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6.41 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I ought to declare an interest as a member of the Chartered Institute of Housing. I pay it money, not the other way round. More fool me, perhaps.

I should like to focus on four key areas: the selective licensing of private landlords in areas of low demand; the proposed licensing scheme for houses in multiple

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occupation; reforms to right to buy to prevent abuse and exploitation of the scheme; and home buyer's packs, which seem to have generated a great deal of debate this afternoon. Like other hon. Members, I shall mention some matters that I would like to see in the Bill.

The private rented sector comprises 2.2 million households in England, but at just 10 per cent of the country's housing stock, it is the smallest in the western world. The recent Barker review of housing supply recognised that, at a time when we have a major problem with the availability of affordable housing, the sector could make a much greater contribution. We need to increase the availability of accommodation for key workers and those on low incomes. The sector could play a key role.

The private rented sector's reputation for poor standards is well known—49 per cent. of private tenants live in conditions that do not meet the decent homes standard, as defined by the English house condition survey in 2001—and the lack of security for tenants is a serious obstacle, preventing it from delivering on its potential. Historically, our strategies to tackle private sector disrepair and poor landlords have been weak. We need a strategy that provides fiscal incentives for people to enter the private rented sector as landlords and tools to ensure that they act properly. The Bill starts to go down that road.

In his pre-Budget report, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor indicated that he was considering measures to encourage a stronger and better-quality private rented sector, and the introduction of real estate investment trusts has been identified as a key tool in doing that. I hope that my right hon. Friend's forthcoming Budget statement will provide further details and a time scale for these reforms, which are overdue. Alongside those changes is the need to ensure that tenants have a clear understanding of their rights. MPs often have people coming to our surgeries who have been badly treated by poor-quality private landlords. Better-quality written tenancy agreements are essential; these are backed by the Law Commission.

Part 3 of the Bill focuses on the selective licensing of private landlords. I welcome the concept of discretionary powers, allowing local authorities to license. Perhaps we need to expand that beyond areas of low demand, and I know that the Bill proposes some powers in that area. However, it is not just in areas of low demand where there are poor private landlords; indeed, some of the worst are in areas of high demand. Those landlords can put into the market a product that is below standard, but people have to accept it because they have no other choice. We need a widespread licensing scheme that will help in areas of low and high demand.

We also need to make sure that people who are managing private rented sector properties are fit and proper persons. We need to keep records of those guilty of harassing or unlawfully evicting tenants and make sure that they are excluded from the sector and cannot hold a licence any more.

I represent a new town. People might think that we do not have problems in the private rented sector or with poor landlords, but we do. In the 1980s, the former Conservative Government encouraged Telford

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development corporation to pursue what we called locally a fire sales policy with regard to its social housing stock. Much of the stock found its way into the hands of fairly unscrupulous private sector landlords, many of whom were absentee landlords holding two or three properties on large former TDC estates. We have major problems in those areas because the sector has not been regulated for a long time. It is difficult to trace those landlords and properties are often left empty and abandoned. We need to make sure that we regulate effectively in those circumstances.

I am proud to say that Telford and Wrekin council has brought in a landlord accreditation scheme on Woodside estate in south Telford. The very best landlords—there are some very good ones in the town—have signed up to the scheme. Such schemes can be a real boost to private sector landlords; they are almost a badge of honour. They enable the landlord to market private rented accommodation more effectively in the locality and people find renting from such landlords more appealing.

Landlords want some flexibility, but accredited and regulated landlords can market themselves as just that and can reap the rewards of being seen to be responsible. That should be combined with stronger powers to encourage local authorities to develop a strategic approach to improving the sector, and with fiscal measures to increase supply by putting professional landlords on the same tax footing as other small businesses. That approach was a key recommendation of the Shelter and Joseph Rowntree Foundation's commission on standards and supply in the private rented sector. The approach is supported by a wide range of organisations and interest groups, including landlords. The Select Committee backed a similar carrot and stick approach, recommending that landlords who demonstrate competence in housing management should be allowed to offset some additional management costs against their tax liability. That would be a good way of promoting flexibility and would encourage more people into the sector.

