HC Deb 13 November 2003 vol 413 cc160-90WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]

3.30 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

Allow me to begin by expressing my pleasure that we are holding this debate under your wise chairmanship, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are aware that I have always been a fan, and I am sure that we shall have a well ordered, if vigorous, debate. While I am in congratulatory mode, I shall anticipate later developments in the debate by welcoming the hon. Member for the wonderfully named constituency of South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), to his new portfolio as the shadow Minister with responsibility for housing and planning.

I am delighted to have secured this debate to talk about the Government's determination to give everyone the opportunity to have a decent home in a sustainable community. We clearly set out that aim in the 2000 housing Green Paper and the subsequent policy statement, which together represented the first comprehensive review of housing for nearly a quarter of a century. We are pressing forward with the implementation of the actions set out in those policy documents to deliver quality and choice across all types of housing, owned or rented, private or public.

Our focus on delivery was sharpened when the Deputy Prime Minister set out his vision of sustainable communities in February 2003. That action programme recognises that to develop communities in which people wish to live, improvements in the supply and condition of housing need to be linked to improvement in economies, public services, transport and the environment. The communities plan sets out what the Government need to do to create thriving inclusive communities in all regions, backed by a significant increase in resources of £22 billion—an increase of 40 per cent. over the next three years—together with major reforms of the housing sector.

Hon. Members will be aware that in March 2003 the Government published a draft Housing Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation. That was very much the next step in the process. The Select Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government undertook an inquiry into the draft Bill, and I very much welcome its report. We found both pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation extremely useful.

We have carefully considered all the Select Committee's recommendations and we published our response to its report earlier this week. We have accepted some recommendations unconditionally, and have undertaken to consider others further. We are using those recommendations to produce a final Bill ready for introduction when Parliamentary time allows. We have not been able to accept all the recommendations, and where that is the case we have set out our reasons clearly. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Select Committee's report in this debate.

A good supply of decent quality, affordable housing is integral to any sustainable community. Today, I should like to focus on how the Government hope to achieve that goal in future legislation, and how we intend to deliver decent homes and decent places, and protect the most vulnerable in the housing market.

Our proposals in the draft Housing Bill tackle some of the most pressing problems in private sector housing. More than 80 per cent. of housing in England is in the private sector. We intend to give home owners and private sector tenants access to well managed, well maintained houses. That means raising the quality and management of some of the housing that is in the worst condition, tackling bad landlords and antisocial tenants, improving the process of buying and selling homes and, as I have said, protecting the most vulnerable in the housing market. Our proposals are not just about private sector housing; some will cut across all tenures, and others will tackle specific problems faced by the social sector.

More than two thirds of homes are owner-occupied. At some point, most people will buy or sell a property, and many of those people currently find that process fraught with problems, time-consuming, costly and stressful. The key problem is lack of transparency, and the Government are committed to taking action to improve that process. We will, therefore, press ahead with the home information pack provisions in the draft Bill.

The introduction of such packs is a manifesto commitment. They will make home buying and selling easier, more transparent and more successful by making key information available right at the start of the process. Recent survey research has shown that nine out of 10 people are unhappy with the process of buying and selling homes, and the majority believe that the introduction of home information packs could go some way towards easing the buying process. I am delighted that our home information pack reforms have the full support of the Consumers Association.

The Select Committee suggested further trialling of the packs before they are introduced on a compulsory basis. I do not agree. Home information packs are not new. International experience and the success of small-scale schemes in the UK have demonstrated the benefits. There has been a voluntary local pilot in the Bristol area, and we are currently testing home condition reports in different areas and markets. However, voluntary local pilots cannot replicate a compulsory national scheme, and I do not believe that further testing could tell us much more than we already know.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I know that there is a lot of nervousness about the introduction of the pack, but I welcome it as a consumer protection measure. Many people are asking whether the regulations that will determine what must be in the pack and the home condition survey will be available by Second Reading of the Bill. Will that be the case?

Keith Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the proposed home information pack. We have consulted widely already, and the broad contents of the home information pack are already familiar to Members and practitioners. The home information pack will contain a home condition report, details of local searches, other legal documents and relevant planning consent. In future, after the introduction of European legislation on thermal efficiency, it will also contain information about the energy efficiency of the home up for sale. We have sought to provide as much information as possible by way of draft regulation and guidance, and if such a Bill were introduced, we would endeavour to lay as much information before the House as possible.

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

The Minister has said that most of the information is available. Estimates based on the information available suggest that it will cost the average householder about £1,000 to produce the information in the packs. How will that help the Government's other aim of making housing more affordable?

Keith Hill

Unusually, the hon. Gentleman has allowed himself to be misled by the mass media on this occasion. I do not for one moment recognise that figure of £1,000. Our estimate is that the pack will cost about £600, but it is important to remember that most of the elements of the pack are already elements for which the purchaser has to pay in normal circumstances. The only new element in the pack will be the home condition report.

I want to allay the scaremongering that has occurred on the matter. It is worth remembering, while we are on the subject, the extraordinary costs to the economy at large and to individuals that result from the present unsatisfactory nature of the home-buying process. It is estimated that one in three would-be home sales fall through. That costs the economy £1 million a day, as well as the stress, anxiety and, often, despair caused to individuals. Inaction is not an option. On the basis of the evidence from trials and surveys here, and from the experience of implementation of the arrangement in Denmark and Australia, and reassured by the support of the Consumers Association, we are confident that this will prove an extremely popular, helpful and efficient way of contributing to the housing market.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that one of the most important elements is to inform buyers of what they are not being informed of at present? I know of countless cases—no doubt my right hon. Friend does as well—of people who bought a property and then found that it was subject to flooding, or subject to some joint access arrangement that they did not understand because their solicitors failed to do a proper search. The packs may not completely remove such problems, but they will substantially reduce them. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees with that.

Keith Hill

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. He is right to say that all MPs find such cases replicated in their constituency advice surgeries.

There have been calls to make the packs voluntary. Again, I disagree with that. Home information packs will be effective only if they are compulsory. Most transactions involve chains. Just one property marketed without a home information pack would negate the benefits that the packs provide for all the other transactions, as the chain will move at the pace of the slowest. There will always be people who want a free ride. They will look to benefit from others paying for a pack, but will not produce one themselves.

However, I recognise the concerns raised by some in the industry about the readiness of the market. As I have said before, home condition reports will not be introduced until we are satisfied that sufficient numbers of home inspectors and satisfactory insurance arrangements are in place.

The Select Committee had concerns about the impact of packs on low-value properties and low-demand areas. We are considering the results of our consultation on that subject. I recognise the potential merit of a value-based approach to any possible exemption, but I wish to take full account of the consultation exercise before reaching a decision. The House will be aware that in the draft Bill, a power was proposed to make different provision for different areas. That power could be used to deal with the issue. We could also use the power to facilitate a phased introduction of compulsory home information packs as part of a roll-out across England and Wales, if that were found to be practicable and advantageous. I am discussing that possibility with consumer and industry stakeholders.

Most private sector housing is owner-occupied, but some 2 million people live in private rented accommodation. The private rented sector is growing again, and the Government are keen to work with landlords to improve its quality. Mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation is also a manifesto commitment, and we intend to set the scope of mandatory licensing in secondary legislation. We expect it to cover properties that have three or more storeys and house five or more people who constitute more than one household.

The Select Committee recommended extending the scope of mandatory licensing. I am not convinced that that would be the best approach. I am keen to limit mandatory licensing to the highest-risk properties to avoid unnecessary regulation and costs for landlords and tenants. The man in Whitehall does not always know best.

However, I fully accept that other HMOs could cause difficulties, and could benefit from licensing. There is scope in the proposed legislation to allow local authorities to apply licensing to problematic HMOs. Local authorities would need to consult those affected about their proposals for additional licensing. The proposals would then be subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. We are working with the Local Government Association to decide how best to operate such a consent scheme.

