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5 Jun 2007 : Column 40WH—continued

12.11 am

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on securing this excellent debate and on speaking forensically and with real authority about an issue that affects not only her constituency but, as has been made clear in the debate, constituencies up and down the country.

Since the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) instituted the practice of declaring interests in the debate, I should declare that I was a resident in an HMO when I was a student at the London School of Economics. I have been part of the phenomenon, although I hope that I did not cause too many problems for the neighbours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) recalled how it might have been useful for people to mistake the name of his constituency. He called to my mind the time I was at sixth-form college, when I went to see the teacher responsible for university admissions and said, “I’ve been reading a lot about this university of Oxbridge and thought it might be a good place to apply to,” so I recognise what he said.

The hon. Member for City of Durham was one of the signatories to my early-day motion on changing to a different planning definition to help to preserve family homes with back gardens, and I could not help noticing during the debate that there are some parallels between the issues. At their heart, they come down to the same problem. People love their neighbourhoods; they have a great deal of affection towards them and they feel disempowered, frustrated and thwarted when their neighbourhoods change before their eyes through events over which they have no control. Some of the details are quite striking. We see residential neighbourhoods changing beyond all recognition in a short space of time—in the case of this debate, HMOs replacing ordinary houses; in the case of gardens, blocks of flats replacing ordinary houses.

In both cases, we see family homes being squeezed out of what were often family neighbourhoods. HMOs rarely cater for families—indeed, they are totally unsuitable for that purpose. As several hon. Members have made clear, there is a domino effect. Once a house is converted into an HMO, neighbours sell up—sometimes reasonably, although sometimes they panic and take flight. Roads change in character in a short space of time. We see that with gardens and we see it with
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HMOs. That puts pressure on affordable housing, because many of the replacements for family homes do not provide affordable housing, whether they are HMOs or other developments.

We also see the impact on social capital. Sustainable communities are so important—the hon. Lady is to be congratulated on using the term in calling this debate—and require that we build on and cherish the social capital that exists and the links between neighbours and fellow residents. We have a planning system that is often precise about quantities but remarkably vague about the quality of the planning decisions taken. The hon. Lady has done the House a service in bringing the qualitative aspect to bear in this debate.

The term “studentification” has been used—it is probably one of the ugliest terms in the English language and it is unfortunate that we have to use it, but it captures a phenomenon that we recognise. The problems are fivefold. First, where a family home is occupied by five, six or more people, the high density of residents brings about pressure on local services such as rubbish collection, policing and parking, as well as noise problems. Secondly, the phenomenon can give rise to quite a narrow community consisting of young adults of a similar age. Dispersed, they might not cause too much of a problem, but the intensity of such people can lead to problems of noise, traffic and waste, which can be difficult for local residents to deal with.

Thirdly, such homes often lack what is termed internal management by the excellent Universities UK report, to which the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) referred. When a group of students shares a house, often there is not one person in charge to put the rubbish out on the right day or to call time on a late-night party. That can result in problems. Fourthly, the transience of the population in HMOs can cause what has been described a groundhog day effect. Students are there for a year, beginning in September or October, and might make the effort to get to know their neighbours, who might also make the effort to get to know them. However, by the time the following September arrives, it is groundhog day again and a whole new set of people move in, making it difficult to build those ties and that social capital.

Finally, the seasonal nature of studentification is a problem. The fact that such areas are crowded during term time but can be deserted out of term time causes problems for local residents. They might find that their area has become attractive to burglars, who know that properties are left empty during that time, as several hon. Members have said. That can have the effect of increasing insurance premiums, which have to be paid by people who can perhaps ill afford the cost. Also, retailers struggle to run sustainable businesses throughout the year when the peaks and troughs during term and out of term can be so volatile. The problem is real and has been made evident today.

The parties involved—universities, tenants, landlords, local authorities and the Government—all have a role to play in resolving the problem. I was struck by the remarks that my hon. Friend made about the need for universities to exercise some responsibility and to see themselves as beacons of excellence. I was interested to hear that Brunel university has been going through a positive phase in that respect, on which it is to be congratulated. Loughborough university, which has had
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problems in the past, has appointed an excellent community liaison officer. Alison Barlow is a point of contact for residents and helps to organise security patrols, which benefit both long-term residents and student residents. Students have a responsibility, too, and I am delighted that the National Union of Students is moving positively to recognise that student leaders can play a role in setting high standards. Local authorities have an important enforcement duty. It is important that they recognise that, if the character of an area changes, their response to enforcement in that area must change accordingly.

However, the framework is set by national Government. The hon. Members for City of Durham and for Southampton, Test, and the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen raised the question whether we need a change in the planning arrangements. I should be interested to hear from the Minister what evaluation he has made of the pros and cons of doing so. We have quite rightly expanded the population of students, but we should recognise that they need somewhere to live. There would be no greater disaster than for us to over-regulate the housing market, for the supply of residential accommodation to dry up and for students to be admitted to universities, but with nowhere to live. We must certainly avoid that, so I should be interested to hear what advice the Minister has received on the likely effects of accepting some of the proposals that his right hon. and hon. Friends have made.

