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1.23 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on bringing such an important Bill before the House today. As treasurer of the warm homes group, I thank all the many organisations that have given their support to the Bill. They include more than 100 of the 469 local authorities, and I am pleased to say that my local authority, Bolton, is among them.

Several hon. Members referred to the HECA target of a 30 per cent. improvement in energy conservation by 2010. The target for 31 March 2000 was 8 per cent., but it had not been met by that date. As has been mentioned, 100 local authorities had achieved less than 3 per cent. Some hardly made any improvement at all, and in some local authorities there has even been backward movement.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment described the actual improvement figure—only 6 per cent. for 2000—as wholly inadequate. I am pleased, therefore, that the Bill will make targets statutory, and that each energy conservation authority will be required to appoint a dedicated officer to see that those targets are achieved. However, to achieve them, it will be necessary to ring-fence money within the housing investment programme allocations.

I turn now to the condition of housing stock in the United Kingdom. The Government have set a target of improving all housing stock in the public sector to a decent standard by 2010, but the worst conditions are undoubtedly in the private sector. Bolton's most serious

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housing problem is the condition of its private sector stock. More than 22,000 houses in that sector—almost one in five houses in its complete housing stock—are classed as unfit by environmental health officers, and between 5,000 and 6,000 of them are classed as irredeemably unfit.

That problem exists in many northern towns and cities. It especially affects the old cotton towns of Lancashire and the wool towns of Yorkshire, where mill owners built houses on the cheap as close to the mills as possible. In Bolton, such houses are mainly shot—finished. They were built with inadequate brick on end foundations with outer and inner skins touching, which allowed damp to penetrate, and have common attics that are lethal when a fire starts in any single property in a long terrace. I maintain that no amount of money would allow such properties to benefit from any of the measures in the Bill or any of its predecessors.

If urban regeneration is to be meaningful, and if we are going to meet our energy efficiency targets and reduce fuel poverty, we desperately need to start to replace these very old properties through sympathetic clearance programmes. I am not advocating a return to the large-scale clearance programmes of the past. In the late 1970s, when I served on the housing committee in Bolton, we were clearing between 700 and 1,000 properties a year. We divided communities and scattered them to the four corners of the town. We need sympathetic, limited and small-scale clearance to regenerate our urban stock year in, year out.

In Bolton, houses are falling into a state of unfitness faster than we can improve the existing stock. Between 1979 and 1997, Bolton's housing resources—that is, the money spent on bricks and mortar, rather than on housing benefit—decreased by up to 70 per cent. Fortunately, under the current Government, the situation is improving slowly through the initial release of capital receipts and by increased allocations through the housing investment and approved development programmes, or HIP and ADP. Bolton has used all the available private sector improvement mechanisms. It has improved thousands of its properties and kept communities together. The town promoted five general improvement areas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but those areas are now once again in a very poor state.

Bolton promoted its first housing action area in the late 1970s. We guaranteed that properties in the area would have an extra 30 years' life. That sounded like a long time when we declared the establishment of the area, but the period is rapidly running out and the properties are beginning to deteriorate again. These procedures have secured extra life for the thousands of affected properties, but what will happen when the 30 years run out? That concerns me greatly. We already have 22,000 properties that have been untouched by grants and are now unfit, while properties that we have improved in the past are rapidly catching up with them. The problem is immense. Incidentally, grant improvement to properties in the north—this situation is unlike the one in the south—usually produces negative equity, which means that the properties often cost more to improve than their market value after improvement.

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I am sorry if I have taken the debate off at a tangent, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thought that it should be pointed out that the state of some of the stock in Britain is such that the measures in the Bill and its predecessors will be of little comfort to the occupiers of those homes. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the poor condition of many of them is causing ill health, which is costing the national health service an unnecessary £1 billion. I hope that when the next comprehensive spending review announcement is made in the summer, money will be allocated to the housing budget to enable us to overcome those serious problems.

