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Housing (Gateshead)

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

It would be impossible to have any debate on social housing without recognising the fact that we have spent the past 30 years in a state of upheaval. Social housing has been in constant flux. At the same time, there has been massive change in the social attitudes and needs of the people of our country. We have seen the evolutionof one-parent families, the development of single occupancy and the breakdown of traditional family frameworks. At the same time, we have seen the sell-off of social housing and the sad failure to match demand with adequate supply. We have seen the development of various forms of public ownership and private ownership, which has led to serious political differences right across the board.

I should not have to ask whether our attention has been diverted from the real task of providing good-quality affordable homes for people to live in while we have been discussing the ownership of those homes. It is against that background that I want to bring some good news to the House. In Gateshead, the borough in which my constituency lies, the council still has strategic responsibility for housing. However, in 2004 it set up a housing company as an arm’s length management organisation—an ALMO—which has responsibility for housing offices, neighbourhood relations, rent and income, leasehold services, refurbishments, of which there are many good examples, repairs, maintenance and other housing management services.

With a great big agenda that included spending a quarter of a billion pounds to improve the houses of the people of Gateshead, why has the council produced the Gateshead young persons’ housing plan? There are three reasons: first, it is absolutely the right thing to do; secondly, the council was instructed by the Audit Commission that if it wanted to improve from a two-star to a three-star ALMO, it would have to do much more work with that age group; and, thirdly, the plan is in line with a Government-driven initiative for councils to develop plans for children and young persons.

The key to the plan is wide liaison and consultation, starting with the company itself. It talked first and foremost to the 1,335 young people aged between 16 and 24 who already held tenancies. It worked with the young women’s outreach project, with youth information services and, critically, with the Gateshead youth assembly, positively led by Valerie Ender who is a credit to her region and to the young people she looks after. The company worked with the Connexions team on career progress and with the Gateshead children and young people’s partnership and the teenage parents partnership. It worked with Gateshead college, the Hit Squad and Skills for People—young disabled persons’ groups—and the learning support group at Gateshead college, which also supports disabled people. The black and minority ethnic forum was involved, as were the Gateshead Bangladeshi and Muslim societies; and most importantly, the company worked with the Gateshead youth offending team.

Between them, those organisations developed a vision:

“Working with young people to provide excellent homes, communities and housing services for the tenants of tomorrow.”

That vision was based on values that were customer-focused, innovative and professional. The company involves customers in all its work; it is honest, accountable and transparent and shows respect and care for the people for whom and with whom it works.

A massive commitment has been made to the organisation’s employees; they are involved and their work is celebrated. The company is positive and responsive and tries its best at all times to achieve the very best for the people for whom it works. Its employees are well motivated, well trained and committed. As a listening and learning organisation, the company embraces equality and involves the whole community.

The aim of the plan is clear: to improve the chances of young people in Gateshead and allow them to find out about living on their own. A key part of that process is that young people actually work for the company. The company makes it easy for young people to work with it and to join its board—an issue to which I shall be happy to return later.

The important thing is to work with young people on the ground and find out who they are. About 46,000 people in Gateshead are aged under 19 and 29,000 of them are of school age. Fifty-nine per cent. of young people said that improved housing would make their lives and neighbourhoods better. Ninety per cent. of children born in Gateshead live in a house or bungalow, but 12 per cent. of them are likely to be living in overcrowded conditions. Five per cent. of young people have a health problem or disability. Almost 2.5 per cent. of them are from an ethnic minority background.

There is positive news for young people in Gateshead. Youth crime has fallen for the past three years. Only 8 per cent. of 16 to 19-year-olds are unemployed or not in further education or training; that is too many, but we are working on it. Our GCSE results are among the top 10 in the country and the improvements since 1997 mean that we are among the best—a massive plus for the children and those who care for them. The percentage of young people leaving school at 16 with no qualifications has gone down from 8 per cent. in 2001 to 4.5 per cent. in 2005. Under-18 pregnancy rates are down by 22 per cent., and that is the biggest reduction in the north-east; it is far better than the national average drop of 11 per cent.

