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Communities and Local Government

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Affordable Housing

John Hills’ review of social housing underlined the importance of promoting mobility and tackling worklessness. The report has provoked a wide-ranging debate on the role of social housing in the 21st century. We are carrying out a programme of work to address the issues raised.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Hills report says that of 4 million tenants nation wide, only about 5,000 to 6,000 move in any one year owing to employment-related factors, so existing mobility schemes simply do not work. Yet the number of homeless of people who live in socially rented housing is significantly higher than in any other tenures. That means that something must be done. What indications can she give us that she is considering this, and that action will be taken to help those people to get into employment?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. More than half of all social tenants of working age are not in work of any form, and enabling mobility to allow them to take up work must be an important part of our response. Of course, increasing the supply of social housing will be vital, and we plan to continue that, but we must also think about how, within our choice-based lettings schemes, at a local authority level and more broadly, we can enable people to move both within their area and across boundaries. I will say more about that later.

But following the collapse of Move UK earlier this year, when will social housing tenants in my constituency be able to move to another part of the country using something like the national mobility scheme, which the Government inherited in 1997?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I know that he used the opportunity of an Adjournment debate to raise this issue recently. Indeed, national mobility schemes are probably an important part of our response, although I point out to him that there have traditionally been far more mutually arranged exchanges than have ever taken place through a national mobility scheme. One way in which we can make this happen more quickly and easily than by resurrecting any of the old schemes—it was right that we took action when we did to correct a contract failure—is to ensure that choice-based lettings work thoroughly and appropriately to enable choice within the local authority area and, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), to enable people to move on a sub-regional basis across local authority areas or more widely.

According to a recent parliamentary answer to me, mobility has been falling for some time. Last night, I spoke to two tenants in my constituency. One was a single person living in a three double-bedroom flat and seeking to downsize; the other was a family of six living in a one-bedroom flat and hoping to get out of a desperately overcrowded situation. While the match is not exact, as we know, mobility can clearly make a real impact on overcrowding and on homelessness. Will my right hon. Friend commit to a major injection of energy and resources to try to get internal and external mobility back up even to the level that it was at a few years ago?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is working with the Greater London authority to ensure, especially in London, that incentives are given for people who want to change home, particularly to downgrade. I understand that so far about £20 million has been invested to that end. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that it is a priority. We must do more, and we are thinking about all the measures that we can take to make it easier for people to move home.

As the Secretary of State knows, in 1981, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), in a Conservative Government, introduced a scheme that allowed social housing tenants to move to new homes anywhere in the United Kingdom and retain their secure tenure. This year, under a Labour Government, the scheme has collapsed, scores of people have lost their jobs and tens of thousands of tenants have been left in the lurch, with no new homes to which to move and no scheme in place to offer support. After the incompetent introduction of home information packs and penal stamp duty, which have made it much more difficult for home owners to move, the Government have now made it much more difficult for social tenants to move. May we have a word of apology?

I clearly regret the failure of Move UK. It was set up to replace an already failing scheme, which did not deliver appropriate moves for tenants throughout the country. As I have already said to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), far more moves took place under mutually agreed exchanges than any national mobility scheme ever produced. Clearly, the performance of the new scheme was unsatisfactory and I regret that. We must now work urgently to try to develop a choice-based lettings scheme, which is a preferable method of encouraging mobility, especially because most local authority tenants want to move in their area and fairly close to home—perhaps for child care support or employment reasons—and we must then work quickly to expand that scheme so that people have the opportunity to move across the country.

Will my right hon. Friend also address the issue of enforced mobility in the social housing sector whereby people who live in terribly overcrowded conditions are forced to move away, as she says, from their jobs and homes to find satisfactory accommodation? Will she examine the Housing Corporation-funded scheme that was piloted by Luton community housing association, which enabled social housing to be extended in the same way as we have loft and other extensions in our homes, to enable families to retain their jobs, places at schools and all the links with their communities rather than being forced to move?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is right that social tenants have choice just as it is right for people who own their homes to choose whether to move, build an extension or convert their loft. That is precisely why we are working with the Greater London authority and others in London to give people the opportunity to convert their social homes so that they have more choice about whether to move or stay where they are.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, if the Government’s policies push an extra 500,000 families on to the council house waiting list—as they have done—the pressure will reduce mobility, not increase it? Is not the cure to build more social housing? On balance, does she believe that mobility will be improved or worsened if the housing allocation policy of the Minister for Industry and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), were adopted nationally?

Of course the answer is to build more homes. That is why I am proud that the Labour Government are building more private sector homes as well as increasing the number of homes that are built in the social sector. The hon. Gentleman knows that the number of social sector homes has increased by 50 per cent. in the past two years. It is my priority and that of my Department in the comprehensive spending review to put new-build social housing at the top of our list. We must do more—he is right to acknowledge that. However, as he rightly says, it is a matter of increasing the supply of new housing, affordable housing and social homes.

