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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
Housing and Regeneration Bill

Housing and Regeneration Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton, †Mr. Roger Gale
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Burt, Alistair (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
Moran, Margaret (Luton, South) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Raynsford, Mr. Nick (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
Shapps, Grant (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con)
Slaughter, Mr. Andy (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Wright, Mr. Iain (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Young, Sir George (North-West Hampshire) (Con)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 24 January 2008


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Housing and Regeneration Bill

New Clause 31

Statutory overcrowding: definition of overcrowding
‘For section 324 of the Housing Act 1985 there is substituted—
“324 Definition of overcrowding
(1) A dwelling is overcrowded for the purposes of this Part when the number of persons sleeping in the dwelling is such as to contravene—
(a) the standard specified in section 325 (‘the bedroom standard’), or
(b) the standard specified in section 326 (‘the space standard’).”.’.—[Lyn Brown.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question proposed [this day], That the clause be read a Second time.
1 pm
Question again proposed.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 32—Statutory overcrowding: bedroom standard
‘For section 325 of the Housing Act 1985 there is substituted—
“325 The bedroom standard
(1) The bedroom standard is contravened when the number of bedrooms available to the occupiers of a dwelling is less than the number of bedrooms allocated to them in aggregate in accordance with the formula set out below in subsection (4).
(2) No account shall be taken for the purposes of the bedroom standard of a room having a floor area of less than 50 square feet.
(3) A room is available as a bedroom if it is of a type normally used in the locality as a bedroom.
(4) For the purposes of the bedroom standard a separate bedroom shall be allocated to the following persons:—
(i) a person living together with another as husband and wife (whether that other person is of the same sex or the opposite sex);
(ii) a person aged 21 years or more;
(iii) two persons of the same sex aged 10 years to 20 years;
(iv) two persons (whether of the same sex or not) aged less than 10 years;
(v) two persons of the same sex where one person is aged between 10 years and 20 years and the other is aged less than 10 years;
(vi) any person aged 21 years in any case where he or she cannot be paired with another occupier of the dwelling so as to fall within (iii), (iv) or (v) above.”.’.
New clause 33—Statutory overcrowding: space standard
‘For section 326 of the Housing Act 1985 there is substituted—
“326 The space standard
(1) The space standard is contravened when the number of persons sleeping in a dwelling is in excess of the permitted number, having regard to the floor area of the rooms of the dwelling available as bedrooms.
(2) For this purpose—
(a) a child under the age of five shall be reckoned as half a unit and a person aged five or over shall be reckoned as one unit, and
(b) a room is available as a bedroom if it is of a type normally used in the locality as a bedroom.
(3) The permitted number of persons in relation to a dwelling is the aggregate for all such rooms in the dwelling of the numbers specified in column 2 of the Table set out below in relation to each room of the floor area specified in column 1.
No account shall be taken for the purposes of the space standard of a room having a floor area of less than 50 square feet.
Floor area of room
Number of persons
110 sq. ft. or more
90 sq. ft. or more but less than 110 sq. ft.
70 sq. ft. or more but less than 90 sq. ft.
50 sq. ft. or more but less than 70 sq. ft.
(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe the manner in which the floor area of a room is to be ascertained for the purposes of this section; and the regulations may provide for the exclusion from computation, or the bringing into computation at a reduced figure, of floor space in a part of the room which is of less than a specified height not exceeding eight feet.
(5) Regulations under subsection (4) shall be made by statutory instrument, which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(6) A certificate of the local housing authority stating the number and floor areas of the rooms in a dwelling, and that the floor areas have been ascertained in the prescribed manner, is prima facie evidence for the purposes of legal proceedings of the facts stated in it.”.’.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Welcome back, Mr. Gale, and good afternoon. You are certainly putting in the hours today. I hope that you are appropriately remunerated for it.
Let us move on. I was discussing larger homes, and there is an interesting and important point to be made about them. Before I was interrupted by the end of the morning sitting, I was about to say that the Housing Corporation is currently considering bids for its 2008-11 affordable housing programme. We expect that at least 25 per cent. of the programme will be for larger family homes, and in London, which is the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, it will higher, at 42 per cent.