Introducing licensing will ensure that landlords are fit and proper and that they have adequate management standards in place.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth)

While my right hon. Friend is on that theme, may I remind him of the interrelationship between poor landlordism, antisocial behaviour and decline in demand in areas of low housing demand? In a village in my constituency where there is very poor demand, a good landlord, with the support of the community and myself as the local Member of Parliament, evicted tenants who were guilty of disgraceful behaviour. They were moved four houses up the street to a landlord who does not give a damn about what happens in the community. That has led to a migration of people from the street, abandoned houses, a further spiral of decline and problems with housing demand. Does the Minister accept that that is a problem and that, although we are not necessarily talking about HMOs, selective licensing might help? Next time he tours the north will he consider revisiting my constituency, which he enjoyed visiting in 1996 when he helped me to get elected?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

Before the Minister replies, I must say that I have allowed what I consider to be rather a long intervention. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman will try to catch my eye later, but a number of people want to speak, so I hope that if there are interventions, they will be brief and to the point, and that the Minister will, as ever, deal with them expeditiously.

Keith Hill

I shall certainly that I will stick to your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I count the election of my hon. Friend in that notable by-election as one of the very few achievements to which I have personally contributed during my period in Parliament. I enjoyed my visit to Hemsworth, and I am always open to offers to return.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the devastating impact of poor management and criminality in areas of low demand, and that is why we are introducing a system of selective licensing, about which I will say more shortly. He identifies a problem that is repeated in city after city where there is so-called market failure. The Government are absolutely determined to take action on it as part of our antisocial behaviour agenda. I hope that I was sufficiently brief in my response to that intervention.

We believe that the introduction of HMO licensing will ensure that landlords provide fit and proper management, and have adequate management standards in place. The HMO sector has some of the properties in the worst condition. A licensing regime would operate alongside a new health and safety rating system for housing, aimed at high-risk properties, including HMOs. The new rating system would replace the existing housing fitness standard, and help local authorities to concentrate their attention on the properties in the worst condition, which often house some of the most vulnerable people. The fitness standard dates back 80 years. There was widespread support for moving away from the fitness standard when we first consulted on it in 1998, and again in 2001.

There is a close link between poor housing conditions and health. Our proposed new system would help local authorities target the properties where health and safety hazards present the greatest potential harm to occupants. The Select Committee report detailed some concerns, because we were unable to let the Committee see the detailed guidance for the system when it scrutinised the draft Bill. I revert to my earlier observations in response to my hon. Friend the Member for—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Keith Hill

How can I forget my ministerial visit to Stafford?

In the event of legislation, there will be two sets of guidance. I would intend to make a draft of the technical and enforcement guidance for the system available in advance of any parliamentary consideration of the legislation. Final versions of both sets of guidance would be published for the benefit of local authorities in the run-up to any implementation of the system. The new system is more sophisticated than the current fitness standard. It is evidence-based and allows local authorities to consider the actual harm that hazards present to the occupants, rather than the very blunt "fit" or "unfit" categorisation that we have now.

I accept that the guidance material available to local authorities may be over-complicated for landlords who must understand their obligations, but do not need to apply the system. I am therefore committed to producing guidance aimed at landlords, which will be tested and trialled with them to make sure that it is user-friendly and understandable.

I shall now discuss the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). Tackling antisocial behaviour and neighbourhood decline is a top priority for the Government. As we have indicated, we intend to give local authorities new powers to license private landlords selectively. The powers will add to local authorities' armoury of measures to tackle neighbourhood decline and antisocial behaviour, particularly in the private rented sector.

I know that the Select Committee argued for licensing to be as wide as possible, and I agree that we must consider further situations in which the power might be used. The draft Bill envisaged that it would be available to tackle low housing demand and other areas where there are problems such as antisocial behaviour and criminality. There may be other scenarios involving, for example, regeneration areas where selective licensing would help to involve private sector landlords in the redevelopment of communities. Again we are working with the Local Government Association to draw up the criteria for designating areas for selective licensing.

Selective licensing is entirely new. If the powers were introduced, local authorities would be required to consult those affected locally and to seek the Secretary of State's consent before designating an area for licensing. I am keen to work with local authorities to see how the power might best be used.

As we set out in our response to the Select Committee report, we want to introduce new provisions to help local authorities tackle antisocial behaviour in the social housing sector. Local authorities will be able to refuse mutual exchanges when tenants have been antisocial, and antisocial tenants could also lose their right to buy.

The draft Bill proposed further modernisation of the right-to-buy scheme. The Select Committee welcomed that but, characteristically, called for more. We have carefully considered the recommendations of both the Committee and the home ownership task force, whose report is published today. I pay tribute on behalf of the House to its work under the able chairmanship of Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde. In the light of both reports, the Government have decided to introduce at the appropriate time further right-to-buy measures, so that the right to buy can contribute more effectively and more fairly to the supply of affordable housing.

The Government also expect to make changes to the regulatory powers of the Housing Corporation and the National Assembly for Wales, which include allowing payment of grants to organisations other than registered social landlords, such as developers and builders, to develop affordable housing. That should widen opportunities to develop new affordable housing.

During the consultation process on the draft Bill, there have, of course, been calls to add further provisions. Where there is a case for taking immediate action and where we are in a position to legislate, I have been ready to consider the addition of such provisions. However, I have not accepted all the proposed additions. I know that there is significant support for a tenancy deposit scheme and compulsory leasing of empty homes. In both cases, we must consider the issues carefully before acting. We are committed to considering tenancy deposits in the wider context of the Law Commission's proposals on housing tenure published earlier this month.

In introducing the debate, I have been concerned to set out the Government's latest thinking on the draft Housing Bill and how we might advance our proposals. All in all, I believe that the proposals that I have highlighted will make for a more efficient and effective housing market that better protects the most vulnerable people. I now turn with eager anticipation to hearing the views and responses of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members to those important proposals.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We thank the Minister for introducing the debate.

3.54 pm
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I commend the Minister on securing this debate on improving housing conditions and making the market work better. Ironically, if we left housing supply to the market, it would cripple the economy. That is because without social housing or the subsidy of private sector housing to those on low incomes, areas of high-value housing such as London would be left with only the very rich. The very rich are very good for some things, but in other areas they are good for nothing. One of those areas is key worker activity. Millionaires never make good nurses, teachers, police officers, bus drivers or dustbin men. However, without those groups, the capital's economy would seize up.

I wish to structure my brief contribution around how to increase the supply of affordable housing and how to make that housing decent. We also need to consider how we are to bring the money into that area, because there is such a large backlog, which we heard about earlier. It stood at £19 billion in 1997. In Tower Hamlets, the council believes—as does PricewaterhouseCoopers, which it commissioned to research the matter—that in its case, of the various options that the Government gave to local authorities to bring their houses up to a decent standard, the only viable one is stock transfer. That is because Tower Hamlets has negative values. Even if we group together some of the good housing, it is so outweighed by housing that is of a poorer quality that we are unable to make the sums add up without extra help and private investment.

The other thing that both the Government and the council are keen to do is to increase local resident involvement. For that reason, Tower Hamlets embarked on housing choice, which was a programme to allow local residents the chance to decide how they would like the future housing requirements of Tower Hamlets to be met. The majority of residents voted for further inquiries into stock transfer. The problem that we face, and it goes to the heart of this debate—making the market work better—is that the market on its own, and private investment on its own, cannot make our sums in Tower Hamlets add up.

Consider the Government's new decent homes standard: in London, 54 per cent. of council homes fail to meet the decent standard. However, in Tower Hamlets, 76 per cent. of council homes fail to meet it. That is because, historically, Tower Hamlets has had some of the worst housing in Britain, and that is why my constituency in the east end was home to the very first council estate ever built. However, for decades—[Interruption.] I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) saying from a sedentary position that it was Bradford. However, I will have him know that the Boundary estate was set up in the very fine constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow. If he would like to challenge me to a duel on the matter, I shall be happy to undertake the challenge.

There has been under-investment for decades. It is not realistic to think that Tower Hamlets can, on its own, make good the lack of investment that has left us with 76 per cent. of council tenants living in homes that do not meet the decent standard. I therefore want to impress upon the Minister the urgency of the situation, because at the moment we have a programme ready to go, but we cannot move forward. There is some disquiet because we were given to understand in the communities plan that some money would be available to help stock transfer, just as money is available to help some of the other options. I have written to my right hon. Friend on that, and I hope to meet him very soon to put some of these concerns to him in much greater detail, but the long and the short of it is that if we do not get gap funding to help stock transfer in Tower Hamlets, we will not be able to meet the Government's decent homes target by 2010. We cannot fudge it. There is no simpler way of putting it than that. We will not be able to meet that standard.

