HC Deb 09 September 2003 vol 410 cc303-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

8.26 pm
Mr. John Cummings (Easington)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise housing investment in my constituency, which is a vital element in the overall regeneration strategy of Easington district. A large proportion of housing in former mining settlements, including Dawdon, Blackhall, Easington colliery and Hordon, were directly associated with the mining industry. Consisting mainly of terraced properties, the housing was largely built by private coal companies in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. After nationalisation of the mines in 1947, the colliery housing, as it was then known, was taken over by the National Coal Board and passed into the ownership of British Coal.

Demand for traditional terraced housing for families in the former mining villages has declined as new estates have been built, providing off-street parking and gardens where children can play in safety. With the gradual closure of the pits, colliery housing has been sold off, in some cases in lots consisting of dozens of properties to housing associations, and in others to private landlords in large blocks. Properties were also sold individually.

The main issues for the private rented sector of housing stock in Easington are oversupply, the large number of vacant or void properties, the growing prevalence of antisocial behaviour and lack of investment. Local residents, many of whom were formerly tenants of British Coal, find their quality of life and the value of their properties in a spiral of decline that mirrors the decline of their physical environment. The communities are deteriorating, and people who own their own houses find it difficult to sell them in a declining market.

Private landlords are buying the properties, renting them out with scant regard to tenancy conditions and further compounding the problems. Many private rented properties, often offered for short-term lets, are poorly maintained, further contributing to deterioration of the area. In parts of Easington colliery, landlords appear simply to have abandoned properties and boarded them up. Particular properties have been empty for several years, again adding to the appearance of neglect and dereliction in villages. Antisocial behaviour, often drug related, is prevalent in the private rented properties, in spite of the best efforts of the community safety partnership, the police and local authorities.

Once vibrant mining communities with a strong sense of identity are under immense pressure. The problems of antisocial behaviour, crime, generational unemployment, low skill levels, poor health, lack of disposable income and physical deterioration are eroding the very foundations of those communities. The local chamber of trade in Easington colliery is extremely concerned about the deterioration in its business and the increase in crime and vandalism that seem to go hand in hand with the general dereliction self-evident in many parts of Easington Colliery. Intervention is required from central and local government to address those issues strategically.

The district of Easington, with its sub-regional partners, commissioned a housing market study to help to quantify the problem and to assist in determining future policy. Following a comprehensive study, a housing needs survey was completed by the district council in 2003. It revealed some startling figures about the current needs and circumstances of people living in the district of Easington, to which I shall return in a moment.

The report points to a number of actions that the Government can take to alleviate many of the problems in the private housing sector. Proposals for the licensing of private landlords, linking registration to housing benefit applications, are certainly long overdue. The Government should also support moves to make regeneration quicker and easier, speeding up the compulsory purchase order process, especially where there are difficulties in tracing ownership. Planning and land use powers should be exercised in a sensible and appropriate, but not over-bureaucratic, manner. It is essential that we protect our countryside, our heritage and our award-winning coastline. It is equally vital that we create increased opportunities for investment in newly emerging business sectors to allow greater exploitation of market opportunities. It is essential, in rebalancing the economy of east Durham, to provide opportunities to arrest any further decline in our population and communities.

Additional funding must be made available to tackle private sector decline in former coalfield areas such as Easington, which are outside the Government's nine pathfinder market renewal areas.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck)

The problems that my hon. Friend describes in his constituency mirror almost exactly those that we face in Wansbeck, which is not surprising as the constituencies have similar profiles. Does he agree that the best way to tackle the problems is through a multi-agency approach, with the local authority, the Housing Corporation, the private sector and the residents working together? If he agrees, will he accept an invitation to visit Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, where such a partnership exists? I am sure that it would have many advantages for his constituency. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has the opportunity, would she, too, like to visit my constituency?

Mr. Cummings

It is always a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend's constituency and I look forward to doing so, perhaps in the not too distant future. I thank him for that helpful contribution.

