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Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab):
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that homelessness and the shortage of affordable houses are problems not only in the south but in my constituency in Sheffield, in the north of the country. She will have
seen the report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which calls for increased house building and for a significant proportion of those houses to be affordable houses for rent. In order to achieve that, will she give greater powers to three-star arms length management organisations such as Sheffield Homes, to enable them to build new houses and to contribute to dealing with the housing shortage problem, which affects so many people?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Over the past nine years we have corrected the £19 billion backlog in repairs, which was vitally needed in order to improve our social housing stock. It is right that we now move our emphasis from the decent homes programmealthough that needs to continue, of courseto allowing councils, including councils with arms length management organisations, to build new council housing where that is needed. Over the next few years we will increase investment in new social homes by 50 per cent. We also recently issued a document about innovative ways of allowing local councils and ALMOs to build new homes.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I think that the Secretary of State might find that this is the first year since 1997 in which homelessness figures have actually dippedalthough Crisis estimates that there are 380,000 cases of hidden homelessness. However, I want to take my question away from such figures. Is not the tragedy of homelessness that its causes and cures are not so much the physical provision of accommodation, but personal matters such as relationship breakdown, mental illness, and the leaving of care or the forces? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that her Department is doing enough to encourage small charities, such as Thames Reach Bondway, Kings Arms, Emmaus and the Jericho Road Project, which are trying to tackle the deep-seated causes and to provide stability for the homeless, to prevent them from being placed in accommodation to clear a statistic today only for them to become another one tomorrow when they cannot cope?
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important that we work not only with local authorities but with the voluntary and charitable sector, to enable people to live independently for longer in their own homes, and also to support them in whatever form of accommodation is needed. We are investing about £1.8 billion through the supporting people programme, which enables people to live independently for longer. But it is also right to invest more money in hostel provision, which we are doing, and which increasingly links the accommodation needs of individuals with their job-search needs and other needs, to enable them to live independently.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op):
Today the Government will publish their Welfare Reform Bill, which includes a major reform of housing benefit. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with her colleagues in the Department for Work and
Pensions on ensuring that the terms of the Bill sustain people in their homes, and do not lead to a rise in homelessness?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to housing benefit and how it is framed, and, of course, my Department and the DWP work very closely on those issues. Let me highlight one issue. We are working with innovative local authorities such as Newham to recycle some of the proceeds from housing benefit when they use the private sector rather than the social rented sector to house vulnerable families, so that they can move more families from high- cost temporary accommodation into settled accommodation. I would like to see such innovative schemes expand. Later this year we will announce a fund for London, which may be replicated elsewhere, and which will allow such schemes to be developed further.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): There are 1.5 million households recorded as on the waiting list for social housing. The accuracy of the list varies from area to area, as it is updated in different ways, and lists do not assess the level of need for social housing in an area.
Sandra Gidley: Bearing in mind the 1.5 million people on the list, is the Minister proud of the fact that under her Government there has been a net loss of 584,000 social homes? Will she consider allowing local authorities to use receipts from social homes sold under the right-to-buy scheme to build more social houses, as well as bringing the 600,000 empty houses into occupation.?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Lady will be aware that we are increasing the level of social housing and new build by 50 per cent. over the next three years, because we think that we need more of it. We are also investing a lot of the money from capital receipts in supporting housing and infrastructure throughout the country. We have said, too, that when local councils operate the social homebuy scheme, which offers people the chance to buy a share in their home, that money should be recycled into new social housing as well.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): In south Yorkshire, which covers Rotherham, Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster, according to the House of Commons the latest figures for last year show that the number of social housing dwellings built amounts to 15. Why is the figure so low?
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the distribution of social housing depends on the bids that come forward from housing associations in different parts of the country. He might want to talk to his local council about working with housing
associations to come forward with good bids for his area, especially if there is a need for new social housing there. We need to increase the level of social housing throughout the country. It is due to increase by 50 per cent., and the Chancellor has said that social housing will be a priority in the spending review. However, we need closer partnerships among local councils, housing associations and other organisations so that good bids come forward. We also need to use the planning gain system to fund new homes.
