Homes Bill

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Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): Amendment No. 83 is the mirror image of amendments Nos. 81 and 82 to clause 25, which we discussed on Tuesday, moved so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love). Indeed, he moved them so eloquently that I thought for a moment that he was reading my notes.

The purpose of the three amendments is to ensure that the housing priority of the applicant is given the highest importance. The hon. Members for Bath and for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned the difficulties that local authorities have. While they have a duty to look after the homeless, they also have a clear duty to look after their tenants. We have to draw a fine line within the Bill. If we draw the line too widely, the homeless will suffer, but if we draw it too narrowly, the existing tenants will suffer in the ways that both hon. Members have suggested.

What we are trying to do with this amendment is to ensure that the reasons and needs that the Government set out in the housing Green Paper are reflected in the Bill. I have looked quickly at Government amendments Nos. 106 to 108, and it seems to me that the difficulties that we tried to address in amendments No. 81 and 82 have been considered very closely and have been dealt with. I will not take any more of the Committee's time and I will not press my amendment, should the Minister satisfy me that the Government amendments cover the points that have been raised.

Mr. Waterson: I fully endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said with such eloquence.

Mixed tenure is a positive reason for our amendments. It is an important buzz phrase in the housing field, because if we are to prevent social housing from being increasingly ghetto-ised, mixed tenure has to be at least part of the future. However, it can be wholly derailed by antisocial behaviour on the part of so-called neighbours from hell.

I had a case in my constituency, on the imaginatively designed and well-built Kingsmere estate, which replaced some truly dreadful housing. I met with the four housing associations involved before a brick was laid, so that everyone was clear on tenanting policy—a of owner occupation, shared ownership and rented social housing. I suppose that it was inevitable that, early in its life, two or three problem families would somehow find their way on to the new development. The local newspapers carried wall-to-wall coverage about the problems of drugs, threatening behaviour and the half-repaired cars which always seem to feature in such cases. It was a real tragedy, but, after a great deal of effort from the police, social services, housing associations, local counsellors and even myself, the estate is now a happy community and a good example of mixed tenure working well.

That provides a positive reason to support our amendments relating to antisocial neighbours, because unless one is in a position to act quickly and decisively, a downward spiral can start that slowly turns a brand new, expensive and well-designed estate into the sort of estate that faces demolition. We have seen that happen time and again over the years.

Dr. Iddon: The problem has become more complex because of the right to buy. Many former right-to-buy houses have been sold on to private landlords, so councils find it far more difficult to deal neighbours from hell who have been evicted from public sector properties, but end up in privately rented houses on the same estate. Bolton overcame that problem by starting a mediation service between neighbours, whether in the private or public sector. The service is working extremely well, but the problems remain complicated. On one of our estates, more than 50 per cent. of the homes have been sold through the right to buy.

Mr. Waterson: I do not deny that the situation is complex—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that. However, he should not pretend that the right to buy is always the villain. We are not talking about a problem that solely affects social housing: a dreadful case in my constituency involves private sector rented accommodation in which a tenant with mental problems is causing misery to other tenants. None the less, if mixed tenure is to be one of the solutions for the future, with social housing continuing to exist cheek by jowl with other types of accommodation, we have to give people the powers to deal with so-called neighbours from hell.

Mr. Curry: The debate has revealed a broad consensus—albeit a tough-minded one—that local authorities cannot be made subject to an absolute requirement to house people, even if those people in severe need, if the costs to the community of providing that accommodation outweigh the benefits to the individual. It is tough to say that, but we have to carefully avoid the philosophy that holds that a homeless person is necessarily a victim. There may be some homeless people who have victimised other people and so been the authors of their own misfortune. That does not mean that we should not do whatever is possible and practical to overcome the problems to which that gives rise, but we must not always assume that such people's rights are predominant.