We discussed having a higher number of larger homes, but it is also important that we make the best use of existing stock. In the shorter term, there is considerable scope for making better use of all the available stock in order to tackle overcrowding. We have supported pilot projects in London to demonstrate and test out different approaches, and have produced an action plan for expanding those projects to 38 pathfinder areas to test out the costs and impacts. The areas will be in all London boroughs, Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester.
We want to ensure that good practice and innovative approaches are supported and advanced. To date, we have invested more than £35 million in pilot schemes in London. They have started to develop successful and effective ways of tackling this problem in the capital, where, as my hon. Friend knows, the pressures are particularly acute. We have used lessons from the pilots to develop our action plan, which was published last month. It sets out several ways in which social housing providers, whether local authorities or registered social landlords, can manage their existing stock in innovative and proactive ways to address overcrowding.
We are investing a further £15 million over the next three years, starting with the 38 pathfinder areas. Each pathfinder has been allocated £100,000 to develop a strategy based on good practice and innovation for tackling overcrowding. The pathfinders will operate from April this year and will be expected to use a standard similar to that proposed by my hon. Friend and others in new clause 32. We expect the pathfinders to adopt the bedroom standard as the minimum level of assessing overcrowding in their areas, and to build on the policies that have been most successful in the pilots to develop a strategy to tackle overcrowding.
That change will be in place and effective earlier than any legislative process would allow. I know that my hon. Friend is keen on the timetabling for legislation. I am happy to give way if she wishes to intervene, but before I do, I would point out that trying to change legislation is a fairly lengthy process. We are committed to doing so, and I have already mentioned the scope for putting the standard in secondary legislation, but the pilot areas will bring things forward much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): My hon. Friend has said that the current definition of overcrowding is archaic and inappropriate, that we do not need primary legislation and that we can use secondary legislation to get what we require by way of a bedroom standard on the books. I also heard him say that he will look at using pathfinders to roll out the standard. Pathfinders are often wonderful in the areas that they cover, but they are not so wonderful in the areas that they do not cover.
I ask the Minister, first, whether there will be a promise of secondary legislation to change the definition of overcrowding for the whole of the country, and secondly, what he believes the time scale for that will be.
Mr. Wright: On my hon. Friend’s first question, yes, I can commit to secondary legislation to change the overcrowding standard. I have committed to that, as has my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing.
Lyn Brown: My hon. Friend is, to a certain extent, right. We need evidence on which to base the cost and to plan, but we are at the stage where we know what the problem is and it needs to be solved, so I want to push him on a timetable. A best guess at a timetable would suit me, if that is all he can provide.
Mr. Wright: It is tempting to respond to my hon. Friend, especially when she seems to have a gun to my head. If she will forgive me, however, I want to examine the information from pathfinders, but I stress to her and reaffirm our commitment to change the overcrowding standard, which as I have said, is completely and utterly out of date. I want to do so as quickly as possible, bearing in mind the importance of ensuring that we have a good mapping exercise about where overcrowding and undercrowding occur, and a cost and impact analysis. I hate to disappoint her, but I am afraid that I shall have to. On the overall philosophical and policy argument about changing the provision, however, we are absolutely committed to doing so.
Lyn Brown: When will the pathfinder findings be in front of us? What is the earliest point at which we can assume to see some action by the Government? I love the Minister’s principles, I think that they are cool, but I really want some action.
Mr. Wright: It is a long, long time since I have been called cool. The pathfinders exercise will start in April, and on a future timetable, I certainly see something coming on board—as I say, I do not want to commit myself too much and box myself in—by around about 2009. I know that that will be difficult and problematic for my hon. Friend, but the pilot areas that we are introducing, and the measures to ensure that they adopt the modernised bedroom standard, are important. We are moving forward faster than the legislative process would allow, so I hope that she can take some reassurance from that point.
