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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I congratulate him on his appointment. He referred to affordable housing and the sum that would be given to the Housing Corporation to increase the stock of affordable housing available. What does he think affordable housing is, and what should it cost? One of the biggest problems is deciding what affordable housing means. I would grateful if, as a new Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman could give the House his view.
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman will agree, I think, that the worst thing would be for us from the centre in London to impose a blanket view for the whole country on what constitutes affordable housing. We need flexibility, allowing local areas to respond to local need and local rents. That is the approach that I want to adopt, to ensure that people are not priced out of good accommodation because of the amount that they can afford to pay. That will involve a range of new initiatives that need to be taken. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have been examining housing benefit in particular and the role that it plays. A range of levers need to be pulled to make sure that people have a genuine choice. A little later in my opening remarks, I shall say something about that.
Mr. Byers: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words on my appointment. I understand the difficulty that is particularly felt in London, although similar pressures exist in other parts of the country. They come about because of a lack of investment over a number of years. We are beginning to put that right, with the investment that will be made over the next two to three years. There are, I believe, opportunities to use the planning process with far greater imagination than in the past, and I am conscious of the debate that is going on in London and elsewhere about the need for some gain from planning along the lines that my hon. Friend describes.
I have reservations about putting a specific figure on the amount that needs to be achieved, but we must work closely with the relevant authorities to expand and extend the amount of affordable homes for rent or other types of tenure that are available in London and other parts of the country.
Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment, and on mentioning the fact that problems exist not only in London but in areas such as Weston-super-Mare. I shall write to him with information about our particular problems. Having seen the right hon. Gentleman operating in the Department of Trade and Industry, I am very hopeful that he will be able to tackle those problems. Specifically, has he taken on board the very severe problem across the country of the number of, and the difficulty in releasing, empty properties?
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. From my reading of the brief so far, I think that various steps will have to be taken to ensure that empty properties, of which there are a staggering number, are made available for those who are in great need. I shall say something a little later about what we can do specifically about private landlords, with whom there is a particular problem in some parts of the country. There may also be a specific problem in seaside towns that will have to be dealt with. One of the lessons that I have learned is that it is wrong to take the view that one size fits all. We have to build a system with local flexibility. Consequently, the role of local authorities, which are the bodies with housing responsibilities, will be particularly important.
A major part of the £2.5 billion that we are making available will be used for major repairs to the council house stock, making more council properties available for use. Taken together, our proposals and the investment that we shall put in place will bring all social housing up to a
The Bill will particularly help families with dependent children and individuals who become homeless or face the threat of homelessness through no fault of their own. Our proposals will strengthen the homelessness safety net, promote a more strategic approach by local authorities to preventing and managing homelessness and encourage local authorities to offer more choice to people applying for social housing. In doing that, the Bill will achieve the following objectives: first, it will protect the most vulnerable in our society; secondly, it will promote greater housing choice; thirdly, it will help to create sustainable communities; and, fourthly, it will tackle social exclusion.
One of the most important changes that we want to accomplish with the Bill is to channel much greater effort into preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. That is our key priority. Our proposals will require local authorities to adopt a more strategic approach to tackling the causes of all forms of homelessness and to preventing its occurrence.
The Bill's first three clauses will require local housing authorities to review the position of the homeless in their area and to create a comprehensive strategy, involving all the key bodies, to prevent people from becoming homeless and to ensure that adequate resources are available to those who might become homeless. There will have to be close co-operation between housing authorities, social service authorities and, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, health authorities.
The housing authority will have to consult widely. It will be expected to talk to registered social landlords and to other voluntary and statutory agencies that have a key role in tackling the position of the homeless. All the key players will be encouraged to work together to assess the extent and the causes of homelessness, to identify the most effective solutions and to ensure that adequate accommodation, advice and support are available to those who need them.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role and on taking the first Bill through this Parliament. Does he agree that one of the key problems in rural areas is hidden homelessnesspeople being driven out of rural areas because of a lack of accommodation? Can we ensure that the other layers of local governmentespecially parish and town councils, which have a vested interest in keeping younger people in their communitiesare engaged in the process, as they will be so important in allowing us to overcome hidden homelessness?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I thank him for his kind words on my appointment. He is right that the needs of rural areas are often hidden and are not exposed or publicised to the same extent as some of the derelict areas in our conurbations. That is why it is particularly important for those of us in responsible positions to ensure that their needs are not overlooked.
The Bill also strengthens the existing safety net by providing a number of amendments to and repeals of the provisions of the Housing Act 1996. The Bill will ensure that all applicants who are unintentionally homeless and have a priority need are secured suitable accommodation for as long as is necessary until a settled home becomes available for them. This is an important change and one that will bring real benefits. To achieve this, the Bill will remove the current rule that prevents an authority from doing more than provide advice and assistance if other accommodation is available locally in the private sector.
Clause 6 will remove the current two-year limit on the main homelessness duty to secure suitable accommodation. The 1996 Act gives authorities the discretion to continue to accommodate beyond two years, but their statutory obligation to provide assistance ends at that point. That gives homeless households cause for great uncertainty about their future and about whether they will continue to have a home. That needs to go; under this Bill, it will.
The Bill will also remove the restriction that prevents authorities from using their own housing stock to discharge their statutory obligations and to provide short-term accommodation for homeless people for more than two years in three. This is unhelpful and bureaucratic, and it limits local authorities' flexibility to secure adequate short-term accommodation. As the law stands, when a local authority decides to exercise discretion to continue to accommodate beyond two years a household that has been accommodated in local authority housing, the authority must secure alternative accommodation from another landlordat a costuprooting the household in the process. This is red tape and bureaucracy and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will be pleased that we are cutting it. The measure, which we will do away with, creates delay, is costly and is disruptive. Under the Bill, it will come to an end.
The Bill will make an number of important changes to the current legislation to strengthen the protection available to homeless people. Clause 10 will provide stronger protection for those at risk of violence. It will make clear that applicants who would be at risk of violence or who would face serious threats of violence if they remained in their current home must be treated as homeless by the local authority. At present, it is at the discretion of individual authorities to decide whether a threat of violence means that it would not be reasonable for someone to continue to live in that same property.