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7.21 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): I welcome the majority of measures in the Bill. I especially welcome the further modest encouragement and incentives that it provides for the private rented sector. I am conscious that, in my constituency, many houses are under-occupied, often by elderly people who would welcome a tenant or two. Too often, however, they hear horror stories from people who have experienced bad tenants, so they dare not take the risk.

The Bill provides for quicker eviction of tenants who do not pay their rent and makes the advantages of shorthold more widely available so that landlords may be assured of the agreed period of tenancy. I hope that more potential small and inexperienced landlords and landladies will have the confidence to make their spare rooms available to those who are seeking accommodation.

I welcome, too, the redressing of the balance in the duty of local authorities to house local people who need accommodation, so that those who are born and bred

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locally, rather than those who become homeless away from their home town, are favoured. That will give more hope to local people on the waiting list, who see complete outsiders being housed before them. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration confirmed, that proposal in no way removes the safety net for homeless people.

The Bill aims to help local authorities to respond more effectively to the immense problems posed by houses in multiple occupation. There is no doubt about the need for stronger powers. The lives of my constituents who live in the neighbourhoods of some of the properties of a well-known local provider of bedsits, Mr. Dave Wells, are a continual misery, as my postbag testifies.

The behaviour of tenants, of course, cannot be directly blamed on the landlord or the owner of the property, but landlords must demonstrate the responsibility to ensure that the neighbours enjoy a right of privacy and are free from the tenants' noise and nuisance. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) said, people dare not complain for fear of threats and retaliation from those against whom they are complaining. Tenants are also entitled to a reasonable standard of accommodation that is safe and free from damp and rot and crumbling walls, which is certainly not the case in some of Mr. Wells' properties, as I have seen for myself.

Until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's speech this afternoon, I feared that the Bill would prove inadequate to deal with houses in multiple occupation. That fear results from the change of use of buildings from hotels and guest houses to bedsit hostels, primarily aimed at benefit claimants, which has occurred in my authority and others in tourist areas, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) so vividly referred.

Such hotels are bought and converted into multiple units to house a maximum number of tenants. It has become big business for commercial landlords, who advertise in the inner cities and in the Republic of Ireland that those on benefit should claim in a more attractive area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough said, some of those hostels have a reputation for being places of drug-related, drink-related and crime-related behaviour. As well as being offensive to local residents, the hostels very quickly lead to neighbouring hotels, especially those that cater for young families and coach parties, losing business, and the entire tourist area becomes threatened by a vicious cycle of decline and decay.

It is now clear that the planning controls introduced almost two years ago to address that problem are not working because of a lack of precise definition of a hotel, a hostel and an HMO. In any case, the controls cannot be applied retrospectively.

The new powers that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced today will allow local authorities to close down hostels without compensation in response to legitimate complaints from people in the neighbourhood. I welcome that, as I am sure does my local authority in Bournemouth.

The Bill does not, however, give local authorities what I believe they need to be able to respond effectively to the problem of HMOs once and for all. We need a licensing scheme, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough referred, which local authorities can opt for, depending on the severity of the problem in their area.

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It would require not only that the property be fit and proper, but that its owner be a fit and proper person to run or manage the property.

The Government have decided that such a scheme would be too costly and bureaucratic. I do not agree. A licensing scheme need not be universal. It could be limited to local authorities such as mine and those in other seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Scarborough, which are pressing for it as the only way in which to protect their tourist areas.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: And Morecambe.

Mr. Atkinson: And Morecambe, as my hon. Friend says. The scheme would be no different from that which applies to rest and retirement homes for the elderly, which are run by a licensee whose licence is subject to periodic renewal.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration to give further thought to the need for a voluntary licensing scheme that local authorities could use when they experienced particular problems with HMOs, which a registration scheme, such as that in the Bill, will not address.

7.28 pm

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): In June last year, the Chartered Institute of Housing published a report entitled "A Point to Prove" which examined cities such as Sheffield and my own town of Birmingham. It demonstrated the direct relationship between poor housing conditions, the crises in education and health and the problem of rising crime. It also demonstrated that repossessions, negative equity and rough sleeping were symptoms of the much wider housing crisis that is facing Britain.

With Government estimates showing that there will be about 3.5 million new households in England alone in the next 10 years, the institute calculated that around 120,000 new homes would be required each year in the social rented sector. Against that background, the Government have a great opportunity with the Bill to deal with those issues and to do something about an experience that I am sure every hon. Member encounters every week at his advice desk.

Unfortunately, neither the Bill nor the White Paper that foreshadowed it begins to tackle the problems. I welcome some parts of the Bill, albeit with some qualification. It is good that some progress is being made in relation to anti-social behaviour, but many more and different actions could be taken as well. It is also good that efforts are being made in relation to leasehold reform and houses in multiple occupation. I agree, however, with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) that much more needs to be done in those spheres, and that we particularly need to examine the issue of a proper licensing scheme.

