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Social Housing

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2007

I have established an independent review into affordable housing under the leadership of Sir John Semple to look at the barriers affecting those seeking affordable housing across all tenures—social, private and private rented. Social housing start targets of approximately 1,500 houses per annum have been achieved in the past three years, and I hope to build on that success in future.

Bearing in mind the fact that getting on the housing ladder is the major difficulty facing our young people, as well as the crisis in social housing, will the Minister tell the House what is the total waiting list for housing in Northern Ireland? How many of those cases are deemed a priority, and how many houses are planned in the next two years to meet that need and tackle the crisis in social housing? That is of the utmost urgency, and the planned 1,500 houses are quite inadequate to meet that need.

In total, about 695,000 properties in Northern Ireland are available for social housing. The current projected build is 1,500 houses per annum, and I hope that we will be able at least to maintain that figure in the next three years and, indeed, with a devolved Administration, increase it. Housing waiting lists are relatively stable. I do not have the figures to hand, but I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman receives them. My purpose in establishing the review under Sir John Semple is to look at the great challenges that we face in Northern Ireland resulting from increased homelessness, which itself is caused by a range of factors such as employment opportunities; high house prices; family break-up; and cultural changes. We need to address those issues. The Semple review will do so, and I hope that we can publish the final results shortly.

Given that average incomes in Northern Ireland are still relatively low while the increase in house prices has accelerated in the past few years, what specific measures has my right hon. Friend taken to assist first-time, aspirational home owners in Northern Ireland so that they can get on the housing ladder?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We have tried to do several things. We have established and increased the co-ownership scheme to ensure that we provide shared ownership potential in housing. I recently amended the threshold for co-ownership so that it can increase with house price inflation, particularly in hot spots such as Belfast and the north-west of the Province. We have also increased the property threshold for stamp duty to £125,000, so that first-time buyers do not need to make a major up-front financial contribution and can instead put that money towards their capital costs and mortgage payments. It is an important issue, and there is more that we can do. When the report is published shortly, I am hopeful that it will include positive suggestions for action.

I know that the Minister will accept that Northern Ireland house prices have gone up more than house prices anywhere else in Europe—they have increased by up to 40 per cent. in the past year. Does he accept that part of the problem is the high price of land in Northern Ireland for new build? Up to 50 per cent. of the cost of a house is the cost of the site, so the release of land is a critical issue. Because of the slow zoning of the planning service, will the Minister follow John Semple’s suggestion that the Department should give up surplus land and make it available for affordable housing?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s aspirations, and I hope that an incoming Administration—a devolved Administration—can deal with those issues in detail. I have made it clear that I want the provision of Government-owned land for housing purposes to be maximised so that we can provide affordable housing through private sector development and, indeed, social housing. I have undertaken a trawl of Government Departments with surplus land, and, through the Semple report, we will try to ensure that we examine that potential in detail so that we maximise the benefits of reducing the cost of new build by using any surplus Government-owned land as, indeed, is done by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and her Department.

The Minister will be aware that a recent report indicated that house prices have increased by 52.9 per cent. in the past 12 months, for which the Government must bear some responsibility. Awaiting the Semple report is one thing, but we well know that three issues must be addressed. First, planning regulations must be changed to ensure that private development includes mixed tenure; secondly, the ill-fated planning policy statement 14, which forbids any building in rural Northern Ireland, must be immediately withdrawn; and, thirdly, public and brownfield sites should be released for mixed-tenure building. Will the Minister implement those three things immediately without waiting for the results of another investigation?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. He will know that the Semple report, which will shortly be published in full, addresses many of those issues in its draft form. I hope that the matters that my hon. Friend raises will form part of the challenges facing the incoming Administration on 26 March, because there is much that can be done in relation to planning matters, land use, social housing build and improving co-ownership. I have an agenda for that, but it is the responsibility of the new Administration to take it forward and to respond positively to Sir John Semple’s recommendations. I hope my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party will play a significant role in taking forward that agenda.