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Affordable Accommodation (Private Rented Sector)

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

5. What assessment she has made of the role of the private rented sector as a provider of affordable accommodation. (259888)

Julie Rugg’s review of the private rented sector, which the Government commissioned last year, includes an assessment of how well the sector caters for those on low incomes and in housing need. The review reported in October last year. We are currently considering its findings, including proposals for improvements in the sector and for how we can best provide affordable accommodation.

The private rented sector certainly has a role to play in providing affordable accommodation. However, may I urge my hon. Friend not to rely wholly on the private rented sector, but instead to launch a mass programme of council house building to provide affordable housing and jobs for construction workers?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in a previous answer, we are putting in place consultation to ensure that councils have a direct delivery role in the building of homes. The Prime Minister said in a speech last month that he is very keen to see local authorities build quickly and wants any barriers to be removed quickly. In the current economic situation local authorities have a direct delivery role to play, as well as a major role alongside registered social landlords and the private rented sector in providing the accommodation that this country so badly needs.

Given that there are some 2 million-plus empty homes in Britain, does the Minister regret the fact that the empty dwelling management order legislation has been totally and utterly ineffectual in bringing private houses back into use, particularly for low-value rents?

No, I would disagree with that conclusion. The empty dwelling management order was always seen as the nuclear option, as it were, for local authorities. It is up to local authorities to determine whether they need to press that nuclear button. I think that the threat of the orders has ensured that empty homes have been brought back into use. It could well be that those empty homes are not in areas where people want to live. The local authority has not only a direct delivery role, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), but a strategic role in determining what accommodation is needed in each particular locality and what type of accommodation is needed. I suggest that the hon. Lady speaks to her local authority to ensure that it is using the tools that it needs.

In the London borough of Newham, about 34,000 families are sitting on our council’s housing waiting list. If we count those who are in full-time employment, we see that their wages are about £24,000 a year. What does my hon. Friend think of the London Mayor’s affordable housing strategy, which is predicated on 40 per cent. of social homes being only for families with incomes above £72,000 a year? Is that fit for purpose, especially in these austere times?

I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing; she is a real champion of people who need affordable accommodation not only in London, but elsewhere. I am keen to work with the Mayor of London to ensure that people in the capital have the homes that they need. I am disappointed by the fact that his housing policy seems somewhat confused. His proposals about affordable accommodation seem bureaucratic, burdensome and counter-productive, and I certainly think that the £72,000 limit is not fit for purpose and is somewhat elitist.

The Minister will know that many private sector landlords are reluctant to accept people on housing benefit as tenants. Will he initiate discussions with local authorities and representatives of the private sector to overcome that resistance and to make sure that the private rented sector plays a much fuller part in meeting the needs of those with housing problems?

Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in housing matters, and he was also a very good Housing Minister, so he will know that Julie Rugg presents a valuable analysis of the different segments of the private rented sector, including the housing benefit market. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and I met the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), this morning to discuss housing benefit reform and how our two Departments can work together to make sure that tenants who use housing benefit are not unfairly penalised. That will certainly be part of the response to the Rugg review.

The value of the private rented sector is that it provides some mobility and fluidity in a sector that often does not provide that, but it is particularly ill suited to families. Is my hon. Friend aware that some families in my constituency have had to move 10 times in 10 years, either through homelessness or simply because they were placed in the private rented sector? In implementing the private sector review, will he look urgently at what can be done to ensure that families in housing need in private rented housing have some security, for the sake of themselves and their children?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who, like my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), is a real champion of people who need affordable housing in her constituency—in her case, that is Regent’s Park and Kensington, North. The Rugg review provides a somewhat contradictory analysis of the matter. Some 21 per cent. of tenants have been in their homes for five years or more, but there also seems to be something of a churn, with 40 per cent. of tenants in the private rented sector having moved within 12 months. As I have said before, the Government are considering very closely the recommendations of the Rugg review, and we will be in a position to respond very shortly.

As the Minister knows, the Rugg review last October recommended a light-touch licensing system for landlords. Obviously, no one wants that review to be followed by another, given that it followed earlier reviews itself. That approach would be “bureaucratic and obstructive”, to quote the Minister’s own words back at him, so can he simply tell us by what date that recommendation, or any of the Rugg recommendations, will be put into effect?

No I cannot, because the Government need to make sure that we respond in a comprehensive manner to the Rugg review. Our objective is to ensure that we have a growing and professional private rented sector. The Julie Rugg review has been enormously helpful in allowing us to consider what needs to be done to ensure that we achieve those objectives. We will be in a position to respond to the review very shortly, and I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until then for an answer to his question.