The 1996 English housing condition survey showed that the standard assessment procedures—SAP—ratings for the average house were 44 points compared with a score of 42 only five years earlier, in 1991. That is a measly 2 per cent. increase in five years. That suggests that, unfortunately, the effect of the programmes to tackle energy efficiency was negligible and barely sufficient to offset the natural deterioration of the housing stock.

As many hon. Members have said, HMOs are found in poorer housing areas. I do not want to say more about HMOs, apart from reminding hon. Members that more than 1.5 million people live in them in England and Wales alone, and that up to 20 per cent. of them fall below the legal standards of fitness for habitation.

There were far too many schemes in rapid succession for public sector stock in the past. First, there was loft insulation, for which the specification changed after only a few years. That was often accompanied by cavity wall insulation, which sometimes caused as many problems as it solved. Then, people ran around the town draught- stripping window and door frames. Later came energy-saving light bulbs and white goods, condensing boilers and double or triple glazing. I welcome the concept of warm home zones, where a comprehensive package of measures is applied to all the properties. The patchy, intermittent measures of the past have wasted a great deal of public money.

That leads me to a point that has not yet been made. If the Bill is enacted and we can find the money to implement its provisions, it means jobs. People will be needed to carry out the work. Sadly, there is already a shortage of people to do it. We need more plumbers, joiners and others to be trained so that the Bill can be implemented.

There is much interest in the Bill; more than 200 hon. Members have signed early-day motions 19 and 20. I am sure that the measure will have a fair wind, and I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown luck with it. There has been a lot of talk and consultation. We now need action.

1.33 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I shall speak briefly on one or two important points. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on promoting the Bill. It has wide support in the House and I hope that it becomes law. However, it is rather slim; my hon. Friend has obviously trimmed it so that it has the maximum possibility of becoming law and gaining the Government's support. I should like the measure to go further, and I shall speak about that later.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on his speech. He spoke intelligently and powerfully on several themes. I endorse everything

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that he said, especially his references to local authority housing and its benefits over generations. I believe that we should stop stock transfer and reinvest in local authority housing. The policy of selective municipalisation that a previous Labour Government adopted in the 1970s would help to solve some of the problems that have been mentioned today. However, I shall pursue that on another occasion.

I want to concentrate on the energy conservation aspects of the Bill. We must provide for additional measures to encourage householders, local authorities and landlords to invest in energy-saving measures for their housing. That will benefit people in their homes by making them warmer and will bring enormous economic benefits to the country. It will also help us to achieve the Kyoto targets to which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred earlier. I hope, therefore, that amendments will be tabled in Committee making specific reference to housing improvement measures that could lead not only to energy conservation and efficiency, but to domestic energy generation. We have discussed insulation, and the many energy-efficient appliances available, but we have to go further than that.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred to micro combined heat and power systems, which are supported by the National Energy Association. They represent one avenue. I want to discuss more specific measures on solar panels. They represent a significant way forward, and we should put our weight behind that. At the moment, they are not particularly economic, and we have to sustain the project with Government action.

I am seriously considering putting solar panels on my roof, but I am perhaps slightly better off and have a slightly larger house than some, and I have a commitment to the environment that is perhaps regarded as slightly eccentric. If I were to do that, I might be the first person in Luton to have solar panels on his roof, which shows just how far behind we are and what a long way we have to go.

My constituency contains very few HMOs. There are some in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), but mine contains large numbers of fairly sound homes. Many are houses with fairly expansive south-facing roofs, which are ideal for solar panels.

There are two sorts of solar panel. There are water heating panels and there are photovoltaic cells which generate electricity. The latter can be plumbed into the electricity mains and on warm, sunny days put electricity back into the grid system so that everyone benefits. That has been illustrated in a presentation in this building. There is a dial with a green part and a red part. When the needle is on the green part, we are gaining by putting electricity from the solar panels back into the system; when it is on the red part, we are drawing electricity from the system.

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