I was referring to the nine pathfinder market renewal areas. Resources need to reflect the long-term approach that is required to address the problems comprehensively. Funds must be long term and more flexible but targeted on achieving fundamental and agreed outcomes for many areas in the Durham coalfields. That is essential to effect change in a private housing market that is fast spiralling downwards. When the results of the housing needs and stock condition surveys were linked together and analysed, they indicated a special case of multiple deprivation, high housing needs and extremely poor housing conditions in both the public and private rented sectors in the Easington district.

I should like to take this opportunity to record some interesting figures on housing in Easington. Seventeen per cent. of residents in the district, which equates to about 6,400, say that their current accommodation is inadequate. Almost 5,000 homes require repair or improvement.

Single adults make up 34 per cent. of all households in Easington; 57 per cent. of householders are couples and 9 per cent. are single parents. Forty-two per cent. of households have incomes of less than £10,000 a year; 80 per cent. have incomes of less than the national average of £23,000. Over 51 per cent. of households were in receipt of financial support, of which 48 per cent. were in receipt of housing benefit. Those statistics give some indication of the scale of deprivation and need in the Easington constituency.

In assessing future housing requirements, the survey reveals that about 1,500 households plan to leave Easington in the next five years—45 per cent. owing to employment, 31 per cent. for family reasons and 22 per cent. owing to poor quality neighbourhood. However, to try to balance that, 1,280 new households will be forming, of which 50 per cent. would prefer owner occupation.

The most significant anticipated change is the major decrease—3,521—in the number of people aged 30 to 44. That is the biggest decrease in all age groups, and it involves the main economically active group. The over-65 age group shows a constant rise over the same period, with a total of 820 more people in that age group expected in the district by 2011.

The stock condition survey indicates a total stock of 11,974 council dwellings in all tenure groups. Work on the survey took place in January and February 2002, with the report being produced in June 2002. The survey was carried out on a sample basis, covering 1,205 dwellings, and was supplemented by information provided by the local authority. The survey identified 7,900 dwellings—66 per cent. of the stock—currently failing the decent homes standard, with that figure increasing to 8,122, or 67 per cent. of the total housing stock, likely to fail decent homes standards by 2004. The cost of rectifying those defects is estimated at almost £44 million for current and £30 million for potential failures.

Improvement works to enhance the council's stock of houses and bring it up to current, modern standards have been identified, costing £43 million. Work to non-traditional properties is currently assessed at more than £3.5 million, with further work required in 16 to 20 years' time. The incidence of structural defects in the council's housing stock is higher than average, with outstanding structural repairs amounting to more than £3 million. The district council has received a recommendation that £31.14 million be allocated to major repairs over the next 30 years, mainly to cover anticipated structural problems.

In the public sector, the council has taken the positive step of establishing an arm's length management organisation to deliver its housing service, subject to formal consultation with its tenants, as its preferred delivery option. I am delighted that Easington is one of the 13 local authorities that were successful in gaining ALMO status. Provided that the council achieves the required two-star rating for its housing maintenance service, £23.6 million will be invested in the council housing stock. The programme will be spread over 15 months, from January 2004.

Under the £1.5 billion national programme, Easington will continue to own its housing stock. It will retain strategic responsibilities for overall housing policies, while the ALMO will take over the day-to-day management of the properties, leaving the local authority to focus on major improvements and repairs.

The Minister for Housing and Planning said in announcing the results of ALMO round 3: This extra funding will help improve tenants' quality of life and make substantial progress to ensuring all homes in the Easington District are in a good state of repair with modern facilities and services suitable for the 21st century. That offer of substantial new investment was conditional on the council improving its performance and achieving a two or three-star rating for housing maintenance. However, I have every confidence that the housing management and maintenance delivery service is being improved and will be brought up to an appropriate standard. The feedback that I have received from council tenants in Easington, which might well be similar to that in other constituencies, shows that they would prefer the council to retain ownership and control of its housing stock rather than having their homes transferred to a housing association or independent company.

All is not doom and gloom in terms of private investment in Easington. Following the principle of comprehensive performance assessment, it is necessary to find a balance between the public and private housing markets. The district council is working on several key strategic targets, including reducing its housing stock by 400 properties a year, reconfiguring maintenance to give a 60:40 ratio of planned to responsive repairs, and maximising all available funds to achieve the decent homes standard that has been set by central Government to be achieved by 2010.

