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I shall anticipate anyone who wishes to point it out by saying that, since 1997, it has clearly been open to this Government to put additional resources not just into housing, but into council housing. We have done
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so. In partnership with housing associations, which were able to raise money from the private sector, we instituted a house building programme that built 25,300 homes for social rent last year; that was part of overall additions to the social rented stock of more than 29,300.

Sarah Teather: I am pleased to hear the Minister point out that the Conservatives began the policy of not allowing full receipts to be returned to councils after the right to buy. However, her own Government did not change that policy, and receipts from right to buy continue to go to the Treasury instead of being invested locally into new build.

Margaret Beckett: I will return to that point a little later in my speech; if the hon. Lady wishes, I will give way to her again then.

That brings me to the second flaw in the hon. Gentleman’s argument: that it is somehow all our fault that we do not have enough social or low-cost housing. It is the case that not all the substantial resources—and they were substantial—made available for investment in housing went into new build. Why not? It is only right to remind the House that when we came to power in 1997, we found it necessary—I use the phrase beloved of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—to mend the roof while the sun was shining. In fact, we found ourselves mending roofs not just in housing but in schools, hospitals, and laboratories; roofs that had literal—not virtual or metaphorical, but literal—holes in them; roofs in every part of the public sector and in every part of the country. What is more, when it came to social housing, we were not just mending roofs but replacing doors, windows, floors, kitchens and bathrooms. We were picking up the tab—billions of pounds-worth of tab—for 18 years of neglect, decay and dereliction, so that council tenants might have not just a roof over their heads but a decent home. It has long been a source of complete astonishment to me that anybody on the Conservative Front Bench has the unmitigated gall to accuse us of not mending the roof when the sun was shining. The Government we replaced left a £19 billion backlog of desperately needed maintenance and repair right across the social housing sector.

Moreover, this utter betrayal of stewardship—this gross dereliction of duty of which the hon. Gentleman seems to be so proud—was committed by a Tory Government who had had the greatest windfall of any in the history of this country. I refer, of course, to the windfall bounty of North sea oil and gas, which in the years up to 1997 produced the equivalent of at least £35 million per day, every single day of the week, for a solid 17 years. I will repeat that, because I know that there is nothing that the Conservatives hate to hear more: the equivalent, in official figures, of £35 million a year, every day of the week, for 17 solid years. No Government in this country’s history have ever had a greater opportunity to invest in its future—whether it be in housing, in education or in infrastructure—and none have more disgracefully neglected their responsibilities. The Norwegians, who found themselves in a not dissimilar position, still benefit from a sovereign wealth fund. What we inherited were holes in the roads, holes in the roofs, and decay and dereliction in the very fabric of our country.

When we embarked on this huge programme of repair, we encountered yet another consequence of Conservative neglect—the effects of their recessions on the construction
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industry. Not only was there a dramatic drop in numbers—there was also a catastrophic deterioration in skills, with the departure of trained and skilled staff whom we could ill afford to lose. To this day, we can hear people in construction refer to the “lost generation” of building workers, who left the industry then and never returned. In the first quarter of 1990, there were 2.31 million people working in construction. By the last quarter of 1993, that had declined to 1.79 million, and it remained at similar levels throughout the 1990s. It was not until 2006—

Grant Shapps: What about now?

Margaret Beckett: It is no good the hon. Gentleman wittering on about that. He is the one who said that he wanted to dwell on the record of the previous Conservative Government, and I am going to talk about it.

It was not until 2006 that the number climbed back to over 2 million; and it may be no coincidence that that was when the numbers of new homes built began to return to the levels we need.

All this is, in part, why we have brought forward £550 million of investment from our forward programme to be spent over the next two years: not only to make sure that much needed affordable housing actually gets built but to support the construction industry while demand from the private sector is weak. Through real help now, we can keep people in work and businesses afloat, maintaining capacity in the industry so that it is ready and able to accelerate building again when the upturn comes.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Before the Minister gets overly confident with her remarks about skills and keeping the construction industry afloat, I draw her attention to the DCLG’s conclusion, which says:

to deliver. Indeed, the Government have had that pointed out to them for several years. There is a skills shortage in the planning system and they are repeatedly refusing to address that problem.

Margaret Beckett: We are taking steps to reform the planning system; we published a review only a few weeks ago. One of the major changes that has been made is the recent passage of the Planning Act 2008. I do not wish to mislead the House, but I think that I am right in saying that the Conservative party did not support large parts of the improvements that we made, including the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. I entirely accept that there are defects in the planning system, but we are beginning to address them. I certainly accept that there is a skills shortage; we are addressing that and encouraging local authorities to do so.