Is the Secretary of State aware that 80 per cent. of the population in my constituency have no chance of buying into the private sector and that the only hope of those who are in overcrowded council accommodation is mobility within the borough or nearby? Yet in London, the chronic shortage of council housing means that it is impossible for many families who live in grossly overcrowded accommodation, with teenagers growing up three or four to a room, to have any chance of getting somewhere decent to live. Will the Government please invest a lot of money quickly in building council houses for rent for people in desperate housing need?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a real issue. I hope that he supports the additional investment that the Government have made in increasing the number of homes available at affordable rent. We must continue to make progress on that. We are now building at a rate of around 30,000 homes a year. We must increase that further to tackle the pressures that he rightly outlines.

Home Inspectors

We have received a number of representations from home inspectors and domestic energy assessors, and we have held meetings with them and their representatives.

What message would the Minister give to recently qualified home inspectors in Vale of York and across England and Wales who at their own expense have qualified as either energy assessors or home inspectors? They did so in the expectation of earning a living in that capacity from 1 June, but now have no likelihood of earning any money before 1 August and possibly later. What is her message to them and when will she share with the House her definition of a “bedroom” for purposes of the home information pack?

Yesterday, we set out a series of further details, which included an update on implementation and proposals for supporting a number of free energy certificates in advance of August. We are also working with housing associations to bring forward energy certificates for social housing. We have been clear that we want to bring in energy certificates and home information packs as soon as possible. I hope that the hon. Lady told her constituents that her and her party’s message is that they want to abolish work for them altogether.

When I met representatives of the Milton Keynes home improvement and domestic energy assessors association a week ago, they were very clear that they understood which party in this House had been trying to get energy performance certificates moving forward and which party had been opposing it. They are also extremely keen that the Minister should lay out with even greater clarity the triggers for rolling out the energy performance certificates from four to three-bedroomed houses and then to other housing, and clarify what work will be provided from now until 1 August for those who have no other source of employment.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said, we set out further details yesterday as part of our implementation update and we will provide further regular updates on the website, particularly for energy assessors across the country who want to be able to begin work at the earliest possible opportunity. This is about bringing in changes that will help cut carbon emissions from homes. That is important and we need to get on with it.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I love you!

I too have received correspondence from constituents—Mr. Stuart Little and Mr. Murray Pakes, who trained and invested many hours in becoming domestic energy assessors and home inspectors. They are now disillusioned and completely demotivated by the Government’s broken promises to them. What should I tell them about reclaiming their costs? Can they sue the Government, or shall I tell them that they will have to lose that money if, as is likely, they do not wish to proceed?

I presume that it was not me whom the hon. Gentleman said he loved as he stood up! He should very honestly explain to his constituents his party’s policy. His party has been campaigning for the end of energy certificates and for an end to the work to be done by energy assessors. We have set out a programme to bring forward the energy certificates and HIPs at the earliest possible opportunity and we have set out steps to bring forward more energy certificates in advance of 1 August.

The private contractors seem to have failed many of those who wished to train as assessors. Will my hon. Friend consider contracting directly with colleges, such as Wigan and Leigh, in order to provide the training necessary to produce the numbers required?

I would be happy to look at my hon. Friend’s proposals. Many energy assessors are now coming through the training and passing their exams, but we know that much of the uncertainty—including around the legal case brought by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors against the energy certificate—deterred people from completing accreditation. Now more than 1,000 people have completed accreditation, but we clearly want more coming through so that we can introduce energy certificates at the earliest opportunity.

Does the Minister accept that her reply to the previous two questions about people who have spent £6,000 and more on training to be assessors was completely inadequate? I have a constituent in that situation who has written to the Minister saying that he is

“left in limbo, wondering when a full day’s work will ever come his way”.

What can the Minister do to make these people understand what they can do to reclaim their costs?

Again, I have to say that we set out further details yesterday and we will update them on the Department’s website so that people can be clear where work is already starting in order to start rolling out energy certificates, both in social housing and as part of free energy certificates supported by the Department. The hon. Gentleman must be honest with his constituents about his party’s policy. He has been campaigning to prevent the introduction of important measures that will cut carbon emissions from our homes by 1 million tonnes. Those measures are important, and hon. Members should stop contributing to greater uncertainty and making it difficult for energy assessors to start doing their jobs.

