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22 Oct 2002 : Column 162—continued

Mrs. Roche: As I said, we are on target in terms of decency standards in the social housing sector. I shall go into detail later.

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It is because of all the years of neglect that the hon. Member for Bath can claim that 80,000 new affordable dwellings are needed every year, although it is right that we can talk about different numbers—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: Yes, but for the last time and only because the hon. Gentleman is a Front Bencher.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the Minister—her generosity is great. She talks about all the years of regret—I mean neglect—but in 1980 we built 108,000 affordable social housing units, whereas last year a miserly 22,000 such units were built. Last year, the Government spent #637 million on affordable social housing, whereas in equivalent terms we spent #2.3 billion in 1992. How can she talk about Xall the years of neglect"?

Mrs. Roche: I thought that the hon. Gentleman got it right the first time—when he said Xregret". It would be nice to hear a note of regret from the Conservatives. Let me remind them that, between 1992 and 1997, there was a year-on-year decrease in housing investment throughout the country. At the same time, local authorities were prevented from releasing capital receipts to repair council homes, and council rents more than doubled in real terms—[Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Gentleman chuntering on. That is the truth, even though he would like to ignore it.

Let me see whether I can return to some form of consensus—the House knows what a deeply caring, sharing and consensual person I am. The real questions facing us are how to get the right housing in the right places, and how to sustain communities that offer an attractive quality of life. Different regions and places have different priorities and need different solutions. That is why we believe that regional planning bodies are best placed to assess the need for open market and social housing in their regions. We need to strike the right balance, providing homes and protecting the countryside, and at the same time ensuring that communities thrive.

The perspective of sustainable communities is extremely important. It is not simply a matter of how much housing, but how that housing contributes to mixed use and diverse communities. We cannot afford to waste land, as we used to do. I was pleased to hear the warm welcome that the hon. Member for Bath gave to the new PPG3.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Roche: May I make a little progress?

The new guidelines have introduced a curb on low-density housing in favour of high densities delivered through good design. We have met the target of 60 per cent. of development being built on brownfield land. I am pleased to see—[Interruption.] I am sure that the discussion is terribly interesting, but I assume that hon. Members have come to take part in the debate. I am

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pleased to see that the new guidelines are starting to deliver, but the hon. Member for Bath was right to say that local authorities—and let us not forget developers—should do all they can to ensure that PPG3 is implemented.

Siobhain McDonagh: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that there is no point beseeching local authorities to use much of the land that they have, particularly brownfield sites, when they simply intend not to use such land and to keep it empty for years, as my local authority does in Merton? It is not just a question of money in London, especially south London. It is also a question of access to land. Large ex-industrial sites that will never be used for employment again are kept empty for years, by authorities such as mine, because they are unwilling to reconsider their planning policies. What could the Government do to encourage or force them to do so?

Mrs. Roche: I will certainly take my hon. Friend's remarks into consideration. I know how serious the issue is. I was near her part of the world over the weekend, and I know that it is an important issue locally.

People with reasonable expectations of participating in the open housing market simply cannot afford to do so, because house prices are rocketing. We know that young families on modest incomes cannot set up home because they cannot afford to rent. Homeless people are housed in unsatisfactory temporary accommodation. During the debate, I am sure that many hon. Members will raise the topic of the right to buy and its impact on the availability of affordable housing in London and the south-east.

Let me make it clear that we have no plans to end or to extend the right-to-buy scheme. However, we are looking at what can be done to tackle abuses, and the effects of the scheme in housing crisis areas. The previous Government acted to help people who needed affordable homes in rural areas by restricting resales of right-to-buy homes. We will act to help people in urban areas who also need affordable homes, but we believe that proposals to extend the right to buy to all housing association tenants would lead to a greater shortage of affordable homes. We, unlike the Conservatives, want to increase supply, not reduce it.

Andrew George (St. Ives): Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: No, I must make progress.

