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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 November 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Homelessness Innovation Fund

1. Barbara Follett (Stevenage) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the homelessness innovation fund. [28524]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The £2.2 million homelessness innovation fund    is funding 19 projects to help more than 6,000 households and is part of a strategy to prevent homelessness under which homelessness acceptances have fallen by 17 per cent. over the past 12 months.

Barbara Follett: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and welcome the fall in the number of homeless people, but does she agree that the best way to help 228 families who are currently homeless in Stevenage would be to build the 900 affordable homes in the proposed development to the west of the town? Will she do all that she can to ensure that that goes ahead?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is aware that I cannot comment on cases that are going through the planning process, but I can say that I think she is right: we need to build more homes across the board. We have an ageing and a growing population. We need the new homes and both social housing and shared equity schemes to support not only key workers, but the economy. That is why Shelter, the CBI and Unison are all supporting the campaign for more homes.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): A trawl through the regional papers this week has indicated that housing waiting lists have increased in the north-east by 22 per cent., in parts of the south of England by over 2,000 per cent. and in the midlands by over 100 per cent. Will the Minister outline some of the initiatives that the Government have taken to deal with homelessness in the United Kingdom? After eight years, why are we still finding waiting lists rising, rather than falling, despite the initiatives undertaken so far?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right that demand for social housing is growing, just as demand
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for housing is growing across the board. That is why we have made it clear that we need to build new homes. We are funding a 50 per cent. increase in the number of new social houses over the next three years. We have already doubled new investment in social housing and doubled investment in repairs and refurbishment as well. We must recognise that we have had to deal with a disgraceful situation: the previous Government left us a £19 billion backlog in repairs and maintenance, which meant that 2 million families were deprived of decent homes to live in.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): While welcoming the homelessness innovation fund, I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that the prevention of homelessness is very important. Does she share my concern that only about three local authorities have used the housing benefit emergency fund, which is intended to prevent homelessness? What does she intend to do to restore that?

Yvette Cooper: I will certainly look further into the points that my hon. Friend makes because councils need to work hard to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. We have made important progress. I referred earlier to the fact that homelessness acceptances have dropped by 17 per cent. over the past 12 months. That has happened because of the £200 million programme to prevent homelessness and because of some innovative work that is being done by local authorities, often to do things as simple as providing people with help to get a rent deposit for a new home to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The problem with homelessness innovation funding is that, like so many of the Government's eye-catching initiatives, it is time-limited. What hope can the Minister offer for the future of projects such as Tomorrow's People in Southwark, which is successfully helping people out of the no home, no job-no job, no home trap that they fall into? Its funding ends in March.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Lady is right to suggest that we need to continue to support programmes to prevent homelessness. That is why we have set out £200 million of investment in preventing homelessness; but, in the longer term, we must recognise the need to build new homes across the board. The Conservative party needs to realise that one of its leadership contenders is calling for a 500,000 cut in the building of new homes. That will not help to prevent homelessness; it will not help first-time buyers; and it will not help key workers either.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I note from the Minister's announcement on 2 November the welcome grant to three adjacent authorities—Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe—in the adjoining county of Nottinghamshire. Will she consider a similar approach in the county of Leicestershire, where the number of homeless people is not necessarily large, but any initiative in adjacent areas needs to be a minimum size to make it worth while, so North-West Leicestershire, Charnwood, Hinckley and Bosworth come to mind. Will she look at that because North-West Leicestershire has a successful homelessness project, but it would benefit from working with adjacent authorities?
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Yvette Cooper: I will certainly examine my hon. Friend's proposal. It is helpful if local authorities work together across boundaries because that can make an important difference. It has helped to cut the number of families in bed and breakfast in the long term and the extent of rough sleeping.

Flood Plains

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations he has received relating to his planning guidance proposals for dealing with flood plains. [28525]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I have received representations to strengthen and clarify the present guidance, to extend the statutory role of the Environment Agency and to introduce call-in powers for planning applications in flood-risk areas. I intend to consult shortly on proposals for a new PPG25, which will include extending the agency's role and making a flood direction.

Miss McIntosh: I welcome warmly the Deputy Prime Minister's answer. He will be aware that under present law it is home owners who are responsible for knowing whether their homes are prone to flooding. Will he include in the revised planning guidance the requirement that it should be for developers to pass that knowledge on to home owners so that they can qualify for full insurance cover?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That seems to be a reasonable and sensible suggestion and I shall certainly consider it as we produce the draft. We intend to publish the draft shortly and hope to have the statement by summer 2006. That will make an important improvement by giving the Environment Agency greater influence on such directions. Indeed, I will also take extra powers to direct to deal with cases in which there is a dispute regarding the planning application going through a local authority and the Environment Agency.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): May I draw to the Deputy Prime Minister's attention the representations that I made on the last occasion that we considered PPG25? I urged the Environment Agency to have call-in powers then, so I hope that the proposal will meet with his approval on this occasion. May I urge him to take that step?

The Deputy Prime Minister: In the draft that we will publish shortly, I intend to introduce a statutory responsibility to consult the Environment Agency, not to avoid it. I think that it is involved in considering 50 per cent. of applications, but I need to make it a requirement that it considers all applications. However, I do not want to give the agency the sole power to have call-in rights because that should remain with local, democratically accountable planning committees. However, if there is a dispute involving the Environment Agency, I can call the matter in myself through the appropriate Government office.
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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister will be well aware that flooding has been an emotive issue in Essex going right back to the great flood of 1953, when more than 100 Essex people were killed? Will he thus assure the House, and especially Essex Members, that the Government will not try to cram excessive numbers of houses into flood-plain areas in the Thames Gateway if the Environment Agency specifically recommends against that?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The proposals that I have mentioned will give the Environment Agency greater influence on matters involving flood-risk areas—we will certainly consider that. As I said, it will be the right of local authorities to make a decision on these matters. The Environment Agency can give advice and there will be a statutory requirement to consult it. However, I reserve the right to make a judgment at the end of the day.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are difficulties with the resources available. We have doubled them, but as he will know from a reply that I gave the last time that the House considered the matter, the Conservative party's proposal at the last election was to cut the money available for flood defences. In the election that is under way, perhaps he should ask the candidates whether they will continue with that policy, or change it.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I recently met the Environment Agency and residents from Halton, Lancaster, who suffer from flooding from the River Lune. Lancashire county council will shortly put forward a planning application for a major road scheme that includes a bridge over the River Lune at that point, which could lead to increased flooding. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Environment Agency takes an interest in the planning application and, indeed, puts forward any objections that it might have?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I would be surprised if the agency has not done that, but I will make my own inquiries about the matter and write to my hon. Friend.

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