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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 May 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Affordable Homes

1. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): If he will make a statement on the number of new affordable homes built in the UK in the past 12 months. [55527]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): In England, a total of 19,535 new affordable homes were built by registered social landlords and local authorities during 2001-02. Over the same period, 10,311 dwellings were acquired, converted or refurbished by registered social landlords and local authorities for use as affordable housing.

Mr. Rendel: I am sure that everyone would agree that that housebuilding figure is far too low. Indeed, I understand that overall housebuilding is at its lowest since 1927. However, some local authorities are trying in their district plans to set minimum proportions of affordable housing for all major new housing estates. Has the Secretary of State set any maximum at which that minimum percentage can be set by local authorities, because my local authority certainly believes that it cannot set a level anything like that which I would like?

Mr. Byers: I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that there must be concern about the very low number of housebuilding starts last year. The good news is that, for the latest quarter for which we have figures, there has been something like a 10 per cent. increase compared with the quarter the year before. Indeed, in London new starts have doubled compared with the quarter the year before. The good news for affordable housing is that there has been an 18 per cent. increase compared with the quarter a year ago.

That is partly because local authorities are now using their powers under the planning regime to insist as a condition of granting permission that affordable housing be provided. I would certainly encourage local authorities to do that. We have provided guidance as a Department

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to encourage local authorities to look clearly at how they can secure additional social housing—affordable housing—as part of granting planning applications.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the average income in Tower Hamlets is £12,000 a year but the average cost of a house in Tower Hamlets is £180,000, which effectively means that no normal person in my constituency can afford to buy a house? Will he look, therefore, at the intermediate housing market and at, for example, increasing the cash incentive scheme, so that people in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere can afford to live in a house?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out the particular difficulties which I know she has in her constituency and which occur in Tower Hamlets more generally in relation to the dramatic increase in the value of properties in that part of London and, indeed, London and the south-east generally over the recent period. Cash incentives are one of the levers that can be used. The Government are looking very closely at how we can make that scheme even more attractive than it is at the present time.

To refer to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), because the value of land has also increased dramatically in Tower Hamlets, one real lever is to attach a condition to planning applications that affordable homes be made available. That is one of the most effective ways in the short term of providing additional housing that people can afford to buy. That must be at the heart of what we are trying to achieve through the planning regime.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating West Oxfordshire district council on spending £20 million over the next five years on social housing? Is he aware that the constraint that it faces is the shortage of land for sale? Will he look at two specific proposals to try to help in that respect? One is to allow local councils to pay slightly over the odds for land where social housing is involved, and the second, further to the point made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), is to consider reducing the number of houses that need to be built before a council is allowed to insist on social housing. That change could make a real difference and lead to more affordable housing in constituencies such as mine.

Mr. Byers: I certainly applaud any local authority that is able to provide additional housing that people can afford or housing that is available for rent. On the hon. Gentleman's first specific point, I want to give local government the freedom to invest in capital without needing the approval of central Government. That is part of giving local government more power, and his point is a good example of how local authorities can determine their own priorities. I certainly want that to happen, but we will need primary legislation to enable it to occur.

On the second point, I believe that local government should look constructively and with some imagination at how it can use its present powers under the planning regime. There is one constraint that I want to change. At the moment, it can attach conditions on affordable housing only to applications for residential development.

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It would be far better if it were also able to apply such a condition to retail and commercial development. That would clearly create an opportunity to make more affordable homes available. There are ways forward. It is a serious issue and one which we are taking seriously.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will my right hon. Friend turn his attention to the terrible problem in London, where 50,000 families are in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation? Hardly any council housing is being built and there is a net deficit in the construction of social housing. Will he insist that all development sites include at least 50 per cent. affordable housing, if he has any power to do so? When will the borrowing restrictions on local authorities be lifted so that they can invest in new council housing for people in desperate need?

Mr. Byers: It would be wrong to have a fixed percentage of affordable housing; my own view is that each application should be judged on its merits. In some cases, therefore, it might be less and in others it might be more than 50 per cent., but each application should be judged in relation to each site. On housebuilding, my hon. Friend is right that for 10 or 15 years there has been a small increase—in fact, a reduction—in the affordable homes and social housing being built. The good news, particularly in London, is that there is now an increase, certainly in the last quarter for which figures are available.

