Homes Bill

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Mr. Curry: That is typical of Liberal Democrats. They just improvise around work that someone else has done.

There is nothing wrong with the amendments. My attitude to them is like that to some of my daughters' boyfriends: I can see nothing particularly against or in favour of them. I hesitate to say any more about the boyfriends, in case I get into trouble.

Mr. Raynsford: Would the right hon. Gentleman give any room in his house to the amendments?

Mr. Curry: At the risk of irritating someone, I have to say that one has to give a fair amount of room in one's house to one's daughters' boyfriends.

The amendments are tautologous in the sense that strategies cannot be developed without strategic partners. They are designed to bind a local authority to do what it is inescapable for a local authority to do in any case. That does not make them wrong, because it is important that we find out what the Minister means by ``strategy'', which is one of his wonderful words. It conjures up all sorts of wholesome ideas of joined-upness and people thinking together, but the truth is that a strategy can be full of holes. One can put anything on a piece of paper and call it a strategy, when it could just as well be called a series of ad hoc initiatives. Whether it works depends not on its name but on how it is implemented and whether people talk to each other to get the thing done.

The hon. Member for Bath and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne rightly highlighted the importance of registered social landlords and housing associations, and especially those that sprang from the 1996 Act, which allowed the formation of housing companies, which was a change, in that local authorities could retain a stakeholding, whereas previous legislation required the transfer to be moved entirely beyond the ambit of local authorities. The great acceleration of transfers followed that piece of legislation.

Birmingham has been circling around a transfer proposal, with a certain amount of agonising, but all its inquiries tend to suggest that there is not really an alternative to a stock transfer. Transfers of between 25,000 and 35,000 houses are becoming quite common. Birmingham, with 94,000 houses, and Glasgow, at roughly the same figure, are the two largest housing providers in the United Kingdom.

It is equally true that a lot of smaller authorities now feel that they cannot escape doing the same. District councils in my constituency include Craven, which covers one of the smallest areas in the country, and Harrogate , which is one of the largest in terms of population. Both are now actively pursuing the idea of stock transfer for precisely the same reason: that the need to spend is outpacing the capability to do so. Even if stock is in relatively good condition, the prospect is that it will deteriorate, not improve, as the years pass, so the maths dictate that transfer is probably the best way to raise the funds needed to make the jump forward and close that gap. At some stage, I expect to be lobbying Ministers on behalf of both of those authorities, one of which is controlled by the Conservatives and the other by the Liberal Democrats, to find a place for them on the programme.

11.15 am

RSLs are now too big to ignore. Home Housing is the largest in the country—larger than all but a handful of local authority providers. The body that I think used to be called North British has followed the fashionable mania for changing its name and is now called Homes for People, or some similarly pathetic name that lacks a certain intellectual toughness. As far as I am aware Bradford and Northern still retains that name, which has a solid ring and indicates vaguely what the organisation does, unlike names like Relate—we have not had the faintest idea of what it does since it changed its name—or, indeed, the Post Office. Registered social landlords, formerly housing associations, have now taken over as the locomotives of the provision and development of social housing. The funding now obviously comes from the private sector and enables the market to be developed.

Mr. Don Foster: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of this, but it may be helpful to put it on the record that all the indications are that, by 2004, registered social landlords will have the majority of properties in the sector.

Mr. Curry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for echoing what I said in an article in The Guardian about a year ago. I realise that writing in The Guardian might be yet another of the faults attributed to me, but never mind—one tries to find someone who is sympathetic and who will pay.

It is true to say that we are witnessing the death of council housing in its classical form. New forms of tenure and new forms of landlord are emerging, and council housing in the old post-war sense is not going to be around for the next generation. We should all rejoice, because what is coming into being is better. The ability to bring in funding from the private sector and the ability to give people more choice are benefits. We should not get stuck on a particular concept and a particular label, because it is so easy for that sort of housing to be stigmatised.

At one time, it was a shorthand election law that the occupants of a privately owned house voted Tory and the tenants of a council house voted Labour. That is no longer true. Some of my best votes come from council houses, and people who live in a really smart private house probably vote Liberal Democrat. The whole electoral arithmetic has been overthrown. The right to buy had something to do with that, but it is certainly not the beginning and end of the story.

We should consider what are the necessary elements of a homelessness strategy. Many local authorities, irrespective of their political colour, will have most of the elements of a strategy in place, but they may not be assembled in the single document that can be labelled ``strategy''. Harrogate council in my constituency provides a good example, because it encompasses a large urban centre in Harrogate town itself and a wide urban hinterland. Harrogate's experience shows that there is less than meets the eye in part II, because it demands a lot of things that are already being done. I am in favour of a large part of part II but it is not ground-breaking; it only pulls together what most local authorities do already.

Harrogate covers a population of 160,000; it is big for a district authority, being spread over a large rural area, including a chunk of the Pennines, as well as the centre of Harrogate. Harrogate itself is characterised by two things; extremely high house prices, because it is a desirable part of the world, and a large pool of low-paid labour. Its industries, hotels, tourism, conference centres and restaurants typically employ people at the bottom end of the earning scale. One thinks of Harrogate as one of those pukka, Oscar Wildey places—like a south coast resort—but in fact it has much poverty, as well as a serious drugs problem.

Harrogate also has a significant homelessness problem, with more than 1,000 presentations a year, but only about 150 acceptances—about 15 or 16 per cent. That happens not because it tells the applicants to push off but because of its strategy of trying to ensure that people are caught before they are declared homeless and have to be housed. The emphasis is on prevention—which underlies what everyone is trying to do—by such measures as negotiations with a landlord or, when necessary or appropriate, with a building society, getting people on housing association waiting lists before they have to be declared homeless, and identifying people susceptible to becoming homeless and ensuring that they have access to the necessary advice.

The authority also maximises affordable housing by attracting capital finance, and tries to target homeless people into it. The town also has good-quality temporary accommodation, particularly in self-contained flats. In such places as Harrogate the two-year limit on temporary accommodation is not a constraint. I doubt that anyone has ever spent two years in temporary accommodation there, which demonstrates the effectiveness of the mechanisms that are in place. That is even less of a problem in big northern cities where there is surplus housing stock. London and some of the south-east present a wholly different picture because of the economic, population and immigration pressures there. Harrogate also leases homes from private landlords. About 45 houses are leased through schemes with the Housing Corporation or housing associations that buy or lease accommodation.

Harrogate should outline all those elements in a document. The strategy is in place, even it if it is not described as a strategy. Housing strategies already exist, because local authorities must do a housing investment programme presentation. We are producing 10-year programmes, and any local authority contemplating a transfer must produce a business plan, which is also in a sense a housing strategy—we will come later to the integration of a housing and homelessness strategy. That requirement is in a sense tautologous because for a homelessness strategy to exist, a housing strategy must be in place. Any local authority that does not see a relationship between the two must be singularly lacking in gumption, as we say in north Yorkshire.

The amendments are important because they give the Government an opportunity to describe the components of a strategy. As the hon. Member for Bath said, the Minister will be able to repeat argument A, that if we include all those matters in the Bill there is always a chance that something gets left out that subsequently turns out to be significant, or that the requirements will in any case be met without having to be stated. In this case, I think that that is probably right. We must at some stage trust that people will use common sense. The Minister must tell us how he sees the strategy working and what he thinks are the elements of the strategy, so that local authorities know whether he has spotted something that they, with many years of practice in the field, have not. I look forward to speaking later on the relationship with social services, which is another important matter.

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Prepared 25 January 2001