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19 Mar 2008 : Column 249WH—continued

There we have it: the council is still negotiating a pitiful amount of affordable housing on developments. It is not strengthening the section 106 agreements to allow it to find nominees in the event that a sale falls through, as a proportion always will, and it does not seem concerned when affordable housing ends up in the buy-to-let sector. Yet it told my hon. Friend that it would deliver 50 per cent. affordable housing if it were allowed to be a housing growth point.

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The council makes great play of inward movement to Warrington. We are not nimbys, but the first duty of a council is to cater for its own population. At the moment, people are moving in to buy the more expensive housing, which is still less expensive than in some of the big cities, whereas young couples who have grown up in the town are having to move out to find somewhere affordable to buy. I hope that, when my hon. Friend the Minister examines the bid, he will take steps to stop that happening.

There are fears about sites that are coming on stream, such as the site of the old Bruche police training centre in my constituency. English Partnerships has bought it and wants to develop it for housing. A lot of consultation is still needed with the local community about what community facilities there should be and so on, but I understand from my discussions that the council is already trying to impose conditions that would reduce the amount of affordable housing that could be built there. The fear is that the same thing will happen if the council closes Woolston high school, in the centre of my constituency, as it scandalously wants to, and that the site will be sold to the highest bidder and developed without regard to the housing needs of the community and without proper community facilities, thus enabling the council to bank large capital receipts, which it will no doubt spend south of the river in the town, so my constituents will not benefit.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can reassure me and my constituents on a number of matters: first, that the bid will be properly appraised, despite being lumped in with two other councils that have very different circumstances at the instigation of the Government office for the north-west. I hope that the bid will be examined, so that if it is allowed, the council provides 50 per cent. affordable housing on different sites around the area, instead of pricing local people out of an area.

Secondly, my constituents will want to be reassured that the housing that is built will be of good quality, with the right community facilities. They do not want more high-rise flats, and they do not want what one lady described to me as “cheap and nasty” affordable housing. That is not the Government’s intention, and my hon. Friend is committed to providing good-quality housing for hard-working people, but I should like to know how he will ensure that the council does that.

Thirdly, my constituents are keen for affordable housing to be built for the sons and daughters of Warrington people. I have done a lot of surveys all around my constituency, and that message has come out loud and clear. We must ensure that we do not just have expensive houses that local people cannot afford to buy.

Fourthly, we must tackle the shortage of rented housing in the borough. Building affordable housing will help to tackle the waiting list that I mentioned, but there will always be people who want or need to rent. There is also a hidden need among people who want to move, for various reasons, but know that they have no chance of doing so at the moment.

I want my hon. Friend to reassure my constituents that we will get the kind of housing that we need. He and the Government are committed to that, but the real question is how we can get local authorities, which might not be as committed to it as we are, to deliver for the people whom I represent. Hard-working families in
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my constituency are fed up of being priced out of their own area. I do not want to see any more people in my surgery crying because they cannot move into rented housing or because they are desperate to get a start in life and find somewhere to buy but cannot do so in the area where they have grown up. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure me on the matters that I have mentioned.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I think that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. May I say what an absolute pleasure it is to do so?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate soon after securing an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on knife crime, I believe.

Helen Jones: Alcohol-related crime.

Mr. Wright: It was alcohol-related crime—I am sorry. My hon. Friend works assiduously on behalf of her constituents on a range of matters, not least the need for more affordable housing in Warrington. She has been particularly strong in ensuring that her constituents are heard here in the House, in Whitehall and throughout the north-west region, particularly with regard to housing. Hansard demonstrates her persistence on that subject. Both I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing can personally testify to the representations that she has made on behalf of those seeking affordable housing in the borough.

If you and my hon. Friend will allow me, Mr. Hood, I wish to mention the national housing picture and then apply it to the circumstances in Warrington. My hon. Friend will welcome the fact, as I do, that housing is back at the top of the political agenda, and that the Government are determined to provide better, greener and more affordable housing. To be frank, this country has not been building enough homes since the early 1970s, which means that concerted effort is needed. Rising prosperity and a thriving economy over the past decade have meant that more people want to get on the property ladder—particularly, as she said, hard-working families. Equally, more people are living alone as a result of social change, and people are living longer, with the result that we need more homes that are suitable for older people, perhaps with provision for their grandchildren to stay with them to maintain a family network.

The Government published the housing Green Paper, “Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable”, in July 2007. It set a target of 2 million new homes by 2016 and 3 million by 2020. Within that total, we have set a target of providing at least 70,000 new affordable homes a year by 2010-11, of which 45,000 should be for rent. The Government expect at least 30 per cent. of new socially rented provision by the Housing Corporation to be family accommodation, to ease the overcrowding pressures that my hon. Friend so eloquently mentioned.

