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Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab):
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the rising number of families in temporary accommodation in Birmingham and the long delays in council assistance with permanent housing? Since 1997, the number of relettings available from Birmingham city council have been reduced by half. The proportion of relets allocated
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to homeless families has increased from a third to three quarters. People who are not homeless have no chance at all of being given council housing.
Mr. Kidney: My hon. Friend's statistics reinforce the urgency of the situation, to which I hope the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) will respond in his reply.
The Government have plans for a stronger intermediate housing market to help people achieve home ownership at an affordable pace. A new "homebuy" scheme for council and housing association tenants has been planned. A first-time buyers initiative will help first-time buyers who cannot afford to own or part-own a home without extra help. Existing home ownership schemes such as the key worker living scheme and shared ownership are being strengthened. In addition, the Government are releasing more vacant public sector land for housing. Their funding for social housing has doubled, and they wish to improve not just supply but quality. Existing social housing, for example, is subject to the decent homes standard, which has raised more than 1 million homes to a decent standard. The Government are also concentrating on the need for warmer homes. In addition to work under the decent homes standard, projects such as warm front have provided insulation and improved heating in more than 1 million homes. Higher standards for building new homes so that they are sustainable are at the heart of the Government's strategy. The more public money that the Government pay to build homes, the more they can insist that those homes are built to a given standard. From next April, a code for sustainable building will be introduced, and it is pleasing that the Government have announced that they expect homes paid for by public funds to meet that standard.
By 2008, the Labour Government promise to build 30,000 new social homes, including new build by councils. Councils have stronger powers to bring empty properties back into use, and a range of legislation has been introduced to enable them to do so. For example, councils can impose a fuller council tax on empty properties instead of rewarding the owners for keeping them empty with cuts. Councils can secure information to track down the owners of empty properties so that they can hold discussions with them. The Housing Act 2004 includes a power for councils to exercise new empty property management orders so that empty properties can be brought into productive use for society's benefit.
A week ago, during the national week of action of empty homes, I published a pamphlet calling for a new classification of empty properties as "redfield" sites. Such sites would be used to designate land containing vacant property that could be brought back into use as residential housing. Government guidance to planners would require them to apply the sequential test to the provision of housing sites. Redfield sites containing empty properties would be considered first for their suitability as sites for new homes. Brownfield sites would be considered next and then, as now, greenfield sites.
The need for affordable housing can be met by building new homes; by converting existing houses and other buildings; and by bringing vacant homes and
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other vacant properties back into residential use. That national plan is applied locally by the west midlands regional housing strategy, a well-researched document prepared after extensive consultation with local authorities and other stakeholders. There are agreed priorities for the region, including urban and rural renaissance and something that the strategy calls "The Big Issue: Affordability". All those priorities have been developed within the context of mixed, balanced and inclusive communities.
West midlands housing resources for the current financial year include a Government housing allocation of more than £180 million. As a result of the last spending review an estimated 2,000 social rented units will be delivered in the west midlands in 200708. There is a desperate need to help large numbers of residents trapped in overcrowded or unfit housing, as well as people who have no permanent housing at all. An eighth of England's homeless live in the west midlands, and about 120,000 households are registered on council housing lists. There are 116,000 unfit dwellings and 75,000 empty homes. Last year, 5,332 council homes were sold under the right to buy, including 200 in Stafford.
Sadly, however, despite that background, the constituency of Stafford is not identified in our regional plan as an area of particular need requiring special help for meeting our needs for affordable housing. That dismays me, because I uncover in my casework a great deal of pressure across the board for help with affordable housing, be it from young couples looking for their first home, key public sector workers having trouble finding a home to buy, existing tenants of councils and housing associations wanting to move or to buy but finding themselves trapped where they are, or retired people on limited incomes who want to downsize but cannot find anywhere to suit their pocket. Increasingly, I am also having to advise people who have been knocked back by councils in homelessness applications to challenge them in the courts.
In addition to all this, the house price to average salary ratio in my constituency is as high as 8:1. Furthermore, 80 per cent. of the South Staffordshire districtpart of which is in my constituencyis unsuitable for the building of new homes because of green-belt and other open countryside policies. That means that housing is concentrated in the existing villages, where restrictive planning policies result in very high prices that local people cannot afford.
