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Social Housing

11. Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): What plans the Homes and Communities Agency has to increase the supply of social housing; and if she will make a statement. [277609]

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): We have announced a series of measures over the past 12 months designed to improve delivery of social rented housing in the current difficult market conditions, including a £1 billion housing package in the Budget, focused on maintaining activity and jobs, and further help for those who need it in the short term. We remain committed to the delivery of affordable housing for social rent and low-cost home ownership and we are assessing delivery and targets with the HCA as part of its corporate plan process.

Christine Russell: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In my constituency, there are 26 applicants for every social housing vacancy. The Homes and Communities Agency has made a good start in giving £12 million to the Chester and district housing trust to build 350 homes, but 3,500 homes are needed. What more can she and the agency do to put pressure on the banks and building societies to make borrowing affordable for housing associations?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Perhaps I can direct her to the evidence given yesterday to the Select Committee, which will be published. Questions were asked about housing associations’ capacity to raise funding. Although there is general
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recognition of their concerns about the loans that lenders are making available, it appears that the situation is easing to some degree. I share her anxieties and can assure her that we keep this matter under review.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): The Minister’s hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), recently gave an interview to that excellent newspaper the Leicester Mercury, in which he commented on social housing, in particular with regard to Pembury and the proposed eco-town. Is he aware that, with or without social housing, local feeling is entirely opposed to the proposal to build a huge town on a greenfield site? Frankly, I wish that the Government would stop backing that plan and that Ministers would stop interfering in Leicestershire’s affairs.

Margaret Beckett: Yes, I am aware of that, as I see people waving placards and shouting on regional television. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I hope that this summer we will have some news for his constituents and others about progress in this matter.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Minister do her best to ensure that the agency secures rapid delivery of affordable socially rented homes, to get people out of private rented accommodation where landlords are making a killing at the public expense through the housing benefits system? Will she also ensure that houses that are built or bought are appropriate, particularly for two very needy groups—large families and single people, who often do not get any social housing options whatsoever?

Margaret Beckett: I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that I know that the HCA shares the concerns that he has expressed, as do the Government. The agency met its targets last year, even in the present difficult economic circumstances, and will be using the funding put forward in the Budget to the best possible effect to build more housing, which is much needed, as fast as possible.

Decent Homes Programme

12. Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): How much expenditure her Department has incurred on its decent homes programme since 1997. [277610]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the overall capital sum provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government and its predecessor Departments for capital investment in council-owned housing stock was £25.8 billion.

Mr. Purchase: I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree with me and many others in this place and elsewhere who say that if the fourth option had been agreed to, the sum would have been spent more efficiently, effectively and quickly, and to the greater benefit of our tenants and certainly taxpayers, who, of course, ultimately own the housing stock?

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Mr. Wright: But I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with me that when we came to power in 1997, there was a backlog of about £19 billion in council house maintenance and repairs. We have had to do something about that. One of the true successes of this Government has been the massive investment in a whole generation of social housing. He is right to say that local authorities have a key role to play, and not only in providing the broad strategic assessment of what housing is needed in their area; they have a direct delivery role. In answers to previous questions, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has said that we are removing disincentives for local authorities, providing additional money in the Budget and elsewhere, and making sure that councils start building council houses again.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): The decent homes initiative has transformed social housing in my constituency, but my hon. Friend is aware that the losers among residents are leaseholders who have bought properties that are now subject to major works bills, in some cases of £60,000—works that, in many cases, the leaseholders are totally unable to pay for. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he is, once again, urgently reviewing whether special, targeted help can be given to leaseholders who have, through no fault of their own, ended up owing bills of tens of thousands of pounds?

Mr. Wright: I am very sympathetic with regard to the scenario that my hon. Friend sets out. She has played a wonderful role in hassling me to death, frankly, on the issue—and she was right to do so. It is important to ensure that we provide targeted help. There is a range of powers in place. The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 provided interest-free loans and deferred payments for leaseholders in the situation that she describes, but I am continuing to look at the issue, and I will keep her informed.

Topical Questions

T2. [277624] Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): My Department continues to work to devolve power to councils, communities and citizens; to build strong, cohesive communities; to build new homes where people want to live and bring up their families; and to prevent violent extremism.

