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Communities and Local Government

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Home Information Packs

15. What assessment has been made of the effect of the introduction of home information packs on the housing market. (158164)

20. What recent assessment has been made of the effect of the introduction of home information packs on the housing market. (158169)

Home information packs are proving to be fast to produce, and are providing the market with important early information. They have already proved a trigger to cuts in search costs. Estate agents have encouraged people to market early, in advance of HIPs, with predictable short-term impacts on the timing of listings. However, the overall market is currently affected by wider factors, such as attitudes to interest rates and uncertainty in the financial markets.

Does the Minister not see that home information packs have harmed the housing market, and does she not realise that inspectors, whom she promised would earn up to £70,000 a year, will be lucky if they take home £10,000 this year? Are we not right to say that, when we return to office, we will scrap this ridiculous scheme?

No, the right hon. Gentleman is not right. HIPs are already having an impact on search costs, for example. More than 80 local authorities have cut the cost of searches as a result of HIPs’ introduction, some by more than £100. The right hon. Gentleman should admit to energy assessors and home inspectors across the country that his party’s policy would put them all out of work, because he would abolish energy certificates altogether.

Research carried out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has found a direct link between the introduction of home information packs and the reduction in new instructions by a staggering 37 per cent. Is this the Minister’s idea of bringing about stability in the housing market?

Shock news! The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors opposes home information packs! It has been opposing HIPs and trying to block the introduction of energy certificates for a long time. It even introduced a court case to try to block them, which is tragic, because energy certificates are hugely important and provide vital information for people across the market. We know that new listings have been falling across the market since June—long before HIPs were introduced—and that there are other factors. For example and as most commentators would point out, buyers’ decisions are perhaps currently the most significant factor in the market.

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to see this afternoon’s Evening Standard, which contains an article stating that Conservative Front Benchers have written to the Department’s permanent secretary giving

“formal notice that”

this

“project faces cancellation under the Tories.”

Will my right hon. Friend instruct the permanent secretary to keep that letter in safe keeping, so that we can bring it out when the Tories make a U-turn on this very good policy?

My hon. Friend can rest assured that the permanent secretary will be able to keep that letter in a drawer for a very long time indeed. Opposition Members should consider that, by opposing EPCs, they are opposing a measure about which Friends of the Earth has said that

“without them, there is absolutely no hope of making significant progress on low-carbon homes and tackling climate change.”

EPCs are about providing important information to help consumers cut fuel bills and carbon emissions. They are something that we should support, not oppose in the way that Opposition Members are trying to do.

Contrary to the vision of housing Armageddon that the Opposition predicted when HIPs were introduced, does not my right hon. Friend agree that we have seen no discernible impact on new properties coming on to the market? They have been introduced at a third of the cost, and without the lengthy delays caused by the shortage of inspectors predicted by the Opposition. Given the successful implementation of HIPs for three and four-bedroom properties, will my right hon. Friend consider how quickly she can introduce them for one and two-bedroom properties, as that would be a real help for first-time buyers? Will she also give further consideration to bringing in compulsory home condition reports, as they would make HIPs more effective in the future?

My hon. Friend makes some important points. We are working with a range of stakeholders in the industry, including Which?, about what the next steps should be. For example, we are looking at promoting e-conveyancing as part of our consideration of the wider issues to do with the buying and selling of homes. Back in May, we identified key issues to do with the number of inspectors in place, the impact of HIPs on the market, and how they could be implemented smoothly, and we will take a sensible decision about the timing of the roll-out in the light of those factors.

As yesterday’s Hansard shows, the Minister has been forced to admit that a mere 4 per cent. of those who have ordered HIPs have also ordered the optional home condition report. Is it not about time, therefore, that she came to the same conclusion as the public and scrapped HIPs in favour of the simple EPC system that operates in Northern Ireland?

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that EPCs have not been introduced in Northern Ireland? In fact, the Administration there are learning from our experience and from the measures that we have taken. Moreover, people in Northern Ireland will not benefit from the reduction in search costs already evident across the market here as a result of the introduction of HIPs.

Opposition Members sound a bit like Chicken Licken in their belief that the sky is always falling. They said that HIPs would cost £1,000, take months to produce and increase council tax, but all of that has turned out be barmy nonsense. We need a sensible debate about how we take forward improvements to home buying and selling but, unfortunately, Opposition Members remain incapable of taking part in it.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to look at what is happening in Denmark? In the UK, and especially in England and Wales, it takes something like 12 weeks to exchange contracts, and a third of transactions fall through. In contrast, the introduction in Denmark of the equivalent of HIPs caused the time for contract exchange to fall to seven days and reduced to almost zero the proportion of contracts falling through.