Even sadder than that is the fact that we would lose the momentum that has built up around the current attempts, which have been supported by local residents. For example, I commend Bernie Cameron who has been working very hard with the tenant compact group to get the momentum going so that we are able to move forward with this programme of stock transfer. It is ironic that residents and the local authority in Tower Hamlets are trying to do what the Government are encouraging us to do, but—I am sure for purely technical reasons—we have not yet been able to move forward.

I understand that the Minister is not able to give me a substantial response now, and I would not expect that, but perhaps he can agree to meet constituents, or a group of residents, from Tower Hamlets in the future, after he has met the delegation from Tower Hamlets and heard what an astonishingly good case it has to put forward.

I said that I would be brief, and I shall be. In leaving this subject, I mention two other items, but shall not go into them in detail. The first is the tenancy deposit scheme. I have raised that in the House previously. I seemed to detect from what the Minister said that the Government are perhaps evolving their thinking on the matter. I certainly hope that is the case.

My second point is on overcrowding. The Minister will be aware that my constituency has the worst overcrowding in Britain. I took one of his predecessors to visit an extended family where 16 people were living in two bedrooms. That really is unacceptable. Even stranger is that a family of eight people living in two bedrooms is not statutorily overcrowded under the overcrowding standard introduced in 1935. Obviously, I would appreciate some improvement there.

I just remind the Minister that one of the reasons why the Government are looking at improving housing conditions and making the market work better is that we want to reduce child poverty. That is a Government pledge: halving child poverty and then ending it within a generation. The fact is that in England 48 per cent.—nearly half—of all children who live in poverty live in inner London. For that reason, I urge the Minister to make progress on these issues.

4.3 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I shall start by discussing housing conditions, then move on to the need to make the market work better.

I shall start in a very good place: empty homes. Statistics show that 130,000 or so households are without a permanent home of their own, while at any one time 750,000 properties in the country stand empty, and that makes it easy to see why we should be determined to take more effective action on bringing empty homes back into use. I once promoted a ten-minute Bill, the Empty Homes Bill, which was published and had four elements. The first was that every authority should have a strategy for reducing the incidence of empty homes. The second was that data exchange should be available to enable authorities to identify empty homes. The third was that we should do something about the exemptions from paying council tax on properties standing empty, and the fourth was that we should strengthen local authorities' powers of compulsory purchase. I am pleased to say that that Bill obviously had some effect because, since it was published, the Government have taken action on all four matters. The provision to allow data exchange was a welcome recognition by the Government, but action on the other three was not quite as well achieved as I should have liked, so I shall give the Minister seven out of 10 on that subject.

I shall move on from empty homes to the renovation of homes in which people live that could do with being in better condition. There are problems. The Minister mentioned the experience we get from our casework. I have discovered from mine that people who are disabled and would like adaptations to their homes to make them suitable for their disability find that they face huge delays. They either experience delay in getting social services to make an assessment of their home or delay afterwards in getting help from public homes to make the adaptations, even when the disabled facilities grant is mandatory—and that is not to mention the discretionary grants they may also need. I hope that the Minister will pay some attention to that.

Beyond that, some people would simply like to renovate homes rather than build new ones. It seems curious to me that people still pay VAT to renovate existing properties, but there is no VAT involved in building a brand new house on a greenfield site. It gives a rather curious sense of our values that we allow that to continue, but we do.

The Government deserve a huge pat on the back for their work on market renewal. Last Friday, I was able to attend a briefing for the market renewal pathfinder in north Staffordshire. Although that is not in my constituency, I regard my area as part of the north Staffordshire economy and, after all, Stoke-on-Trent is my home town, so I take a close interest in the matter. I say to the Minister that the pathfinder in Stoke needs close attention and support. There has been terrible neglect in the area, both in its physical fabric and the capacity of the local work force to be able to do the kind of work that is necessary. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic when he faces requests for help, even in relation to the personnel needed to help with the work of the pathfinder.

I learned from that experience, and I appreciate from the national approach that there has to be a strategic approach both to housing problems that must be faced and met, and to wider community challenges such as infrastructure, jobs and training that go with housing. All those issues need to be addressed, supported, and publicised, so that the schemes—as they are seen to be successful—expand throughout the country.

My main plea concerning conditions of properties is that we should look to the future and make homes more environmentally sustainable. Some elements of sustainability are included in existing building regulations. Part L relates to energy efficiency, and part M relates to life-long standards and disability access, each of which is under some criticism. Part L is already outdated and part M, even though it was effective only from 1999, is already the subject of criticism. I saw some research findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggesting that there is wholesale ignorance or wilful disregard of part M standards, both by local authorities and developers. That is a worrying piece of research to read.

I hope that the Minister will reassure us that his Department is determined that existing building regulations will be properly enforced. Going beyond those regulations, the Building Research Establishment has done some excellent work in developing eco-homes standards. A good physical example of such eco-homes is the BedZED project, and we are all receiving invites to see it. I am sorry that I have not been yet; I want to go. It would be helpful to develop such schemes throughout the country so that they would be showcases of success. I would like to volunteer my area of the country for a pilot.

I congratulate WWF, which has a campaign promoting sustainable homes. Like myself, it thinks that there should be eco-homes demonstration sites throughout the country. It is trying to interest investors in taking an interest in investing in such developments, and it is looking to launch awards for good practice in that area. Next year, it hopes to sponsor jointly with the Housing Corporation a web-based toolkit of good practice. The urgency for such work is clear from a report produced by WWF, called "One Planet Living in the Thames Gateway". I took notice of the very first sentence: If everyone on the planet were to consume natural resources and pollute the environment as we currently do in the UK, we would need three planets to support us. That is a pretty frightening statistic. Does the Minister agree that we could update our building regulations to concentrate more on eco-homes standards? Is it right that that requires primary legislation? Is it right that the Minister and his Department want to set up a sustainable buildings task group to sort out the new building regulations, and if so, is it not time that such a task group was established? Having spoken to many people involved on all sides of the industry, I find that there is a great desire for things to move forward quickly, and everywhere I go I am told that people are not doing so because the Government are not acting quickly. Please can the Minister pay some attention to that? It is pretty urgent given that the Government are committed to such a lot of new building in the near future, including in the Thames gateway. It would be nice to think that we could build the next great developments to eco-standards.

I do not want to say more about housing conditions, but there is one point that the Minister did not mention when talking about the items that he rejected for inclusion in the Housing Bill: the situation of people who live in park homes. The subject has been well investigated, and the Government have accepted that existing legislation is inadequate. Retired people put their life savings into buying a park home, which they locate on a site where they must pay a licence fee. Existing legislation does not protect them from harassment, abuse of their rights or overcharging for the utilities that everyone else takes for granted, as long as they pay their bills. It really is time that such people had better protection. My plea is that the Housing Bill is a good opportunity to give them the modern law that is needed.

I want to mention several items in connection with making the market work better. I am concerned about the inability of young people in rural areas to remain in the communities where they grew up. They cannot do so because no affordable homes are left in their villages. My concern is shared by the communities themselves, all the councils—from parishes up to counties—the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Agency, representatives of both of which I met recently, and many others. There is a need for more intense effort to deliver more affordable homes and more homes generally in rural areas. I know that the Government have reviewed PPG3 and have recently completed consultation on the exceptions policy and whether to replace it with a new land-use planning designation of social housing. However, I ask the Minister to recognise the urgency of providing ways to deliver more homes in rural areas. With the development of quality town and parish councils, this could be a really good time for a renaissance of power and respect for those councils. If every one of them could be encouraged and required to carry out village appraisals and design statements for their areas, local communities might join in with the spirit of ensuring that there is enough housing in their area.

The appraisal of present options for council housing has just reached Stafford. The council is appraising its four options—or is it really only three? It cannot afford to reach decent home standards for council housing by 2010, and the Government will not say that it can have any extra resources to bridge that gap. Are people really being told that, practically, there is a choice of only three? I am a little worried about that approach. In Stafford, as in some other high-profile cases, the tenants like the council and its housing management enough to vote against a transfer. It would be embarrassing people were told that they had chosen an option that they could not have. I would like the Government to be a little more sympathetic towards good councils that want to continue their council housing. At the strategic level, council housing is important as part of a diverse housing market and can act as a restraint on house prices rushing ahead. It is a social service for those who cannot afford a home and is popular with some people I would like it to survive.