The situation is not perfect, although hon. Members might think so, given the way in which I have spoken. Local young people face problems, as do young people across the country. Some face issues of homelessness or rooflessness; some do not have enough money coming in; some have poor or no credit ratings, or have no bank account. They may face unemployment and low pay. They have to abide by the housing benefit rules for under-25s, and they may not know how to use housing services or get help. Rents are very high in the private sector, and young people may have no furniture, may never have lived independently before, and may have absolutely no experience of being a tenant.

The Gateshead Housing Company went deeper in its work with young people. In February and March of this year, it consulted widely with various groups of young people, who realised that the key issue was that they needed more information and guidance. To provide that information and guidance, the housing company committed itself to promoting more effectively the housing services available directly to young people. It agreed to provide appropriate information as and when it was needed, so that young people could make informed decisions when considering where to live. It also agreed to improve access to information and advice about housing services, and as part of that, it developed a multilingual service, and a service for people with sight impairments.

The housing company has provided a great deal of help and support. It realises that maintaining a tenancy is not easy, particularly for young people, who may never have faced that worry before. The accessible information has now been provided, and people are using it. A key part of the process is the MyPad website, which is advertised on the card that I have in my hand. It is a website for, and developed by, young people; they are responsible for it, and it provides access to information.

More than 80 per cent. of young people clearly said that it would help them if they had access to IT services, so that they could find out more. The housing company has responded to that positively. There is a clear need to work with other agencies, including those that I listed earlier. Such work is being developed, and the housing company is taking that seriously. It is identifying individuals who will be the key persons working with its partners, so that there is no blurring of who does what.

There is a clear problem with housing, and thereis a lack of both permanent and temporary accommodation. The sad thing about the company’s plan is that it does not provide us with one brick, one key to a door, or one extra house; however, it does give shape to what must be done. It is accepted that waiting lists are too long, and that it takes too long to get a property. It is accepted that not enough council accommodation is available in the areas where young people want to live. Young people who are offered accommodation often find that it is outside the areas where they want to live, which means that they will be away from their family and their support network. There is a lack of emergency accommodation for young people, too. Some of the housing stock is not at its best, although we are in the middle of a massive refurbishment programme. On some estates, the paintwork on houses is in poor condition. Problem neighbours are a concern for young people, too, and the repair service is perceived to carry out poor quality repairs, and to take too long to complete them.

A key question put to the young people was, “What do you want?” Their answers were clear, and they made simple but important points. They wanted to live in houses on estates and in communities where they felt safe and secure, and they wanted to live in a clean house in a clean area. They wanted to live in a house that had been improved, and that was furnished. They want more options—they do not want to be pushed into a place and to be given Hobson’s choice, but want a real choice. They want places to be open at hours that are helpful to them. They want services to be available not when they are at work or in education, but when they need them. They also want a new letting system, because the previous system, which was based on points, was hard to use and to understand. They need more information on the whole agenda, too.

I have set out the background of the problems that the housing company faces. It has set up a plan to show how, over the next three years, it will fulfil its commitment and deliver on the agenda that the young people have set. I now turn to what the company has done. It says that it will concentrate on young persons’ issues first, and it has appointed a lead officer who will develop young people’s priorities. That will ensure that the company complies with the key age discrimination legislation. It will regularly scrutinise young people’s services to make sure that people are satisfied with them, and it will listen to their complaints.

Young people are encouraged to join the company both as employees and as officers who run the company, thus giving them a democratic say in the shaping of the future for themselves and for other people living in Gateshead. We need to find out what problems prevent young people from using the company’s service and try to solve them. A taskforce must be given the job of identifying any barrier that young people face when accessing the service. We must ensure that company employees have the required information so that they can provide advice tailored to young people’s needs, which are different from those of the rest of the population. Advice and information about housing services in Gateshead must be accessible. As I said before, a web-based housing information resource has been developed, based on the needs of the young people concerned, and it has had an extremely positive effect in promoting available housing.

