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§ Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)
It is with pleasure that I initiate the Adjournment debate on house improvement grants in North East Lincolnshire. It is a major issue that has repercussions in other areas but is a particular problem for us. I, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), with whom I work closely, and councillors have all had representations from people living in unhealthy conditions in damp, substandard accommodation. They live on benefits and are therefore entitled to home improvement grants. People over 60 and vulnerable people—those who belong to excluded groups and whom the Government have a policy to help—who have applied for improvement grants have been told that nothing is available. Indeed, a constituent in despair about his treatment and place on the list told me that he would be dead by the time he got a house improvement grant, if he got one at all. That is not fair or reasonable.
There is a lot of older housing stock in North East Lincolnshire.
§ Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
Much of the older stock in my hon. Friend's constituency and in mine is leasehold property that the freeholders have done little to improve. Many leases are expiring, and the result is that the condition of properties in our towns is particularly poor.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I thank my hon. Friend for that apposite and true comment. That is another subject on which we have stuck together and argued as one. The original leaseholders, many of them members of aristocratic families, often sold leaseholds to companies that use them to extract profit. Those companies do not put anything back. They demand high prices for the sale of the leasehold but have done nothing about the state of the property. That adds to the problem.
The basic problem is that we have so much older housing. We have lots of terraced housing, which was built in the late 19th or early 20th century when Grimsby was a boom town and fishing was expanding rapidly. Some of it was renovated 30 years ago with the help of improvement grants. At that time, under Labour—and the Conservatives, to a lesser degree—the hills were alive with the sound of hammers, as housing was improved everywhere, particularly in Grimsby. However, that only gave it another 30 years of life—that was the intention—and that time is up. That housing stock now needs further improvement to maintain its condition, and many houses were not improved at that time. Deteriorating older housing is a huge problem.
We have a further local problem. North East Lincolnshire council is doing its best in spite of horrendous financial difficulties, which have been caused by the fact that the Government have not been as generous to and supportive of local government as they should be—particularly towards Labour local authorities, of course. I believe that local authorities, which are on the front line in dealings with the electorate and in the battle against exclusion, have been badly treated. Funding has been increased, but new duties have been piled on, including expensive obligations such 54WH as best value. As a result, North East Lincolnshire council has been plunged into a financial crisis of a scale that it never faced under the Tories. We have had to envisage and carry through cuts that were never imposed on us by a Conservative Government.
Leisure services have practically gone. The national fishing heritage centre, of which we are inordinately proud in Grimsby, has had to close for the winter. It is ludicrous for a prize-winning national museum to be closed because there is not enough money to keep it going.
We have had a mass shedding of both officers and employees. The council house renovation programme has been too slow and had too little money in the face of declining stock. It is a horrendous problem and it has affected what the council can do in respect of grants. It is not their fault. It is the Government's fault for not allocating sufficient money to local authorities. Councils carry the can while the Government, with a hypocrisy that has to be seen to be believed—I know that there will be no such hypocrisy from my hon. Friend the Minister today since she knows local government well—tell them, as Lord Falconer did, that they have to provide the service but there is no need for the Government to provide the money for it. Now that is hypocrisy and it is impossible. It is the kind of double-talk that damages relations between central and local government, and particularly damages relations with the electorate.
Another problem is the economic difficulties that the area faces. My area is one of economic disadvantage and has high unemployment. We have less public spending per head—£1,000 a year less than Scotland—yet our unemployment problem is worse.
§ Shona McIsaac
I do not know whether my hon. Friend noticed in the pre-Budget statement last week that the most disadvantaged wards in this country would be exempted from stamp duty and property transfer. Five of those wards are in our constituencies: two in mine and three in my hon. Friend's. Croft Baker park, north-east marsh and the south wards are the very places where housing stock exists, and the Government have therefore recognised the poverty and the disadvantage of our area in the pre-Budget statement. Yet we cannot seem to translate that into helping our residents with home improvement grants.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that valid interjection. The Government are doing their best but the concession on stamp duty is not much use to wards like those in our constituencies where house values are so low. We have higher unemployment, dependency and deprivation, and we need help.