The Minister and I exchanged a few words about home information packs. I support the project as a consumer protection measure, but there are warnings about the difficulties. One is that there will not be enough surveyors. It is curious that people seem to want to turn away business. I would have thought that they would want to develop capacity. There are complaints about the cost, but I would have thought that the market would quickly develop to include options for sellers to have the cost added on to their mortgage and paid off when they sell their home. I would be surprised if cost was genuinely an objection.

I met representatives of the Council of Mortgage Lenders last week, and I am concerned about the attitude of lenders towards the surveyor's report. It is clear that they still want their own report to assess the good value of the security for the money that they lend. I like to think that they would be a little more co-operative, ensuring that they take account of the house condition report in the home information pack so that they can reduce or scale back the requirements for their own valuation report.

In the past, a lot of people mistakenly thought that because they paid the lender for a report, they had a report that guaranteed that everything was all right with their property. In fact, all it guaranteed was that the lender had good value for their security. Those people were not necessarily protecting themselves. I found many examples in my casework of people who many years later discovered that something was defective about their property or the area in which they lived, which then could not be put right. That is why I support the measure as a matter of consumer protection.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I want to help the Chamber. I wish to call the winding-up speakers at 5 o'clock at the latest. I am under the impression that something like four Members want to catch my eye. They can do a simple mathematical sum so that they know how long they each have to speak.

4.15 pm
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

I did not anticipate that I would be called at this point, but I will be happy to make my points briefly. They may be controversial to some of my hon. Friends, but I have been able to make them personally and directly to my right hon. Friend the Minister.

To make the market work, particularly in my area of south-west London, the Government and public need to expand the possibility for low-cost home ownership, whether outright or through shared ownership. My right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) made an interesting speech only last weekend. He identified home ownership as something that was not only desired by the majority of people in this country, but was an important force for social mobility. Home ownership leads to a greater likelihood of remaining in one's home for longer, to greater educational opportunities for one's children and even, surprisingly, to a greater likelihood of marriages lasting longer.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I am interested to hear the hon. Lady's comments, and I agree with her. On that basis, she will presumably acknowledge that the right to buy was a staggering success, and that its continuation is imperative in ensuring that home ownership of the kind that she describes, with all its virtues, continues into the future.

Siobhain McDonagh

I have to accept that the right to buy has been a great success, allowing estates to mature and allowing working-class people opportunities that they would never otherwise have had. I am disappointed that the money gained through the sale of homes was not reinvested to provide more homes. That was a major error in the plans.

I do not accept that council tenants and social tenants should be responsible for the housing of people on the lists. We have to increase supply. Figures suggest that one would need an income of at least £54,000 a year to get one of the cheapest homes in London. That is outside the best efforts of most of the people that we know. Last week, I made notes from my weekly advice surgery on the sort of housing problems that were identified. Nearly all involved people who would like to buy a home but cannot afford to. They included a couple with an income of £28,000, and two nursery nurses who work in a local school who, together with their partners, have incomes in the region of £26,000 to £30,000. They cannot take the first step on the ladder.

Although such incomes are not low in relation to the rest of the country, they still leave buying a home outside the scope of buyers in an area of London that is far cheaper than most others. I urge the Government to look at increasing the supply of shared-ownership houses, particularly in outer London and south-west London. Shared ownership offers an option for people who cannot take the first step. Making the first step is what is most important. It allows people to see that their lives will get better, and that they can take the next step. That is important not only for people who live with family or friends, but for people on estates.

I have spoken to the Minister about my constituents who live in housing association homes on large estate and who desperately want to buy their homes and stay there and who want to contribute to the community. They see housing prices going up everywhere else and feel that they are letting their children down by not being able to move off the estate and buy.

I do not want to let down my constituent Donna Neblett, who runs the south Mitcham community centre on the Phipps Bridge estate, and who is a south London family housing association tenant. She and her husband Trevor desperately want to stay there to continue the voluntary youth work that they do, to bring their children up and to send them to the local schools, but they feel that they have no option but to move out because they cannot buy where they are. I do not want to let down other people on that estate, many of whom work at the immigration and nationality directorate, who find that their options are cut off. Despite working a full week and being on an average salary, home ownership is out of their grasp.

I welcome today's home ownership report. I am sorry that I have not had the opportunity to read it in detail, but I hope that it contains exciting possibilities for people to get on to the home-ownership ladder.

4.20 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am delighted to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and with the Minister. I am afraid that my remarks will be brief as I have to leave slightly before the end to catch a train, but it is important that we bring a number of perspectives to the debate.

I was going to argue that housing in rural areas is a fundamentally different issue from that for some of my colleagues here from urban areas, but it is interesting how common themes arise. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) spoke with great authority about his area and about the mixed housing issues of some urban areas, not the big urban conurbations, but those areas with a rural hinterland around them. He rightly emphasised some of the issues that I wish to touch on, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) outlined some of the problems that she faces. They are the same problems that we face in rural areas, but on a different scale.

I will start with large-scale voluntary transfer, although I will not spend long on it as that would be improper. We are undergoing a ballot, so it would be most inappropriate to go into the details, but I must say that it has been a most divisive process. It has brought out the worst aspects of how campaigning can get the better of finding the best way forward. There should be genuine choice, but many tenants who have come to me feel that their choice has been at least restricted, if not taken away.

I will take up some of the issues of transparency and openness, because people have felt overwhelmed by the number of arguments. I have brought that point up before, but the way that the issue has been slanted on both sides has not been helpful. I know that I have taken a clear position, but we need to consider the process and get the best outcome rather than the one that has been most heavily weighted in a certain direction.

Jon Trickett

On the question of stock transfers, has my hon. Friend had the same experiences as I have? Elderly people who have no right to buy and who live in allocated houses fear that they will be stampeded by a majority yes vote. Those who vote yes will still retain the right to buy, but elderly people who feel trapped in their homes may then be transferred to a new landlord, whom they voted against, and they will not have the option of the right to buy. That is a particularly difficult problem and, as my hon. Friend just stated, it is very divisive.

Mr. Drew

I will not repeat that I think that the process is divisive, but the arguments that my hon. Friend has advanced are certainly some of those that I have come across. It is all linked to issues such as the right to buy. I was on a council that propagated right to buy before it became the Conservative party's official policy, I have never been agin it, but I am agin the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said in response to the Conservative spokesman, the money obtained was never reinvested. That is where the scheme went wrong, and in rural areas in particular it has resulted in a form of social exclusion. A small number of council houses used to be available in every community in my constituency, but they have, virtually to a house, gone. That has excluded those communities from an important provision for ever.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford touched on a number of issues in the rural domain. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow talked about market failure in urban centres, and it is fair to say that there has been a market failure in rural Britain. The affordability index in the Joseph Rowntree Trust's research shows that many people are now completely excluded and cannot move to, let alone live in, rural Britain. That is not acceptable, and with the paucity of rented accommodation, the situation has been made that much worse.

It would take too long to analyse fully such a complex subject, and many people have done it much better than I have. However, the main issues are land availability, the planning process and the funding mechanism to make housing affordable. I am pleased that the Government have grappled with the planning process. My right hon. Friend the Minister put his finger on the problem when he talked about the important consultation on exceptions policy and whether we should move away from that. He covered that point, however, so I shall say no more about it.

There is a problem with the method of funding in rural areas. Much as I welcome the communities plan, I should like my right hon. Friend the Minister to say something about the rural dimension. We feel that we are still at the margins somewhat, which is perhaps inevitable given the scale of the housing problem that the country faces. We need to hear more about how to get affordable housing in rural areas, because the issue is not only about choice, but about providing both a balanced country and, dare I say it, a balanced economy.

The problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow mentioned is the same in rural areas. People cannot afford to live there. Where do the social workers come from? Where do the police live? They cannot afford to live there and it is not sustainable in the long term for them to travel 50 miles to do the job. We must do something about that.

There is still disappointment that the local authority special housing grant was removed—there was even a delay in the removal. We need clarity on the current situation. There has been no demand to reinstate the grant, because we accept that we are now part of the communities plan, but we need graduation towards the help that is needed, but that has not been forthcoming. Moira Constable of the Royal housing trust, who is an ally of mine, has sent my right hon. Friend the Minister a letter, although it was not written on my behalf. The trust has done some wonderful work on housing and has called for clarity on where the revenue streams will come from. The answer is not yet clear.

