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Wheelchair Access for Care Home Residents

9.50 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I rise with great sadness to trouble the House with a simple problem that should have been dealt with many years ago. However, social services and the borough council in Essex have refused to respond to elderly residents, so this wonderful community of people is at risk. They do not ask for much; they just want common sense and decency. I congratulate and thank each of the petitioners personally and I am doing all that I can to support them.

The petition states:


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Housing (Stoke-on-Trent)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mark Tami.)

9.52 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for awarding me this debate on housing investment in Stoke-on-Trent. I am also pleased to see the Minister in his place at this late hour and look forward very much to hearing his reply to my remarks.

Key to this debate is ensuring that the Government understand the importance of housing investment for the people and the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Its importance goes much further than just housing needs, great though they are. Housing investment is fundamental to the entire regeneration of the city and is also integral to wider Government efforts to stimulate growth in the west midlands. If we do not deliver in Stoke-on-Trent, we do not deliver in the region as a whole. I know that my hon. Friend understands that argument, because of discussions that we have had previously.

I also know that my hon. Friend understands that unless we ensure that housing investment is dealt with in the wider regeneration context, the homes that we build will not be fit for purpose. Homes must be placed in vibrant and sustainable communities where there is access to jobs, transport and amenities—in short, in places where people can and do want to live. The people of Stoke-on-Trent are the best people in the whole country and they deserve the very best housing policies.

It was in that context that my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and I recently met the Homes and Communities Agency, which has a key strategic role to play. From the meetings that we have had with its chief executive, we believe that the new agency now has an opportunity to get the right action plan for Stoke-on-Trent. Indeed, I would like to share with the House the agency’s stated list of priorities. The agency will

I want us in Stoke-on-Trent to make that the core of housing investment policy. In doing so, it is vital that all the agencies involved, including Advantage West Midlands, work in partnership with us and with Stoke-on-Trent council to ensure that investment is co-ordinated, complementary and community led. Each agency has its own priorities, but the agencies must also recognise their mutual interests and the benefits of working together to pursue them.

That means that, first of all, we need Government action on the west midlands regional spatial strategy, which is a cause for concern and under review at present. The worst-case scenario for Stoke-on-Trent would be if a green light were to be given for building new houses on greenfield sites outside the heartland inner-city urban areas. I believe that that would undermine the careful and measured proposals from RENEW North Staffordshire that would ensure that investment went to the areas characterised by market failure.

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Similarly, it would also be detrimental if the regional development agencies to which I have just referred were to prioritise the big, transformational projects at the expense of the smaller-scale initiatives such as the one in Burslem. I therefore want the Minister to give a clear message to the Cabinet and to the Minister with responsibility for the region that we need Advantage West Midlands to work with us on the housing investment priorities in Stoke-on-Trent.

I want to touch briefly on the importance of environmental and educational investment, and on how that fits in with the housing agenda. I am pressing Stoke-on-Trent council to submit an ambitious expression of interest in the community energy saving programme under the remit of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. If that is successful, it will lead to improved insulation and energy-saving measures in hundreds of homes.

There is also a huge opportunity to get a Building Research Establishment centre of excellence located in Stoke-on-Trent, and I want that to be maximised. The centre would conduct much-needed research into improving the energy efficiency of existing homes, and would present a real opportunity to establish Stoke-on-Trent as a centre of excellence in the field. In turn, that would link in with the environmental, housing and jobs agendas, thus fulfilling the need to pursue the holistic approach to regeneration that I believe is crucial. I would appreciate any assurances that the Minister can give me tonight that the Government will work with the RDA and all other partners, including the European Commission, to make sure that the centre can go ahead.

I am also pressing for the Building Colleges For The Future programme to be taken forward on sites in both Shelton and Burslem, because we need apprenticeships that will produce construction workers with the skills and training to deliver new and improved housing. That would also foster the integration of the homes, work and skills that is so vital to the creation of vibrant communities. I really hope that the Minister, who perhaps has a greater say in these matters than anyone else, will be able to take forward that wider strategic framework for regeneration when he considers decisions over specific housing issues in Stoke-on-Trent.

I have only a short time available this evening, so I hope that the Minister will forgive me for not going into detail about the huge investment that has already been made under the decent homes standard and that has brought many council properties up to an acceptable level. I am very appreciative of the help that the Government have given through subsidising council rent increases this year, and I am also grateful for the £66.4 million that they have given for housing investment in Stoke-on-Trent for the period 2009-11. However, the fact is that that is just not enough: more is needed, and I hope that the Minister will be able to do even more for Stoke-on-Trent when he comes to make his decisions this week or next.