Against that, however, other aspects of the Bill are downright odious, such as weakening tenants' protection from eviction and restricting housing authorities' duty to provide accommodation for the homeless. I am still waiting for Ministers to provide a definition of which homeless families they think it appropriate to put into temporary accommodation and throw out of that

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accommodation later. We have given examples of possible families, but they have said, "It's not them." Sooner or later, Ministers will have to say which homeless families are appropriate for temporary accommodation. If they cannot say which families are appropriate, Ministers will have to question why that particular provision is necessary.

The Bill will have a particularly severe effect on young people. In my constituency, the south Birmingham young homeless project has already shown how the Bill, combined with the changes in housing benefit regulation, would do much to prevent young, single, homeless people under the age of 25 gaining access to secure and affordable housing.

The most striking feature of the Bill is perhaps its utter irrelevance to solving the central problem, which is the shortage of affordable homes. There is a desperate need to increase housing investment. In the west midlands, the number of homeless people in 1979 was only 6,360. By 1994, that figure had risen to 16,800. In 1979, 8,103 council, new town and housing association dwellings were started; in 1994, less than half that number were started. In the four years between 1990 and 1994, the number of mortgage possession actions rocketed in that one region.

On one level, Ministers seem to think that the shortage of affordable homes is an issue--at least they appeared to acknowledge that in what they said about the right to buy for housing associations. Why do they not follow through with the same logic when it comes to local authorities and do something to release the capital receipts that are necessary to take action against the housing shortage?

Obviously, we have become used to the Government's prejudice against local authorities. However, they must recognise that housing associations are also suffering under the financial policies that have been imposed on them by the Government. Housing associations reckon that we need about 90,000 new social housing units a year from now on. In the coming year, however, there will barely be 50,000.

The housing crisis in Britain is not just about building new homes, as important as that is; it is also a question of repairing existing homes. Because of my advice bureaux in Birmingham, I know exactly what that means. Each year, Ministers require local authorities to understate what they need to invest in home repair and, each year, Ministers then under-allocate according to that understated request. To put right its housing stock, Birmingham's real requirement is about £200 million per year, but it is not allowed to ask for that money. This year, less than £40 million has been allocated to it in terms of borrowing approval.

Let me tell the House what that means in human terms. At my advice bureau last week, I received two delegations of residents who live in tower blocks in my constituency. One delegation was from a block called Kempsey house, in Bartley Green, and the other was from three tower blocks off Long Nuke road in the Weoley ward. The conditions in which they have to live were summed up in a recent letter sent by a local Labour councillor to the local housing department after a visit to those blocks. He said:

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    the insulation in a pre-cast concrete building is hopelessly inadequate and undoubtedly contributes to massive condensation. The general dampness that results from this is injurious to the people who live there. Of particular concern is the health of the young children. To start life in the atmosphere that pervades these flats throughout the winter and spring is dangerous and contributes to these children being prone to bronchial and other diseases to the chest. Many of the people in the flats are on low incomes and get into awful financial problems because of the cost of electric heating in one room only. It costs them a fortune to fight what is frankly a losing battle."

That councillor went on to describe the situation of one resident as follows:

The residents in such blocks are not well off. However, in order to make up some of the shortfall in housing investment that the Government have allowed, tenants in Birmingham last year agreed to a £2 a week rent increase in order to begin a programme to fit UPVC window replacements and to install central heating. This year, however, Government policies will make the problem worse. Is the Minister going to deal with the problems that proposed changes to rent rebate subsidy will cause? In Birmingham, the proposed changes will mean that any rent increase above £1.17 will entail the council losing Government housing subsidy.

The system is complicated--they always are--but the impact is real enough. If the housing revenue account is to be balanced, something that would have required a rent increase of about £2 a week under last year's rules, will--if the Government's proposals go ahead--require Birmingham council tenants to pay an extra £10 a week in rent. Tenants will not be able to afford that, and the consequence is likely to be cuts in the window and central heating replacement programme. That means that people in my constituency will continue to live in cold and damp surroundings. That is the real impact of the Government's housing policy, but it is not even mentioned in the Bill.

The craziest thing of all is that the Government's attempts to save money end up costing money. The extra burden on the national health service because of asthma alone, which is induced or aggravated by poor housing, is estimated to cost £437 million every year. Where housing is poor, criminal activity is high. Wealthy homes are not the most likely to be burgled. The poorest council tenants are more than four times more likely to be burgled than those in affluent suburbs.

When all political parties are stressing their wish to improve standards in education, how can we ignore the impact that poor-quality and insecure housing is bound to have on children's performance at school? How can we ignore the impact that constant changes in housing have on those children? Those changes are likely to happen because of the changes in regulations regarding housing the homeless and temporary accommodation.

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Faced with all that, why do the Government refuse to take action? I should like to conclude with a quotation from Peter Ambrose, who is the director of Urban and Regional Research, in Sussex. He said:

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