Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 124-139)




  124. Can I welcome you to a further session of the Committee's inquiry into affordable housing and ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please.
  (Mr Rouse) I am Jon Rouse, the Chief Executive of CABE.
  (Mr Robinson) I am Dickon Robinson; I am CABE Commissioner and Director of Development in the Peabody Trust.

  125. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight to questions?

  (Mr Rouse) Sir, just a few words of introduction. CABE is on a threshold of working much more closely with the affordable housing sector than we have done in the past. The Housing Corporation have just invited us to enter into a service level agreement with them and provide design advice over the next two years or so and that will include being a Design Advisor to their Challenge Fund, it will involve enabling individual projects around the country on a demonstration basis and it actually involves some work with our European partners as well to swop best practice. We are now getting to know the industry as we find it and that is what we will really be discussing this morning.

Christine Russell

  126. Do you agree that most social housing is of pretty low quality and low density too, and why do you believe that is the case?
  (Mr Robinson) I do not think I would agree with that. I think there is some very good social housing and there is also some poor social housing and far too much in the middle. The challenge for us is how to raise the quality of the new social housing that we are building. I think the real issue is that there is not enough emphasis on the quality of social housing and that there is too much emphasis on the cost of social housing and, in that sense, the funding regimes for social housing put a lot of emphasis on keeping the cost as low as possible.

  127. Why do you believe that people want to live in high density because, at the weekend, there was extensive press coverage about the fact that the vast majority of people's aspirations is to live in a bungalow?
  (Mr Robinson) I think the short answer is that most people want to live in neighbourhoods which they would regard as attractive and desirable and, where those neighbourhoods are in, let us say, central areas, here we are in Westminster, for example, people are very happy and quite prepared to tolerate high density living in order to live in Westminster. They would not take the same attitude if they wanted to live in a village in Berkshire, Wiltshire or Devon. The issue regarding density is one of appropriateness. It needs to be appropriate for the part of the town or city in which people are living and, if it is inappropriate, then people are naturally going to reject it.

  128. The Government state that they are planning to embark on a major building programme for affordable housing. How concerned are you that we may run the risk of repeating all the mistakes of the 1960s?
  (Mr Rouse) The starting point for us is that we welcome the programme of investing in affordable housing in the parts of the country that need affordable housing desperately. We have a housing crisis on our hands. We are building at the lowest level since 1924. We can see, in terms of the probable industrial action with firefighters, railways, et cetera, that there is a desperate need for key worker and social housing in the South East of England, so we will have to get on with it. That is the first point I have to make. Clearly we are concerned about quality and we want to see the Government actually inject into the mechanisms they are setting up some safeguards. For example, we would expect new schemes to be evaluated for their design quality, either through the planning system or through the funding system if they are in receipt of public subsidy, and that means you have to have people who understand design issues but also lay people who are going to have to live in those houses involved in that evaluation process.

  129. Would you like to comment on whether or not you consider that registered social landlords are perhaps the right vehicle to deliver this new affordable housing?
  (Mr Robinson) Registered social landlords have a long-term interest in what they build and create. They are going to be responsible for maintaining it and for managing it for many years. I think it is absolutely crucial that they are responsible for providing that housing. It is one of the real problems with relying on Section 106 deals in which private developers build social housing as part of the planning deal. The social housing organisations are disenfranchised from many key and important decisions which actually make those homes desirable for people to live in and be attractive over time. I think the really important thing is that you have talked about lessons and everything and about the way in which social housing is funded is short term. It is all about meeting annual spend targets. It is all about getting families out of bed and breakfast to cut down on bed and breakfast bills. These are all real and important things, but the reality—and this is particularly true about housing—is that those homes are going to be there for probably at least 100 years. It is crucial that we take a long-term view, that we care and we invest time, trouble and effort in getting them right in the first place because, if we do not, the cost to society over time is huge and enormous, as we have seen.

Mr O'Brien

  130. You have explained to us in relation to the Housing Corporation. How should the Housing Corporation ensure that the developments which it funds are of a higher quality?
  (Mr Rouse) The first thing is that there has to be a generosity in terms of the funding that is given. The problem at the moment is that right from the top of the tree—


  131. What do you call a generosity?
  (Mr Rouse) I will not get into that level of detail, but if we just look at the system as it stands at the moment, from the Treasury downwards, they are setting output measures which are based on a benchmark which is not best practice and which is not a high enough quality home in a high enough quality environment. That then gets translated into the total cost indices. The Housing Corporation has just reduced again the flexibility within those TCIs, it is now down to 110 per cent. If you are constantly putting in cost pressures on housing associations, it is very difficult for them to respond in terms of high quality solutions and in terms of innovation and flexibility. We believe at CABE that there is almost a lowest cost residual mentality within the social housing sector. It has not moved on to a best value framework in the same way that certain—

Mr O'Brien

  132. How would cross-subsidy schemes operate?
  (Mr Rouse) Some of them already successfully operate. For example, the work of Maritime Housing Association in Liverpool who actually step outside the Housing Corporation funding system to allow them to build market housing, actually some quite expensive market housing, within the same scheme as rented affordable housing and use one to cross-subsidise the other. At the current time, as you will find when you ask the Housing Corporation, it is quite difficult to do that within existing Housing Corporation funding rules.

  133. On this question of funding, is the problem that the funding limits imposed by the Housing Corporation lead registered social landlords to maximise the number of homes, but skimp on quality and design?
  (Mr Rouse) Yes.

  134. Is there a way that this could be addressed?
  (Mr Rouse) Yes, more flexibility and looking at schemes on a more individual level in terms of what they offer over the lifetime of that scheme. So, looking not just at the short-term capital cost, but actually how those homes are going to operate on a socio-economic level across their whole lifetime. What the management and maintenance costs are going to be—

  135. How does this fall in with the Government's policy of density and the fact that they want to have high density but good quality design? How does that fall in with the plans you have mentioned?
  (Mr Rouse) Again, if you take a short-term view, it is possible to argue in a narrow sense that high density schemes can cost more. For example, the very simple fact that if you have to introduce a lift to a building that is going above three or four storeys, then it is clearly going to add cost. However, if you are looking at it in the wider sense, you are reducing the cost of infrastructure that you have to provide because you have more units in the same place and you have increased economic viability because you have a greater critical mass of population using local shops, public transport and so on. So we have to take the broadest possible view.

  136. Can I just press you finally on this question of the involvement of housing and housing design and the Local Government Bill. Have you given any thought to the implications of that?
  (Mr Rouse) I am sorry, what elements of the Local Government Bill?

  137. In the Bill, they do create the situation that there should be decent standards met for all social housing—
  (Mr Rouse) We are talking about the decent home standard?

  138. Yes. It is included in the Bill that the Government are proposing. If we are going to impress or improve the facilities of the Bill, then obviously we must address the points that they have raised and they are saying that it will create a financial framework to ensure that decency standards will be met for all social housing. That refers also to density.
  (Mr Robinson) This is primarily an issue for existing housing stock and setting a benchmark standard to which all owners of social housing, whether they are local authority or housing association, should raise the quality of their stock. Actually, it is quite a low standard and it is certainly significantly lower than, for example, the Housing Corporation current space and design standard.

  139. Will you be making reference to the Bill and the consultation period itself?
  (Mr Rouse) We already have done, in fact. We published an article in Housing Today just two weeks on this very issue which we can send you.

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