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18 Dec 2001 : Column 54WH

Melbeck Park, Manchester

1 pm

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue that has annoyed and upset some of my constituents for more than two years. For reasons that will become clear during my speech, it has also caused considerable irritation to their Member of Parliament.

The constituents live on a new, private development known as Melbeck Park. They came to see me following a series of burglaries on their estate where there are 170 houses, all built by the developer Redrow Homes. I warmly welcome the significant growth of private development in my constituency in recent years; Wythenshawe was traditionally known as the largest council housing estate in Europe, and the fact that there is now a greater diversity of housing tenure is helping to give the community a broader, more sustainable social base. None the less, in this case, the conduct of Redrow Homes falls well short of the manner in which a responsible company should behave.

On its website, Redrow describes itself as

Redrow won the Daily Express best national house builder award for three years running. In the company's latest annual report, chairman Robert Jones reported that the group's pre-tax profits had risen to more than £72 million pounds. He commented:

In the same annual report, Redrow's chief executive, Mr. Paul Pedley, said that the awards recognised his company's

He said:

One might expect such remarks from an organisation that recently sponsored the annual lunch of the City of Westminster home safety committee under the theme "Safer Homes in the new Millennium", but they are not reflected in the experience of my constituents.

I was first approached by some Melbeck Park residents in 1999. Their homes had been burgled and they took the view that the poor quality window units installed by Redrow Homes were largely responsible for making their homes vulnerable to crime. During the whole of 1999, 2.5 per cent. of UK households were victims of burglary with entry. On the small Melbeck estate, in the six months between April and November 1999, there were 14 burglaries, which is equivalent to an annual rate seven times the national average. In 12 cases, the burglars got into the property by removing the kitchen window. The residents told me of their fear and insecurity. One had reluctantly decided to put her home on the market. One does not have to be an expert on double glazing to understand why it was so easy to break into the houses: the double-glazed kitchen windows

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were made of uPVC and externally beaded. All that was required to break in was a knife to cut the beading before lifting the window out.

In May 1999, I wrote to Redrow Homes asking the company to replace all the kitchen windows on the estate; it refused to do so. In addition to my representations, a few months later Greater Manchester police also brought the windows' security defects to Redrow's attention. In a letter to Redrow's customer services manager, GMP's architectural liaison officer stated:

He went on:

The letter continued:

Given that clear and unambiguous advice from the Greater Manchester police, I wrote again to Redrow in December 1999. The following month, I received a reply from Redrow Homes northern managing director at that time, a Mr. Andrew Swindell, who told me,

It is thus perfectly clear: the fact that windows can simply be lifted out of their frame to facilitate a burglary is not a matter for the developer but for the police. That is not my view or that of the Melbeck Park residents, who have a positive relationship with the local police. The residents believe that the police have done everything possible to make their estate safe.

It is a Member of Parliament's responsibility to look for answers to constituency problems. Therefore, given the difference of opinion expressed by Mr. Swindell, I resolved to try to bring Greater Manchester police and

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Redrow Homes together to discuss the difficulties that the Melbeck Park residents were experiencing. The police said that they were more than happy to meet Redrow, but Redrow were reluctant to meet us.

I wrote to Mr. Swindell in February 2000 to request a meeting; I received no reply. I wrote again in May and in June. Eventually, having telephoned his office on numerous occasions, we fixed a meeting for August 24. On the morning of the meeting, Mr. Swindell's office telephoned to say that he was unable to attend. I was appalled at such a lack of concern for my constituents. I wrote to the chief executive of Redrow Homes, Mr. Paul Pedley, to complain. I subsequently received a reply from Mr. Barry Harvey, regional chairman of Redrow Homes (Northern). He informed me that Mr. Swindell had left the company and that he, Mr. Harvey, would investigate my complaint.