My hon. Friend is right. Denmark was one of the first countries to introduce EPCs and HIPs, with the result that there have been very substantial improvements to the process of buying and selling homes there. We should learn from other countries’ experiences and recognise the benefits that such reforms can bring to that process.

Sheltered Housing

16. What assessment she has made of the level of satisfaction amongst older sheltered housing residents with floating support under supporting people. (158165)

Local communities know their areas best. That is why all decisions about how services are funded and monitored, including on satisfaction, are made at local level. It is central Government’s role to provide support and funding, and that is precisely what we are doing. My Department is providing £1.7 billion to local authorities for the supporting people fund this year. That money allows 800,000 older people to live independently, and more older people are getting the help that they need. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of older people getting housing support went up by nearly 20,000.

Does the Secretary of State accept that according to Age Concern many older people believe that the move to floating support has resulted in a second-class and fragmented service?

No, I do not accept that. Being able to be flexible in the way that supporting people funds are used means that we can use the money to best effect, so that it is not only people in sheltered housing who can get support but, increasingly, people in their own homes. As I said, we are helping 800,000 older people to live independently. The important thing is that the support is not tied to bricks and mortar; it is about assessing people’s real needs and having the flexibility locally to meet those needs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants many more older people to be helped irrespective of their tenure.

But does my right hon. Friend accept that the process has added a level of complexity to the way in which most sheltered housing schemes work? They are tenanted and rented through local authorities or housing associations and the biggest problem is that the supporting people budget has not been the most stable one. Will she look at it again to ensure that older people have the security that they want and the stability of funding that they should expect?

Yes. Stability in funding is important, and I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that the amount of money that has gone into the fund has been very significant in recent years—£1.7 billion. The important thing is that local authorities should take into account the views of not just older people but the whole range of vulnerable people helped by the funding to ensure that services are tailored to the needs of those people. Built into the framework there is an absolute emphasis on making sure that the services are suitable for the often complex needs that supporting people funds are designed to meet.

I am surprised that the Secretary of State sounds so happy. Is it not the case that supporting people budgets have been slashed in recent years, largely because the Government underestimated the cost of provision, leaving councils to pick up the bill? The costs to councils of social care and support of the elderly are soaring, made worse by the NHS cuts that have shunted costs directly on to council bills. The Local Government Association issued a cross-party warning last week that council tax will be above the rate of inflation for the next three years. Does the Secretary of State share that assessment? Does she agree with it or is she still in denial?

Far from being in denial, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that in many cases excellent Labour councils are providing more services. I am sure that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) is aware that his council in Manchester is a four-star local authority providing excellent services, with an excellent direction of travel. It is providing services to more older people this year than in the past. I have to tell the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that, unfortunately, Conservative councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham and Suffolk county council have implemented significant cuts in support for older people. The contrast is absolutely obvious.

Social Housing

We are increasing investment in new social housing, and I can today announce more than £10 billion funding for the regional housing pot over the next three years, to invest in new social housing, new shared ownership housing and housing renewal. That is an increase of nearly 40 per cent. compared with the previous three years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that announcement and congratulate her on making it in the House today. Is not it important that all communities in the United Kingdom build increasing amounts of social housing? Following the research that has enabled her to make her announcement today, what advice can she offer the devolved Administration in Scotland—unfortunately, there are no Members of devolved Administrations in the House today—that would be useful in devolved areas?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, housing is a devolved matter. We know that throughout the country we have a growing ageing population, with more people living alone, which means that we need more homes and more affordable housing. That requires new investment, which cannot be provided if unfunded tax cuts are being proposed.

What hope does the Minister offer the 330,000 families on the housing waiting list in London, or the 1.6 million families on the waiting list nationwide, of ever getting decent social housing? Is not it the case that it will take 35 years for those people to be taken off the list? With house prices still rising—the average is £400,000 in London—the chance of their ever having an affordable home is shrinking. Does not she accept that we need to increase dramatically the amount of social housing and affordable housing, and that the figures in the comprehensive spending review do not go nearly far enough towards achieving that?

I agree that we need to build more social housing, more shared-ownership housing and more housing across the board, and that we need to raise more resources from planning gain to provide additional funding. We are putting in several billion pounds of additional funding over the next three years. It is important that we take a responsible approach to the public finances, and increases in public investment have to be paid for. For London, we are supporting a 27 per cent. increase in the regional funding over the next three years, in addition to extra help for people who want to move out of London to find more affordable housing.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the acute shortage of social housing in Leeds, which has prompted the Leeds Tenants Federation to launch its “Right to Rent” campaign? Does she understand the federation’s concern that Leeds is not sufficiently committed to providing more social housing or putting pressure on developers to deliver the proportion of affordable housing laid down in planning permissions? Will she examine these concerns?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that there has been hostility from some on Leeds city council to supporting sufficient additional and affordable housing. Every council and every area needs to do more to support more affordable housing for their local communities. We are supporting a 32 per cent. increase in the funding for Yorkshire and Humberside, which will enable substantial increases in social housing and continued housing renewal to be supported. I urge Leeds city council to work with other housing associations and local developers to bid for that funding in order to support tenants in my hon. Friend’s area.

