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Housing (Hyndburn)

12.30 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn): I am grateful to have secured this debate on housing in Hyndburn, which is undoubtedly the most important issue facing my constituency. I am also grateful for the opportunity to place on record my thanks to my noble Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, Lord Falconer, for visiting my constituency at my request in October 2001. He also visited the neighbouring constituencies of Blackburn, Rossendale and Darwen, Burnley and Pendle, which have virtually the same housing problems as Hyndburn.

It is fair to say that my noble Friend was shocked by what he saw. Of course, he met councillors, Members of Parliament and local authority and private sector representatives, but, most importantly, he met people who live in my constituency. I took him to Lonsdale street in Accrington, once a sought-after place to live, but now a place where decent families try their best to bring up their children in the most appalling housing conditions. I showed my noble Friend an abandoned and derelict housing block, which has been vandalised, which is regularly set on fire and which is infested with rodents. Yet, houses in the middle of the block and facing it are occupied. In 2002, people are living there in the most appalling conditions.

The raw statistics make pretty grim reading. In the borough of Hyndburn, 9,000 houses are unfit for human habitation. Of those, 8,000 are privately owned. Some 2,700 houses have been abandoned. They have no value, and people simply walked away from them when they could not sell them.

In the statistical appendix to its 2001 housing investment programme bid, Hyndburn council estimated that the cost of making fit the unfit private homes in the constituency was about £180 million. In the last year for which I could obtain figures, the council was spending slightly more than £1 million on the problem. In best value performance indicator BVP162, the Government asked what percentage of unfit private houses the council had made fit or cleared during 2000-01—the last year for which figures are available—and the council's answer was 1 per cent.

It would be easy for me as the Labour Member of Parliament for Hyndburn to point the finger of blame at Tory-controlled Hyndburn council, particularly as we have all-out elections in early May. I shall not do that, however, for two reasons. First, the people who live in such housing deserve better from their elected representatives than cheap point-scoring. On such issues, it is better for us to forget our politics. I, the Government and Hyndburn council—whoever runs it—should work together for the good of those people.

Secondly, the problem is not really the council's fault, because it does not have the resources to put right the problems that my constituents face. The majority of homes in Hyndburn—more than four out of five—are privately owned. Of those, 30 per cent. are unfit for human habitation and another 10 to 15 per cent. are becoming unfit. As Lord Falconer would testify, the statistics do not do justice to the scale of the problem. One needs to meet the people who are trapped in those houses—people like Robert Treasure of Steiner street in

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Accrington, whom I had the privilege of meeting last year when I went to his home. The conditions in which Mr. Treasure lives are almost unimaginable. It is not an exaggeration to say that he exists in the sort of Victorian squalor that most people would have thought had been swept away generations ago.

An elderly lady from Accrington came to my advice surgery close to tears. She had moved into a property on Pearl street when she got married, after the second world war, then a nice part of Accrington, but now something approaching a war zone. Houses are abandoned and wrecked, and unscrupulous landlords buy up properties for next to nothing and put in them people with drink and drug problems. She cannot move—she is trapped; nobody would give a mortgage on a property in Pearl street. Her only chance of getting out is if the council demolishes the street—I hope that that will be done soon and think that it will be.

During the general election, I met a lady living on Garbutt street and asked her for her vote. She said that she would not vote for me or my opponent; she had been let down by everybody of every conceivable political party. She was right—if I had lived in her house I would not have voted for me. It is a badge of shame on the reputations of all who seek to represent people like that lady that she is still living in those conditions. We have seen a complete collapse in the housing market in parts of my constituency. There is a cycle of despair in which the prices of properties are so low in some areas that they are completely worthless.

In Lambeth, not far from where I have a London flat, there is a terraced house for sale with an asking price in excess of £300,000. In parts of my constituency, that property would not be worth a tenth or even a hundredth of that. People are trapped in negative equity. They are unable to sell or to move and houses are abandoned; there is a surplus of houses in the market. We have a doughnut effect: in the inner parts of towns, the market is collapsing or has collapsed, and on the edges of towns, new build is very popular. My constituency is a collection of small mill towns that are proud of their historic distinctions. Residents do not want to see a blurring between Great Harwood and Clayton, Clayton and Rishton or Oswaldtwistle and Accrington. However, there is huge pressure on new build on the green belt areas between the towns, whereas in the centres of towns the housing market has collapsed.