Has my hon. Friend’s Department ruled out the option of drawing on organisations that already go into people’s homes but which are not yet being allowed to train people to carry out the energy assessment element of the survey? Would their involvement not encourage people to come forward, so as to increase capacity? May I also say that the estate agents in Plymouth to whom I have spoken are very happy with the Government’s proposals and keen to roll out the provisions as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. An accreditation system was set up to support those who already had a lot of experience and might have needed only a little updating in order to become accredited. The system was known as the experienced practitioners’ route and was designed to ensure that additional energy assessors, often with different kinds of experience, were in place to carry out the work. I am afraid that that accreditation scheme has not yet delivered many people to be trained to be fully accredited. It is run by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Green Belt

16. Whether a positive average annual change in the green belt will be achieved in each region over the period 2002-07. (141603)

The 2007 figures are not yet available. Between 2003 and 2006, there was an increase of 7,500 hectares in the green belt across the country, excluding the re-designation of the New Forest as a national park. Six regions showed small increases and three showed small decreases in the total amount of green belt land.

I thank the Minister for her reply, and I am pleased that she thinks that extensions to the green belt, where appropriate, are welcome. Does she accept, however, that the continuing policy of urban extensions, led by the market, will result in areas that have repeatedly been turned down for development—such as the so-called white land at Leckhampton, near my constituency—being placed under increasing pressure unless the protection of green belt status is extended to them? Will she reconsider the policy of market-led urban extension, which seems to encourage developers to focus on such affluent areas rather than on urban regeneration, social housing and struggling small villages, or on counties such as Cornwall, which need and want the housing more?

We certainly support the continued protection of the green belt, and that protection will need to increase in some parts of the country. It is a matter for regional planning authorities and local councils, however. The hon. Gentleman asked about urban extension and other areas needing additional housing. We all need to recognise that we need to build more homes for the next generation. We are not building enough at the moment. The number has increased substantially over the past few years, but it is still not high enough. It is a matter for local councils to take responsible decisions about where the new homes should be built and where protection is needed, but we cannot run away from these important decisions.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that the formulation of a local development framework provides a good opportunity to consider whether any changes should be made to the green belt. In my constituency, the local authority is proposing a couple of sensible changes around Tinsley park, but another proposed change in the Bridle Stile area and the attractive Moss valley has been withdrawn because, although the council’s proposals would allow the land to remain as open space, it believes that putting it into the green belt would trigger a wholesale review of all the green belt in the city, with all the time and cost consequences that that would entail. Will my hon. Friend look into this matter to ascertain whether it is possible to make such marginal and beneficial changes without triggering a comprehensive review, with all the problems that that could create?

I am happy to look at the case that my hon. Friend has raised. He will be aware that we are unable to comment on individual cases, and that there are proper procedures that need to be followed when planning designations need to take place, but I will certainly look further into the case that he has mentioned.

Members will have read with interest the reference in The Times today to an interview with the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), in which he talks about scrapping the green belt. Will the Minister take this opportunity publicly to reject his comments and to pledge her continued support for green belt protection? If not, is not the future of the green belt under Labour more uncertain than ever?

That is complete nonsense. We have just published a planning White Paper in which we make it absolutely clear that the green belt protection needs to continue. The green belt is important. However, the hon. Lady often uses the green belt and concern about house building in general to argue against house building. In fact, she said in response to the White Paper that regional assemblies were building too—

Order. The Minister is answering the case for herself. It is not for her to say what the policy is of the shadow Minister.

Of course it is not just about the quantity of green belt, but about the quality and whether it is publicly accessible. One of the positive legacies of the former Greater Manchester council 21 years ago was the transformation of the old industrialised river valleys into pleasant open spaces and country parks. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important in urbanised areas such as Denton and Reddish that we not only look after and protect these open spaces from unwarranted encroachments by the industrialised and urban areas surrounding them, but look to build on them and extend them further to create more open spaces for my constituents?

My hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that the quality of the environment is improved. That includes green spaces on the edge of towns and those in towns as well. That is why we have made investing in the environment and green spaces a priority across areas such as the Thames Gateway, because it is important that local communities have access to good quality open space.

Revenue Support Grant (Worcestershire)

The current formula grant distribution system is designed to take into account the individual circumstances of each local authority relative to all others. The Government consider that a fair way of distributing grant to local authorities.

I find the Minister’s answer somewhat disappointing. May I impress on him the situation in Worcester, where in education, for example, the gap 10 years ago in pupil spending per year between us and Birmingham was a matter of a few hundred pounds, which was condemned by Labour candidates at the time? That gap is now in excess of £800 a year and rising. I implore him to go back to his Department, look again at the way in which the figure is calculated and consider whether, for example, Worcestershire should be given area cost adjustment status, which is given to neighbouring Warwickshire, with a similar geographic location and similar demographics. That would at least begin to address some of the appalling unfairness shown to the people who live in Worcestershire.

In comparing the hon. Lady’s authority with Birmingham, she fails to point out that the revenue of both has risen substantially. It is only fair to mention that. Of course, the dedicated schools budget is a matter for the Department for Education and Skills. However, I take on board her point about the area cost adjustment. Like the rest of the House, she will have to wait for the formal consultation on the formula grant distribution system, which is especially important this year as we intend to make a three-year grant settlement.

