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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise to the House for not being present earlier to hear the speeches. I had an important constituency engagement that I had to attend, and I arrived here only a little earlier this afternoon.
I want to participate in today's debate. Much of the publicity about the Queen's Speech has focused on what might prove to be the most contentious issues either here or in the other place. As a result, many of the best measures in the Queen's Speech have not received the attention that they deserve, and I hope to comment on some of them in my speech.
I should like to deal first with the housing Bill, which several hon. Members have mentioned this afternoon. It proposes several measures to deal with some of the most important problems facing housing markets throughout the country. I pay tribute to the Government, because we currently have the lowest inflation for about 30 years, with interest rates at historically low levels. The 75 per cent. of people who live in owner-occupied housing have benefited from those low mortgage interest rates, and more people have been able to become owner-occupiers than would otherwise be expected.
I also pay tribute to the Government for the sustainable communities plan, which was outlined earlier this year and will provide £2 billion worth of investment during the four years of the plan. It will make significant resources available in four different areasmainly in London and the south-eastand will significantly increase the supply of housing over the next five to 10 years.
I also want to pay tribute to the Government for establishing a decent standard of homes over 10 years. When the Government took office in 1997 they faced a bill of about £19 billion because of the state of disrepair in the social housing sectormainly a consequence of the massive underinvestment of the previous Government. The present Government have risen to the challenge of providing decent homes by 2010, which I strongly welcome.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the all-party housing and planning group. However, he will know from that work that the decent homes standard is one thing, but the fact that we have more homeless people in this country than ever before is quite another. Is not that a shocking indictment of a Labour Government?
Mr. Love: That would sit much easier with the hon. Gentleman's argument if he could point to any positive contribution to solving the housing crisis that the Conservatives made during their 18 years in government. The reality is that, when I look at homelessness[Interruption.]
It is a bit rich of Conservative Members to complain about the difficulties in the housing market when they did so much to cause them. I have already outlined some of the measures that the Government are adopting to help to sort out the difficulties and I could mention others such as the activities of the homelessness directorate, which is dealing with problems in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and the worst forms of temporary accommodation. However, I shall not go into detail because I want to speak about the housing Bill.
As a Labour Member, I am pleased that the Bill will implement two manifesto commitments of the last two elections. The issues that we highlighted in 1997 and 2001 still pertain and need to be dealt with. The main problems relate to the private rented sector. We have talked about the work done in the social housing sector and I have already mentioned the advantages that the Government have conferred on the owner-occupied sector, but we all recognise that some of the worst housing conditions exist in the private rented sector, and I believe that the Bill will help to address some of them.
All the evidence suggests that houses in multiple occupation are the most difficult part of the private rented sector to deal with, so I greatly welcome the statutory licensing scheme that the Bill will introduce. I make a plea to the Government to ensure that the definition of houses in multiple occupation is wide enough to include the very worst of the conditions in respect of safety standards, space and the general quality of accommodation available in the sector. The scheme can make a significant difference and I hope that the Government will ensure that it is comprehensive enough to impact on the worst housing in that sector of the housing market.
There is much evidence to suggest that a selective licensing scheme is necessary in some areas. Several rogue landlords have extorted the highest possible housing benefit rents for extremely low-quality accommodation. In London, private rents are high, but in areas such as Manchester and other northern cities the highest rents are being charged for poor-quality accommodation because landlords know that housing benefit will cover them. In such circumstances, we must act to protect the public purse and a selective licensing scheme would achieve that, especially in areas of low demand. However, the system should be sufficiently flexible that any local authority can deliver accommodation of a reasonable quality, at value for money, to local residents.
Like the Government, I support the principle of the right to buy. I have been an owner-occupier for some time. All the surveys tell us that a large number of people would like to be owner-occupiers, so there is no reason why we should not try to assist them. The Government are undertaking a series of initiatives that will help them.
In recent years, unfortunately, the right to buy has been subject to significant abuse throughout the country, but mainly in the London area. People are exercising the right to buy not so that they can remain in the accommodation but so that they can sell it on to someone who rents it back to the local authority at a greatly increased rent. We need to protect the right-to-buy principle against such abuse. It is meant to allow tenants to become owner-occupiers if they so choose, and we want to maintain it.