Our agenda for more housing that people can afford extends to helping our essential public servants, such as nurses and teachers, who in many parts of the country cannot afford a home on the open market. The starter home initiative aims to help 10,000 key workers, particularly teachers, police, nurses and other essential health workers, to buy their first homes within a reasonable travelling distance from their workplace in areas where the high cost of housing is undermining recruitment and retention. We are considering what further resources will be made available for key workers beyond March 2004, when the current starter home initiative finishes. We seek to extend and expand the provision of affordable housing and seek the closer

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involvement of employers. We are also looking to work closely with registered social landlords in the high-pressure areas of London and the south who are capable of quick and efficient delivery of new stock.

That is why we recently announced the establishment of a new challenge fund through the approved development programme. We are top-slicing up to #200 million of the ADP in 2003–04 to deliver more housing where it is most needed more quickly and more efficiently while maintaining good value for money.

Mr. Streeter : Does the Minister accept that there is a crisis in access to affordable housing to buy in the seven counties of the south-west? Does she accept that the problem is not merely a London or south-east phenomenon? If so, why on earth is the challenge fund not also available to innovative schemes in the west country?

Mrs. Roche: The fund is available in some areas where there is high demand, so some assistance has been made available. When all the results have come in, I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman has the available information. The challenge fund is a radical new approach that will encourage housing associations and developers to produce better affordable housing more quickly.

At the beginning of my speech, I dealt with the problem of decency, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred. It is worth reminding ourselves of the figures. Some 1.6 million social rented homes were not of a decent standard in April 2001. We are on track to reduce that number by 500,000 by 1 April 2004. Of course, we should not forget that the problems with housing conditions also extend to the private sector. More than 4 million owner-occupied homes and more than 1 million homes in the private rental sector do not meet decency standards. That is why, following the spending review, we have a new objective to increase the number of vulnerable households living in private sector homes that have been brought up to decent standards.

The hon. Member for Bath mentioned empty homes. I agree that the issue is of great concern and that we certainly have far too many such homes—currently, some 750,000. Although that represents 3.5 per cent. of the housing stock, the figure is still far too high. That is why we are working with local authorities and other partners, such as the Empty Homes Agency, to develop policies and strategies to bring more of the homes back into beneficial use. Last year, we introduced a tax allowance to encourage the bringing back into rental use of empty residential accommodation situated above commercial premises. We also reduced the rate of VAT applicable to the renovation of long-term empty homes.

Dr. Julian Lewis : Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: I must make progress.

I recognise that we need to do more. That is why we are giving very careful consideration to the proposal made earlier this year by the Select Committee on Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions in its report on empty homes that local authorities be

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given powers to take over the management of homes that have been empty for a long time and bring them back into housing use.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South raised the important issue of homelessness, and it would be remiss of me not to deal with it in a debate of such importance. We certainly believe that improving the supply of affordable housing in the next few years will be critical to tackling homelessness in areas of higher demand. We must do more to provide settled housing solutions for homeless families if we are to avoid the long-term damage that life in unsatisfactory temporary accommodation can cause to parents and their children. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will have knowledge about that subject from our experience as local Members of Parliament.

We must acknowledge that creating more accommodation in isolation will not tackle homelessness. To deal with homelessness more effectively, we must provide more than housing. We must also tackle the reasons for people's homelessness, such as debt, drug misuse, unemployment and domestic violence. That is central to the Government's approach to homelessness.

Our approach is underpinned by the Homelessness Act 2002, and I was grateful for the welcome that it received. It requires all local authorities to set out the way in which they intend to tackle homelessness in their districts and to outline the resources that they expect to be available to deliver their policies. The deep-rooted problems of homelessness cannot be tackled overnight, but we are making an early start by dealing with one of its worst manifestations: families with children who are forced to live in bed and breakfast hotels. We are committed to working with local authorities. The hon. Member for—is it High Point?

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