Previous Section Index Home Page

22 July 2008 : Column 213WH—continued

It is important that we take these issues on board, but it is also important that we ensure that developers, planners and the public alike understand the implications of lifetime homes. For example, it is important in areas
22 July 2008 : Column 214WH
such as London and other major cities, where space is at a premium, that we accept that lifetime homes may sometimes require a degree of flexibility in the application of density targets in relation to specific sites, to ensure that homes that have the requisite size can be provided, where appropriate.

Of course, it is also important in how we look at the detail of planning policy, so that, for example, we do not have the situation that has occurred in previous years where calculation of densities by units rather than by habitable rooms per hectare can tend towards the creation of flatted units, whereas we all know—I think that it is common ground between us—that particularly in affordable housing and to some degree the market sector there is a shortage of family housing, as has been referred to during the debate. It is a case of finding the means that enable those family homes to be delivered promptly and easily; that is terribly important.

I agree that that does require good work by local authorities. With respect to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, I do not think she was saying that it is an impossible hurdle when people are dealing with two-tier authorities; in fact, I know she was not saying that. It can be tougher. However, there are examples of good practice and many of us know that the Local Government Association is keen to encourage that good practice.

Mrs. Humble: I would not want my hon. Friend the Minister to go away with the idea that, although there are problems with two-tier authorities, those problems are insuperable. I shall give the hon. Gentleman one example that I know about of two-tier authorities working together. Lancashire county council told my borough of the needs of a particular family. When some new building was taking place, within that new build a home was constructed specifically for that family’s needs; in fact, they had more than one disabled child. So two-tier authorities can work in this area.

Robert Neill: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She reinforces the point that I think we are all agreed on, that encouragement of good practice is important. However, I would also make the point that the closer that housing strategy is developed to the community those houses are going to serve, the more likely we are to get that really accurate and detailed assessment of the housing needs of particular communities that can deliver those homes. A remote construction of housing strategy tends to militate against the objectives that I hope all of us are seeking to achieve.

Similarly, as the Minister will know, my party broadly welcomes the changes that have been made in relation to the disabled facilities grant. Those changes give more flexibility to local authorities. However, one thing that we want to ensure is that in practice the end of the 60:40 split in related matters enables local authorities genuinely to ensure that the same amount of money is available and that they can optimise that flexibility at a time when their budgets from other sources are, of course, very constrained. Nevertheless it is, of course, the right direction to be going in.

I also want to say that the point about registers of accessible housing and assessment of need is a valid one that is flagged up in the report. It seems to me that those registers are an example of something that can be done,
22 July 2008 : Column 215WH
with the use of modern technology, without the need for huge bureaucracy. Those registers are not difficult for forward-thinking local authorities to achieve. I hope that we will be able to work with the local government community in achieving them.

It seems that the overall objective for all of us is to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility and sensitivity built into both the system and the use of budgets, so that we can deliver the funding that is available to where it is likely to be most effective, so that assessment targets the real needs of people and we incentivise the various agencies involved to pull together in the most constructive way possible.

That process includes the issue of adaptations. Again, the point is well made that there has been good work and there have been improvements—I know from my own locality that real efforts have been made to speed up the assessment of need—but there are still areas where more needs to be done. I hope that the Government will continue to monitor those improvements and to work with the local government community, including local councils, to identify the most efficient ways of making those improvements and bringing that good practice forward.

Of course, we have to take on board the holistic picture, if you like, in relation to the funding that is made available to disabled people. For example, I know that some people find that, when they have savings and they then apply for grants for capital facilities and so on, those savings militate against their getting some support. That seems rather harsh.

There is another interesting issue that I have come across. Somebody may move, for perfectly good reasons, from a house that has been specifically adapted for disabled living, but we must ensure that that house is still available for others who could benefit from those facilities. It is not something that needs to be complicated, but it reinforces the need for the various agencies to talk to each other.

This has been a very constructive debate, which has highlighted a very important issue and the work of valuable organisations in an area that is worthy of our attention, and I would express the hope, as other hon. Members have done, that although we are going into recess, the work that is being done in this area will continue and that we will have some concrete examples of how we can take things further forward when the House returns.

3.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this debate. In a crowded field, she is, frankly, a real champion on the Labour Benches of matters relating to housing. I have had the pleasure of debating with her in this Chamber not only housing for disabled children but wider social housing in Northampton, and the private rented sector. I have had the privilege of being a guest in her constituency and being shown around by her. She is
22 July 2008 : Column 216WH
a true, passionate advocate of housing needs, not only in her area but across the country.