Young people have been encouraged to take part in training so that we can learn about what they need. Their views are paramount. Support is always available so that they can become involved, and dedicated training is resourced directly from the housing company budget. The company is keen to work with Connexions—the careers organisation for young people in the north-east—the council, young people’s support organisations and groups to improve things for young people in the area. We must make sure that the company’s representatives are involved at every level with various organisations so that people’s needs are heard loud and clear and are addressed.

Finally, the company has made sure that the employment of young people is a positive thing. Working for the company should be a positive goal and career step for people leaving university and school. The company’s recruiting practices are very much targeted on a young work force. That approach is unique in its detail—if not unique among all housing providers, certainly among arm’s length management organisations. We should share good practice. Most of us who have been involved in public services and politics for years have been to thousands of meetings at which we said that we should share good practice, only to go away and forget all about it. The truth is, the company provides an example of good practice, and it is the way forward. We should take it on board and develop it.

When the housing company is contacted by a young person, it asks them whether they are sure that they want to rent social housing. Many young people think that all they need to do is find the rent—they are not aware of the reality of running a home. They could therefore take the wrong step, so the company works with other organisations, and asks young people whether it can help them to stay at home. Are there family breakdowns at home, or are there financial problems? It tries to help them in different ways. I have been scratching my head, because I cannot imagine another company telling someone not to take their product. A company selling new cars would not suggest that someone take the bus or use their bike. The housing company, however, has a genuine interest in helping younger people.

The three-year programme will be reviewed annually, with the Gateshead youth assembly playing a key role. Hopefully, the lessons that are learned will be put to good use. I hope that the Minister will agree to come to Gateshead so that she can see what is going on. Hopefully, Ministers will learn from the project and share that knowledge with everyone, as I am trying to do tonight. I am proud to report that the latest member of the ALMO board is a 25-year-old by the name of Christian Jules Siassia, who was appointed this week. Six years ago, he came to the UK as an asylum seeker. He finally got refugee status in 2004. He is a member of the company’s black and minority ethnic housing forum. He is working as a housing professional in Newcastle—as a trainee housing officer—and he is now on the board. If that is not the sort of thing that we should welcome, I do not know what is.

I never believed in John Major’s world, where people played cricket and drank warm beer. I came from a world like you did, Mr. Speaker: an industrial background, where we lived back-to-back. I was10 years old before we had a house with a bath in it and an inside toilet. I come from the generation that saw council housing as a liberating factor. We were proud of the strides that my Government and my party took post-war to build council houses—to make council housing and social housing a byword for quality, security and safety. I hope that developments and programmes of the sort that I have been talking about can bring about a new start for us in delivering quality social housing, so that the phrases “council house” and “council estates” are not synonymous with sink estates and second-class housing, but are a genuine positive option—not only for the young people of today, but for everybody.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) highlighted, there have been substantial changes in the demand for, and supply of, social housing in Gateshead, and it is welcome that changes are being made to reflect that. I join him in asking Ministers to come and view the wonderful work in progress; I assure them that they would be made very welcome in Gateshead.

In the current climate of rising house prices, there are young people across the country who are worrying about how they will ever manage to get a foot on the property ladder. That is a daunting prospect for people to have to face in their late teens or early 20s, and I support the work done by Gateshead council in trying to make this step easier for our young people. It is significant that such a wide-ranging consultation took place, including all of the 1,335 young tenants already in place in Gateshead Housing Company homes, to ensure that the voice of every young person was heard. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the hard work and dedication of those involved.

As always, we in the north-east have some real advantages and resources that we can draw on to help our young people get a good start in life. As always, there are also issues to be overcome such as overcrowding, low pay, lack of furniture and all the challenges of setting up home independently.

The consultation process revealed that young people want just the same things as anyone else: a warm, safe home. It was also noted that the council services needed to be provided in a more flexible manner, and that information needed to be made more easily available and accessible. As a result of those demands, we now have the website, www.mypadgateshead.co.uk, which is taking forward the work of the housing company into the 21st century. I hope that we can continue to close the information gap, which makes young people feel left out of the loop about the choices and options that are available to them.

