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Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I am pleased to present a petition on behalf of my constituents. It was drawn up and circulated by Mr. Martin Leach of Romiley and contains 228 signatures from the Bredbury Green area of my constituency. Bredbury Green has a high proportion of pensioners, the most vulnerable group under the current inequitable system of local government finance.
Declares that the year-on-year above-inflation increases in Council Tax are causing hardship to many and take no account of ability to pay; further that the proposed property revaluation and re-banding exercise will make an already flawed system even worse.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons vote to replace Council Tax with a fair and equitable tax that, without recourse to any supplementary benefit, takes into account ability to pay from disposable income. Such tax to be based on a system that is free from any geographically or politically motivated discrimination, and that clearly identifies the fiscal and managerial responsibilities of all involved parties.
For most people, the penny has dropped that the housing sector is not one homogenous whole, although there are still some people who have ventured only so far as to think that there is overheating in the housing market in the south-east and problems of low demand in the north. Even within that simplistic view of the housing sector there are empty homes in the south-east and areas of high-priced housing and tight housing markets in the north. However, the situation is much more varied than that.
I like to think of the west midlands as a microcosm of the entire country's housing market. For example, in the west of the west midlands there are sparsely populated rural areas in Herefordshire, Shropshire, the north-east of the area and Staffordshire, Moorlands. In the centre, major conurbations such as Birmingham are regenerating, growing and becoming increasingly engines of future development.
In Stoke and in Sandwell, two areas of housing market renewal, we are trying to build up areas of housing where markets have become distressed in the past. In some parts of the region, in counties such as Warwickshire and Worcestershire, there are terrible housing hot spots where even key public sector workers cannot afford to buy a home.
On top of all that, the regional housing strategy that was agreed in June identified a need for a net 13,464 new affordable dwellings in the region in just three years, from 200608. It is important to impress on the Minister and on everyone who is interested in this subject that different solutions are required in different places. That applies in the west midlands and in the broader country, too. It is vital that the very diversity that makes the west midlands so fascinating and gives us so much economic and social potential should be matched with a housing sector that is also diverse, flexible and dynamic.
I hope to cover two central points. First, we need more affordable housing in our regionmore than we already have and more than is planned. Secondly, rural areas need special attention if there is to be enough affordable housing for local people in their rural communities. What I mean by "affordable housing" is low-cost housing that people can buy on the open market, and subsidised public or private housing, whether it be for rent, sale or shared ownership. My starting point is Shelter's analysis and campaign on the subject, starting a few years ago with its million children campaign, which reminded us of the devastating impact of homelessness, overcrowding and unfit housing on children's health, education and life chances.
Shelter's analysis focuses on a chronic shortage of social rented housing. I hope to go further than that, but in its new campaign document "Building hope: the case for more homes now", it calls for 20,000 more social rented homes each year from 2008 to 2011, in addition to planned outputs. It says that that package could help to lift more than 150,000 children out of bad housing by 2011.
24 Oct 2005 : Column 142
The Barker review of housing supply identified the broader lack of supply across all tenures. According to Barker, builders, who already provide about 160,000 new properties a year for open market sale, should raise that by between another 70,000 and 120,000 a year. Although registered social landlords and councils are adding nearly 20,000 new affordable homes a year, Barker suggests that an extra 17,000 a year above that is needed to meet expected future demand. Barker also says that there is a case for up to another 9,000 a year above that rate to make inroads into the backlog of need.
Of the 21 million or so existing homes in Britain, more than 1 million houses are below the current fitness standardmost are in the owner-occupied sector500,000 households are in overcrowded accommodation, and 90,000 households are in temporary accommodation. On top of those problems, on 1 April 2004, 693,000 dwellings in England were standing emptymost of them in the private sectorand at any one time more than 300,000 potential homes stand empty for more than six months. That is more than the figure for every council's waiting list of those who have been accepted as homeless and in priority need. The amount of existing assets that stand empty when we could be putting them to use is a crying shame.
Against that background, what is the Government's position on housing policy generally? Under Labour since 1997, home ownership has increased by 1 million, and the target is set for another increase in this Parliament of a further 1 million home owners. This year, the Council of Mortgage Lenders published useful research called "Understanding first-time buyers". It shows that the number of first-time buyers has declined recently, but that they remain crucial to the health of the housing market as a whole. Renting fulfils a need for flexibility and mobility, but in the longer term 80 per cent. of young adults still want to be owner occupiers. However, the size of the deposit paid by first-time buyers has risen so that some of them rely on parents and grandparents for help with that. The research by the Council of Mortgage Lenders concludes that Government policy needs to focus on more flexible movement into and out of home ownership to reflect changing lifestyles. It also says that further development of an intermediate tenure could help to sustain the long-term future health of the housing market.
In addition to home ownership, the Government have raised the stamp duty threshold from £60,000 to £120,000. An extra 300,000 home buyers a year will be exempt from paying stamp duty as a result. The Government have also reduced rough sleeping in a dramatic way. The number of those sleeping rough is now less than one quarter of the figure given for 1998. In Birmingham in 1998admittedly, these are estimates by the Office of the Deputy Prime Ministerthere were 56 rough sleepers, but in 2005 there are just seven. That is a commendable performance.
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