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27 Nov 2007 : Column 201

Nearly 40 per cent. of Gypsies and Travellers live on sites provided by local authorities, and they have suffered grievously from the lack of security of tenure. Increasingly, Gypsies and Travellers have wanted to retain a more permanent base while retaining the tradition of living in a caravan and travelling during the summer. Often, that is because they want their children to attend school and, as a result, many more Gypsy children attend primary school than used to be the case. I should say that most Gypsy children on settled sites do so, although that is not so true of secondary schools.

The lack of security of tenure has caused problems for Gypsies and Travellers when it comes to getting jobs, and it is well known that their health is much worse than that of the rest of the population. It has been acknowledged already in the debate that housing and health are very important factors, and that is more true of the Gypsy and Traveller population than it is of any other sector of society.

Anne Main: The Bill allows Gypsies and Travellers—or their family members—to purchase the sites on which they reside. Given the debate about the right to buy council houses, would the hon. Lady like any restrictions to be placed on that proposed right for Gypsies and Travellers?

Julie Morgan: The Bill proposes the same restrictions as apply to other mobile homes, but I agree that such matters need to be considered in detail.

The present lack of security of tenure means that site residents can be evicted even when they have done nothing wrong. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 provides that, to gain possession of a pitch on a Gypsy site, a local authority need only provide 28 days’ notice of termination of a Gypsy’s or Traveller’s licence, after which it can obtain a possession order from the court. However, resident Gypsies and Travellers have no opportunity to put any defence against such an order and thereby to prevent their eviction.

In May 2004, the European Court of Human Rights decided the case Connors v. United Kingdom, in which the claimant had been evicted from an official local authority Gypsy site on which she had lived for many years. The ECHR decided that the lack of any procedural safeguard was a clear breach of the occupant’s rights under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which provides a right to respect for a person’s home, private life and family life.

An amendment to the Housing Act 2004 gave judges the discretionary power to suspend possession orders, but it did not address or remedy the incompatibility found by the ECHR in the case to which I referred. That point was also made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its 13th report.

In November 2004, the Government sent a memorandum to the Council of Ministers indicating that they accepted that security of tenure would have to be introduced on local authority sites for Gypsies and Travellers. The delay in introducing that led me, in July 2006, to sponsor the Caravan Sites (Security of Tenure) Bill. Clause 272 of the Bill under discussion today provides most of what the earlier Bill sought to introduce, but I remain
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concerned about Gypsy and Traveller families currently facing eviction from local authority sites. They are not protected at the moment, and that is causing them a great deal of stress and difficulty.

I understand from the Minister that local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites will not constitute social housing under this Bill. I hope that the Government will reconsider that, and ensure that such sites fall under the authority of the social housing regulator. I welcome the fact that the regulator’s objectives ensure that

and that they

Placing Gypsy and Traveller sites under the authority of the social housing regulator would fit in with the Government’s planning policy statements on housing. Paragraph 37 of the document published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in May and entitled “Local Authorities and Gypsies and Travellers: A Guide to Responsibilities and Powers” states:

Considering Gypsy and Traveller sites to be a form of social housing would help to mainstream provision, and could therefore contribute to the creation of the mixed communities that are part of the aim of the Bill.

If local authority-run Gypsy and Traveller sites were to constitute social housing, as defined by the Bill, the social housing regulator’s objectives would cover most of the matters that are included in the Caravan Sites (Security of Tenure) Bill but which are not covered by clause 272 of this Bill.

My main purpose in focusing briefly on clause 272 is to welcome it and to tell the House what a difference it will make to the lives of so many people. The provision will not give residents of local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites special rights; it will simply give them the same rights as other residents of caravans or mobile homes. The disparity until now has been grossly unfair.

The clause will not prevent residents who break the conditions of their secure tenancy from being evicted. It will mean that, like tenants of other forms of accommodation, they cannot be evicted without good reason and without proof of an infraction of the rules. It is important that they have the same opportunities as other site residents.

The clause will not give security of tenure to anyone on an unauthorised encampment or development. The grave shortage of legal sites, which forces about a quarter of Gypsies and Travellers in caravans to park illegally, is addressed by the implementation of other legislation. I hope very much that local authorities will provide sufficient sites for those who need them, but it is too soon to say how successful that legislation will be.

Clause 272 will undo a serious injustice that has afflicted Gypsies and Travellers for too long. I am pleased that the Government have finally recognised that, and that they are implementing such an important
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clause. I hope the provision will be taken up by the Welsh Assembly and that it will apply to Gypsies and Travellers living in Wales.