Several hon. Members spoke about the need to increase the supply of housing, and they were right. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) in particular touched on it, and I agree with her. As hon. Members will know, increasing the supply of good quality, affordable housing for everyone, including households that have special needs, is a key priority for this Government. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to discuss briefly what we have done and our future aims specifically in respect of the needs of disabled children.

The hon. Lady mentioned the need for additional spend and for ensuring that we focus on affordable housing. Again, I agree with her. We are providing £8.4 billion across the regions over the next three years to invest in affordable housing, initially through the Housing Corporation and then, touch wood—I believe that the Housing and Regeneration Bill will be receiving Royal Assent any second now—through the new Homes and Communities Agency. That will be a 50 per cent. increase in funding compared with the previous three years.

The hon. Lady also mentioned affordable housing units. We are increasing the number of affordable houses to 70,000 by 2010-11, of which 45,000 will be new social rented homes. That is 50 per cent. more than last year. That is an important consideration in respect of increasing the supply of housing, particularly affordable housing.

Julia Goldsworthy: I am pleased to hear the Minister outline the degree to which the Government are making affordable housing a priority, but does he not agree that 45,000 additional social rented homes set against waiting lists totalling 1.6 million indicates the scale of the problem? The provision will meet a fraction of the underlying need.

Mr. Wright: I agree with the hon. Lady’s essential premise, which is that we have not been building enough homes. There is a huge imbalance between the demand for and supply of housing. We need a variety of providers to help meet the demand. The private sector and registered social landlords will play a role, and councils will play a role in direct delivery. We need all of them to step up to the plate to ensure a good supply of affordable housing across the board that addresses the specific needs of different segments of the population.

Mr. Andrew Smith: We all agree that there is a need to provide more housing, and more social housing, particularly for disabled children, but would the Minister agree that as well as public and private investment, in many areas, including my own in central Oxfordshire, we need more planning permission, some of which will almost certainly have to be for green belt land, in order to find sites suitable for the social housing that is desperately needed? Was it not curious that during the Henley by-election, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats competed with each other to oppose a site that could have provided such housing?

Mr. Wright: That brings me to what I want to say in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North. I am conscious, given that it was her debate and that she successfully outlined her arguments, that I
22 July 2008 : Column 217WH
moved straight to the points raised by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, who is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson.

My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) touched on three points. The first concerned the strategic housing assessment that local authorities are required to make. The second concerned adaptation and problems of accessibility, and the third concerned space and overcrowding. I shall address those points one by one.

We have rightly discussed strategic housing assessments and the role of local authorities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) intervened on me on this matter. It is included in the recommendations of the report “Disabled children and housing”, which states, as has been mentioned, that Government offices for the regions are to ensure that all English regions and localities consider the housing needs of families with disabled children as they develop their housing strategies.

The House will be aware that the housing Green Paper that we published last year calls on local authorities to play a stronger role in addressing the housing needs of all residents as part of their crucial place-shaping role. As part of that, they are expected to assess and plan for the current and future housing needs of all local people, including vulnerable people such as families with disabled children. We expect the Government offices, as part of their relationship management role, to work closely with local authorities to ensure that their strategies, including those on housing, address the needs of all local people.

Mrs. Humble rose—

Mr. Wright: I shall discuss the Homes and Communities Agency and then give way. The relationship between the new agency and local authorities will be valuable. Councils will be allowed to step up to the plate to provide skills and capacity and, in some respects—this is a direct response to my right hon. Friend—local authorities will be challenged if they are not providing enough in terms of the needs of their local community.

Ms Keeble: Would my hon. Friend accept that one of the issues around the assessments is that, at present, there is not proper recognition of the spatial requirements of families with children with disabilities, in particular learning and behavioural difficulties? If assessments are to be made, they must take on board the fact that such families have different and greater requirements, and that it is not enough to make the assessment on the basis of the current assumptions about the type of space and facilities that they require.

Mr. Wright: That is an important point, and I shall liaise with colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Health to consider what else we can do to provide guidance for local authorities that will help to address it.

I come back time and again to the point that local authorities are best placed to provide the place-shaping role in their local areas. They are usually best placed to understand what is necessary in their local area. I was struck by an intervention from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), in which he spoke about
22 July 2008 : Column 218WH
bungalows. I agree with him on that. Certainly on my own patch but on others as well, there will be a need to accommodate older people and other vulnerable people. We need to address that, and local authorities should do that with their strategic housing role.

