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7.32 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Antisocial behaviour is a serious problem in York, as it is in many parts of the country. No one should have to put up with

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six ball-bearings being shot through their front window, with people pushing an abandoned car over their garden, with a telephone box being blown up by high-power fireworks or with a primary-school-age child riding up and down the pavement and over other people's gardens on a quad bike, yet those problems are occurring in York. The Government have taken many steps to make it easier to deal with families who let their children and teenagers run out of control, but more support for local authorities and others is clearly needed.

Like the City of York council, I welcome the proposal in the Bill to extend the period for introductory tenancies, to make it easier to evict tenants who do not stick by the local authority's rules. The council also supports the right to withhold consent to mutual exchanges where the person who wants the exchange perpetrates antisocial behaviour. If we were to allow such an exchange, months of work building up the case for eviction would be lost when the person moved to a new address. The council endorses the Government's proposal to allow local authorities to suspend their obligations under the right to buy when the person who wants to buy their home is responsible for antisocial behaviour.

I especially support the proposal that the needs of the community will be taken into account when housing possession cases come before the court. Too often, the victims are ignored by the justice system but in this case the Government are putting the victim first.

The City of York faces two particular problems: first, the shortage of social housing for rent; and, secondly, the lack of affordable private and social housing for both rent and affordable housing for sale. The Government sometimes characterise the country's housing problems as those of shortage and affordability in the south and abandonment in the north, yet in parts of the north affordability is as great a problem as it is in the south. I have raised that point with the Prime Minister, at questions in July 2002; with the Deputy Prime Minister in correspondence; and, on 12 May 2003, in the Committee dealing with the Housing (Right to Buy) (Limits on Discount) (Amendment) Order 2003, yet during that period the problem in York has grown worse. It is time that the Government sent a Minister to York to examine the problems and to talk with the local authority about how they can be overcome.

In York, about 3,625 people are on the housing waiting list, excluding those wanting transfers. From 1999 to 2003, 717 houses in York were sold under the right-to-buy scheme but only 428 new homes were provided by registered social landlords. Overall, including flats, 810 properties were sold but only 630 new properties were provided. Roughly, only three of every four properties sold were replaced. Only 70 per cent. of those replacement properties were homes for rent—the rest were for discounted sale or shared ownership—so, compared with 810 properties sold over the past four years only about 440 new homes for rent have been built, which has exacerbated York's housing problem.

Last year, 1,066 socially rented houses became available for new lets, yet the local authority accepted 1,300 new households as statutorily homeless. It is not surprising that the housing waiting list is rising and that few people on it have any prospect of being housed at

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all. The City of York council's housing needs survey in August 2002 showed that about 2,000 new lets were needed each year but that only about 1,000 homes were becoming available. The survey estimated that over the next five years about 950 additional homes will be needed each year to meet newly arising housing needs.

The council has been addressing the problems by requiring that 25 per cent. of all the houses built by private developers are affordable homes. I want the council to go further and to increase the figure to 50 per cent.—as it is in some London boroughs. Labour councillors supported that proposal when they were in power and I hope that the new Liberal Democrat administration will implement that increase. However, even if the council takes that step, more help will be needed from the Government.

The City of York council presented evidence on that problem and on the affordability problem to the ODPM Select Committee inquiry on affordable housing during the last Session. In 2001, the average cost of a flat in York was £96,000. That is higher than in Portsmouth, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Medway and many authorities in the south, yet earnings in York are lower. In York, the average male wage is 83 per cent. of the average in the south-east, while the average female wage is about 86 per cent. of that in the south-east. The ratio of average house prices to income in York is 3.4:1, which is exactly the same as for the south-east of England as a whole, but considerably worse than for some authorities in the south-east. The ratio is worse in York than in Reigate and Banstead, Vale of the White Horse, Rushmoor, Hastings, Gravesham, Maidstone, Chelmsford, Bracknell Forest and Chiltern and South Bucks. Some authorities in the south of England, such as Reigate and Banstead, receive special help under the amended right to buy regulations, but York needs special help, too.

In my constituency, the affordability problem is getting worse. Over the two years since these figures were compiled, prices in the north of England—especially in the hot spots such as York—have risen faster than in London and the south-east.

In York, local people are, quite simply, being priced out of their own city. A typical working-class young couple, with two incomes—the man may be a trainee motor mechanic, living with a shop worker—simply cannot afford to buy or rent in the private sector in York. We need a campaign to provide homes for local people in the city of York.

Last week, I received a letter from a notable local environmentalist, who emphasised the need to take account of the consequences of traffic in new housing developments. Of course that must be taken into account, but it is not an argument against development itself, because a lack of development also creates traffic problems, as people commute from neighbouring towns and villages, where house prices are lower. It is, however, an argument for a balanced housing development policy, and York is currently missing such a policy. The city of York council is accelerating building in the city centre, but it has put a block on the major development sites in the suburbs on the outskirts of York. We need some city-centre housing and some suburban housing, and we need some brownfield sites

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and some greenfield sites to be developed. To address the traffic problems, we need a balance of development, not overdevelopment on any one site.

York is a very attractive city. It attracts employers, residents and visitors, so we need additional housing, but that housing must be provided both in the city centre and in the suburbs, so that we can avoid the problems of overdevelopment, as well as the traffic management problems that additional housing can generate.