A decent home is one of the most important things for all of us. One section of the population has suffered badly in that regard and I am pleased that the Government are addressing the problem.

7.1 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): When we debate housing, I often think about the two great leaders whose statues stand outside the Chamber—Churchill and Lloyd George, who stood at the Dispatch Box, arguing and debating the housing crisis of 100 years ago.

We had homes fit for heroes. In the 1930s, we had new, innovative garden cities. During the 1940s and 1950s, we built vast council estates. During the 1960s, we had new ideas so we knocked down a lot of perfectly good housing to build more new estates and tower blocks. Parliament debated housing issues then and we are still debating them today. We still have a housing crisis: we still do not have enough homes fit for our constituents.

In 1990, when I first started on my passage to become Member of Parliament for Teignbridge, there were just over 1,000 people on the council’s waiting list. Today, there are about 4,000 families on the list. During that time, under the right to buy, Teignbridge council sold off more than 3,000 council homes, but because of financial restrictions and other constraints it has been able to build only 1,300, so it is no wonder that the waiting list in Teignbridge has grown: there is clearly a shortfall of 1,700 houses—homes that are lost to the public sector.

I want to raise two key issues about healthy housing. First, I shall draw together a few threads from what has already been said about good design. Earlier I mentioned tower blocks. Much of the housing built in the 1950s and 1960s has already been knocked down—in some cases because it was poorly constructed, but often because it was badly designed. The houses were not fit for purpose; they were not a humane environment in which people were happy to live.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), I said that high density is not bad density. High-density design can be good. While I am in London, I live in Dolphin square, which is a high-density block built in the 1930s. It is well designed and perfectly good for people’s needs. Other properties, such as Georgian houses, are high density, but they work because space was created in them; the room sizes work for families. They are large enough for families to breathe.

Parker Morris standards, which were referred to earlier, guaranteed a minimum amount of storage, but they have been abolished. When I was a young architectural technician, I remember working out the amount of storage that had to be included in the design. When the standards were abolished, room sizes were the same but houses were slightly smaller because no storage was provided. What used to be part of the design of the house became part of the room fitments, so when we abolished Parker Morris we reduced the size of many houses.

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People are being squeezed into more compressed spaces, yet the material needs of society are expanding. We provide much more for our children in their rooms. When I was a teenager I did not have a television in my room. I had a record player, but nowadays in most children’s bedrooms there is a computer, a television and a record player.

Paul Holmes: Not a record player.

Richard Younger-Ross: Vinyl is making a comeback.

There is more need for space, so we should not have abolished Parker Morris; we should have revised the standards to take account of the fact that houses need to be bigger to meet the expectations of the modern family. We need the 3 million homes the Minister has proposed to be well designed. Homes and estates should certainly be sustainable but they must also be well designed.

We need to make sure that houses are big enough. There must be a good mix and diversity within an area to provide a humane environment. During the 1960s, we ignored the fact that people need defensible space. They need that space so that they can flourish on their estates and not feel hemmed in. Young people need to be able to let off steam occasionally, but without every other member of the household doing the same thing because they are all bottled up together in a confined space.

My second point about healthy housing relates to diversity of housing type. I said earlier that I worked in architecture. I do not know whether I should confess that I used to design houses; perhaps I should confess that a lot of the buildings that were knocked down because they were badly designed were ones I worked on during the ‘70s—probably a good job, too, in many cases. I would be the first to accept that. [ Interruption. ] Conservative Members shake their heads, but I did what I was paid to do. My first job as a young technician was designing clothes racks for the balconies of tower blocks. The buildings may still be standing, but they were appalling pieces of design and should never have been built.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) referred to Gypsies. I want to talk about another group of caravan residents—those in park homes. We were homeless at one point and I lived in a caravan for seven years, although at only 22 ft by 7 ft my caravan was rather different from modern park homes. During the passage of the Housing Bill in 2004, the Minister considered proposals for legislation on park homes made by the all-party park home owners group. She accepted that there was a need for it and brought in some much-needed legislation. We desperately need more legislation to control bad park home owners. There is an appalling situation in a park home site in my constituency. The residents are elderly, and they are stressed because they feel they are being bullied and that the site owner is trying to get them off the site.

I ask for a Minister to visit some of the park home sites around the country. They should not write in advance to say they are coming, because then everything will be done to clean the place up first. The visits should be impromptu. I—and, I am sure, other members of the all-party group on park home owners—will facilitate them; I am happy for the
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Minister to visit the site in my constituency. Ministers should take a look at the conditions that we expect some people to live in.