Simon Hughes: The Minister knows that I welcome her commitment to improving greatly the Labour party’s record in delivering affordable homes, and she is right to say that the construction industry has suffered terribly. Has she been able to make any progress in her discussions with the housing association sector to see whether it can spend the money that it wants to spend to do the work that it wants to do to bring people into jobs to build or finish the homes for which planning is agreed but which are not yet completed?

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Margaret Beckett: Through the Homes and Communities Agency, we are talking to housing associations, among others—people right across the board—about places where there are, as the hon. Gentleman says, projects in various stages of progress and what can be done to remove any obstacles to bring them to fruition. We recognise that if we are able to free up those sites, that in itself would be a contribution to keeping the industry at a higher level of operation than it otherwise would be and to bringing those homes into being.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): The right hon. Lady implied that the Planning Act 2008, which introduces the community infrastructure levy, would help to increase the number of houses being built. Is she saying that housing is now becoming subject to infrastructure statements and will therefore be the responsibility of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, because otherwise there is no reference in the Act to speeding up housing planning?

Margaret Beckett: No, I was not making that point, nor will the hon. Lady find, when she looks at the record, anything in my remarks that suggested that I was. I was merely drawing attention to the fact, a general point having been made about planning, that when it comes to improving our planning system the Conservative party has not always been supportive. I am not making any suggestion of the kind to which she refers.

The decent homes programme—a programme of repair and maintenance—is now coming close to completion. As progress has been made on making existing social rented properties fit to live in, so too the new build programme has increased and accelerated. We exceeded the spending review target of 75,000 new homes for social rent between 2005-06 and 2007-08; and in the present spending review period, the capital programme for new affordable housing increased by 50 per cent. to a record £8 billion-plus, £6.5 billion of which is for social housing.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am certain that the Minister would want to join me in congratulating Cheltenham Borough Homes in my constituency on its early completion of the decent homes programme, which has been genuinely appreciated by many of my least well-off constituents. Does she agree, however, that it is regrettable that energy efficiency and renewable energy did not play a bigger part in that programme, and that that now offers an opportunity for more Government investment that might help to counter the recession in house building and related trades?

Margaret Beckett: I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he casts his mind back, he will recognise that when the decent homes programme was first instituted, there was not the emphasis on energy efficiency that there is today. He will also find, if he looks at the recent homes survey, that there is a higher level of energy efficiency in social housing than in most other sectors of housing, but there is certainly more to do, and more will need to be done in this sector and right across the board. I do not want to enter an area of great controversy, but it is a source of astonishment to me that those who are concerned, quite rightly, about the impact of emissions and climate change say a great deal about the potential
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of another runway in various parts of the south-east, but currently about 30 per cent. of our carbon dioxide emissions come from domestic buildings. We hear very little about that.

Lynne Jones: I agree with my right hon. Friend that there has been substantial investment in the decent homes programme, but, great as that has been, it has still been inadequate, particularly for cities such as Birmingham, where the only prospect that the council has of meeting the decent homes standard is to embark on large-scale demolitions. We have lost about 1,300 houses a year for several years, and we have built only 850 new homes through section 106 expenditure and social housing grant. The council reckons that we need to build at least 4,000 new social homes a year. What prospect is there that we will reach that target soon?

Margaret Beckett: I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely, but I will come to the issue of new build in this sector in a moment or two, if I may.

Our aim was to deliver 70,000 affordable homes, of which 45,000 would be for social rent in each year from 2010-11. However, I recognise the possible impact of the present downturn on those plans. We have already taken steps to address that and to keep the overall programme on track. Not only have we brought forward investment, as I have described, but we have been exploring new ways of securing new homes for social rent and affordable housing. For example, we have earmarked £200 million to spend on good quality, unsold homes from private developers. To date, about £160 million of that pot has been allocated, buying up almost 5,000 homes, including 3,400 for social rent.

More recently, we have supported local authorities who are interested in building new housing by utilising land that would not be developed by housing associations. We are currently consulting on a series of measures that would make it easier for local authorities to build new homes. Those include changing the revenue and capital rules that currently redistribute rent and capital receipts from new council housing. We are proposing that councils will be able to keep the full revenue and capital returns from new homes, which is itself a stronger incentive to build. Councils will also be able to bid for social housing grant from the Homes and Communities Agency for funds to subsidise building, and if there are other obstacles that prevent cost-effective schemes from getting off the ground, we will look at how to overcome them.

Bob Russell: Will the right hon. Lady discuss with other Departments the fact that the Government have control over empty houses, particularly the Ministry of Defence? In my constituency, more than 200 family houses are standing empty—admittedly privatised by the previous Tory Government and sold to Annington Homes—and £3,500 is paid per dwelling, per year, out of the public purse for them to stand empty. Surely the Government should be banging heads together and ensuring that those houses can provide accommodation for people living in bed and breakfasts and inadequate housing.

