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19 Feb 2008 : Column 49WH—continued

The Churches Conservation Trust, which, as I said, got more money, cares for the most significant redundant
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Church of England buildings. Some of that money will be used to help vulnerable congregations to fight off the possibility of buildings becoming redundant, which is hugely important, and to help redundant buildings to find new uses.

English Heritage is also looking at what more it can do to help congregations to prioritise their repairs, because money will always be tight. It will also help them to identify potential further uses of underused buildings and to seek new sources of support. All that is in line with the Inspire campaign, with which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar.

On the grants that we give out, both our listed places of worship grant scheme and the joint English Heritage and lottery fund church repair scheme have awarded many millions of pounds and helped many thousands of buildings. We will have an announcement soon on the latest round of grants offered under the joint scheme.

As the hon. Gentleman said, English Heritage made an announcement only two weeks ago about the latest awards that it will make under its grants for cathedrals scheme. Some 28 cathedrals have been offered a share of more than £2 million, and once the current round of grants has been taken up, the scheme will have given out nearly £50 million since 1991. We are of course grateful for the match funding from the Wolfson Foundation, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. That generous contribution is allowing the scheme to go much further.

The Heritage Lottery Fund also makes many millions of pounds available to cathedrals and churches. York minster received £10 million towards the huge project of restoring the great east window, and the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London has received more than £40 million towards its ongoing work, as the hon. Gentleman will have seen.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Salisbury is one of the finest, if not the finest, of all our cathedrals. That is why it has received more English Heritage grant funding that any other cathedral and more from that body than almost any other building in the country. As he said, it has received well over £6 million since the start of the current cathedral grant programme; indeed, it has received £1 for every £8 given out by the scheme, under which there are 40 eligible buildings. Salisbury is also making use of the VAT relief grant scheme and has received £130,000 from it in the past few months.

Robert Key: That is absolutely true, but it is important to point out that that happened with the agreement of the Association of English Cathedrals, which agreed, as a body, that Lincoln and Salisbury were in the greatest need. It is not fair to say that Salisbury is being greedy, because it is not—it just has the biggest problems.

Margaret Hodge: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I hope that he will acknowledge that an appropriate response has been made to that need through the grants that have been awarded.

The hon. Gentleman raised several issues. First, he suggested that there had been a change in English Heritage’s policy on stone repair, but my understanding is that there has been no such change. English Heritage had its established policy, and the confines of that
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policy meant that it could not support the specific works proposed in the latest application.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the criteria of the grant scheme had changed. I must tell him, however, that the criteria attached to the grant scheme have been in place since 2003 and were reconfirmed to all cathedrals in summer 2007.

The hon. Gentleman alleged that there was a lack of national consistency, but there is no evidence of that. Guidelines and criteria are applied nationally, but each cathedral is different. Salisbury has been dealt with by English Heritage’s south-west regional office for several years.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has left the Chamber, raised the point that the failure of funding to come from one organisation might impact on funding from the another organisation. In this case, however, the Wolfson Foundation simply agreed with English Heritage’s assessment of the works that were required. This is an issue of the judgment about an individual application, rather than a lack of funding from one organisation leading to a lack of funding from another.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has met locally with English Heritage and the Church authorities. I see from my notes that there was a meeting between English Heritage and all the bodies concerned in the middle of last year, although I have not seen the minutes of that meeting. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has convened such a meeting to bring everyone together, but there is clearly an issue of judgment over the best way to deal with the damage to Salisbury cathedral’s stonework, and judgments appear to differ.

Robert Key: To answer the Minister’s question, I was not present at that meeting, although I would be delighted to convene such a meeting. The real problem, however, is the lack of a national agreed policy, and that is what we are asking for. There should be a meeting with all the English cathedrals and others concerned so that we can have a consistent policy.

Margaret Hodge: Indeed. We have also been informed of the meeting that is taking place in March to thrash out whether we can achieve a nationally agreed policy. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman or I could act as experts or judges in this instance, but my understanding, having discussed the
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matter in preparing for this debate, is that English Heritage does take expert advice. Common sense tells me that one would always go for conservation rather than the replacement of stone, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would endorse that attitude. However, a judgment must be made about what life the stone will have and whether conservation is a cost-effective way forward.

The hon. Gentleman asked two specific questions. First, he asked whether we would consider convening a conference. The sensible thing is probably to wait and see whether some agreement comes out of the conference that will be convened by all the interested bodies in March. If there still appears to be huge disagreement, however, it would be appropriate for the Government to see whether we could bring the parties together at that point.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether I could look at the training of stone masons to see whether there were appropriate facilities. It struck me that we could look at our apprenticeship scheme, which we are trying to expand, to see whether we could provide more opportunities through apprenticeships for individuals. I do not know whether there are opportunities there, but I will take the issue away, look at it and write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

English Heritage has explained its position in dialogue with the cathedral over many months, and what happened with the grant application this year was no surprise to anybody. Strenuous efforts have been made on both sides to reach agreement on the way forward, but not enough progress has been made to allow grant to be awarded in the current year. However, English Heritage is continuing to work with the cathedral to agree a new stone conservation policy.