I have covered the private rented sector in some detail and my remaining remarks will be brief. Some 1.5 million people live in houses in multiple occupation, many of them vulnerable people, often living independently for the first time. The conditions in which they live are often unhealthy and sometimes dangerous. The English house condition survey found that 10 per cent. of HMOs were unfit for human habitation. There are no universally applied standards for fire safety, and because most occupants have little security of tenure, they stand every chance of losing their home if they ask their landlord to undertake repairs or improve safety.

I welcome the Government's attempt to try to regulate the HMO sector more effectively, but we need to look at the issue of university accommodation, which should be included in regulations. Also, registered social landlords need to examine their role in relation to HMOs, and it would be helpful if the Minister considered that in detail in Committee. The mandatory licensing regime should also cover all HMOs of three or more storeys, or four or more occupants. The sector needs to be better regulated.

Some 1.5 million sitting tenants have exercised the right to buy, which has been a superb scheme. The problem is that we have not acted to replace the houses

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with enough affordable housing. The House should remember that, during the Conservative years, the capital receipts from the right to buy had to be used to offset debt and were not reinvested effectively in the social housing stock. Since the Chairman of the Select Committee is here, may I say that I agree with the Select Committee's view that we should standardise the right to buy with the right to acquire and make it a seamless system for acquisition across the social housing sector? There is probably some agreement between the Benches on that. Levels of discount would be an issue. Tenants who have the right to acquire get less support than those who have the right to buy as former council and secure tenants, but we should work together to try to come up with a better system of standardising and regulating the right to buy.

Home buyer's information packs are an excellent idea, certainly for first-time buyers, and help to reduce the enormous costs that people face when trying to acquire their first property.

In closing, I should like to speak about what I would have liked the Bill to contain. It is no surprise that hon. Members on both sides of the House have already mentioned several of those issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has done some excellent work on park homes. My constituency includes some park homes and I want the legislation to deal with that sector.

There is clearly cross-party support for a tenants' deposit scheme, which could usefully be included in the Bill. An updated definition of statutory overcrowding would also be welcome, as would powers compulsorily to lease long-term empty homes.

The Bill will give us much to do. I greatly welcome the fact that a substantial piece of housing legislation is before the House. It will allow us to cover a lot of ground and deal with many problems. It will allow the Government to deliver some of their commitments for the housing sector. There is still time to ensure that it includes additional provisions, but I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for the work that he has done on it.

6.51 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on the Housing Bill. Housing is the issue most frequently drawn to my attention by my constituents in my weekly surgeries. My local district council has a housing waiting list of about 2,000 people, so my constituency certainly has a severe shortage of social and affordable housing, which I am keen to see remedied. My own district council has plans afoot to build between 6,000 and 8,000 houses up to 2016 in order to meet local housing needs. I fully support that Conservative-run council, which is quite right to have such plans in place.

I must respond to the Minister's opening remarks about the sustainable communities plan, because my South-West Bedfordshire constituency is right in the middle of one of the communities plan areas. In their kindness and wisdom, the Government have seen fit to provide some houses for my constituents. However, it is not the 6,000 to 8,000 that we are looking for; nor even 12,000 or 16,000. No, they are planning to build 43,000 houses in the middle of my constituency. That is the

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equivalent of a new Dunstable or Leighton Buzzard, in an area that is already extremely congested. Many of the roads in Leighton Buzzard, Houghton Regis and Dunstable are already difficult to get through. The motorways and commuter roads to London and elsewhere are already extremely congested and the trains are often packed to overflowing, with commuters regularly having to stand as they make their daily journeys.

There is no way local employment can be provided for the 80,000-plus people who will come to live in my constituency if the Government have their way and build so many houses. My constituents' reaction is to say that the scale and nature of the proposals are wholly unacceptable. I intend vigorously to oppose the plan under the banner of "local homes for local people". The Minister said that it was a question of building houses where they were most needed. I agree, but they are not needed on that scale in my constituency. That is how my constituents feel. I also put it to the Minister that the people he intends to occupy the houses will not feel that they are in the right place either if they have to commute 40 miles to London on congested roads or overflowing trains. On the Minister's own criteria, the plan will fail through its scale and nature.

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