Any initial hope of a breakthrough was dashed when 10 days later he replied with the standard retort that it was unfair for me to take Redrow to task. I wrote again to Mr. Harvey asking him to meet me and representatives of Greater Manchester police. In January this year he wrote to say that he could

That strong denial of responsibility might have been more persuasive but for the fact that in August 1999 Redrow had commissioned Avonside Window Systems, the original supplier of the windows to offer all Melbeck residents, free of charge, the opportunity to have the beading removed from their kitchen windows and replaced with an additional silicone seal. Clearly, the company knew that something was wrong. Only 36 of the 170 households on the estate agreed to the offer—figures that Redrow confirmed in writing to me. The other residents were not persuaded that that would improve their security and, in any event, the majority of them continued to believe that Redrow Homes should replace the entire kitchen window unit. Yesterday evening, Redrow Homes issued a statement in anticipation of today's debate, claiming that 90 per cent. of the estate's 170 residents agreed to extra silicone treatment for their windows, yet it had already written to me confirming that only 36 residents had so agreed. Its claim is therefore so at variance with reality as barely to constitute credible evidence.

All hon. Members are regularly in touch with a wide range of commercial organisations. They might need to deal with a constituent's complaint, with plans for investment, or even with job losses. In my experience, although such organisations do not always share one's views, they invariably show courtesy and respect. I asked to meet the American owners of an engineering company in my constituency that had just announced several hundred redundancies and they readily agreed. As you know, Mr. Winterton, I am trying to help the managers and work force at the Manchester airport division of FLS Aerospace to retain several hundred jobs that are under threat as a result of the recent downturn in the aviation industry. Such organisations are always happy to meet and to respond to my requests. In fact, Redrow Homes is the only company to refuse to have a meeting with me in my almost five years as the Member of Parliament for Wythenshawe and Sale, East.

This sorry saga not only displays a wilful disregard for the residents of Melbeck Park, it also has serious implications for public policy and resources. In a letter

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to one of my constituents, Barry Harvey, chairman of Redrow Homes' northern region, remarked that the windows in the properties sold on the estate reflected exactly those on display in the show homes. He said:

I do not accept that a developer should be allowed to get away with such an irresponsible attitude. A wide range of legislation and regulations deals with customers' rights in respect of the purchase of goods and services. The time spent by police following up the disproportionate number of burglaries on the estate gives rise to considerable public expenditure implications. There is also the question of the distress caused to the families and individuals involved, but all Redrow Homes seems interested in is the house as sold.

My principal purpose in raising this issue is to ask the Minister what action the Government are taking to ensure that developers are not able to wriggle out of their wider responsibilities in the manner of Redrow Homes. In particular, the residents of Melbeck Park would like to know what Ministers are doing to ensure that local authorities are able to enforce effective security standards on new housing estates as part of the planning process.

In recent years, as a result of this Government's actions local partnerships have been established in every area to spearhead the fight against crime. In that regard, I pay tribute to the efforts of Greater Manchester police, Manchester and Trafford councils and other local partners in working together in my own constituency. That work is made all the more difficult, however, when houses are built to a defective design.

An annexe on design attached to Government planning guidance contains a paragraph on security that includes the following advice:

Advice and good intentions are not enough, however. When a developer seeks planning permission for a new estate, the council can recommend that the developer consult the police about the estate's layout, but it is powerless to insist that the developer follow police advice. It is also powerless to insist on minimum security specifications for windows or doors. Local authorities need more effective powers to monitor the implementation of approved plans, particularly in respect of crime and security issues.

My constituents bought their homes from a developer with a good reputation, on an estate for which the local authority had given planning permission, yet they were badly let down. I strongly support the "Secured By Design" initiative of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is standard in all housing corporation-funded schemes and which local authorities increasingly view as a reasonable minimum for new developments. That view is, however, resisted by developers such as Redrow, and the windows that it installed in Melbeck Park would not meet the "Secured by Design" standard.