Finally, the Sustainable Communities Bill has been mentioned. “Sustainable communities” is part of the title of the debate, and the Minister has been involved in debates on the Bill. What reassurances can he give us that the Government, and he in particular, will support the Bill on Report on 15 June? In particular, can he reassure us that it will not be watered down in any respect? The idea of passing power down to local communities, particularly through the grassroots ability in the Bill for local councils and community groups to influence a national action plan, could be a vehicle to exert some pressure and shape national policies. Can the Minister tell us whether any Government amendments are likely to be proposed to the Bill and, if so, can he reassure us that they will be tabled well in advance of 15 June?

The debate has been excellent. I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken and I will be grateful to hear the Minister’s response to my questions.

12.20 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is traditional to congratulate the Member who has secured the debate, but in this case those congratulations are especially deserved because there is clearly a problem. Speeches have been made by Members from across the House and the country, and there is some degree of agreement about the problem and the solution. In a sense, I am grateful that I have only nine minutes to respond, because it means that I will not get to page 13 of my speech, which would have me repeating the words of the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I recognise that the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate represent six different universities and represent different political parties.

So, what are we going to do? My colleagues and I have an open mind on the issue. At the invitation of
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my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), I visited the Storer and Ashby residents’ group before Christmas and met a delegation from it, and from the district council and the university. Indeed, Alison Barlow, the Loughborough university officer, was there on that occasion. We met to consider the problems raised by the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said that it presents a challenge to my Department as the Department for Communities and Local Government, and he is right. It is not a matter of planning and housing law, but a matter of community policy.

I shall set out my general approach and then try to offer a way forward. Like other hon. Members, I declare an interest. I am a former president of the NUS, and student housing has been close to my heart for many decades. The situation has, of course, changed since my day. The number of students is huge compared with what it was. The problems in Durham and, to some extent, in Southampton that have been described are familiar, although in those days we did not hear about such problems at Brunel, because the numbers were not that great. The town and gown interface has been debated in this country for hundreds of years, but we now face the issue on a different scale because of the number of students. I note that both Opposition parties welcomed the increase in student numbers. Of course, this is nothing to do with student bashing, which can be a serious problem in some towns and cities.

The characterisation of the idea of a student is no longer possible. Two-fifths of UK higher education students study part-time and are already likely to be part of an established community. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency figures for 2003-04, 59 per cent. of students are mature students. One also has to bear in mind—although this point has not been raised—that student households are exempt from council tax. It is testament to residents’ groups and Members of Parliament that that point has not been raised, because it could lead to divisions and problems in communities if that were to be an issue. A student household is exempt from council tax and therefore from the council tax base of a local authority, so in effect others pay for that difference.

We have a number of frameworks that we can use. The first is the code for sustainable homes, which came into effect in April. Any new home can be rated against the code. The second is the proposals in the now-published planning White Paper, which sets out some reforms. The third and most important, which relates to the issue of devolution raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson), is partnership and local area agreements. In all the cases that have been raised, including that of Loughborough, the university is a member of the local area agreement. The possibilities for proactive planning of student accommodation, including directly provided accommodation and private sector flats, as well as the impact on local communities, are now subject to debates, agreements and policies within the local area agreements.

I will not repeat the definition of the problem with HMOs and the use classes order, as that has been well documented. We are debating that issue, and I shall explain where we are going in a minute. My difficulty
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is about whether that is the route to a solution. We have the proposals from Northern Ireland and are considering researching the policy there. Incidentally, the policy in Northern Ireland was instituted against the independent recommendations and we need to see whether it will achieve the goals that it sets out.

We need to examine the issue and we will do so. Local authorities that recently held a conference on the matter have important points to make as to why they believe that the existing law is not sufficient. It is worth noting that most of the consultation with stakeholders has involved residents. There is clearly a difference of opinion between Government policy and practitioners in local authorities on what the problem is with the legislation. That is another matter that we will consider.

The question is whether amending the use classes order would necessary solve the social and environmental problems that have been attributed to high concentrations of HMOs. The guide that has been referred to noted that in Brighton, Manchester and Salford, those problems do not exist. I would not say that they do not exist at all, but they do not exist as they do in Uxbridge, Bristol, Durham, Southampton and so on. We need to examine why that is so.

Right hon. and hon. Members will agree that the law of unintended consequences is an important consideration. If we were to change the policy, which would not require primary legislation, as has been said, there could be a danger of creating further unintended consequences. That is because the problem is different in different areas. Some significant communities have families made up of two adults and four teenagers—or more—and we need to consider whether there would be unintended consequences in such areas.

In short, more research is required. That is not a holding line. The issue has been raised by Members from across the House, and it is important that we consider it and respond to it. I have some serious concerns about whether the proposals would provide the solution that we are looking for, but it is important that we consider them.

Mr. Denham: Can my hon. Friend give us some comfort by saying when he expects to receive the results of the research?

Mr. Woolas: I can tell my right hon. Friend that I met the delegation from Loughborough on 8 May, and the issue relates to housing and planning policies. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning and I, along with the Secretary of State, have to ensure co-ordination of policy based on local area agreements. I can assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen that we are considering the matter urgently. Indeed, by pure coincidence, a meeting is taking place this afternoon that is one of a series to consider the issue.