We have talked strongly about overcrowding, and all the estimates so far show that about 228,000 overcrowded households live in social housing, but the reverse is that we estimate there to be about 445,000 under-occupiers. Under-occupation is measured as two bedrooms or more above the bedroom standard. We are therefore encouraging local authorities to build on existing under-occupation schemes, first by knowing who their under-occupiers are, and then by developing bespoke support packages to help those tenants—especially the elderly—who seek a move to a smaller property.
We know from research that social tenants face psychological and practical barriers to moving—older people especially so. If tailored support can be provided, for example, by taking downsizing tenants to visit their proposed new area, by providing help with the move itself, and by dealing with the utility companies, people could be persuaded to move. This is not a question of coercion; it is a question of helping as much as possible with any barriers to moving from a property that might not be suitable for somebody’s current needs.
Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend, but does he understand that several such schemes have been in operation since the 1980s? Indeed, when I was the chair of housing in Lewisham, and subsequently leader, we undertook hand-holding and provided financial incentives to the elderly to move to smaller accommodation. Their preference was for two-bedroom accommodation, not one, which therefore caused a further shortage of family accommodation. The problem is not easily solved.
Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes an important point. She will see the same thing that I see in my surgeries, when somebody would like to move, but they say, “I do get the grandkids on a weekend, so I would like a second bedroom in order to accommodate them.” It facilitates family cohesion, which is an important point that we must address.
On my hon. Friend’s point about Lewisham, some evidence that we have seen suggests a successful approach in areas of London that have piloted the initiative, and I am keen to build on that. To support that approach, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has already announced our intention to consult on a new reasonable preference category that is used in housing allocation to ensure that all authorities give more priority to under-occupiers who may wish to move house. That will ensure that all local authorities give some priority to those who wish to downsize. That is a good customer service for tenants who might wish to move closer to families for support, as we have mentioned, or even to reduce their fuel or council tax bills.
It is also important that authorities and registered social landlords make the most of all lets that become available by adopting a managed, chain lettings approach. In that way, a three-bedroom property freed up by moving an under-occupier can accommodate an overcrowded family, while their two-bedroom property can accommodate a family in temporary accommodation, thus tackling both overcrowding and reducing temporary accommodation. That is an important approach in managing and securing the best use of existing stock.
A further London pilot has been successful in securing accommodation in the private sector for overcrowded households, with a guaranteed move back into the social sector after a specified period, which is an important point to stress. That is an innovative scheme that makes the best use of stock available while allowing a household to move back into the social housing sector eventually. From April, the introduction of the local housing allowance will give private renters on lower incomes greater choice and flexibility in accessing more suitably sized homes in the private sector.
Wider implementation of the schemes that I have mentioned, particularly those that have been piloted in London, will have an immediate affect on securing better accommodation for overcrowded households. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham is impatient to speak—she is a very impatient lady and I do not want to cross her too much.
However, I think that those innovative points will have an immediate effect and also provide the crucial evidence that we need on the cost and impact of updating the overcrowding standard by secondary legislation. Once we have that evidence, we will be able to devise a phased and manageable move to a new national standard with authorities well positioned to manage a new definition positively and proactively. I do not want to box myself in, but I hope that that will be in 2009.
I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that we are committed to ensuring that families living in overcrowded conditions have the right advice and support from their local housing providers to enable them to secure more suitably sized accommodation. I am not complacent and want the Committee to recognise that. I accept and fully agree with the sentiment of the amendments tabled by hon. Members, and particularly the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham.
I can confirm that the Government are committed to changing the statutory overcrowding standards, but resist the new clause at this time for a number of reasons. First, we have already had powers to amend the definition of overcrowding by regulation. Secondly, we have already given a clear commitment to modernising the standard. Thirdly, we have published an action plan that will go a long way towards tackling the problem on the ground. Finally, it would be untimely to introduce a new standard without the important evidence on the cost or impact of a change for local authorities.
This has been an important debate for a range of hon. Members across the country, but especially those in London. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, despite her impatience, has been reassured by what I have said and, on that basis, I hope that she will not press her new clause.
Lyn Brown: May I say how grateful I am to the Minister for coming such a long way and giving me the date of 2009, to which I promise I will hold him? With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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Prepared 28 January 2008