The Minister talks about substantial increases, but one thing that has increased substantially in Worcestershire is the council tax, which in 10 years has gone up by 120 per cent., caused by unfunded burdens and fiddle-funding. Who is responsible for this massive increase in its council tax? Is it 10 years of the current Prime Minister or 10 years of the current Chancellor?

It is neither; it is Worcestershire county council that sets the council tax. Before the hon. Gentleman gets too lost in his soundbites and clichés, let me point out that the grant floor, which he presumably opposes, protects Worcestershire county council to the tune of £2.9 million. I presume that he is not asking me to get rid of that floor.

Anti-Semitism

The Government of course welcomed the all-party parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, and published their response in March this year. We have set up a cross-Government working group to act on the all-party group’s recommendations. Jewish stakeholders and others have been invited to the first meeting, which will take place on 20 June.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the stance he has taken on this issue and on combating extremism, but does he agree that by singling out Israel from all other nations, including Iran, China and Sudan, the proposed boycott of Israel is likely to exacerbate the anti-Semitism identified in the all-party parliamentary report?

As my hon. Friend knows, I strongly condemn that decision. I consider it a terrible decision. I was pleased to learn that the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), had travelled to Israel to make that very point. I strongly support what he said there—as, I suspect, does the whole House, including the Opposition parties.

May I say how much many of us welcome what the Minister has just said?

One of the key recommendations of the all-party report was that there should be a clearer definition of anti-Semitic offences so that we could do something to improve the appalling conviction rate, which is only about one in 10. What progress has been made in that regard?

Two issues are involved. One is the work of the Crown Prosecution Service, which has taken the matter up as a result of the work of the all-party group—on which I congratulate it again—and the second is the working definition of the European Union, to which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the United Kingdom has signed up.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the passing of a resolution by the so-called academics is not the first instance of the pursuing of such a course by this particular organisation? Is it not worrying that there is an underlying and pervasive atmosphere which accepts that anti-Semitism is perfectly normal, and should we not be doing all we can to combat that in every conceivable way?

I agree wholeheartedly, and I think it very important for Parliament, as well as Government, to issue that condemnation. I believe we can unite strongly on the issue. I know that Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University College Union, is very concerned about it.

On a personal note, as a former leader of the National Union of Students let me say that—again, on a cross-party basis—we have always opposed anti-Semitism, as well as the way in which some people, no doubt deliberately, confuse condemnation of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Impact Assessments

19. If she will make a statement on the role of the proposed impact assessments in speeding up small-scale planning applications. (141606)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
(Angela E. Smith)

We are currently consulting on proposed changes to permitted development rights for householders. Developments with no impact beyond the host property would be permitted, and clear limits on size and siting would set out what was allowed. It is estimated that the number of householder planning applications would be reduced by about 85,000.

I welcome the proposed impact assessments as a way of strengthening the rights of third parties in planning disputes, but how do the Government intend to reconcile the new protection with their simultaneous commitment to speeding up planning applications?

This is a twofold protection. It not only strengthens the rights of other householders to object, but it strengthens the right of the individual householder to know exactly what is permitted. It is like the old volume allowance, but with clear guidelines. As I have said, we expect the number of planning applications to fall by about 85,000, and that in itself would help to speed up the planning system.

Elsewhere in Europe, local authorities have been able to speed up the planning application process while also speeding up the process of change to a renewable and sustainable energy agenda, because they are allowed to set clear terms and requirements for collection and recycling of water and the incorporation of energy-generating systems in any planning developments. Is the Minister contemplating adopting the same system across the board in the United Kingdom, so that all local authorities can be clear about the change agenda?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and we are consulting on making microgeneration much easier for individual households on smaller scale developments. We have to get a balance between ensuring local flexibility and allowing every single local authority to do something completely different, which could then hamper progress towards developing greater take-up of new technologies. It is important, at the same time, that we have a degree of flexibility for local authorities. The key is to ensure that we move as quickly as possible to increasing microgeneration.

Affordable Housing

New housing is now at its highest rate for 20 years but we need to go further, given the serious pressures on affordability. Regional assemblies also need to do more. That is made harder in my hon. Friend’s region because of the approach of the South East England regional assembly, which is arguing, unfortunately, for cuts in the level of house building.

Does my hon. Friend have any words for those on the Conservative-dominated regional assembly, who on one hand tell my constituents that the south-east is to be concreted over, and on the other shout about the need for more affordable housing? I find that despicable and unfair; those people should see how desperate some of the hard-working families at our constituency surgeries are for new housing.

My hon. Friend is completely right. We have an ageing and growing population, with more people living alone. We need to go further and build more homes for the next generation; it is not fair on them if we do not. Frankly, the approach of the Conservatives in the south-east is bonkers.