The Shelter campaign's request for 20,000 additional social rented houses a year in England would translate into an extra 1,330 units annually in the west midlands during the three years from 2008. Shelter estimates that that could help to lift more than 11,500 children out of bad housing. Will the Minister acknowledge the urgency of the need for more affordable housing across the whole of the west midlands region? Will he also spare a thought for the specific needs of my constituency?
I would ask the Minister to adopt policies such as ensuring that Labour's manifesto promises relating to the Homebuy programme, the first-time buyers' initiative, the key worker living scheme, and shared ownership will apply in the west midlands. The key worker living scheme does not apply outside the south-east. Will the Minister ensure that there are stronger planning powers under new planning policy statement 3,
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when it appears, which would enable councils to secure affordable housing as part of all new developments? Will he also ensure that there is greater certainty for developers, registered social landlords and private property investors, so that they will invest in our region? Will he look at Shelter's Building Hope agenda, so that there can be more homes? Will he introduce policies for more funding, for stronger section 106 agreements, for modernising the private rented sector and for further reform of the right to buy?
I hope that we will take forward the Deputy Prime Minister's initiative for affordable homes built by modern methods of construction at affordable prices. I should like to mention that there is a developer in my Stafford constituency who would like to see affordable homes being built as part of his wider regeneration projects, but who argues for a tax credit arrangement for a public subsidy to him, instead of the complex system of applying for grants. He also has an idea for establishing an institute for modern building technology to train the labour force required for putting into practice modern methods of construction. I hope that all that will be welcomed by the Minister.
Rural housing needs particular attention. In the last Parliament, Labour set targets for the creation of affordable homes in rural areas, and met them. In our manifesto, we promised to explore how to ensure that a proportion of all new housing development could be made available and affordable to local residents and their families in rural areas. In fairness, the Government have now established what they promised in their rural manifesto: an affordable rural housing commission, chaired by Elinor Goodman, which is due to report early next year.
Let us remember that rural Britain generates 30 per cent. of the nation's jobs and 25 per cent. of its gross domestic product, all from 23 per cent. of the nation's population. However, the lack of affordable housing in rural areas is a key challenge. Many of my constituents have raised this issue with me many times. Sometimes, the houses are just not there to enable children to live in the places where they grew up. In other cases, the homes that are there are simply too expensive for them to afford, so they are unable to live locally.
The west midlands regional housing strategy goes so far as to suggest that, in rural areas, consideration should be given to allocating 100 per cent. affordable housing sites. That is an impressive commitment to what could be done through planning law to ensure that we can have affordable housing in rural areas. We also need special measures, including more stretching targets for new affordable homes in rural areasrecognising the higher costs of rural developments, both in land prices and unit building costsand ring-fencing the investment needed to meet the higher targets. We also need innovative co-operative, mutual and other models under which the affordability can be locked in for all time. Similarly, we need to make more attractive the use of exceptions sites for new affordable homes.
On right to buy, I would also argue that councils in rural areas, and housing associations in rural areas with a population larger than 3,000, ought to have more protection from losing their stock to right to buy. Let me give the example of one village in my constituency, Wheaton Aston, where the South Staffordshire Housing Association has a stock of 58 units of affordable homes
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but currently has a waiting list of 74 and a turnover in 200405 of just three. For the full picture for my constituency, one would have to multiply those figures by a factor of about 30. To get the full picture in the west midlands, where there are 59 constituencies, one would have to multiply again. It is therefore a huge problem.
That is why, across the west midlands, there are families, single people and vulnerable individuals who have no secure homes of their own. Some would like to buy a home but cannot do so without help. Others would like to make progress towards home ownership, but there is no supply of intermediate housing for them. Others still want to rent, because they prefer this tenure long-term, or because renting suits their immediate needs. On the other hand, there are developers willing to provide, investors willing to fund, builders willing to construct, and registered social landlords and councils willing to manage. I am asking the Minister to join up the supply side and help meet the demand.
We should not rest while there is so much unmet need for affordable housing. Opportunity, ambition and lifetime achievement will be hindered until those in need can have access more consistently, in greater numbers and with wider choice to a range of affordable housing in all parts of the west midlands. I therefore ask the Minister to help the west midlands to help itself to meet the pressing need for affordable housing.
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