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Lord Whitty: My Lords, as regards the resources which the comprehensive spending review has allocated to housing there will be a substantial increase in the coming few years, partly through the release of capital receipts. My noble friend is absolutely right to say that house building, particularly social housing, declined dramatically over the period of the previous government. Social housing starts in the past few years have averaged about 26,000, as compared with 70,000 in the final years of the Callaghan government, and at one point the figure was 150,000. There has been a change in the pattern of housing. We now look at housing as a whole rather than defining it by form of tenure. We are giving local authorities the flexibility to put resources into all sectors of housing rather than concentrating on one sector.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, most figures that have been mentioned in relation to housing need and house build relate to England. The situation in Wales is similar to that in England in terms of the pattern of housing build. The situation in Scotland is somewhat different in terms of the local authority housing sector strategy. As the noble Lord will know, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive plays a strong role as regards housing in Northern Ireland. That situation is again somewhat different. If the noble Lord wishes, I will provide that information to him in written form.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, there is a widely held belief, which I think the Government share, that providing for the housing need of many groups of people is about more than merely providing a roof over their heads. I refer in particular to elderly people, those with learning difficulties and mental health problems, and families which break up for whatever reasons, sometimes domestic violence. What steps are the Government taking to make sure that much-needed capital projects for such people are not held back because of a lack of revenue funding to support them?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, a large part of what we are requesting local authorities to do in assessing their own housing need and the need for the conversion and improvement of existing properties, as well as new capital projects in all sectors, relates to the changing social pattern and to those vulnerable groups. However, it is primarily a question of local authorities prioritising on the basis of the social needs within their areas.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, how will the Government bring pressure to bear on local authorities to speed up the improvement and turn-around of their stock? Will they consider setting targets? If so, can success be measured by the number of lettings rather than the number of starts?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree that the total new access to housing is the key figure. It is not merely a question of starts and completions; it is a matter of conversions and other properties coming on to the housing market which we need to relate to housing need. I agree that lettings form part of that figure. There are a number of measures that can be taken by local authorities to improve their turn-around of stock. The additional resources that the Government are giving to local authorities to improve their stock will be spent partly on improving, and therefore turning round, the poorer local authority housing stock and helping housing associations in that regard.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the deliberate withdrawal, almost in total, of subsidy to local authority housing by the previous government has resulted in the massive deterioration of
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are many estates around the country where, sadly, the condition of local authority housing has declined. That is partly a reflection of the previous government's lack of priority in that area. There has been an overall decline in the quality of local authority housing stock, as was revealed a recent debate in this House.
Viscount Brentford: My Lords, the noble Lord said that the Government intend to improve 1½ million local authority houses over the next three years. Will that bring the whole local authority housing stock up to scratch?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not recall using that figure. It is up to local authorities whether they put the money into new housing, improving their existing stock or helping the private and housing association sectors. Given the additional resources, local authorities can make a beginning in improving the total housing stock and the availability of housing.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, the Government inherited an electricity market that was badly distorted and are pursuing a reform programme to create a level playing field for all fuels including coal. In the meantime, the security and diversity of supply provided by coal will be guaranteed by a stricter consents policy on new gas-fired power stations.
We are also working with our European colleagues to minimise the distortions caused by state aid to the coal-mining sector in Europe. In particular, we will seek to ensure that the existing state aid rules are strictly applied. We have already had some success here in the case of graded anthracite.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, the recent decision to continue restrictions on the building of gas-fired power stations is very much to be welcomed. However, will my noble friend say when the changes he mentioned in the working of the wholesale electricity supply, commonly known as the pool, are likely to come into operation? They are a matter of some urgency. Is he further aware that the industry needs longer and larger contracts with the generators if it is to be sustained?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I believe that the new trading arrangements will be completed by April 2000. That is the time we are planning for. We shall depend on the Director-General of Electricity Supply to advise us as to when those arrangements are complete and when consents on the gas-fired industry are no longer necessary. Regarding sustainability, when that point is reached, we shall be able to change the arrangements. I agree that there have been major improvements in productivity. If they continue, they will help the coal industry enormously in obtaining the long-term supply contracts referred to.
Lord Ironside: My Lords, if coal is still to be used as a primary fuel in power stations, what steps are the Government taking to assist with the development of fluidised bed combustion to produce better warming, heating, burning and calorific exchange?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we are pursuing new technologies in those fields. We are totally supportive of combined heat and power systems, which play a major part in terms of energy efficiency.
Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, if we create a level playing field for British coal, we could cut back on the subsidised German coal imports; stop buying French electricity; reduce the 12 to 14 million tonnes of cheap coal imports; reduce open-cast coal-mining; and stop the dash for gas? What has he to say about that?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, there are a number of different categories here. Our aim is to create a market where there can be true competition. Where that does not exist, as in the case of German coal, we are working with our colleagues in Europe to make certain that action is taken to reduce the subsidies.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, following on the question raised about new coal technologies, will the noble Lord indicate what special assistance or support the Government will provide for the creation of demonstration plants in clean coal technology? Does he agree that the new clean coal processes which are so important for the environment are not being developed sufficiently fast, in spite of demand not only in the UK but also abroad?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, a new DTI clean coal research programme is being initiated. It will act as a focus for collaboration with industry and academia. It will enable the UK to maintain and develop its know-how in clean coal technologies. It will also help UK industry to attain a share of the growing market in these new technologies. I was recently in China,
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