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21 Mar 2007 : Column 283WH—continued

We can see the situation coming, but we are unable to find families decent and suitable accommodation in-borough that keeps them and their networks together, and their children in school. The council said:

Mrs. B is in temporary accommodation in Barnet, a long way from the Westminster street that she grew up in, and she travels back there every day to care for her sick mother and to take her child to nursery. Like other parents, she talked about her child’s exhaustion and distress at having to commute.

Ms G wrote:

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of an experiment that is under way in Newham called “Working Futures”, which seeks to treat the rent of temporary accommodation as a local authority or a registered social landlord rent, allowing the family to enter work knowing that the only rent that they will have to pay is the equivalent of a local authority rent, and not the £300 or £400 that is payable for temporary accommodation.

I have met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the matter, but unfortunately, there is an unwillingness to extend the experiment through block-grant funding to other boroughs. Some 90 per cent. of households in temporary accommodation are out of work, compared with 60 per cent. of households in social housing, so it is completely unreasonable not to develop a model that allows households in temporary accommodation to work.

I shall read from a letter written by another constituent whom I also took the Committee to see a couple of weeks ago. She said:

double the local authority rent for the flat next door—

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We agree that we want to reduce the reliance on temporary accommodation, not least because of the ridiculous expense, but we must ensure that, in the process, we do not trap families in instability and further moves. Some 30,000 households will remain in temporary accommodation even when the target is reached, and the conditions in which many of them live are completely unacceptable. We should also properly fund the temporary-to-permanent scheme—I know that there will be an announcement about it soon—and extend the “Working Futures” grant model to allow families to work. We must bear down much more rigorously on the quality of the accommodation that local authorities and registered social landlords provide.

We must prevent families from being moved from pillar to post, and we must prevent families with strong local connections in boroughs such as mine from being offered moves to east London, which they find extremely difficult and often traumatic. Finally, we must recognise that the savings being made from the reduction in the cap on housing benefit for those in temporary accommodation and the reduction in the use of temporary accommodation will accrue to the Department for Work and Pensions. As I have said, the savings amount to £70 million in London alone, but where is that money going? Is it going on ensuring that the terrible pressures on families in housing need in temporary and permanent accommodation will be relieved? I do not think that that is the case at the moment, so I am looking for help from my hon. Friend the Minister.

11.20 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on the way in which she has presented her case. She is well known as someone who takes an enormous interest in her constituents’ housing issues. Her constituents are extraordinarily well served by the way in which she puts her case and the evidence that she presents. I do not think that anyone could fail to be moved by the cases that she has cited. Think of poor Mr. K in his home as the ceiling is falling down or Mrs. G having to move her family and her children going to several different schools. That is unacceptable, so I hope that I can give my hon. Friend some information that will help both her and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) in their work.

There is sometimes a tendency for the Government to say, “The council’s got the money” and for the council then to say, “Well, the Government’s got to give us more money”. The issue descends into a blame game, but I do not think that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North care who is at fault or what the problem is. They just want the problem sorted out. Westminster city council receives the highest housing benefit subsidy in London, at
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£417 a week. Given that level of subsidy and the quality of the accommodation in which people are living, it is clear that we need to see whether that money is being spent as effectively as possible in the interests of my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I should like to put the issue in context and consider the work that has been done on tackling homelessness, for which my hon. Friend praised the Government at the start of her speech. Having a strong commitment to tackling homelessness, setting ourselves the challenging target of reducing the number of rough sleepers and being prepared to put the money in where it is required has led to a massively sustained reduction since 2001. I remember walking through the streets of London before I became an MP and regularly seeing people curled up in doorways or on mattresses, with blankets wrapped round them. In 1998, more than 1,800 were sleeping rough on our streets, but now the figure is down to 502. That is 502 too many, but part of that reduction has been about getting people into accommodation, including temporary accommodation. A lot has been achieved, but a lot more has to be done.

We need to set ourselves targets that challenge the Government. We still aim to achieve the target that we have set ourselves of halving the number of households living in temporary accommodation by 2010 so as to tackle the overcrowding that my hon. Friend raised, and youth homelessness. She mentioned homelessness in general, but youth homelessness is a specific problem.