In parts of my constituency, renovation will not be enough. The houses are just too poor to repair. In other areas it is not worth repairing them because there is no market for that kind of housing. It is increasingly clear that we shall have to demolish a large number of houses. That should have been done in the 1960s, as it was in places such as Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and all the major cities. Demolition did not happen in east Lancashire partly because of the structure of local government. In my constituency alone, there were half a dozen tiny urban district councils, which did not have the resources to clear those properties. They have been replaced by slightly larger district councils, but they, too, are far too small—Hyndburn council does not have the resources for clearance, nor does Pendle or Rossendale. The irony is that city authorities are now getting grants from the

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Government to knock down the houses with which they replaced the terraces—in east Lancashire we have not even replaced the terraces.

Last summer saw large-scale disturbances in the neighbouring constituency of Burnley. There is no doubt in my mind—and none in the minds of anyone who has been to Burnley and knows east Lancashire—that the appalling housing conditions were a contributory factor to those disturbances. We were extraordinarily lucky that those disturbances did not spread to neighbouring boroughs, such as Hyndburn to the west and Pendle to the east. The taskforce report on the disturbances states:

That is true for not only Burnley but Accrington, Nelson, Colne and large parts of Rossendale and Blackburn. If we do not want a repetition of those problems, we must face the fact that we need to invest in those areas.

When Lord Falconer visited east Lancashire, he invited the local authorities to submit a 10-year bid. It is clear that we could double the amount of money that Hyndburn council has next year, or triple or quadruple it, and that it would not make that much difference. A one-off payment will not resolve the problems. We must have year-on-year investment, for which we need a 10-year programme of housing renewal.

This is not simply a Hyndburn problem; it would be appalling enough if it were confined only to my constituency, but all the neighbouring towns and constituencies have the same problems. Throughout the sub-region, which includes Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale, half the houses were built before the first world war. We have twice the national average of private homes that are empty and abandoned and a quarter of the housing stock is unfit for human habitation. It was with that background that the east Lancashire partnership, acting on behalf of all the local authorities in east Lancashire, submitted a 10-year bid, which will cost in total some £670 million.

If that bid were successful, we would be able to remove the surplus housing stock by clearing the worst of it. That would enable us to remodel the housing market, which we desperately need to do to stop the doughnut effect and make it worth while to live in the inner part of Accrington or any of the other towns in east Lancashire. It would also enable us to improve our neighbourhoods with grants and loans and some environmental work. Therefore, I cannot impress enough on the Minister how important it is that the bid be successful. My purpose in securing the debate is to urge the Minister and the Government to support the bid. We can make a huge difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people in my constituency and east Lancashire as a whole.

The lady whom I met during the general election said that politicians of all parties had failed her, and she is absolutely right. A Conservative-controlled council is failing her, but she was equally failed by Hyndburn council when it was a Labour-run authority. She was failed by a Conservative Government for 18 years and she is being failed by this Government. She was failed by my predecessor, Ken Hargreaves, who was a good

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Conservative MP, and she is being failed by me as well. We have a once in a generation opportunity to put the matter right and make a difference to that lady and others like her who are living in unfit housing in my constituency and in other constituencies. I urge the Minister to join me to make a difference.

12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble) : First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) on securing the debate and describing eloquently what is, for him and other hon. Members, a pressing and important matter that touches the lives of many of their constituents. The Government fully share his concerns, and I am glad to have the opportunity to set out the Government's view. The hardship that my noble Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning saw in the Lancashire towns when he visited them impressed itself upon him. I have not visited Hyndburn, but I have certainly seen similar areas in the north and in parts of the midlands as well.

The issue of housing in Hyndburn is part of a broad east Lancashire housing problem. East Lancashire towns in general are characterised by high proportions of aged, privately owned terraced houses in poor condition. More than 60 per cent. of the stock was built before 1919—my hon. Friend referred to somebody who moved into such a house after the war. Presumably, over the years, the structural state of that house will not have changed much. I am sure that people will have made many improvements, but not such as to deal with some of the structural difficulties of that type of housing.

