Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Jun 2007 : Column 20WH—continued

5 Jun 2007 : Column 21WH

Hilary Benn: Well, whether or not all the other member states want to make the issue a priority for this G8 meeting, I have hopes that next year, under the Japanese presidency of the G8, we will see further progress. I am trying to report to the hon. Gentleman on the progress that we have already made in raising the issue at the highest level.

We want an annual report and an annual global meeting. With the World Bank and the UN Development Programme, I organised a side meeting at this year’s World Bank spring meetings. We secured agreement on the creation of an annual global monitoring report, which will be put together by UN Water. It is likely to focus on sanitation next year, because next year is the global year of sanitation. We secured agreement that there should be an annual meeting, not an additional meeting in the calendar, because we have enough meetings. We need fewer meetings and more action. However, we can piggyback an annual discussion on how we are doing on to one of the many meetings that already take place. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness mentioned the UN. I was pleased that, at that meeting, Kemal Dervis said that, within each country, the UN would identify one of its organisations that would take lead responsibility for co-ordinating its efforts on water and sanitation. That is a big step forward.

On the EU water initiative, the truth is that the situation has been pretty mixed. We support it because we want it to work better. In some countries it has had an impact; in others it has not. I am particularly keen on the EU water facility, because there is a great thirst—pardon the pun, Mr. Amess—out there for funding for investment in water and sanitation, and that facility has been oversubscribed several times over. I would like the EU to put more funding into the facility in the long term, particularly if it will provide support to those who have the direct responsibility for providing clean water and putting in the pipes and sewerage systems that will be needed in the growing towns and cities of the developing world.

We need to do other things, such as help to build capacity at local level. We need to promote south-south lesson learning to help water suppliers to find out what works. I agree with the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness that output-based aid has a contribution to make. He is right, as are other hon. Members, to draw attention to the problem of cost recovery and maintenance. People have to be able to build a system, but they also have to be able to maintain it. Part of the problem in the developing world is that systems were put in but were not maintained and they have fallen apart. That is one reason why some standpipes do not work any more.

People have to think through how they will make the system work. That is why water operator partnerships, proposed by the UN Secretary-General’s advisory board, are a good idea. We have funded workshops to promote that concept. We are helping utility managers to get together and share their experiences of what works. We will also fund lesson learning about reform of public provision, so that that experience can be shared. I pay tribute to the World Development Movement for having made a push on that front. I listened, as I said I would, and the activity that I have described should help utilities and partnerships to
5 Jun 2007 : Column 22WH
replicate successes elsewhere. That is how we will bring more clean water to people and undercut the private water sellers, who, as the hon. Member for Stone rightly said, charge five to six times as much for the water that they provide in buckets and plastic bags.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green talked about the PPIAF. That facility responds to requests from developing countries for assistance, which is a pretty good place to start. Let me give her one example of how it has worked successfully in the water sector. It has supported the Ghana community water and sanitation agency with regulatory and legal reform—because this is about getting the structures right—to help the people there to improve small-town water services. That has allowed local water operators to provide clean water to communities for the first time. The communities themselves were involved in selecting the providers. The scheme has been successfully implemented in three towns, and Ghana wants to extend it to 300 small towns across the country. I will happily write to the hon. Lady with more information. The PPIAF makes a contribution, but it is not the only thing that we are doing. We should try all approaches to see whether they work.

On the broader question of public versus private, we have largely moved beyond that pretty sterile debate. As the report of the Select Committee on International Development says,

The question to ask is: what will work successfully?

On sanitation, I thought that the Committee was a little unfair. After all, which country did most to get the sanitation target agreed at the 2002 world summit? The answer is the United Kingdom. Also, as hon. Members will be aware, we are funding in India a very big programme with UNICEF, implementing state programmes on sanitation that aim to reach 213 million people. We have school sanitation programmes in Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan and Bangladesh, including some small projects. We are supporting the community-led total sanitation programme in Bangladesh and helping it to spread throughout Asia. That is a cracking programme, because there is no embarrassment there. The people involved use very direct methods, walking round villages with whistles, shouting at people and saying, “We’re not going to have open defecation in our village,” which in the end is how people begin to change attitudes. Then cheap pit latrines are provided. Communities taking responsibility will make a big difference.

On water resource management, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised a very important question: what will the world do when people start fighting not about national identity and political ideology, but over water? Working to support countries to manage their water resources, as we are doing with the Nile basin initiative is therefore very important, not least because of the competing demands for water, especially from agriculture, which accounts for 80 per cent. of the world’s water consumption.