To put the issue in context, 87 per cent. of people in temporary accommodation are now living in self-contained homes, with their own front door and cooking and washing facilities, as are 93 per cent. of families with children. However, I am particularly concerned about the examples that my hon. Friend gave, such as family A and Karen Moore, where carers are trying to stay close to their families. It is difficult because, as my hon. Friend said, the one constant for children at school can be their friends at school, their teachers and the relationships that they make. Every effort should be made to ensure that families are housed as close as possible to their support systems, other members of their family and their schools.

I am concerned that Westminster city council houses so many families outside the borough. I am not convinced that that is necessarily down to the lack of available accommodation. It may be that Westminster finds it cheaper to house families outside the area. However, the subsidy that Westminster receives is adequate for it to be able to house families in the borough. A lot more effort has to be made to take into account all the other factors, not just housing. Housing cannot be considered in a vacuum; it must be considered in the context of jobs, family and friends. Every effort should be made to ensure that families can be housed as close to their schools and work as possible. That is why Westminster receives a higher subsidy than any other council in London—to assist it in doing that. The council has a responsibility to find suitable accommodation. The Government take the view that, in the vast majority of cases, the subsidy that is provided assists the council in doing that.

My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but many of the examples that she gave seemed to concern housing associations. She said that when the health
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visitor visited, they said that they had never seen anything so bad. When my hon. Friend pressed council officers, who were trying their best in difficult circumstances, to visit, they were shocked at the conditions that they found. Who is checking those properties before people move into them? If councils are putting people in temporary accommodation and paying money to a registered social landlord, a housing association or a private landlord, the onus is on them to check the quality of that accommodation.

Ms Buck: I totally agree with my hon. Friend, but part of the argument is that landlords sometimes refuse to carry out the work. I have seen evidence of that. In one of the cases in which I was involved—I cannot remember which letter it was—the family was suffering from stunningly bad disrepair, which had taken a year to address, but the landlord was unwilling to carry out the repairs and was going to take the property back. That family will have to move. We are over a barrel, to be honest, with the pressures of the private rented sector and the unwillingness of some landlords to comply.

Angela E. Smith: Some of those issues can be dealt with in the initial contracts that the council comes to with the landlords, but that is an issue that has to be examined in greater detail. Looking at ways of providing more settled accommodation for people is the key, so if we can provide accommodation for families where they can have a home and plan for the future, the money that the landlords are taking—my hon. Friend gave the figure of £1.2 billion that she had worked out for London as a whole—will be well spent.

We have set ourselves other challenging targets in reducing the number of people who are homeless or in temporary accommodation. Another thing that we are trying to do is produce a good practice paper for local authorities on making greater use of the private rented sector, which will be published shortly. There is also a
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fund of £19 million to fund the London pilot on overcrowding, which will convert 550 social housing units to free up larger properties for families. My hon. Friend also mentioned the “Working Futures” pilot. In the context of somebody who is homeless, there is no doubt that temporary accommodation, and finding work and incentives to work play into the same equation and cannot be treated separately.

The pilot is due to finish in December. There is a long time scale and I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern, but we need to ensure that we get robust evidence. I shall certainly take back the comments that she has made, because we need robust evidence, and there is a lot of evidence available at the moment. If we can move the issue forward as quickly as possible, the information that we have—evidence-based information—will inform decisions. We need to ensure that we do not delay any of those projects unnecessarily, but get the information as quickly as possible. I shall take my hon. Friend’s comments back to the Minister for Housing and Planning, to see whether there is anything that she can do in that regard. We not only want an informed opinion about the outcomes of the pilots that can enable action to be taken, but want to see whether anything can be done in the meantime to use the information that we have.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, but I do not have time to go into all of them. However, dealing with homelessness and the problems of temporary accommodation are high priorities for the Government. Every person has the right to a decent home. That is a fundamental human right. The information that my hon. Friend has given us shows that some people do not have the accommodation that any of us would want to live in. If we do not want to live there, we should not expect other people to do so either. I shall take her comments back. I hope that the action being taken that I have outlined is helpful. We would be happy to work with any local authority to improve the condition of citizens.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Local Government (Shropshire)

2.30 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Good afternoon, Mr. Bayley; it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of local government structure in Shropshire. I am particularly grateful for the chance to highlight to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), issues that I am sure she will take into account before she and her colleagues make the critical decision on which areas will soon be allowed to proceed down the path towards a unitary authority structure.