The continued existence of such housing means that there are surplus supplies of obsolete housing. My hon. Friend referred to the problems in Burnley and elsewhere—the disturbances during the summer—and it is clear that housing was an important contributory factor. Housing issues, including housing disadvantage and decay, are overlaid by racial and ethnic divides.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the problem of low demand is not unique to Hyndburn—it is shared with neighbouring areas in east Lancashire and other areas throughout the north and the midlands, particularly in parts of the east midlands. It is, in many respects, a reverse image of the difficulties in London and the south-east. The challenge for the Government in the low-demand areas is to deal with obsolete housing and recreate value where the housing market has completely collapsed, whereas the problem in London and the south-east is to mitigate the effect of very high values in areas of high demand such as the part of Lambeth described by my hon. Friend. The Government have to deal with both of those problems, recognising that they require different solutions but are both intensely human.

The Government are committed to tackling low demand and we have set ourselves the target of reversing declining demand by 2010. One of the main reasons why we attach so much importance to that is that low demand blights communities and people's lives. The symptoms are cruel and immediately apparent in east Lancashire and elsewhere. As my hon. Friend said, people no longer want to buy or live in the mostly terraced housing, so row upon row of houses are boarded up, vandalism is rampant and crime is increasing

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Once decline sets in, it is hard to reverse. The people who are left feel under siege in their own communities and are unable to move out. Unfortunately, we are faced with this kind of decline in too many communities throughout the country. The housing problems caused by low demand are overwhelming the capacity of all agencies to respond to this and other aspects of regeneration.

It might help my hon. Friend if I set out some points about the Government's contribution before talking about the housing market renewal fund, which is extremely important.

Nationally, as we made clear in our housing policy statement in December 2000, we are committed to addressing housing problems across private sector tenures, which are particularly prevalent in my hon. Friend's constituency, and those in the public sector, as part of our strategy for housing renewal and tackling social exclusion. Local authorities have a vital role to play in that and we have substantially increased the resources available for housing investment. Allocations to authorities for the coming year will total £2.6 billion, three times the amount provided by the last Conservative Government.

I understand why my hon. Friend made certain points about his constituents having been failed, but the Government recognise the difficulties and we have policies in place to tackle them. It should be borne in mind that the problems were a long time coming and that resolving them fully will be a difficult, long-term job. A large part of the overall spending will go towards delivering our commitment to bring all council housing up to a decent standard by 2010. However, authorities' housing programmes fund a significant amount of private sector housing renewal work—local authorities currently spend more than £250 million a year on more than 70,000 dwellings.

We are providing considerably more funding this year for the north-west—an extra £55 million through the housing investment programme—and some £9.7 million has been allocated to east Lancashire local authorities this year for improving housing through the housing investment programme. This investment programme is due to increase by nearly 20 per cent. in England during the next three years.

Some 21 authorities in the north-west region will share an extra £243 million over the next three years through the neighbourhood renewal fund, which deals with some of the wider regeneration issues in my hon. Friend's constituency and in other towns in the north-west. In east Lancashire the neighbourhood renewal fund will provide an extra £20 million for regeneration during the next three years. That extra funding will enable those authorities to make significant improvements to living conditions in their area and give homeowners the incentive to invest in their homes.

Apart from neighbourhood renewal and the increased funding from the housing investment programme, there are also proposals, which my hon. Friend rightly identifies, for a market renewal fund that will deal specifically with the need to restructure the housing markets in some areas, particularly in the north-west, and create value where presently there is none. That is

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the nub of many of the problems in my hon. Friend's constituency. Many people have come to the view that combating low demand will require intervention, particularly at the sub-regional level.

We have received comprehensive proposals for a housing market renewal fund from several different authorities and we are considering them as part of the current comprehensive spending review. The review will conclude in the summer and at this stage I cannot say any more about the prospects of finance for the proposals, although this debate will help to raise the profile of the issue and underline the importance of ensuring that difficult housing issues are properly understood by the Government.

However, whatever the outcome of the spending review, action should not be postponed, and we look to local authorities to make a start. Inevitably, there are difficult choices to be made. Restructuring the housing market can mean managing the decline of an area, removing obsolescent housing and reducing the scale of new building. That requires engaging people in a real and honest debate about the future.

