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8.45 pm

During Committee stage, I corresponded with the Local Government Association about the amendment. However, it was not possible to get a considered response from the

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LGA until after the conclusion of the Committee. It is fair to point out today that the LGA's considered view is to ask me to accept that the amendment is unworkable and that this is a problem best dealt with by ministerial guidance.

Hon. Members may have received a briefing from the LGA for today's proceedings. The briefing summarises the objections set out in the correspondence with me. First, the LGA says that local authorities do not have full control of all the properties that are empty, and so it would be unfair to impose targets on them. Secondly, local authorities work in partnership with others and cannot impose their views on their partners. Thirdly, the amendment is described as unworkable.

I am not convinced that some redrafting of the wording could not satisfy the objections, but the thrust of the LGA's objections is that it is pleading for the flexibility that guidance gives. There are times when we should not agree to give Governments of any political hue flexibility, but when those who are to be on the receiving end of the guidance feel that that flexibility would be helpful, it is reasonable to listen. My amendment does not need be pressed to a vote as a result of the LGA's view.

The first point on which I seek reassurance is on the question of guidance. All local authorities are under a duty to formulate homelessness strategies. Will the Minister confirm that the guidance will say that tackling the question of empty properties is an important part of such a strategy? In this way, all local authorities will be required to have a strategy to tackle empty homes. This will plug the main gap that the Empty Homes Agency feels exists at present.

Will the Minister say something about the allocation of resources to local authorities? Can she confirm that when the Government allocate funding, the performance of local authorities in giving effect to the guidance will be taken into account? That would be a powerful message to local authorities to carry out what the Government say.

The second issue is compulsory purchase. I mentioned earlier that hon. Members will have received complaints from constituents about properties standing empty. I would like to illustrate that from my casework, with two spectacular examples of empty properties. For the first, I refer to my local newspaper of record, the Staffordshire Newsletter, and the on-going saga of a semi-detached property in a good residential area of Stafford town that, apparently, has stood empty for 30 years. In the report, a resident of the street is quoted as saying, rather mournfully:

The second example concerns correspondence that I have had with a number of people, including the local authority, about a sturdy, characterful property on the edge of a conservation area that was once rented out by its private owner but has been kept empty since 1982. Owners in both cases have done just enough to avert the local authorities stepping in and exercising powers to require renovation, demolition or closure, but the properties stand empty.

My Empty Homes Bill in the last Parliament proposed that the power of local authorities for compulsory purchase should be tweaked. Local authorities should have the power in the pursuance of a strategy to exercise compulsory purchase to bring back into use empty homes.

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Surely owners should not have an open-ended right to keep good quality residential properties empty for long periods. Local authorities should be able to acquire them at a fair price and ensure that they are occupied by local authority tenants, by a registered social landlord taking over the ownership and renting it out, or by an owner-occupier. Will the Minister say something about powers of compulsory purchase? I know that in the last Parliament there was an exhaustive—officials might say exhausting—review of compulsory purchase powers, but I hope that some action will now result.

I share the Minister's intention of reducing homelessness. I believe that tackling empty homes is an important step among the several measures that will be effective in achieving that.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): We in Plaid Cymru welcome the Bill and its emphasis on a strategic approach to homelessness and on strengthening the position of homeless people.

I support amendment No. 9 rather than amendment No. 8. It takes a complete approach to the entire housing stock

Much of rural Wales—and rural England, for that matter—has sufficient housing stock, with more than enough houses of the proper quality and in the right locations to meet community needs, yet those houses stand empty, out of the reach of local people because of the high price or the high rent. Many also stand empty for long periods because they are second homes.

Those houses are a fundamental part of the housing stock—perhaps 20 or 30 per cent., and more in some areas. In case anyone is taking comfort in the idea that they are in remote locations, it should be understood that many of them are in the centres of villages. They influence the entire provision, taking large parts of the stock out of the equation and causing housing need.

We also have substandard housing in rural areas, as was clearly shown recently by the National Assembly for Wales's new index of deprivation. Such substandard housing, which is now recognised whereas it was previously disregarded, again causes housing need.

In Wales, as elsewhere, we have homelessness. In my constituency, much of the recognised homelessness involves young people who live with their parents or parents-in-law or with friends in overcrowded and unsuitable bad housing. They are unable to rent because of high rents and the lack of suitable property, and unable to buy because they are on low wages, perhaps in seasonal employment, and are pushed out of the market by high prices. They are the victims of structural homelessness. It is no fault of their own.

As well as recognised homelessness, we have masked homelessness in rural Wales. It is masked by out-migration, not through choice but because of poverty and the lack of decent housing. We also have rough sleepers—yes, in rural areas, as was shown some time ago in my constituency by research carried out by a local group, Cywaith Joseph, which found people sleeping rough in the smallest of villages.

There are consequences for the viability and vitality of local communities, and there are particular pressures on communities in which the Welsh language is the everyday

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medium of community life. That was shown by research carried out by my constituency predecessor, Dafydd Wigley, this summer. There are many such communities in my constituency, and they are on the brink of losing the fight for survival.

Clause 3 is aimed at preventing homelessness and ensuring that sufficient accommodation is available for those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. In the category of people at risk are those who have had to migrate out of their area. The clause is also aimed at providing services for such people. To accept amendment No. 9 would contribute considerably towards the achievement of those aims, especially in the circumstances of structural homelessness that I have outlined.

Amendment No. 9 refers to

and calls for targets for reuse. That would encourage the planning of use across the whole of the housing stock, which, I submit, should include the purchase of existing stock by social landlords, rather than new build, which has been the pattern in much of Wales over the past few years. The amendment calls for a strategy for action—action that is sorely needed. I will draw it to the attention of my colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales ahead of their consideration of these matters, and for now I give it my wholehearted support.

Ms Keeble: The principal aims of the Bill are to set a coherent framework for local authorities to adopt in tackling homelessness, to strengthen the homelessness safety net and to extend choice. Those aims have generally been widely and warmly welcomed.

The Government may set the framework for tackling homelessness, but local authorities are best placed to co-ordinate strategies locally and to initiate preventive measures in their local areas. The Bill requires local authorities to take a more strategic approach to tackling and preventing homelessness.

A partnership approach is central to our proposals. We require local authorities to take a multi-agency strategic approach to preventing and responding to homelessness. Many agencies are involved with people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so, and it is important that those agencies work together to avoid duplication and gaps in the provision. A wide range of bodies should be engaged in reviews and strategies, and in the prevention and management of homelessness: probation services, voluntary organisations, housing associations, and organisations working with young people and those suffering from mental health problems. Organisations that deal with rough sleepers, too, have a vital role to play.

Amendment No. 1 would specify the bodies that should co-operate with local authorities. One, presumably unintended, effect of the amendment would be that many very small landlords and small organisations would be caught up in the obligation to participate in homelessness reviews and strategies. Co-ops and landlords of houses in multiple occupation are indeed important housing providers, and some will want to engage with the authorities. Where there is a willingness to co-operate, I would expect local housing authorities to welcome that, and to build real partnerships—but such arrangements cannot be forced, and I believe that they would be undermined by a statutory obligation.

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My main objection to the amendment is that it would undermine the strategic responsibility that we are placing on local housing authorities. It is for them to undertake homelessness reviews—in partnership, and as part of their wider housing and community responsibilities. It is important that authorities accept that, and are clear that the responsibility rests with them.

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