in one town in my constituency, Brighouse.

In that context, I welcome the Government's commitment to a larger programme of investment in affordable homes. I am pleased that the social housing grant deployment in West Yorkshire is likely to rise by 32 per cent. in 2010-11, compared with the current financial year. The matter of most concern is the degree to which it may prove possible to deploy that resource usefully. I say that because I am concerned about the combined effect of well meant Government targets on housing density, high land prices and Housing Corporation policy on unit costs. All too often, we seem to emphasise the number of houses being built—the quantity of building—rather than housing need and building quality.

That echoes the market trend of developing apartments rather than family houses, which we now desperately need in Calderdale. I ask the Minister to consider the degree to which local authorities are being empowered and enabled to reject inappropriate applications for high density flat development, and instead, perhaps, enabled to insist on higher proportions of family houses, built to good space standards and at a reasonable density. I find it a cause for concern that in this day and age we still have no minimum space standards for dwellings. We seem to have gone backwards since the Parker Morris standards of the 1950s.

A knock-on effect of the points that I have raised is the growing number of empty homes, which is a curious and perplexing phenomenon at a time when we know that there is very high housing need in Calderdale. There are also problems of affordability given the natural desire for home ownership. In Calderdale, we now have nearly 4,000 empty homes, some 2,500 of which have been empty for more than six months. Some of those are older, poorer properties in need of just the sort of investment that I mentioned earlier, but others are small apartments, which are usually situated in older, converted mill premises although some of them are new builds. All are driven by high land prices, high density requirements in national planning guidance and a short-sighted housing market that seems to see housing as an alternative investment chip at a time when returns on investments elsewhere are perhaps low.

We are now seeing the results of that policy in Calderdale, where we are building too much of the wrong sort of housing, when we really need medium-density family homes. I call upon the Minister, therefore, to introduce legislation, guidance and assistance to local authorities to enable them summarily to reject such applications in favour of the kind of housing development needed in their communities, and, certainly in Calderdale, better to utilise section 106 agreements, which have an important place in the provision of affordable local housing. Furthermore, will the Minister look at the link between investment in private sector housing and the rural housing agenda, because two thirds of Calderdale is classified as rural?

Finally, I flag up the link between the need for investment in our older stock and the energy efficiency housing agenda. In my constituency, which has been subject to significant flooding over many years, the importance of thinking globally and acting locally is not lost upon the community. I welcome the Government's target of all newly-constructed homes being zero carbon by 2016, and I call for a similar commitment to a radical improvement in the existing stock in areas with a legacy of older housing.

Photo of Linda Riordan Linda Riordan Labour, Halifax 1:12 pm, 19th February 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris McCafferty on securing this important debate, which raises a crucial issue in the area that I represent as well as in hers. The importance of additional, private sector housing money to take forward new schemes around Halifax cannot be underestimated.

So far, due to restrictions on finance, investment has been restricted to one or two areas with the most pressing housing needs. However, other parts of Halifax, such as Lee Mount, Boothtown, and Siddal, to name but three, would benefit from similar levels of investment. We need the Government to help secure that investment. Halifax needs not only a fair distribution of resources across different communities, but to be seen to have a fair distribution of money. To enable that to happen, and to support the work of Calderdale council, enough money will be needed over the next three years to take forward that work and to enable the necessary changes. To put it bluntly, more money is needed to help turn dreams into reality.

As my hon. Friend has touched upon, Calderdale has diverse housing needs. Halifax also has areas with high house prices, as well as many deprived communities living in poor quality older properties. That situation needs addressing. In recent years, money from central Government has helped to tackle key regeneration schemes in the Park ward area and Illingworth. We now need more of the same to tackle similar problems in other parts of Halifax.

Key pockets of deprivation often lie in more prosperous wards, which are not highlighted in the indices of deprivation. It is not good enough that, as my hon. Friend has stated, almost one fifth of all private sector homes are in serious disrepair, that there is a high level of disrepair and damp and that private sector tenants are more than twice as likely to live in unfit properties as owner-occupiers. It is incredible that, after decades of housing policy, investment and action plans, such a picture can still be painted. We need to start with a fresh canvas and ensure a new picture is created for this generation. That work needs to start in Calderdale today. I urge the Minister to come and see first hand the housing challenges that need addressing in Calderdale. At the risk of repeating a well-used mantra, much has been done, but there is certainly much to do.