Why should the Minister do more for our area? At present, there are 9,105 people on the council house waiting list. Many are there as a result of tenure issues, but every case on the list tells a human story. We have just had the debate about the Finance Bill, and the Government have to tackle housing issues. More than 23 per cent. of private sector homes have a category 1
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hazard, and more than 60 per cent. of those are considered non-decent, so if ever there was a case for investment in housing in Stoke-on-Trent, this is it. There are something like 5,700 empty homes in the city, of which 3,500 have been empty for more than six months. I know that the Government have a strong record on dealing with empty homes, but we need to get that effort directed and channelled into what is being done on the ground in Stoke-on-Trent. My colleague, Councillor Dave Conway, has done a lot to highlight this issue, and I understand that discussions are taking place about some kind of pilot project that could help us to reduce the number of empty homes by 1,500. I hope that the Minister will be able to look favourably on that, and find a way of helping Stoke-on-Trent to go about doing that work. Perhaps I should add that, as an honorary vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, I believe that environmental health can always assist the work that needs to be done on the ground in Stoke-on-Trent to a much greater extent.

Of course we have high levels of deprivation and worklessness, and a lack of choice in housing. We have two and three-bedroomed houses, but there is a particular lack of four-bedroomed family houses and houses that are suitable for the elderly. There is also a great need for investment for people with a disability. I have recently had meetings with the Royal British Legion, which feels that there is insufficient support for what is being done on disability adaptations. These issues all need to be addressed.

There are three things that the Minister could do to help. The first would be to agree the private finance initiative round 5 bid for Stoke-on-Trent. Research has identified that 16 per cent. of the housing stock for older people is not sustainable, and that a further 32 per cent. of the stock requires significant investment in order to be considered sustainable in the medium to long term. There is a pressing need for 1,000 extra care units to meet the needs of an ageing community, and it is for that reason that there is a bid on the Minister’s desk for about £120 million to meet this need. This would provide 500 units of extra care housing, and I understand that three sites are being considered to provide a spread of services for older people, but the programme is dependent on the successful approval of the PFI bid. I ask the Minister to give that application the go-ahead.

Secondly, the PFI round 6 bid is equally important. I am sorry to give the House all these technicalities. This multi-million pound bid, submitted by Stoke-on-Trent council, has been drawn up to address the wider context of the regeneration of the city, which I touched on earlier. If approved, the bid will focus investment on six housing estates on the periphery of Stoke-on-Trent. These are Chell Heath, Fegg Hayes and Norton in my own constituency, and Abbey Hulton, Bentilee, and Blurton and Meir across the rest of the city and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends who are supporting this debate tonight. These estates are characterised by very high levels of deprivation, and they need much more investment in open space. They also have very limited social and retail facilities. I am frequently asked for help to get parks, football pitches and all kinds of social facilities established in them.

If the bid gets the approval of the Minister and the Homes and Communities Agency, it will enable us to tackle worklessness and to create community empowerment.
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It would also give us an opportunity to get enhanced design and quality on these estates on the edges of the city. Stoke-on-Trent is not a city with one centre. It is a bit like the Welsh valleys; it is a city with about six towns and many communities within it. The bid would place particular emphasis on more extra care and bungalow accommodation for the elderly. It is essential that, if the Minister does just one thing tonight, it is to give me an indication that when he comes to sign off these bids—I understand that there could be double the number of applications—he will approve that one bid for Stoke-on-Trent. [Interruption.] Members may well laugh, but it is important that we get this investment in Stoke-on-Trent.

Thirdly, we have the housing market renewal programme. It is a well established fact that in Stoke-on-Trent it was slow to get off the ground. Now that it has got off the ground, it has a huge task in front of it. It was therefore decided that a bid would be submitted to the Government for a 10 per cent. extra allowance for housing market renewal. That would be in the order of £7 million for the next two years. With all the problems we faced with credit and the recession just before the Budget, I understand why the Government chose not to go ahead and agree the additional bids submitted, but there remains an opportunity for some of them to be approved now.

I would like to put in a bid for Middleport, which is adjacent to Burslem, the mother town of the Potteries, in the wider context of regeneration. We have already had a huge amount to help us start the regeneration programme, but we urgently need to provide more new homes in Burslem town centre. We need to diversify new build by providing more family housing, and we greatly need more development and housing gap funding for semi-derelict sites. We would also like to be able to go ahead with more live/work homes, which have been absolutely transformational in Burslem, particularly in encouraging young people to set up small businesses and live and work in the same place.

I believe that all those issues are fundamental to getting housing investment right. I have not touched on the need for more council housing, because that goes without saying. I understand that there are opportunities for Stoke-on-Trent to bid for the new money and I hope that the Minister will encourage that.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise and flag up these concerns with the Minister. I hope that my debate is timely; that it has come about before he has made any final decisions; and that it will have had a chance to influence him. Above all else, I hope that he will accept my invitation to come to Stoke-on-Trent, to Burslem and to Middleport, and perhaps to celebrate with us what I hope will be agreement by the Government to this much-needed investment.

