Homelessness Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I made it absolutely plain that the hon. Gentleman may have it one way or another, but not both.

Mr. Waterson: Your patience is legendary, Mr. Gale.

I begin our proceedings by pointing out a most unfortunate typographical error at column 274 of the report of the proceedings of the previous Committee. A sentence that should have read:

    ``We can argue how many angels dance on a pinhead for as long as Mr. Gale's patience lasts'',

has, sadly, become:

    ``for as long as Mr. Gale's pension lasts.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 25 January 2001; c. 274.]

I am sorry to relate that that mistake, which I only spotted in the past couple of days, has been repeated in the Library's otherwise excellent brief on the Bill. Hansard may want to take note, as we would not like the impression to gain ground that you draw a pension, Mr. Gale.

The amendments are part of a groundhog-day strategy: we debated the issue previously. Although we had a reasonably good debate, the previous Minister did not feel that we had a good point. I am sure that his successor will be much more willing to be flexible. The hon. Member for Bath will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that we forced the issue to a Division. If we did not, it was probably because we did not expect to win.

The amendments relate to strategic partners. The key amendment is No. 1, under which, in addition to the local authority, registered social landlords, co-operatives, landlords of houses in multiple occupation registered under the Housing Act 1996, members of landlords' forums, voluntary organisations and other relevant bodies would be involved in devising a homelessness strategy. I do not claim that the list is exhaustive; if other hon. Members have suggestions, no doubt they will make them during what I hope will be a short debate. It still seems valid to say that, for the strategy to be meaningful in a particular local authority area, it should be specified in the Bill that it includes those other bodies.

We and local government in general, irrespective of party loyalties, welcome the new duty placed on local authorities to formulate an overarching homelessness strategy. Organisations such as the Local Government Association have flagged up concerns about whether resources will follow the proposals in the Bill, although it broadly welcomes the proposals, as do we.

10.45 am

Recently, the LGA said:

    ``The LGA supports the proposed new duty on local housing authorities to formulate a homelessness strategy. The LGA would like to see this go further to provide a legal basis for an overarching strategic housing role.''

In the context of the relatively broad debate on the amendments, it would be interesting to tease out from the Minister the Government's current thinking on the matter. I make no bones about the LGA's support for the proposals because many of them emanated from good work that the LGA did a couple of years ago. However, it thinks that the legislation could go further. Has that idea been dismissed out of hand, or might it be developed when the provisions in the legislation have bedded down?

The LGA continues to say that there is,

    ``at present, no legislative duty on authorities to produce a housing strategy other than the requirement in S8 Housing Act 1985 to consider the housing needs and conditions of the district.''

However, it also says—this is a key point that I wish to develop—that as more and more transfers of stock take place from local authorities to RSLs, or there is a movement toward arm's-length housing management, it is vital to ensure that housing strategies do not become marginalised. That is why the LGA says:

    ``A broader duty would place housing strategies on a level playing field with other statutory plans, such as Community Care plans.''

I recognise that there is tension between that clear point and the broader point that I often hear the LGA make that it is currently subjected to too many plans, and that many plans place an enormous burden on local authorities. Therefore, we must be careful about imposing further duties. However, the LGA supports the provisions and can claim a role in their origin, and it would be helpful if the Minister were to comment on what the LGA says.

A further difficulty is the existing problems of housing and homelessness. On Second Reading, we debated the current state of play in the housing world. Shelter commented:

    ``During the election, a lot of attention was given to improving education and health services. We hear much less about the thousands of families stuck in grotty B&Bs . . . The current crisis-driven approach to homelessness is not working.''

I am sure that all members of the Committee are disappointed that housing did not feature as a major issue in the election campaign, despite the efforts of heavyweight housing organisations in the run up to the campaign. That goes for all the major parties. Shelter is right to complain because there is a crisis of the number of people who are ``stuck in grotty B&Bs''. The Prime Minister, no less, in The Big Issue on 3 June said:

    ``We have to do better . . . I accept we need to do more.''

The Committee will be familiar with Government figures, but they bear repetition. They show that homelessness numbers in England have soared by 8,000 over the past three years. There were tetchy arguments in the previous Standing Committee about how those figures should be interpreted, but the only way to interpret them is to say that they are rising—in other words, getting worse. The most recent figures from 15 June show that the number of priority acceptances has risen from 102,410 in 1997 to 110,790 by the end of 2000. The number of homeless households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has also risen from 4,100 in the first quarter of 1997 to 10,830 in the first quarter of 2001.

The growing gap between rich and poor should be overlaid on that picture. The number of empty council properties in England rose by 7 per cent. under the previous Labour Government: there were 81,200 empty dwellings in April 1997, but by April 2000 there were 87,186. However, the construction of new social housing has plummeted by 37 per cent., despite the estimates of organisations such as Shelter that, over the next 10 to 15 years, 100,000 new units of such housing will be needed each year.

The Committee will study the proposals and weigh their merits, and I hope that it will improve them, if only marginally. However, they must be seen against a background of serious problems, and of a generally worsening housing situation.

Large-scale transfers of stock—another relevant issue—was debated at length by the previous Committee, so I will not discuss it in detail. It was also touched on by the LGA. The rate of those transfers accelerated sharply under the previous Labour Government. The Minister announced that 27 local authorities will be able to proceed with

    ``32 transfers of all or part of their housing stock to registered social landlords''—[Official Report, 22 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 10W.]

and that the programme will involve more than 328,000 dwellings over a two-year period. That is a phenomenal figure, and I should be grateful if the Minister would update us on what the total number of units would be if that was taken into account. I think that it would be in excess of 500,000.

Mr. Don Foster: To save the hon. Gentleman from having to wait for the Minister's reply, I can inform him that the total number of units would be 580,000.

Mr. Waterson: That is extremely helpful, as that figure puts the issues into context. If that rate of increase of transfers were to continue during the lifetime of the second Labour Government, which is likely to be four or five years, what do they project would be the total number of transfers by the end of the Parliament, if it runs its full course, and what would be the national proportion of properties in the hands of registered social landlords, versus those in the hands of local authorities? I would be interested to hear the Minister's response to that, and the hon. Member for Bath might also wish to express his views about it.

The ground is fundamentally shifting under us as we debate such issues, as it did when we debated them previously. The whole picture is changing and, before long, registered social landlords will be the dominant feature on the social housing landscape and local authorities will be much less dominant. Indeed, it has been predicted for some time that we will see the death of the council house during the lifetime of the current Government.

Mr. Don Foster: It would strengthen the hon. Gentleman's argument if he knew that the current projection, based on the present rate of transfers, is that by 2004—probably before the end of the Government's term in office—the majority of social housing will be in the hands of registered social landlords. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that mechanisms are in place to ensure that registered social landlords, and the other bodies to which the amendments refer, work closely with the local authorities, which will continue to be responsible for the homelessness strategy.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am sorry that I have to agree with him, but I am sure that we will find something to disagree about later.

The landscape is changing. Councils are going out of the housing business, and, although they may not be shouting it from the rooftops, that is the Government's policy. One has only to look at a graph on a wall—rather as the hon. Gentleman has just described—to see where things are going to end. In addition, increasing numbers of rundown council estates in some parts of the country are likely to remain empty, either because of their condition or because of the level of demand in that area, or because people are looking for better accommodation in the private or voluntary sectors.

I made a comment in the Committee stage of the Homes Bill, reflecting on a point made by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which is not exactly a Conservative-leaning think tank. The institute used the analogy of the difference between black and white and colour television; it said that a lot of social housing was equivalent to black and white TV, and that demand for it would lessen as time went on.

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