Recently, burglaries on the estate have decreased significantly, which is largely due to Melbeck Park's residents, who have displayed an impressive sense of community spirit. They have established a residents'

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association and a neighbourhood watch and they look out for each other, as all good citizens should. However, they deserved a more positive and responsible attitude from the organisation that designed and built their estate—Redrow Homes. Some residents have replaced their kitchen windows at their own expense, but even at this late stage, two and a half years after the issue was first raised, I call on Redrow Homes to reconsider its position and to offer every Melbeck Park resident a new kitchen window of the standard suggested by Greater Manchester police.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will endorse my request and I look forward to hearing more from her about the action that the Government are taking to make developers more accountable for the delivery of public safety, more responsive to public authorities and more responsible to those who purchase properties from them.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) on securing this debate and raising this important issue. He has conveyed the serious concerns that have been raised by his constituents about public safety on the Melbeck Park estate and I was sorry to hear about his constituents' difficulties.

I shall deal with planning issues and briefly touch on building regulations, but first I must state that there should be no doubt about the Government's willingness to tackle crime and the fear of crime wherever they exist. We have determined a course, of which planning, house building and neighbourhood management are important parts, to help communities to fight back against crime.

Many of my hon. Friend's comments relate to the quality of detailing on new private housing schemes. Although planning regulations can stress good standards in design, unfortunately they cannot solve the problem of crime. However, when they are co-ordinated with other measures, including sensitivity to designing-out crime by developers, their contribution can be significant. Well-designed developments can reduce the fear of crime, make crime harder to commit and increase detection rates. There have been too many cases in which criminals' work has been made easy and people's lives have been blighted unnecessarily—the Melbeck Park estate seems to be a case a point.

As my hon. Friend said, the planning system must play its part in tackling crime, which is why the Government intend to review and update the existing circular advice on planning-out crime to which he referred. We want to drive home the fact that crime prevention is a key objective in planning. Local authorities already know that crime prevention is a possible material consideration when planning applications are determined because it is a social issue to which their development plans must pay attention. We shall remind local authorities that they can insist on appropriate crime prevention measures and refuse planning applications where they have concerns about community safety. Local authorities must not step beyond what they can legitimately pursue under

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planning legislation, but there is no reason why community safety and crime prevention should not be central concerns for local authorities when they exercise their planning responsibilities.

In recent planning policy guidance, we have already underlined the importance of thinking about crime prevention when designing new developments. For example, our new approach to planning for housing, which we set out in PPG 3, requires local authorities to adopt policies that promote designs and layouts that are safe and take account of crime prevention and community safety. We are reinforcing that guidance with advice on sound practice: "Better Places to Live", which we published in September, provides sound practical guidance on how the planning system can help to achieve quality residential environments. It emphasises that good design is concerned not only with the appearance of a development but with matters such as community safety.

My hon. Friend rightly feels strongly about tackling crime on the Melbeck Park estate. Although by no means a whole solution, thoughtful planning and design can be effective in creating more secure environments. Most crime is opportunistic. Design principles based on common sense, such as encouraging natural surveillance and ensuring that such areas as kitchen windows can be overseen, can help to improve security for people and property. Through good design, we can secure safe neighbourhoods where people want to live and that are well connected to an inclusive city.

I am sorry to say that once a development has been completed, the main opportunity to incorporate crime prevention measures may have been lost. That is why we expect crime reduction to feature in the discussions that authorities have with developers and their designers right at the outset of the design process. Local authorities are advised to consult police architectural liaison officers on planning applications for developments where there is potential to eliminate or reduce crime through the adoption of suitable measures at the design stage. That is especially important for major developments such as new housing estates. We have stressed the importance of consulting the police architectural liaison officer at an early stage and my hon. Friend drew attention to the problems if the officer is consulted only after building has finished.

My hon. Friend touched on the "Secured by Design" scheme promoted by police forces throughout the country. Given that scheme's potential, I can appreciate why he wants to see the best use made of it. There should be no doubt that local authorities can insist on appropriate crime prevention measures and refuse planning applications where they have concerns about design safety. However, as he may know, "Secured by Design" covers a wide range of issues, some of them reaching beyond the boundaries of planning control.