I hope that, in the short time that I have had to reply to the debate, I have put across the point that we believe that we understand the problem—I believe that I do—and that there are options before us. We are concerned that the options that have been proposed by the campaign might not be the correct ones, but we will give the issue full consideration and report back shortly.

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Dorset Library Service

12.30 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I wrote to the Minister on 6 June and 12 June 2006 about Dorset county council’s proposal to close 13 of its public libraries. He said that he was disturbed by the potential scale of the closures, that he would be checking the situation with the county council, that he would continue to monitor the situation and that he would in particular assess how the views and wishes of local people were being considered. I thank him for the responses that he gave at that early stage.

Following an enormous outcry from local people, the libraries were given a reprieve for a two-year, rather than a six-week, consultation period. One year on, and following yesterday’s meeting of the council’s community overview committee, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. However, any recommendations of that meeting still need acceptance by the council’s cabinet and by the full council, and much detail remains to be clarified. The devil may yet lie in that detail, and today’s debate is therefore of great relevance to the future of the Dorset library service.

I declare a minor interest in the future of the service, in that I regularly hold surgeries in libraries in my constituency, two of which are among the 13 candidates for closure. I praise the staff of the libraries for the services that they provide, which I witness on a regular basis. The whole service has received high ratings. For example, it received the top rating for excellence from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the Department’s last formal measurement of performance against the public library service standard. Dorset county council is ranked as excellent in the Audit Commission’s comprehensive performance assessment, and library scores played their full part in that. Furthermore, the service has high and increasing satisfaction ratings from users. A 2006 MORI survey found that 77 per cent. of respondents were satisfied with the libraries, compared with 73 per cent. in 2003. Clearly, therefore, there is much to celebrate, and praise should be given to all the library staff. There are also many exciting initiatives, for example in work with children and young people to help them to enjoy and achieve.

What, therefore, is the problem? Dorset currently has 34 libraries and 4 mobile libraries that cover what is essentially a rural county. There have been contentions to the effect that it has a relatively large number of libraries per head of population, but I feel that it is important to appreciate the local context, including the nature of the rural area and the very poor public transport and road network. Bournemouth and Poole are now separate unitary authorities, and as far as I know they have not been proposing library closures. Indeed, our local library where I live in North Poole has recently had its hours extended.

The uncertainty for the Dorset library service stems from an efficiency review. The county council is the lowest funded of all England’s county councils, with £80 of formula grant per head, compared with what I am told is an average of £160 per head. It was forecasting a gap between spending and income of £20 million by 2009-10, which prompted a review of all services, to consider efficiency savings. Savings were found, and the projected funding gap has been reduced
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by half, but there appear to be fears that the gap could widen again depending on the outcome of this year’s comprehensive spending review and on possible requirements for further efficiencies in the future. Clearly, the outcome of the comprehensive spending review is therefore of critical importance to Dorset county council, and I must emphasise to the Minister that Dorset residents feel badly let down by settlements that are so much lower than those for other county councils.

The library service was for its part asked to find efficiency savings of £850,000. Some savings have been identified, but at the end of the day the recommendation from the review was to close 13 predominantly rural community libraries. The efficiency review identified the need to modernise the library network and the need for investment to achieve a high-quality network, which in turn was to be supported by closing those libraries that were assessed as not viable on measures of performance, cost-effectiveness and size, or that were clustered in such a way that arguably there was over-provision.

A number of issues have emerged during the consultation period. One of my constituents has undertaken a statistical analysis to show that some of the larger libraries are in fact less cost-effective in terms of cost per book-issue than many of the smaller ones. At the very least, that indicates that all libraries should be included in the detailed review and consultation. A year ago, councillors from opposition parties were asking why all libraries were not being put under the same spotlight as the 13. It seems that yesterday’s decision at the county council has at long last taken on board the need to evaluate all the libraries in terms of efficiency and community involvement.

I believe that the original library proximity criteria used for assessing closure were seriously flawed. At the same time that the proposed closure of Corfe Mullen library was announced, bus services to Wimborne, whose library it was suggested my constituents could use instead, were slashed. They have been further cut back this year, to such an extent that it cannot be said that the alternative library is accessible to those without their own transport. Corfe Mullen has a population of about 10,000, the latest figures published by the county rank it 15th in total book issues, and in addition the county council is supporting an extra 700 local homes in the regional spatial strategy—although that proposal is not one that I supported.

I feel that there is a distinct lack of joined-up thinking by the county council. Potential growth and accessibility ought surely to be considered, and I see no evidence of the county council having a greater commitment to improve the bus services in that part of my constituency.

Similarly, the other library proposed for closure in my constituency, Lytchett Matravers, should also be assessed in terms of accessibility to an alternative library, because public transport to the suggested alternatives is dire. Potential growth should be considered too, because usage at that library has steadily been increasing over the last few years. It is relevant that representations from that part of my constituency were made to the public examination stage of the regional spatial strategy that proposed the high growth in housing.

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