Mrs. Ellman: I applaud my right hon. Friend’s strong stand against extremism. Does she share my concern about the fact that al-Muhajiroun has regrouped under different names, and about the fact that on 1 March this year, Islam for the UK held an event at a Harrow primary school that featured a live link with the banished Omar Bakri Muhammad? What assurances can she give me that public facilities will not be used to promote extremism in such a way in the future?

Hazel Blears: I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the activities of extremist groups. I am aware of a number of groups that have used council premises in places including Ealing and Tower Hamlets. Some of
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the councils concerned have very courageously taken steps to ensure that those groups are banned from their premises on the ground that their activities seek to divide communities. I can also confirm to my hon. Friend that my Department is in contact with those local authorities to support them in making the right decisions to bring our communities together, and not to divide them with the views of extremists.

T6. [277628] Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): May I raise with the Secretary of State an issue that I have raised before—the recognition of pigeon racing as a sport? Of course, the significance as far as her Department is concerned, is that if it is not a sport, pigeon-racing premises have to pay business rates. She may not be aware that the application of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association for pigeon racing to become a sport has been rejected by Sport England. Will she, on behalf of the pigeon fanciers of Croydon and Salford, join me in supporting an appeal, so that our pigeon fanciers can get the deal that they deserve?

Hazel Blears: As I remember, the last time the hon. Gentleman raised the issue he had a particular fanciable pigeon in mind; I have forgotten its name. I can say to him that I did personally take up the issue and found out why pigeon racing was not defined as a sport. Apparently it is because the owners do not take part in any physical activity. [Laughter.] If they ran behind the pigeons, it could be a sport. In terms of empowering the pigeon fanciers, perhaps I can suggest to him that they might like to draw up a petition, so that we can see whether we can take action on the issue.

T3. [277625] Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): What progress has Derbyshire county council made in meeting its local area agreement targets in the light of the credit crunch?

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): We undertook a first annual review through the Government office in January, and Derbyshire is making good progress in meeting the priorities that it set itself. The first full independent assessment will be carried out in Derbyshire, as elsewhere, in November. Derbyshire has set itself five important economic priorities, on which it is working and making progress. It has also led a response locally, which is very impressive, helping to make sure that businesses receive the business relief that they deserve; that welfare claimants receive the benefits that they need; that buy-in from the council comes from local firms; and that invoices are paid promptly. It is a council with a proud, successful record over the past four years, and I hope that it will be judged as such by the electorate on Thursday. It certainly deserves to be back as a Labour authority after Thursday.

T9. [277631] Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Campaign to Protect Rural England says that while it recognises

I agree. If I may return to the question that I asked earlier, how are we going to balance 240,000 new homes, 8,000 of which will be in Lichfield district, against the need to maintain the quality of life in rural areas? I do not think that that is a conundrum that can be solved.

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The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): I have great respect for the CPRE, but in this regard its views are profoundly misconceived. It is all very well to say that it is not going to be easy—I accept that completely—to maintain the balance with quality of life, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. However, if we ignore the number of households who need to be housed, and assume that because the CPRE thinks so, it is not desirable to build them homes, that will certainly damage people’s quality of life, especially among the many thousands of families who will be without homes.

T4. [277626] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): With the construction industry still severely depressed because of the recession, what is the Department doing to try to make sure that there is work for construction workers, especially in new house building, and with particular reference to the west midlands?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend will know, I hope, that we have initially purchased substantial numbers of unsold homes; in fact, we have mopped up a large amount of stock. He will also know that in the Budget proposals, provision was made to kick-start schemes that are frozen. Every scheme that is being considered will be assessed to see whether housing can be made a priority, and that will very much be part of the key judgment that is made. That is true in the west midlands and across the country.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I was interested to hear the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), to the question on planning powers and the interaction with houses in multiple occupation. An issue that I have raised several times with the ministerial team, as have my hon. Friends, is the classification of second homes and whether there is some way of looking at planning and change of use classes orders to deal with the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) raised that possibility in the report that he provided for the Government, in line with previous reports that the Government have received from, among others, Elinor Goodman. Is there anything that they have drawn on in those reports in order to look at the issue of second homes?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I am afraid that I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there are currently no plans to require that people receive planning permission to have a second home. We would find that difficult within the planning regime. Planning legislation and the planning framework are based on land use, and if someone lives in a house, the position is similar to that for someone living in a second home, as it were. Nevertheless, councils have considerable powers regarding council tax discounts to provide resources that can be put into the community to help combat the problems experienced in large areas of the country where there are second homes.

