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Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman will know, as I know, that the Government take the importance of green belt and greenfield sites extremely seriously. We have a policy that the majority of development should be on brownfield land—something like 60 per cent. of all new development—and, at 75 per cent. in the past couple of years, we have exceeded that target considerably. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating local authorities and developers on helping to ensure that development is brownfield first.

Social Housing

7. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): How many families are on social housing waiting lists. [214841]

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): On 1 April 2007 there were 1.67 million households on the waiting list for social housing in England.

Simon Hughes: I hope that the Minister realises that that is equivalent to 60 per cent. more people on waiting lists in England than in the past, that in London there has been a near doubling of people on the waiting lists since Labour came to power, from 181,000 to 333,000, and that in my borough over the same 10-year period the number of those on the list has gone up from 3,700 to 8,900. Will the Minister be far less complacent about Labour’s abysmal record of providing social housing and realise that, unless the Government do fantastically differently in the next two years, they will be regarded as absolute failures in looking after the people of this country, who expected more from a Labour Government?

Caroline Flint: I think that I could be accused of a lot of things, but complacency is not one of them. Clearly the pressure on our housing list is concerning, which is why we have doubled the amount of money that we can spend on affordable housing. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), however, we also have to look at the different types of housing that we provide to people. The waiting list is not an indicator of absolute need. Since— [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) listens, she will hear the answer.

Since 2003, households have been able to apply to any local authority’s waiting list, which has obviously contributed to some of the rise. On top of that, people are living longer so we often have to find housing for four generations of families compared with three generations years ago. Single-person households now make up 72 per cent. of new household projections. Unfortunately, part of that is because love does not last, people break up and there are more divorces. We are dealing with a very different set of demographics but we have shown that we are putting money behind the initiatives and, like the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I await with anticipation Mayor Johnson’s plans for affordable housing in London.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend must realise that the only way in which to bring the waiting list down is to build more houses. Now that we are entering a period when the house building sector is slowing down, many building companies will make very competitive tenders for public sector housing, so will we work with local authorities to ensure that we can build those houses and reduce the waiting lists?

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Caroline Flint: Yes, we will work with local authorities. Certainly, some of my discussions over the past month or so have been about the role that local authorities could play both in supporting people who may find themselves in difficulty regarding their mortgage payments and also in working with us to make sure that existing building projects go ahead and on how we can use our muscle in terms of our affordable housing programme not only so that homes are built but also so that we keep people at work in the building trade.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): But is not the recession in the housing market bound to be bad news for people who cannot afford a home at market prices? About 50 per cent. of all affordable homes in Britain are by-products of homes built at market prices, and if the Government do not think a little more long term about how those markets might be decoupled so that the social and affordable sector does not depend entirely on the health of the market sector, the misery and misfortune of people who would normally be able to afford a home will inevitably be multiplied in families who cannot afford their home.

Caroline Flint: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s genuine concern about the affordability of housing. That is why we have helped about 110,000 people on to the housing ladder through our various shared equity and shared ownership schemes. It is interesting to note that despite the current situation a third of transactions are being undertaken by first-time buyers, so there is already some movement in the market. However, just as in May, when I announced an expansion of £100 million in our Open Market HomeBuy package, which helps many people on to the affordable housing ladder, so I shall be making further announcements in the not-too-distant future about what more we can do to help people to have a home of their own. For the long term, I hope that the present crisis will help us to talk with lenders and house builders about different models for home ownership in the future.

Topical Questions

T1. [214825] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): If the Secretary of State will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): My Department will continue to focus on regeneration, housing and preventing violent extremism. I am delighted to announce today £500 million for the new deal for communities.

Kerry McCarthy: My right hon. Friend will be aware that at present local authorities accept people for priority rehousing on grounds of homelessness only when they have reached the wire—when they have had to fight legal proceedings right up to the eleventh hour and the bailiffs are knocking at the door. That causes great anxiety for families who already face the threat of eviction or repossession, so does my right hon. Friend’s Department have any plans to review the situation?

