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Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab):
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting the extra money for housing, and especially the amount needed to ensure that the decent homes target is achieved for the vast majority of people in rented accommodation. However, will he look again at the small number of
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tenants in local authority housing who have voted not to transfer their stock and who would like their homes to reach the decent homes target by borrowing money against future rent income? Is it not time we let them have the same benefits as other tenants?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his fair comments about what we have achieved in the spending review. He raises a serious point, over which he and I differ. When I faced the £19 billion disinvestment in housing, I had a choice: either I could get the money from tax and public sector borrowing, or I could raise it in other ways. In the end, I have done both. The amount of money given to local authorities for housing maintenance and management has increased, but I also offer different alternatives to those wanting to improve their properties at a faster rate. Those alternatives include the PFI and the transfer plan, but then I also introduced the new scheme involving arm's length management organisations. Under that scheme, houses still belong to the local authorities, which can then vote on what happens to them. Of those that voted, 82 per cent. voted to make improvements to housingin kitchens and so onat a faster pace than would have been allowed by borrowing through public expenditure in the normal way.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said that a minority voted against that option, and he is right. We have asked the few who did to rethink, but the rules must be fair to all authorities. If I changed the rules half way through the process, why should authorities not say that they preferred to do things in another way?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Whether I like it or not, I am bound to say that administrative efficiencies of between 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. have been achieved. That means that I have more money available for housing, and that less is lost in administration.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): In point 8 of his statement, the Deputy Prime Minister blatantly admitted that homelessness had continued to rise, on trend, over the past seven years. Is not that a terrible indictment of seven years of Labour Government? If homelessness continues to rise, why should we expect that the crew that failed to tackle the problem over the past seven years should be any more successful in the future?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
It is a fact that homelessness has continued to rise. It doubled under the previous Administration, but that does not help us. The Government intend to reduceand probably eliminatethe homeless by 2008. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but the House knows that I have problems with English. I did not go to public school, so there is a limit to what I am able to say. Opposition Members can be such twits. We believe that we can eliminate the problem of homelessness by providing more resources, which is precisely what we are doing.
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I do not think that the record of the previous Administration is anything to shout about. We inherited a tremendous amount of homelessness. We also inherited a tremendous number of families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, whom we have now put into proper accommodation. Homelessness is still a problem for us, and we are dealing with it.
Mr. Purchase: I welcome the additional expenditure that has been announced. On a narrower point following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, does my right hon. Friend remember a famous socialist, Aneurin Bevan, saying that he would have to stuff the mouths of the doctors with gold in order to bring health services under democratic administration? Does he understand the disappointment felt in the Labour movement as a whole that we are stuffing local authorities with refurbished kitchens and bathrooms in order to take housing out of democratic administration?
The Deputy Prime Minister: That may well be, but I remind my hon. Friend of the problems even for Aneurin Bevan of making public resources meet public priorities. On his general point about democratic accountability, the houses managed by arm's length management organisations are owned by the local authorities. The ALMOs put tenants on the board, which councils do not do. That allows tenants to take part in the administration of the housing and the organisations are allowed to borrow from the public sector under certain conditions. That is probably a proper compromise. It is one that I thought was important to deal with public accountability. It is one of three measures that has led to a tremendous improvement.
My hon. Friend should not be too dismissive of the fact that people will have a decent kitchen and a decent home to live in. It is something that they welcome and it is why they are voting in overwhelming numbers for it.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister referred to quality of life in his statement, and most of us would agree with what he said. Does he realise that in suburban areas he is reducing quality of life by, in practice, giving the green light to any developer who wants to grab any back garden or greenfield site, regardless of the quality of the development or the effect on the environment?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. There has been some speculation in the press about this. It is a point that has normally arisen under the planning rules when the grounds of some big houses have become available. Residents have complained that houses are being built in an area where they did not expect them. However, we are getting land used much more effectively than before, and that should be welcomed.
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Suburban sprawl happened at a tremendous rate under the previous Government. If I remember correctly, the hon. Gentleman was a member of that Government. The number of out-of-town shopping centres increased from 150 to 1,050, and that aided suburban sprawl. We are now changing that. More people are coming back to the cities, we have increased the density of housing and we are getting more houses built on less land. That is something that the hon. Gentleman should welcome.
Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. He is well aware that in the north-west Warrington is a high-growth area. In my constituency, demand for affordable housing greatly exceeds supply. Will he invest in shared ownership schemes and other measures that allow affordable houses for sale to be kept within the affordable sector?
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point. What she says is true in both the north and the south. I am well aware that Warrington, where I started work, is a tremendous growth areaanother success of Labour party policies. But that has created real problems in providing affordable homes. We are increasing the amount of money for affordable homes on a scale that has not been achieved before. Hopefully, that will help. As my hon. Friend knows, the Dean report suggests different ways in which people may be able to purchase their homes. We shall be reporting on that shortly. We have put some of the measures in the Housing Bill, and we hope that they will bring about an improvement. We are giving a tremendous amount of attention to our policy on affordable homes, because an awful lot of people have the desire to own a home but simply cannot afford one. Our doubling of the social housing programme will help in that.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): I welcome the commitment to building new homes and improving existing stock. Those fortunate enough to get new or improved homes will no doubt have enhanced health in the future, and that will be a good contribution to the nation. Will the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the right to buy and access to home improvement grants in Northern Ireland have helped to transform estates and rural housing? Will he commit to further promoting those opportunities here on the mainland?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not know the exact details for Northern Ireland, but in the parts of the country for which I have responsibility, I am not sure that the right to buy has necessarily helped solve the problems in rural areas. In fact, people constantly complain to me that the right to buy is taking public housing away and denying people who wish to live in the area the opportunity to do so. The rule should have been that those who bought a house intended to live in it, but in my experience houses are purchased at the highest price by someone who lives in the areathat was one of the conditions laid down by the previous Administrationbut they then rent it out as a holiday home. That denies people public housing.
Most of the £40 billion that was used to subsidise the right-to-buy programme simply led to the current £19 billion disinvestment in public housing. That is why we
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brought in certain restrictions on the right to buy. We do not deny that people want to buy their homes. One million people have bought their homes under the various measures that we have available. We will improve on that, but at the end of the day the right to buy has to be taken into account in acknowledging the right of people to live in a decent house.
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