It was questions to Communities and Local Government ministers yesterday.
Shadow London Minister Bob Neill asked a good question about centralised housebuilding targets:
"It is five years this month since the Government’s own Barker review identified the problems that arise from reliance on the section 106 system and its attendant complexities as a means of driving development. Since then, the Government have added to those complications with measures such as the community infrastructure levy. Against that background and the decline in receipts, to which reference has been made, is it not better to move away from that complicated regime and a system of top-down development targets to one of incentivising local communities and local authorities to accept development by allowing them to keep some of the proceeds that arise to their own tax base from encouraging development?
Margaret Beckett: I think that the hon. Gentleman left out an important development: in the meantime the Government have made available some £8 billion of resources for investment in housing. That is twice as much as the amount that was available in the previous period, which was itself substantial. I think that he was probably referring to the proposals, in so far as one can call them that, in the Conservative party’s latest publication of its policies —[Interruption.] I accept that it is a very short read. It is perhaps not entirely well-founded in the statistics that it cites, but I am sure that we will be examining it in future in the House."
Sir Patrick Cormack (MP for South Staffordshire) is a sceptic on eco-towns:
"As the right hon. Lady is sensibly reviewing so many things, will she review the whole eco-towns initiative, which is seen by many of us as expensive gesture politics?
Margaret Beckett: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but let me say two things to him. First, it is beyond question and clearly accepted, including across the House, that there is an unmet and growing demand for housing, because of the growth in the number of households. Secondly, I think it is also common ground across the House that something that must be done to address that demand. If it has to be addressed, surely it is better to seek on the basis of some exemplar programmes to provide new housing that meets the standards that the housing of the future will need to meet if we are to tackle climate change. Incidentally, that will also make those houses much more affordable to run. I understand that Opposition Members have sought to use this issue as a campaigning tool in a number of cases, but I am not sure that that is acting in their constituents’ interests in the long term."
St Albans MP Anne Main raised the fact that there are a great many empty homes in this country:
"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?
Mr. Wright: 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."
North West Hampshire’s Sir George Young had yet another excellent point:
"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?
Mr. Wright: 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."
Full credit to Iain Wright for praising a Conservative!
The Tories are right to look to other alternatives than top-down targets for meeting housing demands. But sooner or later they will need to address – comprehensively – the impact of mass immigration on the same.