The other issue that needs to be addressed is the link with key worker housing. The price of land has taken us away from how we normally provide housing. I hope that the Government will be innovatory in considering that key problem. As much as I would like the existing choice to be broadened, we must look at some new ideas, one of which must be some form of community land trust. I will not bore hon. Members with the details, but, for those who want to read more, I draw their attention to the fact that, in the last few weeks the New Economics Foundation issued a good report at an event that I was pleased to host, called "Common Ground—for Mutual Home Ownership". It argues that if the land can be owned communally, and if people can be given the opportunity to have a stake in it by paying rent but can also benefit from the value of the appreciation of the land, they can see themselves gaining advantages that they are denied under council home ownership. They are locked into what I like to see—a mutual, co-operative solution that has many merits. It is new to this country, and it can work in urban areas, but we are especially interested in how it can be applied in rural ones.

I am pleased that one of the trial areas is my constituency, which has an acute problem with the affordability of housing. I hope that my right hon. Friend will listen to future lobbying and will read the report to see whether it is applicable. It has merit, but it needs to be properly analysed to see whether it can break through the terrible problem of the high price of land and therefore of housing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford identified park homes as a problem. I totally concur with what he said. I hope that there is a way of dealing with this problem under a new housing Bill, because park home estates are a real difficulty. We all have them in our constituencies, and people want answers. We have given them many promises and told them what needs to be done, and what could be done, but we must now come up with answers.

We are discussing ways in which we can improve housing, and I understand that we cannot discuss everything in such a short debate, but I spend a great deal of time examining one issue that we have not yet touched on. However, the fact that older people tend to live in older properties needs to be addressed. Much of that property is substandard. If we are to overcome the problems faced by older people and do what we can for them, as we discussed during cross-cutting questions, we must ensure that housing is at the centre of health care provision. It is, dare I say it, central to a good quality of life. One of the ways in which we can do that is by ensuring that we invest properly in property for older people.

For more than a decade, I have been proud to be associated with Care and Repair England, which was set up to improve homes. Care and Repair England, along with other organisations, will often carry out the most basic tasks such as replacing plugs, ensuring that light bulbs work and installing smoke detectors. It sometimes does more substantial work by contracting that out to other agencies. We should not underestimate how important all this is, but it will not solve the problems of older people and their care needs on its own. Housing must never come third in the list of priorities, because the issue is often related to why people are readmitted to hospital.

Mr. Hayes

The hon. Gentleman is right. As he will know, I took the opportunity in cross-cutting questions to draw attention to the plight of older people and their housing. Although the solution might not be quite so simple, he was also right to suggest that by assisting elderly people through the sort of services that he mentioned and by adapting their homes, they can often stay in their own homes and retain a dignity and an independence that is not usually allowed them. Does he not agree that we need to be much more ambitious in the ways that he described?

Mr. Drew

I totally agree. That is the only way to avoid the bottomless pit of moneys that will be required if we continue to have only one answer. We must find other ways of allowing people to stay in their own homes if they so wish, but they must be safe. Those ways can include new ideas such as telecare and telemedicine, which are as important in rural areas as they are in urban settings. More important, we must ensure that the strategy is cohesive rather than an ad hoc part of community safety endeavours, which it has tended to be. Again, the Government deserve to be congratulated on driving the agenda.

Many good things are going on, but much more needs to be done. I hope that my right hon. Friend will listen to some of the new ideas, which are desperately needed to crack this highly emotive problem. Housing has moved to the top of the agenda for rural Britain. It has overtaken transport, which was on its own five years ago as the problem we had to crack. It is a political issue but, with the right policies, I am sure that we can do a great deal to solve the problems.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We have had a good geographical spread of speakers, and I am now delighted to call Dr. Brian Iddon, a Member from the north-west.

4.35 pm
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am pleased that in this Parliament, unlike the last one, housing is high on the agenda. It is not as high on the agenda, nor are the resources for it as great, as some of us would like; nevertheless, it is in the ascendant. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on his ministerial position. I like a person who smiles a lot, because it radiates hope, and I am hopeful that we will continue to make progress as long as he has that job.

Let me first make a few points about the private sector. I have some fears about the thrust towards owner-occupation. In my town we are absolutely saturated with owner-occupation, which stands at 70 per cent.; I understand that the national average is 65 to 67 per cent. In some cases, owner-occupation is unsustainable. I congratulate the Government on the present low interest and mortgage rates, which have made a very positive contribution. I hope that they stay low. However, if they do not, I fear that hundreds of thousands of people will be caught out by increased mortgage rates. I have a feeling that people are borrowing well above their capacity, in order to buy a house.

Of course we all aspire to home ownership. I put my hand up, as I too am an owner-occupier—but I can afford to be one. Indeed, my mortgage is paid off, but some people are in a much more difficult position, with mortgages well out of the range for their earnings—or joint earnings, for a couple. That nettle has not been grasped by any Government.

Siobhain McDonagh

Does my hon. Friend agree that other European countries, including Ireland and Holland, as well as others that I cannot recall at the moment, have a substantially higher proportion of owner-occupation? The United States, too, has a higher rate of ownership. The present structure of mortgages and home ownership does not mean that innovative ways cannot be found to make purchasing more possible and home ownership more secure.

Dr. Iddon

My hon. Friend makes a good point. But the history of owner-occupation in this country shows that things have not always been as they are now. We ought to prepare ourselves to enable people to move in and out of tenures much more easily than has been possible in Britain. For example, if owner-occupiers—or perhaps hundreds of thousands of them if there is an economic crisis, which cannot be ruled out, regardless of the party in power—get into difficulty, why can we not persuade building societies, and especially registered social landlords, to take over ownership of the homes but allow the people to stay in them? Surely we could be a bit more radical with housing policy, so that people do not descend into disaster if there is a sudden change in economic circumstances.

I am worried about the saturation point of owner-occupation, and I am also concerned that people buy homes without realising how much the maintenance will cost. That is especially true for older properties, although new properties have their difficulties, too. People who can just about afford the mortgage move into older properties, and then when the roof trusses go and the whole roof has to be replaced, the family faces economic disaster. Building societies and local authorities do not give enough advice to people about what it will actually cost them to pay for not only the utilities, but the maintenance of a home. Owner-occupation is not all plain sailing, although, as I said earlier, we all aspire to it.

Turning to the subject of houses in multiple occupation, I thank the Government, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for helping Bolton when it was in a very difficult situation. A few years ago, the police put a lot of effort into clearing prostitution out of a commercial area; the only trouble was that they drove the prostitution over a main road into a residential area, merely displacing the problem.

The residential area is a lovely place called the Haulgh. Fred Dibnah, the famous steeplejack, is a resident, and he lives in a nice cottage called the cat cottage. It is not a stereotypically run-down area; it contains some very nice properties. In one corner of the Haulgh, there are some very large three and four-storey Victorian houses that have been broken up into flats. Police pressure drove the prostitution and the associated drug taking and antisocial behaviour into those flats.

Bolton council had an innovative scheme for enveloping the flats, because they were ready for refurbishment and some were in a terrible condition. The problem was that one landlord who owned a substantial number of flats would not pay his whack, so the scheme was going to fall through. The residents of the Haulgh, Greater Manchester police, Bolton local authority and I all pressed the Government to help us with that difficult problem, and a Government pilot scheme for tackling antisocial behaviour is now in place. With Greater Manchester police, the local authority and, in particular, the efforts of the local the residents association, we are starting to turn that area—or at least, that corner of it—around.

I look forward to seeing the Housing Bill. I hope that it will be in the Queen's Speech on 26 November, and that we can get to grips with some of the issues that we are only flagging up today. I want to license HMOs. Some landlords do not take their responsibilities seriously, although the vast majority are okay. As in any difficult situation, a small minority are spoiling the barrel. Some residents live in very unsatisfactory conditions, with heat escaping through windows. I am a great advocate of energy efficiency and we must put in more work to provide warm homes in the HMO part of the private sector.

In my town we have more than 20,000 unfit owner-occupied houses. Even with increased investment in Bolton, houses are becoming unfit for habitation faster than we can improve them. It is not surprising that in places such as Burnley and in many of the industrial towns on both sides of the Pennines people have been voting with their feet and leaving.

