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17 Oct 2006 : Column 228WH—continued

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): As ever in such debates, there are many questions and not much time to answer everything, so I apologise in advance to hon. Members to whom I shall not be able to respond in detail.

I want to try to respond specifically to the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) raised. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on continuing to raise an issue that is clearly of great concern to her in her constituency.

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The Government have a strong record on tackling homelessness, and I am grateful for the opportunity to set out some of our achievements and aims. The latest quarterly homelessness statistics showed that numbers of new cases of homelessness have fallen to levels not seen since the early 1980s, continuing a trend that started at about the beginning of 2004.

The latest statistics show that we are also making good progress in reducing the number of households in temporary accommodation, which is too high. At about 94,000 households, the number is 7 per cent. lower than at the same time last year. We have a target to halve that number by 2010, which we are determined to achieve. Although the level is decreasing, we have done much to minimise the negative impact of homelessness, so that 85 per cent. of households—92 per cent. of households with children—in temporary accommodation are in self-contained homes with their own bathroom and kitchen.

On coming into office, the Government were quick to get to grips with the worst manifestations of homelessness. In 1998, the Prime Minister set a target to reduce rough sleeping by two thirds by 2002. It was met one year early and to date it has been sustained, reducing numbers from 1,850 to about 500. In 2002, the Government set a target to end by March 2004 the use for more than six weeks of bed-and-breakfast hotels for families with children. It was ambitious, many said it could not be done, but the target has been met and sustained.

We have achieved those successes by continuing to invest in the prevention of homelessness. I shall return to that issue, because it is important. We have invested £200 million over the three years to 2007-08. That includes investment in rent deposit schemes to enable households to find good quality accommodation in the private sector, if that is what they want, and investment in mediation services to resolve family and relationship breakdown and enable young people to remain in the family home.

In 2002, we also strengthened the homelessness legislation, providing one of the strongest statutory safety nets in the world for homeless households, and requiring all local authorities to draft a strategy to prevent homelessness and provide accommodation and support. Although I am proud of our record of achievement, I am confident that we can do more.

I shall turn to the specific issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North raised, because we have been concerned about issues in Northampton. The report of an inspection in 2005 said that housing services provided

The housing inspectorate is carrying out a progress check on the housing service to analyse the progress that has been made since that report. The findings will contribute to the overall progress assessment that the Audit Commission issues in January 2007. On the positive side, there has been an improvement in homelessness figures.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), raised an important
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issue about the quality of temporary accommodation. He is right: it is not only about what is provided, but the quality of what is provided. We have issued statutory guidance to local authorities, and as I said, 92 per cent. of families with children are now in self-contained homes. However, we are not content, so we are conducting a survey of 2,500 households in temporary accommodation to understand more about their experiences. We shall issue that report towards the end of this year.

My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) raised the issue of intentionality. All councils are required to assess applicants in accordance with the legislation, and we monitor that to see whether there is any difference in the statistics on people who are identified as intentionally homeless. The statistics have remained steady, so we are not picking up concerns about that issue.

Ms Keeble: Does my hon. Friend think that families placed in bed and breakfast by social services under the Children Act 2004 should have the same safeguards as those people placed in bed and breakfast by housing authorities under the Homelessness Act 2002? I have had cases in which people placed by social services have stayed in bed and breakfast for 18 months.

Meg Munn: That is a concern, and I shall take it back to my Department. We need to address it with the Department for Education and Skills, and I shall to write to my hon. Friend.

The Government set up their homelessness system to prevent homelessness. I am sure every hon. Member agrees that it is better to prevent homelessness than to have to deal with it. Homelessness legislation was always intended to be a safety net, and not the main route to social housing. Good practice says that people should be given a choice, and that may include the private sector. Many people live quite reasonably in the private sector, and it is an option.

It is also important that if families are at risk of homelessness, whether in the private sector or anywhere else, they talk to their councils early on, because measures exist to enable housing authority assistance. On the issue of the gap between the market rent and housing benefit, discretionary housing payments can be used temporarily to allow more suitable and affordable accommodation to be found. Single room rent is a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, but we continue to work together.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), whose constituency I recently visited, raised the issue of the whole system. My Department, with the Government offices for the regions, supports local authorities so that they can improve their strategic housing role. They must consider not only the social market, but the whole market and how it works.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North raised the issue of hostels. They are funded through the supporting people programme, as he identified, which requires staff to assess support needs and construct support plans that supporting people commissioning groups then monitor. We are not complacent about hidden homelessness. We are considering other ways of identifying it, such as measuring overcrowding in concealed and shared housing.

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I do not have much time, but the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) should not give me lessons on the problems of homelessness. I worked in social services for 16 years under a Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman rightly identified the problematic issues and their causes, but for anybody who had to turn away 16 and 17-year-olds without accommodation or funding, or who at half-past 10 at night had to phone a housing officer to look for accommodation for a mother with three young children, there were no answers under the previous Conservative Government.