10.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) on securing this important and timely debate. She has been a tenacious champion of more and better housing not just in her own constituency, but in the wider areas of Stoke-on-Trent and the rest of the west midlands. I have had several meetings with her on these matters, and I am sure that she will recall one such notable meeting that coincided
6 May 2009 : Column 322
with a fire alarm and subsequent evacuation of the entire building. I do not think that she had anything to do with that; the case was never proven! She has, however, had quite an impact on the Department.

I have been to Stoke-on-Trent several times to examine for myself the issues of housing and regeneration in the area. I greatly enjoyed my time at Weston Heights in the Colville area, having been invited there by another tenacious champion for housing in Stoke, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello). Weston Heights is a landmark regeneration scheme in the city, demonstrating great partnership working, led by RENEW, North Staffordshire, which has produced something like £55 million worth of investment, providing 300 modern, good-quality houses for the people of Colville and beyond. This development very vividly shows what can be achieved in Stoke-on-Trent. I look forward similarly to visiting the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North very soon.

I have mentioned partnership working, and in a well-reasoned and passionate argument, my hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of such working between RENEW North Staffordshire, the Homes and Communities Agency, Advantage West Midlands and Stoke-on-Trent city council in producing co-ordinated and complementary outcomes at both regional and local level, which are also led by the community. She is absolutely right about that, as the relationship between the regional Homes and Communities Agency, the regional development agency and the local authority is the vital key to securing what she referred to as the triumvirate of housing, jobs and skills.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her recent appointment to the West Midlands Regional Committee. I urge her to use her powers of argument and her membership of that powerful Committee to ensure that the approach that she has advocated tonight is adopted by the various agencies.

My hon. Friend mentioned the west midlands regional spatial strategy. As she said, the RSS is under review. I understand that the examination-in-public stage began only a couple of days ago. In those circumstances, and given the quasi-judicial role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the process, I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for not commenting in detail on her points about the RSS.

One of the central elements in my hon. Friend’s speech was the importance of housing market renewal areas in rejuvenating communities, and the important role that RENEW North Staffordshire has played in realising her vision for her area. We have made allocations since 2004 totalling £167.5 million for RENEW to create a stronger, more stable housing market, and to provide a better future for communities hit by low demand for property and poor-quality housing. In the current financial year, 2009-10, that represents an allocation of £34.2 million, which, as my hon. Friend said, represents 90 per cent. of the indicative allocation announced in February 2008.

I am keen for RENEW, and indeed all housing market renewal areas, to use the significant local market intelligence that they have acquired over the past few years to help to address the challenging economic conditions that we face. It is important for the Government to provide significant investment to give communities real help
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now. It is also important for that investment to provide direct benefits for people living in housing market renewal areas, and for real and tangible outputs in terms of delivery to ease the current economic conditions now. We, along with the Homes and Communities Agency, want the pathfinders to lead the response to conditions in their areas. We look to them to use their intelligence, to shape local markets, to underpin current activity, and to lead the drive towards effective recovery.

It is in that context that, in 2009-10 and 2010-11, all pathfinders will receive the 90 per cent. level of funding as a base allocation. When pathfinders demonstrate an active response to market conditions, achieve expenditure and make impacts, we will offer further resources up to the original 100 per cent. budget. In RENEW’s case that would mean that an additional £3.8 million could be made available this year, which would help my hon. Friend’s area. I am keen to allow that to go ahead to provide real help for RENEW’s areas of investment.

Arrangements for accessing the additional funds are currently being worked out by the Homes and Communities Agency and by me, and the HCA will notify pathfinders of the outcome in due course. Meanwhile, I am due to meet chairs and chief executives of pathfinders in the next week, when I shall want to set out further our wish for clear and achievable criteria on the basis of which the additional money could be obtained by pathfinders.

I hope that that clear expression of my intention reassures my hon. Friend that money would be available if direct and tangible benefits were provided by RENEW. In the meantime, the £34.2 million already awarded for 2009-10 will enable RENEW to undertake the refurbishment of 700 homes, the acquisition of 220 homes, the demolition of 300 homes that have reached the end of their useful life, and the construction of 150 new homes.

Although RENEW North Staffordshire is an important vehicle for the achievement of regeneration and growth, it is not the only vehicle. The provision of new homes in Stoke-on-Trent, particularly affordable homes, is something that this Government hold dear. That is why, last year and this year, we have already contracted—through the national affordable housing programme, the national clearing house scheme and HomeBuy Direct—for more than £27 million in Stoke to deliver an additional 400 affordable homes for social rent and low-cost home ownership, with more in the pipeline.

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