T5. [277627] Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows, I have about 10 park homes in my constituency. Some of them are well run and managed, but the vast majority
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are not. What can he do to ensure that local authorities are given far greater powers to enforce park home licences?

Mr. Iain Wright: I have spoken privately with my hon. Friend about that. I know that she plays a leading role in her area in bringing together various agencies to help enforcement. We have put in place a number of powers to help enforcement. The key factor is local authorities, the police and other agencies using those powers. Directly after oral questions today, I have a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing to discuss how local authorities and police can work effectively together. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) will be aware that on 12 May we published a consultation paper, “Improving the Management of Park Home Sites”, which proposes the introduction of an improved park home site licensing system. In particular, that will require site owners to be fit and proper people to hold a site licence. We believe that that will drive up management standards. The consultation closes on 4 August, and I encourage my hon. Friend and others to get involved in it.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): May I take the Ministers back to the subject of eco-towns, particularly that proposed for Leicestershire in Pembury, which is causing tremendous upset to the people of Leicestershire? There is no demand for it among the people of Leicestershire. Yes, there is a demand for social housing, but what about using brownfield sites? There is a real feeling that the fact that the Co-op is leading the charge for this eco-town may be a conflict of interest between Labour and the co-operative society.

Margaret Beckett: I was about to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in managing to raise the issue twice, having already worked it into one question to which it was wholly unrelated, although this time, of course, he can raise any topic he chooses. I say to him what I said to him a moment or two ago. We will, I trust, be able to come forward in the not-too-distant future with the results of our consultation and discussion on the set of proposals about eco-towns, and no doubt he and his constituents will have things to say then.

T7. [277629] Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently visited my constituency and the small town of Thornaby, which has been regenerated. Will she join me in complimenting the developers, Thornfield, and Stockton borough council for delivering an excellent scheme? Will she also acknowledge that it is not just a matter of the physical environment, as when such improvements are made, people’s confidence rises and their keenness to be much more involved in the governance of their town becomes much more evident?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friendis, as ever, a champion for her community. She will know that I have visited Thornaby probably half a dozen times over the past 10 or 12 years, and I have seen the dramatic transformation that there has been in that community, which has suffered from a range of deprivation. The shopping centre that has been developed is a marvellous, light, airy, attractive place that will bring people to businesses in that community.
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The hairdressers in my hon. Friend’s shopping centre did an excellent job, and I was delighted to be able to pay a visit there on my most recent visit.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): When local councils are under pressure to identify land for house building under Government targets, can they now adjust the targets downwards to allow for the fact that the actual building rates have fallen dramatically owing to the credit crunch and recession?

Margaret Beckett: Of course we are looking at housing delivery, but we are also very conscious of housing need, which has been mentioned a number of times during this Question Time and which is not going away.

T8. [277630] Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the great need for regeneration in Stourbridge, and of the series of public meetings that I have recently conducted with business and local people on that topic and on the recession. At our last meeting, people were greatly excited by the announcement of a fund for temporary use of empty shops. Can she elaborate on that, and tell me how we can access that funding in Stourbridge?

Hazel Blears: I have had the pleasure of visiting Stourbridge with my hon. Friend. She, too, is a champion for her area. We hope to ensure that the £3 million town centres fund is up and running very shortly, and to get the money out so that we can provide support, particularly for local authorities to cover the temporary costs of using those empty premises for something worth while, whether for arts activities or cultural activities, as a drop-in centre for the police service, or for a rehearsal space for young people in bands—a range of activities which, just as in Thornaby, can help to draw people to the town centre. If we get people in, shopping and spending their money, that will help the businesses enormously in my hon. Friend’s area. I will ensure that she gets the details as a matter of priority for her community.

T10. [277632] Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Have Ministers had the opportunity to study the recent report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux on the dodgy practices of the more unscrupulous letting agencies? I welcome the direction of travel in the Green Paper on the private rented sector, but will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), assure me that during the consultation he will look at whether the Government can take action to control excessive charging and poor service by some of those agencies that, frankly, rip off people who go into private sector tenancies?

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