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Housing Policy (Hartlepool)

Volume 461: debated on Monday 18 June 2007

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

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to secure this debate on an issue that is affecting many of my constituents, and which is hindering Hartlepool’s ability to achieve its potential.

Over the past six to 12 months, housing-related matters have become the No. 1 issue in my constituency workload, eclipsing even antisocial behaviour as the main concern. I carry out weekly advice and street surgeries throughout the town, and a large proportion of work arising from them stems from an imbalance in housing supply and demand, resulting in people being unable to secure suitable and appropriate housing.

There are a number of different strands to the housing case load that I receive. The majority of cases involve families who are unable to find an affordable or suitable property. A family with just two children, let alone any more kids, finds it increasingly difficult to secure social housing. An increasing number of elderly or disabled constituents also contact me to request my help in securing adaptations to their homes such as stair lifts and walk-in showers. The disabled facilities grant has helped in this regard, but the demand for such services and for that grant far outstrips the available resources. Some elderly or disabled people wish to move from their homes altogether. They are getting older and becoming more infirm, their children may have grown up and left the family home, and their current house may no longer be suitable; they would much prefer to live in a properly adapted bungalow. That would also have the advantage of freeing up family homes, but the number of appropriate bungalows in Hartlepool is extremely low.

I also detect a growing number of homeless people who are priced out of the social and private rented markets altogether. In an extreme example, a constituent who came to see me—she was pregnant, quite heavily so—and her boyfriend were living on an allotment, waiting to be allocated suitable social housing. Such instances are mercifully rare, but they demonstrate vividly the imbalance between the demand for property and the available supply.

On the face of it, Hartlepool does not have the same issues of affordability as other parts of the country. Stockton-on-Tees has the highest average house prices in the Tees valley, while my constituency vies with Middlesbrough in the sub-region for the cheapest house prices. Moreover, average earnings of full-time employees in Hartlepool are among the highest in the Tees valley. That means that, on a crude price/earnings ratio, Hartlepool is one of the most affordable parts of the country in terms of buying a house.

It is true that in recent years, thanks to a relatively buoyant local and regional employment market and historically low interest rates, housing development in my constituency has been extremely healthy. We have seen the rise of new housing developments, such as Bishop Cuthbert and Middle Warren, with a high proportion of three, four and even five-bedroom homes being built. We have an exciting development at Hartlepool Quays, where modern homes are being targeted at young and prosperous professionals, keen to enjoy the marina’s leisure facilities and the high quality bars and restaurants.

A Hartlepool couple who are both in work are more likely today to be able to afford and choose to live in a four-bedroom detached house or a modern apartment on the marina, than an equivalent couple some 20 or 30 years ago, when higher interest rates and other factors may have meant that they started their journey of property ownership in a two-bedroom terraced house. But the blunt ratio of affordability masks a great deal in terms of the experience of people in my constituency. The borough is the 14th most deprived in the country and more than half of the town’s population lives in areas that are classified by the index of multiple deprivation as being in the 10 per cent. most disadvantaged in the country.

There are fewer people in professional or managerial jobs and more with lower skills than the national average. The number of those unemployed or classed as economically inactive remains relatively high, although the number in work is now at a record level and the unemployment rate has come down dramatically over the past decade. There are also fewer people classed as owner-occupiers and more in rented accommodation than the average for England and Wales. That means that for a far too large proportion of my constituents, being able to secure a foot on the property ladder is simply unachievable.

Hartlepool is often referred to as the largest village in the world, with everybody knowing everybody else. In some respects that may be true, although I do not necessarily see it that way: I view Hartlepool more as a close collection of very distinct neighbourhoods and communities, with areas such as Headland, Dyke House and West View, Owton Manor and Rossmere, each with their own identities and each with their own specific housing issues.

For the centre of Hartlepool, for example, there is a need to regenerate and halt the symptoms associated with inner-city decline. In that part of my constituency, there is an over-abundance of small Victorian terraced properties. Some 41 per cent. of the town’s entire housing stock is classed as two-bedroom terraced property, compared with 26 per cent. nationally, and that tenure is located almost exclusively in the centre of town, with boundaries that align closely with the new deal for communities regeneration project.

In the late 1940s, Max Lock, who undertook a major planning review of Hartlepool, classified much of that area as blighted housing, with a recommendation that the terraced housing should be cleared. It has taken 60 years, and another Labour Government, before any real progress has been made.