It can be very uncomfortable for people to think in terms of their house or housing in their community or area being either demolished, partially demolished or substantially changed. The situation requires stakeholders to work together in a genuine partnership. Hyndburn must, of course, play its part in that. I acknowledge the work of the east Lancashire partnership, which provides a sound foundation on which to build, and it might be of help to set out some of its work to find a long-term strategy for the problems that it faces.

The east Lancashire partnership and the east Lancashire housing forum have been considering new ideas and jointly devising some ways forward. My hon. Friend has made the case well that the problem does not exist solely in one area, so the solutions will not be found inside one local authority boundary. The east Lancashire partnership strategy was launched almost two years ago. It sets out a vision for east Lancashire in 2020 and identifies the significant challenges that the sub-region faces in tackling the problems of a declining, low-wage, low-skill economy, with the attendant problems of poor health and housing, dilapidation and crime. The vision is of east Lancashire offering city living in a rural context, with services for the 500,000 inhabitants planned accordingly.

The strategy envisages a new, integrated transport system run along the lines of those in metropolitan passenger transport authority areas, an expansion of cultural and sporting activity and of higher education opportunities and higher retention rates. However, it is also clear that the number one priority will be to tackle the acute housing problems. The strategy has been produced as part of the Local Government Association's new commitment to regeneration programme, and east Lancashire is one of the 22 pathfinders nationwide.

The Government office has played a part in advising on and supporting development of the strategy, including regular review meetings with the partnership. The strategy is a voluntary document, as there is no statutory requirement to produce it. However, local

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strategies are becoming increasingly important in combating problems such as those faced by my hon. Friend's constituency.

The east Lancashire partnership housing strategy was published a year ago, following detailed research by consultants and extensive consultation. It sets out an appreciation of the demographic, physical, economic, social and environmental factors that are the main drivers of the sub-region's market across all housing sectors. Its proposed solutions are very much in line with Government policies and mirror ideas on urban regeneration and emerging initiatives, including neighbourhood renewal and the new deal for communities. Those largely depend on successful lobbying for new resources, and the strategy provides a framework that should help the partnership to make a more cogent case. I am sure that my hon. Friend and Members of Parliament for neighbouring constituencies will play an important part in that.

Partnership between authorities and other agencies in the area is key if we are to make an impact on the problems. I urge my hon. Friend to encourage people in his constituency to strengthen further the ties between different parts of east Lancashire, for the good of the whole area.

It might help my hon. Friend if I say something about his local authority's housing performance. The local authority has made considerable progress. I take his point about his constituents feeling that they have been failed by it, but it is important to give due credit for its efforts to overcome problems. Officials conduct annual assessments of all local authorities' housing performances, and Hyndburn has some strengths. It is to be commended for the inclusive nature of its housing policies. The council manages 3,800 homes, which are distributed across the borough. There have been some clear achievements, partly as a result of a policy for

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ethnic minority groups. I am sure that that policy went a considerable way to ensuring that my hon. Friend's area did not see problems of the sort that occurred elsewhere in the summer.

Mr. Pope : I deliberately did not attack Hyndburn council. Its officers do a good job, especially Ken Bury, the director of housing, so I am grateful for the Minister's points about the council's record. Its difficulty is one of resources.

Ms Keeble : When a local authority has such massive problems but is clearly taking steps to deal with them, it is important that it is given some credit. It has also done some good partnership work and has made progress on providing decent homes. There is scope for improvement on some issues, as it would be the first to recognise, but it is important that the council continues its constructive and long-term strategic approach towards tackling some problems.

I said at the outset that we were dealing with serious and long-term problems to which there are no easy or quick fixes. There is a clear role for the local authorities to work with others, including regional partners. The Government are committed to playing their part in tackling the real but often under-recognised problem. We need to ensure that people with roots in those communities and a long-term commitment to them, who have seen the area's decline over the years, do not feel let down by their council, Government or MP. They must be able to see that policies are being put in place to deal with their financial security—after all, most people who buy their homes see them as their bedrock financial security. They must also see a way forward for their community, so that it can be restored to the kind of condition that they often look back to. They can then lead much more constructive, safe and secure lives.

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