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I thank my hon. Friend for that question. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Bristol looking at the great work on homelessness that is being done with the local authority. My hon. Friend will be aware that current homelessness legislation provides a strong safety net for families with children and for vulnerable people. As soon as the local authority is satisfied that homelessness is likely within 28 days, it must take steps to ensure that the applicant and his or her household will continue to have somewhere to live. However, I understand her concerns and we are working with the Ministry of Justice, the Council of Mortgage Lenders and others to provide and develop mortgage rescue packages to prevent homelessness in the first place. Alongside the biggest-ever cash injection for homelessness services, I am sure that will help to minimise as much as possible the risk of repossession.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I wonder whether the Secretary of State has had time to look at the latest survey by the Local Government Association, which has branded 24-hour drinking a failure. The LGA survey warns that violence continues to blight the streets leaving taxpayers with a completely unacceptable £100 million bill. On top of that, local authorities have lost £43 million in licensing costs. Does the right hon. Lady believe that 24-hour drinking is a social experiment that has failed?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will be very well aware that the number of 24-hour licences in this country is tiny. There has been a relaxation of licensing provisions so that people can now drink at different times. If he talks to the police, he will find that in his area, as in mine, they are pleased that we now have staggered closing times, and that we do not see the scenes on the streets that we used to see when people all came out of premises at the same time. We now have a better system for managing our night-time economy, which means the local authority, the police, trading standards and environmental services all working together on the issue. That is the practical approach, rather than an approach in which figures are plucked out of the air.

Mr. Pickles: It is fortunate that the Local Government Association talked to local police and trading standards. The overwhelming majority of health authorities and councils reported pressure on resources. The right hon. Lady cannot kid herself any longer: our towns are nightly turned into vomitoriums, with brawling and bad behaviour. In March 2004, she said that the reforms would create a “continental café-bar culture”. How did her dream of a nation at ease with itself, gently sipping chardonnay, turn into something more like chucking-out time in Deadwood?

Hazel Blears: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that my dream is of people gently sipping chardonnay, perhaps he has not often been on a night out in Manchester, and perhaps he needs to go on one. I can tell him that a night out in Manchester is now a much more pleasant experience, because the police are active on the streets, the local authority has introduced a “best bar none” award in which bars are rewarded for managing their premises properly, and people can go out and thoroughly enjoy themselves in a safe environment. That is about
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making practical policies that work on the ground, with people working together. Local authorities’ trading standards departments have done an excellent job of cracking down on some of the off-licences and pubs that have been serving drink to under-age youngsters. We need to tackle those kinds of problems, while allowing the vast majority of people who go out, have a drink and enjoy themselves to do just that.

T2. [214826] Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the current local government pay dispute, and will know that two days of strike action are scheduled for July. Does she agree that we need a resolution to the dispute, and will she call for negotiations to be opened?

Hazel Blears: We are all very disappointed that we face the prospect of industrial action, as the services that local authorities provide clearly impact on people who can sometimes be very vulnerable. I hope that all parties can get together and find a resolution. Clearly, settlements must be affordable, and we must be conscious of the dangers of inflation in the economy. However, if we can resolve the issue without industrial action, that would clearly be in everyone’s interests.

T6. [214830] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): In addition to failing to cope with waiting lists, the Government have, in 10 years, presided over a 10 per cent. reduction in the amount of social housing in England. Council housing has gone, so that there are now only three families in council houses for every seven that there were 10 years ago. Given all that, do the Government feel no embarrassment or shame about having been so dreadful? Is there any chance of a real acceleration of programmes, so that people can have housing built in their communities, as it used to be, including under the Macmillan Tory Government?

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): The £6.5 billion that we are putting behind the affordable housing programme is an indication of what we are providing—and that is just for social homes for rent. We are also doing work to enable local authorities to use their land assets, through local housing companies, to build more homes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that in 1997 we inherited a situation in which £19 billion-worth of repairs had to be made to existing housing stock. We have enabled more than £20 billion to be spent on transforming the living conditions of many social tenants. Sometimes in government, one has to make choices about priorities. Having done that work, we are now in the middle of a programme that will offer many more thousands of homes, with up to 45,000 homes a year being built for social rent by 2010-11. That is a strong indication that we are able to make tough choices. At the forefront of our minds is the question of how we make sure that everybody, regardless of whether they are home owners, has a chance to have a decent roof over their head.

T3. [214827] Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): What steps has the Department taken to allow more local control over planning decisions about applications to build in the back gardens of houses?

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Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend will be aware that we have strengthened the guidance in that area, and we urge local authorities to use it. Again, however, to strengthen the arm of local authorities, it is very important that they undertake their strategic housing assessment so that they can demonstrate that they are not only up to speed on housing needs locally, but actively engaged in the question of where the housing should go. Alongside that, we are working with local authorities to identify the land banks that are available to them for the location of future housing. If that work is done, it could strengthen the arm of local authorities to deal with the applications that come in. In the absence of a strategic housing assessment or of that land bank work, some people win their applications, to the dismay of some local authorities.

T7. [214831] Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I ask when the Secretary of State intends to publish her findings on the south-west regional spatial strategy? When she does, will she take into account the terrible flooding, of which she is well aware, in Tewkesbury, where there are proposals to build thousands of extra houses, including thousands very close to the Walham sub-station that very nearly went under? If it had have gone under, the county probably would have been evacuated. Will she take all those points into account when she publishes her findings?