There has been significant private sector investment in Easington. Not least, £50 million of private sector capital has recently been invested in the new Dalton park outlet shopping centre, which is located next to the A19 at Murton. Northumbrian Water has invested more than £60 million on new treatment works. Peterlee has attracted substantial investment to its industrial estates and enterprise zones. Thanks to substantial private investment at Seaham Hall, we have one of the most prestigious hotels and conference facilities in the region. New infrastructure and industrial estates have been completed at Seaham to compliment the work already carried out to relocate the Seaham Harbour Dock Company and its associated distribution centre and warehousing. Incidentally, we also have some impressive call centres and traditional industrial units in Peterlee, should my right hon. Friend the Chancellor wish to follow up his suggestion of relocating civil service jobs from the capital. I have written to him separately on that issue.

I acknowledge the commitment of the present Government, especially my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, to coalfield regeneration. Much has been achieved since 1997. The difference is clear from new infrastructure and public and private sector investment. However, sadly, there is still much more to be done. In view of the success of the market renewal pathfinders, I appeal to the Minister to consider the introduction of some sort of special delivery vehicle that would extend the benefits of successful pilot schemes into areas such as Easington, which have a desperate need for additional private sector investment as part of a co-ordinated and strategic approach to housing renewal. The problem of private sector decline and multiple deprivation is not restricted purely to urban areas and conurbations. In many respects, the problem is much more acute in coalfield areas such as Easington, in which rapid industrial decline and demographic change have highlighted the need for private sector renewal.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise these extremely important issues. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response, and perhaps she would pass on my thanks to the Minister for Housing and Planning who visited my constituency last week and saw at first hand the areas to which I have referred.

8.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) on securing the debate and using it to raise a series of extremely important issues relating to housing in his constituency. I know that he is passionate and extremely knowledgeable about that. He is right that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning saw at first hand several of the problems that face Easington during his visit there last week.

Easington is fourth in the index of multiple deprivation rankings, so in addition to the housing challenges that it faces, there are considerable economic challenges to tackle as well. As a consequence, Easington has benefited from a range of targeted regeneration and neighbourhood renewal programmes. The mainstream housing funding allocations to Easington have increased to reflect its position in the index. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right. Like other coalfield areas, Easington faces a series of problems, including low demand. Estates were often built within a walking distance of pits so that the community could walk to work. The infrastructure was frequently of a low quality. When the pits closed, the populations slowly and gradually moved away. Estates in my constituency also reflect those problems. It, too, is a coalfield area, with a high level of voids and a low level of local jobs, as my hon. Friend described. There is also the problem of antisocial behaviour.

The stable communities plan is not simply about tackling areas of high housing demand, but about tackling areas with low housing demand; it is also about the necessary link between economic regeneration and housing renewal. Too often programmes have concentrated on housing renewal and not on getting jobs to the area. Alternatively, they have concentrated on getting jobs to the area and encouraging economic regeneration, but not on housing renewal. As a consequence, local people who got a job moved out, contributing to the further decline of those estates and communities. We need to approach that problem by taking a full strategic look at the entire local housing market, both public and private sector, as my hon. Friend said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) was right to describe the need for a partnership between the Housing Corporation and the private sector. I was interested to hear of the partnership in his constituency and I would be happy to visit it to see the work that is taking place. Many hon. Members have raised that issue, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) listened to much of the debate.

The problems facing communities such as Easington are deep seated and will take time to turn around. We need to deal with the legacy of the past, but also build communities that will thrive in the future. We need to link housing and economic regeneration while also considering the other factors that are important for sustainable communities. As well as needing decent homes, people need jobs, good schools, shops, excellent health services and co-ordinated transport. The Durham beaches are returning to their former beauty, so the quality of the environment is also a factor. The Government office for the north-east is working with partners, including the regional development agency, to ensure that all those factors are taken into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington raised some particular issues that I shall try to address in turn. He pleaded for us to consider how the market renewal pathfinder programme could support areas such as Easington. The nine market renewal pathfinders were chosen in areas where the problems of low demand are most acute. We do not have plans for further pathfinders. The intention is to share with non-pathfinder local authorities the lessons learned from the pathfinder programme so that they, too, can tackle problems of low demand.

