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

Examination of Witness(Questions 460-479)



  460. We want to encourage regions to develop their economies and bring in their own job opportunities. The policies that we seem to be approaching now do not back up the housing needs required in those areas. If we are to transfer £15 million from housing provisions in the North to the South, I think that that is a disadvantage to helping regional development. If we want to be sincere about these developments, we need to back that up with provision. Do you agree?
  (Lord Rooker) Yes, I do. But I want to get rid of it or knock it on the head, although I may want to take further advice on this. We have not robbed housing provision in the North for the South. As was made absolutely clear, there was a technical transition. The money was put back and this year every region will gain, even though we have top-sliced the £200 million Challenge Fund for London and the South East. You are quite right, there has to be a programme in the Midlands and the North of the country, and there will be a programme, but that has to be tied in with the other issue that is not a phenomenon in London and the South East and that is of large-scale, massive housing abandonment and total collapse of housing markets in areas where people are trapped in dwellings. They may have a mortgage of £89,000 and the dwelling is worth £2,000. There is absolute collapse. We have to deal with that and that is why we set up the nine pathfinder areas to find ways of achieving that.


  461. Who is to manage the housing market renewal fund?
  (Lord Rooker) I suppose at the end of the day it will be Ministers. We are looking through the nine pathfinder areas—they are all very different as you can appreciate from looking at the geographical locations—and some have been faster off the mark than others, but it is early days. There have been some difficulties in drawing up boundaries because Members of Parliament have been arguing about not wanting boundaries drawn. We have to be serious about this. There is a real problem and we want to move as fast as we can to get action on the ground as quickly as we can, particularly in 2003 and 2004. On the management of it, we shall set up the partnership arrangements. As I have said, we shall appoint Ministers to have an oversight and a liaison function with the pathfinders so that if hurdles need to be jumped or doors kicked open there is someone in Whitehall if there are difficulties. Each pathfinder area will probably operate in an entirely different way because the problems are different although the endemic thing that affects them all is the abandonment of housing on a large scale.

  462. You will understand the urgency. I think you went to Birmingham?
  (Lord Rooker) Yes, I did.

  463. Some of those streets collapse in a matter of weeks. It is important to get a move on. Is English Partnerships to be involved or not in the pathfinder areas?
  (Lord Rooker) We have changed the remit of English Partnerships and they have a much more pro-active remit for helping us to assemble packages for land and also for working in closer co-operation with the Housing Corporation. We consider English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation to be the two key levers that the department has to pull. As a department, as a Government, we do not build homes, but we have these two well run levers of change. We want them to work more closely together. English Partnerships has an arrangement and the remit for putting together a better idea of the brownfield land in the country in the public and sometimes in the private sector, so that we can plan better and push ahead faster. I cannot say in detail that English Partnerships will be involved in each of the pathfinder areas. It is too early to tell that.

  464. The pathfinder areas form a small proportion of the area of market weakness. What will happen in those areas that have not been designated as pathfinder areas? Will their housing markets continue to collapse?
  (Lord Rooker) That is one of the difficulties. We need to operate the pathfinder areas as quickly possible to find out the mechanisms for rebuilding the housing economies in the wider North where there is abandonment on a large scale. In some respects we have to ensure that we give value for money and rebuild communities. It is not just a matter of doing up some houses or knocking down some houses and building some more. In some cases there is a vast over-supply. Ten per cent of the housing stock in Burnley is empty, for example; 10 per cent is virtually abandoned and not just empty. A lot of empty housing is empty because it is transitionally empty; whereas the abandoned houses are literally abandoned and there is no transition involved. Until we can learn the lessons as to what we can do to generate and regenerate those economies in the pathfinder areas, it is no good me saying that in the mean time we will pump loads of public money into other areas of abandonment because we do not have a plan or a policy for doing that.