On the specific point made by my hon. Friend about bed-and-breakfast accommodation, it is scandalous that, for example, 6,600 children are brought up long-term in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We are going to tackle that. By March 2004, there will be no need for any child to be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation apart from in emergency situations.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Secretary of State will no doubt recall that before the 1997 election the Prime Minister said that

Why, then, has the number of social housing units plummeted from 150,000 in the three years prior to the 1997 election to 95,000 now, causing a disastrous rise of 11 per cent. in homelessness, including 11 per cent. child homelessness? The number of people housed in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation has trebled since the last election. When is the Secretary of State going to get out and do something about that serious problem, and sort it out for some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

Mr. Byers: I was interested to note that the Conservative spokesman did not refer to a comment that he made in our interesting debate in Westminster Hall last Thursday. For the information of the House, I shall relay it; I wonder to what extent it reflects Conservative policy. He challenged me and said:

Whether or not that is Conservative policy I do not know, but I want 100,000 affordable new homes to be built or refurbished by March 2004 and made available. We will

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double the amount of money made available to the Housing Corporation for affordable homes to £1.2 billion and we will increase local authority capital allocations by £500 million. Those improvements will make a real difference and provide housing opportunities for people who need them.

Antisocial Behaviour

2. Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): What effect neighbourhood and street wardens are having on curtailing antisocial behaviour in towns and cities. [55528]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Since 2001, 84 neighbourhood warden schemes have been put in place. This year, we are introducing 123 street warden schemes. Most schemes have tackling antisocial behaviour as one of their key objectives. The wardens have been extremely successful in curbing antisocial behaviour by using a variety of measures.

Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. Recently, three street wardens started work in Great Yarmouth town centre, and I could tell her dozens of good news stories that have occurred during this short period. On antisocial behaviour, however, yesterday there was an incident in the town that caused problems for the wardens. The general public have a particular perception of their powers, and they have difficulty getting across the reality. Will my hon. Friend take up the question of their powers, which are distinctly different from those of the police, so that the public are aware of what they can and cannot do?

Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend is right to focus on enforcement powers. At present, the wardens' enforcement powers belong to the local authority although there is provision, some way down the line, for the possibility that they may get policing powers. One reason why wardens are successful is that the public perceive them as being on their side. By operating in the way that they do, not only have wardens contributed to substantial drops in crime in certain areas, but they have been successful in getting antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts agreed, so they have brought about a big improvement in behaviour in particular neighbourhoods. I am sure that people in Great Yarmouth, too, will see an improvement in their town centre.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Does the Minister agree that restricting the access of under-18s to products used by graffiti vandals would be one of the most effective tools that neighbourhood wardens could be given?

Ms Keeble: I believe that that has been tried in some areas. It is interesting that some neighbourhood wardens go out with anti-graffiti spray paints. Several neighbourhood wardens have been successful in working with young people and have got them to take part in constructive activities in the area, instead of graffiti and vandalism. The engagement with that group has been extremely important.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Will my hon. Friend join me in praising the work

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of the north Paddington neighbourhood warden scheme, which was one of the first and which has been an extremely successful project that has made a major contribution to reducing the fear of crime and improving community cohesion? Thanks to the Government's neighbourhood renewal fund, we hope to extend the warden scheme to two other deprived parts of my constituency. Can my hon. Friend assure me that she is monitoring the mainstream programmes, such as mainstream policing or other projects delivered by the local authority, to make sure that the existence of Government-funded schemes such as wardens in deprived areas is not an excuse for the diversion of other resources to less needy parts of the community?

Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend is right. I shall make sure that those figures are monitored carefully. The money spent on neighbourhood wardens—more than £40 million, in total—has been a success in putting in place a new range of people to look after public spaces. The public have been enormously supportive and the schemes have shown tangible results, as reflected in the crime figures. I am sure that we shall see neighbourhood warden schemes as a permanent part of our public services.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): In the borough in which the Minister used to be the leader of the council and which I partly represent, neighbourhood wardens have been introduced and are welcome and successful. If, next week, when I anticipate that my Liberal Democrats will take over the administration of Southwark, they wish to extend the community warden scheme across the whole of the borough, can the Minister make sure that money will be available for that from one Government pocket or another? Will she and her colleagues seriously consider allowing the community wardens to take over the responsibilities of traffic wardens, so that the local policing of the lower-level offences will be done by one group of people, rather than by two separate and rather restricted organisations?

Ms Keeble: I believe that the neighbourhood wardens in Bermondsey have been successful in getting 10 acceptable behaviour contracts agreed, to control behaviour in that area. As I understand it, the Liberal Democrat administration is in place only with Conservative support—the Liberal Democrats do not have an overall majority. One of the things that make the wardens so successful is the fact that the public perceive them generally to be on their side. If wardens started issuing parking tickets, that might quickly deter public support. Although it remains an option for wardens to take on some enforcement powers from the local authority, in many places that has not happened because neighbourhood wardens have been so skilful in controlling behaviour and improving public spaces.

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