Clearly, a compromise needs to be found to allow the work at Salisbury cathedral to continue, and I think that that is what we all want. Salisbury should apply again for a grant next year, and although English Heritage makes no guarantees, it will continue to work with the cathedral to give its application the best chance of succeeding. English Heritage will work with the cathedral, the Cathedral Fabric Commission and other groups to see whether they can share best practice, share views and come to a common understanding.

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I hope that the debate has moved us a little way forward and that we can work together to ensure that all the major works at Salisbury can progress.

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Housing (Calderdale)

1 pm

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): With your permission, Mr. Taylor, I should like my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), whose constituency neighbours mine, to speak in the debate.

Calderdale is one of the five boroughs in West Yorkshire. The local authority is the sixth largest of the 36 metropolitan areas in terms of land area. It has a population of about 192,000 people, comprising 81,000 households. Calderdale itself is made up of many distinct and diverse communities. It is a multicultural area: people of Asian, Irish, Italian and eastern European origin have formed part of the community for many years, the largest group being the Pakistani community, which has a very young age profile.

Most social and economic indicators show Calderdale to be close to the national average for prosperity, but that can mask wide variations within the borough. Deprivation figures for 2007 published by the Department for Communities and Local Government showed that four wards contained areas ranked within the 10 most deprived in the country, and that poor quality of housing is a significant factor in those and several other wards of the district. Conversely, there are some very prosperous areas in the borough. Calderdale is equidistant from the regional centres of Manchester and Leeds, and good rail and road links have drawn commuters who wish to live in the area.

In recent years there has been an enormous spate of development of executive apartments, many of which are located in former mill buildings. Calderdale is therefore an area of great contrasts, with high house prices in areas that also accommodate deprived communities living in poor quality older properties. Although its mix is in many respects healthy, it has the effect of masking underlying problems. As a result, Calderdale has not always attracted significant public expenditure from national and European institutions and regeneration programmes of the kind enjoyed by its surrounding neighbours.

Calderdale’s traditional economic base was founded on textiles and engineering, and those sectors still account for a quarter of local employment. In recent years, employment in the service industry has grown, particularly in the financial sector, HBOS being the largest single private sector employer. With local schools consistently performing well, and blue chip employers established in the borough, Calderdale has the potential significantly to contribute to strategies for the economic development of the region. However, if that potential is to be realised, it is vital not to neglect basic agendas that will attract and retain a skilled work force in the borough. In that respect, housing agendas are neglected at our peril.

In that context, I want to set out some of the challenges that are currently being faced in Calderdale as it attempts to implement a five-year housing strategy entitled “Decent and Affordable Homes in Safe and Sustainable Neighbourhoods”. The council recently undertook a comprehensive survey of its private sector stock, which rightly drew attention to its condition. The key findings were that half the private sector stock was built before 1919. More than 8 per cent. of the stock was statutorily unfit for human habitation, which is 2 per cent. above the national average. The rate at which dwellings are
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becoming unfit is greater than the rate at which unfit dwellings are being improved. Almost one fifth of all private sector homes were classified as being in serious disrepair. There was a high level of damp, and private tenants are more than twice as likely to live in unfit properties as owner-occupiers.

The highest concentration of unfit housing and homes that are difficult to heat is among pre-1919 stock. Three quarters of the privately rented property in Calderdale was built before 1919. More than half of the unfit houses have an energy efficiency rating substantially below the level required to achieve affordable warmth among low-income groups. The study concluded that more than £300 million was required to remedy that level of unfitness and to bring the private sector stock up to an acceptable standard of general repair. It seems extraordinary that after decades of housing policy and investment, we can still paint such a picture.

I want to use the Harley Bank area of Todmorden as an example. The streets are stone-built terraces of a dozen or so properties. The stone building lends a certain charm, but it can mask poor conditions. Homes in Harley Bank, as indeed in most of Calderdale, are genuinely back-to-back properties. They literally back on to another property, and are bounded on either side by others in the same terrace. A typical arrangement would be a one-up, one-down house, perhaps with an attic room. Roofs are generally in poor condition and doors and windows usually need renewing. The properties are usually of a single leaf stone construction, with no cavity, so energy efficiency improvement is, to say the least, challenging. Kitchen areas are likely to be modest in scale, and there is often one precipitous winding staircase to the first floor. Despite those limitations, such properties can be, and are, made into attractive homes for single people and smaller families. They can be cheap and economical to run, but they need investment, if they are to be a useful part of our housing stock in the future.

The agenda that I am discussing concerns our commitment to the most vulnerable people, who are most likely to live in such homes, and to their most basic need, which is a warm, secure home in decent order. The Minister shares that commitment, and I am sure that she wants to honour it. Other agendas are germane not only to Calderdale but to West Yorkshire in general and places further afield. I know that it is believed in some quarters that the north of England is not affected by the problems of affordability and high house prices that are found elsewhere, but that is not true. House prices have perhaps not reached the dizzy heights in the south of the country, but the increase in house prices in recent years has been dramatic and has had a substantial impact on communities where wages are historically very low. In Calderdale, house prices have risen 24 per cent. since 2004. The highest average rise in the whole country between 2001 and 2004 took place in one town in my constituency, Brighouse.