The houses are more than 150 years old, which in terms of Victorian and Georgian buildings does not sound very old, but those houses were not built to last. They were built largely by factory owners, who used the brick-on-end method, with inner and outer skins touching, and common attics that were, and still are, an absolute disaster if fire breaks out. It flashes through the attics and sets the other houses on fire.

I have argued with previous Governments, and the present Government, that the only way to deal with such areas is to free up some green space, introduce the best schools to attract people in, and knock down some of the properties. I am not suggesting that we ruin communities as we did in the 1960s and 1970s. When I joined Bolton housing committee in 1977, the housing clearance programme consisted of 1,000 properties. When I took over as chairman in 1986, I killed the clearance programme, because there was no money for it; now it has returned, but only street by street. In pathfinder areas such as Burnley, and in towns that might have been pathfinder areas, such as Bolton and Blackburn, we need help to clear clapped-out properties in a sensitive way. If we do not, people will continue to leave those areas and we will not succeed in maintaining communities.

However, this issue is wider than just housing in pathfinder areas. It is about the infrastructure; it is about accessing a dentist, a doctor or a good school. If the infrastructure is not right, even if the houses have been improved, people will continue to leave those areas. I am pleased that the Government have created the pathfinder areas; they are experiments and I hope that they will be successful. I also hope that that success will be extended to similar areas in my town.

I am also in favour of sellers' packs, now known as home information packs. The figure of £600 sounds like a lot of money to assemble one of the packs. In fact, that is a lot higher than the figure given when we discussed the issue in a Standing Committee on a Bill that fell in a previous Session of Parliament, but I still support the idea.

I served on the Committee on the Water Bill, and was amazed to hear from colleagues, especially those from the midlands, that so many private sewers are to be adopted under that Bill. That will cost the Government a lot of money. I commented that I was surprised that the solicitors conducting the searches for people buying the houses had not flagged up the private sewer issue for them. It is important, especially with older housing, that all the information about the history of the house be in the sellers' packs. People should not have to pay again and again to do the same search to find the same information—and in some cases the information is not found, because a poor solicitor has been employed. Sellers' packs are similar to MOTs on cars. We know the history of the car from its MOT, and similarly we will know the history of the house from the seller's pack.

Mr. Kidney

I did not want to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow about home information packs, but I must tell him that the Government have inserted a provision in the Water Bill, so that if they decided that water companies should adopt more private sewers, the legal provision would be there. My hon. Friend said that, through the Bill, the Government are to make those sewers publicly owned, but we have not done that.

Dr. Iddon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for correcting me. He is right, and I apologise for misleading the Chamber.

I shall talk briefly about tenancy deposit schemes. A strong message must be sent from Parliament to landlords. If landlords continue to rob the poorest members of society of their deposits when they have done nothing wrong in the house, and have not broken anything or missed any rent, they deserve what they get. A small percentage of landlords are ruining things for the rest, but that is what happens when a small number in any group causes problems. We are under pressure to legislate. It would be nice if we did not have to legislate, but if landlords do not behave themselves and do not repay tenancy deposits to people who are eligible to receive them, we will have to do so.

There is another option. Several years ago it came to my attention that many people in Bolton were being asked to pay so-called key deposits. People had to put a deposit down before they could pay their first week's, fortnight's or month's rent, but many poor people do not have that kind of money. Somebody suggested that I, as chairman of the housing committee, should set up a bond board, based on an Australian model. The housing committee still supports the bond board, which has to raise a considerable sum through charitable donations. The bond board pays the landlord a tenancy deposit to secure the property. The tenant does not pay the bond; the bond board pays it.

The bond board also follows the tenant and gives them any help that they may require to maintain the tenancy, but if the tenant leaves the private rented property there is an interest in getting the money back, because if nothing has been broken, it can be recycled. I am a great advocate of bond board schemes, of which there are not enough in Britain. The bond board that I started in Bolton was one of the first in Britain.

I have already mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Minister the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. It contains a section on nominated insurance, which is a common problem in the north-west, and particularly in my town, Bolton. When someone pays ground rent, some deeds give the owner of the ground rent the right to nominate an insurance company with which the property and its contents must be insured.

Many people have complained about companies that graze ground rents—my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) introduced the expression, "ground rent grazing". Such companies buy thousands of ground rents at auction and try to extort money from the people who pay the ground rents. The ground rents are worth about a fiver, but each time such companies write a letter they seem to stick on an administration charge. The main reason why they buy ground rents is to exercise their right to nominate an insurer, from which they get commissions. The insurance company involved used to be AXA, but in my town it is now Norwich Union.

We put a section in the 2002 Act to make that practice illegal, but that happened many months ago. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister examine implementing the 2002 Act, because the constituents whom we have told that that battle has been won cannot understand why they are still being exploited through the nominated insurance wheeze?

4.52 pm
Matthew Green (Ludlow)

This has been a good debate, and I shall try to be positive. I usually try to find solutions and outcomes rather than just discussing problems—I leave that to the Tories.

First, I shall consider low-demand housing areas and market renewal. Liverpool is a growing success story. It is classified as a low-demand area, although in parts of Liverpool house prices are rising faster than in any other part of the country. When research was conducted in Liverpool about what people look for when they buy a house, the researchers quickly discovered that the last thing people look for is the house itself. People are far more interested in the area in which a house is located and, more importantly, how close services are. People with children look for a good school while the elderly or infirm look for local health services—the important factor is the neighbourhood area. The approach in Liverpool has been to recognise that a city is more than just houses; it is a collection of neighbourhoods. One renews housing in a given area by making each neighbourhood fit for purpose, and hon. Members have already touched on that point.

Secondly, the researchers realised that one problem with low-demand housing areas is their image, particularly the image of Liverpool. Considerable work has been done on improving that—successfully, in that the city has been designated European capital of culture 2008. That has contributed to a renewal in the housing market: unwanted houses have been cleared and new neighbourhoods have been set up, with the effect that house prices are increasing faster than the national average.

Both Liverpool and Manchester have set clear targets for expanding their populations, which had been in decline. They look to take 100,000 more people between them in the next 15 years. That is important, because bringing people back into the cities will reduce the pressure on the green belt. That has an impact well beyond the economic well-being of Liverpool and the surrounding areas. When success occurs as a result of vigorous local council activity, particularly that of Councillor Richard Kemp, the lead on housing, who is involved with Local Government Association housing issues as a result of his success there, as well as—I do not deny it—help from the Government, it behoves us all to find out how it can be helped to happen in other parts of the country.

Renovation has been mentioned. When somebody renovates an existing property, he has to pay VAT on the products used, whereas if he builds a house anew, he does not. It would be perfectly possible, under European Union regulations, to equalise the VAT, reducing it for renovations—perhaps to about 6 per cent.—and introducing it for new build. That would not increase the amount taken out of the housing market by VAT, but would remove the disincentive to renovate properties and to reuse them. It would also help to reduce pressure on the green belt, something that many of us would welcome.

The biggest issue for the housing market in many areas is affordability. The problem affects not just London and the south-east, but rural areas, particularly my constituency. Just over a year ago, I became the owner of a small two-and-a-half-bedroom cottage, right at the limit of what I could afford on an MP's salary: in Shropshire, that is an outstandingly good salary; it may not be the case in London, but in Shropshire, an MP is among the highest-paid people in the county. I could just afford to get into the housing market on a maximum mortgage on that cottage. One year later, I could not have afforded that same property. House prices in my constituency are driven by people retiring from London and the south-east, selling properties for £300,000 or £400,000 and saying, "What a lovely cottage, we'll buy it for a quarter of a million pounds." The effect is that local people, for whom £15,000 a year is a good salary, have no chance of getting on to the property ladder.

We need to make houses affordable to live in, by considering building regulations. Much more could be done to ensure that homes are built to zero or near-zero energy standards. We heard about BedZED. I have helped to initiate a similar scheme in my constituency called the Craven Arms sustainable community. It is a live-work scheme and uses near-zero energy. It maximises daylight, just as BedZED does. It also minimises the use of energy, and that which it does use comes from green sources. Much can be done to minimise water usage. I recently opened the show home of the Wintles development in Bishop's Castle: it is an entirely private sector-driven eco-development that I hope will be very successful. The Government should be doing much, such as using building regulations, to make such houses standard. The CASCOM project estimates that building such houses, which look like conventional houses—they do not look odd at all—will cost only £3,000 or £4,000 more for each three-bedroom property than it would cost to build a conventional house. That is without the mass market: if more homes were built to those standards, that cost would come down. The argument against eco-standard housing, which is that it will cost too much, is frankly wrong. I urge the Minister seriously to consider introducing such regulations.

