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8.11 pm

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Robertson) on an excellent maiden speech--well done.

So far, the debate has dealt only with crime, whereas the annunciator says that it is about home affairs and inner cities. I should like to talk a little about inner cities, perhaps establishing a precedent that other hon. Members will follow. I shall also deal specifically with the matter of universities located in inner-city areas and the recent explosive unplanned growth in the number of houses in multiple occupation--which most people know as HMOs.

The fact that a growing proportion of our population needs short-term lets which can be found in HMOs is not disputed. Demand is especially keen among the younger population of single people and couples living together in short-term lets. Such housing suits their life style and needs, as it does those of modern industry, inner-city universities, and commerce generally. The need for "flexible" labour sources is reflected in the amount of temporary accommodation for young people who are in the process of acquiring a degree and those who have short-term contracts in the labour market.

There are serious concerns about the problems associated with HMOs, such as their quality, potential extra fire risks and generally low standards. The Government's stated intention to legislate to raise safety standards and improve the general quality of such housing stock is--to say the least--welcome. However, I was very disappointed that the need for such special legislation was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Such legislation would have been very welcome as a long overdue attempt to improve the lot of tenants in HMOs and--just as important--the lot of those who comprise the long-term residential communities in properties adjoining universities in our inner cities.

Today, I wish to draw to the House's attention a specific use--or, more accurately, misuse--of current housing stock, which has led to serious damage to well-established family housing stock and to the natural living communities in and around our two inner-city universities in Leeds. I shall speak about the specific area that I have been elected to represent. Hon. Members may also know a part of my constituency--Headingley, which is now known not only for its cricket and rugby facilities but for its HMOs. Last year, it had a 52 per cent. turnover in its electoral register. It is a seriously destabilised community.

Sometimes, it seems that there is a grim determination abroad not to understand an argument that has been made very many times to universities, local government and the national Government about the form and nature of the

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damage caused in inner cities by the explosion in the number of HMOs in university areas such as those in Leeds. It is devastating to witness at close quarters the process of destruction of a community caused by the number of HMOs.

"Term-time only" use of HMOs causes houses owned and managed by private landlords to be used only seasonally. Such use has a very simple purpose and effect: to remove vast sums from those areas. HMOs are like giant pumps sucking out not only money, but complex community stability that took generations to build. They also seriously damage the physical and cultural amenities that are usually found in warm, self-sustaining communities.

Such communities should contain, for example, a mix of small shops that trade year-round, not only seasonally. One manifestation of the change in Headingley was the loss of a very famous small family run toy shop called Pumpkin Corner. The reduction in the number of families in the area has resulted in there being fewer children there. If there are no children, there is no need for a specialist toy shop. Although loss of the shop has perhaps not caused significant damage to the local community, such losses are suffered time and again.

The notion has been floated in some circles that it would be helpful to develop voluntary links with the student housing sector, and particularly with some of the private landlords. However, the idea that that will slow down the process of community impoverishment, let alone preventing the untrammelled so-called market forces that are now at work from destroying larger parts of our inner-city areas, is simply fanciful and manifestly not true.

We need responsibility for the defence of our communities to be taken by our elected local and national government. We need action to ensure the defence and retention of inner-city areas for the year-round housing of needy families and first-time buyers--who are now priced out of the market--rather than the transformation of areas surrounding our inner-city areas into barren transit camps. Such a process is currently under way in those areas. It is being participated in unwillingly by the good landlords, and uncaringly by short-term and profiteering landlords. The need for greater provision of safe and good-quality accommodation for the student population is not being dealt with by the current process of unmanaged market forces.

Sadly, not only the Government but the universities have been found wanting in the matter. In Leeds, the universities' behaviour towards the community who supported them for generations has been found seriously wanting. They have shown at best an ineffectual concern, and at worst a betrayal of the support that they have received from local communities, on which any continuing mutually beneficial economic and social relationship depends. They have betrayed the community.

The expansion of student numbers in higher education is, to put it mildly, a laudable policy objective, and it is being achieved. The objective would be especially laudable if the numbers reflected a large increase in students from social classes 3, 4 and 5. I look forward to such change. Meanwhile, however, students who live in areas where there are many HMOs for term-time only use

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are often themselves the victims not only of the worst excesses of a free-market housing policy, but of the area's increasing crime.

The types of crime mentioned in today's debate are occurring in and around those university areas. Such areas always contain a young population who have constantly to relearn the lessons of history. As the student population in such areas is replenished annually, the areas have a permanently renewed youthfulness that never matures.

The supporters of unfettered free-market forces were right about the market providing--it provided substandard accommodation for large numbers of students, and not just in Leeds. The same free market also failed--and fails--to invest in new housing stock. It is important to acknowledge that we all seek good-quality and safe living conditions for the overwhelming number of students who live in the inner-city areas of Leeds. The free market economy wants a guaranteed profit--that is, guaranteed through a public support of education. It is a common trait, which has become manifest in other former public sector industries, leading to all kinds of failures and human disasters.

I am told that in the southern end of Headingley, there are more than 1,000 so-called empty beds in HMOs. That part of my constituency is becoming steadily impoverished. The poor quality of the provision and its continuing decline means that neither students' parents nor the students themselves wish them to live in such poor conditions. As a result, there is a growing dereliction created by the profit-farming landlords. It reminds me of the dustbowl farmers of the American mid-west in the 1920s and 1930s--pillaging the land, profiting and moving on to pastures new for even greater profits. Local government has found this unplanned-for growth in HMOs irresistible, as it has not had the powers to stop it. The evidence of such growth is before our very eyes, and its predicted spread is taking place.

One consequence of the expansion of these transit camps and empty beds is a dramatic drop in the family occupation. It is not a question of losing one family shop; there is a serious threat to schools in the areas damaged by the growth in HMOs. At least two primary schools in my constituency are experiencing serious difficulties related to the fall in numbers of primary school-aged children. One of those schools is just 10 years old. It was built when the demographics showed a secure, continuous supply of young children.

The Government's stated policy of recovering inner-city areas for reoccupation by long-term residents is working in parts in Leeds--for example, in the riverside developments in the centre. However, such developments are not occupied by young families working in the shops, offices and call centres. They are moving out of the city centre--first-time buyers have no chance of buying a city-centre property.

The pressure that that puts on greenbelt land is understood, but it also adds enormously to the polluting effect and the CO 2 level. The so-called rush hour is now 12 hours long. That kind of pressure means that Headingley lane has the dubious claim of being the second most polluted road in Leeds.

In one way, managing the unparalleled growth in student numbers is wonderful--it is what we all want. The growth in the educational process is, from my perspective, as essential to the nation's health as the national health

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service. In fact, the NHS depends on it. However, I am concerned that we are in danger of destroying the very centres--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. Sir Paul Beresford.

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