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The Minister of Communities and Local Government (Mr. David Miliband): The Government have encouraged debate about the future of local government, and we have said that we believe that questions of organisation should follow those of function. We are following the debate with interest.
Dr. Pugh: It is certainly horses for courses that there is no master plan. Should there be community support for another level of local government or unitary government, what would be the mechanics through which the process would proceed?
There are a range of issues, including consultation with the boundary commission and others. My understanding of the issue in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is that it was investigated by the Local Government Commission in the mid-1990s, and the commission recommended that we should not go ahead with a unitary scheme for Southport. In general of course, the Government cannot simply decide on their own; they have to consult a range of interested parties and that is the procedure that would have to be followed.
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Mr. Borrow: Particularly given the strong support from the majority of Lancashire MPs for unitary authorities. The long drawn-out process before we actually make a decision to move to unitary authorities is creating uncertainty and is destabilising local government in the county. A fairly quick decision one way or the other would be helpful to all of us.
Mr. Miliband: My hon. Friend's question shows both the potential advantages as well as some of the pitfalls associated with that issue. I can certainly assure him that we will give it careful consideration before making any moves.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I believe that it is only courteous to the House to declare that I have an interest in this matter as my husband is the leader of a county council[Hon. Members: "Ooh."]and an exceedingly good one, a Conservative-controlled county council that has improved by leaps and bounds since we beat the Liberal-Labour pact that used to run it.
However, as is palpably clear from the Minister's answers, he agrees with the Deputy Prime Minister's statement in January that the position is to have unitary authorities. Despite the discussion between Members from Lancashire, could the Minister indicate whether, given the number of powers already, or about to be, transferred by the Government to unelected and very unpopular regional assemblies, he already has in place a stealth plan to abolish England's historic local government boundaries?
Mr. Miliband: I can certainly assure the hon. Lady not only that I make it a point to agree with what the Deputy Prime Minister says, but that there is no stealth plan for the sort of abolition that she describes. On Monday, the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) described the hon. Lady's colleague as the "Member for Scaremongering, South." I think that we have got a bit more of that today.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper):
The Government are taking steps to improve both the condition and supply of social housing. Since 1997, we have halved the number of homes failing the decency standard, with a capital investment of
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£21 billion, and we have doubled the budget for new social housing to increase building rates over the next few years.
Mr. Bailey: I thank the Minister for her reply. Certainly, the social housing stock in my local authority has improved enormously as a result of the investment. However, rising house prices mean that an increasing number of young people on low incomes are still unable to gain access to either the social or private housing market. How is she working with local authorities on schemes, such as social home buy, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to have a house at an affordable cost?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right: a lot of people want to buy either their own homes or a share in them, but they currently cannot afford to do so. That is why we set out proposals to help more than 100,000 more first-time buyers and key workers into shared equity schemes or into buying a share of their own homes. We are considering that further and we want those kinds of measures to be picked up across the country; but we must recognise that, if we are to address the pressures in the housing market, we also need to build more homessomething that the Conservative party has consistently and repeatedly opposed.
Jeremy Corbyn: Is the Minister aware that more than 250,000 people are on London borough councils' waiting lists and that, at the current rate of supply of new housing association properties, very few of those people have any chance whatsoever of being rehoused? The only way forward is for the councils to resume building houses for rent for people in housing need. Will she consider ring-fencing the capital budgets to ensure that they are used not just for improvements, but for new build to meet the desperate housing need of people who have no chance of ever buying a property in London?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right to suggest that it is not simply a matter of improving the existing housing stock, but he will agree that desperately needed, substantial improvements to the quality of homes have been made. However, he is right to suggest that there is also an additional need: we need to build new social housing. That is why we are increasing the budget over the next few years. We also need to consider other ways to bring investment into social housingfor example, through section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and other work with English Partnershipsbut he is also right to point out that London is an area of particular pressure. That is why we need to build new private market homes and new social homes as well, and that is what we are committed to doing.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham)
(Con): The Government have set a target of building 500 affordable homes in my constituency, yet in April 2003, the local authority social housing grant, which was worth £1.85 million, was taken away. Will the
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Minister please tell me how she expects Shrewsbury borough council to provide 500 affordable homes when that crucial grant has been taken away?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman has asked a series of questions about that, and he has perhaps misunderstood the way in which the housing finance mechanism works. More investment is going into affordable housing through the Housing Corporation and increasingly through the regional housing budgets, on which we will make an announcement shortly. So increased investment is available for new affordable housing. He is certainly right to suggest that we need to go further, and that is what we are doing over the next few years.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions highlighted the growing opportunities gap for children who live in rented, rather than owner-occupied, social housing. He called on his own Government to do more to spring the trap. So as well as improving social housing stockthe Minister might have saved for social housing the fine terraces in Liverpool, rather than knocking them all down and sending people down to Londonwhy is she not today announcing an urgent change of policy to accelerate the social home buy scheme or to extend the right of housing association tenants to buy their own homes? Who is rightthe Minister or the Secretary of State?
Yvette Cooper: That was a rather confused question, which shows that the hon. Gentleman has not remotely looked at the programme in Liverpool, which addresses problems of serious low demand as well as the pressures of high demand, issues that his Government ignored completely for many years. It is certainly the case that we want to provide council and social housing tenants with opportunities to be able to afford a share in their own home. Again, that is something that the previous Government did not look at. We want to act in a way that supports expanding social housing and not in a way that is at the expense of it and undermines it, which is the approach that his party took for many years.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): According to Government-funded research carried out by the Building Research Establishment, the management and maintenance allowances are not adequate to keep council homes up to a decent standard. Will my hon. Friend therefore consider increasing the management and maintenance allowances above the current rate of 6 per cent. in order to bridge that gap?
As my hon. Friend may be aware, we have already increased the amount of investment going in through management and maintenance allowances to both council and social housing. There has been a 13 per cent. real increase since 1997. That, on its own, is not enough to address the backlog, and that is exactly why we have seen the extra investment of £21 billion going into social housing. The investment goes into very practical things; it is about giving people new windows and proper central heating and making sure that we have the modern standards in our social housing to which tenants should be entitled.
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