The Secretary of State was asked—
Planning policy guidance note 15, which deals with planning and the historic environment, sets out the Government’s planning policy in regard to conservation areas. Conservation areas represent a key part of the Government’s desire to preserve and enhance areas of historic importance, and planning policies reflect this.
Does my hon. Friend agree that since they were introduced in the 1960s, the now more than 8,000 conservation areas have greatly enhanced our environment and preserved and maintained local areas? Will she encourage in councils the rejection of the notion that because some historic buildings have gone in particular areas, they should not be accepted for conservation area status? Will she in particular encourage the acceptance of Bebington village as a conservation area and seek to protect the conservation area of Port Sunlight?
I entirely agree that conservation areas are important for protecting and valuing our historic environment. Conservation areas and the wider historic environment should be recognised in the context of local authorities’ work, particularly in their local development frameworks. Whether a local area should be made a conservation area is, however, a matter for local decision, and I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to campaign vigorously and represent his constituents well on the matter.
In accordance with Government planning policy, in 2004 100 per cent. of new homes in south Buckinghamshire were built on brownfield sites, but is the Minister aware that every one of those brownfield sites was, in fact, a garden? Does she accept that the definition of brownfield sites is not relevant in this case, and that gardens should be exempted from the definition to remove such a crazy anomaly?
Hon. Members are always entitled to raise the matter. It is important that we develop more homes and that those become available for people to live in. We know that there are pressures in the south of England, so we need to continue to consider all options and all the issues that affect them.
The new Secretary of State challenged planning policy head-on in a conservation area in her own constituency when she opposed the building of a block of flats at Markland Hill. Now that the right hon. Lady is responsible for planning policy, will the Minister urge her to use the benefit of her own experience to reform planning law and restore powers to local people over where and how we get the additional housing stock that we need?
Of course it is important that local authorities have appropriate decision-making powers in such situations, and of course we are always looking at and reviewing how these issues are dealt with and what needs to be taken into consideration. But any planning decision must have regard to what is appropriate in a particular environment, so the planning policies have to take those into account and give the local authorities the opportunity to make the right decisions in particular areas within a framework guidance.
Part G of the building regulations, which relates to sanitation, bathrooms and hot water storage, already applies to refurbished homes. The Department is not currently reviewing part G, but is reviewing building regulations as a whole, including water efficiency and conservation, and will look at risks and standards including those under part G.
My hon. Friend will be aware that this year 600 people, three quarters of them children under five, will receive third degree burns to a significant percentage of their body as a result of bathwater scalds. In April this year, 10-year-old Holly Devonport from Wakefield came to this place to launch the hot water burns like fire campaign; she herself lost half of the skin on her body when she fell into a scalding bath as a five-year-old. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we achieve change in those building regulations, just as we have made changes to prevent death from electric shocks, gas and fires. Hot water is the last huge risk that is unregulated in the home.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her commitment and persistence on this issue. She will be aware that in care homes for vulnerable adults measures are already in place through building regulations. We need to consider who is at risk, the level of that risk and the best way to address it. The building regulations review provides an opportunity to do that. I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will look carefully at the matter to see what can be done.
New cases of homelessness are at their lowest level since 1985 and the number of households in temporary accommodation is falling. We are achieving this by investing in homelessness prevention schemes, increasing the supply of new social housing and improving opportunities for moving from temporary accommodation into settled homes.
I welcome the progress set out by my right hon. Friend, but will she look at how local authorities interpret the preventing homelessness agenda and the Homelessness Act 2002, especially in Northampton where the local authority has refused to accept responsibility for a man who suffers from leprosy, and faces being turfed out of his home? Does she think that it is acceptable in this day and age that people with such illnesses are left homeless on the streets?
No, I do not. I am not familiar with the case that my hon. Friend has brought to my attention today, but it is important that local authorities not only reduce homelessness but deal with individual cases in a sensitive and appropriate manner. If she would like me to look at the case that she has highlighted, I would be happy to do so.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there is no adult homelessness provision in Shropshire, which leads to homeless people sleeping in cars, in derelict cars, on Ercall wood and on the Wrekin itself. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council to do something about this ongoing problem?