Today, four of the weakest nine neighbourhoods across the whole of the Tees valley in terms of the so-called vitality index are in central Hartlepool, namely Dyke House, Grange, Belle Vue and Stranton. There has been acute and long-term market failure in that area, with properties being snapped up by developers a couple of years ago for as little as £10,000 or £12,000. As I mentioned earlier, for those in work, historically low and stable interest rates have meant that people have often been able to aspire to and buy larger houses as their starter home, as opposed to the traditional two-up, two-down. That has produced a doughnut effect, which sees a trend of people moving out of the centre of Hartlepool and into the suburbs. The ownership ratio has also flipped over in those areas in the last decade, with private landlords taking over the majority of that type of property. That has accelerated and exacerbated the problems in the area, because landlords, often with no knowledge of the patch—or even with no knowledge of where Hartlepool or the north-east is at all—have frequently moved tenants with antisocial and criminal tendencies into the properties. That has undermined the sense of community and made long-standing residents resort to moving out, often selling to private landlords and accelerating the decline, or remaining and living in fear and subject to intimidation.

The housing problems are different in other parts of the town. Areas such as the Raby gardens and Easington road parts of Dyke House, and, to a lesser extent, Belle Vue in Stranton, are suffering from uncertainty and delay due to the lack of a firm commitment on their future. As part of the north-central Hartlepool master plan, Tees Valley Living, Housing Hartlepool and Hartlepool borough council are examining closely whether properties in those areas should be modernised or demolished. However, the process is being delayed, largely due to uncertainty about future flows of money to undertake regeneration work. That is causing residents to put their lives and hopes on hold. One resident in the area told me that she would like to put a new kitchen in her home, but was reluctant to do so because of the uncertainty in her area. The residents are willing to invest, but although that resident owns her own house, she does not know whether it will stay up or be pulled down.

Other areas of the town have different problems. In the 1940s and 1950s, large council housing estates were built, such as West View, Owton Manor and Rossmere, where both sides of my family were brought up. The right to buy has meant that there has been a gradual, yet marked, reduction in the supply of social housing over the past 20 years. Alongside that trend, council housing stock has been transferred to Housing Hartlepool, a newly-established registered social landlord. Under the socially committed leadership of Cath Purdy, its chief executive, it has ensured in three short years that two thirds of its 7,000 properties have met the decent homes standard. It is well on track to exceed the Government’s target. It has improved the thermal efficiency of homes and put an emphasis on renewable sources of energy and insulation. It is extremely proactive in the community. I chair the local strategic partnership, so I am aware of Housing Hartlepool’s contribution to the town’s respect, neighbourhood renewal, social enterprise and financial inclusion agendas, which is all to the betterment of Hartlepool.

Therein lies the problem, however. While, to put it bluntly, demand for council homes was not high five years ago, which reflected a long-term failure to invest in housing stock, the success of Housing Hartlepool’s modernisation programme means that people want to live in such homes, which symbolises the regeneration and reinvigoration of our neighbourhoods to which the organisation is contributing.

Those neighbourhoods have deep roots. I know from my surgery of many examples of three or four generations of the same family living in Owton Manor or West View, for example. That was what I meant when I said that Hartlepool was a collection of communities or villages. Younger people rightly want to stay close to their parents or grandparents. Such a situation might ease child care problems and thus help people to get jobs or embark on training and education and thus improve their standard of living. We should therefore encourage that trend as much as possible. However, the demand for Housing Hartlepool’s properties greatly exceeds the available supply. The void rate for its 7,000 properties is just above 1 per cent., while 0.8 per cent. of properties are ready to let imminently. That trend is mirrored by the situation for other RSLs throughout the town.

The right to buy policy of the past 20 years has not been matched by a corresponding increase in the building of social housing, either generally across the town, or in areas identified as those with acute need. In Rossmere, for example, where both my parents grew up, the extent of the use of the right to buy has been astronomical. The former council estate has an owner-occupier rate of over 90 per cent., and the demand for social housing in the area is completely unmet. Much more needs to be done to match supply with demand in parts of the town such as Rossmere, West View and Owton Manor.

In addition to the past and current issues, Hartlepool has further requirements if the needs and aspirations of my constituents are to be met in the years to come. It is forecast that in the next 15 years, the number of households in the borough will rise by 13 per cent., which is on a par with the highest increases in the entire Tees valley. Moreover, the number of people older than 75 will increase by a massive 25 per cent., which will mean that a quarter of the borough’s residents will be in their late 70s by 2021. That will have enormous repercussions for public services and the availability of appropriate housing. We are struggling to meet housing need at the moment. Future social and demographic trends show that we will be deluged in the next decade or so by an even larger excess of demand over supply of housing.