Too many households live in temporary accommodation, but we have a strategy in place which I believe will succeed in meeting our target to halve the number by 2010. We are committed to delivering a wide range of preventive services, increasing homelessness grants to local authorities and voluntary sector agencies by 23 per cent. by 2007-08, helping 1.2 million vulnerable people sustain independent living through the £5 billion supporting people programme over three years to 2007-08, providing 75,000 new social rented homes between 2005-06 and 2007-08, and building an extra 10,000 social homes a year by 2008. We will also invest £90 million to improve hostels and their services, and help rough sleepers make a permanent move away from the streets.

In conclusion, I thank all Members who have participated. This is an important area. The Government are not complacent, and we are doing more, including ensuring that a greater number of homes and affordable homes are built throughout our country.

17 Oct 2006 : Column 232WH

Port of Belfast

12.30 pm

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): This is an issue close to my heart, and it is a privilege to be able to discuss it under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that for at least a generation, perhaps longer, the great city of Belfast, part of which I have the honour and privilege of representing, was known to most of my colleagues in the House and most of the public for one thing only: the violent and futile conflict between its people. I hope that that conflict is now resolved. Had I been making this speech 50 or 100 years ago, the city would have been known for something very different. It would have been recognised as one of the most vibrant and successful manufacturing and trading centres in these islands. Indeed, when the Harland and Wolff shipyard was at its peak, Belfast was known as a global centre of manufacturing and trade. We had not only that shipyard but a massive ropeworks and Mackie’s foundry, to name but a couple, each employing more than 8,000 people.

At the centre of all that success were Belfast lough and the port of Belfast. At that time the natural resource provided by the lough and the port, and our wise management of it, gave Belfast a strategic advantage over the rest of the region. That advantage has been the bedrock of the city’s economic life since the earliest days of Belfast, when it was a small community founded at the mouth of the Farset river and known in Gaelic as Béal Feirste; the mouth of the Farset.

Officialdom’s attitude to the port down the years has often reflected closely the quality of life in Northern Ireland and the expectations of people living there. When things were bad throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the port was largely left to its own devices. The priorities of that time were different from today’s, with a few notable exceptions; individual Ministers sent from this House to administer government in Northern Ireland focused largely on containing a deteriorating security situation and then, in their own interests, getting out of there as quickly as possible to a better job in government. Through that difficult period, the port of Belfast continued to do its job, giving the enduring businesses that still operated there a reliable, economical link to the outside, normal world of commerce. It was a commercial success at a time when we had few successes.

In the 1990s, the peace process began to emerge. Life and business made their first faltering steps back to normality and the people of the region began to hope and expect that the quality of our lives would improve. As part of that process, the Belfast harbour commissioners examined the port’s facilities carefully, and wisely began to invest heavily in improving them to ensure that the port could capitalise on the improved business environment around it. That the harbour commissioners continue to take seriously the role that they have taken on is reflected in the projection that between 1995 and 2010 they will have invested a massive £250 million in developing the port and the harbour estate around it. Amazingly, and as an obvious
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benchmark of the port’s success, that investment has been achieved without any direct expense from the public purse.

I wish also to mention another organisation close to my heart; the Laganside Corporation. It was established in shadow form in about 1987 and went live under legislation passed early in 1989. It did some of the greatest work that our city has ever seen and was innovative and successful. It played a major role in reminding the people of our city of their connection with and reliance on Belfast lough and the River Lagan, which flows into it. The Laganside Corporation took over wasteland and waste docklands that people never dreamed would be of any use again. With appropriate infrastructure investments it turned hundreds of acres of worthless land into land for which anything up to £1 million or £2 million an acre is paid today. By bringing people back to the water and bringing the waterside of Belfast back to life, Laganside raised public awareness of the port’s key role and reminded us all what an amazing resource it had been and continues to be for our future.

It is a matter of deep regret to me and to many of those interested in the improvement of the welfare of Belfast that the Laganside Corporation is shortly to be wound up despite the fact that much of its work remains to be done. Yes, an exit strategy was designed all those years ago when the body was set up, and it was intended to survive for only 15 or 18 years, but it has done such an outstanding job and there is still so much more to do that it should not be wound up. I will continue to bring the need for an immediate and effective successor to the attention of the House in the coming months.

The greater awareness created by the Laganside Corporation and the waterfront developments meant greater scrutiny of the work of the port and the challenges that it faced. In 1998 a report issued by the Department of Education, as it was then, covered some of the issues involved and concluded that Northern Ireland’s trust ports, of which Belfast is one—there are others in Derry and Warrenpoint—should be granted greater financial freedom and more powers to do their work.

In 2001, a Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, chaired by my party colleague Alban Maginness, carried out a detailed assessment and came to a similar conclusion: that things should be loosened up and that the enormous potential of the port could be achieved, and the potential benefits to the people realised, only if it remained a fully accountable trust port but with greatly extended powers to give it the financial and managerial flexibility to compete successfully with its competitors in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. I regret to say that the bulk of the recommendations in that Assembly report have been ignored. None of the necessary extended powers recommended was ever implemented. Instead, in 2001 the Office for National Statistics required that trust boards be classified as public corporations. That regulation eventually came into effect in 2005. The already restricted regulatory environment in which the port operated was further tightened and the clearly expressed will of the Assembly and the devolved Government ignored.