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Given that hundreds of families throughout south Manchester are waiting to be rehoused, will the Minister join me in condemning my local councils decision not to guarantee that a proportion of land set aside for development will be for social housing?
Yvette Cooper: Obviously, I cannot comment on individual planning decisions taken by local authorities. However, I can say that we think that local authorities should look seriously at building requirements for social housing into their planning system and approach. It is interesting that of the 140,000 new homes that were built in 2004, some 100,000 were built with no developer contribution to social housing or infrastructure. That is not fair; there should be more contributions.
Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of meeting the demand for social housing would be for every planning authority to stipulate that at least 30 per cent. of houses in every new development should be affordable?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. We should be doing more through the planning system to encourage more social housing. Clearly, the situation will vary from area to area; nevertheless, that is an important approach, which I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about and has campaigned for. There are ways to use the planning system better, including by using the section 106 system to support and fund a lot of the new homes that are badly needed in local communities.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): We applaud the Governments aspirations for building more social housing, and I hope that the Minister is successful in persuading her right hon. Friend the Chancellor to help the building of social housing to return to the higher level that we had under the last Conservative Government. The Minister will be painfully aware that there are 90,000 empty residential properties in the public sectorincluding, of course, Dorneywood. However, her recently introduced empty dwelling management orders do nothing to tackle that problem. Instead of creating new powers to seize the homes of the dead, why do Ministers not take action to deal with the paralysis affecting Labour local authorities, such as those to which the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) referred?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, his party cut investment in social housing, whereas
ours has increased it. It is certainly right that land prices and construction costs were significantly lower in the early 1990s, but that was because his party engineered a massive housing market crash. I hope that that is not his approach to providing new social housing now.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of empty homes. He is right to say that local authorities and housing associations need to address the problem of empty homes in their areas and ensure that they are refurbished and fit for use. That is why we are putting so much money into the decent homes programme, and thus dealing with the massive backlog of repairs that his party left behind. It is irresponsible of Conservative Members to say that we must do something about the scandal of derelict and abandoned homes that have been left to blight communities, but then to oppose every single measure designed to do something about it.
Dr. Iddon: My right hon. Friend surely knows that the Bolton ALMO is unique, in that it is the only ALMO that is regenerating estates in both the public and private sector. Will she therefore consider extending the Bolton model to other areas with high housing demand, especially urban areas with high waiting lists? She will also know that the Bolton housing waiting list has quadrupled in recent years.
Ruth Kelly: I am familiar with the Bolton at Home ALMO, which is unique in dealing with private as well as public sector housing, and is a three-star ALMO with excellent prospects for improving. My hon. Friend asks me whether the model can be extended, and I think that there is potential for extending it to other areas. He also touched on the future of ALMOs. I suggest that he is trying to get at what will happen to ALMOs after the decent homes programme has finished. My view is that it should be for local authorities, in consultation with tenants, to decide what works best for them. That will always be the yardstick by which I judge future proposals: will the proposed model make the quality of life better for the tenants or others who live in the housing stock?
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con):
Will the Secretary of State also have a look urgently at the level of ALMO debts that are accumulating throughout the country? The debt portfolio of my local council, Hammersmith and Fulham, is growingit was projected to grow under the previous Labour administrationfrom about £295 million to about £500 million. Almost all of that was due to ALMO
debt. Does the right hon. Lady think that that is sustainable? In only four years there has been a £200 million increase in debt.
Ruth Kelly: I am happy to examine the ALMO in Hammersmith and Fulham, which the hon. Gentleman mentions. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the huge additional investment that has gone not only into housing that has gone through the stock transfer process but has also gone through ALMOs to local authorities. We are consulting on ways in which it might be possible for councils that have not gone through the ALMO process to benefit from some extra flexibility, so that they can go on to build more homes and make their communities better, as well as concentrating on the decent homes programme. There is an exciting future for local authorities that want to build up their local housing strategy function and think broadly about not only how to improve the public stock but how to improve the private stock as well, and create better mixed communities.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): When large construction companies go bust, a significant number of small to medium-sized enterprises that have completed their work for the large company will invariably go bust as well. SMEs, as we know, are the backbone of the construction industry and payment security is vital for them if they are to survive. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that during the review, part 2 of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 will be amended to ensure that payment uncertainty in the construction industry is brought to an end?
