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19 Nov 2002 : Column 585—continued

8.19 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). He spoke with great passion about the problem of empty homes in his constituency and housing issues in general. I would not have believed that part of his speech had I not, four or five months ago, walked around Manchester and seen street after street in which two thirds of the homes were boarded up. I come from Devon nice parts, so that was a shock. The hon. Gentleman spoke with great power and passion, and I hope that his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench are listening.

Although the hon. Gentleman represents Burnley and I represent Plymouth and part of Devon, we are in the same region: it is a region that I call England. We do not need England to be carved up into artificial regions to help us run our affairs. With the increasing use of technology, it should be easier to run things with the systems available. We should not create artificial divisions.

I am pleased to take part in the debate on the Queen's Speech. We welcome many of the proposals in the Gracious Speech, especially some of the criminal justice measures. There is no doubt in my mind that tackling crime is one of the most important issues. I also welcomed the Home Secretary's statement today.

Once upon a time, the Prime Minister talked about the causes of crime. Unless Parliament and the Government start to tackle some of the causes of crime

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and go upstream and intervene at that juncture, no matter how many Bills we pass, how many new gimmicks we introduce and how many more policemen we put on the beat, we will not solve the crime and antisocial behaviour problems facing the nation.

Two upstream issues are vital. First, it is essential that when heroin addicts or crack cocaine users make the brave decision to kick the habit, they should have immediate access to treatment. Three months later, six months later—or, as in some parts of the country, two years later—is not soon enough. They will change their minds, and continue to fund their habit through crime. They are caught up in their misery, and their families—and all of us—suffer. I was disappointed that there was nothing in the Queen's Speech about access to treatment for drug addicts, and I hope that the Government will take note of my comments.

Even further upstream is the issue of what goes on in some homes. Over the 10 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have spoken to many primary school teachers. When four or five-year-olds come into their schools, the teachers know who will fall through the fingers of the system, who is likely to underachieve, who has not received the parenting, love, support, encouragement and discipline that they require, and who is already out of control. We need better systems of early intervention to bring to bear on youngsters at that early, upstream stage if we are to tackle crime further downstream.

The Government partly created the problem that they now seek to solve by bringing into force referendums for regional government. In creating regional development agencies with no accountability, they introduced this unnecessary problem, which they now propose to tackle with an unwanted solution. It will mean government further away from the people. There is one obstacle to regional government that I cannot get over. If the Government have their way, it is likely that in a few years some parts of the country will have regional government and others will not—and that may be a long-term settlement. Can anyone in the Chamber name any other country in the world with such a dyslexic system of government that there is regional government in some parts of it and not in others? It will become a Trivial Pursuit question in America to name the country that has regional government in some parts and not in others. It will become a question for German students of politics and geography. An exam question for students in the future will be, XDoes the United Kingdom have regional government?" and no one will be able to answer it.

Angus Robertson: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is asymmetric devolution in Spain? Some parts of that nation have devolved institutions and other parts do not.

Mr. Streeter: The hon. Gentleman gives Spain as an example. Is that the country on which we should model our constitution? Is that what the Government are offering the people of the United Kingdom? I wish they would make that clear in their statements.

The Queen's Speech was a lost opportunity in relation to housing. I know that the Government's heart is in the right place, and that they care about standards in

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housing and the provision of sufficient affordable housing for those who require it. However, the point that they continue to miss is that the current housing crisis is not just a continuation of the need to provide good quality social housing. A new crisis has broken out in recent years. There is a lack of affordable housing to buy in many areas. People face that problem not only in London and the south-east but in many other parts of the country. It affects key workers, such as nurses, firefighters, local government officers and the police, who do not want to live in rented accommodation all their lives. The Government continually fail to understand that. Key workers want affordable housing to buy, and at the moment they cannot access it. They are part of the 85 per cent. of the population who want to own their own home.

In rural parts of the country, such as my area, local people living in towns and villages cannot afford to stay, to buy and to live locally, because they have been priced out of the housing market. Some of those villages have existed since the 15th century and are now under threat of falling apart, because the old balance of rich and poor has changed. People from all backgrounds used to live cheek by jowl in the successful model for living called village life. That is under threat because local people cannot afford to buy.

I had hoped that the Government would try to tackle that problem in the Queen's Speech, but they have not done so.

Mr. Love: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the best way to address an increase in demand for housing such as he has described in his constituency is by an increase in the supply? Does he think that Members who say, XNot in my backyard," are creating the problem in his area?

Mr. Streeter: I am grateful for that intervention. There is an issue of supply, but other factors are at work. In South Hams in my constituency, second homes are a real contributor to the upsurge in house prices. Twelve per cent. of homes in South Hams are second homes. I agree with the provision in the Queen's Speech that the 50 per cent. council tax discount should be removed, and I very much hope and expect that South Hams council will surge to imposing a 100 per cent. council tax on such homes. That will not provide more houses, but I think that it will raise #1 million for the council to spend—on housing need, perhaps.

More and more people now work in London and live, not in the suburbs or even in the counties immediately around London, but well out in other parts of the country. With their London salaries, they are inflating house prices all over the country.

I call upon the Government to do three things in the next 12 months and I hope that these measures will be in the local government Bill, when we finally see it. First, they should recognise that the problem of affordable housing to buy is not just a London or a south-east issue; it is an issue in many rural parts of the country, especially the south-west. Challenge funding of #200 million, modest amount though that is, certainly needs to be open to other parts of the country, not just the south-east.

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Secondly, I call upon the Government to undergo a paradigm shift—which is not as painful as it sounds. Whenever anyone raises the subject of affordable housing with this Government, they think of social housing to rent. It should be recognised that the current crisis is in affordable housing to buy. That is the Xnow" issue. The Government must not fight the last war, and we need new ideas to help us to get to grips with that problem.

My third point—this is my contribution to the debate—is that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister needs to do some blue-skies thinking to create a new form of legal tenure that will help us to tackle the problem. My suggestion is that we should create a new form, which I would call Xlocalhold", whereby a developer who builds a housing estate in any area with high housing prices and relatively low wages has to ensure that one tenth of the properties are available for local people who have been resident for three years to purchase. Those people would own the house outright, but they would be able to sell only to someone else who has been resident in the district for three years, or to someone who moves from a similar type of property. There should be tax incentives for developers to make such provision, and even more incentives if they provide more than the allotted 10 per cent. The constraint on the ability to purchase a house of that type should ensure that the affordability element is passed on to future purchasers. One problem with all the existing schemes is that the affordability element is not available to purchasers down the line.

I want the Government to recognise that there is a crisis in affordable housing to buy. They should be engaging in blue-skies thinking and coming up with workable solutions to solve that problem, and I am disappointed that the Queen's Speech remains strangely silent on the issue.

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