The social homebuy scheme is meant to help social tenants to buy or part-buy their rented homes, so why are only 78 of the 1,400 housing associations offering the scheme?

The social homebuy scheme is a pilot scheme, as we have always said. The pilot concludes in March and we will then take decisions about how to take the scheme forward. It is right to examine different innovative ways to help more people on to the housing ladder and to help first-time buyers. I must say to Conservative Members that they cannot help first-time buyers if they are not prepared to back the building of the new homes that Britain needs.

Affordable Homes (Wirral, South)

18. What steps her Department is taking to provide affordable homes for people living in Wirral, South. (158167)

In the housing Green Paper, we announced a 50 per cent. increase in investment for affordable homes of at least £8 billion over the next three years. Furthermore, the Housing Corporation is inviting local providers to bid for affordable homes investment.

Wirral metropolitan borough council is working to make better use of public sector land assets, which has already enabled it to provide 270 additional affordable homes in one area. It is also reviewing its affordable housing policy.

Does my hon. Friend accept that that demonstrates that the policy of restricting house building in parts of Wirral, South often, if not always, works well and results in appropriate development? Does he understand that its reduction or removal is likely to lead to the development of executive homes rather than low-cost housing and result in a victory for a well-funded housing lobby?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. He knows the importance of mixed communities and diversity in the housing offer, particularly in terms of affordable housing. Housing has the potential to be a source of inequality over the next few years. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has announced an £801 million cash boost for the north-west region to tackle affordable housing. I hope that Wirral, South receives its fair share.

Affordable Housing

19. What assessment she has made of the level of need for additional affordable housing; and if she will make a statement. (158168)

Using the methodology of Kate Barker’s review of housing supply, the Department estimates newly arising need that cannot be met in the market or by existing stock of at least 40,000 new social rented homes per annum. In the housing Green Paper, we announced an increase in new affordable housing to at least 70,000 per annum by 2010-11, of which 45,000 homes will be for social rent. We have a goal to go further in subsequent years, to 50,000 new social homes a year in the next spending review period.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong and long-standing commitment to affordable and social housing. I also welcome the announcements today and the statement yesterday on a proposed independent, stand-alone regulatory body for housing, including affordable housing. Will my hon. Friend look carefully at honeypot areas, such as Hebden Bridge in my constituency, where there are many second homes in converted mills, but very few houses for families?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I hope that she will refer it to the regional assembly to consider. With regard to housing allocation, it is well worth considering other affordable housing options. Since 1997, 400,000 new affordable homes have been built—the figure also includes refurbished properties, which goes to show what can be done with existing properties.

The Government always look at the supply side of housing, not the demand side. Will the Minister confirm that more than 1 million of the 3 million houses that the Government wish to build over the next 15 years will be needed for future immigration? Will he tell us what assessment he has made of the impact of immigration and asylum on affordable and social housing over the past 10 years?

The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that more than 70 per cent. of the demand for housing between now and 2020 will be due to people living in single-person households and other demographic factors. It is not all about migration. We have a migration impacts forum, which I chair jointly with a Minister from the Home Office, but we should also consider the contribution of migrants to this country. They contribute more, in terms of gross domestic product, than they take out, and the percentage is growing over the years.

Historically, my constituency had a large, poor quality housing stock and a low-value private stock. Now, it has a thriving private sector market and a hugely improved social housing stock, but an acute shortage of affordable housing. In spite of all the developments, not enough property is coming on to the market. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he will work with the local authorities and developers to ensure that that supply of housing improves?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has mentioned the enhanced allocations in the west midlands, including some 41 per cent. for his own area. The national allocation will be 70,000 more affordable homes per year by 2010-11, which will, I hope, make a huge difference to his constituency and region, and to the whole country.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that all too many affordable homes are not affordable at all when they go on the market, being far too expensive for many first-time buyers. Will the Government commit to putting large quantities of public land, such as that belonging to the Ministry of Defence and the NHS—which they have talked about releasing—into community land trusts, which hold the land and sell on the bricks and mortar at an affordable price?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point; we are piloting such schemes presently. In terms of getting people on to the housing ladder for the first time, he should be aware that 26,000 key workers have benefited since the scheme was put in place in 2001 and 80,000 people have also been helped by shared equity schemes in recent years.

I welcome the Government’s proposal for eco-towns, but can the Minister reassure me that the same high environmental standards will be applied to new affordable housing, so that they are not just affordable for the people who rent or buy them, but affordable to run, in terms of heating bills?

