The Government do not set down Whitehall housing targets for the south-east of England or any other part of the country. It is for elected local councils to determine where development should and should not go, and how best to meet housing need through their local plans.
My Lords, nobody will disagree that we need more housing. I have said that many times in this Chamber. Everybody knows that we have an underhousing situation in this country for our population. Therefore, there is great pressure from my department to ensure that housing targets are built up. However, it is for local authorities to decide where that housing goes and how much they need in their local area. A great number of houses are in the pipeline, due to be built.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that she is willing to support the approval of the financial scheme of guarantee to help small builders who desperately need the work and who could provide many homes for the people who are so badly in need of them?
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in carrying out housing programmes it is very important to take into account two recent developments? First, following the Olympics, housing programmes should not infringe on sports grounds and, indeed, should make greater provision for sporting facilities. Secondly, steps should be taken to ensure that housing does not take place in areas that are liable to flooding.
My Lords, again, local authorities and their local plans need to take account of both those matters. It is certainly true that we hope to see the preservation of playing fields, and that the legacy of the Olympics is to be encouraged—exactly the point that my noble friend has made. Of course, it does not make sense, as we have seen recently, to build on flood plains if it is not necessary. However, that is a matter for local authorities’ judgment in terms of the amount of housing they need and where they need to put it.
Is it not clear that the cap on housing benefit means that very large numbers of people now working and living in central London will not, in the course of this year, be able to live near their place of work? Does that not make it a matter of emergency for the Government to undertake a building programme that will mean that affordable housing is available to the people who serve this great city in both the public and private sectors in all capacities? Is it not a dreadful reality that the combination of the cap on housing benefit and the paucity of affordable housing in the public and private sectors will be monstrous in its effects on lower-paid people in this city?
My Lords, it is also monstrous that we are left in the financial situation that we are. That is one reason why the welfare budget has had to be looked at over the past few years. There is also little evidence, except in one or two of the major boroughs, that people are having to move out of London to find housing as a result of the housing benefit situation. We are pushing very hard for the building of affordable housing in the light of whatever local authorities believe they need.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that bringing homes that have been empty long-term back into use can make a useful contribution to housing supply? What scope does she think that there is in the south-east for that, and what are the Government doing to help communities that want to bring long-term empty homes back into use?
My Lords, the Government have a number of projects that have just come into being to support the bringing back into use of empty homes. Yes, they are a waste and it is essential that long-term empty homes—because some are not empty for long-term reasons—are brought back into use. The Government have this year already committed £160 million. That will bring 10,700 empty homes back into use. There is £100 million for affordable housing, including £70 million of funding for 95 projects, which will bring more than 5,600 properties back into use across the country. My noble friend commented on the south-east but, as I explained, that is across the country.
My Lords, a recent study by BNP Paribas looked at the extent to which local authorities were changing their housing targets from the regional spatial strategy levels. It found that local authorities in the south-east and the south-west were making the biggest cuts. For the south-east, this amounted to around an 18% reduction. Does the Minister think that that position is satisfactory?
My Lords, I go back to what I said to begin: it is now for local authorities to decide on their housing need against the overall housing position. The noble Lord talks again about the south-east, but the south-east has many local authorities, which are making decisions on housing as we speak.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware of construction jobs that are not being fulfilled in the present climate. Although the Government’s approach to unemployment and apprenticeships is one that everyone endorses and supports, is it not possible for that to be re-enacted in a vigorous and real way to ensure that people in apprenticeships in the construction industry have the opportunity to test their skills in building in the south-east, as housing is important for everyone?
My Lords, apprenticeships are of course allied to companies in the housebuilding business. We very much hope that any apprenticeship taken up in the construction industry will go on to ensure that that person has a full-time job as long as the companies are able to build, which they are.