In Gateshead, we already have some of the most improving schools in the country, with this year’s GCSE results showing Gateshead schools to be the most improved in Britain. We are managing to provide our schoolchildren with the best possible start in life, and this initiative will help to ensure that we continue to provide our young people with every opportunity to do their best for their future for many years to come, and for that future to be in a home in Gateshead.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on raising this important issue and I am grateful for the welcome given to the work by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead,East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson). The Government always like to hear good news, and we were given a very impressive list of the work that has been undertaken so far and the work that is promised in Gateshead.

A decent home for everyone is a key Government policy. That is set out in the 2005 “Sustainable Communities: Homes for all” statement. Our vision of sustainable communities is to provide places that offer everyone a decent home that they can afford, in a community in which they want to live and work, both now and in the future. We appreciate that increasing property values and rents, together with a shortage of affordable homes, have made things difficult for everyone setting foot on the housing ladder for the first time, but for many—

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

For many of our young and more vulnerable people, the problems can be daunting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon described very well. To set up on their own with limited knowledge, money or assistance is a frightening and bewildering prospect for many young people. It could be that family problems have forced them into a world of tenancies, leases, rent and responsibilities for which they are ill-prepared. Low wages, unemployment, the lack of a bank account, no credit history—all can make that situation much more difficult. If we fail our young people, they may end up homeless and, as such, much more likely to fall victim to a vicious spiral of crime, drugs and perhaps even violence.

In the 2002 report “Reducing Re-offending by Ex-Prisoners”, the social exclusion unit found that the presence of stable accommodation for young people can mean a reduction of more than 20 per cent. in the reoffending rate. Everyone has a right to a decent home, and the Government want everyone to be given the help and advice needed to make a good start. So we are allocating more than £80 million to local authorities over the next two years to invest in further homelessness prevention schemes; such schemes have already demonstrated considerable success.

As well as dealing with people who are homeless, we must work to help people to avoid becoming homeless. There needs to be co-ordinated working between children’s services and housing services to address young people’s specific needs, as they often go beyond housing needs alone. Young people are particularly vulnerable if they do not have help and support in establishing a structured lifestyle. I commend the work being done in Gateshead on this issue.

My hon. Friend described how the organisation’s first step is to question the young person to see whether this is the right step for them, and whether there is a better alternative. He might not know that I used to be a social worker. I worked with young people who often did not have an alternative, and I saw first hand how they would struggle in a new tenancy to deal with issues that, frankly, had never occurred to them. They wanted their own space, which is understandable, but they often found that dealing with loneliness—let alone the problems associated with paying bills—could become simply too much. Many young people struggle to sustain that first tenancy, so my hon. Friend was right to identify this issue.

On housing provision, which my hon. Friend also rightly raised, we are working to achieve the decent home targets in the public and private sectors. We have invested more than £20 billion of public money in improving council housing since 1997, and more than £40 billion will have been invested by 2010. Since 1997, we have also levered in an additional £7.4 billion through borrowing by housing associations. We have increased the number of decent social homes by over 1 million, and increased the proportion of vulnerable households in the private sector who have a decent home to 66 per cent. We continue to seek ways of delivering more affordable housing and of increasing the building rate for new homes. There is a great deal more to do, but we have to do more than just deal with the physical fabric. Everyone, regardless of age or background, has a right to a decent, safe and secure home. It was no surprise to hear from my hon. Friend that young people raised these issues when they were asked what they wanted from their accommodation.

The Government recognise that a stable home isa key factor in helping to create a sustainable community, and that it provides stability, security and safety. We are working to create sustainable communities in which everyone has respect for others and is respected. If we want young people to develop respect for others, we have to respect them and help them to respect themselves by guiding them in their first steps to developing a secure home.

