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7.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing this debate, on what is clearly an important issue for everyone in Edmonton. Today is a most appropriate date for this debate on a key service such as housing, given that the local government elections are being held.

I am very aware that my hon. Friend has taken an active interest in this subject for a long time—indeed, he was interested in it long before he entered this House. I know too that he is doing a great service for his constituents by raising the profile of a problem that faces many people in his area.

Housing problems dominate the surgeries of all hon. Members, and are often the most difficult and the saddest that we encounter. I sympathise with my hon. Friend and—more to the point—with his constituents, given some of the problems that need to be resolved. They include overcrowding and the pressures of living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The Government are obviously acutely aware of the problems. We are very concerned about the sharp increase in the number of homeless households, in London and elsewhere, being placed in temporary accommodation or in bed-and-breakfast units. Over the past five years, the number of homeless households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has risen to nearly 12,500. Most of those homeless households—nearly 8,500—are in London. In Enfield, the borough covering the constituency of my hon. Friend there are more than 2,300 households in temporary accommodation, of which over 300 are in bed and breakfast. That figure is the second highest in outer London.

The Government are concerned about the quality of life of families living in temporary accommodation and bed-and-breakfast units. We are especially worried about what happens to the children, given the well-documented and well-charted impact on health. We are also aware of

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the bad effects of repeat moves, and of the effects suffered by people in overcrowded accommodation. We are also aware of the financial constraints on local authorities to manage temporary accommodation and bed-and- breakfast units.

Although there has been a rise in the number of homeless households in accommodation recently, the Government have taken action to respond very quickly, introducing a series of measures and establishing new units. I shall speak at greater length about those later. However, the figures for London overall are still well below what they were 10 years ago. The Government have acted to intervene and deal with the problem before it reaches the crisis proportions evident in London 10 years ago.

I shall talk first about the general issues and then move to the specific solutions being considered for Edmonton. I shall also deal with the matters that my hon. Friend raised.

My hon. Friend was right to note that the Department has established a homelessness directorate, which will bring together and lead a number of Government initiatives aimed at tackling homelessness. The directorate is responsible for taking forward the work of the former rough sleepers unit, helping to sustain the reductions in rough sleeping achieved over the past two years.

That means continuing to help those vulnerable people who remain on the streets. It also means continuing to rebuild the lives of those who have already been helped away from the streets, particularly through schemes to offer training and employment opportunities and a real chance of independence. It also means building on the work of the unit to prevent those most at risk of sleeping rough from reaching the streets in the first place.

The directorate also includes the Government's bed-and-breakfast unit, which has a clear remit to work with local authorities such as Enfield to help reduce homelessness and the number of people in bed-and-breakfast and temporary accommodation. The unit has held meetings with a number of agencies working in the sector.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently gave a commitment that by March 2004 local authorities will ensure that no homeless family with children has to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation except in an emergency, and then for no more than six weeks and only in accommodation of a suitable standard. Some £35 million will be available to help meet this commitment in 2002–03. The bed-and-breakfast unit is currently discussing with local authorities like Enfield, which has a high level of bed-and-breakfast usage, their individual action plans to meet this commitment. While the unit should spearhead initiatives and find solutions to the problem, the service provision is still at local authority level.

My hon. Friend referred to annexes, an issue about which the Government are also concerned. I will make sure that he receives details of the thinking and decisions on that issue in writing. The problem is localised and restricted to a number of specific local authorities.

Tackling homelessness involves working across Departments. That is why the bed-and-breakfast unit will also be looking at the wider issues of access to health and

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other services for those placed in this form of accommodation. The Department for Work and Pensions has announced changes to housing benefit rules worth around £10 million to boost incentives for private sector leasing by local authorities. That deals with one of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend.

One of the directorate's first responsibilities was to produce a national homelessness framework, within which the Government will work in tackling homelessness and look to their key voluntary, statutory and private sector partners to play their part in tackling homelessness.

The directorate will also be responsible for ensuring the effective implementation of the Homelessness Act 2002, which provides stronger protection for those who become homeless and also ensures that local authorities such as Enfield and their partners take a more strategic approach to tackling and preventing homelessness.

We will be issuing a revised statutory code of guidance on allocation and homelessness, reflecting changes brought about by the new Homelessness Act and the proposed priority needs order. We will allocate additional resources to help local authorities deliver the new priority needs order which, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, will give young people the rights to housing for the first time and to be treated as homeless. It will also give rights to other people. I expect that it will lead in the short term to an increase in the number of homeless people although in the longer term it will ensure that we meet the real and often hidden housing needs of people up and down the country.

