Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.31 pm

David Wright: I concur with the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the quality of the debate on the amendments and on wider housing issues.

I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced early in the Parliament; that shows the importance of housing issues to Labour Members. However, there has been a welcome consensus about the need to drive the measure through.

22 Oct 2001 : Column 112

Before I was elected to Parliament, I spent 13 years working in housing in the west midlands, dealing with the direct housing needs of local people and developing housing strategies for wider investment.

The Bill emanates from the housing Green Paper "Quality and Choice: A decent home for all", which was published in April 2000. It is to the Government's great credit that they produced the most comprehensive statement on housing for more than 20 years.

The Government have declared an ambitious programme of housing investment in the next 10 years to secure a decent home for all. That largely involves activity to improve housing conditions in a framework of renewed neighbourhoods. However, a key policy strand must be to assist those in greatest need: homeless people.

I want to cover several issues that relate to the Bill and consider the way in which it will fit into the wider housing agenda. It requires housing authorities to adopt a strategic approach to tackling and preventing homelessness. I especially welcome the emphasis on partnerships with social services departments, registered social landlords and the voluntary sector. However, it is essential for the homelessness strategy to integrate fully with each local authority's wider housing and development objectives. The strategies should contain specific proposals for securing more affordable housing in urban and rural areas.

Estimates by independent studies suggest that between 80,000 and 100,000 homes are needed annually to meet existing demand. I believe that many planning authorities do not use the powers that are available to them under planning policy guidance note 3 or section 106 agreements sufficiently aggressively to secure homes for rent, allied to new development. The Government could do much work on that to supplement the Bill.

More resources are also needed through the Housing Corporation's approved development programme to deliver new rented homes. If authorities are to create homelessness strategies, they need also to adopt specific targets in their development plans for rented homes. The Government need to think about providing a more specific definition of affordable housing for target setting. At the moment, affordable housing targets in development plans do not include specific proposals on rented homes. If they did, it would be a particular advantage in alliance with the Bill.

In delivering the homelessness strategy required by the Bill, authorities will need to give careful consideration to the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Targets are needed to reduce its usage, which currently costs the public purse more than £150 million. The private rented sector will also figure as a resource in most strategies to tackle homelessness. We have to acknowledge the massive scale of disrepair in the private rented sector, and we need a more effective national strategy to intervene in that area. Licensing for houses in multiple occupation will be important, but we also need to develop co-ordinated clearance and redevelopment strategies for areas beyond the reach of effective rehabilitation schemes.

The best local authority homelessness strategies required by the Bill will focus in great detail on the special needs of individuals presenting themselves as homeless. A range of specialist housing provision with tailored support will be needed, usually linked to employment and training opportunities. There are opportunities for local authorities to ensure that that

22 Oct 2001 : Column 113

will happen. When local authorities' housing investment programme submissions are considered, Ministers and officials will need to think, when ranking local authorities, how effective they have been in delivering the homelessness strategy in their area. That can be directly carried out, and authorities are currently graded in terms of their housing investment programme strategy. This element of work on homelessness should be a key component of that ranking and, therefore, a key mechanism through which resources can be distributed to the best local authorities.

In relation to the requirements on housing authorities, the abolition of the two-year time limit under clause 6 is particularly welcome. From experience, I can report that the current provisions are illogical and create great uncertainty in circumstances in which most local authorities act reasonably towards homeless applicants.

It is important that the Bill places the emphasis on the local authority to be proactive through the repeal of section 197 of the Housing Act 1996. Local authorities should be in a position to offer advice and assistance to people needing suitable accommodation. The current provisions, under which local authorities can largely sidestep the legislation and offer advice and assistance only when accommodation is available in their area, are not successful.

The element of the Bill that amends part V of the 1996 Act and prompts further choice is welcome in the context of creating sustainable communities. The Bill will support major progress being made on the neighbourhood renewal agenda. We need to generate a greater degree of tenure and income diversification on many estates, as identified by the social exclusion unit policy action team reports. Rented housing must be seen as a positive choice, rather than the tenure of last resort. For too long, we have allowed rented housing to be stigmatised, and have compounded that through inflexibility in the allocations process. The delivery of allocations needs to be transparent, but we also need to allow greater local letting activity, developed in partnership with local communities. In my experience, that can work very successfully if local people are given the opportunity to consider details in full. People are very flexible, and are willing to be accommodating to people who need to be housed.

It is important to consider the impact of the Bill on different housing markets across the country. It is clearly appropriate to set out a national position on homelessness, as the Bill does. However, it will be applied and used differently according to how local housing markets operate. There is massive pressure from homelessness in some areas, particularly in London and the south-east, where housing costs, land supply and economic migration create overwhelming demand. That is also the case in some other areas.