We emphasise the need for consultation and community involvement in housing matters, but we must not forget the views of those who are not yet part of the housing market. It can be hard to draw out the wishes of young people, especially those for whom housing is a new thing—something that they have not previously discovered. Any efforts to be innovative in dealing with the housing needs of young people are to be welcomed. That is why I commend the excellent Gateshead strategy that my hon. Friend has made the centrepiece of his Adjournment debate. I am pleased that Gateshead has taken the initiative in addressing the housing needs of young people by consulting them thoroughly in the preparation of the housing plan.

It is an important fact in delivering public services that if we talk to people about how those services should be delivered, generally the service is much better. Just because the service users are younger than a great many other users does not mean that they should not be consulted. What is impressive about this approach is that a great deal of thought has been put into finding out the views and opinions of lots of young people from different backgrounds and different ethnic backgrounds, and of young people with disabilities. The plan is comprehensive and enables Gateshead to go forward confidently.

As my hon. Friend said, the Gateshead Housing Company is the two-star arm’s length management organisation that manages Gateshead council’s homes. It is notable that in its inspection, it was viewed as having good prospects for taking those further steps. The development of this kind of plan is evidence of that. Together with the council, it is working proactively and is spending more than £1 million a week on improving homes. In particular, I commend its excellent website, as both my hon. Friends have rightly done. I had a quick look at it myself yesterday and found that it was easy to navigate. The address www.mypadgateshead.co.uk is helpful and user-friendly. If you ever find yourself with a moment to spare at your computer, Mr. Speaker, you too will find that that website is well worth a visit.

Our newly published White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities” will further enhance the quality and responsiveness of local services. It offers a future in which communities, including young people, will be empowered to have more control over services, getting better information and being more engaged in shaping the places where they live. We have established regional housing boards in the English regions that have already shown an ability to address strategic and local issues in a more direct and responsive manner. We are also encouraging local authorities to co-operate in the production of costed, prioritised sub-regional housing strategies that will identify the key areas where spending will be focused. The Government are moving to provide more long-term certainty over funding by allocating funds to regions over a three-year period.

The scale of the issues that need to be addressed by regional housing boards is daunting, so it is essential that effective partnerships are established to draw in and harness private sector funding and support. We need to be flexible and innovative in our approach and to develop effective new ways of working. That essentially means that we need to increase house building rates and address the vexed issue of stock renewal. We need to improve and maintain the quality of existing stock by achieving and going beyond the decent homes target and we need to meet specific community and social needs, particularly among vulnerable groups.

In the north-east in particular, we need to ensure that we can improve the quality of housing on offer by a balance of new building, repair and replacement. We must ensure that a suitable range of types and sizes of property is provided, based on a clear understanding of local needs and aspirations. That is why the Government have emphasised the importance of robust and up-to-date housing market assessments in the preparation of housing strategies.

It is too simple to think of the solution to housing problems as being achieved simply by building more new homes. Examining the whole stock is an important approach to take the work forward. We need to understand how the market is working in areas, as well as population changes and migration. We need to know more about the quality of existing stock and, above all, we need to understand the needs and aspirations of householders—both existing householders and those to come. Gateshead has thus done considerable work by examining the aspirations of young people. Some of those young people might not become householders for a considerable time, but such planning for the future is enormously important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon asked something of Ministers, which is always a good reason to apply for an Adjournment debate. On this occasion, it will not be too difficult to give him the response that he wants. He asked whether I would make a visit. The work is very impressive, so I give a commitment that a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government will visit Gateshead to learn about what is going on. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that spreading good practice is important, so it is useful if Ministers are able to see such practice for themselves. A Minister from the Department will thus make a visit as soon as that is possible.

I am sure that that Minister will want to meet the newest member of the board. Again, it is impressive that Gateshead not only asked young people what they wanted on one occasion, but is ensuring that the voice of young people is part of the ongoing work and management by having a young person on the board. Such practice is to be commended and the Government would certainly welcome it being followed elsewhere.

I once again commend both my hon. Friends for their support for the work. I congratulate Gateshead on producing the report, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon for giving me the opportunity to discuss this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Ten o’clock.