Hazel Blears: Yes, I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken a number of steps to ensure that our planning framework for dealing with flooding is strengthened. We have a new planning policy statement, which is now working, and the hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the borough council in his constituency has been allocated just over £1 million to help it with the cost of dealing with the flooding that took place in his constituency. Obviously, we have £31 million for flood restoration, too.

I am concerned that one year on, some people remain out of their homes. We are determined to do everything that we can about that, but we have managed to ensure that the vast majority of people are back in their homes and resuming their normal lives. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the spatial strategy, which will be published extremely soon, will take into account the issues that he has raised.

T4. [214828] Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend look at the urgent need in Warrington for more shared equity homes, and at the need for our local authority to be more effective when giving planning consent in order to ensure that any consent for affordable housing is delivered on, and that the houses are retained in the affordable sector?

Mr. Iain Wright: My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. Through the planning framework and measures such as planning policy statement 3 and others, the local authority is absolutely key to ensuring that it has the homes that it needs in its area, taking into account local circumstances. Shared equity and affordable housing schemes are absolutely key, too. I have been to Warrington and seen what is going on, and I suggest that, frankly, Warrington borough council needs to do more to ensure that those affordable housing and shared equity issues are addressed. I commend my hon. Friend and her constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), for their sterling work on the subject.

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T8. [214832] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Broadholme sewage treatment works in my constituency will reach its capacity by 2010, but according to the Government’s Northamptonshire core spatial strategy,

What are my constituents expected to do between 2010 and 2013—put a peg on their nose and cross their legs?

Hazel Blears: I would not dream of giving the hon. Gentleman’s constituents such advice. Clearly, in the growing areas of our communities, it is important to ensure that there is proper infrastructure, including transport, education provision and the vital service of sewage disposal and treatment. I was going to say that I would take it away and look at it, but perhaps I should ensure that it is properly dealt with. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue.

T5. [214829] Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): When the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), visited my constituency recently, he took a great interest in the future developments at Bruche, and he promised to monitor them. Will he take steps to ensure that affordable and social housing developments built there and in other places are of the best possible quality and that we do not return to some of the cheap and nasty stuff that was thrown up in the past?

Mr. Iain Wright: During my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency I was interested in that development, which is not only exciting for Warrington but very significant for the whole north-western strategy for affordable housing. My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point: the issue is not only about numbers but about design and good-quality planning, which are also important. The local authority has a key role to play in that. I really enjoyed my time in Warrington; I hope that I will be invited again, because I want to keep a close eye on the development.

T10. [214834] Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Up and down the country, local authority environmental health officers are visiting farm house bed and breakfasts and telling the proprietors that the family pet can no longer occupy its traditional place in the dog basket by the Aga. That is because the floor of the kitchen has been designated as a food preparation area. Was that decision made in the Department or by the local authorities? Does the Secretary of State agree that the situation is completely barking?

Hazel Blears: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is essential that high standards of food hygiene are maintained where there are customers, and I am sure that he wants to ensure that that happens. He will also agree that it is important that legislation should be proportionate to the issues that it is designed to address. Clearly, our food hygiene rules are important. I will gladly look at whether they should relate to where the dog can sit, but we must not underestimate the need for our communities to ensure proper, good and high
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standards of food hygiene for the premises that they use and the places where they stay.

T9. [214833] Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that Nottingham, North has the highest concentration of challenged schools; that was announced two weeks ago by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Will she say how other Departments can work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that sorting out educational attainment becomes everybody’s problem, rather than being seen as something that rests purely with education?

Hazel Blears: As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important issue, for which there must be an integrated approach across Government Departments and local public services. He is right that there is a very high number of challenged schools in his constituency, but Nottingham city schools also have one of the highest rates of improvement in the number of children getting five GCSEs. Yes, the base is low, but the city is doing extremely well in making progress. My hon. Friend has already met the Secretary of State for Children, Schools
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and Families. Mine is the corporate Department co-ordinating the local area agreement process, and I will ensure that there is a co-ordinated response. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: early intervention and supporting young people is the way forward to improve our communities now and in the long-term future.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): My local council is advising families who are given notice to quit by a private landlord to stay put until legal action is taken. Will the Minister do her best to outlaw that practice, which is unfair on landlords and tenants?

Caroline Flint: The hon. Lady will be aware that we are doing a review of the private rented sector at present, and I will be looking to that for ideas about how to tackle the—to put it mildly—less reputable landlords, and, more positively, for ideas about what contribution reputable landlords could make to our provision of housing in partnership with local authorities and others. I shall consider the point that the hon. Lady has raised and write to her about it.

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