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): My right hon. Friend met Sir Michael Lyons shortly after her appointment, when he discussed with her his report National Prosperity, local choice, and civic engagement, which was published on 8 May 2006.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Minister will know that the inquiry under Sir Michael Lyons has cost more than £2.25 millionwhich does include £230,000-worth of research. It appears to endorse a new council tax on housing, which will affect more than 4 million households. Will the Minister undertake pilot schemes to test Sir Michaels recommendations for changes to local government funding? If he doesand I recommend him to do sowhere will these tests take place?
I am always willing to listen to suggestions from the hon. Gentleman. [Hon. Members: Why?] They normally come with common sense behind them, so I will consider the point that he makes. However, I hope that he will recognise that the report
that Sir Michael published was his interim report. We are waiting with great interest for his final report later in the year.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I wonder whether Sir Michael, as part of his report on local government finance, mentioned that two-tier systems within Lancashire are far more expensive for the council tax payer. Would my hon. Friend recommend single-tier government for Lancashire, given the benefit that is enjoyed in Manchester?
Mr. Woolas: I think that it would be wise for me not to do so, so I shall not be tempted to take that course of action. However, my hon. Friend may be interested to learn that we have had discussions on the economic prosperity of Lancashire with both tiers of councils very recently.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the grossly unfair burden of council tax on many residents, and particularly those who are just above benefit level. Will he encourage the Secretary of State to meet Sir Michael Lyons when she is in Bournemouth tomorrow and encourage him to be radical and introduce a local government finance system based on residents ability to pay? Perhaps the Secretary of State can play her part by linking her structural review to the Ministers financial review, which would provide joined-up government for local democracy.
Mr. Woolas: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on, for the first time, not mentioning local income tax in a discussion about council tax at Question Time. I wonder whether that is a straw in the wind, and whether there will be a change in policywe shall watch that space with interest. The hon. Gentlemans point about the equity of the council tax benefit system, which was the subject of one of Sir Michaels reports, is important, and I repeat that my right hon. Friend met Sir Michael recently.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Having endured the doubling of their council tax since 1997, my constituents are extremely concerned about the impact of revaluation and want to know where they stand. Will the Minister tell us how soon after Sir Michael Lyons report is published council tax revaluation will take place?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The former Minister of Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, made it clear in his announcement to this House that we were postponing the revaluation of domestic properties in England and that he did not expect that revaluation to take place in the life of this Parliament. That remains Government policy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I am aware that in Basildon there are currently 185 caravans on unauthorised developments. The Government have offered to work with Basildon and neighbouring authorities to identify alternative sites for Travellers currently on unauthorised developments. The primary responsibility for addressing those issues rests with Basildon council.
Mr. Baron: The Minister will be aware that with the largest Traveller site in the UK, if not Europe, situated in Crays Hill in my constituency, there is a widespread belief that there is a Government bias in favour of Travellers when it comes to illegal sites, as evidenced by the two-year and four-year stays of execution recently given to unlawful Travellers. Nowhere does that bias seem more evident than in the Governments unwillingness to meet local residents from Crays Hill, Hovefields and Pitsea to discuss the matter. As I have a letter from the Minister stating that the Government regularly meet local Travellersthey have wined and dined themdoes the Minister think that the Governments refusal to meet local residents is fair, and what is she going to do about it?
Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have not met local Travellers to discuss the issue, and that I do not intend to do so. I do not intend meet local residents either because, as other Ministers and I have told him, while a planning application is ongoing it is inappropriate for Ministers to engage in discussions with parties when they may have to make a decision.
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