HL Deb 01 July 2004 vol 663 cc360-2

11.9 a.m.

Baroness Byford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the report on homeless households in remote rural areas, State of the Countryside, how such households not housed in temporary accommodation are provided for.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, government figures show that last year, households accepted as homeless in rural areas were more likely to be offered settled housing than households in urban districts. In 2003–04 around 17 per cent were found a settled home in rural areas compared to 12 per cent in urban areas. Of the remainder, 37 per cent of households were placed in temporary accommodation; 39 per cent remained in their existing accommodation awaiting a suitable settled home; and 7 per cent found their own solution.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. Does he accept that there is a great crisis in rural housing, whereby rural homeless figures have risen from 14,950 to 20,850—a rise of 30 per cent over the past five years? How will the Government resolve this crisis that continues to afflict people living in rural areas?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that this is a crisis. I certainly agree that there is a problem and a difficulty. The Government are very committed to tackling and preventing homelessness. We have significantly increased resources and introduced legislation to strengthen the help for homeless people and have successfully tackled the worst manifestations of homelessness.

We have increased investment in affordable housing and we are improving prevention and increasing the supply of affordable housing; £5 billion will be invested in affordable housing over the next three years—double the 1997 levels.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, under the Sustainable Communities Plan, how much housing is likely to be provided in rural areas, particularly in the north and north-west and north-east, rather than in the south and south-east where we know there will be concrete and well over half a million houses? What are the proposals for the northern part of the country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not have precise details and figures for the northern areas which the noble Baroness has not exactly defined. I can say that on rural housing the Housing Corporation has already exceeded its target for 2002–03 by providing 1,579 homes in small rural settlements, and it has provided nearly 5,000 homes in larger rural areas and at least 3,500 affordable homes in settlements of fewer than 3,000 that have been approved for the next two years—that is, 2004–05 to 2005–06.

We are making progress. We should congratulate the Housing Corporation on its important work and the partnerships that are being forged with local government in tackling these problems.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, the Minister mentioned smaller rural settlements. At the current rate of provision, which I believe was some 1,800 units last year, it will take dozens of years for many smaller rural settlements to even get one unit of social housing to replace those that have been lost to the system. How many years does he estimate it will take to fulfil even current estimated housing needs?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is hard to give that kind of provision in data. I think that it is worth reminding your Lordships' House that we are beginning to see targets being exceeded. I agree with the noble Baroness that difficulties have been caused in the past, which is why this Government have taken action—which I am sure the noble Baroness supports—to tackle some of the worst disadvantageous effects of "right to buy" in rural areas. We have allocated more resources to ensure that vulnerable people, and particularly those in rural communities, can stay in their homes.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the annual January count of gypsies and travellers by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister shows that the number of homeless Gypsies and Travellers has shot up between 2003 and 2004? What progress has been made on the Government's plans to mainstream the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in housing needs assessments?

Lord Bassam of Brighton:

My Lords, I know the noble Lord is very concerned about the needs of travellers and gypsies. We are making some progress. The noble Lord has made important contributions to debates on that subject in your Lordships' House. I cannot provide the noble Lord with detailed data today, but I am happy to write to him on progress in tackling those problems.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission. Is the Minister aware that in the north-west of England the Forestry Commission is undertaking a feasibility study to see whether there is any redundant forestry land in areas of the most shortage of affordable houses? If that feasibility study proves positive, we will look at the possibility of providing affordable houses in parts of the north-west.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware of the important work the Forestry Commission is carrying out. It could well make a very valuable contribution to ensuring that there are affordable houses in rural areas. I congratulate my noble friend on the important work he has undertaken in that regard. I think that it will greatly strengthen those communities and ensure that in the future those on lower incomes have access to affordable social housing.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that since the demise of the council housing sector, the number of affordable houses he mentioned, which was 1,500, is a drop in the ocean in terms of need? Could he address the problems facing young people in remote rural areas who are unable to live in their own area and who cannot compete against second home owners? They are swelling the numbers of homeless in the urban areas. This is an urgent problem that needs to be resolved.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I certainly agree that it is an urgent problem. It is for that reason that the Government have taken action to deal with the problems that associate themselves with rural homelessness and pressure on the housing market in some rural areas. Restrictions may well be imposed on resale of "right to buy" properties in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and so on. We are working in partnership through the Countryside Agency and the Housing Corporation and funding jointly with local partners the rural housing and neighbours programme, so that rural communities, housing associations, local authorities and landowners can help to increase the supply of affordable housing in those rural settlements.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, in congratulating the Forestry Commission on its work in this direction, perhaps the Minister's department could contact the water authorities to ask whether they would carry out a similar exercise with their surplus land throughout the country.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on making that point. I am sure that other public sector providers should conduct themselves in the same way.