Renovating the housing stock is a key part of local renovation. It stimulates the local economy, provides jobs and work, stimulates materials supply and improves people's conditions, particularly single parent families and the old. It must also produce savings in health because a drier and efficiently heated house is a healthier house, so it must cut spending on health and social services. It needs to be a priority, and it is barmy not to give it a higher priority than we have done. I am ashamed that the Government have been less generous than the Conservatives were in that respect.
There is a real problem when it comes to house improvement grants. We have a priority list. To be on that list, people must be living in a house that is unfit and 55WH needs substantial renovation. They must also be on means-tested benefits, because grants are not handed out promiscuously as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. They are targeted to those on means-tested benefits.
There are 1,150 people on the waiting list; the total cost of renovating their premises at £8,000 a house would be £9.5 million and no funds have been allocated. There are 40 new inquiries a year; last year there were 106 new allocations on the waiting list. I understand from North East Lincolnshire that four people have been on that list since September 1992. No wonder they are beginning to feel that they will be dead before anything is done. It takes 3.6 years, not to get the improvements, but just to get on to the waiting list. What can I say to people who have been waiting since 1992? What prospect can I hold out to them that something will be done?
Demand is rising as stock deteriorates. Word is getting around that no money is available and people are not applying, but as the waiting list increases, less money is allocated. Capital spending guidance on house improvements is £1.6 million when the need is £9.5 million. The allocation for home improvements to those on the list was £160,000, but the demand is for £9.5 million. We need £4.15 million for those in unfit housing and on benefit. We need £2.8 million for those aged over 60 and in an unfit house—a fate that should not be inflicted on old people in North East Lincolnshire or anywhere else. For those aged over 60, on means-tested benefits and in an unfit house, £1.7million is needed to renovate the houses. Those figures do not include disabled facility grants or inquiries from the over-60s, which would cost another £4.6 million. Money is rightly allocated for disabled facility grants—it is ring-fenced—but the demand for those grants is £850,000 above the allocation.
North East Lincolnshire cannot afford to supplement the cases that it accepts because, like most authorities, it does not have the money. Some disabled people are living in conditions that need to be improved but that is not being done, and demand is growing rapidly as the population ages. Even the Member of Parliament is ageing, but the population is ageing even more. About 12 per cent. of our privately owned stock of houses are simply unfit and the total sum needed is £56 million. Too little is being done about that huge problem. The question is what the Government are going to do about it. More money is needed. It is hypocritical to say that North East Lincolnshire can squeeze more spending from its budget—it cannot. It is no use considering equity withdrawal plans, as they are not relevant in an area with low, static house prices and deteriorating stock. Discussion about new initiatives in low-cost loans are not relevant either, as people in the area are too poor to take up such loans, and house values are too low.
It is good to have energy-efficiency measures, but they should be part of home improvement. Energy-efficiency measures cannot be carried out without a home improvement grant and they add £1,100 per property, so another cost is incurred. The only hope of dealing with 56WH all those costs is a greater Government allocation to the area. Money should be allocated, tied to improvement grants and dedicated to regenerating the local economy.
The Government are doing very well on our two priorities of education and health; a lot more has been spent and there have been improvements, as most people perceive. However, there is no united policy on housing, which is also a problem sector. There are lots of bitty initiatives but no pulling together, and housing, especially the crucial matter of improving the existing housing stock, is not given priority. It affects not only health but education and the ability to study. The appalling conditions and damp in which some people live make it impossible to study or perhaps even to go to school, which may result in exclusions.
The next comprehensive spending review must give greater priority to housing. There should be four priority areas, not just two, and the last one should be transport. We need a big allocation, but most importantly we need action now. The Government have a major responsibility for the depressing situation in North East Lincolnshire and they must help us. They must stop the double-talk about how it is a local council responsibility and they have allocated enough money—they have not. The Government must help us to cut through all the complexities and give our constituents, who are central to us and to North East Lincolnshire, the good housing conditions in which they deserve to live.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions(Ms Sally Keeble)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing the debate and on the way in which he has represented the interests of North East Lincolnshire. I know that many hon. Members are deeply concerned about the plight of everyone in poor-quality housing, especially the elderly and vulnerable. I certainly share that concern.