With the renewed political priority have come substantially increased resources. The Government have pledged about £8.4 billion over the next three years to
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tackle the problem of affordable housing. There has been a substantial increase in the resources available for providing new and affordable homes in the north-west region. About £526 million has been allocated to the national affordable housing programme for the next three years, with the aim of aiding the completion of about 6,500 socially rented homes and up to 3,000 affordable properties for sale.

The regional housing strategy in the north-west is currently being refreshed to better reflect the affordability agenda, and I understand that Warrington should be better placed to attract support in future years because of it. I understand also that the borough has so far secured £4.7 million, in strategic partnership with a number of registered social landlords, to fund the development of 94 new homes for rent in the current bidding round. Further bids will be developed for the Housing Corporation’s regular market engagement in the coming months.

Like my hon. Friend, I represent a northern seat and I am conscious of the fact that pressures on housing and affordability are not confined to London and the south-east. As she so excellently said, there are concerns about affordability in every region, which is why the Green Paper extended the growth points programme to the north for the first time. Growth point status is not a statutory designation, but represents a relationship between central Government and local partners. It is built on four principles: early delivery of housing as part of growth plans; supporting local partners to achieve sustainable growth; working with local partners to ensure that infrastructure and service provision keep pace with growth; and ensuring effective delivery. Levels of growth will be subject to comprehensive testing and public consultation through the regional and local planning processes, and I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend. The aim is to ensure that individual proposals are sustainable, environmentally acceptable and realistic in terms of infrastructure.

As my hon. Friend said, Warrington, in conjunction with neighbouring authorities, submitted an expression of interest for growth point status in October 2007. In December, the Government office for the north-west held an informal briefing for the region’s MPs, at which my hon. Friend expressed her views—in a somewhat forthright manner, as she said—about the priority that affordable housing should be given in the delivery of new housing in her patch. The Government office for the north-west passed on her views in writing to the chief executive of Warrington borough council. Again, my hon. Friend is to be commended for her interest in this emerging agenda, which will impact greatly on the level of affordable housing available to her constituents. I fundamentally agree that MPs should be at the heart of this process representing their constituents. At this point, however, I should make it clear that we are still considering all applications for new growth point status, and no decisions have been made, but I cannot say more on that.

As I have mentioned, and as my hon. Friend said, affordability has emerged as the single most important issue in housing almost everywhere. Warrington is one of many areas suffering the consequences of the market’s historical failure to supply enough housing to meet rising demand. Average lower-quartile house prices in Warrington have risen by about 179 per cent.
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in the past 10 years, which is much faster than comparable incomes. Between 2001 and 2006, the average property price in Warrington rose by 83.7 per cent., compared with an increase of 74.7 per cent. for England and Wales as a whole. As my hon. Friend suggested, the ratio of lower-quartile house prices to income was 3.26 in 1997 and 6.72 by 2007, although it has come down slightly from a peak last year. Taken together, those figures make Warrington the 15th least affordable borough in the north-west.

Warrington’s history of new town development and subsequent strong economic growth, as well as the investment that has been put into education, of which my hon. Friend is a massive champion in her area, have attracted many workers to the town, and that, in turn, has fostered significant housing development. However, my hon. Friend is right that we must do more to encourage and enable young families who were born in Warrington and who want to stay there to do so. I am anxious that we do not price them out of their home town. My hon. Friend has often expressed concern—she has done so in an excellent fashion this morning—at the apparent disconnect between the rising number of homes in Warrington and the growing number of people looking for social and affordable housing in the borough. My comments on that will form the main part of my response.

My hon. Friend made the important argument that we are talking not simply about housing numbers, but about the type and mix of new housing that is created in the borough. Again, the figures bear out her analysis. Access to social housing has become more difficult: there were about 10,400 households on Warrington’s housing waiting list on 1 April 2007, and that has increased. That compares with 2,516 in 1997. The number of new social lettings has also declined in recent years, from 1,311 in 2003-04 to just 1,112 in 2006-07—a fall of about 15 per cent. The number of new houses built, as opposed to other properties, such as maisonettes or flats, is slowing more markedly, falling from 421 in 2003-04 to 311 in 2006-07, and I fully understand—I think that my hon. Friend will share this concern—that that needs to be tackled. Finally, 90 households were accepted as homeless in Warrington between October and December 2007, which is a 14.5 per cent. increase over the same period the previous year. Bringing those figures together, there is no doubt that housing supply and affordability are crucial issues for the town.

The council has a key role to play in addressing those challenges, as my hon. Friend has said. It must ensure that it stands up for mixed developments that provide a range of buildings, tenures and, crucially, community facilities. Planning policy statement 3 should help to achieve that. To illustrate my point, I will quote from the letter that my Department sent to local planning authorities when PPS3 was released. The letter states:

—MPs are crucial stakeholders in this respect—

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That last point is crucial. I know that my hon. Friend agrees that we do not wish to see the physical polarisation of the poor and the affluent. We do not wish to see gated communities on the canal in Warrington, away from ghettos elsewhere in the borough. Such an approach is not conducive to sustainable, prosperous and thriving communities. The local authority needs to aim to create vibrant, mixed-tenure communities by ensuring that the right housing of the highest quality is in the right place.

