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Housing: Affordable Homes

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

At the last date for which figures are available, how many couples with a child under five were living with relatives or in temporary accommodation waiting to buy an affordable home.

My Lords, the latest estimate, for 2003-04 to 2005-06, is that the average number of couples with one or more children under the age of five who were living with relatives was about 35,000. The equivalent estimate for single parents with children under five is about 65,000, making a combined figure of about 100,000. We do not have any information on how many of those families might be waiting to buy an affordable home.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for those figures, which are extraordinarily disappointing. Does she agree that, for a young couple with their first baby, to have to face the prospect of spending two or three years with mother-in-law before they can get a home of their own is not a good recipe for the future of that family? Does she further agree that the target for any Government who care about the nation’s children must be to try in some way or another to offer young couples with their first baby access to affordable accommodation within, I suggest, seven days of the baby being born?

My Lords, we certainly want the best start for all children and all families. Ninety per cent of these families have one child. We have found that 23 per cent of those who access our low-cost house programmes are families with children, so we are reaching them. However, this issue is about adopting a variety of strategies. It must be about building more homes, which is why we have pledged to build 200,000 extra homes a year to meet growing demand. It is about bringing into home ownership people who cannot afford market prices. We aim to bring in 120,000 such people by 2010. It is about improving and modernising our council stock. It is also about developing a whole range of low-cost housing options for such families.

My Lords, I know very well from my work with CAFCASS, in which I declare an interest, that overcrowding often leads to relationship breakdown and separation. Can we hear more from the Minister about what the Government are doing about overcrowding, particularly in relation to what I believe are higher figures on overcrowding for black and minority ethnic families?

My Lords, that is a very important question. Compared with a national average for overcrowding of 2.7 per cent of households and 6.5 per cent of households in London, 23 per cent of such households are classified as being overcrowded. We need to do something to improve the statutory standard for overcrowding, which has not been changed since 1935. The area with the most acute problems is London, which is where we are concentrating effort. We have put £19 million into 24 pilot schemes run by the London boroughs to tackle overcrowding. We are working out with the Mayor where the problems are concentrated. We will publish a summary of responses to the consultation document which we issued in July, which will look across the issues, particularly in relation to BME populations, which comprise 23 per cent—one quarter—of those households. We will look at a regulatory impact statement, which addresses those problems in particular.

My Lords, is the Minister concerned that the situation that we are discussing has a very bad effect on the early years of a child’s education, yet only about one-fifth of families with children under four who are in temporary accommodation access Sure Start services? Does she agree that until we have enough outreach workers to get the information about the benefits of Sure Start to some of the hardest-to-reach families, we will never crack that 20 per cent figure?

My Lords, there is a wealth of evidence, not least that which has been commissioned by the department, about the impact of overcrowding on health—it can lead to respiratory conditions, for example. It has an impact also on education—children do not have enough space to do homework and suffer too much distraction from siblings and so on. Sure Start is the obvious vehicle. The expansion of Sure Start, combined with its smarter marketing, is the key to breaking these vicious cycles of deprivation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although it is very hard for these people to live with relatives, temporary accommodation can be very much worse? Does she have a breakdown of the figures? Will she confirm that all kinds of schemes are being considered to make it easier for people initially to rent a home and then move on to buying one?

My Lords, reluctantly, I do not entirely agree with the noble Baroness, because I think that temporary accommodation has improved a lot in recent years. There are two good things to say about it: first, the numbers in temporary accommodation are falling significantly and consistently. We now have about 93,000 people living in that kind of accommodation. That is still too many, but 92 per cent of them are living in self-contained accommodation and have their own front door and cooking facilities.

The second point that the noble Baroness raises is really important. Putting low-cost home ownership within reach of, for example, families in London with incomes of less than £35,000 or of those outside London with less than £30,000, is a very important step. A recent report on shared equity suggests that by 2010 we will be able to get about 160,000 into such accommodation, using the private sector more effectively than we have done.

My Lords, in view of the terrible figures that the Minister has just quoted of people still living in overcrowded and temporary accommodation, will she say how she believes the newly created agency, made up of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation, is likely to have any impact on this problem?

My Lords, first, may I say how delighted I am that the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, is going to chair that new agency? There could be nobody better to do that, and I am delighted that she is on our side. Bringing together English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation, as recommended by the Barker report, will result in provision for land supply, more intelligent planning of land and more intelligent and proper targeting for housing. That goes along with the new PPS on housing, which means that we can be much more intelligent about how we assess housing needs and plan for it, which can only be a good thing.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one difficulty facing young couples in seeking accommodation in the private rented sector is knowing whether they can afford the property on offer to rent? Does she agree that the Government’s proposals for rent allowances should go a long way to taking some of those difficulties out of the system, thus ensuring that young couples can get speedier access to decent homes?

Yes, my Lords, the rented sector and rent arrangements have been extremely complicated; nobody knows that better than my noble friend. Rent allowances are definitely a step in the right direction.