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To help us achieve that vision, we need not only regulation but regulation that is targeted and focused, recognising, as we should, the balance between encouraging good landlords—to ensure that we raise the standards—and trying to get rid of rogue landlords. We must protect the interests of both good landlords and good tenants,
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while moving away from unprofessional landlords and bad tenants. That targeted balance is vital.

We had a commitment to bring appropriate levels of regulation to the private rented sector and we fulfilled that commitment in the Housing Act 2004, an Act that has been mentioned a number of times this morning. In introducing that legislation, we took a measured view of the costs, benefits and deliverability of statutory regulation of the private rented sector. We were very keen not to stunt the growth that had been seen in the sector over the last decade or so. However, we were equally keen to send out a signal that poor management and unsafe property conditions were absolutely unacceptable.

The changes are based on an assessment of how risks can best be identified and addressed. They empower local authorities to act to secure good standards on both a statutory and a voluntary basis. Targeted regulation can be used to underpin the development of sustainable partnerships between landlords and the local authority. I shall mention several measures in the 2004 Act that demonstrate our commitment to those principles.

Mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation has been a major theme of the debate. The Act defines HMOs as buildings of three storeys or more that are occupied by five or more people in two or more households. Real progress is being made by local authorities using their powers to tackle potentially the most problematic parts of the sector, but I recognise that there is much more to do, as has been said this morning. Local authorities cannot rest on their laurels. They have to get out and enforce against landlords who have not come forward to be licensed. We should not forget that the Act also puts in place legislation about the management of HMOs more generally which all local authorities can use if they find problems in particular properties.

We are now starting to get applications from some councils to establish discretionary licensing regimes to cover smaller HMOs and ordinary private rented property. We have made it clear that any schemes should be for small, discrete parts of an authority, be targeted at specific problems, and have agreed outcomes. For such schemes to be successful, they have to be a tool within a wider package of intervention and regeneration initiatives in the area.

So far, we have approved seven selective licensing schemes. Several more selective and additional licensing schemes are being developed by local authorities including my own—Hartlepool—and Oxford. I took on board what my right hon. Friend said in support of the application in his area. The knowledge that local authorities can and will take targeted steps to deal with problem areas will give people confidence when they make their decision about where to live.

Mr. Jackson: Does the Minister agree that the smaller schemes that he envisages, while they are good news and obviously appropriate for particular areas, will be ongoing and resource-intensive, and that without the requisite financial assistance being reflected in block grants to the local authority, their effectiveness will be lessened over time?

Mr. Wright: I understand the challenges that local authorities face. That is one reason why I think such schemes will be more effective if they are small and discrete, and considered as part of the wider strategic
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housing role. I take the point made by my right hon. Friend, but city-wide schemes could be problematic because local authorities could find them difficult to enforce. On that point, I give way to him.

Mr. Andrew Smith: The Minister says that a wider scheme could be problematic but implies that in some circumstances it might not be problematic. Can I press him on the case that I made in respect of Oxford and ask him for assurance that he will look constructively at the proposal, noting in particular the points that I made about the perverse consequences of delineating small areas? The unregulated HMOs could be pressed into adjacent areas. Will he consider that carefully when assessing the Oxford application?

Mr. Wright: Yes, I pledge to do that. My right hon. Friend makes a good point about displacement. Taking into account the experience in my constituency and others, I understand the strong argument that he makes about difficulties being pushed into adjacent areas.

Lembit Öpik: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wright: How can I not give way to the hon. Gentleman?

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful to the Minister. Actually, I feel quite intimate towards him as well. In response to all the interventions, he implies that the Government would sort of like to regulate the private sector and so on, which is great. He said that they would like to regulate on the basis of considerations of costs, benefits and deliverability. Further to what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, surely it is obvious that the Government are loth to regulate the private sector to the same standard as the public sector, primarily because they are frightened that, if they take away or harm the profit motive, there will not be enough private sector accommodation to help alleviate the housing crisis. It is a simple matter for the Government to admit that. If the Minister will not admit it, can he tell us what the motive is for the differential between the private and state sectors?

Mr. Wright: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s line of questioning, to be honest. I thought that I had made it clear that I would like bad landlords moved away from the sector altogether. That might reduce the amount of stock, but I would be more than happy to see it. I know that it would cause housing supply pressures, but bad landlords are not good for the sector or for housing policy, full stop.

I would like targeted regulation that builds on the good work in the 2004 Act, to ensure that we incentivise good landlords and penalise bad ones, and to ensure that the private rented sector is a good housing choice for some people, even if it is not appropriate for others. I want to encourage the private sector. It is a good offer in the 21st century, and we would like more of it, but not at the expense of good, professional standards. I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question.