Last month, the Minister for Local Government was generous in making time available to meet Shropshire Members and explain the procedure that he and his colleagues were using in reviewing the proposals put forward in the “One Council for Shropshire” submission. Recently, I also had the privilege of serving for several weeks in Committee on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, when I raised a number of points about how Shropshire might be affected.

This Minister and the Minister for Local Government handled that debate with their customary skill and candour, and I am sure that neither expected that that would be the last that they would hear from Shropshire Members on the issue. When the Minister winds up, I look forward to a similarly candid and straightforward response to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and me.

I sought this debate to give the Minister some last chances: a last chance to step back from making a wrong decision—possibly as early as next week—that would fly in the face of Government objectives to allow local decision making, and a last chance to hear from local elected Members about why the case for a unitary authority in Shropshire is flawed. I also have a last chance to put on record why closer co-operation between councils in Shropshire can deliver the benefits sought by the Government through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.

I anticipate that next week, before the recess, we shall hear an announcement of which areas the Minister seeks to take down the path towards unitary government—those that she will allow to move forward and those that she will allow to continue to enhance the two-tier system of county and district councils, whether as formal pathfinders or through best practice, which we already have in Shropshire.

Shropshire is not a county in local government crisis—not yet, at any rate—as it is already one of the best-run counties in England. Only last month, the Audit Commission gave its highest performance rating to Shropshire county council for the second year running. Shropshire county council is one of only nine local authorities in the country to achieve a consistent four-star status. The district councils are also not poor performers—far from it. There are two district councils in my constituency, and I shall focus most of my
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remarks on them and then allow my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to talk about his constituency.

Bridgnorth district council, most of which is in my constituency, has the 12th lowest council tax in the country and was commended only last week by the Audit Commission for its improved use of resources in moving up to level 3 status. The council has been independently and rigorously inspected as recently as November and December last year and has been praised for working well in partnership, increasing access to its services and continuing to provide good value for money—all aspects that the Government are looking for councils to achieve through restructuring.

South Shropshire district council, on which I still serve as a district councillor, has for some time won awards from the Liberal Democrats for being one of their few flagship councils. More objectively, it has also achieved level 3 status from the Audit Commission on use of resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham will be singing the praises of Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council, which has achieved high results and does so regularly.

I should like to pose a number of questions to the Minister and challenge her to clarify the Government’s thinking and explain how the various issues will be or have been factored into the decision-making process prior to next week’s announcement. I should like to start by taking the Minister back to the object of the exercise. Much of the impetus for changing the structure of local government stems from Government plans for elected regional assemblies, which were so decisively rejected by the good folk of the north-east in November 2004.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s then deputy, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), took up the cudgels after that dispiriting experience and sought to provoke the formation of a wave of unitary councils all over the country. As he wrote in the Local Government Chronicle in November 2005, he was

I suspect that his motivation had less to do with his claim that two-tier systems were “confusing, inefficient and costly” than with the fact that the majority of councillors in such areas are Conservative rather than Labour.

A clear party political motivation lurks under these proposals. It is no accident that in Shropshire, for example, of the 225 councillors in the six councils of the present two-tier structure, 100 are Conservative, 23 are Labour, 46 are Liberal Democrat and the balance are independent with one or two Greens.

On the basis of the proposed 96-strong unitary authority, which would be achieved by doubling up existing county council wards, the Labour proportion would increase from 10 to 17 per cent. and lead to the loss of 50 Conservative and 24 Liberal Democrat council seats. At present, there are only two Labour councillors in my whole constituency, so abolishing the districts would give a clear party political advantage to the Government. However, as the Department responsible for local government restructuring has itself been restructured in the past year following the effective neutering of the Office of the Deputy Prime
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Minister and the establishment of the Department for Communities and Local Government, there has also been a revolving door of Ministers with that responsibility, and with that there has been a change in emphasis and in the purpose and scope of any restructure.

Last July, the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told the Local Government Association conference—I shall quote her extensively, if you, Mr. Bayley, will forgive me—that she was

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