The Minister should talk to other Ministers about putting combined heat and power into properties. There have been improvements in boilers, and new condensing boilers will be introduced in 18 months. We are only a few years away from seeing combined domestic heat and power become commercially viable in properties. That, combined with net metering, would maximise energy use in the 70 per cent. of homes that are on natural gas. In 15 years, we could replace nuclear energy with the electricity produced through domestic combined heat and power by replacing boilers. We should realise that vision. It would have a dramatic impact on the affordability of homes, because it would seriously reduce the cost of heating and lighting homes. If we allowed net metering, we would also make photovoltaics and other forms of green energy more affordable. They are currently not affordable but are made because of a commitment to the cause of green energy. They would be more commercially viable.

We are short of homes to rent because we have not built enough and the right-to-buy scheme decimated housing stocks in areas where demand was highest. They have virtually all gone, not just in London but in rural areas, where there are desirable blocks of four and eight houses. Because of the right to buy, virtually no social homes are left in large parts of my constituency, unless they have registered social landlords. The Government have made some welcome changes, but they should let local councils decide whether there should be subsidy on right to buy. Local councils are best placed to decide what effects right to buy has had in their areas. In some areas, we should encourage right to buy, such as mixed-tenure estates that have not been fully developed. In other areas—not just London and the south-east—the scheme has decimated the housing stock. The Minister should consider making councils' ability to choose where right to buy happens more flexible.

We should get people on the housing ladder. We need to give tenants, either of council properties or registered social landlords, the right to invest. That is the equivalent of shared equity, which currently happens where a set of properties is developed as such. I recommend that any council tenant or registered social landlord tenant should have the right to buy a proportion of their property—but not the whole lot. They would pay part rent, part equity and when they wanted to move on, they would sell either to the council or the RSL. That would allow them to keep pace with the housing ladder before they get off it without losing such homes from the social sector. Interestingly, the right to invest, which was introduced by the Conservatives in the early 1980s, was dropped because they also introduced the right to buy. Because right to buy was so heavily discounted, everyone took that rather than right to invest. Before the Conservatives start rubbishing it, it is worth remembering it was one of their ideas.

We must also look at producing a sector of housing that people own completely, but which stays affordable. One problem with building more starter homes is that they are affordable for the first person, if they are limited to people who live or work locally, but after that they are lost. When they are sold the second time, the price has raced up to the market values.

The Minister knows about the south Shropshire scheme, because I have discussed it with him before. It used section 106, the so-called golden share scheme, which allows people to own their properties in their entirety but means that when they come to sell, they are price limited. In effect, people purchase the property at its build price, so land is taken out of the equation. When they come to sell, they can do so only at an agreed growth rate. The Minister should look at that, not least because it could be used in the Thames gateway to solve the problems of key workers, particularly if the Government consider moving away from their preferred option of 30 per cent. affordable housing on sites of 19 houses or more towards a 50 per cent. affordable rate on sites of two or more houses, as has been done.

I could say much more. The Government need to look at four areas in the proposed Housing Bill. We will certainly try to bring them in. First, the exemption of student properties or any property containing a student from houses in multiple occupation licensing is unacceptable. Secondly, the Bill provides the ideal opportunity to introduce a tenancy deposit scheme. We will try to do that, but I am glad to hear that the Minister is considering something along those lines. Thirdly, we heard about overcrowding from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), and the Bill gives us a good opportunity for a better statutory definition of overcrowding. Finally, the Government have not shown sufficient interest in dealing with the issue of park homes. I have attempted to be positive in covering a range of issues, and I hope that the Minister will respond in a similarly positive light.

5.7 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I thank the Minister for his kind words when he welcomed me to my new role. He is a diligent Minister and a decent man. I look forward to exchanging some friendly, and some less friendly, comments over the coming weeks and months. I will not rubbish anything that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) said. That would be cruel. Politics is about both the positive and the negative. It is about cut and thrust. It is about opposition, attack and defence. He will learn that as he becomes more experienced in the House.

The issues that we can deal with first are those on which we agree. The Minister was right to say that the protection of housing for vulnerable people must be a key priority for all parties. He was also right to say that a supply of affordable homes is another key priority. He went on to talk about the effect of antisocial behaviour on the quality of life of people living in some of our most deprived areas, and of the Government's determination to deal with that. He talked about raising the quality of the housing stock, and we would all agree that that is essential.

The Minister and other speakers talked about the link between poor housing and poor health. I noted the comments of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), who made a powerful case. I agreed with her about overcrowding, and I tried to intervene to say so. The most worrying thing is that it is a growing problem in certain areas, and, as she will know, it is concentrated in some of our poorest communities. We are in the ironic position that many large homes in the leafy suburbs are under-populated while crowded homes are concentrated in the poorer areas. The hon. Lady was right to draw attention to that, and I congratulate her on having done so.

It is also right to say, as many hon. Members did, that an appropriate balance has to be struck between landlord and tenant. I particularly noted the comments of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who made that point forcefully. We look forward to hearing what the Government will say about that in the Housing Bill. These are always difficult areas. There is always a tension between the various interests, but it is appropriate to move forward in the kind of spirit that the hon. Gentleman articulated. We will no doubt discuss that at greater length over the coming weeks and months.

Let me start with the negative stuff and then move on to the positive stuff. I do not want to frighten the hon. Member for Ludlow too much, as he is a sensitive soul.

I start by putting the matter into context. Homelessness has soared in England by 12,000 since 1997: those are not my figures; they come from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The latest available Government figures show that the number who are unfortunate enough to be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has trebled under Labour, and that since this Government came to office, completions of new social houses have fallen by about a third.

The Government admit that their house-building targets, assessed in 2001, are not being achieved, and that house prices have risen beyond the reach of many households, and we must acknowledge that in some respects—I do not want to overstate the case—there is a real crisis. It is exacerbated by regional and local difficulties, some of which have been elucidated in the debate. The picture is not universal, but in some parts of the country there is a massive problem in terms of the balance between supply and demand, the affordability of houses and the decline of the stock.

Against that background, the Government's plans for house building were roundly condemned by the Select Committee. It is worth reminding hon. Members of some of the comments made in the Select Committee report to which the Minister referred in his opening remarks. It stated: The impact of such a housing programme"— the Government's scheme to build 200,000 houses— on the environment could be unsustainable … the impact of developing so many homes in the South East, one of the most densely populated regions of Europe, had not been fully assessed. It continued: The additional homes can place excessive demands on the environment leading to the loss of green field sites, excessive pressure on the water supply and other natural resources … The Government has yet to estimate the cost of providing the transport links, health care, education and all the other facilities which neighbourhoods require. I note the comments that were made during the debate about the need to balance the demands of the infrastructure with those of housing provision. The report stated: The Government's objective to bring down house prices is unlikely to be achieved. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said: If the current situation continues, there will be a property shortfall of more than a million by 2022 … We estimate that the difference between housing demand and supply will have widened into a yawning gap of 1.1 million homes in England alone by 2022: most of it in London and the South East, Housing shortages will most heavily affect the poorest families, who cannot afford to buy houses and have little access to rented accommodation. Since 1997, a sharp increase in the number of homeless households housed in temporary accommodation has become a scandal. Subsidies to providers and consumers of housing have dropped in recent years.

Ms King


Mr. Hayes

I am just coming to a point that the hon. Lady made in the debate. I will give way to her in a moment, although I am conscious that time is short. The debate is about both supply and quality, and I am dividing my remarks between those two categories. On the issue of quality, the hon. Lady made an interesting point about her own area, which I noted carefully. She said that 76 per cent. of council houses are not at a decent standard.

Ms King

Will the hon. Gentleman correct his perception that homelessness has grown under this Government? Does he accept that according to most people's definition of the word—people sleeping rough—homelessness has been cut by two-thirds under this Government because we poured huge resources into tackling it that were unfortunately not available under the Conservative Government?

