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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, the 15 minute Statement could have been significantly shorter if the selective party-political abuse had been omitted. However, in the spirit that the Deputy Prime Minister chose and on the 40th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, whose 1951 government built 300,000 houses a year, which far exceeds the target that the Government have loudly announced today, why is the proportion of "non-decent homes in
 
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Wales" so much higher than in the rest of the UK, when it is now 145 years since the Conservative Party last won a general election in the Principality?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot answer that question without notice. The Statement that I repeated today relates exclusively to England. I am an English Minister and although I speak for the Government in this place, I do not have the necessary information regarding Wales to answer the question. However, I will try to find the information and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, the Minister was talking about staircasing, but the problem for first-time home buyers is that they have been desperately trying to walk up an escalator that is going the wrong way, especially in relation to stamp duty. I know that the Minister said that that was a matter for the Chancellor and ultimately it is, in the same way as is value added tax on improvements. However, we cannot talk about housing and have a serious Statement mentioning first-time buyers without at least addressing the question of stamp duty.

Is the Minister aware that when the stamp duty threshold was raised to £60,000 in 1993, the average price paid by a first-time buyer was below that threshold in every single region of the United Kingdom apart from London, even in the south east? Is the Minister aware that today, in every single region, first-time home buyers have to pay well over the £60,000 and that the amount of money that has been taken from home buyers by stamp duty has gone up from just under £700 million when the Government came to power in 1997 to £3.8 billion last year? That money is being sucked out of the pockets of homebuyers. Will the Minister, from a housing perspective—he is always very robust at fighting for the interests of his department—tell us what the effect of that is and what representations he is making to his friend the Chancellor to ease this crippling burden on first-time buyers?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the effect is to price first-time buyers on the margin out of buying. That is obvious: the figures that the noble Lord just gave speak for themselves. This matter is constantly discussed in the Government. We are aware of the difficulty. There has been a substantial increase in taxation—there is no question about that. The figures are all there. They are published by the Chancellor, so there is no secret, but the effect on the margin for first-time buyers is to price them out of buying when it is the last, final straw that stops the sale. The Government are discussing that issue because we are looking for all ways that we can. However, decisions on these matters are for the Chancellor.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the Minister's enthusiasm for the Statement was infectious and we all enjoyed it. However, could he help me with one problem that I find difficult to understand? He said that he wants a
 
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more houses on less land. Therefore, presumably, the congestion will be greater. He said that the houses will be of a better standard and neither safety nor any other standard will be compromised, yet the houses will cost less. These are all good objectives, but they militate against each other. How can we do all that and in the end the house costs less? I know that the Minister could say, "Do go up to Manchester next week without a discount", but perhaps he could explain it.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I will try to explain without the noble Earl having to venture to Manchester. There are enormous variations in the density—the number of dwellings per hectare around the country. There are award-winning schemes with densities of dwellings per hectare in the 80s and 90s where people queue up to buy and to rent to get into quality developments—both from environmental and other points of view in terms of design. High-density need not militate against good quality design in houses. The highest density housing area in the country is around Kensington and Chelsea, so that proves that high density does not militate against quality in a good environment.

There are some poor high density areas. Currently, housing in London is being built at 71 dwellings a hectare. It was 51 dwellings a hectare in 1997, so there has been an increase. In terms of cost, we have looked at various schemes. The scheme for the £60,000 dwelling will be special because the land value is removed from the calculation. In some areas—not all—the land values are astronomical and are a real barrier. That is why in the growth areas in the country in the south east we are looking for new techniques to capture some of the land value along with developers and landowners so that, over a 20-year period, everyone feels fairly treated.

It looks as though we are squaring the circle, as I said to the noble Lord, but with a combination of different ways of financing higher densities as a matter of policy, using CABE—the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—to make sure that we get good quality dwellings from environmental, safety and other aspects, we are confident that we can build to reduce costs. That is the issue—construction costs in this country have been going way ahead of normal inflation, with no apparent reason for it.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, the Minister's Statement was rather like one of my grandchildren's Christmas stockings, in that it appeared to lack a certain economic coherence, although the Minister himself moved towards economic coherence when he talked about not going to 90 per cent of people in home ownership. It would have been nice if he had made the tribute that the big increase from 50 per cent to 70 per cent, which was thoroughly desirable, was very largely due to Conservative policies. I believe that he implied that.

I ask the Minister about two points. First, does he recognise that bricks and mortar are not always necessarily a sensible investment, especially for young people? Secondly, does he recognise that a dynamic
 
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economy requires a mobile society, which must mean that there must be a healthy supply of houses to rent at all levels, including affordable housing? There is a risk of undermining that important mobility, if the affordable housing is taken out of the rented sector and put into the ownership sector.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I can say at the outset that I do not seek to hide the fact that the increase in home ownership shot up under the "right to buy" policy, which was introduced by the government led by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. That was probably the greatest single act of redistribution of wealth in this country that occurred over decades. Like most good policies, it was invented in Birmingham, where it operated at various times during the 1960s. It took quite a while for my party to come to terms with that change—I accept that—but nevertheless we have embraced it and, like converts, we have the zeal to push it even further. That is why we are looking at new ways in which to let people share the aspirations of others.

I am not sure when bricks and mortar are not a good investment—perhaps when people pay over the odds, or buy houses without checking. We have had lots of debates on that issue in this House, with regard to the need for buyers to beware of what they are buying, so there have been warnings. However, on the noble Lord's substantive point about jobs and other matters, MoveUK will seek to enable people to move around the country, for jobs and housing in the rented sector, for local authorities' social housing, housing associations and the private rented sector. That will be a big move, we hope. It will be a web-based system and will be a big incentive for labour mobility.

The noble Lord is quite right that for such a system to work you must have, if not an over-supply, then a good supply of a mixture of dwellings available in which people want to live at prices that they can afford. That is the Holy Grail that both parties have been seeking. We live in a very uneven country with regard to housing—we all understand that—and we are seeking to even up some aspects of the situation.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's Statement, and I thank him for including in it a substantial number of the recommendations of the Home Ownership Task Force, which I chaired in 2003. That taskforce was made up of a wide range of people, including the users, funders and providers of social housing. The recommendations within the report are certainly very welcome, although it is a pity that they have to occur within a Statement. I hope that we can have a full debate on the issue. I am going to the sustainable communities conference in Manchester next week, although after the announcement of 13 daughter documents I am wondering whether I should not stay, because I might miss something.

The document is very wide-ranging. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred, I thought very good-naturedly, to the Minister's "euphoric" presentation. Quite frankly, I do not believe that we should be difficult about that, as he is entitled to be a
 
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bit euphoric. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, remarked that there was a bewildering range of figures. She was absolutely right; but she then went on to quote quite a number of figures herself, in her presentation, if I may say so with due kindness.

To sum up the document, it is full of energy, proposals and ideas, some of which are quite ingenious. We talk about home ownership as though you either own a home or you do not. In fact, many of the people with whom we spoke said that they would simply like to have a stake in their home, which may not mean owning it fully. This policy goes a long way towards recognising that.

I have one question with regard to rural communities, as there are areas whose homing needs are quite often forgotten in the pressure cooker of the south-east. The Minister suggested that there would be discussions with Defra and that the Government have doubled the investment in rural housing. In fact, they do not do themselves justice: they have more than doubled the investment in rural housing since they came to power. But is it intended that the social housing in the countryside, in the rural areas, is ring-fence protected for the people who need it? Otherwise, young people from families in rural areas simply have to leave their homes.

In conclusion, I look forward to a full-blown debate on this important issue.


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