Today I spoke at the annual conference of the coalfield communities campaign in Wales. Many delegates raised the problem of low demand outside the pathfinder areas but within coalfield communities. The campaign and English Partnerships are working together to assess the problem of low demand in coalfield areas and to determine where the hot spots are located. They have contacted local authorities across the country. My hon. Friend might want to ensure that Easington has contributed to the survey and their work.

Officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will be discussing the position with English Partnerships and the coalfield communities campaign, and they will be considering what approach to take to many of those areas, which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, are outside the current pathfinder areas but nevertheless face many similar problems and could benefit from the same approach. We need to look, too, at the role that regional housing boards can play in that regard and at the relationship with local strategic partnerships and neighbourhood renewal programmes.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the number of homes in Easington that are below the decent homes standard and will continue to be for the next few years. The decent homes standard is particularly important because it is simply unfair in the modern world that some families should be living in houses that are damp, cold or inadequate in some way or another.

Considerable progress is already being made towards the decent homes standard, but we all have to recognise that considerable extra investment is needed. We have set out a series of ways in which local authorities and social housing providers can benefit from extra investment.

My hon. Friend is right to say that Easington was one of the successful candidates for the third round of the ALMO programme, which is welcome news for the area. That should allow the authority to bring the 8,000 properties that do not meet the decent homes standard up to that standard by 2010. It is one of 13 authorities allocated a share of £1.5 billion of funding, announced in July, which should mean that more than 185,000 homes benefit from increased investment over the next seven years. Easington needs to do more work with the Government office and the community housing taskforce to proceed with its plans, but if it is successful, there will be an immediate allocation of £23.6 million, and potentially up to £117 million for the whole of the programme.

My hon. Friend also mentioned some of the difficulties that can arise with private landlords. That is an extremely serious problem, and local councils can find that their hands are tied in tackling antisocial behaviour or poor housing in an area where a minority of private landlords simply do not recognise their responsibilities to maintain their properties at a decent standard and tackle such behaviour.

The problems that my hon. Friend described often arise in areas where there is low demand for housing, but we have to take action to prevent the damage and disruption that can be caused by unscrupulous and sometimes even criminal landlords. They not only harm their tenants but can undermine the whole community. It is totally unacceptable for private landlords to opt out of their responsibilities and to benefit from the problems of already disadvantaged communities such as Easington. There are landlords who acquire properties at very low prices and show scant regard for their responsibilities or the behaviour of tenants. There are even some who seek to hide their identity behind anonymous holding companies.

The Housing Bill is particularly important because it will introduce discretionary powers for local authorities to license all private landlords in parts of their area with low housing demand and problems in the private rented sector. Those powers will be available elsewhere to tackle serious antisocial behaviour in that sector. We hope that those powers will allow local authorities to control rogue landlords, who are a minority but can, nevertheless, cause problems that affect an entire community.

Where landlords fail to meet the requirements of a licensing scheme, local authorities will have the power to issue management orders against the landlords and assume control of the properties and the rental income. We cannot allow such antisocial behaviour to continue. We recognise of course that not all private landlords operate irresponsibly. There are significant opportunities for them to contribute to the objectives of the sustainable communities plan, and the private housing sector has a critical role in partnerships to address housing market problems in coalfield communities and low income areas. Local authorities will now have extra powers to do more to support improving homes in the private sector for vulnerable households who currently live in non-decent homes. They will also have wider powers to provide assistance to help owners and tenants to repair and improve their homes.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the need to support moves to make regeneration easier and quicker. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill contains measures to help in that respect. A considerable programme of action and investment is underway to provide social housing and to tackle problems with private housing and the housing market in general. In the end, we all recognise that the coalfield communities in areas that have suffered from a legacy of under-investment and a failure to address economic—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes to Nine o' clock.