Park homes might be moved because they are too close together; they might be less far apart than the required 6 m interval. Teignbridge district council, for instance, decided to enforce the relevant legislation. Let us consider what can happen when a park home is moved. Those who move it destroy the residents’ garden. They move the home a couple of feet, and in doing so they knock down the porch. They do not reconstruct the porch for the residents. They do not rebuild the garden for them. They do not in some cases even immediately put steps in place so the residents can get up to their front door. I have seen park homes with temporary building blocks left in place instead, and with no handrail so elderly people have to stagger up them to get through the door. Because of the condition the site is left in, when it rains a torrent of mud might run down through the site. The roads are potholed. The lighting is inadequate. When the site owners have moved someone off, they will leave the electricity box broken and exposed. The residents are elderly people who want their family to visit, but they do not want to let a young child wander around a site that is in such a state—they would not do that because they care for their grandchildren’s safety. They are cut off because they do not feel they can allow their family to visit them as where they live is not safe.

People such as Mr. Small who runs Buckingham Orchard can run a site in such a way, however, and the local authority says there is little it can do. I ask the Minister please to do something to help those people. They are relying on the Minister. The Government have the opportunity to accept amendments to the Bill that will deal with such situations. In a previous Bill, the Government brought in a fit and proper person requirement for owners and landlords of housing in multiple occupation. I ask them to look into adding such an amendment to this Bill.

7.12 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): I welcome the Bill as being the first serious attempt for perhaps three decades to seek to address the issues of severe housing shortage and unaffordability. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), tried—rather synthetically, I thought—to counter the Bill, and in doing so made one of the thinnest speeches I have heard for a long time from the Opposition Front Bench. The Bill is a major step forward, and he would be wise to recognise that, although I would be the first to agree with other Members that some aspects of it need further consideration, and I want to concentrate on some of them.

The first is the scale of new house building in relation to need—the Conservative spokesman refused on more than half a dozen occasions to comment on that. The number is still distinctly short of what is required. For more than a quarter of a century, public housing in this country has been starved of investment. It has plummeted from 6.1 per cent. of Government spend per year in 1981—the trend started under
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Mrs. Thatcher’s Government—to just 1.6 per cent. in 2005. That is a staggering drop. If we put it in current price terms—which is the way to make sense of it—the Government today are spending about £22 billion less a year on public housing than their predecessors were at the end of the 1970s.

We should add to that the fact that half the public stock has been removed by sales and transfers of various kinds. The council waiting list was 1.6 million two years ago, and it is probably higher today, and it is now virtually impossible to get a council tenancy at all in current conditions. The situation in my town, Oldham, is similar to that in many other Members’ areas: the waiting list is now 11,000 and the total number of council properties remaining after all the sales is only 12,000 or 13,000. Even if someone is lucky enough to get a council tenancy, the rent-setting formula has now been changed from pooled-historical rent to one that is partly related to owner-occupied housing in the area. Therefore, just as house prices have risen dramatically, rents have also risen sharply, sometimes so much that they are out of financial reach.

As Members have also said, no one today has got a conceivable hope of buying their way out into the private sector as almost everywhere in the country the ratio of mortgage loans to income is now 5:1 or 6:1, and in some places even 8:1 or 10:1. Nor is it clear—I find this very worrying—that a small increase in housing will necessarily stabilise, let alone bring down, housing prices in view of the fact that the flow of house-purchase lending, which is now at the staggering level of £1 trillion a year, is rising so much faster. If extra house building increases the stock by, let us say, 1 or 2 per cent. a year, which might well be an effect of this Bill, while at the same time the credit available to buy it is rising at 5 per cent. or even more a year, house prices can hardly be expected to fall.

I admire the aspirations of the Bill but I do not think it is ambitious enough. I think that what is needed is a return nearer to historical levels of housing investment and a major construction drive targeted at good-quality council housing made available at construction-cost-related rents and entirely unrelated to the ballooning prices in the private sector. Although the Government’s proposals for increased house building are very welcome, I fear that they fall well short of matching the demand. The Government are proposing 200,000 new homes a year to 2016, and 240,000 new homes a year by 2020, but the housing economist with the best reputation in this area, Alan Holman, has estimated the required new housing formation every year at about 220,000 and that the extent of unmet housing need that has accumulated over the years—due to overcrowding, for example, and bad-quality, damp housing—is probably another half a million homes. If that latter category were to be cleared in a 10-year housing programme—which, I think, is modest—that would require 270,000 houses a year, which is considerably more than the Government’s aim.

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