One of the frustrating things is that all the relevant partners already identify the need for action. In many cases, real progress has already been made, which shows that Hartlepool can progress and deliver when permitted. In the centre of town, where housing market renewal is necessary, the process of demolishing older properties is taking place as we speak, and new bungalows and other properties are being built. In other parts of the country, such clearance has aroused strong anger among communities, but not in Hartlepool. I can do no better than to quote an extract from an Audit Commission report published earlier this year:

“Ambitions and plans which have been developed with local people are communicated clearly to them. This approach has been particularly beneficial in the Housing Market Renewal area of the town, where the quality of communication and involvement, the clarity of vision and objectives, and the close partnership working of all stakeholders, including developers, has engendered local enthusiasm for radical changes to the area and very few objections to the Compulsory Purchase Orders”.

In small ways, Housing Hartlepool and other RSLs are building properties that are designed to tackle the problems of the supply of social housing. Housing Hartlepool, is building new properties in Nicolson way, for example, and to address the issue of an older population, the local authority, the health service and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust are building an innovative retirement village comprising 200 flats and bungalows—a scheme that won £9.8 million from the Government’s extra care housing fund. Those initiatives show that Hartlepool can and does deliver on housing market renewal and development. I am therefore confident that achievements would be made if the Government provided additional resources and, perhaps just as importantly, allowed additional flexibilities to enable more to be done.

The comprehensive spending review hints at a flatline settlement for housing market renewal. For Tees Valley Living, that means about £45 million over the period 2008 to 2011 shared between four local authorities. Although Hartlepool is classed as a priority area for Tees Valley Living and HMR, largely because of its acute need and record on delivery, that means that my constituency will receive only about £3.75 million per year. Sites have now been identified and local communities consulted and enthused about what needs to be done, but progress will simply not happen at that level of funding. That further blights the area and hinders development. I therefore support Tees Valley Living's submission to the Government calling for £30 million per annum over the next five years, which would provide certainty across the sub-region and allow truly sustainable, prosperous and aspirational communities to be developed.

Perhaps of equal importance to additional resources is the need for greater flexibility for councils and RSLs to build homes. We need to redress the imbalance between demand and supply. We need more appropriate social housing in areas where properties are in demand. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will outline how means such as donation of council land to RSLs at nil cost, prudential borrowing for the local authority to build homes, and joint venture arrangements between the council, RSLs and other partners to build more housing stock could be used to resolve the problems and to increase the supply of social and affordable housing in Hartlepool. The local authority, RSLs and other partners are coming together to consider an agreed way forward in terms of land use planning, land disposal and funding, but we are at an extremely early stage in this process and I would welcome anything that the Minister can do both to facilitate and to accelerate that co-ordination and to meet the need for flexibility.

I am increasingly coming to the view that housing, particularly social housing, should be on a par in terms of a Labour Government's priorities with education and the national health service. Good-quality housing in sustainable communities raises people's hopes. A failure to meet housing needs runs the risk of consigning a generation of my constituents to low aspirations and a poor quality of life. Indeed, we need something similar to building schools for the future to secure additional social housing to help my constituents to achieve a better standard of living and realise their potential.

I am heartened by the fact that in the past few weeks, during the Labour Party's leadership and deputy leadership campaigns, the need for additional social housing has been identified and debated. I hope that tonight I have been able to demonstrate that social housing is not an issue that is confined to London and the south-east, but one that can be—indeed, is—very relevant to areas that are considered to be more affordable, such as the north-east and my constituency. I am keen to hear from my hon. Friend what additional help the Government can provide to ensure that the housing challenges in Hartlepool, both now and in the future, are met.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate and on raising an issue of such importance to his constituents.

A decent home for everyone is a key Government priority. Our policy is set out in the 2005 “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, now and in the future.”

As my hon. Friend said, the housing market has undergone dramatic changes in recent times, particularly in Hartlepool, where the rate of increase in house prices was, for a period, the highest in England, albeit that prices started from a low base. I appreciate that increasing property values and rents, and shortages of affordable homes, have made things difficult for everyone, especially those setting out to buy a house for the first time. The Government are working with their partners in the public and private sectors to increase the number, range and quality of homes available.