Margaret Beckett: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue many times, but if he writes to me about it, I will be happy to look into it again. I wonder whether it is something to do with where those properties are, but I take his point about the impact.

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Sarah Teather: The Minister has come to the point that I raised earlier. Why is she consulting only on giving receipts for rental income and the right to buy for new homes, and not tackling the rental income for existing stock? It would make a huge difference to councils’ ability to plan what they can borrow if they knew what money was coming in to pay back that loan.

Margaret Beckett: As I hope the hon. Lady is aware, we are taking a fundamental look at how the housing revenue account operates. I expect to receive a report on that subject a little later this year. In the meantime, we were anxious to remove the active disincentives to new build.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Birmingham is relatively unusual in that it has retained council housing and 22 council houses were built last year. However, the council would like to build a lot more. What the Minister is saying implies that council housing is a second-best option to registered social landlords. Perhaps it should be seen as a positive option, particularly in the light of the credit crunch.

Margaret Beckett: I do not recall saying anything that would lead anyone to that conclusion, but if anyone did draw such a conclusion, let me immediately refute it. When I referred to the investment made through housing associations, I was pointing out that public money made available through a joint project with those associations, matched by money from the private sector, goes a lot further. That was undoubtedly the reason for the emphasis on extra build in the first place. I certainly do not dispute that. It is why we have created an opportunity for local authorities to bid for social housing grant.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): This is a key point, which the Prime Minister touched on in his recent speech. Until such time as the rules are changed and local authority borrowing does not score against public expenditure totals, local authorities will never be cost-effective when compared with housing associations. Are there any plans to change those rules?

Margaret Beckett: As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will recall from his own years in power, that matter is under continual discussion. However, the position on housing associations is also changing, and I do not think that anyone can be confident about the balance that will emerge in the longer term. It has unquestionably been more cost-effective for some time in the past, and it has been the model for building in partnership with housing associations that have mostly raised revenues from the sale of their own properties, but have also been able to attract investment and bank lending. It is not quite clear the extent to which that will be the case in the future, which changes the balance on these matters.

Mr. Betts: Does my right hon. Friend accept that local authorities must not only build homes but develop a housing strategy that encompasses all initiatives so that they can make the best of them for their constituents? Would she be as surprised as I was to learn that Liberal-controlled Sheffield city council has bid for only £60,000—to buy two empty flats—out of the £200 million that the Government have made available, compared with the £2 million that Labour-controlled Barnsley council has obtained?

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Margaret Beckett: Yes, I am extremely surprised to learn that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and other Sheffield politicians will do everything that they can to encourage a more robust approach.

I would like to touch briefly on some of the other issues raised by the Opposition motion. While we were repairing existing homes, and building more, strides were also taken to try to tackle the number of formerly homeless people living in temporary accommodation, and to reduce the number of rough sleepers. The numbers living in temporary accommodation were themselves, in part, a reflection of the inherited neglect of housing from those Conservative years. It is no use the hon. Gentleman pretending that levels of homelessness and rough sleeping were not a well-known social scandal during his party’s years in office.

In fact, despite the hon. Gentleman’s denunciation of all targets as Soviet-style, it was this Government, not his, who made an attempt to set a target to halve by 2010 the numbers of households in temporary accommodation, in comparison with 2004. I realise that that had other effects, which are causing unforeseen difficulties in other areas, but I hope that no one will contest that we did need, and do need, to tackle the issue. This Government have already overseen dramatic falls of 74 per cent. in the number of rough sleepers and we have committed ourselves to ending rough sleeping by 2012. I note that the Opposition motion fails entirely to give any recognition to what has been achieved, but merely expresses the pious hope that there will be problems with the system of counting the number of rough sleepers in future.

Grant Shapps: Will the Minister give way?

Margaret Beckett: I will, but very briefly, because I must finish.

Grant Shapps: I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous in giving way. She has not commented on the problem of the rough sleeping figures changing simply because of the failure to collect the data, which I mentioned in my speech. Will she comment on that?

Margaret Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), deals with the issue of rough sleepers and has a good deal of specialist knowledge about it, and he will mention it in his winding-up speech. I know that he will cover the matters that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The Opposition’s motion ends by expressing concern about the implications of the Government’s housing policies for the future supply of housing, especially to the most vulnerable people. However, there are two notable omissions from its text. Extraordinarily, it fails even to mention the implications of the recent downturn, which are obviously grave, and it gives no indication of Conservative policy, which I therefore assume remains to do nothing to tackle the problem. That would certainly be consistent with the approach of the previous Conservative Government. I understand that they made resources available only by buying up stock, including some houses that had already been repossessed, to prevent it from dragging the market down.

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