  465. When do you think that you will have learned the lessons and be able to give some hope? Living in one of those houses next to three or four abandoned houses is pretty miserable. When can you give such people hope?
  (Lord Rooker) It is worse than that: it is living in a street next to three or four streets of abandoned houses. That is what I actually saw.

  466. I understand the extreme cases. In a sense, you have announced the pathfinder for the extreme cases. What I am putting to you is that there is a huge amount of hardship right across the North of England in lots of other areas. What hope can you offer to people in those kind of communities?
  (Lord Rooker) As I understand it, the large scale abandonment in the scale that has arisen now, has occurred in the past three years. It has occurred very quickly. I know that abandoned houses have been around for a while in the North. I first saw large scale abandonment of 200 houses in Sunderland in the early 1980s. I hope that we can learn the lessons and start to turn matters around at the same amount of time in which the abandonment occurred in the first place. We have to find out why the abandonment has arisen, looking at the nature of the houses that have been abandoned, and we need to learn some lessons so that we can create a policy to get value for money from the public and private sector. Also this is not just a matter of dealing with the housing. If we just deal with the housing we will not solve the problem. We have to deal with the jobs in those areas as well.

Sir Paul Beresford

  467. Do you think it is related to the huge pressure in the South East over the past three years as well?
  (Lord Rooker) No. Someone told me that a lot of the abandonment had been the result of the Government getting people back to work so quickly in the past couple of years, that the minute that people acquired a job, they moved out of the old, tatty housing in the middle of Burnley or Blackpool and went to live in more decent housing on the outskirts of the town. The people who were living in those houses two or three years ago have gone somewhere.

  Chairman: Certainly the committee report on empty homes made the point that in Liverpool there was some evidence of that. Worryingly people in Liverpool were abandoning houses which, if situated in Islington or Fulham, would have been sold for a quarter of a million pounds.

Mr David Clelland

  468. Sometimes the abandonment comes as a result of the kinds of tenants that some private landlords tend to put into their properties. They cause misery and mayhem in the area, and people move out and so properties become abandoned. What plan does the department have to try to take control over the activities of private landlords in terms of the way in which they look after their properties or neglect them and the behaviour of the tenants that they put in them?
  (Lord Rooker) Basically, by introducing what we have twice promised now, the selective licensing of landlords in the areas of low demand. We shall do that as quickly as we can. As soon as we can get some legislation in front of the House it will be done as quickly as possible. It is not as though the will is not there nor the policy or the manifesto commitment. We shall push that as quickly as possible.

Dr John Pugh

  469. On key workers and the vagaries surrounding them, you appear to fall victim to a special kind of pleading on this. What research has your department carried out on the extent of the shortage of key workers, and what research have you done into what actually works in addressing that need on a permanent basis?
  (Lord Rooker) Some research has been carried out. One figure that comes to mind in terms of exit interviews, I suppose, of key workers who have left the South East and the London area is that about one in five key workers, which I have described as nurses and people in teaching, have left for housing cost reasons. Either they could not find a place or could not afford to rent, let alone to buy. That is a very high figure. One in five is a lot of people when one looks at the population in London and the South East. We know that we have a problem on our hands. That figure alone tells us that we have a difficulty. There may be people in London and the South East who do not give too much thought to key workers until they find that their children do not have a teacher or when they go to hospital they find that the staff are not present. They then start to wake up to the fact that there is a mismatch in housing provision and costs. In terms of the totality of housing, we are under-providing and within that we are not providing enough affordable housing.

  470. The main thrust of the question is what has been done and what has worked in addressing the problem. There is a macro-economic argument to put more money on the table. The problem is not resolved but money is thrown down estate agents' throats. That hypothesis has been put forward and it is either wrong or it is right. Has research been carried out into what actually works?
  (Lord Rooker) Over a period of time we know that there is a whole range of policies. That is one of the reasons why we have the guidance and the planning policies. They may be much criticised; whether it is Section 106 or our policies regarding density and when we decide to call in applications. Within the planning system there is a range of activities that we take, borne out of other experience of knowing what can work. There is of course the issue of the increase in homelessness. We accept that. We have of course just widened the category of homelessness for people in vulnerable categories. That will have a knock-on effect of raising the numbers of the homeless. We know we have many homeless people who are trapped.