All hon. Members present have seen the appalling housing conditions that some people have to tolerate. We find it staggering that such conditions still exist at the beginning of the 21st century and that old people who have served their country live in conditions that they find unacceptable, with leaking roofs and damp. A number of them own their homes, whereas others are leaseholders. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) has raised that issue separately, and we are all aware of particular problems in that part of the country.
I agree that quality of housing has a fundamental impact on quality of life and that it affects a range of other things that happen to a person. That is why the Government have made improving housing standards a priority. I shall briefly explain what we are doing, particularly about the private sector, because that is really what my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby talked about. I shall start with a few words about our policy in general and then deal with my hon. Friend's area.
Our overall objective is that everyone should have the opportunity to have a decent home. That covers all tenures. I am particularly concerned to ensure that we help the poorest private home owners, especially those 57WH who are elderly. Helping people to stay in their own homes is not only economically sensible but, usually, what they want.
It is not true that we have a worse funding record than the Conservatives. When we came to power, we inherited spending plans that would have given us only £1.5 billion for capital investment in housing across all tenures in 1997. We recognised that that was not acceptable, and since then a number of different measures have increased financing. For 2003–04, capital investment will be more than £4 billion. This year, local authorities will receive about £2.3 billion.
I fully recognise, however, that even those sums of money mean that we shall have to make choices. The Government decided in the first instance to focus our attention on the social stock. It is unacceptable that public sector landlords should offer poor-quality accommodation, so we set a target of bringing all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010.
We made two important changes to the financial framework for local authorities. First, we earmarked the sum that each authority needed to keep its housing stock in good repair. This year's sum amounts to about £1.6 billion, which leaves £700 million for other capital spending. Secondly, we gave local authorities discretion over how to use the remaining £700 million. For some, the priority will be investment in new social housing; for others, the top priority will be private sector housing.
Let me now deal with the problems of North East Lincolnshire council. As I looked through all the information about my hon. Friend's area, I thought that there were three particular problems. The first is the scale of unfit private sector stock, which is 12 per cent.—the second highest figure in the region. Secondly, economic restructuring, especially in the port hinterland area, has adversely affected the income of owner-occupiers who are unable to deal with those problems, which is what one would expect to happen. I accept that in many instances the people concerned are elderly. My hon. Friend has previously discussed the housing problems of Grimsby's grannies, and he has discussed them again today. Thirdly, low demand and alternative housing opportunities are undermining the stability and level of investment in some older housing. The council does not believe that the situation is likely to improve, because existing permissions for new build will attract homebuyers away from urban centres, including the port hinterland.
As I mentioned earlier, North East Lincolnshire council has benefited from the national increase in funding, and I shall discuss the problems associated with that later in my speech. When we came to power, the previous Government's expenditure plans provided the council with a housing allocation of £2.37 million for 1997–98, which included £228,000 for the disabled facilities grant. Since then, the allocation has increased to £6.43 million for this year, which includes £333,000 for the disabled facilities grant. The disabled facilities grant has increased, and money provided for housing has risen by 171 per cent. since 1997–98. The council's 2001–02 allocation was up 48 per cent. on that of the previous year, which is more than the national average increase.
58WH We shall shortly announce the allocation for 2002–03. Without giving too much away, I expect there to be good news for North East Lincolnshire for next year. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby suggests that there still will not be enough money to meet the needs of North East Lincolnshire. I am sure that if other hon. Members were here, they would make the same point about their constituencies, especially if they were in the north of Britain.
Local authorities must ensure that they use their resources to best effect. We would all like to allocate more resources, but we have tough choices to make in allocating resources nationally. Local authorities make similar choices at local level, and next year they will have greater discretion in those choices when the single capital pot comes into effect. They will be able to decide how to spend their money, which should enable them to make choices that more accurately reflect local need. I cannot make commitments today in advance of the spending review, but I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby and for Cleethorpes that the need for investment in poor-condition housing is being closely examined as part of the spending review.
