HC Deb 21 July 2004 vol 424 cc312-6
2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

What Government policy is in relation to the rights of local authority tenants to have homes which meet the decent standard criteria by 2010; and if he will make a statement. [185308]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

We are determined to make good the appalling neglect of council homes by the last Tory Government, who left us with a colossal £19 billion backlog in repairs and modernisation, and 2 million substandard homes. We have now reduced the number of substandard homes by 1 million and are on target to bring a further 600,000 homes up to the decent homes standard by 2008. Where councils can achieve the decent homes standard through mainstream funding they are perfectly entitled to do so; otherwise the most effective and efficient way to secure the extra funding and better standard of management required to deliver decent homes will be through a choice of public finance initiative, stock transfer or arm's length management organisation.

David Taylor

Many on these Benches benefited from an affordable, well maintained home rented from an accountable local authority, and we welcomed the reassurance of the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), that the right to a decent home would be extended even to those who retained their local authority landlord. Why has this Minister torn up that commitment, allowing home investment only through the PFI, ALMOs or stock transfer even where tenants prefer direct investment from their local authority to coerced privatisation? Does not the modernisers' mantra of "a right to choose" apply to our core supporters?

Keith Hill

Well, if my hon. Friend wants to put it in those terms, he can, but I believe that the decent homes programme is precisely designed to deliver to our core supporters. My hon. Friend misuses language when he talks about privatisation. Under the PFI and ALMO arrangements the stock remains council-owned stock and the tenants remain council tenants. The housing associations, which are a key lever for bringing in the huge new sums to deliver the decent homes programme, are not-for-profit organisations. Fifty per cent. of all tenants are in housing associations, which on the whole deliver homes that are of a higher standard and afford tenants greater satisfaction.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

Has the Minister seen yesterday's report from the UK Noise Association, called "Antisocial Housing"? Why do the Government continue to refuse to include noise insulation in their decent homes-plus standard?

Keith Hill

Ambient noise is included in the decent homes standard.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)

I welcome and understand the Minister's concern about the disrepair of our stock and that which we inherited, but the solutions that he proposes are seen as departmental proposals that are mean and spiteful— bad-tempered, even—and almost a betrayal of the wishes of many tenants who want to remain with their local council. For a Labour Minister to be denying them that right seems to me perverse.

Keith Hill

But I put it to my hon. Friend that we have so far had some 130 ballots on various aspects of the decent homes programme, and in over 80 per cent. of cases tenants have voted for the various forms of PFI, stock transfer or ALMO on offer; they have gone for what my hon. Friend seems to regard as a spiteful option. Where a ballot fails the Government are anxious to work with the local authority to examine the ways forward. That is occurring in Birmingham, close to my hon. Friend's constituency, where good progress is being made.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)

Birmingham, Hodge Hill borders my constituency, and in an effort to help my neighbour—[Laughter.] I might remind Labour Members that their party was in charge of Birmingham city council during the time to which I am referring, and it still is. No one could fail to have been struck by the number of homes and shops boarded up in that constituency. Take, for example, the parade of shops in Shard End, over which all the flats were boarded up. [Interruption.] Perhaps the new hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) might like to take note.

Mr. Speaker

Order. First of all, if the hon. Lady intended to raise matters relating to another constituency, she should have notified the hon. Gentleman. Secondly, I know we are near the end of term and I like to give some leeway, but the supplementary question must be short.

Mrs. Spelman

For all the worthy aspirations of the decent homes standard, does the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the Government have failed to get to grips with the problem of empty flats over shops, which could be made into perfectly decent homes and be an asset rather than a liability?

Keith Hill

I suppose that after her long sojourn in Hodge Hill I ought to welcome the hon. Lady back to the Dispatch Box, but in the light of her singular lack of success in Hodge Hill, it might be a good idea for her to repair to her own constituency, Meriden, at the earliest opportunity. She raised a number of issues, one of which was the decline in neighbourhood shops. I want to encourage Birmingham city council's programme of flourishing neighbourhoods, which is designed to deal with those issues. With regard to flats above shops, the Government have already set up a taskforce to deal with that problem. We are making progress there. The hon. Lady ought to at least acknowledge the Government's addition to the current Housing Bill of a proposition to bring empty homes in cities back into rented accommodation.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

What is the philosophical objection of my right hon. Friend to the idea that councils like Bolsover—which does not have social services, does not deal in education, and deals only with housing—should be able to keep control of the housing stock and build even more? What is the philosophical objection to that, even in new Labour?

Keith Hill

Well, I do not know. I am not always described as new Labour, nor, for that matter, is my Department invariably categorised in that fashion. As I understand it, my hon. Friend's local authority, Bolsover, is in the process of carrying out the stock options appraisal, which will be completed in January. At that stage we can have a look to see what is the appropriate way forward. As I have already indicated, mainstream funding by Bolsover may well be the appropriate way forward.

Mrs. Spelman

As Shelter's report on homeless households, "Living in Limbo", reveals, the number of people living in temporary accommodation has hit record levels at 94,000 and is still rising. Does the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister accept that temporary accommodation, by definition, is the antithesis of a decent home, and that a doubling of the length of time that people have to wait for a permanent home is an indictment of the Government's policy? Is not the truth of the matter that although the decent homes standard is a laudable ambition, for 94,000 people the Government have made it irrelevant?

Keith Hill

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. It is an issue about which the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House are deeply concerned. But while she has been away in Hodge Hill, she obviously missed the Chancellor's excellent statement, which will accord huge new levels of investment for social housing in the next spending review period. It is our expectation that as a result of those high levels of investment, which will yield no fewer than 75,000 new homes for social renting in that period, by 2008 we shall have turned round the increase in homelessness.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that of the three options that he says are available to tenants now to achieve decent homes—stock transfer, PFIs and ALMOs—ALMOs are different in that their borrowing counts against Government borrowing? Will he give an assurance to tenants in Sheffield who are working with the local authority towards ALMOs that no artificial limit will be placed on the amount they can borrow, so that even where tenants of local authorities choose the ALMO route, in practice it will not be available to them?

Keith Hill

We hope to work with Sheffield to deliver on the ALMO programme, for which funding is available. The new arrangements for housing capital finance were introduced in April, and they allow local authorities to determine how much they can afford to borrow beyond borrowing supported by central Government—the matter is linked to increases in the management and maintenance allowance. We hope that a number of authorities will be enabled to deliver decent homes under the so-called prudential code.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee recently released a critical report on progress towards the decent homes standard. Why are Ministers now the only people who believe that the decent homes standard will be met by 2010? The spending review provided new money for housing in growth areas and low-demand areas, but it provided no money for the decent homes programme. Given the tough efficiency savings that Ministers demand from the housing sector and the recent trend for tenants to vote against stock transfer, which of these will be dropped first—the decent homes target or the Government's ideological obsession against local authority borrowing for housing investment?

Keith Hill

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on all counts. Funding is available for the decent homes programme. We acknowledge that the decent homes target for 2010 is challenging, but I reiterate that we are on target to bring 1.6 million homes up to the decent homes standard by 2008.