7.41 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak in another housing debate under a Labour Government. Meeting the Government's decency standards by 2010 in Bolton will be a much bigger challenge in the private sector than in the public sector. Last year, the council carried out another housing condition survey and found that Bolton has 21,000 houses in the private sector that do not meet the Government's decency standards. Of those 21,000 houses, 8,000 are in low-demand areas and many of them would be considered irredeemably unfit by environmental health officers and therefore need clearance.

Of course low-demand areas are readily recognised because owner-occupiers vote with their feet, as they see the equity in their properties dwindling away. That leaves private sector landlords with opportunities to purchase properties at below market prices and to charge above market rents for them. In the opinion of Bolton housing officers, it is urgent that low-demand initiatives are introduced on a large scale to prevent the market collapse that we have already seen in the pathfinder areas.

Bolton is tackling low-demand properties by making them warm and weatherproof, mainly using enveloping schemes, with selective clearance of the worst properties. Some new build is being brought into those areas to restore the economic balance and support the local infrastructure of shops, schools and so on. Car parking is being improved and play facilities are being provided, often for the first time.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning came to Bolton recently and saw how one of those areas had been turned round. A few months ago, houses were selling for as little as £3,000 to £12,000, but house prices have risen to £25,000 or £30,000 and above now that the area has been turned round. That is a sign of whether the policy is working.

Since part 1 is about safety, as well as health, may I make a plea to the Government that all new build and refurbishment schemes provide hard-wired—I stress that term—fire alarms to prevent the unnecessary loss of life that we always see in such areas? Such alarms should be made mandatory. As recently as last week, yet another family—three young children and their mother—lost their lives in Manchester. Sadly, that is not an uncommon occurrence in areas of low demand.

The first housing action area in Bolton was established in 1979, when the then Government promised that houses in that area would be given an extra 30 years life. I am concerned that that HAA, in my

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constituency, and its successors are now reaching the end of that extended life, but we will not be back to those areas for a very long time yet.

The existing fitness standard makes no reference to the energy efficiency of dwellings; neither does it distinguish between defective dwellings and those that present a genuine health and safety risk to the occupants. Enforcement of the fitness standard also presents local authorities with problems. I therefore welcome the new housing health and safety rating scheme in the Bill because it represents an attempt for the first time to score the health and safety risks presented by properties in more than 24 different categories, including the presence of carbon monoxide and even radon gas, as well as things such as lead pipes.

Section 606 of the Housing Act 1985 requires local authorities to submit a written report to the authority regarding the unfitness of properties and potential for clearance, and requires the authority to consider such reports represented by environmental health officers. That will be repealed and replaced by clause 4, which will only require local authority officers to inspect premises on receipt of a complaint from a justice of the peace, or a parish or community council. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister assure the House that that will not effectively mean that our constituents have to live longer in unfit properties that might not be reported in such terms?

Some 10 per cent. of private sector HMOs are deemed unfit for human habitation. As other hon. Members have reported, properties with three or more storeys pose a significantly higher fire risk than others. In 1997, research commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and carried out by Entec Ltd. found that 52 per cent. of HMO fires are in buildings three or more storeys high. Occupants of houses comprised of bedsits are about six times more likely to die in a fire than adults in an ordinary house. I am therefore pleased that the Bill will begin to tackle that problem, and I remind the House of my previous comments on hard-wired fire alarms, which should be mandatory in HMO refurbishments as well.

I was pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who suggested that sprinklers should be provided in all HMOs. Sprinker systems are very high tech today. Some people think that, when a sprinkler system goes off, it does so in every room in the building, but that is no longer the case; the sprinkler goes off in the room where the heat is first generated and the system then follows the course of the fire, so the whole HMO would not be ruined by a fire in a single room. Many lives could be saved in that way. I am sure that the cost of providing improved fire precaution equipment will be offset by landlords' insurance savings.

One of the consequences of the right to buy legislation has been that there are now many privately let dwellings on council or former council-owned estates. In Bolton, more than half the properties on some of our better estates have been sold on. Local authorities or RSLs can evict their antisocial tenants only to find that they go just round the corner into a privately rented house and carry on in the same old way, under a landlord who does not care about their behaviour. I strongly recommend that

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the Government give local authorities the powers to tackle antisocial tenants and, indeed, antisocial landlords, where that habit is practised.

I strongly welcome home information packs. One advantage of such packs is that they will prevent sellers from putting their houses on the market merely to test the value of their properties. I am concerned, however, about the cost of the packs. A figure of £635 has been quoted in some of the literature that I have read, and lower-waged owner-occupiers would find that to be a high percentage of the value of their house when compared with what the figure represents when set against the value of a house worth £500,000 or one that is sold for more than that. As I represent a constituency with many low-value properties, I am concerned that the Government consider carefully the recommendation that home information packs should not be required for properties below a certain value. A figure of £30,000 has been mentioned in some reports that I have seen.

Finally, many people who have been persuaded to buy their former council homes cannot afford to maintain them. I therefore welcome the suggestion accompanying the Bill that council occupants be given careful advice on the cost of maintaining and running a mortgage should they proceed to purchase their council property. I am also pleased that the Government are stopping the abuses of the right to buy system that some of us have been aware of for a very long time.

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