My hon. Friend is probably aware that there are higher standards for affordable housing than for other types of allocation. He makes a good point about eco-homes, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will take it on board.

Planning Decisions (Local Accountability)

Our proposals for nationally significant infrastructure projects will involve the public at every stage—on the development of national policy, on project proposals as they are being developed, and at the inquiry stage. We propose to create a legal requirement for promoters to consult the public before submitting an application for a nationally significant infrastructure project. That will be a big step forward, bringing about the early engagement of people affected by proposals for new or changed infrastructure.

The question is who takes the decision, and although the Secretary of State has helpfully suggested that there should be less control on local authorities, through reduced targets, which I very much welcome, the fact is that in recent years responsibility for planning decisions has moved away from local councils to regional government, then to unelected regional development agencies, and now to a national body. Does she not agree that local decisions are best taken locally by elected people?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming our increased flexibility for local government. There will certainly be both ministerial and parliamentary involvement in drawing up the national policy statements, which will provide a robust, accountable framework for the policy for major infrastructure projects. Through that system, we want to achieve increased certainty, more transparency and key accountability. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that five years to get major infrastructure proposals agreed to is far too long for the future of the country. If we want to ensure economic prosperity, balanced with environmental sustainability, we need a new planning regime that gives us certainty, timeliness and accountability.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the planning policy guidance note that Opposition parties largely hold responsible for reducing councils’ room to manoeuvre was replaced some time ago with planning policy statement 3 on housing? That planning policy statement largely leaves local councils discretion on housing planning matters, including on the density of development, and on garden development policy. Every time that a Tory or Liberal Democrat councillor—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the way in which local authorities have increased flexibility to meet the needs of their local communities. I am sure that he will agree that the best local councils do exactly that through housing and planning decisions for their neighbourhoods. Coincidentally, those best councils, who are in touch with their communities, may well be the kind of councils that my hon. Friend mentioned.

As a result of Government diktat, Kettering borough council has had a statutory duty placed on it to draw up plans for an extra 13,100 houses. That will increase the number of homes in Kettering by one third in the next 15 years. If there were a local referendum on whether local people agreed with those plans, would the Secretary of State take a blind bit of notice?

I am disappointed and rather shocked by the hon. Gentleman’s way of expressing himself. He said that there is a diktat that requires the homes to be built. I would ask him to think a bit more carefully about the views of his community and the people whom he represents. Many of those people will have families—sons and daughters—who are in desperate need of new homes. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he does not want to provide new homes for first-time buyers, and that he will continue to betray them?

Recently, Bolton’s planning committee turned down an application to erect a mobile telephone mast right in the heart of Little Lever precinct in my constituency. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to the angry residents of Little Lever, who found that T-Mobile turned up early one Sunday morning and erected the mast without planning permission? Should not firms like that be fined for their absolute arrogance?

My hon. Friend raises an issue of importance to local communities, and it is vital that the companies that are involved are sensitive to the needs of local people, conduct their business in a proper way with integrity, and consult the local community. If in the instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions, local views have simply been ignored and trampled on, clearly that is a matter that we will want to look into, because the basis of the system is trust and confidence. Where that is lacking, decisions will not have the support of the constituency.

Flooding

We are committed to ensuring that the areas hit by the floods in the summer recover as soon as possible. So far we have made available comprehensive support of up to £57 million. However, we know that full recovery for many households, businesses and communities may yet take months. We will remain available and give the support needed for them to achieve that.

Given that some houses that were flash-flooded in Cheltenham in June and July now face spiralling insurance premiums and, possibly, a fall in price, is it wise or unwise to plan to build more homes in flood-risk areas such as Leckhampton? In time, houses built in such areas could be unsaleable and uninsurable, and could exacerbate flooding in nearby communities in Cheltenham.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have tightened up considerably planning legislation and regulations; we did so in December last year. That means that the preference now is for locations with a low flood risk. Given the area from which he comes, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not always possible to avoid flood risk altogether. Therefore, where there is a flood risk, we have built into the process a requirement for the Environment Agency to offer an assessment of the risks entailed to the planning authority. That is reducing the risk for developments in the future.

It is clear from the evidence that we have received on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as part of an inquiry into flooding, that the advice of the Environment Agency on development on flood plains is far too often set aside. What plans are there to toughen up the framework so that at least those who can predict reasonably accurately where floods might take place will not see their advice rejected and floods taking place in the years that follow?

That is exactly why we tightened up the regulation and process in the first place. First, the new guidance requires developers and planners to take account of the flood risk. Secondly, it directs development to areas of lowest risk. Thirdly, where there remains a flooding risk, the guidance requires that the Environment Agency assessment and advice should be made available as part of the planning authority’s decision. Although it is early days, the evidence so far suggests that the number of go-aheads given contrary to Environment Agency advice is falling.