I want to point out the good work being carried out by housing officers in Calderdale. The "links in the chain" concept has recently been developed, and it will build on some of the excellent inward investment in recent years. Exciting plans and regeneration schemes are in place, but in Halifax we do not want to rest on our laurels. As the local MP, I want much more done. The council has plans for post-18 education links between Calderdale council and local universities. However, in order to help build on that success, the council needs to develop further proposals for linked housing and economic investment.

The main message that I want to bring to this debate is the need to give the council the financial support that it needs and wants, so that the pieces in the jigsaw can be completed. The money will provide the momentum, so that positive work can begin. I urge the Government to listen to the message from me and my hon. Friend and to help kick-start some much needed investment in the borough's housing stock, which will benefit hundreds of my constituents.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 1:17 pm, 19th February 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) and for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) on speaking today about the problems faced in their areas and the initiatives in their constituencies for thinking creatively about tackling different housing needs. As a Yorkshire MP, I am pleased to be joined by two Yorkshire colleagues who are making the point that housing is not just an issue for London and the south-east; it is an issue throughout the English regions. My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Chris Ruane, is in the Chamber and I know housing is an issue for our colleagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, too.

It is important that the Government strike the right balance when identifying national challenges and problems. We must try as hard as possible to ensure that our planning guidance and legislation are in tune with a policy that sets challenges and targets while providing the flexibility for local authorities to work in partnership with others at local and regional level to identify and pinpoint more accurately the problems and needs of different communities. There is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. However, it is fair to say that for decades house building has been insufficient, which has contributed to some of the price and affordability problems.

We are increasingly recognising the need to consider the changing demographics of our communities. We are all living longer—thank goodness—but that raises challenges about the type of homes we want. Furthermore, we recognise that for some young people relying on the bank of mum and dad is not enough for them to get on to the first step of the housing market. Within that is the need to secure quality as well as quantity in social housing provision both for those who rely on it entirely and for others who need it as a springboard to other forms of home ownership or housing. I am glad, therefore, to have the opportunity to discuss such matters today.

In areas such as Calderdale, in which my hon. Friends' constituencies lie, house prices rose by about 130 per cent. between 2001 and 2006 and one in nine families in the area are on the waiting list for social housing—far higher than the national average. Between 2004 and 2026, it is predicted that 526,000 new households will be formed in the region, and almost half are likely to be in West Yorkshire. Owing to that, and to the fact that what is happening in West Yorkshire is a challenge nationally, we have committed to deliver 3 million new homes by 2020. As my hon. Friends have said, the issue is not just a numbers game in terms of more homes, but crucially about building better homes—more sustainable, better designed and more suitable for the needs of communities—and examining existing stock, including where it fits into communities and how it will work and deliver for families. It is about delivering the homes that people need, including larger properties for families when appropriate, and affordable housing for first-time buyers and, most important, about giving a choice to older people to downsize and move into more appropriate accommodation as their needs change. As the experience of Calderdale shows, those homes are needed throughout the country, not just in the south-east.

It is really positive to see the commitment from people working on housing throughout the region—from all the partners and stakeholders who are helping to shape the regional housing strategy. I shall single out the work in Calderdale, which is an authority that has made housing a central priority. It is one of the few authorities in the country with an affordable housing stretch target in its local area agreement, and I congratulate it on that ambition, and others on supporting it. The authority is working to ensure that new homes better reflect the needs of local families, with bigger houses in more convenient locations.

We have changed some of our policies to strengthen people locally. Housing needs assessments deal much more with the types of accommodation required, and offer flexibility to tackle the issue. In the past, a site might have been allocated for certain housing, and one could not change it if the community's housing needs changed. I have been in communication with Councillor Grenville Horsfall—I think he is the planning committee chairman—who wrote to me regarding the concern about the flats that have been built. We hope that the new planning guidance strengthens people locally by using housing needs assessments to be much clearer about numbers, and by relating the guidance to the type and location of housing that is needed. There is nothing to gain in the commercial market from people building flats or houses that they cannot sell or let, but there is an opportunity locally to engage with local developers and say, "Look, you may have built these a few years ago, but they are lying empty, so isn't it time to look at how you might market them?"