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We must therefore say bluntly that it may be right in certain circumstances to disqualify people from a tenancy. It is certainly right that in such cases people should have a right of appeal and know the reason for the disqualification and, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, services should exist to remedy the problems that gave rise to that decision. However, all hon. Members will know the type of complaint that can arise from their own constituencies—even in a constituency such as mine, a widely scattered rural constituency stretching across the Pennines; one can have areas with many of the characteristics of inner-city areas even in small market towns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne and other hon. Friends are right to say that it takes only two or three profoundly disruptive families for an entire estate to become almost uninhabitable. Our surgeries are besieged by people who do not come bleating for charity but who ask why we cannot get rid of those who are causing the problems, so that they can lead a modestly civilised existence. A nuisance may sometimes seem relatively minor, such as refusal to control dogs, the amount of dog dirt left around, children, noise or abuse, but the range includes more significant issues such as allegations of drug dealing with people using premises as temporary accommodation and leaving syringes outside and so on. The litany does not require much imagination, because it is invoked repeatedly in our surgeries. Local authorities have to uphold the standards and quality of life on estates. If, in the hope of improving the life of one family or group of people, they take deliberate action that degrades the life of many people, they take a risk that any social, actuarial assessment might demonstrate to be wrong.

I am therefore sympathetic to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath, although I realise that his amendment is exploratory and that the Government's amendments have rendered it redundant. I am equally sympathetic to the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne and for East Worthing and Shoreham about the need to ensure that advantage may be taken of areas in which housing provision is in surplus—although I caution against the assumption that people from London would necessarily find it easy to accommodate themselves to the rigours of Bradford or that the people of Bradford would expect people from London to do so.

Mr. Raynsford: Disgraceful slur.

Mr. Curry: I leave it to the hon. Gentleman to decide whether the slur is directed at Bradford or at London. In my constituency, Bradford is regarded as virtually a London suburb.

Mr. Waterson: As I was born in Bradford, I hope that my right hon. Friend will have a care.

Mr. Curry: Nothing would give me greater pleasure than for Bradford to survive in the premier league this season, although I fear that that expectation may be one goal too far.

The Chairman: And I fear that we are wandering into the realms of fantasy.

Mr. Curry: There is a fantasy league, Mr. Gale, as you know.

The serious point is that local authorities should be able to co-operate. In fact much co-operation exists between neighbouring or relatively neighbouring authorities. Westminster, for example, builds houses south of the river and there is an agreement about the division of accommodation allocated by Westminster and by the host authority. One must be cautious before assuming that one can move people up and down the A1 and expect them to settle. People are very particular; there are such things as local communities. When I was doing the Minister's job, I remember that there were parts of Bradford that had effectively become controlled by single criminal families. The local housing was controlled and, if the local authority tried to allocate a house to someone who did not meet the family's approval, they were bombed out. It sounds brutal, but that is the reality in some places.

I am sure that the Minister will explain his amendments, which go some way towards meeting the demands of the hon. Member for Bath, and which are entirely compatible with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friends. The sum of it all is that we must not assume that a homeless person is inevitably and necessarily a victim. We must also assume that responsibility must go to a wider community, which sometimes means taking rather tough decisions about individuals for the benefit of the broader constituency for which the local authority is responsible.

Mr. Raynsford: I know that our morning sitting is coming to an end, Mr. Gale, so I wish to add my thanks to those of other hon. Members for your characteristically humorous and effective chairmanship of our Committee. We shall miss you this afternoon, but we shall be delighted to see Mr. Stevenson. Sadly, we cannot have both of you in tandem.

I hope that I will not incur your wrath, Mr Gale, if I briefly allude to our geographical excursion to Bradford. There does seem to be an extraordinary Bradford connection in this Committee. The hon. Member for Eastbourne announced that he was born in Bradford, and I must confess—this sounds like even more of a fantasy— that I spent a year of my life living in a caravan in Bradford some 51 years ago.

Amendments Nos. 77, 91, 83, 92 and 96 seek to vary the levels of preference of priority that different groups might attract, to change the balance between the various factors or to specify new factors that might be taken into account when assessing finer degrees of preference or priority.

We are in search of the four Ps: the perfect preference prioritising process. However, like the treasure at the end of the rainbow, which the daughter of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) will be pursuing that next week as she plays the lead in a well-known entertainment—

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