Let me move on to adaptation and accessibility. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Bayley, for speaking about the Housing and Regeneration Bill again, but hon. Members will understand that I have lived with it for 12 months. I have let it go now, but I am going through cold turkey and need to talk about it a little.

One of the first amendments that we discussed—we considered Lords amendments last night—was to clause 2, which deals with the objects of the new Homes and Communities Agency. The agency is charged with improving and increasing the supply of housing in England, regenerating communities in England and having regard to sustainable development in pursuing its objectives. The amendment that came from the other place was that the agency should also have regard to the needs of elderly and disabled persons.

That is an important amendment. It very much chimes with what the Government want: homes that are easily accessible and adaptable, and that meet the lifetime needs of the population. That is very important, and I believe that accessibility will be a condition of grant from the agency when we and others bid to provide social housing.

Mr. Andrew Smith: Will the Minister also keep under review the content of building regulations in this area? They are obviously a means by which general guidance can be enforced to the benefit of disabled people.

Mr. Wright: I have ministerial responsibility for building regulations. They are an interest and a passion of mine, and I want to have a look at them. I shall certainly consider my right hon. Friend’s suggestion in the overall general cycle of reviewing them.

On the disabled facilities grant, I was pleased with what hon. Members from both sides of the House said about the changes that we have made. Hon. Members will be aware that the disabled facilities grant is a mandatory entitlement for eligible applicants to help fund adaptations, such as the provision of ramps, door widening, stair-lifts and level access showers. Funding for the disabled facilities grant programme has more than doubled from £57 million in 1997 to £146 million in 2008, and it will rise to £166 million by 2010, an increase of over 30 per cent. That is in recognition of the important role that the grant plays in maintaining disabled people’s independence.

We recognise how important this grant is for families with disabled children. In December 2005, we ended means-testing for this group, removing the disincentive to work for parents and ending the delay that is harmful to children’s life chances, improving the health of both parents and children. As hon. Members have mentioned, in May we announced a package of measures to modernise and improve the disabled facilities grant programme, including raising the limit on a single grant to £30,000, which had the immediate benefit of helping children with complex needs.

My hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood mentioned
22 July 2008 : Column 219WH
access to gardens, which is an important part of the disabled facilities grant. Previously, that was not an explicit grant condition, but now it is. That change will benefit children in particular by giving them a greater opportunity to play outdoors and helping raise their quality of life.

I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North. Families with disabled children can face greater costs in adapting their properties than are allowed for under the current maximum limit. The Regulatory Reform (Housing Assistance) (England and Wales) Order 2002 allows local authorities greater flexibility in providing discretionary assistance for repairs and adaptations. My hon. Friend mentioned that she wished to see the £30,000 cap removed to take into account lifestyle changes as the child gets older and has different needs. I understand where she is coming from, but there is no limit on the number of applications that can be made to the DFG, so if the needs of a child change, as is inevitable, further applications for assistance approved by the local authority will entitle them, again, to a further grant of up to £30,000. That addresses the points raised by my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Humble: I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed that people are able to re-apply. A family with a disabled child, in a case that I took up, went to their local authority to see if they could have a new adaptation because the child was growing, but they were told that they could not. It was only after I had intervened on their behalf that we clarified this point. Again, as hon. Members have mentioned, appropriate information and advice to parents is a key issue.

Mr. Wright: I am pleased that I was able to help to clarify matters. I agree with my hon. Friend that information is key with regard to this issue. We are proud of our record on the disabled facilities grant, but we are not complacent. I recognise that ongoing work is needed further to modernise the programme. Work is going on in the coming year to improve the delivery of the programme, with an overhaul of the means test and application form to help speed up the process. Other changes include the removal of the ring fence to increase flexibility in the provision of adaptations, while continuing to ensure that they are provided by retaining the mandatory nature of the grant.

My Department will continue to work with stakeholders and other Departments in helping to modernise the programme. I should be interested to hear further from stakeholders, including the Every Disabled Child Matters group, about how the programme could be made to work more effectively as part of this ongoing process. I am aware that the Every Disabled Child Matters group is meeting my noble Friend and ministerial colleague, Baroness Andrews, in a couple of weeks to discuss this matter. That is a welcome step. Our aspiration is to see all homes built to lifetime home standards by 2011.

Ms Keeble: Will my hon. Friend deal with overcrowding, which has been a thorny issue for a long time and is a desperate matter for the families concerned?

Next Section Index Home Page