Our housing Green Paper announced various measures to help councils to carry out their strategic housing role and deliver such communities, such as a new housing and planning delivery grant totalling £510 million to direct extra resources to councils; new approaches to help councils provide more social housing; joint venture vehicles that councils can establish to work in partnership with the newly created Homes and Communities Agency to deliver affordable housing on council land; and encouragement for councils to bring long-term empty homes back into use, making better use of existing stock and partnerships with a wider range of housing providers.

Our recent efforts have focused particularly on attempts to encourage local authorities to make better use of their statutory planning powers to improve the supply of affordable housing through section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which I understand has played a particular role in Warrington in the recent past. Some 420 affordable units were completed in the six years up to 2005-06, and the local authority has reported to me that an additional 667 units have already been secured for future delivery. The council also expects to receive more than £5.6 million in section 106 commuted sums to be spent solely on future affordable housing projects, move-on accommodation and tackling long-term voids. However, I take on board precisely what my hon. Friend was saying on the matter and I will look closely at it.

Helen Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree—I am sure he does—that councils should not accept those payments when they are a way for a developer to wriggle out of their obligation to provide affordable housing, thus making it more difficult to provide mixed communities?

Mr. Wright: That is an important point. We need to ensure that the agreements that have been made under section 106 are followed through absolutely and complied with.

At this point, I should say that my hon. Friend has pushed this agenda in Warrington and made the council address the issues we are talking about. Warrington has also completed a strategic housing market assessment, which has identified a shortfall in smaller one and two-bedroomed houses, particularly in the social sector, a shortfall in larger family housing across all sectors, and the potential for intermediate housing. I commend my hon. Friend for taking that agenda forward in Warrington and highlighting to the council and others precisely what is needed.

Let me briefly mention the regional spatial strategy to give a more regional perspective. The RSS panel report refers to the delivery of an average of 380 dwellings per annum in the borough, and I understand that Warrington is pushing forward with a clear ambition to deliver substantially more, although I recognise that we
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are talking not only about housing numbers, but about ensuring that we have the right mix of tenure in the right place. I would be honoured if my hon. Friend invited me to Warrington to have a look around, to address the issues and to ensure that the principles of having housing developments in the right place with the right mix and the right community facilities are engaged on the ground. If Warrington is to realise its ambition to deliver half of the new growth as affordable housing, that would represent a step change in performance.

I hope that I have demonstrated that we are fully aware of the affordability problems in Warrington. The Government have provided the borough council with the strategic framework, the powers and the funding and partnership opportunities to make a real impact on this issue in the future. Furthermore, we are committed, through our agencies and Government offices, to working with the local authority, elected representatives and all partners to help Warrington deliver the right kind and mix of housing in the right place as quickly as possible. I hope that the local authority in Warrington, as well as other agencies, is as bold, clear minded, determined and ambitious as my hon. Friend is on behalf of the hard-working, decent families and people of Warrington.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Safe Water (Developing Countries)

2.30 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I look forward to an interesting debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this topic. I thank in particular the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who cannot be here this afternoon, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for co-signing my letter asking Mr. Speaker for the chance to debate access to safe water in developing countries.

For us, it is the simplest thing in the world: if we want a drink, we go to a tap or pick up a bottle. It takes only a fraction of a second, and we are all very used to it. Water is one of the handful of substances essential to life—not a convenience, a whim, a habit or a trend, but a necessity. Without water we die, so we need a regular, easily accessible supply of water. If water is not immediately accessible, we must go to find it. None of us in this room has to go far. This debate aims to draw attention to the fact that too many people worldwide do not have that ease and convenience of access, and that what we take for granted is far from being taken for granted all over the world.

World water day, 22 March, is being marked in this place by this debate and an early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who is in his place on the Liberal Democrat Benches. This debate and the early-day motion underline some uncomfortable facts. Half the developing world lacks basic sanitation. Nearly 2.5 billion people in the world, roughly two in five of all of us, do not have proper drains or toilets, and 1.1 billion, roughly one in six, do not have access to safe drinking water. Some 1.8 million people, 90 per cent. of whom are children under the age of five, mostly in developing countries, die every year from diseases related to diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. Water-related disease is the second biggest killer of children worldwide. The average person in the developing world uses 10 litres of water every day—the same amount that we use every time we flush the toilet.

The world’s recognition of those uncomfortable truths prompted one of the UN millennium development goals, which is to halve by 2015 the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. However, the UN millennium development goal progress report of 2007 stated that

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