In that context, I welcome the Government’s commitment to a larger programme of investment in affordable homes. I am pleased that the social housing grant deployment in West Yorkshire is likely to rise by 32 per cent. in 2010-11, compared with the current financial year. The matter of most concern is the degree to which it may prove possible to deploy that resource usefully. I say that because I am concerned about the combined
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effect of well meant Government targets on housing density, high land prices and Housing Corporation policy on unit costs. All too often, we seem to emphasise the number of houses being built—the quantity of building—rather than housing need and building quality.

That echoes the market trend of developing apartments rather than family houses, which we now desperately need in Calderdale. I ask the Minister to consider the degree to which local authorities are being empowered and enabled to reject inappropriate applications for high density flat development, and instead, perhaps, enabled to insist on higher proportions of family houses, built to good space standards and at a reasonable density. I find it a cause for concern that in this day and age we still have no minimum space standards for dwellings. We seem to have gone backwards since the Parker Morris standards of the 1950s.

A knock-on effect of the points that I have raised is the growing number of empty homes, which is a curious and perplexing phenomenon at a time when we know that there is very high housing need in Calderdale. There are also problems of affordability given the natural desire for home ownership. In Calderdale, we now have nearly 4,000 empty homes, some 2,500 of which have been empty for more than six months. Some of those are older, poorer properties in need of just the sort of investment that I mentioned earlier, but others are small apartments, which are usually situated in older, converted mill premises although some of them are new builds. All are driven by high land prices, high density requirements in national planning guidance and a short-sighted housing market that seems to see housing as an alternative investment chip at a time when returns on investments elsewhere are perhaps low.

We are now seeing the results of that policy in Calderdale, where we are building too much of the wrong sort of housing, when we really need medium-density family homes. I call upon the Minister, therefore, to introduce legislation, guidance and assistance to local authorities to enable them summarily to reject such applications in favour of the kind of housing development needed in their communities, and, certainly in Calderdale, better to utilise section 106 agreements, which have an important place in the provision of affordable local housing. Furthermore, will the Minister look at the link between investment in private sector housing and the rural housing agenda, because two thirds of Calderdale is classified as rural?

Finally, I flag up the link between the need for investment in our older stock and the energy efficiency housing agenda. In my constituency, which has been subject to significant flooding over many years, the importance of thinking globally and acting locally is not lost upon the community. I welcome the Government’s target of all newly-constructed homes being zero carbon by 2016, and I call for a similar commitment to a radical improvement in the existing stock in areas with a legacy of older housing.

1.12 pm

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) on securing this important
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debate, which raises a crucial issue in the area that I represent as well as in hers. The importance of additional, private sector housing money to take forward new schemes around Halifax cannot be underestimated.

So far, due to restrictions on finance, investment has been restricted to one or two areas with the most pressing housing needs. However, other parts of Halifax, such as Lee Mount, Boothtown, and Siddal, to name but three, would benefit from similar levels of investment. We need the Government to help secure that investment. Halifax needs not only a fair distribution of resources across different communities, but to be seen to have a fair distribution of money. To enable that to happen, and to support the work of Calderdale council, enough money will be needed over the next three years to take forward that work and to enable the necessary changes. To put it bluntly, more money is needed to help turn dreams into reality.

As my hon. Friend has touched upon, Calderdale has diverse housing needs. Halifax also has areas with high house prices, as well as many deprived communities living in poor quality older properties. That situation needs addressing. In recent years, money from central Government has helped to tackle key regeneration schemes in the Park ward area and Illingworth. We now need more of the same to tackle similar problems in other parts of Halifax.

Key pockets of deprivation often lie in more prosperous wards, which are not highlighted in the indices of deprivation. It is not good enough that, as my hon. Friend has stated, almost one fifth of all private sector homes are in serious disrepair, that there is a high level of disrepair and damp and that private sector tenants are more than twice as likely to live in unfit properties as owner-occupiers. It is incredible that, after decades of housing policy, investment and action plans, such a picture can still be painted. We need to start with a fresh canvas and ensure a new picture is created for this generation. That work needs to start in Calderdale today. I urge the Minister to come and see first hand the housing challenges that need addressing in Calderdale. At the risk of repeating a well-used mantra, much has been done, but there is certainly much to do.

I want to point out the good work being carried out by housing officers in Calderdale. The “links in the chain” concept has recently been developed, and it will build on some of the excellent inward investment in recent years. Exciting plans and regeneration schemes are in place, but in Halifax we do not want to rest on our laurels. As the local MP, I want much more done. The council has plans for post-18 education links between Calderdale council and local universities. However, in order to help build on that success, the council needs to develop further proposals for linked housing and economic investment.

The main message that I want to bring to this debate is the need to give the council the financial support that it needs and wants, so that the pieces in the jigsaw can be completed. The money will provide the momentum, so that positive work can begin. I urge the Government to listen to the message from me and my hon. Friend and to help kick-start some much needed investment in the borough’s housing stock, which will benefit hundreds of my constituents.

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