However, in many parts of the midlands and the north of England, there is a major problem of low demand and abandonment. Disrepair, antisocial behaviour, stigmatisation of rented housing and economic change have led to a spiral of decline in certain neighbourhoods. In areas of low demand, strategies developed under the auspices of the Bill will be radically different from those developed in, say, the London boroughs. The Government will need to consider regionally distinct approaches to those strategies and avoid a "one size fits all" response to housing market change. In many towns and cities, we shall need to consider the relatively new concept of

22 Oct 2001 : Column 114

housing market renewal areas, which will require significant co-ordination of Government resources. I hope that that will be a subject for further debate during this Parliament.

I note that housing, unlike many other matters that we debate in the House, touches all our lives. We all need and deserve good housing and this country has a long tradition of providing housing for those in greatest need. The Bill renews that commitment and is legislation with compassion at its heart. It is, however, only one component of a wider drive to give people quality and choice in the housing market, so I look forward to further Government proposals to transform people's living environment for the better.

9.40 pm

Mr. Don Foster: I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright), who made an interesting and thoughtful speech from which many of us could have learned had he been able to make it when we began our deliberations many months ago.

The Minister rightly said that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to find ways to deliver a long-term reduction in the incidence of homelessness and that the Bill is a big step along the road. However, as the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and other Members said, by itself it is insufficient. Much else needs to be done. The national homelessness strategy, which has been announced, will clearly play a key role in filling some gaps that cannot be filled by the Bill.

Important issues that must be addressed have been touched on—for example, the crucial issue of empty homes, which was referred to by the hon. Members for Stafford and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). We might argue about the precise nature of the figures, but it is clear that the situation is obscene. There are about 750,000 empty properties and about 150,000 homeless households. We ought to be able to find far more effective ways of bringing those together.

Temporary accommodation is dealt with in the Bill, but much more needs to be done to reduce its use and to improve its quality and suitability. I am delighted to hear that the Minister is adamant that the work of the bed-and-breakfast unit and the new legislation on licensing houses in multiple occupation and other properties will target that issue.

We have debated how to help people who are already homeless, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the Bill refers to measures to prevent homelessness in the first instance. We have not dealt with that issue in detail, but I hope that the Minister will use every opportunity to draw attention to aspects of the strategies that local authorities must develop. We must make it a high priority. In that respect, she might be able to assist with a number of activities at national level, not least closer working relationships with mortgage lenders, to prevent some difficulties that people get into.

The Bill focuses on those in priority need, but it does not address the provision of support for non-priority homeless families and individuals. There is an urgent need to support those categories and to find more effective ways to deliver a service in all our local authorities, not only to priority categories but to non-priority categories of homeless people. I suggest to the Minister that the Government could quickly tackle one issue and thereby

22 Oct 2001 : Column 115

provide enormous benefit. They should take urgent action to sort out housing benefit administration, which is a mess in so many places.

The Bill, important though it is, could be seen as rearranging the deckchairs. It is an important rearrangement that will provide great benefit, but unless we significantly increase the number of affordable houses we will not be able to provide the choice-based systems that we want local authorities to adopt. The House will be aware that the spending review is not far distant. Many of us will examine its outcomes to see what it contains on housing.

It is perhaps a strange occurrence that housing is the number one issue in the postbags of the vast majority of Members of Parliament and the number one issue raised in their advice surgeries, yet rarely have we debated housing. I am delighted that that is beginning to change, and that we have before us a Bill that, although not perfect, will provide great assistance to many of the least-well-off people in our society.

The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), told us that in Committee we had frequently referred to the film "Groundhog Day". I suggest that that is not the best metaphor for what has happened tonight. Hon. Members will recall that in "Groundhog Day" events that started rather differently all ended up exactly the same. Today, we have tackled some of the issues that we have addressed before in a slightly different way, and we have made progress. We have had assurances from Ministers on various matters, and promises to consider issues in further detail. We have had assurances in respect of meetings with the Housing Corporation. I genuinely do not believe that "Groundhog Day" is the best analogy.

In Committee, I noted with interest that the Under-Secretary told us that his preferred film was not "Groundhog Day" but "Three Amigos" by John Landis. For those who wish to check the record, it is at column 23 on 10 July.

It strikes me that, regardless of the many differences that separate the major parties in the House and notwithstanding some minor differences, we have shown clear unanimity in our desire to see the Bill get on to the statute book as quickly as possible.

Next Section

IndexHome Page