Mr. Hayes

As the hon. Lady knows, homelessness is a complex subject. There is a way of measuring homelessness and a way of measuring priority homelessness. In fact, as she will know from her close reading of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's statutory homelessness table of August 2003, priority homelessness has risen, as well as homelessness as a whole. The hon. Lady is right to say that the Government have had some success in some of the detail, such as the rough-sleeping initiatives. However, she will also recognise that ongoing difficulties are associated with the inability of people to get into social housing or affordable housing. That is creating massive problems in providing children, families and some of our most vulnerable citizens with the housing that they need. I know that we will debate that subject further when we have more time.

Ms King


Mr. Hayes

Forgive me for not giving way again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady made some good points, which I acknowledge to some degree, but time is short, and I want to give the Minister the maximum time to deal with the issues that have been raised. I shall therefore summarise, by identifying several key issues.

The key to the market is recognising that high and low demand are two sides of the same coin. Housing markets are dysfunctional in different ways in different areas. As the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Bolton, South-East said, that creates all kinds of social problems and tensions. It is right to say that it is a rural as well as an urban housing issue. I am well aware of that from my own constituency.

The first issue that I wish to raise is that of standards. Have we got the criterion for decency right? I suspect that it is inadequate. I am also concerned about policy coherence: have the Government given enough thought to how local authorities will meet their targets? Moreover, in relation to targeting, it is likely that the houses that will be the most difficult to bring up to a decent standard will be those in the poorest communities—the communities that are currently the worst. I am concerned that the Government's strategy will mean that the people in the greatest need will be the last to get help. The Government's plans are not adequate to tackle housing shortages. The Select Committee and the Government's own figures confirm that.

Earlier, I discussed homelessness—through you, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker—with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. It is a scandal that 750,000 houses in the UK are currently unoccupied, nearly 20 per cent. of them in the public sector. We must draw attention to that and plan to do something about it. The affordability of housing is a massive problem, which must be addressed. That can be done in a variety of ways, and the Minister should take into account some of the interesting remarks made during the debate.

There can be a measure of cross-party agreement on this issue. The concern expressed in this useful debate has been largely non-partisan. The Government have taken some useful steps, but have not yet got us to where we need to be. The Minister, under criticism and scrutiny from me, has another chance, but we will not let him off the hook. To do so would be to fail the House and to fail the people. The Government must do better.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With the permission of the Chamber, the Minister of State will reply to this debate.

5.18 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful that that permission has been granted. This has been a genuinely interesting and good debate; it is perhaps a happier excursion than my initial appearance in this Chamber.

Housing and regeneration, as well as planning, are now genuinely high on the political agenda. Wherever I go, people say that there is a new buzz in the atmosphere, which is a reflection of the new level of resourcing and prioritisation that the Government have given to those areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) remarked upon my smiling visage. I am smiling because this is such a good area in which to be involved. I am sure that he would agree that my smile is more innocent and less sinister than my smile in my previous incarnation as deputy Chief Whip. I hope that I will be able to carry on smiling. I have been reminded again of the great expertise on such matters in this House, especially on the Government Benches. Many issues have been raised, and I shall attempt to deal with as many as I can, as systematically as possible. I give the undertaking that I shall write to my hon. Friends and other hon. Members in response to the specific questions that they have raised, including specific issues of constituency concern.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) made some thoughtful points at the end of his speech, which I shall consider carefully—although he was a little more vigorous at the beginning of his speech. I would make the point that homelessness remains considerably lower now that it was in the Tory years of the early 1990s. On the question of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, we are now on target to ensure that no family will spend more than six weeks in bed and breakfast by next spring. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out, we have cut rough sleeping by more than two thirds since 1997.

We had more housing completions in the year 2002 than we did in 1980 or 1990—both of which, if I am not mistaken, were years of Conservative Administration. Indeed, we have had more housing completions in 2002 than in the year 2000. We inherited, as my colleagues pointed out, a colossal £19 billion backlog in arrears for the refurbishment, modernisation and repair of social housing. Already, we have brought 1 million social homes up to the standards of the decent homes target. Another half a million will follow by spring 2004. In an achievement that in 1997 many of us would have thought impossible, we are on target for all homes to meet the decent homes standard by 2010.

Mr. Hayes

I know that the Minister is scrupulous about being accurate with the House, and I have his Department's figures. In the first quarter of 1997, the number of those living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation was 4,100. In the first quarter of 2003, it was 12,200. That seems to me to be a rise by any standards.

Keith Hill

If the hon. Gentleman studies the overall figures for homelessness from the early 1990s onwards, he will find that the figure in this country remains considerably lower now than it was in the Tory years of the early 1990s.

I ought not to dwell on the evidence of the Government's success in this area, but I cannot resist it. In the next three years we shall be spending £5 billion on housing: that is double the level of investment in housing that we inherited from the Conservatives. We shall spend £22 billion on communities and housing during the next three years, which is an increase of 40 per cent. on current figures. I would point out that I have not even mentioned negative equity; I have not breathed a word on the subject. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants to play the numbers game, I am more than happy to join in. I do not suppose that this is the last time we shall dance a tango on this subject.

In the brief time remaining, I shall turn to the issues raised by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members in the course of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow raised the issue of key worker housing. Under the starter homes initiative, 9,000 key workers—such as nurses, teachers and police officers—will own affordable homes by the next spring, and 5,000 already do. We are committing a further £1 billion to that programme during the next two years, and we are working with other Departments to ensure that further large numbers of key workers in our essential services go into home ownership. My hon. Friend also asked about the decent homes target, and I have talked about our performance in general, but as she asked about Tower Hamlets, I shall add that I am aware that Tower Hamlets has placed a bid under ALMO 3—the third round of arm's-length management ownership.

We are investing a further £685 million of new private finance initiative credits to improve local authority housing. In addition to the £760 million already allocated, we are providing almost £2 billion for ALMOs over the next three years, which is a massive increase compared with the £460 million allocated in the 2000 spending review. Our new rate of funding improvements in the management and maintenance of council stock will mean that support will be £500 million higher in 2005 than would have been the case without that additional investment.

Many hon. Members mentioned tenancy deposit schemes. I agree that we cannot ignore that issue, but it needs to be considered in the context of the wider relationship between landlord and tenant. We have just received the Law Commission proposals on housing tenure, and my officials and I are now considering the recommendations in detail. I remain of the view that a tenancy deposit scheme can best be considered as part of the Law Commission's recommendations on a written agreement between landlord and tenant, but we will continue to take the representations of colleagues into consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) raised many issues, including that of empty homes. He spoke about his earlier proposals for data exchange between authorities, and I am aware of the helpful LAWN scheme in London. In various parts of the country, especially London, choice-based lettings are providing a genuinely customer-oriented service to people who want to move within social housing. My hon. Friend mentioned the renovation of private sector homes, and 200,000 private sector homes will be brought up to the decent homes target by next spring.

I was grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the market renewal of the north Staffordshire pathfinder. Our investment over the next three years in the pathfinders will be £500 million, but he is right that this is not only about the physical regeneration of areas, but about uplift and renewal in skills. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East also mentioned pathfinders, and it is worth remembering that the nine pathfinders cover some 50 per cent. of the areas identified as experiencing market failure. The £500 million is already being used for good purposes, and hon. Members will be aware that we recently announced £125 million for the Manchester and Salford pathfinder.

My hon. Friend made an acute point about the character of that regeneration. Last Thursday I visited Liverpool and the Bootle part of the projected Merseyside pathfinder, and people were saying that the scheme was not solely about the demolition of properties, despite the fact that it is easy to imagine that that would be the primary function of dealing with market failure. The Merseyside pathfinder proposes to demolish 20,000 properties, but intends to build 18,000 properties as well. It is about the revitalisation of communities and town centres, and of business opportunities in those places.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about low-cost and shared home ownership, and her concerns about our policy on the right to buy. We have met separately. and I am sympathetic to her proposals. The Government remain wedded to the principle of a right to buy, and we have no intention of revoking that principle. However, we have anxieties about opportunistic and commercial exploitation of that in certain areas. We know that, in London especially, there have recently been many improper purchases under the right to buy, and we are determined to remedy that aspect of the policy.

I shall conclude my remarks at that point and, as I said earlier, I undertake to write to hon. Members on the specific questions and constituency issues that have been raised.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are grateful to the Minister of State for his reply, and I repeat that, as he has stated twice, where he was not able to reply to hon. Members' points during the course of the debate, he will write to them.

It being half-past Five o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.