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Social Housing

Volume 403: debated on Thursday 10 April 2003

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3.

Whether Government targets for social housing in urban areas have been met. [107468]

9.

What targets the Government have set for social housing in urban areas. [107474]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

The 2002 spending review reaffirmed our commitment to delivering decent social housing by 2010. The sustainable communities plan sets out the resources and the policy changes that would put us on track to meet the 2010 target. The target applies equally to all areas of England, rather than simply to urban areas.

We are on track, according to local authority plans, to meet the 2004 interim milestone of reducing by one third the number of non-decent homes in the social sector. This will bring the total down from 1.6 million in 2001 to 1.1 million in 2004.

The question was quite specific. I asked whether Government targets have been met, but I did not notice an answer. I understand that the number of new-built social houses has fallen by one third since 1997, which is quite extraordinary. What confidence does the Under-Secretary think that the House, or the public, should have that the Government will increase their social housing build? Indeed, what confidence can one have when such announcements are made by the Deputy Prime Minister—as with the announcement in February this year—whose housing interests were so vividly exposed by the previous Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who found that he had been acting against the Orders of the House?

On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, I have already remonstrated with him for continuing to bore the House with irrelevancies.

In the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he suffers from the same delusion as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who, in a written parliamentary question, asked me the same thing, but inserted the word "new". There is no target for new social housing in terms of our decent homes target and there is no target in terms of build for social housing—that is a matter for local plans, regional plans and everything that will follow when Royal Assent is given to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill.

Our one target for social housing is to bring all housing up to the decency level by 2010. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) asked whether we have achieved that target. Short of using H.G. Wells's time travel machine, he will have to wait until 2010.

My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will be well aware of the review that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is leading on the delivery of development in the Thames gateway and of his intention to make a statement in May 2003. I am especially interested to know if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can say whether that statement is still on target to be made in May 2003, bearing other events in mind, and if he expects the statement on the level of development to lead the way and set the scene for the various delivery vehicles to make a serious contribution to social and affordable housing in the Thames gateway.

My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as well as engaging in a range of other activities, is chairing a Cabinet Sub-Committee called "MISC 22", for no other reason than 22 was the next number. The number 21 had been taken.

I understand that that body is still on schedule to report by the end of May on a range of issues, not least on the scope for detailed delivery of housing—affordable and otherwise—in the gateway. Other issues include a range of mechanisms and policy changes that may be needed in that context, such as value capture, review of planned obligations, and how, with a mixture of public and private funding, we will secure the necessary infrastructure to make all the developments in the gateway vibrant and sustainable communities rather than simply creating urban sprawl and add-ons to existing communities.

Are the Government prepared to consider a target in housing that would allow need to be met before demand? As the Under-Secretary will know, the borough, of which I represent part, has the largest local authority housing stock in London. Sites that become available could often be used for social housing if they were not bought by the private sector to provide much more expensive housing or second and third homes for people who are already housed.

I fully understand the nature and context of the hon. Gentleman's question for the reason, among others, that I have responsibility for the new deal for communities. I know Aylesbury intimately, but sadly not Southwark. Buckinghamshire has different problems, but I must say to him that the development of Southwark's new deal development plan and its subsequent local delivery documents is, in the first instance, a matter for Southwark.

In the coming months, however, we will be reviewing circular 6/98 as a matter of urgency. The review will take on board the needs assessment process and a range of others that may or may not he included in the end. There are some very good, sometimes radical, ideas about a new use class order for social housing that would capture a social model, but leave the home in a social sector without necessarily preventing people from rising up the elevator to private home ownership. That will be considered in the mix, but it is a matter for Southwark and its unitary development plan and local development framework, albeit in the context of the Mayor's London plan, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is being examined in public in full detail.

The Under-Secretary talks about targets, but has conveniently forgotten to mention the target from the spending review 2000; namely, that the Government were going to help to build 100,000 new affordable homes by the end of 2004. Will he tell us what has happened to that target and what progress has been made? Does he realise that constituencies such as mine desperately need new, affordable homes, yet the Government's policies to date—the starter home initiative, for example —have failed to deliver on what they promised. Fewer than 70 per cent. of the homes promised under the starter home initiative have been built. Moreover, the Government have failed to support councils and realise the potential supply from empty homes. When will the Government deliver on their old targets?

I know that it is a common feature of the Liberal Democrats to flip flop on almost every issue, but I did not realise that that had a temporal dimension. They are now asking me to comment on targets that are, in one sense, a year away from fruition and that, in another sense, are two years away. I hope that the hon. Gentleman endorses our sustainable communities plan, which includes £22 billion of public expenditure, some £5 billion of which will specifically be for affordable housing, and up to £1 billion of which will be for key worker housing. I certainly eschew the notion that the starter home initiative has failed. I have spent much of my time in the past few months going up and down the country, and certainly around London and the southeast, seeing firefighters, teachers and nurses who are in fire stations, classrooms and with patients only because of the starter homes initiative. If Kingston has not got its whack from the initiative, it needs to pull its finger out.

Will the Minister alter the rules so that those local authorities that have established a good record of maintaining their existing housing stock can be allowed much greater freedom to dispose of their budgets by building additional units?

It is extremely unlikely that we will change the rules, given that the ink is barely dry on the rule changes that we made on 5 February, when the sustainable communities document was announced.

The rules are a product of a time when many authorities were not maintaining their stock, so much so that it became uninhabitable. Now, good authorities can no longer be held back by bad ones. However, New Forest district council now has to rip out perfectly good kitchens from its existing stock and put in new ones, rather than building new houses, simply to comply with the rules imposed by Whitehall. It must be horses for courses. Will the Minister reconsider his answer?

All local authorities need to produce housing stock plans by 2006. The hon. Gentleman may be referring to decent home standards. I imagine that constituents of the New Forest, East or New Forest, West require those decency standards as much as anyone else. He exhorts me to travel back in time to a land of milk and honey under the Conservatives that never existed, and the Liberal Democrats exhort me to travel forward in time. I would rather stay where I am.