It is very important that we have appropriate hostels so that rough sleepers can be properly accommodated, that we take action on bed-and-breakfast accommodation so that families do not have to bring up their children in cramped conditions, and that we encourage local authorities to move people from expensive temporary accommodation into more permanent settled homes. The Government, as the hon. Gentleman will know, have taken action across all those fronts, with rough sleeping falling by 75 per cent.; we are ending the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and investing £19 million in hostel provision. There may well be individual areas where yet more needs to be done, and we as a Government, working with Labour local councils, are committed to making that happen.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that homelessness and the shortage of affordable houses are problems not only in the south but in my constituency in Sheffield, in the north of the country. She will have seen the report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which calls for increased house building and for a significant proportion of those houses to be affordable houses for rent. In order to achieve that, will she give greater powers to three-star arm’s length management organisations such as Sheffield Homes, to enable them to build new houses and to contribute to dealing with the housing shortage problem, which affects so many people?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Over the past nine years we have corrected the £19 billion backlog in repairs, which was vitally needed in order to improve our social housing stock. It is right that we now move our emphasis from the decent homes programme—although that needs to continue, of course—to allowing councils, including councils with arm’s length management organisations, to build new council housing where that is needed. Over the next few years we will increase investment in new social homes by 50 per cent. We also recently issued a document about innovative ways of allowing local councils and ALMOs to build new homes.
I think that the Secretary of State might find that this is the first year since 1997 in which homelessness figures have actually dipped—although Crisis estimates that there are 380,000 cases of hidden homelessness. However, I want to take my question away from such figures. Is not the tragedy of homelessness that its causes and cures are not so much the physical provision of accommodation, but personal matters such as relationship breakdown, mental illness, and the leaving of care or the forces? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that her Department is doing enough to encourage small charities, such as Thames Reach Bondway, King’s Arms, Emmaus and the Jericho Road Project, which are trying to tackle the deep-seated causes and to provide stability for the homeless, to prevent them from being placed in accommodation to clear a statistic today only for them to become another one tomorrow when they cannot cope?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important that we work not only with local authorities but with the voluntary and charitable sector, to enable people to live independently for longer in their own homes, and also to support them in whatever form of accommodation is needed. We are investing about £1.8 billion through the supporting people programme, which enables people to live independently for longer. But it is also right to invest more money in hostel provision, which we are doing, and which increasingly links the accommodation needs of individuals with their job-search needs and other needs, to enable them to live independently.
Today the Government will publish their Welfare Reform Bill, which includes a major reform of housing benefit. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions on ensuring that the terms of the Bill sustain people in their homes, and do not lead to a rise in homelessness?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to housing benefit and how it is framed, and, of course, my Department and the DWP work very closely on those issues. Let me highlight one issue. We are working with innovative local authorities such as Newham to recycle some of the proceeds from housing benefit when they use the private sector rather than the social rented sector to house vulnerable families, so that they can move more families from high- cost temporary accommodation into settled accommodation. I would like to see such innovative schemes expand. Later this year we will announce a fund for London, which may be replicated elsewhere, and which will allow such schemes to be developed further.
There are 1.5 million households recorded as on the waiting list for social housing. The accuracy of the list varies from area to area, as it is updated in different ways, and lists do not assess the level of need for social housing in an area.
Bearing in mind the 1.5 million people on the list, is the Minister proud of the fact that under her Government there has been a net loss of 584,000 social homes? Will she consider allowing local authorities to use receipts from social homes sold under the right-to-buy scheme to build more social houses, as well as bringing the 600,000 empty houses into occupation.?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we are increasing the level of social housing and new build by 50 per cent. over the next three years, because we think that we need more of it. We are also investing a lot of the money from capital receipts in supporting housing and infrastructure throughout the country. We have said, too, that when local councils operate the social homebuy scheme, which offers people the chance to buy a share in their home, that money should be recycled into new social housing as well.
In south Yorkshire, which covers Rotherham, Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster, according to the House of Commons the latest figures for last year show that the number of social housing dwellings built amounts to 15. Why is the figure so low?
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the distribution of social housing depends on the bids that come forward from housing associations in different parts of the country. He might want to talk to his local council about working with housing associations to come forward with good bids for his area, especially if there is a need for new social housing there. We need to increase the level of social housing throughout the country. It is due to increase by 50 per cent., and the Chancellor has said that social housing will be a priority in the spending review. However, we need closer partnerships among local councils, housing associations and other organisations so that good bids come forward. We also need to use the planning gain system to fund new homes.
Given that hundreds of families throughout south Manchester are waiting to be rehoused, will the Minister join me in condemning my local council’s decision not to guarantee that a proportion of land set aside for development will be for social housing?
Obviously, I cannot comment on individual planning decisions taken by local authorities. However, I can say that we think that local authorities should look seriously at building requirements for social housing into their planning system and approach. It is interesting that of the 140,000 new homes that were built in 2004, some 100,000 were built with no developer contribution to social housing or infrastructure. That is not fair; there should be more contributions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of meeting the demand for social housing would be for every planning authority to stipulate that at least 30 per cent. of houses in every new development should be affordable?
