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Social Housing

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2009

1. When he plans to introduce revised guidance for local authorities on social housing allocations; and if he will make a statement. (284335)

Part of Sedgefield has been designated a growth point in south Durham and is attracting a lot of economic investment. What more can the Minister’s Department and Durham county council do to enhance investment in social housing in Sedgefield and other parts of County Durham?

I am aware of the commitment that my hon. Friend’s council in Durham has to helping people through this tough period of recession. I am also aware of its long-term plans to lift the county and its residents. He asked me what more the council could do. I suggest that it look at the announcement that we made last week of £1.5 billion extra in order that we can build this year and next year the homes that people need—affordable homes that people can rent and buy. My hon. Friend and his council will notice that we have increased fourfold the funding and therefore the number of homes that councils can build over this year and next year. In short, it should bid for the money.

The Minister will know that tenants in the social housing sector need to move from one local authority area to another for family or employment reasons. Does not the injunction from the Prime Minister to give priority to local people inhibit tenant mobility?

No—exactly the opposite. As a distinguished former Housing Minister the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we need new homes and we need to build homes that people can afford to rent. He will also know that there is a perception that the system for allocating council and housing association homes can be unfair, inflexible and can stop people who need to move in order to take up or pursue work from doing so. The Prime Minister announced and I will set out in detail before the end of the month ways in which local authorities can give greater preference according to the priorities and pressures in their area. That might include, for some, supporting those who want to work but who need to move in order to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that giving more priority to people with local needs is not about race but about trying to help people such as Katie Wilson, in my constituency, who has been on the waiting list for 17 years and simply wants to be housed in the community where she was brought up, where her family and friends are? It is about allowing people to move near grandparents so that they can support the children and allow the parents to go out to work. It is those sorts of issues that are important and they are currently not given sufficient priority in the allocation systems.

I hope that we can move beyond this argument about immigration. I am not proposing to change the rules about who can apply so that foreign migrants do not have a right to go on to council housing lists. I want to give councils greater freedom and greater scope to be able to make judgments about whom to give preference after they have housed those who are in the most serious housing need. The views of my hon. Friend’s council in Sheffield might be very different to the support that councils in Southwark or Somerset might want to give. The principle for this Government is that we should give councils that greater scope to be able to devise and run their lettings list in a way that best meets local housing needs.

I take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and to congratulate the Housing Minister—although he is a familiar face in the local government Front-Bench team—on his elevation. I would also like to express my sorrow at the deaths of the six adults and children who died at the Sceaux Gardens estate the other day. I am sure that we all want to ensure that such a terrible tragedy cannot be repeated in any of our social housing estates.

It was slightly cringe-worthy to hear the Housing Minister trying to explain this morning why his priority is to tackle a misperception about access to social housing when the fundamental problem, surely, is the lack of social housing. Is not the key way to solve that to get rid of the housing revenue account subsidy system? Given that the Prime Minister trailed such a move in January and that we now have a further consultation on a review, is it not time that the decision was brought forward rather than delayed further?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. She might have missed my statement last week, which set out my aim to dismantle the housing revenue account and the announcement that, from last week, councils that build new homes will be able to keep in full all rents and any capital receipts from them. It is a first step in making wholesale reforms, which are long overdue, and a part of removing the barriers to councils’ being able to build, commission building and see the provision of homes in their areas that people need.

I am aware of the consultation document seeking views on options for addressing the impact on local communities of high concentrations of houses in multiple occupation. Local residents in the centre of Ormskirk are affected by homes in multiple occupation, and in particular there is a high concentration of students. May I urge the Minister to take their views into consideration and to bring into reality changes to the legislation, as he sees fit from that consultation?

I am looking at this matter very carefully, and will take into account the views of the residents in Ormskirk that my hon. Friend has reported to the House. I shall also take her views into account, and I am looking to make decisions on this matter pretty shortly.

I also congratulate the Minister for Housing on his promotion, and welcome him and the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination to their new roles in the Department. Like the whole House, I am sure, I wish to share in the condolences extended to the bereaved from Camberwell.

I had to replay the Minister’s interview on the “Today” programme this morning twice to understand precisely what the Government’s position on housing now is. Will he confirm that the Government’s plans may change the requirement in primary legislation to give housing priority to the homeless, families with children and the overcrowded?

I am glad that the hon. Lady is following our announcements so closely. To be clear, I have said consistently—and I confirmed it last week, well before today’s “Today” programme—that I am not changing the requirement for local councils to give priority to those in most serious housing need. In other words, I am not touching the reasonable preference categories. What I am looking to do, and I shall publish this at the end of the month, is to set out new statutory guidance that will allow councils more scope to give preference to people in their area who they believe are in most need, or to relieve the pressures that they are under. However, that can work only when placed alongside a serious programme to build more homes. That was what the housing pledge and the Prime Minister’s commitment last week was all about.

But given that waiting lists have soared by 800,000, and the legal requirement to house priority groups, is not the Prime Minister’s pledge of

“local homes for local people”

simply empty rhetoric—a dog whistle to Labour’s disillusioned and abandoned core vote?

No. What would be empty rhetoric would be a professed concern for housing in this country alongside a plan to take £800 million out of the housing budget this year and 10 per cent. in every year after that, because that would mean that we could not build the homes that we need for the future.