The Government have already highlighted the lack of affordable accommodation in some parts of the country. Interestingly, not long after the Conservatives introduced the right to buy, they said that they would suspend it in some rural communities to safeguard affordable housing in villages. The same argument should apply even more strongly in parts of the south-east and especially in the capital. In 2002, more than 11,000 affordable dwellings were sold in Greater London, yet we managed to build only half that number. The supply of affordable accommodation is reducing and demand is increasing exponentially, so it is not surprising that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) draws homelessness to our attention; addressing the right to buy is one way of dealing with that problem. I shall not go into the Opposition's response to the issue, except to point out to the hon. Gentleman that simple arithmetic should tell him that it will not work.
The significance of the provisions to ensure tenancy succession for same-sex couples, which are not a major part of the Bill, is that they express an important principle for all our public services. Rights for same-sex couples will be introduced by another Bill. It is appropriate that such rights should apply in housing, so I strongly welcome those provisions and hope that they will form part of the final Bill.
I welcome the Bill. It addresses some of the problems, although several remain, especially in relation to the private rented sector. We need to make improvements to the sector so that it finally loses the Rachmanist image of the past. The private sector can make a contribution to the provision of value-for-money, affordable accommodationbut only if it loses its present image. We could take several steps to assist in that process, so that the private rented sector becomes a more useful tool in the provision of good-quality, decent accommodation for all our people.
The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill makes a major contribution, too. I hope that there is cross-party agreement that over the past 10 to 20 years our planning system has been characterised by massive delays. Who does not recall the delays in planning applications that go on for month after month after month; the bureaucracy that goes back and forth, with plans here, there and everywhere; and, sad to relate, the nimbyism that exists all over the country? People are happy if the plans apply to an area down the road or somewhere else, but they do not want them carried out in their back gardenin their community. As a result, we have been unable to address the serious problems that confront this country.
The planning problems are due in part to staff shortages. We are all aware that authorities are unable to recruit enough trained planning officers to operate the system effectively. I welcome the resources that the Government have made available to try to speed up the system in that regard, but we shall probably need to do more in the future.
Many local authorities are still trying to grapple with a development plan process that began 10 or 12 years ago, or even longer. Some local authorities are still struggling with the consultation procedures on urban development years after the plans were introduced. We do not have an outline framework on which to base local planning decisions. That cannot be the right way to address the significant issues that we face.
The planning system has been a contributory factor in the lack of supply both of adequate private housing and of affordable social housing. I hope that the review of housing supply commissioned by the Chancellor will be able to detail where things have gone badly wrong. The net result of the delays introduced by the planning system is that house price inflation is even higher than it should have been and that the level of homelessness, to which the Opposition refer, is even greater than it would have been if we had been able to set up an effective planning system.
It was always a truism that the Englishman's home was his castle. We take a much greater interest in housing than our European colleagues. We worry about housing while the French worry about other things, yet the number of houses per head of population in the United Kingdom is lower than in France and Germany. In my view, the planning system has been a contributory factor. The Bill made partial progress in the last Session, but it will now go through. It is necessary because it will introduce a faster, fairer and, I hope, more flexible planning system that will address some of the problems.
Among the critically important things that the measure will introduce are local development documents, which will enable us to move away from lengthy consultation periods over precise urban or other development plans. It is vital that the process is shorter and that it is regularly updated to keep up with the times. I know of local authorities that had only just completed the first consultation on such plans and had to begin a second consultation immediately because the process was already out of date. The proposals are surely a sensible way forward.
Community involvement is essential. We hear accusations from all quarters that communities will be swept out of the process, but they will be at its centre. They need to be involved in development plans and their voice must be heard in major planning applications, but we must also realise that other considerations are involved in ensuring that we take the right decisions.
The system of planning obligations and section 106 agreements has been in much need of reform for some time. The Government tried to introduce reforms in the past, but they did not meet with approval. I hope that the more flexible system proposed in the Bill will be accepted, because the existing system has major problems. Many local authorities lack the expertise necessary to draw up a proper agreement, as do some applicants, although that is not a problem for major developers, such as major retailers and others, which use the planning system regularly. The lack of expertise leads to delays and failure to agree. Projects are put on hold for a year or two years and land is not developed as a result of delay and bureaucratic failure. Reform of the process is critical if we are to provide a steady supply of land for development, and we need tried and tested mechanisms. The proposed changes, which will introduce some certainty into the system, will allow a calculation to be made instead of a negotiated process, and that will make the system more secure and faster. We will find out over time whether the changes make the system fairer.