My hon. Friend mentioned housing costs, which leads me to the problems of supply and demand. The need for housing in London is rising sharply. Current projections for London suggest a growth of 26,000 households a year between 1996 and 2016, but only about 18,000 new dwellings are being built each year and only 4,000 of those could be termed affordable.

If we are to have any prospect of tackling London's shortage of affordable housing, and the problems that my hon. Friend referred to in Edmonton, the first priority must be to increase the rate of new build. This will require an innovative and radical approach from the Government, the Mayor, local authorities, community leaders and others. A key element will be a much stronger drive to redevelop existing sites to provide mixed-use, high-quality and higher-density housing. My hon. Friend is right about the impact of changes in the planning system. We recently published a Green Paper setting out our proposals for long-term reform of the planning system, but there is a great deal that we can do to simplify and speed up the process.

My hon. Friend is also right about the need to look at the issues surrounding planning gain and the way in which we provide and develop integrated housing schemes. I realise that there are concerns about our ability to continue to provide mixed communities, but it is essential that we do so. The supply of housing is a problem and there is also an issue about sustainable housing. I am sure that my hon. Friend does not want to go back to the time when London saw the proliferation of monolithic, single-tenure housing estates. Most of them are being pulled down because they simply did not meet people's housing aspirations. That is one of the strongest arguments for the Government persisting in getting mixed communities instead of the old monolithic housing estates.

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The trend of rising homelessness, which increases pressure on the social housing stock, and the housing needs of key workers, require innovative approaches to provision. Of course we need to look at many other issues affecting the delivery of affordable housing, including funding, attracting private finance, using public sector stock and public sector land and encouraging industry and employers to respond to the challenge.

I understand that the London borough of Enfield is taking that approach through the comprehensive development initiative. Some 2,000 homes are to be built on brownfield sites, including disused garages and open spaces, over seven years. That initiative is being delivered in partnership with registered social landlords and local residents to develop good quality affordable homes for local people. The land, owned by the council, is disposed of in return for 100 per cent. nominations. Funding has come from the Housing Corporation and private sector match funding.

As well as encouraging the fullest use of identified brownfield sites, there may be scope for greater regeneration of existing rundown properties and to improve the local environment, especially in areas with worn-out dwellings and surroundings. Again, I understand that the London borough of Enfield is taking that approach in Edmonton, through the major regeneration scheme—the Edmonton partnership initiative—which my hon. Friend mentioned.

The initiative is centred on community involvement and on the transfer of over 1,300 council properties to two housing associations. It includes the phased demolition of three 25-storey tower blocks, as well as improvements and major repairs to each residential property in Edmonton. It also involves working with local people—traders, and the private and voluntary sectors—and aims to improve the shopping, transport, environment and social and economic conditions in Edmonton. It is a good example of a successful partnership, and I am sure that it will help to ensure that we have not only good homes, but sustainable communities.

I am pleased to note that the London borough of Enfield is also supporting the Government's starter home initiative and, by working in partnership with housing associations, will provide assistance to key workers. About 72 teachers, 14 police officers and 86 health staff will benefit from that initiative in Enfield.

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My hon. Friend mentioned capacity problems, particularly in the building industry, and the problems that that would create in trying to build the number of homes that are needed throughout London. That is a problem not just in London but throughout the country. The high wages and skills shortages in London are attracting building workers from all over the country to the capital.

Just as housing schemes in London are finding it difficult to get the right number of skilled builders, in the low-demand areas—for example, in Liverpool and elsewhere where building is taking place to regenerate some of the very poor-quality, low-demand properties—schemes are also being held back by labour shortages because those areas have lost all their skilled workers to London.

The Government are acutely aware of the problems that that is creating and are working closely with the industry and others to boost the number of people—especially by attracting people from sectors of society that traditionally have not worked in the building industry, such as women and people in the black and ethnic minority communities, to try to improve the number of skilled people in the building industry.

Of course there are severe pressures on housing in London, but we also have to consider carefully the problems throughout the country. The Government have such a commitment and have funded programmes to meet the housing problems that have been identified not only in high-value areas in London, but in the low-demand areas in the midlands and the north of the country.

For all those initiatives to work, there must be sufficiently strong local leadership and a can-do mentality among all concerned—whether in the private, public or voluntary sectors—to drive through the necessary changes. I believe that that already exists in many parts of London; of course, we must encourage it where it does not.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will play an important part in ensuring that there is a strong can-do mentality in his constituency and that the local authorities and others will work together to meet the housing needs of the local community. This debate has highlighted some important issues, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising them. If he has any questions remaining, I should be very happy to write to him about them.

Question put and agreed to.

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