  471. With due respect . . .
  (Lord Rooker) A whole range of research has been carried out that has told us that there is a range of problems, but it does not lead to one single policy, saying that we can solve it.


  472. We have heard one or two of those policies. You have been very good this morning. You have told us the problems about which we already know, but we want from you a few solutions.
  (Lord Rooker) We started off with a question about the large increase in the provision in the Comprehensive Spending Review. The Government have changed direction and the Deputy Prime Minister has talked about a step change in housing production. I cannot put a figure on that this morning because of decisions that are still to be taken between now and when the Communities Plan comes before Parliament. There will be a step change in the development of sustainable communities, a step change in the increasing housing production for rent, to buy and for low cost. We have looked at our strategic plans with the Housing Corporation; we are revamping the planning system and subject to the Queen's Speech we shall bring forward proposals to the House that will bring about faster decision making as well. We are looking at activities in the private sector. There are a quarter of a million empty houses in the country that have been empty for more than a year. We are jacking up our activities.

Dr John Pugh

  473. Accepting all that . . .
  (Lord Rooker) I can give you more if you want.

  474. The Government have a number of initiatives. We may possibly agree that there may be more research needed on which initiatives are likely to work and which initiatives historically have worked. Moving on, one thing on which you will agree is the vagueness of the definition of "key workers". On Monday I travelled down on a train with construction workers from my constituency who work routinely in London. I think we would all agree that construction workers are key workers in regard to building homes. Are you in favour of extending the definition of "key workers" and giving additional incentives and more money to help private enterprise to find the workers whom they need?
  (Lord Rooker) You have asked me whether I am keen to put in more public money into private enterprise to find key workers. In fact, employers are already doing things and they could do more. I do not want to mention particular companies because that would be unfair. I read the press like anyone else. Employers are waking up to the fact that they need to take some action. As I say, they do not necessarily want to become landlords. They want to do what they do best, which is making or selling things. That is their role in life. Through the housing associations, very successful landlords, and other providers, they can take action themselves regarding their own employees. It is in their vested interest to do that. They can do that without necessarily looking for public subsidy. One piece of your already published evidence makes it quite clear that public money is not required. It can be done without public funds. You can provide housing for key workers on an affordable basis without using public funds. It is in your own evidence.

Alistair Burt

  475. Perhaps I can make one special plea. I would be grateful if you could look at this point. Teachers are included as key workers in the starter homes initiatives, but FE lecturers are not. There is now clear evidence that in many cases FE lecturers are paid less than teachers, particularly in sixth-form colleges. Can you see whether that particular category might be assisted?
  (Lord Rooker) I shall answer yes to that.

  476. Perhaps you could take the matter away for which I would be particularly grateful.
  (Lord Rooker) I shall say yes to having a look at it.

  477. There appears to be an anomaly because the employers, in that case, do not have a capacity to do anything else for them.
  (Lord Rooker) I have heard university lecturers claim that they are paid less than FE lecturers and other teachers. There is an issue in the teaching profession. That is accepted. I shall have a look at it, but the emphasis has been on staff in compulsory education.


  478. Is shared ownership a good idea?
  (Lord Rooker) Shared ownership was invented in Birmingham. We called it the "half and half scheme" in the late 1960s. The answer is yes. It was taken over by London and was wrecked, and therefore delayed. The answer is yes, it is a good idea. It can work. It has provided good housing for many people, although probably not enough because people have not done enough to promote it and make it work.

  479. Is that the Housing Corporation's fault?
  (Lord Rooker) No, I do not blame the Housing Corporation at all.

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