We are making significant progress towards meeting the decent homes 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, an additional £7.4 billion has been provided through borrowing by housing associations. We have increased the number of decent social homes by more than 1 million, and increased the proportion of vulnerable households in the private sector that have a decent home to 66 per cent.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, Housing Hartlepool took over ownership of Hartlepool’s 7,500 council houses in 2004, and since then it has been working to achieve the decent homes standard. He is correct to say that it is more than two thirds of the way to achieving 100 per cent. by 2010, and the Audit Commission considers it to be “performing well”. In addition to improvements to the existing stock, we want the creation of more affordable housing and new homes to be built at an increased rate. We are streamlining the planning system to ensure that a regular and reliable supply of land for new housing is available. The recently released planning policy statement on housing, commonly known as PPS3, enables local authorities to deal with the planning system more strategically to create places where communities can thrive.

The North East Housing Board recently published research on the use of section 106 agreements in the north-east and how those agreements can be better utilised. Private sector house builders have been active in the area and the annual build rates in Hartlepool between 1995 and 2003 were steady, at around 370 new dwellings a year. Hartlepool borough council is increasingly focusing on the issue of affordable housing. A housing needs survey will soon be published; it will reflect the most up-to-date guidance on issues of affordability. After that, the council will meet the Housing Corporation and registered social landlords to discuss appropriate action. The council is preparing a framework to increase housing supply, and it is currently updating its planning policies and land sales policies. It continues to negotiate with developers to ensure the inclusion of social housing in areas such as Victoria harbour, to which my hon. Friend referred.

The council has also been considering the supply side of the issue, although it does not own a great deal of land. It needs to take into account the fact that planning permissions for several thousand homes were granted in the 1980s, and those permissions predate the most recent dramatic price increases. As the permissions were granted some time ago, they did not include section 106 agreements for affordable homes.

As my hon. Friend said, Hartlepool is the 14th most deprived of the 354 English boroughs, and more than half of the borough’s residents live in areas that are among the 10 per cent. most disadvantaged in the country. Until recently, issues of affordability were not significant in the area, but price rises, particularly of better quality homes, has led to difficulty for first-time buyers. Despite those problems, Hartlepool borough council is well placed to develop the strategic approach to housing that is necessary for the borough and the rest of the Tees valley area.

The council is firmly established in the top third of all local authorities in England, and in its corporate assessment report of March this year, the Audit Commission said:

“There is good integration of housing and environmental improvements as key components of the regeneration of neighbourhoods.”

I commend the excellent work that is being done in that regard. My hon. Friend referred to the housing market renewal programme; in 2006, Tees Valley Living areas were allocated £18.25 million between 2006 and 2008. That is excellent news for the sub-region. It will enable Tees Valley Living and partner local authorities to press ahead with their plans to bring about much-needed transformational change by replacing obsolete housing, improving existing properties, and helping to create mixed and sustained communities where people want to live and work. Authorities in the Tees valley area have combined to form Tees Valley Living, and are in the process of finalising a costed, prioritised sub-regional housing strategy for submission to the North East Housing Board in July. That is a key document for the determination of the next round of the single housing investment pot. Over the period 2006 to 2008, Tees Valley Living has been allocated more than £13 million from single housing investment pot funding for projects across the sub-region, of which 21 per cent. was spent in Hartlepool. Authorities in the Tees valley area have shown a strong lead in developing a strategic approach to housing, which is commendable and in line with the Government’s vision for the future of housing policy.

What is the future, and, as my hon. Friend asked, what needs to happen now? The changing circumstances that he outlined bring new demands, so there is a need for new ways of working. Housing providers and local authorities need to increase house building rates; address the vexed issues of stock renewal; improve and maintain the quality of existing stock by achieving and going beyond the decent homes target; and meet specific community and social needs, particularly among vulnerable groups. It is essential to ensure that a suitable range of types and sizes of property is provided, based on a clear understanding of local needs and aspirations—hence the Government's emphasis on the importance of robust and up-to-date housing market assessments in the preparation of housing strategies. New building has a major role to play, but, at best, new homes represent a minor proportion of the total stock. We need, too, to maintain and improve existing homes and, where appropriate, redevelop outdated property.

My hon. Friend asked about future funding. Like any other Minister, I do not know the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. He has made his case well, and he articulated his constituents’ needs, and that is now on the record. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to set out the work that is under way. We are living at a time when a great deal is changing, and the Government recognise the need to respond to increased and changing housing need.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o’clock.