In reviewing our planning guidance, we will examine how the principles in "Secured by Design" can best be employed. As part of the review, we propose to build up collective knowledge of what works in designing out

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crime. Our aim is a pool of good practice guidance relevant to local planning authorities and police that is practicable and robust in a wide range of circumstances.

Paul Goggins : My hon. Friend the Minister rightly lays great emphasis on the need to follow and share good practice. She has also emphasised the need for developers to consult the local police architectural liaison officer and has spoken in support of the "Secured by Design" initiative. However, is not the problem that although those are noble aspirations, when a developer such as Redrow takes no notice of that good practice, or, as in the case that I have quoted, of the advice of the architectural liaison officer, the residents are very badly let down?

Ms Keeble : I take my hon. Friend's point and have some points to make in reply. There is clearly wide discretion for local planning authorities when considering and approving plans. We provide them with the tools to make the best possible decisions, in the interests of all parties involved. The final decisions are down to them, but we give them strong guidance on how to consider such matters. I have clearly set out that community safety is a material consideration that they can properly take into account.

In examining how we can best use the "Secured by Design" principles, we will take account of considerations such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned in relation to the residents of the estate that he highlighted. The aim is to prevent just such problems arising. On his point about the architectural liaison officer, it may well be that had his advice been given earlier, the circumstances for my hon. Friend's constituents might not have turned out as they did.

I want to deal with other issues relating to building regulations, which I hope will reassure my hon. Friend about the seriousness with which we view community safety, building design and building standards. In addition to the planning system, building regulations cover health and safety, welfare and convenience, but not the protection of property, which would require an amendment to the Building Act 1984. We are looking into that and I will ensure that my hon. Friend's views are passed on.

Every house buyer in a private housing development will have a contract with the house builder. They will have seen the property, had it described, and probably had a survey. If there is any suggestion that purchasers were misled when they bought, there may be an opportunity for them to take legal action for breach of contract. I appreciate that that is difficult for an individual, but my hon. Friend is referring to an estate. If residents have specific worries about the way in which the developer has behaved, they may wish to bring the matter to the attention of the local trading standards office. However, I cannot comment on that, because such cases require careful consideration.

On the standard of new housing in general, the non-statutory Buildmark new home warranty scheme run by the National House Building Council covers a large proportion of new homes built for sale. The scheme standards specify that doors and windows must be designed to resist unauthorised entry. That reflects the point that my hon. Friend made about the windows on

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the Melbeck Park estate. The NHBC's guidance manual states that ground floor windows should have key-operated locks and that windows in general should be designed to prevent opening from the outside. However, that design must reflect the fact that windows, especially above ground floor level, may provide an escape route in the event of fire.

Under the NHBC's Buildmark scheme, any non-compliance with scheme standards that comes to light in the first two years of the 10-year cover must be put right by the builder. In this case, the problem started almost exactly two years ago. In years three to 10, cover is mainly confined to repairing structural damage. Any home owner whose home is registered with the Buildmark scheme can contact the NHBC to check whether a problem with their home is covered. If my hon. Friend is unaware of the NHBC, I shall be happy to give him its contact details after the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the matter to our attention. I extend my sincere sympathies to his constituents and congratulate them on the way in which they have tackled their problems by establishing a residents' association and taking local action to help to reduce the crime rate. I assure him that I have taken note of the serious issues that he raised. I have already mentioned our intention to review and update the existing circular advice on planning out crime, and I will ensure that his views are passed on. I will also ensure that attention is paid to the details of house design that he mentioned and pass on his concerns about building regulations and any efforts to update them. When I meet house builders, I always underline the importance of good design, especially designing for safer communities, because I understand its importance to the well-being of people in their homes. I shall continue to do that strenuously.

I hope that I have helped my hon. Friend's constituents to find some immediate solutions to their problems by suggesting several avenues through which they can seek assistance. I hope that I have also reassured him as to the seriousness with which the Government regard planning, home design, building standards and community safety. It is our intention to continue to work to ensure that people are safe in their own homes.

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