This has been an excellent debate. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Stone for giving us the chance to discuss this issue this morning. Our history teaches us that what is important is political will. It is political will that will change the situation, and that is just as true in the developing world.

5 Jun 2007 : Column 23WH

Balanced and Sustainable Communities

11 am

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to introduce this debate today. It will not only draw attention to the important issue of maintaining balanced communities in our university cities, but it will recognise the fact that we now have a new all-party group that lobbies for small but important changes in legislation on housing and neighbourhood management to bring balanced communities into being. The debate will include consideration of what has come to be termed “studentification” and issues arising from a high concentration of students living in a particular area.

I wish to stress at the outset that the debate goes wider than that to encompass private renting more generally and the need to have balanced communities where there are households of different types. The desirability of that is reflected in the Government’s revised planning policy statement 3, which states that one of


That sets a framework that we wish to see applied locally.

I hope that my hon. Friends and other members of the all-party group will agree that we do not wish to demonstrate or to whip up anti-student sentiment. Our aim is quite the reverse. We value the life, vitality and talent that students and universities bring to our areas. Indeed, it is because we want a strong town-gown relationship to flourish that we think that the Government need to look again at the housing and planning legislative framework on the matter.

To that end, I am pleased to welcome a recent report from the National Union of Students, which is titled “Students in the Community Working Together to Achieve Harmony”. The report is helpful in a number of ways. It highlights the positive impacts that students can have in their communities through participation in community activities and voluntary action, although it recognises that a small minority of students cause problems, particularly those of noise nuisance, disrespect for local residents and, on the odd occasion, antisocial behaviour. The overall flavour of the report rightly emphasises the positive contribution that students can make in an area, and it is right to assert that many of the issues thrown up by studentification emerge because of the poor behaviour of landlords, poor communication and poor management, rather than because of student behaviour per se.

I might like to have a debate with the NUS on limiting the number of houses in multiple occupation in a particular area, which it argues is not a way forward. It argues that we should concentrate on accreditation to regulate landlords and make use of existing legislation on HMO licensing, the housing health and safety rating system, environmental protection, pub licensing and so on. I agree with that and I have some sympathy with the view that applying limits on HMOs in a defined area might be difficult.
5 Jun 2007 : Column 24WH
Indeed, it might not tackle the problems at all because many student houses are private rented dwellings and, for licensing purposes, fall outside the definition of an HMO both in planning law and in the Housing Act 2004. If we are to support more harmonious and balanced communities, we will need to change the legislation. It might be that only a small change is needed, but it is important to do so to address some of the issues that we face.

At present, the planning law definition of an HMO requires a change of use class when a property houses more than six people not in a single household. That is not the same definition as that used in the 2004 Act, under which HMOs are subject to mandatory licensing. An HMO that is subject to mandatory licensing is defined by the Act as a house of which any part comprises three storeys or more and is occupied by five persons or more forming two or more households. Mandatory licensing means that a house would have to meet minimum standards on the number of bathrooms, provision of cookery and laundry facilities, and so on. Crucially, the local authority would need to be satisfied that the dwelling is managed by a person who is fit and competent to do so. Indeed, the local authority is required to give support to that end.

An already complicated situation is complicated further because local authorities have other types of licensing available. The Act allows additional licensing, so authorities can choose to introduce licensing of other types of HMOs that are not subject to mandatory licensing, but they must consult local landlords before so doing. They may also introduce another type, known as selective licensing, in areas where there is low demand or significant antisocial behaviour. In such areas, the houses do not have to be HMOs. Already, we have quite a confused situation.

I wrote to the Minister last May and asked whether the Department for Communities and Local Government had any plans to bring in a uniform definition in housing and planning law. My letter acknowledged that planning law only applied to HMOs in use classes, so it was disappointing to get a lengthy reply that pointed that out to me, but which did not actually deal with the issue that I raised, which was the need to align housing and planning law on such matters in order to simplify it. I am having another go and today I ask the Minister to look at the issue again.

I have received no sensible explanation as to why anyone planning to shift a house from the category of single-family dwelling to that of multi-household dwelling should have to get planning permission only if there are more than six people living in house and not as a single household. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) outlined the matter in the excellent ten-minute Bill he introduced to the House on 22 May which, I hope, he will have the opportunity to talk about later. The Bill deals with the point that the current definition simply excludes most households in multiple occupation in our communities. He suggests that the threshold for change of use should be triggered by more than four people living in a house not as a single household, rather than the current six people. That would have the advantage of being roughly but not exactly the same as the
5 Jun 2007 : Column 25WH
mandatory licensing category in housing law, and it would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. Indeed, there might be an argument for lowering the threshold further by employing a definition for HMOs to be applied to houses of three or more people, but that is an matter for discussion.