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Against that background, four months ago the Department for Regional Development published a public consultation document on the powers, status and governance of public trust ports in Northern Ireland. The Department has considered ports policy in parallel with a UK-wide consultation, and the report follows a lengthy period of debate. Unsurprisingly, the debate and uncertainty do nothing to improve our facilities or give the trust ports the freedom that they need to develop the appropriate infrastructure and help us to compete.

Before I briefly consider what I would like to come out of the exercise, I want to look at the current state of the port of Belfast. By any financial measure, Belfast is one of the most successful and efficiently run ports in these islands. Only last month the port of Belfast was named Irish port of the year at the transport and logistics awards. It is by far Northern Ireland’s largest port and a strategic asset for the entire island of Ireland. It handles 60 per cent. by volume of Northern Ireland’s seaborne trade and 20 per cent. by volume of the trade of the island as a whole. The port of Belfast handles £19 billion of trade annually, in which is contained 25 per cent. by value of the goods coming from and going to the whole island of Ireland. The port is a significant gateway for trade and the economy.

Apart from being Northern Ireland’s most important gateway for trade, the port is an economic catalyst and contributes significantly to its principal stakeholders, namely the Government, port users and the wider economy. Any failure of the port to develop to meet the demands that are placed on it would directly impact on thousands of businesses, big and small, and tens of thousands of workers who rely on it directly and indirectly for their jobs.

The port of Belfast is also one of Northern Ireland’s key infrastructure developers. It has facilitated some of Northern Ireland’s most important economic urban regeneration projects, including the Odyssey complex, the Northern Ireland Science Park, Clarendon docks, Sydenham business park, Belfast city airport, which was built on port land, Hollywood exchange and, last but not least, Titanic quarter, where 25,000 homes will be built over the next 25 to 30 years. The total gross development value of Belfast harbour estate projects since 1991 is £700 million. The Federation of Small Businesses made something of an understatement when it said in a recent submission that it was questionable whether those sums and those projects could have been achieved under a totally public sector model of governance.

As the port of Belfast has succeeded, so too has the Exchequer. I understand that in the past 10 years around £34 million has been paid by the port in corporation tax and that £10 million has been paid in rates by the port and the port’s tenants—that is, people who have leased land off the port. I am told that, all in all, the port supports somewhere in the region of 175,000 jobs in industries not only right across Northern Ireland, but in a big slice of southern Irish territory as well. However, to deliver the regional economic growth that I and others in Belfast want, it is estimated that 69 per cent. more capacity is required in the next 19 to 20 years, to 2025.

It is essential, not only for Belfast and Northern Ireland, but for the island of Ireland—particularly the northern half, within the Belfast port catchment
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area—that we move to achieve the capacity required to do the business. I see a major opportunity in the review for Belfast, Northern Ireland and the northern half of the island of Ireland finally to implement the Assembly’s recommendations of five years ago and to allow the port to develop into a major strategic asset that can take the city of Belfast to a new level strategically and economically.

One example of the strategic opportunity that exists is the potential for transatlantic freight. Ireland does not currently have a transatlantic freight terminal. However, as the economy continues to race ahead and the north finds it feet for the economic boom that can and will follow the restoration of devolution, the case for a transatlantic freight terminal on the island becomes more and more compelling. Realistically, there are only two sites for such a development, Belfast or Cork. I believe that the choice should be Belfast; there is no surprise in that. With the investment in the roads network between Belfast and Dublin, the port of Belfast can come genuinely to compete with the port of Dublin in both revenue and Ireland-wide importance. In many ways the port of Dublin is choked, and serious discussions are taking place about relocating it away from the city centre, because the large vehicles trying to access the port are in conflict with a city that is bursting with all sorts of new technology projects and so on.

That brings me back to the review. We must do whatever is necessary to ensure that the potential success is realised. The first and most obvious answer is that the port of Belfast and more generally all Northern Ireland trust ports require the end of public corporation status and the long-awaited granting of fuller commercial powers. It is widely recognised that public corporation status is incompatible with the commercial realities of running a modern port, because it subjects organisations that are run in the commercial world to a public sector regime and the inherent Government controls that that entails. I am all in favour of transparency and openness, but it is vital that the ports should be freed up to do the job quickly and efficiently.

Ports trade commercially, and they generate their incomes and finance capital expenditure commercially. They have no preferential access to public sector spending. Commercial operations are required to be flexible and agile, and ports need decision-making processes that are at odds with much of public sector control. Trust ports need to be fully accountable to the public, but that is achievable without labelling them with the wholly inappropriate title of public corporation. All the trust ports in Northern Ireland share that view, and I understand that they have provided detailed proposals to the Department for Transport on getting the balance right between accountability and financial flexibility. I call for those proposals to be adopted. It is vital that any conclusion drawn from the review should finally give the port of Belfast the commercial, managerial and financial freedoms that it requires to address the needs of the Northern Ireland economy.

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