My hon. Friend is right. We should be doing more through the planning system to encourage more social housing. Clearly, the situation will vary from area to area; nevertheless, that is an important approach, which I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about and has campaigned for. There are ways to use the planning system better, including by using the section 106 system to support and fund a lot of the new homes that are badly needed in local communities.
We applaud the Government’s aspirations for building more social housing, and I hope that the Minister is successful in persuading her right hon. Friend the Chancellor to help the building of social housing to return to the higher level that we had under the last Conservative Government. The Minister will be painfully aware that there are 90,000 empty residential properties in the public sector—including, of course, Dorneywood. However, her recently introduced empty dwelling management orders do nothing to tackle that problem. Instead of creating new powers to seize the homes of the dead, why do Ministers not take action to deal with the paralysis affecting Labour local authorities, such as those to which the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) referred?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, his party cut investment in social housing, whereas ours has increased it. It is certainly right that land prices and construction costs were significantly lower in the early 1990s, but that was because his party engineered a massive housing market crash. I hope that that is not his approach to providing new social housing now.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of empty homes. He is right to say that local authorities and housing associations need to address the problem of empty homes in their areas and ensure that they are refurbished and fit for use. That is why we are putting so much money into the decent homes programme, and thus dealing with the massive backlog of repairs that his party left behind. It is irresponsible of Conservative Members to say that we must do something about the scandal of derelict and abandoned homes that have been left to blight communities, but then to oppose every single measure designed to do something about it.
The review of arm’s length management organisations was published on 7 June.
My right hon. Friend surely knows that the Bolton ALMO is unique, in that it is the only ALMO that is regenerating estates in both the public and private sector. Will she therefore consider extending the Bolton model to other areas with high housing demand, especially urban areas with high waiting lists? She will also know that the Bolton housing waiting list has quadrupled in recent years.
I am familiar with the Bolton at Home ALMO, which is unique in dealing with private as well as public sector housing, and is a three-star ALMO with excellent prospects for improving. My hon. Friend asks me whether the model can be extended, and I think that there is potential for extending it to other areas. He also touched on the future of ALMOs. I suggest that he is trying to get at what will happen to ALMOs after the decent homes programme has finished. My view is that it should be for local authorities, in consultation with tenants, to decide what works best for them. That will always be the yardstick by which I judge future proposals: will the proposed model make the quality of life better for the tenants or others who live in the housing stock?
Will the Secretary of State also have a look urgently at the level of ALMO debts that are accumulating throughout the country? The debt portfolio of my local council, Hammersmith and Fulham, is growing—it was projected to grow under the previous Labour administration—from about £295 million to about £500 million. Almost all of that was due to ALMO debt. Does the right hon. Lady think that that is sustainable? In only four years there has been a £200 million increase in debt.
I am happy to examine the ALMO in Hammersmith and Fulham, which the hon. Gentleman mentions. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the huge additional investment that has gone not only into housing that has gone through the stock transfer process but has also gone through ALMOs to local authorities. We are consulting on ways in which it might be possible for councils that have not gone through the ALMO process to benefit from some extra flexibility, so that they can go on to build more homes and make their communities better, as well as concentrating on the decent homes programme. There is an exciting future for local authorities that want to build up their local housing strategy function and think broadly about not only how to improve the public stock but how to improve the private stock as well, and create better mixed communities.
When large construction companies go bust, a significant number of small to medium-sized enterprises that have completed their work for the large company will invariably go bust as well. SMEs, as we know, are the backbone of the construction industry and payment security is vital for them if they are to survive. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that during the review, part 2 of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 will be amended to ensure that payment uncertainty in the construction industry is brought to an end?
Local Government Finance
My right hon. Friend met Sir Michael Lyons shortly after her appointment, when he discussed with her his report “National Prosperity, local choice, and civic engagement”, which was published on 8 May 2006.
The Minister will know that the inquiry under Sir Michael Lyons has cost more than £2.25 million—which does include £230,000-worth of research. It appears to endorse a new council tax on housing, which will affect more than 4 million households. Will the Minister undertake pilot schemes to test Sir Michael’s recommendations for changes to local government funding? If he does—and I recommend him to do so—where will these tests take place?
I am always willing to listen to suggestions from the hon. Gentleman. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] They normally come with common sense behind them, so I will consider the point that he makes. However, I hope that he will recognise that the report that Sir Michael published was his interim report. We are waiting with great interest for his final report later in the year.