The third element, which was touched on by the hon. Gentleman, is the protection of tenants’ deposits. That is a good example of regulation, and I sense from the debate that it has the general approval of the House. We introduced schemes to safeguard tenancy deposits just over a year ago. They target another potential abuse of
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tenants. Since the launch, more than 1 million deposits have been protected, and almost £1 billion of cash has been safeguarded.

The hon. Gentleman said that it seems the scheme is not working very well. I take issue with that: I think that the figures speak for themselves, and that the scheme has been a big success.

A major part of today’s debate has been about the so-called “studentification” problem and issues relating to HMOs. I believe we can all agree that students can make a substantial contribution to sustaining and regenerating communities. However, I appreciate, as I imagine all hon. Members do, that high concentrations of students living together in certain parts of university towns can lead to problems such as antisocial behaviour, the possible closure of under-used community facilities such as schools and churches—I saw that vividly during my recent visit to Loughborough—and reduced opportunities for first-time buyers to enter home ownership.

I stress that my Department and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills are working closely together on the matter. I had a meeting last week with the Under-Secretary with responsibility for it. We have a cross-governmental approach to ensuring that this Government’s policy of university expansion and the expansion of student numbers, which is right, goes hand in hand with considerations about housing policy.

I was taken by some of the points made by my right hon. Friend and by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) about HMOs and possible changes to planning designations. I am considering at present how the problems associated with high concentrations of HMOs, particularly in areas of student housing, can be addressed. I am focusing on possible changes to planning legislation as well as exploring existing measures. I propose to consult later this year on proposals to amend the use class orders in respect of HMOs, which I think will be a welcome step. It will allow us to have a full and frank debate on the matter.

Several hon. Members mentioned the independent review of the private rented sector. Again, I detected cross-party consensus and approval. The review has a wide remit to consider how the sector meets current needs and expectations, and whether and how the experiences of landlords and tenants might be improved. In the context of future demand and supply pressures in the private rented sector, the review will investigate what needs to be done to ensure that private renting offers people the right type of homes of good quality, both now and in the future, and what more should or could be done to raise professionalism among private landlords—a point that I addressed to the hon. Gentleman.

The review will also consider the important matter of security of tenure when exploring whether more needs to be done to improve the experiences of private sector landlords and tenants in respect of their rights and responsibilities. I get from my constituency surgeries, as I imagine other hon. Members do, the idea that people would like some sort of security of tenure. I think that that means increasing the supply of social rented homes, because people like the idea of security of tenure but it might not be on offer in the private rented sector. Providing a wide spectrum of choice is important.

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I very much look forward to receiving the findings of the report in October. I want a strong private rented sector that encourages and assists the majority of well-intentioned landlords to stay in the sector but shows less professional landlords the door. That means striking a balance between the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants, and between regulation and voluntary initiatives. Whether we have struck that balance or need to do more is something that I imagine will come back in our weekly sojourns to this place—

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Post Offices (Somerset)

11 am

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Good morning, Mr. Benton. I am delighted to have secured this debate on the important issue of the future of the Post Office network in Somerset. I shall start by considering some of the recent trends in Somerset and will focus later on the post office at Hinton St. George in my constituency, which continues to be under threat of closure at the present.

I welcome the Minister to his position. I imagine that this is a familiar experience for him. This is not the first debate on this topic to which he will have responded and I suspect that it will not be the last. In spite of that, I hope that he is still in listening mode, not in auto mode. I promise that what I have to say, particularly about Hinton St. George, will raise particular issues and local factors that he may not have heard about before.

I welcome other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Browne) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), my colleague who speaks on these matters from the Front Bench, who has spoken in many such debates previously.

We are all aware that there has been an enormous decline in the Post Office network in Somerset and across England for some time. That has been associated with improvements in transport services, particularly the use of private transport, which means that people are more willing to travel great distances than they used to be, and more willing to travel outside their own local areas. Strong competitive pressures from supermarkets and other retailers have also borne down on the Post Office network for a number of decades. The recent history is that we started in 1970 with just under 25,000 post offices nationwide and, in the decade up until 1979, we lost some 2,000 of those post offices from the network. The pace of decline continued at a similar rate between 1979 and 1997, when some 3,500 post offices—around 15 per cent. of our network—were closed throughout the country.

The losses that we have experienced on the ground in Somerset, as well as in other parts of the country, have had a real effect, particularly in the rural communities of which they used to be an important part. I recall that when I was first selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Yeovil constituency a number of years ago, I went out with my predecessor, now Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, who was then Member of Parliament for that area, to participate in his annual villages advice centre and we stopped often in the centre of communities, either at the post office or the village hall, to be there for anybody who wanted to see him. It was notable that, in a few communities, we stopped at places where there was no obvious reason to park. When I explored with the then MP the reasons for our being located in those particular places, it almost always turned out that they were previously the home of the local post office, which had been closed two, five or 10 years beforehand and which had been such an important part of those communities. Those post offices that had already gone by the time I became a prospective
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parliamentary candidate include the one in the beautiful village of Corton Denham on the border with Dorset, which I hope will soon be a part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, and those at West Chinnock, Lopen and Broadway, all of which closed more than 10 years ago.

