HL Deb 21 February 2005 vol 669 cc986-9

3 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In view of their house-building proposals in the south of England, what their rationale is for the demolition of houses in the north of England.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is a fact that parts of the north and the Midlands are suffering from housing low demand and abandonment. New homes have been built in the north faster than the growth in the number of households. Attracting jobs and people to these places means offering homes that meet people's needs and aspirations. It is not sensible, realistic or value for money to extend the life of all existing housing through refurbishment. Some demolition must be part of the package.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware of the great concern that properties in the north of England are being demolished rather than conserved and restored, while parts of rural south-east England are being urbanised by large extensions of towns and cities? Does he not consider that both those factors may cause undesirable population drifts to the south from the north? If so, what can be done about it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government of course have a national housing strategy. I do not entirely share the noble Baroness's view of the world. It is a fact that in some areas it is important to demolish properties. As it happens, up to March 2006 we are funding some 10,000 demolitions in the north, in the Pathfinder areas, compared with some 20,000 units that we are funding for refurbishment. So there is far more refurbishment being undertaken than demolition, but it has to be part of a balanced package.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, would the Minister agree that one of the reasons why it is not "value for money", as he puts it, to refurbish properties, is that it is government policy to charge VAT at the full rate on refurbishment while charging a zero rate for new buildings? Does he not agree that it is time the Government revisited that matter, given that in many parts of the country the problem is not a shortage of housing but the condition of existing housing?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am obviously aware of the argument about VAT, but I do not believe that that is the major contributory factor to the fact that some houses have fallen so badly into disrepair through neglect and abandonment. There needs to be, in part, a demolition programme. I am sure that the noble Baroness would accept that there are homes that need to be demolished, due to their condition. But it is also important that the Government have a refurbishment and growth strategy.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I must first declare an interest. In another place I had the great honour of representing the socialist triumph of Cumbernauld. Has my noble friend the Minister seen today's Times, which reports that the citizens of Cumbernauld, in response to a Channel 4 television programme, have demanded that the whole town be demolished? Would he accept from me that the 52,000 people who live in Cumbernauld are people of great good judgment, since they returned me to the House of Commons on no less than four successive occasions? Therefore, I cannot believe that they have made a proposal of this sort. Will he communicate quickly with the Scottish Executive to ensure that it resists any attempt to demolish the whole town of Cumbernauld, since demolishing houses forms no part of Labour Party policy?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, given that the noble Lord did indeed represent Cumbernauld so well for so many years, it would be a travesty of socialism if Cumbernauld was ever to be demolished.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, has the Minister taken into account the pressure on landfill sites from all this demolition—of 10,000 houses, I believe he said—particularly with regard to contaminated waste?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we are talking about demolishing houses. I am not sure how contaminated the bricks and mortar might be that would go to landfill sites, but I know that in some of the demolition programmes undertaken nationally there is an element of recycling.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, do the Government recognise a pretty fundamental fact—that if the beauty of England is to be handed on to future generations and safeguarded as it has been by successive governments, it will not be possible to provide all the houses in southern England that people might prefer to have? If houses are available in other parts of the country, market forces will ensure that people go where houses are available, and our countryside in the south, which is under new and serious threat, will be protected.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I believe that our Government have an enviable track record in conserving the countryside. After all, it was our Government who raised the threshold in increasing to 60 per cent the percentage of land for development that must be brownfield sites. Our Government also instituted a policy establishing two major national parks in the south. I believe that that is a fair statement of our intent with regard to conservation, care and concern about the countryside. I understand the noble Lord's point about ensuring that there is not excessive demand for space for housing in the south, but we have to have a balanced programme. That is exactly what this Government have.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is another element to the policy expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford? If people are to move to the north and other places, they need jobs. Does not that indicate that the Government really need to examine their industrial policy as well as their housing policy, so that employment is better distributed throughout the country? That used to be Labour Party policy at one time.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, of course, the Government have a policy to ensure that all regions share in our prosperity. It is for that reason that we have actively supported the Northern Way proposals in that regard. We recognise the importance of bridging the economic gap between north and south, particularly, which that organisation's report has identified. That report also suggested that we needed to improve the rate of renewal of housing stock, particularly in the north.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would it not kill two birds with one stone if the Office of Rail Regulation was relocated to the northern regions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am sure that that suggestion will be very carefully taken on board.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, to what extent does my noble friend the Minister believe that the proposal of the Lyons review on the relocation of central government office jobs to the regions would have a positive impact on the readjustment of housing stock in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, without question, the Lyons review makes a very important contribution. I am confident that those proposals, when considered and responded to in detail, will provide some answers to some of the problems that we have discussed this afternoon.