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Environment secretary John Gummer today underlined the government's continued commitment to a social rented sector ...
Environment secretary John Gummer today underlined the government's continued commitment to a social rented sector with below market rents, and the key role of housing associations.

Speaking at the Housing Corporation annual conference in Brighton, Mr Gummer also highlighted the role of housing associations in helping to tackle under-occupation and making sure there is a fair and simple way for people to apply for social housing.

'Families need decent housing whatever their ability to pay for it. A restrictive planning system, which is essential to protect our environment, has a direct effect on housing costs.

'That cost cannot be allowed to exclude the low paid from a decent home. That is one of the reasons why the social rented sector has a continuing and vital role. Social housing, at rents below market levels, contributes to a healthy economy and society by maintaining work incentives and providing effective help to people on low incomes.

'Of course there has to be a balance. Aiming help to the individual as against concentration upon bricks and mortar is also necessary, but it is not the whole story. A balance needs to be struck. That is why I recognise the importance of social rents, set below market levels, in reducing low income families' dependency on housing benefit and other means-tested benefits.

'Our rent policies, like our benefits policies, need to give people real incentives to work, save, and take responsibility for their families.

'Below market rents do this for people who cannot command very high wages: they mean that they have the real prospect that by going out to work they will earn enough to break out of benefit. More is left in people's pockets when they go out to work.

'But the balance must not be lost. Low rents mean more subsidy, and therefore fewer homes. Whereas the lower HAG rates in the past few years have allowed us to provide more homes from the available resources.

'The government and the corporation review HAG rates each year. But we all need to keep things under scrutiny, when resources continue to be tight. We need to pursue cost savings in development and management, while continuing to produce a high quality product. We need to use all our resources to the utmost.

'That means good management, applying reserves sensibly, having proper policies of rent pooling where that can contribute effectively to affordability, and using all possible delivery mechanisms to the full.

'I believe that we all need to be prepared to look at every possible way to deliver more units and better housing. That is why we are talking to a number of cities about different versions of stock transfer and stock management, and that is why we are keen to give local authorities and tenants the choice for large scale voluntary transfers.

'Unlocking capital investment so that the standards of houses and flats can be improved and tenants given a better deal is part of any sensible housing programme.'

Addressing housing association conference delegates he said:

'The reality is you are key players in the successful delivery of our housing objectives, no longer a small scale alternative to council housing. That is why the government has to take a keen interest in what you do, and how efficiently and effectively you do it.

'I particularly welcome housing associations working effectively with local authorities to make effective use of the whole social housing stock.

'With many council homes under-occupied, often by people whose children have left home, it is vital that we can offer these tenants homes of the right size, and ones that they want. Doing so open up lettings for families.

'Housing associations have an important role in offering their stock, and in providing the right housing.

'Now housing associations are such important social housing providers, it is essential they co-ordinate efforts with local authorities when deciding who gets social housing.

'We want to ensure that social housing goes to those with the best claim to it, according to their underlying needs, and as part of our reform of access to social housing, we will be introducing a new legislative framework to provide for this.

'This does not mean we shall be prescribing a national allocations scheme. Far from it. We want local authorities to continue to devise their own allocation schemes which will reflect local needs within an updated framework of principles designed to ensure fairness.

'People with pressing medical or social needs must receive proper priority, wherever they live.

'Meeting local needs requires a partnership between councils the local authorities and housing associations. This is why we welcome the development of common housing registers. Common registers are a voluntary activity; but they have obvious benefits. They allow better use of the whole social stock. And they offer consumers a simpler one-stop way of applying for social housing.'

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