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The Minister for Housing (John Healey): The Mayor of London and the London boroughs are required to assess demand for affordable housing in London. The Mayor's own figures show that about 18,200 new affordable homes are needed each year. I regret to say that his current plan proposes to build 5,000 fewer than that each year.
Ms Buck: As my right hon. Friend implies, demand for affordable homes to rent and buy hugely outstrips the level of provision in the Mayor's housing plan. Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that Boris Johnson has lifted the salary below which priority is given to people pitching for shared ownership schemes to roughly the equivalent of that of a Member of Parliament?
John Healey: I do. When almost two thirds of London households have a total income of less than £30,000 a year, and when we are ready, as we are, to help those people who otherwise could not get into the housing market for themselves, it seems strange to want to lift to that limit and spread the Government help more thinly. I see that as clearly the wrong priority for London and the wrong priority for Londoners.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Has the Minister had time to see the powerful report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which calls for an assessment to be made by the Government of the impact of immigration on affordable housing and other housing, given the great pressure on demand? Has the right hon. Gentleman made such an assessment?
John Healey: I recognise and pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman does on these issues, which I know he follows closely. The short answer to his question is no, I have not studied that report. I would be interested to know whether the Lords Committee studied the changes that I made recently to the policy under which councils allocate council and housing association homes, because that makes it clear that migrants are not entitled to be on waiting lists in general, and it has given local authorities more leeway to allocate homes according to local pressures.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend explain to me why, when the wealthy and powerful suggest things like raising rents to market levels for council and housing association tenants, or taking away their secure tenancies, it is not seen as class war? Does it not amount to a loathing of council and housing association tenants on the part of the Tory party?
John Healey: Such discussions and plans demonstrate a lack of commitment to affordable housing to meet the needs of people who, in many cases, otherwise would not be able to afford to bring up their family and live in the private rented sector and never would be able to afford or maybe do not aspire to move into the housing market for themselves. The truth is that public housing in this country plays a critical role in the lives of many millions of people, including 8 million current tenants, and any plans to raise rents or reduce the security that they have in their own home will be met with justified alarm.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): The Department does not publish forecasts for house building. We are committed to reducing the number of long-term empty homes. We have strengthened the powers of local authorities to deal with empty homes when owners have failed to act.
Simon Hughes: Would Ministers be sympathetic to the request from local councils-such as mine in Southwark, where 43 per cent. of homes are social housing and one third are council properties-to be able to restructure their debts, often on properties that no longer exist? In Southwark's case, the repayment figure comes to £43 million. If we are going to build more homes and refurbish homes, we need help so that we do not spend all our money paying off debts on homes that no longer exist.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend recognise that if we are to see housing numbers increase significantly, as we all wish, from the current difficult position, what is required above all is certainty and confidence in the future? That could be very seriously damaged by the ill thought out, uncosted and dangerous Opposition proposals for changes to the housing planning scheme.
Mr. Austin: My right hon. Friend, who is an expert on these issues and probably knows more about them-[Hon. Members: "Than you do."] He certainly knows more about them than I do, and I am not at all- [ Interruption. ] He knows a damn sight more than Opposition Members, who want to drag race and immigration into discussions about housing. Opposition Front Benchers would gain some credit if they were prepared to distance themselves from the attempts by their Back Benchers to drag immigration into discussions about housing numbers.
I can tell my right hon. Friend that we are building many more homes now than we would have been if we had taken the Opposition's advice and slashed spending this year and last, in the midst of a recession, because that would have strangled this recovery at birth.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): Does the Minister for Housing stand by his comments to the Fabian Society, when he said that it was time to give up on the dream of home ownership? Does that have anything to do with the fact that home ownership is falling under Labour, and that house building is at its lowest level since the second world war-with, incidentally, social affordable homes now being built in smaller numbers than under any previous Government? Does not this Government's appalling house building record mean that they have no choice but to abandon any lingering claim to be the party of aspiration?
Mr. Austin: I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my right hon. Friend's speech, because the hon. Gentleman has obviously not bothered to read it. In actual fact, there are almost 2 million more home owners now than there were in 1997, when the Government came to office. The Government have also overseen an increase in the supply of housing to almost 207,500 in 2007-08, which was the highest annual level of net housing supply in the past 30 years. As I said earlier, we are building many more homes now than we would have been if we had cut spending last year and this, in the midst of a recession, because that would have strangled the recovery at birth.
9. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the 199 proposals shortlisted and sent to it by the Local Government Association under the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. 
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): The Government are currently assessing the 199 proposals shortlisted by the Local Government Association in its role as selector under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. Many of the proposals are complex and raise significant practical issues, but I am anxious to make progress on those proposals that offer practical benefits and new ways of meeting local needs.
Dr. Starkey: Given that the latest statistics show that the recession is lifting, may I urge my right hon. Friend to prioritise those projects that propose local solutions to address the skills shortages in their locality? Local authorities know their own community best, and they are best able to deliver the solutions that are tailored to local need. That will help people to find jobs as the recession lifts.
Mr. Denham: That is a very practical suggestion from my hon. Friend, who, as Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, has taken a close interest in this Act. She is right; 199 proposals, each of which deserves proper consideration, represents a considerable work load for my Department. Her suggestion that we might look at the areas where we could move more quickly on issues of obvious priority and ability to deliver would be a sensible way for us to approach this big task.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD):
Having listened to what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him to commit to a deadline for setting out his initial response to those proposals before the Easter
recess, commit to a date for the next round of submissions, and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill?
Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady listened to what I said but failed to comprehend it. Let me be perfectly clear. The process involved asking the LGA to shortlist proposals, and in the end it shortlisted two thirds of all those put forward. Under the Act, each of those proposals deserves proper consideration by my Department. The hon. Lady needs to understand that the proper consideration of 199 separate policy proposals, many of which would require changes to primary legislation, is not the sort of thing that can be done by a Minister just running down a list and saying, "I fancy that one", or "I don't fancy that one." I suggest to the hon. Lady that rather than having an artificial deadline, we need, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), to look at the proposals on which we can make progress and practical advances as quickly as possible. However, we will of course assess all the proposals that have been put forward, because that is what we are bound to do under the Act.
Julia Goldsworthy: It sounds suspiciously as though the Secretary of State is trying to kick this issue into the long grass beyond the general election. What is so disappointing about this is that this legislation is a real opportunity to engage people on how public money is spent and public services are delivered in their area. If he misses this opportunity, he will be wasting a lot of public good will. Ultimately, the Total Place pilot shows that only 5 per cent. of total public spending at a local level is discretionary to local authorities. If the Secretary of State believes in the localist agenda, will he put our money where his mouth is?
Mr. Denham: I recognise the opportunities provided by the Act and the proposals that have been submitted, and that is why I want to make progress on those that we have prioritised. The hon. Lady has to be realistic. Policy is not made on a whim, or in five minutes by saying, "I fancy that proposal." The LGA shortlisted far more proposals than anybody could reasonably have expected, and we now need to do the work that is required to assess them properly. Nobody would be more disappointed than those who put these proposals forward if they felt that they had been rejected simply in order to get a list out by the end of March. I think that we owe those people the respect of treating their proposals seriously and discussing them with the LGA, as we are required to do by law, but that may mean that it is not possible to do it by the end of March.
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): One of the specific groups of amendments that has been tabled has come from areas most adversely affected by a prodigious growth in student houses in multiple occupation. In my own city of Nottingham, only 2,000 of a total of 7,000 houses in multiple occupation are covered by the current licensing regime, and many of those seeking to avoid it are in the process of converting sheds and garages into living accommodation, with or without removing the up-and-over garage door. Will the Secretary of State give specific consideration to extending the current licensing regime to cover all HMOs and require planning permission for new ones?
Mr. Denham: The short answer is that a number of the proposals received under the Sustainable Communities Act relate to policy discussions that the Government already have under way. On the particular issues to which my hon. Friend refers, I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will want to make a statement in the near future.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that the large number of schemes submitted under the Act demonstrates the degree of public appetite that there is for this. However, does he also accept that there remains disappointment that the original provision in the Act was watered down by the reduction in scope in relation to the spending reports? Will he therefore do what 116 of his own Back Benchers have already signalled in an early-day motion and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) when it comes up for debate on 26 February?
Mr. Denham: We are looking at the issues raised by that Bill, and I believe that the Sustainable Communities Act is now part of the architecture of local government. Aside from party politics, I hope that the House will take me seriously when I say that some issues to do with the process have been brought to light by where we are at the moment, and we need to get them right in future to ensure that we have a cost-effective and efficient way of assessing realistic proposals. If we can do that, I see no reason why the Act will not form a permanent part of the local-national relationship in this country.
10. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What methodology his Department plans to use to evaluate the effectiveness of the home information pack programme; and if he will make a statement. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said in response to a written question from the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), we intend to evaluate the effectiveness of HIPs by updating the HIP baseline research report, which was published in January 2007. A copy of that report is available on the DCLG website.
Whatever methodology the Department intends to use, is the Minister aware that Southend estate agents, without exception, believe that although
HIPs may have been introduced with the best of intentions, in practice they have not worked out at all well and have damaged the housing market?
Mr. Austin: I do not accept that at all. Despite a difficult housing market, evidence shows that HIPs actually speed up sales. I am not sure whether there is a branch of Connells estate agency in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but its survey of more than 37,000 transactions showed that sales with HIPs go through an average of seven days quicker.
Mr. Mackay: Why is the Minister in total denial? Nobody whatever thinks that HIPs work, and it would be sensible for the Government to knock them on the head before the election rather than have that albatross around their neck. For our part we are delighted that they are not doing so, but it is in his interests that he should.
Mr. Austin: As always, I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's advice, but I can tell him that thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process and 13,000 people have invested thousands of pounds in training as energy assessors. The Opposition need to explain why they want to put all those jobs and businesses at risk. He needs to tell all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on the process why the Opposition want to put them out of work.
Mr. David Jones: The interim results of the updated baseline research report are not due to be published until this summer at the earliest. Given that no empirical evidence is therefore available to the Government about the impact of HIPs on the current housing market, why do they not listen to bodies such as the Law Society, which has said clearly that HIPs
"add a significant layer of costs for consumers but produce no discernable benefit"?
Mr. Austin: As a result of HIPs, more than 2 million home owners now have an energy assessment and recommendations in their energy performance certificate that can help them cut their fuel bills by hundreds of pounds and reduce carbon emissions. That is just one of the many benefits of the HIP process that we have introduced. I thought that tackling climate change was one of the big priorities for the new, modern Conservative party. So much, I suppose, for voting blue to go green.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I have to tell my hon. Friend that as a member of the Law Society of England and Wales, I tend to agree with it. We have to have energy performance certificates under European Union law anyway, and we would have the jobs because of that. Does he really think that for most people, a cost of more than £500 to save an average of seven days, according to the Connells survey, is money well spent? A lot of my constituents do not.
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