That does not mean that we are doing nothing to help now. We are taking several initiatives to deal with the problems identified by my hon. Friend. We are reforming the rules governing how local authorities give grants to home owners. We shall place before the House a proposal for a regulatory reform order to sweep away most of the detailed rules surrounding grants. That will give local authorities, as part of their housing strategies, greater flexibility to help home owners with repairs. For instance, it will allow greater opportunities to offer preferential or interest-free loans. We shall issue guidance on the reforms, which will include detailed help with offering financial advice, loans regulations and, more generally, how the new powers can be used by local authorities. We are also addressing the problems of leaseholders, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes is aware of that.
We are taking action to tackle fuel poverty through the home energy efficiency scheme. With a budget of more than £600 million, we expect to reach about 800,000 vulnerable households in England by 2004. Warm home grants of up to £2,000 for heating and insulation are available to the elderly arid families with children on benefits.
In some areas, where houses are beyond the point at which they can be repeatedly repaired or renovated, clearance may be the only practical option. We recognise the need to improve the operation of the compulsory purchase and compensation system. Last week we published a new compulsory purchase procedure manual to enable authorities to use their powers more effectively. In the longer term, we have also committed ourselves to streamlining and improving legislation governing compulsory purchase.
Finally, we have increased funding for home improvement agencies. Such agencies are small teams attached to local authorities. They visit the elderly and vulnerable and help them to apply for grants, so that they can continue to live in their own homes. I am pleased to note that there is a home improvement agency in North East Lincolnshire that receives, I believe, £30,000 from the Government.
59WH However, there is also the question of the responsibilities of local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said that he considered it inappropriate for central Government simply to pass the buck, as it were, but I do not see things that way. Central and local government are working together to meet the housing needs of his constituents. Given the needs and the increased resources that we have allocated, it is surprising that the current private sector programme in North East Lincolnshire is only about a quarter of that proposed by the council in its housing investment programme submission for the financial year 2001–02. It is also significantly less than what was achieved in the previous three financial years.
The plans that we have seen for North East Lincolnshire do not appear to account for all the housing resources that one might expect to be available. I have been unable to find out from the local authority why that is, but I shall certainly do so in the coming days. I shall write to my hon. Friend on the matter, so that he has all the information at the Department's disposal.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I accept that point, but there is a further problem. Housing associations, particularly those involved in the self-build scheme operated by Doorstep, are finding that house prices in North East Lincolnshire are too low to justify new social housing build. We are trapped in a vicious circle, but the fact remains that people often want to start out in, and go on living in, terraced housing. That is the point at issue in today's debate.
§ Ms Keeble
There is a clear need for a long-term private sector housing strategy, which, given the nature of the population as identified by my hon. Friend, must also include housing for older people. The strategy must 60WH also be linked to wider regeneration plans. The Government sent that message in its feedback to the council, which took up the issue in its best value performance plan. The plan mentioned the need to look at an alternative to renovation, given the scale of the problem.
I urge my hon. Friend to talk to the council about how the process can be taken forward. The housing department in his area was recently reorganised and is now on a footing to make such progress. In the longer term, that is the most sustainable and viable way to tackle some of the deep-seated problems that he has identified. Several other local authorities have taken that route, which is the only real alternative to repeatedly patching up houses that are often deteriorating faster than they can be repaired.
§ Shona McIsaac
Given all the initiatives that my hon. Friend the Minister has mentioned, and given that 12 per cent. of the housing stock in our area is unfit for habitation, when will the stock be improved, so that we can tell the residents who visit us week after week when they will see a solution to their very serious problems?
§ Ms Keeble
I shall deal briefly with two issues, one of which is the disabled facilities grant to which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby referred. As he knows, there remains the opportunity to apply for additional funds. Of course, top-up is needed, but the rule applies across the country and it should deal with some of the associated problems.
The best way to offer constituents concrete solutions is for central and local government to work together on a strategy to resolve the problems. That will have to take on board constituents' views to ensure that there is an agreed way forward for their homes. I urge my hon. Friends to do that, and thank them for raising the issues today.