A better or additional way forward might be for all private rented dwellings of more than one household to be subject to mandatory licensing, especially because it appears that non-mandatory schemes are not being used as extensively as they could be by local authorities. That way, a change in planning regulations covering use classes may be useful as a limiting mechanism and may deal with land use issues, rather than being a proxy tracking system for HMO concentration—it is often relied upon for that at present, especially as regarding larger households.

It is necessary to ensure that licensing and planning deal with the ramifications for a community of having too many HMOs in one area. In such areas, there are a lot of to-let boards at certain times. There might be poor physical upkeep of properties, or unsightly extensions. The point is that that can apply to small houses in multiple occupation as well as to larger houses. All need to be subject to regulation, but regulation and proper management of individual properties will not necessarily tackle urban blight, which leaves many streets abandoned for parts of the year. I should emphasise that that is not good for students, because there is additional crime risk in those areas, especially if students have left their belongings in a house over a vacation. Also, it is often very unpleasant for the few residents who are left living in such areas.

We come back to the question of limits. If use class regulations were changed, it might be possible to exercise greater control over numbers in a given area. However, cities such as Glasgow have experimented with placing limits on the number of HMOs in an area. At the very least, the Government should seek an evaluation of such schemes, including a full evaluation of how the general issue of limiting the concentration of private renting is dealt with in Northern Ireland.

I am requesting a step up in mandatory licensing, so that all local authorities and other agencies can track changes in neighbourhoods before the adverse effects of an over-concentration of HMOs manifest themselves in problems with parking, noise and so on. Tracking changes in private renting, particularly multiple households, could also flag up emerging issues, such as the need for more affordable housing where exiting stock goes over to non-family rented housing.

The fact that such things creep up on local authorities is obvious in my constituency. Ten years ago, for example, we had two estates—Gilesgate and Whinney Hill—in the city centre, which offered good-quality, family, social rented housing. They were bought by tenants and then sold to landlords, who rented them to students and others. We now have not only a shortage of affordable housing, but changing neighbourhoods that no one has planned for, where no proper management exists and where change was not obvious until problems emerged.

The university, local residents and the students union are working hard to establish positive relationships, and the university has, to its credit, appointed a
5 Jun 2007 : Column 26WH
community liaison officer. Had the area been subject to mandatory licensing, however, good management arrangements could have been implemented many years ago, and the council could have delivered earlier on its affordable housing policy. As things stand, it has not done so for a number of years.

The Government have a golden opportunity to address such issues now through the local development frameworks that all local authorities are putting together to cover their local plans. Those frameworks should be made to include provisions on the concentration of HMOs and private renting in particular areas. Planning legislation is also in the pipeline, which could definitely deal with the change in use class.

Let me turn next to a recent report on this topic by Universities UK, which does two things. First, the fact that such a report was produced at all last year confirms the importance of this issue to the university sector, particularly as the sector responds positively to the Government’s widening participation agenda. Secondly, the report points to the need to support effective management and the integration of students into local communities. It outlines many examples of good practice, including the use of liaison officers, as I suggested, dedicated local authority support and sensible licensing. It also suggests encouraging students to participate in volunteering schemes and to attend residents meetings and encouraging universities to have an effective complaints system. Those are sensible measures, and the all-party group wants to share such good practice across all areas that have to deal with such problems. It is important to stress again that the focus should be on HMOs and private renting, not specifically on students. As we know, many students are not only hard-working, but good citizens and good neighbours.

Let me conclude by returning to the issue at the heart of this agenda: the need for balanced communities. That is what we are trying to achieve. Many city centres have lost too much family housing, and that has a negative impact on schools and shops, many of which are now under threat. That threat has arisen not only because of student housing, but because of the recent building of too many apartments, which are bought for investment and left empty or privately rented. Such properties are just as much of a problem as HMOs in terms of imbalance. I suspect that other areas also have a glut of them and I want the Government to give serious consideration to the incentives that can be put in place to encourage the market to return some of those houses and flats, which are currently let multiply, to single family accommodation.

Balanced communities help everyone, including students, particularly given that many stay on beyond their period of study and therefore form part of the community. All communities need good services, open green spaces, good public transport and good local amenities and facilities, and we need to be in a position to plan for such things, rather than simply responding when things go wrong.

11.15 am

Next Section Index Home Page