Since the period around 1997, the pace of decline has accelerated markedly in Somerset and across the country. We started in 1997 with a network of just over 19,000 post offices and we are now down to some 14,000. The pace of decline is so rapid that it is possible that the figures that I am using, which are about a year old, are already out of date. So 5,000 post offices have gone in just 10 years, which is a loss of around a quarter of the entire Post Office network that matches the loss in the previous 25 years.

I do not want this to be an unduly partisan debate—I shall not focus just on the framework of Government policy—but this recent acceleration in the pace of closures seems to be not just a consequence of the competitive factors that were impacting on the size of the network in the previous decades, but a calculated act of rural, and to some extent urban, vandalism by a Government who have not only presided over the continuation of those competitive pressures that previously affected the network but have sought to divert business away from post offices—particularly the pensions and benefits business—and have actively discouraged many of the people who used to use the Post Office network to access those pensions and benefits, for example, through the Post Office card account, from doing so. I do not want to rehearse debates on this issue from a couple of years ago. However, it was notable that, at the time when the Post Office card account came in, the Government seemed to make it as difficult as possible for people to transfer over to that means of payment.

In my constituency, since 2001, there has been a further spate of post office closures, including at Odcombe, Chilthorne Domer, Tintinhull, Misterton and three urban post offices have been closed—one in Chard and two in Yeovil—as part of the urban reinvention programme, as I believe it was called. That was all before the most recent network reinvention, which a recent letter to me described, with no apparent sense of irony, as

The latest reinvention is meant to lead to the closure of another 2,500 post offices over a short period. That is now having an impact across the country. It is certainly affecting the shape of the network in Somerset, including in my constituency. Frustratingly and depressingly, it seems that that network reinvention, as it is called, is targeted not just at post offices that are the most marginal in terms of profitability, which one would have thought found it most difficult to survive in the current environment of Government policy and competitive pressures. In my area—I do not know whether it is the same in other parts of the country or of Somerset—Post Office Ltd, and perhaps even the Government, seem particularly to be targeting many medium-sized post offices, comprising what ought to be a sustainable part of the network. Such post offices are now being closed and receiving compensation as part of that closure programme. The Government, or Post Office Ltd, are deliberately leaving out of that closure programme the most marginal post offices, presumably on the assumption that those will go to the wall of their own accord.

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A recent consultation in Somerset about post office closures, which was a consultation only in name, led to the closure of all the post offices in my constituency that were earmarked for closure, including the ones at Barwick, East Coker, Mudford, Haselbury Plucknett and at Goldcroft in Yeovil. Of those post offices, at least the first four are the last shop and post office in their villages. All are in villages of considerable size, and all are fairly well-used retail units. The Goldcroft post office in Yeovil had a large amount of customer business. All those post offices are in the process of being closed, more or less as we speak, this week and next week.

The closure programme is proceeding, and the Government and Post Office Ltd have identified post offices for compensation, so we are beginning to see a further round of potential closures by sub-postmasters who might have expected to be included in the closure programme because they were in some of the most marginal post offices economically. I believe that this week the post office at Buckland St. Mary on the border of my constituency is closing, supposedly temporarily, but I wonder whether we shall find another sub-postmaster for it. I hope so, but we cannot be sure. The sub-postmasters at East Chinnock on the outskirts of Yeovil have given notice of their plans to quit.

We are in serious danger of losing at least 12, and probably 14, post offices in my constituency in just seven years. We will soon end up with a national network of 10,000 or 11,000 post offices, a fall of about 8,000 since 1997, or 40 per cent. It will be around half the size of the network that we had three decades ago. My constituency will have around 19 post offices and when they are examined in detail and mapped across to other post offices that are closing of their own accord or through the closure programme, I am not confident that, based on the other post offices that we are losing, eight or nine of them would be able to survive the next five or six years if the same criteria were applied to them as are applied elsewhere.

Since 2001, there has already been a decline of 40 per cent. in the number of post offices in my constituency. If we continue in the same way for the next few years, we will lose all but 25 per cent. of the post offices that we had just seven or eight years ago. In my part of the country, that is not merely a decimation of the post office network but the calculated destruction—almost the obliteration—of the post office network that used to play such an important part in the life of many communities. In many cases, it will lead to the closure of the last retail outlet, and presumably to more of the private transport that the Government are so determined through other Departments to dissuade us from using due to its environmental impact. It is fair to say that other Governments have presided over a marked and gentle decline in the network, but this Government are responsible for deliberately causing the demise of the network.

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