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22 Oct 2002 : Column 152—continued

Mr. Gray: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is my near neighbour. [Interruption.] That was close. My mobile telephone nearly rang. I shall put it down.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of building large numbers of new houses. How would Liberal Democrat Budget proposals to impose value added tax of 5 per cent. on new build affect that? Surely that would mean that there would be fewer houses, not more of them.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has a problem with his mobile, and with listening to the debate. Had he come into the Chamber slightly earlier, he might have heard us deal with that point. However, the good news is that I have promised to reply in detail to that point later.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: Of course.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has been generous in giving way. When he winds up his speech, will he also explain the Liberal Democrats' proposals on land value taxation, set out by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders)?

Mr. Foster: Yes, I will. I shall cheat slightly and leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, so that he can give a full explanation a little later, but I want the House to be aware that I fully support the proposal.

I have been trying to say for some time that the Government have made some progress, and I pay tribute to them for that. Indeed, the motion notes their recent measures to tackle homelessness and the increased funding made available for housing. I note that the spending review 2002 promises an extra #1.4 billion for housing capital investment by the year 2005–06.

Additional resources are desperately needed. However, they alone will not solve the affordable homes crisis entirely. We have not yet had a definitive statement on how those additional funds are to be spent. It is difficult to know how much will be used to plug the affordable housing gap. We are conscious that some will go towards the important issues of tackling low demand in areas of the north and the midlands, while some will quite rightly be used to bring up to standard existing housing stock. Shelter estimates that what may remain of the total additional funds that will be available is still likely to lead to a shortfall of between 25,000 and 35,000 new affordable homes each year. Therefore, those additional funds will not, by themselves, end the crisis.

We believe that a number of other initiatives are needed. First, we need to tackle the scourge of empty properties. It is a disgrace that with 200,000 homeless households in this country we have, and have had for far too long, some 750,000 empty properties. Every region has more empty properties than homeless households, and that is a national disgrace. Urgent action is needed to start bringing back more of those empty properties into use. To do so would make a significant impact on the crisis in affordable homes.

For example, the southern regions of England have some 325,000 empty properties, more than 90,000 of which have been empty for more than12 months. If all those were brought back into use, they would constitute

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two years' worth of the required supply of affordable housing in the southern regions. It is, of course, a well- known problem. Indeed, only last week, in answering a question from me, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

He also admitted:

Sadly, he is right. Nothing has been done about the scandal of empty homes.

Many steps could and should be taken. I said last week:

In answer to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about the implications of an increase in VAT for house building, the net effect of the measures that I have just described, by reducing for renovation and increasing for house building, would be zero. There would be no additional cost to the taxpayer and there would be increased opportunity to bring back many empty homes into use. Therefore, I was delighted when the Deputy Prime Minister, in an uncharacteristic display of generosity to the Liberal Democrats, said:

He went on to indicate that it might even come to fruition if only he could persuade the Chancellor. I hope that he does. However, other steps could also be taken.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: I should like to make a little progress.

Local authorities could be given increased powers compulsorily to purchase houses that have remained empty for an unacceptable period. They should also be given powers to charge council tax on such homes. Their powers could be extended still further so that they have the same borrowing rights as housing associations. We should also introduce site value rating, a point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay will elaborate, if he should happen to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Second homes are another problem, often remaining empty for far too long. Ending council tax relief on such properties, as we have long proposed, would encourage owners to make better use of them, perhaps renting them out when they would normally lie empty. The Government have promised to adopt this policy, but so far we have not heard when. It was expected to be included in the draft local government Bill, but it was not. I hope that we will hear from the Minister today precisely when the Government intend to introduce that Liberal Democrat policy. I hope that we may also hear her say that she is willing to go still further on second homes. In some sensitive parts of the country, the requirement for local authority planning consent for a change of use for a second home would be very welcome.

We can make better use of empty properties and we could also make better use of land, and I do not mean any further encroachment into the green belt.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Will the hon. Gentleman set out his views on the Government's plans

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for substantial investment in affordable housing, which I believe were the centrepiece of the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals to the House earlier in the summer? Those would include substantial developments around Stansted airport and Milton Keynes, for example. Does he support that policy?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has heard me say on a number of occasions that the central determination of housing provision is not a sensible way forward. We have long argued that, within a regional framework and regional guidance, local authorities should make such determinations. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to pass judgment on the rights and wrongs of a particular housing measure. I hope that I have already indicated, however, that the additional investment from the Government, which is very welcome, will be insufficient to meet all the affordable housing needs and that other measures, such as those that I have proposed and others that I will mention, are vitally necessary.

It should be possible to meet the need for affordable housing without reneging on the 60 per cent. target for building on brownfield sites. Indeed, it should be possible to increase that target to somewhere in the region of 75 per cent. There can be little argument about the fact that land supply is restricting house provision. We continue to waste land throughout the country because of the density of housing developments. The figures for 2000-01 show an average density of housing of around 25 dwellings per hectare. We have not moved forward for a number of reasons—largely, inertia and resistance to change on the part of local authorities and developers and a reluctance on the part of the Government regional offices to intervene to enforce national planning policy guidance. If the sites developed for housing in the past year had been developed at an average density of 40 dwellings per hectare—midway in the unambitious minimum range set out in PPG3— 60 per cent. more housing could have been provided on exactly the same amount of land. The waste of land is a serious issue and it affects the entire country, not only the pressurised south-east.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The hon. Gentleman has come up with an inconsistency. On centralised Government targets, he said that decisions should be taken at a local level, dictated by the local regional assembly via its regional spatial strategy; on the other hand, he wants central Government to intervene on density through the regional assemblies. He cannot have it both ways. Either central Government are going to intervene through the regional assemblies, or they are not. Which is it?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman should have read the wording of the motion and listened to what I said. I spoke of the need to encourage local authorities to accept guidance. I did not suggest that the policies should be imposed.

Mr. Streeter : Send them flowers.

Mr. Foster: Sending flowers might help some local authorities, but probably not those that are Liberal-Democrat controlled.

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I would pursue the argument about the importance of the revisions to PPG3 with the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I am well aware that his party and mine accepted that the Government's revisions to that policy were very welcome. We have argued that, where possible, local authorities should adopt those recommendations. The sad truth is that the Government are not doing enough to encourage local councils to adopt them. For example, we know from research that about 37 per cent. of councils have not bothered to update their figures for available brownfield sites. We also know that, sadly, many local authorities have not done enough, or what is recommended in PPG3, to link their planning policies more carefully with their housing policies. Much more work needs to be done to encourage local authorities—not to force them—to accept the recommendations.

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