I wonder whether Sir Michael, as part of his report on local government finance, mentioned that two-tier systems within Lancashire are far more expensive for the council tax payer. Would my hon. Friend recommend single-tier government for Lancashire, given the benefit that is enjoyed in Manchester?
I think that it would be wise for me not to do so, so I shall not be tempted to take that course of action. However, my hon. Friend may be interested to learn that we have had discussions on the economic prosperity of Lancashire with both tiers of councils very recently.
I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the grossly unfair burden of council tax on many residents, and particularly those who are just above benefit level. Will he encourage the Secretary of State to meet Sir Michael Lyons when she is in Bournemouth tomorrow and encourage him to be radical and introduce a local government finance system based on residents’ ability to pay? Perhaps the Secretary of State can play her part by linking her structural review to the Minister’s financial review, which would provide joined-up government for local democracy.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on, for the first time, not mentioning local income tax in a discussion about council tax at Question Time. I wonder whether that is a straw in the wind, and whether there will be a change in policy—we shall watch that space with interest. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the equity of the council tax benefit system, which was the subject of one of Sir Michael’s reports, is important, and I repeat that my right hon. Friend met Sir Michael recently.
Having endured the doubling of their council tax since 1997, my constituents are extremely concerned about the impact of revaluation and want to know where they stand. Will the Minister tell us how soon after Sir Michael Lyons’ report is published council tax revaluation will take place?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The former Minister of Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, made it clear in his announcement to this House that we were postponing the revaluation of domestic properties in England and that he did not expect that revaluation to take place in the life of this Parliament. That remains Government policy.
I am aware that in Basildon there are currently 185 caravans on unauthorised developments. The Government have offered to work with Basildon and neighbouring authorities to identify alternative sites for Travellers currently on unauthorised developments. The primary responsibility for addressing those issues rests with Basildon council.
The Minister will be aware that with the largest Traveller site in the UK, if not Europe, situated in Crays Hill in my constituency, there is a widespread belief that there is a Government bias in favour of Travellers when it comes to illegal sites, as evidenced by the two-year and four-year stays of execution recently given to unlawful Travellers. Nowhere does that bias seem more evident than in the Government’s unwillingness to meet local residents from Crays Hill, Hovefields and Pitsea to discuss the matter. As I have a letter from the Minister stating that the Government regularly meet local Travellers—they have wined and dined them—does the Minister think that the Government’s refusal to meet local residents is fair, and what is she going to do about it?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have not met local Travellers to discuss the issue, and that I do not intend to do so. I do not intend meet local residents either because, as other Ministers and I have told him, while a planning application is ongoing it is inappropriate for Ministers to engage in discussions with parties when they may have to make a decision.
Rising housing demand is driven by demographic change, which includes the fact that more people live alone, and by the needs of the economy. If we do not respond to rising housing demand, we will see first-time buyers priced out of the market, rising overcrowding and pressures on recruitment for businesses and public services, which is why we support the provision of new homes.
I am grateful for that answer. Rising demand is driven not only by smaller house sizes, smaller family sizes and longer lives—we welcome that—but by international migration, which accounts for 30 per cent. of rising demand. Is not it cruel and heartless to hand out work permits to people who have no realistic prospect of finding accommodation when they get to this country and who compete, when they arrive, with our most vulnerable fellow citizens for that rare accommodation?
Obviously the hon. Gentleman is right to say that one has to take a sensible approach to immigration and housing policy. However, we must recognise that immigration supports our economy. Migrant workers contribute around 10 per cent. of Government tax receipts and account for only 8 per cent. of Government spending. They are critical to the economy. Of course we must ensure that appropriate housing is in place. I emphasise that 72 per cent. of household growth is accounted for by single households. We need to ensure that we build more new homes to meet the overall needs of the economy, and our changing and increasing population.
My hon. Friend knows that housing demand is perhaps at its most acute among the homeless. She will also know that in December she announced £88 million of assistance to local authorities with homelessness projects. However, does she know that on 7 February the Conservative cabinet member for housing in Birmingham claimed, in response to a question from his son, who is also a Conservative councillor in Birmingham, that the city had received “not one single penny” from that fund? He has repeated that on two or three subsequent occasions, even saying that my hon. Friend should apologise to the people of Birmingham. Is he telling the truth?
Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member. He should know that supplementaries should be brief. [Interruption.] Sometimes I have seen the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) take her time over her supplementaries, too. The point is that I went over the time to call the hon. Gentleman, and I therefore expected a brief question. I would appreciate it if the hon. Lady did not tell me how to chair the proceedings. She would not know where to start.