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

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 160-172)



  160. What about the idea of centres of excellence in the Urban White Paper which do not appear to have happened?
  (Mr Rouse) The good news is that I think the first regional centre of excellence will be off the ground in April 2003 which is in the West Midlands, so there is some light a the end of the tunnel.


  161. That is hardly good news. It is a long way off, is it not?
  (Mr Rouse) It is and I have to say that it has taken far too long and it is not clear who is actually providing the resources for those centres.

  162. Wait a minute. It has to be put there and it has to be there for 2003 but you do not know who is paying for it?
  (Mr Rouse) In that case, it is Advantage West Midlands, but under a certain amount of duress in terms of that investment. Clearly, regional centres of excellence have not got off the ground quickly enough and there is no guarantee that they are going to get off the ground quickly enough in all the regions where they are needed. That is why we are saying that if that has not worked, maybe we need a national co-ordination, a national unit—

Clive Betts

  163. There is a great feeling in some quarters that there should be quicker planning decisions in order to get things moving. Could that possibly compromise the designs for quality that you have if we go down that route too far?
  (Mr Rouse) Yes.

  164. And indeed quite a lot of them say, "Actually, we cannot effect some of these decisions because we cannot influence the planners and, in the end, our powers under planning law are quite limited in what we can do for design."
  (Mr Rouse) That is all absolutely correct and we need to put less emphasis on the speed of decision-making and more on the quality of decision-making. To do that, we need proper evaluation of local planning authorities' performance on the basis of what they have allowed to be built. We need to strengthen PPG1 so that local planning authorities have more confidence to turn down poor design. The words are not strong enough at the moment to give them confidence to do that and they often get overturned on appeal, which then diminishes their confidence even further. So, all those things need to be addressed.
  (Mr Robinson) If you are a developer who is constrained by time, you are well aware that a mediocre proposal will get through the planning process faster than one which might be more ambitious in design terms. So I do think that ensuring that the process is reasonably speedy will be hugely beneficial to good design as well.

Mr Streeter

  165. May we just talk about tenure. I assume that you are no longer building these massive single tenure council estates. Everyone talks about "mixed communities", but have we learned how to do that yet?
  (Mr Robinson) I think the issue is less about the tenure of individual relevance and more about mixed neighbourhoods. There are very few large social housing developments going up which are exclusively social rented housing currently. They tend to be mixed with market sales shared ownership. There is a whole growth of intermediate tenures, ideas around housing key workers, intermediate rent levels and so on and so forth. So, I think it is the case that we are very unlikely to see very large social rented estates.

  166. My own view is that most key workers do not really want to rent, they want to buy. Do you think that the housing associations in particular and perhaps the Government, the system if you like, really understand that and do you think housing associations put enough emphasis on buying to sell on or building to sell on as opposed to building to rent?
  (Mr Robinson) I think the issue about key workers is that the term is being used too loosely to embrace too wide a range of people. If you take key workers, for example bus drivers working in London, they have no hope of buying their own homes. They do not earn enough money and they are not on a career path as a teacher might be where they can see increasing earnings and so on. They need access to social rented housing. That is what they need.

  167. Who do?
  (Mr Robinson) Bus drivers and people who are earning £15,000 per annum. People who are on a career path, key workers in the health service, the fire service or police force, aspire to own their own home and we must find ways, if there are not already ways, of actually taking them into home ownership through shared ownership, through home buying and other products which are increasingly available and provided by housing associations.

  168. You say "we must", but my question was, is it happening?
  (Mr Robinson) It is happening to a greater extent than it used to, but the shared ownership half of the Housing Corporation programme has always been relatively modest compared with social renting and this comes directly, in my view, from the influence of local authorities who are much more preoccupied by the cost of their bed and breakfast bills for homeless families than they are with helping key workers into home ownership.


  169. You have talked a lot about lifetime costs. What are you really talking about? Are you talking about the service charge that really tenants should be paying in a number of these homes?
  (Mr Rouse) No, I think we are looking at it in a broader sense than that. We are looking at a measurement for the overall benefits and costs of a particular form of development over its lifetime and, taking into account all those costs and benefits in the appraisal of whether the scheme should be funded rather than just having a crude TCI and 110 per cent flexibility limit around it, which tells you virtually nothing about how that home is going to perform over its lifetime.

  170. If you look at most of the successful regeneration in the centre of Manchester and Birmingham, most of that has gone to middle class households who have been prepared to pay pretty high service charges. Is it possible to have that level of service charge? In other words, paying the day-to-day maintenance of some of these high density housing estates?

  (Mr Robinson) I think it is. I think it has implications for the initial capital cost basically because you need to design homes which are not going to need elements to be replaced in the short term. You need to think about the durability of windows, for example, and the lift installations themselves, for example. All of these things, if they are carefully designed and designed with that sense that those elements must have a long life, then I think it is OK. It is when you have to start replacing them too soon that it boosts the service charge.

  171. Is there not a major cost in keeping bits clean and smelling sweet and making sure that waste removal systems are maintained at a high standard? Is that not expensive?
  (Mr Robinson) That is expensive but, on the other hand, if you look at the wider economy, having that greater density, making better use of land in central locations, it may well be that in fact people are making more use of public transport rather than owning their own homes and so on and so forth. I do not think it could detach the argument—

  172. I accept the argument that there are benefits from it. I am asking you, is it possible to raise the money to pay service charges if you are already paying significant rents?
  (Mr Robinson) Yes, it is.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for your evidence.

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