One of our tasks is to consider how we can market apartments or flats to older people, and reassure them about the block. I know and have visited some of the mill houses in parts of Yorkshire. Housing presents a great opportunity to revitalise those wonderful structures, but there is a marketing challenge regarding older people and whether they think that such places could become a home, because they want to be reassured about safety and to know who will live there. Older people are concerned about those issues, as we all are as we grow older.

There is also the question about whether flats should be knocked through to create bigger properties, such as four-bedroom flats. Leeds charges full council tax on empty properties. I do not know whether that happens in Calderdale, but it might be one way of incentivising developers to sell properties or put them on the rental market. The issue is about delivery—people seeing our words, and our ambitions for housing; it is about being realistic, through something that people can reach out to and touch. We are in constant dialogue with all the people involved in the West Yorkshire partnership to ensure that the local strategy reflects the national agenda as well as local needs.

In 1997, housing investment for West Yorkshire was about £65 million. In the past two years, it has averaged more than £181 million, excluding four private finance initiative schemes that are under consideration. Some decisions about funding for West Yorkshire have still to be taken, but on the regional housing pot, we have announced overall investment of £559 million in the Yorkshire and Humber region, which by 2010-11 will represent an increase of 32 per cent. on the figures in 2007-08. I cannot say what that will mean for West Yorkshire, but my hon. Friends will agree that it is a significant amount. It is important to engage in a debate about how best that money can be used, and to what end, to meet the challenges in local communities.

Building on that measure, we have invested a great deal through the Housing Corporation to deliver the affordable housing that is needed locally. With large numbers of people attracted to the new jobs that are being created in areas such as Leeds, there will be additional pressure on the housing market, and some people who live in the constituencies that my hon. Friends represent travel or commute to Leeds. That is why we expect the region to set its sights higher by providing about 2,500 affordable homes per year by 2010-11. The target is undoubtedly challenging, but given the funding available, it is realistic. If the West Yorkshire partnership can identify suitable sites, it is likely to benefit significantly from the available funding, so there is no question of resources being pared back. It is a question of examining strategically what one can deliver locally, and discussing the issue together.

Over the past two years, West Yorkshire has also benefited from funding through the housing market renewal programme, which, as my hon. Friends know, was set up to address the problem of severe market failure in some areas of the north and in the west midlands. There has been real progress across the areas chosen for intervention. As the National Audit Office found last year, all pathfinder areas have started to close the gap in prices in their regions, and there have been clear physical improvements in many neighbourhoods. We recently announced a further £1 billion investment in the programme over the next three years, but decisions have not been taken about the allocations to each pathfinder, and we will target areas with the strongest and most persistent need. We are considering all the available information, including the business plans and housing strategies for all areas concerned, and I hope that we can make an announcement in the not too distant future.

I hope that my hon. Friends feel from today's debate that we understand housing problems throughout the country, and certainly in their part of Yorkshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, the cup is half full, not half empty, but I realise how much more we must do. Local authorities can be empowered to do much more. Through their local development frameworks, they can assess and specify housing need. As planning authorities, they are fully empowered to reject inappropriate developments, and the new PPS3 also encourages use of section 106 agreements to deliver affordable housing. All those measures can be used with discretion as local tools. However, we must engage the commercial market and make it understand that there is no point in building if it cannot sell the houses. No one wants empty homes in our communities.

Although I cannot confirm today the total funding that West Yorkshire will receive over the next three years, I hope that it is recognised that our track record of investment demonstrates our commitment to change. The latest allocations through the regional housing pot alone will make a real difference to local residents.

On the points about warm and secure homes, our Warm Front programme has been important. We have ambitious zero-carbon targets for new-build homes by 2016, but again, in the few weeks that I have been in the post, I have realised that we must analyse existing stock, too. The issue is not just about numbers, but about quality and whether homes meet the needs of local communities.

I shall think about the points made about minimum space standards. The Department is examining overcrowding and suitable homes in the commercial and social housing sectors for larger families, and I take on board the point about the link with rural housing agendas. In my constituency, none of which includes Doncaster town, there are many rural villages, and there is a need for affordable and social housing in those communities, too. They are vital to keep schools and services open in rural communities. I look forward to working with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other partners in that regard, because the lack of housing in those communities neither serves many people nor keeps families close together. I welcome today's debate and the contributions from both my hon. Friends, and I look forward to discussing the issue further at a later date.